for Linda Gregg
When she told them, Write your last poem,
the poem you would write if you were
in a burning building, and could not escape,
they left the classroom already full
of images, already knowing what they would write,
and one week later they gave her the poems, one
after the next, poems full of orange flames
and black smoke, of pressing one’s hands to one’s face,
sometimes the admission of tears hot as flame.
Poems about being there, in that building,
that imagined experience. Not the poems
the poet had wanted. Not the words
inside the burning building of the chest,
that choked and cloudy chamber below the throat,
holding the heart. Not the words inside of us
turning to ask without ever having caught.
I guess I should present the assignment
differently next time, she smiles, and I nod,
smiling at this story, an unexpected gift
this morning we sit together on a porch,
the August air so cold we can see our breath
for the first time this season.
How like the students I am, eager to describe
the building with its cindered shimmerings,
its serifs of flame.
I too love to escape into the imagined,
where I travel lightly, burn bright.
I make myself the center
of imagined life as well as actual life,
the center of each idea I encounter, each moment.
For example, the morning light,
which slowly discovers and explores three mountains
we can see up the long road from this porch,
touches my hands. As we talk, I fold my hands
and unfold them, a detail that does not in the end matter,
yet interests me enough to write it here.
But I know what she meant.
She meant that you are not trapped in the building,
you are free, so free you are hardly there at all,
and the building, its manifold flames, hardly there.
She meant the poem that has fed your every breath
because it is larger than you, because it is the world
toward which all fire burns.
She meant, Write the poem, the poem
you are dying to write.
By Suzanne Cleary