What makes a poem a poem? I’ve thought about this a lot, especially in light of my shessems, which I suppose could be considered poems. What keeps them from being poems, at least in my mind, is their lack of line breaks. I never learned how to break a poem into lines. I tend to write (and live) mostly by intuition, and if I can’t intuitively tell when a line needs to be broken, or when a piece even needs lines at all, I don’t break lines. There is such a thing as a prose poem, but I don’t know the “true” definition of that, and so I don’t know if that’s what my shessems are either.
Dictionary.com defines a poem as, “a composition in verse, especially one that is characterized by a highly developed artistic form and by the use of heightened language and rhythm to express an intensely imaginative interpretation of the subject.” I don’t think I’ve ever written something like that in my life. If anything, my work adheres more to the second definition: “composition that, though not in verse, is characterized by great beauty of language or expression.” Still not exactly right, but closer.
The following is a poem. Or a shessem broken into lines. Or a composition in intuitive, arbitrary verse that’s trying to express an intense reality that can only be conveyed through fragmented imagery. Or maybe, it’s a requiem, which the trustworthy dictionary.com calls a “mass for repose of the soul of the dead.” It’s a swan song, “the last act or manifestation of someone or something,” a term that originates “from the belief that the dying swan sings.” The following is all of these things and none of them. It’s everything that, by saying it, I admit that I don’t know how to say.
If I’m going down
after Jack Gilbert
You liked to take your motorcycle on abandoned
country roads, to see if you could push it, not twice,
but three times past the speed limit. You could. You
did. You once outran a cop. What three years of living
in Boston, followed by injuries, followed by moving to
the casual capital of the Pacific Northwest had made
me forget: I can achieve land-speeds in high heels that
most women can’t acquire in cross-trainers.
What I never told you: you make me angry, but not in
a way that I want to change who I am. In a way that I
want to be more fully myself.
Jack Gilbert said, “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.”
I am always Icarus, in everything I do. Maybe because I’m
stupid. Maybe because I am not careful with my heart–no,
maybe because I know the only way to see what wings
are made of is to take my leap off the cliff. I picture you as
a seagull, myself as a songbird escaped from her cage. If you
choose to fly off over the ocean alone, I can’t stop you. My
voice can only carry so far.
What I never told you: the deeper I fell for you, the deeper
I fell for God.
You learned to fall by crashing. You told me the trick is
giving in, going limp, that it’s only by fighting and clenching,
by bracing your limbs against gravity that you end up
breaking bones. Let go, resist the impulse, accept the pull
of the earth up to meet you, and then you will know the
human body is built for descent. Let go, and you land soft,
arise, and walk away unscathed–except for the mangled
aftermath of road ripped up behind you. Oh. That.
What I never told you: I have never stopped loving a single
man I have ever pulled into my heart.
There is no such thing as “just happened.” There are only
choices, some of which you make, while others are made
for you. But in the case of the latter, there is the choice of
reaction. There is flooring the accelerator, there is slamming
on the brakes, and then there is the end result: the crash.
Nothing just happens. Even when I’m not running late, I drive
over the speed limit. Even when my feet are bent to unnatural
heights, I hurry to where I’m yearning to be.
What I never told you: I put on stilettos because, if I must
go on standing, I will go on standing taller than you.
I could say I knew we’d gone wrong when the red roses I
gave you turned black. I could say I knew we’d been broken
when I woke up to find the willow tree ripped out by its roots.
But then I’d have to ignore the buds forming on my orchid,
growing fuller every day. I’d have to ignore something I wrote
before I even knew you existed: “I believe that beauty can be
reborn from ashes. That sometimes, everything has to fall
apart beyond repair for something new to grow in its place.”
What I never told you: given the choice, I would do it all
again, even knowing this was where it was heading. Even
knowing our meteoric burn would burn out, that no amount
of light I led us towards would make you see. Today, the sun
rose dark behind clouds so unending, I might’ve believed the
sky itself was grey. But I know better–the color is still there.
This, too, is a matter of faith, as is the mantra I have sung
all my life: if I’m going down, let it be a beautiful fall.