Poetry as Reprieve

[frame align=”right”][/frame]In my twenties I thought of language as a bridge, not from one place to another, but above an abyss. The damnation waiting below was ordinary chaos, the dissonant march of hours, the rush of unsorted, simultaneous emotions – terror, desire, depression, exultation – swirling together without structure or purpose. Raw consciousness, natural and unimpeded. I needed some artifact of the patterning mind to survive nothing more terrible than my daily life, and I found in words the material for these necessary shapings. I had always loved words, found them concrete, caressable. Never a spewer of words, I selected them sparingly, arranging them one by one, into a viable arc. Clear, but not too clear, not dead and settled. The song was always important.

But music can’t save you from the abyss
Osip Mandelstam

Not save, perhaps, but reprieve. What more could I want? One reprieve after another, one cresting of the wave, breathing deeply, freely, in the sunlit air, before descending again. Poetry has been this to me. Go too many days without it and something starts to slip inside, some sense of living on a planet – crushed by suffering, to be sure – but also lifted by an inherent, speakable mystery.

Yet, I was silent for a long time.

In the middle of my life, after many misdirected years, I dreamed a poem. This gleaming fish came to me whole during a night of illness – the kind when your body doesn’t stop telling you it is becoming something other than what it was. I never made so effortless a catch again, but have been content with chasing the thrashing tails of fast-dissolving visions.

Illness obliged me to leave the city of worldly ambition. Language populated the woods surrounding my new home with dream creatures, who have been where I have not. They have shown me my deepest self, yet a self not particularly concerned with me. Words have their own journeys, their sure, hidden compasses. And so I have tried to follow them to what Emily Dickinson called circumference, the far limit of our limited ability to fathom where we are and what it means.

My music has saved no one, but it has carried me across, above the swirling waters, at the same time as it has taken me deeper into shoals I cannot navigate without its spell. More than my fragmentary, fallible revelations, the process of seeking them and knowing they are possible has been an indispensable comfort to me. This in itself is mysterious.


-Sharon Leiter, co-Poetry Editor

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