My largest book of poems is The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2. I bought the book my spring semester of my senior year of college. I still have the receipt, nice and flat in the book. It’s dated 2-16-98, exactly eleven months before I’d be married. Jesse and I would say our vows a stone’s throw from the bookstore where I purchased the book — in the chapel where I followed him one dreary Wednesday morning.
I followed him not because he was going to chapel but because I thought he was cute. (I don’t want anyone getting the wrong idea about my priorities.)
The book isn’t all poetry. I also met Mary Wollstonecraft and George Elliot in its pages, and a seed of an idea of what I could become was planted within me reading their words. I also have a bookmark I made for myself with my favorite Dave Matthews Band lyrics:
“Well she ran up into the light surprised
Her arms are open
Her mind’s eye is
Seeing things from a better side than most can dream
On a clearer road I feel
Oh, you could say she’s safe
Whatever tears at her
Whatever holds her down
And if nothing can be done
She’ll make the best of what’s around”
I make no claims that I understand any British poetry, but I keep the book because inside I see the notes from a young girl who was delighted by words, and that delight made her want to try to understand them. The poetry was the equivalent of a cute boy heading towards chapel — fun to look at and worth sticking around to see what might happen.
I underlined, made notes in the margins, and dated most of what I read. In late February 1998, I read Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” and circled stanzas 92, 93, and 94 and wrote this note in the margin: “If you think you can make sense out of nature, you’re kidding yourself. It’s your APPETITE that drives you.”
That weekend prior, Jesse and his best friend Todd knocked on the back door of the house I shared with my four friends. They wanted to know if I wanted to ride around Grand Rapids in Todd’s VW Rabbit convertible. In February.
“What a dumb idea,” I said, as I grabbed a jacket and shut the door. It was a dumb idea, but on that day February played its classic trick, making all us Michiganders believe that spring was really here, thus making us all forget our woes and dance in the sunshine.
The boys, giddy with spring fever, decided it’d be hilarious to see how far they could walk on Reed’s Lake, the small body of water near campus that had frozen over. Another dumb and reckless idea, but I was not innocent of February’s tantalizing ways. I watched them and remembered an afternoon when I sat on a frozen wave in Lake Michigan with three of my friends, the ice seeping though my jeans and sending shivers up to my neck, and I was unsure whether they came from cold or from fear.
I am, and always have been, suspicious of nature’s ways and know there’s no use in trying to make sense of it. I also understand the hunger for experience, mischief, adventure, and love when the snow falls hard, when the sun comes out on a day it’s not supposed to, when I can see a thunderstorm approaching, pulsing with light.
On March 13, 1998, I underlined these sentences from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay titled “A Defence of Poetry”:
In the youth of the world, men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, certain rhythm or order. And, although all men observe a similar, they observe not the same order, in the motions of the dance, in the melodys of the song, in the combination of language, in the series of their imitations of natural objects.”
In the margin next to Shelley’s words, I wrote, “Can this mean poetry can be interpreted differently?” Decades later I’m not sure, but I know sharing the same poem with kindergarteners or third-graders yields different responses. I see something different — and true — each time I read a poem.
And on April 20, 1998, I underlined eleven lines from Matthew Arnold’s poem “The Buried Life,” and with hearts surrounding it, wrote, “wedding” in the margin.
“Only—but this is rare—
When a beloved hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafened ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caressed—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again,
The eve sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.”
And so it was. I brought the poem to my Aunt Lucy, who owned a printing and mailing shop in Rockford, Michigan, along with stationery my mom and I found in an art supply store in Chicago. Lucy printed Arnold’s words on the paper that guests would hold while Jesse and I promised to love each other until one of us is no longer.
I’ve gone back to read “The Buried Life” time and again to see if I understand more than what I was promising Jesse and hoping for our marriage. I underlined well over half of the 100-line poem, but there are no notes save for “wedding” for lines 76-87.
I don’t know if I can make sense of it, but I’m not sure I can made sense of 20 years of marriage either. I know I can’t made sense of Jesse. I think that’s OK — good, even. I think the poem, like my marriage, like Jesse, holds enough delight and mystery for me to latch on to and return to again and again.
For this week’s poetry prompt, write about something (or someone) equally delightful and mysterious that you are filled with gratitude for.
Thanks to everyone who participated in the last poetry prompt. Here’s one from Florence Brooks we enjoyed:
When I was a little girl, I always wanted to be a teacher. I ended up an accountant instead, and after reading The Teacher Diaries: Romeo and Juliet, I realize it’s probably a good thing, because I don’t have the gift that Callie Feyen has. She pulls meaning from even the smallest things and helps us relate something that can be hard to understand to situations and feelings in our own lives. It’s been a long time since I have read Romeo and Juliet, and to be honest, I didn’t enjoy it very much when I did study it in school. But now I know how much I missed and I am looking forward to reading it with new eyes. If only we could all have had teachers like Callie, challenging us to see more and feel more!
—JJN Mama, Amazon reviewer
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- Fiction Prompt: Chapter Four, Into the Gray with Campfire Pies - January 4, 2021