Readers who have followed my Lifesaving Poems series will know by now that there isn’t and wasn’t a plan about which ones went into the list (which wasn’t a list, it was a notebook) and this blog (which isn’t a blog, it’s a story).
For better or worse I have followed my nose, and my tastes, such as they are (big in the case of the former, and various in the latter). Most of what I read, really read, and end up loving, is by the accident of friendship and recommendation and therefore love. As Thomas Lux says, you make the thing because you love the thing and you love the thing because someone else loved it enough to make you love it. Like teaching, like writing, it’s about love. It’s a love story. It’s not a blog.
Sometimes you love the thing because Michael Laskey is imploring you in a car in Sudbury to read it or else. Sometimes Peter Carpenter suggests, sotto voce, that to get round to engaging with this thing you have been putting off, even though it is quite difficult, will significantly alter your consciousness. Sometimes Emma Metcalfe finds a phone signal from a Welsh hillside and tells you to read Robert Hass, then her phone signal dies.
Sometimes you are on your own in a bookshop and you pick up Raymond Carver and that’s it, you don’t need anyone else.
Sometimes it is kind of a mixture of accident and friendship and longing and just plain being there at the same moment as the book lying there on a table in a converted cowshed at an arts festival in the Midlands sometime in the early nineties.
Which is how I came across Yorifumi Yaguchi’s ‘Praying Mantis’ from the anthology Three Mennonite Poets (Good Books, 1986). The arts festival was called Harry. I can’t show you a link to it because there isn’t one. It was a kind of crazy loving mixture of faith, politics and music. It ran about five times, then vanished.
In the sense that I met people there who seemed to think and question and doubt and pray and haphazardly pretend they were artists while doing other things (and that this was fine, normal, even)I do think it changed my life.
You could see a performance poet followed by The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus followed by Lies Damned Lies followed by some free jazz followed by Billy Penn’s Brother. It was heady and intoxicating and beautiful.
So, sometime after the last time I saw The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus end their set with ten minutes of cacophonous feedback, I picked up this book at the back of the cowshed/venue from a table/bookshop and began reading.
Like meeting the artists/accountants and poets/nurses at Harry, the overwhelming feeling this book gave me was one of knowing I was no longer alone. That’s it. The simply laid out free verse poems of Jean Janzen, David Waltner-Toews and Yorifumi Yaguchi are about the most ordinary of activities, watching TV, meditating, making love, laying a fire, but they transported me to another world.
It is both corny and a cliché to say so, but the book seemed to arrive in my life just when I needed it most. How does that happen?
Years later I honoured the opening lines of Yaguchi’s poem ‘A Lunchbox’ by using them as an epigram for my second book of poems Nowhere Better Than This: ‘Just as there is a toilet in every house,/there is a lunchbox of dung in every man’. I loved the deadpan humour of this, its blend of the domestic and the unsayable. That’s also in the poem below.
Knowing it was wiser not to, I knew I had fallen in love.
This morning I saw a male
praying mantis being
eaten by his female.
I could almost hear his
wild shout of ecstasy
as his wife ate him
and his joy seemed to increase
the more his body was
violently bitten along.
The complete trance of
self-oblivion came at the moment
when his last part was bitten.
—Tonight when I am exhausted
after our long and
I think of the male mantis,
wondering if his swallowed body
was digested or is still praying in her.
Yorifumi Yaguchi, from Three Mennonite Poets