I’m from the wrong side of the tracks. My people are those of TV dinners and bad luck. My growing-up landscape, fibro homes, scorching summer heat, and the pub's beer sign lighting up the night instead of the moon.
My high school was about 2-miles from home. 2-miles walked each way every school day. It was a walk I came to enjoy, although not heading home in mid-summer. Enjoyed because along the way I picked up school friends who helped pass the time.
I did go to college, but mostly while there I was up to no good. I think I vacuumed up just what I needed to know—and no more. I still marvel that I was accepted into the Computer Science faculty. Mostly, during those years, I invented myself, or a version of myself that I could resurrect out of the wrong side of the tracks and evolve to something useful to society. The scenario of a high level of unlikeliness. If I were with you in the real—real life, real time—I’d want to hear each of your stories about your own unlikeliness, about how you ended up believing you could or should write, and what you make of your time, what you read, who you love, what irks and nettles you, what matters to you, what makes you recoil.
I’d want to hear your work. I’d want to look down into whatever well or bottomless pit you drew it up from. To be embodied together, en-storied together, now seems as unlikely as a fairy tale, or a dream. Have we learned our lesson yet? About embodiment? About stories? Our need for connection in order to tell them? Our need for a relatable past? I have been, in my time, a wanderer, a kind of picaresque (the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero) character of my own design, but also a person who courted loneliness, with a hermit’s imagination.
“It might be lonelier without the loneliness,” Emily Dickinson writes, getting at the companionability of it all, loneliness, the idea of it, separate from her but of her, hers. Yes, loneliness has been my cry, my charge, my aesthetic, my bedmate. Choosing solitude is one thing. Having it foisted on us, by fate, aka COVID, by tyranny and ignorance, is quite another. Now, now, I want nothing more than to connect. And that want has led me to think about connection, the wish for it, the demand for it, in writing.
I want to share with you my favorite poem. It's barely a poem, just eight lines. It was written in the midst of a longer poem Keats was working on at the time of his death at age 25 from tuberculosis, in Italy, where he’d gone on doctor’s orders to escape the English damp and cold. This was Keats’ situation, and what led him to this poem.
Keats had received his death warrant from tuberculosis, and the great poems were behind him—the sonnets, the odes, including “To Autumn,” which may be the most perfect poem in English. He was working on a comic poem to be called “The Cap and Bells; or, The Jealousies.”
He never finished the fairy tale, the weakest of his mature poems, the Spenserian stanzas he churned out with remarkable fluency to earn some money for his publisher, but at some point, while he was writing it, he broke off and jotted down some lines in a blank space on the manuscript.
He turned from stanza 51—”Cupid I / Do thee defy”—and wrote something dark and serious, preternaturally alive, this untitled eight-line fragment:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.
This is a poem written from the very edge of death, from the seam of the shroud. “This living hand,” he begins, announcing from the first phrase that as he writes, he is alive: “now warm and capable / of earnest grasping.” Now, right now, warm, capable, but “if it were cold,” and that coldness is coming, he knows it, “and in the icy silence of the tomb,” and hear how “icy” and “silence” speak to each other in those long “I” sounds, that cold hand would “so haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights,” he writes, putting a kind of curse on you, on me, the haunting of the cold disembodied hand, “That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood / So in my veins red life might stream again / And thou be conscience-calm’d.” It’s poem-as-vampire. You would, if he were in the icy silence of the tomb, and he will be of course, he knows it, soon, want to give him your own blood, your heart’s blood, so he would live again, and your conscience would be calmed. So, what is this blood he’s demanding of you? I believe we learn that in the ferocious little poem’s final lines: “see here it is— I hold it towards you.”
Here it is, he writes, he speaks, and in the moment of the poem’s writing, via the vehicle of the poem itself, he holds his very hand towards you. You. You, reader. His actual hand, once warm, now cold in the icy silence of the tomb.
Through time. Through space. Through the very page. Through the tangled wires and microchips of your digital device there it is. His hand, waiting for the lifeblood of your attention. He wants what all writers want, what all people want I imagine. Listen to me. Read me. Take my hand.
Walt Whitman (1819–1892), at the end of “Song of Myself,” writes a similar missive to you, though with a very different tone.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
If you want me, I’m right there under your boot-soles, as he has bequeathed himself, his very body, to the dirt, to the grass. “I shall be good health to you,” he writes, “And filter and fibre your blood.”
Wow. “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,” he writes, egging you on, egging on the reader through the poem. You don’t get it? he might say. Keep going. “I stop somewhere waiting for you.” He waits for me, for you. Not in the clouds but here, on the earth. He wants what? Our attention. Our willingness to connect over time and space. Here I am. I defy death. I hold myself, via the poem, toward you.
Miklós Radnóti, a Hungarian poet, was drafted into hard labor in a copper mine in Bor, Yugoslavia during World War II. He was taken from the mine and driven westward across Hungary in a forced march, and there, near the town of Abda sometime between November 6 and November 10, 1944, he became one of twenty-two prisoners murdered and tossed into a mass grave by members of the Hungarian armed forces. It was an unspeakable death. After the war, Radnóti’s wife had his body exhumed, and his last poems were found in his field jacket, written in pencil in a small Serbian exercise book, which is now known as “The Bor Notebook.” These poems literally rise from the grave to give testimony.
Here is the last of those poems, just six lines, which he called “postcards.”
It was tight as a string before it snaps.
Shot in the back of the head
“This is how you’ll end. Just lie quietly,” I said to myself.
Patience flowers into death now.
“That one is still twitching,” I heard above me.
Dark filthy blood was drying on my ear.
Radnóti writes prophetically, or in the midst of, his own execution. His body is his witness.
He sends a postcard from death itself to be discovered, mysteriously, dizzyingly, by the future. How brutal. How transcendent. If I were able to be with you today, I’d ask you what first drew you to the writing life. I’d want you to tell me how it all started for you—what instigated the urge. I imagine for some of you it was some kind of emptiness, the lack of a place in which you could be yourself, a trauma, an unmet hope or need or desire.
For me, writing arose out of an urgent need, to connect with my Grandma once she was gone, and with ancestors I never knew, and ultimately, through reading, with those scribblers who came before me, and finally, especially now, through writing, with those who I can only imagine, future readers to whom I extend my hand, demanding the lifeblood of their attention.
And so, you commenced on this calling, this affinity, long before you realized you should write, and you will continue to reveal your persona through words and throughout this puppet show we call a life, much of which you will build through the strange architecture of language. Something knocked on your door early.
Somehow, Little You had the courage to answer it.
For all you young writers, I wish you the touch of the hand of the dead through the page; I wish you the will, the courage, to resurrect them via your attention. The guts to deconstruct the lies we all daily swim in. I wish you a daisy chain of memories that link you back to your ancestors, and forward to those writers you can barely imagine. I wish you the power of the threshold, the page that is shaped like a doorframe standing at the seam between disorder and order, death and life. I wish you solitude, yes, but also loneliness, the aching, fruitful kind that empowers inspiration.
And somewhere up ahead, for all of us, all of your teachers will be waiting for you.
Thank you for the gift of your attention.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
About the Author: Greg Twemlow is a Sydney-based Social Enterprise Founder | Startup Mentor | CEO | Writer | Speaker | Founder at Publishers Studio