Letter – Natasha Tretheway
At the post office, I dash a note to a friend,
tell her I’ve just moved in, gotten settled, that
I’m now rushing off on an errand—except
that I write errant, a slip between letters,
each with an upright backbone anchoring it
to the page. One has with it the fullness
of possibility, a shape almost like the O
my friend’s mouth will make when she sees
my letter in her box; the other, a mark that crosses
like the flat line of your death, the symbol
over the church house door, the ashes on your forehead
some Wednesday I barely remember.
What was I saying? I had to cross the word out,
start again, explain what I know best
because of the way you left me: how suddenly
a simple errand, a letter—everything—can go wrong.
At CantoMundo this year, I had the opportunity to listen to keynote speaker and former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway speak about her work and the place of memory in her work. Her poems about her mother specifically have meant a lot to me over the years. The poem above, for example, shows how sometimes the things we write about find us, how “material” arises from the immaterial, day to day occurrences.
Poems about my father’s death and absence in my life continue to come, and sometimes I worry about repeating myself. On the practical front, I work hard to keep the poems alive in different ways, whether through new forms or structural framework. But there is always the question: How big is grief? How long? That the poems keep coming means that I am far from knowing the answer to such questions.
One of the things that keeps me grounded is hearing about the experiences of others. Tretheway’s book, Native Guard, remains important for several reasons, the most prominent being the title poem’s engagement with history and evocation of human experience. But the poems about the poet’s mother mean something deeper for me, and it is something that I feel informs the emotional scope of the collection. There are times, as in this second poem below, where I feel I am reading a poet who understands what it means to make peace with what overwhelms you as much as you can in the moment.
At Dusk – Natasha Tretheway
At first I think she is calling a child,
my neighbor, leaning through her doorway
at dusk, street lamps just starting to hum
the backdrop of evening. Then I hear
the high-pitched wheedling we send out
to animals who know only sound, not
how they sometimes fall short.
In another yard, beyond my neighbor’s
sight, the cat lifts her ears, turns first
toward the voice, then back
to the constellation of fireflies flickering
near her head. It’s as if she can’t decide
whether to leap over the low hedge,
the neat row of flowers, and bound
onto the porch, into the steady circle
of light, or stay where she is: luminous
possibility–all that would keep her
away from home–flitting before her.
I listen as my neighbor’s voice trails off.
She’s given up calling for now, left me
to imagine her inside the house waiting,
perhaps in a chair in front of the TV,
or walking around, doing small tasks;
left me to wonder that I too might lift
my voice, sure of someone out there,
send it over the lines stitching here
to there, certain the sounds I make
are enough to call someone home.
P.S. This weekend marks the last chance to enter my Goodreads Giveaway for one of ten signed copies of my prose poem chapbook, Reasons (not) to Dance. Details below!