Walking with a Poem: Conversations with Edward Hirsch

This post has been a long time coming.

I wrote this assignment last Sunday and was able to receive props for it from Peggy, my mentor.  I've mulled over this for 2 months and ended up changing the whole thing entirely.  The writing assignment is about "walking with a poem".  Unlike the other assignment I finished last November on Yehuda Amichai's poem, the way I had to go about this one was different.

Walking with a poem was supposed to get to me listen in for the details.  To try and understand the lines and the words and how the sound of the words created images for the reader.  This was difficult for me because I could not find the right voice to go into "listening" or the right "way" of listening.  It troubled me for 2 months and sent me on a writer's block again.

Finally, last week felt like a breakthrough when Peggy kept on encouraging me to just  "try without trying".  To have fun with the poem.  So I did.

photo credits from gurdonark's flickr

The poem I picked is by Edward Hirsch.

Saturday morning in late March.
I was alone and took a long walk,
though I also carried a book
of the Alone, which companioned me.

The day was clear, unnaturally clear,
like a freshly wiped pane of glass,
a window over the water,
and blue, preternaturally blue,
like the sky in a Magritte painting,
and cold, vividly cold, so that
you could clap your hands and remember
winter, which had left a few moments ago—
if you strained you could almost see it
disappearing over the hills in a black parka.
Spring was coming but hadn't arrived yet.
I walked on the edge of the park.
The wind whispered a secret to the trees,
which held their breath
and scarcely moved.
On the other side of the street,
the skyscrapers stood on tiptoe.

I walked down to the pier to watch
the launching of a passenger ship.
Ice had broken up on the river
and the water rippled smoothly in blue light.
The moon was a faint smudge
in the clouds, a brushstroke, an afterthought
in the vacant mind of the sky.
Seagulls materialized out of vapor
amidst the masts and flags.
Don't let our voices die on land,
they cawed, swooping down for fish
and then soaring back upwards.

The kiosks were opening
and couples moved slowly past them,
arm in arm, festive.
Children darted in and out of walkways,
which sprouted with vendors.
Voices greeted the air.
Kites and balloons. Handmade signs.
Voyages to unknown places.
The whole day had the drama of an expectation.

Down at the water, the queenly ship
started moving away from the pier.
Banners fluttered.
The passengers clustered at the rails on deck.
I stood with the people on shore and waved
goodbye to the travelers.
Some were jubilant;

others were broken-hearted.
I have always been both.

Suddenly, a great cry went up.
The ship set sail for the horizon
and rumbled into the future
but the cry persisted
and cut the air
like an iron bell ringing
in an empty church.
I looked around the pier
but everyone else was gone
and I was left alone
to peer into the ghostly distance.
I had no idea where that ship was going
but I felt lucky to see it off
and bereft when it disappeared.

Walking with a Poem: Conversations with Edward Hirsch

I met Edward 2 months ago but his voice did not quite beckon me in until yesterday where for some reason I found myself responding to what he wrote to me and said he wanted to meet and tell me about his long walk.  I re-read his letter, which began,

Saturday morning in late March.
I was alone and took a long walk,   
though I also carried a book
of the Alone, which companioned me.

So I did.  I met with him for a quiet afternoon tea and I told him that the word “alone” resonated loudly to me.  Perhaps it is because I have been feeling this for a while. It’s something that I am not too comfortable sitting with but he talks about it quite gracefully and he continued to tell me about the Saturday morning he took a long walk. 

He stepped outside his house and decided to go for a walk.  He was alone but he carried this book.  He called it the Book of the Alone and I asked him what it was and he pointed to it because he brought it along with him.  It was a thick book.  Leather bound and worn out from age.  He flipped through the pages and I saw his handwriting tucked in some little corner notes.  I asked him who was “the Alone”?  And he pointed to the sky.  He told me that the day was “unnaturally clear”.  It was a sight to behold.  He said that he went through a long week and this walk was a refreshing break and the only breathing space he could have.  He says it was “like a freshly wiped pane of glass” and I thought about how this could be such a fresh thought.  I imagined foggy windows smudged with frost and handprints that kept the view from sight.  I knew what it felt like to want to see through and just take a dry towel to wipe the haze and clear the view.

He was awestruck with the unfolding of the day which marked the beginning of spring.  He exclaims how it was like a “window over the water” and oh the blue!  He said, it was “preternaturally blue!”  I smiled at the word “preternaturally” because I haven’t met it yet and so I asked him what it meant.  He said that preternatural is described as “beyond what is normal” and then I wonder how blue looked like preternaturally.  I suppose the sky would be so bright and clear that the shades of blue became one with the water.  The reflection of the sky and sea would’ve merged into a great chorus screaming “life!”. I wonder what the color blue would say if it could speak.  Thinking about this takes me to the Book of Genesis and ponder about the days of Creation where God fashioned the universe with His words.   I am reminded about its power.  Words.  He handed me his book and flipped to the first few pages and there I saw “Genesis”. 

Edward likes Magritte paintings and refers to the sky like one of those backgrounds Magritte always uses to capture the surreal.  I have seen some of Magritte’s paintings on the internet and wonder what it is about the sky that captivated the painter so much he could not get enough of it.  We talk about Magritte for a while until he tells me about how the day felt like a beautiful irony against the cold air that embraced him while he walked.  He says it was “vividly cold” and he liked the thought of a beautiful chilly day that marked the slow beginning of spring.  The beauty was compelling and nature managed to find him in his aloneness so gracefully it didn’t matter that he didn’t have anybody to walk with.  He said he couldn’t wait for winter to leave because he was getting restless just sitting inside his house. 

He said he “walked on the edge of the park” where “the wind whispered a secret to the trees”.  I asked him what the secret was and he said he didn’t know but he knew it was a secret because of the way the trees “held their breath and scarcely moved”.  He said that it was one of those moments wherein he could just stand there and be okay with the secret.  Mysteries are never meant to be unraveled completely anyway.  I often wondered what trees would say if they could speak.  Most of them would have countless stories to tell of ancient days and I would have loved to just sit underneath them and listen. 

Edward then tells me about what he notices on the other side of the street.  The city waking up to the new day where the “skyscrapers stood on tiptoe”.  He stares at them wondering how many people pine their lives away hustling and bustling in their corporate lifestyles to earn their keep.  They fuel their dreams with this hunger to conquer the wealth of conglomerates.  He asks me what I think about this and I stifle a laugh because I would rather not ramble about corporate living and how I’m fumbling my way through it.  But to that I said simply.  It’s okay that people fuel their dreams with the hunger to conquer Wall Street or be the next Asian business tycoon as long as they knew what they’re doing it for.  As long as there was a purpose bigger than seeing their stocks draw an upward trend line in the market.  He looked at me and said that I got it right and he hopes I don’t lose my soul to that kind of imprisonment. 

He tells me now about the pier he walked down to.  There was a ship filled with passengers that was ready to leave the shore.  He didn’t know where it was going to go but he noticed that “ice had broken up on the river” and said that they’ll be having a good journey to their destination.  He watched how the  “water rippled smoothly in blue light” and told me about how he wanted to go to a cruise and a much longed for vacation.  I said I wanted one myself and all I needed was a perfect time to schedule it.  He said that I should not wait for schedules to happen to me, I should just make them.  He looked at me intently and said that it seems I’m such a slave to my job.  He noticed how much I tried to wriggle myself free and patted me on the back and said he admired my tenacity and resilience.  

From the pier he said he saw the “the moon” and how it was now a “faint smudge in the clouds” and thought how gracefully the moon can just give its way to the sun.  The moon becomes so gracious in being just a “brushstroke, an afterthought”.  He noticed how content the moon could be even silent and almost hidden “in the vacant mind of the sky”.  He told me that we no longer pay so much attention to the wisdom of nature and how if we only listened enough, we’d learn so many things.  After all, its Maker holds the Wisdom of Ages.  He said to look at how “seagulls materialized out of vapor amidst the masts and flags”.  How swiftly they appeared out of nowhere.  He said they brought this strong message as “they cawed” –Don’t let our voices die on land!  It felt like such a desperate cry.  I wondered how much of this kind of desperation exists and how if we could only listen closely, we will hear and know how to respond. 

Edward and I paused for a while as if to let the silence comfort us a bit.  We knew all too well the desperation that exists in humanity.  We knew all too well about the unmet longings and the unceasing anxiety that pervades within hearts locked up in situations that stifle their person.  I wondered about how similarly my heart cries out like the seagulls “Don’t let our voices die on land!”  

Edward stirs from the silence and tells me about the day again. His walk led him to the kiosks opening up on the pier.  The busy humdrum awakens and he spots couples and children moving along.  The life of the day slowly unraveled and he said that he sensed “the whole day had a drama of an expectation”.  It must be liberating to witness a day just unfold like that.  How often do I pay attention to the details of life hidden in the ordinary?  

He stared into the horizon and tells me of the passenger ship that has moved away from the pier. He describes the moment as poignant where “banners fluttered” to signal the departure and “the passengers clustered at the rails on deck”.  It makes me wonder what is it about departures that often make us feel a certain melancholy.   He said that he stood there and watched the ship sail off.  He noticed that “some were jubilant” and “others were broken-hearted”.  He looked at me and said “I have always been both”.  I wondered about what he meant.  How can he be both jubilant and broken-hearted?  What could he feel that way about?  Is it possible to feel that at the same time?  I suppose there is something about journeys that pave the way for endings and beginnings to feel like a birthing of something new.  Birth often feels painful but after the last push and the new life comes out of you, there is an ecstasy beyond words.  I like how Edward can feel both at the same time.  It’s not often for a man to be as in touch with his feelings this way.

He looked up at the sky as if to recall something and I asked what he was thinking.  He told me about how the piercing whistle of the ship and how it cried out its signal jolting him.  The ship was big and must have carried more than a thousand passengers and he said that he wondered greatly about the lives in the ship and where they were going.  He was haunted by the ship’s horn.  It “cut the air like an iron bell ringing in an empty church.”  It startled his thoughts and he felt a forlorn moment when he “looked around the pier” and saw that everyone has gone and he was then alone looking at the trail of waves the ship has left as it sailed “the ghostly distance”. 

The jolt of the ship’s horn stayed with me like the experiences in life that I’m not ready for.  The jolt is often uncomfortable and shifts my perspective back to the myself.  Edward has retreated from telling me about his walk and now back into pondering his own state as well.  He softly whispered, “I had no idea where that ship was going but I felt lucky to see it off and bereft when it disappeared.”  I knew he was trying to make sense of what he saw.  He looked at me with eyes that held so much tension at the same time a willingness to experience such strain with a gracefulness beyond this world.  

I look at my new friend and find myself grateful for the encounter.  He carried so much inside him.  So many questions absent of answers.  So many thoughts that wanted to be expressed but so little space for expression.  I listened to him because I knew what he felt.  He just wanted to be able to sit peacefully with his journey and know that someone can sit with him too. 

I stood up and closed the “book of the Alone” that lay on his lap for a while unnoticed.  I took his hand and told him, “You’re not alone at all.”  We walked back to the pier and fed the seagulls and watched them fly into the air and told them, “Your voices are heard.”


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