Behind this dress,
two women
in the mess of one body hardly covered
by the stiff beauty of lustrous rustle.

Behind these freckled breasts,
two hearts that rush the blood,
divergent desires –

twin to the unseemly split between predator
and prey,
the white pet-store rat
bred for the boa
and the boa that would remake
the Florida landscape in his ever expanding image –

if the one woman is the call
to the other’s answer
the answer is to keep calling and calling
into the swamp and humid.
If the container can’t lull
its contents into some sense of contentment,
the glass breaks, and out rush the teeth.

In a fixed loop, tie this sash of silk shot, plain weave,
and with a half hitch secure
against a hunger
that grows without natural enemy.
A desire uncurbed
is a flagrant thing, is a woman
in the mirror, seeing clearly.

Rebecca Hazelton

woman and book

Persona presents a puzzle. It is predicated on artifice, yet persona is also a very intimate form of poetry. In a persona poem, a writer often speaks directly to readers and, in doing so, forges an almost interpersonal relationship with them. It whispers in their ears or grabs them by the shoulders. Read, for example, James Tate’s “The Motorcyclists,” a persona poem written from a female perspective. Though the chatty female speaker initially seems frivolous, beginning the poem with “My cuticles are a mess” and ending with “Honey, can we stop soon? / I really hate to say it but I need a lady’s room,” her apparent superficiality is intercut with surprisingly dark observations:

Do you know that I have never understood what they meant
by “grassy knoll.” It sounds so idyllic, a place to go
to dream your life away, not kill somebody. They
should have called it something like “the grudging notch.”

Moments like these encourage us to rethink our initial assumptions, and upon rereading, we notice other instances in which the speaker points out the potential for first impressions to be false. The new negligee she wears isn’t unique but “a replica / of one Kim Novak wore in some movie or other,” the sweet words of a flirting chiropractor disguise a latent creepiness, and the fixtures in the White House look gold but might be a cheaper brass approximation. Just as the pastoral connotations of the “grassy knoll” belie the national tragedy it references, nothing is quite what it seems. But then, we realize, neither is the speaker. The persona poem can accommodate all sorts of speakers and dramatic situations—what matters is that we treat our subjects as worthy of our regard. If Tate had written this poem with the sole purpose of mocking the speaker, we’d have thought a lot less of the poem and possibly less of Tate.

Rebecca Hazelton
Teaching the Persona Poem

In the Garden, After

June 5, 2016

Mass

Zebra Longwings, Monarchs, Blue Clouds lurid against
yellow goldenrod, the stems riddled with galls, the galls with larva,
x’d open by a woodpecker’s stabbing beak.
We walk where the life is spilling out, where the prey
views the predator with indifference. If not this way, another.
Until then, the spread of genetic material.
To protect your skin from the sun, carry this green umbrella,
spin the handle, soft shoe; it’s the long summer and we
require a gentle entertainment. The children are swarming,
querulous in the heat, ignoring the prohibition against touching
pagoda gold, the hand-painted beams shipped from Thailand
over the seas. Every year the pagoda shines less, every year
naga statues guard the bridge with expressions of reproach.
My hand hasn’t one atom of gold on it. No excess worth
lines my nails. The raptors in their cages glazed with boredom,
kestrels and kites, the yawning owls, all track us as we pass,
jessed for public display, for demonstrations of ferocity
in service to delight. This dumb show. This mock danger.
Happy in service, pleased to be part of, my hand in yours,
grasping at some semblance of normal. This is how
foreign substances are absorbed, we grow around the hurt,
eat as we ate before, laugh as we once laughed, present
damage as decoration, our fingers borrowing gleam by
caustic oils—darling, when they walked from that other
bed of flowers they had just learned shame. For us to
advance we must learn to lance that swelling.

Rebecca Hazelton

Human Jellyfish 02

If my mouth would open, such delights
forthcoming – a red balloon inflating,

two doves that coo Adieu, Adieu, a rabbit
hatless but polite, a dignified parade of frogs,

otters roiling in a flowing carpet –
slippery, all of it, most untrue but better for

each misprision. I say the word is dark, but
I mean world, and by dark I meant

let go – it hurts, this pressure, how my arms bruise
over and then bloom pink and clear again.

Very the pain, or verify – either way,
eyes see things differently afterwards,

drowning seems drawing, death made dearth,
while homophones destroy me. You turn

ergo U-turn and terns cartwheel above, such
racket. What do I love – what’s lost, the words

eked out and etched into the window pane,
lucid in the breath, but gone again

once warmth recedes. I hang on to facsimile,
slim volumes stacked to form a ladder

to poetry – wait, I meant poverty.

Rebecca Hazelton

(Rebecca Hazelton is the author of Fair Copy (2012), winner of the Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry, and Vow (2013), from Cleveland State University Poetry Center; No girls no telephones with Brittany Cavallaro (2014) from Black Lawrence Press, and Bad Star (2013) from YesYes Books)