I came to poetry by way of music—the quarter, half, and whole notes I learned to “read” while taking piano lessons; by way of a retired Chilean banker who in 1971 won a Nobel prize but long before then filled my ears with his cantos and odes and love poems; and by way of the death of my brother Patrick.
I have no memory of sitting in anyone’s lap and being read to—in fact, I don’t remember even being a child—but I do recall the day my mother went piano shopping and came home with an upright with 88 keys. Mother had been hoarding dollars (one for every dollar my father spent for beer and chewing tobacco), and to have a piano in the house was, I think, a wish not expressed but fully realized. (She, who could not play, bought the piano without knowing if any of her seven children might ever play it.) I wanted to learn, and began lessons with a stout Italian woman who awarded or withheld various colored stars based on weekly performance on her Steinway concert grand. I was perhaps nine or 10 and, as the back inside covers of my lesson books filled mostly with stars, certainly not all gold, I decided I would become a musician. I even entered a Mattel essay contest in which I declared my love of all things music, only later to realize that what excited me was not playing music but finding music in the words I could write. While my love of music has lasted, my piano lessons did not; yet, the lessons of those lessons—what could be created with tone and color, rhythm, repetition, consonance and dissonance, the through line—still serve me well as a writer.
Around the same time as I began lessons, I started investigating the dozens and dozens of books Mother kept on shelves, some behind glass. One in particular, which I haven’t thought of in years, claimed my attention:
The Walrus and the Carpenter / Were walking close a hand; / They wept like anything to see / Such quantities of sand: . . .
The lines come from the poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. That book, which was wonderfully illustrated, also contained “Jabberwocky” and its unforgettable opening, “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/ Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:…” The first poem left me saddened at the fate of the oysters; the second showed me how even nonsense can be meaningful: It’s all in how you read it.
I recall neither reading nor hearing other poems until I began studying Spanish in intermediate school and found my way to Federico Garcia Lorca, Antonio Machado, Ruben Dario, Octavio Paz, Gabriela Mistral, and especially Pablo Neruda.
Neruda enchanted me (he still does!). He is earthy, romantic, lyrical, political, surreal, in communion with the ordinary and the elemental, the lofty and the common. He said of his collection “Residence on Earth” that his poems “do not help people to live, but rather help them to die.”
Is there anything in the world sadder
Than a train standing in the rain?
—from The Book of Questions, III, trans. by William O’Daly
Little of the poetry in high school holds so firm a place in my memory as does that initial experience of Neruda. I did study poetry in college, as a sophomore in a seminar with juniors and seniors and as a senior who opted into “creative writing” in lieu of the usual English major thesis. I had a marvelous professor that last year who gave me reason to continue writing and whose best piece of advice was, “Write from what you know.” Subsequently, though I continued to read widely, I eventually abandoned poetry writing, mostly because I spent too many hours editing others’ words and had little energy after work for creative pursuits.
Until the day I received a phone call from my brother, who told me he had cancer and, according to his doctor, maybe six weeks to live.
Soon after that call, which came just before Thanksgiving of 2007, I started writing poetry again, poetry for members of an online cancer-support group and poetry that became, for me, the only means to understanding what my brother was experiencing, what loss my family was about to share, and how I could make sense of the unfathomable.
There are cemeteries that are lonely,
graves full of bones that do not make a sound,
the heart moving through a tunnel,
in it darkness, darkness, darkness. . . .
—from “Nothing But Death” in Neruda & Vallejo, trans. by Robert Bly
As it turned out, my brother did not die until May 2009. And it was poetry writing
that helped pushed me through the tunnel and back into light.
Poetry writing saved me.
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