Poetry for me has always been a 100 decibel alarm clock to the heart. Left to my own devices, I tend to read fiction that can transport me to other places and non-fiction that stimulates parts of my brain that I have allowed to lie fallow. I am selective and open to suggestions, yet my illicit affair with poetry has been secretive and accidental. It is something that I have tripped over, usually skinning my knee in the process, and as I clean the wound and reach for an anti-bacterial salve, I find myself willingly surrendering my inner joy and despair into the hands of a poet that I’ve never met but can read me like a book.
I remember memorizing ee cummings “what if a much of a which of a wind” because I loved how the words tangled my tongue and how the knot of words gave me hope out of chaos, ending with its last line “the most who die, the more we live.” But I will now always remember ee cummings’ love poem “i carry your heart with me” as the favorite of my nephew who ended his life, unable to cope with the pain of his inner self -- for him poetry could not heal.
I will always credit the poet Thomas Lynch with stopping me in my tracks as I heard him read his poetry on NPR from the perspective of an undertaker. He read from Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality only to be interrupted by my three-year-old daughter's voice from her car seat asking, "Mommy, will you die?" A month later I heard him read at the Edinburgh Book Festival and I cried, laughed, and cherished the note he inscribed in my book. His account of his son’s aging cat in “Grimalkin” is always good for overcoming the complexities that we parents find as our own children come of age. And if I was ever to be sent a love poem, let it be by Pablo Neruda. His collection of 100 Love Sonnets are music to any woman’s ear whether it be in Spanish or English translation.
But the fact is, all time favorite poems should last. They shout at you the first time you read them, and then caress you years later. You put yourself in the poem's hands and find something familiar, something new, something that resets your inner space. That is how it is with me and Stephen Dunn’s epic poem “Loves.” It goes on for pages, but it is an anthem to everything that is good in life, the sensual, the real, the pain, the forgiveness, and makes a compelling case that we are made to be feeling beings. When I have challenges with my work, I thumb forward to the section where he slides the “I quit” note under his bosses’ hotel room door. When I need strength, I read the stanzas that describe that moment of achievement in a sublime athletic act. And when I need someone to hold me and tell me it will be all right, I read the entire poem slowly and by the end I can face the world.
So, find your favorite poem, put yourself in a poet’s hands, and succumb.
An excerpt from "Loves" by Stephen Dunn:
"I love love, for example,
its diminishments and renewals,
I love being the
stupidest happy kid on the block."
"So good to find them:
the people who've
discovered fraudulence in their lives
who've cast off, say
a twenty-year lie."
"Those who've gotten away from me:
read this, and call.
Those whom I've hurt:
I wanted everything, or not enough.
It was all my fault."
"I love the number of people
you can love at the same time,
one deep erotic love,
radiating even to strangers,
cynics, making a temporary sense
of the senseless, choreful day."
"Listen, my truest love.
I've tried to clear a late century place for us
in among the shards.
Lie down, tell me what you need.
Here is where loneliness can live
and nothing's complete.
I love how we go on."