Christine Rhein’s collection of poems, Wild Flight, is the 2008 winner of the Walt McDonald First Book Prize (Texas Tech University Press). Her work has appeared widely in literary journals including The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review, where she was awarded the 2006 Laurence Goldstein Poetry Prize. Christine’s poems have also been selected for the Best New Poets 2007 anthology, the Poetry Daily website, and The Writer’s Almanac. Christine has a degree in mechanical engineering from Kettering University and worked for fifteen years in the auto industry before becoming a stay-at-home mother and writer. She lives in Brighton, Michigan with her husband and two sons. For more information, please visit her website.
IMAGINING HER LETTER
a 78-year-old writes from New Orleans
Dear Mr. President of the Stearns and Foster Company,
I thank you for making a mattress that floats.
For eight days, I sailed around my bedroom in nothing
but underclothes. My muumuu, like everything, got soaked
that first day at breakfast—I’d eaten two spoonfuls of cereal—
when the water started flowing in. Five minutes later
it was five feet deep. All my furniture, including the bed
and mattress in the guest room, sank. Without
my Stearns and Foster (the extra firm model I only bought
last April), I would have sat all those days and nights
clinging to my ladder. Instead, I climbed the rungs
to a queen-sized island. Each morning, I had
a handful of raisins, a bite of cheese, and one estimated
glass of water I sipped slowly from the jug. The rest
of the time I didn’t let myself think about food, a trick
I remember trying when I was a girl and very poor.
But you see, at 17, I went north, worked for forty-two years
before moving back, filling a ten-room ranch—just me
and my stuff. I owned silk pajamas (never worn!),
two full-length mink coats, six TVs. I loved my TVs.
So I was surprised when I didn’t miss them, not once.
I just kept on floating, thinking about all kinds of things,
especially colors. I watched the pink paint on my walls
change to rose with the setting sun, my legs gleam
in the dawn, the water shining black or gray-green
or black again. Even the hours seemed tinted—mostly orange,
like the wings of a moth that came to visit one afternoon.
The prettiest, palest shade of orange I’ve ever seen.
Oh sure, sometimes I talked to myself: “Well, Louann,
now you look at that ceiling, the dust and cobweb
you didn’t sweep away.” My ceiling looked different
up close. I’d never noticed a tiny mark shaped almost
like a star. “Twinkle, twinkle,” I started singing, amazed
that my throat still knew how, that I could be older
than kind Miss Hawkins was, back when she taught me
that song. I wondered what happened to the other kids,
if Annie Jones and the slow boy, Tom, might somehow
be in the city yet, maybe floating on a mattress just like me.
I wasn’t scared, Sir. Just thought you’d like to know.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
A few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, I heard Louann Mims tell her story on the public radio show This American Life. Afterward, I found myself thinking of her whenever New Orleans was in the news. I listened to the interview again later that fall via the Internet. Near the end of the ten-minute segment, Ira Glass mentioned that Ms. Mims’ daughter planned to write a thank-you letter to the Stearns & Foster Company. I suddenly realized that I, too, could compose a letter—a letter-poem, that is.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Thanks to the great details Ms. Mims shared in the radio interview, most of this poem came together over a couple of days with much of my revising done line-by-line as I went along. After that initial rush, I struggled with the close of the poem, revisiting it every so often over a period of months. I was very satisfied with the last line, which remained unchanged, but not with the few lines preceding it.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I believe in inspiration and also curiosity. I was inspired by Ms. Mims’ fearless spirit, by the can-do way she set about waiting to be rescued, but it was curiosity that propelled me to delve deeper into her story. The first half of the poem was received—or “found”—through the facts of the interview. The hard work of discovery came in the second half, when I imagined where Ms. Mims’ thoughts might have wandered during those eight days alone. I sweated over the closing lines because I was trying to force a moment of epiphany into her thoughts. Eventually, I realized that small reminiscences and reflections felt “truer” to Ms. Mims and to the poignancy of her experience.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
The demarcation point in this poem is clear. Everything up to the six television sets that weren’t missed is fact, as relayed by Ms. Mims herself. She also mentioned that, during her ordeal, she had given much thought to redecorating her house and choosing new colors for the walls. Colors brought about a turning in the poem, where I veered into imagination, although I did “fact-check” the fictional moth, making sure orange specimens exist in Louisiana.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
This poem appeared in print for the first time in my book, Wild Flight.
Is this a narrative poem?
Yes, a narrative poem in which I hope I conveyed some of Ms. Mims’ storytelling talents.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Rather than an ideal reader, I tend to envision a skeptical one, someone who is testing every line and phrase for a reason to stop reading the poem. When I write, I strive to keep that skeptic glued to the page. Of course, it’s really me who wants to stay glued. Robert Frost’s quote—"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."—is not only true about emotion and discovery, but also, on the flipside, about boredom.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I belong to a terrific group of writers who have been meeting for over ten years now in an ongoing series of workshops led by poet Mary Jo Firth Gillett. We meet for three, six-week sessions a year. I greatly value the feedback and camaraderie of the group, as well as Mary Jo’s suggested writing starts and the motivation that a weekly deadline brings.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
When I wrote this poem, I had written only a couple of other persona poems. Lately, I’ve written several more. There is a wonderful freedom in pretending to be someone else, in imagining experiences and perspectives quite different from my own—or at least, they feel that way at first. It’s interesting, how looking through the lens of someone else can lead to seeing something new in myself.
What is American about this poem?
Well, the tragedy of Katrina feels all too American. And although Ms. Mims achieved a great deal in her life through education and a career in nursing, she also had to navigate what she called “a white world and a black world” in the process. Still, this poem isn’t meant to be political in the usual sense (barring the “Dear Mr. President” opening). Perhaps this poem is American in its attempt to honor one individual’s strength and optimism. When asked if she was frightened during the flooding, Ms. Mims answered, “Not really... I was just thinking of all practical things.”
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Finished (or so I like to believe).