Working a poem: The Preacher Man Saves Lily’s Soul

A) 2001-2002 series of revisions

So I drafted this poem. The purpose was to tell the story of how the protagonist gets saved. It’s important for a whole lot of reasons, not least of which is setting the context for her later life. So I drafted a poem about a revival and about salvation, and set it out like this:

***

Nov 11, 2001

The Preacher Man Saves Lily’s Soul (1914)

The first night of the revival, Naomi and Annie
scrubbed their skins fresh for God, and wrapped
Annie’s three children in the care of Pa Charles.

They returned from the tent, their faces stricken with light.

The second night of the revival, Naomi helped Annie
dress up her daughters, lifted her son, and walked
the dusty road all the way to the tent.
Lily wore her father’s ring on a chain around her neck.
It was July. The world still mourned
a tragic prince, and Great Britain planned
to fight to end all war. Isaiah Jackson,
twenty-eight and soft-faced, smoothed fingers
down the page of his Bible and sparked fires with his words.

Come down Jesus
come down
Fall down Spirit
fall down

They returned from the meeting, their fingers tingling with might.

The last night of the meeting, Lily held on to Annie
while Isaiah sang salvation, clutched tight her name-ring,
saw the world turn around her, and fell
to the floor, her voice caught and not hers.

She returned from the tent, her skin Christ-stricken bright.

On her neck was a welt where the chain had stung.
In her palm was the imprint of a pewter ring.

*****

This is the initial draft of the poem that I wanted to become “The Preacher Man Saves Lily’s Soul”. Here are the elements that I then thought needed to be covered: the date, and its significance in history; the fact that Lily and her mother were saved during a Pentecostal revival; the place, which was the black quarters of town — in 1914 (and indeed until the 1950s) Nassau had black quarters and white areas of town. I also wanted to remind readers of Lily’s father, whose ring had been left with her at her birth. But what I really really wanted this poem to do was to weave some of the magic of the time, the revival, the people. And so this draft, which lays out these things, albeit imperfectly.

The elements are there; what’s missing is the poetry. And even with the elements, there’s too much detail; we don’t need to know about Pa Charles, or about Lily’s siblings, or her grandmother. It’s about her salvation really.

The first strophe is prose with linebreaks, and so is the second. The refrain indicates what I was going for — the hypnotic repetition of revivals, of preachers in revivals, but it’s not there yet. The last strophes have some idea of what I wanted to accomplish, but they’re unfocussed. I’m not interested in Lily’s skin here but her soul. Her name-ring isn’t crucial (though I haven’t realized it yet). So I revised.

*****

In this next draft, I’m playing with poetry. I’m not dealing with structure yet, with the plot as it were, but with sound and rhythm to try and get the piece in some poetic shape. The one thing I have decided is that the story’s got to be Isaiah’s because he’s the main actor. This is going to be a problem throughout — how to balance the characters who are assembling to tell Lily’s story with Lily’s story itself. In this one there’s not enough about Isaiah yet — so I moved him to the top of the poem.

***

November 16, 2001

The Preacher Man Saves Lily’s Soul (1914)

Isaiah Jackson smoothed fingers
down the page of his Bible and sparked fires with his words.

The first night of the revival, Naomi and Annie
scrubbed their skins fresh for God, and wrapped
Annie’s three children in the care of Pa Charles.

Annie returned from the tent her face stricken with light a fresh acolyte.

The second night of the revival, Naomi helped Annie
pulled tight the girls’ hair, jacketed her son,
and walked them down the dusty road to the tent.
Lily wore a face scrubbed pink and a starched white smock;
she hung her father’s ring on a chain around her neck.
(It was July. The world still mourned
a tragic prince, and Scotland planned
to fight to end all war.)

Come down Jesus
come down
Fall down Spirit
fall down

They returned from the meeting, their fingers tingling with might.

The last night of the revival, Lily let go of Annie
while Isaiah sang salvation, clutched tight her name-ring,
watched the world turn round her, and fell
to the floor, her voice caught and not hers.

She returned from the tent, her skin Christ-stricken bright.

On her neck was a welt where the chain had stung.
In her palm was the imprint of a pewter ring.

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