I started our third poetry class with the Mary Oliver poem, “At Great Pond.” It begins with the rising sun, just as L~’s opening line from the previous week does, but treats the subject with considerably more lyricism. It was an excellent illustration, I thought, of a fertile poetic imagination at play:
At Great Pond
the sun, rising,
scrapes his orange breast
on the thick pines,
and down tumble
a few orange feathers into
the dark water.
On the far shore
a white bird is standing
like a white candle —
or a man, in the distance,
in the clasp of some meditation —
while all around me the lilies
are breaking open again
from the black cave
of the night.
Later, I will consider
what I have seen —
what it could signify —
what words of adoration I might
make of it, and to do this
I will go indoors to my desk —
I will sit in my chair —
I will look back
into the lost morning
in which I am moving, now,
like a swimmer,
I am almost the lily —
almost the bird vanishing over the water
on its sleeves of night.
To give each poet-in-training more practice with metaphor, I posed two questions from a collection called Noodle Talk that I created (in a previous lifetime) to enrich and enliven interpersonal communication.
If the worst aspect of your personality were to manifest as a natural disaster what form would it take?
The question proved challenging on two counts. First, each respondent had to identify one of his/her least attractive traits, and once that was done, imagine the form it would take if expressed as a natural destructive force. Although I told them what my answer was, and suggested they imagine themselves as Mother Earth in a terrible mood (the same way an actor steps into a particular role without actually becoming that character), nothing worked. It was simply impossible for them to make the leap into abstraction, to think of themselves as anything other than the person they saw in the mirror.
I give credit to E1~ though for being positively articulate and impassioned about her position:
“I’ve worked so hard,” she said, “to become what I think I am, to find a space for [myself] in the world where [I can] feel comfortable and play an assigned role . . . Besides, anything can be good or bad — a torrential downpour can cause a flood or revive drought-stricken crops — [it’s] what happens in life.”
And I had to admit, her point was an excellent one.
The second question proved more accessible:
Please describe the location and characteristics of a road that would be built in your honor and named after you. (It needn’t be real.) Be sure to include any travel restrictions or services along its route. Its name?
The answers weren’t at all what I was expecting, and came without hesitation. S~, who is hard of hearing and rarely speaks, went first. She described a road that takes many routes to the same destination, i.e., the end of life and an acceptance and understanding of God. It was the deepest response I had ever heard to this question.
J~’s speech is limited but by playing Twenty Questions with him, we learned that his road was a narrow one with a single lane going in each direction. It had room for cars and pedestrians. A traveler could get on and off anywhere, and go anyplace. It started and ended nowhere and was like life itself.
For E2~ , the road began where she was living now and went straight to the end. Her body language, teary eyes, and abrupt silence completed the description. There was no need for her to say more. We all sat quietly, a bit stunned. I worried that I had inadvertently opened up a space too raw and painful, and which I was not equipped to handle. E1~, in her inimitable fashion, tried reassuring her: “You have many years to go,” she said, “and you can make whatever you want of your life here.” I moved to where E2~ sat and rested my hand on her shoulder. Stillness prevailed. I asked if she was OK and whether there was anything else she wanted to say or needed from us. I thanked her for opening her heart to us with such courage and trust.
We never got to E1~’s road. She too, got in touch with how difficult this final stage of life is. Acting big and strong, she admitted, was “just a cover” for the fear and anguish she lived with, and which only she could resolve. Whatever sadness was in her voice was balanced by a healthy amount of self-awareness and acceptance.
I wondered what to do next, and finally suggested a collaborative poetry exercise similar to the drawing one that succeeded a few weeks earlier. I asked each resident to select a word from the sheets of return address labels we had worked with the previous session. Their selection was placed on a black sheet of paper which was then passed on to the next person. He/she would add another word in sequence, and so on around the table — six sheets (to accommodate a latecomer), six poems in the making. If I remember correctly, the first words chosen were: see, anywhere, inexplicable, miles, imagination, prayer. (Not everyone added a word to each sheet.)
Back home, I realized that the individual lines made a pretty credible poem by themselves, an evocative one that beautifully reflected the mystery that preoccupied us this morning. (Apart from arranging them in sequence, the only editing I’ve done is in the fourth line where I deleted “anywhere” and switched around the remaining words.)
To see all around the earth
This inexplicable world,
Secret miles absolutely hidden.
Repenting, perfect prayer.
[Note: Following the class, I told one of the social workers what had happened. She was grateful for the report and said she would follow up in private sessions. She thought it was very important that two of the participants had been able to share their most worrisome fears in the group.]