Every poem’s half-erased

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Ampersand Bookstore and Café, Sydney

8 June 2016
12:31pm

Sydney

T. –

As for writing, I probably started when I was in high school. Everybody was busy reading Harry Potter; I was busy writing pathetic and angsty poems in a small notebook, ha. It wasn’t anything serious.

I was more interested, too, in memorising them. (T., 6 November, 2013)

When I was in college, I took a poetry class with a teacher I didn’t totally love. (Which is rare of my poetry tutors/mentors. Sigh. Oh, Paul). He told us this anecdote: of sitting in a diner in PA, eating his dinner, overhearing a young man reciting an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem to the girl he was sharing a meal with.

Paul said: “I wasn’t sure whether he was showing off, or whether he really just loved poetry. But I thought: what a poem to win a girl.

I don’t think this was the first poem I memorised. It gets a bit cloudy going that far back in memory, but I’m sure there was a Shirley Hughes poem from Stories by Firelight (a collection of 6 poems and 3 stories) that I adored, and learned, and recited at school.

But “Love Is Not All” is different. It captivated me to think of this boy out of someone else’s story, reciting a poem late at night in the corner of a diner over a cold plate of fries. Even now, it makes me think of all of my late nights in college with my companions (LMM’s influence makes me want to say compatriots), crowded around some food source, lounging in leather booths at coffee shops and random spots on campus: the places where some idea or concept or author or theory was being picked apart, examined, held up to the light, tried on in new voices.

Love Is Not All (Sonnet XXX)
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace.
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

I read it at an open mic night in Scotland, before I was comfortable in my own skin, before I had memorised my own poems (which, even still, I haven’t entirely). It was something I felt comfortable living in, offering up, sharing with others. It’s a heartbreaking sonnet, and a true sizing-up of love.

I recited it during a recent audition for a Shakespeare project, in which I wasn’t ultimately cast. It was the anchor I felt drawn back to. It sits in my bones.

*

Poetry is not a prize to be won. It’s a gift none of us really deserve. We don’t deserve to have it, we don’t deserve to write it, we don’t deserve to hear it because it is raw and honest and transparently better than us. All poetry surpasses the poet, and contributes to some larger Platonic sense of what-is-pointed-to.

Last night, I interrupted Andrew reading on his phone. “I’m reading a poem,” he said. “Don’t I get a kiss for that?”

He gets gratitude for that (he also got a kiss). He was reading Interrupted Meditation by Robert Hass, which I hadn’t even read yet.

Some of us whispered ‘art’,
he said. Some of us ‘truth.’ A debate with cut vocal chords.
You have to understand that, for all we knew, the Germans
would be there forever. And if not the Germans, the Russians.
Well, you don’t ‘have to’ understand anything, naturally.
No one knew which way to jump. What we had was language,
you see. Some said art, some said truth. Truth, of course,
was death.
What about being? I had asked him. Isn’t language responsible
to it, all of it, the texture of bread, the hairstyles
of the girls you knew in high school, shoelaces, sunsets,
the smell of tea? Ah, he said, you’ve been talking to Milosz.
To Czeslaw I say this: silence preceeds us. We are catching up.
For me there is no key, not even the sum total of our acts.
But you are a poet. You pretend to make poems. And?
Interrupted Meditation by Robert Hass

*

Before I moved from Edinburgh to Savannah, Andrew and I went on an international date.

We went out at the same time, then found each other online at the end of the day and told the other one all about what we did “together.”

M to A: “I took you to the park, and we drew sidewalk art, and you sat on the bench laughing while I taught a four-year-old named Mango how to ride a bike.”

A to M: “We went downtown to laugh at tourists, and went to the art shop, but you spilled a bag of papier mache mix just a little bit and then we had pizza at the best place and you watched me play video games with my aviators on… because everyone who wins high scores is allowed to wear aviators.”

I’ve been thinking about international dates again. Where would I take people in Sydney? Which friends would I go on a date with? And what would we do?

No matter what, I think it would be punctuated by sitting in a café with hot or cool drinks, in the sun or in a warm corner (or conversely, in a pub with a schooner or pint) – and reading. all. the. poetry.

“And, between these figuring lines,
white space, without which

who could read? Every poem’s
half erased. I’m not afraid;

it feels like home here,
held – like any line of text –

by the white margins
of a ghost’s embrace.”

– from Fog Suite by Mark Doty

Love,
M

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