As a human, I have had many poet crushes.
These are the artists I have bonded with over tea, wine, good words and good food. We each recognize the pulsing desire in one another to build poems, To make beauty, especially in places where little exists. To create art.
While our family and friends love us, and some may even understand this dire need to be functionally creative, they cannot always have the conversations with us that we need for sustenance. These important exchanges, which shape our thinking, our artistic filters, our creative devices, must unfold with others whose physiological impulses match ours. For me, this like-kind pairing has provided an extraordinary canvas of marathon conversations, belly laughs, crisis interventions, resolution of artistic dilemmas and necessary growing pains. I can still recall almost every crossroads I’ve come to and recount who was there to talk me through my bravest steps.
As a poet, I have also had many poetry crushes – eras in my own artistic development when I am just taken with what an artist is producing. My very first poetry crush in my early twenties was withRita Dove. Her technical execution in a poem made me feel both inadequate and hopeful. As long as I felt that, I knew I was going to keep giving my best to the page.
I have been re-reading Song’s Picture Bride and find myself falling in love again with her restraint during the deeply emotional moments of her poems and her images, which sear onto my memory. In this 1983 collection, she says things like: My skin, aspirin colored, tingles with migraine. Have I ever seen a reference to skin like this? No, I haven’t. Most skin references I’ve encountered in poetry mimic the colors of food, or flowers, or soap. Song chose aspirin, and it really made me shift. And this:
She was in a good humor,
making jokes about her great breasts,
floating in the milky water
like two walruses,
flaccid and whiskered around the nipples.
I scrubbed them with a sour taste
in my mouth, thinking:
six children and an old man
have sucked from these brown nipples.
Although I have never been in a position to have to give my own mother a bath when she was ill, I have done this for my grandmother and my mother-in-law. The bright word choices here stay with me so long after the poem is done. I seem to swoon at poetry that can do this. There is an emotional distance the speaker of the poem maintains that only makes the emotional experience more intense for me as a reader. Passages like this inspire me to stay on the page, to keep stretching my mojo.
What Cathy Song does to me with the image, Jamaal May does to me with “the moment,” or the emotion of the moment. In his sestina Hum of the Machine God, the fiber artist in me was over the moon to see the references to sewing machines and needles.
There isn’t much to discuss with the Machine
God, though its voice is hard to ignore;
it speaks in planks of wood shaped for the sea,
sputters of smoke, eats grass. It speaks in snow
spit into piles, commands the motion of a needle
through a hem. It hums. It waits.
Once, in a parking lot, it spoke to a boy waiting
for an exchange between a sewing machine
and his mother to come to an end. Mother’s needle-
skilled fingers had already learned to ignore
pain, but the boy’s hands were supple. The snow
under Father’s idling car became a sea…
But there is a feeling here that is so much bigger than the poem. It’s the nod to what connects us all and doesn’t always reveal itself as part of the “machine.” Who is not touched by it? Who hasn’t felt the vibration of the machine when “it hums,” or felt small knowing that the machine waits. It’s beyond beautiful, and made me crush on May’s work and crave more.
I cannot promise how long these crushes will last. They never quite lose their power to give me butterflies, but there will be other crushes that take me far away from these. As someone who has admittedly felt a sense of numbness for a long time on the poetry landscape, I am just grateful that I can still crush at all.
Those who are not artists may never understand the poetry crush. You read a poem that will not let you go. It follows you through the routines of your day, flavors all of your conversations. It’s a sweet secret. A good thing you decide to keep for yourself. Until the creatives who really know you wonder why you’re smiling, and you have to share.