Guest Post, Muriel Nelson: Looking for Inspiration, Distraction, or Most Anything That Doesn’t Start with T or Rhyme with Rump

Coffee, yes.

Pink hats, yes.

Chocolate, yes.

But none of these inspires for long. Just look at the length of those “paragraphs.” The poems I wrote last winter were equally stunted.

I tried starting each day with coffee and resistance.

• Email Electors. Their purpose is to protect us from an unfit candidate, right?
• Sign petitions. We’re the majority. We’re strong if we stick together. We need to save what’s worth saving! (Can we?)
• Challenge the NYT to publish a front page without mentioning #45. Don’t play what he deals!
• Contact GOP senators without revealing my blue-state zip code.

I tried pink wool next, along with gutsy poets Eleanor Wilner and Maxine Kumin. Later I read Mark Twain for his anger and humor combined and Dietrich Bonhoeffer for his thoughts on hilaritas from inside a Nazi prison.

If none of these could shake my dark mood, I tried dark chocolate while writing to “get that out of my system,” as my mom used to say. A friend and I had challenged each other to write a colonoscopy poem. Here’s the end of mine:

No kidding, the Russians are way ahead of us.Enema Monument, Zheleznovodsk, Russia
Bet you didn’t know that ‘the world’s first
monument dedicated to enema treatments’
was unveiled in Zheleznovodsk.
Just imagine ‘three angel-like children
carrying above their heads a big pear-like
enema.’ And behold! an American tribute
on the White House lawn: three model-like
wives in stilettos carrying one huge snake
of a colon, its rectum facing us and plated gold.

For distraction, I thought music might help, and fast walks in the rain powered by our non-stop fox terrier. Discovery: Gregorian chant sooths the terrier breast, if not my own. I looked for the oddest apolitical topics I could find. After reading about 5000-year-old bog butter, I persuaded a like-minded fellow writer to hear a talk on old food with me. Unfortunately, neither of us found a way to write about that butter. We both needed something else.

Don’t we all? How much energy’s been sapped since November? (E = mass times what?) Obviously, we need competent national leadership so that all of us can get on with our lives, but how about right now? Who feels safe from threat or harm and able to create? Even if we aren’t personally threatened, others’ lives need protecting. Who among us can go on writing as before?

Recently, I became “trans-sectional” to sing alto rather than second soprano, and learned that I needed to wake up my lower register so that I could trust it to do more than speak frog below middle C. I needed new warm-ups for writing, too, to address the low notes of our time, this era of “the broom”—Joseph Brodsky’s name for the Soviet strategy of cowing people by spreading hatred and danger everywhere and sweeping up victims at random.

I found that instead of distraction, I needed wonder, wonder at what was actually here. In one of his prose pieces, Osip Mandelstam wonders at the power of a madman’s gaze. In another, he reveals what animates many of his poems when he writes, “I love fear.” All around me lurked the mysterious powers of irrationality and fear-mongering rumor. A seemingly unbelievable rumor would be started and passed on. It would quickly expand, explode, and radiate like a bomb. Yes, hackers were and are accelerants, but does anyone know why a frightening rumor seems more persuasive than reason and proof? Its power comes from more than repetition. More than echoes. It demands attention and remains a mystery, drawing us deep into the primitive parts of our brains and then catching fire in our imaginations. Shakespeare knew how to set that fire: Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

Fear in a poet’s hands can become beauty, as Mandelstam’s poems demonstrate:

Brothers, let us glorify freedom’s twilight –
the great, darkening year.
Into the seething waters of the night
heavy forests of nets disappear.

Witches (nasty women). Storms. Nets. Darkness. Disasters which loom everywhere now mix fear with amazing beauty—the joyous dance of an Ebola survivor, the blood orange of the sun and moon glowing through wildfire smoke, the fierce heart of Carmen Yulín Cruz in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the spectacular death of a star streaming to us from the Hubble, human chains, an offered hand, and, lifting its head above gray volcanic ash, the pure yellow of a single stubborn dandelion.

Muriel Nelson

Muriel Nelson holds master's degrees from the University of Illinois School of Music and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, and has been nominated five times for the Pushcart Prize. She is the author of Part Song, winner of the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize (Bear Star Press), and Most Wanted, winner of the ByLine Chapbook Award (ByLine Press). Her poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, The Cortland Review, Four Way Review, Front Porch Journal, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Hunger Mountain, Massachusetts Review, National Poetry Review, New American Writing, The New Republic, Northwest Review, Ploughshares, Prick of the Spindle, Seneca Review, Smartish Pace, Sonora Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Superstition Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and in the anthologies Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration (Editions Bibliotekos, 2010), Conversation Pieces: Poems That Talk To Other Poems (Everyman’s Library, 2007), and Pontoon Three (Floating Bridge Press, 1999).

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