In my most recent manuscript, Our Sudden Museum, there is a poem entitled “What is Written on the Leaves.” I wrote that poem in Deerfield Park, here in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, in October a few years ago, on a bench under a maple, surrounded by a blanket of leaves, in a place so quiet I could hear leaves snapping from the trees. It was a place of great peace and quietude; however, I couldn’t hear my own voice due to the incessant hum of grief and fear, of worry. I sat there for a long time before I started writing, hoping I’d find something to say, until I started looking around me at what was there, lying right in front of me, in so many scattered messages.
Today is such a voiceless day. My wife has been mute for the 15th straight day and no tests are telling us why. I miss my wife’s voice. I miss the sound of her laugh. I’m forgetting the sound of it the way I forget what leaves look like, decorating all the bare trees on our street the way they did months ago. And no sun, no spring. And no flowers opening their bright mouths up through the earth. And just for a little icing, today I received a crushing rejection from the editor of a press I’d hoped would want my manuscript. That is a meaningless thing compared to worrying about Denise’s health, I know–but cause to further hold my breath, to feel all the ugly weight the ego can muster in self-defense, self-loathing, in anger at The Universe.
So many reasons to moan.
Today, looking for a document in my files, I came across this file of “What is Written on the Leaves” today that I recently recorded. I was excited at the passing thought that the poem will be featured in an anthology of Michigan poets due out later this year. Then I remembered this: A couple years ago I read this poem to an audience at Art Reach Center of Mid Michigan. The next day I received a phone call in my office from an elderly woman who, though she’d long since attended a poetry reading, was in that audience. In her phone message she told me that all of her family members were dead. That all of her friends were dead. And that she too knew her time was coming soon. She lives alone in a senior center nearby, and was asking for a copy “of that poem you read about the leaves letting go…” She wanted “to hold my poem in her hands and read it every day until it was (her) time to go.” She wanted a copy of it to hold in her hands. To help her live and to help her die.
I will never forget that phone call, and I’ve never had more proof about the reason why I make this art. When I first wrote a poem, I wrote because I loved words. Because I needed to say something in words and I hoped someone would listen. And that still, is the only reason I write–knowing that if someone–even myself or one other person–will listen, they will hopefully take pleasure and solace in hearing the words, and in that communion we will both be, for a moment, more alive, more connected.
Yes, I hope to publish my work, and I hope this manuscript will be good enough for someone, somewhere, at some point–so the poems can reach more people, ultimately. But ultimately, I must always remember that I don’t write for editors. Not for accolades. Not for prizes. Not for ego. I write a poem because I want to stir the air. Hopefully enough air to break some of the silences between us. To shake dust. “In the space between our bodies, the air has grown small fingers…” says a great lyric by Steve Kilbey of The Church–and that’s what poetry can do.
If only a poem could massage my wife’s throat, bring her voice back from the silence. I wrote her a poem the other day to try to do even that. It’s sitting on her desk, where she’s using her fingers on the keys to speak this moment.
Today I felt as if I’m entering into new darknesses, into places I don’t know that my heart can handle the weight of. There are strong roots under my house unsettling me. I’ve felt them breaking right through my walls in recent days.
So: time to have no walls. And to do what this whole winter has been telling me to do: to lay myself bare. To let the wind come. And to do what this spring, when it comes, will tell me to do: to be strong enough to be supple. To be brave enough to break.
Here’s to the air between us stirring. I hope you enjoy this poem, too. You can give it a listen here.