I hate to use the poem on the back of the book but that’s the one I wanted. I was at the San Francisco Zen Center last week and Paul Haller, the abbot, a man who I have heard speak many times and I have often thought if I had a teacher it would be him - for instance in the course of a Zen talk Paul once said, “pattern is contact” which I have found to be one of the most usefully evocative lines I know. I repeat it constantly. For instance in terms of thinking about how a poem’s meaning comes across or how a person might be culturally understood, misunderstood or even stone-walled in terms of being heard-- whether someone or something would even be able to ascribe a pattern to what they were saying. Paul ended his talk by reading a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. Was I jealous, that my favorite Zen teacher was quoting another poet and not even a dead one? Well I tend to be able to overcome jealousy whenever I think someone or something is great. Naomi’s poem quite openly mourns her father. A poem with a function is and isn’t a friend of my “school”. A poem doesn’t have a job or a purpose some part of my thinking and training readily squawks and yet a poem often does need to just get out there and do it. When I’ve taught I always urge new poets to figure out how to install themselves in the culture. If there is a wedding you must offer your poem, and so on. I’ve mourned my own father all my life so the idea of this lifelong project being located in one book – I am just exceedingly attentive to the relative success or failure of that. Which is obnoxious of me since mourning is a human thing and not subject to my opinion at all. Naomi’s poem – it’s called “Ringing” - gets its thesis out in the first line – “I’m sorry you lost your father, people say” which I think is simply helpful, locates the poem, why not. Sometimes poets write whole books about mourning this person or that and yet you wouldn’t know it from reading the book which I think is okay, but if it’s part of the book’s legend, or if the poet always gets up and says this is for whoever I think there’s a lack of abstraction going on because now the poem is forever linked to the presence of the poet’s body or the legend of what the poet actually meant which must be circulated in poetry society in order for the poem to be understood this or that way. I say just get it out. It doesn’t have to be direct. Here it does, because that is the poem Naomi wrote. I am not the doctor. I appreciate the poem that is. She talks in the first stanza about “stepping outside to soak/in stripes of gray cloud.” I love that it locates the “in” of the first line. We did not have an architectural model for where and how the “I’m sorry you lost your father” line was given but now we do, so I think it’s deeply emotional to locate such a strong line by where it wasn’t said. We are now under a gray sky (feeling, sympathy) and yet she sucks some of the possible sentimental reading away by making the clouds ‘stripes’ – i.e. man-made, artificial feeling, formulaic, abstract. It’s a question of design and here the moment is ritualistically emotional which is a nice step after the business-like approach of the initial fact: her father has died. There’s a middle line in the second stanza: “Air holds everyone visible or not.” It’s a transitional line. I think the poet is still standing outside but she’s deeply in her mind, in the line just before “the sky is shifting” and now by saying what (or who) the sky holds we’ve opened up to the possibility of everyone in the world and she moves right after that into how someone, anyone, probably her father (but the identity is not nailed here which is great) liked his tea (with a slice of lemon) his drink (with chipped ice). So the web of other bodies, probably his are now evoked. He is possibly alive. The dead always is.
In the next stanza he’s here. “Maybe tonight your laughter /carpets our rooms. “ Laughter is pure atmosphere, it jumps the ions to another sphere and a man (her father) who had that power is rich. ‘Carpeting’ means softening, changing the sounds we live in, the sharp edges we live around. Because of the earlier clouds and because the rug reference is vague, I mean changeable I make them be gray. But there are no real rugs, just an absent man laughing, no longer laughing. We remember his gift.
Now here’s the last stanza. I give it to you toto:
Every road, every sea,
every beach by every sea,
keeps lining up with what you loved –
Here’s a line of silent palm trees.
It’s as if you answered the phone.
I say wow. This is so incantatory, totalizing, animating and tour guiding. The poet lifts her finger and indicates the trees in front of her and like Paul Haller’s line I used before, “Pattern is contact” we realize that the whole of the world is wired with sentiment, presence and the opposite of alienation and loss if we read it that way, and the title of the poem “Ringing” silently kicks in here too. I love the shuffle of “ringing” “silent palm trees” and “you answered the phone.” Sound and silence, active and passive are all muddled (in a good way) because the world is one organism momentarily.
I just wanted to think about the contemporary book of mourning for a second. Charles Bernstein’s All the Whiskey in Heaven, Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, Nick Flynn’s Some Ether and I’m even tempted to include Ariana Reine’s great play “Telephone” as 21st c. poetic evocations of loss that show how poets rise to the human occasion with grandeur and heft. We do the job. Naomi did.
Eileen Myles was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1949, was educated in Catholic schools, graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Boston in 1971, and moved to New York City in 1974 to be a poet. She gave her first reading at CBGB's, and then gravitated to St. Mark's church where she...