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Good Letters

arthur-dove-leaf-forms-spaces-abstract-on-wikimediaDo you write with a pen?

Do you write with the wind?

Do you pray first? Do you pray when you are stuck? Do you pray after? Or are you praying the whole way through?

Do you wait for the singer on the beach or the sinner in the confession booth to finish before you begin?

Do you collect socks so you’ll have many from which to choose—deep navy heather glen plaid, taupe with midnight blue chevrons, black with bands of rust and teal—the perfect weave to supply the precise degrees of color and support for what you must face as you turn to the blank page of today?

Do you forget, in the middle of a line, who you are?

Do you suddenly remember, when you reach the end of the line, your son’s tuba lesson, its last deep note blown an hour ago, your boy now fidgeting at the tuba teacher’s curb?

Are you the one in whom the unfaithful confide, they who believe you can hide a secret so deeply in a poem no one will ever uncover it, the poem’s true subject?

Do you surrender to federal agents armed and shouting over the voices of ancestral spirits under your feet? Damned critics, those deputized women and men, who live the absence of inner life.

Are you grateful for small pleasures, say prepositions?

Do you write to shake the air? Make the earth quake? Stoke the fire of the beloved?

Do you abandon work too good to be true?

Do you yield to the poem coming from the sky or impose your bulky self between it and the clean page where its words yearn to land? I am my poem, this flesh, these broken teeth, this hairy chest, this hard sex, these crippled feet: is this what you insist? This is the mystery, this body, its language alone will lift you from the grave of routine days!

Do you have to be half-in-love with failure to succeed?

Do your lips move like Hannah’s, no sounds tumbling forth, arousing the anger of the priest nearby, Eli, who approaches and accuses you of drunkenness? When, at last, your poem arrives, the poem you vowed to surrender, should it be delivered to you, does it say simply this: Shmu’el, the Lord hears me?

Do you let your partner lead, backspacing, deleting yourself, performing the stunning dance of un-self disclosure?

Do you wait for your prescription to be filled, your redemption in the pharmacist’s hands?

Do you betray the unruly world with every rhyme and patterned line?

How do you handle material that tends to lie? Or is it your ambition to lie like God intended man to lie, beautifully, boldly?

Do you revise until your fingers bleed?

Do you remove your shoes, or do you refuse to meet sacred ground unshod?

I am not drunk but alive: is that how you respond to the cop on his beat watching you swoon as you, on the park bench, compose?

Do you write to bring light back from its long night of exile?

Do you slip into the sanctuary of a sacred text while God’s asleep and steal a heap of God’s words to arrange, then claim they’re yours, they came to you in a vision, offerings to the one they really serve?

Do you, like a loving father, kiss the words awake, or do you, like a police state, break into their house in the middle of the night, forcing them naked into the floodlit street?

Do you write by waiting for the letters to arrange themselves into a version of the knowable world?

Do you retreat into a solitude so deep no one can reach you there, not even a muse or god, so that the words that eventually come will be yours and yours alone, original work the world has never before heard or seen?

Do you bathe before you write or after, when you’re filthy with pride? Oh, what I alone am capable of creating!

Do you write with your reader’s pen?

Is irony your ink?

Tell me, if you can, how did you know before I did the name and origin of my exclusive pain?

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Richard Chess

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.

The above painting is by Arthur Dove, used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

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