Several years ago, I had the pleasure of taking a class with poet Katie Ford in Iowa City. I have written about her work before, but for the mixtape today, I want to share her poem “Colosseum” from her book of the same name. The book, among other things, deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and in its own way, this poem is a heartbreaking commentary on that tragedy. Since the poem is long, you can find it here to read.
Welcome back. Wonderful poem, right? I have so much admiration for this piece partly because it is a successful long poem. A successful long poem (to me) means one that I am interested in following to the end, one that makes subtle connections that carry me through without losing me along the way. I rarely find long poems that engage me as well as shorter pieces, but there is beauty and economy of language here that is sometimes missing in my experience with longer poems.
It is an accomplished, intelligent poem, one that assumes that its reader will make connections – ruin and decay in the famous building, in the body, in the mayfly, in the mind, in the very earth itself. Its design follows an organic thought process – making a statement: if I remember correctly, what’s missing/broke off all at once then retracting it: But it didn’t break off all at once. Then extrapolating: Nothing wants to break, but this wanted to break, leading the reader to feel like they are making discoveries along with the speaker of the poem.
The last two sections wrap up the poem with grace: the depiction of the mass death of the mayflies (“snowfall”) flows into the ruin of the colosseum, which echoes with the reader’s knowledge of the more recent tragic situation of the hurricane in a haunting way:
When one is the site of so much pain, one must pray/to be abandoned. When abandonment is/that much more—beauty and terror/before every witness and suddenly/ you are not there.
When I read poems like Katie’s, I often despair that I will never write anything this smart, this threaded, this poignant and lovely. But then I remember that she was working on this poem when I took her class. What she had at that time, which she shared as a draft, ended up as the starting points for several sections. It was the work that she did in revision that built this poem into what it is now. And it is a wonder.
IF YOU WANT TO WRITE:
1. Try a poem in sections that weaves two or three seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive theme.
2. Choose a famous landmark and use it as a starting point for a poem.