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MIT student blogger Shuli J. '22

Poemtober! by Shuli J. '22, MEng '23

the only thing harder than writing is not writing

You might have heard of inktober, a recent phenomenon where artists draw a picture for a different prompt every day in October. This year, one of my friends from hall, Lisa T. ’20, and I decided to do “poemtober,” where we write poems to the inktober prompts. We’re both not really artists (or not as much as I’d like to be, anyway), but we wanted to exercise our creative muscles a bit and it came up that we both like to write! We have very different styles, as you’ll see — I got her permission to publish a few of each of our favorites below, and I’ve noted which prompt each poem was written to.

I didn’t manage to write for every single prompt, because, like, life, but I did make it through a lot of them. When I fell behind, sometimes I would combine prompts, and I actually really like a lot of the poems that came out of these. It was interesting to see what just sprang out of my pen and what was really hard to write — since the prompts were intended for art rather than poems (and I think, especially, not for serious poems), some of them are…. interesting. I got very lucky with “drooling” and had some same-day inspiration, but “roasted,” “chicken,” and “whale” didn’t come to me so easily :P

I always have mixed feelings about my own writing in the moment, as one does, but when I look back over the stuff I wrote in Oct., I really like a lot of it! I’m glad that I wrote a lot more than I normally would have, pushed myself a little, and created some nice words. This also shows me that I don’t have to sit around for two months waiting for the perfect phrase to come to me, which is my usual style. I definitely couldn’t keep this up all year round, but I will try to write a bit more in the future, I think :)

Les voilà! (Lisa’s is first, then I alternated them; also, she likes capitals more than I do.)


10/2: Tranquil

My bare feet brush across the rain-soaked pine needles. My fingertips trace the damp, grooved bark of the fallen trees – their ancient, winding roots torn from the earth, their majestic crowns too heavy to weather the gale. The rolling hills are littered with broken branches and cracked cobblestones; rivulets of mud, silt, water, and debris pool in the dips and valleys.

The wind is still now, though the humidity weighs upon my every breath. Thunderheads, dark and tense and low, press down upon my skin, my land, my sky. All around, lightning ripples, crackles, courses through my veins. I lift my arms and my voice, and sing, elegiac, to the open air.

There is always a storm just past. There is always a storm to come. I am ready.

The deepest tranquility I have ever felt is here, in the eye of the hurricane.


10/10: a start [exhausted/star/precious/flowing]

from an exhausted star,
all her energy expended and nothing left but to give up and die,
were we born.

what a power it takes to say, and mean it,
that your bones will give rise to flowers —
flowers you cannot see nor control.

i imagine the stardust and the light flowing out of her, the precious currency of life —
what a power it takes to let go, and watch,
as your blood streams out of you to found another race.

in the myths it’s always unwillingly we were created, or accidentally,
but i like to think our mother knew it was the best (the hardest?) thing she could do with the power she had left,
and in the moment that she traded her life for our being,
she knew it was worth it.


10/4: Spell

The mountains were once the bodies of giants,

and the forests their dying blessings.

The sweet meadow air was a spell of the faeries,

and the flowers their final wishes.


Bow your humble head, child;

face this sacred sublime.

Let the magic fade, child;

give your final farewell.


For it is all too old, too wild,

too motherly and monstrous,

for the likes of us to bear.


10/9: like a sack of potatoes [drooling]

the windows are dark,
but the plane’s purple night-lighting makes everything seem just almost as though it has colour.
i tread carefully on my way to the bathroom, my legs cramped and unused.

two people occupy seat 11A: a man and his sleeping daughter, age three perhaps,
and i pause only for a moment not meaning to stare
and see him wipe the drool off her chin as he holds her in his arms.

right as i left for the airport my father came to me,
wanting to show me how to take care of my bike,
an image flipped and superimposed, now,

and i feel his arm around me as i wonder if,
when he looks at me,
he sees a three year old whose drool he once carefully and lovingly wiped —
if he sees every person i have ever been,
and how overwhelming that would be.
how very many lives you must be able to hold in your hands,
if you want to be a parent.


10/8: Star

Last night when the lake froze over, I wrapped myself in a warm wool coat and pulled on gloves and hat and scarf, walked out over the moonlit snow and saw trillions of stars reflected there in that icy mirror.

I laid down on that polished surface, felt the stars solid below me, saw the stars shining above me, and wondered, wondered, wondered. I thought about the vastness of the world, the limitations of my life and my experience; about all the beauty that I had and had not seen, all the cruelty that I could and could not change; how each action I took was both immense and infinitesimal, how ineffable and inexplicable it all was.

I wept, and after my tears had frozen onto the quiet ice, I stood and walked home. I curled up on the cushions by my windowsill with a novel and a hot cup of chamomile tea, and watched the snowfall until I drifted off to a peaceful sleep.


10/30: and if my hands hold yours? [gift]

you can hand me so much with your words —
although sometimes i feel that in the giving you are taking.
interesting that;
but between maybe 11 and 12 —

(i’ve scheduled the rest of my time for other anxieties) —

i wonder if it is i doing the taking.
around 11.45, i add,
maybe this is how it is. maybe it is not possible for anyone to give any person anything;
and of course when i walk to class in the crisp air at 8.55, what a dumb idea,
and instead i muse on the nature of these crooked and messy handcrafted gifts we give,
on the tangled yarn skeins i have accepted into my being and burned for warmth.
i don’t know if i am taking something from you, in the admitting of this. actually –
perhaps like a doped semiconductor even our holes carry electricity;
perhaps, although i do take, it is taking that you need to survive.

i don’t know.
i am standing here with my hands full of phrases, spilling everywhere, and who knows if they are mine or yours, but i suppose we must attempt to cobble them together,
to shove them together,
into something somehow that heartens us both.


10/12: Whale 

I dreamt of a haunting whale-song, encased in arctic ice

I carved a chisel from my bones to free it

The song flooded my lungs, drowned me

Harmonious and sweet

I closed my eyes and knew peace


I sunk to a village on the soft sea-floor

By a quaint cottage with seaweed swaying on the lawn

A loving couple chatting on the front porch swing

Their radio playing that same whale-song

I asked their names

Sedna, Ophelia, they said, and invited me in for tea


I woke with memories of the advice they gave

Promises of hope, love, a better life waiting

Whale-song ringing crystalline in my ears