What can a poem do?

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I keep trying to write about my impending book publication, about the process of writing, about poetry. But all I can think about are the students and teachers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I spent twelve years in a high school classroom – one as a full-time substitute teacher, eleven as an English teacher.

I’ve taught every kind of student: eager, disinterested, poor, rich, parents overly involved, parents totally absent, some good at school, others disheartened by it. I’ve taught students as articulate as those who are speaking out now about gun reform. I’ve taught students who I know were capable of killing seventeen of their peers.

Every time I sit down to write about writing, I come up dry, because it doesn’t seem important in the face of dead children. Then I remember Alex Schachter reading his son Max’s poem. A poem that Max wrote two weeks before he was gunned down in his high school. I think of how people turn to poetry in times of love, in times of sorrow. I know that many of my students, high school, undergraduate, and graduate make sense of their world through words. And I remember how people passed around Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. How that poem helped people move forward.

And yet another shooting. And yet, even with the brilliance of the young people who are mobilizing and asking good questions and speaking up for their murdered peers and teachers… it feels a little hopeless.  Still, this place is beautiful, right? How can we move forward and create more peace, more love, more listening, more hope?

Good Bones

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Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
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~ Maggie Smith
Do yourself a favor. Buy Maggie’s new book Good Bones. It’s filled with stunning, beautiful, wrenching, full-hearted poems that you need in your life.

Sunday Cleaning

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It’s Sunday, early afternoon, and I have just finished cleaning the house. More precisely, I have just finished scrubbing the kitchen sink with Bon Ami. I apportion household tasks in the following way: every other week, I clean the house, and during the alternate week I do the laundry. Even writing this makes me cringe. My mother’s housecleaning regime was constant. When she had completed the circuit of cleaning, she just started over. A quick search of my childhood memories would reveal that in essence, cleaning the house was her hobby and career.

My standard of clean is very different than my mother’s. It would not be an exaggeration, and I could find people to corroborate this statement, to say that you could pretty much eat off of any surface in my mother’s home. I can remember with vivid clarity the moment I discovered that the top of my mother’s refrigerator was dusty. I didn’t say anything, no teasing or anything snarky, because I was sincerely shaken to see a thick layer of dust. The same one that’s on the top of most refrigerators in the world. But not my mother’s. Never my mother’s. That dust indicated that something was going horribly wrong in her life (and actually her memory).

When I finish cleaning my house, I feel a sense of accomplishment and peace. For those few moments, there is nothing amiss. I can sit down and read a book or write. If someone stopped over, they would notice nothing but the view or my dog leaping about. My mother never sat down to read a book. She watched afternoon television, Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin, but only as she cleaned or ironed or folded or cooked. If there was a moment when my mother felt at ease in her own home, I never saw it.

It pains me that in some way she handed down the idea that part of my self-worth is connected directly to my home. But she did. And it is. She and I wrestled over the cleanliness of my bedroom for all the years that I lived at home. Or how neatly I folded the clothes. Or which way my shirts were facing on the hangers in my closet. Later, when I lived on my own, she came to visit my home only a single time, a dark college apartment. She ran her finger along the edge of a bookshelf, coming away with dust. That Christmas, I received a vacuum cleaner from her. She never set foot in any of the many places, near or far, that I lived, ever again.

My mother’s history and my own are intertwined. I feel the tugging almost viscerally when I clean. How much it meant to her to give us all a perfect house. How much I’d rather spend time doing almost anything else because I can never do it right. How much our patriarchal culture has colored everything we do, including what we’re taught as children about our roles and values.

At public readings, when I read poems from my book Every Atom, I sometimes find myself wanting to explain my mother, explain myself. Even though the poems explore what our relationship was, honestly, sometimes painfully, I want to defend her, defend myself. Every person is just one domino in a long chain. She became who she was with the input of all the people and events before her, and I have become (continue to become) who I am for a thousand reasons.

So now I’m going to sit down and read a book. Watch the sky. Allow myself to be present in this moment, remembering my mother.

There is no other power. No other name.

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My desk is covered with piles of books, some new, some old and tattered, some filled with sticky notes and underlining, some still pristine, but all by the same author, Ursula Le Guin.

When she passed a few days ago, I was among the thousands of people who wept for a person they’d never met in the flesh. I’d always hoped that our paths would cross. That somehow, impossibly, I’d get an opportunity to hang out near her and listen to her funny, irreverent, whip-smart conversation. Reading her books was as close as I ever got.

It wasn’t just that she had incredible talent; she understood how writing as a woman might be different than what the mostly male canon dictated. Everything she wrote was infused with an incredible generosity that might at any moment turn into a lesson in intelligence as spear to deflate wrong-headedness. But my heart, my heart lived in Earthsea.

The Wizard of Earthsea was a book that spoke to the deepest part of me. The part that longed to accept that my shadow, the bad self that was so often pointed out and scorned, might be integrated and necessary. The part that admired balance, equilibrium, friendship. The part of me that longed to know the true names of things, to work the magic of language.

I suggest that you read some of her work. Her latest essay collection No Time to Spare was announced as a Pen Literary Award finalist just this morning. Her oeuvre is wide; you can find a book to please any taste and age range. Her poetry is a profound as her fiction, as insightful as her essays.

Let me leave you with her words from The Wizard of Earthsea:

It is no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.