During the feverish summer of 2014, I began to fall in love.
With a new person. And with poetry anew.
The person spoke of the Italian poetic tradition, of form and meter and rhyme. Of the memorization and recitation, of the de-emphasis of the page and written word in favor of the music of the medium, the music!
He challenged me—could the English language contain such beauty? Could English-language poetry sound so stunning? Could I memorize impressive English works and recite them for him?
I decided to stun him by memorizing “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath.
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
I kept the poem open on my phone to review it during every free moment of every day. I committed stanza by stanza to memory. When I began to mix up or forget lines, I’d force myself to start over, from the beginning.
I practiced reciting “Daddy” most often while driving.
After three weeks, I had it down. I did recite for this new person, relishing the most disturbing images and declarations. Plath is the poet, in my opinion, whose words truly sting.
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
I finished reciting “Daddy” and he said, “That wasn’t a poem. That was the raving of a madwoman.” We kissed on a bench at the waterfront.
I fell deeper into love and deeper into distress. Looking back a two years later, I should have been plain-spoken. I should have said things like, “Hey, can you stop describing your ex-girlfriend’s boobs to me? It makes me feel like you see women like objects. It makes me feel terrible about myself.”
But I didn’t choose plain speech. I chose poetry. I memorized and recited “sweet reader, flanneled and tulled” by Olena Kalytiak Davis next.
Bare-faced, flint-hearted, recoilless
Reader, dare you—Rare Reader, listen
and be convinced: Soon, Reader,
soon you will leave me, for an italian mistress:
for her dark hair, and her moon-lit
teeth. For her leopardi and her cavalcanti,
for her lips and clavicles; for what you want
to eat, eat, eat
On the Summer Solstice I took a long walk with a friend and fellow poet. I recited “Daddy” for her and she too delighted in each word. She implored me slow down, slow down while I spoke it.
She pulled up “sweet reader” on her phone and read it aloud. My brain cracked right open. Later I looked it up myself and was torn apart again, seeing those words spelled out.
It took me months to commit this one to memory. I made an audio recording of myself reading it and listened to my own recitation in the car.
Finally, I could recite it. I read it for this person I now loved, really loved, it was cemented. He was perplexed. “Such unusual grammar and punctuation,” he mused. “How can such a poem be read out loud?”
Art-lover, rector, docent!
Do I smile? I, too, once had a brash artless
feeder: his eye set firm on my slackening
sky. He was true! He was thief! In the celestial sense
he provided some, some, some
I identified with the pride of the speaker, with the acceptance of having a Reader now, past Readers, new Readers. I could be put down like a half-finished book by old lovers, and I could tempt the next one too.
I accepted my role as an object to be admired, dissected, and abandoned.
It made me feel unhinged and alone for months, until I cracked open again. I had no poem memorized to express myself. I could only say, plainly: I feel anger and resentment at being objectified and compared to your past possessions. I don’t want a Reader. I want a partner.
Months of cold war and meltdowns followed. I had to leave this Reader. I had to stop being an object.
I haven’t memorized a new poem in more than a year.
Now I have decided to memorize something without any agenda, other than: it is a beautiful work and it comforts me. Every day I am teaching myself to recite “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
How had I never committed this to memory before?
I first read it when I was 19 years old and preparing to study abroad. I hadn’t lost much in life. I was convinced that I would only learn to love more, could only experience more. I was greedy for more life. I wanted it all then and I couldn’t wait for life to change me.
I return to this poem more cautious and more familiar with loss. And yet I believe more strongly than ever in the power and necessity of poetry. Now I seek its power to heal.
Laura Eppinger graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA in 2008 with a degree in Journalism, and she’s been writing creatively ever since. She the blog editor here at Newfound Journal.