If I said that this blog was about poetry, those of you who were forced to recite the Ode to a Grecian Urn in sophomore English would probably have already hung up by now. Please don’t.
I grew up with poetry in my life. To this day my most cherished book is my father’s copy of the Treasury of the Familiar, given to him by his brother, Elmer, for Christmas 1945. The first poem in the book is called The Way of the World by Ella Wheeler Wilcox. It goes like this:
Laugh and the world laughs with you
Weep and you weep alone,
The brave old earth must borrow it’s mirth
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing and the hills will answer
Sigh is it lost in the air
The echoes rebound to a joyful sound
But shrink from voicing care.
My father and his two brothers grew up in a terribly dysfunctional family. For ten years their parents didn’t speak to one another, and the three boys had to pass messages back and forth between them. I know my father, and most likely Elmer, too, drew a good deal of comfort from that poem. It was one my father read to us often. But that wasn’t the only one.
During the fifties, before television signals made it over the Mule Mountains and down into Bisbee, Arizona, our father spent evenings reading to us from that now tattered book, and I can recite some of my favorites to this day.
There were fun poems like The Blind Men and the Elephant. One feels a knee and pronounces the elephant a tree, one feels an ear and says it’s a fan, one touches the elephant’s side and says it’s a wall, and the one with the trunk says it’s a snake.
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding loud and strong
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong.
So oft in theologic wars
The disputants I wean
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other means
And prate about an elephant
Not one of them has seen.
In I Had but Fifty Cents, a young man takes his girl out on the town where she eats and drinks everything in sight.
When she hollered for more,
I fell on the floor.
For I had but fifty cents.
And then there were the heroic ones. I loved Horatius at the Bridge. As a huge army bears down on Rome, the flooded Tiber River is between the enemy and the city. The only way across is over a single bridge. As the enemy comes nearer one man springs into action:
Then up spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate.
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his father
And the temples of his gods.
Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may.
I with two more to help me
Will hold the foe at bay.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three,
So who will stand on either hand
And keep the bridge with me.
I loved that poem as a child. I love it still.
In my twenties, when I realized that marriage to my first husband was going to be a bumpy ride rather than a happily ever after, I turned to writing poetry in the dark of night when my husband was passed out cold in his recliner. We were living on the hill with the nearest neighbor and or telephone seven miles away, and that’s how I whiled away those long, lonely evenings.
From the beginning, I knew my husband was a drinker, but he told me he’d stop drinking once we had kids. Turns out he didn’t keep that promise and lots of other promises as well. At the University of Arizona, I was barred from the Creative Writing program because I was a girl. He had the correct plumbing, so he got in and passed the course although he never published anything. Nevertheless, shortly after we married, he told me, “There’s only going to be one writer in our family, and I’m it.”
I never showed him the poetry. I hid it away in the strongbox—a place where I knew he would never venture. And it turns out, that although I continued to write the poems for some time, I never looked at them either. Years passed. My husband didn’t stop drinking when we had kids. And when I finally told him he had to choose between me or booze, he didn’t choose me. So I divorced him. He died of chronic alcoholism at age 42, a year and a half after our divorce.
And that’s when I saw the poetry again—when I went to the strongbox to retrieve all the documents that must be presented when someone dies—birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce decrees. They’re among the documents I found all those scraps of poetry. Reading through it was like seeing my life in instant replay.
I was shocked to discover how early on in the marriage my creative self obviously understood that the relationship was doomed while my conscious self was still deep in denial. I showed it to a friend, and she said, “This needs to be a book.” Now it is, with each poem accompanied by an essay saying what was going on when I wrote it is. This is the title poem.
After the Fire
I have touched the fire.
It burned me but I knew I lived.
It seared me but it made me whole.
He called me.
I went gladly thought I saw the rocks,
Fell laughing through the singeing air.
I have known the fire.
I’ll live with nothing rather than with less.
The flame is out, there’s nothing left but ash.
People who have come to live events have heard me talk about this book, and they’re always surprised to learn than when they come to a mystery event they end up getting a poetry reading, too. Because in every audience, there’s always someone who needs to have this book in his or her hands.
When you’re caught up in an addictive relationship, it’s easy to feel completely isolated—to believe that you’re the only person on the planet dumb enough to fall for all those lies. You gradually come to believe that the relationship you have is what you deserve and the best you can ever hope for. And then, if you do make it out, months or years later, when that former love of your life ends up dying, you’re astonished by the amount of grief that comes flooding back to smack you in the face.
So that’s why I’m writing about After the Fire today. It’s not a new book. It was first published in 1984, and it was by doing my first very first poetry reading at a widowed retreat in 1985 where I met Bill, my husband of 37.7 years, but who’s counting? He says my first husband was so bad that it’s made his life perfect.
But the thing about being married to my first husband is this. Living through those tough times and coming to terms with it are what made me who I am today. And as you read through the poems, if you’ve read my books, you’ll spot the origins of many of my characters and storylines.
But more than that, as you read through the poems you’ll also come to realize that there’s at least one person in your circle of influence who needs to have that book in their hands—someone who needs to feel less isolated and alone. Someone who needs to know that you can come out on the far side of all that bad stuff and have a wonderful new life.
And once you know who needs a copy, please send it to them or hand it to them. It’s a beautiful little book. I call it my “all occasion greeting card for bad occasions.”
Because that’s what poetry is, after all, the language of the heart—even for broken ones.