Poetry felt to me like kale: something you knew was good for you; something you knew you should like; something that people you respected, people in the know, liked; but something you were certain — no, convinced — you would never have a taste for. Until one night, nearly a year ago.
It was December. The windows of the Antioch University – Los Angeles library opened onto the blackness of nightfall despite it being only minutes past 5:30 pm. The library’s wooden chairs were packed side by side, ten rows of ten chairs, all facing the not-yet-occupied podium at the front of the room. MFA students, their families, the speakers’ families, mentors, and others interested in hearing written words spoken aloud crammed themselves, with their purses and backpacks, into the tight rows of chairs and turned to chat with the people behind them. I assumed that those in the front row were the speakers. I could almost feel their butterfly-stomach anxiety as they sat erect, waiting for their turn.
I took the end seat about eight rows from the podium. An outside seat allowed for a quick escape — and more leg room. I propped my maroon backpack filled with books and notebooks at the side of my chair, sat quietly and waited.
Soon someone stood and made introductions. Three students read their work aloud. The audience clapped. I wondered how I would be able to stand at the front of a room like this in a couple of years when it was my turn to finish the program. Someone else stood. This time the introductions were for the guest faculty member who was slated to read from her work that evening. Poetry.
I squirmed in my seat, considered escaping, but took a breath instead, and resettled my pelvis and legs in the chair. I hoped this reading would soon be over.
The evening’s poet, Ada Limón, stood straight up in one fluid motion, walked the three feet to the podium, and turned to face the audience. I saw a woman, maybe forty years old, with long straight black hair, a green skirt, and a white blouse, tucked in. She opened a book and read two poems — eliciting ooohs, aaaahs, and murmurs from the audience. I was unmoved, sat quietly, not really curious, eager to leave.
And then she started poem number three. It felt powerful but didn’t grab hold of any piece of my body, mind, life experience — until the poem began describing the sound of a wound closing; how a dog besotted by a canine illusion of love might run after a truck, the object of its affections; how the poet, wanting her beloved dog to live forever, pulls on the leash to keep it safe. The poem then reached its climax — equating the lovelorn canine with people who rush toward “the thing that will obliterate us, begging for love…”
That Ada Limón poem is titled The Leash, and, hearing it, I was stunned. Far too often I have been that dog running after those pickup trucks, hoping they will finally stop, turn and actually see me, recognize me and finally, finally, love me. I am that girl who ran after her mother, trying to be good enough, enthusiastic enough, hoping that finally, finally that cold unsmiling face would turn and smile, recognize my own small self and smile at me. I am that six-year-old girl who wanted to offer her mother a love gift of the proud drawings she made in school but instead threw them into the trashcan before she got home, knowing for sure her mother would criticize them and throw them away herself. I am that girl who yearned for those mother arms to soften, bend, stoop down, encircle me, love me, help me feel safe. I am that woman who ran after men, thrust myself on them, hoping against hope that they would change from tough, roaring males into warm, softer humans. I am that woman hurtling my body, over and over, toward things that will hurt me, trying my entire life to change what is incapable of loving into something that will love me.
As Limón’s poem opened the door to that understanding, tears ran down my cheeks. But I realized, as well, that the dog/girl/woman hurtling toward that which is unloving is not all I am. I am also the woman who holds the leash, the person who says, Don’t die. I want you to survive forever. I want you to live.
The poem, the dog, the woman holding the leash — they showed me my life history. I understood more in those few lines than in all the research I had done about psychological abuse, why I repeatedly found myself connected with inappropriate, uncaring partners. I understood why I was attracted to my ex-husband, why I stayed with him longer than I should have, and the path toward ending that pattern. I remember now the times he humiliated me by speaking disrespectfully to me in front of my colleagues, and the ways that, over time, I lost confidence in myself. I remember the day he threatened me with a knife and how, like the poem says, I could finally find the strength to “yank the leash back” to save my own life and execute the necessary tasks of leaving him, finding a new place to live, moving out, starting over.
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung would have called the dog a symbol of my complex, a core pattern of emotions, memories, perceptions, and wishes in the unconscious mind, based in trauma and organized around a common theme, in this case a theme of trying too hard to get love from those unable to give it. A complex, I tell my clients, is like a tsunami. It can wash over you from deep in the unconscious, take over your thoughts and feelings. You feel like you are drowning. But when you find a way to raise your head above the waves, you can help yourself. You can have a relationship with the water, the wave, the complex, but you are none of those completely. You are the woman holding the leash. Sometimes you and your complex can walk peacefully together — for a time, at least.
Three months after I heard Limón read The Leash, I attended the Association of Writers and Poets annual conference in Portland, Oregon, and made a pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books. Navigating the multi-colored rooms of the largest independent book store in the world, I found the poetry section, where, after leafing through several volumes, I selected three slim books of poetry that would easily fit in my backpack and bought them, the first books of poetry I’d ever purchased.
I found myself thinking about poetry as if considering a new friendship. I imagined these things about my new friend: that poetry calls for a physical relationship, that it should be something I can hold in my hand in solid book form. That poetry is a visual medium, the shapes, lengths of lines, and line breaks contributing to the meaning. That, even with their slim profiles, my new poetry volumes still need a home on the wooden shelf next to my bed, ready to be pulled out, read one poem at a time, digested while I sleep. A poem isn’t a once-and-for-all experience. It is something that lies there, waiting for me to dive into its depths, perhaps many times, like a deep-ocean explorer.
I still don’t trust myself with poems. I don’t know them. They are strangers.
But still, there is this…
Before hearing Ada Limón’s poem, I understood my life in one way. After listening to her words, I saw my life differently.
And yet: even now, after my encounter with The Leash, after writing material that chronicles my suffering and survival from abuse, after my life has moved on and I am mostly content with my days full of friendship and blessing, I sometimes wish my ex were sitting in my living room with his coffee; that, a cup of tea in hand, I could sit across from him on the orange, red, white, and green-striped Mexican blanket; that we could talk about the spiritual teachings of Indian mystics like Sadhguru and Amma, about zen and sitting practice. I wish we could meditate together, talk about our dreams, stare at the blue Arizona sky with its white puffy clouds. I wish we could relax together in the intimate knowing of our bodies.
One day I stood in my empty living room and loudly yelled out the zen syllables – ya! – eh! – toe! – the way my ex taught me, one of the many mystical practices I learned from him as my spiritual teacher, this one designed to release negativity and activate the energy in my lower belly or Hara. When the last syllable ‘toe’ reverberated in my belly, I broke out in sobs. Grief. Loss. I still missed the poetry of our life together, his laughter and his smooth talking, his encouragement and his wisdom. I missed eating dinner together. I missed his genitals hanging out of his boxer shorts and the way his hips swayed when he danced in our living room. I missed our conversations. Because we both knew no one else ‘got us’ in the spiritual ways we shared. I wanted all of that back. I can’t have it — because of the things I did not miss: being dismissed, degraded, criticized, threatened. I wanted him to wake up and recognize the ways he was controlling and manipulative, punishing and hurtful and mean. I wanted him to change. I wanted him to want to change. I wanted him to love me.
Inside my brain and heart, I was still that dog chasing the garbage truck every morning, hoping that hard metal abusive corrosive thing would love me back.
Don’t die, my leash-holding inner self screams at me. Sometimes I listen.