Last Wednesday, I read Liz Deere’s exceptional blog post, “Life Savers.” In it, she explains the origins behind a question I’ve heard asked, and liked, for a while now: What is saving your life? I encourage you to go read the post, and the rest of Liz’s work. For Liz, meeting around the table with friends was saving her life. Poetry was saving mine.
Tyler had had a long, rough day. I lay down on the couch with him for a while, until he was soothed and asleep, then slipped away and fetched the book I’d started several days earlier: Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. I bought the book years and years ago. I’ve even given it to others, on all the highest recommendations, without having read it.
At the moment, I’m galloping through my existing library, trying books I’ve had for years, giving them just 20 minutes to capture me or they go in the “to give away” pile. Even books I finish and thoroughly enjoy, I often put into the “to give away” pile. I don’t need them taking up space on my shelves or in the future’s moving truck unless I intend to treasure them for years. And a great many books, though I enjoy them, are not that way. Many were, but I no longer need them as I once did. I want them to go to people who need their stories, who will read and love them as they were meant to be read and loved.
Several nights before as I prepared to take a long, hot bath, I picked Brown Girl Dreaming because it is a memoir in verse and I expected it wouldn’t take me long to finish. I felt almost manic that night, wanting to get things done, get things through, to add to my piles and give one pile away. But I couldn’t go to sleep that way.
One of the many wonders of poetry is that it doesn’t care about your desired pace. In poems, time and rhythm and pacing and focus exists differently, uniquely, almost-but-not-quite rigidly.
Reading a book of poetry, whether done over years or a few hours, is like slipping your head under the meniscus of the ocean. You can surface after each poem or stay under and explore the depths until your lungs burn and your legs feel leaden. But for every moment you are reading, your body moves with foreign resistance and unearned grace. The currents determine how quickly and how well and they are not yours. They don’t listen to you. Someone else has already decided how this will flow. The experience can leave one gasping and disoriented or invigorated and refreshed. I have enough experience with poetry, like swimming, that I’m usually of the latter. Even so, I can put my head up and find the landscape completely changed from what I remember.
When I finished the last poem in Woodson’s collection, I wrote “Mom” on a blue post it and stuck it to the front cover. Then I curled up next to Tyler and let my mind float again through the words and phrases, images and sounds I’d gathered while swimming. And it sustained me long past when he woke.
The following morning I encountered a photo of Mary Karr’s poem, “VI. Wisdom: The Voice of God” from her new collection, Tropic of Squalor. “Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you,” the poem begins, “could be cured with a hot bath”.
Yes, I thought. Brown Girl Dreaming.
A story also surfaced, one I heard Mary Karr tell at a lecture at Georgia Southern when I was still an undergrad there. When Karr was an alcoholic, and when she and her husband were divorcing, she would hear a voice that tried to take care of her. It said things like, “You should make a sandwich.” And when she’d keep listening, it said, “You haven’t eaten all day. You should make a sandwich.” That voice was so kind, so wise, so invested in her well-being that she appreciated it and gradually learned to listen to it. That voice, she told us, she eventually understood as the voice of God.
“VI. Wisdom: The Voice of God” she’d titled the poem. “Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you could be cured with a hot bath…”. And at the end, ”Put down that gun, you need a sandwich.”
The ocean of poetry is as much a gift from God as the air around us, the sandwich that will sustain us. And poetry is saving my life this week.
“I Wash the Shirt” by Anna Swir
“Mad Girl’s Love Song” by Sylvia Plath
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes
“Bareback Pantoum” by Cecilia Woloch
“This Happened” by C. K. Williams
“Apostrophe to the Apostrophe” by Eric Nelson
Novels and Collections:
Brown Girl Dreaming Jacqueline Woodson
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Teratology by Susannah Nevison
A Book of Luminous Things edited by Czeslaw Miłosz
On Paying Attention by James A. Autry