By Todd R. Nelson
I had been appreciating poetry for years — poems that sounded cool, had “deep inner meanings,” powerful rhetoric, clinched a theme, or simply had a beguiling, musical, humorous, unique voice or beauty. I was, in fact, an English major, studying poetry in college. Already a dedicated academic reader, I was also archiving poems that spoke to my heart and personal experiences — my poems.
Then I found a poem that changed everything. It captured my heart; witnessed and gave tribute to my experience and summarized my inner, youthful, amorous longings. It was a balm, even years after the heartbreak. It explained who I had been, as a 16-year-old smitten with an older girl who had a Shakespearian-romance name. She was my heartthrob, the emotional weather of August on which summer pivoted. The backdrop was a summer cottage on a north country river, laughter and canoodling.
The surprise poem also explained to me who I had become — a maturing college student with a modicum of hindsight. And it spoke to who I would become. I can still feel its tipping me into a new realm of appreciating poetry thanks to its psychic purchase. It crept up on me. It infiltrated. It changed everything I thought about what poems do. It was a love poem directed backward in time, toward the companion and lover who had made summer a golden moment for the poet — love in hindsight, that is. Like mine. I needed its therapy.
I read it once. Then I lost it. It lay hidden somewhere within the bound volumes of The New Yorker magazine I had been perusing in the college library stacks. I could not remember the author nor title. I recalled only the last line: “I needed to have loved you. I needed to have told you so.” It was what I needed to be able to say.
I began a quest to retrieve the poem that had retrieved a whole summer of memory for me. I knew the range of bound volumes in which I had seen it, but when? I could visualize its shape on the page, and that last line haunting me like the lost chord. I wanted its resonance back. It said something I didn’t know how to say, about a story I wanted to be true.
Most importantly, I wanted its swelling feeling. I remembered reading that last line, the finale for images of a summer romance encapsulated in the poem’s amber. I remembered its point of view, questions, sense of loss, a tug of longing, and a recovery that I understood personally — and needed. The poem shared my point of view, spoke to me, for me, as me.
Eureka. It took years, but when I found it my emotional cavities filled. “A Kindness,” by William Dickey, was indeed restorative.
“Where did we stop?” he wrote, and then rehearsed the thrilling explorations and discoveries in a summer relationship. Dickey spoke to me with the exact imagery of my own memories, and the synthesis of their meaning. “You stripped into that glare of live gold,” he wrote. It could have been my line.
It was like living in gold to try to touch you.
It was as if you were day.
His summer was my summer of love. The imagery matched, the feelings matched, and even the trick of memory matched — “none of this is true, but will you let me have it, imaginary?” His words worked better than my own to reanimate my past. I too wanted my memory to be “a bush of grown flame.” It’s what a good poem is capable of.
Even tonight, decades later, “A Kindness” summons a simultaneous pang and an honest appreciation — it speaks to who I was and who I have become, no longer young but understanding better now than at sixteen what the light was like.
It is a kindness you can do me, to have been there
at the center of summer, yourself the attack of summer,
and to have made all that light out of being young.
Three years after the summer “of the poem,” I was to meet my wife, who was described in many more poems that would encapsulate my maturing heart. In fact, ours was a courtship-by-poetry. She too was “at the center of summer,” a subsequent August, an endless summer; aflame. She wore a red Yes, The New Yorker T-shirt. I was all in.
Now, as fresh poems accrue, I make sure not to misplace them. With the lost poem, I began the verse anthology that I call my life. And I am still the boy who had the summer infatuation, the young man who lost its lyric verse companionship, and the maturing man who is learning the love lessons of them all.
Todd R. Nelson is a writer and former educator in Penobscot.