So there I am, in my English Lit class (it must have been Longmire’s class, because Carson taught early English Lit, Haegert was Modernism and Lit Crit, Clough was totally American Lit, and I only took World Lit with Richardson. I remember this poem in Dr. Longmire’s voice, anyway; he was short, and limped because he had polio as a kid; he had all this white hair and was the best advisor my intimidated self could have gotten as a freshman in college, first-person-in-my-family to go to college and utterly clueless beyond knowing without question that I could write, read, and analyze a text. One day I may blog the story of how I prompted him to declare to the class that one should “never use irony with freshmen,” but that day is not today) …
Okay. So I’m eighteen, maybe nineteen. Ridiculous girl–pretension and insecurity and feeling, dear lord, but also intelligence; my brain was starting to grow and I could feel it–but heading toward the future me, this person blogging on her laptop with silent headphones on, having forgotten to turn on her music (ridiculous in a different way, I suppose). I sat in my lit class, Norton Anthology open in front of me.
If you imagine the inside of my brain as a large open field with a lot of half-built stone walls here and there in mounds and lumps?
Dr. Longmire read “Punishment” out loud.
There was no explosion, no epiphany, no moment of This is what poetry is, I see! I’d had that moment already, with e.e. cummings. This … this was a rumbling, a quaking; this was those half-formed walls crumbling, shaken, but not being destroyed. I felt this poem in the frame of me.
This poem was history, this was girlhood, this was anger and guilt and real and a part of my heart I didn’t know I had.
It was like Robert Frost, a little; this feeling of Oh, that, that’s in my blood, I belong to that somehow. (Though I never loved Frost the way I loved this poem.) It was locked in with the end (though not the rest) of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill”: Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea. It was utterly itself, in the end, related but not exact.
There are things–poems, paintings, photographs, novels, comic books, songs, artists, whole works and phrases and bits of things–that I think, if I could somehow collect them and hand them to someone, they would know me. They’re not what I love, always (though I love this poem); they’re things that I recognize, that my bones reach for.
I who have stood dumb/when your betraying sisters/cauled in tar/wept by the railings