My grandfather, the poets

I grew up thinking poetry was a normal professional field. I thought being a poet was something you’d casually mention at a cocktail party, a mundane fact that would be met with a polite, slightly bored smile. “Oh, great — my daughter is, too,” the host would say, turning to refill someone’s drink. A poet — just another job like a teacher or a police officer or a doctor.

It was my grandfather’s doing. He is a poet. He introduced me to poetry before I could read. He sprinkled surreal metaphors, sentence fragments, puns, funny limericks, stanzas into my childhood. He recited his favorite lines as we drove with the sun on our faces. As normal as listening to the radio. “Whatever that means, Granddaddy,” I’d say. He’d laugh at himself, then bring me the book he was quoting. He taught me to love words because he loved words, and I loved him.

From the moment I was born, we adored each other. My mom says he was waiting for me. I made a beeline to him.

He brought over tarps and gallons of dark green paint, spread the plastic across the living room. I rolled around in the paint wearing only a diaper. He traced my name with his finger. I smeared green across his face and clothes. His deep, resonant, limitless laugh.

We walked around the neighborhood, making up stories about people who lived in the houses. He lifted me over lakes — blue glass bottles shattered in the street. I pointed out the fairies — the street lights as the sun went down — and he gasped in convincing astonishment.

We co-wrote and performed plays for my parents — costume changes, he moved the sets. He designated a room in his house as my performance space. He created a hiding spot for me under his kitchen cabinets — curtain and pull-string light included.

He was there for milestones and more memorably, for the random, winding afternoons. Making up a new version of chess. Bubbling our milk at the dinner table. Riding in his convertible in the rain, water sloshing on the floorboard.

Later, we started Club. We were the only members. A writers society. “You are a writer, like me,” he told me. I grinned. Each week, he would meet me after school, we’d walk to get cookies, write, read our words to each other. He listened to me as if I were a peer — at age 7. He took notes on what I wrote.

I told my teachers I wanted to be a poet. I didn’t catch the nuance of their closed-mouth smiles and nods. Now I recognize — “She’ll grow up and find out you can’t be a poet for a living. She’ll realize the world doesn’t work that way.”

It worked that way for my grandfather — miraculously, as he willingly admits. He was an English professor at the University of Georgia when his friend and fellow poet Robert Bly introduced him to the poetry of Rumi. The English translations were literal — stiff, academic, stodgy.

“These poems need to be released from their cages,” Bly said.

And my grandfather’s career took off. His voice became Rumi’s voice. Two poets, one writer.

I knew my grandfather was a poet, but I didn’t learn about Rumi until I was ten. I was amazed. I read his Rumi translations, in awe of the feelings he could evoke in so few words. “Economy of language. Brevity. Say it as beautifully and concisely as possible.” He showed me how he crossed out words. “Mary Oliver says to take out adjectives.” I nodded. And I crossed out words, too.

I went to his readings. I watched people drink in his voice, the ethereal words. I memorized his short but fluid rhythm. I wrote my favorite lines down.

“Give us the inner listening
 that is a way in itself
 and the oldest thirst there is.
 
 Do not measure it out with a cup.
 I am a fish. You are the moon.
 
 You cannot touch me, but your light
 fills the ocean where I live.”

I tried to emulate the Rumi translations people loved so much. I tried to be airy, to capture radiance and joy. I struggled. I crumpled up pages and pages. I threw them in the trash. I was not airy. My heart was not dizzy with elation. There was no ecstatic joy. My skirt was not whirling. My feet were cold on the ground. My bedroom was messy.

We continued to meet for Club throughout my high school years. Rumi’s voice swirled in my head after my grandfather kissed my forehead goodbye. But my lines got longer, my stanzas crowded. The sprawling complexity of adolescence was not compatible with the ascetic language I coveted.

In college, as my moods became intense and unmanageable, my poems followed suit. They became even longer, twisting and spilling over pages. Wild, irrepressible despair, loneliness scrawled and crossed out. Unruly emotions destroyed any hope of minimalistic, incisive precision.

So I gave up.

I was a fraud. I was not a poet. The similarity people noted between me and my grandfather — a compliment that had always filled me with pride as a child — was fiction. I stopped writing, except for long, expletive-laden rants and tearful chronicles of my mood swings in my journals. “What the FUCK am I doing with these stupid line breaks — they are completely arbitrary and pretentious.” I decided I would work in advocacy instead. I saw my grandfather often, but I stopped reading to him. Club turned into me lying down on his couch, a fire, him reading his latest work to me.

“Do you have anything, Briny?”

“Not right now. Read me another one.”

He brought me glasses of ginger ale, sat with me in car as the rain poured down, consoled me without fully understanding, gave me books, brought me on amazing trips to watch him read, emailed me often when I was away. “You are a writer. Send me things you’re working on.”

“Nothing worth showing you.”


On a cold day in January, I go to his house for Club. He has a new book — his own work, not Rumi. He builds a fire, and I take my place on the couch. He begins to read to me. These poems trail off. They burn with stories of regret and love and sadness and mortality. They wander — a lingering, smoky trail behind them. Not Rumi. Coleman. And for the first time, I hear my own meandering voice blending with his. I sit up straight, jolting into consciousness.

“What is it?”

“Read that one again.”

He smiles.

As I left that evening, he handed me the copy he’d been reading from.

“They’re long.”

“Yes, some prose-poems.”

“Prose-poems.”

I flipped through the book in the middle of the night, stunned. The poems flow across pages and pages. Some of them have no line breaks. Some are a single stanza. They are stories, narratives, reflections. They distinguish him from the voice he lends to Rumi. Embarrassed, I realize I have never separated them. He is two poets — Rumi’s explosive clarity and Coleman’s softer, more tangled meditations. These poems sound like him. And they sound like me.

“…it was raining hard in the fall, in the 1940s, say when I was seven years old, and I’d go out on the backporch, where the rain was loudest and there was a daybed, and lie there under the comforts, radiantly alive and expectant.”

Past midnight, radiantly alive and expectant, I went to my own old poems after years of neglect. I began deleting the line breaks — letting the words connect to each other, a string of letters flowing across the page.

Words to wade and slosh through, not tiptoe around. No small taste — a mouthful. And each backspace, each reunion of lines sparked a deep remembering. Glints of the way I loved words, my grandfather’s voice, the writing I neglected, the years of stillness and silence, the pain of time lost. And a flash of ecstatic joy — a Rumi expression I had never experienced — of a love rediscovered.