“Young women, be wary of windows
as you sit shuttling needle through a full
white moon of cloth. …”
So opens the poem “The Fall” in a new collection of poetry by Longmont writer Lucy Simpson, Matchstick & Bramble. Simpson writes about windows because they are commonplace in her dreams, where she imagines they symbolize the isolation of looking out and then passing through, like the transition from sleep to the waking state. The glass pane is a see-through barrier, showing what is beyond and yet standing in between, impassable.
If eyes are the window to the soul, the role of the window is the lens through which one both sees and is perceived.
Her poetry is built on elements of fairy tale intermingled with the commonplace and domestic. After all, Simpson says, reality exists somewhere in between.
We tend to underplay the role of stories in our lives, as if they exist merely to entertain, when they are actually meant to connect, guide and instruct. By necessity we live at the edge of history, on the cusp of what is and what cannot be known.
Simpson’s poetry describes how women are shaped in this world. The result is an intimate and characteristically feminine tone touching on fertility, intuition and women’s history of abuse and oppression.
“… The light through the lattice
falling as rain is not the light.
It deceives — It will take you —
Rapture — nine months later
a baby comes.
You will find yourself on the sea
in a chest locked fast by your father’s hand. …”
One of Simpson’s inspirations was the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. The Manhattan factory mostly employed immigrant woman who worked nine hours a day on weekdays and seven hours each Saturday. Considered one of the deadliest industrial disasters, the fire was responsible for the deaths of 123 women and 23 men, victims of the fire itself or from leaping out of the burning building.
“It’s what happens to women all throughout our society and in different societies around the world — women are abused or mistreated,” Simpson says of her poem “The Fall.” “This was sort of an angry poem because it’s still going on. Every time I read the news I hear about it.”
While she reacts to the persistent assault against women, Simpson isn’t just writing about abuse. Her poetry contains violent qualities of femininity itself — the penetration of sex, the pain of childbirth, the cage that is a woman’s place in the world. Inherent in women’s experience is a familiarity with the transmutation of the lovely into grotesque.
“… You may be seen at a window, a small oval
blur, enticing still a lust-mad monkey
to shimmy hand over fist up your hair’s rope
as a sailor to a crow’s nest.
He will crack you like a coconut; drink you dry
The fall is a long way down. …”
Throughout Matchstick & Bramble, Simpson frequently employs imagery from the Bible, but she is not religious. Rather, she says, she sees the Bible as fable, a part of the human tradition of epic story. She invokes Adam and Eve’s fall from Eden as a fairy tale.
“[Those original fairy tales are] related to our sense of loss, our sense of longing,” Simpson says. “Children love what is unusual and what is dark. They get interested and they start thinking about things — how they relate to their own lives and their own little losses, preparing them to become fully functioning adults in society. The old fairy tales had something right.”
“… You may draw back the curtains for a breeze
allowing an angel to enter, who will pierce
a hole in you, plant God’s seed.
You will lose who you love
The fire that was God
will have filled you with ashes
like a crematorium. …”
In their original form, fairy tales were not clean, politically correct or sanitary. They were dark, grim and oftentimes frightening in their brutal embrace of violence, perversity and death. Simpson does not see the dark as frightening or a wound as weakness. She seems to understand that horrors don’t disappear and should not be hidden and that it is despair which connects humanity, shifting to joy as it dissolves into something much larger than one woman’s pain.
She explains writing as wordplay in which every word counts on its own terms, only to lose itself in the music and rhythm of how the words sound together. She likens the process of writing to living. One by one our stories are admission of pain, but together they sing with beauty.
“… You may try wearing your curtains, closed
but the swish of your robes, your toes, could also
be provocation and your soft shell will be broken,
your meat plucked and chewed.
You will be blamed for this.
Men will build a monument of stones over you,
or you may simply turn to a pillar of salt …”
In admitting the inevitability of loss, Simpson finds the real located in symbolism of the domestic and everyday — in table salt and windows and cloth. Her poems may be fantastical, but they find their footing in a total lack of abstraction. They touch on a moment of grace that embraces the ceremony of story that connects us to the world.
“The Fall” becomes nothing more than a new beginning, a dissolution into what comes next, a leap of faith in which both death and the unknown are accepted parts of living. Stories can bind us as they describe our place in the world, acting as tools to pass on social positioning, but they can also free us as we tell them, admitting the chains that bind us can be broken.
“… Beware windows, of jumping out of them,
a fire screaming at your back.
Choose the widest window
Reach a hand to your sister;
cross the threshold,
falling as a bride in white muslin.”