Jill Alexander Essbaum (2003)
For my part, the metal of poetry is forged not in the white-hot flame of inspiration, but rather in the sulky, smoldering that is the crafting of the poem, the pains taken on behalf of the poem's every detail, a task which endures long after the initial fires have burned themselves to ash. To be sure, there's no True Art that the Muse isn't there in its creation. But while God may have breathed life into Adam, it was up to Adam alone to name the animals. So my year as an NEA fellow has been spent Ònaming the animalsÓ so to speak, living and working with the brooding satisfaction of an English Romantic and the keep-to-the-task mindedness of an East German prison matron. Such a gift, this time to write and to be. And yet, I dare not waste a second of it.
I have spent my fellowship year writing scads of fresh poems, revising a collection of poetry and finishing a book of sonnets. I also (god help me) wrote a draft of a novel. I traveled to Scotland where, in a 5000 year old burial tomb, a ghost laid his hand upon the juncture of my neck and my right shoulder (poem forthcoming). What the NEA has gifted me is more than money, which, in itself, would have been plenty. These funds not only offered me the time to write, they offered me a portion of confidence and affirmation that I'd always dreamed of but never dared hope for. Let my gratitude precede me; this was a very good year.
The things they don't tell you about heaven
Apples still taste like apples. Funny thing,
serpents taste like apples too, and kisses
and bread. In fact, it is all about apples,
this place. Everything you touch is smooth and red.
Your skin is comfortably heavy on your bones,
like that sleepy moment between being awake and falling
into a dream. The moon is a pendulum clock,
and light from the sun comes down in drops, as rain. And,
as any child will tell you, what we call rain is really tears,
the soul of God weeping over something great or small,
as anything with a soul will do from time to time.
Mostly, it is the apples, and a longing kind of sad.
They are firm as musculature. They smell like the flesh
and juice of unrequited love.
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Texas born, bred and educated (the universities of Houston and Texas both), Jill Alexander Essbaum was mid-way through her studies at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest when her collection of poetry Heaven won the 1999 Bakeless prize and was published by University Press of New England the following year. In addition, her poems have appeared in journals both national and local including The Christian Century, Sojourners, Image, The Texas Observer, Artful Dodge, and Borderlands. Her current projects include the peddling of her second full collection of poems (Necropolis), a chapbook of sonnets forthcoming from Pecan Grove Press (Oh Forbidden), and a new as-yet-untitled batch of poems in the works. Presently Jill is an instructor of English at Concordia University in Austin, where she lives with her husband and her cats.