Tag Archives: poetry

Hiding in Plain Sight

1 Jan

IMG_9163We were just stepping away from the wood-fired pizza hearth out into the mild winter Brooklyn night, squinting under street lamps and marveling at the scent of smoke clinging to our coats, when the whole scene gained one more very fitting element. Wildlife. I looked up and saw the biggest raccoon I’ve ever seen—truly, bear-like in stature—scrambling up a bare and spindly tree across the street. He (I have to think it was a male, the poor creature was gigantic) kept wiggling clumsily upward, alternately backing and forwarding himself further out onto branches that didn’t look like they would support his weight. The further up he went, the more sparse the coverage got, and soon he was as conspicuous as an errant helium balloon caught on ascent.

But actually, he was not nearly conspicuous enough to attract attention in this city. No one looks up. Ever. Especially if other people are looking upward somewhere in the vicinity. People looking skyward are either tourists, lost souls, scammers trying to draw attention to themselves, or staring at some source of trouble that will require some sort of action. Each of these scenarios are repellant to most New Yorkers. Except me and my friends. We look up.

We were doing so for a few minutes, making gasping noises and sharing commentary about the size of the raccoon and the proximity of a fairly large park, and of course, you know, the presence of that picnic source for urban wildlife, garbage cans. No one else stopped walking to look up with us, and finally, as the raccoon took increasingly fearful note of our gaze, my friend said, “Oh, he’s terrified. Let’s leave him alone so he can find his way back down.”

We headed our separate ways, and I have every confidence that our furry friend was clever enough to soon find more adequate shelter. Wily raccoon lore lends plenty of credit to the species, even if this particular member seemed a bit out of sorts with tree selection.

That was my first raccoon sighting here, but there are frequent eye-witness accounts of all sorts of wildlife on these islands. (I can hear people grumbling about the marginalization of wildlife in urban habitats, and let me reassure you that there are plenty of animal advocates here in NYC, so calm down.) What’s more intriguing to me is the number of people who missed out on the temporary thrill of knowing that there was another midnight-snacker outside the corner deli that evening.

At any given moment, we’re missing out on plenty of stuff here, and everywhere, all the time. In fact, as the late, great poet and philosopher John O’Donohue pointed out in an interview with Krista Tippett on the NPR show “On Being” in 2007 (they replayed the conversation this summer, and I was thrilled because of course it turns out that he was the author of the Irish Blessing I’m so obsessed with, but that’s another story)… we’re missing out on quite a bit even  when we’re sitting at the same table with someone. He put it this way:

“I think the beauty of being human is that we’re incredibly, intimately near each other. We know about each other, but yet we do not know or never can know what it’s like inside another person. And it’s amazing, you know, here am I sitting in front of you now, looking at your face, you’re looking at mine and yet neither of us have ever seen our own faces. And that in some way, thought is the face that we put on the meaning that we feel and that we struggle with and that the world is always larger and more intense and stranger than our best thought will ever reach.”

There certainly can be some slight despair associated at all we might be missing, either in terms of what we don’t see or cannot know, or maybe in terms of what we don’t show others as we attempt to protect ourselves, hiding among spindly branches and wishing other people would stop looking directly at us…  but I’m going to try to remember how O’Donohue so aptly defined that notion as beautiful.

And if that’s not enough, I’m sure the universe will keep gently presenting the unexpected to remind me that it’s what we can’t know that is truly beautiful. Like yesterday, when I just happened to pull back my curtains and look outside at my backyard precisely as a huge possum ran along the back wall. A possum! Verifiably that, and not another type of city creature, was making her way through the shrubbery, and I have to say, looking rather pleased with herself for being so bold and yet so invisible at the same time. Just another pedestrian going to work, she was, and I think I may have been the only one who witnessed her in that moment. More proof that you should always look up.

May the One You Long for Long for You

19 Jan

paperThere are three poems I carry with me, sometimes as a little bundle of folded pages worn at the seams, sometimes just one important piece at a time. I am a girl of many handbags and totes, and so each day I must reassemble which items travel with me, and even when I keep my load light, I pack at least one poem. I can always feel the carefully selected verbal talisman there, leaning against my hip through canvas or jostling around with too many glasses cases in pockets of suede.

It used to be just one poem I always carried, and so I memorized it. It’s a very long poem, too. But I know it. Still the pages are smooth as river stones now, so I carry it like some might wear a tattoo. I know it, but I need it outside myself, too.

Another joined the ranks last summer when I was riding the subway very, very late one night and sharing thoughts with a stranger about a poem displayed in one of those “Poetry in Motion” public service ads. I turned to him as I dangled from a handrail and said before he could take off his beat-laden headphones, “Do you know anything about orchids?” When headphones rested on hoodie and he asked me to repeat myself, he nodded no. But we had a very lovely talk about what could be known about orchids and what we needed to learn. We agreed to seek out more on the subject matter when we got home. “Google it!” he said, as I disembarked. I hope he googled it, too.

In between the ancient relic of a poem that I memorized and the relatively new one that came from beneath the streets is the most important poem ever. It is an Irish Blessing that one of my dearest yoga teachers read aloud in class four years ago. I almost didn’t make it to that class, I was tired and whiny, but like the most intrepid of yogis, I made the effort to drive to the farthest studio that was in my orbit in Utah. It turned out I was the only one who would show up that night, and it was fortunate, because I needed to unburden my heart, give voice to a big truth I’d reduced to a little trembling trifle.

My teacher and I, we were (and are) both the sort who find meaning in incidentals, coincidences, serendipity, happenstance and several other words for magic. We talked while we waited for no one else to eventually arrive, and then when she opened her bookmarked page and began to read the text she’d selected for that evening’s class, she actually began to cry, instantly. I didn’t panic, as it was not abnormal for me to witness. I tend to be in a lot of amazingly emotional exchanges with relative strangers. I’m like the Hallmark card commercial guru. Have thirty seconds to start weeping about your neglectful father? Here, have a Kleenex-brand tissue.

The poem, the Irish Blessing, is by this guy John O’Donohue (legit Irish name, check). I purposely have never looked in to who he is or what era he lives in, but I’m fairly certain he’s probably a contemporary living Irish Blessing writer, because his subject matter is a superior blend of eastern and western philosophy.

“Blessed be the longing that brought you here,” the first line says to the weary yogi who traveled from at least 15 miles north. Alright, so that made me cry, too. And the rest of it was so amazing that I copied down her yoga-abbreviated version of the text by hand on a piece of paper before I left the yoga studio that night. It was evidently so mystical an experience that I didn’t even try to google it then and there… how odd…

Anyway, the next day, I called Unrequited and was kinda like super demanding and said we had to have dinner before I left town on a two-week trip the next day. He agreed to meet me after work, and I folded up my pocket poem and carried it with me to the restaurant. Then, after the appropriate amount of small-talk, I tucked the folded paper under the edge of my plate and declared that I had something to say.

I was afraid to say it, of course, so I read the poem first:

Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.

May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.

May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
To discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.

May the forms of your belonging–in love, creativity, and friendship–
Be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.

May the one you long for long for you.

May your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.

May a secret Providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.

May your mind inhabit your life with the sureness with which your body inhabits the world.

May your heart never be haunted by ghost structures of old damage.

May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.

***

That’s pretty good, right? I finished reading, folded paper, and put it back under the edge of my plate. Then I told Unrequited that I had cleared a huge place in my heart for him, and it was a permanent place. And now that place also included his two sons. “I hold you all in my heart, I always have since I have known you, and I always will. I felt this way since the moment we met, and it’s always been there, and it will always be there, so nothing will change.”

His jaw was actually dropped when I was silent. His eyes were wide and his gaze was upward at nothing. Then he started to smile in slow-motion (just like in a Hallmark movie!), and he said, “That is the most beautiful thing anyone has ever said to me. Thank you.”

Of course nothing came of it then, otherwise he wouldn’t be called Unrequited, right? But for all you devoted Bunky fans out there, waiting for the best happy-romance-movie-ending ever, Unrequited and I spoke yesterday and he said he’s coming to visit me in New York.

I can hear at least one of you grumbling (WriterHero), but dude, let a girl have some poetry now and then. I’ll see Unrequited in two weeks anyway, when I get my hair done in Utah. But then he’s coming here. For me. FOR ME. And the quaint village of New York City.

And Would it Have Been Worth It, After All

8 Dec

teaI whisper lines of poetry to myself on the train, like an insane person with a lot of awareness around rhyme and meter. The more crowded the train, the more likely I am speaking into my bicep while I reach high above and grip a stainless steel rail. Likewise, if the platform is crowded, I’m hiding behind a pole as best I can, muttering lines that I can’t quite get straight, bisecting my waiting time with the distraction of syllables that tumble one after another merrily, falling naturally into line following an untold number of the poet’s crafting hours.

The poem which I recite is The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It’s my favorite bit o’ verse (Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris: “T.S. Eliot! Prufrock is my mantra!”), and I’ve carried tattered photocopies of its four pages from the Norton Anthology of Poetry all over the world. The lines calm me, the cadence rechecks me onto planet Earth, no matter what is swirling around me physically or mentally.

The effect is so pacifying, I told myself more than a year ago (actually, on a “soft October night”, just like in the poem) that I was finally going to memorize it. I can carry the poem with me always, I thought, soulfully. Hopefully I was gazing at a the moon at the time.

Anyway, I’ve memorized just about every syllable of the beautiful thing, and all told, it takes about eight minutes to recite. Now there are moments on the subway where I desperately want to tap someone on the shoulder and say, “Hey, want to hear this perfect stanza?”

Books and magazines are glorious company on the train, and music is important, too. But I’ve abandoned those options in favor of Prufrock these last few days. I’ve needed something calm, something that plods along methodically and doesn’t inform me of anything other than my own emotional turmoil and loneliness.

I’ve said before that I probably should find a brighter, more chipper poem to memorize, but Prufrock, unfortunately, is my mantra. I am an awkward girl making her charming way through the world, dazzling and impressing and then by turns horrifying male prospects with my details.

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” 

Maybe I just need to follow Prufrock’s advice and sip a bit of tea, measuring out my life in coffee spoons until a cheerier poem comes along.

Bookmarks and Placeholders

29 Jun
The bookshelves at Brewed in Fort Worth offer a Katherine Hepburn biography.

The bookshelves at Brewed in Fort Worth offer a Katherine Hepburn biography.

At this very moment, bathed in the fading dusk light tumbling from a sky portal in a vaulted Salt Lake City ceiling, there sits a a thick hardback edition of an Isabella Stewart Gardner biography. It possesses the dusty green paper jacket and simple lettering prevalent in the mid twentieth century. It is my book. And yet it sits approximately 1400 miles away from my present position on a sofa facing another coffee table in Fort Worth.

Despite the fact that I was only in Salt Lake for a short while last month, I absolutely had to procure this massive, unwieldy tome from a used bookstore, because the coveted object’s pages contained so many beautiful 1960s artifacts from Boston. The Aloof Percussionist said that these artifacts were probably plants, fake random tidbits shoved into pages by bookstore staff to boost the charms of happenstance, but I countered this cynicism with facts. The book was on the “new arrivals” pile and these envelopes, mailed magazine book review clippings, and event flyers formerly were clearly cherished by a single, singular person. There was obvious congruity in their origin. And whoever owned the book was clearly a kindred spirit of mine. Their correspondents sent book reviews in the mail, with handwritten dates on the clippings, and they lived between New York and Boston. Oh, and they tucked things into books.

This is my habit and my problem. I put important pieces of paper, fragments, words written for me, poems selected and sent, into books, and then I lose them in the stacks of my library home. Woven throughout the forest of pages are all the good thoughts and intentions anyone has ever shared with me. Some lucky shelf-hunting second-hand book buyer will discover them someday, if such a vocation still exists when I pass, and they will know that I was loved, and interesting, and traveled the world, but never did settle down long enough in any one place to finish every book and keep every single piece of paper in one safe receptacle.

For the past few days I’ve been haunted very specifically by one such lost fragment—a small, folded piece of paper carrying the words of a William Stafford poem. This scrap once resided in the hand-made wallet of my dearest Heart Friend in Salt Lake City. He handed it to me quietly during a cafe visit last August, paused, and then requested that I tuck the poem into my purse and keep it with me. He’d already sent me the same poem, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” on a postcard one month beforehand, but now in this new portable form, he wanted me to have it again. Clearly it was important to him, and so I guarded it carefully, retrieving it often and retracing each syllable silently and aloud, so the meaning changed with settings and circumstances.

But a few days ago, while I was preparing to dine with The Gentleman from Carrollton, I became preoccupied with the location of that very small, soft from refolding, piece of paper. I hadn’t seen it in a long time. Such a long time. I had so diligently carried it with me for so long. But then there was an awful lot of receipt farming and shredding… in a flash, I feared the worst. While The Gentleman stood near my front door, I briefly considered rummaging in a drawer or two, pretending I was searching for something I needed that evening, but really seeking this shred of past thought that I suddenly needed to have immediately to hand.

I resisted the urge. But did become frantic in my search again this evening, cursing myself aloud for being so careless, until I found the original postcard-affixed facsimile of the poem in a book shoved inside a cabinet in my bedroom. That is the storage place for books that would embarrass me if a guest should happen upon them. The books that are telling me what is wrong with me and how to fix it.

Ohhhhh books, try to tell me why I cannot cherish what is given to me, and flail instead through piles and shelves of lost gestures and absence.

Three weeks ago in Salt Lake City, again and always packing to leave, I carelessly decided not to cram the giant Isabella Stewart Gardner book into my carry-on. My enormous suitcase was full, and I didn’t want to add the extra ballast to the other two bags I’d be heaving through the terminal. I was sure I’d come back for the book. I was so in love with The Aloof Percussionist, after all. He offered to send it to me after I left, but I refused, insisting I’d return for it. Now book and artifacts are as lost to me as anything stored in such a way. Important, tucked between pages, and then placed on a shelf and forgotten.

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