There are a few ways to tell that you’ve “made it” as a poet. One of these is getting a piece published in The New Yorker. For Los Angeles-based poet Suzanne Lumis, however, getting published in the most recent edition of the magazine is simply one more confirmation of having unequivocally “made it.”
Lumis is a highly respected, veteran writer, educator and champion of the arts in the L.A. region. She works with kids, with college students, and with her community at large. She’s also curated anthologies, literary magazines, and poetry festivals.
And, yet, for all of Lumis’ merits, her life story makes for better reading than “How I Didn’t Get Myself to a Nunnery,” the poem the prestigious New Yorker selected for this week’s edition.
To be sure, the poem is mature and savvy, written with laborious know-how. It’s got some spunk to it, too. Enough grit to keep it light on its feet. But it remains a cool choreographed dance, swift as a Jennifer Lopez music video. Here, there is no seasoned Madonna showing the world how the big girls truly get down.
How I Didn’t Get Myself to a Nunnery
That girl they found ensconced in mud and loam,
she wasn’t me. Small wonder, though, they jumped.
To a conclusion. Water puffs you up,
and we pale Slavic girls looked much alike—
back then. Deprivation smooths you out.
Yes, that was the season of self-drowned maids,
heart-to-hearts with skulls, great minds overthrown.
And minds that could be great if they could just
come up for air. Not in that town. Something stank.
But me, I drifted on. I like rivers.
And I’m all right with flowers. I floated
on a bed of roses—well, O.K., rue
and columbine. It bore me up not down.
That night I made a circle with my thumb
and finger, like a lens, and peered through it
at the moon—mine, all mine. My kissed-white moon.
“Moon River wider than a . . .” Mancini/
Mercer wrote that, sure, but I wrote it first.
You wonder where I’m going with all this?
Where water goes. It empties into sea.
Sold! I’d take it—the sea or a fresh life.
Some other life. A good man—good enough,
fair—fished me out. He’d come to quench his thirst.
No sun-god prince, of course, like him I’d loved,
still loved. (Some loves don’t die; not even murder
kills them.) I married his thatched hut, hatched chicks—
kids running underfoot. Don’t cry for me,
Denmark. I’d learned the art of compromise
back there, in the black castle—then came blood,
ghosts. Something in me burst. If not lover,
father, king, then whom can you trust? Alone,
I took up some playing cards. I played them
into skinny air. A voice said, Swim or drown.
It said: Your house caught fire, flood, caught fear—
it’s coming down. No one loves you now, here.
By land or water, girl, get outta town.