Poetry gives words to the wordless

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(Ivan Kruk/Dreamstime.com)

by Donna Pucciani

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When people ask me if I get nervous before a poetry reading or, let's say, boarding an airplane, I tell them that I was a teacher for some 40 years and am not afraid of anything.

But that's not entirely true. I started out teaching music, and after four riffs -- not the percussion kind -- I feared for my future, as do many unemployed and underemployed folks in our less-than-excellent financial "recovery" from the banks' sanguine indiscretions. Fortunately, I was able to retool, and while teaching high school English in Chicago, I learned the art of poetry with my creative writing students. I've never looked back.

Poetry has become my way not of escaping the world but embracing it. Fragments written on scraps of paper blossomed into poems, somehow wedged among the many essays I graded during the 70-hour workweek typical of English teachers. It was easy to write of everyday matters while sitting in my car at a red light, waiting in line at the grocery, or waking in the middle of the night to jot something down before it escaped my mind.

Poetry became a way of processing memories of an unhappy childhood in a family fraught with mental illness and substance abuse. Poetry was my sounding board while caring for my father, who was riddled with Parkinson's disease during his last few years in the nursing home.

Poetry became a form of gratitude for a long and happy marriage. I wrote in "At the Movies":

Today we sit in the dark,
thigh to thigh, Popcorn butters us
with its ubiquitous embrace ...

Afterwards, we shamble out ...
into our small, precious life ...

Poetry is my way of asking questions for which there are no clear answers:

Un-embraceable night
fills with wisps of wanting ...

Our open palms hold only
lamentations. We await

the promise of fire, receive only

and bow under it, bow to it,
the unseen star.

In poetry, I can find pieces of myself and others hidden amid the demands of our crowded, rushed lives, and claim them as my own. I'm sure that many who read these words also use words to express what is real but unknowable. Like faith, poetry is the struggle to give words to the wordless, to see with the eye of the soul, to imagine what cannot be imagined beyond the black hole of the universe:

teach me how to be lost
some day this page

will be thicker than my bone
so set me to sail

in a glass-bottomed boat
through which you appear

gliding like a timeless
gleaming fish
("notes to god")

Poetry is a way of seeking communion with others, of affirming life beyond the gathering of material goods and the ceaseless labor required for the basic necessities. It's also a standoff with cynicism, and sometimes a celebration of it:

What if truth popped like firecrackers
from the eyes of politicians, if bankers
ate of a golden fruit that made them
un-Midas their vast incredible coffers
for hospitals?

Poetry is for me a prayer to a God who may or may not exist. The gift of poetry may be my substitute for faith, requiring only assent and the consummate dedication to discovering the spiritual in the banalities of everyday life:

god is
a pitiable thing,
a rabbit limping in the garden,
collapsing into the sedum.

god is a reminder
of what heaven forgot --

And finally, poetry has become for me or me a way of facing old age (if I'm lucky) and death with some sense of dignity and decorum, maybe even gratitude for the God whose absence is the most powerful presence in my life:

... Startled by thunder,
I drink the last electric years
from my cupped hands,

watch the moon's effervescence
turn my flesh to ash. ... The days
will be foreshortened,
heading toward snow
and the still-beating of wings.
("Only because")

[Donna Pucciani is a Chicago-based poet whose most recent book of poetry, A Light Dusting of Breath, is the source of the above quotations. The cited poems first appeared in Cairn, The Christian Century, Third Wednesday, Amoskeag and Acumen. All of the Soul Seeing columns can be found online at NCRonline.org/blogs/soul-seeing.)

A version of this story appeared in the Oct 21-Nov 3, 2016 print issue under the headline: Poetry gives words to the wordless.

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