This morning, an article in the NY Times about medical students writing poetry. Among student poems printed in the paper was this one by poet Marilyn Hacker:
by Marilyn Hacker
No body stops dreaming it’s twenty-five,
or twelve, or ten, when what is possible’s
a long road poplars curtain against loss, able
to swim the river, hike the culvert, drive
through the open portal, find the gold hive
dripping with liquid sweetness. Risible
fantasy, if, all the while, invisible
entropies block the roads, so you arrive
outside a ruin, where trees bald with blight
wane by a river drained to sluggish mud.
The setting sun looks terribly like blood.
The hovering swarm has nothing to forgive.
Your voice petitions the indifferent night:
“I don’t know how to die yet. Let me live.
Hell, I don’t know how to live yet. Emailing with a friend this morning, we talked about relationships, repairing them, taking down the walls we build between us brick by brick, and how intractable habits are. How hard it is to change. It’s one of the aspects of living I’m still practicing. You live whether you know how to do it or not. You get thrown into the pond not knowing how to swim. You get dumped into the desert not knowing anything about the desert’s ways, and you have to figure them out as you go along. And all the dusty others wandering around you have that same confused look on their faces, but they try to help, teach you a little of what they’ve learned about the desert, which isn’t much, because the desert is vast and unknowable. Even that redpoll flock yesterday, what do I know about them? I guess it’s exactly the same way with cancer. I remember describing the dumped-off-a-train feeling after my diagnosis. Thrown off without map or compass, water bottle or sun block. Oh you figure out how to do it, get into a pattern and it feels like you’re set. But then you stumble down a swale into some place you’ve never been before, and you realize the desert is an ecosystem of enormous complexity. There’s a new species of scorpion or rattlesnake in the swale. Are you supposed to run or hold your ground?
There’s a quote on my refrigerator by the poet Rilke, and it goes like this: “As it happens, the wall between us is very thin. Why couldn’t a cry from one of us break it down? It would crumble easily. It would barely make a sound.” But thinking about it today, I realize that the real wall is the one we build around our own hearts. Without the wall, how could we survive in a land of scorpions and thorns? Come on, you can’t walk naked through the desert and survive. You can’t go through life like Jesus in the painting where he’s wearing his heart, bleeding and crowned with a braid of thorns, on the outside of his body. The desert is harsh. After years, the walls get pretty damn thick. But behind the wall we’re very fragile creatures.
I realized only this afternoon the significance of this day. It’s December 1. A year ago on this day, I walked out of Cape Cod Hospital with a ridiculous certificate of completion in my hand. I’d been zapped by radiation for the last time. It was a blustery, rainy, cold early winter day on the Cape, very gray, the sky spitting rain all over the place. No desert, but a pretty forbidding landscape just the same. That day, I said goodbye to my Cape Cod family, my sister, her husband, their three kids. Craig and I boarded a bus in Hyannis for the airport to begin the process of reentry. Reentry into my own life, post cancer. Craig and I flew to Hawaii to begin the long process of recovery. But getting on that bus was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was, come to think of it, being flung off the train yet again into a new place. My sister and I couldn’t let go of each other. There was no wall at all between us. It had collapsed months before. That’s the price of walking naked through the desert together. How much it hurts to pull away. As the bus backed away from that god-forsaken terminal, I watched her standing there in the rain. Nothing could be more forlorn than that image I carry tucked in my heart like a black-and-white photograph. I relive that moment right now, in all of its terrible pain and promise.
So it’s another new year’s day, as I told a friend who just finished a treatment program of her own. The flocks of redpolls, the changing sky, enact an endless renewal. It hurts so much to be reborn this way. This is my poem, my petition to indifferent birds. Show me how to live in this place with only just enough protection to survive.