He was charming, the man who stopped me on the sidewalk. It was the day of the annual Burnsville Christmas parade, an unseasonably warm and sunny Saturday afternoon. I was standing outside a friend’s shoe store waiting for the parade to begin and wishing I could replace my long-sleeved sweater with a tee-shirt. As the crowd jostled around me on the narrow brick sidewalk, I felt a light touch on my arm and turned to face the man who offered a hearty, “Hey!”
I didn’t recognize him, but thought he looked like someone I should know. He had one of those open, never-met-a-stranger smiles. A woman, I presumed his wife, stood next to him, looking a bit surprised as he said to me, “I just wanted to tell you that I really liked your poem. Thank you for reading that.”
What poem? Did it matter? A poem that I wrote and read had made a connection with someone. I smiled, fumbled a “thank you,” as I searched his face for clues about where he had heard me read and which specific poem. I took my sunglasses off to get a better look.
“I heard the poem you read at the Flags for Heroes ceremony,” he said. “Thank you. I just want you to know that the poem meant a lot to me.”
My gratitude turned to awe. The poem I chose to read was probably not what anyone was expecting at a celebration honoring heroes, a celebration that focused on veterans. It was not a “patriotic” poem. It did not glorify heroes in any way. The poem I read addressed the price that any hero pays. I was not sure that anyone had paid attention. When I finished reading, you could have heard a pin drop on grass. I could not get off the stage fast enough.
“Few people ever get past the patriotism,” the man said. “No one talks about what it means to be a hero.” He told me that he was a veteran. I was not surprised. We talked awhile and I told him that my husband had been a medic in Vietnam and had spent 20 years in the Army.
“I’m surprised he recognized you,” the woman with him said. So was I. But I was grateful that one of my poems had made a connection. I think of poems as conversations. When I put together a book of poems, I look for a sequence of poems that “talk to each other.”
When I give readings, I hope my poems will be the beginning of a conversation. It may be an intensely personal or even private poem, but once I put it out in the world, either written or spoken, the poem is there for the reader to enter, to bring all of his/her experience to the words on the paper and hopefully engage in a conversation.
Once, while sitting with a friend waiting for an open mic to begin, I handed the poem I planned to read to my friend and asked, “what do you think? Is this okay to read?” My friend read the poem thoughtfully, then looked at me for a long time before saying, “I’ve lived that poem.” So had I. We didn’t talk about it, never have. But that shared experience, the words we didn’t need to say, brought new understanding.
After one reading, a friend said that my poems made her feel like I had crawled inside her head. At another reading someone I had just met said to me, “your poems made a connection with me. I don’t know why, but they did.” Making connections, starting conversations, is a big part of why writing is so important to me.
It’s not always necessary (or useful) to know why poems make a connection. We don’t always need to talk about a shared experience to feel a deeper bond. Poetry gives us an opportunity to say the unsayable, to use words in ways that make connections, that spark conversations and allow reader and writer to experience a communion that could not happen in prose. There are a few poems that bring me to tears every time I read them. Others blow the top of my head off and still others are a sucker punch to the heart.
Below is the poem that I read at the “Flags for Heroes” ceremony from my new book, When There Were Horses.
On the best nights she wakes slowly,
floating up from dreams, his hand
brushing hair from her face,
his eyes imploring her to open hers,
the whole house blazing with light.
Ice cream? He offers, perched
beside her, bowl cradled in his hands.
Other nights his screams wake her. Once
she found a pistol stashed
behind the sofa cushions. Not loaded,
he shrugged when she complained.
Each day a little more of his grin
disappears, the field of freckles across his nose fades,
the dimple on his left cheek absorbed now
into a permanent scowl. It’s been months
since he laughed. The summer before he left
they bought fireworks, lit them on the beach,
blasting the quiet, arousing sleeping dogs
as brilliant flashes lit a moonless sky.
Afterward, they slept, spooned in salt and sand.
Now he winces at her touch. When she discovers
the gun in the nightstand, he takes it from her,
his face unreadable as he gathers the words,
I’m going back.