Books of Lists—I own a shelf full, and I read them the way some people watch afternoon talk shows, fascinated by the wry humor of oddity and chance. In one of those books is a long list of “Things that Fell from the Sky,” including, as it turns out, seeds, powder, documents, and meat.
But I’ve never been interested in “found poems.” The happenstance of the things that have fallen are details I’ve come to know like those from my life and the lives of those close to me. They’re triggers, if the writing of the poem goes well, for something larger.
It’s like the difference, in fiction, between anecdotes and stories. Anecdotes can be as oddly charming as items in those documented lists, but it’s the deepening of character and place and event—what the great short story writer Andre Dubus calls vertical writing—that creates a story. I’ve written a number of stories that I hope have succeeded in accomplishing this, but it’s also how I feel about writing poems. Who are these people and their circumstances? How do these strange things matter? Because everything is available. Because the fantastic sometimes visits us and leaves the indelible mark of circumstance.
In this sequence and others like it, I work with the mysteries that have befallen others until I discover how those stories might somehow illuminate some small part of who we are. This sequence began with how the sections were arranged. How one built on another like scenes in a story until, as a writer, I made a discovery that I believed made the sequence about something more than “the weird.”
Last week I drove through a sudden summer storm, traffic slowing, hazard lights blinking, cars pulling, at last, onto the shoulder of the interstate. And then, less than half a mile from those waiting out the storm, I drove out of it into clear skies. It was so stunning a change that I pulled off and looked back, half-expecting to see those rubber strips that slap your car clean at the car wash, traffic emerging from something like a fogged-in automated door.
A few hundred yards behind me were drivers who believed the storm huge and unmanageable. It wasn’t meat or seeds pouring down, but that rain had been so intensely heavy that I had nearly given in to paralysis. Likewise, when, on that list of odd things falling, I read about the body from a small airplane accident that crashed onto the hood of a woman’s car, it conjured the memory of 9/11 and those minutes of looking up toward the intermittent shower of people choosing to jump from the towers rather than burn. There was an “I” in the poem now, all of those oddities culminating in that strange hail of desperation, surprising those of us who watched, filling us with terrified wonder.