At a writing residency this summer, during a discussion about what is now known as “these difficult times,” one of my writing mentors, the poet and essayist Lia Purpura, reframed our discussion with a challenge that she has given herself. “I want to live more like a poem asks me to live,” she told us. This has become an invitation that fascinates me. Instead of poetry as an island of escape or solace, let me welcome it, the practices it demands, and try to imagine the kind of life it requires. Each of the essays I’ll share in this space is my response to Lia’s invitation.
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A Poem Wants Us to Begin. Again.
This might seem a strange time to consider beginnings. The year winds its way toward winter, and daily the leaves leap from their branches into showy red and gold piles around us. It is time to take stock of what keeps us, and the weather seems to ask: Do you have a good coat? Is the furnace working? What books will shelter you as the cold settles in? But I find myself lingering at the top of the blank page.
A few months ago, poet Kaveh Akbar tweeted an invitation to share favorite first lines of poems, and some immediately floated up from memory: “Here I come to the very edge / where nothing at all needs saying.” Alastair Reid’s translation of Pablo Neruda has lived with me since the first time I read “It Is Born.” I love the conundrum the first line of the poem engages, longing in words for a place where words are no longer needed, chasing after the ocean’s elusive answers. Then I thought of Naomi Shihab Nye’s line: “Letters swallow themselves in seconds.” This square finality she plants at the beginning of “Burning the Old Year,” a fire that calls the reader to attention as the poem braids beginning and ending into one sturdy thread.
In her essay “Lusters” (Rough Likeness), Lia Purpura says of beginnings: “I remind myself that starting anticipates a geography. A moment seeks a shape and claims here (bedroom window, perfume bottle) as its wobbly launch.” These days, I feel like I wobble, I hope that I launch. The geography of my beginnings might be, finally, the elliptical machine at the gym after slow months of physical therapy, a ballot mailed, or a trowel dusted off to place narcissus bulbs in the garden bed. On Tuesdays, it is a lucky seat against a turquoise-painted wall in the bookstore. Ensconced in my warmly lit corner and surrounded by shelves of poetry, I live among those who claimed a here in times even more difficult than ours, who began again “in the smallest numbers” when it seemed like only endings loomed overhead.
“Love remains a kind of present tense” is Carolina Ebeid’s opening line in “Punctum/Metaphora.” May that be our geography, dear reader, a place from which to launch, however haltingly, again and again.
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, writer, and translator. She is the winner of the 2016 Two Sylvias Chapbook Prize for Arab in Newsland, and the author of Water & Salt, a book of poems from Red Hen Press published in April 2017. She is currently Poet-in-Residence at Open Books: A Poem Emporium.