I opened up this blog today and figured I needed to write a new post–it’s been a while–and then promptly wrote a poem. I’m still not sure about posting new poems on a blog, especially when I hope to some day publish the poem in a magazine, so I’m not sharing that here, except to tell you that the first lines are “I don’t win/awards” and there’s a tornado in it a bit later.

What I’m thinking about right now is how I have been seeing signs everywhere (ok, mostly on Facebook) telling me it’s time to try reading Rilke again, after nearly 30 years. That this is a poet and thinker I am likely to love, based on the quotes I’ve been reading. I even came across a book that compiles his most poignant stuff–from poems, letters and other prose–so I don’t have to wonder where to begin.

And one of the things I thought when I clicked “purchase” on that book was, “I’m glad I’m old enough that I don’t feel stupid admitting to not having read enough Rilke.” I mean, Rilke is revered, is worshipped–and I teach poetry! How could I not be familiar with him?

Well–there’s SO MUCH to read. And so much of it is good. Should I have read Rilke instead of some of my favorite living poets (Tim Seibles, Catherine Pierce, Nin Andrews, Daisy Fried, to mention just a few)? Maybe some would say yes.

But I practice nonjudging, of others or myself. Every day I live through is a triumph. Every day I have even a moment of mindfulness–of living in the present moment–is a joy and a miracle. And when I get
A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke, I will sit down on the couch, open it up, and give myself over to falling in love.

"The Heaven I Hope For" by Catherine Pierce

Yesterday in my intermediate poetry class, I asked students to read a poem from the book Famous Last Words by Catherine Pierce–a poem they liked in particular, and then we would talk about what moves the poem was making. One student chose “The Heaven I Hope For,” also one I’d marked as a favorite. Here it is:


is a sky-wide room with four corners:
the garden, Ted’s Bar, Tahoe, bed.

I’ll swim from the dark red light
of Ted’s right into the alpine air. Mud

in my hair from planting. Pear tomatoes
yellow against the lake’s glass-blue glare.

I’ll hike through black-eyed aspen
drunk on dark rum, jukebox humming

from the sky. All night I’ll pot basil
and thyme beneath mountain stars,

water far below, and caps of snow
on the highest highball. And after

the pines and smoky inclines,
after noon bar darkness

and the cool radish moon: a bed,
enormous and smooth as a gin

lake. I’ll dream myself drowned
in dirt. Then I’ll rise like wild mint.

What a gift. How wonderful and amazing, to imagine the places and activities that would constitute heaven for each of us. I asked my students to tell me one of the places they would include in their 4-cornered heaven. My childhood friend Steve’s house. A beach you can only reach by sailboat. That drive-in movie theater in the middle of nowhere. 

I talk a lot to my students about making sure there’s something at stake in a poem; this is why mere snapshots often don’t work unless the poet hints at how we’re supposed to feel about the scene depicted, and why it is so hard to write a happy poem. But of course, in this poem, it’s not merely happy–the speaker cannot live in this 4-cornered heaven, but must slog around with the rest of us in the detritus of the regular world. That yearning for the impossible–that’s what’s at stake here.

And yet–the act of imagining heaven is also an act of creating it. Trying to imagine my own 4-cornered heaven reminds me to remember what good places I already know and have experienced. This imagining makes me hopeful: I can’t literally bring these places together, but how might I create a small echo of my own heaven in my actual life? I tell myself: Don’t dismiss the possibilities. Put energy and imagination into my own joy. And when I’m there, in the physical or metaphorical space I love, be there mindfully, wholly and with focus.

on Companion to an Untold Story by Marcia Aldrich

I buy books and don’t always read them right away. Sometimes I know the book is likely to be important to me, to speak on the subjects I can never quite put down, the ones I carry with me always like worry stones, seeking to understand by touching them again and again. This was the case with Marcia Aldrich’s Companion to an Untold Story, a book about the suicide of a friend of hers, a book that I bought partly because I knew some of the author’s essays and partly because of a poignant book trailer that included her reading from this book and partly because suicide is one of those subjects for me. The book is a “companion” in an old sense, a sort of reference book, thoughts organized alphabetically, wide-ranging bits and pieces about this particular friend and about the author and about suicide and death and mourning and loss.

Last week, for reasons having to do with my own inner weather, I knew it was time to read this book, so I sat down on the couch between two of my dogs and opened it up.

And it’s as terrific as I thought it would be, pulling me in various directions, as compelling and hard-to-put-down as a thriller, taking me out of ordinary life in the ways that speak most directly to whatever strange kind of spirituality I practice.

Here’s a quote that puts difficult things so clearly I cannot stop thinking about it, wisdom and insight I must share:

“In the rituals of mourning, we substitute a final resting place, even one so unmarked as the sea, for the actual place of death. We do so to write over the terrible image of trauma. Substitution of place is our profound device in death and its aftermath. The image of final burial comforts us because we, the survivors, compose it. It is authored rather than thrust upon us, already engraved. Choice of the place and manner of burial gains us composure against the suddenness of tragedy. Those who were lost are no longer lost: they are laid to rest. Meanwhile, the rituals of cremation purify the image of autopsy. The work of mourning is incomplete without a final substitution (‘So Lycidus, sunk low, but mounted high’).” –Marcia Aldrich, from Companion to an Untold Story, “Disposition of the Body,” pp. 69-70

I cannot say anything as smart as this, but I have been thinking lately about ritual, and how in my life, at least, I don’t have enough ritual. I do not have a Christian faith, so the Christian rituals I grew up with aren’t fully resonant for me–they resonate with memory and family, but not with that extra dimension of shared humanity and understanding and connection with the mystery. I semi-joke that I am a member of the Church of Poetry, because poetry helps me enter that extra dimension. But the Church of Poetry doesn’t have enough rituals, not the kind that involve all the senses, the way ancient churches and organizations know work best to involve us: rituals with music, dance, incense, specific types of food, sacred objects with their complex textures. Words are bodied, but not as richly as High Mass.

I think we need to understand and respect the rituals we have, and Aldrich’s words above help me do that. And I think we need to create our own rituals, to reinforce our connections to each other and to whatever mysteries we feel. I am open to suggestions.