June 23, 2014

The Poem that Needed to be Written. ~ J.D. Smith


This little poem has a long back story, beginning with a confession.

I have only seen Angkor Wat in pictures, most notably a spread of black and white photos in the New York Times in the first half of the last decade. Those pictures showed the temple complex in various states of ruin. In some places all that held some stones together was the embrace of the very roots that were cracking them.

The paradox was hard to resist.

After a quick first draft I added a section that was my latest attempt to write about pre-Contact Mexican temples either reclaimed by jungle or left unexcavated—poets have an affinity for ruins.

Transcribing the poem from my notebook, though, led to a crucial insight:

This isn’t working.

The Angkor Wat section took up most of a page with ethereal rambling and appropriated mysticism that Frank Zappa might have called “cosmic debris.” The second section, involving imagery that made the Mexican temple itself a sacrifice, only grafted an old and failed experiment onto a new and uncertain one.

When I came back to the poem a few years later it was still overblown and convoluted, but something in there seemed worth keeping. Finding it meant hacking through a jungle of words—as Faulkner said, “kill your darlings.”

First went excess words in both sections.

Then the pre-Contact temple came out completely. It might work somewhere, someday, but not in this poem. Eventually the Angkor Wat section shrank from 17 lines to the four lines below.

Until then, attachment to the self-consciously lofty and clever poem I wanted to write had kept me from writing the poem that needed to be written.

Walls bulge with roots
mortaring the stones they slowly crack,
saving monk and layman
from attachment to a place.





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Editorial Assistant: Jess Sheppard/Editor: Travis May

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