This weekend was J.J.’s fourth birthday, which had me thinking about gifts. He had a list of wanted items, mostly unicorns and sea creatures. J.J.’s life is (gratefully) filled with friends who love and know him well—he unwrapped many creatures, but none so vast as a wall-sized-Velcro alphabet. Who could want more than that magical code for endless symbols—endless possibilities?
I didn’t know it at the time, but the best gift I ever received was being read to. I owe a great dept to every adult who read to me as a child, but especially my grandmother Shelia. It was she who was the first to introduce me to poetry. She read (somehow knowing) that I would love it; this made all the difference in my life—saved my life in many ways. Shelia and my Grandfather died too young, too suddenly—the jolt of their deaths made poetry even more special to me, as it is her voice I hear in my head when reading.
The second poem Shelia ever read to me was the “Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti. This poem continues to captivates me as an adult (in different ways than when I was a child—though as a child I could sense the layers and double Entendre in the poem. As a kid, I worked for hours to understand what made adults giggle and blush when reading it.) As an adult, the poems themes of drug addiction, sex, and the power of friendship have guided me much like a eccentric grandmother would have.
I wanted to give this poem as it was given to me. However, reading is often an private, silent, and intimate process—only the reader and the page know which words are mispronounced and unknown. It takes a certain courage to read aloud. Maybe this is why people don’t read to each other very often? (Maybe this is why I don’t read to people very often?)
Similar to the intimidation of reading aloud, is writing. I can not spell. No; this isn’t exactly true. How to say, the music of words is so fierce in my mind that I loose track of letters before my hand or eye lands upon the page—stupid little bird, whose flight keeps it from the nest. Words are not words to me, but widows (or windows) filled with images. I don’t read, I see words. I don’t write, I attempt to describe a vision. This glitch in me causes endless grief and embarrassment—it makes me feel stupid and incapable of language. Normally, I would avoid feeling stupid at any cost—any cost but poetry. With poems, even insults unfold into stories—stories into contexts—contexts into perspective. If a teacher told me I was too stupid for poem, the poem whispered with the birdsong-conviction of Shelia’s voice, I was written for you.
How could I not love poetry?—that rebel voice saying more with its silence than letters on a page ever could. Regardless of my faults, poetry was written for me. (It is written for you.)
Christina Rossetti is often placed in the company of Emily Dickenson as one of the “odd women,” meaning they wrote, lived alone, screamed loudly when in (spiritual, physical, emotional) pain—odd for acting more like people than ideas. Something about these women reminds me of Shelia. Something about these women remind me of many of J.J’s little girl friends—there is a freedom and confidence that resonates from them.
J.J and I invited his friends to the nature preserve for marshmallows and a poetry reading. (The nature preserve has many trails and bridges which light the kids minds with imaginary trolls and the possibility of seeing coyotes and rabbits.) There I read, not well, Goblin Market. Despite my tripping on the beat and blotching words, the poem did its work. Especially on Z, who was captivated by the lush descriptions of fruit, goblins, and girls. I gave her my book and she immediately went to work on deciphering what it was in the poem that made adults giggle and blush. This poem was written for her.