Last week I was sitting in a classroom at Lesley University, listening to my professor Rafael Campo open a seminar on the elegy, and the power of poetry to “speak the unspeakable.” One example we looked at was Martha Collins’ poem “Her Poem,” which addresses some of the biggest unspeakables in our lives; love, spirituality, and yes, death. It’s not that we don’t have words for the experience of loving or losing someone, but language is not built to allow us to express all of the feelings that go into these basic units of life at once, and the phrases we’ve been given seem so dulled, made inadequate with use. The elegy shows the potential role of poetry as a redeemer, a tradition that keeps reinventing itself to hold new volumes of loss and joy. I know it has been this for me.
At eighteen, coming into my second year of college, I began performing at the Macalester Poetry Slam. This was a space full of people speaking their truths, the simultaneously universal and deeply unique experiences of heartbreak, death, illness, and awkward sex. Poetry gave me the same, dusty English I’d always known, but broke down every wall between emotion and image. The words didn’t seem so lonely anymore, the normal rules of grammar and decorum weren’t forcing them into boxes anymore. There is a tradition for me to draw on here, from Homer on down the line to my friends and teammates Ollie Schminkey and Blythe Baird, but there is also no maxim that I sound like them, that I use the same words for my loss and my love.
Once I abandoned this notion of “correct” ways to express emotion, I was free to also abandon the idea of “correct” emotion. There is a new power here for me, on the page. Here I can make people care about my life, hell here I can care about my life, and any moment can be linked to any other moment I’ve lived. And I like that thought. No matter how lonely I may be at any given instant, none of my experiences ever have to live in isolation from each other, and when I put them on a page, they are never in isolation from every other poem ever written. There is a space on the page for every story, and I find that to be the most comforting thing on days when the rest of the world is trying to burn down safe spaces for black worship, when my rapists are all free and I flinch first thing upon waking, when trans women are being murdered at an alarming rate, when straight white men are killing to deny others space. They can’t take the page from us, and they can’t keep us apart when we write our stories.
It’s all together.
We’re in the membership of the trees.
We didn’t have to have it, but we did have to have.
I knew you knew it.
Aren’t those trees delicious?
They’re heavenly. But they come to you.
Heaven isn’t anywhere else. It’s here.
I thought I had to have it. Well, I did. I have it.
It’s where it was and wanted to be.
Was the moon ever so secure? Never.
After I knew Him, then I knew Him.
I am where I am. I wasn’t, but I am now.
Senior at Macalester College, director of the Macalester Poetry Slam. Three-time CUPSI team-member. 2012 CUPSI Finalist, with Macalester placing 2nd in the nation. 7th at 2013 Great Plains Poetry Pile Up. Two-time performer on the Rustbelt Regional Poetry Slam finals stage. Author of one chapbook from Beard Poetry, The Love Hypothetic