Good morning and welcome to another edition of Writing in Blood’s deconstruction of a poem entitled Delmarva—A Poem by Katy Santiff.
I enjoy the unfolding of a new dimension. When I open a book of poetry, never at the beginning, but in the middle, it’s an immediate immersion.
You don’t do it with a novel. You don’t even do it with a short story collection. You do it with poetry books.
Now, when I wake up at my usual time, a time most people who are not me—people 25- years younger than me are just getting home, or who wake up and think, “Ahh, two more hours before I have to get up—” I’m greeted by a new poem from Vita Brevis.
I’ve enjoyed almost all of them since discovering them a few month’s ago, which is a testament of Brian Geiger’s tastes—meaning his subjective appreciation of poetry aligns closely with much of my own, nothing more. There are all types of poetry, and some enjoy others, while others enjoy some, and so on.
But the recent poem by Katy Santiff grabbed me and held me.
Not only does it work on the page, but to fully appreciate the skill with which it was crafted, it must be read aloud in my opinion.
Please find her poem HERE and visit Vita Brevis for more wonderful poetry.
(For the purposes of deconstruction today, I’ve written between the lines, just how I read. Please refer to the poem as a whole from the link above on Vita Brevis.)
Although there’s a plethora of beautiful poetry to be found on Vita Brevis, today I’d like to talk about Ms. Santiff’s poem, Delmarva.
I didn’t know of the Delmarva Peninsula until I read the poem. I began reading about the area and history of not only the name, but the culture her poem invoked, and the history of the people and their ties to this ethereal, tiny slice of the American northeast coast.
What I read brought even more full-color brilliance to the poet’s clear, emotive imagery, and the hypnotic cadence of her words. Beginning with the first lines, I immediately felt “warmer.”
I read the poem silently, then aloud. I knew then, because of her affinity for sound, I’d discovered another layer: the sensual-auditory experience that transcends the visual mind’s eye. The poem reads, and appeals, to my own musical ear—almost like a lullaby:
For the souls that we’ve folded into these
broad, fat lands, laid out like my grandma’s quilt;
An instant-auditory mug of warm milk with cinnamon and sugar—the many “l’s” I couldn’t help but elongate, just as I said, like a lullaby. It’s so comforting, in fact, one could lose the meaning of the first two lines, because they speak of the dead: whether they be long gone, or newly “folded” into the land of which she speaks throughout the piece.
But unlike the conjured images of the typical “grave,” the dead are not in some cold, dark, unwelcoming place. They are wrapped in the loving embrace of that well-recognized literary archetype and one of her well-known symbols: a grandmother’s quilt. And not just any grandma: her grandma. This is personal, and the poet welcomes us into her world and her grandmother’s embrace. Grandma’s quilt as our tombs: what an elegant and comforting image of mortality. Wonderful.
The quilt, made by hand, of course, thoughtfully stitched, but without Spotify playing, without the television blaring. No, Grandma stitches and hums melodies from a day when songs, hymns, chants, maybe, lullabies, cuddles, and cooing did the work of Band-Aids and technological distractions.
Even though the archetype and image are often used, the poet deftly uses them in a fresh way, and they are anything but tropes in this piece. This is fascinating to me.
Within the lyrical assonance and flow, the poet introduces this dissonance: the universal fear of death, reframed and repurposed to combine the elements of the poem that follow, which include the eternal “why” of mortality. Ms. Santiff pulls it off beautifully with skill and focus.
These lines make me want to go there, to Delmarva, and be buried among those souls. But I can’t. It isn’t a place for strangers, because those who live there are the sky, are the land, are the breezes and sea, and it is theirs. But Ms. Santiff has graciously invited us to visit her within her world.
So, the dissonance of the imagery of death as her Grandma’s quilt, removes the uncertainty and fear of the usual depictions of the grave, and into a realm of comfort. And this comfort is found in “fat lands,” not fLat, although on first reading, I found myself correcting to “flat” automatically and quite on accident. Which shows the poet chose each word precisely and with purpose.
“Fat lands,” because they are rich like cream, bulging with the comfort of a warm, down, or batt-filled blanket, made with the uncompromising love of Grandmother. Next:
for the living still wandering here below
these clouds that pillow up over us like
fluffing–billowing mat-stuff lining with
a wonder, a cotton question:
Beginning with the preposition For, this piece, then, is written for these souls sleeping under the quilted lands, as well as those who wander on them, and under/below the cloud-ly, heavenly quilt, above. Weaving in the motif effortlessly from the first two lines Ms. Santiff gives us the tactile word within her stated query: cotton.
Cotton: the cloth of a thousand tactile sensations and uses, from the ordinary cotton rags of pragmatic utility, to the softest jersey and knitted sweaters, cotton is as “Americana” as the region the poet writes about.
A cotton question: used with the word question, it then a no-nonsense, pragmatic question. But it’s as pure in intent as billowing clouds and the cloud-like, snowy-white quilt stuffing that makes the beauty of the crafting of the quilt also useful and practical.
So, her question is so rich because of how she leads up to it. I found myself dying to hear how she attempts answers it for us, and for herself. Or rather, is she even tries.
what’s patterned above, and who would know to
answer us, the some-numbered billions left
traipsing down here, so strangely encumbered,
The question begins with the imagery of a pattern, the continuation of the quilt motif, but we have no idea, do we, what lies beyond, other than what we see and imagine.
I love the word-use: traipsing. As practical a word as her use of cotton because clouds float, cotton sheets billow in a clothes-lined breeze, but the utilitarian “cotton question” aligns with traipsing: plodding, slogging, as if we all carry an invisible weight, so paradoxically laden with unique, “strange” even, burdens.
And we traipse because what we carry is heavy, whether we travel alone or with one another, or perhaps never fully alone because of these strange burdens we must shoulder.
Again, read aloud, the musicality is mesmerizing.
We ask through the
sky’s thin walls–hear the way some dark brilliance
calls–but the only answer back to us
is the blowing of our coastal plains, the
pressure of our bay-hills’ rolls,
Ah, more “llls,” and the cotton question suddenly becomes a prayer. And it’s a prayer we all intone as we press our heads to the breast of someone in whom we trust or into clasped hands as we kneel in isolation, desperation, perhaps, at the sides of our bed.
And even though we might have abandoned the God of our childhood faith long ago, memories of a white-clapboard shoebox church, a sharp, knife-like steeple reaching its point into the sky as if to cut its way through those clouds, demanding answers for all of us. That is why we congregate together, encumbered, yet alone. And a tiny, single, stained-glass window might be the only adornment, a small complexity and hint of dark within the simplicity of our understanding and faith.
The “dark brilliance” of the starry sky matches the dark brilliance of our beseeching. The poet introduces her discord, her dissonance, not only with the “dark brilliance” of that mysterious beyond, which remains silent, but is the contrast which we “hear”: a silence that seems to echo within us and in the oceanic winds. This darkness, the only imagery not made of white, cozy, fluffy, warm, loving comfort.
Our question falls on the deaf ears of a being who has, perhaps, cotton batting or clouds stuffed effectively in his or her ears, and so we look to the poet’s hilly land and sea’s breeze and aromas, the Mother/ Grandmother Earth, once again, to give us the wisdom—and answers—we seek. Answers we all seek; prayers we all pray when we believe no one hears or sees.
of a thumb pressed to our minds as if God
made print-marks on the Sun:
These final lines, so incredibly rich within the words Santiff chooses, because “thumbs pressed” into eyes is an act of self-defense, a way to blind an assailant, and the God of many Northeastern Americans is the God brought to the shores in the minds of the Western European stoics, people seeking freedom, and in turn, taking people who lived here on the land and effectively pressing their thumbs in, not just to blind, but to subjugate.
So, a thumb, pressed to our minds to blind, to subjugate, but also as a communication, because the blinding light of the sun is antithetical to that dark silence from the heavens, isn’t it? And the god of those people was male. The sun god has always been male, the gods of light, male.
But the native peoples of the region had both male and female deities. However, Christianity influenced many of the old tales, which were different, not just for each tribe, but for each faction of each tribe, orally handed down, and changed to fit the events of the time. And there was a time when Sky was Woman and then, she was killed by one of her twin sons.
The “good” son shaped the sky and created the sun from his mother’s face, telling her she will rule in the heavens and her “face would shine forever.” The “evil” son created a great darkness that pushed his mother, the sun, down each day.
So, an interesting twist that the sun is female in the Iroquois mythology, and she was subjugated, as so many females are in mythology as well as historically, by a male deity, who, in a way, pressed his thumbs into her glowing eye, forcing her to kneel into the eastern sky for a time. But she always returned through that thin sky and eradicated the dark with her own brilliance.
I don’t know what, if any relevance this had on Katy’s poem. I doubt if it did, consciously. But the poet herself seems so much a part of the very earth, sky, sands, wind, of her setting, I can’t help but wonder if indeed those blowing coastal winds did not whisper to her that her prayers—our prayers—are heard and have been, are answered.
we lived here, once.
When we once lived here—and where is here? The Sun, the earth, and then beneath the earth, all going ‘round and ‘round. When Grandmothers quilted and told stories of a time, and times to come: we lived here, once, yes, but we live here still, we are all here, and what is above is below, and what is inside is without.
And while we may have once inhabited the Sun, we are now those who wander below the Sky Woman’s quilt, together, alone, plodding heavily with our burdens, but all is well.
Because when we are beneath the fat lands, the “pressure” of the hills will comfort like the gentle pressure of a hand, providing a feeling of safety and warmth on a newborn’s back.
This is a beautiful, nuanced piece by an intriguing poet, one I hope to read more of going forward.
I believe Katy Santiff does not answer, nor profess to know the answer to our eternal questions of “…what’s patterned above,” nor “…who would know to answer us…”
These questions have been asked by humanity since the beginning, and when we attempt to answer them for ourselves and everyone else, it’s turned disastrous. Like the evil twin, forcing the light of curiosity and vision from our mind’s “sky,” while attempting to convince us that the darkness of ignorance and blind obedience holds our answer.
But this poem reminds us that comfort is found in the cotton questions, the simple, profoundness of the heavens, earth, and below, and the holiest acts of communion are right in front of us, in the land around us.
We all seek answers to these questions: the very-human need to trek our deeply personal, meaningful paths we all walk within the human experience. This poem could have gone the way of so many others and been lost in the din.
Yet the questions Ms. Santiff poses in this beautifully crafted piece, despite their eternal, ubiquitous presence throughout human history, are questions human beings were never meant to have answered, and I believe she shows us that.
What remains vital—and what this poet reminds us is this piece—is that we must never stop asking.
Thank you, Katy Santiff, for sharing this beautiful work, and as always, thanks to Vita Brevis, for bringing it to me in the earliest hours of each unfolding day.
Peace, and as always–
Je te vois–
6 thoughts on “Delmarva by Katy Santiff: a Commentary”
Brilliant analysis, thank you. I saw that someone had said the poem reminded them of the trivial nature of our existence, and wanted to say, “my intent was the opposite–what I hoped to show was that the only thing trivial in our lives is the way we demand answers of the answerless questions.” Rather than pitting ourselves as sparring partner’s with life because we are afraid of its limits, I hope we all learn to embrace the profound mystery of it. Wonder, ponder, love.
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“Wonder, ponder, love.” I love this. Or even “Ponder wonder, love.” Minus the comma, it changes it, yet only slightly. As you imply here, it seems our innate human curiosity has been commandeered by fear–we are no longer comfortable with NOT knowing.
Oddly, as we evolve as a species, I’ve observed socio-cultural changes that belie a strange phenomenon: our prefrontal cortex has suddenly evolved in two ways. First, we spend so much conscious energy eradicating fear–a feeling of powerlessness that most humans find intolerable–and we’ve replaced it with this pseudo-certainty.
Since the human experience has very little rapport with “certainty,” at least not in concrete ways that are quantifiable, we’ve also DEvolved by relying on a variation of “tribal” certainty.
The individual, subjective experience no longer holds credibility, so we bring in the ubiquitous “they” to support our echo-chambers of belief.
That is what I felt your piece accomplished. It leads us, softly, gently, to that place of comfort, while acknowledging that the unknown can, in and of itself, BE the ultimate comfort.
Because in the end, there is one, single outcome of which we are absolutely certain. And that, finally, is the only certainty we’d require, if we so choose. That in turn frees so much of our emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual energy, doesn’t it? Allowing us to ponder, wonder, love–yes–but then, ultimately, allowing ourselves to let go of expectation, outcome, and simply sit with our wonder, and celebrate what it means to BE.
Thank you for your poem and thoughtful comment. Cheers and peace–
Yes, exactly. And I’m so glad you picked up on the subtle social critique in the piece as well. That tribal certainty vs. final uncertainty. It’s so flattering to me that it made you want to read up on Delmarva and it’s culture. Being raised in it, I found myself at odds with the “us against the world” tribalism you described–often, when young and asking myself and others “what’s patterned above” and having issue with the blind faith of One ultimate being “who would know to answer us”. The sense that we can only be aligned with the salvation of divinity through one religious practice felt hollow to me. What filled my spirit and soul was the environment I found myself in, often alone, and the way in which I marveled at it. And that marvel echoes now in the memory of my grandmother, who was not a religious woman but who worked the land all her life. It was a hard life for her, and she didn’t have much of an education, but her intelligence belied typical measurement. Her brilliance was in the way she created out of nothing–her intelligence, emotional. The love she infused into simple things (like a meal, a pillow she made, a quilt) was profound, and I didn’t recognize it then but I do now. The questions we ask of the heavens should actually be questions we ask ourselves. What’s patterned inside, how will I recognize it, and how will I value it? The hills, the woods, the fields, the ocean, the bay, the breeze, the sky–these were my external wonders and when I ask myself why I felt they comforted me more than culture did, it’s because I they are where I fled to when I pondered what it meant to be alive, frightened by the certainty that I wouldn’t be one day. And when I returned home, mind whirling with existence, the earthly certainty of the fact that my grandmother had my favorite meal waiting for me was more comfort than any sermon.
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Well, don’t be flattered, be proud–your poem is what made me want to “go there” in not only my mind and research, but in my spirit and physical body as well. Your poem captured all you wrote here. All of it. And it’s why I chose to highlight it. Thank you for sharing this part of yourself.
I understand all too well the closed-culture, the tribal community bound by religion, specifically, being born and raised in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, and into the Mormon culture and church. The tribe and its members must really give up, or repress, significant parts of who they are as individuals in order to be accepted. It was an easy task for my siblings, the older five, but for me, the sixth, I presented a challenge to my parents that, I’m sure, made them wonder what they had done to deserve me. 😉
In finding your place within that culture, but not being “of” it gives us insight, I think, into how it shapes who we are as we mature and become more entrenched in our own truths. Besides family, it’s one of the reasons I stay in Utah, despite feeling like an alien. This is from my collection of poetry entitled, No Regrets, and the poem “indebted”:
for all of its destruction,
i can’t help
but be grateful for religion
and the small-minded.
all artists need an antagonist
against which they
the ram of their pens.
Peace to you–
“all artists need an antagonist
against which they
the ram of their pens”
–wonderful :). Not just in the fact that we can weaponize the conflicts we carry within us, as artists. I especially love the line break for “must batter”–in my mind,s eye, I also imagine the artist making the base of a culinary creation, a batter for cake of the mind out of the ingredients of a difficult past. Let them eat cake, JA.