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A Love So Strong It Nails You to the World: A Life in Poetry

                                    Traci Brimhall


Love makes fools of us all—let’s say that first. It demands our vulnerability, our sacrifice, and often our humiliation. This is not where I meant to begin, but now that I am here, I want what I’m saying to be true. I want to find the most honest and terribly alive thing within myself and place it here. Maybe it’s silly to say love matters—of course it does—but it never fails to astound. And isn’t that what we’re here for? Isn’t that why we keep coming back to beauty? To be remade by wonder again and again?

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In one version of my origin story, I am born to be a poet. I write stories as a child. I fold construction paper in half, I draw, I color, I make. I don’t know why I love imagination so much. Perhaps I knew then, even before I’d survived anything, that the ability to feel was powerful. I like this version of the story because it comforts me to think I’m becoming the person I am meant to be.

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A flaming sword above paradise will lead you to a forbidden gate. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here will lead you through a gate and down to a lot of unhappy Italians. Mellon will open the door in the mountain and into Moria. My mother once told me that when I wanted to find the village where she grew up, I should, Take the road to the leper colony and then get a water taxi. The road is the threshold; the past is a gate.

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In one version of my origin story, I know I am a poet when my poetry teacher reads Sharon Olds’ “For My Daughter” on a picnic table outside of the university library, and its honesty emboldens me to speak. In another version, I am saved by an actor at a Shakespeare theater who put poetry books into my mailbox for me to read during the shows. In the comic book version of my origin story, I am either bitten by a radioactive book or exposed to iambic radiation.

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At some point I decide to do something with this love—I trust it. I wholeheartedly believe that poetry can teach me how to live my life. I see that godawful earnestness in me and am embarrassed. I want so desperately to mean. When I make that choice, I accept that I will pass from the permitted to the forbidden. I’m not sure love is a descent, but I hope it is a move towards something deeper, something unknown. It not only asks for change, but for a willingness to accept whatever lies on the other side of the threshold. What can a poem teach you? A poem is not a poet, who is flawed and weak and sometimes cruel. But I trust the idea of poetry—that there is a way of living that keeps you wholly awake to the world. There is a power I can learn from, a consciousness I can inhabit that teaches me to face my life bravely. I want to deserve the life I’ve been given.

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I am not constructing an origin myth—I am constructing many, refashioning dozens of desires and life events until loving poetry seems foreordained. Make no mistake, I am choosing my story. Rilke admonishes a young poet in his letters that if he can do something else, he should. Of course I can do something else; I’ve done something else. This is about language—yes—but it’s also about loving something profoundly enough to reconcile me to life.

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Ecstasy wants to be more than your body. The first time I feel it clearly is while driving. As I crest a hill, mountains come into view. I feel that thing—that aliveness, my soul—sit straight up in my body for a moment. That’s how joy terrifies. You cannot contain it. Your body is merely its origin.

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London used to close its city gates at dusk. Passing through a torii marks the transition from profane to sacred and back again. Ishtar went through seven gates to get to the underworld and rescue her beloved. Language is also a gate. As it changes we accept whatever lies beyond it. Once genius meant presiding spirit or god of the home. People arranged shrines to these deities and prayed for blessings. Now it means prophetic skill or natural ability. Once we sought our genius; now we possess it. We’ve mastered it, moved the altar. But we can submit to it again—our spirit companion, our daemon. We can return to the home within us and ask to be blessed.

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Perhaps we should never be advised of love’s consequences. I had no idea what a life of poetry meant when I committed to it. I only knew I needed a love so strong it could nail me to the world, and that lucky, foolish thing was poetry. That kind of hope is awful but necessary. What else is there to do with these experiences, these voices, this life? This love teaches me about empathy, about what the world has had to bear, it teaches me about myself. And there’s so much of it—this terrible abundance, a gift we cannot contain and were never meant to. We die whether we risk anything or not, so why not pass again into the sacred and forbidden? Why not let love change us?


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