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A Poem Is Never Finished, Only Abandoned.*

April 11, 2011


A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. • Robert Frost

I told someone I lost my mother, but I find her everywhere. She’s lurking at the grocery store and at the movie theatre. She’s hidden in the pages of the books I used to buy and send to her. I see her among the bargains that she loved, like necklaces and earrings discounted seventy-five percent from their lowest marked price. We say the one who’s gone is lost, but I am the lost one, adrift in a world where I founder in the shoals of sadness, snagged by jagged rocks of memory that hide beneath the normalcy of life-goes-on. I try to find the poetry in my remembrance.

I am never sure when a poem begins because the words I write are not usually meant to be poems. I seldom sit down and say “I will write poetry today.” More often, I say “I will write,” and sometimes what emerges is the seed of a poem. Very seldom, a poem springs into being, words rushing onto the page or screen as fast as I can write. Instead, fragments arrive unbidden to be captured, saved, revisited again and again until they spark some resonance within. In my life, poetry cannot be forced and almost never flows no matter how much I might wish that it would. Right now, I very, very badly wish it would.

How do poems grow? They grow out of your life. • Robert Penn Warren

It’s almost three months since my mother died and I have begun many poems since her death. Most have been abandoned and I do not think that I will ever finish them. Revisiting the words is painful, leading me to sorrow, immersing me in grief when I want to remember joy. My mother was asked to leave a grief group shortly after my youngest brother’s unexpected death because she was not sad enough. Her upbeat attitude brought the group down, she was told. She would not want me to wallow in sadness either. “Remember me,” she’d say, “but it would make me sad to see you sorrowful. Enjoy your life and focus on the fun we had together.” I want to. I really do. It is not easy.

A poem might be defined as thinking about feelings—about human feelings and frailties. • Anne Stevenson

I do not want to hide these words where I can find them and be tempted to wrestle them into poems. Instead, I’ll abandon them here and call them done.

February 12, 2011. I wanted to play with the meanings of the word rest, the euphemism for death, the remainder, the break or relaxation, but it won’t come together as I make notes on the back of an envelope while I’m in the car. It’s a perfect example of a notion that could become something but likely never will.

A final heartbeat, a last breath,

and all my life becomes the rest.

Eternal rest

is followed by this daily rest when

life shifts into

days without and every day

I find no rest from emptiness.

I am ambushed by little things , a song on the radio, a pair of ticket stubs in a winter jacket I pull out of the closet when the weather unexpectedly turns cold, daffodils in the snow. I am adjusting to the bigness of forever, but these small reminders pull me back into my grief. As I am looking for course materials, I find something written by the French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette who authored the novel Gigi on which one of my mother’s favorite movies was based. She wrote: “It’s so curious:  one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief.  But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.”

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions known what it means to want to escape from these things. • T.S. Eliot

February 14, 2011. I get emails from Disneyland addressed to my mother—an annual passport holder—because she didn’t have a computer. Their offers often begin with her name and I cannot bear to cancel them. My jewelry boxes are filled with rhinestone-encrusted landmines of remembrance and letter bombs await in the bookshelves where I secreted mothermail to read again. In the Goodwill, I begin another poem about these unexpected reminders:

I am ambushed by your absence and

every time I forget that you

are gone, you find me.

You lie in wait in the thrift store

where the empty sleeves of sweaters

in your favorite pink grab me

as I troll the aisles.

In the front yard the violets breathe

your name and I know that lilacs will soon

scent the air with your memory.

There are reminders everywhere and I cannot escape them. I do not know if I want to.

Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life. • William Hazlitt

February 26, 2011. I love wordplay and make these notes while we’re on the way to the grocery store:

Rest in peace, we say,

but in their end, it is our own

peace we seek:

a piece of precious remembrance without tears,

a piece of happiness without regret,

a piece of delight in what once was and

never again will be.

Yes. Rest in peace while we pick up

the pieces and move on.

March 2, 2011: The poet Robert Frost said that poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words. I am still looking for the words that will help me remember and forget.

Forgetfulness is easy

if the heart is hardened,

if every thought of you is

abandoned,

if the mind refuses to

stoke the fires of memory and

lets the embers grow cold

from neglect.

Forgetfulness is easy

if all reminders are ruthlessly

purged, brutally

neglected, systematically

destroyed, efficiently

deleted, rooted out, leaving

nothing, not even ghosts of memories

behind.

My Saturday begins and I do not think of loss, but then the phone rings early—my mother was the only one who called me early—but, of course, it is not her and all the work I do after this wrong number bears the imprint of distraction. I cannot find the words today.

What words do you seek? What words do you find?

Poetry is an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them. • Charles Simic

Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal. • From a headstone in Ireland

* Thanks to French poet Paul Valéry for the title quotation.

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7 comments

  1. I can’t help but feel like a voyeur, delighting in the eloquence of your words as I look through the window of your soul while you wrestle indefatigably with sorrow. But, am I to blame? I think not. When you are able to articulate the inexpressible without devolving into the maudlin. What else can I say except thank you.


  2. I, too, can say thank you. I appreciate your words. W-OZ


  3. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.
    Exquisite choice of quotes.
    Love your reflections on your poetry and process.
    Exquisitely delicate and precise language.


    • Thanks for your kind words. I very much appreciate them. W-OZ


  4. Wow…I found the blog when I googled “A poem is never finished, Only Abandoned” what you write is beautiful…your grief is poignantly felt as I read it….being someone who ‘writes’ I found so much resonance on what you wrote. I am glad to have discovered this.


  5. I just left a link to your blog in an ongoing critique of a fellow poet’s draft; one of his comment was: so and so thought this one done. I wanted to give him a little background on the quote, and found your writing, which will benefit us both. What a pleasure it was to read some of your work.


  6. Love your words and feel your pain , have you ever read the poem,
    ‘Ten places where I see my mother’ by Jennifer Copley? It’s one of my favourite poems.



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