Home » Poetry » How Poetry Broke me Open

How Poetry Broke me Open


Photo (C) Michelle Mueller, 2013

Mis küsib elulahkmel heitlik maru!
Kuid sina enesele annad endast aru.

What asks the errant storm at life’s crossroad !
But you must answer for yourself.

           — Betti Alver, From Tähetund


Three and a half years ago, I was sitting shyly in Avignon, France around an unknown family’s table while laughter and curiosity and, yes, words darted around me with strange syllables and foreign footsteps. I understood maybe half of it and, in my social awkwardness, even as they asked me questions, my face flushed with the gracelessness that comes from trying to barge my way through a language when the words don’t want to come freely.

However, during my three-week stay with that family, my host-mother did say something to me once that I easily understood:

You are a flower who has not yet bloomed, Michelle.

In what way? I wondered. I didn’t ask her to clarify.

Half a year later, I was sitting in the first creative writing course I’d ever dared to attempt. The professor was a published poet; my classmates in the workshop came from all walks of life. I didn’t know what to expect; I’d never before tried sharing my writing with strangers or, for that matter, even with other writers.

We started the first nine weeks of class with poetry. I was mortified to have to go home and force words on the page. They felt like French, oddly shaped, badly bent on my tongue. In need of improvement. I ended up slapping words down just to be rid of them, barging my way through. And by the end of those nine weeks, my teacher had called my poems in honest, but kindly constructive terms: mediocre, nothing special.

I wholeheartedly agreed. I’m just not a poet, I said when I met him for consultation.

But you have a gift, he assured me, referencing the short story I’d written for his class that — based on the mediocrity of my poetry — had shocked him so much that he’d asked me to meet with him privately in the first place, you can go far.

But how far? And with what? I wondered. Where, exactly, am I going?

I wrote one “good” story for a class and it did not answer any more of my questions. It created new ones. It left me in doubt. I had gone through the majority of my writerly life with the firm conviction that I am not a poet. That class seemed to prove it. But, where then, when I wrote lyrically, when I wrote along the boundaries of prose with a poetic voice, did that leave me? What exactly did I write, then?

What is that singing in my head, now? What is that intonation of words, the colors and shades of myself left behind like music?

I’ve tried to fit into a framework, to define myself through some more stable medium. I’ve tried to write another short story about Estonia, for instance — because I wanted to write about the things I’ve experienced along the way: the culture, the language, the distant light of winter. Stories have a way of solidifying an otherwise abstract world; they embark from a (usually) well-defined beginning and move towards a (hopefully) well-defined end.

Yet I am a student of languages; I put words together mathematically with a hint of the artist’s brush. I am a lover of anything that speculates implausibility and makes it believable. I love the bruises a beautifully rendered story leaves on my heart.

But, over the years, as I’ve developed as a writer, I’ve found that most often when I’m looking for an escape, for answers, for anything quiet, I turn not to novels or stories, but to poetry.

Poetry is my lighthouse. The desire to read Betti Alver’s poem Tähetund resonated so deeply within me that I packed my bags, bought my one-way ticket, and enrolled as a Master’s student here in Estonia just to read it in the original language. Now it’s the backbone of my Master’s thesis. It’s teaching me linguistics; it’s teaching me myself.

Poetry is a dark force in my heart, a rendering of explanations unexplained. My mind is filled with poems and poetic lines (of other poets) that I read and re-read and remember, that I carry with me, that have changed my life. Poetry touches me in a way no other style of writing has. Poetry is the only thing in life that has forced me to move to get to where I want to go.

I am not a poet are words I have spoken until I believed them, utterly. Because I feared what being a poet meant. I’ve been running myself in circles trying to find my voice, my style. The thing that puts me into words.

But walking among these poetic people, these Estonians who built their world on songs and held onto everything they are through words when words were not free to them, I see myself now, how I’ve finally grown into that thing I feared, how perhaps I’ve been that thing all along.

Because I am a poet. Not always a good one, at times mediocre. But do I not try to understand the sculpture for the stone it once took the Earth years to make? To parse the wind outside my window? To create these beings in my head — these people-of-words, these characters — whose existence is fundamentally an extension of my own. Is this not poetry?

Two years ago, I moved back to France for a longer period of time. I climbed the fence, ignored the barbs of a badly rendered sentence, and kept going. I learned to speak. I met my former host-family for dinner one night and sat around their table, laughing and letting the words fall as they should, one after the other. And as I was walking out the door, waving good-bye, my old host-mom called out to me: You’ve finally bloomed, Michelle!

And as I walk the streets of this foreign land — this home to me — among the people who have taught me not to fear myself, I think — well, yes — indeed I think I finally have. I have finally broken open.

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