I’m stubborn. Did you know that? If you’ve met me, you probably did. I’m also controlling, a notorious backseat driver, and a possessor of big ideas. One of the hardest lessons for me to learn as a beginning writer was to stop trying to commandeer my stories and impose my aforementioned big ideas on them. Stories are kind of like children in that, the more you tell them what to do, the less likely they are to obey. (I think of the number of times my mother asked me to clean up the pile of books surrounding my papason chair, only for me to grow that pile instead of condense it.) It took much banging of my head against the wall and pulling out of my hair before I learned this lesson, but I got pretty good at checking myself when I started trying to steer a story instead of letting it lead me.
Recently, I’ve learned that this lesson also applies to poetry. Because I’m fairly new to writing poems, it hadn’t yet occurred to me that they might not like to be told what to do either. Also, because I’ve written nothing but dreck for I don’t even know how long, I seem to have forgotten all the rules of the trade: create time and space for your writing, be patient, write whatever comes into your head, remember that drafts are drafts, and revise, revise, revise. I’ve regressed. I sit down to the page, and all I can think is, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” I stumble around in my ungainly prose and am ready to call it quits after fifteen minutes of uncooperative words. Fifteen minutes. I mean, really.
So I’m not in a good writing place. That’s a given. And into this bad place wandered a poem. It began as a couple lines that materialized while I was running a few weeks ago, then grew into a simple ode to jogging in the rain. But it didn’t feel finished, so I added to it and turned it into a mess, as I do. But it still wasn’t finished, so I let it sit there and fester until it felt like a leprous sore. A few nights ago, as I was walking home from yoga, I thought I had a breakthrough and tossed the unused carcasses of two other unfinished poems into the mix, but that didn’t feel right either. And then I talked to someone about it and decided that, while on its surface, the poem was about running, it was actually about something else. Yes, most definitely, it was about something deeper. Now, how to convey that?
Cut to me at my desk at 8:00 this morning, crying and kneading my face, all but yelling at the poem, “You need to tell this story, and you’re not freaking doing it! Why do you hate me? Why?” Just as I was about to quit and begin telling my friends I’d be embarking on a less emotionally demanding career, like lumberjacking, I heard a small “ahem.” I blew my nose and said, “What?” “Well,” I imagined the poem saying, “I hate you because you’re trying to tell me what to do, and you don’t know where we’re going.” Have I mentioned how much I hate having it pointed out to me that I don’t know what I’m doing? How about how much I don’t like doing things I don’t know how to do? Probably yes to both, and quite a few times. What I dislike even more than these is relearning how to do something I’m supposed to be an expert at. Like writing. This requires a certain humility and surrender, two things that are not my strong suits. But at this point, I was so defeated, I was willing to try anything, and so I gave in to this bossy little poem.
Write, revise, write, revise, write, revise, revise, revise. Expand, condense, toss, start over. Repeat eighty-seven times, and also listen to E.S. Posthumus’ Unearthed album, and you’ve just described my day. Sounds fun, no? But you know what? After all the drama, I have a poem, and one that is quite different than the one I started out with, the one I was trying so hard to impose my big ideas on. Is it better? I’m not sure, but it did take on a life of its own, which is always the goal: to erase one’s fingerprints from the canvas. That’s how I know when a piece is “done”–when I no longer quite recognize it as something that came out of me–and that’s how I now feel about this poem. Turns out, it was smarter than me after all. Who knew? Well, me. I did know that, once upon a time, though I seem to have forgotten it somewhere along the way.
It also turns out there’s an immense freedom in surrender, in laying down your pride and saying to whomever or whatever you’re confronted with, “This is me, and it has to be enough because it’s all I have.” For the past few days, I’ve been thinking of these lines from Lauren Slater’s memoir, Lying: “I think you can hold out for only so long. I think secretly each and every one of us longs to fall, and knows in a deep wise place in our brains that surrender is the means by which we gain, not lose, our lives. We know this, and that is why we have bad backs and pulled necks and throbbing pain between our shoulder blades. We want to go down, and it hurts to fight the force of gravity.” Sometimes, I have to ask myself why I’m kicking and screaming, and whether or not it might be better to stop and give in. To say, “I’m going down,” and then actually do it. It sure beats the agony of throwing yourself into a battle you don’t even need to be fighting.
The rain comes down in sheets of alabaster glass, and I
am running, Nike T-shirt rife with water and plastered to
my abs, BU ball cap dripping drops as I leap long over
puddles and land on my toes. When my knees gave, and
I feared it was for good, feared the wince and pull would
keep me grounded, always and forever, I told the doctor
all I wanted was to run. This is what I meant: head down
to watch the ground roll out beneath me, watch the storm
collect in pockets of yellow leaves and cracked cement.
All these months, denied the road, and how I curled away,
pulled into the empty that had long lived beside me–my
familiar darkness, where the ghosts are, those imaginary
beasts. The doctor said, to mend, I had to run, but I didn’t
believe him. No one told me the healing doesn’t just come.
I’d have to work, to trust when pain had not subsided, to expect
when all I wanted was to throw up my dinner, then throw up
my hands, accept a body battered and ill-fitting as someone
else’s skin, and sink into a life I was never meant to live.
But the rain kept falling faster–and my legs, they begged to be
pushed harder. It took weeks of timid steps and careful landings
before blood and muscle overcame my head, before heart and
throat refused to sing another broken hallelujah. A diamond-ochre
sunrise ascended in the east, and just like that, I rose and flew
strong as Aurora, the goddess pulling up the dawn. In the beauty
and breath of morning, I flooded the road with panting. How I
missed being disgusting–hocking loogies on manicured lawns,
battling with the weepy sky over who could sweat the slickest.
Ah, now I remember: this is who I am. Not graceful as I ricochet
off cinder block, reverberate in stone, and stretch to press my
palms to wet pine bark that steams from so much heat, those
same plumes rising like wood smoke from my lips. The rain
slides out in waves of opalescent gray, and I am running, leggings
suctioned to my shins like second skin, toes spreading in the damp
of shoes and socks that I drop in puddles on purpose. This storm
may last for weeks on end, but it doesn’t matter. Let it come.
I am running regardless, in spite of, because of how the sky will
one day split to let out slits of sun, and I can scarcely breathe as
my unwrecked body says, It’s over now. Keep going. Where am I
going? I can’t be sure, but what I know is that I go with flesh peeled
from my chest, with ribs pried apart and heart muscle exposed. This
is my body, broken for you. I run forward, scarred as sinew and
bone, with mud on my legs and moss on my hands, with naked face
and rain-washed eyes fixed on the horizon, on the light where I
am heading, choosing at long last to stop turning back.