Turn to the Poets

Closing in on the end of a year of zombies, Mayan prophesies, dramatic elections, and abundant natural disasters and scandals, not to mention a cluster of unforeseen personal crises swirling in and around the lives of my friends and family (as well as my own), I’ve been thinking about the nature of fear. There seems to be so much of it out there, and I’ve certainly been in its grip.

I’m not talking about rational fear, like the kind that keeps you from driving recklessly on an icy road, or even fear for which you can identify a concrete source, reasonable or otherwise. I’m wondering about that pervasive, just-below-the-surface anxiety that seems to be pulsing through many more lives in many more societies lately.

Somehow, I’m not finding the answers I’m looking for among the usual chorus of economists, journalists, scientists, or other experts I read for cogent analysis on What’s Really Going On. An explanation that ties this policy decision to that law which enraged or elated this group and resulted in that media storm isn’t getting to the heart of the matter for me right now.

This is a job for poets.

In “Fear Poem,” Joy Harjo speaks to what makes fear so powerful:

. . . come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
of dying.

Clinging. Refusing to let go. Resistance to what is vibrant and alive, the perceived threat that vibrancy represents. On some level, fear is about imagining our annihilation, as if we are ever in a constant state of anything. We know that the only constant state is change, but fear is a clever magician that distracts us from our own knowledge. A magician that fears its own annihilation, too.

Though it makes me shudder, I love how Pablo Neruda pokes fear right in the eye and yanks off the veil shrouding the source.

From “The Fear“:

. . . I am afraid of everyone,
of the cold water,
of the death.
I am like all the mortals,
unavoidable.

And for that, in these short days
I am not going to pay attention to them,
I am going to open myself up and shut myself in
with my more perfidious enemy,
Pablo Neruda.

But what about the journey to the other side of fear? What about emerging after the wrestling match? Or the near-drowning, as Wendy Williams contemplates in “The Wave”?

The dark wave advances.
You can’t change it.
You can’t run away.

You know what to do.

Wait. The wave comes closer,
so close the curl hangs over your head
and you are breast to breast
with its force. Suck
in your breath and dive.

Dive deep beneath its lush dark center.
Pull, pull downward, kick hard
deeper                      deeper
feel the pressure crushing your chest
the power of Poseidon
the cold of the abyss.

When your lungs ache, and your head
can’t bear the grip of those massive hands,
and turbulence churns at the backs of your legs

blow out air slowly
stroke the long way upward,
snapping your legs like whips.
Trust your lungs will hold. Surface
and gulp that first great breath.

Then turn–the maelstrom
rolls swiftly from you, dark stretched sheet
blackly shining, breaks on shore
shaking your bones, shards of white flying:
It is only then you know you are safe.

Salt-scrubbed, brine-washed,
you float with the calm swells–
lifting and falling, lifting and falling–
sun glinting off anointed hair.

Yes, we do know what to do. Keep swimming.

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One thought on “Turn to the Poets

  1. What a great last line! It caught me be surprise and I found myself laughing. Maybe it was the contrast between the many specific directives in my poem and the simple one–“Keep swimming.” In any case, I love how you examine the different aspects of fear. If fear were dead, what would we have? What would we be? How we often drum up unnecessary fear because each of us can be her/his own worst enemy. And if we face the fear and glide through it–rebirth. Thanks for inviting me into such great writerly company, you included of course.

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