This month, we're pleased to share Molly Beckwith's poem, "Dear Girl in the Cactus."
HFR: I love how this poem explores magical realism in its address to “you.” It speaks to the imagination of the girl and calls attention to the more quiet, realistic line: “In you mother’s circle you are the one / with bad breath, dirty fingernails, red stripes on your shoulders.” Can you speak a little about the pairing of this imagery? I am also interested in the inciting incident of the photograph and how the events begin to overlap in each stanza. Did you begin writing this poem with this incident or did it develop through revision, and did that influence the form?
MB: Sure—I think that there’s so much interplay between magical realism and realistic imagery in this poem because, well, I’m extremely interested in how we accommodate magical moments into our everyday experiences. In this poem, that realistic experience is being pushed into a cactus (which actually did happen to me as a pre-teen). The rest of the poem isn’t biographical, but it does stem out of my cactus experience: how might a girl take that and let it be her giant, formative moment? What would happen if she saw the cactus thorns as dragon spines, and thereafter she considered herself a dragon? How does that dragon-identity creep back into the mundane experiences of growing up, like being categorized by her mother’s friends as a ragamuffin tomboy? I think that by letting the poem wander into weird or impossible imagery, the realistic imagery suddenly seems a little weirder, too. Our identities are so complex, especially as we’re figuring out who we are in our early teen years, and this poem characterizes that strange time, for me—I don’t think such a discovery could be anything other than fantastical. As for the “you” address, I think I used it as another way to make this formative moment less familiar or straightforward: I certainly didn’t realize what I was learning about myself as I learned it, and it would have been terrifically helpful had I received a letter from my future self who had already done much of her growing up.
Dear Girl in the Cactus,
Your parents meant to take a photograph. You stole
your brother’s light and so he shoved you, shoulder-first.
Girl in the cactus, pain will taste like the whiskey
you’ll shoot one summer in a stretch of empty field.
You are stronger than its burn
or the cigarette smoke clung to your collar. For now,
the green suits you, little dragon spines
tangling in your blood as you perch on the tub.
When you pull them, the cactus claws,
from your thigh, lay them on the counter
in order of size, and then trash them. Later
wish you hadn’t. Tisk your tongue
against your teeth as air fills in your holes.
In your mother’s circle you are the one
with bad breath, dirty fingernails, red stripes on your shoulders
from climbing too many trees. Keep digging your lair,
little Komodo, and find what it is you’ve been missing.
Eat flowers and peppers until you turn lovely, hot.
Know your parents never took the picture.
Dear fire-eater, beat your arms until they grow heavy,
and do not stop. Dear little dragon, swallow light so it shines
in your chest. Dear girl in the cactus, you’d do it again.
Molly Beckwith seriously considered joining a circus, but has decided that pursuing writing will be better for her sanity. A poem of hers recently appeared in issue 34.1 of The Pinch. She hails from Hot Springs, Arkansas, pursued her undergraduate studies in English at Mississippi State University, and in the fall will attend the University of Nevada, Reno’s MFA program.