Only Once

I have a weird relationship with poetry. Song lyrics, yes please. Songs speak to me, not just the music, but the words and their rhythm. I stand in awe of people who can write musical poetry the way Beth Kinderman can, for example — mine always seems to come out pale and thin.

But poetry that isn’t written to be sung doesn’t often work for me. Even when I have the random urge to write it myself, I rarely read it. And then, only the poetry of a few people. I grew up on The New Kid on the Block by Jack Prelutsky the same as everybody else who read it as a kid, and I can really appreciate the work and talent needed to get such humor into those tightly-worded lines. But it was Jack Prelutsky’s set of poems in the book Ride a Purple Pelican that stuck with me. Simple verses, just a few words on each page, but telling stories that were rich and deep; I still have my original copy of the book I grew up reading.

Aside from rhymes and poems meant for kids, though, I rarely find a poem I really like, let alone a poet whose work consistently speaks to me. I can think of only four poets whose work I voluntarily read: Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca, and Izumi Shikibu.

I came upon Izumi Shikibu’s work entirely by accident a few years ago. I was reading fanfic, actually, and one of her poems was quoted in the story. It made an impression on me, so I dug deeper into her history and her works. She was writing in a time period before the invention of the haiku, but in the same sort of style, so the structure of her words was utterly striking even as it fit a meter I didn’t immediately understand. Japanese poetry (and song lyrics, for that matter) is stark and delicate in a way I rarely find in English, cool in the way that Latin American poetry is vibrant.

As I was reading some of her poems, I came upon this one, and knew I would never feel poetry quite the same way again:

Even if I now saw you
only once,
I would long for you
through worlds,

It’s…so hard to describe how it makes me feel. I read the words and they echo in my soul, creating ripples of feeling that bounce and shiver, all without names. I feel it more than I understand it, and I understand it far beyond what I could ever describe. The only other single poem that has ever had such an effect on me is Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet XVII:

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations that propagate fire.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way than this:

where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

I took bits and pieces from Neruda’s poem and pieced them together with a lot of help from Sarah to create the first draft of “Binary.” I’m not sure you can really look at the lyrics to “Binary” and see its roots here, but this is where the seed of those lyrics was born. And for good reason — “Binary” was written for our wedding ceremony.

If I had found Izumi Shikibu’s poem first, the song born from that seed would have been quite different, and it wouldn’t have been “Binary,” but the meaning would have been the same because they all circle the same feeling place inside my heart.

So now I’ve compiled a whole bunch of Izumi Shikibu’s poems and I’m trying to piece together another song whose shape is grown from her influence. The first draft is done. It’s dense and odd and the cadence is nothing like the kind of lyrics I usually write, but it is what it needs to be. Now, as with all song-writing, the lyrics go to Sarah. I give her the raw shape, the words and sentiments, and she refines them to something far better, smoother, and certainly more musical. Hopefully this will end in a new song for Candles Enough when we next perform (probably at CONvergence 2020).

But whether or not a song and a melody ever comes from it, Izumi Shikibu’s poem sits with me still, stirring through the odd space between heartstrings and finding secret corners to illuminate. With the last two weeks of chaos and change and nervousness and elation, the poem has quieted me, brought me peace, and centered me anew.

I’m leaving my job of almost 13 years next Friday. Two nights from now I’ll stand on a stage at a fundraiser and sing. Three weeks from now I begin a new job.

But none of that prickly uncertainty can touch me. Not with these words in my mind:

Even if I now saw you
only once,
I would long for you
through worlds,

I could go my whole life and never put 16 words (in translation) together with such beauty.

But, then, I’m not a poet, really. And those who are create their works hoping that someday, somewhere, one line or stanza or poem will shift the earth beneath the feet of someone. That their expression will become someone’s foundation, their lighthouse, their meaning.

Every songwriter wants that, too, I think.

No matter what song comes of the words of Izumi Shikibu and the inspiration I am drawing from her a thousand years late, I’m still writing it with the same hope that someone will hear it and feel. Feel what? That’s up to them. Just feel something.

I don’t know what I was meant to feel from this poem, and I still couldn’t even put it into words or gestures or anything but a helpless tempest inside to explain it, but I’m certain I’m not going to stop feeling it any time soon.