HOW MANY LIVES DO YOU HAVE?
a response to Eli’s question
Aesop cannot find a moral to my life, while
Basho tucks me in his knapsack, strikes out on a journey.
Camus turns down the café lights and occupies himself.
Dostoyevsky whispers in my ear and, running, I can’t hide.
Emerson, at my funeral, shows up to read my journals’ genius thoughts.
Frost leaves me in the snow-filled woods then hides his path’s escape.
Goethe blows upon the pile of ashes I’ve become to breed a fire.
Hopkins harrow-haunts my hopes, arrests my daily wrestlings.
Issa mourns the loss of time that holds us both within its care, though
Jeffers gives the world back to itself without my selfish taint.
Kabir’s ecstatic that I’ve walked out back to toss the scraps that
Li Po scrambles from the woods to sniff and steal away.
Melville bellows, throws doubloons about my feet, to which
Neruda writes some skinny odes that reek of mist and sea wrack.
O’Connor plays a chess game with my soul, her story’s only character.
Proust knows I love the wind to last for days across the window screen.
Quasimodo takes his half of a parabola while I tremble holding mine.
Rilke sends me stacks and stacks of letters, rose petals tucked inside.
Stafford knows my face and name, says give them both away.
Transtromer shadows me, sneaks up behind, whispers, “Guess who?”
Ungaretti sings the music of a single word until the singing, too, is sung.
Vallejo walks across the street to place a crumb inside my mouth.
Whitman nods to me, the two of us hid out beneath the silence of the stars.
Xenophanes says together we’ll revise those other poets’ blasphemies.
Yeats gets down a book whose fragrant pages drift inside my dreams.
Zagajewski convinces me that I’m Linnaeus and everything’s misnamed.
Reading Aesop was one of my first reading experiences as a child, so beginning with Aesop made logical sense to me. After that, though, I began making an alphabetical listing of all the authors whose writings have influenced and expanded the lives I now live. Ammons, Bly, Canetti, etc. The list grew and grew. I knew right away that I would use the abecedarian form, and it occurred to me that I had never seen a poem using authors’ last names down the left-hand margin of a page. The poem took me most of a week to complete because I kept getting sidetracked by doing research. I say “sidetracked,” but in reality doing research was most of the fun of writing such a poem.
Soon I had to abandon the premise of using “favorite” authors, as if anyone would actually hold me accountable for the authors I chose. Well, yes, there is a certain credibility one has depending on which authors matter or are one’s favorites. Shouldn’t I, as a poet, have chosen Dickinson instead of Doystoyesky? What if I had used Canetti instead of Camus? By the time I reached Doystoyesky, though, I realized that each line would allude to something particular in each author’s work, perhaps even something important to me personally. I assumed that my reader would be as well-versed in each author as I was or that, if not, a reader might be prompted now to seek out an author’s work. For instance, I assumed that those familiar with Emerson know that he read from Thoreau’s journals at Thoreau’s funeral. I also assumed most people familiar with Hopkins know of his use of alliteration and assonance; thus, my use of “h” sounds in the first half of my line and “e” sounds in the second half are a way of mirroring something distinctive about his poems.
The particular line I struggled with the most was the Stafford line. I teach Stafford’s work. I met Stafford more than once. There is something about his sensibility that resonates with me. Like him, I write a poem almost daily and have for close to thirty years. Like him, I am driven by the process of writing, not necessarily and not always by the product, the finality of a knock-out poem. On the other hand, Wislawa Szymborska is one of my favorite poets. Her sensibility, too, has entered my own. I have loved her poems for almost as long as I have loved Stafford’s, so choosing between these two authors was my hardest decision in the poem. What does Szymborska teach me? What does Stafford? What life has been added unto my many lives because of each of these authors? I could choose one but not the other.
In the end, because I had twice had conversations with Stafford and had got to know (fleetingly) something about the quality of his voice and presence, I ultimately chose to honor Stafford. He gave a reading at Bowling Green State University in KY when I was a student at Austin Peay State University in the late 80s. I sat next to him at a dinner, and he spoke with such calm and assurance and humility, with an utter lack of fanfare about his own “celebrity” as a poet. I was 19 or 20 at the time, too young to know anything. About a year and a half later he came to Austin Peay State University to give a reading. I remember that he entered the Zone 3 office where I was a scholarship worker, and he said hello to everyone and shook our hands, the typical cordiality of a visiting author. Then he turned and picked up the latest issue of Zone 3, in which two of my own poems were printed. He scanned down through the table of contents and suddenly looked up at me. “I see someone here I should read,” he said and smiled. I was 21 years old, just beginning to get a few poems published, and he had remembered my name from our meeting in Bowling Green more than a year before. I was stunned. I have met many writers through the years—in fact, I have been introduced a half a dozen times or more to several of them without being remembered in the slightest. That “Stafford kn[ew] my face and name” had its roots in reality, in a particular exchange between the two of us, but in another sense, his own poems also seem to recognize “my face and name.” They also instruct me to “give them both away.”
This poem has an interesting path to publication. It was rejected multiple times. In 2006 I sent it to The Hudson Review, but after a year I had not heard anything. I assumed the submission had been lost or overlooked. No problem. I wrote the journal. No reply. Ok. That happens more often than one would think, so I sent the poem out for another two years. Multiple rejections again. Then, in June 2009 I had an email from The Hudson Review asking about the poems of mine they had accepted in June 2008. Unfortunately, I had never received their acceptance letter. The poem was accepted two years after I submitted it; then I didn’t get the acceptance letter; then another year passed. Three years total. The poem appeared eventually in the Autumn 2009 issue of The Hudson Review.
In a way, the poem “died” many times but finally found “life.” Now, all these years later, more than twelve years after I wrote it, the poem is appearing in No Other Kind of World, forthcoming in August 2017.
My son is now sixteen.