What charmed me most about these lines was the playful, breezy tone throughout, blended with other flavours. I think it’s easy for a poem that takes such an approach to come across as too slight. Susan Millar DuMars steers clear of this by introducing elements of humour, nostalgia and, more subtly, religion. There’s also a dash of old-school quaintness in references to “Mr. H.”, shot through with just the right amount of sweetness and the memory which takes place in Father Burke Park. Such delicate balancing of tones is where the poet’s skill is most evident here.
Such skill is there, too, in imagery such as a blown kiss landing like a moth. Not a butterfly. That would’ve been too romantic. The same goes for the title, which seems to me irreverent and mischievous, avoiding a sense of romance again. It’s easy to imagine a distant smile on the speaker’s face as she drifts into her fantasy. And then the last verse comes like a punch in the gut. The carefree young woman gives way to the housewife who hangs out clothes in the dark.
The concluding lines are suitably inconclusive, I think. They could be taken as a frank, sad question or as the kind of lines that come with a sly smirk, where we expect a furtive visit to the park will follow. In a world full of poems that plead, retell and break hearts, I think it's also important to have poems that smirk.
Going At It
clothesline, lawnmower, sink.
A new ache in my back.
Mr. H. blows me a kiss.
I feel it land, flutter
like a moth against my neck.
Our neighbour’s mouth is stuck
in a permanent “O”.
“Mrs. H! Did you see them?
Three o’clock this morning!
Young couple on the green,
going at it!”
She happened to look
out her bedroom window.
Her face is flushed, her hands fisted.
“The wretch’s arms thrown open
like Jesus on the cross.
I should’ve phoned the Guards.”
I bite my lip, remember
our first summer;
the night I lifted my dress
in Father Burke Park –
the scrabbly grass, his sudden
cool flesh. Who watched,
I wonder, from which dark window…
how long ago?
How long have I been this housewife
who hangs laundry as it grows dark?
And when was the last time I asked Mr. H.
to take a walk in the park?
(Taken from Dreams for Breakfast, published by Salmon Poetry. Check it out here.)
I have published three collections with Salmon Poetry, the most recent of which, The God Thing, appeared in 2013. Bone Fire will be published by Salmon in April, 2016. I published a book of short stories, Lights in the Distance, with Doire Press in 2010, and was a featured fiction writer on Atticus Review in late 2014. I’m currently at work on a second story collection. I’m American but live in Galway, Ireland, where my husband and I have coordinated the Over the Edge readings series since 2003. I am the editor of the 2013 anthology Over the Edge: The First Ten Years. My blog is: http://susanmillardumarsislucky.blogspot.ie/.
Religion bubbles through this poem (the trinity, Father Burke Park, “like Jesus on the cross”). You also have a poetry collection called The God Thing. Could you tell us about how you interact with religion in this poem and how religion feeds into your work in general?
It’s funny, two of my recurring themes are in this poem; religion and sex. It has taken me four collections to notice that these are favorite topics of mine! The God Thing (2013) was written in the wake of a bereavement, so there is a lot of questioning of God in it. The new book, Bone Fire (due out in early 2016) has less God and more sex. I should say, more poems about the body. To me, writing about the body: its vulnerability, capacity for pleasure and for connecting to another, is deeply spiritual.
In this poem, religion is used playfully. We really did have an older neighbor who spied two young ones having sex, and described the girl as “spread out, like Jesus on the cross!” That was the poem’s starting point – somehow I’d transitioned from being the girl having sex in the park to being the married woman who was told such gossip. And Catholic references are used as a shorthand, here, for traditional values.
I suppose it’s a subversive poem, in that the narrator is refusing patriarchal religion’s “gift” of shame. But it’s also just a bit of fun.
It strikes me as a generally happy, upbeat poem that ultimately ends on a note of what could be taken as sadness. Is that what you intended, and do you have any thoughts on the polarities of happiness and sadness in relation to writing poems?
Well, it’s interesting. If I could rewrite this poem today, I might take the last stanza out. Six or seven years on, it reads to me as a rhyming couplet I put in to explain the rest of the poem and tie things up neatly. I’m learning to resist the tug to tie things up neatly. However, every writer feels that urge to rewrite old pieces and we have to resist that. When it’s done, it’s done.
When I read the poem in performance, I read the phrase take a walk in the park suggestively, and the audience laughs, knowing the narrator is thinking of propositioning her husband. On the page, it’s different. There is sadness there, or at least a wistfulness. She is wishing herself back in the early, sex-in-public-places phase of courtship.
I think it was the writer John McKenna who first taught me the phrase “light and shade”. Real life is never just good or bad, sad or funny. And so writing shouldn’t be, either. In even the bleakest poem I’d want a spark of – if not humor, then anger, and if not anger, at least perspective. Or energy. And a funny poem has to have some weight in it, some point. I think often this layering happens in a second draft, after the initial dam-burst of inspiration.
There are strong elements of story in “Going At It”, and I know that you also write fiction. Apologies for asking a question you’ve surely heard many times before, but what are the main similarities and differences you find between writing fiction and poetry?
Poetry is much more immediate. It always starts as an image or realization that just won’t let me go. Or rather, the spark between two images, or an image and a realization. It’s something I feel, and I can’t rest until I get it on paper.
Whereas in fiction you’re dealing with plot and timelines, cause and effect. This requires knowing your characters’ motivations and that in turn requires a bit of distance. So I’d almost never write a story about something that has just happened to me.
The other big difference is that there is more safety in fiction. A writer can hide behind her characters. I absolutely love writing characters who do things I’d never allow myself to do! But readers of poetry tend to assume that all poems are autobiographical. And, in my experience, most poems are. Though of course not all.
Why do you write?
I could give you many reasons – I love words, I value self-expression, if I didn’t I’d watch even more crap TV than I already do. All true. But there is something even more fundamental in it. I am, by nature, an introvert. A lot more goes on in my mind than I will ever dare put voice to. Writing gives me a way to frame and share my own experience, to make me feel less alone and, when it works, to make others feel less alone too. To reassure them they are not the only people to feel the way they do. I said I value self-expression, but I value communication too. Someone on the other end of the process who is receiving the message.
Writing about something is, for me, a step in putting it down, letting it go.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
Be yourself. Embrace your darkness, your silliness, your madness. Be thankful for the heroes and villains in your life and put them all down on paper. The one thing you have that no other writer does is your experience. Tell us how it feels to be you.