Once upon a time, maybe as many years ago as thirty, certainly more than twenty,
at a time when my only creative (writing) outlet was the occasional postcard or
long (paper) letter to a friend, I wrote a couplet. I copied it in a notebook where
I scribbled lines from movies and books, snippets of conversation, names of albums
I wanted, that sort of thing. The notebook was made with a flat spine to look like
a thin hardback. Fake brown leather, the cover trimmed in gold. A thing to keep
forever; therefore, a thing I can’t find. I remember the couplet, though.
God’s to blame, not us we say,
for putting such beauty in their walking away.
I didn’t know what to do with it, so I called it a poem, gave it a title,
scribbled it in the gold-trimmed notebook, and for years showed it to no one. I
forget the title I gave it, but it may have been as simple as “Women.”
I hope it wasn’t “Women’s Asses,” but it may have been.
I was a young man, and I was writing for an audience of one.
Years later, five, maybe ten, a buddy of mine from Ph.D. school reads it and is surprised
to see I have some skill. He suggests, though, that a friend or two of ours might
find something in it not to like. (We decide I could be a misogynist. I put the
notebook away.) More time passes. I have my doctorate for all of two years, two
months, and two weeks, almost to the day, when I sit down and on purpose write a
poem. It’s a New Year’s resolution and I keep it. I write a poem a day for quite
a few days. Soon I’m spending more time on poems than on literary scholarship. It’s
the latter half of the 1990s.
As I look for material, the couplet resurfaces. I can’t throw it away, and
again I have no use for it. But it keeps bobbing to the surface and one day changes,
becomes something different for no good reason. The couplet for an audience of one
becomes a sentence for an audience of one. “Fucking woman walked the wrong
way.” There’s no specific woman, but I like the sound the sentence makes.
I like its potential for play, the interchangeability of its parts, the shifts in
sound. I don’t know it at the time, but I’m becoming a formalist. A
bad-ass formalist. Here’s the bad-ass poem.
Fucking woman walked the wrong way.
Walking woman fucked the wrong way.
Woman fucking walked the wrong way.
Fucking, woman walked the wrong way.
I think that’s it. I can’t find a copy of it. Walking-Away Woman becomes
Wrong-Way Woman. The title’s probably “Wrong Way” or “Wrong
Woman.” It’s not important. Unless I’m on trial for misogyny and
a good title might save me. (I have five daughters, Judge. Have mercy on my hide.)
More years pass. Maybe as many as ten. It doesn’t matter. Not in the middle
of a process that becomes one only after the fact. Not the way time matters in a
gestation cycle that produces, say, a sticky human or a corn snake. I decide one
morning to write an animal poem. It will be funny, I tell myself. For an idea or
a start, I look at some abandoned or dead-end poems I keep in a file. And there
it is. “Wrong Way.” If the poem’s ever going to appear in a respectable
literary magazine, expand its audience beyond one to maybe three, I know “fucking”
will need to be replaced with another word. “Freaking” hops up and down—pick
me, pick me—as a useful substitute, and when “wrong” leads to
“song,” the logic of music forces my hand. (I had no choice, Judge.)
I change “woman” to “dog.” The four lines become nine and
gain a title I remember.
Wrong Dog Song
Freaking dog walked the wrong way.
Walking dog freaked the wrong way.
Dog freaking walked the wrong way.
Walking the wrong way, dog freaked.
Dog freaked walking the wrong way.
Walking away, dog freaked wrong.
Freaked dog walked the wrong way.
Walking away wrong, dog freaked.
Walking away, wrong dog freaked.
It’s hard to forget a title that leads an on-line life. Two or three words in a
search engine and bam! “Wrong Dog Song.” Try it yourself.
When I submitted it to Diagram, a good on-line literary magazine, as one of three
or four poems, I expected the good folks there, if they took anything, to take one
or two of the others. Amazing the legs on the poem they picked, which I intended
as little more than a formal exercise. A couple of years ago, maybe five years after
“Wrong Dog Song” was published, a student mentioned it before class and said she
thought it was funny. Good that she found the freaking dog, I tell myself, and not
the fucking woman. (Who wants to go to jail over a poem? How to explain that to
In 2007, I’m twiddling with ideas for a new manuscript of song stylings, reworkings
of pre-existing songs that I’m combining with other found lyrics and feeding
through a formal pattern (pantoum, villanelle, diminishing poem, clerihew, and so
on) to come up with new songs. Interpretations, interpolations. Recyclings. I soon
find myself back in my poem files. There I see the word “song” in a
title, “Wrong Dog Song,” and figure there’s something more I might
do to the formal pattern, push it a little, rein it back in, something. Reinterpret
not the song, but the pattern, the form. I end up back at “woman,” the
first one, the one who started it all, Walking-Away Woman, who was never any one
woman, from whom I originally moved to the woman she became, Wrong-Way Woman, and
from there finally (finally, Judge and daughters) to Real Woman, the Only Woman
(for me), the One to my One, who lives in the dedication.
One Much One
(Till Death Do Us Ditty)
One love One so fucking much.
One fuck One so loving much.
One much One so loving fuck.
One fuck One so muching love.
One love One so muching fuck.
The parenthetical subtitle’s a nod to the form, ditty, that I used to rework, to
carry the Muchness of the vows we made One to One more than fourteen years ago.
Is ditty really a form? It became one the minute Federico García Lorca laid his
hands on it. Read his
“Ditty of First Desire” to see what I mean.
Then go make one of your own. Get your hands dirty.