1.
Dear K.,

I received word from A. about J. I am so sorry, my darling. I am here.

Love,
T.

2.
Dear K.,

I am hugging you and holding your hand. I know it’s not much comfort but I am here for you, and you are not alone. Language falls short often when it comes to grief and loss…

I hope you find your own anchor during this time. You are loved.

Yours,
T.

3.
Hi K.,

Thinking about you today. Sending you a hug all the way from here.

Love,
T.

4.
My dear K.,

I don’t know how you do it. But you do it, nonetheless. To go out the door alone takes strength.

Understand that I’m thinking of myself if I was in your shoes; it’s a selfish thought, the temerity of comparing your life to mine. But a loss is a loss is a loss, and language fails, and I’m flailing each time I write you, wanting to tell you that you are loved and I am here, because I know all of this pales to the reality that’s before you.

Tomorrow, maybe it’s a different story again. And the day after that. And the day after that. The days will arrive one after the other. Some stories will change, and some stories will remain the same. You are loved. I am here.

Yours,
T.

Grief
Richard Brostoff

Somewhere in the Sargasso Sea
the water disappears into itself,
hauling an ocean in.

Vortex, how you repeat
a single gesture,
come round to find only

yourself, a cup full of questions,
perhaps some curl of wisdom,
a bit of flung salt.

You hold an absence
at your center,
as if it were a life.

M.,

As it turns out I’ve had quite an unproductive afternoon—the rain interfered with the electricity here, so I turned off my computer and had a nap. Just finished dinner and am now back at my desk listening to Dean Martin.

No worries about weekend silences; I usually spend it going to the market, cleaning my office obsessively, having a massage, working on my manuscript, and trying to make sense of what I did during the whole week, so my head is preoccupied.

Your fascination with girls in ponytails is perhaps the same with me and football, and by that I mean I like watching bodies collide in contact sport, but at the end of the day I am still just watching men kick a ball around. I have no patience understanding the rules—it took me a long time to understand the scoring in tennis (years!) and that is enough, thank you very much.

One thing I will never tire of though is watching Olympic figure skating—it’s the dancing, I think. I am enthralled by it all, and often wonder what Charlie Chaplin would think of it. Ditto Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.

M.,

I have tremendous respect for comedians; I think it’s much more difficult to make people laugh than to make them sad. I agree re: naive cluelessness, and I’ll add that he has this sense of the melancholy about him—he’s not playing the sad clown trope, but I always feel like he’s very self-aware, and sometimes uncomfortable almost of the fame that surrounds him. Have you seen his business card? I thought it’s funny.

M.,

Someone once told me that archiving is all about knowing what to throw out.—I love this. I loved reading about your process. Thanks for sharing that with me. While reading that I kept thinking of a line from a Bernadette Mayer poem—“Small things & not my own debris”—perhaps most of our lives and histories is all about knowing what to throw out, no?

M.,

I’ve signed up for more classes than I can handle, it’s almost idiotic, but I wanted to learn a lot, it’s like I’m starved. Or maybe I am Cate Blanchett in that atrocious fourth Indiana Jones film, telling the aliens, I vant to know everything

M.,

What I like about film noir is the feeling that every character is playing cards with each other, and everyone is either waiting to be dealt the last hand, or is the one in control (or at least the illusion of it). I like the shadows, too, and somewhere a neon light that comes on, and the ambiguity of that (natural vs artificial). Then there are the fedoras and the low necklines and the cigarettes. It’s like Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks—the isolation, side by side the disquiet. His other paintings of figures have this quality of quiet desperation, I think.

Dear M.,

I was mostly lost during my twenties. I think you found me that way, if I’m being honest. I think I knew that I didn’t have all the answers, but I wasted a lot of time looking for them. I realise now, maybe there are more questions than answers, and maybe that’s okay.

Dear M.,

I’m not sure I’ll live long enough to be 70. Am also not sure about being loveable—think of me as a grumpy cat, maybe.

Dear M.,

I’ll take smart and funny. I think it would be great if I can make people smile or laugh.

Please be guilty enough to write me back!

I’m kidding. Write me when you can.

Yours,
T.

The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica
Bernadette Mayer

Be strong Bernadette
Nobody will ever know
I came here for a reason
Perhaps there is a life here
Of not being afraid of your own heart beating
Do not be afraid of your own heart beating
Look at very small things with your eyes
& stay warm
Nothing outside can cure you but everything’s outside
There is great shame for the world in knowing
You may have gone this far
Perhaps this is why you love the presence of other people so much
Perhaps this is why you wait so impatiently
You have nothing more to teach
Until there is no more panic at the knowledge of your own real existence
& then only special childish laughter to be shown
& no more lies no more
Not to find you no
More coming back & more returning
Southern journey
Small things & not my own debris
Something to fight against
& we are all very fluent about ourselves
Our own ideas of food, a Wild sauce
There’s not much point in its being over: but we do not speak them:
I had written: “the man who sewed his soles back on his feet”
And then I panicked most at the sound of what the wind could do
               to me
        if I crawled back to the house, two feet give no position, if
        the branches cracked over my head & their threatening me, if I
        covered my face with beer & sweated till you returned
If I suffered what else could I do

This is from A Bernadette Mayer Reader by Bernadette Mayer, published by New Directions, 1992.

Dear M.—

About two years ago, you carry the weight of these questions around with you: Where is to be my next home? What type of person will I become within its walls?

There have been too many days and too many oceans between us. The hours stretch and stretch. Sometimes you’re too far away. Sometimes I’m too far away.

Currently though you’re a few timezones ahead, and it amuses me to think that you now live in my future. It is the way you lean to me, and the way I lean to you.

Here, perhaps, are some answers. They’re not much, but I believe them to be true: you are home, because you carry that with you, too. And you are one of the best persons I know.

Happy birthday, my darling friend.

Yours,
T.

Orkney / This Life
Andrew Greig

For Catherine and Jamie

It is big sky and its changes,
the sea all round and the waters within.
It is the way sea and sky
work off each other constantly,
like people meeting in Alfred Street,
each face coming away with a hint
of the other’s face pressed in it.
It is the way a week-long gale
ends and folk emerge to hear
a single bird cry way high up.

It is the way you lean to me
and the way I lean to you, as if
we are each other’s prevailing;
how we connect along our shores,
the way we are tidal islands
joined for hours then inaccessible,
I’ll go for that, and smile when I
pick sand off myself in the shower.
The way I am an inland loch to you
when a clatter of white whoops and rises…

It is the way Scotland looks to the South,
the way we enter friends’ houses
to leave what we came with, or flick
the kettle’s switch and wait.
This is where I want to live,
close to where the heart gives out,
ruined, perfected, an empty arch against the sky
where birds fly through instead of prayers
while in Hoy Sound the ferry’s engines thrum
this life this life this life.

My dearest Y. and B.—

I’ve written and rewritten this letter many times. Didn’t want to sound trite, didn’t want to come off like a cliched greeting card either.

How does one find the right words for joy, for knowing that you’re spending a lifetime with the one person in the whole world that fits you? How can I describe how happy I am to be made part of this, to witness two people turning a page, writing a new chapter together? I take a cue from Nicole Krauss, in her book, The History of Love:

There is no word for everything.

Nevertheless, let me try to say it the best I can:

Y.—we’ve called each other Soulmates for as long as I can remember (senior high school, I think?). I haven’t the slightest idea anymore why—perhaps because we stood in a small room and realised exactly how much we have in common?

Or don’t have in common—because look at how our lives have diverged, the paths we took, the people we met, the changes we went through. And yet some things still stay the same. And yet the universe still made sure that our threads continue to tangle.

There was a meeting of minds (and hearts) the day we forged our friendship. I am crossing my fingers that this bond will always keep. Today though, Y., you will be walking towards your true Soulmate, and how lovely to see you off, to watch him receive you in his arms! I think it will be a beautiful sight—a privilege, really.

B.—one of my memories of you was one afternoon talking about Murakami. You spoke of staying up late in a coffee shop, asking them to let you finish the book before they close for the night. I can’t remember what the book was—was it Norwegian Wood? (It was my favourite, you know. It will always have my heart.)

That image stayed with me, all through these years. I remember thinking, I remember feeling relieved and sure—that you will take care of my friend. That she will be safe with you, and grow with you, and be loved. All because you told me you read a book until the end.

I didn’t know that years later, I would be here, writing this letter. Perhaps you knew. Perhaps both of you knew.

Thank you for showing me that love is real.

Yours,
T.

Other Lives And Dimensions And Finally A Love Poem
Bob Hicok

My left hand will live longer than my right. The rivers
of my palms tell me so.
Never argue with rivers. Never expect your lives to finish
at the same time. I think

praying, I think clapping is how hands mourn. I think
staying up and waiting
for paintings to sigh is science. In another dimension this
is exactly what’s happening,

it’s what they write grants about: the chromodynamics
of mournful Whistlers,
the audible sorrow and beta decay of Old Battersea Bridge.
I like the idea of different

theres and elsewheres, an Idaho known for bluegrass,
a Bronx where people talk
like violets smell. Perhaps I am somewhere patient, somehow
kind, perhaps in the nook

of a cousin universe I’ve never defiled or betrayed
anyone. Here I have
two hands and they are vanishing, the hollow of your back
to rest my cheek against,

your voice and little else but my assiduous fear to cherish.
My hands are webbed
like the wind-torn work of a spider, like they squeezed
something in the womb

but couldn’t hang on. One of those other worlds
or a life I felt
passing through mine, or the ocean inside my mother’s belly
she had to scream out.

Here, when I say I never want to be without you,
somewhere else I am saying
I never want to be without you again. And when I touch you
in each of the places we meet,

in all of the lives we are, it’s with hands that are dying
and resurrected.
When I don’t touch you it’s a mistake in any life,
in each place and forever.

1 This is from Plus Shipping by Bob Hicok, published by BOA Editions, Ltd., 1998.

2 This is a draft of a letter I wrote to Y. on the day of her wedding.

3 Here is Bob Hicok reading his poem, after answering a question about it.

4 I first read this in 2005. Somehow Y. found it, too. I remember when she told me about a poem she loved. Something about hands, she said. I looked at her and asked, “Hicok?” She nodded, and we didn’t need any words after that.

1.
What happened is, I sat on my desk yesterday and found that bits and pieces of my life were stolen.

I know no other way to say it except that. It feels a lot like someone is stealing my life, I wrote afterward to my friends, after an hour of leaning against the wall and trying to steady my breathing. Shaken, yes, that’s what I was. Words—all of this, here—this is who I am. Never mind the body, never mind the skin and bones and muscle—words, I am made of words. That’s my life, too, my whole fucking life: words.

2.
What happened is, someone sent me a letter asking me to come back. Someone wrote me and said, your blog changed my life. He also said, I think you should know about this.

I know no other way to do it, and believe me I have spent the entire day mulling over what to do. I know no other way, do you see, except to reveal who you are, even if you might not have meant for things to happen the way they did, even if you did things with good intentions (I am trying to understand your actions when I say that).

I know no other way, and it is going to be painful for the both of us—it already is

3.
What happened is, this blog—returntolive—copied a lot of what I have written here. And by ‘a lot’ I mean a lot. Try thirty entries. No, try more than that. Try entries written as far back as 2005. Try almost everything.

4.
Let me be clear: the poems are yours as much as they are mine.

What I mean is, take them. What I mean is, read them, and read them again. What I mean is, hold them close to you, let them live under your skin. I have found these poems when I needed them. Your arrival here, your discovery of things that speak to you, that speak of who you are—who am I to deny such meeting?

Let me be clear: I have created this space to find myself. But you are here, dear reader, and you have stayed through all these years, and I recognise that. I recognise that this space is now yours, too, that we can be alone together here, that somehow we know each other even if we haven’t met, because poetry does that.

What I mean is: these poems have saved me. What I mean is, if they are going to save you, too, who am I to deny such opportunity? I want them to find their way to you, to your hands, by chance or choice. I want these poems to arrive at your life with bells ringing; I want you to feel alive, alive again. But I want these poems to sit quietly by your bed as well, and hold your hand when you feel you can’t get up, when you feel there is no meaning left in the world; I want you to know that you are not entirely by yourself, that someone loves you, that I love you, because what else is there to do in this life but love strangers who understand what it is to be utterly bereft?

These poems have saved me, and if they are going to save someone else—if they are going to save you—then take them. Let me be clear: I don’t care if you put them in your own blog, I don’t care if you send them to your lover, I don’t care if you share them with a friend, I don’t care if you tell them, I found this. Because you did. That’s the truth: I found them, but you found them, too.

5.
What is important: to remember who wrote it. To remember who said those words that you now carry in your heart. To remember their names, and to remember them correctly. You have a responsibility now to get it right.

This is the least we can do: to remember who these poets are, to know that they wrote these words, so that the next time we speak of their work, their name would pass our lips as if a prayer of thanks.

I say Creeley, and I remember that pain is a flower. I say Walcott, and this comes back to me: You will love again the stranger who was your self. Reading someone else’s poems is, after all, all we’ve ever done, and I whisper, Light. Light.

6.
But this person who kept that blog, is still keeping it—it’s protected now, “marked private by its owner”—also took my words.

Let me repeat what was written in the About page: “This blog is a collection of poems that speak to me, quotes that take my breath away, and my own writings/thoughts/poems.” Took them, collected them—it’s all semantics at this point, isn’t it. So let me say, took them, because that is what happened. My own words were taken, held in someone else’s possession, and were made to look like someone else wrote them.

My words, my thoughts, my sense of truth, my life. The things I wrote to accompany each poem were taken and made to fit someone else’s life. At least, that’s what it looked like, that’s what it felt like. I mean—it’s incredible.

To find a single, standalone post titled, “What brought you here?”, and know that I have written the exact same thing almost two years ago. To find another, titled “Not listening”, and know that I have written it almost eight years ago.

7.
This hurts me, I told my friends. This hurts me terribly.

The wounds are deepest for things I have written when I was finally coming back to myself again, or when a great love broke my heart. Even my letters to all of you—like this one, or this one, or this one, or this one. All of it and more, taken.

All of it and more, copied and placed in a blog with no link back to where they were found. This person took and took and took, and in a matter of days, amassed a collection—and what a collection it is—of not only poems but life. My life. It almost felt like a dream, until it wasn’t.

8.
Eight years I’ve been here. That’s a long time to be in one place. And yet, I admit, I confess, that the first question I asked myself as soon as I found out about all of this was not how did this happen?, but: is it time to leave?

I know I have thought about leaving a lot of times. Of packing up, of moving on somewhere else, of taking all of this with me, of emptying this place. You know this. You’ve witnessed it, how I turned inward, time and time again, how I wrote in the dark, in private, when it became too much. But then I always come back. Because it seems this is the one anchor I have that has never let me down. Because I have met versions of myself here, because it is proof that strangers who live on opposite sides of the world can become great friends, because one day in August, eight years ago, I posted the very first poem that spoke the truth of who I was: My heart had become very small; it took very little to fill it.

Nevertheless, when I read, I think you should know about this and consequently found out—I thought, I must leave.

9.
I am thinking, who am I to be hurt over this? Do I even have the right to?

10.
I am thinking, but what if I left and end up regretting it? And what happens now to you, to all of you, to all of this?

11.
A friend said, the trouble is that this could always happen. And I know that, I absolutely know that. Because this is not the first time, and it will not be the last. But—things are different for me now. I’m more protective of what I write than when I was much younger, if that makes sense.

The magnitude of this—this incident, the scale of it—worries me. Eight years of reading and writing, and all it took to produce a mirror of this place was a few days.

Is it worth the risk of staying?

12.
I am thinking, maybe nothing is ever mine.

I am thinking, isn’t everything borrowed? Certainly this time. Certainly my life. We are all of us borrowed, and when I say my life, I know it really means, this life that I was given, was allowed to have, for a little while. Even language, even words, even the mouth I use to speak my thoughts, even the hands I use to write what I feel. All of it lent to me, the moment I opened my eyes and started my journey in this world.

So what right have I to make a claim?

What right have I to say, this is mine, and you took it?

13.
Return to live—that is what you have named your blog. Isn’t it funny that I have stayed quiet since June (writing here still, but where no one else can see), yet returned and resurfaced because of what you did?

If you must know, my friends wanted me to make a report, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Report—such an unpleasant word to me now. To give an account of what happened. To share the results of an investigation, a finding. To have you known, to expose you, to have someone shut you down, is what they tell me I should do, but in the process, I’ll have to announce my presence, too.

All night I pondered over this, what to do. Tested its weight, asking myself if it’s the only thing there is, and if it’s cruel. Asking myself if I can be kinder, if I can find another way to resolve it. I slept fitfully. And when I woke up, your blog has turned its back to the world.

Do I feel foolish, worrying all this time, only to be met with this today? Yes. Do I feel hurt still? Yes. Do I want to hear from you, hear your side of things? Yes, of course, yes. Do I think writing about this, writing about you, is difficult? Yes. Do I feel bad about it? God, yes. More than you’ll ever know.

But here we are. You led us here; you’ve got to admit that, at least. I know no other way to do it, because it all started here. I don’t even know your name.

14.
I am thinking, maybe I’ve set myself up for all of this.

I am thinking, maybe nothing is ever mine.

The Arrowhead
Mary Oliver

The arrowhead,
which I found beside the river,
was glittering and pointed.
I picked it up, and said,
“Now, it’s mine.”
I thought of showing it to friends.
I thought of putting it—such an imposing trinket—
in a little box, on my desk.
Halfway home, past the cut fields,
the old ghost
stood under the hickories.
“I would rather drink the wind,” he said,
“I would rather eat mud and die
than steal as you steal,
than lie as you lie.”

From Wild Geese: Selected Poems by Mary Oliver, published by Bloodaxe Books, 2006.

I have been going through a lot of letters. I said to someone just now: It takes time for me to get back to people. That is the only excuse I have, really, and I hope you don’t think me too terrible.

I want to make it up to you. Send me something, if you can?

Stationery
Agha Shahid Ali

The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.
The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.
The world is full of paper.

Write to me.

1.
Almost all my letters the other day began this way: I am not sure of the geography of things—

Some friends I haven’t written in awhile. Their previous letters I haven’t yet answered. I said: this is a letter I must write right now. I needed to write it.

2.
Apparently I am the person who stays up at past four in the morning, making a sandwich, barefoot in the kitchen, listening to the news.

When did I become her? When the planes hit the towers? When the floods kept coming, submerging towns, washing away houses? When earthquakes moved local governments to issue tsunami warnings? When someone went on a shooting rampage on an island? When an active pursuit for two bombers becomes a manhunt that put a city under lockdown?

3.
My letters were uncertain. Sometimes embarrassed. While I was writing I was telling myself what a complete fool I must sound like. I am a thousand miles away. How can I possibly care? And why would I?

But I needed to ask: Are you okay? Are you safe?

4.
Death and loss and grief. And all that blood.

Days pass and it will be all I can think of, all I can feel: the weight of that. On my chest. Here. To feel the heart beating, and to feel the weight upon it, the terrible, inescapable weight of the empty space where something beautiful once was.

5.
To think of what I have, and what was lost.

How indulgent, sneers another self. This is the kind of navel-gazing that nobody wants to hear.

Because elsewhere, the world turns. Elsewhere, more deaths. Elsewhere, everything you want me to turn my gaze to because don’t they deserve my attention, too?

6.
There is always someone dying.

An acquaintance ripped off an air conditioner from the wall. He and his family then climbed out of that tiny hole, onto the roof, and waited until help came, shivering under the rain. Elsewhere there’s a baby being carried in a bucket. Elsewhere water bottles were being used as rafts. Elsewhere another family was being swept in the flood, passing under a bridge, and afterward you see the roof of their house floating, with no people on top of them.

I watched my grandfather breathed his last and I didn’t demand the rain. I stood under a staircase, in a dark corner, and buried my face in my hands. Then I walked around the hospital, chased doctors, and asked for them to sign the forms, my voice trembling, my cheeks wet. Elsewhere someone is buried alive and starts to decompose. Elsewhere journalists are slain, caught in the middle of a clan war. Elsewhere people walk home with ashes in their hair.

There is always someone dying.

7.
In a particular letter, I wrote: I keep thinking how close it is to where you live, how it could’ve easily been you. How dangerous the world is. How nobody is really that safe. How, at any given day, it could’ve been me, in a wrong time, at a wrong place.

In another: I thought of you precisely because you loved to run.

In another: I just had to check.

I said, I’ve been watching the news. I said, It’s all horrifying.

I said, I wish we aren’t vulnerable to violence or terror.

8.
It is painful, to be made aware, and to realise again and again how life is fleeting, how it is all borrowed. It also cuts deeper to know that sometimes it is we who make it so—people make it so.

9.
There is always someone dying. And yet every day is a chance to live. I risk a cliche, but it’s the truth, isn’t it.

Every day reality demands that we must live.

10.
Each letter ends with: I’m glad you weren’t there. Though I hurt for all the people who were there.

I hurt, and this is all I can write—what I needed to write. Perhaps someone else can say it better. This— life— the world— it is “perhaps worthy of a better poet,” as Szymborska said in another poem.

Perhaps this is a letter, too.

Reality Demands
Wisława Szymborska
Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

Reality demands
that we also mention this:
Life goes on.
It continues at Cannae and Borodino,
at Kosovo Polje and Guernica.

There’s a gas station
on a little square in Jericho,
and wet paint
on park benches in Bila Hora.
Letters fly back and forth
between Pearl Harbor and Hastings,
a moving van passes
beneath the eye of the lion at Chaeronea,
and the blooming orchards near Verdun
cannot escape
the approaching atmospheric front.

There is so much Everything
that Nothing is hidden quite nicely.
Music pours
from the yachts moored at Actium
and couples dance on the sunlit decks.

So much is always going on,
that it must be going on all over.
Where not a stone still stands,
you see the Ice Cream Man
besieged by children.
Where Hiroshima had been
Hiroshima is again,
producing many products
for everyday use.
This terrifying world is not devoid of charms,
of the mornings
that make waking up worthwhile.

The grass is green
on Maciejowice’s fields,
and it is studded with dew,
as is normal grass.

Perhaps all fields are battlefields,
those we remember
and those that are forgotten:
the birch forests and the cedar forests,
the snow and the sand, the iridescent swamps
and the canyons of black defeat,
where now, when the need strikes, you don’t cower
under a bush but squat behind it.

What moral flows from this? Probably none.
Only that blood flows, drying quickly,
and, as always, a few rivers, a few clouds.

On tragic mountain passes
the wind rips hats from unwitting heads
and we can’t help
laughing at that.