lenten journal: words can save your life


    By the time most of you read this (actually, by the time I finish writing), it will be April, whose first week holds a sort of harmonic convergence for me. The First of April marks the beginning of National Poetry Month (National GeekFest, as Ginger lovingly calls it); this weekend brings the NCAA Basketball Tournaments to a glorious close; and, Monday marks Opening Day for my beloved Red Sox. I suppose I should also mention Palm Sunday falls in there as well.

    Basketball has dominated the airwaves for some time now and I know there will always be Sox stories to tell. Tonight I will tell you a story about poets, two of them, and let their words be the invitation to the month to come.

    Several years ago – OK, a whole bunch of years ago, just after Ginger and I moved to Boston, I drove to Rochester, New York to meet my brother, who was living in Akron, Ohio at the time. We picked Rochester because it was about halfway. Meeting halfway was a good metaphor, even though we didn’t see it at the time, because we were at a place in our relationship where we were having a hard time finding each other. We gave it a valiant try, but were not very successful. (Later, we were.) I drove back to Boston, trying to make meaning out of what had happened and chose to drive home down Route 20 rather than the Interstate. Somewhere in the Berkshires, I met Jimmy Santiago Baca as he talked with an interviewer on NPR. Somewhere in my library is a paperback book of NPR interviews with the transcript of what I heard, but I’m not digging for quotes here; I’m remembering a moment. Whatever he said marked my heart as the sun fell behind me and I drove toward the ocean, toward home, toward whatever was next.

    A couple of years later, I found Baca again as a part of Bill Moyers’ series, The Language of Life (which also introduced me to the Dodge Poetry Festival). I was teaching high school English in the Boston Public Schools and Baca made me believe poetry had a pivotal role to play in the lives of my students. I put one of his quotes above the board at the front of the room:

    words can save your life.

    Nathan Brown and I came to know each other through a mutual friend and have found a bond of our own that began with two important things: poetry and depression. He came to visit Ginger and me in Boston and, in the aisles of Wordsworth Books in Harvard Square, I handed him one of Baca’s books and said, “You need this.” A couple of weeks later he called me from a coffee shop somewhere in Oklahoma City doing his own version of Whitman’s barbaric yawp, almost unable to verbalize what Baca’s poetry was doing to him.

    More years passed and I was driving one day when my phone rang and it was Nathan, again, on the other end of the phone. “Hang on,” he said, “I have someone who wants to say hello to you.” The next voice said,

    “Milton, this is Jimmy Santiago Baca.”

    For the next few minutes, he told me how Nathan had invited him to come to the University of Oklahoma, where Nathan teaches. And a few words coming out of the radio on a winding road found a way to connect the three of us across years and circumstance. I wish the years had afforded me the chance to know both men better; I’m grateful for the connection that exists and, in that gratitude offer a poem from each one as companions for your winding road.

    I Am Offering This Poem
    Jimmy Santiago Baca

    I am offering this poem to you,
    since I have nothing else to give.
    Keep it like a warm coat,
    when winter comes to cover you,
    or like a pair of thick socks
    the cold cannot bite through,

    I love you,

    I have nothing else to give you,
    so it is a pot full of yellow corn
    to warm your belly in the winter,
    it is a scarf for your head, to wear
    over your hair, to tie up around your face,

    I love you,

    Keep it, treasure it as you would
    if you were lost, needing direction,
    in the wilderness life becomes when mature;
    and in the corner of your drawer,
    tucked away like a cabin or a hogan
    in dense trees, come knocking,
    and I will answer, give you directions,
    and let you warm yourself by this fire,
    rest by this fire, and make you feel safe,

    I love you,

    It’s all I have to give,
    and it’s all anyone needs to live,
    and to go on living inside,
    when the world outside
    no longer cares if you live or die;

    I love you.


    Loose Words
    Nathan Brown

    I’ve intended to tape it back in
    for months – page 455 of my
    fraying paperback dictionary.

    I have to slide it into place, fix it,
    every time I look up a word.
    Page 455 hangs by a thread.

    And like I said, I’ve intended
    to tape it back in for months,
    but . . . I don’t know . . .

    there’s just something about words
    in constant danger of being lost
    that keeps me from doing it.

    Happy Poetry Month. Happy Final Four. Go Sox. Hosanna.



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