for when the poem hurts your pride

This is for the poems that stand defiant on the other side of the fence from you, sure that they have evaded your grasp, and you are tired, limb-tired, arms hanging off your shoulders like skinny stockings, and you are too tired to understand them.

This is for the poems that read me better than I read them, aloud in my office in the eerie stillness of an evening working too late, my halfhearted defiance against the ordinary. The poems that sat contented to watch me struggle in pronunciation or in prayer, poems that I imagine laughed at my third or fourth reading where I adopted a British accent in the hope that would uncover the meaning in the page.

Poems are meant to hurt our pride.

They are bruising things to the tender fruit of our thinking ourselves wise or right or people with understanding. The poems tear down our defenses. The poems reveal and reveal past layers of skin and shards of interpretation to that quickening heart, the one that beats and beats and goes on beating even in the longest day.

When I wind my way home on an afternoon, when I am convinced that I will be weighted and measured by the accomplishments that gather dust in the old battered shoe boxes at the top of the creaking stairs in my house, there the poems arrive.

One after another they cling to me like stubborn water, in my hair, in the hollow spaces of my ears.

I can hear them even now, their echoes –

“so, through me, freedom and the sea” (here)

“He had cancer stenciled into his face” (here)

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall ” (here)

“Out on the flats, a heron still
as a hieroglyph carved
carved on the soft gray face of morning.”(here)

That’s Pablo Neruda meeting Edward Hirsch meeting Robert Frost meeting Leonard Nathan.

And still, they devastate me with the promise that I am not the accomplishments, I am nothing as neat as a checklist or a perfect score. I am nothing as simple as dotted i’s, for the space between a lowercase i, ee cummings, and the regal I of Margaret Atwood’s “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing” – that is where  mystery begins.

If a poem was a graph, I think, I could map its meaning, plot it, make a line of best fit to zip the untidy grammar and preserve this idea that I can be known by what I do, and by that I mean you can know me by what I presume and present.

If a poem was a graph, but, then – a poem in the midst of the thought –

the small clustered army of empty boxes
marches across the white desert, line by starved blue line
awaiting the signal to scatter
plot, parabola, sharp V like the neat geese northbound
in June.

I can’t even write a post about poems without being taken up with the idea of one, the promise and peril of words on paper. These poems wound my pride until it sits meekly in the corner, finally, aware that there are a million acres of understanding between me and the poem, me and the poet, and those acres in an instant no distance at all.

This is for the poems that make me think I can never love poetry.

Those same poems preach in my worried heart that I wanted to be taught the wild love, and they are the unrepentant teachers.

These are the poems that will uncage us. These are the poems that call out our sweet, living flame.



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