Sometimes a poem comes to you exactly when you need it.
I have a journal filled with poems (and some quotes, song lyrics, letters, etc.) that have done this for me over the past few years. It started when I was helping take care of my neighbor’s dog while she was out of town. I was inside, feeding the dog and hanging out with her (because I felt so bad for her being alone all day!), and my neighbor had a bookshelf mostly covered with photos and décor, but with a couple of books on it as well.
Books have a kind of pull for me; they draw me in the way light draws in moths or the Hellmouth draws in demons.
So, I ended up sitting alone on my neighbor’s floor while she was out of town reading books off her bookshelf. (Invasive much?) The one that I was particularly interested was called, Poems to Live By. I tend to be a little skeptical of these kinds of books, because you never know when they’ll be filled with poetry and when they’ll be filled with platitudes, but when I pulled back the cover and skimmed the list of poets included, I was impressed. I flipped through the book a bit, reading a poem here and there, and then went back and read the introduction. In it, the author described the interest in collecting poems about life–poems to live by–and writing them by hand “so they become a part of you.” This idea seemed just brilliant to me, and I started my own book of poems and other words to live by the same day.
But, it’s one of the poems contained in this book that I want to focus on, because it has become relevant in my life a few times since I first encountered it. At the beginning of our second year of grad school and teaching, one of my friends–a beautiful, bright, poetic, and free-spirited woman–handed me a photocopy of a poem that she said I should read. I glanced over it, but it was more than a page long, and at the time, I wasn’t able to give it the attention it deserved, so I folded it up and stuck it in my jacket pocket. Then, I basically forgot about it. When walking with my hands in my pockets, I would sometimes touch the folded piece of paper, pull it out, realize what it was, and smile thinking of my friend (at one point, I think I even wrote myself a note on it), but I never read it.
Almost a year later, as the school year was winding down and everyone was stressed out about graduating and grading, I finally pulled the poem out and read it. It was perfect. Perfect for what I was feeling at the moment and perfect for what I had been feeling when I started the year–I couldn’t believe I hadn’t actually read it sooner!
I am going to fail.
I’m going to fail cartilage and plastic, camera and arrow.
I’m going to fail binoculars and conjugations,
all the accompanying musics: I am failing,
I must fail, I can fail, I have failed
the way some women throw themselves
into lover’s arms or out trains,
fingers crossed and skirts billowing
behind them. I’m going to fail
the way strawberry plants fail,
have dug down hard to fail, shooting
brown runners out into silt, into dry gray beds,
into tissue and rock. I’m going to fail
the way their several hundred hearts below surface
have failed, thick, soft stumps desiccating
to tumors; the way roots wizen in the cold
and cloud black, knotty as spark plugs, cystic
synapses. I’m going to fail light and stars and tears.
I’m going to fail the way cowards only wish they could fail,
the way the brave refuse to fail or the vain fear to,
believing that to stray even once from perfection
is to be permanently cast out, Wandering Jew
of failure, Adam of failure, Sita of failure; that’s the way
I’m going to fail, bud and creosote and cloud.
I’m failing pet and parent. I’m failing the food
in strangers’ stomachs, the slender inchoate rings
of distant planets. I’m going to fail these words
and the next and the next. I’m going to fail them,
I’m going to fail her– trust me, I’ve already failed him–
and the possibility of a we is going to sink me
like a bad boat. I’m going to fail the way
this strawberry plant has failed, alive without bud,
without fruit, without tenderness, hugging itself
to privation and ridiculous want.
I’m going to fail simply by standing in front of you,
waving my arms in your face as if hailing a taxi:
I’m here, I’m here, please don’t forget me,
though you already have, I smell it, even cloaked
with soil, sending out my slender fingers for you,
sending out all my hair and tongue and brain.
I’m going to fail you
just as you’re going to fail me,
urging yourself further down to sediment
and the tiny, trickling filaments of damp;
thirsty, thirsty, desperate to drown
if even for a little while, if even for once:
to succumb, to be destroyed,
to die completely, to fail the way I’ve failed
in every particular sense of myself,
in every new and beautiful light.
Later, my friend in the army was preparing to go to his duty station in South Korea, and we had a really touching moment where he confessed to me a few of his fears (which I will not share here, because they’re not my fears to share). I had held onto the “Strawberry” piece of paper, keeping it in a book by my bed up to that point, but after that conversation, it seemed like it was time for someone new to have it–to realize that we all fail, that life is about failure, but that it doesn’t have to be the big, ugly, to be avoided at all costs thing we’ve been told it is our whole lives. I’m going to fail you/ just as you’re going to fail me, but it’s not just okay that we fail–as in, “I wish you hadn’t done that, but now that you have, it’s okay; I forgive you.” It’s integral to our existences to fail the way I’ve failed/ in every particular sense of myself/ in every new and beautiful light.
So I copied “Strawberry” into my book of poems, took the paper my friend had given me, that I’d folded up and carried around in my pocket for a year, that I’d stashed beside my bed for another year, and stuck it under the windshield wiper of my friend’s car, hoping it wouldn’t decide to rain that day.
Now as Korea gets closer and closer and I simultaneously start a new relationship (with the aforementioned army friend), I can feel my anxiety building. I’ve been thinking back on that poem, and about the possibility that I might fail in every sense of the word. If I do, though, I’m going to do it with style. I’m going to fail light and stars and tears./ I’m going to fail the way cowards only wish they could fail,/ the way the brave refuse to fail or the vain fear to… I will fail, perhaps, and then I’ll just keep living.