Jennifer Finstrom and Elizabeth Kerper
In this collaboration between poets Jennifer Finstrom and Elizabeth Kerper, Jennifer confides in literary figures about her divorce, and Elizabeth writes poems about female characters who are not the protagonist of a literary work. In the last two poems paired here, they write about each other. The poems are part of a chapbook manuscript called The Charm Winds Up. You’ll find the delightfully “weird” title poem below, as well as links to other divorce poems here at Escape Into Life!
I Confide in Jo March about My Divorce
“Nothing more, except that I don’t believe I shall ever marry. I’m happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in any hurry to give it up for any mortal man.” —Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
We begin by sitting together on the three-legged sofa
with a bowl of shiny apples and a parade of books
on the floor by our feet. Meg is calling up the stairs,
but we ignore her until she goes away. Jo eats her first
apple quickly and tucks the core out of sight in the pocket
of her skirt. I use a knife to slice off narrow bits of crisp
flesh, balancing the fruit awkwardly on my knee.
I recognize her lifted eyebrow as scorn, but I
don’t mind. She is still a young girl who doesn’t
care that she will say both no and yes to love,
doesn’t care that sometimes we say yes because
there isn’t a compelling enough reason not to.
I tell her how difficult I have always found it
to leave people and situations, that unless forced
out the door, I might still have all of my jobs,
might still be dating all of my boyfriends.
I think how lucky I am that so few of my looming
pasts are real, that I can move forward through
the maze and just keep going. All of Jo’s choices
still wait for her, and I don’t reveal what I know
of her two men, though I could quote her dismissal
of one word for word. “Use your teeth,” she suddenly
advises, and I know she isn’t talking about the apple.
An Apology to Beth March
There are many Beths in the world… —Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
There is a world where Beth March is a politician,
the first woman elected to the Massachusetts legislature,
and there is a world where she is a concert pianist
who tours in every state and most of the territories
and Europe. There is a world where Beth March
has three lovers at once and a world where she has four
and a world where she has none, ever, and good luck to the man
who tries to change that. In one world Beth March is jeweler,
and in one a librarian, and in one world she is a low-level art forger
and she is never caught. Beth March is a bootlegger,
Beth March is a suffragette, she takes Daisy along to rallies,
tells her to run when the cops come to break them up
but Beth March doesn’t run. Beth March spends the night
in jail. There is a world where Beth March is a mason,
where she is a midwife, a botanist, a teacher, an actor,
a mother, all of these things at once, or none of them,
something else, something more. There is a world
where everything is the same, where Beth March is quiet
and good and dying but where she is also fucking angry
about it, where she writes furious rants in a journal
she makes Jo promise to burn, where she doesn’t trust Jo
to burn it so she feeds it to the fire herself, page by page
slipped through the garret grate while her fingers are still steady
enough. There is a world where Beth March dies and that is the end
of the story and there is a world where the story ends but Beth
I Confide in Lady Macbeth about My Divorce
The love that follows us sometime is our trouble.—William Shakespeare, Macbeth
In my first poetry workshop, I wrote an acrostic
that spelled “murder.” I tell her this, hoping she’ll
see I’ve changed, that my acrostics now would spell
“tulip,” “hyacinth,” “daffodil,” show the reader rooms
alight with blossom. But she misses my point.
“Look like th’ innocent flower,” she advises,
“but be the serpent under’t.” And even though
she clearly misunderstands, I know just what
she means. She might have told me instead
that all poems glove their meaning, that murder
is constant, perpetual, the hinge of all I write.
The Charm Winds Up
When shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning, or in rain? —William Shakespeare, Macbeth
For Kerry and Laura
The Weird Sisters transfer into fifth grade in April
and everyone knows that if they become friends
with anyone it will be with us. We are the girls
on the old jungle gym at recess, hanging sloth-like
from the unpainted parallel bars, wood chips in our hair,
splinters pricking our knees and thumbs, or clutched
together in the roots and dirt of the spindly little maple
behind the new playground where everyone else runs
and shrieks, both ignored and ignoring. We are weird girls
but they are the Weird Sisters and they could teach us a trick
or two. We size each other up in the middle of the empty
basketball blacktop, unrelated sisters facing unidentical
triplets, still dressed in uniforms from their old school.
One has a pocket full of burrs, another an earthworm
like a ring around her finger, the third a Magic Marker sigil
tattooed on her forearm. Everything we wear is a size
too big or an inch too short and picked out by our mothers.
We have always known that some things are fated
but not until now have we felt fate settle, the upside-down throb.
The Weird Sisters, hand in hand, stand with the knowledge
of what we will become, and other things too: the ugliness
of our cursive, every library book borrowed more than twice.
The chasing game we play, how it ends in nails and blood.
Speak, they say. Demand. We’ll answer. But we ask only
if they can climb chain link fence, if they have yet
been warned about the soccer field and the sixth grade boys.
We know the year will end soon, that there is risk
in taking favors or prophesy when some of us, surely,
must be destined wayward girls who will not return in the fall.
I Confide in Ellen Olenska about my Divorce
“We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we?” —Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
We sit in an empty playground at twilight.
She rocks herself back and forth on a wooden
swing. I am perched on one of those animals
on springs, a frog with a wide red mouth. I pat
its head as I tell Ellen all of the particulars.
She listens and nods, taking her hands in
and out of the small white muff that she carries,
perfect dark curls escaping from her hood.
And even though my ex-husband isn’t
a dissolute Polish nobleman, she clearly
understands. I can tell she thinks that I’m lucky
I came away with most of the books and
a few pieces of furniture, that I didn’t have
to flee in the night with his admiring secretary.
I point up to the third-floor apartment that
we can see from where we sit. “That room was
where I wrote,” I tell her. “The walls were blue.”
And I can see her face change when she realizes
the similarities between how we sit here
in the curtaining darkness and how Newland
Archer sat and waited for his son at the end
of Wharton’s novel. We talk more carefully now
about art and opera and the latest fashions.
I rock back and forth on my cold frog, admire
the velvet cloak that she wears, how it is a blue
that is almost black. Soon, all that’s visible
is the muted glow of a room behind a window
and the scrap of white fur hiding Ellen’s hands.
Mrs. Manson Mingott Tells Me To Get Over Him
He knew, of course, that whatever man dared (within Fifth Avenue’s limits) that old Mrs. Manson Mingott would dare.—Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
She calls to me from the porch of one of the big old greystones
on Logan Boulevard, says You, girl, and I recognize her
immediately, though I have never married a count, though this
is not New York. You, girl, she says again, beckoning me up the
stoop with an imperious twist of her hands, rings
on every finger of the right, the left bare. The sky above us
promises a storm it will not keep. I am four months deep
in my second year living alone. I realize now, studying
the bulk of her in her cane-back rocker, that I have seen her
before: across a dim bar where I sipped one glass of Coke
for an hour, hoping for a conversation but not starting one,
in Humboldt Park past midnight when I lingered too late
at his backyard party and had to walk the halted bus route home.
Mrs. Manson Mingott doesn’t want to know his name.
Mrs. Manson Mingott lost patience with my bullshit months ago.
Now we are face to face, chrysanthemums in terra cotta pots
around her feet like a garish Victorian carpet come to life,
and I think I have seen her, too, behind my reflection in bus shelters
and 7-Eleven windows, in the moments when it perfectly aligns
with the vision of myself I carry in my head. You girl, she says, listen.
You are a house built above 34th street. So is he. So is everyone.
You built there on purpose. So does everyone. We can none of us live
beyond the border of the inaccessible wilderness of ourselves.
I say, what about Ellen? What about Archer, what about you?
She twists the tiny sapphire ring on her pinky, says, My girl,
if a lover had been what I wanted, I would have had him too.
I Confide in Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler about My Divorce
Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not just be running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. —E. L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
and tell her my biggest problem with the Met
is those two gigantic fountains on either side of the steps.
I can talk about my twenty-year relationship without
difficulty but can barely get the words out about those fountains.
I have a phobia, I explain, an irrational fear, and if the Met
hadn’t been the one place I knew I had to see when I was
in New York in the fall of 2017, I might not have ever
made it inside. Imagine walking forty-five blocks
from Penn Station only to be confronted with Scylla
and Charybdis, one on either side of the path you must take.
I tell her how I’d flung my cape up over my head and dashed
between those whirling monsters. Once inside, I didn’t
know how I would ever get out. This might be a metaphor
for that long relationship, though unlike the Met,
it was easy enough to get into. When you’re that young,
you don’t realize that trapping yourself can happen so fast,
that once you turn to stone, there’s no returning to flesh.
I was lucky to escape both times. At the Met, I saw
as much art as I could, Madame X, The Judgment of Paris,
Washington Crossing the Delaware, before fatigue and hunger
drove me back downstairs where I paced the entrance,
petitioned the statue of Athena to make me both brave
and wise and then, without looking to either side,
fled out the doors into the water-dashed sun.
Two Visits from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
I keep telling you that often the search proves more profitable than the goal. Keep that in mind when you’re looking for something in my files. —E. L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
We meet in the children’s section of the Decatur Public Library
when I am ten years old, in the Rs, just as I add The Westing Game
to my summer reading armload. I recognize her by her frayed
white hair and long thin nose, her upright posture, the way
she seems to know the secrets of every book on the shelves.
She asks me where I’d run away to, if I could go anywhere
at all, and I want to name somewhere impressive, wild,
but all the places I can think of are borrowed from the pages
around us, and in the end I tell her the truth—that even given
anywhere, if I had to run, I would find my way here. She nods once,.
serious. I cannot tell if she is disappointed in my answer.
I visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time on the day
before the 2017 Women’s March, in the five-hour gap between my flight
to New York and the Greyhound bus to Baltimore. Afterward,
Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler follows me to Port Authority, sits next to me
in the chain of conjoined waiting room chairs. Has your answer changed?
she asks, and I tell her that all day everyone around me has seemed
on the verge of escape, that even the museum’s painted figures
might be ready to spring from their canvases and never come back.
I tell her that now I might not have an answer at all. Is that bad? I ask
and this time she smiles. Sometimes, she says, the story is not about you
even when you are the one telling it. When the bus arrives, she does not board.
I Confide in Elizabeth Kerper about My Divorce
We’re suddenly alone in Birnam Wood,
the remains of a spell abandoned among the trees:
tipped cauldron, twisted roots of unknown
plants, a scattering of grain that will not grow.
Other things as well: broken mirror, plucked
feathers, torn book, black fur caught on branches.
We step around it all and listen for voices, but
the forest is still, its witches gone, waiting
and quiet as I tell her how I once wrote a poem
about the Thorne Miniature Rooms, sixty-eight
interiors commissioned between 1932 and 1940
by Mrs. James Ward Thorne of Chicago. And if
only one of those sixty-eight could be my world,
the tiny furnishings all that I would ever own,
I know my choice would be the French Salon
of the Louis XIV Period for the perfect white lilies
that rise from a gold vase in the center of the room.
My long ago poem described how empty those
drawing rooms and bedchambers were despite
chandeliers, sconces, portraits, and statues,
cited the difficulty in making a miniature human
believable. I used to find that sad, imagined small
people in the wings, waiting for the cue to take up
their lives when no longer observed. But now I know
that none of that is true—or all of it is—and don’t
know how to tell if we’ve stopped walking and
it’s the wood that moves or if we’re continuing
forward into the story, the wood remaining still.
A Poem in Which Jennifer Finstrom Is Not the Protagonist
Protagonists can be overrated. This is something
I believe Jen knows. We have read so many of the same
books, so many of each other’s poems—how could
she not know the particular power of the marginal,
the secondary? How could she not know that a margin
is just another word for space, space just another word
for choice, for how we unfurl in the edges of the lives
of others—party guest, confidant, waitress, witch,
sister, professor, fairy godmother. Maiden and mother
and crone. Meanwhile in our own lives, we have no choice
but to be the protagonist, to drive the story forward,
see it through to the end, even when we wish
for diverging plotlines, chapters spent with some
other character, the chance to adventure unobserved
and return to tell about it, or to never tell, or to never return.
Jennifer Finstrom is an adjunct instructor at DePaul University in the Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse Department and is also the Outreach Coordinator at the DePaul’s University Center for Writing-based Learning. She was the poetry editor of Eclectica Magazine for thirteen years, and recent publications include Escape Into Life and Mockingheart Review. Her work also appears in Silver Birch Press’s Ides: A Collection of Poetry Chapbooks.
Elizabeth Kerper lives in Chicago. Her work has appeared in the Nancy Drew Anthology from Silver Birch Press, as well as in Eclectica, NEAT, Midwestern Gothic, and No Assholes Literary Magazine, where she is an associate editor.