When I was only three or four, I fell in love with poetry, with the rhythms and the music of language; with the power of metaphor and of imagery, poetry being the essence of communication — the discipline, the distillation. And all these years later, the poems I'll read today are from my just-finished seventh book of poetry.
Well, five years ago, I was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Though there's no cure yet, advances in treatment are really impressive. But you can imagine that I was appalled to learn that women are largely left out of research trials, despite gender-specific medical findings having demonstrated that we are not actually just small men —
who happen to have different reproductive systems. Gender-specific medicine is good for men, too.
But you bring to a crisis the person you already are, including the, yes, momentum that you've learned to invoke through passionate caring and through action, both of which require but also create energy. So as an activist, I began working with the Parkinson's Disease Foundation — that's pdf.org — to create a major initiative to put women on the Parkinson's disease map. And as a poet, I began working with this subject matter, finding it tragic, hilarious, sometimes even joyful. I do not feel diminished by Parkinson's; I feel distilled by it, and I actually very much like the woman I'm distilling into.
"No Signs of Struggle"
Growing small requires enormity of will: just sitting still in the doctor's waiting room watching the future shuffle in and out, watching it stoop; stare at you while you try not to look. Rare is an exchange: a smile of brief, wry recognition.
You are the new kid on the block. Everyone here was you once. You are still learning that growing small requires a largeness of spirit you can't fit into yet: acceptance of irritating help from those who love you; giving way and over, but not up.
You've swallowed hard the contents of the "Drink Me" bottle, and felt yourself shrink. Now, familiar furniture looms, floors tilt, and doorknobs yield only when wrestled round with both hands. It demands colossal patience, all this growing small: your diminished sleep at night, your handwriting, your voice, your height.
You are more the incredible shrinking woman than the Buddhist mystic, serene, making do with less. Less is not always more. Yet in this emptying space, space glimmers, becoming visible. Here is a place behind the eyes of those accustomed by what some would call diminishment.
It is a place of merciless poetry, a gift of presence previously ignored, drowned in the daily clutter. Here every gesture needs intention, is alive with consciousness. Nothing is automatic.
You can spot it in the provocation of a button, an arm poking at a sleeve, a balancing act at a night-time curb while negotiating the dark. Feats of such modest valor, who would suspect them to be exercises in an intimate, fierce discipline, a metaphysics of being relentlessly aware?
Such understated power here, in these tottering dancers who exert stupendous effort on tasks most view as insignificant. Such quiet beauty here, in these, my soft-voiced, stiff-limbed people; such resolve masked by each placid face. There is immensity required in growing small, so bent on such unbending grace.
This one is called "On Donating My Brain to Science."
Not a problem. Skip over all the pages reassuring religious people. Already a universal donor: kidneys, corneas, liver, lungs, tissue, heart, veins, whatever.
Odd that the modest brain never imagined its unique value in research, maybe saving someone else from what it is they're not quite sure I have. Flattering, that.
So fill in the forms, drill through the answers, trill out a blithe spirit.
And slice me, dice me, spread me on your slides. Find what I'm trying to tell you.
Earn me, learn me, scan me, squint through your lens. Uncover what I'd hint at if I could.
Be my guest, do your best, harvest me, track the clues. This was a good brain while alive. This was a brain that paid its dues.
So slice me, dice me, smear me on your slides, stain me, explain me, drain me like a cup. Share me, hear me:
I want to be used I want to be used I want to be used up.
And this one's called "The Ghost Light."
Lit from within is the sole secure way to traverse dark matter. Some life forms — certain mushrooms, snails, jellyfish, worms — glow bioluminescent, and people as well; we emit infra-red light from our most lucent selves. Our tragedy is we can't see it.
We see by reflecting. We need biofluorescence to show our true colors. External illumination can distort, though. When gravity bends light, huge galaxy clusters can act as telescopes, elongating background images of star systems to faint arcs — a lensing effect like viewing distant street lamps through a glass of wine.
A glass of wine or two now makes me weave as if acting the drunkard's part; as if, besotted with unrequited love for the dynamic Turner canvasses spied out by the Hubble, I could lurch down a city street set without provoking every pedestrian walk-on stare.
Stare as long as you need to. If you think about it, walking, even standing, is illogical — such tiny things, feet! —
especially when one's body is not al dente anymore.
Besides, creature of extremes and excess, I've always thought Apollo beautiful but boring, and a bit of a dumb blonde. Dionysians don't do balance.
Balance, in other words, has never been my strong point. But I digress. More and more these days, digression seems the most direct route through from where I've lost or found myself out of place, mind, turn, time.
Place your foot just so, mind how you turn: too swift a swivel can bring you down. Take your time ushering the audience out, saying goodbye to the actors. The ghost light is what they call the single bulb hanging above the bare stage in an empty theater.
In the empty theater of such a night, waking to meet no external radiance, this is the final struggle left to win, this the sole beacon to beckon the darkness in and let the rest begin, this the lens through which at last to see both Self and Other arrayed with the bright stain of original sin: lit from within.
And this is the last one.
"This Dark Hour"
Late summer, 4 A.M. The rain slows to a stop, dripping still from the broad leaves of blue hostas unseen in the garden's dark. Barefoot, careful on the slick slate slabs, I need no light, I know the way, stoop by the mint bed, scoop a fistful of moist earth, then grope for a chair, spread a shawl, and sit, breathing in the wet green August air.
This is the small, still hour before the newspaper lands in the vestibule like a grenade, the phone shrills, the computer screen blinks and glares awake.
There is this hour: poem in my head, soil in my hand: unnamable fullness. This hour, when blood of my blood bone of bone, child grown to manhood now — stranger, intimate, not distant but apart — lies safe, off dreaming melodies while love sleeps, safe, in his arms.
To have come to this place, lived to this moment: immeasurable lightness. The density of black starts to blur umber. Tentative, a cardinal's coloratura, then the mourning dove's elegy. Sable glimmers toward grey; objects emerge, trailing shadows; night ages toward day. The city stirs.
There will be other dawns, nights, gaudy noons. Likely, I'll lose my way. There will be stumbling, falling, cursing the dark. Whatever comes, there was this hour when nothing mattered, all was unbearably dear.
And when I'm done with daylights, should those who loved me grieve too long a while, let them remember that I had this hour — this dark, perfect hour — and smile.