Two Arrows



“The original, shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all. Instead we live out of all the other selves, which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather.”
 ~~~ Frederick Buechner

What is your original self? Our culture, our families, and the entire process of America’s educational system train us not to listen to our original selves.

Instead we listen to the you need to support yourself voice and the that’s crazy voice. All these messages (and so many more) bombarding us until we reach a moment when we’ve forgotten altogether what we dreamed we do with this fleeting precious life.

Jealousy is a good guide to finding your original self. Not jealousy over things like having more money or a smaller nose or trimmer figure, but the kind of jealousy that cuts down into the meat. When I find myself narrowing my eyes at someone because they’ve won a fellowship that I didn’t even borrow applying for, I know I’m onto something. I might be wishing that I had won the fellowship, but more likely I’m wishing that I’d had the confidence to apply for it, that I believed in my own skills enough, that I’d allocated the time to my art.

Sometimes it’s just a little tug in the gut that tells me I’m on the right path. The way my heart races a bit when I get near a bookstore. How my ears perk up when someone starts talking about a poet I don’t know.

Today I read two poems thrilled me, both from the February issue of Poetry: Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds” by John Murillo and “The Wolves” by Paisley Rekdal. Both poems contained emotional honesty expressed in unusual and resonate language. Just exactly the kind of poems that I aspire to write. I could feel both of them in my body. Thunk, thunk, like two arrows deep into my chest. 

There, struck through by those two fine poems, my original self pinned to the world. Same self that at thirteen used to hide away in her bedroom with a thesaurus and a notebook. Same self that nineteen was smoking cigarettes on the rooftop while reading Rilke. Same self that took the big jump to apply to grad school for her MFA when she was 40, even though there were some who said she was “too old.”

Oh hello, original, shimmering self. Nice to see you again. Maybe you’d like to stick around for awhile.

Oh Ross Gay, You Are Wonderful

“The poems and the art I turn to have a very practical use, and probably in ways that manifest themselves in my body, as a version of nourishment. I have a feeling if…I’m listening to a poem by someone I love—you will see a kind a cellular response that will be in some way not unlike if I ate a bowl of greens and chickpeas, or something…I also think poems are one way we exercise our capacity for imagination and for metaphor. And those are the things by which we actually survive. Those are the ways by which gardens are planted.”

Ross Gay (Poetry Foundation, 2015)

To choose the path: an origin story (or stories)

This is a bit of binding and bit of journey.

Several years ago, maybe even three or four, the poet Traci Brimhall (whose work I adore) had an essay in Waccamaw Journal entitled “A Love So Strong It Nails You to the World: A Life in Poetry.” In the essay, she traced her origin story as a poet.

When was the moment when I first thought I would write a poem? What pushed me in that direction? Brimhall finds the seed of her own love of poetry in several locations. When I think back, the seeds of my own devotion were broadcast widely as well.

All through my childhood, there is a two volume poetry anthology that sits on our shelves among the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and thick tomes about the Civil War. I read so voraciously that I try to read every book on every shelf in the house. The anthology begins with Beowulf in volume one and works its way up to T.S. Eliot and even a little bit of Wallace Stevens in volume two. It is Yeats who fascinates me. In fourth and fifth grades, I have already secretly dog-eared the bottom of certain pages, especially Yeats’ “Stolen Child.” Is it the magic in the poem that calls to me? Or is it that I already feel that my world is more full of weeping than I can understand?

In fifth grade, we are asked to write poems about professions we are interested in. I have been reading Sybil (yeah, maybe not so appropriate for a fifth grader) so I choose psychologist. I can actually still remember a few lines of the poem because my fifth grade teacher makes a big deal about it. She is a horrible teacher, but I want her to like me, and she likes the poem. I remember her asking me where I got the ideas in it. There is some sort of power in those words. They make adults talk to me differently.

Fast forward to ninth grade. At the beginning of the year I begin to carry a small spiral notebook around with me. In classes that are boring (most classes in ninth grade), I write in it. I write poetry. I’m building on some of the stuff in that poetry anthology, the second volume now thoroughly dog-eared and a bit worn. A boy I like takes my notebook off the desk and reads the first poem. I am melting into a puddle of embarrassment, but instead of making fun of me, he takes the notebook to the teacher and says hey, Erin wrote this poem and it’s kinda good, isn’t it? And the teacher agrees with him. The next week she gives me an anthology of contemporary poetry called Eating the Menu, a ragged copy she’s picked up in some second-hand bookstore. I read the whole book. I read it again. My body feels like it is filled with bees. At night I sit in my bedroom with my notebook and thesaurus. I want my words to buzz and sting.

I keep writing in those notebooks. I keep carrying them around and putting down word after word. I keep reading, finding more poetry that fills my body, sometimes with ice, sometimes with helium, sometimes with venom. Sure, I lose my way at times. I forget that the words are the way. I move to New York and I let go of that identity. I die inside a little bit. But when I return to myself, six or seven years later, those poems are waiting. The notebooks are waiting. The poetry is still waiting.

A little over ten years ago, I decide that poetry matters. That when I am not writing, I am less alive. The broad landscape of Alaska has given me the mental and physical space to write. There is a certain quiet here that I have not experienced anyplace else. For me, poetry takes that kind of quiet. But the upheaval of the last year has taught me another lesson – I can write through chaos, I can write through grief, I can write through numerous plane flights and last-minute trips across the country. Poetry is not like an coat that I can put on and take off anymore. Poetry is like the arch of my foot, the thumb on my dextrous left hand. Or perhaps, poetry is like the vast network of veins and arteries that circulate my blood, beneath the surface but present in every part of me.

It is good to know this, to accept it and embrace it. It means feeling, really feeling the path beneath my feet.