Sunday, January 28, 2007

More About That Letter

This came from a poetry class I taught years ago in prison. I assigned different students to lead the class discussion of different poets in our anthology. One was Diane Wakoski, and one of her poems was this:

Justice Is Reason Enough

He, who once was my brother, is dead by his own hand.
Even now, years later, I see his thin form lying on the sand
where the sheltered sea washes against those cliffs
he chose to die from. Mother took me back there every
day for over a year and asked me, in her whining way, why it
had to happen
over and over again—until I wanted
never to hear of David any more. How
could I tell her of his dream about the gull beating its
effortlessly together until they drew blood?
Would it explain anything, and how can I tell
anyone here about the great form and its beating wings.
How it
swoops down and covers me, and the dark tension leaves
me with blood on my mouth and thighs. But it was that
you must know, that brought my tight, sullen little
brother to my room that night and pushed his whole
taut body
right over mine until I yielded, and together we yielded
to the dark tension.
Over a thousand passing years, I will never forget
him, who was my brother, who is dead. Mother asked
me why
every day for a year; and I told her justice. Justice is
reason enough for anything ugly. It balances the beauty
in the world.

The guy who had been given the assignment said, "This broad is crazy - and if she ever wrote me, I wouldn't even write her back."

it occurred to me that this was prison, and there wasn't much outside stimulation, crazy or otherwise, that wouldn't get a response. But there was something about his formulation that got to me, and I said,

"Are you sure? You get a letter from someone you haven't heard from in a long time - 'Dear Ken, I have to talk to someone about this, and you're the only one I can turn to. My brother....' Sure she's crazy -- grief and stress have driven her around the bend. But she's reaching out to you. Are you sure you wouldn't write her back?"

His face was very serious now. "Yes, of course I'd write her back."

Well, a poem is a letter to someone we don't know. But we want them to write us back -- to be moved enough that we've established a connection. And we can't count on friendship, or prior emotional ties, to get them to read our letter and write back. We can count to some small degree on the story being good enough. But mostly we have to draw them in by writing it well enough.

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