Therése Halscheid’s poetry collection Frozen Latitudes has just been released by Press 53. Previous collections are Uncommon Geography, Without Home and Powertalk. She received a Greatest Hits chapbook award by Pudding House Publications. Her poetry and essays have appeared in such magazines as The Gettysburg Review, Tampa Review, Sou’wester, Natural Bridge. She is an itinerant writer by way of house-sitting. Her photography has appeared in juried shows and chronicles her nomadic lifestyle. She visits schools, and has taught in unusual locales such as an Eskimo village in northern Alaska, and the Ural Mountains of Russia.
Into the Iceberg
Hemingway said writers could leave things out of their tales. He felt the part omitted goes under the surface, yet buoys what gets on the page. And that which is submerged is massive compared to what is actually written. Like an iceberg, he said, seven-eighths remains below the water. Hemingway gave his idea over to this particular image – that of a berg – and so it is by that word his theory is known.
What Hemingway said of the nature of stories is also true of a poem: its small body can hold an undisclosed tale and that this tale underneath can be much larger than the poem itself. I would even venture to say while readers navigate a poem’s message – as their eyes are working across, wrapping to the next line, continuing – they are also reading down into it sensing hidden material through their own invisible minds. More so with a poem than in stories, I would have said to Hemingway if I could have met him. Because, and this is my understanding, a poem relies upon its few words to mean much more than the words themselves.
And this talk of the poems made me question the under-stories in my own work. It had me hunt for one that held within its spare construct, something concealed. Say, an awful secret that I did not want to make obvious. And the search led to an early collection with a poem important to me, but also seemingly insignificant in that it looked so small on the page, stark there, against all the whiteness.
Still I revisited the piece, first reading the words that were buoyant like the tip of an iceberg, then the whole poem again just to delve. To call forth the larger story I did not dare write:
i was too thin
to ride my bicycle
i repeated sounds
in my name
as one moving wheel
Going then, down under its first few lines, I find that very girl who is too thin to ride. She is hiding there looking the same as she seems on the page. Even beneath the poem she is struggling with her bike. I know her as the tragic part of my past. Know too, the short poem is a long story – that grows always down never out in the open, like an ice mountain that must only exist under the cold swells of the sea. This too thin girl who, at age fifteen, is actually dying. The poem holds her life but lacks so many words of her. And she is so silenced she can only give her life to these little words, to hold.
I leave her for a moment. Lift my eyes, over to where they can cast themselves upon another word. I choose bicycle. Enter it – again seeking that very same girl. See that day in late May, when a soft wind touched the thin of her arms, her spindly legs – so that her limbs began to move with a certain ambition. Up, out of bed, walking about in the attic bedroom past the window where this wind blew through. She had been awfully cold until this warm-scented air made her think of wanting to ride, wanting to dress like everyone else, be out in the light of the lemon sun, its many rays. So that instead of layering clothes – thermal wear, thick sweaters, socks and woolen slacks – she dressed in a long-sleeve cotton shirt that fell loosely over a lighter pair of pants. And it was just like her to let the shirt hang like it was oversized, instead of tucking it in. For, in truth, she was hiding the pins that held up her pants. She hid a lot that year. It was strange, in fact, how many times she escaped eating or disguised she was pinning her clothes. I stare into her, as if going back to someone I want to avoid but also need to recover. I know her mind but do not get too far into her thoughts. I cannot see through just as she cannot think clearly. Just as she is thinning while still carrying an intense need to lose weight. Despite these visible signs – her clothes falling off, and the pins, the belt she keeps poking to make new holes, the lack of food – there is also the secret she has kept with death, to remove her life.
I was too thin
On her face a look of sureness appears she has not worn in months. And I enter that certainty – into the next scene where she exits the door to the back of the house, to the shed for the bike she led to the street. And straddles the seat and ignores how it hurts. I watch that girl knowing she is my child-self. That I was once her when she was all bones: her bottom, her back, the shoulder blades that jut out like that of a caught bird’s, whose wings have been stripped of feathers, the entire body plucked and bound. The papery flesh down to one translucent layer.
How far I have gone inside the word bicycle to rediscover her. My eyes deeply searching, as if peering into one of Hemingway’s icebergs where her story is frozen, locked in its clearness, caught. As if that part of her life will stay always under water. But also to note in the scene what spring has thawed, the breeze which came, and how everything in this story in late May had grown increasingly warm, so that she is in the street tilting the bike, leaning forward, gripping the handle bars. Her feet ready to push off as if the wheels would soon turn her life alive.
No. I did not put all these details of her on top of the paper, nor place them in any poem, nor have I ever mentioned this very moment out loud. Instead, I just allow the small poem I have written to wear its essence. I allow the reader to sense the fact that she did set off to peddle despite the odds, thinking she could do it, not questioning her health, nor fully realizing how frail, just wanting to go around the block. To let myself go, she thought, and have the bike take her away. To become separate from the cold and suddenly in sun. Except, it never happened. The bike toppled. She couldn’t hold on. And I had to go after her, plunge through the poem, frantically down through its lines – to where she had fallen in the street and lay flat and still. Like tracking an iceberg, I reach a depth where no rescue diver can stay long nor want to try. And she is there, ashamed in the street wearing embarrassment. I want to hold her, hold onto her. For I am that girl but also am no longer herself. I am there, to lift her up into actual life, float her to the surface and expose her whole story to you.
Of the Iceberg Theory, he also said not to fudge. Hemingway, he said if you do not know something about your subject, don’t think you can simply omit that part. Likewise, do not try to speak of something you do not know. Because readers pick up on that too, he felt. They would know the writer was insincere on some level and it would show up as a hole in the story. Like a hole in the tip of a berg – a reader would see through the opening, an obvious sky.
And I looked once more at my poem and noticed I never used the word Anorexia. Thinking of holes in stories – other, various kinds – it would have destroyed the life my poem tried to capture had I taken a clinical approach. Even the sound of it strange, for the poem moves through the lyrical workings of the heart and not by way of a label. That word, Anorexia, it would have been my hole. And because I cannot allow myself to be used as a medical term, readers would sense the writer’s awkwardness. If used, they would intuit the language was forced on some level and the poem would start working against itself, forfeit its own truth that something was eating at her instead of her not eating. That too thin girl, she would be diagnosed. The reader would then focus upon her body much like the attention paid to a superficial wound. Or say, if the poem talked medically throughout, it would be riddled with holes by way of defining her as a condition. Expand her suffering into something narrowly construed – and I would have spent long hours trying to fit her into those words.
Just like all the fishing jargon that wasn’t necessary for The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway said it himself that his novelette could actually have been a full-blown novel if he had included all he knew of fishing, and then had the old man doing all those things. I believe he was attentive enough to his character to omit the very terminology that would have put holes in the boat, sunk the old man.
And outside the world of my poem or a Hemingway story, the same applies. To the girls, or any other body who has been stared at, mocked, and then called Anorexic, they should think beyond those hurtful influences. Those who have been joked about, who bear the words that weaken them more – they should turn their attention from this talk, and know the problem they have is more than their physical self. It is even true of icebergs that name-calling occurs by way of their visible tips: the rounded dome, the pinnacle, the wedge or dry-dock, the blocky – are shapes that shape our attention so that we seem always to know of a thing by the way it looks, the surface when, really, there is so much underneath that holds the real appearance.
No. Strange as it may seem Anorexia is not what I had. What I had was the loss of a father. That is it. My father, who had undergone heart surgery with the outcome – a damaged brain. Who returned home with behaviors so shocking, so strange, foreign to me that my own reasoning was soon gone and my body housed only his dementia, became so full of the father I could not ingest anything else. I could not eat because of the loss and not from a lack of food. Like an iceberg lurking beneath the water, overtaking an important area of sea, not once letting up or melting down; like a disguised danger capable of felling an unsinkable ship – was my father, his dementia immense, consuming me. To where I refused to eat and the end was sure. Yes. This is what I had.
i repeated sounds
in my name
Concerning magic words, I think their magical properties arise in direct proportion to an opposite event. Just as some say we learn of light from knowing the dark. A statement Hemingway would agree with because at the core of his characters was this awareness, was nada, nothingness, as he said, which pushes life to the surface. He seemed to create scenes which held to this belief: the precarious position of the bullfighter standing before the bull for example, or characters on safari who wind up capturing their own fear of death. He invented people who were present to whatever challenges or feats he gave to them, characters who knew their own mortality, which propelled them to live fully in books. At the root of his theory it was death that determined the quality of their existence. And too, in many ways, Hemingway was like a poet. Like the poet, he sensed how to transfer the mystery of the extremes, say, of death aiding life, by using a style that was spare; crafting so that out of the simplistic came something profound. In this way he gained mastery over the complexities of the human condition, creating through fiction timeless accounts.
Looking back, to my young self again, that too thin girl – she was deep in her shadow, in a state of mind from which she could not rise. She was too thin to worry. A conflict Hemingway would not have used, but understood. A frail girl falling off her bike onto the asphalt and there death was, just waiting. Sly, like dark film finely spread over the street. Like warm tar that she would stick to when her face touched. And that was the main death really. Her very life was denied, the ride suddenly over with the same verve that whisked her outdoors in the first place. That May morning of sun and a breeze tempting her out to try something she used to easily do. It would have returned the dignity she lost had she been able to do this one thing and now this, not even possible. No. It was better to lie still, pull over her the feelings of cold. And not care if a car came or if her mother came softly asking her back to the house. She would just say no. If her mother found her there and began to coax her back in the best way she could, helping her up, please into the house to eat, to please sit with her food, into the kitchen please where her father was. If she did, she would have to remain with him in the kitchen, facing his strangeness. Again that distorted look of his far-away eyes. And that room was death, too. Of the two deaths at hand, there was only one girl to decide which one to take.
It could have been the meek heart that started it, or the hidden soul, or the invisible mind – but a feeling welled from within and one of the three gave voice to it. One of the three spoke a word in the hollow of her body and it moved through a sad labyrinth where sounds barely escape, yet did it travel up to the cold opening of her mouth – that small cave no sun could enter. One word, and it rose in a voice both remote and familiar. And the moment was life giving in this way, in the way a single word could persist. Enough to empower. Enough that it gave of its strength and was felt, that she might consider lifting the bike slowly off. When it spoke, the word became her. It became herself saying her given name – sound of the self that was her very own. As if its tone could speak her back into the world knowing there was a word for her; she was the definition. Word that meant something as it lifted out of her mouth, out of her silence and into the air. Like a mantra whose sound continues long after its utterance, whose vibration ripples outward and circles back to transform. One’s name and nothing more would be needed. Enough to free herself from the weight of the tires, push the front wheel off and watch it spin alive – like a planet that had cycled off course and was now in reentry, yes, revolving once more to encircle the lemon sun. And then it all began to move, the spokes turned as one moving wheel:
as one moving wheel
And the girl began peeling the bike off while saying her name out loud. With all the sureness she could muster, her body lifting, rising. By the curb saying the sound of herself. Aloud to the air that transferred it back into her. Air that she breathed in and listened to, until she was upright looking around. As if everything she saw was a magic word…. Until this language of life came at her. It started to return.