Hysterical Ballads


WhateverWordsworth: Dear Reader is the Poet. The poet is above all a reader. Poetry is nothing more than hysterical citation. A love affair with the bust I’m drawing in college: I’ve made too soft the edges, and my teacher says, “Hannah’s having a love affair with marble.” I thought it looked like someone I knew, truth be told, and started breathing that adultery into it. Only I was eighteen, and that was never going to happen anyway: he was with an actress whose knees locked, but she was working through it. The text calls to you, like T. S. Eliot’s hyacinth girl. Her hair is wet in the rain, but the poet there isn’t speaking, maybe isn’t even alive, so you may as well jump in and play her. In college, I read “The Waste Land” footnotes all in a row, and not the poem; then the notes before the poem, deep breath, apple, tea, poem; then the notes, back and forth, with the poem; then one more time, back to the notes, just the notes. When someone I trusted said the notes were a joke, I felt like there was nothing else I would part with more willingly, except maybe my life, like Hamlet, melancholic, manic reader four hours in the halls where Ophelia will be loosed any moment now. I still read “The Waste Land” the way I first read it when I first “heard, half-heard in the stillness” of the bed in the room all those voices in the poem Eliot almost called “He Do the Police in Different Voices.” The working title that is not working.

The legacies of Eliot’s faux anti-confession, on the one side, and of American confession and the cult of personality, on the other, still argue like siblings within me, and make me ashamed of the feelings in the heart of the heart of my poems, but I’ve redoubled my efforts to express and erase myself in one gesture. The poet-reader-self speaking through intertextuality, affect, whim, touch, memory, one more thought, one last thought, and that’s all I’m going to say, whatever. It’s like you’re a schoolgirl and the teacher asks you to read your work, but you’d rather read the poem that inspired you or the eight things you were thinking about before you wrote it and the person you thought of after you wrote it, and then after all that when no one’s listening, quick, bullet-point-like, paraphrase your stupid shit, explain the double meaning of the title. There were years I kept my coat on in the house: “Take your coat off, take your coat off.” I was sweating, I was too skinny, I wasn’t eating, I was awkward like the line halting before something happens and the next line can begin, something else major and the next stanza can open. I love my feelings inside other people’s poems, and I can’t talk about mine without the books I was reading at the time, soundtracks of feelings.

The subject is obsession, not particulars. The speaking voice is historical, archival, confessional. The speaking voice is personae. The snake tongues of Medusa rattle nonsense out of the cranium into metrical prose. The subject is neediness. Urgency. The you is more often an I. Everything is a mask, including language, why Oscar Wilde said what he said about masks and the truth, and you don’t honestly want to hear that again. The subject is what my mother said all the time, “Why make mountains out of molehills?” I am sometimes talking to myself to make the past immediate. Or I’m having a moment with someone from another century and we’re laughing hysterically over pleasure and pain.

My entry into poetry began with two relatives in a psychiatric ward. Which brought about my first period, at fourteen. I had to walk to get tampons. I slept on the floor near my father’s bed. The poems I wrote had nothing to do with my fear of language inverting itself, hysterical prophecies, pre-elegiac suicide notes, pain I would know at the loss of my family. I wrote poems about unrequited love, as all teenagers do—why Keats says being sorry in love is the worst figure a man can cut. I was grimacing in self-pity and self-aggrandizement, magnetizing the voice inside my head to my RSVP blue pen, and I was bowing to my bed, lined paper against the starchy comforter, and then I stood at attention to receive a finished poem: my first poem! I was so serious about tapping into emotion, I didn’t want to waste my emotional energy on music, so I didn’t listen to any. Something in me wanted to work on poetry, I needed silence, a locked door. Turn off those terrible lyrics, clichés, and roses. I don’t know how long this lasted before it didn’t.

You never have to go too far to seek out pain or pleasure. They say everything you’ll need as writing fodder has already happened to you. Don’t miss the meaning. Have the experience; go back for the meaning, and pastiche it all together, this lifetime and that, this text and today, the weather and your children talking, this question and this other iteration, the painting and your anxiety. Everything you’ll need’s already happened, including all you’ve read up to that point. Amelia Bedelia even (the poor white who refuses to do any sensible work for the rich white folk), absurdist puns and jest, even, resulting in what one always wants to do: mix and create, be startled by your own chiming oven.

Why look for shepherds and boy idiots and thorns and mad mothers and whatever else when you’re your own best neurotic, sleeping shepherd boy, the sheep’s in the corn, the inconsolable grief of child loss, the heaving thing giving birth but herself not yet born. And then, there’s the pangs of lovesickness, the spectrum of the mood ring experienced in a moment, excess, silence, thoughts of death, suicide, female desire. The left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing. Poetry is you take this thing over here and you take this thing from way over here, and you bring them together, against each other. And if you care, if you’re milched with loss, then it will all work out; otherwise, there’s no exigency. No one cares unless you’re Barthes holding up the fucking image of your mother, the Winter Photograph, and then all the work makes perfect sense. You have to find your punctum. It’s usually to do with mothers.

One kind of son throws a whole cabbage at the chandelier. The same kind takes the medicine doll to the doctor’s home, points to the doll’s body where his mother’s sick. My son threw a book at me tonight. Then he put two pumpkin seeds to my mouth like extra communion. My daughter, the baby, turned the pages of her board book, ate the spine, the corners. My other daughter, the oldest, read the words “emerged from the darkness,” and she knew, intrinsically, my pleasure in hearing her own voice emerge from the darkness, like that, in a turn of phrase, from the back of the car. I couldn’t have expected it from out of nowhere, that language.



Cross-legged on a hill that’s snaggy with roots, my
plaid skirt, purple and gold, butchered with red rapiers,
I’m etching with a paperclip on a black page
the white eyeliner wisps of the dandelion. No,
irate quills. I’m sixteen, I’ve read both Cranes, I know too much to address
the universe, who has no “sense of obligation” to me, and I’ll never
fabricate my own “myth to lend to God” like the Brooklyn Bridge across time, space.
I would have said As if then, or, my favorite, Whatever.
The dandelion and I don’t ask too much of each other;
misrecognition is attentive enough. The asterisk
on a stalk fragging everything it loves, a flower
spreading out its sensations: my heart, that detonating kaleidoscope, 
when I’m on my period. With my mother, but do I
bring it back to her, or does she send me like that, in to school with 
what she said, “It’s like you can’t even stand yourself”?



William Cowper’s the stricken deer on the highway,
entrails, foamy guts, but pre-crow, splayed heeled feet in prayers 
muttered the night before, open-mouthed and going over the days 
like a shark tooth you show your brother. Slammed, trucked over 
when you hear the dream’s calling you a thee
in a tunneling dark between rooms, a corded tin,
or did you hear, A Happy New Year to Mr. Cowper,
it will find you working on your Homer!? 
It’s easier to work on Homer than yourself.
My aunt said we drank Emotional 
Iced Tea, that she, too, dwelled in
the absolute heights of emotion. Her cursive notes, 
nearly every word underlined like hangman letters.
My brother made it feel like if you came out of the closet

you leapt into your own unmarked grave.
Almost bereft of brother to suicide attempts,
the night he took all those sleeping pills and Benadryl,
he’d given me his prized possession, so I guess I should have
known, but didn’t, like when he said, What’s the one crime
you can’t be prosecuted for? Murder of the self, haha.
He gave me a collection of books so sticky 
with lip gloss sheen in patent red leather, a lame Reader’s Digest
set of classics, ugly as a church lady’s purse. Those books
I couldn’t read: they played scattered ghosts to his fantasy coffin.
Brother and sister, theologians of Calvinist suicide ideation. 
He told me the answer to my “Who Am I?” essay was 
“a damnable wretch.” I wrote the essay. I am still 
trying not to believe him. Red tulips, empty townhouses.



Obsession ad # 81, where a piece of hair skirts
across her eye across the bridge of her beautiful nose—
not that a broken nose would be bad; people used to roll lint,
make other bandages. She is whatever you want, 
even a little boy. Kate Moss, no shirt, breasts like targets. 
Hippie hair, part down
the middle. She is the skeleton 
in many photographs, both the woman’s skeleton 
and the child’s at her ankle. 
With degrees in Egyptology and Paleopathology,
a woman knows for certain a third of the dead are young. 
A child’s skull has legions in the eye sockets. 
Green eye paint is good for fighting infections; 
it’s because of the malachite. 
That’s nice in the way 

the Queen’s boyfriend, Leicester, placed his wife’s hat back on, 
having thrown or paid to have her 
thrown down her own steps. Did the woman tick a little
like the bird between steps near the bottom of the Duomo?
Not the only motive to move, 
pain. You’d run much faster, farther, 
from art, beauty just another kind of pain, 
why Wharton says we run from the opera 
faster than we flock there in carriages, 
New Yorkers fleeing, especially 
those who arrive late to begin with, Archer
with a name like Archer. He’s
so messed up, he’s like a tree the boys
use its own branches to hit it with. 



It gets better on its own: everything 
but not the wild grief of the inconsolable mother. 
Someone carries a tray of coffees. 
There’s no food. A hand from somewhere caresses the woman’s cheek. 
All her relatives and friends, even a small child, become her: 
geographical faces, heavy-lidded scraps of eyes, 
skin pleated, ploughed, and cross-hatched with crow’s feet, 
smile lines, barred foreheads, wavy and wrinkled riverbeds. 
Men’s faces so close they could be kissing. 
Three men link arms like girls hoarding the sidewalk 
with laughter. Faces from sepia ink to bundle of wheat carry the same burden 
as if you could go to bed as yourself 
and then wake up as her. Everyone looks the same when someone dies. 
Muted rupture, feigning the wild sublimity that comes with a wake. 

The hyacinth girls are sort of mourning, sort of
not. Pressing the inside of each other’s wrists
with hot cigarettes, until the skin has its own ash center.
They have matching nipple rings, left breast,
matching velvet hats, and when they go to the bathroom together,
they’re either doing coke or they’re lipstick lesbians surely,
but they entreat men to give all kinds of free therapy
for their public outbursts. The attentive talk is enough,
nothing done: no death bed conversion, no public crying, minimal
cheeses. They are writing poems and planning a dog tattoo. Who’s to say
what’s kindling? There’s the 90-day yoga challenge at U Street, there’s pink 
and red and blond highlights around the corner, four pairs of shoes each 
at Dupont, vodka and raisin diet, time to perfect emotion at
the bar Asylum, one of them is in the air with the bouncer.



Sheer dread. Why Henry Moore keeps up
with Henry Moore: turning the Madonna into knee, elbow, oval
with points, row of sleepers, all inventions 
on the level of Reproductive Physiologist Howard’s work 
with panda births or on the level of the penlight in the month-old 
giant panda’s mouth like yours. 
My mother thought it was the thunder of the end of the world
when it was just the garbage man. She said nothing,
then the ambulance came, and I thought they’d break
her shoulder. I was crying. In days, she was fine;
meds can activate psychosis.
I thought my baby was surely dying
while I was in the shower. It was a phantom cry. The baby 
sound asleep, tucked like a fluffy comma on the crib.


Excerpted from Hysterical Water, available now from Georgia Review Books / University of Georgia Press.


Hannah Baker Saltmarsh is an assistant professor of English at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her books include a work of literary criticism, Male Poets and the Agon of the Mother: Contexts in Confessional and Postconfessional Poetry (University of South Carolina Press, 2019), and the poetry collection Hysterical Water (Georgia Review Books/University of Georgia Press, 2021). She and her husband are raising two children and a baby.