I was a Gender Studies major in college, and I’m a person who, generally, just cares. It’s difficult for me, as an assistant editor on the MAR staff, to pass up a poem that speaks to something bigger and manages to remain artistic. Any of us can say an alarming amount of women are murdered each year—each day—but few people can say that in a way that’s different. Thankfully, “Lesson,” by Christina Duhig, does just that.
A poem like “Lesson” is hard to read. It deals with what every girl who makes it to womanhood deals with: the violence she knows is happening around her, and the violence she is unable to fully escape. “Lesson” speaks to the author’s first time grappling with this knowledge—a young girl trying to imagine the details of a murder and how this experience impacts her future.
All young women have the moment they realize they need to worry about something more than most of their male friends. The “don’t go out alone” discussion, the “take a friend to the bathroom” discussion. The moment they watch a newscaster talking about a woman who has been assaulted or killed or both. Duhig brings awareness to that in a way that hurts. Because it needs to.
When I first read “Lesson,” that hurt sneaked up on me. Duhig uses short, clipped sentences and powerful, controlled diction to put the reader exactly where she needs them to be—in the moment, on those train tracks, in the flames. Duhig forces readers to live these moments in time with her nine-year-old self, forces them to look at the dental records the way she looked at them, to “learn to see the body beneath the body.”
Duhig’s “Lesson” is such an important addition to Mid-American Review. A poem that reminds us what we don’t want to be reminded about, a poem that forces us to remember the moment we understood.
Do you have a writing ritual of any sort? Tell us about it.
I need a stack of poetry books, an iced coffee, and— about an hour into the effort— I usually need a cookie. Substitute iced coffee for Diet Coke, a cookie for a sleeve of saltines, books for different books. The caffeine helps with focus. The food soothes desperation. The books, of course, unlock the head- space.
Has your idea of what makes a poem a “poem” changed since you began writing?
My aesthetics and the aesthetics I appreciate in a poem have certainly evolved over the years. I’ve come to embrace a short and succinct title, the kind that seemed “too easy” when I was younger. (I was no good at writing those long, delightfully clever titles anyway.) I shy away now from abrasive language, which appealed to me as I was figuring out my feminist politics. What hasn’t changed is my desire for sincerity and the sense of urgency I feel as both reader and writer when piecing together meaning. I love the lines in Marianne Moore’s “The Steeple Jack:” “it is a privilege to see so/ much confusion. Disguised by what/ might seem the opposite.” I’m drawn to well-ordered confusion in a poem—the way the poem’s order shifts as it moves down the page.
What is your biggest writing-related success, other than a publication?
Cue the list of writing-related successes I wish I’d experienced by now. I’ve written a number of poems that attempt to confront the traumas that women I care about have endured. Each of those poems— poems that feel “finished” and honest—are my best “writing-related success” because they are my best effort to confront violence and support women, in writing. “Lesson” is one of those poems. Though I never met the woman that poem is about, her story—as I heard it on the news when I was nine years old—was the first of many I’ll never forget.
What was the most useful feedback you received for “Lesson” that helped it evolve into the poem it is?
In “Lesson’s” early drafts the last three lines—a couplet and a final one-line stanza—were clunky and vague. I think I knew the couplet in particular was off, but I didn’t know how to fix it until a friend suggested that it wasn’t scary enough, that the poem had to hurt more. She was right.
A few years later, satisfied with the revised couplet, another friend suggested that the last line—“girl, fire, track, man”—move into the body of the poem. I resisted at first. I loved the last line. I felt power in the line, and I wanted that power. But, together, we moved the line, and the second line of revised couplet became the last line of the poem. She was right, too. The poem had to hurt.
Do you ever feel you are unable to write out of fear?
Without this sounding like a therapy session, I am almost three years out of a terrible run involving deaths in my family, a breakup, bed bugs, panic attacks and parallel anti-depressants (my first!), adjunct exhaustion, and my escape (rescue) from Brooklyn. I’m convinced the poems that will ultimately result from all of this will finish my book, but I’ve also realized that I have a habit of avoiding the place where the poems are scariest, where they should hurt most. And I just have no interest in fear and hurt right now.
“Lesson” has a very distinct message concerning violence against women, and how women learn about this violence. What were some techniques that you used to help tackle such a loaded subject?
I tried for years to write a poem about her death, and in doing so I tried any number of times to find out more information about her. One of those times, I entered the right search terms, and the news was right there. I was stunned by how many of the details I remembered, and stunned again by the details I either never heard or forgot. In particular, that he “started a fire with gasoline.” At nine, when I heard “she was burned,” my little self imagined matches or a lighter held to her skin. And that’s one of the images—even as an adult—that stayed with me. Realizing, finally, the disconnect between how he actually set her on fire and my attempt at nine years old to understand how she was burned, the poem wrote itself.
So, time? Recollection? Detail?
I also can’t tell you how grateful I was to learn her name.