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I have been thinking over the last few weeks about the power of poetry to help us connect with a moment, and the power of poets to use words to speak truth beyond words. It feels like something we need now as much as ever.
For this week’s 5 Things I will be sharing 5 poems. These 5 poems aren’t necessarily the best poems I have ever read. And they aren’t even necessarily the most powerful or impactful for me. Each of these poems, however, speaks to a particular place and time in my life. They speak to moments. Life is a series of moments strung together. Our human tendency is to read more significance into our experiences, but that is conceit. Life really is just moments. These poems capture some of those important moments for me. And are some of my very favorite works of art because of that connection.
I hope you enjoy the poems in the context of their moments. And come Friday, I hope you will consider sharing one of your own poems and one of your own moments.
Epilogue 1 (from Requiem)
The day before I was scheduled to begin high school, my mom finally left my abusive step dad. He had been emotionally and physically abusive toward my brother and I for quite a while. He had also been sexually abusing me for about two years when she finally made the decision to leave. So the night before the first day of school in 9th grade, she came home, told my brother and I to grab what we could carry and we drove an hour and a half to my grandmother’s house, and made that commute every day for the first couple of months of high school.
It was the inauspicious beginning of a high school career that would see me attend 4 high schools in 3 states. I went to a high school in rural Texas that had 200 kids in 4 grades. The next year I went to a high school in Jacksonville, Florida that had 2,400 kids in 3 grades. My 4 years of high school were a period of constant change, unpredictability, and shifting expectations. After suffering a difficult and abusive childhood and dealing with a mentally ill mom.
Needless to say, I struggled a bit. I struggled to find my place. I struggled to know who I was. I was sad a lot. I was angry ALL the time. And I often felt invisible.
The one thing I always had was books. I loved to read. And I would spend hours in libraries. And it was in the Jacksonville / Duval County Public Library (Mandarin Branch) that I discovered the work of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.
Anna had a rough life. She was born in 1888, and at 20 married a radical writer. It was an unhappy marriage, made even more unhappy by her husbands agitation against the czar. They did manage to have a son, and for a time things looked up for Anna. The Russian Revolution elevated her husband. Soon, however, he fell out of favor with Stalin. He was eventually arrested and killed. Her son was also arrested, and was sent to the gulag for years. Anna herself was eventually arrested, and would spend time in the gulags as well. One Russian official called her “half whore, half nun.”
Through it all she wrote. Beautiful and extremely sad poetry. When I found her, I felt connected across the years to her sense of sadness and hopelessness. And no poem expressed it quite like her masterwork, Requiem, written on the murder of her husband.
And near the end of the poem comes this stanza:
I have learned how faces fall,
How terror can escape from lowered eyes,
How suffering can etch cruel pages
Of cuneiform-like marks upon the cheeks.
I know how dark or ash-blond strands of hair
Can suddenly turn white. I've learned to recognize
The fading smiles upon submissive lips,
The trembling fear inside a hollow laugh.
That's why I pray not for myself
But for all of you who stood there with me
Through fiercest cold and scorching July heat
Under a towering, completely blind red wall.
Her poem was like a light for me. It helped me realize that the pain I felt was not all there was. That there were others who felt this way, others who had experienced even worse. And survived. I took solace in knowing that suffering was not mine alone.
And the next year I moved to Georgia. And I met a girl. And my life began to take shape. And while there was more suffering to come, I knew that I was not alone.
On the Pulse of Morning
Around 5pm on January 19, 1993, I sat down for dinner at the Oglethorpe University dining hall with Barb, and my friends Alan and Mark. We were talking about the fact that Bill Clinton was being inaugurated the next day. I especially lamented that Maya Angelou was doing a poem at the inaugural, and that it would have been cool to see it.
“We should go,” said Mark. The rest of us laughed. The semester had just started. There were classes and I even had a paper due for Dr. Taylor already. “Okay Mark, whatever” I laughed.
“I’m serious. My uncle works for the State Department. He and my aunt and their kids live right on the Metro line. We would drive up there tonight, stay with them, and go to the inauguration tomorrow.”
“Are you serious?” Barb asked.
“Yeah. Let me go call him right now.” Mark left for the pay phone. C’mon. It was 1993. He came back a few minutes later. “My uncle said it’s cool if we stay with them. He is even gonna get us some tickets to a more restricted part so we can be closer.”
“Okay then. Let’s do this,” said Alan. We spent the next little bit throwing clothes into bags and packing stuff into Mark’s tiny hatchback. We stopped at the quad on the way off campus and ran upstairs at Lupton and Hearst, leaving notes on professor doors to tell them that we were going. And we drove from Atlanta to DC, making one brief stop for waffles and another when Alan and Barb each thought the other was paying for gas, only no one did and the SC State Patrol pulled us over a few minutes later to correct the oversight.
The next morning we met Mark’s aunt and uncle and their two kids. The aunt was very nice. She even made us breakfast. We hopped the Metro and went to the Mall. It was SO cold. The ground was frozen and there were lots of people. There was an energy in the crowd. It is hard to remember now, but there was real hope when Clinton took office. A youthful spirit.
We found the section the tickets allowed us to go. It was close-r, but the main stage was still in the distance. We set up near a speaker as the ceremony started. Soon it was Dr. Angelou’s turn.
She was mesmerizing. That voice. The presence that exuded peace, even across distance. The way she enunciated the words and made you feel like she was talking only to you. There is a fantastic recording of her recitation from that day on YouTube, and you should watch it. It was everything I hoped it would be. And more.
In the years since her poem - “On the Pulse of Morning” - has been criticized as not among her best. Even Dr. Angelou herself said it wasn’t her best poem. And that may be true. I think that analysis gives it short shrift, however. It is a wonderful work. Full of an expansive reading of history, a connected humanity, and the rhythms of performance so unique to the work of Dr. Angelou. She may have written better poems, but few that spoke to the times and the sense of hope that so many felt that day.
Including 4 college kids from Atlanta who decided over burgers in the dining hall to go to a Presidential inauguration.
from “On the Pulse of Morning”
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, and into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply,
PS. Dr. Taylor gave me an extension on the paper. I still waited to start it until 3 hours before it was due. I got an A-.
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
Love and Marriage
Barbara and I were married in the Tarrant County Courthouse in downtown Fort Worth on February 2, 1995. They filmed Walker, Texas Ranger there. Now you know.
I left for basic a couple of months later, and arrived at Fort Hood toward the end of 1995. And we started our life as husband and wife.
One of the great joys of the last couple of years in my life has been seeing my daughter Alex and her husband Justin begin this same journey, at a military base a couple of hours away from their family. It has been like experiencing the same highs and lows and thrills and challenge, only older and wiser. There are differences, to be sure. And a lot of similarities.
No one teaches you how to be a couple. And every marriage - every relationship - is different. You have to figure it out. You have to learn how to laugh. You have to learn how to argue. You have to figure out what is non-negotiable. And you definitely have to learn that when you really love each other, there isn’t a lot that is non-negotiable.
The early years of marriage and the Army were about figuring out what kind of man I wanted to be. What kind of husband, father, friend. It was about knowing who I was, and what I was capable of. What mattered to me.
Enter Wendell Berry. Wendell Berry has taught me as much about how to navigate the world as anyone. I have never met him. Probably never will. And it doesn’t matter. To me, we are old friends, and he has been my mentor.
This poem - Manifesto - was one that I read in those years. And I still carry it with me.
from Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
...put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Here’s a fun fact you probably don’t know about me. I used to be an actor. Like a serious one. I did community and regional theater productions when I was a kid and into my teen years. I was pretty dedicated to it, and considered making it a career.
Jacksonville (where I lived my junior year in high school) had a performing arts high school. I auditioned to attend midway through my junior year. Despite the fact that they rarely allowed students to transfer in as seniors, they were impressed enough by my audition to grant me an exception. I was scheduled to attend the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts my senior year in high school. About a week after I found out, my mom told me that we were moving to South Georgia. There was no performing arts school.
My audition consisted of a couple of prepared monologues. I did one from Cyrano de Bergerac. And I recited the poem Ozymandias by Percy Shelley.
The poem has always stuck with me. And not just because of the audition. There is something about the description of ruin and hubris that meant something to me, even before I had experienced some of the concussive loss that would come later. I had been through a lot by 9-11. I had lived a long life already.
And after 9-11 it got longer.
There was war and addiction and loss. There was the process of completely re-learning the things that I believed were “true” and learning to fundamentally question what that word even means. There were 100 idols buried in the sand. There were empires of thought lost to time.
Because nothing lasts forever. Shelley tried to teach me that before I really understood.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The last 4 or 5 years have not been easy. They haven’t been easy for me personally, and they haven’t been easy for anyone I know or the world in general.
I survived a suicide attempt. Donald Trump got elected, and in the span of not quite 4 years he has nearly shredded the American democratic experiment. And 150,000 and counting have died. The economy has been derailed. People are suffering. And as always, the suffering is not equal. Those who have never gotten a break - BIPOC, LGBTQA, the poor, the differently abled, veterans - have suffered the most.
And in the midst of that, we had a kid. Our fifth.
I don’t think that I will ever be able to reconcile the unbridled hopefulness of having one child - much less 5 - with the general pessimism I mostly feel about the world, the people in it, and our future together. Sometimes it feels completely selfish. That is one of the rocks I carry in my backpack all day every day.
There are others.
And somehow through it all I cling to hope. I cling against all evidence that this world can be beautiful. That their world can be beautiful. And beauty breaks through.
And I don’t think anyone will ever capture that better than Maggie Smith in this poem. It breaks me every time I read it. And the tears come.
And I am grateful. Because tears are beauty fighting to the surface. And they bring healing.
And despite all we have been through, this place can be beautiful.
We can make it beautiful.
May it ever be so.
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I encourage you to become a subscriber.
See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.