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Monday, June 22, 2009

Contributor Spotlight: Sarah Pape

What Comes After the Lightning

I have always described the moment the first line of a poem comes as being hit by lightning. Larry Levis mused that “it seems to me that any poetry, any realized “making,” comes almost directly from some kind of actual center, some location of energy” (69). Where does a poem come from? What is the culminating force that brings language from the ether and onto the page? To test the truth of my description of invention, I began reading narratives of those that had survived the experience of being “struck.”

Most lightning survivors describe a heinous amount of physical pain, in some cases, being burned from the inside out, or becoming a conductor for the electrons, as one woman had it enter her ear and exit through her big toe. Most folks who are struck are doing fairly mundane activities—unloading groceries, talking on the phone, or strolling through an open space. Afterward, many are left with debilitating health problems like loss of hearing, chronic pain, and physical scarring. But more intriguingly, a few are left with a “gift”—or a power that was not accessible to them before the incident. One person described that she now has a deep intuition about storms, and has a sensation when clouds pass over her that the electricity has been amplified and she can feel the potential lightning inside them.

Some days I know a poem is coming. Like those mornings when you know for certain upon waking up that you are going to cry that day. You don’t yet know the shape of what will trigger your weeping, but it is there, crouched low.

Jane Hirshfield writes that “[p]oems do not make appointments with their subjects—they stalk them, keeping their distance, looking slightly off to one side. And when at last the leap comes, it is most often also from the side, the rear, and overhead perch; from some word-blind woven of brush or shadow or fire” (107-8). Most of my poems come like uninvited houseguests, flushed and ready to talk into the night, while I am just getting ready to leave for some dental work. I will be back in an hour, I insist. But they grow impatient and are never there when I return.

And then sometimes, my poems slap me, in a good way. Let’s say I am in my chaos brain, numbers and lists and names ticking across my inner windshield as I am driving too fast to the airport to get to the meeting that I am not prepared for. This is the last place one would think to find creative spark. But then I let my eyes wander to the flooded rice fields that quilt the highway, and as if queued, hundreds of geese lift simultaneously. The sky is the pink of a baby’s ear, and I am shocked into a first line. “A cursive of geese…” begins the poem, and I pull the car over obligingly.

Last week, we had a real lightning storm. It began at around 10:30 in the evening with a few low grumbles that could’ve been mistaken for some muffler-less truck. I had a fever of 102 degrees. The thunder claps and lightning flashes started coming with no pauses between. My husband, who, simply put, has less fear than the average person, opened all the doors and windows, running in and out, flushed, exclaiming that this was the most amazing thing he’d ever witnessed. Glancing quickly at our daughter, he revised, most amazing natural phenomena he’d ever witnessed.

They sat in our garden together on a weathered bench, prehistoric zucchini fronds all around their legs, leaned against one another, watching the sky fracture and illuminate. From inside, I felt like the storm was within my body; each crash starting as a low tumble far off, gaining speed and sound until it seemed to split and explode just inside my ribcage. It was surreal. And it was terrifying.

Gregory Orr questions, “We are creatures whose volatile inner lives are both mysterious to us and beyond our control. How to respond to the strangeness and unpredictability of our own emotional being?” (4) As I lay there, pinned to the bed by sickness, my singular thought was my fear of my only child and dearest love being bludgeoned with electricity. I had been reading the lightning victims’ survival narratives, and knew that statistically, there was only a 20% chance that they would survive to tell about the agony of their toenails falling off. In my feverish state, I could not join them, and be stunned into the afterlife along with them. I had to lie in my bed and listen, let the paparazzi of flashes pass over my tightly shut eyes, sweating and shivering.

The next day, I shakily emerged from the sick bed and went out into our garden. It seemed to have taken on a more verdant hue. The plants looked enthusiastic—revivified. Our neighbor, an unofficial farmer, told me through the chain link fence that lightning helps the nitrogen in the air dissolve into the water, supercharging the plant’s roots with a natural fertilizer.

Life is very difficult sometimes. On occasion, we are heartbroken, bankrupted, maimed and sickened by the experiences and losses that pervade us. This is the lightning, I think now—the unexpected bolt of devastation that comes when you are not asking, not expecting such a thing. We are left with all sorts of evidence to show that we’ve come through the loss. Lightning survivors are sometimes left with a scar that shows the electron pattern that was burned into their skin. The scars look precisely like fern patterns. They are quite beautiful.

Poetry is what comes after. The lines and phrases and metaphors come emboldened with the excitement of a resurrection. We suddenly realize we are alive to tell about it, and the alchemy of language is the magic at hand. A deeply felt recognition comes with this art. Tell me the places you’ve come from. Help me see.

A poet friend calls me at random times, leaving long messages when I don’t answer. I hear him inhale the smoke from his cigarette, and he’ll ask, as if I am there to answer him, “Can I read you this poem?” I hear the shuffle of his pages, and he begins. Wherever I am when I finally get the message, I hear his voice, and I sit down and listen. I’ve begun recording the lines that come to me at random times into my cell phone. I tell myself the story of the poem and then stumble through the words that accompany it, hoping that when I return to it, the energy will still be present.

Hirshfield, Jane. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. New York, New York: HarperPerennial, 1997.
Levis, Larry. The Gazer Within. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001.
Orr, Gregory. Poetry As Survival. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2002.
Sarah Pape teaches and writes in the Northern California community of Chico, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She has been published in The Southeast Review, Watershed, and was recently included in the anthology, Cadence of Hooves: A Celebration of Horses, published by Yarroway Mountain Press. A series of her poems appears in HFR #44.


Beth Staples said...

Sarah: This is so beautiful! Thanks so much for writing this! -Beth

R. Mark Hall said...

Your prose is as lovely, as carefully wrought as your poetry. If I could only curl up in your lap during the next lightening storm. --Mark

Suzan Jantz said...

Sarah is intuitive, creative, and dedicated to listening for that oftentimes enigmatic inner-voice. She is brilliant in her ability to share her wisdom. Thank you to Hayden's Ferry Review for giving space to Sarah's poetic voice.