I wrote the following poem in March of 1999 for my sophomore honors English class in high school. For the topic of our poems, we were to pick a character from one of the books, short stories, or plays we had read during that semester. I chose Mary from the play Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill.
Spoiler alert for a play published in 1956 (to give some setup for Mary’s character)- the play takes place over the course of one day with a particularly dysfunctional family. Mary, the matriarch, is struggling with insomnia and morphine addiction and relapses. She rambles on about how much she loves fog and hates the foghorn that they can see and hear from their seaside home. Mary expresses regrets in her life, worries about her son’s health, waxes poetic about past happier times, and fantasizes about accidentally overdosing. At midnight during the last act, Mary wanders the house high on morphine, carrying her old wedding gown.
Our class was to follow a formula for writing this particular poem. I wish I still had it, but as you can guess, some lines had to be three -ing verbs. One line had to compare her to a color, another line was used to compare her to a food. Another line for her scent (where I referenced her wedding dress). The second stanza included how she treats others, how others view her, and how I see her. And so it goes.
I remember spending freshman and sophomore years of high school having a lot of fun learning about symbolism in literature and then struggling to write about it. For Mary’s character, the way she talked about fog as synonymous with being high and numbing out (and hating the foghorn, because it was reality jarring her back), the symbolism for this poem practically wrote itself.
Overdose of Fog
a kind but nervous woman,
lost in the soupy fog of a harbor on the bay.
drifting, floating, dreaming,
fooling, hiding, addicting.
a gray curtain of depression envelopes her.
she clings to the past like ivy to a wall,
scared to ever let go.
She longs for the pale blue twilight to turn to midnight purple.
she plays host to the darkness and the visiting damp, heavy screen of haze as it rolls in,
one comforting layer after another.
She treats others with worried love.
others react with sympathy, growing impatience, anger, and frustration.
They Want The Real Mary,
not the timid mouse she has become,
the one with fake glossy marbles for eyes,
scurrying through the shadows to avoid all possible reality.
I pity that mouse.
an empty Shell of a Body.
the scent of damp cement and dank clothing trails behind her.
Her flavor is that of moldy bread:
musty and rotting with old memories and regrets.
When will she take her next dose?
What else has she to live for?
An overdose of fog is all she needs…
…but damn that foghorn.
At the time I wrote this, I was very proud of it, and I am happy to report that I still am, all these years later. Part of the reason why this poem stands out for me is because it was blindly voted the best in my class by my peers and earned a perfect grade as a result.
It was around this time that I first fancied myself as a writer with any kind of real potential, so sharing this early piece of writing more publicly is a gesture that I consider to be…vulnerable, but I also share it with excitement and pride in a show-and-tell kinda way. You know what I mean.
Sidenote: Ever a rule-follower, I remember feeling quite nervous that I included a –gasp!– swear word in the last line of a school assignment. But the play was filled with swear words as I recall, and so it fit Mary’s character. Plus, my teacher for that class swore (…didn’t he?). At any rate, nobody cared, and when my teacher read it aloud to the class, he actually put emphasis on the word, exactly as I thought it should be read: “…but damn that foghorn.” If only my swear-phobic 16-year-old self could see my blogger-motherfucking self now.