Word Hot, by Mary Meriam
Review by Jeri Frederickson
I wish my younger self could read Mary Meriam’s Word Hot. Anyone who needs to nurture their younger or inner selves should read this chapbook and draw in the courageous yearning for a body, for love, and for a muse. I keep coming back to Meriam’s hypnotizing sense of the body, the beauty and depth of nature, and her courage to reach out for a muse who will stay.
Living in an urban setting, I often long for nature. Meriam weaves nature throughout this chapbook like a love letter to those of us pining for the woods and the moon. The poem, “Cave In” brings us nature as a muse and a lover:
The forest sighs for succulent romance.
The moonlight jiggles in a modern dance.
The waiting window holds the weary tree.
The midnight branches tap. Come back to me.
Meriam plays with words like a lover might play with the lines on my hands. When I read Meriam’s poems, I am connected to that feeling of delight, of exploring something special and new.
Several of the poems in Word Hot are sonnets. While some of us first encountered Shakespearean sonnets in boring high school classrooms, Meriam blows the dust off my recollection of this form, and funnels the depth of a human soul into her sonnets. In “Thoughts,” she begins with:
Some thoughts are too unbearable to think,
but still they rock me nightly, tidal waves
of worry, thoughts that knock me off the brink,
drown me, and bury me in shapeless caves.
Some thoughts are faces I once knew, and some
remember voices, visions, trouble, thunder,
and some thoughts dwell on what I have become.
We connect with Meriam’s speaker in these poems because we identify with how hard and private it is to think thoughts that “are too unbearable.” Meriam wields the rhymes in her poems with an ease that allows her reader to relax, even in the midst of “tidal waves,” as she guides us. In another sonnet, “Country Music,” Meriam writes:
choosing which way I walk away from home,
kicking the leaves, as if my incomplete
existence could be saved without you near,
as if a wish could make a muse appear.
Meriam writes with the heartbeat rhythm of a sonnet and fills these rhythms with a sense of questioning and craving for something the speaker is not able to have. That sense of questioning or lacking is a human feeling that we all cope with, and Meriam’s writing makes this part of our common humanity a courageous and worthwhile experience.
I wanted to find out more about how these breathtaking sonnets were born
and how Meriam approaches writing about the body and nature. I had the honor of being able to ask these questions in an interview.
Jeri: Word Hot was published in 2013, and now, in 2019, I’m hoping you can talk a bit about this bridge of six years. How does Word Hot continue to push your writing now? Are similar poetic forms, ideas, people, or places informing your writing today?
Mary: A muse is an inspirational goddess, and Word Hot seems to be invoking a muse, particularly one named Lillian Faderman. I’d been reading her books for the first time. I was, and still am, very grateful and tremendously moved by her work. I’ve always felt that I was too much: too sad, in too much pain, too intense, too needy, too lesbian. But Lillian’s books made me feel accepted, strong, brave, loved. I felt for the first time that there was a lesbian culture I could belong to, and it was alive in her books. I hoped to make poems that were just as alive. The muse is invoked at the beginning of epics, and Word Hot is the beginning of my own little epic, The Lillian Trilogy.
Jeri: As a reader, I was drawn into the way you explore the beauty of the body and of nature. How did you set about weaving flora, stone, weather, etc. through this chapbook at the same time you were weaving the body, especially the body of a female muse or lover, through your poems?
Mary: I write intuitively, so exploring and weaving for me is about the nuts and bolts of reading, listening, looking, feeling, waiting, hoping, trying, failing, workshopping. Since I live in a wilderness of forest, mountains, lake, I’m very in touch with nature in my body of work.
Jeri: Some of your poems reach out to a person or idea and wish for a change or a specific response. Where do you wish a reader will choose to read Word Hot? If you could give your reader a place, what would that place look or feel like?
Mary: An island. A grassy cliff over the ocean. A group of girls and women in loose tunics and baggy pants who have just finished dancing, and are now sprawled around, each with Word Hot in hand. When it starts getting dark, they run to a living room and read the poems out loud. (Actually this sounds like where I went to college, Bennington.)
Jeri: “To Lillian” is beautiful. Tension holds this poem together, but it comes off so effortless on the page. In a poem like this, do you allow yourself to explore where the poem is going and discover what you want to say, or do you know when you’re writing what the map is for the poem?
Mary: Thanks. I love writing in received forms, like this sonnet, partly because they are a map. It’s a pleasure and relief to be given a rhyme scheme, along with a set number of lines and feet. Then I follow my nose to see where it takes me. The first line draws me in. The search for rhymes opens new doors. Iambic pentameter keeps my syntax in line. The metrical heartbeat listens to my heartbeat. I’m dancing in a place I’ve danced in many times before, so I know the moves. I enter a trance and the lines appear from some deep place. I wait till I hear the truest words in my mind, then write them down. After handwriting the first draft, I type it, then scan it and make revisions. Sometimes the poem feels finished quickly. Sometimes it doesn’t work, so I set it aside and wait. It could be years before I understand the poem, so I never throw away first drafts. I wrote some free verse poems around 1979 that I couldn’t accept or understand until 2019. I thank myself for saving the first drafts of those poems for 40 years. I’ve been periodically reading and wondering about the poems all these years, and finally feel so happy with them that they’ll be in my next book.
Jeri: “So Close” includes quotes from both Mary Sidney and Shakespeare. How did you come to use these lines in this poem?
Mary: In 2004, I saw a tiny mention in Newsweek about Robin Williams’ work on the Shakespeare Authorship Question. Williams’ book, Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare? is full of compelling arguments that Mary Sidney is the true author. The two quotes sound “so close” to my ear, it’s hard to believe they were written by two different poets. That tiny mention had a gigantic effect on me. Something broke open, and I suddenly felt free of the oppressive canon that had dominated my education. I began to write a lot of sonnets, studying Shakespeare’s along the way. In contrast to many others, my scansion of the Sonnets found almost entirely strict iambic pentameter. I workshopped my formal poems at the online forum Eratosphere, where experienced formalists kicked my butt, as it were, when my form was off. The upshot of Shakespeare and Eratosphere is that for many years, most of my poems were strictly metrical with very few substitutions. Now I move in and out of form as the spirit moves me.
Mary Meriam co-founded Headmistress Press and edits the Lavender Review: Lesbian Poetry and Art. She is the author of My Girl’s Green Jacket (2018) and The Lillian Trilogy (2015), both from Headmistress Press. Poems appear recently in Poetry, Prelude, and Subtropics.
Review by Jeri Frederickson
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.
She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).