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When my only job was poetry

by Lauren McCabe on April 5, 2013

glowing

Last night, I ruffled  through the old folders of my laptop, pouring over my writing from the last 5 years, 10 years, 15 years. I still have essays I wrote about grandparents dying, Shakespeare’s sonnets and three different papers on the Odyssey written at ages 10, 14 and 19. I wonder if I ever will be called upon to expound upon this man’s mythical journeys again, in the business world.

I came across a file, “Poems to memorize,” from a time when my only obligation was to pour over literature and become so startled by the pointed truth of poems that I would sit down and commit them to memory. I did this in high school often, in college some, and now – well, never.

And of course, as this type of recollecting often does, it struck me that I have changed much over the years, the trials of my teenage-self won over, but the poems that I loved when I was eighteen still take my breath away, now.

Today I’m sharing one with you that I discovered in college. I remember blindly picking up the book from the already slimming selection of poetry in Barnes and Nobles and randomly opening to this poem. I loved it so much that when I got home, I manually typed each line into my “Poems to Memorize” document

It’s a modern-day poem about a quite contemporary predicament that reveals wisdom that grows with each passing year. As I’ve learned, this is what good poetry does – it reshapes itself to meet the years of experience you’ve accrued since that last reading, so very long ago.

Here it is, by Tony Hoagland

Self-Improvement

Just before she flew off like a swan
to her wealthy parents’ summer home,
Bruce’s college girlfriend asked him
to improve his expertise at oral sex,
and offered him some technical advice:

Use nothing but his tonguetip
to flick the light switch in his room
on and off a hundred times a day
until he grew fluent at the nuances
of force and latitude.

Imagine him at practice every evening,
more inspired than he ever was at algebra,
beads of sweat sprouting on his brow,
thinking, thirty-seven, thirty eight,
seeing, in the tunnel vision of his mind’s eye,
the quadratic equation of her climax
yield to the logic
of his simple math.

Maybe he unscrewed
the bulb from his apartment ceiling
so that passersby would not believe
a giant firefly was pulsing
its electric abdomen in 13 B.

Maybe, as he stood
two inches from the wall,
in darkness, fogging the old plaster
with his breath, he visualized the future
as a mansion standing on the shore
that he was rowing to
with his tongue’s exhausted oar.

Of course, the girlfriend dumped him:
met someone, après-ski, who,
using nothing but his nose
could identify the vintage of a Cabernet.

Sometimes we are asked
to get good at something we have
no talent for,
or we excel at something we will never
have the opportunity to prove.

Often we ask ourselves
to make absolute sense
out of what just happens,
and in this way, what we are practicing

is suffering,
which everybody practices,
but strangely few of us
grow graceful in.

The climaxes of suffering are complex,
costly, beautiful, but secret.
Bruce never played the light switch again.

So the avenues we walk down,
full of bodies wearing faces,
are full of hidden talent:
enough to make pianos moan,
sidewalks split,
streetlights deliriously flicker.

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