Am I Poet Enough?
by Emily K. Michael
I crouch on the scratchy, monotonous carpet of a commercial bookstore and run my fingers along the scant volumes in the poetry section. I’m dissatisfied with the lack of variety and the cold texture of shiny metal shelves. The offerings are typical: Dickinson, Rimbaud, Oliver. An anthology edited by Garrison Keiller and something about poems for a rainy day. I shudder at a slim pink volume stamped with spidery hearts: Poems for Lovers. It fits in the palm of my hand, and I shove it aside.
Unable to read the spines at a glance, I pull each book from the shelf and scrutinize its cover. When the publisher’s design team has made poor decisions, I flip to a title page to find readable text. Low-contrast graphics and edgy meta-commentary fonts make it impossible for me to read many front covers. I push through the No Fear Shakespeares and the Billy Collins collections until I find a single copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
I wish I could say that I searched out Rilke from a deep personal drive or thorough knowledge of his other work. But he was recommended by a fellow English major, who was not herself a poet. To chase the thrill of finding a gem on the shelf, I pay for my little book of translated letters.
In a literal way, the book itself is hard to read. Pen in hand, I rely on a staple of the low-vision community: a glass dome magnifier. Heavy and cool to the touch, it captures light as it passes across the page, enlarging half a dozen words at a time. I move it back and forth, and lift it slightly when I want to annotate. I raise the dome for these lines:
“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator, there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”
Rilke calls the young poet to search everyday life for the seeds of poetry. The soul of these lines is the intense belief the poet must bring to her own experiences: belief that she has something to say, that language has the power to express it. Before she ever puts pen to paper, a poet puts faith in language.
A poet searches for the apt metaphor, the generous simile, the precise placement of words on the screen. A poet persists and revises and releases and performs. A poet invests in a tiny world on the page and populates it with gifts for the reader. Not every poem is warm, but at its heart, every good poem is hospitable. It invites the reader to share an experience.
I begin to attend not just to how I feel but what I observe. Tiny moments become extraordinary. My fiancé brings me a heart-shaped potato. The odd barking calls above the garage belong to a family of red-bellied woodpeckers. My mother puts a pristine gardenia in a small glass goblet on my desk. The late night train whistles near my house sound like jazz chords. I am starting, as Rilke promised, to call forth riches, and to recognize my role: calling others to attend. I have half of what I need.
On a late November evening, I take my black Labrador for his final outing in the backyard. The sharp air makes him frisky. He pulls and scampers at the end of a long braided leash. He gallops into the dark grass, just beyond the sullen glare of the floodlight. I hear him snuffling around the lawn chairs, the potted rosemary. He snorts, rolls in the grass, scents the air. His collar jingles, his body a soft concerto on the damp ground.
When he has finished exploring, he runs back to me. I shorten the leash so neither of us will trip on it. But a chilly wind sends him racing ahead and snatches the leash out of my hands. Now on the patio, we stand under the floodlight. The dog sees that I’ve dropped the leash, and he stops about three feet away from me. Light spills across his glossy black fur; he thrums with energy.
He slides into a play-bow, front paws bent and tail up. I reach for the leash. When my fingers brush the braided cords, he darts away, swinging the long leash behind him. He runs circles around me, knowing that my vision isn’t good enough to track the leash and grab it. I call him, and he continues to skip around the patio. Finally I take a few slow steps forward and follow the wall around to the back stairs. He runs behind me, still leaping, sniffing, almost gloating in his freedom. At the top of the stairs, he sits precisely and looks from me to the door. Once inside, he pads to his bed, nuzzles my hands as I remove his collar. He rolls on his side and sighs.
In my poetry, I can bring the leash, the training, and the commands. But to be poet enough, I must stand still and let the dog play.
About the Author
Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor from Jacksonville, FL. Since 2016, she has edited poetry for Wordgathering. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering, The Hopper, Artemis Journal, The South Carolina Review, The Deaf Poets Society, Nine Mile Magazine, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, Barriers and Belonging, and AWP Writer’s Notebook. Her first book Neoteny: Poems is out from Finishing Line Press; it includes a finalist for The Atlantis Award as well as a nominee for The Pushcart Prize. Emily’s work centers on ecology, disability, and music. She develops grammar workshops for multilingual learners and delivers poetry workshops for writers at all levels. She also curates the Blind Academy Blog. Emily is passionate about grammar, singing, birding, and guide dogs. Find more of her work at http://emilykmichael.com.
Read Emily K. Michael’s review of Stephen Kuusisto’s poetry collection, Old Horse, What Is To Be Done? in this issue of Wordgathering.