A Poem A Story A Prompt, Issue 4

Secrets

Both the young girls in today’s poem and the young girl in today’s story uncover secrets. In the poem, the person the secret belongs to (the poet) discloses it unwittingly, but is as delighted to share it as the girls are to discover it. In the story, the secret-keeper desperately wants to remain that way, but it’s too late, and his loss is his daughter’s gain; she feels her discovery has unlocked a thrilling destiny. But what is a secret? I’ve been reading a book of aphorisms by the poet James Richardson and he says, “A secret is the illusion that confessing it would make a difference.”

Pablo Picasso, Young Girl Reading a Book on the Beach, 1937.

Poem

The Secret

Two girls discover   
the secret of life   
in a sudden line of   
poetry.

I who don’t know the   
secret wrote   
the line. They   
told me

(through a third person)   
they had found it
but not what it was   
not even

what line it was. No doubt   
by now, more than a week   
later, they have forgotten   
the secret,

the line, the name of   
the poem. I love them   
for finding what   
I can’t find,

and for loving me   
for the line I wrote,   
and for forgetting it   
so that

a thousand times, till death   
finds them, they may   
discover it again, in other   
lines

in other   
happenings. And for   
wanting to know it,   
for

assuming there is   
such a secret, yes,   
for that   
most of all.

—Denise Levertov

Who is this lady?

Born in Essex, England in 1923, Denise Levertov was influenced by her father’s unusual religious practices: He was a former Hasidic Jew who became an Anglican priest. During World War II, she served as a nurse in London, and published her first book of poetry shortly after the war. She married an American and moved to New York, became associated with the Black Mountain Poets, and has been affixed with labels like avant-garde, postmodern, political, and mystical, though she disliked classification and rejected official membership in any group. “She is a poet who inspires you to follow, to see where she leads,” writes Paul Constant. “She commands your attention.”

Story

Excerpt:

My father came late to the party. We held hands and wandered around, popping canapés into our mouths and drinking whatever was presented to us in so many tinkling glasses, and when we had our fill, not just of food and drinks but of shrill voices and bursts of laughter, we found a room where nobody was. We sat down on an antique couch that I thought was too precious to sit on, a deeply blue, velvet couch, curved like a crescent moon, but there we sat and patted our stomachs and sighed long sighs from a surfeit of pleasure.

The young woman came in timidly, as if she needed to ask a favor from persons who had never seen her before. She seemed unsteady on her feet, and I guessed it was because of the drinks she must have had. She sat down at the other end of the couch, and on the other side of my father, and then I knew she had followed us.

“This is Mary, my daughter,” he said to her, but it was more like a warning and not an introduction, and he didn’t tell me her name.

“How are you?” he asked her.

“You know how I am,” she said.

“Mary, will you go?” he asked me, only it was a command. “Where’s your mother?”

But he wasn’t much of a figure to command. There was a roughness in his throat like a cough held back, and his eyes were afraid. If he lost the authority of the father for that moment, he gained another kind, and it was the authority of the man experienced beyond his family’s ever knowing. What he knew about his own life that his family didn’t know seemed to grant to me my own untellable experiences to come. It was as if he gave me carte blanche to the world.

—Gina Berriault, “The Woman in the Rose-Colored Dress” (Read the rest here. You have to create an account to do so, but it’s free, and worth it.)

Who is this lady?

Another arguably underrated writer, Gina Berriault is closely associated with San Francisco, although one of the things that makes her work so remarkable is her ability to inhabit seemingly anyone, from any background, place, and set of troubles. She was born in Long Beach, California in 1926 to Russian-Jewish immigrants and wrote novels, story collections, and screenplays. Her stories won plenty of awards, but today she is considered under-read. Let’s fix that! Peter Orner says of her story collection Women in their Beds, “This is a writer who never lards a sentence with an unnecessary word. The only proper response… is hushed awe.”

Prompt

Think of a personality flaw you perceive in yourself, something you try to keep hidden from people. Write a passage showing this flaw in action. (You could do this by assigning the flaw to a fictional character and writing a scene, or writing about a time in real life that your flaw was revealed.)


Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to info@alannaschubach.com