portion of the artwork for JR Walsh's poetry

Aïcha Martine Thiam’s Comments

These five poems are from the second poetry collection I put together, Burn the Witch—which, funnily enough, was initially called Esprit d’Escalier. More on that in a minute. Where my first poetry collection was very internal, very intrinsic, a sort of ode to the fleeting, isolating, and ever-changing nature of trauma, this one asks much more concrete questions: what becomes of truth when it is so steeped in nuance, when it gets diluted into half-fables?

A lot of the poems from Burn the Witch were sparked by memories I shared with others, letters of sort to people who have been seminal to my coming-of-age; things I didn’t say, should have said more clearly, never should have said … esprits d’escaliers, in short.

Seen through this lens of remembrance, at the center of Burn the Witch, and reflected in these five poems, are the dual notions of aloneness vs. loneliness, community vs. individuality, and facades vs. authenticity. More specifically, the lengths we go to in order to hide those softest parts of ourselves, the relentlessness with which we put on a play in front of others: simultaneously because we want to pretend that we belong, and because we want to keep people at an arm’s length from what we believe is unlovable, inside us.

Retrospect Talk
Everything about this one was unintentional: I never expected to be addressing a person I long put on the back-burner of my mind. It initially emerged from a place of anger—a petulant, almost childish impulse to rail at someone long gone, who isn’t able to rage back. But once I started writing it, despite my greatest efforts, it became like a needle that kept erring on the side of indulgence. I found myself revisiting this memory with gentleness, I found myself asking questions instead of pointing accusatory fingers: and I think this was the turning point, during the writing process of Burn the Witch. This is when I realized that the trickiness of Memory + the subsequent emotional sleight-of-hand were starting to become the nucleus of this collection.

Page-Turning as a Declaration of Love
By the time I wrote this one, I was still coasting on the influence of “Retrospect Talk,” and the desire to do some gentle self-scrutiny. It wasn’t hard to find that same indulgence in Memory, even if said memories were about disintegrating love and disintegrating trust.

It’s one of the last poems I wrote, although I’ve had it dancing around my head for years. As a musician, I’ve had a lasting fascination with page-turning: the exquisite nonverbal, the absolute trust and understanding, the terrifying vulnerability, they are unparalleled. I’ve observed that dynamic up-close, having been in both positions—that intoxicating tension of either knowing your performance hinges on how well the other person can read you, or else knowing that the other person’s smooth performance rests (quite literally) in your hands. It is not unlike what love feels like, to me: like music, transcending confounding words, uncomfortable misunderstandings, and unnecessary egotism.

On That Ghost We Saw in the Park in Potomac
I dreamt this poem during a bout of fever a couple of years ago, and I woke right up and wrote it down, which is probably why it tests the line of magical realism. That said, it is probably the poem most rooted in veracity: we did have a gorgeous salmon-shaped serving plate, I’ve been fantasizing about running away into the woods from the moment I could walk, and more importantly, I did have an ~encounter~ in the park near my house as a child. Whether it was a ghost, a figment of my overactive imagination, or some creepy lurker, I’ll never be able to explain it, and have stopped trying to.

I’ve always believed in ghosts, as manifestations of grief, of secrets, of Shadow Selves. I write obsessively about grief, about mental illness blooming in us like endless hauntings. Around the time I dreamt this poem, I’d just come back from a strange and breathless summer in Potomac. I’d been thinking about my mother, about childhood, about being a quiet and lonely kid, about turbulent adulthood, about conflict, about infighting, about finding refuge in fantastical stories, about feeling as disconnected from everything and everyone as ever—and clearly, these feelings bled into my restless nights.

When You Let Me Come Up
I’m not sure if it was something I was asking myself, or a statement I was making about the way I viewed others, but this became the answer to a lot of the poems I wrote for Burn the Witch:
A sucker for ambiguity, I am. Genius and mundane, when
coin-tossed, often look the same.
In the same way that I analyze people through their tastes in music and film, books have always been a shorthand for understanding others. But it has, at times, been the greatest trap; it is so easy to hide behind artistic tastes, so easy to mask or fabricate a personality through them, to conceal trauma beneath a perfectly crafted aesthetic. I know this, I have done this. It’s that aforementioned “community vs. individuality, and facade vs. authenticity” that attracts me to people and dissuades me from them—it’s what surely dissuades people from me as well.

Esprit d’Escalier
Although Esprit d’Escalier became Burn the Witch, this piece is one of the very first I wrote, and many of the subsequent pieces in this collection carry the essence of this poem: this questioning, this wielding of Memory in order to get at something deeper.

“Esprit d’Escalier” is a bit of a reverse situation from “Page-Turning” and “Retrospect Talk” in that I came at it with levity, but found myself going in the opposite direction.

There is something about friendships between little girls that puts other kinds of relationships to shame. The intensity, both destructive and bordering on romance, is unmatched, and this was very much one of those bonds. But going beyond that symbiotic time in my life, this poem is very much about that loss of profound attachment, that loss of a soul mirroring another soul. It is perhaps the earliest time that I realized that there was this push-pull I was struggling with, of craving connection, and fearing it; of leaning into the comfort of shared trauma, and wanting to shirk it completely in favor of a more brittle kind of strength.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 56 | Fall/Winter 2020