ColumnConscious life, hear me roar.
The sun’s gone dim, and
The moon’s turned black;
For I loved him, and
He didn’t love back.
– Dorothy Parker
My daughter came home from school the other day with this Dorothy Parker poem scribbled in 11-year-old penmanship down her palm and onto her wrist.
“I got in trouble for writing on myself,” she said.
“It’s that ink. They think it’s going to poison you,” I told her.
“Will it?” She asked.
“Not if you wash it off tonight,” I said, but by dinner time I could see only faint traces of blue ink swirls where Miss Parker had made her mark. I’ve never asked my daughter why she loves this poem, but she recites it out loud while walking, has written it into her own stories, and uses it as a reference point when talking about love to me.
What are these mantras we carry with us throughout life and how do they become personally significant? We all shoulder them, greet the new day and sip coffee with them, yet most of the time they stay buried and secret. You don’t have to be a writer, be well-read or even be an appreciator of the written word to have a phrase or two tucked away. You can learn them through other people, through song, through family blessings, through oral stories that seep into your being. We all hold a life language.
I started writing poetry seriously when I was around 16; my first time being published was in the high school literary magazine. By 25, I was published in three literary journals and had taken to carrying a Moleskine in my back pocket alongside my silver, monogrammed Drum cigarette case. I thought I was invincible. I’d been writing poems and short stories for as long as my hand could remember letters formed into words and sentences. What did I want to be when I grew up? A writer, always a writer. I was going to be a poetic boxer to knock people flat with visions of life they’d never seen. Bam.
American short story writer Raymond Carver described the writing profession as being a “witness” to life.
We do need them, don’t we?
When my son grows violent as his way of making a point, I say to him: “Always remember, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.'”
When I leave a place behind and watch it turn tiny in a side mirror I hear Kerouac’s calming ending to On The Road.
I hear Ippolit all the time, talking to me from the pages of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, telling me we can never get to the core of what it is we truly want to say.
Walking in cities, I silently recite:
I have seen him in the markets of Africa,
and on the shores of New Orleans,
And though he wasn’t there,
I saw him in my dreams.
I wrote it when I was 19 and had just started traveling the world and I to this day walk in stride to the word beats. I remember those places and that I was stronger then. Even having found him, I search still for that place. Do you understand what I’m saying?
I can’t help but compare my own words with my daughter’s beloved Parker mantra and wonder: Is it biological for us to feel powerful from a lack of love, or is it the intangible soul searching for the power of the written word? Something that curls up comfortably like a cat in our hollows?
I asked my daughter later that night, “Why do you like that poem so much?”
“It symbolizes my life right now,” she said.
Looking at her snuggled there in bed, with her quilt pulled up to her ears, I knew I didn’t need to know anything else.
Between the Lines is a weekly column navigating the sometimes-sharp, sometimes-blurred lines of conscious life and culture between city and country, between inner worlds and outer.
Image: APM Alex