When I sat in my lecture hall at Washington College in December 2000, the world was a very different place. The Twin Towers were still standing. Smartphones didn’t exist. The economy wasn’t as bad, and most of my fellow students didn’t seem too concerned about getting jobs after graduating. With a blue book in front of me on the table, I wrote the following:
Ammons asks, “How does a poem resemble a walk? First, each makes use of the whole body, involvement is total, both mind and body. You can’t take a walk without feet and legs, without a circulatory system, guidance, and co-ordinating system, without eyes, ears, desire, will, need: the total person.”
To me, a poem is a swim. More specifically, a swim at midnight, in the pool in my parents’ backyard — doing the breaststroke, eyes open underwater, feeling the chlorine’s cleansing sting, body totally engulfed in water.
Poetry turns me into an amphibian, or a fish. Suddenly, I can breathe in the water; it can fill my lungs and I won’t drown. I can swallow it and it tastes light and sweet. I am completely surrounded by it, yet when I leave it, I can look down into the poem’s deep pool, and I see myself reflected in it, and the pool lifts me, as the poet Louise Glück described, “in its manifold dark arms.” When I’m swimming, I can feel the arms of living poets and those weighted shoulders of the dead carrying me through the depths and the lengths, the highs and the lows.
I like Louise Glück, in particular, because she managed to speak beyond the words that my mind understands and ponders and moved down to my soul. I memorized it, knew it by heart the minute I heard it, “The Drowned Children.” I remembered back to being a freshman in high school, when something happened that changed me forever. A 4-year-old girl named Ruth drowned in my pool while my back was turned. Perhaps I sensed it, but I didn’t cry out in time, and now her spirit floats up, from nine-and-half feet down.
When I heard Glück’s words — “What are you waiting for come home, come home, lost in the waters, blue and permanent” — it was as if a great weight had been lifted. All those years of trying to communicate that experience, those emotions, and somebody had already done it for me.
And then I heard the poet Philip Brady, blue eyes flashing from the shadows of his face: “If you know a poem by heart — it’s yours.” So now I have a poem inside me that cannot be taken away. I will remember it the same way I remember Ruth every time I see water. It is completely and wholly a “4” on the James Dickey scale of poetry: “It’s true and says what I couldn’t have said and is the truth beyond what I already believed.”
Poems are weightless to me. They have no tangible dimensions. I can get lost in one and never emerge, except dripping, shivering, and cold. What does this say about me? That I am a Pisces and am therefore “sensitive, poetic, and drawn to water?” That seems too superficial. I like Robert Creeley’s observation better: “People involved in poetry are perceptive, flexible, and do not need an anchor of information.”
So, I float.
The words from so long ago are passionate, full of vigor. They differ vastly from the dull writing I do every day now as a Technical Writer: “To insert a column, click the column insert menu.” My work life has been reduced to a “Dilbert” comic strip.
What happened to the inspired girl who poured over books and poems, attended readings, and got excited about an empty blue book, just waiting to be filled? I used to never be bored. I filled my days with creativity and craft, making things both tangible and intangible. I read and wrote poetry because I had to. But by the time I finished graduate school with a degree in Professional Writing and Editing and had spent several years working full-time in the land of information technology, I found myself profoundly bored. I had allowed sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen all day, to suck the life out of me.
I have forgotten most of Louise Glück’s poem that I memorized all those years ago. Maybe I was living in a dream world, a surreal microcosm when I surrounded myself with such words. Perhaps my world now is “real life.” If so, it is lacking. A piece of the puzzle is missing. Yes, writing user manuals puts food on the table and a roof over my head, and I’m truly grateful for that — but I often wonder if it could ever equate to actually making a difference, actually changing anything.
In the times I have picked up a book of poetry in recent years, by William Carlos Williams or Pablo Neruda, I feel like I am gathering clues to a great mystery. Gathering stones to build something beautiful — something resembling a girl I once knew.