Saturday, May 14, 2011
Pillars of Poetry 1
Just arrived: the final collection of poetry by Jack Myers. Jack, one of my advisors at Vermont College, died of cancer in 2009, and we've all been waiting for the "last words" so to speak. I find it heartening and heart-rending to begin the slow savor of these poems.
Late last night, sitting in my favorite chair, I began reading at the back (after a brief foray into Mark Cox's intro). Why start at the back? Not the usual way to read a book, not how I normally dig into a poetry book for sure. I figured out this morning that I started at the back because I don't want this first reading to end, knowing it ends with his death. As I read, tears began flowing. Couldn't help myself. And before you think I am sad and the book made me miss my friend (I am and it did), please know that what brought the tears was an awareness of what Jack brought to my life as a poet.
Let's start this discussion with that awareness. I've been fortunate as a poet and a person to have had Jack as teacher. More than teacher, he was a perfect example of what a poet can do and must do. He was a great poet, and one day perhaps the rest of the world will know and proclaim that. But, better than that, he was the kind of poet you need as a mentor: a person who cared deeply about others' success, ready to prop you up in times of doubt, and a technically brilliant and lyrically beautiful writer on his own. Perhaps his writing is not "beautiful" in the sense of how most people might define beauty. It is beautiful in the realm of truthful, artful expression. Even the poem about his son't suicide ("In the Dark") formed around this kind of beauty:
Anger and sorrow have split off from me
like twin tree trunks. I think I will grow in
opposite directions like this from now on,
watching the fruit of what I can hardly bear open.
Later in the poem, he says, I am struck dumb, twisted inward, and folded over
If these words are not the embodiment of beauty I don't know anything about beauty. In retrospect, one must ask if the opposite directions he speaks of are that stay/go dichotomy the dying have at the end. He may have thought that in dying he'd be reunited with his son, but at the same time gone from his wife and the world he loved. That split-off stance must be the final penance we pay for having gotten it wrong at times here in the mortal realm, a kind of purgatory so to speak if you believe in that. Now Jack would be laughing his ass off at my applying Catholic metaphors to his dying. But he'd be happy about it too because my metaphors are coming from a true place in me. Ahhhh, Jack, still you teach and evaluate! (huge grin here).
I know that as he was nearing his own end, trying to hang on, the suicide of his son was a gut shot to his strength. The poems tell me that. These final verses, one and all, show me Jack's view into that worrisome place that he had to enter, the place where we all go. Not that he wanted immortality, no he was a man of all realms already, but the idea that he had to face it with grief for his own son must have hastened his trip. But, soggy with that grief, facing the end of his mortal life, Jack's words grew in beauty. I'm gobsmacked by that. Totally. Makes me wonder if the clarity one might gain at the end ends up clarifying the poetry too, not that I am in a hurry to find out on my own.
Another thing about these last poems is his clear look at the situation in which he found himself. In "Colangiocarcinoma," he faces right into it, the desire to stay and what it would take to have a chance to stay:
... I'll miss/ the time when they'll have shrunk cancer back down into/a word like "dyspepsia" and there'll be a pill for it. Meanwhile/my eyes have turned yellow. I need a liver immediately.
Everything has been planned for me down to the last minute.
I'm waiting as fast as I can for a stranger's fatal accident.
You have to notice here that there is beauty in these words, and not a drop of sap. Not a drop. And no reductiveness either. It is as it is. Period. Beautiful frantic dying.
Jack possessed a technical genius in his writing and teaching. His "Portable Poetry Workshop" stays on my desk or in my bag so I can access that genius whenever I need his help. The way he THINKS (I refuse to let his thinking die just because his body did) is so detailed. I aspire to that mind, grow impatient with myself not to be that detailed in my own approach to writing, and I will get better at that aspect of writing in some fashion only because of Jack's influence.
I hope this blog entry doesn't seem sentimentally off-putting, because Jack would HATE that. He was fully aware of how too much sap can ruin writing. His writing was sugar-free to say the least. BUT... how can I begin to express my loss, my joy, my exhilaration? I guess in one word: thanks. This simple, one-syllable word doesn't seem enough. It will have to do. What Jack did for me as teacher and example was to restore and instill confidence in my ability to say what is on my mind in ways that change and brighten. He was a grumble of a teacher, smiling beast of a critic, a rule-following, rule-breaking exemplar. I recall the day he and I were to meet for my post semester evaluation. He met students in his room, for their own privacy and his own comfort. He met me at the door (which stayed open by the way, for those of you who might be thinking "uh-oh!" here) He was in some kind of elegant dressing gown-y kind of get up, and was drinking wine. He had a fan going by the window and sat smoking into the fan to keep the smoke out of the room and avoid setting off the fire alarm (smoking in the rooms was strictly verboten). Even though my semester had been wonderful, I was in a funk over the poems I had written, feeling maudlin and appearing to myself as small and anything but brilliant. I really wanted him to tell me I was brilliant and just knew he would not say it. He'd more likely tell me that I was an okay poet but keep my day job. blah blah blah... on and on in my own head. Perceptive to the nth degree, Jack saw through my sour mind immediately. Before I could even get it out that I felt inadequate he stood right up and said: "listen here! there is no place in poetry for self pity. You are not the lonely 9 year old standing in the corner of the playground by herself. Get in the game, girl, get IN the damn game." He proceeded to tell me what to do in my writing practice to get where I wanted to go, to allow myself to write some shitty poems without deciding my whole life as a poet was hit... and to celebrate that I knew the difference between shit and fertilizer.
Well, wow. Just W-O-W. From that point on I stopped thinking of poetry as some kind of score sheet. I stopped doubting myself. I started KNOWING that I belong in this life. Every poem I write has Jack in the margins because I hear his voice in my editing space. I ask myself the questions about the poems he would ask. I press on and write even in the midst of chaos, maybe even loving the clarity in chaos.
So I am thankful (really more than thankful) to have had this influence. No, to HAVE this influence still. It's not just that my MFA program was the best time of heightened writing influence (it was), but of all the advisors, only Jack was there for me in ways that made my writing a grown-up thing, a serious thing that will be my life for the rest of my life.
Just now you are thinking that I have made Jack into some kind of saint... we tend to do this to the dead... but I have no such illusions about him. He was certainly not saintly in any way. But his poetry and his mentoring DID something. Maybe he was like a can opener, wrenching the lid off and spilling the contents of the can onto the table. It was no walk in the park to study with him by any means. He was blunt and not at all "soothing" and if a poem didn't cut it, he said so in the most brusque ways sometimes. But always visible behind that sharp edge was love of poetry and other poets. It seeped out from behind the eyes. Ah, Jack, you didn't fool me. And fortunately, I could NOT fool you.
It has been said (somewhat wisely I think) that we learn to write poetry not from teachers but from poems. I agree with this of course, but there are a few "teachers" who break this rule. Jack, little ole rule breaker, breaks this. I have learned from him, and I continue to learn from his poems.
So, Jack... you continue to do the work you love... poetry and teaching poetry. Way to go to have managed that in the afterlife.