the new voice
February 14, 2013

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations –
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

– Mary Oliver, The Journey

poetry
September 1, 2012

I don’t usually like poems; that is, they often don’t speak to me as sharply and haltingly as so many short stories – and, more rarely, novels – do. But I heard the brilliant David Rakoff recite this Elizabeth Bishop piece to Terry Gross on my morning walk to work yesterday, and I haven’t been able to shake its lingering mood, lingering images from my head since. Maybe I’ll try to memorize it, too, so that I can keep it close by at important times, just like he once did.

I know he’s missed by many, but after hearing his voice buzz inside my ears for the better part of this month, I have no choice but to add my silly little name to the list.

Letter to N.Y.
For Louise Crane 

By Elizabeth Bishop

In your next letter I wish you’d say
where you are going and what you are doing; 
how are the plays, and after the plays 
what other pleasures you’re pursuing:

taking cabs in the middle of the night, 
driving as if to save your soul 
where the road goes round and round the park 
and the meter glares like a moral owl,

and the trees look so queer and green
standing alone in big black caves 
and suddenly you’re in a different place 
where everything seems to happen in waves,

and most of the jokes you just can’t catch, 
like dirty words rubbed off a slate, 
and the songs are loud but somehow dim 
and it gets so terribly late,

and coming out of the brownstone house 
to the gray sidewalk, the watered street, 
one side of the buildings rises with the sun 
like a glistening field of wheat.

—Wheat, not oats, dear. I’m afraid 
if it’s wheat it’s none of your sowing, 
nevertheless I’d like to know
what you are doing and where you are going.

More David Rakoff: This American Life’s tribute (my favorites are his blistering Rent piece and his rhyming wedding toast); Fresh Air’s tribute (you, like me, might have to replay (and replay and replay and replay) that moment when Terry Gross asks him if he really feels like he’s “beloved by all but loved by none” — it took me four listenings to really understand what that “lasagna” of a sentence was saying, but I think I get it now, and I think I see myself in it too); this performance, which might make you cry.