Today I was thinking about the ways poetry has helped my heart become better literally and figuratively.
I became lovestruck by the fourth grade. We were instructed to write a poem after having been read children’s poetry from a big anthology. My classmates wiggled impatiently in their seats, stared out the window, tapped their pencils, whispered of other things. But I sat with head down, pencil racing across the paper as though in a trance. I saw on the vast canvas of my mind an old man on a raft; it was raised aloft by the sea’s heaving green waves. He was sailing toward a place that he loved, a far away home that drew him forward, but he was tired. A flock of seagulls called out, soaring and diving. The old man, though both hearty and wise, thought he might not make it. He raised his eyes to the strong-winged birds and they brought him sea plants. He tied them to the raft and the seagulls took the other ends into their mouths. The wind blew mightily. The seagulls pulled the raft with the old man on it to his beloved destination.
It was a rather long poem, the teacher said, but she liked it. Still, just where did that poem come from? I had no good answer. It had just visited me and I got to write it down. That year it was chosen to be read at a conference on childhood education and creativity. That seemed a bit odd to me, as the best thing was the happiness I felt in the making of my first real poem. That it had given pleasure to others was a pleasing side note.
And so I continued to write poems as I grew up. I liked to write plays and stories but poetry was the strongest voice, the one that took all the feelings, thoughts, ideas and crystallized them one by one. I read Theodore Roethke, Denise Levertov, Muriel Rukeyser, Elizabeth Browning, Rainier Maria Rilke, Walt Whitman, ee cummings–the list grew each year as I was left amazed by their prowess. A poem was the undiluted experience, the truth of one moment, a sage that taught me what I needed to know. They brought to the light many things that were wandering in the shadows. A poem could, and did, change my thinking and clarify my feelings, even alter the course of my life.
Writing poetry has saved some part of me more times than I could recount. It has at times been the one companion or help available regardless of the time of day or night, state of my love life, health of my body, or life circumstances that brought me plenty or paltriness. Many kinds of writing have upheld me but poetry’s brevity has perhaps taught me more.
After I was diagnosed with heart disease, I found I could write little other than poems. Most were not shared; they were vulnerable poems, poems needed to cleanse and heal myself, akin to prayers. There were not the words for big stories at first, nor the energy. What I could not explain in speaking with others, I could say easily in poems. The deepest or hardest experiences would often have no voice at all if not for them. When I grappled with losses spanning the years–of health, of love, of family or friends, or of simply time, itself–a poem would rescue me from self-pity, self-importance, self-abnegation. It freed me and brought closer the center of all that I loved, to God and a sense of the numinous. More clearly part of the whole, I rested.
I read today about several meanings of the phrase “the flying heart”. The winged heart symbol of the Sufi movement is reflective of the belief that it lies between the body and the soul, a conduit between matter and spirit. Egyptian symbology indicates that wings are the symbol of spiritual progress and the heart was the only organ not removed from a mummy–an emerald stone was placed upon the chest to assist the journey from matter to spirit. In Christian scripture there are phrases that refer to a person’s spirit being lifted by wings of the heart. The Old Testament mentions the heart 814 times; it is seen as having higher intelligence than the brain. Psalms instruct us to “lift up your hearts.” This is what poetry can do for me: my heart can fly and, in so doing, it can make more rapid connections to mind, matter, heart and spirit. I become humbled and liberated by the truth I am made to discover.
And so, I offer you one poem that surfaced as my heart dis-ease was still healing.
These are damaging times,
when all the words left seem
too little or self-important,
and since I had ridden the tail end
of the procession of grief,
not one syllable could tell me anything good.
So, I left for the lake, its imperishable
silences and soundings,
its mutations ranging from deep to deeper,
the sterling surface exhaling blues and greens
while I slept, innocent.
That next day the sun rose like a crown.
What seemed to be rain drops
were branches shushing the world.
Leaves flew across
my face, burning with color
and clinging to my shoulders in
an impromptu cape that streamed
all the way to paradise.
Every small mystery bounded the trails
so I wouldn’t lose my way:
moss and lichen clinging to
heavy nurse logs,
black beetles in shining armor,
bees feasting til the very last moment,
streams rumbling ancient warrior ground.
I would have danced among the cedars,
risen on plumes of scented mist,
but the lake called,
waves glimmering and thrusting toward
the shore, stones turning over
like happy creatures,
clouds drinking at the edge,
its enormity clearer than light,
its pure glacier heart warming in my hands
(Poem written at Crescent Lake in the Olympic National Park, 10/02)