– by Jennifer Grant
On my seventh birthday, I was given Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. The cover is burgundy, the title in gold lettering. My mother’s message on the first page, dated 1974, is printed carefully, the way we write notes to small children so they won’t have trouble deciphering them. Such a gift, I was sure at the time, was only given to someone old enough to appreciate it. Owning it gave my life consequence.
I read the poems carefully, and I fell in love with Stevenson’s writing. For the poet, birds not only fluttered, but quarreled. (Yes, yes, yes—they did quarrel. I’d heard them out back in the willow tree out back for as long as I could remember.) Stormy nights were a man galloping by on a horse. Galloping, yes! I had fallen in love with poetry.
Years later, when I was a teenager, another poet named Robert captured my imagination. Robert Frost told stories in his poems as enthralling as any novel I’d ever read. I didn’t want the story to end in “The Death of the Hired Man.” I could see that “small sailing cloud” hit the moon. I knew Mary and Warren.
I could hear their argument:
“Warren,” she said, “he has come home to die:
You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.”
“Home,” he mocked gently.
“Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he’s nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.”
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”
In college, my friend Jon gave me Wendell Berry’s poetry collection The Wheel. Since I first read it, I leave the cover flap between pages 14 and 15 to mark “The Rising.” In it, the speaker, in his “awkward boyhood” follows the farmer up and down the rows. The elder works by “desire” while the younger works by “will,” after “having danced until nearly time to get up” the night before. “He troubled me to become / what I had not thought to be,” the younger man says.[i]
That phrase—like so many in the poems I’ve read—has become a part of me. I now read those words through the eyes of a parent: How can I trouble my children to become what they’ve not yet thought to be? I read them through the eyes of a believer: In what ways is God troubling me to become what I’ve not yet thought to be?
Ever thirsty for new poetry, for decades I’ve splurged, buying literary journals after seeking them out in expansive bookstore chains or in dim, dusty city bookshops. Opening a literary magazine, I page past fiction and essays, ever on the lookout for exquisite lines of poetry that catch me up in their melancholy or severe beauty.
I still love little literary magazines, but when I open an issue now, I skip past not only the prose but also the poems. I find myself interested in something I never used to read: the contributor notes. Now the writer autobiographies are what most capture my interest, even more than delicately crafted images or outpourings of love, hope, grief, or disbelief in the pages that precede them.
I read the contributors notes to discern how other writers craft a life by way of the classes they teach, the anthologies they publish, and the ideas, faith, and doubt that linger with them. I suppose it’s because I am starting to see the ways that my work, the friendships I’ve lost and gained, the jobs I’ve had, and the marriage and faith I tightly hold to are beginning to take shape.
The mystery of how lives and careers and bodies of work come together compels me, so I hurry straight to the back of the book, hungry for answers as I fit the shards of glass of my own life—the relationships, the writing, the convictions, and the memories—into a carefully constructed mosaic, the narrative my own life tells.
[i] Wendell Berry, “The Rising,” The Wheel (Place: North Point Press, 1982), 14.