Moving Targets


I consider this a piece of active procrastination from the business of making poems, which, as anybody who writes will attest, don’t usually turn out as good as you’d hoped they’d be. O yes, sometimes a little surprise bubbles up and delights you with its uninvitedness. And although I still hope that will happen sometime, I also know there is a whole lot of work to be put in first. That is the invitation, the expectation. And I am avoiding it.

I’m writing a sequence of poems about saints. The subject is already so enriched with detail, narrative and its own kind of ornamental beauty and spiritual resonance, and seems like a good topic for me, but nevertheless I feel restless. I also know that I am trying to supervise The Saints into lining up neatly and making convenient little statuettes of meaning. It’s a very vicious way to write a poem and I need to lean back and unspool for a while.

My desire to try new things is stronger than my desire to make something work, or my impulse to jump the tracks is too strong to stay on them for long. It’s upsetting to me, in that I know I need to stick at something long enough to see what will come of it. I have decided to treat these saint poems as target practice, like slogging a tennis ball against a wall for hours in preparation for a game (although maybe that’s just a portrait of some other lonely child).

Or is it that I think that it’s harder to hit a moving target? An unwittingly defensive stance against criticism of my work. In which case I’m aware of the thing being read? I’m totally with Louise Glück in being drawn to poetry that seems to crave a listener, or a reader, and wanting to show that in my work, but I’m also in the Mary Ruefle camp of turning my back on the imagined audience in favour of focussing and just making the thing, the poem.

Maybe I’m easily distracted and can’t stay on topic for long, like a kind of adult ADHD. Which brings me back to Mary Ruefle. She is a subject I can stay focussed on for more than a second because she is interesting; a target that moves so fast you don’t even know which way she went. Her poem Why I Am Not a Good Kisser displays an associative mind at work. It doesn’t pause for breath and is brilliantly funny, I think, because of the tactic of avoiding the topic (of kissing) and also referring to it obliquely all the way through the poem and releasing one of her pleasurable and reliable non-endings on us which makes it funny, because she resists staying on the point and tying it all off neatly with string. She writes off-topic.

Richard Hugo says in Triggering Town that ‘You don’t know what the subject is, and the minute you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain start talking about something else. In fact, it’s a good idea to talk about something else before you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain . . . In a sense the next thing always belongs. In the world of imagination, all things belong.’

If I want to continue with The Saints, I will have to release them from my tightly clenched fist and let them breathe. Let them be moving targets and avoid my gaze. I will have to write off-topic and play. To stop trying to make the music conform to the truth and make the truth conform to the music. I love Richard Hugo’s line ‘If you want to communicate, use the telephone.’ Because ‘You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything.’ The subject is just a starting point  to ‘give the mind an operating base, and the mind expands from there.’

Yes there is a saint in Ruefle’s poem, who turns up in the second stanza. But it’s not about the saint is it? It’s about kissing. No, it’s about everything else that shoots out from the idea of a kiss, like a crazy diagram or brainstorm or a surrealist painting of people kissing. Which is why it roams off-topic for almost the entire poem. She’s unfocussed, happy in her own tangle of images. And the saint was ‘not thinking / when he wrote his sacred and secular motets / Or there would be only one kind.’

Is that the key to this poem, and to poetry in general? That you almost have to detach or derail from thinking to do this. Otherwise, there is a nasty residue on the poem of a need to master it with logic and not deepen it with mystery. Which I guess is why I wanted to write an essay, to do some thinking on the page. Which you do in a poem in a way (there’s nothing better than the motions of a mind being visible on the page), but not too much, not to the point where it’s to the point.

This poem is also about being afraid of The Kiss because of expectation and disapointment and getting involved in something that might not work. And just that really funny idea of having a whole pretty engaging movie playing in her head when she’s supposed to be focussed on the Other Person, and the thing, The Kiss. And detaching because of her own fear of him being detached and too comfortable with his own sense of mystery to find her mysterious. That the Other has their own unreadable and unknowable thoughts.

An essay on moving targets should not be to the point and should’ve already left the building, so I’m going to try to wrap up. But I do want to try to come closer to the point. Which is maybe that the point keeps wanted to needle something else. Or that looking for the point in a poem is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Or just that wanting the needle is pointless when you could have the entire tapestry.

I think maybe the thread in this poem is that it keeps unspooling. That is the tapestry she lays out for us and it’s a bit dazzling. All the red thread seamlessly woven into pictures we can see. ‘A red frock? Red stockings? And the rooster dead?’ The ‘red skirt and red stockings . . . into my mouth’ echoes Sylvia Plath’s ‘Little bloody skirts! . . . If my mouth could marry a hurt like that!’ – one of the best lines about kissing ever written.

It’s also the quizzical nature of some of Ruefle’s lines that disrupt the sureness of the subject and appeal so much to me, like ‘Dead of what?’ and ‘Can it be that even the greatest Kisser ever arrived /At his goal without putting aside numerous objections’ – a line that slides us into the inevitable but carefully withheld ending. (And thank you Mary Ruefle for not being too distracted to put in a smattering of italics and capitalisations, like O for a life of Kisses. These things are important to me too, for reasons that may well make another seemingly pointless essay sometime.)

We slide into the ultimate digression, and usually very telling truth – music, in this case the memory of a childhood song: ‘And all that he could see in me / Was the bottom of the deep dark sea in me.’ Which is kind of like being silly when you are scared, and comforting yourself. And we know that she is ‘dreadfully afraid he will slip away.’

The lead-in to the ending is a happily disorienting and well, distracting rush.  In ‘Screaming into the night, into the night like a mouth,’ she starts to tie up all the metaphors and bring them home. ‘Into the mouth like a velvet movie theatre’ and here we are back in the tapestry, needling the image for all it’s got.

‘With planets painted on its ceiling.’ The image keeps evolving until in a way we are a million miles away from where we started, and in another we are right back where we should be. Some poems are like a tardis, that suck you into their vortex without saying much. This poem is more like an inside out cross-stitch of a tardis, you can see the seams and the loose threads that keep radiating out from its time-travelling, heavily embroidered world.

The thing about Mary Ruefle is that she’s a bit cool. She plays a kind-of catch-me-if-you-can with the reader. It’s a game, it’s fun. As well as being a moving target, she resorts to moving the target constantly so we don’t even know where she’s trying to aim. But maybe it’s ‘Where you will find me, your pod mate, / In some kind of beautiful trouble / Over moccasin stitch #3, / Which is required for my release.’ And then o yeah, bullseye.


Sarah Scott is a recent graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at the IIML. Some of her writing has appeared in Up Country and Art New Zealand. She lives in Wellington.