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Alison C. Rollins

The first draft of the poem “Water Lilies” was written in April 2018 after moving the month before to Chicago. It was created as part of the “Poem-A-Day Challenge” which many writers participate in as a celebration of National Poetry Month. When tasked with writing a new poem every day for thirty days the initial hurdle of just getting something on the page can be reduced by not feeling like you completely have to reinvent the wheel. I often find when trying to generate new work it can be helpful to use an existing poem as a springboard or as an architectural blueprint for writing a new piece of my own. To write “Water Lilies” I utilized Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Venus’-flytraps” from his collection Magic City.

Similarly to Komunyakaa, I wanted to use the name of a flower to title the work and to influence as well as complicate the narrative of the poem itself. If writing a poem is similar to cooking a culinary dish, I would say that my go-to seasoning or flavor profile is surrealism. I greatly enjoy the absurd. On the other hand, I realize that I can be heavy-handed with surreal language as a default safety mechanism to consciously and/or unconsciously avoid certain truths and traumas. Often I will move away from narrative or detailing particulars that have the potential to raise my own vulnerability. As a consequence, the poem can sometimes suffer from becoming frustratingly obscure for the reader. One of my favorite texts that speaks to this dynamic is Hélène Cixous’s Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Within it, Cixous argues, “Writing or saying the truth is equivalent to death.” Furthermore Cixous suggests, “We have to lie to live. . . we must try to un-lie.”

If each poem sits on a continuum of truth, I would say my later draft of “Water Lilies” has moved closer to expressing a greater transparency and honesty. I worked through the later draft of this poem in August of 2018 in Vermont at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. In the later draft I think I achieved greater concision with the imagery, and the reader is better situated to wade through the poem. I would also say that the later draft required a greater honesty and vulnerability of me despite its use of fewer words and less space on the page. With this particular poem I have needed breathing room to grapple with my own personal failures, childlessness, my divorce, the messiness of my sexuality and desire, inherited trauma, and the violence of being in the world as a black woman. I tried to push for greater brevity in this draft and to tell a story as economically as possible. I also tried to shift between the past and present tense as seamlessly as possible. An example of shifting in time and space that I strive for would be Terrance Hayes’s “At Pegasus” from his collection, Muscular Music.

“Water Lilies” has never been published and by no means does it feel “completed” to me. It is a poem that I have set aside to potentially revisit or use as a graveyard to extract lines from for another future work. At this point, “Water Lilies” is just as unfinished, in-process, and chaotic as my daily attempt to stay alive.

< draft > 

water lilies


I am thirty,
wading out into deep

bodies of water.

My favorite form of
loss is to swallow.

What have you to lose

this time around? To me, each
man is an ocean.

On my back, I glare

at their murky silence,
the edge of their end  

almost invisible.

I watch their chests rise
and fall

as they sleep.

I view their movements
for the same amount of

time that most people study

objects with interest. Men’s bodies
are interchangeable

with any aquatic animal.

Beneath the waves, mammals move
toward sound and action.

What is a man without action?

My body is a wallflower.
Men do not like to wait,

their helpless hands and hoofs

beat like limp hearts. I spread
my curls across the surface of

the waterbed, train my desire

to not go on forever.
I’ve always longed

to see a dolphin’s vagina.

As a child, I wanted to be a marine
biologist. At Sea World, I rode

on my father’s shoulders

held on to his ears for dear life.
He was alive then, his arms

filled with a current. Now they are gone,

both the men and the father in this story.
How does anyone survive

any relationship? How do you love

a person to death without killing
them, or yourself?

Be still. Write alone in a blue velvet chair.

Float poems like paper boats
across damp lips. 

I close my eyes and reach across

the wetness, towards the shape of
a man in the dark.

His hair bobs in the wind

like the fluff of a dandelion.   
My fingers chant,

come home, swim home to me. 


< REVISION >

water lilies


I am thirty,
wading out into a deep
body of water.

My favorite form of
loss is to swallow.
What have I to lose

this time around? Last July
my legs were draped on either
side of my husband’s head.

My thighs hung like a scarf
about his neck, his hair
burrowed into my privates.

I’d always longed
to see a dolphin’s vagina.
As a child, I wanted to be a marine

biologist. At Sea World, I rode
on my father’s shoulders
held on to his ears for dear life.

I—upswept in his current,
his arms filled with his own blood.
Now they are gone, both the father

and the husband in this story,
their closets emptied save for
tins of shoe polish and handfuls

of naked wire hangers. I am Medea.
Euripides takes up my voice
like a pebble for safekeeping,

beads of water run off my face
like grief. Afloat, I rehearse
how to mourn like a stone.

My breasts skip atop the surface,
aqueducts of milk rooted
beneath the skin. The river

holds me in its mouth
like a song. I in turn
leave it, troubled.