Pushcart XLIII: Melissa Stein, “Quarry” (poem) from WordTemple Press

Josh Phillip Saunders, Visible Poetry Project

Josh Phillip Saunders, Visible Poetry Project

A girl is swimming naked
in dark water. She doesn’t see herself
as graceful but the water tells otherwise,
the way it loosens and strikes
and burnishes. Exposed
ledges, rocks crumble on surfaces
and the surface of the water broken
by her body, marine and white.

In a discussion with Jake Weber, I mentioned that flash fiction often strikes me as having more in common with poetry than with the standard short story. My Vermont Poet friend Patrick Gillespie feels that some poems are really short fiction, or short essays, in disguise. I’d thought that might be the case here, but I’ve changed my mind. While flash makes use of language elements, I see some important moments here that would be lost if the lineation were abandoned. It is a narrative, if a short one, turning dark at the end.

I keep wanting to say the opening above is placid or benign, but is it really? The scene would have been ripe for gentle, flowing language, but there’s little lyricism; I’d call it rather neutral, factual. Look at all the words of violence ending four lines: strikes, exposed, crumble, broken. They are used in non-violent semantic context, but the position in the line, the enjambment, emphasizes them. The scene feels slightly tense, rather than warm and bucolic as it could be.

A boy joins her in the water. Again, we have a few lines of description – he’s small, probably pre-teen, a “mirror stripling” which seems to indicate he’s the same age as the girl – and some words of violence in nonviolent context: pummel, thrash. It’s not clear from the poem if they know each other, or if he just happens to go swimming at the same time.

The girl and boy
pinwheel in the water
and do not touch
but are connected by invisible currents
their bodies manufacture.

Is this going to turn into a romance? The connection might hint at that, but we will see this is not in the cards. “Days of this, weeks.” Is this time dilation, the afternoon swim seeming like forever, or do they literally swim together many times? I’m taken with the image of pinwheeling, which implies communication on some level, cooperation. Even with her eyes closed, she’s aware of where he is when he dives into the water. She doesn’t feel threatened. Yet there’s something not quite summer-day-magical about this; the language doesn’t go there.

The subvocal darkness becomes manifest:

Then, detaching itself from
sun, water, blasted rock
another body comes,
a grown man, all smiles
and cigarettes
and offering….

Whereas the girl and boy are introduced as that, this person is introduced as more of a thing, “detaching itself”, not himself, first introduced as a body, and only then as a man. The description is chilling. We’ve all known men like this, and we know what they’re capable of.

The punch in the gut comes from the final lines:

….I still dream
that the red haired boy held my head
underwater
to spare me what’s the man did

After the pulse returns to normal following the reading of such horrific lines, we can notice a number of things. First, we are spared the details; whatever happened is implied rather than described. This is a change from the close focus on the girl and the boy, even the man, who were carefully, if briefly, described. Some things are universal, need no description.

Second, these lines spring directly from the prior quote; there is no separation of the man with the smiles and cigarettes, and the recollection of brutality. The violence is attached to him, part of him.

The narrative point of view switches from third person to first. That’s interesting; you’d think that the pleasant memories of swimming would be more closely narrated from inside the speaker, with the attack kept at a distance, but it’s the opposite. This could mean that the beauty of the day was pushed into the background, and violence, running through the poem in subtle ways, is foregrounded in the speaker’s memory, not by choice, but because that’s what violence does: it ruins beauty. Yet, in this recollection, the boy’s hair color is foregrounded as well, maybe as a stubborn need to retain something good.

As for the title, let’s not forget that quarry has two meanings. A quarry is a pit left from excavation of stone; these are prone to groundwater flooding after mining is concluded, resulting in a somewhat dangerous but irresistible rural swimming hole. Quarry is also the hunter’s prey. Interestingly, these words, both from the French, have different origins: the pit comes from the Latin for square, while the hunted comes from the Latin for heart, the most valued part of a slain animal, often separated out. As such, both include the sense of excavation, removal of what is valuable. The implications for the poem are striking, as the girl still deals with what was removed from her that day.

The poem has an interesting publication history. It first appeared in the September, 2016 edition of Tin House, then was anthologized in Know Me Here, a collection of poems by women edited by Katherine Hastings; it is from this anthology that the poem was nominated for Pushcart. It was also included in Stein’s 2018 collection, Terrible Blooms, published by Copper Canyon Press; in fact, there are four poems in that collection titled “Quarry”, one in each of the four sections.

Although the poem isn’t available online, it was included in this year’s Visible Poetry Project; the resultant video, directed by Josh Phillip Saunders, includes the full text.