As I near the final shape of my chapbook, Portal of Light, I've had some interesting discussions with my daughter Mary who has been critiquing it as I've gone along. The chapbook opens with what I think is one of my best poems--it's also about creation, so it's appropriate as a beginning. We've had many discussions about what should and should not go in the chapbook, and the major point of contention was whether the ziggurat, which in some ways began as the structure for the whole chapbook should stay or go. Ultimately, I finally agreed with Mary that it didn't belong, and I excavated it out of the chapbook.
However, the last time we were together, Mary told me that she still believes I need to have a very structured poem at the end to balance the beginning. I didn't really think I should--at first, I just thought I could never write a poem as good as the first one. But as I discussed the structure of the poem, I told Mary that because this is basically a narrative of my journey through widowhood, and that is like living through an earthquake, wildfire, and hurricane all at once, and that nothing will ever be the same again, there can't be the same structure at the end. In fact, the end will be very different.
Yesterday I was freewriting about a gazebo that I noticed on my walks down the horse trail, and today I worked it into a poem and realized that the gazebo is an emblem of the only structure that seems possible to me now--it is an outpost, a reminder of hope, of the possibility of joy, of little snatches of order that I can still appreciate and perhaps even achieve, but that I can never go back to the calm understanding of my faith and my place in our family that I had before I became a widow. Nor can anyone go back to Eden since sin entered in. But we can find those outposts that shine with hope for a future that will be even better; we can see, as the movie Soul revealed, that tiny moments of beauty, like a winged seed, can show us a reason to live.
I turned the freewriting about the gazebo into a poem, and sent it to Mary, and she said she didn't think that was it. Then I sent another poem to her about the messages coming to me that I can't understand or read, and that didn't do it either. At last I wrote the poem on the road to Emmaus, and sent that to Mary (and Elizabeth as well). I even included a reference to the landing of the Perseverance on Mars, which was a vague echo of the opening of the creation poem that is the beginning of the chapbook, "The Smell of Space Suggests." When I had finished several drafts of the poem, I reread the opening poem and realized that I could parallel the final verse with a slightly altered final verse in the Emmaus poem. Elizabeth emailed me back that that verse had brought tears to her eyes, and Mary said that yes, that was the kind of poem she had been imagining.
The next day, she had offered to take me to get my second Covid vaccination, and she gave me a complete printout of all the final tweaks she thought I needed to make in the chapbook. She bought me flowers to celebrate what one of my grandchildren called a "super-power" of being able to resist Covid. On the way back to her house, though, she said very cautiously that she still thinks I need to write one more poem reflecting on the Way of the Cross. My first reaction was to resist, saying that the beginning of the Emmaus poem reflected the reality of Good Friday and that I didn't think I needed to write anything more. Then I told her I would meditate on it during Lent and see what happened; this was a way of postponing what I thought would be an extremely difficult piece of thinking and writing.
The day after this, as I was sitting at the breakfast table, I thought back to my time in Israel when I was 21, and how the group I was traveling with had walked the Way of the Cross, the path that Jesus had taken to his death, in the midst of markets and crowds, noise and smells. I began writing lines that reflected those memories and the vague intersection of my traveler's recollections with the events of nearly 2000 years ago and the current chasm of my grief. I wrote a few more lines Saturday morning as I thought about the comments my daughter Elizabeth had given me when I told her about Mary's "assignment." I'm now in the midst of the construction, the "messy middle," which always looks as if very little creative can come forth. But I know that it will if I keep after it like a scuptor carving fleck after fleck of marble away to reveal the statue within. And I am glad that I took up the challenge right away. I have kept on my desk a quote about Teddy Roosevelt that often keeps me from procrastinating.
“As soon as (Teddy Roosevelt) received an assignment for a paper or project, he would set to work, never leaving anything to the last minute. Prepared so far ahead "freed his mind" from worry and facilitated fresh, lucid thought.”―Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism