From Akhmatova to Yeats
“But poetry — which awakens our senses, frees us from the tyranny of literal meaning and assures us of the credible reality of emotional truth — puts us in touch with something bigger than language, something I believe each of us was perhaps fluent in before the moment when language became our chief vehicle for meaning.”
Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate
Remarks at the Library of Congress
At the close of my first day of a week-long writers retreat, I found myself at a loss. At issue were my poems. Which despite months of revision, re-grouping, workshopping and worrying over could not be coaxed to coalesce into a book.
Rather than hang together like matching pearls on a necklace, mine had accreted over the years with too much time between them, so now they were merely a collection of beads from different periods of my life, clattering away in a drawer. (Now you see? I can’t even craft the correct metaphor for what is wrong with my poems—let alone make them right.)
So, after mucking around on the page till dinnertime I called it a day, and rather than go on auto-pilot and lose myself in the Netflix series that I’m currently addicted to, I decided instead to alphabetize my poetry bookshelves, which have been in a state of disarray since I moved nearly a year ago. At least that way I could accomplish something, if not by writing my own poems, then by organizing what others have written.
It was a counter-instinctual move, as I was feeling betrayed by poetry, and also as if I were betraying it by wanting to abandon my own poems. Was I merely wallowing in my grief over the poems I needed to let go–at least for now? And if so, wouldn’t arranging the works of others just drag me down deeper? Faced with my own poetic despair, would I just want to toss all those books away, and fill those shelves with something more practical instead?
I didn’t stop to think. I pulled the books from the shelves and lined them up in rows across the bare floor, the area rug, and out into the hall. I arranged them alphabetically from Akhmatova to Yeats. I made piles of anthologies (classic, contemporary, collections of sonnets, of poems by women, poems from the Middle East, poems by children …) and piles of books on the craft of writing poetry, on reading poetry, and more piles for published journals and letters of poets, and then biographies.
A curated collection
Having moved many times, and Marie-Kondo-ized my home once, every book that remains in my collection has its own story halo-ing around it. I have my grandfather’s classic American poetry bound with its gold-embossed, faux-velvet cover, and my mother’s copy of “Sonnets from the Portuguese” in its cardboard sleeve, inscribed by her high school BFF. I have books signed to me by authors I met at readings I attended or readings I organized for my students.
As the books piled and spread across the floor, they blossomed into a city, with towers of Frost, Dickinson, Kunitz, and Kumin rising from the floorboards. New villages of contemporary favorites like Nikky Finney, Laurie Ann Guerrero, and Terrance Hayes began to command the horizons, too.
Some alphabetical neighborhoods became particularly valuable real estate: like the powerhouse of P through R, where Plath, Piercy, Rich, and Rukeyser reside spine to spine.
I dusted off the artwork along with the empty shelves: An oil sketch of Whitman by my Jr. High School boyfriend, now a successful artist, presides over one tall bookcase. A framed photo of Naomi Shihab Nye reading to my students, with a facing picture of me listening as she read, my smile bursting with delight, graces the other.
Re-shelving and re-discovery
Placing handfuls of books back on the shelves, I relived moments of discovery: The summer afternoon, when as a high school student I first read Leaves of Grass aloud with a new friend, while rain stormed just beyond the screened porch were we sat. Bringing my mother with me to readings of my new literary loves during my grad school years, when I made myself a temporary home in the guest room in her New York City apartment. The conversations with poets as they signed their books after readings, the books by my own friends (most still living, some now gone). The volume of poems I read on the lawn with my now long-gone dog curled at my feet. The poems that inspired poems of my own, and the ones I taught to my students.
There was a sense of history and literary ancestry, too: The ways those poets, gathered together on a shelf, love life and rail against death—or court it. The messy wordless emotions, the abyss of uncertainty, or insistent wellspring of hope, that roil beneath the typefaces and in the white spaces that surround each printed line.
And too, there was the parade of personas that rose up in room, each a mirrored version of my self: The me who loved each book, or pretended I did, or thought I should—the me who grew into or grew out of them, who memorized the poems as I walked through the meadows, or inked lines by Holmes or Keats and balanced the pages against the steering wheel, so I could recite as I drove.
I felt like a visitor in this city of poems that I helped create. This city of words that I get lost in, want to run away from and be welcomed back to. I want to build something of my own here. Find my place, a room that’s mine, a garden to weed or plant. I leave and return. I leave and I stay away.
In my dreams I wander through these familiar and unfamiliar blocks, I find a stoop where I can stop and rest. Beauty and ancestry exchange greetings on the corner. Earnest conversations begin at café tables, and the citizens all have heart. I overhear lines that arise from the collected crowd. I bring some home to bed with me.
I in my bed, sleeping. The books standing sentry in their places.
In another room, my own pages are quiet, alert, listening.
Copyright Tzivia Gover, 2018
Originally published at tziviagover.com