A poem that prays
I have a son who likes to overturn tubs of Legos, and he likes it nowhere better than in the shag carpet where he sometimes sits to play.
He is too young for reasoning—too young, even, for stern looks to make an impact—and so we sit together companionably and take in the array of colors and shapes—the blocks, the flames, the disembodied hands. “I make car,” he tells me, and soon he’ll have something car-shaped with a wheel or two to move on, maybe a Spider-Man or ballerina to steer.
That’s one picture of me as a writer—picking through shag to locate components of a vehicle, making do with what I find. Lego spills make me who I am, and so does this boy—an unstoppable force, noisily present in the world.
I’ve always written things, and before I could write, I would tell them. A fat pencil became just a way of extending the conversation past the point where anyone feigned to listen. I could wear anyone down as I was in love with detail and always aware of how the right detail could stay behind after the rest of the story was gone. That boy and his Legos in the shag—don’t you see him? Isn’t he still stuck to the front of your mind’s fridge like fully cooked spaghetti? And now, don’t you see the spaghetti? You can’t stop yourself.
I didn’t even mention the sound of the Legos falling—that frozen cascade, like a waterfall made of ice cubes. That’s yours now, too. There’s so much we have to lug with us through the world.
The fact is, I’m not sure I do poetry quite right. I’ve read about some of the greats—Wordsworth taking a daylong walk, then hurrying home to snare the long poem he’s composed entirely in his head. Coleridge, taking a long opium-induced nap and then jumping up to write down the poem from his dreams. (A knock on the door ended his session, and it ended the poem—Coleridge could never regain it, once lost. Clearly, Coleridge was nobody’s mommy.)
Always, there are models of writers who do the work in solitude, at desks or walking or just up from a fever dream. And we hear, too, of great literary friendships, but we sense that the writers’ work was done alone—shared, perhaps, by letter and discussed in the same way.
I wonder if solitude has always been a luxury. Maybe for parents it has—the Legos are new, but the mess is not. I’ll bet it’s always been hard to find time to write. Thank goodness I don’t have to make my family’s clothes or anything like that, but I do have to sit here on the floor, pluck the torsos of minifigures from the wooly surf. Sometimes the closest we come to solitude are these moments when there is a specific and terrible job to do, one that can only be done slowly, like my Lego gig or one accompanied by an odor or mess. When someone barfs, everyone disperses—you can count on it. But you can spot the parent by the way she leans toward it with cupped palms as it falls.
I may as well admit it: life overwhelms me. There’s the work (I teach college-level English), and there’s the work (like most people, I try to live amid some sort of order) and there’s the work (the writing). I’d like to capitalize that last work: the Work. Writing for me is a calling, and when I step into my imagination, it’s exactly like stepping into a church. I stand before an altar; there is an open book upon it, huge, embossed, spilling its truth—spilling gospel.
My poetry happens the way everything else does in an overwhelmed life. I kiss my husband on the go. I misbutton my shirt and say “the heck with it” on my way out the door. I put loving my family first, and it sometimes means that dish-doing doesn’t happen, or clothes-folding, or floor-sweeping. More often than not there is a hard glob of dried toothpaste near my sink.
The poetry matters to me, though. I want to write it, and I want for people to read it—especially the people who may need to hear what it’s saying. I humor myself to think that such people exist. Surely I can’t have been given the gift of words only for myself. And I know my work has connected with some readers. They’ve thanked me for it, which always seems strange. Thanking me for poetry, as if I’m somehow responsible for it.
Sometimes the writing plods along, and it happens with a cat rough-nosing my pencil, or a clingy toddler who insists on being wrapped in my right arm, thus forcing me to write left-handed.
I write between verses of “The Wheels on the Bus.” I write to Sesame Street. I write at proper playgrounds, and I write at fast-food restaurants with sticky play-places. I write early and late and during naps. I’ve written while googling symptoms to try to rule out the doctor. Yes, I’ve written while pooping.
What I do with the scraps is that I usually put them together somehow—I try to create one thing, something whole, like a quilt made from remnants, or specifically like a crazy quilt made from brightest remnants and stitched elaborately to show my skill.
And sometimes all I have is the remnant, and I’m shocked to find that some scrap is enough. A reader can connect. We’re strange that way—we hinge our lives on three words, or two, or one. A few sentences can say everything to people like us, provided the writer keeps at it, gets it out there.
I’ve wondered at times how other people pray, and if it’s like the way I pray. Though I’m a poet, I’m far from a psalmist. My prayers are simply worded, and sometimes they’re inchoate, or even completely wordless.
When we pray like this, maybe we acknowledge a feeling. Or we say a name, out loud or deep inside. We exclaim. We curse. We rage. We grunt. If we collected the snippets, we might have something like a picture of our faith—just like I sometimes have a poem.
Karen Craigo is the author of two forthcoming poetry collections, No More Milk and Passing Through Humansville. She maintains a daily blog on writing and creativity called Better View of the Moon, and she teaches English in Springfield, Missouri.
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