Sometimes poems wait for you. It’s like a poem has run up ahead to get the lay of the land and then waits for you to catch up. That’s how you can get a poem way before you get a poem, way before being able to put into words the why or the how of it. But somehow your bones knew all along because bones always know things way before thoughts do. Funny thing, that. Way before you get it in a lightbulb-in-the-brain kind of way, you can get a poem in that curious, nebulous, below-the-surface body place and there, in the dark, it can start shifting and moving things around. That’s how a poem can give you a memory of things to come, of ways things could be. And then when you come around that next bend in the path, there is the poem, waiting for you –hello, my darling!– and you realize that somehow you knew it all along.

Sometimes poems go back for you. They show up someplace you were and bring you that little thing that would have helped everything if only you’d known it or had it then. Like a wink across the table to let you know that even though you are the littlest one, the quietest one, the oddest one, the stripiest socked one, you aren’t crazy. Or a cool hand on your forehead when you’re burning up. Or a life preserver when the plane that was your world took a nosedive into the ocean. You thought you were alone but, alas, you weren’t, and when the poem shows up for you back then, it all comes together now.

Not that poets are trying to help you. Lord no. Poets aren’t preachers. And poets aren’t teachers. Poets are truth-tellers. Poets are prophets. Oftentimes prophets are only understood and become popular in retrospect because no matter what the truth looks like, no matter how the truth will land, poets say it like it is. Poetry is not the blah blah blah soundbite polished and regurgitated bullshit that comes at us all day every day these days. A poem cuts to the chase. Boom! And you sigh. And sighs never lie. Sighs come from the bone, they are bone-words. And even when a poet is saying a thing that’s hard to hear, and even though it may not be pretty at all, it feels good in your bones. Because it’s true.

Here’s a poem by Mary Oliver that I got in my bones years and years before I ever got it otherwise. At the time when I first heard it everything in my world felt broken and ugly and all I kept trying to do was fix things. My bones heard the poem and sighed. Ahhhh… They knew that broken things don’t become whole by fixing but by understanding. And oh was I ever exhausted from trying to fix things.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

The Journey is by Mary Oliver. It is published in “Dream Work.”

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