They’re not my words. The words come from the spouts and sprigs in my garden. They are rooted deeply in the warm brown earth, waiting quietly, pulsing impatiently. They have always been there and will always be, witness to clamorous striving and calamitous fear. They know the collective unkindness of human beings but they have also seen the steady hand of a gardener. They know the soothing power of cool, clear water and they understand that things take time. They know my heart is a fool, weary but still hopeful so they stay with me when the light grows dim and the only sound is the scratch of my favorite blue pen in a notebook fat with poetry and a reminder to pick up the really good olives.
The words wait for me to find them and then graciously step toward me as if accepting an invitation to Sunday picnic replete with fried chicken and cold salad. As if they know there is lemon cake.
They urge me take more time to think and remind me that my pen and my heart are inextricably tied to the melons not yet budding to the left of the rosemary bush, to the rattlesnake pole beans stretching their necks up the homemade trellis which flashes silver in the sun. Yesterday, when I cupped those two blackberries carefully in the palm of my hand and then swallowed them slowly, I was self-medicating against selfishness, stupidity, and stubbornness. I need so much more practice. And now I am holding wisdom inside of my body and I know that it is right to let it flow down my left arm, the one with the rose bush scratch, crooking around the elbow bend to spill like seeds onto my clean white table.
It’s after noon and nothing of note has been done. The sound of the dishwasher foaming, keyboard tapping, and nothing else at all. I can’t tell if this sounds like the heavy drop of heartbreak or whispers with the stillness of possibility. Some things gather slowly. Remember the way people used to wind clocks with a key, bending time backwards with each tiny tick, until the gathering came alive as loss and exploded forward with barely controlled violence? None of us can stop that so we pretend not to notice, paying particular attention to the tomato seeds on pale green plates, the misshapen water spots on fat bottomed wine glasses. And most days, this is enough.
My writing is dappled sunlight sifting through buckeye trees on an autumn Saturday morning. It’s blood on the concrete in the church parking lot on that day when no one was coming to the rescue. The sound shifts without warning from the murmuring one makes while holding a newborn baby to the howling of brakes as a train comes to a full stop on tracks alongside the Erie canal. It’s grass so green it hurts your eyes. The edges are wet paper in a heavy downpour, icy raindrops big enough to sting your skin.
My first literary love was story. The Wind in the Willows, Little House on the Prairie, A Wrinkle in Time, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Gone with the Wind. As a young girl, I carried a paperback book everywhere I went, stealing sentences, paragraphs, and if I were really lucky, entire chapters as the day marched forward. The summer I turned twelve, I volunteered for the library’s youth reading program and I felt like a powerful princess each time I walked through the glass doors and pinned on my badge. I didn’t yet know that the town was small, the library woefully underfunded, and the high school graduation rate dismal.
For the next several summers, I volunteered and when I wasn’t busy with the children, I buried myself in the stacks. I decided to read every book in the young adult section in alphabetical order but when I got to the B’s, I had to stop. We were a town of corner bars, bonfires, and Saturday parades build upon the foundation of football and baseball, in that order. I’m fifty years old and almost a continent away but I still remember that there were 37 baseball books and that was a chasm I was unwilling to cross.
I kept reading. I became aware of the Holocaust and read everything I could find on the topic. I stayed awake too late, suspended in horror and sorrow while the cold seeped in around the windowsill and turned my nose to ice. I had already learned firsthand that people were cruel but the scope of it, the sweeping blindness of it, the factual nature of the words on the page, tore my heart into pieces.
Then poetry found me. I was seventeen and had taken a a wild adventure, a bus downtown to the main library. It had three floors, escalators, and throngs of homeless people camped outside on the front walk. I wandered through the dry smell of books for hours, my bag growing heavier and the sun slanting through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The poetry stacks were heavy with classic American poets. Walt Whitman, W.S. Merwin, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, e.e. cummings. I’d probably read poetry in school, but that was the day a furtive relationship with poetry began and would never end. How I ended up there I don’t recall but I sat on the smooth concrete floor with books piled around me and read for hours. In order to observe the book checkout limit, I emptied my enormous bag of my previous selections and filled it with poetry instead. I still love a good story, but poetry is my constant companion and the form that my writing most often takes. My writing was born in a library.