One afternoon, he banged excitedly at our door, rushed in, said, “Quick! Take this down!” and began blurting a stream of formal, though rambling, poetry. Cary slowed him down, and started writing furiously on a yellow tablet. The poem, an ode to the two of us, full of light and glory and almost angelic acclamation, went on literally for pages.
I was mystified. What on earth is going on here? I wondered. Is he making this up on the spot, or has he been composing it in his head?
Either way, once Dwight got rolling, you didn’t want to get in his way. In the war, he had killed people with his bare hands. His moods were unpredictable. At times, they were terrifying to behold.
One night, for example, close to midnight, he showed up outside the door again, shouting. When Cary leaped out of bed and yanked open the door to tell him to shut up, Dwight shoved past him laughing and crying. “We’re going to reenact the fall of Lucifer from heaven before the creation of the world!” he exclaimed. When we demurred, he became threatening. So we went along, cowering in the corner of our tiny theater.
Dwight assigned three roles. I was God (which seemed fitting). Cary was Lucifer (ditto). And Dwight was Michael, archangel of war, the protagonist. He gave us our lines when we needed them, which wasn’t often. Otherwise, he performed a manic monologue, tramping back and forth like a drunken Shakespearean actor, waving his arms. Cary and I glanced furtively at one another, as time dragged on, speaking our parts as enthusiastically as possible.
Believe it or not, this impromptu play, an epic poem of another sort—was it from Milton’s Paradise Lost?—went on until five o’clock in the morning. My brain and body were sodden with fatigue. Finally, upon loudly proclaiming the denouement, tears streaking his face, Dwight swept out of the room.
Next time I saw him, strolling along a sidewalk weeks later, I almost ran the other way.
He strode up to me, grasped my upper arms, gazed piercingly into my eyes and—sounding completely sane for the moment—said, “Your strength does not come from your arms. And your wisdom does not come from your mind. They both come from your heart.” He tapped a blunt finger on my chest, for emphasis. Then he let go of my arms, and added, rather sadly, “Goodbye, my friend. I shall not see you again,” and vanished down the street. I just stared.
Like his mysterious poetry, I never knew where those final, surprisingly insightful words came from.
One of life’s mysteries, “too marvelous / to be understood,” says Mary Oliver in “Mysteries, Yes” (Evidence, 2009), is “How people come, from delight and the / scars of damage, / to the comfort of a poem.”
Sometimes, certainly, Dwight came to poetry from a real sense of delight, like that day he burst in and sang his weird and touching song of praise to two young men who had showed him kindness.
More often, though, it seems he came from the scars of damage. His rhythmic speech and epic outbursts were like paeans to the power of poetry to soothe his wounded mind and body, to provide his damaged soul a respite and a refuge not found in the prosaic protocols of daily dialogue.
Poetry offers an alluring alternative to “the sounds of the road / and the machines and / the blank cries of everyday commerce,” as David Whyte puts it.
Like the apophatic language of the mystics, poetry opens an unknowing space, filled with a different sort of sound and rhythm, within which we may begin both to accept and to articulate the full diversity of our experience as human beings living in what poet Jack Gilbert calls “the ruthless furnace of this world.”
At times, a poem allows the soul to say what the brain and tongue together cannot adequately express. Which is why we come to poetry not just for comfort but also for communion.
By sharing poetry with one another, we weave invisible threads of attachment as well as colorful images into the tapestries of our relationships. In this way, poems can both give pleasure and soothe the scars of damage.
This past Christmas, my son John gave me twelve pages of original poetry, painstakingly hand-lettered on textured paper. Another kind of epic, composed throughout a long period of darkness punctuated with moments of light and grace, his offering said so much more than all the tender, lyrical words of the poems themselves.
What a stunning gift of love from one heart to another. I was speechless with delight.
And the gift of my son’s poetry brought to mind a little poem I had written for him during a dark night some years ago, a time when I felt helpless even to touch, much less to heal, the scars of damage. Annie Dillard once wrote, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.”
In that darkness, I found an unexpected spark of beauty, which proved both a salve to my soul and a source of communion with another.
The capacity to perceive beauty,
wherever one may find it
—according to Piero Ferrucci’s
Beauty and the Soul--
makes life worth living.
No matter, then, that the arctic world
revolves through six months of nocturnal ice.
No matter that the bodies lie beneath
the rubble, still breathing. That the air
is black. Or that your suffering
lies beyond the horizon of
I perceive a lovely spark of tenderness
deep within the voluminous cavern
of my own heart,
a phosphorescent fish
that looks so bland
up in the light,
and go on living.
Just for you.
—Jay E. Valusek