In her poem “The Gate,” Marie Howe writes about her brother, who died from AIDS-related complications when he was 28 years old. I read the poem a few months ago, and it has stayed with me—in particular, the last five lines:
“This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.”
Every morning during my summer vacations in Maine, I walk to the seawall, early enough to catch the sunrise. I usually stay just a few minutes and then I go back home, ready to move on with the day. But this summer, I’ve been thinking about those five lines from Howe’s poem, and I linger. If it’s foggy, I listen to the foghorn from the nearby lighthouse. If it’s clear, I watch the lobster boats on their way to work. I look out at the ocean, and I say to myself, “This is what I have been waiting for.”
One windy morning at the seawall, I saw a man standing on the boulders. Reeling in a kite, he was almost motionless, pulling the twine slowly and evenly. The kite pulled back, veering left and right. “No!” it said, refusing to return to land. The man was gentle but deliberate and kept reeling, and the kite kept resisting. I was afraid it was going to get shredded on the rocks. But then, just a foot or so above the ground, the kite shuddered, nodded “Yes” and lay down. The man folded it into a small, neat square, put it in a pouch and got on his bike.
Walking home, I thought about the kite’s resistance and acceptance, and I realized that the poem held another meaning for me. Early in June, my mom passed away. What I had been waiting for was the end of a very long life—one that, after tenaciously holding onto freedom, came reluctantly but gracefully to an end.
There are a handful of poems that have accompanied the changes in my life. Each one has layers of meaning that pile up and morph accordingly. How can a few simple phrases strung together affect me so personally and over such long periods of time?
In his new book Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder describes a poem as “making meaning by failing to fully make meaning.” Poetry—at least the poetry that I am attracted to—challenges me to make up for its vagueness; it urges me to supply my own specifics and make my own meaning. Instead of imposing an interpretation of a situation or a feeling, a poem can be an empty room that holds whatever furniture I need to fill it with.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the best explanation I’ve found of this morphing of meaning is itself a poem: “One Train May Hide Another,” by Kenneth Koch. It begins with this line: “(sign at a railroad crossing in Kenya).” The entire poem, 75 lines in all, consists of examples of single things—one love, one dream, one memory, one injustice—that hide other things.
The reputation of another. One dog may conceal another
On a lawn, so if you escape the first one, you’re not necessarily safe;
… In love, one reproach may hide another,
One small complaint may hide a great one.”
Think about your own life. Were there paths that you saw when you faced in one direction? And later, when you turned around, did you find the others?
I have a painting in my living room. Until I began writing this column, I thought of it as visual art, but now I see that the painting is hiding
a poem. It’s a diptych: each panel has a black cartoon word bubble with white sans serif lettering. The first, with a deep blue background, says, “Forgive me,” and the second, with a hot pink background, says, “Again?”
When I first purchased the piece years ago (see “Keep Looking,” Communication Arts Nov/Dec 2015), the artist Monique Johannet explained her impetus for the painting: “When I’m away from my studio for too long, I apologize, and my studio replies in frustration.” Johannet’s meaning had matched mine precisely. I, too, had been neglecting my art making.
But since then, my relationship with my work has changed, and so has the meaning of the diptych. I see the “poem” as a new and evolving conversation. Now it says, “You don’t need to ask that anymore.” ca
© 2017 W. Richmond