Today the Independent Literary Award winners are announced, and so I can tell you about some of the wonderful poetry I read leading up to this announcement. There was something good about each of the volumes that got nominated, but the best of them all was Laurie Soriano’s Catalina, and the best poem of the volume, if you ask me, is this one:
Flour water oil salt.
Give the yeast what it needs,
learn the warm elastic satisfaction
of the dough when it’s ready
and coddle it again, cover with a clean cloth
and leave it somewhere dark and safe.
Never give up on an African violet,
even when it withers and protests
that life is too long and hard.
Feed it, give it mist and comfort,
soon the crooked fists will cock upward
and open into the same startling flowers
you’ve seen there twenty times before.
Believe it or not, it is your job
to build a garden on top of the landfill;
see that sea of garbage? When you are done,
it will be the underpinnings of the most luscious Eden,
strap yourself into the backhoe and start folding
the trash under.
Give her milk and sunlight.
Keep her clean, hold her hand—
even when it’s soiled.
Help her laugh her way out of anger.
Let her eyes polish themselves. Sit back
in the audience and watch her up on stage,
dreamy smile as her body invents
the song she is dancing to.
She is an armful of luxury, only she has
the right to wear her rabbit fur coat.
She detests your hands caressing her fur,
but her life somehow depends upon it. Regret when
she is caged for safety. Let worry wander
the house with her when she’s free. Leave her
in the yard in a pen to hop in the freshening air, but
never ignore the shadows of hawks on the grass.
Pluck her from the desperate cityscape, she has nearly
disappeared in the vicious sun, no food, no water, nothing
but matted fur, a chain around the neck,
memory centers of her brain that are crammed
with cruelty. No amount of comfort can quell her trembling,
but try. Bathe her in ease, and when hatred
explodes from her throat, do nothing
but pity her.
Suffer with the yes and no of their cages. Hide
around the corner as they warm to their themes
each morning; you depend upon
their symphony. Roll them outside when it’s fine
so they can build their repertoire beyond the squeaks of cabinets
and cellphones. Let them compare notes with the wild birds.
Roll them back inside as the sun wheels out over the ocean.
You gave the bread its air, its earth.
The plant breathes for you, and you breathe back.
The child and the dog both cleave to you,
the other animals are vivid in their circumscription,
and yet they all lift their heads and watch you as you
round your way into the room. The grace in you
is the grace in them.
In the Event of Failure…
No such thing, if you love them all.
Don’t be ashamed of the aged, the damaged.
When something perishes, find a clean box
Of the right size, and bury it in a blessed place.
Let matter become matter.
The best poems are always the ones that make you think “Yes! That’s how it is!” There’s a powerful comfort in that–in feeling someone else knows how you feel.
I started thinking that this poem tells how life is with the section about the African violets, but knew it by the time I got to the section about the rabbit. Our rabbit, Snowbell, who is almost ten years old, likes to feel hands caressing his fur now, but it did take a while for him to get used to it; everything startles a rabbit, and it surprised me how willing he was to cage himself for safety. We’ve now made him feel so safe that he will hop around in our yard on a sunny day, but he has a special bit of forsythia bush to which he retreats when a shadow crosses the sky.
As I read the poem in a circle, which is my habit if some bit catches my attention, I came back to the section about trash, which describes my life today: a “sea of garbage.” After an epic thunderstorm, our finished, carpeted basement flooded–the place where we kept most of our 7,000 or so books (what the Water Restoration company has referred to as “a ton of content”). They’re down there now, removing the dehumidifiers and fans that have been down there since the flood, and cleaning the carpet. Many of the particleboard bookshelves have collapsed and will have to be replaced. At least half a ton of books have been carried to the garage, where they’re sitting in boxes on top of improvised milk crate and board bookshelves. A lot of the rest of the stuff is in soaking piles on the lawn, ready to be hauled away.
I love the ending of the poem. All this stuff matters. But it is just matter; it will become matter. That is reassuring, don’t you think?