In middle school we were told to carry an egg with us everywhere we went as if it were our baby. We were to keep a journal, to tally the times we fed it, bathed it. We were meant to set our alarms in the middle of the night to wake with it.
I didn’t do any of that. The egg remained in my locker all weekend. I couldn’t see the point then, so the egg remained an egg, undecorated, ignored. Whether or not it cried in my absence I couldn’t tell you.
Read the above paragraph again. Replace the word “egg” with “poem.” Revision asks us to open the blue locker again and again until an infant emerges.
People in my home economics class swaddled their eggs, one or two accidentally broke them. Some of the eggs were given names and the names came with a presence. Although part of us knew they were only eggs another part of us knew to take slightly more caution when around those particular ones. Whatever life the egg was given was given over time by all of us. A poem, like those delicate things, needs you to give it time, a name. It needs you to be there before others too will recognize its power.
Words matter. Names and titles matter. The white of an egg is called albumen, the yolk vitellus.
We can call the poem “Egg” or “Albumen,” “Yolk” or “Yellow.” We can call it “Once in a Nest We Awoke to Cracking.” We can call a child by her first name or her nickname. With one wrong phrase we can break the shell of her. Revise the poem to make an omelet. Scramble the lines. Give it another title. A poem, unlike an egg, can be unbroken. Of course, the purpose of revision is to break the poem wide open, create something that gives nourishment.
If you don’t know how to cook then make sure you know how to deprive, to take the very sustenance from a reader’s stomach. Don’t revise toward neutrality.
A young boy picks up pieces of shell from the linoleum floor. On one piece he draws an eye, on another a mouth. Here and there two ears smeared with fluid. He scoops the liquid into his hand and carries the mess outside. It drips through his fingers and by the end of the day his hands are sticky with residue. When he squeezes his hands the fragments sting.
Or the young boy draws two eyes, a mouth, two ears. He carries the egg outside and at the end of the night tucks it safely into a nest. Being broken is part of this boy’s story too. Just not quite yet. In other words order matters. Absence and deconstruction. The warmth of a nest. Where you leave the reader is up to you.
At night put your poem in a nest. When you wake a reader is sitting on your poem, waiting. Every little peck of your keyboard, every stroke of your pencil, is another tap from inside the shell. Write then rewrite. Don’t leave the egg in the locker. When the egg hatches, revision ultimately determines what emerges: a snake with an inkwell of venom or a baby bird with a feather quill.
Michael Schmeltzer’s work appears in TLR’s second issue, and his award-winning chapbook Elegy/Elk River is newly available from Seattle’s own Floating Bridge Press.