Discovering the Relevance of Words
THE POWER OF POETRY: THE VINEYARD OWNER
— Lewis Mundt
Let me tell you two stories.
The first: Somewhere in California, a man named Rubén Vásquez leaves his house with a small knife, planning to go to a vineyard and kill his father. Instead of finding his father, Vásquez finds the vineyard’s owner, who disarms him by knocking his hand against a tractor.
And the second:
My father once broke a man’s hand
Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor. The man,
Rubén Vásquez, wanted to kill his own father
With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held
The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first
Two fingers, so it could slash
Horizontally, & with surprising grace,
Across a throat. It was like a glinting beak in a hand,
And, for a moment, the light held still
On those vines. When it was over,
My father simply went in & ate lunch, & then, as always,
Lay alone in the dark, listening to music.
He never mentioned it.
I never understood how anyone could risk his life,
Then listen to Vivaldi.
— Larry Levis, excerpt from Winter Stars
And by See?, I mean that anything can be a poem, and that I think it’s that universality, almost a yes we can make this moment something else can’t we? that’s the true power of poetry and the reason it’s been a celebrated art form for thousands of years. We don’t love cave paintings because they’re breathtakingly artistic; we love them because we’re drawn to these windows into someone else’s record of the world, an interpretation that humanizes what might otherwise be an alien, inaccessible time — one during which, sure, probably a lot of simple and unimportant things happened, but we’re grateful to piece together a record through which we can have a connection to it. Homer’s epics; Howl; Beowulf; the Inferno; the haiku; the blank verse; the Janelle Monáe song; the Billy Collins simple day; the Warsan Shire blink. These are all held together under a word that tells us look inside the way I see the world for just a moment: poetry.
And by See?, what I really mean to say is that some of us do not understand how to navigate the world without poetry. We seek out the poetry of loss during tragedy. We seek out the poetic to make sense of the political. It’s dramatic to say that some of us need poems the way others need the drink, but is it really that far off? For some of us the poetry is an addiction, the only way we can really slow down the freneticism that, against all odds, sometimes seems to be the sole commonality of the world.
And by See?, what I mean is that I wrote my first poem at age 16. A girl I barely knew but was sure I was in love with didn’t love me back, and I didn’t have anyone else to talk to about it. So I wrote. I wrote three pages of embarrassing metaphors, Elton John references, and hodgepodge French.
And it was bad.
But when I read it, I could finally deal with what had brought me to write it.
Things have changed. I’m older and I’ve written more poems, some of them still about longing but most of them just about how the world looks to me. Sometimes they’re just about the day I had that I don’t know how to deal with. I’m constantly reading six books; constantly referencing poems that make me feel a certain way to try to realign myself. There’s something about the way poetry lets me play with language that helps me — and so many of us — finally find a way to talk about the things that I need to talk about; it helps me learn ways to joke about the things I need to joke about; and it gives me someplace familiar to go when I’m lost. It brings me back to center, the way some people use yoga or family or music or just being.
Let me tell you a story: I don’t know Rubén Vásquez or the vineyard owner. I’ve never hit anyone, let alone broken someone’s hand. But I know what it’s like to feel like you’re standing in a field and something awful’s coming for you — what it’s like to take up what arms you can and use them to get yourself to tomorrow.
And that’s what poetry is to me.
Lewis Mundt is a writer who lives in Minneapolis with his partner, their dogs, and a dozen literary projects. His poetry can be found in Revolver and Paper Darts, among others; he has an essay in the inaugural issue of Slag Glass City; and various other pieces have been adapted for short films, songs, and photography. His debut collection, The God of the Whole Animal, was released in 2015 by Beard Poetry, where he serves as publisher. More at lewismundt.com.
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