Welcome to My Poetry Dictatorship

I’ve been writing poetry since I was eleven. I wasn’t very good then, and I’m still not very good. 

BUT one of my favorite things is to read poetry. I’ve gone through so many phases, being in love with this poet or that poet.

I went through a Richard Brautigan phase, a Billy Collins phase, and I went through another phase where I read a poem a day and collected the names of contemporary poets and became their fan. Eleanor Lerman, Matthew Ryan, Robert Hass, Czeslaw Milosz, Hayden Caruth. 

During college I felt pretty lucky to be invited to participate in a poetry group that included several of my professors and writing instructors, people who I respected as mentors. 

Still, I never got very good. 

But I’ve never relinquished my love for reading poetry.

I fell deeply in love with the Frost verses from which Wallace Stegner pulled a stanza for his semi-autobiographical memoir, “Crossing to Safety,” partially because I’m so madly in love with the story. I pinned the poem up in my room during college and memorized it.

The verse that Stegner used as his epigraph:  

“I could give all to Time except–except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The Things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.”

Honestly, I am not as smitten with poetry that rhymes or sticks fiercely to meter than other forms. 

I look to poetry to feel the breath pulled from my lungs in a sigh of contentment over the perfection of imagery and word choice. Reading it trains me to see the world differently, if only for a few minutes. And I find the most complex language there, which informs my own writing. 

All this talk of phases. For years most of my books have been in boxes. We never settled anywhere long enough for me to take ownership and unpack them. 

And then I realized, recently, that I will never be anywhere that feels permanent. Life IS impermanence. 

That is the point of the Frost poem. And Stegner quoting it for his semi-memoir. 

So I set up my “office” recently, in the basement of our modest home (by American standards…please). And I pulled out and organized my poetry collections and put them on the shelf. 

And now I can read poetry without searching through ragged boxes that have seen too many moves, too many miles. 

And now I can shove poetry down the throats of unwilling participants and attempt to force them to enjoy and appreciate it, because that’s the sort of dictatorship I run. 

After writing in the 4th Holly Drake book this morning, I pulled out my Selected Works of Mary Oliver, looking for my breath to be stolen, searching for something that lit my soul on fire. 

Of course I found something because she is a master. 

Here it is, my first time reading this one (second, now). More meaningful because of this post about my cat, Bastet. 

I won’t write anything at the end of this poem, the post will end, because 1) I’ll be speechless again; 2) I’m typing it out for you from my actual book like some kind of old world scrivener, and I’ll likely be in tears (poems rarely make me cry); and 3) the poem is perfection and I don’t want to mess it up with blah blah blah from me.

The contrast in the lines about her dark body and her sleep…just, I swoon and sob. I’m not sure there have ever been more apt lines written on the subject. 

Her Grave

She would come back, dripping thick water, from the green bog.
She would fall at my feet, she would draw the black skin
from her gums, in a hideous and wonderful smile–
and I would rub my hands over her pricked ears and her
     cunning elbows,
and I would hug the barrel of her body, amazed at the unassuming
     perfect arch of her neck. 

*

It took four of us to carry her into the woods.
We did not think of music,
but, anyway, it began to rain
slowly.

*

Her wolfish, invitational, half-pounce.

Her great and lordly satisfaction at having chased something.

My great and lordly satisfaction at her splash
of happiness as she barged
through the pitch pines swiping my face with her 
wild, slightly mossy tongue.

*

Does the hummingbird think he himself invented his crimson throat? 
He is wiser than that, I think.

A dog lives fifteen years, if you’re lucky. 

Do the cranes crying out in the high clouds
think it is all their own music?

A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house, but you
do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the 
trees, or the laws which pertain to them. 

Does the bear wandering in the autumn up the side of the hill 
think all by herself she has imagined the refuge and the refreshment 
of her long slumber?

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the 
smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know 
almost nothing. 

Does the water snake with his backbone of diamonds think
the black tunnel on the bank of the pond is a palace 
of his own making?

She roved ahead of me through the fields, yet would come back, or
wait for me, or be somewhere.

Now she is buried under the pines. 

Nor will I argue it, or pray for anything but modesty, and 
not to be angry. 

Through the trees there is the sound of the wind, palavering.

The smell of the pine needles, what is it but a taste 
of the infallible energies? 

How strong was her dark body! 
How apt is her grave place. 

How beautiful is her unshakable sleep. 

*

Finally, 
the slick mountains of love break
over us. 

–Mary Oliver

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