Lately I have had a poem stuck in my head, much like we often have songs. I suspect it was initially triggered during poetry class. Each week our teacher, poet Tony Hoagland, gives us sample poems to illustrate the week’s lesson. That week, as part of our lesson on voice, we read The Butternut Tree at Fort Juniper by Jack Gilbert.
I had read Jack Gilbert before. Had a copy of his book The Great Fires on my shelf at home because of another poem, heard in another writing class, read by another writing teacher. That poem was Trying to Have Something Left Over.
Trying to Have Something Left Over
There was a great tenderness to the sadness
when I would go there. She knew how much
I loved my wife and that we had no future.
We were like casualties helping each other
as we waited for the end. Now I wonder
if we understood how happy those Danish
afternoons were. Most of the time we did not talk.
Often I took care of the baby while she did
housework. Changing him and making him laugh.
I would say Pittsburgh softly each time before
throwing him up. Whisper Pittsburgh with
my mouth against the tiny ear and throw
him higher. Pittsburgh and happiness high up.
The only way to leave even the smallest trace.
So that all his life her son would feel gladness
unaccountably when anyone spoke of the ruined
city of steel in America. Each time almost
remembering something maybe important that got lost.
I thought of this poem again a couple of weeks ago when someone asked me what place I considered my home town. I answered the same way I always answer when confronted with this question: I was born in Los Angeles, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, but the truth is, the place that most feels like my heart’s home is Rochester, New York.
I only lived there a couple of years, but those were the years that made me–fraught with emotion, with life and death, with rugs pulled out from beneath tiny feet. Everything that happened during those years was amplified, while I sat at terminal and non-terminal besides alike, still and silent, bearing witness decades before I learned what those words meant.
The poem came up for me again this morning as I ruminated on the novel I am writing this November, and why my main character, a girl without a name, found herself in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Although it does seem the kind of town that might attract someone longing to be lost, I believe in her case it was more than that. There was something calling her. Something like an oft whispered name and happiness high up. Which gives the story an interesting twist, transforming a girl wandering alone into a girl with something to search for, a girl who carries within her at least one happy memory to cling to, even if she doesn’t quite remember it.