Tessa, We Are All Voyeurs

cesar santos
Painting by Cesar Santos via Magpie Tales

I read a couple of bleak poems that reeked
like cheap perfume. Mostly amorous crap.
Some guy who peeked through the wall saw
a woman take off her clothes, then kissed
her husband, then put her hand inside his
pants. They engaged in coitus, I think.

Me, I’m sitting by a bay window, looking at
the spreading branches–morning had broken
and the sunlight warmed my soles.
I’m slowly coming out of my shell
in the pine-scented air, portentous.
I combed out my voluminous hair.

The allure of woman, I think, lies in
some mystery–butt cheeks shifting under
maroon panties, for instance. She held up
a white blouse, like a veil. I thought about
God–where is he–nowhere here, not in
this seedy low-life, not this pageant.

Then I thought, tremulous, that search for
light must begin in darkness. Swirling
colors that begin to emerge into beauty.
Who held the brush but the woman–an
artist who is all body, and soul, when
in service of something so ineffable.


Prompt: Well, there’s the picture from Magpie Tales. The lines in the first stanza references Mark Strand’s poem “The Way It Is”, so I’m not making up the story. I stole it.

The original Mark Strand poem reads:

My neighbor’s wife comes home.
She walks into the living room,
takes off her clothes, her hair falls down her back.
She seems to wade
through long flat rivers of shade.
The soles of her feet are black.
She kisses her husband’s neck
and puts her hands inside his pants.

The poem is prefaced by a quote from Wallace Stevens: “The world is ugly/And the people are sad.” Bleak, right? Right. So make your poem about something seedy, then find the beauty in that seediness. That’s your prompt. It’ll be your final prompt for the Winter issue.


Tessa, About That Girl, Queenie

Isn’t it awkward, thinking back,
how you’ve changed? Well, at least, you’ve
lost that twangy voice. Which parts
forgotten, then retrieved?
Still, the past is a steep hill.
Maybe it’s the climbing, but as if ascendancy
is really a slipping back.

If I watched that girl, in a skimpy dress,
wearing gold hoop earrings, I’d think
about the other one–the same name–
and why she had gotten jealous,
why she was the one who had gone
to Mount Ophir with the guys
and I was left behind.

Things might have been real different,
probably. And I wouldn’t be who I am,
or I’d be eating lots of tofu, or
I might have been lost in Alcatraz;
any number of things could’ve altered
the path. And I could still change, even if
it is less likely now.

Prompt: I thought I’d write, and then I did. It’s strange, this writing feels like an adventure, not knowing where it’ll lead one to. If you gave up writing, then what? You’d miss out on an adventure, that’s what. And if you’re a writer you’d probably be using bits of material from your real life. But maybe just the essence of an event, or non-event, from the past. So let what remains from the past show up in your writing. I was also inspired by what Mark Strand said in a poem.

Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.
Mark Strand, “The Remains”

Tessa, oh Tessa!

I like being rattled. As in a story where
you’re plunged right into the woods,
in a twinkling darkness, and what’s
mixed up is terrifying, surreal,
pedestrian all at once.

In a dance with the moonlight, my dear Tessa,
you would too. It’s dissolute, but not
in that wasted way, more like as if you’ve
regained your senses (fiction being more real,
some would say) and that’s one way to deal
with an existential void, getting all
visceral, my dearest dear.

I might have omitted to say, I liked
the romance in it. Maybe that’s all I’m
capable of–this romantic longing–
some truth there that’s set upon us
like a hound, and we’d sooner turn
liverish if not for that. Enough said.

Prompt: We’re almost to the end of February, folks, the month of love. Therefore that’s what she’s prattling about. Love is a big deal. It is. And love comes in infinite forms, that’s a thing I’ve learned, in all its redeeming ways. And if I could quote John Keats, who had said, on his deathbed (well he died): “…Love is my religion–I could die for that–I could die for you.” I believe the love he had for Fanny was non-consummate. So love is a pretty ineffable thing. Write about love.

Tessa, This Is How A Middle-Aged Person Thinks

I was thinking–might’ve died clutching
my chest–how little it mattered what
I did, how I did, and would it truly
have mattered to anyone? And then what’s
there left to do? Loud-mouthed fate,
whisper to my ears what would be a
kind of non-existence.

I watched over a large-boned boy who sleeps.
It’s almost midnight. There’s not much I would
go on a rampage for–just him and the older one
but they’re old enough. They grew older and
we grew older and then old. I am adrift writing
this as if waiting upon a new destiny.
So, nothing now.

Prompt: I was reading a short story that had this line: “Days and years and feelings much the same, except that the children would grow up, and there might be one or two more of them and they too would grow up, and she and Brendan would grow older and then old” (Alice Munro, “Post and Beam”). Isn’t it weird when one goes into summary mode? So much ellipted. How does that line (or some abbreviated form of it) work in a poem? I tried it on for size and you are to do the same. You know, just to see what kind of taste it leaves in your mouth (or poem).

Tessa, I See Christ In The Wilderness

christ-in-the-wilderness stanley spencer

Christ in the Wilderness by Stanley Spencer via Magpie Tales


Dull my pen–not. If mind isn’t lacking
then its filigree surely will allow the
sun through, won’t it? Yet I’ve been slow,
Tessa. Fumbling, idiotic. What spirit wants,
emerging like a slow, immeasurable beast
lumbering in the wild, its gravitational
pull answering strange reverberations–
oh am I just woolly! Pounded by rain.

I’m projecting myself, you say, this time
to Christ bending low to the earth, stung
by nettles, in a joyous field, so his hair’s
all squiggly, body huge, begowned–would you
say he’s fumbling too? His wayfaring heart!
Flowers as talismans, I’d see, buoying us.
Raiment of heaven surely, but without love,
how dull! See, I have grown erudite now.


Prompt: Are you a Christian? A follower of Christ? Well then you’ll have a very firm set of beliefs regarding heaven and hell, sin and punishment, a belief system that will set you up for the afterlife. But you don’t need to be a Christian to live an ethical life, to let moral impulse guide you. Call that your conscience. I’m curious to know the kind of moral imperatives serving as a life guide for you. What are your morals like, poet? Or just write a religious poem. Let the image via Magpie Tales inspire you.

Tessa, I Howl At The Moon

I am the lone wolf.
I am steeped in two worlds.
One’s filled with saffron, joss, Buddhas,
the ink of calligraphy.
But it’s the other that I write about,
that quickens me, less laden with
nostalgic salty overtones–

where I’ve made myself a home
nesting in language. I don’t want to be
a sort of supplicant, some cultural beast–
maybe there’s a line I won’t cross
keeping the worlds separate so I may howl
at the moon, pale, puffed up,
goading me on;

its cache something different than the ones
secreting the past, braided but quickly emptying
out–a faux trophy I’d reused as a plant pot.
My eyes are red and wild. Body in lustrous coat.
You’d find me in the turquoise woods, returned to
hunt, retrace steps to earthly hunger, tethered to
desire; where you’re most unguarded, spilling out
secrets privy to none but yourself.

Prompt: Write a poem in which a wolf is featured. The wolf as trope. It is associated with instinct and intuition, and maybe that’s the way to navigate the spiritual/physical world. It is a wild and free animal. It is also a predator. You may, for instance, let your poem’s theme be passion. I’ll leave you to figure out what to do with the wolf in your poem.

Tessa, The Forest Is Burning

I don’t know what it is you have–
you have it in spades–what you,
and why you have it, sets me alight
like the moon that creeps among
the cat-tails and the milkweed
lies in shadow then light.

In myth, in argument, soul’s hour
of need. On pain of vanishing do
we smell the smoke, the forest
burning, the hooting. Still
we do not know but feel this
final clearing of the decks.

Prompt: There’s this quote from Haruki Murakami which says that the storm is within you and that “when you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” I rate that as one of the foremost truths I’ve learned about what life is really about. It is really about storms/burning forests. So write a poem referencing such a storm.

Here’s the entire quote:

“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That’s the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine.

An you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. Hot, red blood. You’ll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others.

And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”

Tessa, All We Need Is Love

I am pliant. Wandering footloose in a red dress.
A disciple. The sun as beacon.
I go in the dusk. Plangent in romance.
There isn’t nonchalance. It’s an Edenic psalm.
All the same, except closeness; unsparing trumpeting
in the distance. All we need is love.
That native terror. The soul as gatherer.

What must be dual, in equal measure, is a falling
into sickness. That turns the tide again.
You’re shaking. The air is thick. There is only
repetition. So efface yourself. But then isn’t
tenacity and fierceness all you had believed?
Well, even in the monastery they drink sake.
Dour and majestic. Gruff with enlightenment.

Prompt: The Beatles sang it. All we need is love. So on this Valentine’s Day, you go write a psalm or something. What does love mean? What does loving mean? What does love want? What does loving want? Why is love so enigmatic? Soulful? La Di Da. Happy Valentine’s Day, all you lovers out there. Without love we are nothing. Say this whichever way in your poem.

Tessa, The Heart That Lives

We’ll not be ceremonious.
Still, winter. But no we’re not ramshackled.
There’s a twitchy moth.
The flame, oh, the flame.

Sure it will give out.
It circles back to dying.
Withering. The last, frugal,
unheroic, unadorned self.

Then are you not the more cherished? Are we,
in sickness and death? Unflagging love?
Where is your God now? Coughing, spitting?
Comfort for the soul?

Well then. There we worship, anointed in
the shrine of secret hopes.

Prompt: So my thoughts have veered toward death. Is death a taboo subject? Memento mori (“remember that you must die”) is a poetic motif. What must one fulfill before death? Let your poem refect on mortality and immortality. My writing, like yours, is an immortality project. Of course it is. Our poems become our living essences after we die.

Tessa, This Tawdry, Wonderful Life

I’ll not be grudging.
It’s not time yet. As if there’s
just so much steeping
in these stories, in between breaks of
noodles and curry.

I often have a lie-down too.
It felt like relief, to be absorbed
into the dreams. Sometimes waking up
having a lightbulb go off
then kind sobriety.

I mean, Tessa, there’s so much
compulsive insincerity just to be,
you know, civilized.
I listened to his grunts too,
coming as and when,
and then not much even then.

Prompt: Write a poem in which not much is happening. That seems a daily thing. Not. Much. Happening. Waiting for the big adventure or something. Then it seems one of the nicest things is to lie in bed. Reading. I get sent off to these stories in bed. That’s what I like best.