Lorna Dee Cervantes On "The Poet Is Served Her Papers"
I noticed a great deal of traffic to my main blog site from people, mostly from Florida, searching for information on this poem, so I decided to write something on it. "The Poet Is Served Her Papers" is from the first section in my second book, From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger. I call it my grief book, poems about loss and longing. There are several poems from the first two sections that are the result of repeating nightmares replaying old arguments from a divorce I wasn't very happy about. One way to exorcise those nightmares, I guess, was to revisit the trauma in a poem. That's the "fever dream" referred to in the first line, and in the line with the pun on "mare" later on in the poem. This is also a poem about what the media then coined, "the feminization of poverty." It was about a time I was divorcing, in grad school, and very poor. Divorcing and moving, eventually to another state, made for more than a few bounced checks -- and divorce being like those "bad checks we scrawl/ with our mouths" in saying those vows.
The first two lines of the second stanza have to do with being a poet who writes and recites love poems -- and wanting to believe those sweet lies in the aftermath -- to speak to the lover in anything but the harsh tones of a break-up. "Speak lips opening on a bed of nails" refers to the leap of faith required of marital love, like the yogic practice of lying on a bed of nails -- to trust and transcend the pain inherent in the form. "The creaking of cardboard/ in these telling shoes" refers to an early experience of deep shame and self-consciousness over having to place squares of cardboard over the holes in my shoes, and how mishapen they would become, and squeak from cardboard -- the intimacy of that shared memory; the loss of somone who shares that intimate memory: who else could now hear it? The "mint of my mind" is an image of the place where coins are produced; an old coin should go up in value, but here the image is of devaluation, like an old Mexican peso: for being old-fashioned, for holding on to the promise of longterm conjugal love. Also, I have several images comparing myself to a coin -- someone once, unkindly, told me that I resembled the portrait on an Indian-head nickle. It's a distant reference to the fact that there was a time in the early '70s when American Indian women were much desired by non-Indian men.
There are multiple puns and layers of meaning in the fourth stanza: the first refers to the question: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? from a poem, the title and author of which escapes me. And the Biblical image of going through the eye of a needle. Here, like the coin image, it's devalued into angels milling around the head of a flea, a blood-sucking parasite, instead of a pin, meant to be useful and homey as a wife. At the time I was "broke" down to my "blood", or so it seemed; sorrel is a horse's color, a rare mare, sorrel is also a weedlike herb -- you can eat it if you're starving. "A lone mare", besides the pun on "nightmare", refers to how one calls a racehorse just by it's color: the sorrel; or, "the wife." Buffalo chips can be used as cooking fuel out on the plains when there is nothing else; "cashing in" as in a poker game: end of the game, i.e., divorce.
My ex-husband once wrote in my writing notebook early on in our dating: "The writer, it's a cul-de-sac," which was a quote from Franz Kafka's letters. He won me over early on with that line. When I read that line I make a gesture forming a heart with my hands and arms, than slowly separating them, making what looks to me like two cul-de-sacs in the air. In other words, I still love my husband, I don't want the divorce, I want to read all those love letters again in the mail, and not divorce papers I am being served. The painted hummingbird hearts had to do with an intimate detail from the relationship, he was in love with an Asian woman at work and had painted hummingbird breasts for her in the style of Chinese brush painting. I like the idea of a phone ringing sounding like the tactile equivalent of a licking or lapping cat tongue, for example -- the phone which doesn't ring, and change "my life." The "pay and pay and pay" line refers to the alimony I never asked for, and more, it refers to a Ruben Blades song I listened to over and over again during this time. It was about his mother and how she never slept ever since his father left, and how she would stay up and watch the ghosts on the television keeping away the ghosts of her memories. It had a verse line, roughly translated as it contained several puns, about how "the debts of the heart have never been paid in full" (nunca han pagado) that plays on how she never turns off the light. That song is in this poem, the ghost of it -- those dark angels milling around on the head of a flea.