“First Poem For You” was the first poem for me

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But nothing has superceded Addonizio’s “First Poem For You” in my mind; nothing can nudge it out as My Most Favorite Of All Poems Of All Time.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.

Thank you to Serena of Savvy Verse & Wit for sponsoring the National Poetry Month Blog Tour! Visit her to read many other great posts on fabulous poets during the month of April.

the atlantic ocean makes a comeback

pen_journalLike cleaning out an attic, basement or bedroom, cleaning out the files on my flash drive is a daunting task! It’s impossible to tell what I’ll find on there: old novels, started then discarded; random photos I’ve culled into “collections” over the years; bits of story ideas, some developed; favorite quotes; graphics I’ve made for others, and for myself.

The most surprising thing I’ve found lately is a collection of poetry created in my senior year of college. During my final semester in the creative writing program, we were asked to compile our favorite works by poets both popular and unknown. I had a crazy time trying to narrow it down to less than twenty, but I did succeed — and I put them all in one Word document, making sure I had the fonts and spacing exactly similar for each one! That’s my editor OCD kicking in again.

Since printing out those poems and putting them in a folder two and a half years ago, I’d completely forgotten about my project — which I called “atlantic ocean.” I wasn’t into using capital letters then — including in my own name! — and I’d forgotten how different and serious I was! I guess that’s a byproduct of sitting around, writing poetry all day. Poets aren’t typically heel-clicking, cackling and ecstatic people. In fact, a lot of sallow-faced, beret-wearing scribblers come to mind! (For the record, I look terrible in hats — no beret for me.)

So who made the cut and was featured in Megan’s “atlantic ocean: an anthology”? Folks like Robert Frost , Billy Collins and Charles Simic, of course, but also outstanding writers like Li-Young Lee , Kim Addonizio and Galway Kinnell.

Poetry was once such an enormous part of my life, I would actually find myself “translating” life into poetry as I went about my daily nonsense! As I strolled across campus, sat down to have lunch or tapped a pen restlessly against a desk, I would try to pick out pieces of everyday living that made me question what I was or where I was going. Or just to look at something simple — something mundane — and examine it with fresh, open eyes. Since finishing my time in the English department and departing for the “real world,” my life-to-poetry translator device has been switched off like a basement light. I wonder how much of that was a conscious decision on my part and how much was merely life becoming, for a time, less interesting and less beautiful.

I wrote my first poem in two years this weekend and, though it’s certainly nothing to matte and frame, I’m proud of it. I’m proud that, for the first time in a long time, I parted my lips with something to say. Something that was real — something just for me. And finding this anthology buried in my files has only made the moment that much sweeter!

As fall is settling down into the crevices of every sidewalk, back yard and shopping mall, my life, too, is beginning again.

And I can’t talk about poetry without sharing poetry, so here are a few of my favorites from “atlantic ocean”:

Eating Together
by Li-Young Lee

In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.

Love Poem
by Linda Pastan

I want to write you
a love poem as headlong
as our creek
after thaw
when we stand
on its dangerous
banks and watch it carry
with it every twig
every dry leaf and branch
in its path
every scruple
when we see it
so swollen
with runoff
that even as we watch
we must grab
each other
and step back
we must grab each
other or
get our shoes
soaked we must
grab each other