Monday, September 22, 2014

Floating Under the Stars, or Open Book in Case of Emergency

Poetry goes deep. Like a 70-yard bomb dropped perfectly into the hands of your favorite wide receiver. When I read the right stuff, it connects every time. And I have to say it is more essential to my life and mental well being than fiction or non-fiction could ever be. Here's why.

When it comes to books, and probably life in general, I am demanding but have a chronically short attention span. As I've said before, my mind is a series of tangents, followed until the next one comes along . Poetry can deliver in one re-readable, memorizable page what it takes a novel or narrative non-fiction book hundreds of pages to accomplish. And sometimes I need that quick fix, something to straighten my soul out that hits like a shot of bourbon.

At my existentially loneliest, I reach for poetry. When other books feel like a distraction, which is sometimes welcome, most of the time I know I need to sit and ponder. To wonder, to question, to try to get to the bottom and come out the other side.

Saturday I was having one of those kind of evenings, stockpiling some moments like that, when really I shouldn't have been. I had watched our daughters played field hockey, taken them and a friend to see a Spanish Galleon/tall ship in Oxford, then swimming at the Strand. It was a good, full day. The girls were napping. And those existential crisis moments come up on me unexpected.

So I reached for James Tate's "Memoir of the Hawk" and a pale ale. I sat on the deck, listened to the breeze talking to the trees; the birds chirp over the quieter wind; and I dug in. And I did the same thing Sunday, when time presented itself. I did a fair amount of underlining. Tate tapped me on the shoulder with this, looking for that perfect, private place to escape to:

has never been discovered,
is thought to be the source of all fire.
is a pigpen for the soul,
changes its shape and location
when you try to think of it.

I know that place. It recedes into the horizon before you can quite make it out. It's always just beyond my grasp. Fu**ing Tantalus, reaching for hanging fruit, just out of reach. And that doesn't help me solve anything, but it puts me in the frame of mind where, hey, this cat Tate, maybe he knows where I'm coming from. Then he goes for broke in a poem called "Scattered Reflections:"

And only myself to blame--love,
booze, stupidity, mix 'em up
and you'll find yourself babbling
to God in Arabic about a demonic cat
living in your head next to the
fiery urinal.

Good writing, for me, should make you think, should make you laugh, should connect you to the broader world. Love, booze and stupidity will leave you dumbfounded.

When I was young,
I thought respectable meant dead.

And then at some invisible point
you realize it is the same story
told over and over, and that's
when you either move on or die.

Maybe we all reach that point. Where we recognize the rut. Where wherever we go, we are stuck hearing the same cocktail party banter, sitting in the same cubicle, walking in circles. We're like a dog, spinning itself a space to lie down.

But here is where Tate lets loose the long tight spiral that lands in my hands in stride down the sideline:

I drove the whole country, examining
homes, stores, businesses, streets,
people, like a crazed inspector general,
when all I was looking for was me.
I concluded that there was no me,
just flutterings, shudderings, and shadows.
I think most people feel the same way,
and it isn't bad, floating under the stars
at night like fireflies sending signals.

Floating under the stars at night. Maybe that is what we do in this life. And we're so concerned that we're floating on the right kind of raft, or boat, or if we have on our swanky swimsuits, that we forget to look up. We forget to look at the stars.

Floating under the stars at night. And it isn't bad.

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