Advice from an older poet: “You’ll write one or two – but try not to do many more than that…”
An opinion from a younger poet: “No, I think you’re too smart to waste your time with that type of thing…”
And yet, here I am. And here’s this poem.
Wouldn’t it be nice to start with a statement of braggadocio? Ah, the prospect itself of wasting time (the practice of writing a poem not enough?) made me want to write the poems even more. Or, what better reply to advice than to do its opposite? But no. For a while I was put off. The day would end, I was tired and the poem cogs would suddenly start to turn – and there was an image or a line and there, again, was a child. And I’d think damn.
When I first started writing poetry I had been quite resistant to writing about the Scottish islands. Early twenties, living in the city, making tentative steps into reading nights (which can be quite noisy, frenetic events), the landscape, the geography or the general sensibility felt anachronistic and out of place. Eventually, I became more comfortable with how my upbringing there has shaped my understanding of the world – which is the nicer way of saying I simply began not to care. If the writing was anywhere it was there and so I had to go along with it.
There is a world of difference, I think, between the moment before writing and the actual act of writing the poem. In the latter, composing the lines, you are aiming to be sensitive to the practice of reading, what’s inferred by this word, how this line might lead someone to this thought or this image (careful of losing them, of overburdening them). You are writing and there is someone there with you as you write. But before this there is the starting out with each poem. At this stage – before the pen hits the page – there cannot be an audience – it must just be the writer, alone, faced with their own life. Its intricacies and worries.
And for two years and seven months, over two years of which spent at home with the boy, this has been the shape of my life: late nights, early mornings, feedings, changes, illnesses and the continuous flux of change and learning the child goes through. My world, I’ll be honest, does feel smaller, any routine, even the routine of love, will shrink the world down – and at some points it felt no larger than the dark room I was in – but it also feels much more charged, risk-laden, tender as a good bruise.
And it was around the time when I was acclimatising to this new routine of life that several friends took up running. And a fair few took to it quite seriously – training, races, the full get-up and gear. I remember being struck at the time at the slight irony of a situation where friends were off doing this and I, having never had more of a reason to be healthy or fit, was never more unable to do it – tired, sleep-deprived, already fully pledged to something.
When I initially had the image of the runner at night I had been tempted to poke a bit of fun – and why not! The pastime seems a perfect representation of the absurdity of our time: spending a lot of money on items with which to run in a circle very quickly… But the longer I spent with the opening of the poem – running out of the door of the first tercet, again and again in redrafting – the more I started to stall on the relentlessness of the activity.
Dwelling on this stubborn will led me to a grudging respect. I couldn’t help but admire, and empathise with, the battle with tiredness and fatigue. (What’s the Beckett line? ‘You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’) However, there was something larger that I felt a symmetry with. It was something in the idea that once you had started that you are committed. You, as a runner, have run three miles from your home – you cannot just sit down by the road there and say ‘no more’. The outward route sees you already committed to the route back, just the process of starting has you pledged for the whole way. And this is very much a poem about this sort of devotion.
Perhaps, at one point, I would have preferred to have been able to say that this poem was a political poem, or a poem disturbing gender roles, or some such thing. But no, it is a poem about love. And perhaps at one point I might have included a courteous apology as part of an introduction to it. But here’s this poem – and I am not sorry, not sorry at all.
All told, there wasn’t much I understood
about this need to run. The hard undressing
from the warmth, redressing in the cold,
the first steps on the pavement like a knocking
at a wall – and then the ears tune out
so the rest is just a silent picture show
of drivers with their last deliveries
gliding a cage to the light of a shop-door.
The dark streets all humdrum and beautiful.
I had a dream of running, this was it,
long straights, long hills – until a friend described
how if there’s a true art to any of it
it happens on the route home, when the streetlamps
are all giving-in above his head –
then, the good runner is just a heart doing
what it’s told – beat, just beat – and a pair of lungs
trusting they are on fire for the right goal.
Here, up since early, comforting my child,
I have not run – but long to be the runner
if only to gift myself those same commands.
I am so tired, so tired, so young – Heart, keep on;
the air’s so still – Lungs, burn hard, and burn long.
From First Nights (Princeton University Press, 2016). Reproduced with permission of the author.