I’m feeling lethargic, relieved. I’m feeling utterly in the middle of a tumult between overwhelmed and put-away; by put-away, I mean all trash disposed of, nothing extra; papers returned after having been carefully read and marked up with comments. Because teaching for me has become about taking what’s in my mind and giving it back to students in slanted, carefully cribbed marginalia, something like: The point you make here is wonderfully prescient of the work you’re about to embark on. Keep this close, and allow yourself to imagine what you might learn from what you’ve discovered. How might you make this your own?
I wrote a poem last night about sitting quietly in a classroom recently vacated by all the students I’d just finished guiding through a consideration of audience. The lights in the classroom are motion-sensor activated, which meant the longer I sat on the desk the greater the risk I’d be drenched in darkness. I feared I would appear ridiculous to anyone walking by in the hall. I feared the custodial staff — the woman with tight-curled grey hair and glasses who greets me when I pass with a stiff “Hi” every time; the man who in most respects resembles this woman, who responds to my hello with a question he likely doesn’t expect much of an answer to. You know: “How are you?” Does anyone wish to truly know how one is? Does one answer by describing how one feels? Does one discuss concerns over finances or the poor health of a loved one? Does one carefully render each of the issues trying to divide him into several smaller sections of himself, the way criminals or enemies of the state were ages ago drawn and quartered by horses roped-tied to his limbs?
I felt the pressure of the lights’ dying. I felt pressure from my wife, who likes always to know where I am, whether I am safe, and how long it’ll be till I make it home. The pressure she exudes is light pressure born out of concern, love, the desire to have me in sight, my body present and close enough to speak several degrees more softly than she speaks all day to classrooms full of children. Close enough to verify moment-by-moment the fact of my still living. Because accidents happen. Because she knows darkness exponentially increases the likelihood of my being taken from her — a car veering into my lane and taking me head-on; a deer I fail to notice cutting across the lane I’m traveling in too quickly to swerve away from it in time. Once she was stalled several miles out of town on her way back to college when a tire blew out. She pulled into a graveled farm lane and sat in the chilly cold awaiting her father’s arrival; when he showed it was as if he’d been taken over; his fear had turned to frustration as he’d driven out to find her on a road he knew quickly narrowed as it left city limits. His frustration had peaked when he considered how silly she’d been not to leave in daylight.
His anger has become her cautiousness. She calls me on the phone now when driving tires her; she uses hands-free Bluetooth, speaks in a near-shout into the enclosed spaces of her Forester’s cabin, so as to be heard. She repeatedly tells me I’m mumbling into the phone and asks me to speak up. Which I do, a little passive-aggressively. But still, I do. I do it because her caution has become my concern. My concern frustrates me at times, because I don’t want to have to worry about her getting hurt or failing to return home. I simply want her to return home safely. I want to take her safe return home for granted. I want to go to the door when I hear the garage clanking open, unbolt and unlock the handle, then busy myself for a moment at the sink while she unpacks her car, shuts the garage, walks to the porch, then walks inside and greets me.
It had started snowing last night. The poem I wrote contained an image of the speaker drifting from classroom to snow-covered parking lot in a heap of frustration after having gotten no writing done at all that afternoon; in a fitful display, in search of some dramatic image to place at the end of the poem he’d begun writing in the classroom, he presses his fist into the half-inch of snow that has accumulated on his driver’s side window; presses until he hears snow snapping beneath his knuckles; presses until his hair grows damp from snowmelt and his already chapped knuckles split open and start stinging; presses until the stinging stops, his hand goes numb, and the phone tucked into his jacket pocket starts ringing.
I did not do this. I wrote this. In the classroom. I wrote it and felt it had something powerful about it. Personally powerful. It contained the frustration I’d felt welling all afternoon, all week, all month, and for several months prior — frustration about writing, about how poorly I handled frustration, and about how poorly I felt being underemployed and seldom-published, a half-decent teacher and just as half-decent a coach.
If I were two people; if I were both the teacher and the student-poet, and the student-poet submitted this poem to the teacher for feedback, the teacher in me would comment that the speaker’s sense of frustration feels underdeveloped; since we readers don’t yet know what’s bugging the speaker, his final gesture in the poem seems vaguely rendered, inexplicable, overtly dense, and overwrought.
I’d tell the student-poet it wasn’t enough to intimate that the speaker lacks the ability to articulate his own frustrations. His feelings must be palpable — visible, at very least, on the fringes of the poem. Until we know, we’re left unsatisfied, wondering what lies between this speaker and his wife and what forces him to remain alone after hours in the classroom. Why does he write at all, and what frustrated his earlier efforts to compose?
How might the student-poet in me respond to these criticisms, these questions?
Like this, perhaps:
Pain is at the heart of most things — at the heart of everything. The window did not break, which is lucky. It’s also lucky how the phone rings and it’s my wife on the other end. I know what she said to me, I remember it. But in the poem, what she says could be anything. What she said could offer some consolation, even salvation. The promise of such deliverance is there, I believe.
And it’s okay to refer to the speaker as me, the poet, because it is me, the poet, in the poem. In this instance, I allowed myself to become the poem’s subject. I may not have pressed my fist into the car window, but I felt very much like doing something of the sort. I wrote the poem to encompass and hold that part of myself. It was the part I most wanted to let go of, lose, leave behind.
Sources of Energy
I’m classroom-bound, late to leave.
At home my wife’s waiting. Outside,
a light snow is falling. Down the hall:
footsteps; the click-and-clatter
of cleaning cart wheels; voices
of the pair who go room-to-room
after-hours emptying trash cans,
scrubbing wall-to-wall whiteboards
of the remnant lecture notes
instructors hurriedly markered
so students dog-paddling through
interscholastic seas might reach
through writing toward wisdom —
or success on the next exam. Soon
the room’s lights’ll quit and I’ll have to
wave my arms frantically, signaling
my presence. The enviro-friendly space
threatens to push me out, but I crave
its quiet. Sitting hunched on the desk,
feet on the chair, glaring at my phone
in hopes my glare’s force’ll crush it
(I would have it flattened paper-thin),
I’m nearly floored to think, if I don’t leave
I risk my wife’s trust —
all of a sudden, I’m writing.
Up until now I’ve failed
to find my way through even half a word,
though the urge to write howled
like a dog shut inside will
tear at the door till he’s let loose.
In this fit, I manage precisely this:
it’s quiet in the classroom; my wife’s
at home; her impatience is blooming.
Which is true enough. What’s trying
is reaching past certainty,
toward the impossible. One way
leads to England, where I lived half
a year alone and learned to love
the darkness of movie theaters,
just before the show started.
My wife wasn’t my wife then.
I’d ended things; between us:
an ocean, even deeper rifts in feeling.
Another way leads past the lake
I photographed poorly one night
after burning pages of poetry
grown lukewarm with angst.
Yet another way places me firmly
in our living room a few months ago,
the night my wife said she’d accepted
the reality she would figure
in the middle of this poem
and others like it. Her saying this
changed things—helped me see writing
as the practice of capturing her hands
sliding over each while she spoke,
the measured tone her words assumed
as soon as she’d uttered them, soon
as she looked at me and blew away
my notion that life and writing
drew on distinct sources of energy.
Of course I’d since forgotten the lesson.
Chalk it up to suddenly fearing being
caught in darkness, losing the line,
succumbing to the pressure to write
while the world in which I live
melts through my fingers —
When I get outside my car’s housed
in white; the dark and quiet persist;
the proper image to pin down the stillness
eludes me; I press
a fist against the driver’s side window,
the snow snaps beneath my knuckles.
My hair dampens, my fingers break
open; still, the quiet leans on me
like a lover — until my phone rings,
I answer it, and she speaks.
This poem serves as a revision of sorts; it completes the unfinished poem I discussed writing in the essay “Heart of the Poem,”
I hope that this poem and the essay comment on each other. I’ve been wondering lately, as a writer, a (working) poet, and husband and partner to my wife: what place does — and should — writing have in the life of the writer? I’ve tried in each piece to capture, if not an answer, then the ways I’ve tried approaching the question.