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These people have got to go . . .
The story behind a stunning poem by Mary Makofske
The poem was born when Mary Makofske began contemplating both the sense and the sound of a single word that was frequently found in the news of the day twenty-some years ago. But it would go through many revisions, major and minor, on its way to eventual publication in Poetry, inarguably one of the toughest and most prestigious journals for any poem to crack.
That word was euthanasia, and the poem is Makofske's haunting "Euthanasia: A Geography."
The poem's journey from initial impulse to successful work of art provides a fascinating look at the poet's process and the aesthetic and technical decisions she made along the way.
Euthanasia was a headline-level word in those days, when a Supreme Court decision had cleared the way for some states to ban "assisted suicide" even as others were codifying a terminally ill patient's right to die on their own terms, with medical assistance. And, of course, there was Dr. Jack Kevorkian forcing the hard questions into the public arena.
Makofske wanted to write about it. Death, after all, has always been a topic for poets to plumb. But how was a lifelong poet who typically wrote narrative poems going to write about the emerging and controversial ways society was rethinking some huge end-of-life issues?
For Makofske, now retired from a career as a literature professor at SUNY Orange, a first step was to turn to the dictionary, as she often does, to look deeply at the word itself and its origins in the Greek language. Beyond thinking about the literal meaning of the word, however, she also thought about how it sounds to contemporary ears, and what the sound might evoke divorced from meaning.
"Euthanasia sounds like Eurasia," she now remembers thinking, an insight that led her to imagine euthanasia as a place, its stark, desert geography as foreboding and unknowable as a journey toward death. That provided her with an extended metaphor to carry the concept all the way through the six stanzas of the finished poem.
"Spoken, it looms/ like some vast island/he did not mean/to discover," she writes in the first stanza of the finished poem.
Through multiple revisions (and multiple rejections when she began submitting the poem to journals), the extended metaphor remained largely intact throughout the various drafts of the poem, but there were some big changes along the way as well. Early on, "Euthanasia: A Geography" was directed at an essentially disembodied "You" who fell by the wayside in subsequent drafts. So did a "Stone Age tribe" that populated the landscape in some drafts.
"These people have got to go," she decided.
Having taught poetry at a college level, and having written poems since girlhood and written "seriously" since she was in her thirties, she knew that while some poems seem to come easily others require a lot of focused attention.
So just as "these people" had to go, what began as a continent was scaled down to an island and, significantly, the original first stanza was dropped completely. That had been a stanza that looked into the Greek root of the word euthanasia, as Makofske had done herself before writing. Some of her early readers--including a "famous poet" leading a workshop she attended--encouraged her to eliminate that stanza altogether, but she was attached to it. When she finally did strike it, the poem, which still had been garnering rejection letters, went out in the world again and was accepted by Poetry. It later appeared in her award-winning book, Traction, published by Ashland Poetry in 2011 and winner of the Richard Snyder Prize.
"It was that matter of 'kill your darlings,'" she said, citing the maxim all writers know but don't always succeed in heeding.
With all the changes, though, the compelling extended metaphor held fast from early drafts through the final one, with only some tightening and small tweaks. The already daunting cliffs became even more so as "cliffs without footholds." The bushes became "spined bushes" and knots of berries ("poisonous, but sweet") became "clots" of berries.
Here's the striking poem, as published. Euthanasia: A Geography
Spoken, it looms like some vast island he did not mean to discover.
Its rock wall spans the clear horizon, daring him to scale cliffs without footholds to the bleached plateau, treeless, cracked by heat. Beneath a molten sky spined bushes hunker.
The landscape he might have mapped takes his own measure. Now he must shoulder light and shadow, chiseled sky, and let the stars draw closer.
He scans the distance for the way across, the pass through mountains he does not choose to name, words precious as water.
Consumed with thirst, he walks in circles till the land that seemed too stark for bones dissolves in sudden rain.
White blossoms open, fall from clots of berries poisonous, but sweet. And what he thought were stones unfold their wings.
MARY MAKOFSKE’S latest books are The Gambler’s Daughter (chapbook, The Orchard Street Press, 2022); World Enough, and Time (Kelsay, 2017); and Traction (Ashland Poetry, 2011), winner of the Richard Snyder Prize. No Angels is forthcoming in 2023 from Kelsay Press. Her poems have appeared in 60 journals including Poetry, Poetry East, American Journal of Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, Mississippi Review, and Valparaiso Poetry Review, and in 20 anthologies. She has received the Atlanta Review Poetry Prize and the New Millennium Writings Poetry Prize.
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