I have a new love. It’s called poetry. I have an old love. It’s called poetry, too. They are finally meeting one another, in the space of my mind.
While cleaning out my computer several months ago, I found a rich text file that held just one poem, with no attribution or signature. I honestly was not sure if it was someone else’s work, or mine. I went digging through my journals from around the time of the file’s creation, and finally found its match, in my own blue cursive handwriting. Here is just a part of it, the part I can stand to share:
why have I not saved the moth?
why have I not cupped my palms around
her brown-traced wings and fluttery body
and delivered her to the sharp blue air?
she and I have both been frantic
for at least three days now
brought to our knees by these small walls
each from our own scene of entrapment
we seek something frightening from the fire
Now, here is why this discovery is strange. I have always loved reading poetry. And if you went through my years and years of journals and recorded each poem I copied out in their pages you would probably have a pretty good poetic map of my life. But it would be a map in someone else’s words, not mine. Because poems are the kind of thing that have typically only emerged from me in a state of intoxication, or in fragments when I am on long rambles by myself. Like this, which I wrote in my head last fall after hearing that a dear friend was considering leaving town:
Little yellow bird lifts off a fence post
I can not follow you with my eyes
I tend to put poetry in the same category as fine art and wine — things about which I know next to nothing, except whether I love them or don’t understand them at all. I do have books of Dickinson, Rilke, Whitman, Derek Walcott, Loren Eiseley and Mary Oliver on my shelf, but I rarely pick them up (though I sometimes claim that Mary Oliver saved my life). About three years ago, I tried out a suggestion to do something I love before doing anything else upon waking each morning. The thing I chose to do was read a poem. Sometimes I remember this suggestion, and when I do it makes a difference, but mostly I forget. And it’s true that I am always stopped short by haiku, perhaps because the astonishing simplicity of a very short poem creates the same feeling inside me as a peerless line of prose. Both can make me stop and look up at the world with new eyes, or make me close my eyes and roll the sounds and feelings of the words around inside my mouth and mind. But poetry, god forbid, has never been something that I do. In fact, when I met a new friend last year to discuss my leap into creative writing, she said, “At least you’re not a poet!” We laughed. Whew! At least I’m not a poet!
Because now I am writing a poem almost every day (and sometimes in the middle of the night).
At the end of April I attended a day-long workshop on poetry and meditation with John Tarrant, Roshi, who is both an accomplished poet and the director of my Zen center, the Pacific Zen Institute (PZI). I almost didn’t go, but something pulled me there. PZI is committed to the (inevitable) fusion of koan study and art, no matter what such a fusion might look like in an individual’s life — be it painting, music, poetry, worklife inspiration, or something completely, breathtakingly new. After my first time in retreat with the community, I went home and told my husband, “There is such a huge, open-hearted trust there in each person’s light — like nothing I have ever experienced before.” Why wouldn’t I want to go hang out in such a place, with such people, and with poetry, too? So I went.
And the most mysterious thing about that whole day is that I was already writing poetry on my way there. It’s like you start the journey as soon as you decide to make it. As I drove down my mountain road, and made stops at the library to drop off books and the post office to mail a letter, I was washed by an internal lilt of words and a wondrous freshness of vision. The whole world felt like a poem.
Six gulls lift from the library parking lot.
They slide across the low morning air and
circle the high school football field lights.
The ocean swell is miles away
yet they arrive —
the liquidity of air is in sight.
And since that day, this feeling hasn’t really stopped. A walk in the woods, a trip to the dentist, dark places in my memory — they all feel like poems happening in real time.
Which, ironically, is why you have not heard much from me on this blog since April. Most of what I have been writing since then is poetry that I am not ready to put into the internet glare, as well as some very intimate personal writing that feels like an extension of the poems themselves. I did give my husband a three-stanza poem for our 12th anniversary, and read it out loud to our children. I’ve shared some of my poems with my teacher at PZI, because they feel inseparable from my work with her. And I posted one poem called “Oak Moth” on the website allpoetry.com, just to see what would happen. Here’s what happened: I got a three-heart rating and the words: “Not interested in technique, just feeling. Hit the mark for me! Oak moth…love.”
I know I have a lot to learn about the craft of poetry, and the way it may or may not continue to weave itself into my writing and my life, but for now I am savoring the reawakening of an old love, and my wide-eyed beginner’s mind.