Bitter Memories — A Study in Revision

I don’t usually reveal my rewrite process, but I decided to show both the original poem and the rewrite here. I wrote this poem back in 1995 while a student at Hollins College (now Hollins University). It sat, virtually untouched for two decades. First I will show the original edition, followed by a brief explanation of my rewrite process, and then finally I will show the revised edition. I hope you enjoy my process. Please let me know what you think of both the original and the rewrite.

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Bitter Memories

Withered hands busily knit the sweater that will enfold him ~
sheep’s clothing ~ traps skin against wool against bitter cold.
Outside, the children build Frosty, three layers tall,
each mound proportioned slightly smaller; coal for eyes,
the last fuel for baking – she’ll chop wood before bedtime,
cool steel, wooden slivers; a huge carrot resembles
Aunt Bertie’s nose: angled and bent ~Irish Descent;
buttons from Granny’s tea tin imitate a crooked smile;
Pa’s pipe stabs the corner – corn husk from last season’s crop.
She lays aside the yarn and needles, pulls the lace from the window ~
spider webs ~ and recalls her own childhood: cold memories,
winters that engulfed her and five siblings ~ caged animals ~
Breeches of burlap sacks, cardboard soles, bundled rages for mittens.
They too built snow people, entire families, as frozen as their own –
Coal, carrots, and buttons, too sparse ~ blank faces.
She wipes the window with her apron, ancient coal dust ~ defiled virginity.
She looks beyond snow caps, a white sea of trees, smoke stacks ~ village ghosts.
She envisions the cities beyond, blinding glitter, her childhood dream ~
swan’s dance: silk and taffeta, twirls of red and blue ~ winter’s cold breath.
She returns the webs, unties her apron, washes away the blemishes ~ dullness.
©1995, Lori Carlson

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I’ve always loved the concept of this poem. A woman, living an embittered life because of choices beyond her control. When I first wrote this poem, I was doing a series of poems dealing with memories, choices, and the loss of one’s dreams. When I returned to this poem recently, two things left me unsettled: 1) It is such a tightly woven poem and 2) it needs room to breathe. The first part of the revision was to give it space, so I lengthened the poem, opening it up into stanzas and shorter lines. The second part of the revision was to remove unnecessary words and add a few words that I felt would enhance the poem. The words in italicize represent the mindset of the subject of the poem, the embittered woman… Not quite her thoughts, but more like an observation from someone who knows this woman closely… a relative or best friend. Here is the revision:

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Bitter Memories, revised

Withered hands busily knit
The sweater that will enfold him
Sheep’s clothing
Traps skin against wool against bitter cold

Outside, the children build Frosty
Three layers tall
Coal for eyes—
The last fuel for baking
She’ll chop wood before bedtime
Cool steel, wooden slivers
A huge carrot resembles
Aunt Bertie’s nose–angled and bent
Irish descent
Buttons from Granny’s tea tin
Imitate a crooked smile
Pa’s pipe stabs the corner
A corn husk from last season’s crop

She lays aside the yarn and needles
Pulls the lace from the window
Spider webs
And recalls her own childhood
Cold memories
Winters that engulfed her and five siblings
Like caged animals—
Breeches of burlap sacks
Cardboard soles
And bundled rages for mittens—
They too built snow people
Entire families as frozen as their own
Coal, carrots, and buttons, too sparse
Blank faces

She wipes the window with her apron
Ancient coal dust
Defiled virginity
And looks beyond snow caps
A white sea of trees and smoke stacks
Village ghosts
She envisions the cities beyond
Blinding glitter—
Her childhood dream
A swan’s dance
Silk and taffeta, twirls of red and blue
Instead, winter’s cold breath

She returns the webs
Unties her apron
Washes away the blemishes
And turns back to her bitter life
Dullness

©1995,2015 Lori Carlson

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