Poem of the Week, by Andrea Gibson

Screen Shot 2018-11-24 at 8.51.08 AMA few weeks ago an anonymous teen sent me the note to the right, and I wished I could put my arms around them. Three times in my own life, I’ve called a crisis hotline. Each time, I was calling because someone I loved was contemplating suicide, and I wanted to get help for them. Advice by proxy, with me as the conduit. Each time, the volunteer kept ignoring my pleas for help for my friend and calmly and gently steered me back to myself: Where are you right now? How do you feel right now? What’s your plan for when we hang up? 

What was really happening was that the hotline volunteer understood –when I didn’t–that I had called because of my own desperation and terror. These conversations lasted close to an hour each time, and when I hung up, some small part of peace and belief had been restored in me and I was able to keep going. Sometimes you feel, for whatever reason, that you can’t burden your friends and family with your pain and worry. I can’t begin to express my gratitude to these anonymous voices, trained to listen, and to see below the surface.

Those voices are why I added crisis hotlines to the back of my novel What I Leave Behind, which is a book at core about kindness in the face of profound sorrow. What good can an anonymous voice on the other end of an anonymous phone line do? A lot, because that voice is not, in fact, anonymous. None of us are anonymous. We are all connected. Like the brilliant Andrea Gibson says in their mesmerizing poem below, What I know about living is the pain is never just ours. Every time I hurt I know the wound is an echo, so I keep listening for the moment the grief becomes a window.

The Nutritionist, by Andrea Gibson

The nutritionist said I should eat root vegetables,
said if I could get down thirteen turnips each day
I would be grounded, rooted.
Said my head would not keep flying away to where the darkness lives.

The psychic told me my heart carries too much weight,
said for twenty dollars she’d tell me what to do.
I handed her the twenty and she said, “Stop worrying, darling,
you will find a good man soon.”

The first psycho-therapist said I should spend three hours a day
sitting in a dark closet with my eyes closed and my ears plugged.
I tried it once but couldn’t stop thinking
about how gay it was to be sitting in the closet.

The yogi told me to stretch everything but the truth, 
said focus on the out breath,
said everyone finds happiness
if they can care more about what they can give
than what they get.

The pharmacist said Klonopin, Lamictal, Lithium, Xanax.

The doctor said an antipsychotic might help me forget
what the trauma said.

The trauma said, “Don’t write this poem.
Nobody wants to hear you cry about the grief inside your bones.”

But my bones said, “Tyler Clementi dove into the Hudson River
convinced he was entirely alone.”

My bones said, “Write the poem.”
To the lamplight considering the river bed,
to the chandelier of your faith hanging by a thread,
to everyday you cannot get out of bed,
to the bullseye of your wrist,
to anyone who has ever wanted to die:

I have been told sometimes the most healing thing we can do
is remind ourselves over and over and over
other people feel this too.

The tomorrow that has come and gone
and it has not gotten better.

When you are half finished writing that letter
to your mother that says “I swear to God I tried,
but when I thought I’d hit bottom, it started hitting back.”

There is no bruise like the bruise
loneliness kicks into your spine
so let me tell you I know there are days
it looks like the whole world is dancing in the streets
while you break down like the doors of their looted buildings.
You are not alone
in wondering who will be convicted of the crime
of insisting you keep loading your grief
into the chamber of your shame.

You are not weak
just because your heart feels so heavy.
I have never met a heavy heart that wasn’t a phone booth
with a red cape inside.

Some people will never understand
the kind of superpower it takes for some people
to just walk outside some days.
I know my smile can look like the gutter of a falling house
but my hands are always holding tight to the rip cord of believing
a life can be rich like the soil,
can make food of decay,
turn wound into highway.

Pick me up in a truck with that bumper sticker that says, 
“It is no measure of good health
to be well adjusted to a sick society.”

I have never trusted anyone
with the pulled back bow of my spine
the way I trusted ones who come undone at the throat
screaming for their pulses to find the fight to pound.
Four nights before Tyler Clementi
jumped from the George Washington bridge
I was sitting in a hotel room in my own town
calculating exactly what I had to swallow
to keep a bottle of sleeping pills down.

What I know about living
is the pain is never just ours.
Every time I hurt I know the wound is an echo,
so I keep listening for the moment the grief becomes a window,
when I can see what I couldn’t see before
through the glass of my most battered dream
I watched a dandelion lose its mind in the wind
and when it did, it scattered a thousand seeds.

So the next time I tell you how easily I come out of my skin
don’t try to put me back in.
Just say, “Here we are” together at the window
aching for it to all get better
but knowing there is a chance
our hearts may have only just skinned their knees,
knowing there is a chance the worst day might still be coming

let me say right now for the record,
I’m still gonna be here
asking this world to dance,
even if it keeps stepping on my holy feet.

You, you stay here with me, okay?
You stay here with me.

Raising your bite against the bitter dark,
your bright longing,
your brilliant fists of loss.
Friend, if the only thing we have to gain in staying is each other,
my god that is plenty
my god that is enough
my god that is so so much for the light to give
each of us at each other’s backs
whispering over and over and over,
“Live. Live. Live.”

To listen to Andrea Gibson perform this poem, click here.

For more information on poet and performer Andrea Gibson, click here.

Website

Blog

Facebook page

@alisonmcghee

Poem of the Week, by Czeslaw Milosz

Boston public garden ducklingsHere’s the fourth-floor walkup you called home. Here’s the tiny room overlooking Joy Street where Laurel used to roll her waitressing change into paper tubes for the rent. Here’s your room, with the big saggy bed left by a previous tenant. Here’s the bathroom where you didn’t pee at night because darkness was the domain of the cockroaches. Here’s the plant in the sunny window that you wound around itself because it was out of control. Here’s the curbside rocking chair that your friend lugged up for you. Here’s the curbside rug on the living room floor where you used to host your Chinese dinner parties. Here are the stairs he came running back up the last time you saw him. Here’s the couch you were lying on that spring Thursday when the phone call came. This is the place where your life broke. The place you fled a few weeks later. The place where you were a girl and then not. The place that comes back to you in dreams, just the way this poem does.

 

Encounter
    – Czeslaw Milosz

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

 

 
For more information on Czeslaw Milosz, please click here.

Poem of the Week, by Anne Sexton

IMG_0695When he was little, my son sometimes asked me questions that seized my heart, questions like Mama, what if we’re all characters in a book, and someone is writing us right now? Where these questions came from, I don’t know. Then and now he was what I think of as an old soul. Once, when he was a teenager and we sat in a waiting room, I assumed he was bored and offered him a book to read. No, he said, I’m just going to sit here and think. 

These days, in the midst of theories that maybe we’re all characters in a video game being played by beings in a galaxy far, far away, I think about my son’s long-ago question. Then and now I have no answers. Curiosity, fear, longing and wonderment, all tumbling around inside me like an animal clutched fast to my heart. 

 

The Poet of Ignorance, by Anne Sexton

Perhaps the earth is floating,
I do not know.
Perhaps the stars are little paper cutups
made by some giant scissors,
I do not know.
Perhaps the moon is a frozen tear,
I do not know.
Perhaps God is only a deep voice
heard by the deaf,
I do not know.

Perhaps I am no one.
True, I have a body
and I cannot escape from it.
I would like to fly out of my head,
but that is out of the question.
It is written on the tablet of destiny
that I am stuck here in this human form.
That being the case
I would like to call attention to my problem.

There is an animal inside me,
clutching fast to my heart,
a huge crab.
The doctors of Boston
have thrown up their hands.
They have tried scalpels,
needles, poison gasses and the like.
The crab remains.
It is a great weight.
I try to forget it, go about my business,
cook the broccoli, open the shut books,
brush my teeth and tie my shoes.
I have tried prayer
but as I pray the crab grips harder
and the pain enlarges.

I had a dream once, 
perhaps it was a dream,
that the crab was my ignorance of God.
But who am I to believe in dreams? 

 

Click here for more information about the beautiful poet Anne Sexton.  

Website

Blog

Facebook page

@alisonmcghee

Poem of the Week, by Carl Dennis

IMG_0696My friend Todd is an art museum guard by day and an artist by day and night. He composes and records original songs, dives deep into pop music he orders from Japan, watches and re-watches Miyazaki films, reads and re-reads favorite novels and finds something new in them each time. Whatever draws him, he will follow: He’s learning Japanese, has become a sushi expert, and gradually, over the years, has compiled a collection of hilarious and somehow profound observations on life as a museum guard. 

Todd is an artist, and so am I, and the ways we go about it are so different. I’ve never pulled an all-nighter in my life. I rarely re-read books or re-watch movies. When an idea grabs me, the intensity of the grabbing almost scares me. Instead of diving in full throttle the way Todd would do, I’m more likely to hold the idea in the back of my mind and channel its power into small daily tasks on my scrap paper to-do list. 

There’s no one way to be an artist in the world, no one way to make your art. Books result from my process just as music results from Todd’s. But I look at him and the way he lives his life and it’s like I’m looking at a planet similar to the one I live on, close by but unavailable to me. There are so many ways to read the beautiful poem below, most of them related to history and the ways it repeats. But when I read it, it was the difference between the poet Carl Dennis and his brother that struck me, because it’s the difference between Todd and me, and it almost made me cry.

 

War and Peace, by Carl Dennis

In 1949, when I was ten,
a year after the airlift for beleaguered Berlin
had foiled Stalin’s attempt to starve it
and the Marshall Plan was offering battered Europe
a hand to get on its feet, my brother Robert,
six years older, inched his way, in the room we shared,
through the thousand pages of War and Peace
while I lay sleeping. It took him four months,
an hour a night, a project that seemed to me
even more peculiar than his listening after school
to symphonies and quartets. Yes, our mother
had often mentioned the book as her father’s favorite,
the one he’d first read, in his village near Uman,
in Tolstoy’s Russian, though he’d learned his Russian
after Yiddish and Ukrainian. But that didn’t explain
my brother’s pressing on after the first few pages.
Four months just to learn about the families
he tried to describe to me, the Bolkonskis
and Rostovs and Bezukhovs, or about the French
on the march near Moscow, and Tsar Alexander.
it was all so far from the suburb of St. Louis
where we were living peaceably with our parents
most of the time, in a quiet neighborhood.
Of course, by the time my brother read Tolstoy
he’d listened to music composed in Madrid and Naples,
in Leipzig, Vienna, and St. Petersburg.
On a Saturday close to his thirteenth birthday,
before he was driven off to his Bar Mitzvah,
he lost himself in the Rite of Spring.
If I say I followed my brother’s lead when sixteen
by reading, all summer long, his dog-eared copy
of War and Peace—the Maude translation—
I don’t equate my motive for sticking with it—
wanting to be like him, not left behind—
with his simple wish to open his life
to the wonders available. When I need to list
the wonders I’ve seen, I begin by returning
to the year I was ten, 1949,
the year that NATO began its efforts
to defend the free world from the world of darkness,
when my brother crossed the border each night
as if darkness were not an obstacle,
as if the iron curtain were a curtain of gauze,
no harder to lift than to turn a page.    

 

​For more information on Carl Dennis, please click here.​

Website

Blog

Facebook page

@alisonmcghee