Jean-Leon Gerome, “Dante and Virgil in Hell”
It figures my return to poetry would be brutal. I hadn’t wanted it to be. I wished to write words with the frail edge of something new. I wanted that so very badly, in a tender and trembling way, unsteady on my feet. What came of it instead was the painful shape of over-saturated rage. And loss. Loss so deep it pauses in a breathless gasp before it can scream. Loss enough, that is, to describe poetic silence.
Poetry was freedom. To me. It was the thing I’d never wanted but found anyway. The talent that was mine without my intending it. The skill so effortlessly my own that it could be nothing but weightless and wonderful. A secret daring that no one, for once, could take and use for their purposes. (How many other times, how very many, I had been asked to speak, to write, to explain, to read, to learn, even to listen – the other things I was good at, always somehow made someone else’s great instrument.) Poetry was straightforwardly useless. It assisted none of my work in the academy, convinced no one to request it violently from my hands. And I loved it for that. Poetry was something I had never been encouraged to do. I didn’t even grow up “artistic.” That was my siblings. I was the one who hated art, the one who wasn’t artistic. I hated subtlety. I hated intuition. I hated feeling. And I loved poetry so much for that. For all the magnanimous reversal that it was.
I collapsed. Under the weight of a nearly measureless agony. Sometimes people wanted me to explain. How could I? What words are there to describe the motives that made my hand reach for a knife to drag it across my neck? If you do not know, you never will, and I pray sincerely that you never learn. I remember it, all that silence of profound inner disintegration, eyes wide and staring at the lies I could no longer keep.
After all that – after so much – there remained nothing left of me for poetry.
Now was the time to learn how to die. To let myself and the secrets die, though it cost (and costs) so much more than my life. There is no taking up that pulverized human being anymore. I mean that there comes a time when lies end. I cannot be – why won’t you be your old self please? – I cannot be anyone but the one who has learned to die. As if I could go backward and find a self that wasn’t crying anyway. There comes a time, I mean, when the old Adam is buried in the earth with his shame.
I began to ache and complain that I wanted to write poetry again. That it felt hopelessly lost. Still, I yearned. For the first time in a very long time, and in many ways for the first time ever, I yearned. I wanted a poem about learning to die. About the delicate relinquishing of hope. The kind of death that opens up when it closes its eyes.
Then I dreamed of some lines. Lovely and sad. I kept them close, as if to sketch them would shatter them. Tried hard not to try too hard, tried to let the words rest and be what they willed. Not that words are alive, exactly, though they are not exactly not.
I told my therapist how I missed poetry. Cried at a poem I’d forgotten writing but that a friend remembered. A beautiful little poem that I had clearly written as a lark. So simple. So easy. My little play of freedom with its half grin. It was gone, not even there in my mind to be recalled. Buried and gone.
I mentioned my precious lines. My therapist asked me to explain. I stuttered toward the vision, skittish, glancing at him and trying not to blush. The pink ears of a vulnerable thought caught being just that. They were only little words with a vague shape. Embarrassing and unformed. Rough-hewn like a sculpture half begun. I knew enough to know – from long ago – that there was no trying it yet. I had never been a creature who could fumble into a poem and make it right after a sputtering mess.
Besides, my therapist was being encouraging. I had to thwart him.
Eventually, I dreamed of more. So I began to write. I scowled and stared at the blank page, the blinking cursor. Flitted through enough keys and lines to emerge – an ageless time later – with many stanzas and no sense. It wasn’t even poetry, not to my eyes. Anger spiked through my trembling hope, and I raged to my therapist at how awful it was, how it had become something else entirely. Something not lovely at all. And it wasn’t even poetry. My therapist wondered if it really was that bad. I knew it was. I wasn’t being difficult. Not this time. I simply knew. I was simply correct.
I was sad at that. Since it seemed the poem I’d yearned for didn’t exist.
I was even more sad that it wasn’t lovely. That my heart didn’t have that left.
The next day, I still knew it had become something else. I understood in a simple way that my fingers had followed the pattern of something real. The final stanza, the one that had yanked me to a total stop, was much too fierce and firm to be anything else but real. It did not resemble the stanzas that were not poems. It was a poem. The end of one. A different one, one that I didn’t want to write. One that was mine anyway. So very dark. Not lovely at all.
Apparently, I am now a creature that can stumble into poems.
So I cleared the page and placed the end at the end. I drew out another stanza from the mess, saw in it somehow the shape of the real poem that I had – as best as I could tell – no choice but to write. I knew it was the beginning. I simply knew. I made decisions with firm simplicity. Felt out a simple rhyme pattern, fiddling with the rescued beginning, since this poem needed a rhyme. (Not all do.) I was determined. These rhymes would be better than my old tone deaf ones. And so I raised the difficulty level considerably, especially for a return after a long silence. I simply did. Without much thought.
Two other lines, I saved. The rest I buried in the earth. Then I wrote entirely new between beginning and end. Saw the real poem firmly to its conclusion. The grim and angry dark. The one that was my own.
Details of my life were offered up in lines that made them something else. This is the odd redemption that poetry is: where the specific is unmoored from itself, made to drift the way of anyone who reads. My own chronology became a new time, references were dis-ordered for the sake of a new order. I wrote a fiction that says something real. I hewed painful rage into its unmistakeable face – one I’d find in a mirror, one other mirrors would hold.
Brutal. A return so brutal. An unflinching poem about the kinds of things that drove me to the grave.
It is mine. It is what I know. When I think on it, it seems too fitting. Of course it’s brutal. These are the only words that my heart has to give. This is what it looks like to see the dark and die.
Not that there aren’t other words. Only that, right now, these are mine. And in carefully gathering them together to rest in a ribbon on stone – dead flowers – they become, for once, an offering. For once, the dark is redeemed just enough to be a gift.
We tangled together
We tangled together in the shifting dark.
Reaching for what neither had, fingers
gripping nothing tightly, cutting marks.
The bitter trembling not-even-near.
On those hollow insatiable nights.
Once I touched your jaw. A light
thumb tracing a dark curve and gone.
I was all wavering and pulled right
apart as cold eyes settled on
my own and wished I were someone else.
And I didn’t know. How to un-self
the someone neither of us desired,
how the hell to hold still and help
cut me away into the one we required.
I couldn’t fucking figure it out.
I sliced apart my face somehow,
and wept when you stared anyway –
and touched the jagged route
of blood and salt and shaking pain.
Disappointed I was always underneath.
And always I howled with gritted teeth.
It wasn’t fair. I just wanted you to –
I was the one thing you didn’t need.
It wasn’t fair at all. I loved you.
Why the fuck wouldn’t you love me?
And why the fuck would you be
still so bent on holding me close?
Why’d you go and cry and need
so much I’d go and sell my soul
to wipe the tears from your eyes?
We only shared a bed when I cried.
God damn you.
For the dark nights I died a thousand times.
For offering the only touch I ever knew.
And God damn me: I gave myself to you.