Photo of Emma Hoffman, age 80, surrounded by her paintings
The Muse of Age
I have been invited to do a poetry reading for a conference called “The Poetics of Aging.” What an interesting name. It implies that there is something poetic about aging. What can this mean?
As I sorted through my poems I was surprised to see how many fit the theme. I hadn’t thought of myself as a poet of the aging process, but I guess it makes sense. My poetry began with an anguished wail of a poem about the death of my Oma. She was a fine painter and it was through her example that I learned how meaningful it is to make art out of one’s life. Also, she had been a poetic old lady as long as I knew her. Though that poem burst through me in my late ‘20s I didn’t really hit my stride as a poet until I was in my ‘50s--a time when the issues of age begin to shape one’s consciousness. It’s a shock to realize that age has long been a muse for me.
I’m not sure what the conference planners mean by the “Poetics of Aging” but I can tell you my musings about it. The word poem comes from the Greek poiein, which means simply to make, to create. Many of my poems are about what I make of growing old, of visitations from ghosts, of watching my mother lose her orientation, of seeing friends get ill, or drop dead after taking a shower one morning before work; what I make of the losses, the pleasures, the bodily and emotional aches; what I make of the long view age brings; what I make of death’s presence. That’s poetic.
The word “harvest” keeps coming to mind. This is a time of harvesting the long work of becoming myself--I’m just figuring out how to be who I am. It’s a time to harvest poems, to gather them for readings, publications, to let them lead me into blog postings. I harvest the fruit of a lifetime of relationships with so many I love. People I knew when I was much younger seem to be making mysterious reappearances in my life as though to bring me full circle. That’s poetic.
I think of the other meaning of harvest, as in the “grim reaper.” Death is a kind of harvest as well. That’s poetic.
Aging is embarrassing--words slip out of your ken, whole movies of your life disappear into thin air, familiar faces lose their names. You used to say “It’ll come back to me.” Now you’re not so sure. Aging is humiliating--you lose capacities--things you used to do easily become difficult or impossible. Fingers don’t work, knees complain, getting up in the morning requires a long unraveling. How is that poetic? Well, how about a poem that lists your complaints? Here’s one:
BECAUSE OF WHAT ACHES
Because your knee, like the knee of your father before you
Because you’re as weather beaten as the willow
which creaks in the night
Because your hips are as surly
as a girl at fourteen—fire tamped down and smoking—
Because your knuckles are cranky, remembering
your grandmother fumbling with buttons, with jar lids
Because words have failed with your brother
don’t do much good with your son
Because your neck tries to rise above
an aging tangle of knots
Because you’ve given yourself to the wild ride—chased after toddlers
broken commandments, had words with the owl on the roof—
Because your eyes long for the mountain
Because the old rose still blooms
You’re not ready for ash, or thin air
Submit to the fire your early drafts
your sagas of shame, your lost directions
The truth is—you’re still tied to this ferment—
because of what aches
[First published in Eclipse]
As often happens, the poem leads me into unexpected places, and suddenly the poem shows me that what aches is what matters--what ties me to all this ferment. I make the poem and the poem makes what aches more bearable.
Death is a frequent visitor to my meditations. How long do we have before we pass into who knows what? If you’re lucky enough to have a partner, who will go first? Love changes as you age. If you’re lucky it gets sweeter and deeper. Also harder to make. What’s poetic about that? Poetry goes everywhere. Who says you can’t write an aging love poem?
LATE IN LOVE
The body gets cranky— hips lament, knees argue, hands
become ancient maps—making love requires a strategy
of pillows. Touch me where I ache. Tomorrow
is a sly intruder. Remember me to the hours that cup our wine.
It’s been years since the blood thundered.
Whose shadow will be first to fall? The cards say
our work is done. The shovel is at rest. The cards say
there’s more to come— look how this day brims over.
The fountain you tend is a psalm—it sings
to the stones and the lilies, of the spirit
that stirs the grasses, whirs hummingbirds’
wings, dances trees, leaps free
of the body’s complaints.
[First published in Sierra Nevada Review]
So much poetry is about our transient passage in this life--how the fact of our death makes luminous and vivid our lives. And the making of a poem small thing that it is--makes love leap free of the body’s complaints in the pages of a book, a poetry review, or on a blog.
My Oma’s late in life self-portrait portrays a radiant woman in the full authority of her art. She is my inspiration still for the “Poetics of Aging.”
[Emma Hoffman, Self Portrait 1957/8]