Monday, September 15, 2008
I have never been much of a poet. My mother recently gave me a book of poems that I wrote as a young child and that she had sweetly saved for thirty years. I assume that I wrote poems for school assignments over the years, but I only ever remember liking one of them.
My sophomore year of year school we had this cockamamie English class that rotated across four different teachers over defined blocks of time, each block focusing on a different aspect of a English: literature, speech, etc. Moya Kaporch was one of the four English teachers. She was an incredibly sweet, enthusiastic, young woman with bright red hair cropped closely to her head, an enormous dimple, and a ready smile. Moya loved learning and teaching; she could hardly contain her joy as she imparted her wisdom. Quite honestly I hated English classes, but I loved Moya and her class. After all my years of education, I still consider Moya one of the best teachers I ever had: a good teacher can make something you detest into something you enjoy. Moya did that for me and the written word.
During the Moya rotation of sophmore English, I had to write a poem. I was in crisis mode, “I can’t write a poem.” I thought to myself. Poetry befuddled me at this point. My dad always used to quote a line from “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer, “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree,” when I was a kid. It never made sense to me: trees and poems didn’t seem comparable. One sees a tree but reads a poem. I just didn’t get it.
I puzzled over the assignment. My little 15 year-old life and opinions didn’t seem worthy of poetic rhyme. Then I thought of a particular classmate, a lovely blond girl with a captivating smile who was the belle of every prom in a 10-mile radius. Everyone was jealous of her and the way boys turned to putty in her well-meaning but apparently powerful hands. As Alana Davis sings, “everyone harbors a secret hatred for the prettiest girl in the room.” Because this girl and I sang together in a group at the local boys’ Catholic high school, I got to know her and get past all my preconceptions about her. She was sweet, kind, and funny. I enjoyed being with her at rehearsals, and she became my friend. So that night I wrote a poem about her. I wrote about the way everyone else seemed to see her and judge her without giving her a chance. I wrote about the beautiful person underneath the physical beauty.
The next day Moya randomly selected my poem from the pile. I was panicked. Ours was a small school and the subject of the poem would be obvious to everyone in the room. Moya read the poem aloud, “Oh, Michelle, you must have written this during the storm last night.” Then she returned the poem to the pile of them on her desk and read a few more. The following day, Moya called me to her desk and informed me that someone had stolen my work. Apparently it had been lifted from the pile on her desk. I remember feeling frustrated because the words had come from my heart in a single flow and I didn’t think I could recreate it. It was the end of my poetry career.
Some twenty years later, my sister-in-law asked me to write a poem for her wedding. “Oy, again with the poetry assignment,” I thought to myself. Bill was out at the lab one night and the kids were in bed so I decided to try to come up with something. I felt like the Grinch with his sore puzzler, “What could I possibly say to a young new couple about marriage?”
Seven years into our marriage I was missing excitement and butterflies. I wanted to feel like a swooning newlywed again. Then I remembered one night standing in front of the mirror before bed. I was wearing this beat up T-shirt, the kind comfortable from years of wash and wear. Glancing at the holes that rimmed the collar seam, I began to laugh at myself, “You’re a sight.” Then it hit me, the very characteristic that I treasured in this ratty shirt – comfort – I failed to appreciate in my own marriage. With that image in mind I started writing about butterflies and comfort and what my marriage really meant to me. As I wrote tears pour from my eyes, down my cheeks and soaked my turtleneck. Bill returned home to find me with puffy reds eyes surrounded by wads of wet tissues. “Are you ok?” he asked. “Yes, I’m fine,” I replied.
While my mother and Bill’s mother loved the poem, Jane wasn’t too thrilled with it initially. I wasn’t surprised by Jane’s reaction, the poem doesn’t paint the most romantic picture of love. And I admit that the words would tend to take the air out of the newlywed balloon. But ultimately Jane did ask me to read it at the wedding and I managed to get through it without crying because for me the poem was a gift to Bill more so than Jane and Josh.
Butterflies don’t last
When a romance is new
We greet it with the same anticipation we reserve for spring
When the world seems ripe with possibility and promise
When a romance is new
The sight of our beloved fills our bellies with butterflies
And we feel reborn into this otherworldly emotion that thrills and cajoles us
Delighting in what remains undiscovered and unknown
Butterflies compel us to follow them.
And follow we do
For there really is no other choice
But butterflies don’t last
Like the winged creatures that grace our fleeting summer days
The butterflies of infatuation move on and make way
For infatuation is not sustainable
It will not endure the inevitable ebbs and flows of life
It cannot bear the weight of life’s tragedies
It imprisons us in a fragile house of cards
Love envelopes us with comfort like a shirt perfect from years of wash and wear
And with that comfort we find freedom
to dance without fear of embarrassment
to bare our souls without fear of ridicule
to trust without fear of disappointment
to give without fear of being taken for granted
to err without fear of reprisal
to be ourselves without fear of rejection
At the end of the day we fall into bed with the person
who echoes our laughter and wipes our tears
who shares our dreams and mourns our losses
who holds our hand, just because
who accepts us as we are, with all our imperfections
You miss the butterflies when they go
Longing for their intensity and their elusiveness
Set them free with gratitude
Without them, your love would not exist
But it is in letting them go that you truly become free
I still don’t think I have the whole poet gift. To me, poems just seem like prose with shorter lines broken up in pieces. This suggests to me that I am missing something essential in my appreciation of this medium. But, then again, every once in a while a poem sneaks up on me and I am always glad when it does so.