Translating A Novel Into My Mother Tongue

Burning Hand

The first punishment came like road rage
scorching the pavement with friction
devils uncuffed with viscous screams
thick and rich and choking with blood iron
flooding the closed room filling with metal death
small hands buried in mud, elbow deep
constricting nightmares lapping at small skin
punishment like living threads of belief
frayed to a nothing point, to a nothing thought
a nothing pain, a nothing confusion
until the mud is tight and cracked with thirst
fighting for oxygen, crying with child’s tears
for being a dirty girl.

The Weight Of It

You will look at me, sisters.
you will remember me as I am today
you will not say my name but you will feel my hair
the weight of it will hold down your chests
the weight of it will remind you that I’m free
the weight of it will remind you of your passive life
how you stood and watched me hang
how you turned your eyes away, from a nothing face
how you shut your ears to me, a nothing noise
you will look at me, sisters
you will hear me, sisters and brothers
you will see me for the first time
I may die as I leave but you will envy me
when you discover how they lied
about the cost of the freedom they promised
how we paid in wages of skin and sweat
alone we are nothing at all, not even names
we only exist in this strange forest cage
we are their trapped dreams delivering promise
we are their weapons of war against the machine
we are their fevered delusions squalling in poor light
you cannot follow me into the road
you cannot tell me I am nothing anymore
you cannot stop the machine of change

Note: these two poems constitute this evening’s notes for Baby Girl Six.  This is how I grab onto my fiction.  It is always poetry first.  It doesn’t matter if it’s good poetry or not.  We need not attach value to it.  I don’t, and I would appreciate it if you offered no critiques.  That’s not what this is about.  It serves to let me get to know a character in my own language.  A repetitive emotional shorthand.  Poetry isn’t something to “get” unless you get it.  It isn’t really a puzzle to be solved so much as it’s a script for longer thoughts, for longer stories.

When I was 23 years old I realized that poetry was my first language.  I’ve written a couple of good ones in my life but most of them are worthless to anyone but me.  Poetry is my mother tongue.  It is where I begin.  It is where I will end.  It infiltrates my prose, my most serious discussions about life and death.  You hear me most of the time as a translation from poetry to regular speech.  I think in poetry.  I smell in poetry.  I see in poetry.  I am constantly translating.  It is no wonder, then, that things go awry in my life.  Translation is not a perfect art.  If I want to write a novel I must first hear it in poetry.

Other trends emerge.  Patterns of thought connected tightly to music.   I cannot write without a soundtrack.

Tonight I learned another lesson: there are specific stories I have to tell.  All of my stories are guided by an internal switchboard directing what is revealed.  I have a beginning point that is necessary for me to tell stories from.  You don’t need to know this because it will become obvious to you over time.

Tonight it is Six I’m hearing.  Her story is becoming lucid.


  1. Karmyn R says:

    I love that you start with the poetry. It’s beautiful and haunting.

    Right now I am struggling with my creativity. I’m trying to write a story and when I think about it – the words are there in my head but for some reason they aren’t translating to my fingers. My main character is pacing the floor waiting for me to finish. I think he is getting angry and it isn’t helping. Maybe I need to find it in song for him first….

  2. Aimee says:

    I like this.

    I wish more people understood how worthless it is to try to unlock the meaning of other people’s poetry. (English teachers, especially.)

    Yours is beautiful.

  3. angelina says:

    Karmyn – I’m so sorry it’s taken me so long to respond! I know exactly what you’re talking about – how the story is right there – right up front and clear in your head but evaporates between your head and the page. You and I are on a similar journey – so I am not in a position to give any seasoned writer’s advice. I can only say that for me finding the right soundtrack really helps to unlock what’s trapped in my head. This doesn’t work for all writers. I’m learning that I have to relax to draw it out – the music helps me with that – but maybe other things would work for you if music doesn’t. If your own house is too quiet you might try writing in a cafe while the kiddos are in school? I’ve got a great couple of links for you that I found really inspiring and I’m planning to write my own post about this (it’s half written now) but I think you should have a look now:

    check those out when you get a chance. Just be patient with your own creative process!

    Aimee – I also wish more people would stop worrying about trying to “get” poetry because it makes people feel defensive – like if they don’t get exactly what the author means then they aren’t smart or artistic or cool or ? People need to know that it isn’t important what the poet meant but what it feels like, sounds like, and means to the listener.

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