In The Lame God, M.B. McLatchey bears witness to the violent deaths of children. Speaking in the voices of grief-heavy parents, the poems offer up details of the lost and missing–the way a boy leaned against a wall, a fish hook in the foot’s soft flesh. The pages are interspersed with Virgil, adding an eternal echo to the grief.
We haved lived to see what never yet we feared.
–Virgil, Eclogue IX
When my kids were growing up, there was a rash of suicides in the middle and high schools, and my son and daughter lost classmates and friends. It is a different sorrow, and terror, but maybe some of the notes are the same.
I admire McLatchey’s ability to hold such subjects and make an art that connects us, an electric current we can’t let go of. –Karen
M.B. McLatchey answers a few questions about the writing of The Lame God.
What was the inspiration for this book?
Many poets – Yeats, Milosz, Marilyn Hacker – have often commented that, as poets, we do not get to choose our topics. Our topics choose us. This was certainly the case for me with regard to The Lame God. I had composed a poem in response to a child abduction and murder, “The Rape of Chryssipus” – and later dedicated the poem to a particular young woman in Massachusetts who had been kidnapped and murdered, named Molly Bish. The poem won an award; I sent the award money to the Bish Foundation and I could not shake the story off. More poems on the subject of child abduction appeared. The crafting of the poems began to assume the shape of service work, and I found I had to “answer the call.”
When did you know this particular collection of poems was a book?
I teach ancient Greek & Roman Civilization at the college level. A lot of the poems, quite naturally, began to couch stories of contemporary abductions in stories of ancient abductions. I think when I began to see the poems speaking on this more universal level, I saw the timeless aspect of the subject and the timeless aspect of the grief and love that the poems explored. On a technical level, poems in a pile can begin to speak to one another as well. By this, I mean that it’s possible to detect a certain dialogue going on between poems… at which point they need to be allowed to speak as a volume. In assembling the poems, I attended to a desire to create a kind of variety in rhythm (a long poem, then a shorter poem) and I attended to an interest in achieving musical variety.
How did you create the title?
In ancient Greek mythology, the “lame god” is Hephaestus. Because he was born crippled, he was rejected by his mother. She tossed him into the sea to drown. He swam to shore, found his mother, and built her a cat-bird seat. When she sat in this seat, his mother fell into the sea (presumably, to drown). Hephaestus was congratulated by the other gods for his cleverness and welcomed into Olympus to live the rest of his life as one of the immortals.
It’s a bizarre story, but its message is one found in much of Greek mythology: Namely, that the gods have their own problems. This means that, generally speaking, it is up to us humans to face our tragedies and our hardships on our own. We are never alone though… because in the end, the gods help those who help themselves. In brief, the book examines the stunning capacity of human beings to grow stronger – rather than weaker – through hardships.
What was the most challenging aspect of putting the collection together?
In the Preface to this collection, I refer to the poems as “well poems” because of the spiritual and psychological descent into a subterranean world that I had to make in order to craft these poems. My goal was to give a voice to the grief that parents, who face the loss of a child, simply cannot voice. As the mother of two healthy boys, I found myself bringing my own children to a kind of sacrificial altar in order to get as close as possible to the sacrifice that I was exploring. This was an extremely unsettling experience, but necessary for my fidelity to the parents’ experiences and to the children in the poems. It was also necessary for the authenticity of the poems.
In terms of craft, I choose to write in forms more often than not. This technical choice actually helped me to stay with this difficult subject: When the words were too hard to utter, I could focus more on achieving a rhyme or a meter. My experience with writing in forms is that forms actually force us to transcend the literal, so that we are forced to respond to the subject on a different level of consciousness. I tend to think that this other level of consciousness generates more genuine poems.
How did you choose your opening and closing poems?
The opening poem, “1-800-THE-LOST” begins the story of the book in a sense. This poem chronicles the parent’s first engagement with the “outside” world … 1-800-THE-LOST is the phone number for the National Center for Abducted & Exploited Children.
The last poem in the book, “Against Elegies,” marks a resolve of sorts: the parent’s recognition that this grief will never be accurately articulated or healed. This last poem turns to the child herself and asks, “What if we let you sing first?”