A Little Deep Mining: Some Notes on Revision
by James Brock
It’s easy, especially within a workshop format, to think of revision as something small. The suggestions for improvement are typically measured and minor, revising a line here, strengthening an image there, sharpening the dialogue, excising some hackneyed phrasing. Sometimes the suggestions are bold: recasting the title, dismantling the sequence, or reconsidering the ending. Usually, the poem or narrative remains relatively unscathed, maybe smarting a little after the hard scrubbing, but still very much the same, just cleaner and more presentable.
In most instances, that kind of revision is appropriate.
But if we adopt that attitude habitually when it comes to revising, we may be missing an opportunity for genuine re-creation, for exercising our better imaginative skills. Sometimes routine revision is like a little death; the corpse is finished, save for one last light application of blush for the cheeks. There, perfect. Perfected.
My best moment in a workshop experience occurred more than twenty-five years ago, when I was taking a graduate poetry class. I had already impressed my professor with my work through a previous class, and for this workshop I had diligently constructed a three-poem sequence about a mining disaster that had taken place in Idaho. I knew that my professor, being a good Marxist, would be receptive to the leftist political patina of these poems, and I had no doubt that he’d be ready with a list of magazines for me to submit this sequence for publication—after, of course, whatever cosmetic alterations he’d recommend. Maybe The Minnesota Review or Strand?
From my files, here’s the last part of that sequence:
This is what I make of the dying, the sounding
of fire and air. For days I dreamt
Walter Cronkite. “How did you survive
for seven days?” And then I wait
One year. Five years. Ten years.
The Sunshine Mine Accident Reunion.
It is as big as death. As big as
Walter Cronkite in Idaho.
After I read these lines to the class, the professor waved his hand for silence. Normally, he’d be reserved, withholding any comments until nearly the end of the session. Obviously, he was ready to praise my winning deployment of irony to lambast our misplaced desire for celebrityhood or my smart exploitation of popular culture as critique of our materialist values. He took off his glasses, looked at me, and waited until I met his stare.
“How many miners died in this disaster?”
“91? 91 men died so that you could write a smart-ass joke?”
Needless to say, that question closed the discussion about the sequence. I slipped the sequence to the bottom of my files.
About ten years later, after a divorce, after a year of unemployment, and after years of not getting a book published, genuinely at odds about the whole poetry thing, I came upon this failed sequence. Maybe, I thought, my professor was right, that this subject matter merited a different treatment. And so furiously, over a summer, I drafted the body of a 90-page sequence, struggling to meet the subject matter. Revising as correction, or as improvement, was completely inadequate. I was tasked to re-imagine the entire poetic possibilities, truly, after being able to re-see what was at stake.
From this experience, I see that typical revision, at least for myself, was often an insistence for no change, for no true re-vision. In fact, the workshop model often leads to an assertion of the ego—yes, I might make the grand gesture and capitulate to the suggestion to alter a line break, but the poem and my relation to it as the author was inviolable. It was my baby, still, my Little Me, to reshape and control. But in revisiting this sequence, humbled, unsure if I really had the capacity to be a poet, I submitted to the subject matter itself, which simply said, “Not enough.”
After drafting the sequence, I spent another two years with revising and reshaping the manuscript, and yes, nearly of all that work was of the ordinary kind of revising, simply pruning here and there. The result became my first book of poetry, The Sunshine Mine Disaster.
I can’t reproduce the entire revision here, but the last poem of the book I think reflects the kind of imaginative leap I had to take, if I were to truly submit to the subject.
God so temper me.
When I think ascension,
it is the hurl of the icy body,
perfected, to heaven.
But one mile down, among
the rock and rigor-mortised,
it is hard to remember God's
face in the clouds, no more
than the sleight of wind
effacing the under-skiff,
pulling down, and I would
see nothing but the lactating
teats of cows. But how could
a ten-year-old boy submit
such a confession to the other
kids? And so with me, the clouds
were a U-boat, something
my father had fought, and I
could recall each part
from my father's plastic model
in the bottle, especially the dorsal
hull he let me fit, and he steadying
my hand as I held the forceps,
giving the submarine its outer
form. That night I practiced
my signature, playing upon
the variations of D and T,
and nothing worked. I
remember now that extraction
really has to do with something else,
something religious, but that
is gone, too. So much muck. So
much grounding. God, so
temper me. Perhaps extraction
begins with Jonah,
or what father called the sign
of Jonah, speaking out in the whale's
great chambering, underwater, deeper
in it than I, and the voice rang out
of the belly, spilling diaphanous
into water, rising to the surface,
into the air. He could hear it,
my father said, as his PT boat
sounded above the ocean. It's hard
not to think of the German sailors,
those whose submarine stalled
in the depth-charge's shock. What
sounding. What sounding.
And no sign of rescue for six
days. It would be easier, cleaner,
to make my own coffin, to return
down the drift to my station
and slide into the stope, take
a breath. It would be easy, if not
for the faces, none of them
angelic. I have come to think
of Christ, although disillusion
awaits all adoration. Even
so, I am given to beseeching
helpless saviors, the infant
Christ, the crucified Christ. It is
the Ascension I cannot grasp.
There is too much earth. My own child,
with his ten months a wounded vein
in me, may be sleeping above me, and I
still tremble to cover him
although I know he will not wake
by a father's disturbance. I come
to kiss the face of the rock.
It is the face of the Christ.
It is my father's face.
And I will not look again,
for I do not want that old retrieval,
but my family: my wife, my child,
my dread, my own, hearing those calls
home, heeding them in heart, and
oh, how nigh is death, and how nigh
are the ringing censers' sounding
of what might be yesterday,
Of course, in the sequence itself remain some smart ass jokes—it’s a subject matter that also has laughter amid the terror—but the poetry demanded more sight, seeing, and vision, which required a new perspective, voice, texture, weight, and depth. To let go of something clever and accomplished, something of yours that you’ve fallen in love with, is the only risk, really, when you choose to see something truly anew.