Concerning Craft: Lisa Rosinsky

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Please meet Lisa Rosinsky. Lisa studied creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, but has been voraciously reading and prolifically writing at least since the age of 10. Lisa was a finalist for the Southwest Review’s 2012 Morton Marr Poetry Prize, and has been published in a variety of journals and anthologies.

We published her poem “Watching Bernstein’s Mass without You” in our Summer 2013 Music issue. Here she is reading that poem and another piece at our launch event:

Here are the insights she had to share about the writing and refinement of the poem:

“Watching Bernstein’s Mass without You” was drafted almost five years ago, in a red spiral-bound notebook, during the aftermath of my first breakup. That heartbreak was the worst pain I’d ever been through, and it lasted for years (although they were productive years, poetically speaking!) My family was historically Jewish, but atheist in practice; my boyfriend was a devout Catholic. During our three years together, I studied religion deeply and came close to converting to Catholicism.

In October 2008 at the Baltimore Symphony, I saw a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, a piece that concerns religious doubt and suspicion of the Church. The music and lyrics resonated so deeply with my own confusion that I found myself scribbling before the piece was even over, hunched over my notebook in the dark concert hall. I don’t remember consciously choosing the sonnet form; I think the poem was so tightly wound with emotion that it fell into rhymed quatrains naturally.

I struggled with the first line, starting out with “What I confused you with was God, himself,” then changing it to “What I confused you with, my love, was God,” and then “What I confused you with was God. You said” (enjambed with “Ite misse est” on the next line). At last, I chose “What I confused you with was maybe God,” in favor of the strong end-word “God.”

The rest of the first quatrain fell quickly into place, constructed around the dismissal, resistance, and fracture in the end of a relationship. The speaker is told “Go in peace. Ite misse est,” (lit. “Go, the Mass is ended”) by her lover, but she is “still on [her] knees”—in prayer, in pleading, or in despair. A line from Bernstein’s libretto, “How glass shines brighter when it’s broken,” imbues this moment with potency, and deftly introduces the imagery of shattered glass as a metaphor for the broken relationship and ensuing crisis of faith.

The rest of the poem continues to explore the theme of brokenness by setting up dualities between Hebrew and Latin cognates for Jewish and Catholic terms, and ultimately relegating all of these words into the same category of “fool[ish]” language. In the second stanza, the speaker describes the Catholic and Jewish names for God (Domine and Adonai) as “shards” that “cut my lips.” Similarly, I paired “kadosh” and “sanctus,” the respective Hebrew and Latin words for “holy,” before referring to them as “snakelike” words, setting up a tension between religion and nonbelief and a suspicion of religious language in general that denotes the speaker’s struggle with faith.

Until my final draft, the third quatrain and closing couplet read: “But Jesus promised that he’d come again: / I wonder sometimes if, outside my dreams, / you still dare say prayers for me, and wonder when / again is. “Adon-ai-don’t-know,” it seems / that I’ve impaled myself upon a sword / spelled mea culpa, mea culpa, Lord.” In the final draft, though, I changed the third quatrain rhyme scheme to “again / Jerusalem / when / Hashem.” I liked the way the words were all slant rhymes—as if the poem were spiraling in on itself from the sheer weight of its intensity. Against that stack of slant rhymes, the final couplet’s rhyme scheme falls into stronger relief, with those all-important end-words “sword” and “Lord.”

The meaning of the final couplet also underwent a drastic change. In all four drafts, I “impaled myself” in those lines. But in my final draft, I impaled Hashem instead (Hashem is Hebrew for “the name,” another way of referring God)—I’d decided it was time to exonerate myself from the pain that had befallen me, to point a finger where I felt blame was due. I was angry at the whole concept of God for a few years, because, as I wrote in the very first line, I’d confused my love with God himself. I’d worshipped that relationship and, in doing so, set myself up for a massive crisis of faith with its demise—a crisis that I saw mirrored in Bernstein’s work, and set out to capture in this poem.

Note: If you enjoyed Lisa’s poem, you might also enjoy Ilse Munro and Avraham Azrieli’s piece on religious doubt. More poetry and prose from our Music issue can be had by purchasing copies of that issue online.

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