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Praise a Word

If you praise a word, it turns into a poem.  Caitlin Weber (fifth grade)

When I was in fifth grade, Maureen Jumper was one of my best friends.  In those wide open hours after school, we swam together at the local Y, and traced the streets of our hometown in coastal Maine — one foot deftly placed in front of the other — on the stonewalls that lined the sidewalks.  We created mischief in our minds, and giggled and ate whole tubs of Hallet Drugstore’s homemade ice cream.  But what I remember most were the Friday night sleepovers, how we hauled out the books, the nursery rhymes and the limericks and the fairy tales of our younger years, and the blue-bound hardcover of my mother’s, and we read to each other.  I remember how we both loved poetry.  What was it about those reading sessions that made them as satisfying as an evening spent sprawled out in front of the TV watching our favorites like The Monkees and The Wild, Wild West?  There was a mystique in the books themselves, some as old as my mother, in feeling their heft and skimming their yellowing pages and hand-colored drawings.  And of course there were the poems and the stories printed onto those pages — some familiar, some new to us – that held our attention and made us smile when we read them silently.  But it was something else that made these Friday nights feel so fun.  It was the process we followed.  With seamless ease, we, two ten-year-old girls, created guidelines and a structure that brought these poems to life.

When we breathe our breath into a poem, when we speak its words out loud with the fullness of our own voice, it is as if we are communing with the poet, as if we, too, have made these words become real and alive on the page, and it doesn’t matter whether the words were written eons ago, whether they were written across the sea in England or France or somewhere even more exotic; they become our words and we are transformed, made bigger as we embody this gift we are reading.  Somehow, Maureen and I, two coastal girls from a blue-collar town in Maine, knew this was so.  We took turns, the two of us, shuffling through the pages and choosing the gems that drew us in, and with our biggest voices – and both of us had big voices – and with a dramatic flair, we read to each other.  And it wasn’t just the reading that was so deeply pleasurable; it was the listening, too.

Years later, when I was in my thirties and a graduate student at Northern Michigan University, the poet Robert Bly made a spring-time visit to campus.  Before reciting a single poem, Bly, with his shock of white hair and a silken vest, stood on the stage facing an auditorium packed with students and faculty and fans, and told us, not to listen with our heads, but to listen, instead, with our breath and with our hearts, and with every cell of our bodies, not to try to figure it all out, but to experience it in our beings.  And it was a wonderful invitation, and, although I now can’t recall in detail more than one or two of the poems themselves, I still remember how good it felt to soak the words in deeply.  They live in me, in my cells and my bones and my breath, like the poems that Maureen and I read to each other twenty-five years earlier, like the poems, a few years later, that I read with other friends, the poems of Kahlil Gibran and Rod McKuen, and the poems written out for us on the backs of the album covers of our favorite musicians.  I breathed in, not only the melodies, but also the words of James Taylor and Cat Stevens and Paul Simon.

And what makes it a poem anyway?  Can’t any word, any phrase, any image that we conjure up become a poem?  Can’t a conversation that is heartfelt and sincere be poetry?  Can’t that song in our hearts, that song that rose up to the surface after all these years, that song that you slow-danced to in ninth grade with your almost-grown-up quivering almost-boyfriend who was wearing a burgundy shirt and smelled of Old Spice, can’t that song, that memory and the feelings that it awakens in you now, can’t that be a poem?  And the children’s book, the one that you read to your baby grandson, the one that has no rhyme or reason, that doesn’t even flow off your tongue in an easy way, can’t the two of you create a poem out of that experience?  And the drip drip drip of the melting snow in April in these northern woods, and the chirp of a cardinal blown off course and onto your feeder and the squirrels scampering across the crusty ski trails — isn’t there a poem in there somewhere?  Sometimes it is a formal thing, this life of poetry, a sitting down at a table and scribbling word-images into a journal, or maybe it is a book, already bound and published, ready for you to read to yourself or aloud to a friend, or perhaps it is a performance like the one that Robert Bly treated us to all those years ago, like the ones on Wednesday evenings at Joy Center this month of April.  Poems, written down and honed and shared, are gifts for us to cherish.  And then there are the times that life itself feels like a poem.

A year ago, during the first weekend of February, my cousin, Diana, sat in the chair by my mother’s bedside at Winship Green Nursing Home and held her hand.  And she brushed my mother’s wavy hair.  And when my ninety-three year old mother closed her eyes and went inward, Diana whispered to her the names of the birds outside the window, and I wonder if this whispering felt like a poem to my bird-loving mother.  Three cardinals in the bushes.  A flock of gulls flying overhead.  Juncos on the snowy ground.  And in the days and hours before my mother’s dying, Diana hauled out the book of poetry, the book that she had brought from home to read to my mother, the book of poems that I had written.  And while my mother lay there, sometimes sleeping, sometimes awake and listening, Diana read to her.  And it is a dear poem for me now, to think of my cousin breathing life into my words, a dear poem to think of my mother soaking in these words, breathing them in, in the final hours of her breath.

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