Notes on the construction of “Undiminished” (a villanelle):
by K. Alma Peterson
In the shallows the furrowed brain coral reports
its deathwash to the scoured beach sea fans
snapped off sea whips lacy delicate sorts
confirm the incremental cruelty of watercourse
over and against the grooves thinkless pans
wherein our coral brains to shallow resort
rockslap foam fringe gathers waveworn
in backchannels while the pendant sea fans
whip delicately and snap the likes of us shorn
who’d leave them in their morgue but of course
we fill our pockets to the sagging end
the furrowed brain coral over eons the corpses
smooth and blacken far-off depositors
clog the Caribbean sink laughing you contend
the snappish whips don’t require a lacy form
so against your blistered mouth the sugar calciforms
happily you’ve feasted since cane knows when
our furrowed brains in hallowed ruts of dead coral
snap to the indelicate sea sailwhips the racy sort
I like to think of writing poems a process of investigation and construction, a sort of archaeological dig and assembly of the pieces, or underwater dive and recovery mission. The investigation starts with an idea, phrase, image, or remnant of a dream, and then goes off on all sorts of tangents that those things suggest.
The fact that in the villanelle some lines, or variations of them, repeat throughout the poem, and other lines appear only once, made me think of an ocean beach with various life forms being washed up on shore and others moving back and forth with the action of the waves. Rearranging the words and phrases in the repeating lines also seemed appropriate to the action of water on objects in and around it. Changing a word slightly, e.g. “lacy” to “racy” suggests how looking through water as a kind of lens can change the way things are perceived. Unless a villanelle has repeating lines that really do bear repeating, I prefer to really mix up the line, and usually the meaning of the line.
The poem’s title reflects the relentless nature of repeated elements: in a poem, in nature, in our inclination to link and associate words, images, ideas. Writing a poem, especially in form, requires assemblage; fitting the parts together to make a cohesive whole.
Spaces within the lines, in contrast with words that are pushed together (deathwash, waveworn, rockslap, sailwhips) mimic the action of brain waves, ocean waves, sonic waves, and the like.
The fact that shells are the skeletons of marine creatures brings to mind our own mortality: “we fill our pockets to the sagging end” refers to crowding the poem itself, as well as the way we crowd our surroundings with “stuff.” We are easily distracted by these “shiny objects” which is both pleasurable and worrisome. This villanelle explores competing impulses, and plays with the way we present them, to ourselves and to the world.
K. Alma Peterson