The first poem I ever wrote—besides a few I wrote in a yellow notebook by hand in the sixth grade, that were really little more than reconstituted song lyrics—came to mind in my junior year of high school, in A.P. Biology. It was the last week of classes, and I think Mr. Leather had run out of lesson plans (all these years later, as a teacher now, I can empathize). He had sent us out onto the school’s campus to type and identify the various flora that were planted there. It was May in Georgia, furiously hot, the sort of heat that years away from the South have not really cured me from liking: that weight, that thick, wet oppression in the air. I miss and mourn the concept of April being hot. I find myself writing about the weather all the time, composing elegies of sorts that are sort of about the weather. Which is really a way for me to write about comfort. About pain. About my body. I don’t enjoy winter, or fall, cold, or wet. The idea of seasons is one that is highly overrated. Here in Virginia, I think to myself, walking to work, this is the last of winter….
And it really isn’t.
I was thinking about the first poem I ever wrote. Thinking of why. That it had to rise up from more than the casual boredom I felt watching my classmates wander around, kneeling before bushes and scrawny trees. Decades later, I can still feel, in a bodily sense, that sudden urge to write that I had never experienced. I rushed inside to the school library and wrote that first poem on a typewriter. They’re gone now: the poem and probably the typewriter, and I don’t wish either back into the world. My life changed in that moment. Before, there were imagined lives in which I was a journalist. A biologist. Maybe a lawyer. Never a doctor. I had no real idea. When I began writing poems, I knew I’d discovered what I wanted to do with my life.
For better or worse. Often enough, worse. Days when the writing is going poorly or isn’t going at all. Days when rejections spring up in my inbox like noxious weeds. Days when I fear that I’ll lose everything.
Imagine yourself as me: a quadriplegic from a childhood bicycle accident. Who becomes a poet. The whole thing is a bad joke. Darkly comic. If a poet, by the very nature of the art he creates, is marginal at best, how much more removed from the center of things is a poet who can’t walk or use his arms or feed himself?
Disney is remaking its classic catalog of animated films into live action spectacles, and the next one up for reinvention is Aladdin. The internet has been scandalized by the recent reveal of Will Smith as an uncanny, blue-skinned phantom of a genie, and while I get the unease people feel from the images, I don’t much care. I’ve been thinking this morning of what I would change about my life if offered three wishes and the answer is nothing.
I could not leave behind this life of poems and poetry and all its minor kerfuffle for a life in which there was no strife. No winter. No rain. Nothing bloodied or broken.
Paul Guest has published three collections of poetry: The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World (winner of the 2002 New Issues Poetry Prize), Notes for My Body Double (winner of the 2006 Prairie Schooner Book Prize), and My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2008). His poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. His memoir, One More Theory About Happiness (Ecco), was selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award. Read the entire CATAPULT series here.