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:
THE HEAVEN I HOPE FOR
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.