The paradox deepens, of course, when we talk of John Keats in the present tense although he died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five in 1821. He lives, still, in each of his poems.
Poetry--reading it, writing it--allows us in some miraculous way to give life even as we mourn the loss of life.
Writing a poem is a strangely selfless act, I think. Although the motivation for starting a poem is often a deeply personal feeling of loss or pain or confusion or joy that must be expressed, the poem will make its own demands on the poet. The poem wants clarity; the poem wants beauty; the poem wants to become a medium through which one individual experience can be communicated over miles and years to be felt by unknown “generations.” And so the poet must come to care more about the poem than about the intimate emotion that gave it inspiration. In this way, poetry heals--not by disremembering, but rather by revising memory into a palpable presence. One that can be shared. Poetry immortalizes.
Pachi’s Lights is a poem about a parallel work of art and remembrance: a Christmas wreath through which a grieving survivor is moved to reshape permanently the handiwork of a lover profoundly missed. The resulting artistry at the horizon of the dusk of the dead and the dawn of the living enlightens a community.
The events of the poem are true, related to me by one of the principals. Even though I was not present physically for the moments narrated, the poem called me to write it. I was its tool. Fearful of intruding on the biographies of real people, I altered all the names as I wrote. When I had finished what I thought was the final draft of Paco’s Lights, I asked my friend John to pass it on to Jimmy. Would he mind if I offered the poem for publication? I asked. Some days later, I received the typescript back. All the aliases had been lightly crossed out and replaced in Jimmy’s hand by “Mrs. G” and “John” and “Peter” and “Jimmy” and “Pachi.” Here they all are, still:
Pachi’d died in April
Off the elevator Christmas eve,
Later, Jimmy knocked on Mrs. G’s door.
“None. Just tiny batteries or
By midnight, the place was packed