1 When I was about seven, I had a recurrent case of scarlet fever. It’s a bacterial infection that used to be fatal in the young, especially during the Victorian era (Charles Darwin lost two children to the disease). My fever came three times for me, a fact that I think the recursiveness of the villanelle form reflects.
2 During my fevers, I dreamed vividly of forests, trees lined up like files. Each day, I went to that dream-place like it was my job. In these dreams, I understood that I was not special; I was just another commuter traveling between worlds.
3 While I remember feeling the reflected heat of my parents’ concern, nothing about my illness — the rash, the high fevers & chills — actually surprised me. It all seemed to have happened before.
4 In an active case of scarlet fever, the lymph nodes in the neck enlarge, becoming painful to the touch.
5 Baton twirling is a competitive sport in which an athlete tosses a metal rod in time with choreographed body movements. It’s a highly gendered activity in the United States, almost exclusively the realm of young girls. I had a toy baton capped with white rubber & filled with silver glitter that swirled inside a clear plastic tube. Over the years, I’ve learned that a line of poetry can be a baton, in the sense that a poetic line moves in time with the poet’s thought. Like a baton, the line can rotate in any direction.
7 In the Super Mario Brothers video game, your avatar bonks his head against certain areas of the screen to reveal hidden boxes that briefly turn orange before releasing a gold coin. You collect the coin, then jump onto the empty box to reach additional prizes or avenues of escape. Multiple boxes form staircases leading to other worlds.
8 My dreams recur often enough that sometimes entire backstories become apparent to me, familiar-feeling in that moment. Certain dreams accrete poignancy through a kind of déjà vu, during which I remember having previously visited the dreamscape or having met a character on a prior occasion. Once, I dreamed of receiving an envelope. It was full of photographs of the previous dream. The villanelle manufactures a similar, already-been-here feeling. You must become comfortable revisiting the same lines, the same sonic or visual landscapes; that is part of the magic.
9 One of the best things about having a husband from Kansas is getting to hear the slight twangs & echoes of western American colloquial speech on a regular basis. As an adverb, ‘pretty’ gives emphasis to an observation while appearing to de-emphasize the observer. Somehow, though, the shy cowboy always outsmarts the city slicker, precisely by seeming to adjust his ten-gallon hat while actually delivering the most cutting remark ever.
10 Readers often ask about my use of the ampersand. I prefer it for its visual dynamism; an ampersand looks both energetic & ornamental to me, like jewelry made from typewriter keys, spoons, or the innards of watches.
11 My great-grandmother Alfonsa lived in a small, southern Italian village. Her husband, my great-grandfather, had emigrated to America but never sent for her, though he eventually invited their two sons to join him in New York. After the boys left, Alfonsa & her only remaining child, Giuseppina, grew old side-by-side in the village house. One day a neighbor showed them a cluster of beautiful strawberries that had grown in her garden. The vine originated in Alfonsa and Giuseppina’s yard &, miraculously, was producing fruit on both sides of the shared garden wall. When I visited the village almost a century later, I learned that Alfonsa & Giuseppina had set fire to that strawberry vine, purposely obliterating both their own & their neighbor’s bounty. I think I understand this story.
12 I love the meshing effect that internal rhyme creates in a line of poetry. The long ‘e’ sounds in this line require you to bare your teeth while reading aloud, which accords with the sense of danger I always associate with supposedly soft terms like ‘dearest.’ There’s a threat in it.
13 As a young child, I was convinced I wouldn’t live past age twelve. I don’t know where this idea came from, exactly, but I accepted it as if someone had written it down in a book for me to memorize. I haven’t forgotten.
“How long have human beings been on the planet? Well, at the outside: hominids, about 2 to 3 million years, and here are all these creatures of the intertidal zone, things like lobsters, which are cretaceous, around 100 million years old...”
/ Long ago, I was a figlia with a fever.
/ Little filly, foaled in my dark star-bed
/ where I thought I’d die pretty soon.
/ Lying there, my fists held candy eggs
/ of logic, molten math. My pink death already
/ long ago. I was a figlia with a fever
/ & I doubled in the neck ...