I mouth the word “motherless”

and it's a cut that misses, a cut made clean,
the clasp of a snapdragon's jaw. I mouth
the words "corn hopper," "hair combs," "hand-painted
flowers," "grayscale photos with Exacto
knife edges." I keep these things in a box. 

Anxiety pins me in place. I've got
60 needles aimed at my center, one
point for each year of her life. I stare at
cracks in the asphalt and can't seem to leave
the parking lot. The funeral home's across
a street torn to gravel they'll repave
next week. I move forward to hug my friend,
but he and his wife move away slightly. 
My mom has died during a pandemic.
The air's not safe. Don't touch your face.
For God's sake, don't touch each other
or speak closely. 
                          I feel like 1,000
dead birds, one brother says. It'll take months
to transfuse our veins with sand and several
more before we can bear the heat of our
blood again. I tried to watch the sun set
but I couldn't, the other brother says,
the clouds got in the way. It's overcast
but refuses to rain until we've left
for the quiet of our homes.
                                               Weeks later,
the sky's heart still bends light, but it matters
less. Handful of red, handful of copper.
My sister speaks in tongues, but what she's asking for
is money. Her loss sharpens. She tucks cash
in her pockets and places the sympathy cards
in front of me. I face the stack and cut
the leaves out, then add them to my grief box.
I mishear her words as dust in my heart, 
wind in my hair. I don't need anything.
The sun bleeds through the clouds. I look up, and
cut paper leaves pour from my eyes. 

Danika Stegeman LeMay

3 Questions for Danika

What was your process for creating these pieces?

I say 'Girl' is one of those magical poems that came to me quickly and required little revision. I have a small daughter who wakes up *very early,* and ideas started coming to me as I snuggled with her on the couch near dawn: my desire to be Peter Pan as a small child, the time a young woman asked me to close her knife late at night on the streets of Baltimore, my mom's exquisite question about wearing a burlap sack. I hurriedly typed the ideas into a notes app on my cell phone, and I wrote the poem down later when my daughter was napping.

I mouth the word motherless is partially composed of small excerpts from drafts of 3 distinct poems I'd written that weren't working. Those fragments pieced together like they were meant to be kindred. It was like I'd written them before my mom's death knowing I'd need them later. What joins the fragments are scraps of my mom's life I was sorting through when I composed the poem (hair combs, old photos, greeting cards), the numb, liminal feelings I was washed in just after my mom's death, and images from the strangeness of a COVID-era funeral.

What is the significance of the form/genre you chose for this work?

I wanted the stanzas in I say 'Girl' to be separate units that hinge on one another. The ideas are linked by my experiences and my thought processes and the form needs to reflect that. The poem also seemed to call for long lines, to reveal its near prosaic nature. In workshop, some have called this a prose poem, but I do mean for it to be lineated. The line breaks are important to the alarm, the jut/gap of the poem's ending and some of the other lines. The jumps in logic are meant to mimic the space between a girl's mind and a woman's, the spanning of time and what's learned in between.

I needed I mouth the word motherless to have a syllabic line (most are 10 syllables, or close) because my life was transforming at the time of its writing. The poem is about myself and the world I knew falling apart, so I needed the lines to hold me/itself together. The way that sometimes the syllabic count/the line is spread across 2 stanzas felt right for acknowledging the feeling of coming apart while also clinging to a kind of structure, a desire to stay whole.

What is the significance of this work to you?

I say 'Girl' is another early hybrid work for me. It's possibly the first time I've directly addressed my experience of being a woman and expressed my anger about the way our socio-political culture places me as a woman. I do not like to be placed. This work opened a door that led to other hybrid pieces exploring similar themes, which all open too, until I find myself in a place with fewer walls and more windows.

I struggle to write works as personal as I mouth the word motherless. I worked on the poem as part of a virtual class taught by Michael Torres through The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis called "The Poem As Intimate Space." It was the first time I shared my grief over my mom's death as a writer, and I'm grateful to Michael for creating a safe space in which to do that and for feedback that helped make this a better poem. I'd also consider this poem my first venture into writing a hybrid work; it's a vessel woven from slips of shed skin.

Danika Stegeman LeMay’s debut collection of poems, Pilot, is available from Spork Press. She lives in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in 32 Poems, Afternoon Visitor, CutBank Literary Journal, Forklift, OH, Leavings, Sporklet, and Word for/ Word, among other places. Her website is danikastegemanlemay.com.

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