Yesterday, I had exactly 27.5 minutes between dropping Younger Girleen off at her creative movement class* and having to pick her back up again and because I no longer smoke, and because it’s mom anathema to do so, and because I couldn’t use up those minutes with a contemplative cigarette and cup of coffee, I went off to the library located a half mile from the former Coca-Cola magnate’s mansion where dance classes around here are held.
I was hoping that a particular sort of book would leap out at me from the Browsing Shelf once I got inside. I wanted the sort of narrative that forces you to read compulsively, the sort that pulls you so completely in that while you’re reading it, the waking moments you spend when you’re not reading feel more like sleepwalking than they do anything else. Propulsive narrative, but literary at the same time — we do nothing if not aim high around here.
No such luck. There were plenty of well-written British mysteries and plenty of not-so-well-written thrillers, but off that peculiar half-breed I was hoping for, not a whiff. So I headed to the 700s shelf, because looking at extremely-staged photographs of austere modern home interiors that contain just a table, a flap of white curtain against white wall and a single orchid in a stunning vase —not a single plastic child’s toy to be seen; not a single CHILD to be seen – soothes me almost as much as escapist fiction.
But because a tousled woman who’d obviously come inside from the city bus stop was berating the library staff and the security guard about something that had to do with cell phones (which she kept calling “walkie-talkies”) I detoured down a different aisle than I usual take, and found myself in the poetry section instead.
Once, long long ago, like long enough ago that I even had acne, I considered myself something of a poet, whatever that might mean. The rest of the world did not consider me so, which was a blessing to us all, because some of my poetry consisted of lines like
Drive all night. Drive
real fast. Drive past
And as we do with childish things, I put poetry aside before I reached my mid-twenties and embarked instead upon lucrative and productive adult things … like short story writing. I was nothing if not diligent and serious in grad school, and I declined to take any poetry classes because they might distract me from my business.
Lately, I’ve had less and less idea what my business actually is anymore. I just got finished reading a book called The Cult of The Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, agitprop opining that our technology has made us stupid (not so sure I disagree), persuasive enough that you start asking what on earth the point of all this internet sound and fury really is. What’s the point of a blog? Do I really have any business adding my voice to the cacaphony?
And then…If literary magazines are on the way out; if nobody reads short stories anyway; heck, if publishing as we know it is anachronistic and deader than a doornail — uhh, in the face of all that it’s hard to keep from asking if there’s even a point engaging in the kind of writing I was “trained” to.
And as far as the domestic side of things goes, the fact is, no matter whether you’re a “good” mom or a “bad” one, an interesting one or a dull one, your children grow up, all the same. So why even think about any of it?
So there I was, pregnant with existential angst and ripe for the picking. And there was the poetry shelf.
The lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin.
We all have our personal, embarrassing favorites that don’t quite make sense to anyone else, and one of mine has always been the poetry of James Dickey. I don’t know what dreadful things this says about me since I neglected to take any poetry classes in grad school but I’m sure it reveals all sorts of flaws I’d prefer to keep hidden.
But this was an Atlanta library I was standing in, after all, and right there at eye level was a shelf of Dickey’s poetry. I picked upone of the books and flipped through it until I found two of my old favorites, “On Cherry Log Road,” and “Adultery.”
Oh, they’re dated, yes. But I set aside the book to check out, all the same.
How freeing it would be, I found myself thinking, to write without the words needing to earn their keep (because we all know poetry doesn’t do that, earn its keep). How freeing it would be, to write without worry that the race is always to the swift, because “success” as a poet already looks like pretty much like failure to the rest of the world, so you might as well just do — and write — whatever you want.
Those lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin.
*if you want to see something so damned sweet it makes your teeth ache, just watch six three-year-old girls in tutus dancing the “scarf dance” — then grieve the society that forces girls to lose their lovely unselfconsciousness and sheer joy in physicality by oh, say, seven.