January 18th, 2019

cocked and loaded


I've always been a reader. Since I can remember, I've read voraciously, first library books and then when I was older and could afford it, filling my little book cabinet and bookcases with books I loved and read and re-read until they were in tatters. I cut my reading teeth on Little Women and Little House on the Prairie and Heidi, on Edith Nesbit and Edward Eager and Madeleine L'Engle, and all the thousands of books that I could spend this entire post listing, but won't. I can't remember NOT reading, not wanting to read. I stayed up too late reading; I still do. I read on the couch, on the floor, in the living room, in my bedroom, on the porch (but not in the car, sadly). I read instead of doing chores I was supposed to be doing. I read instead of watching TV. When I could, I read at the table, though my mother brought me up to set aside my book if anyone else was sitting at the table with me. I read for fun, for pleasure, for escapism, for knowledge. I steeped myself in words and immersed myself in other worlds, other minds, other lives.

I don't remember learning to read. And I don't remember learning to write, but I remember the writing that made me turn to words in a different way. The writing that made me realize that there was structure, and beauty and purpose to writing; that it didn't just appear on the page, but that someone carefully constructed it and placed it just so, in a way that crystallized thought. Oh sure, I wrote before that. And I knew that writing could be something beautiful, that a perfect turn of phrase was something to strive for. I wrote stories and essays and even poetry, but it was this poem that struck me like a bolt of lightning and made me start scouring the shelves for more:


Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
When Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

with cloud for a shift
how will I hide?

—May Swenson

It's the poets that know how to craft thought into something flexible and sinuous and heartbreaking. They pull the curtains aside and leave you staring out the window of your mind at something that widens your eyes, and strikes your soul. They let the light in. I devoured poetry, tearing great swathes through Theodore Roethke, e.e. cummings, Marge Piercy, Rainer Maria Rilke and Mary Oliver. They got me writing in ways I had never considered before. They showed me how to put words together. They shone a light on the importance of my voice and my memories and my stories and made me think differently about how to share them.

What will you do, God, when I die?

WHAT will you do, God, when I die?
I am your jar (if cracked, I lie?)
Your well-spring (if the well go dry?)
I am your craft, your vesture I—
You lose your purport, losing me.

When I go, your cold house will be
Empty of words that made it sweet.
I am the sandals your bare feet
Will seek and long for, wearily.

Your cloak will fall from aching bones.
Your glance, that my warm cheeks have cheered
As with a cushion long endeared,
Will wonder at a loss so weird;
And, when the sun has disappeared,
Lie in the lap of alien stones.

What will you do, God? I am feared.

—Rainer Maria Rilke

Death is on my mind today, because I saw this morning on the news that Mary Oliver had died. She wrote so many good poems and had so many wise things to say that I can't choose between them for favorites. But this, a poem she wrote about death and dying ends, like so many other good poems, by showing you how to live.

When death comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

—Mary Oliver

Me neither, Mary. Me neither.