I make no particular claims for the poem below. It suffers from several flaws, at least two fatal to its poetic worth. But I thought of it the other day, for some reason, and remembered how strange it was when an early version appeared many years ago in Joe Bruchac’s venerable journal The Greenfield Review. I had published just a handful of poems at the time, so when the issue arrived in the mail I immediately looked up my name on the contents page and–like every ego-ridden writer–flipped to the page that cradled my poem.
Exhilarating! (At first.) But then something disturbing: the poem seemed both familiar and strange. Suddenly I was seized by the notion that the poem wasn’t mine; that I’d read it somewhere and unconsciously taken it for my own. I remembered how quickly it had leaped to mind, more or less fully formed; I’d written it down as if taking dictation. No wonder: I’d stolen it! And now here it was in print, under my name. I was mortified. What if the real author saw it? What were the chances? Slim, as it turned out, because I never got a nasty note in the mail from either the poem’s author or Joe Bruchac. It was the last time I submitted to his magazine: I was just too embarrassed.
Anyway, this is why I never put the poem into a book until years later, after I’d discovered its source. I was moving into a new apartment and sorting through boxes of material I thought I might throw out rather than haul to the new place. In one box I discovered a clutch of spiral-bound notebooks from my undergrad days: notes taken in Humanities class (Erasmus, Calvin, Montaigne); in a survey class on the English Romantics; in Cultural Anthropology; in American History to the Civil War. I remembered the history course for its vast dullness, each class given over to a droning lecture that repeated, sometimes word for word, the material in our textbook. As I flipped through the old blue-lined, “college ruled” notebook, I discovered a page with a slanting scrawl in the margin. It was a poem I’d written during an especially turgid history lecture and forgotten for more than a decade before it surfaced again as something dictated, word for word as it appeared in that notebook. Evidently I had stolen the poem from myself.
At that point I felt free to include the poem in a new collection I was assembling, The Heart Inside the Heart, for which I tinkered with the original. And because I can’t let these things go, I’ve tinkered with it again here. But nothing I do can save it as a poem, I think. As a document of my inner life, though, it must mean something, though what that meaning is I’m not able to say:
in the head
into dark water
that circling fish
brush with the chilled
gauze of their fins
and above it all
adrift on ripples
pale as the souls
under black willows
with the earth
Maybe, in truth, I don’t want to know what it means. It’s somehow more exciting to simply enjoy the mystery.