Poetry Bleeds from the Shattered Normal

Wednesday, December 20th, 2023

By Robert C. Koehler

What’s ordinary about life suddenly becomes sacred. This is my definition of poetry — my deepest plunge into being alive.

It seems more relevant than ever, as innocent blood flows in the wars being waged by military-political bureaucracies across the planet. How many more stunned facial expressions will I see on YouTube, of parents who have just lost their children, their spouse, their siblings?

As I have noted, I have recently released an album of spoken-word poetry, plus crazy artwork, thanks to my good friends Andy Mitran and Scott Wills. Much of the poems go back to an earlier period of my life, shortly after the death of my wife from pancreatic cancer. At the time, my daughter was not quite 12 years old. Dad and teenage daughter — those were the days! (We both survived, I’m happy to say.)

Losing myself in these poems so many years later is a mind-blow not merely because of the memories they unleash. They also have a relevance — so it feels to me — to today’s news . . . the ongoing abstraction of human life, the dismissal of the value of every living soul. Poetry is the opposite of that — not in simplistic but, rather, paradoxical ways. Its essential purpose is to break through the shallowness of normalcy, quite likely in surprising ways.

. . . God bless every finite movement
of your heart’s laughter,
the rich earth of your love,
the milk of your breasts,
the tremor of your flesh.
And God bless diapers and tricycles
and “Make Way for Ducklings” . . .

This is a passage from “Letting Her Go,” one of the poems I wrote in the aftermath of my wife’s death. The poem is awash in the small details of family life, so easily overlooked in the moment. The day simply pushes on. But when the normalcy is shattered into fragments — soul fragments, you might say . . .

God bless tantrums,
ice cream, swimming pools,
bugs and curiosity.
God bless every dropped pearl,
every birthday cake,
all the soft inner matter
of family life,
felt, lived,
and pushed along with
too much hurry.

The value, the depth of each moment, starts pulsating. As the poem pushes on, as I describe — relive — the last months of her life, I even write: ”God bless cancer. . . ”

Those may be three of the strangest words I’ve ever written. They bled forth from my pen almost as a Zen koan. Do I know what I meant? Not really, but not knowing can be deeper than knowing. Indeed, “not knowing” is the human condition, and it includes knowing. For instance:

The city’s streets are alive
with the eyes of beggars. . . .

This is the beginning of another poem, called “Open Souls.” Here again, “normalcy” conceals the troubling reality in which we live.

. . . They poke through the glass skin
of prosperity,
too large and too human.
I am disturbed anew each time
I step around them,
but I seldom break stride.
ot to look
would be to ignore
open souls . . .

Ordinary guys, homeless, asking for spare change. They’re just collateral damage of the system. But the poem isn’t political — it’s pre-political, just like every poem is, or should be. It’s about feeling the pain, the love that hovers beyond the codified world. Poetry is one of humanity’s windows into the raw unknown — which happens to be both beyond our wildest dreams and deep within our inner being.

In the world of poetry, there is no separation between church and state. The homeless guy at the subway station helped me grasp this.

The northbound train arrives;
shoes clatter faster around us.
From the wracking depths
he moans
“Pray for me.”

I did my best to gather together the pieces of this moment in my words. Yes, I prayed for him, in contradiction of my own beliefs (because, what do I know?).

. . . Let him have
a room tonight
and breakfast in the morning
and a lucky break,
oh Lord,
if thou art merciful.
Let him not be the one
to die for our sins.