In her poem, “Letter Written on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound,” Ann Sexton describes four nuns sitting on the deck of a boat and imagines them floating into the sky. “Oh God,/ although I am very sad,/could you please let these four nuns/ loosen from their leather boots/and their wooden chairs/ to rise out/ over this greasy deck/…See them rise/ on black wings, drinking/ the sky, without smiles/ or hands/ or shoes./They call back to us/ from the gauzy edge of paradise,/ good news, good news.” Every time I read this poem, and I’ve read it more than a few times, I am struck by the speaker’s ability to transform her somewhat mundane sadness into these unexpected harbingers of hope. The power of poetry, then, is its ability to show us ordinary things in an extraordinary light. For me, this is true of all art and I return to those moments when I’m asked to think about something in a new way. Whether it’s the abstract landscapes of Jeremy Rabus, the music of Rae Fitzgerald, the poetry of C.T. Salazar, or this poem by Anne Sexton, I want to be more than an observer or listener. I want to immerse myself in their art and emerge, changed.
In my own poetry the power of transformation has mostly been about writing through multiple, unexpected losses and grief. At first, the act of writing was its own kind of power, a way to heal…no matter the words. Over time, the poems transcended my personal pain and became (I hope) more universal in their message. In one example, Looking Away at Lambert Airport, I write about something I witnessed while the rest of the passengers stared at their screens, “unmoved by visible magic.” In my new chapbook, I write a series of Sonnet Crowns with recurring images that specifically address my journey from the dark hole of grief into the possibility of new life, “I tell you to light a candle, set out sweets, / hand me a shovel to bury my crimes / bring me my shoes, we still have stairs to climb.” My hope is that the reader takes the journey with me and finds themselves in places they have not previously imagined. And if I’m really lucky, a reader will re-interpret my words and transform them yet again and tell me what my poem meant to them.
For other poets, I will say that I believe it’s important for your writing to evolve from your own personal experience, which may be rich, but is ultimately limiting. I learned this lesson several years ago in my weekly writing sessions with John Dorroh when he first read me his poem, “A Brief History of Sitting Down.” “With all that activity, they grew weary and/began to sit down: mats, pads, clumps of grass,/
low centers of gravity to help mouse tea/work its wonders.” The unexpected story that is told in this poem continues to surprise me.
Start with a chair. Turn it into a revolution.
Beth Gordon is a poet, mother and grandmother, currently landlocked in St. Louis, MO. Her poems have been published in numerous journals including Into the Void, Noble/Gas, Five:2:One, SWWIM, Verity La, Califragile, Pretty Owl Poetry and Yes Poetry. She is also the Poetry Editor of Gone Lawn.