Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Once, years ago, I taught writing to a group of seniors. No one was particularly talented and one man wrote poems so awkward and cranky that I cringed as he read out loud, cringed not only for his ill-conceived sense of rhythm as for how those poems, as misconstrued as they were, still had the power to touch something so deep inside of me that for one brief moment, I understood every awkward and cranky shadow of his life.
Was that good writing? It would certainly never win a contest or appear in a literary magazine. Yet all seven of the class members listened so seriously, so intently that I realized: This was real. However stumbling the prose, however overused the metaphors, the man had written from his heart. He had moved us, caused us to look outside the familiar comfort of our own lives and see a new perspective, a new sense of being. And while the words may have not been pretty or lyrical or even memorable, the meaning was.
I haven’t heard from this man in years; I don’t know where he lives now or if he’s happy or if he’s even still alive, yet I remember part of his poem and I’m not sure why. I read a lot of poetry, and while some of it moves me to tears and causes great gasps of recognition, very few stick with me throughout the years. There are exceptions, of course. Adrienne Rich’s “Like This Together,” which I first read in college, my roommate and I sitting in a drafty apartment in Michigan and drinking cheap red wine, our voices young and overly passionate:
because of you I notice
the taste of water,
a luxury I might
otherwise have missed.
Even then, nineteen years old and attending school on a track scholarship and knowing nothing about poetry, I understood the perfection of those words, the unflinching honesty. Sometimes I still repeat them to myself after a long run, when I throw back my head and drink a glass of water, the liquid hitting my throat like a gift, and I feel a kinship with Rich, the type of holy alliance one can only feel through writing.
There are fragments of other poems that I carry around inside head: Gary Snyder’s “Four Poems for Robin,” for instance:
I feel ancient, as though I had
Lived many lives.
And may never know
If I am a fool
Or have done what my
I first read Snyder while camped in Colorado, and the next morning I woke to horses running past, the sounds of their hooves and the smell of the air so sharp and insistent that it’s forever encoded between the white spaces of that poem.
And of course Anne Sexton's "Her Kind," which I read growing up, as so many young women do, but it didn't really hit me until I reread it years later, after I had my son and I was curled up on the couch late at night, the lamplight soft over my skin so that I felt younger, more hopeful.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
What an odd poem to remind me of love and family and togetherness, though I think Sexton would approve, think she would lay her hand on my arm, lean forward and whisper, in her angry, triumphant, blood-proud voice, "You've got it, girl."
Back when I used to live in Seward, I always, always thought of a line from Richard Siken's "Scheherazade" when I ran the Lost Lake Trail, and each time it felt as familiar and fierce as my own breath:
and the days
were bright red, and every time we kissed there was another apple
to slice into pieces.
Look at the light through the windowpane. That means it’s noon, that means
There are other poets that I love, slender books I slip beneath my pillow at night in hopes of blessing my dreams, yet these are the four I carry around with me, their words repeated so often it's as if they course through my veins, feed my blood.
So how very strange, how freakish yet endearing, that I also remember a badly written poem by an old man I might not recognize if we were to pass on the street. I won't share the fragment, since I don't have his permission and it doesn't seem right and maybe I'm not even remembering it as it was written. It wasn't a perfect poem. It was awkward and stumbling; it wasn't very good at all. Yet it fills my head somedays. Fills my head.
Cinthia Ritchie is a former journalist and Pushcart Prize nominee who lives and runs mountains in Alaska. She’s a recipient of two Rasmuson Individual Artist Awards, a Connie Boocheever Fellowship, residencies at Hedgebrook, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Hidden River Arts, the Brenda Ueland Prose Award, Memoir Prose Award, Sport Literate Essay Award, Northwest PEN Women Creative Nonfiction Award, Drexel Magazine Creative Nonfiction Award and Once Written Grand Prize Award. Her work can be found in New York Times Magazine, Sport Literate, Water-Stone Review, Memoir, Under the Sun, Literary Mama, Slow Trains Literary Journal, Sugar Mule, Breadcrumbs and Scabs, Third Wednesday, Writer’s Digest, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Cactus Heart Press and over 30 other literary magazines and small presses. Her debut novel, Dolls Behaving Badly (click here for B&N, here for IndieBound), was released Feb. 5 from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group. Visit Cinthia at FaceBook or Twitter.
Posted by Cinthia at 7:00 AM