Tag Archives: poetry

The Only Life You Could Save

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.

—Mary Oliver

Love and Work

Here’s another poem, also first published in the New Yorker, I think in 2004. I don’t think it is difficult to understand why it speaks to me, and why I saved it all these years…

Love and Work
by Rachel Wetzseon

In an uncurtained room across the way
a woman in a tight dress paints her lips
a deeper red, and sizes up her hips
for signs of ounces gained since yesterday

She has a thoughtful and a clever face
but she is smart enough to know
the truth: however large the brain may grow,
the lashes and the earrings must keep pace.

Although I’ve spread my books in front of me
with a majestic air of I’ll show her,
I’m much less confident than I’d prefer,
and now I’ve started oacing nervously.

I’m pouring over theorems, tomes and tracts.
I’m getting ready for a heavy date
by staying up ridiculously late.
But a small voice advises, Face the facts:

go on this way and you’ll soon come to harm.
The world’s most famous scholars wander down
the most appalling alleyways in town,
a blond and busty airhead on each arm.

There is an inner motor known as lust
that makes a man of learning walk a mile
to gratify his raging senses, while
the woman he can talk to gathers dust.

A chilling vision of the years ahead
invades my thoughts and widens like a stain:
a barren dance card and a teeming brain,
a crowded bookcase and an empty bed…

what if I compromised? I’d stay up late
to hone my elocutionary skills,
and at the crack of dawn I’d swallow pills
to calm my temper and control my weight,

but I just can’t. Romantics, so far gone
they think their lovers live for wisdom, woo
by growing wiser; when I think of you
I find the nearest lamp and turn it on.

Great gods of longing, watch me as I work,
and if I sprout a martyr’s smarmy grin
please find some violent way to do me in;
I’m burning all these candles not to shirk

a night of passion, but to give that night
a richly textured backdrop when it comes.
The girl who gets up from her desk and dumbs
her discourse down has never seen the flight

of wide-eyed starlings from their shabby cage;
the fool whose love is truest is the one
who knows a lover’s work is never done.
I’ll call you when I’ve finished one more page.

My Soul

I found this poem while I was in graduate school in Toronto in the 90s, in one of the New Yorkers lying around the PIMS Common Room from their subscription. I have returned to it over and over again since that time (sigh), and I am putting it on my blog so I can find it more easily, darn it.

“My Soul is a Light Housekeeper”
(Error in the printing of the line “My soul is a lighthouse keeper,”
by an unknown female poet.)

Bored with the high drama of watching,
I see myself bound always to your absence,
sending out my pure circle of light so you
will know where I am, and how close
you might come to disaster. Imagine, love,
the tedium of this watch. On almost every day
nothing happens. And isn’t it wrong to yearn
for a great storm just to feel important?
I’ll let you go, then. Why shouldn’t my house
be my own, and my soul its keeper?
This work I needn’t take so seriously
since I’ve learned what pleases me, the light
of late afternoon through that window,
the intricate cobwebs I won’t disturb.
I know you don’t want to think of me
not always thinking of you, brave and imperilled.
I’m sure you’ll write to say: How can you change
so completely? You’re not the woman
I thought I knew. And I’m not,
but understand, dear, it wasn’t such a great change.
Imagine you could have seen that side of me
at the beginning, when we walked
for hours along the shore, and you were so certain
I was yours just because you loved me.

—Lawrence Raab, from The Probable World (Penguin Books, 2000)