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.
6 World 8-4 is the final level of Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers video game, a world I never reached despite years of play. Here is a walkthrough of that level: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7654T9bxP9U
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.
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. My neck?
Rather my baton, spilling white glitter.
Pretty. I thought I’d die soon
& warp to World 8-4. I’d take
a running jump up orange broken steps
to find my long-ago figlia. Her fever
thinner than her thin dress falling
past her tender baby-knees. I knew her.
I thought I’d die pretty soon
& leave the shadow of my rash
hot patch of strawberry skin for her to keep
from long ago. Dearest figlia, my fever
was so soon. Thought I’d die pretty.
First Published by Prac Crit.