{An Umbrella Invitational}

Judith Arcana’s

most recent book is the poetry collection What if your mother (2005); among her prose books is Grace Paley’s Life Stories, A Literary Biography.

Her work has appeared recently in 5AM, The Persimmon Tree, and Bridges; more is forthcoming in journals and anthologies. Visit her website.

—Back to Milestones Contents—


Awake and asleep or both or between I traveled
in my bed, voyaging grey waves and storm foam
under black skies ripped by fierce winds, or

The bed bobbed and eddied in slow breaking circles
of sunlight on flat green water; or rocked
on smooth blue pools, riding slow swells easily.

And every time, great sharks swam round my bed:
I saw their strict fins, saw they were not orcas
marked like magpies, mimes and clowns. Not dolphins.

I would lie rigid under the sheet: to stay alive
I must not move, not stand up against
the headboard, brace muscles for action,

Raise the sheet into a sail; I must not sit up
when they swim alongside, toothed skin raking
the mattress, gill slashes red above the water line.

From the smallest corners of my eyes I’d see them
thrust their thick torpedo snouts from the water;
they rose with gaping gullets, baring mythic teeth.

But the bed did not grow sodden, capsize, slip
below the surface and slide me paralyzed
under water to the circling sharks’ open throats.

In the darkened theater of childhood, I turned away
from the screen, from the shadow of danger. Closing
my eyes, I learned nothing of death, only of fear.

[Originally published in Junctures]


Artist’s Statement

Though I have been careful and thoughtful—even fierce—about form for years, it was only with this recent poem that I decided my kind of formal concerns were serious, that is, could be taken seriously. Because I don’t use the classic, conventional forms (sonnet, villanelle, et al), I thought my own work with form was not the real thing. But whenever I thought I might write a poem in one of those standard forms, I thought some more, and didn’t. My choice is neither philosophical nor political. I don’t disdain the classic forms, as some critics do. Indeed, I am an appreciator of much formal verse, from Shakespeare to Marilyn Hacker.

Those forms are just not for me. What is for me, I have realized, is the search for form in each piece I write. Writing this poem was an intense quest for structure, for the right form to hold these ideas, these sounds. This poem demanded such attention to the relationship between subject and shape that I finally named it for what had become a meld of the narrator’s childhood age and the number of stanzas. Though it’s among many poems I’ve written with carefully wrought structures, poems that required ferocious attention to their evolving forms, “Eight” is the one that changed my mind about myself .