once upon a poetry school…
dispatch from 06510, aka PoetryLand
I could barely sleep the night before it all began — though truth is, it’s because my firstborn was flying across the continent, rising out of a blood-red cell on the weather radar map (“insane,” he declared the weather, as the hour grew later and later, long past the scheduled time for takeoff) and it made no matter that I was 1,800 miles from the epicenter of his Texas-sized storm, mothers don’t leave their firstborns to fly unwatched. I prayed that plane to safe landing, round 4 in the morning, and then I tossed and turned, awaiting Poetry School.
I’d flown some 750 miles all my own to get here, where, for one short week, I’m deep in make-believe. Making believe that I am back in college — make that cobblestone, storybook college. Lugging past Gothic towers and campaniles with my book bag, my syllabus, my three-ring binder, and reams and reams of poems in my tousled-pewter noggin.
Because I’ve homework due at the clang of the school bell today (and because I’m typing on my itty-bitty screen), I might need to practice the art of brevity (though I could go on and on). For the first time since perhaps eighth grade, my homework is to memorize — and recite — a poem, Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” And I’ve lines to go before I shlep up the very steep hill to P School.
I will tell you this, though: In my wildest dreams I couldn’t have dreamed up a more bespoke week for my little monastic self. I’m holed up in the apartment of the boy I love, the one who’s deep in study of the law. (The gnawingly haunting thing is that he’s not here, and while I love being wrapped in this charmed aerie overlooking the steeples and bell towers of New Haven, I feel the ghost of him everywhere, hear echoes of his life here, but it’s all just beyond my fingertips, and the proximity without the presence makes my whole self ache in that way that absence does.)
I’ve carved a path to all the quirky eateries, where alongside folks with purple hair and piercings by the dozens I gorge on voluminous veggie salads, and don’t worry that anyone’s cocking a quizzical eyebrow.
But best of all, it’s the red-brick Jeffersonian quadrangle at the top of Prospect Hill. Inside the labyrinth of corridors and classrooms, I’ve found a place that hits you between the eyeballs with capital-K Kindness, the rarest of commodities in the world these days. The etched-in-brick gestalt, clearly, is “do no harm.” Not to the spirit of those around you, not to the power grid, the water table, and certainly not to Mother Earth. Heck, all the plates and cups and forks and knives in the Old Refectory are compostable. Meat is decidedly absent at nearly every communal grazing; God save the cows, apparently. Everybody smiles. Oh, and prayers come in every religion under the sun.
(I suppose I should mention this is Divinity School, after all, one founded by those sturdy-spined Congregationalists back in 1822, and in the two centuries since, a whole parade of notable senators, preachers, and statesfolk have prayed their way through these hallowed halls.)
In a looming seminar room at the top of a stairs, where sky-high windows let in sun or shadow, howl of wind or rain thrashing against the panes, a rare professor — rare in that he, too, is kind above all, and brilliant — teaches us to pull back every thread of every poem, to pay attention to the white space, the word choice, the lack of comma or capital, and most of all to ask what question the poem is begging of us?
I’d be lying if I didn’t let on that on Day One, I fell in love with my compatriots in the class (officially titled, “Reading Poetry Theologically”), and I’ve only fallen deeper and deeper as the days, and tender revelations, have unfurled.
There’s the 17-year-old from the Upper East Side who every day rides 2.5 hours each way on the train from Grand Central Station, and makes it home each night because, she told us, her mother “believes in family dinner.” She could double for an angel that girl, with her alabaster skin and tumbling blond curls, and when she told us how her father died when she was only six, and how for years, she hated any God who could let that happen, I was not the only one wiping away a tear.
Before we get to the oldest in the class — she’s “past 80” is all she’ll let on, but we know she’s older than the Episcopal priest who confesses to being 82 — here’s the rest of the class list: the poet, the journalism professor, three priests in total, one priest’s wife, and a chaplain from Hong Kong. (Oh, and me, too.)
Elaine, aka Past 80, is a story all her own (and I am over-the-moon for her, and pray we’ll become penpals). Suffice it to say, you might mistake her for, well, Geraldine Page in her role as Truman Capote’s doddering discombobulated decades-older cousin in “A Christmas Memory,” in the way she comes to class with cardigan buttoned askew, short gray bob flying every which way (as does mine, by the way), and shiny beads in ropes and ropes and more ropes. After telling you she was forever too qualified to get the teaching job she’d longed for, she recites her litany of degrees, sounding not unlike the Twelve Days of Christmas: one PhD, three masters, and two bachelor’s degrees. (She will also tell you her first husband left her — and their three young children — for his secretary, and then she’ll whisper an epithet.) While compiling her alphabet of degrees, she spent a few years in Alabama where she criss-crossed the back roads with her pen and notebooks, gathering oral histories for her dissertation on Southern white pastors and the Civil Rights Movement, and yesterday at (meatless) lunch, she had me and a table full of bent-close listeners riveted by her tales. And then she pulled from her satchel, a copy of that very book, published just last year; “only took 26 years to get it published,” she quipped, giggling. For so demure a gentle soul (and one who’s emphatically hard of hearing, besides), she can spin one mean yarn.
Oh, there’s so much more. But I can hear the lines of Manifesto whispering to me now….
…Go with your love to the fields. Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head / in her lap. Swear allegiance / to what is nighest your thoughts. / As soon as the generals and the politicos / can predict the motions of your mind, / lose it. Leave it as a sign / to mark the false trail, the way / you didn’t go. Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, / some in the wrong direction. / Practice resurrection.
And I’ve syllables and pauses to learn by heart. So I can rise at Poetry School, and not be mortified.
Pray tell, what one poem might you choose to memorize? And if poetry’s not your thing, how have you tiptoed out on a limb most recently?