The Christmas I was a child of three, so the family chronicle goes, by some strange occurrence, two dolls awaited under the tree. “But Santa, I can’t hold two dolls,” I said, so I am told. Thus, was my fate delivered and declared. To carry two obsessions. Poetry and prose. To be accountable to two, to always feel the wrench of each disjointing me, to be a worried child who became a worried adult feeling the obligation of nurturing both forms.
Currently engaged in the task of launching a new book of poetry while, at the same time, trying to make progress in writing my current novel, I think of the two and how they operate in me for better and for worse.
After the bureaucratic tyranny of the novel, its demands of structure, coherency, syntax (not merely a sentence but a perfect sentence and a series of perfect sentences for 300 pages), after exhausting myself in responding to the needs and dictates of my pitiful wretched characters, caught as they are in their own foolish devising, their sadness, gladness, and despair as they attempt their destinies, after being embroiled in the pit of passion that is inevitably the result of human interaction, I feel the need to get back to poetry. The purity, the sheer coolness of it.
Writing novels is a prison sentence, solitary confinement, the long, lonely hours alone in your room, of course, but there’s another kind of loneliness, too – the loneliness of responsibility, to your characters, to your story, to the commitment of your vocation. An Antarctic explorer lost on top a glacier, a space traveler zipping through an uninhabited galaxy, those comparisons come close, I suppose.
Poetry is the return to life, to freedom from the chains of prose. Poetry is to stretch into the word, into the self, the word of the self, such a joyous return.
Why then do I go back to prose? Why imprison myself again? What kind of craziness is that? But I cannot resist the calling of the second party: the demand of story to be born. And so it begins again, the cycle away from the self and the return. Once more into the breech, always with a great deal of excitement, to begin the long journey into unfamiliar territory where I will meet with what adventures and characters I do not know at the moment of starting. What I do know is that I am going to explore another country where they do things differently. I am going to be introduced to characters who will be interesting companions along the way. I will fall in love with some of them, I always do. Then at the end of the adventure to find a way back. That is where poetry enters. Poetry helps me chart a way back, retrace my steps to myself, to origin. My hope is that I have left enough crumbs along the way and that they have not all been eaten by hungry birds or washed away by the rain.
The return: I think of a return flight from the U.K. After a slow start, sleeping the night in Gatwick and then a failed engine, finally air borne and then no way out, no stopping until we get there, and where is there? I’m not sure. Trussed in place on the people’s airline, plumped like a Christmas goose, craw bulging, stomach seething, among seven hundred other digesting machines, drugged and somnolent, I am powerless. There is no escape. I eye the fat man sleeping in the aisle seat. Will it be worth it after all, to heave myself across my fellow passengers, to stand in the galley surrounded by a snowstorm of styrofoam, to enclose myself in that airless space? My anxiety escalates.
At some point, elevation 30,000 feet, I feel myself give up. I abandon myself to a greater power, and poetry kicks in: Sound your waves off my skin, find me and scoop me to your chest, carry me up against the night sky, curve your flight around me, mold your umbrella bat wings to my shape, I think. And I hate bats.
I’m not sure I have another book of poetry in me. North may be my last. And then I find Neruda’s: Sadness, scarab/with seven crippled feet,/spiderweb egg,/scramble-brained rat,/bitch’s skeleton:/No entry here./Don’t come in./Go away./Go back/south with your umbrella,/go back/north with your serpent’s teeth./A poet lives here./No sadness may/cross this threshold. …
and I think, maybe…