The end of a long story of mine is that I own the poetry collection of someone I loved very deeply and who died much too young. In the beginning I kept our collections separate, and thought that someday I’d try to read through them as a way to work through my grief. But over time the project receded, and our collections have melded together so thoroughly that often I don’t know the provenance of a particular book.
This morning, my little son, H, and I were looking over the shelves to find a poem to work on this week, and I was drawn to Richard Wilbur’s New and Collected Poems (1989), which won the Pulitzer (Wilbur’s second). It’s a thick volume, and I found several promising poems, full of sly wit and concrete images, but nothing that shook me by the shoulders and said “This one!”
Until, that is, as my son fell asleep in my arms, I read the title of the last section: The Beautiful Changes, the title of Wilbur’s first book of poetry, published in 1947, when he was twenty-six (oh, to have the touch of genius!). My hands shook a little; I know these poems, “Cicadas” and “O.” I’ve read poems that talk to them.
And the last poem in the book, in the collection, is “The Beautiful Changes,” and it expresses, for me, what has happened since I lost this person I loved, whose fingers turned these very pages. Through the madness and the crushing weight of sorrow, the images that I cannot un-see, life and consolation reached out and found me.
I knew, without looking, that if I opened the inside back cover, I’d find three angular initials, and that they wouldn’t be mine.
But now the poem is ours.
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