Margi Condyles, 71, who lives in Beacon, has had “many iterations of professions” but recently returned to what she calls her first love: poetry. With National Poetry Month just around the corner, Alison Rooney spoke with Condyles about her love affair with words.
When did you begin writing?
My mother died in 1960, when I was 11, and at Christmas a relative gave me a diary with a locking key. It was fascinating to me that I could bare my soul and choose who could see it. I come from a large family, so privacy was always at a premium. I don’t remember what I wrote, but that was my first taste of writing: I could create my own thoughts and open up the universe, and no one could interfere.
You and math didn’t get along, right?
Definitely not. I went with the arts. I also was told, as a female, that math was not for me. Anything requiring rigorous discipline was for men, whereas softer subjects, like writing “nice words,” were for women.
A fair distance from the grey clay
Bluffs of the Lake Michigan shore,
In a field, as wild with stickly burrs
As the footpath through it
Is dry, toe soft and parting,
A black spider stands still.
Orange ribbons hold no hair
On its back, sleek with shine,
Smaller than a hand
That is smaller than it is now.
It doesn’t say a word.
But the early light knows
To bow deep, bring dew-flutes
In homage to its newest dwelling
Built in the rafters of weeds.
It doesn’t command.
But the whole of breath and air
Suck into its endless pointy,
Spindled legs to arrive at the
Core abdomen of wonder, floating.
Spider! Nowhere but here
Could wet silk bind a sky
That eats its clouds, freeze skinny
Limbs in shorts with pockets
Full of flowers, drive tall pines
Down, paste eyes wide
To a gleaming creature who is
Not looking at me. Spider! No one
But you could do the rumble
Without moving. Spider!
The grey clay bluffs plead and amuse
Through the years, but always,
I go back to the field of stickly burrs
To ask why, black spider, my breath,
Why, you never gave it back.
You also studied theater.
In middle school, in Holland, Michigan, my best friend and I and an English teacher worked to build the theater department. I later got a master of fine arts in theater at the University of Minnesota. In my second year, I directed Federico Garcia Lorca’s play, Blood Wedding. I was drawn to the script because I studied and loved his work as a poet. I tried playwriting, but found it much more difficult than poetry.
After graduating, I moved to Boston, did theater work and wrote poetry. I met my former husband there and we moved to New York and had two children. We moved to Mahopac and I needed a job that allowed me to drop my kids off at school and be there when they got off the bus. I was hired by a financial planner in Katonah. I discovered that the number stuff was unexpectedly fascinating.
The Summer of 1960
Dad drove that summer day.
He drove the family’s station wagon,
The one with panels the color of pea soup,
With fear penciled into his two-day chin.
Mom wanted to talk to me.
I knew that Holland Hospital was not white.
I knew, from before, the parking lot would be full,
And red bricks would face shrubs tinged brown.
We entered hallways that never seemed
To end, always somebody’s necessary equipment
Stacked outside door after wide door, on trays,
Traces of use glistening. We kept going.
And then, here I am, at your door, your auburn-haired daughter,
At the one door, sandals still sandy, toes needing
Solid ground, not able to push through. Dad’s
Hand nudges the high water mark of my neck.
And then, there you are, my auburn haired mother,
On the one pillow, thin as a birch leaf
Carried through winter, lifting your eyes,
Ones that I can see through, and turning
Away to hide the movement necessary
To slip from your aquiline nose the clear
Oxygen tubes, clear as you, knowing to protect.
Mary Francis, who gave me birth
And who took her hand and smoothed
The sheet, spreading a pool of grace,
The only white thing, onto the edge of the bed
Where I walked over, climbed up and sat.
In what way?
It’s been said that “mathematics is the music of the universe.” Numbers describe reality in a different way than words do. There’s a great book by a Harvard professor, Charles Davey, who says that that poetry uses language and words in such a way that it hits different parts of the brain: instinctive or inspirational. Words work in the brain in rhythmical ways. I was surprised at how much I loved numbers and continued to work with them, professionally. I became a partner in a financial firm that had an office in Brewster. I also joined the board of the Desmond-Fish Public Library in Garrison as finance chair, which led to many wonderful relationships in Philipstown.
Since retiring, you’ve had more time to write. What does it do for you?
It gets me back to myself. I’m a Gemini so I have a split personality: gregarious but contemplative, social but a kind of loner. As I’ve been going through my poetry and seeing what areas emerge, a lot of it is about being solitary in nature. At 8 or 9 years old, I went as far away as I could in nature; it was freedom. I could perceive the world through this authentic experience, without anybody telling me to stay on the path. My relationship with the environment grounded me — the earth gave me a sense of place and person, and that’s at the core of my life.
Has the pandemic had any influence on your creative output?
At first, the isolation triggered anxiety and suffering. But I found my balance. A couple of months ago I got out all my poetry and started to see patterns. I want to integrate my focus on people into my focus on the environment. I need to get back the discipline I had during different periods and apply that to my poetry.
I want people to know that you’re not done at 71. I have 30 years of writing poetry to come. In theater, I was always encouraged to see performers who weren’t recognized until they were 40 or 50 or older. You can so easily feel that you’re “done” — and that’s not a good thing.