RIDING WESTWARD, EARLY MORNING
And then a bird flew into my body and nested in the cuff of my shoulder.
This is the mystery of pain — it can sing.
I hear the wind differently now. I breathe, and my ribs are the cirrus of clouds.
There’s a river in my wrist. Daily I practice
eclipse, although ordinary loss will do. At night I ripen beneath a hush of stars.
a note from the author
The title of the early poem tells me I’d been reading John Donne’s "Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward.’’ Riding west, the speaker’s thoughts bend east to dwell on suffering he imagines he’d feel were he to see "flesh . . . worn by God, for his apparel, rag’d and torn." Like Donne’s speaker, mine also rides westward. I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia, and commuting over the mountains to Madison College, my first teaching job. Winding along curving roads and within a private agony, the Blue Ridge mountains seem to revolve, and I see the sun rise, "a bloodied eye." The speaker, the imagery tells us in its fraught way, is wounded and taking measure of herself. Reading the poem now, I wince at the tortured imagery. In the last lines of stanza 1 and stanza 3, I can barely make out what I mean to say. The only clear and heart rending line in the poem is interrogative: "How can love be firm/when sun is not." I was twenty-three, married too early, unable to love fully, dimly aware of needing to atone. Donne is more direct. He needs to "receive correction." He wants to be worth God’s anger and energy. In my poem the penultimate statement, "I died last spring and sent my blood into the earth," does not convince. It overreaches.
In a more recent poem, the title "Passage" implies a sense of movement, but here the movement is an internal one, not from place to place, but from one state of being to another. Also a poem about suffering, "Passage" relies on images of the natural world as well. (Some things don’t change.) The speaker is not, however, a spectator; the pain enters her, and she does not distance it. The speaker has, by accepting pain itself, become no other than the world. There is no boundary between them. The bird flies into her body, and it sings; there’s a river in her wrist. We know it’s a poem about loss; but what has been gained by loss is a fullness of being, a transformed being. The poem is one from my latest collection of poems, slated for publication in 2018—Not Hearing the Wood Thrush. In neither of the two poems of mine printed here is there an appeal to a Christian God. In "Passage," the road the speaker is on is the eight-fold path, the middle way. I travel it still.
Margaret Gibson is the author of ten books of poems and one prose memoir. Her newest book of poems, Not Hearing the Wood Thrush, will be published by LSU Press in the fall of 2018. A native of Virginia, now a resident of Preston, Connecticut, she is a nationally and internationally recognized poet. She has received numerous honors, including the Connecticut Book Award and the Melville Kane Award, and her collection The Vigil was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry.