Some give us birth, some give us children, but it’s gypsy women in the night who adorn our male bruises with tattoos.
Why I’m Telling You This
I’ve always thought that organizing and re-organizing books is a pretty good metaphor for life itself. Remember the first time you did it—placing the large picture books on one end and the smaller ones, like Beatrix Potter, on the other. As we grow older we keep only those that still hold a piece of ourselves and add others full of mystery (like the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew), adventure (Call of the Wild) and even young romance (and here I have to defer to my wife’s Anne of Green Gables). Words replace pictures as we travel back in time or forward out into space. “Once a reader, always a reader,” proclaims the masthead of a pulp magazine from the ‘20s.
Then the day comes when we merge our personal collection with that of another. Over the years these books weather moves, suffer damage from mildew in basements or are even lost when we lend some to friends who don’t return them. When that happens we feel it more personally than a missing casserole dish. A book can be replaced, but for sentimental reasons we seldom do it. And perhaps that’s how love is lost, for inevitably the day comes when we must separate what is ours from what is hers (or his), decide what is me and what is, after all, someone else.
Perhaps you have a book that once belonged to your mother or father. For me it is one called How to Draw Anything. My dad, who was an aspiring painter, prized it and referred to it often. Don’t we secretly hope that someday after we are dead one of our children or one of our friends will hold a book that was part of us and take it home, make it live on in his or her life? But, that’s not why I’m telling you this. There’s more to sharing our stories than books.
This happened to me twenty years ago. I had been fortunate to have a half- dozen poems published over a period of a year and a half. My nephew who was an adult living in Chicago heard about this and asked me to send him some of my poetry. I xeroxed a number of poems and sent them off. A month later he wrote that he’d enjoyed them well enough, but that he was very surprised when his mother (my sister) came over one night and spent a couple hours in an easy chair reading them…one in particular. I instantly knew which poem this was.
When I was about fourteen my sister and her husband were expecting their third child. They had decided to name it “John” if it were a boy. At that age I took this to mean they were naming the baby after me. The baby was born, right before Christmas. It was a boy. Unfortunately it lived for only a few days, then died. Everyone gathered at my parents’ home for Christmas Eve. Ordinarily my sister who was sixteen years older than me, would have been in the middle of the celebration, she was very gregarious. That night she didn’t feel like it so she sat in an easy chair in my room as I worked on a model railroad building. I didn’t know what to say. I still wouldn’t; but years later when I wrote a poem called “Autobiography” it was this experience that was one of its central images. And now years later, through writing, my feelings expressed in that poem reached her. No publication in a magazine could possibly compare to that.
Several years after my nephew’s note, I invited my sister to participate in one of my writing seminars. She had been a journalist and I thought it might get her writing again. When it came to the point where I talk about showing your work to others and trying to get publishing, I thought to myself, Should I include this anecdote I usually told about this autobiographic poem. My sister and I had never discussed her child’s death directly. Well, I decided to go ahead and recount the story. When I finished all eyes turned to her, they knew she was my sister. She said, “You know, it wasn’t that you didn’t say anything, the trouble was that no one said anything.” I was so happy she had seen that poem. That she knew we did care, even if we couldn’t say it. Later in the year, at another seminar, a woman called out, “My God, I had a baby, named John, who died and no one would talk about it either.”
We’re all friends,…who just don’t know each other. Sharing our stories is a way in which we do. Thank you for coming tonight and listening to mine. I hope they remind you of some of your own stories that you might otherwise have forgotten. Stories you make your own, that you can tell others. Little scenes with a direction and meaning, at least for you; in which you take risks that test the boundaries of who you are. In some mysterious way stories and poems, yours and mine, help us to understand our world and guide us forward. Perhaps they are, after all, the handouts for a satisfying life that we though we never got.
Slowly at first, then with gusto
And remember…All you need are suds, suds, suds are all you need. All you need are suds (all together now). All you need are suds (every- body). All you need are suds, suds, suds are all you need.”
Darkness, then the lights come up on an empty stage. John enters from stage right, bows and waves good-night.
If Poets Did Useful Things
It’s dark. People need to be places,
yet the Poet Transportation Authority
busses lurch, wild-eyed and empty,
down half-deserted streets, drivers
muttering, “ And miles to go before I
sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.”