The most recent poem I wrote gave me a run for my money. The first version came spilling out on Saturday. I shared it with two friends (plus Mani, who reads pretty much everything I write), both phenomenal writers whose opinions I value. One of them said it seriously fucking rocked. The other’s take was that the poem was in there, gleaming, but needed to be uncovered.
I told him I’d go back to revise with a sickle, but his suggestion that I bring a stethoscope was nothing short of incisive, gentle brilliance. I knew exactly what he meant: I had to revise the poem in order to find its heartbeat, a process as risky to poems as surgery is to the heart itself. Some poems are born breathing; others need a little help getting started. And messing around too much can either bring a poem to life or ensure its demise.
This may sound dramatic–obviously revising a poem is not a matter of life and death. Or is it?
There is an intimacy I’ve never really tried to describe to this process of feeling and listening for a poem. Sometimes poems come forth like Athena from Zeus’s head–complete, fully developed, with a wisdom all their own that requires little from me but to sit still and let the words come through. For the mystery of these, I give thanks.
I often write and then work through several iterations of a poem in one sitting. In this case, though, I agreed with my poet friend–whose sparest work is among his best–and returned to the original after a choppy night’s sleep, a stethoscope in one hand and a sickle in the other. I trimmed and shaped and siphoned and sheered. The poem wound up with a series of neat three-line stanzas. And then when I went to listen for it, it had no heartbeat. It even looked sad, deflated, a bunch of flat lines, too neatened up for such taut content.
I left again–because when it’s a poem and not a baby, you can do that, you can leave it alone for 24 hours and it will still be as fine as it ever was when you get home–but decided not to abandon it altogether. I deleted the revisions and went back to original tangled poem. I listened again and moved things around and cut things out and squinted quietly for the vision of what was happening here.
I don’t know if it worked. I don’t know if the original, raw version was better–sometimes revision really is the cause of death–or if its heartbeat is stronger now.
I don’t know why some poems make a reader gasp or tear up or exhale or inhale sharply or feel like a slap in the face or a soothing touch. I don’t know why some things I write seem to speak to many people, while others only to a few, if any.
All I know is that today, when I agreed to have coffee with someone in the area who wanted to learn more about my path–meaning how I became a career counselor–the truest thing I could tell her was that I am a poet, and that this was the only thing I knew for sure when asked, as a child, what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I knew what I wanted to be, because my soul was born with me and breathed all on its own, even as I fought against questions of what to do in life. Being a poet did not indicate a clear path to doing. Which of course is where the living comes in, and the learning and the loving and the letting go and did I mention the learning?
Couldn’t I just write, and share? I asked myself this for years. And know without a doubt: That’s exactly what I’m doing here.
Knife and Dagger
There is fighting against
and there is fighting for–
one deafening in its futility,
the other a deftly handled dagger
digging up the roots
of weeds you yanked
from the bed you said you covered
like a grave;
there is severing the vines
that threaten to strangle
and there is the mercy of slicing
open habits disguised as harmonies;
there is forgetting who you are when
you’re asleep remembering
only who you were;
and there is such a thing as leaving
the dead alone, no longer responsible
for what haunts them;
there is meeting your lover’s eyes
to say: Here is the truth, here the lies,
a false gesture dividing man
from woman like a phantom
mechitza down the middle
of the room
you said yes to.
Clarity has no use for disguises.
Image: Bronze & Flower Copper Dagger, by Dylan K. Designs