I Say “Girl”

"Will you light my cigarette?" the girl asks. I say "girl"
because her frame's small, her sleeves are balled up in her
fists, and her pupils are dilated, empty and wonderstruck.
She presses the cigarette between her lips while I hold a flame
inches from her face.
                                   Years later, in a car, my husband,
who quit smoking at age 19, lights a cigarette that's meant
for me with his lips, mouth, lungs, and hands it to me as
I drive. I love him in this gesture, in the action of his body
remembering itself.
                                 When I was a girl, I wanted to be
Peter Pan. Not Cathy Rigby as Peter Pan, when she appeared
set loose, soaring with the air (though she was, in fact, bound
tightly, constrained by wire and her body, never small enough
for her own mind) but the actual Peter Pan, the joy of
rebellion, the blush in every cheek. The hero as only a boy
could be a hero, at least in the early 1990s. In crayon,
I rendered myself lithe with hair cropped much shorter
than my actual hair. What I loved most about Peter Pan
was his shadow. I can feel the bar of soap in Cathy's palm,
pumicing her soles, trying to coax Peter's shadow
back into place, and the thread, needle-drawn
through stocking-shadow, the work of Wendy's hands.
I hated Wendy as I hated myself, for her beauty
and her docility, and for the care she took
tending to boys who ought to have been capable
of caring for themselves. Of course I became her
and cared for my many lost boys.
                                                        "What do you want
me to do," my mom asks when my stepdad remarks on
her clothing, "wear a burlap sack?" As a girl I learned early
that my body incites. If my clothes flatter, I'm asking for
leers and any associated violence. If my lines get crossed,
it's my fault. My mom buried her dress. I don't wear heels
so that if I need to run, I can run.
                                                        In George Orwell's
miserable novel, Burmese Days, the first character the reader
encounters proclaims women to be low as rats within the
first 3 pages. If I can't be a white man, he asserts, at least
I'm not a woman. It takes me nearly 4 decades to see that
being a feminist doesn't mean striving to be a man, to do
as a man does, but to be less like a man, to be what I am
and to draw breath from that.
                                                  The girl takes her hands away
with the cigarette as I move in to light it. "Will you close my
knife?" she asks, without taking her eyes from mine. I glance
down, and she's got a switchblade open, aimed at my abdomen. 

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.