Tuesday, March 10, 2009

All Dressed Up to be Quiet

There's a slowing down to this world with poetry. A slow quiet somewhere, somewhere between a pause in prayer to a rise of a hyacinth in a glass bowl of rocks. For weeks a bulb will be set in water and do nothing but sit and slowly a bit of green will rise and before you truly start to question if spring will arrive, your whole kitchen will be filled with sweet, dumbing the dulled  winter. Just when you are close to giving up, cursing that white is never the shade of spring, a single bulb comes in bold purple. Poetry is like that, or as Joseph Roux stated, 
"Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes." It comes all dressed up to be quiet.

I can remember my favorite part of church was never the psalms or singing, rather I liked to sit in the warm pew and be silent. I recall how so many people could be sitting so close and be silent, even if for a few minutes be nothing more than a room full of breath. Simple. Simply placed like bulbs in a bowl--waiting to bloom. Perhaps it is a strange thing to state, that it is the silence in poetry that attracts me the most to it as a form. In person, I am not quiet. Yet, I know somewhere once I was very quiet. Somewhere we are all very quiet and it is that strange location of silence in ourselves that helps us find a place for poetry. 

I'd like to think that this place, this place of silence,  was first shown to me by my father. He is an architect by profession and so he walked me first through this world with a mind of shape as sense. I still draw trees the way he taught me at six and I have him to thank for poetry as simply being a way to explain the change in seasons. He is more artist than slide ruler and Autocad, but what he is more than anything is a worker. Maybe it is heritage, Dutch work-ethic and morality governed by a days toiling, but mostly I think it is work in his garden and his quiet admiration for the joy in tilling soil year after year for heirloom tomatoes, raspberries, and sweet corn to give to his family, friends who happen to stop by, and for random people passing through to see cherry trees in bloom. 

Everyday after work, my father from early spring to late fall, goes directly to his garden--not inside to say hello or check his mail--but straight to the backyard. As a small child, I would wait for him at the mailbox and we would go to the garden together, mostly quiet and always working from weeding to arranging rows and later during the warmer months, both barefoot, we'd pick something to add to dinner. I cannot say I recall many conversations from that time, mostly we would work. I don't remember ever being yelled at or scolded, I just followed along and didn't ask questions, mostly I tried to make myself useful. 

Sometimes, I even went to work with my father. I can recall sitting in the corner, quiet and watchful of meetings, conferences with clients, and aware that perhaps it odd I was there, yet somehow, my father included me. One early spring while at work with my him, we were to tag trees for a parking lot--actually my optometrist's office. My dad explained which trees were going to be cut and showed me how to tie a knot. While walking I found a tree, a birch, so solid and strong, I couldn't imagine it being anything else but tall. I explained to my dad that we couldn't let this tree die, it had to be kept. I really don't know how I argued my position or even if I was determined--but the point is, my father agreed. The birch would stay and I am grateful to say that I spent years going to that office and seeing the lone birch standing--the cement had been placed around it--to give it room, to let it stay alive.

And maybe the act of writing a poem is like that, finding something beautiful that you cannot imagine being anything else than what it is, so you try to slow it down, gather details and try to work at finding words to somehow reflect it, to work at silence. To get close enough. Or maybe Carl Sandburg said it the best, "Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits." Just a mix of flowers and food, beauty and butter. 

This poem is one I worked on many years ago. I lost track as to how many times I sent it out to be rejected. I had forgotten I had sent it to a journal in Louisiana where it sat on a publisher desk for close to a year. She wrote me a letter, telling me that she didn't want to publish it at first but there it sat on her desk for months and she would pick it up from time to time, during the floods of Katrina and during so much chaos and noise, but there is sat. I'd like to think that it was there like that birch tree all silent and quiet, but relentless to find a place to stay alive. I am grateful for her publishing it, but even more grateful that she wrote me a letter saying she didn't want to, but it was as if it didn't give up. It kept strong, silent and determined and to quote my father, I'd like to think this poem, "worked to make it work." 

Under the Bark

No matter the size of my hands, I can cover the sun.
But I cannot hold the light that passes
through my fingers like morning through poplars
planted to block the wind.

Once, while collecting kindling with my father,
he cut the tip off his finger, wrapped his bloodied
hand with an old shirt, told me not to look.
We walked back. He pulled the cart of wood

without saying anything about the blood
blooming in his shirt. He only told me
that November hangs heavy. Darkness
can make a man forget how to feel.

And yet, I watched a blind man in Rome
run his fingers past Daphne's marbled thigh,
cupped her breast as if he was holding
his own heart

to the sun. It seemed he felt the beat under the bark
of her and believed that light could move.
The way marble can become skin
and blood and sun a kind of chipped memory.

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