“I run my fingers over her keyboard and suddenly it all starts up
With a tinkling sound the music begins, then speeds up more and more…”
–Reinaldo Arenas, The Parade Ends
Depending on its assigned purpose and on how it is carried out– as in not designed to create havoc or manifest malice in the life of another– a ritual can be a very good thing. It can reinforce commitment to a life-empowering philosophy, provide the courage needed to take a major step in your life, or reaffirm one’s individual sense of self-worth and integrity.
A favorite ritual of many writers is to engage in a small-or sometimes large–celebration in honor of the publication of one of their works. He or she might splurge on the gift of a brand new designer pen, allow themselves a taste of decadence in the form of a thick slice of six-layered Tuxedo Truffle Mousse Cake, or just take the afternoon off to quietly wallow in the triumph of the moment.
I happen to be such a writer and at present I am observing gratitude for the current publication of my work in two different periodicals. The new Literary Savannah magazine published my poem “All Night in Savannah the Wind Wrote Poetry,” and Connect Savannah weekly news magazine published a personal essay with a poem under the title A Poem for a Poet. If the circumstances were different the simultaneous publication of these works might have been taken as permission to indulge in laziness for a day or two, or at the very least to step outside the self-imposed box of everyday routine and take a chance on discovering, if not creating, something new under our ever-faithful sun.
My usual ritual, however, fell apart this time around before it could get started. The instinct to celebrate the publication of either of my works was short circuited because each is a kind of elegy composed to commemorate lives lost unexpectedly. Some were lost to the community-shattering violence that exploded out of an unhinged mind. One of them was lost to “natural causes” at the age of forty, in that last season of youth in which so many re-evaluate the nature of the road traveled thus far in their life and prepare anew for whatever journey remains ahead.
The poem “All Night in Savannah the Wind Wrote Poetry” was first written in response to the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. At the time, it felt rewardingly powerful to raise my voice on behalf of those no longer able to raise their own. The problem this time around was that the poem had already done its elegiac duty in regard to Virginia Tech, and like a soldier surprised by back-to-back deployments to Iraq and then Afghanistan, suddenly found itself bearing witness to the murder of a little girl born on September 11, 2001, a federal judge, and four other unsuspecting innocents. Serving as acknowledgment for more than one soul-numbing tragedy had not been the plan–it just happened that way because history had insisted on repeating itself in an extremely heartbreaking dystopic manner in Tucson, Arizona, at the very beginning of this New Year 2011.
The original title for my double-genre piece in Connect Savannah was Clinton D. Powell and Savannah’s Eternal Literary Flame. The poem was titled separately A Poem is a Clinton D. Powell. For their purposes, the editors wisely shortened the title for the combined pieces to A Poem for a Poet and honored the subject by placing the poem and essay directly across from Editor-in-chief Jim Morekis’ weekly editorial. When I picked up a copy of the paper and saw it, I thought, Wow, you would have liked this Clinton. And then: I’m glad I autographed that book and sent it to you while you were still in the hospital but now I’m sorry I didn’t bring it to you myself because I really believed we were going to get together a little later and talk about it and this year’s poetry festival and damn, how could I have been so wrong? I really really believed… But now this elegy and essay will have to do.
Coming to terms with such realizations have a way of rearranging priorities and redefining rituals meant to function as celebrations. I’ve had to tweak my perspective and remind myself that in this new 21st-century world of international terrorism, war, and homegrown madness, private intentions often collide with public realities in very disturbing ways. The real problem, I concluded, may have been that my celebration had gotten underway long before I became aware of it. I was late, so to speak, for my own party.
As delicious an experience as eating a thick slice of six-layered Tuxedo Truffle Mousse Cake may be, it suddenly seemed that perhaps the better ritual and the more important celebration had started the moment I recognized lives other than my own were worth honoring with a collage of words earnestly dedicated to their memory as opposed to simply ignoring them because our fates had been different.
What the late author Reinaldo Arenas called “that incessant tap-tap” of the keyboard had provided the music to which my life danced in some semblance of harmony with that of others’ simply by laboring to affirm the value of our shared humanity. With the search for the right words and tone to communicate the most brutally beautiful truth, even the most silent anxious breath became a masterful song for the way it sang life into existence from one determined moment to the next. This ritual of writing was a very good thing in and of itself because it allowed me, and helped others, to confront the devastating agonies of being in this world while simultaneously confirming its possibilities for the extraordinary joy that some call ecstasy. Perhaps just reaching that moment and claiming it was the best celebration of all.