The Helens of Troy, New York

I love this idea! Bernadette Mayer wraps her poetry skills around an investigation of all the women named Helen who live in Troy, NY. She interviews them, photographs them, then writes their poems. Some are hardcore sestinas or villanelles, others merely meander.

My favorite was that of Helen Crandall Whalen, a looping villanelle. What’s that, you ask? Officially it’s a French poem highly structured with five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas. Bernadette flexes it up a bit.

Helen Crandall Whalen Villanelle

everybody died
i’m learning to control my temper
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

there were cameras in the store
i don’t have to look
everybody died

one helen’s enough, trust me
i love reading books
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

people think i’m stupid
i went to proctor’s theater
everybody died

there’s nothing more to say
my hair’s braided like a family
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

if you did something wrong, they punished you
one helen is enough, trust me
i don’t have to look

she was mean
she didn’t like any of the crandalls
one helen is enough, trust me

i had to clean other people’s houses
for a dollar a day
my hair’s braided like a family

if you did something wrong, they punished you
one helen is enough, trust me
i don’t have to look

she was mean
she didn’t like any of the crandalls
one helen is enough, trust me

i had to clean other people’s houses
for a dollar a day
my hair’s braided like a family

i’m 66 & smart as a whip
they’d call me the orphan-brat
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

when you’re an orphan you do anything
i went to proctor’s theater
i’m learning to control my temper

it’s been rough
my favorite color’s maybe yellow
everybody died
i took off, it was fun, i loved it