In my infinite wisdom (or just desire to not have to take a gym class), I signed up for a poetry class my senior year of high school. I was already writing quite a bit at the time, piecing thoughts together as prose and poetry when we sat down for our first class. Our teacher was a young, sensitive man who actually wrote some of his own stuff, too; we often begged him to read us his material. And he’s the one who poured Kim Addonizio on me for the first time.
Hearing him read “First Poem For You” was like someone throwing hot battery acid on my skin. What was once quiet, these little stretches of my heart, expanded. Here was a poem that spoke to me in a way that Dickinson, Shakespeare or Frost never could. Here were words that meant something, that resonated; here was contemporary poetry.
And I’ve never forgotten it.
In college, I went on to major in English Literature and entered into my university’s creative writing program, where I scribbled my own poetry and had it critiqued and graded by poets-as-professors and peers. In my four years in the English department, I thumbed through countless anthologies and heard a million sonnets, limericks and rhymes.
But nothing has superceded Addonizio’s “First Poem For You” in my mind; nothing can nudge it out as My Most Favorite Of All Poems Of All Time.
Eight years after first hearing it, I’m still reading — and loving — this poem. It morphs each time I scan it, offering me a little more than what I saw before. It’s about permanence, transience; about loving despite knowing that someday, it could all be ripped away. That it will be ripped away as things change and take shape. That we will change as our lives take shape.
But some things never change.
First Poem for You
I like to touch your tattoos in complete
darkness, when I can’t see them. I’m sure of
where they are, know by heart the neat
lines of lightning pulsing just above
your nipple, can find, as if by instinct, the blue
swirls of water on your shoulder where a serpent
twists, facing a dragon. When I pull you
to me, taking you until we’re spent
and quiet on the sheets, I love to kiss
the pictures in your skin. They’ll last until
you’re seared to ashes; whatever persists
or turns to pain between us, they will still
be there. Such permanence is terrifying.
So I touch them in the dark; but touch them, trying.
It’s one line that haunted me and haunts me still: “Whatever persists or turns to pain between us . . .” I’ve yet to find a more gorgeous moment in a poem. It’s work like this that, once again, makes me question whether I could possibly rip something that honest and real out of me. I hope to God I can.
Addonizio, who lives and writes in California, has authored two novels and five poetry collections, one of which — Tell Me — was nominated for a National Book Award. “First Poem For You” comes from her collection The Philosopher’s Club, published in 1994. Her website is www.kimaddonizio.com.