First Loves

Marie Ponsot: First Loves

Thanks to lullabies, prayers, and Mother Goose, I had this much by heart before I could talk: Words say that people are present. And some words come together to make a place. It takes shape in the little stillness it causes to surround it, pleasing both speaker and listener. The first stanza that I knew to be a poem, I can still hear in my grandmother's voice:

Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me,
And may there be no moaning at the bar
When I put out to sea.

She'd say it--maybe just the first line, as the rest hung in mind--with her face lit, turned to a radiant, fading sunset. What a word, "evening." I was read to, long after I could read. Bedtime meant Poems for Children; I'd ask for a long one, to stretch the time. Then mother would shut the book, pause in the lit hall, and recite, "I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o'er fields and hills...." for me to hum myself to sleep with, years before I noticed its content.

Mother's poems murmured. Not so my father's. I imitated his laughing rendition of "The Raven" in a fake-scary voice, as I joined in on the Nevermores. I relished the suspense, not of its story but of its sound. What a sound, Nevermore.

The first book I bought on my own--with saved lunch money--was H. D.'s Sea Garden. "It's out of print," said the Brentano's man. "Try the Holliday Book Shop." Fifteen, very shy, I hated to climb its tall red-carpeted stairs and face its elegant strangers. But I did. They had it. It cost five dollars. I took it home in subway bliss. H. D.'s sound was perfect, each syllable a step or gesture. It made other free verse (then the dominant convention) seem thick-eared: "bound round the ankles / with myrrh / with violets / and with half-opened myrrh..." Half-opened-yes. Bliss.

Next I bought Muriel Rukeyser's Theory of Flight. Its thrilling vigor set me scribbling in echo of her sharp American urgency, envying her knowledge of labor unions and real life.

How grateful I am for this chance to re-visit that early, unconsidered joy. I see I've explained nothing, and left out some of the best (the Odyssey, Baudelaire, Shakespeare, Gawain, Aucassin, more) of a long, dense, undifferentiated dream. I read and read and wrote and never thought, "I'm reading; I'm writing." I loved, unmediated, the imagining voice of poets (taking the outside in and the inside out, fusing the two given worlds) a voice I heard as the power to desire true free speech.


Originally published in Crossroads, Spring 1998.

More First Loves

Yusef Komunyakaa: First Loves

Perhaps it was how the poem's title first wedded my tongue, without any hesitation, conscious negotiation, or humbug: "Annabel Lee." It seemed as if some deep part of myself already knew the rhythm and emotion of this name—a Southernness in its music. But Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee" also ushered in a disquieting mystery and the strange feeling of eavesdropping on something almost taboo.

Read Article
Ntozake Shange: First Loves

I always knew I liked poetry more than anything. More than boys. More than butterflies. More than fresh sheets on a hot St. Louis night. I'm not sure I liked poetry more than dancing or Jackie Wilson. Or sleeping on the second-floor screened porch when even fresh sweet sun-dried sheets were no match for the weight of the air of my sister's wandering limbs.

Read Article