Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Defense for Delight

I liked a boy once who told me I would never be a poet, simply because I laughed too much. He told me I could arm wrestle Hemingway in prose, but I simply lacked the seriousness of poetry. "Poets are serious people," he said, " They are mysterious and fierce." I am sure I nodded and looked at my shoes, black. And my jeans, black. Ran my fingers through my cropped short hair, black. I was posing in dress, but I couldn't help myself. I liked to laugh.
And deep down, I think he liked that fact too. He would show up at my window in the early hours of six am after working the night shift at the undergraduate library or even spending the early hours with some other girl. It didn't matter. He threw stones at my window, never coming in, waiting until I walked out and then we would talk into the morning. We walked the early sleepy city that never woke before eight and talked and talked of Marquez, Whitman, and always Yeats. We just talked until he would fall silent, retire to his house with the rising sun and not be seen until the following weekend.

Sure, it sounds so cliche and naive, and it was. We never kissed and I think he kept it that way. My ability to find humor in moments of seriousness intrigued him, but really laughter was just too simple, too vulnerable. After he graduated, he left for Mexico, for Chiapas, for seriousness.
I didn't hear much from him until he called me up one summer while I was living at my parents. Said he had to see me. His voice urgent and still. I gave him the address and sure enough, he arrived at my house, close to dawn outside my window. We walked to the lake and he told me of the intensity of travels of how he wanted to go back, how he was writing about it all. How Mexico had changed him. But it hadn't. He still preferred lines of  Yeats to his own feelings and found my humor a shortcoming. I remember my mother taking a picture of us, on the steps outside of my house and me wanting nothing more than to leave him on the steps, leave his heaviness for himself. We never did kiss, not even by the lake, not even after he had traveled so far. Kissing was like laughter for him, something of a distraction.

I was distracted too those days. Perhaps by my own quest for heaviness, my own ideas of travel and searching for something dark, "mysterious and fierce," like he had said I needed to be. Despite my earnestness in my search, I don't think I ever changed. I wasn't searching to prove to that boy in college or one like him, but I was trying to create some definition of myself as being someone who knew something, someone who could write from witness of this world. I wanted to become a serious poet who had lived and seen "powerful" things. 

Three winters in Poland couldn't shake my grin. Being left on a city street in France by someone I had followed for years, couldn't whither my need for joy. Even the longest summer in Rome, alone navigating deserted streets couldn't make me sad, stone and cold. I'm glad I finally ignored that boy's definition of poetry and somehow excepted my comfort in delight, not to be blind or ignore the ugliness, but to realize that no matter how hard I tried, I gravitated towards beauty. There is always light, some laughter, somewhere. If I learned anything from my quest for seriousness, then I learned how stupid I was and how funny it was to think I could wander years for something I could never really turn myself into. Smarter people already knew this. You cannot write as someone you aren't. Better poets perhaps had sat still longer and just wrote in hopes to become farmers of poetry. They already knew that Beauty is a poet's greatest defense. Delight is our duty. 

I cannot think of a better person to articulate this than Jack Gilbert, a man who has lived his life as a poet, a happy person, he even calls himself a farmer. This is best stated in the poem, "A Brief for the Defense" from his book, Refusing Heaven.

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengali tiger would not 
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. This is laughter
every day in the terrible city of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We much risk delight. We can do without pleasure, 
but not delight. No enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

And the poem continues, but I want to say this for my own defense for this idea of middleWest. Somewhere in the dream of ourselves, our search for what we hope for and what we want, somehow we will find what we already are--that there is acceptance even in the moments of greatest resistance. No matter the gravity of your own darkness, there is light, there is delight somewhere in what we have. We must risk the delight, the beauty in what we already are. No matter what languages you learn to speak, countries you travel, you will still speak the language you are born with the best. You may be just a girl from the Midwest, a girl who likes flowers, Chopin and flat fields. A girl who climbs hills, and has learned to navigate islands even in Greece--but you are always in the middle, in the middle of becoming again and again. This is our struggle. But it is not our burden. No matter the size of the boulder we push, that we still have the choice to smile, to smile pushing. Maybe even laughing too.

Paradoxical Undressing

A girl walking home through blizzard
can sometimes hear her blood's rhythm.
She counts the beats with her hand spread open
in the chord of C. Her fingers scissor
each note as she lifts the bodice
of dress over head, her face flush pink
in the heat of the numb sun. She wets her lips
shut, unties the knot at her neck, stands naked
in a chemise. When she's found with only
her bonnet in a bank of snow, her eyes
are all smiles. Her last tracks outline a waltz.
Her body, no longer a pulse counted
but pearled in the field. Not a snow globe shaken
with bone and rice. Not something trapped under glass.

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