My friend, Lucille, had gone, for a semester or two, to teach graduate students in poetry at Columbia University. As her time there was drawing to an end, one of the young women in her workshop offered her some advice: "You should stop writing about slavery and being Black and start writing about something more relevant."
I live in a town of bells. I have always lived in a town of bells, and they have rung in the precise hours and half-hours of my life, both in childhood and now in what I hope are the middle years of a long life. Even when the town was dark with no power, or frozen into place in winter, the bells sounded with their strange music which reverberated long after the ringing had stopped. I can be sitting on the summer porch with my husband now, talking amiably of the quotidian pleasures of the day, or reading alone, wholly-lost in a book, but when the bells ring, I am aware: one hour has ended – with all its pain and pleasure, all its joy and sorrow – and the next one is beginning.
In times like these – war-torn times, tattered-glory times, times when the old dog-eared quarrels are returned to again and again, time of blood-feuds and gang-wars, times of the pink slip and the lay-off, times of the still-born and the miscarried and the ill-conceived, times of bad news blowing to shore and swamping the city, times of the earth shifting wildly in its tectonic bed – in times like these, it seems sometimes like the poets have gone a little insane, or at least a little irrelevant, locked as they are, into their work or gathering in workshops, intently extolling the merits of well-forged metaphor or getting all fire-eyed about enjambment and "the line." How obsessively they work, in the halls of academia, to perfect their poems. To make them less subjective. To put them through the white-hot forge of "objectivity" and purge them of the too-specific, the too-personal and too-emotional.
As if anything brought forth from such imperfect creatures could be scoured-clean of the historical moment in time in which the poet has lived, as if it could be swept clean of all the minute imperfections, the little flaws, ragged edges, fraying seams that are a person's life. Honestly, sometimes composing a poem seems, to me, a gesture of self-indulgence – stern evidence of the old "art-for-art's-sake" we've often been accused of – someone fiddling while the city burns.
I am aware, tonight, of the ridiculous figure I would seem – were anyone looking – hunched here at my desk, smudging out words, mumbling to myself, scribbling in the margins, rearranging rhythms by lamplight, working and reworking the poem towards music, relentlessly nudging it towards the unsayable something I sense behind the words while the little town sleeps and dreams beneath the streetlights, while the new moon fingers the blossoming tree below my window and, far-off in the inky blackness of deep space, the stars flicker on and off. When I pause and look up from my solitary work, I can almost hear the Void yawning out there beyond the stars; it's enough to send any poet, shuddering, back to the white page. But it isn't the Great Silence out there that makes me hesitate tonight. It isn't even the chronic schizophrenia I step into and out of as I move back and forth between my public teaching life and my solitary writing life. What startles me tonight is the town's church bell ringing in the hour: one a.m.
I think of other writers, in their own moments in history, who must have hunched over the page like this, troubled by the world, troubled by what to do or say, knowing or not knowing their places in it all. Neruda. Ahkmatova. Hemingway. And tonight I think too of my dead friend, Lucille, who was also a poet – a friend who, one sunny spring morning sang along with me all the words perfectly – not one missed word – to the Methodist Church bells in that way only a good ex-Baptist can:
Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer, that calls me from a world of care. . . .
I also remember tonight – with an old sadness rising – how, on that particular morning, one of the "cares" of our day had been that stubborn waitress in a local restaurant who would NOT refill Lucille's coffee cup when she stopped by the table to refill mine, a woman who had made a show of turning her back to my friend and asking me what she wanted for breakfast. I am remembering how Lucille's face fell and how her eyes dropped to her silverware, the way a chastised child might look. I recall, too, the swift up-flare of anger in me then, that old anger from my childhood in the South. And I remember my response to that waitress, "She speaks, you know. Ask her yourself." Thus adding fuel to the fire of the incendiary moment we were in, not really helping anything. Pushed into a corner again and swinging my way out of it.
Isn't this what my friend had been trying to say, to talk about, in those poems she wrote? To convey a lifetime of moments like this one. To forgive, even. To understand and move through. All her life. Maybe this was why people shifted uncomfortably in the rooms and auditoriums when she read her Memphis poems, when she made it so clear, so evident, that her people were still living in the hard wake of those old inequities and histories and bigotry that the old ancestors had lived in. Maybe it was why that young woman believed she could tell Lucille that her writing was becoming "irrelevant." It's too simple, sometimes, to see Lucille as an exception to the life her people had lived, were still tangled in, and too unnerving to think that she also endured what they had. Many times. I don't believe for a moment that this was the only time my friend ever had such moments in her life. It just happened to be one I'd been, suddenly, privy to.
We'd finished our breakfast quietly then and had gone out again into Lexington Park. We'd been driving, stunned and uncomfortable, towards campus when the church bells had begun. We'd both gone stock-still, startled by the ringing. Affected, as my grandmother was wont to put it. Lucille had started singing along to the old hymn and then I'd joined in, too: two women in a little blue car, singing. When the bells had gone silent again, we'd laughed at ourselves. (We could do that, too.) And when we'd finished laughing, we'd talked about how poetry had become, for us, the only prayer we had left that seemed at all redemptive, that poems we read and loved had become – somewhere along the way in our sometimes-difficult, sometimes-incomprehensible lives – a place where we were sustained, a place in which we could fully live, in darkness and in light. And we've had some good company in that strange country.
Then, in some fit of silliness, which happened a lot when we were together, I shouted in mock Southern Baptist fervor from behind the wheel of that blue Escort, "Oh, God-bell, set me ringing!" And Lucille had, uncharacteristically, leaned out the window and shouted, "Me too! Me too!"
Poets like the two of us, I suspect, were not destined to be reliable or functional as metronomes. Nor, I suspect, did we really wish our lives to be the steady tock-tocking by which others ordered their lives, setting time in place, arranging the tedious schedules of coming and going neatly. I think people like us are more kindred to bells and tuning forks: mostly idle, mostly sitting peaceably by waiting for something to set us thrumming again, whatever that particular "something" happened to be. We took whatever came to us. We were grateful, even when that "whatever" seemed more a mixed blessing than anything else.
Every time a bell began, we were hearing, I think, something familial, something set off in us by that old resonance of metal to metal. A bell, after all, is not plastic. Nor is its clapper wooden. Metal striking metal. Something hollowed out, reverberating with the striking. Something shuddering and resonating wildly to being struck or pulled or tipped into the air. That is the kind of poets we were, are. It's one of the ways we recognized our kindredness to each other, how we knew what manner of thing we were, of what we were made, where we were bound and to what.