The Power of Poetry: A Tale for Valentine’s Day

by Ken Seide | February 2018

This is a tale of two poems and the power of poetry.

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On my first date with E. (we had met before at an event), we read each other poetry. This was four years ago, in 2014. I can’t remember how we came to decide that both of us should bring a poem to read. I brought “Pond in the River” by Pat Schneider. I had come across it 17 years earlier and had taped it into a notebook that I now know is called a commonplace book.

This is how it goes:

Pond in the River
by Pat Schneider

Go to that place in the river, daughter,
where the waters of sorrow
meet the waters of joy
and you yourself are the only rider
in the small boat of your life.
You will find a pond in the river
where the water is deep, and creatures
you thought were extinct still remember
your name. Wait quietly for them;
they have guarded your answers.
Do not paddle.
They will rise to the surface like shadows.
Their eyes are lovely with longing.

(Pat has graciously given me permission to reprint her poem.)

E. loved the line “Do not paddle.” Her face lit up, she smiled, and she repeated that line knowingly.

But romance did not last. Things went badly with E., then ended badly. That’s where the second poem comes in. This one, I wrote. It was published, first online in Napalm and Novocain, A. J. Huffman’s former site for breakup poems, and then in print, in Storm Cycle 2015: The Best of Kind of a Hurricane Press, where Huffman collected her favorites from all of her sites. My poem is called “Taxonomy of Breakups.” Here’s the introduction:

Did you see the breakup coming?
How were the two of you before the breakup?
Who broke up with whom?
Are you in touch after the breakup?
Are you over the breakup?

In the poem, I ran through four breakups. The answer to the last question was generally: No, you miss her and it hurts. E. was the fourth and most recent breakup. Here is what I wrote about her:

4.
You knew that breaking up was possible, because
she and you kept threatening to do it.
Things began joyously
(on your first date, you read each other poetry,
you gave her a necklace you had made from a Noah’s Ark charm),
then degenerated.
We unleashed fears in each other, like dogs bounding up from the cellar.
The breakup was mutual; so was the regret.
You told her that you would erase her messages without reading them.
She still sends emails and texts,
which you erase without reading.
You miss her and it hurts.

I wrote the poem in 2014 (it was published in 2015); I’m not sure how long E. continued to email and text me after I wrote it.

Four years went by. It was 2018 and I was half-heartedly trying to date. I was meeting various women for coffee and walks. I had met one woman online, a  documentary-maker who taught storytelling at a prestigious university, we had talked on the phone, and we agreed to meet for coffee. By text, I suggested that she bring a story that mattered to her, to read or tell. I would do the same. As an afterthought, I suggested that we both bring poems to read. “Interesting,” she texted back, and she agreed, although not enthusiastically.

I went to pick my poem. I thought about “Pond in the River,” leaned against it, then picked it again. These are the thoughts that I went through: This isn’t exactly my first-date modus operandi: reading poems to each other. This is only the second time I’ve done it, and the first time was four years ago. I really do like “Pond in the River.” I don’t believe that reading it will summon bad karma to this date. And plenty of people, after a breakup, return to restaurants they had frequented with their former lovers and order their favorite dishes, dishes they had shared. If people can do that, I can read “Pond in the River” again.

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On Martin Luther King’s Birthday, we sat on stools, this woman and I, in Athan’s in Brookline, a coffee and pasty store that also bills itself as a chocolatier, which I find so civilized and European. We conversed in a private spot by the front door. Eventually, I began to read “Pond in the River.” When I got to “Do not paddle,” I heard E. in my mind repeating that line that delighted her. I pushed her voice aside and finished the poem.

Ten or twenty minutes later, E. walked by. She had been inside Athan’s. She smiled and waved  and left. She lives near Framingham. In other words, these were not her stomping grounds.

A few hours later, she emailed me. This time, I didn’t delete it. How could I not read her email after that cosmic coincidence, after I had summoned her with “Pond in the River” and “Do not paddle”? She suggested dinner. I agreed.

When we met five days later, we were candid about what had scared us four years before. I had even had a short list to make sure that I told her everything. I was a bit horrified to see myself through her eyes. I read “Pond in the River” to her for the second time. I explained what I had been doing in Athan’s and the power of “Do not paddle.” After nearly four hours of conversation, we closed down the restaurant. We were still wary of each other, but willing to see what would happen.

E. dislikes labels, for people and situations. An observer would say that some time in the week that followed dinner, we started being a couple again. The wariness had evaporated; our fears, allayed. Nine days after that dinner, I was at the Post Office, buying “Love” stamps to mail her cards with. Three days before Valentine’s Day, I bought her roses.

It’s not that we picked up where we left off. We began anew in a better place. We are four years older, better communicators, better forgivers. We know the stakes, as we did four years ago – a breakup – but we knew what we didn’t know then: the longing would long linger, the missing wouldn’t stop soon, something forceful had pulled us into each other’s orbits twice. We are much gentler with each other.

I knew that poetry is powerful. I didn’t know that it could conjure up a lost lover and give us a second chance. I called Pat Schneider, the poet of “Poem in the River,” in Amherst and told her the story. Her reaction? She emailed me:

It sounds like you and E are for now in “a pond in the river.”  I wonder about the person long ago who gave those beautiful words to a place in Maine.  I think we are all poets now and then in using our own voices in their own music, rhythm, grace.  May you and E, refusing to paddle, make your ways safely home.

May I leave you with advice that I don’t even understand? That’s one thing about poetry, right? We don’t have to understand it to repeat it. My advice: Do not paddle.

Ken Seide is the pen name of a poet and writer in Newton.