When did you set your foot on the path of poetry? Did you feel a sudden bolt?
When I was 17 and a senior in high school I fell (for "falling" read: ritualistic driving of a ragged-out evergreen 4-door Renault up and down the street nearest her window) enamored of a girl who, though a year younger, so outclassed me that to this day my mother cringes at the memory of my increasingly unhinged behavior during the short, brutal months of my failed courtship. Still, it was in her bedroom (my intended's, not my mother's), at the end of a cul-de-sac in her mother's yellow-sided and faux-brick two-story, sitting on her bed, that I think poetry became for me something more than the anthological. She pulled the Collected Early Poems of Ezra Pound off a shelf—with his severe, weather-beaten profile on the cover—and leaned against the door jam, radiating that twin-powered teenage wattage of aloofness and attention, and offered to read me her favorite poem. I'm sure I nodded yes. I nodded yes to everything back then. And she read to me "The Garden":
Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in
And she is dying piece-meal
Of a sort of emotional anemia.
And round about there is the rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of
the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth. In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.
She would like someone to speak to her
And is almost afraid that I
Will commit that indiscretion.
I think that my understanding of how a poem works began at that moment. The image ("skein of loose silk"); the distancing abstraction ("They shall inherit the earth"); the music ("And round about there is the rabble")— all seemed clearly delineated and at the same time wound inextricably together. Most importantly, though, what struck me was the poem's drama, the way I wanted that moment of suspension, that almost-act that hangs between the "I" and the "indiscretion," to last forever. Even then, before I knew subject from object, before I knew of The Pisan Cantos, usury, or Archie MacLeish, I identified with the poet's need to gather cleverness, loneliness, intelligence, and, finally, empathy (traits I was convinced I possessed in abundance) into that futile, crucial moment before desire crumbles into the impossibility of transcendence. There's more than a little truth in the idea that every poem I've written since is a formal reenactment of that scene: a boy on a bed in a nothing town, an unattainable girl across an unbridgeable room, and a world of literature hanging in the air between. In the end, this is hardly a compliment and almost surely a limitation. But poetry is at least partly about limitations. And without that initial experience, I probably wouldn't have poetry.
* * *
I Am Cinematographer
by Spencer Short
Clouds rally like cattle along the horizon.
From my window I can see the entire apparatus: the wheels,
the levers & wires. The pulleys.
Angels sleep in the luminous bedclothes of those
of us who believe in angels. Skinny, hairless, I resemble the fallen
child stars of each of my different youths.
Like Schoenberg's unplayable String Trio
my heart is reinventing the aesthetic.
My heart is as large as a small mid-western city.
The city is soaking in a glass of water.
It springs open before me like a lock on a box.
It is the lock & it is the box.
It is full of narrow cobblestone streets.
I am a cinematographer. The pulleys. The wires.
From my window I can see the entire apparatus.
One of my legs is not like the other.
It throws everything off.
* * *
"I Am Cinematographer" by Spencer Short from Tremolo (HarperCollins, 2001). All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with the permission of the author.