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Tag: reading aloud

she asked for a poem

mary oliver poem

she asked for a poem, my beautiful friend did. she asked for words. she asked for my voice.

she asked so that “at certain times,” in the dark dark hours that come when you are lying in your bed, or curled on your couch, when the knife-to-the-gut of cancer won’t stop, when you tremble deep down inside, when all you want is to wail but you can’t, she asked “to be soothed” by the sound of the human voice rising and falling and wrapping around letters and lines and syllables and silence and words, each word a vessel of hope, a finger to grasp, the next best thing to morphine. or, maybe, better.

she asked me to pick out a poem, to read it, to record the sound of my voice. “not STAGE PERFORMANCE,” she wrote, just “ntural,”she typed, her fingers fumbling for keys, “poems red by my friends.”

it was a blanket of sound she was stitching together, my friend whose world has always been about sound. she’s gathered sound all around the globe, on nearly every continent. she’s woven sound into story, story that shattered hearts, peeled back truths, shone beacons of light. sound that reached out through the squat little box that sits on the kitchen counter, or the flat rectangular one that blinks red numbers just beside my bed. sound that could draw me to the ends of the earth, or into the depth of someone’s long lonely walk through a mountain pass, or down a dusty country road. it might be the sound of a katydid. or a jackhammer. or maybe the cry of a mother who’s just buried her child. it might be the whistle of wind she records. or the story in spanish of someone who’s been lost for too long.

her life has been a tapestry of sound, one that my friend has pieced together with fierce intelligence, unparalleled heart, and a light in her eyes that will never go out.

so, in her darkest hours, in the hours when the walls seem to be squeezing in from all sides, she asked for more sound. for the sound of the human voice, doing what it most sacredly does: putting breath to the balm that is love, that is tender and dripping with mercy, that heals, always heals, and that just might be the last earthly tie, one heart to another.

it’s no mystery why mamas sing lullabies to their babies. why mamas turn pages of storybooks. why mamas make “mmm” sounds and sigh to their wee little newborns. the human voice is breath + vibration + heart, is sound put to flight. the instrument of that flight might be a screech, or a whisper. it might be vicious and crack in half the heart of the one who hears it. or, in the case of my friend, it might be the best shot for soothing, for wrapping a blanket, a compress, of undying love.

and, yes, it might be a poem. the healing power of the hard-chosen word, words plucked from the star-stitched heavens, beauty and heartbreak distilled. that’s poetry. and, no, it won’t cure cancer, certainly not. but there are ails along the way that poetry — a poem read aloud by someone you love — will always be able to heal.

it will break through the canyon of fear and of emptiness. it will cradle the tired. and, as best as is possible, it just might dull the ragged edge of the pain, and, maybe just maybe, soften the suffering for as long as it takes for the poem to be read and maybe to linger.

i knew right away the poem and the poet to which i would put my breath and my heart: mary oliver. “praying.” it’s the poem i tucked on the very front page of my very first book. it’s a poem about paying attention, about patching together a few simple words, nothing elaborate. it’s about prayer not being a contest, but a doorway into thanks, and “a silence in which another voice may speak.” it’s about stitching together prayer, and it’s something my friend and i have talked about — many times, once while wandering about a wooded magic hedge.

i knew, too, right away, just where i wanted to read it, the poem about prayer — amid my late-summer garden, so the words of mary oliver would be enfolded, would be punctuated, with the sounds of this summer drawing to a close: the few cicada still buzz-sawing, the blue jay who squawks, even the wind rustling through the boughs of the willow.

i whispered a prayer, took a breath, and pushed the little red “record” button.

my friend asked for a poem. i sent her the pulse of my heart, and a sound-swatch of the late summer garden.

here’s how it sounded:

i wanted to quietly lay this on the table because i know that among the chairs circled here, there are hearts intent on finding ways to bring healing to the world, and i thought it the most beautiful quiet creation, the notion of my friend to weave together a patchwork of poems, all in the voices of friends, all for the purpose of soothing. it’s a simple gift, a pattern we can all trace and retrace, should the need arise. it might even be a baby gift, a gift at the launch of life, when you wrap not just a favorite picture book, but the sound of your very own voice reading it, turning the pages. the gift of your voice is one no one else could ever give. and it comes from the depth of your heart. priceless.

because i happen to know that mary oliver doesn’t want anyone printing her poems anywhere without permission (i asked for and received full permission for the epigraph of slowing time), i am honoring mary’s heart and will not print it here, although it is in the photo above. and you can read it yourself if you open the book to just past the dedication page. and, miracle of miracles, i figured out how to drop a line of poetry reading onto this latest meander. wonders never cease. 

so here’s the question: if someone you love asked you to read a passage or a poem, what one would you choose?

reading night

reading night

dispatch from 02139 (in which we all circle round, and fellows and co-vivantes engage in a nieman rite of spring, one that prompts us to pull from our pockets one choice passage — scribed this year, and picked just for tonight — that, one-by-one, we will read to the gathered masses. it is a nieman literary tradition, and it has one of us shaking in her reading clogs….thus the rosary beads above…)

long ago, in the leafy shade of my writing room back home, i remember sitting at my old pine table typing a promise to all the beloved “chairs.” i promised to bring you along on this year of thinking sumptuously, and i’ve tried mightily to do that.

sometimes, of course, these dispatches have been placeless, as they’ve captured musings i might have mused wherever i was in the world — a mama’s musings, a mama’s heartaches, moments not tied to any ZIP code. sometimes they’ve been particular to the curious case of going back to college when you’re pewter-haired.

i’ve carried you on a field trip to a poet’s farm in new hampshire, and let you peek in at the volumes piled high on my desk. i’ve tiptoed into the monastery, with you right on my shoulder, and i’ve brought you here to the kitchen when i got to stir a cauldron of chili for a boatful of hungry rowers.

this perfect april’s afternoon — with the just-warming breeze whooshing through the screen door, and the merry finches nibbling from the kitchen-window feeder — i am about to bring you along with me to a big moment on the nieman calendar: reading night.

nothing fancy about the name, nothing fancy about the format.

the framework is this: each fellow and co-vivante (a.k.a. the tagalongs who traipse beside their duly-plucked fellows) is encouraged to sign up to step before the crowd and read one written work they’ve created during their time here in niemanland. twenty-one of the pool of 40 (that would be the 24 fellows plus this year’s 16 co-vivantes) have been slotted to read; i am one.

now, you might not know this about me but i turn to wobbles when called upon to stand up and read aloud. perhaps it dates back to some moment in, say, fourth grade, when i was daydreaming out the window, and sister leonora mary called on me to read, but i had no clue where we were, so the giggles around me rose to a roar, and there erupted a flurry of pointing fingers as deskmates right and left tried to foist me back on track — before sister leonora mary’s rubber-tipped stick thwopped me on the knuckles.

and, while i adore my fellow fellows and each and every co-vivante, this is no crowd for shrinking violets. we’ve got editors from the new york times, a pulitzer winner or two, the founder of the daily beast, a writer from the international herald tribune who regales us with her tales of traipsing in and out of tents of taliban poobahs, where she scores globe-gripping stories. and on and on and, oh my goodness, on.

this exercise in verbal undressing — that’s sure as heck how it’ll feel to me, one of a mere three co-vivantes who’ve signed up to read along — commences at seven bells, just as the sun sets in the western massachusetts sky, and that glorious full moon rises to spill its milky glow on all the cobbled lanes.

the piece i’m reading is one i wrote for a class that might have changed my writing life, the longform narrative writing class, in which i discovered once and for all just how darned hard it is to cobble one majestic sentence, let alone one 10,000-word deeply-reported tale.

this particular assignment was one in which we had to narrate a dramatic moment in our life, and exercise the sublime art of dialing back the descriptives so the power of the moment pulsed through, unweighted by a chain of over-wrought modifiers. it’s all about the verb, we learned and learned again.

“verbs act. verbs move. verbs do. verbs strike, soothe, grin, cry, exasperate, decline, fly, hurt, and heal,” writes poet laureate donald hall in his essential text, “writing well” [9th edition, 2007, pearson longman]. “verbs make writing go, and they matter more to our language than any other part of speech.

“verbs give energy, if we use them with energy.”

you’ll see when you read my humble exercise (just below), why it might feel a bit like i’m standing naked before my writerly fellows.

but, in the spirit of clearing my lumpy throat and trying to shake off the shakes, i offer you the trial run of the hastily-titled, “fading.” (it had no title; heck, it was just assignment #9, but the nieman curator insisted i title it, and the first word that popped in my head was “fading,” so fading it is….)

(the beauty of unspooling it here is you can’t see my wobbly knees, and my fingers aren’t yet ratcheted up into their hummingbird tremble)

FADING

by barbara mahany

The gel oozed onto the hard dome of my belly in cold coiled worms. I flinched but not nearly as much as I would have, had I not been distracted by the three-year-old — my doctor’s three-year-old — who’d climbed up beside me to get a better look.

Really, I thought, did she really need to be clambering around like this was some sort of a hospital tot lot? But then again, I reminded myself, it was a Sunday afternoon, and my doctor, already on call, had told me, just 45 minutes before, “Meet me in Labor and Delivery. Let’s see what’s going on in there.”

Click, someone flicked off the lights. The screen blinked, fuzzy at first, like a black-and-white TV, back in the ‘60s, when the thunderbolts in shades of gray squiggled across the screen before settling into, say, the opening credits of “Twilight Zone,” and my dad whispered, “Shh!”

No one whispered a thing in the murky underworld of the ultrasound room. The screen turned white and nobody — not the doctor, not my husband, not the three-year-old — moved. Least of all, me.

I blinked once, twice, then again. Hoping each time that if I squeezed my lids hard enough maybe the black whorl in the middle would come into focus. The black whorl with the fingers like seaweed, swishing open and closed.

Lub-dub-swoosh. Lub-dub-swoosh. It was the song of the embryonic heart, and, for 15 weeks now, it had soothed me.

This time, there was no song. There was no seaweed. Just an empty black hole. And the white, all around, didn’t move.

“I’m sorry,” my doctor said.

My husband, the father of that baby, withered onto me, his curls mopping my cheeks.

And then — maybe to make sure I’d been scraped of all hope, maybe because to a doctor it was just a curious thing — my doctor pointed to the blurred edge of the baby’s outline, at the crown of the head, down at the toes, where the white wasn’t so crisp anymore. Where the white was pocked with gray.

“See right there,” she said, pointing, “Baby died a few days ago. It’s starting to fade.”

That’s why, for the last couple mornings, the coffee didn’t make me wretch quite so much. That’s why, since Tuesday, I’d been holding my breath every time I walked in the bathroom, afraid to pull down my pants, for the streaks, then the splotches, of blood.

I’d been through this before. But never so late in the game. We were past the first trimester. I’d circled the date — September 22 — on the calendar. Drawn a red heart, actually.

But now I just lay there. Absorbing. Staring at the white part that glowed. I memorized the curve of the head, noticed the nose, how much it looked like the baby’s big brother. I tried not to look at the part of my baby that was already fading.

They sent me home, told me to wait. The baby didn’t wait long. Alone in the night, wailing some primal howl, I cupped my hands and caught my rosy-pink stringbean of a baby, that’s how tiny she was, to save her from swirling into the bowl of the toilet.

***

(this is a not-so-common thursday eve posting, as i’ll be trekking to frederick law olmsted’s stomping ground tomorrow early morn, when i tagalong yet again, this time on a field trip with sweet blair’s “history of landscape architecture” class.)

and, yes, we are all re-catching our breath after the horrors of last week. spring unfolds here in slow time, thanks to chill winds that hover near, and keep the blooms unfurled in suspended animation.

lastly, the rosary beads up above will be in my pocket whilst i read. a sure cure for the shakes, i’ve found over the years.

do you get wobbly when you do certain acts in public? if so, what brings on the wobblies, and what, pray tell, are your tried-and-true cures???