In my last post, I talked about how a poem needs to have something more than the simply the personal at stake in it to make is work for the reader. Now, using a very early poem of mine, I’m going to take another approach to Shari’s excellent question, which goes as follows: How much should a poet reveal of herself and her life experience? Should the poems be universal, or is it okay to describe a very particular experience or feeling, regardless of whether the reader will understand it?
The following poem is from my first book, Difficult Weather:
Letter From Sligo Creek
Tonight when I’m told of your heart attack—at twenty-six,
from a drug you thought you could give up any time you wanted—
I buy a six-pack and drive to the creek. It’s after midnight.
I’m crouched by the bridge that Maple Avenue makes as it crosses
over the water, houses and grocery stores all dark up the hill
to my right, on my left apartments, a few still lit, and past them
the elementary school, post office, and subway. Over my head
bare branches arc up from both sides of the creek, the stars
between them like freckles of light between the veins
on the backs of your hands. If you were here with me,
we could work our way down the three-foot bank of stones
and watch the water lick the inside curve of the tunnel.
I might persuade you to cross the creek with me, rock by rock.
And though the wind tonight would fight us—I would
hold my arms out for balance while you pressed your fists
deep in your pockets and tried to get over as fast
as you could—I’m sure we’d come up on that other, darker side
without falling; I’m sure we could drink to the yellow glow
of this almost moon. If I were to call you and say, I’m praying
for you, you’d laugh. And though you came to a party once
with a bucket of roses, one for each girl, you don’t like
flowers for yourself. So I drop down to the edge
of the water—the earth here as cold and hard as concrete,
the water colder—and dip my fingers into its surface as though
I believe that somewhere upstream a gentle needle gathers this night
into your blood, and carries from me to you the smells
of dirt and air, the shiver of grass already crusted with dew
no one else will see for hours, the sound the water makes
folding over again on itself and going on.
If you were to ask me the literal origin of this poem, I might describe it this way: Quite late one night, I got news that a man with whom I had had a brief and ill-advised affair had suffered a cocaine overdose. His survival was uncertain. Some impulse impelled me to a favorite neighborhood spot, Sligo Creek Park. I sat by the water and drank some beer. I imagined the man with me there, and happy. I considered methods of contacting him and rejected them. I put my fingers into the creek. Then I went home.
For a rather small portion of any audience, that might be enough to relate to. But of course, that is not all that this poem is about.
So let’s look at confluence. As a child of Washington, DC, and its southern Maryland concrete suburbs, I didn’t grow up with a lot of green parks around me, and never thought about needing to be in nature. And yet, bodies of water were always important to me. I came to love the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean in my teens, splashing in them for pleasure, turning to them for comfort. When, as a young adult, I moved to Takoma Park, Maryland, I spent some time nearly every day walking in Sligo Creek Park, listening to the wind and water, and observing patterns in the shapes of things, such as the stars between branches being “like freckles of light between the veins / on the backs of your hands.”
So you might say that this is a poem about nature, and how its perpetual cycles both remind us of and console us for our mortality. And for a larger group of readers, this might be something they can identify with. But that is not quite, or not entirely what this poem is about.
What else is going on in this poem? Well, it’s a prayer, it’s a lament, it’s a wish. It’s a reckoning of frailty, it’s an imagined last encounter between two ex-lovers who will never see each other again. It’s an expression of frustration. it’s a shake of the head at the self.
Along the way to all that, much was left out. Sligo Creek eventually flows into the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. I was aware of its connection to those other beloved bodies of water, but left that out – that personal detail was beside the point. I also deliberately did not specify the drug in question. Inserting the word cocaine into a poem tilts the scale of meaning in a particular direction, and I did not want the drug itself to be the focus. And almost all my life, I have pondered and struggled with the sad fact that one’s affection for another human being often seems to do that other person little or no good. Lurking beneath the poem was the frustration of that predicament — that the person in question was loved by many, many people and yet that abundance of affection did not penetrate whatever was driving him to his particular drug of choice. That was just to big atopic to try to cram into the poem.
One’s omissions tell a tale of their own. But another aspect of writing that intrigues me more and more as I keep at it is how some poems become predictive. I was just beginning to explore various pre-Christian systems of belief when I wrote this poem, though it would be a few yet before I publicly identified myself as a Pagan. Now, I see that “Letter From Sligo Creek” foreshadows what would become my new belief system, that in it was creating and enacting a nature-based ritual for healing both myself and the person for whom it was written. And while belief in the power of Magic is again, not entirely what the poem is about, it is certainly woven into it, along with other mysteries I may never know.