I missed putting up a poem on St. Brigid's Day. It must be an effect of creeping Buddhism. When I was a little Catholic kid, studying Lives of the Saints (it was always capitalized) was lagniappe to me and on most days I could tell you who one should be celebrating and in what grisly, picturesque manner he or she or they had died. This came in handy in college, when I was able to impress a professor or two with my ability to decode complicated Renaissance altarpieces on the fly.
Now that Buddha has taken up residence in the living room, however, the liturgical calendar isn't as much of a concern and I forgot all about Brigid. But why confine poetry to one day, eh?
I like poetry, good poetry, when I can find it. This happens less often than one might wish. When I do find it, I like to collect it.
This is an old habit of mine, begun in the mid-1980s. I can pinpoint the exact day.
I was in another interminable class at the dreadful high school, sitting around waiting for a test to end. I'd written my answers down on a sheet of notebook paper with fifteen minutes to go. I couldn't read, of course. And so I tried to pull a book out of my head: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
I realized I could see the opening page of the fifth chapter, "Advice from a Caterpillar," clear as day. And that I could remember words, as well. So I pulled out another sheet of paper and started writing them down. "The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence..."
It was the first time I ever realized that forming letters is, for me, a sensuous pleasure. The first stroke of the A in "Alice" sent a shiver up my spine. I completely forgot about the classroom, and the test, and lost myself in the writing. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, it's entirely possible that I spent at least one lifetime in a scriptorium merrily decorating the Book of Genesis or the Koran with arabesques or fleurs-de-lys.
After school that day, I stopped in at a drugstore and bought a black marble composition notebook. If I had enjoyed copying down Alice, I decided, it would be a lot of fun to copy down everything that I'd loved reading, all in one place. Choice excerpts, just for me.
I still have it. Here it is.
I can state with certainty that I bought the book in 1985 because the first quote is a lyric from Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, which premiered that year: "Work is what you do for others, Art is what you do for yourself."
The notebook went everywhere with me and filled up at an alarming rate as I copied in everything from one-line aphorisms to the entire first chapter of A Passage to India. For a long time I thought this was a practice I'd invented, until two years later I read Alberto Manguel's article "Sweet Are the Uses of Anthology" in the New York Times Book Review and found out that mine was a hobby quite popular in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
(The article appeared in the August 23, 1987 issue–I know because I copied an excerpt into my book.)
There are things in this book and its successor that make me roll my eyes today, such as a lengthy piece from, dear me, the Reader's Digest, in which Aleksandr Solzhenitsin avers that everything evil in the world (especially Communism, natch) has arisen because mankind has turned away from Christianity.
And there's my handwriting...
I dotted my i's with little circles. Oy. I was but one YM subscription away from being a teenage girl.
And then there are things I am immensely pleased to see–things I encountered in books that were not mine, or in newspapers long ago crumbled that I'd no longer have if I'd not pinned them to the page.
Here's one. It's poem that against all odds made it into a textbook put into my hands by the dreadful high school. I discovered it on my own, flipping through the pages looking for something better than the Rod McKuen dreck the teacher had assigned. The first time I read it, it thundered.
I might have discovered Lucille Clifton on my own, later–but then again, I might not.
I know the St. Brigid reading was supposed to be silent, but this isn't Brigid's day and this poem is not to be read in silence. Stand up and read it out loud. Hell, stand up and shout. It'll do you good.
Miss Rosie by Lucille Clifton
When I watch you
wrapped up like garbage
sitting, surrounded by the smell
of too old potato peels
when I watch you
in your old man's shoes
with the little toe cut out
sitting, waiting for your mind
like next week's grocery
when I watch you
you wet brown bag of a woman
who used to the best looking gal in Georgia
used to be called the Georgia Rose
I stand up
through your destruction
I stand up.