by David Daniel
I didn’t think I was the reunion type, but I went to the 20th reunion of the Oakland High School class of 1978 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee anyhow. Other than the poet now known as H.L. Hix, I had only been in casual touch with a few friends over all that time —and Harvey wasn’t coming—so I walked in vaguely nauseated, as I tend to walk into any large group of people, or any small group of people, when there’s no one to hold my hand. Right away, I ran into a former long-time girlfriend and another mutual, great old friend, and rather than launching into old stories, we just started telling jokes, and laughing our heads off. Even though we hadn’t spoken to one another since we left for college, we were falling back in love with that crazy, breathless thrill; that let’s-just-keep-talking-all-night-while-the-rest-of-the-sleepover-falls-asleep feeling that I couldn’t have consciously conjured. And I realized that the love that I had once had for them was not just childish stuff, as I had assumed , but that it was deep, intimate, and abiding across vast distances of time and circumstance. In fact, recognizing myself in them—a little gesture, a phrase, a certain spice in the flavor of the wit—I understood that I was partly composed of them, made from their love. It was startling, and it was one of the most moving moments of my life, and we haven’t exchanged another word since.
When I was in grad school, reading contemporary poetry for the first time—tons of it—I fell in love with Robert Hass’s Praise. On my front porch in Baltimore, I read it over and over, weeping, laughing, astonished by its life, the intimacy I felt. I read from it to every single person I knew for the entire heady six months. And then I met Jack Gilbert. Then Jean Valentine. Then Larry Levis. Then Eduardo Galeano, Juan Rulfo, Virginia Woolf, Primo Levi…a string of intense affairs that I thought would never end. But, the truth is, as I became a professional, so to speak—an editor and teacher—I was reading so much and quickly that it became more like making Facebook friends than falling in love. And while certain books and poems and plays stayed with me, many of them didn’t.
Not long after my first book came out, I decided to teach Praise, which I hadn’t read or thought much about for a decade. Because I’m lazy, I didn’t even re-read it before I walked into the class, and as I began to read “Meditation at Lagunitas” aloud, I started to cry, a little a first, but soon I could barely go on. It was probably the worst class ever because, while the students were accustomed to me choking up when the subject of my well-known, unrequited love for Prince came up, this was different, and likely unsettling. But I didn’t really care. As I babbled on saying god knows what about the poems, I was really thinking: I love you, Robert Hass, love you, love you, love you deep in my heart, and I always have. I was also thinking: Holy Shit, I stole this entire book—because line after line echoed through lines of my own poems, lines I thought I made up.
Sometimes I worry that in our quest for technical mastery or teaching prowess or sheer volume of knowledge, we don’t take the time, when the right one comes along, to fall headlong, weak-kneed, to-hell-with-it in love with our books—to get to know them so well that we feel we know their souls and our own more deeply because of them. Now when I look at my poems, I see subtle and not-so-subtle traces of those true loves everywhere—just as, when I take the time to pay attention, I feel my real-life dear friends and loves subtly and not so subtly in my heart. I believe all our rare and beautiful loves abide, woven into the very stuff of us, and I hope for all of us that with books, when we sense that spark, we can, in the madness of getting and giving, slow down and linger long enough so there’s a chance to be lucky in love again and again.