Poetry. It’s one of those things people love to pronounce dead. They officiate over it in most un-poetic sermons. They swing the thurible and diffuse the cloying incense.
But hark! I hear a heartbeat! (And no, I’m not some Edgar Allan Poe character in search of a deranged author.) It comes from Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, where the poet Natasha Trethewey has been curating a little poetry corner, each week picking a favorite to share with the reading world.
This week she struck Nebraska gold, choosing one of my favorite contemporary poets, Ted Kooser. Talk about a Midwestern soul. Talk about a guy you might bump into in Aisle 3 at Ace Hardware. Talk about a wizard in Everyman’s clothing, top button of flannel shirt buttoned. Kooser is it.
Here is Kooser’s poem, “Sleep Apnea,” as printed in the Times Nov. 29th with intro by Natasha:
Often when I read a poem, I encounter an experience I haven’t actually had — the language and imagery evoking a shared emotional response. But reading this poem, I found a vivid depiction of my own actual experience: listening for the breathing of my father, holding my breath like the speaker as I waited.
Night after night, when I was a child,
I woke to the guttering candle
of my father’s breath. It made a sound
like the starlings that sometimes
got caught in our chimney, a chirping
that would gradually, steadily build
to a desperate, flat slapping of wings,
then suddenly drop into silence,
into the thick soot at the bottom
of midnight. No silence was ever
so deep. And then, after maybe
a minute or two, I would hear
a twitter as he came to life again,
and could at last take a breath for myself,
a sip like a toast, lifting a chilled glass
of air, wishing us courage, those of us
lying awake through those hours,
my mother, my sister and I, who each night
listened to death kiss the fluttering lips
of my father, who slept through it all.