The Words You Need

A few months ago I purchased an issue of Sou’wester because they were celebrating poems by women and I really wanted to read that.

The issue opens with a poem by Alison Pelegrin, whose work I admire, and I read it through very excited by it, enjoying it, and thinking, just wow am I going to enjoy the rest of the issue if it’s like this.

It was not like this. And I skimmed the remainder of the issue.

Months later, I re-read Pelegrin’s poem and I wonder, what gave me such a rush last time? Definitely the use of anaphora/refrain, I love that, and it still sings. I think there was something about the particular words themselves, “may you find the words you need”, that resonated with me.

What are the words you need? Once my sister complained that I sent her too many cheerful mix tapes. I’ve thought about that for years and only now—the words I need?—do I realize that I made and sent all those tapes because I needed cheering, I need someone to make that effort to help me stay upbeat. I can’t fault her for not noticing; I didn’t, until this year. But it’s made me look at my own actions differently. Isn’t that what poetry is supposed to do?

While Pelegrin’s titular phrase still eats at me, I find myself less interested in my insults stinging, or being fluent in birdsong, or surrendering to cherry blossoms, no matter how beautiful those images from the poem are. I need the words I need. These aren’t them. They might be them were they divorced from their current company in the poem, I can’t say.

But the longer I stare at the poem, the longer I am certain there are words I need, badly, and I do not have them. I do not know if they are words I am meant to share or if they are words I am meant to hoard. But I am looking now. I am examining dictionaries side-eyed. I am interrogating nonfiction, breaking it into chunks to see what the phrases do distended and distorted and alone. My every breath may be a prayer, as Pelegrin adjures me, but I am too fired up, too dedicated, too much on a quest to appreciate her “silence in the shadows of flowering trees”.