poets pole their pages between the banks of then and now like ferrymen; the more time we spend on death’s shore the more our longing for life propels us into motion. So on the day two poems spilled out of me, I canceled my volunteer hours and procrastinated on a freelance editing assignment. Those two poems unfolded from pencil to paper with a fluidity I’d not experienced in a quarter century of arranging words. An immediate explanation is that death had lately crept closer to my house and heart: parents in surgery for serious illnesses, news of suicides among acquaintances, war and its images in the papers for so long, and the old dog, my steady companion, now faded and brittle like a winter hydrangea blossom.
Another explanation, vaguer, is disentangling from effort to ease, a state of restful receptivity.
I am in training to see the “is-ness” of things, essences, and to hear every breath of everything.
When I worked at the National Zoo, a biologist schooled me in pervasive animal behaviors so I could pass along facts to visitors. Big cats look lazy. They drape themselves on the grassy shelves of their enclosure, occasionally ambling to the water or nudging a fellow. People comment on this from the heights of primate perspective, dismissing the cats, and moving to the monkeys around the bend who fidget and seek attention. Turns out the tigers and lions are not lethargic. They’re resting. Not unlike our inert dogs who pop up from pillows to bark at the mail carrier, the big cats spend hours physically passive but mentally alert until something happens. This also is the ideal state of the poet: quiet the body into stillness, listen, receive readily, move decisively.
Like love happening, the arrival of those two poems flushed my body with warmth. A similar sensation occurs when hearing the voice or experiencing the touch of a lover. It is the blush of morning sunlight on a single robin stilled on a bare winter limb turning its breast feathers from rust to rose. Unlike actual love-making, when one can lose oneself so deeply that the very medium differs, shifting states from land to air or land to water, this love flush gently retains an awareness of separateness and with that, gratitude, or rather, honor. I felt it years ago as an after-school monitor, watching primary-aged children go about their kiddie business in a shaded playground with purity, with none of the self-consciousness or meanness that can tinge play. I didn’t really know them, they were no relation to me, and I loved them fully, for no reason but their verily, merrily living.
A poet is a generalist. We read widely, appreciate movies, TV, theater, art, music of all kinds, information, conversation, junk shops, open space, animals, science, machinery, commerce. We buzz through life with words, images, sounds and factoids adhering to use like pollen on bee’s fur. We chatter about our discoveries like von Frisch’s insects waggling in dance.
Two days before the poems came to me, I met my first blacksmith, Mike Carson, who forges nails and horseshoes at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park in Sacramento. Fourth-grade students from around California visit the park to experience a recreation of 1840s life. In cotton shirt, leather apron, and fall-front pants, dusting up the dirt floor as he steps along the work triangle of a banked fire-anvil-slack tank, he shapes a single nail over the course of several minutes. Then he forges a horseshoe. Starting with a single bar, he heats the iron between 2,500 and 3,000 degrees in the coal fire, puffing oxygen into the flames by pumping the table-sized bellows’ long wooden handle. Heat. Hammer. Turn. Hammer. The ring of metal on metal. He curves up one end. Back in the fire. Heat. Hammer. Turn. Hammer. Turn. Hammer. Another bent end. Heat. Hammer. Turn. Hammer. A curve. Hammer. Heating and bending the fire-softened metal, cooling it to harden and hold a new shape. An awl pokes holes for the nails. The blacksmith listens for the iron’s tone, watches its color oscillate from white to garnet.
A poet knows that truth, like the Avalon of Arthurian legend, is always out of reach in the mist. The conundrum is we can see truth in our mind’s eye, as an artist absorbs what he sees, heats it in imagination, and then crafts it with the materials at hand. Carson says that in Irish lore, the muck of the slack tank is considered healing. One of the fort’s visitors, he says, peered into the dark forge and recalled her mother, long ago in Ireland, forcing a cupful of such metallic water down her throat to make her well. Blacksmiths, because they meld metals, also married couples in Gretna Green, Scotland, joining lovers over the anvil. Carson himself has performed four marriages, including that of his own apprentice. As the children watch him transform iron into implements, my mind fills with scenes of boys, girls, and women sweating in dank, smoky rooms, molding thousands of nails to pay rent on cold, ninetheenth-century tenant farms in Great Britain. I picture spheres of iron mined in Sweden and England, loaded onto ships as ballast, carried by wagons to a valley whose indigenous people, in a thousand years of living, as yet knew nothing of steel.
With long tongs the blacksmith extends the cooled horseshoe for us to touch. The demonstration ends. A little kid pipes up to ask if nailing the shoe to the hoof will hurt the horse. “Not if you do it right,” Carson replies. With skill and attention, in less than a quarter hour, a new thing was made. Once upon a time we needed metal, and wood, to set letters one-by-one to impress on paper the words we wrote and read, each utterance an amalgam of elements.
You know the man-sized pink or blue storks new parents stake in their lawns? How lively certain neighborhoods could be if poets stuck a sign in the yard for each poem’s arrival. Like those babies, months in incubation, composed of genes of bodies gone before them, each poem is both timeless and timely, an event. I have no children and dreamed one night of naming poems as one would daughters; their names were the forms of poems: “Sonnet,” “Renga,” “Rondel,” “Haiku,” “Villanelle.” (I passed on “Acrostic.”) In observing fathers and mothers I see that each one wants his or her child to be extraordinary, to exceed their own achievements, to realize dreams. And the most devoted parents imbue extraordinariness in their sons and daughters by treating them with love. Even when they have favorites among the family, they take care to be as fair as possible.
Before the two poems came that Monday, poems had been found in other ways. I met them on walks, searched for them in corners, constructed them from scrap wood, hammered them out, even ghostwrote them as another force guided my hand. All welcome. None as thrilling, though, as the feeling of being smoothly turned inside out like a mango—split, scored and opened to be orange-ly enjoyed by the universe, juicy flesh from leathery skin.
Long accused of being overly serious and sensitive, I decided when I turned 44 that I would try a different navigational tack. I’d passed four decades being blown between despair and action; now I’d welcome vim. People of my generation (I was born in 1967) mastered the vocabulary of loss: destroyed habitat, air, water; extinction; dismemberment documented on TV, the wars, especially Vietnam; loss of faith in a market economy; loss of faith in our parents’ choices; divorces. Termed Generation X, sociologists charge us with cynicism. I won’t deny it. As teens in the ’80s, my peers and I turned our backs on Ronald Reagan’s masquerade, stuck safety pins on our jeans and in our bodies, danced in mosh pits, roamed. We didn’t doubt there’d be a future but knew it would not be pretty.
Starting in the 1990s, I brought literature to young people. But as a schoolteacher, the diesel pusher of a set curriculum drowned out what the students really thought. This year (2012?), I coached teens in recitation for the national Poetry Out Loud competition. Participants chose from a range of poems spanning centuries. Like a Prius approaching stealthily from behind when I’m riding my bicycle, the significance of their selections startled me. These children, who are the age my own children would have been had I birthed them, talked about hope and love with straight faces, challenging my rhetoric of doom. They spoke a new tongue.
I admit that I have smirked at William Wordsworth wandering, “lonely as a cloud.” I look to Wordsworth for the world being, “too much with us.../Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:/Little we see in Nature that is ours....” Or “Michael,” the nostalgic poem that leaves the reader with a forlorn image of an oak tree, the shepherd, wife, and dog long gone, the property deeded to a stranger. These poems, and Roethke’s dark times, Kenyon’s sadnesses, and others, formed the backbeat of my wails.
So when Kristen (one of the students) chose Wordsworth’s “golden daffodils...Fluttering and dancing in the breeze,” I bit my tongue. She liked it, she said, because it’s beautiful and happy. I sighed inwardly at such sweet naiveté.
Kristen recited the stanzas; we commented. She recited again, bungled lines, asked to recite again. And there in a cluttered room at the tail end of a school day, she soared: “A poet could not but be gay/In such a jocund company.” I sat up straighter.
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
She smiled, looked to me, as the representative of Poetry, for my response. “I’ve never liked that poem before,” I admitted. Then conceded, “I do now.” Kristen sat down. “Next.”
“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—
When asked, Jared said he memorized Emily Dickinson’s poem to share hope with others, because everyone needs hope. On her turn, another student, Karissa, wagged a finger saucily at John Donne’s Grim Reaper vowing, “Death, thou shalt die.” She learned the sonnet because of a loss that has ravaged her family: she did not want it to conquer them. After memorizing Wilfred Owens’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” Wyatt added “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” climbing to the stage to ask the dozen gathered on competition day, “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?/Only the monstrous anger of the guns.” He comes from a family of soldiers and took to heart the poems to honor them. And so on. Each student, a story. Like flags, their poems colorfully snapped in the 21st-century breezes: we are living.
I know now that we must offer up the tenderest parts of ourselves to whatever it is we recognize as beautiful and uncontainable. This may be a God, or a theory, or a commitment, or an art. I also know that a poem, whether becoming alive in the writing, the printing, or the reading of it, can do this. Because a poem’s life consists of silence and sound, it stills and stirs. A photocopy in a child’s trembling hand, or held within the darkness of a book’s covers, a poem waits for us. Those who make poems and those who read them can be ready for something to happen, as the caged tigers are, passing time in the confines of the zoo.
An ancestor of mine converted to Mormonism in the 1850s and left Scotland for California. He stopped, as most immigrants did, at Sutter’s Fort. He was a blacksmith who helped build the colonies in southern Utah that fueled the state’s growth in agriculture with the necessary tools. For years young Mormon missionaries bicycled to my door to suggest the church to me. The last time they came, we stood on the stoop and I told them of how my great-grandmother mingled the waters of science and art with the springs of religion and how, through the years, some of us descendants began to drink more deeply from these other, imaginative streams. They listened, so I continued. I find in poetry, I said, something that opens the world beyond this street and city, like you, perhaps, find in your faith. I watched them, dressed identically in the garments of their tribe, and remembered myself at twenty, in my uniform of bleached, choppy hair, living my words. At last the dog had stopped barking from where she stood in the window and—it’s not a stretch to say—silence settled on the three of us under the afternoon sun like a communion of ideas. “We won’t be back to bother you again,” the Elder promised, after a time. I thanked them, wished them well.
The purpose of life, a poet-friend wisely stated, is not to do, but to be. A synonym for be, in this case, is to attend, to pay attention with clarity, as animals do, as does the learning child, any loving parent, a worthy spouse, the blacksmith, the true missionary, the reader. Though not easy, a state of rest does ease. And ease slows time’s passing enough for us to notice it, moment by moment by moment, prepared to be surprised by joy in existence. This can’t be attained with pounding, but it is shaped in stages, simply as a forged horseshoe, with steady care and no fanfare.
In addition to essays, Alexa Mergen writes stories and poems. She's held various jobs and lived in many places. For a complete bio, visit alexamergen.com.