Novels that rattled and moved me in the last year or so include Anthony Doerr’s terrific World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner). It’s the best novel I’ve read since Gilead. Like Marilynne Robinson, Doerr achieves a shimmering consistency of tone; it’s one of those books that you finish and then shake your head in quiet awe.
I was pawing through a shelf of books the other day When out fell a note from my late brother in his tiny Adamant wry inarguable crisp half-cursive-half-not Handwriting, and just for an instant I saw and heard Him at his desk, in his study, his mustache bristling, Black coffee half-cold, the burl of his body wrapped In the arms of the chair that held him for thirty years, A chair as big as a horse and twice as heavy. I heard Him, I tell you, I did, and I saw him, half-shadowed, Scribbling notes: his philatelic pursuits, notes for his Class next week, notes on a book he was going to do About Benedictine spirituality . . . then I was only me By the bookshelf again. But for a second I was in my Brother’s study, watching him. It was late, everybody Was in bed, but not him, as usual he was up late with Coffee. He was wearing a sweater. The scritch of his Pen. His shoulders like boulders. The dim procession Of his books, organized by genre and author. He died Three years ago. But I saw him, absorbed, thoroughly Attentive, scrawling notes. There’s way more possible Than we think possible; possible turns out to be a verb. I don’t know how else to explain things like this. They Happen all the time to all of us and we hesitate to gape About them publicly because the words sound like pap, Miracle and epiphany and vision, you come off as nuts, A religious goober who talks to owls and addled saints. But you know and I know that this happens. I guess we Will always understandably be hesitant to chat about it, Which is fine, as no one enjoys being labeled a goober; But once in a while, like here, we should admit that it’s Real, and it happens all the time, and it’s scary and cool. That’s all. Once in a while we should gently say what is.
By purest chance I was out in our street when the kindergarten Bus mumbled past going slow and I looked up just as all seven Kids on my side of the bus looked at me and I grinned and they Lit up and all this crap about God being dead and where is God And who owns God and who hears God better than whom is the Most egregiously stupid crap imaginable because if you want to See God and have God see you and have this mutual perception Be completely untrammeled by blather and greed and comment, Go stand in the street as the kindergarten bus murmurs past. I’m Not kidding and this is not a metaphor. I am completely serious. Everyone babbles about God but I saw God this morning just as The bus slowed down for the stop on Maple Street. God was six Girls and one boy with a bright green and purple stegosaurus hat. Of course God would wear a brilliantly colored tall dinosaur hat! If you were the Imagination that dreamed up everything that ever Was in this blistering perfect terrible world, wouldn’t you wear a Hat celebrating some of the wildest most amazing developments?
I board the airplane to see my parents. They live far away and long ago And some years into the future; you never met such wry time machines In your life. Sometimes they will be about to pass the marmalade when Suddenly it is late 1941 and they are in college and kissing on the train; But then as you slather your toast it is 1967 and a war wants to eat their Son or 2012 and they are at that son’s wake or 1929 and a father comes Home without his job, or it is a week ago, and do you think that Federer Is the finest tennis player ever, or Laver, or Don Budge? It happens that Fast. It’s unnerving and glorious and confusing and perfect and I would Sit with them every afternoon, if I could, and say tell me tell me tell me, Tell me every moment of your whole lives, don’t leave me here without Your grace and humor and the extraordinary gleaming jar of marmalade From which come all your stories. Next year in Ireland . . . says my mother, And my dad grins, and I want to kneel and beg the Lord for this moment Again and again always, the inarguable yes of their bodies, the resonance Of their endurance, the hunch and hollow of their shoulders, the reverent Geography of their faces, the lean song of my father’s hands on the table.
I gave a rambling talk recently and a long line of teenagers came Up to speak to me afterward and it was instantly clear that every Single one of them wanted to ask me something while ostensibly Asking me something else, or say one thing while seeming to say Something else. I was so instantly moved I could hardly stammer Any sort of answer. I tried hard to hear what they were not saying Aloud but were saying with remarkable courage. It takes startling Courage to be a teenager, you know. There are so many theatrical Personas to try, but masks and disguises can get stuck. Or you get Trapped behind walls that begin as protective but become prisons. One kid in particular stays with me. He’s tall and shy and nervous. He says How do you deal with rejection? and somehow I instantly Get it that he does not mean essays and stories and poems and how You handle people saying steadily bluntly no to your insistent yes! He’s asking me about hope and despair and lovers and heartbreaks. He’s asking about the girl or boy he adores who does not love him. He’s staring at me. The other kids wait politely. I want to reach up And cup his face in my hands as if he was my son, but you have to Be honest with kids, you cannot merely bloviate and issue arrogant Pomposity, so I tell him you have to learn to be neighborly with no. You are going to see it every day and you might as well be friendly With the concept. Someone else’s no doesn’t actually kill your yes; It only means that someone else’s yes is still out there waiting. You See where I am going here? There’s more yes than no, is what I am Trying to say. I suppose that’s what we mean by faith. Faith’s a big Word, bigger than any religion. It means yes where everything sure Looks like no as far as you can see. Am I making the slightest sense Here, son? I actually call him son. The other kids must have thought I was being avuncular but for a brief moment he was indeed my son, And yours too. We shook hands and he held only my hands just a bit Longer than the usual thing, which I took to be some sort of a prayer.
Called the cemetery this morning to begin to plot What happens to my mom and dad after they die. Yes, I just wrote plot. My parents would smile at That. They are not afraid. They have lived so wry And well. They survived wars and four dead sons And savage diseases, and they still reach for each Other here and there. I have seen it. The cemetery People are so very helpful. Discharge papers: that Is the first thing. The cemetery will donate a head Stone free of charge. And the casket liner. I admit The casket liner was not on my list of stuff to talk To the cemetery folks about. Plenty of room, says The cemetery lady. Yes, your mom will be buried With your dad, no charge. What do we engrave on The stone? The specific words? In loving memory, Usually. That is standard. Can you edit the words? Well, I suppose so. Within reason. There are space Concerns, of course. I suggest you talk to your dad And mom and brothers and sisters, and agree upon What it is you would like the stone to say. I would Like the stone to say grace, and sinewy, and young. They were so young when they married. He did not Expect to survive the war. Their first son died—his Name was Seamus. Can you find room for Seamus On the stone? Mom nearly died, too. But she is too Tough to die at thirty. A hundred and thirty, maybe. Can we say endurance, and prayerful, and compose A poem about how they like their tea, and who gets What section of the paper first, and how they never Ever forget a birthday or anniversary? Can we copy Their meticulous undamaged handwriting? Can you Show the note of her laughter, and the way he never Misses a day with the crossword and how he is right Now bending over the tomato plants to be sure he is Not about to water the tiny shy frogs who live there?
I was, no kidding, a visiting writer in a kindergarten recently, And the children asked me many wry and hilarious questions, Among them is that your real nose? and can you write a book About a ruffed grouse, please? But the one that pops back into My mind this morning was what do poems do? Answers: swirl Leaves along sidewalks suddenly when there is no wind. Open Recalcitrant jars of honey. Be huckleberries in earliest January, When berries are only a shivering idea on a bush. Be your dad For a moment again, tall and amused and smelling like Sunday. Be the awful wheeze of a kid with the flu. Remind you of what You didn’t ever forget but only mislaid or misfiled. Be badgers, Meteor showers, falcons, prayers, sneers, mayors, confessionals. They are built to slide into you sideways. You have poetry slots Where your gills used to be, when you lived inside your mother. If you hold a poem right you can go back there. Find the handle. Take a skitter of words and speak gently to them, and you’ll see.
You can snarl and rage and roar and snipe at thugs and liars, Sure you can, and right you are for doing so, and you maybe Actually enjoy letting the lava soar out all righteously, right? But even so, there are lies inside you like viruses. You know What I am talking about; we don’t need to go into any detail. And we have been too familiar with a little thuggery, haven’t We? Not battery: You’ll say, rightfully, that you are innocent. No: I mean the times you knew about assault and battery, and Did zero. We just stood there. We pretend to be fascinated By something else that just happened to be happily elsewhere. We turned our heads, so it looked like we just hadn’t noticed; We can surely be excused if we didn’t see it, right? Right?
Here’s a story. My first job, at fifteen, was in a bakery, Cleaning the vast foul pots and kettles and baking pans At night, for hours, alone, with horrifying chemicals, & Finally locking the shop and trudging home in the dark. I hated it from the first hour but I couldn’t quit instantly Because I was afraid to be teased and be mortified. This Went on a week. The back door to the bakery was in an Alley that looked like a good place to get shot. One day As I shuffled sadly down the alley I saw a slumped man Sitting by the back door, smoking. I didn’t know him & Figured I was about to get rolled. I was sort of relieved, To be honest, because then I’d have a decent excuse for Quitting. But when I got there the man stood up, and he Said boy, I run the shop next door, and I see you in here Working, and I bet you have not eaten, and that’s awful Hard work, I know how that guy leaves his kitchenware, So here’s a sandwich. Now, it’s not from me exactly but From my wife who has a real sharp eye. So there you go. I quit a few days later, and at my dad’s instruction I quit Face to face with the baker, who was furious, and it was No fun at all, but then I went and said thanks to the lady. Even now sometimes I see that man smoking in the alley, And standing up, and being kind to a kid he didn’t know. Even now I’ll be walking along and suddenly there he is, Waiting to be kind. We think we are alone but we aren’t.
O the very fact that there are friends who write with their hands Even if just the forefingers hammering away on keyboards, and Also then print out the resulting muddle and scrawl and scribble And pop it in the postbox! The lickable areas on the envelopes! The Return Address Just in Case! The choice of stamps, and we All blessedly have friends who carefully choose their stamps, & Stand in line at the post office asking for the ones with Authors, Or members of the Simpson family, or stamps with Polar Bears! And the fact that there are fifty addresses in your memory, some Of them no longer inhabited by the people you loved to write to; Much like your mind retains past phone numbers and exchanges, Like Mayfair and Ludlow and Allegheny and Cypress and Tulip! And the fact that you can draw all morning on an envelope or by God paint it flagrantly with horses and angels, and your postman Will deliver it anyway! Probably grinning at the nut who mailed It to you! And you can put a few grains of sand inside your note, From the beach we went to as children, or a feather from a hawk Who glared in the window like an insurance adjuster with talons, Or a painting by a child, or a photograph of four of the names of That which we call God for lack of a better label. Even the folds Of the paper, and the paperness of the paper, and the fact that it’s All about miracles and affection, which is to say, of course, love! Sure it is. All the good parts are about love, in all its many masks.
Here’s my question. What if there was a poem That didn’t know what it was about until it got To the end of itself? So that the poet’s job isn’t To play with imagery and cadence and metrical Toys in order to make a point, but rather to just Keep going in order to find out that the poem is About how hard it is to watch your kids get hurt By things they can’t manage and you cannot fix. If I had been the boss of this poem I would have Made it so they can manage things, or I could be The quiet fixer I always wanted to be as a father; But that’s not what the poem wanted to be about, It turns out. This poem is just like your daughter: No one knows what’s going to happen, and there Will be pain, and you can’t fix everything, and it Hurts to watch, and you are terrified even as you Try to stay calm and cool and pretend to manage. Some poems you can leave when they thrash too Much but kids are not those sorts of poems. They Have to keep writing themselves, and it turns out You are not allowed to edit. You’re not in charge At all—a major bummer. I guess there’s a lesson Here about literature, about how you have to sing Without knowing the score . . . something like that. All you can do is sing wildly and hope it’ll finish So joyous and refreshing that you gape with awe.