Earlier this winter, I signed up for a contemplative poetry writing workshop offered by a former web design client of mine, Bethany House of Prayer, a spiritual retreat center tucked between tidy single-family homes on a residential hillside in Arlington, Massachusetts. Julia, Bethany’s Executive Director and one of the loveliest, wisest, bravest people I’ve had the pleasure and good fortune to work with, liked some of the writing I did on the website, and we developed an easy working relationship as kindred spirits. She suggested I explore a few groups that Bethany offers to support writers— I have always yearned for a group of like-minded scribblers who also want to share the process and product of their work, but who aren’t (like some writers’ groups) snooty or viscious or only-for-the-published.
Full disclosure: I am not a poet. I do love reading poetry: William Butler Yeats was a subject of both my college thesis and my graduate study in Ireland; whether Billy Collins or Rumi, Mary Oliver or Shakespeare, I am enraptured by the stuff when it’s good. (And that includes you, Shel Silverstein.) As for me, I can occasionally write poetically if by that you mean, with the odd surprising flight of language or imagery. But the economy of poetic expression is not my natural voice. Nonetheless, I was drawn to a Bethany workshop titled “Making Poems from Images:” using collage as the entry point for generating poem content. This sounded like something I might reasonably manage. The workshop was scheduled for Saturday, March 28, and much as I’d like to believe nurturance of baby poets is an “essential business” in these pestilent days, I assumed it would be postponed, along with the other contemplative programs offered by Bethany House, community being one of their chief delights.
But then a week ago an email popped into my inbox from an address I didn’t recognize: “luckyfish.” The contemplative poetry workshop was on, at least virtually, if we were game for a Zoom version of a writing workshop. And so this past Saturday, armed with a grocery bag full of magazines to inspire my collage, my laptop tuned to Zoom, I met with twelve other writers and our instructor.
Within thirty minutes of our convening, I was on the study floor, surrounded by paper scraps and little piles of torn pages and images, glue-stick at the ready. We were instructed to work purely on intuition, quickly pulling images that somehow “caught” us, like silvery fish, and asked only to note what surprised us about the choices we made. No judgments, no editing, just tear, witness, move on. The only ground rules for the finished product were that our collage had to 1. create a locale and 2. include at least one figure. If you haven’t already figured out that the image with this post is the result of my collage-making, well, now you know. The example our teacher showed us, her own work, was haunting and beautifully composed: an elegant lady was inserted into a dreamscape, a single hummingbird hovering wistfully in the corner. The collage itself was a poem. Trying not to judge my profligacy, I felt myself massing up image after image–so many human figures, that surprised me. I was drawn to eyes, hands, people, crowns. “Well, this is what happens when you invite a wannabe-be novelist to a poetry party,” my inner critic noted with a cocked eyebrow. We had exactly one hour to make our collages: fifteen minutes to pull images, and forty-five minutes to compose. At the center of my collage is a photo of my brother I cut from a spare copy of the program for his memorial service this February, his arms outstretched in victory as he emerges from the wintry Atlantic on a Christmas morning some years ago. He died suddenly this past December, by his own choice. I guess I wasn’t so much surprised to find him asserting center stage in my collage as slightly pissed: he has a way of sneaking up on me, both before he died, and since. I miss him and I hate that he’s gone, but I don’t miss feeling ambushed by him. It’s complicated.
After cleaning up the detritus of our collage-making and breaking for lunch in our separate homes, our leader reconvened her fledgling poets on Zoom and we viewed each other’s collages. She asked us simple questions about our creations like “what do you find mysterious in your image?” or “where do you sense longing here?” It was fascinating and moving to see what we’d all created in that short time. My page felt over-populated compared to the leaner creations of my classmates, so says Miss Meanypants, Inner Critic LLC. I’ve suffered, mostly in youth but still on occasion as an adult, by being told I am too much: too talkative, too expressive, too dramatic, too quick. Here was another manifestation of that: too much shit on my collage. And yet, it made total sense to me. It was operatic.
Because so is this moment in our human story.
Our last assignment was to pick a figure in our collage and write a “persona poem” in that individual’s voice, whether human, animal, insect, or some other being. One fellow-student wrote from the perspective of an empty swing, which I thought was lovely. But I, with my gluttonous temperament and blockbuster collage cast, couldn’t limit myself to one. Four voices spoke out from the image. My brother, of course, gets the last laugh. He did have the best laugh.
Here’s my poem:
I dare you not to hear the music.
The mezzanine may be empty,
All retreated home, as one must.
Fingers of light grope the empty stage
Where mouse turds scatter unswept corners
instead of sequins.
How we danced through AIDS!
And this? This is not some sad little dinner-theatre
“Death of a Salesman,” watery martinis and local talent.
This is the fucking opera, baby.
Legions framed in a proscenium of glorious dread
While the score drives forward:
Look in my eyes, am I not fabulous?
Do I not dazzle?
Does my artistry not awaken hope?
I say: Fist pump the universe
From your apartment, or closet,
your ghetto or your gated estate.
Because this is the one life you’ve got,
And sister, the fat lady is still singing.
Put on your golden crown and strut.
How many now?
I need numbers.
Are you listening?
We are scrambling.
You need to suit up, STAT.
This is no time for Kombucha and Vitamin C.
It’s life and death.
I sing, my body electric:
Tarrah, tarrah, TARRAH!
Light pours through panes,
Strings crescendo inside my chest:
Huzzah, huzzah, HUZZAH!
So much joy, joy, joy I can’t help
But grin, halo shining—
Recitatives, arias, encores—
My winged voice soars:
Tra la, TRA LA, TRAAA LAAA!
I am not naïve; no denial
But my gift to the listening air,
A prayer of thanks and dreadful rapture.
I embrace your sadness
With a flourish.
I had to go.
I know, grief’s predatory eyes
Sorry about that.
But: can you imagine me now,
No doctor, however sainted
By mantle of unspeakable courage,
Could steer us through;
No guest room, or marriage,
Or child’s devotion, home me.
Listen: Where I am now