I found this poem a while back in a collection Staying Alive, Real Poems for Unreal Times. If you’re unfamiliar with Neil Astley and his collections, they’re absolutely wonderful. His goal is to create collections of modern poetry that are accessible and relevant. For some reason there’s this feeling that poetry, especially modern poetry, is somehow “hard” to read and “hard” to understand. And yet, poems are some of the first forms of literature we’re taught to read and write.
Anyways, Astley tries to remind us of how poetry is still relevant and even important. He puts it best in the introduction to Staying Alive…
The best contemporary poetry is life-affirming and directly relevant to all our lives. Yet most of us could name only one or two modern poems which have moved us profoundly and unforgettably. These are the kinds of poem which speak to us with the same unnerving power now as when we first came across them, Like W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” in Four Weddings and a Funeral (“Stop all the clocks…”) and Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” And there are also those rare poems we encounter almost by accident. That short poem we stared at, read and re-read on the subway. Or the one photocopied or emailed by a friend, now a personal talisman kept in the wallet or taped to the refrigerator, the poem which says everything about Life, the Universe and little me. Such poems are remarkable because there seem to be so few of them. Or so we believe.
So this poem stuck out to me, because as a kid growing up in Gresham, Oregon, Trillium Lake was one of my favorite day trips. It was a bit of a drive up the mountain–all the way through Sandy and up into the woods–but that was part of the fun. It was close enough to home to visit in a day, but far enough away that it still felt like you had put something behind you.
by Louis Gluck
When I woke up I was in a forest. The dark
seemed natural, the sky through the pine trees
Thick with many lights.
I knew nothing; I could do nothing but see.
And as I watched, all the lights of heaven
faded to make a single thing, a fire
burning through the cool firs.
then it wasn’t possible any longer
to stare at heaven and not be destroyed.
Are there souls that need
death’s presence, as I require protection?
I think if I speak long enough
I will answer that question, I will see
whatever they see, a ladder
reaching through the firs, whatever
calls them to exchange their lives —
Think what I understand already.
I woke up ignorant in a forest;
only a moment ago, I didn’t know my voice
If one were given me
would be so full of grief, my sentences
like cries strung together.
I didn’t even know I felt grief
until that word came, until I felt
rain streaming from me.
As you can probably guess, this poem has very little to do with the lake I used to visit. And yet I like how names and coincidences can make you take note of things you might have missed otherwise. It’s a lovely poem, a little more heavy than what I’d prefer but I still love something about it. I’m not even sure what the grief is that the author is referring to, what it is she’s realizing.
What I like about so much poetry is that sometimes the truth to it is missing or only hinted at. And maybe this is why some say that it’s hard. We don’t know what this woman’s grief is, it’s hard to tell what exactly has died and come back to her. Sometimes the truth of a poem lies just outside of it. You won’t even find it in the work itself and so it’s there and yet it’s not.
I like that. I think a lot of life is like that. You don’t really know what things mean. And maybe they don’t mean anything. Things happen and you just sort of feel them, experience them, and the truth or the meaning lies just outside of the moment not in it. And so it’s there and yet it’s not.
Ha, here are some pictures of Trillium Lake where I played in the sun and water, and caught salamanders that were black with yellow bellies…
(Almost all of these photos were provided by my mom’s Facebook page since I don’t seem to have many Trillium photos on my computer. Thanks for the pictures mom!)