Friday, January 22, 2010

Promising the Air

When I was a young creative writing major in college at Ohio University in my salad days in Athens, Ohio, I had the opportunity to have workshops with a few highly-regarded writers. I had a fiction workshop with Jane Smiley, of whom I had not yet heard in 1990. I found her unpleasant and inapproachable. I went to the first two workshops with her; at the second one, she discussed my work. She had some nice things to say. I don't remember any of them. She came to class in curlers, with a handkerchief over them. She said she had no time for us outside of the workshop because she was busy writing. I didn't like her, so I skipped the third workshop, and skipped her reading.

Later, I went on to read some of her work: The Age of Grief, and Good Will. I kicked myself hard for my hubris then. I had the audacity to blow off Jane Smiley.

She went on to win the Pulitzer for A Thousand Acres (a modern day Lear), which I believe she must have been working on during that workshop. I didn't know how to kick myself harder-- not just for blowing off that last workshop, but for missing the chance to hear her read.

Fortunately, I had the good sense to attend all of my workshops with the fine poet Stanley Plumly, who remains one of my favorites. Plumly was gracious, warm, and kind. He had the nicest and well-deserved things to say about another young poet in my class named Mike Lewinski. But he had some genuinely nice things to say to me too. My only regret is that I missed part of his workshop because one of my classmates was having a panic attack, so I went out with her and we called an ambulance, and went outside to wait for it. She was having chestpains and trouble breathing, but she whispered to me that she could not go the Emergency Room because she had done cocaine the night before, and she was sure her symptoms were due to that; however, for obvious reasons, she didn't want the EMTs to know this. So, they gave her some oxygen and then they left, and I think I back to the workshop. But I don't remember anymore.

When I was searching for links for Plumly, I came across the sole, lonely review of his great book Summer Celestial, which was written by a young, midwestern housewife long ago.
That young woman doesn't exist anymore, but Plumly's poems remain as golden today as they did twenty years ago.

This is one of my favorites.

Promising the Air


A woman I loved talked in her sleep to children.
She would start her half of the conversation,
her half of asking, of answering the need to bring
the boy up the path from some dream-lake, some

wandering source, water, a river, or a road along
the tree-line of a river, she would say his small name,
then silence, privacy, the drift back to the center.
The child was the tenderness in her voice.

I can remember waking myself up talking, saying nothing
that mattered but loud enough for someone else to hear.
No one was there. It was like coming alive, suddenly,
in a body. I was afraid, as in the dark we are each time

new. I was afraid, word of mouth, out of breath.
Waking is the first lonliness—
but sleep can be anything you want, the path
to the summerhouse, silence, or a call across water.

I am taught, and believe, that even in light the mind
wanders, speaks before thinking. This piece of a poem
is for her who wept without waking, who, word for word,
kept her promise to the air. And for the boy.

1 comment:

  1. That's delicious.

    I'll have to go looking for him.