Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: Where the poem comes from: Miriam Levine

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Where the poem comes from: Miriam Levine

Thursday, July 30, 2009

For the past few days I’ve been reading “The Dark Opens,” by Miriam Levine. Despite the title, or maybe in perfect accord with it, this is a luminous book filled with wise and tender observations of the world in finely-crafted poems. Oddly, as I prepare this blog post, I see that one of the book’s blurbs was written by Denise Duhamel, whose line provided a take-off point for the poem by Dustin Brookshire which I featured in the last “Where the poem comes from.”

Miriam lives not far from me in Boston area and we finally met face to face just recently after e-mailing back and forth for months. She is the author of three previous poetry collections, a novel, a memoir, and a non-fiction book. And I always enjoy reading her blog, which often includes her photographs.

Here is Miriam’s poem, “Daughter,” from “The Dark Opens,” and her discussion of how it came to be written:


You beg for a tattoo like your friend’s.
A band of stars at your ankle.
There’s no way to escape regret.
Indelible dye makes it worse.

Growth spurts knock you out.
The cold makes you drowsy.
That’s nothing new.

Don’t sleep too long.
Dark night never gets tired of holding you.

Get up and remember the song.

You can sing as you dart and kick:
I have to be careful when I dance.
My dye-job is fading.
And white hair grows at the roots.

What do you want me to do? Lie here with you?

Or break every mirror and never go out?
I’ll wait for the sun to light us both.

You’re on your feet. We’re facing the same way,
the sun does what it’s supposed to do,
the mirror angled to the window,
your face just behind mine.

What was the inspiration for my poem, “Daughter”? At first it might seem the poem was sparked by an actual experience: mother, Miriam Levine, finds her daughter sleeping too much, urges her to get up. In fact, I have no daughter. The event described in the poem did not happen. What, then, inspired the poem? It was my reading Anne Carson’s translation of a newly discovered poem of Sappho’s in which the Greek poet, who was born c. 610 BCE, addresses the young. Here are the first three stanzas of the poem:

You, children, be zealous for the beautiful gifts
of the violetlapped Muses
and for the clear songloving lyre.

But my skin once soft is now
taken by old age,
my hair turns white from black.

And my heart is weight down
and my knees do not lift
that once were light to dance as fawns.

(New York Review of Books, Oct. 20, 2005)

I hadn’t written about aging, but Sappho’s poem helped me get at the subject and to connect both with my long past young slothful self and to the imagined contemporary girl longing for a tattoo. I try to bring age and youth together. “Daughter” is about coming to life, to the dance, to poetry and song, about choosing love and connection and escaping regret. I must have been aware of all of these things, just as I was aware of the tattoos I saw inked into tender young skin, but it took Sappho’s poem to wake me. Does any of this add to the appreciation of “Daughter”? Probably not, but it may help to know that poets find “the violetlapped muses” in the work of other poets.

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