I never thought my poetry had an agenda until I lost a childhood friend last year. His name was Jonathan, and I had known him since elementary school. He died of cancer, the result of treatments he endured for lymphoma as a teenager. It was a cruel, but not unexpected irony, that what saved him in high school would take his life four decades later. When a tumor pressing against his carotid artery was discovered, he knew what it meant.
Gossip was what Jonathan and I loved to share: talking about the neighborhood, our contemporaries, their parents, and other adults who had left us with withering impressions. Because of its history and location, our neighborhood had a certain cachet in Los Angeles. Our classmates were the children of rock stars, writers, critics,visual artists, film editors and movie executives. But everyone in the neighborhood seemed famous to us, just for having been there.
Jonathan’s wife said she was amazed at how we always pulled names out of the past and reconstructed that person’s trajectory from cradle to sometimes grave, or at least until the current hour. Our reservoir of stories and set pieces was inexhaustible, although since Jonathan’s death I’ve discovered it does have a bottom. Touching that bottom, and seeing what came out of it, showed me what the power of poetry is.
I had been telling myself I wrote about the obvious losses in my life: my grandparents and parents; my younger sister, a high school boyfriend who died of leukemia at 17. I told myself I was creating a record for my daughter, so she could know the people I have loved. But eight years ago, as part of his work as a civil servant, Jonathan came across some information he couldn’t keep to himself. He found a resolution honoring June Sasaki, our algebra teacher. She was a small, delicate woman who enforced an outsized sense of discipline with her imperious manner. To paraphrase Jonathan, there are scientists at major laboratories today who shake at mention of her name. He sent me the legal resolution and I eventually wrote a poem about her, realizing she was likely interned during the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans during World War II.
I dedicated the poem to Jonathan not because he told me of her death, but because I knew he could reimagine the exacting math teacher, recognize her as a human being, with her own epic, even if it was hidden. When he was dying, Jonathan showed the poem to a mutual friend, saying how “he was so touched” by the poem; how “it was so meaningful to him,” the mutual friend said. I hadn’t expected this; nor had I expected Jonathan to create his wholly own meaning of it, making it as a talisman of our friendship. This is the power of poetry. As E.M. Forster might have said, my only job as a writer was to “only connect” and somehow, I had.
My friendship with Jonathan taught me the power of poetry rests not in actions, but effects. I have yet to write a poem about Jonathan although I know I will. I have to, because of this last lesson he left with me. The power of poetry isn’t about what I might put into a poem, or whether I hit upon at the right set of words or a pithy image. Instead the power rests just as much with the audience as it does with the poet, the alchemy of communication between two seemingly separate beings. For me it is still a mystery exactly how this occurs, but for now I am content to know that it will sometimes be intention, and other times, accidental.