Broken Ode for the Epigraph

Tiana Clark

                                      who gave me permission to be this person 
                                                                                    —Erika L. Sánchez 

O, intertextuality.
O, little foyer to my poem.
O, little , first and foremost.
My amuse-bouche, meaning mouth amuser,
a little glimpse of the meal to come. And sushi:
little epigraphs over rice. And if I could, I would add
an epigraph over everything. Wait . . . who says I can’t?
I’ve always been too much and I am just now beginning
to cherish this too muchness booming late Baroque/
rococo in my chest (little shells of scattered light decorating
the caves in my poems). I wish people came with little epigraphs
tacked on their foreheads, a little foreshadow couldn’t hurt.
I wish fruits had a few ripe lines above their PLU numbers,
a little sneaky peaky of the pulp to come.
O, little cup holder for my quotes.
I love how you hover over the house
of my poem like a cloud from another
book or a bite from another lover, a way
to say I just couldn’t help myself here. See, I cut
out these lines for you like fuzzy flower stems, severed
at an angle and they were briefly dead until I placed
them in a vase on top of my poems, prolonging
their life again (such moxie!), because if anything
the epigraph is a little clay container of water
and I placed these blossoms in a vase of life juice
because you are visiting the home of my poem
and I want you to feel special and I think fresh cut
flowers might make people feel sacchariferous, at least
they do for me, especially when my mother-in-law walks
barefoot into her gorgeous garden and snips the long lit
stems from the sun-bursting forsythia bush even though
we haven’t talked in months, even though I wrote a poem
about her that hurt her, a poem that started with an epigraph
from Natasha Trethewey and we talked about it
over email and then over coffee and then there was…
forgiveness (both sides) and that was it—see: the flowers.
I’ve always deeply loved Natasha Trethewey’s work,
because her parents are like my parents (black mom,
white dad), another type of epigraph, right? Do you
understand what kind of permission that releases inside
of me? Do you understand how cellular and specific?
Sometimes it’s important to know about the blood
before the poem starts. Who makes up these rules
about procedure anyway? I come from clutter. I feel safe
under that little liminal space below the title (underneath
the stairs!) and before that first line. Toi Derricotte
writes, “I am not afraid to be memoir.” Yes!
I feel a great affection for Toi Derricotte, because
she has a similar first name as my grandmother,
but spelled differently (Toy), and also because
she drew her beloved dead fish, Telly,
in my copy of The Undertaker’s Daughter,
writing Telly Loves You with the bubbles and
everything! Well, then I am not afraid to be
the epigraph, damnnit! I am joyfully trying
to break every rule about poem making
that I know. I want to wake up and like myself
more. I want to wake up and like myself
more. I want to wake up and like myself
more and believe it each time I repeat it.
I want to revel in my poems the way Donika
Kelly does. Have you heard Donika talk
about poems? Do it—absolute pleasure.
I want more of that giddy precision. I want
to wake up and address myself like the bad ass
motherfucking epigraph that I am. Hello, epigraph!
I am beginning my body before my body begins.
I want to start my day with somebody else’s words.
For example, this morning I started with Ross
Gay’s The Book of Delights and I keep grinning
and underlining words like “delight radar”
and “delight muscle” and that image of stacking
delights like pancakes and I can hear Ross’
voice as I read them, his joyous timbre almost
sing-shouting inside these smile-inducing
sentences, which linger over the blue length
of my day (And I just got back from AWP
in Portland where I heard José Olivarez say,
“Lean into length” on a panel about poetry
podcasts. I wrote it down and underneath
his words scribbled: possible epigraph?).
Epigraph—a little foreplay, a little playful forest
(I’m safe now so I can play), a little forecast
of my mood and tone, a little incantation,
little wordy satellites in the white spaces orbiting
the sky parlor of my poems. Epigraph, my father.
Epigraph, my father I’ve never met, but how I meet
and let him go at the beginning of every poem
that I write. And isn’t loss perpetually dripping sap
from the injured trees bruised or cut in our knuckles
as we write? Sticky sap spilling from the wound,
pitching to survive the bites. And aren’t we all writing
the same damn poem over and over again anyway?
Didn’t Jack Spicer allude to that once while translating
Lorca? I want to go back to that first epigraph.
The easy association would be God, right? Like this:
so God coos above the waters of the pre-world
scanning over all that gooey potential, a bajillion
possibilities, millions of us already there, little epigraphs
in the making, gleaming in that first sentence-struck light,
the imperative big bang of God’s never-ending breath—

But . . . but what if
         that first epigraph wasn’t so spectacular?

What if          it was just someone messaging me
on one of those spit-in-a-tube DNA ancestry sites,

saying that they’re my second cousin, saying
they know how to get in touch                                      with my dad

(O, the sheer possibility! I cried . . .                        and did and didn’t
know why),                                                        saying that they gave him

my number and email address, saying that they told him
I didn’t want or need               any money,               but how

he still

                                          reached out?

Tiana Clark is the author of the debut poetry collection, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), winner of the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016), selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. Clark is a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow and a recipient of a 2019 Pushcart Prize, as well as a winner of the 2017 Furious Flower’s Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize and 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. She was the 2017-2018 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing. Clark is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Callaloo, Kenyon Review, VQR, BuzzFeed News, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Oxford American, and elsewhere.