SLEEPING WITH POETRY
Thirty years ago I started to sleep with Poetry. Actually, it happened some time earlier when, at the age of 10, I had my first poem published in a children's magazine. But that didn't count. I was then too young for ove.
It's a shame, but I don't remember the place or the occasion when we met for the first time. I guess it must have been a library. My mother asked me what I was doing with a 2,000-year-old lady, still beautiful, but with such a bad reputation that every man in the world could have confessed he'd been in her arms at least once. But I wasn't jealous at all, and even enjoyed spotting Poetry's fingerprints on some other man's skin. I wasn't even jealous when she fell deeply in love with women: somebody told me that poets are men with women's hearts. Honestly, Poetry never promised to be faithful, any more than I promised her that I'd never have anything to do with her best friends Fiction, Drama, and Essay.
Seeing passion and commitment in my eyes, my mother wondered what secret power that older woman had to keep me away from a decent life, even after Poetry told me she'd never make me rich, happy and, or a first-class citizen. Instead, she offered me insecurity. I was OK with that. "What a bitch", my mother said, coming back from the library, where she had tried to learn more about the woman's background. "What a manipulative personality &endash; she's got 100 faces. She can make people go to war, she can make a child go to sleep, she can make you dance, she can make you cry."
Listening to his wife, my father heckled that Poetry was a typical woman, except that she lacked my mother's bad temper. I told her that if Borges, the wisest of poets, could be trapped in Poetry's arms after she told him "I am trying to bribe you with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat", why not me? I tried to escape as my father pretended not to hear my mother screaming after me, "But he was a blind man !"
I understood her suspicion, since in my entire family the only figure connected with literature was the great Russian writer Maxim Gorky. Returning on a slow train from Russia on his way back to Bosnia at the beginning of the last century, my grandfather had spent seven days chatting with Gorky. What they talked about nobody knew. But after that, deeply impressed with writers, my grandfather named his first grandson "Gorky". Later on, thinking that his name didn't suit his character (Gorky means "bitter"), my poor cousin wanted to change it.
Closely watched by my mother, who was planning a medical career for me, I was in love with Poetry before anyone discovered the fact. And people in love watch the world through the heart, not through the eyes. If I were a doctor, I'd notice that Poetry couldn't care less whether my rent was unpaid. A bank clerk could afford to tell me that counting the lines in poem is not the same as a counting the money in a cash register.
Gwendolyn Mac Ewen once asked a bank for a loan, bringing along all her published books of poetry as security. She was told that her books were worth nothing. What a shame for her readers. Poetry couldn't care less when a publisher pays you by giving you some of your own books. The mathematics seems to be :If you give me 10 I'll make you happy by giving you back 3.
As long as I sleep with Poetry I'll feel that everybody is trying to convince me that she's a worthless parasite, close enough to be recognized but always a stranger. But how come the main events in human life cannot pass without Poetry? For centuries the entrance to life of a newborn baby was celebrated with Poetry, and first love without Poetry is like a church bell without a clapper. What would a wedding be without a love poem, and there no respectable person's gravestone exists without lines of poetry carved in stone. Even great leaders and the stupidest politicians don't miss the opportunity to quote poetry if they want to sound smart.
But my mother never quit going on about my strange love, nagging at me to give up Poetry and find a decent job. She never stopped. Ask my father. He wanted to have only one son and then ended up with four.
"Look at this, " my mother said, pointing to a newspaper article about the love for Poetry some of the world's worst dictators had. "Stalin, Hitler, Pinochet, they loved Poetry too and they were torturing people at the same time !" Yes, mother, but imagine how much Poetry helped prisoners to survive jail, and how many of their poems live on, fingering the dictators.
My mother's last try came when she paid a visit to a psychiatrist to consult him about my obsession. Was I a psycho, a maniac or, God forbid, gay? At first she thought that the poetry books on the shelves in the waiting room were the equivalent of a "10 Most Wanted" poster in a police station. Then the psychiatrist, deadly serious, asked her if she could pass his poetry manuscript on to me and maybe recommend it to a publisher.
Poetry taught me first how to tear up a page with a bad poem before she taught me what a bad poem is. From her I learned the art of persuasion, little driving tricks like how to signal a left turn and then drive right.
Without her I wouldn't know that "Life is something that happens when you think that nothing is happening." Without her I'd still be thinking more about the forest than about a tree. Thanks to her I learned to jump up from a chair when reading some beautiful lines in a book. But I also learned how to be sad. And how to smile. She made me a better person.
Poetry had nothing against my getting married and siring two children.
She didn't ask me to stop pipe smoking because of lung cancer or to quit drinking beer in favour of fruit juice. She wasn't jealous if I had pleasure with another woman but she'd come to me when my loneliness was unbearable.
"That's a perfect relationship," my father said, cautiously watching whether my mother was around.
For her part, my mother said, "Big deal. You could learn the same stuff as a doctor".
But when my mother was close to her end she asked me if I would write something nice on her gravestone. She didn't mention Poetry. But I know that's what she meant.