by Kathleen Kirk
Congratulations to Ellen Beals on the release of Solace in So Many Words, her anthology of words of comfort. When she first conceived of the book, as a gathering of poems and prose pieces that might give solace to a country crushed and grieving after the events of 9/11, I was moved by her impulse and effort. In calling for work that respected a universal and ongoing need for solace, she knew her project was something that could evolve, as it has over these last few years, to be able to handle our need for solace in so many ways.
So it is with wonder, gratitude, and delight that I re-examine what I’m reading for solace now, which is poetry. In particular I am reading the poems of Freya Manfred. “I don’t like poems where you can’t tell what the poet is feeling,” Freya Manfred has said. With her poems, you can.
She is straight on, personal, with a language as clear as clean water, with depths and changes, of color and temperature, like the water she swims in. Indeed, the first book I read by Freya Manfred was Swimming With a Hundred Year Old Snapping Turtle, a title that hints at the wisdom, confidence, ease, power, and bite of this wise woman poet.
My poems are written by a spirit on a stone,
and there are many tellers, many stories, and many stones,
in honor of our braided paths and solitary ways.
This is the first stanza of the first poem in the book, “To a Young Artist.” It might also name the “many tellers, many stories” and “braided paths” you will encounter in the anthology Solace in So Many Words, as people say what they mean and what they feel while navigating the basic journey of their lives.
Freya’s journey involves daily swimming in a lake in Minnesota, another way I connect to her, though I swim laps in a town pool. I understand the rhythms of swimming, the meditative state induced by steady movement through water that gives and resists, gives and resists. I understand how swimming makes one conscious of one’s own breathing, otherwise an involuntary act, and makes one attentive to its necessity. And how a regular swimmer comes to feel she can breathe underwater, even though she knows she can’t. There’s a new way of moving and breathing, a new way of feeling natural in the world.
In the book’s title poem, she observes the turtle, a grand swimmer indeed, ugly and beautiful at once, trailing “[r]ibbons of green moss.” And the closing lines of the poem mix danger and solace in deep, deep true ways:
He swims in everything he knows,
and what he knows is never forgotten.
Wisely, he fears me as if I were the Plague,
which I am, sick unto death, swimming
to heal myself in his primeval sea.
Next, also by Freya Manfred, having gotten hooked on the turtle (as a turtle occasionally gets hooked on a fishhook), I read My Only Home, taking its title from a phrase in the amazing poem called “Heart” at the center of the book. “I am. I am. I am,” it begins, like a heartbeat. My Only Home explores Freya Manfred’s home in the heart, and again her home in the water, including a long poem called “The Lake that Whispers to Itself,” in which she experiences water in all four seasons.
As reader of poetry, I read whatever is at hand, and am frequently amazed by parallels and coincidences. Recently, I read Like Happiness, poems by Michael Hettich, a poet I’ve admired for many years. In the very first poem, “The Lesson,” a teacher tells her students how to find happiness:
In that 2nd grade classroom, Mrs. Circle said
each of us carries an ocean inside
bigger than we are, like happiness, and full of
fish that live nowhere else in the world
and tides that are pulled by our heartbeats, and low tide
sand bars to wade far out in the bright sun.
There is the terrible, real tsunami, and there is the ocean inside, and the solace of safe sand bar.
As they dive down deep underwater, into the ocean inside, Mrs. Circle speaks to the children in italics:
Do you see your shadow down there on the sand,
following your body? That’s another form of you,
a kind of memory, swimming down below
your only solid body. Don’t forget it.
Yes, swimming, breathing, and reading poetry have brought me solace. My happiness is small and sometimes complicated, and also wide and deep as a lake in Minnesota, or an ocean. I am grateful for it, always aware that some have their happiness taken from them unexpectedly. Some waste their happiness in complaining or resentments. Some live in ways and places that barely brush them against the opportunities for happiness. In my wide reading of prose, as well as poetry, I came upon this statement by Marilynne Robinson: “And Dante, who knew the world about suffering, had a special place in hell for people who were grave when they might have been rejoicing.” That hell, just like any heaven, is always at hand. I am rejoicing while I can.
And now, because Mrs. Circle would want me come full circle, curving around My Only Home in my lap swim back to the hundred year old snapping turtle, watching an eagle drop to “rise with a flapping silver fish,” I’ll close with Freya Manfred, the last stanza of “To a Young Artist”:
I wish you work that weaves a spell, and love,
and breath—uncounted, irretrievable, sacred breath,
flying from its cage of bones—eagle-falling, fish-rising, free.