The matrons approved
When young men got up to dance,
They really approved.
One of my favorite things to do when I’ve got spare time it to drop in at a used bookstore and go treasure hunting in the poetry section.
Not looking for anything in particular, but rather, just poking around to see what might be there.
The surprises are half the fun of it. I’ve discovered some great poets this way. And stumbled across collections of poems I’m enjoying to this day.
I know it would be more efficient to simply go straight to Amazon and have their algorithms tell me what I should be interested in. But, it’s just not the same thing.
The online bookstore experience lacks the hand of providence … the delight of surprise … the magic of serendipity.
Like what happened to me the other day when I went into town to get my teeth cleaned. (No cavities!) So I celebrated with a visit to the local used bookstore.
It’s a small, narrow poetry section, but with several shelves within it. I was standing up on a chair to start with the A, B and C authors, when I ran across a collection by Raymond Carver.
I had only recently been introduced to Carver by my friends Mark Neigh and Seth La Tour. (Seth is a poet himself, over at One Poem Every Day.)
I had grown to appreciate Carver, but did not have any of his books. So I was excited to find one of his books in decent condition. It was A New Path to the Waterfall, which I remember Seth recommending highly.
I was to learn that this was Carver’s last collection, some written while he knew he was dying from cancer. It had an introduction by his wife, Tess Gallagher, who helped him organize and edit the book.
So, I bought it and a couple of other books and took them home. The next day, when I sat down to read it I found one of those little surprises.
Thumbing through, the first page I came to was the dedication page. Carver simply and emphatically had dedicated the book to: Tess. Tess. Tess. Tess.
And just below the dedication, was the hand-scrawled autograph: Tess
Well, that was fun! Tess had actually signed this book for someone. But, then, when I turned back to the title page, there was a longer handwritten message:
Tess Gallagher for Carolyn Maddux, meeting in Shelton. Have Ray’s and my last time w/him writing ~ until …
When you consider that Carver had died just a few years before at an all-too-early age 50, you can see how my treasure hunt turned from fun to poignant.
I did a little research and found that Carolyn Maddux is a Northwest poet, herself. Still alive and living in Shelton, Washington, as far as I can tell. I wondered a bit about how and why books find themselves in a used bookstore, but then turned back to the book itself.
When I read Tess’s introduction, the poignancy grew. In it, she gives an account of the last months of Carver’s life. She writes how scattered the pages of the book on the floor and crawled around on her hands and knees, reading and deciding by intuition which pages should come next.
She also made this statement about Carver and his poetry:
It seems important finally to say that Ray did not regard his poetry as simply a hobby or a pastime he turned to when he wanted a rest from fiction. Poetry was a spiritual necessity. The truths he came to through his poetry involved a dismantling of artifice to a degree not even Williams, whom he had admired early on, could have anticipated.
That’s an amazing statement: Poetry as a spiritual necessity. But when you read the book, you can begin to see how it can be true.
And what a book of poems this is! For just a taste, this is the book’s last poem, which is also engraved on Carver’s tombstone in Port Angeles, Washington.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved. To feel myself
beloved on the earth.
You hear it said: “Poetry saved my life.” There are books with that in the title.
I’ve said it myself.
It’s usually meant figuratively. When I’ve said it, I know I meant it figuratively.
But when author Vendela Vida says it, she means it literally.
As the novelist told NPR Fresh Air host Terri Gross on June 30, 2015, she owes her life to poetry.
During the course of the interview, Gross asked Vida about her novel, “And Now You Can Go,” in which a woman is confronted by a man with a gun intent on suicide.
And he because he doesn’t want to die alone, he poses a mortal threat to the woman.
In the novel, a young woman is walking through a park in Manhattan, when a man calls out to her using the word “ma’am,” and she turns around.
The man is suicidal and has a gun. And, he doesn’t want to die alone. The woman is terrified, and in her desperation to find a reason to give him to go on living, she tells him about her love for books.
Interviewer Gross is skeptical. As Gross says, “she does it by trying to convince him that there’s, like, great poems and fiction out there, and I’m thinking, like, are you kidding?”
Well, it just so happens that this vignette in Vida’s novel is based on an actual event in her own life. As she told Gross, “I think the first 10 pages, are based on something that happened to me when I was 21 years old and I was studying at Columbia, and I decided to go for a walk one December day in Riverside Park. I think it was around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and I was approached – like the protagonist in the book – by a man who didn’t want to die alone, and he had a gun.”
What Vida told Gross next is so good I want to quote her directly.
“And so I started saying to him, you know, there’s so much great stuff out there,” said Vida. “There’s poetry. You know, I sounded like some deranged schoolteacher at this point, and I had recently been reading the work of Mark Strand, the poet, and so I started just reciting some of his verses to this man.
“I started just, you know, the beginning of one poem, the ending of another – anything. I said, let’s go to the bookstore and let’s go look at some work by Mark Strand. It was the craziest thing. You know, I didn’t know what I was saying even, but I saw some kind of flash of interest or recognition in this man’s eyes, and he said, OK, let’s go to the bookstore.
“And so we started walking up to Broadway Street. And when, you know, as we were getting near, he said, you know, he said, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry, and he put his gun away, and he ran.”
When Gross heard the explanation, she was apologetic for suggesting that the scene in the novel was unbelievable.
“Oh, there’s no need to apologize, Terri,” said Vida. “No, it seems – it is – it was very bizarre, and, you know, I think it is a very unlikely situation. It does seem like a very, like, writerly dream to think that poetry can save someone’s life, but in my case, you know, it literally did.”
I love that story.
I also love the fact that Vida contacted poet Mark Strand and told his the story.
Strand served a term as the U.S. Poet Laureate in 1990-91, and it turned out was delighted by Vida’s story.
And who wouldn’t?
Here was a poet … a poet who had been honored with the highest honor his country could bestow … and finally, he had some assurance that he had made a difference in someone’s life.
His poetry had actually SAVED a life. Maybe two.
We poets go through life playing a game of Marco Polo. You know, the swimming pool game. We poets are perpetually coming to the surface and hollering “Marco!”
Whenever we hear a “Polo” in reply we are surprised and gratified.
In this case, Mark Strand heard a resounding “POLO!” from Vida.
Poetry has saved my life in figurative ways.
Poetry has allowed me to turn heartbreak, grief, despair, and tragedy into small bouquets of beauty.
If that’s “saving my life,” great. I’ll take that.