Passports to Wonders and Miracles

It was hot and muggy.


My five-year-old suggested that we cool off by heading to the library. And though I worried that she was beginning to think of our local branch not as a space filled with passports to wonders and miracles, as Libba Bray writes, but as that place with central air, I was desperate for AC.


Luckily, not only was the library air-conditioned, but it happened to be hosting a live animal program for kids – and maybe I was just trying to justify our outing in my mind but I couldn’t help but notice how literary the entire event felt.


In fact, if it weren’t for all the people in the room it would have reminded me very much of a poetry reading – with a bearded sage standing in front of us looking like an unacknowledged legislator of the animal world.


The first creature on display was an umbrella cockatoo, a rather feathery bird that danced like Chris Kattan in A Night at The Roxbury. And though we all laughed in delight, it reminded me of the poems I used to write when I first started writing – funny and offbeat, but also completely tame and inclined to imitate.


Next came the kinkajou and my daughters clapped when it hung upside down to eat half a banana out of the teacher’s hand. There was something to admire in its sense of theatricality and willingness to perform, but I saw in it, too, my worst tendencies as a writer – that desire to be rewarded for every little clever trick.


We were ready, now, for something a little more dangerous and before we knew it we were staring at a real live tarantula. We all oohed and ahhed and scooted back a little bit, as the spider sat there doing absolutely nothing.


It got me thinking about how often I rely too heavily on the ideas behind a poem instead of attending to the weight and texture of the words in front of me.


The highlight of the show, for my daughters, was the cane toad – at six-pounds, it was huge, otherworldly, and most importantly peed all over the instructor. Brought to Australia to solve a pest problem, it soon took over the continent – for with poisonous bulges around its neck it was as dangerous to predators as to prey. It was the kind of poem I always wished I could write – absurd and deadly at the same time.


But if the creative life is ultimately a quest for self-actualization, it was the flying squirrel that spoke to my inner self.


There is another world, wrote Paul Éluard, and it is in this one, and although the flying squirrel is native to Massachusetts I’d never actually seen one. Even in that bright afternoon sun, it was hard to catch more than a quick glimpse of it – for every time the teacher brought it out, it skittered across his shoulders to hide in his shirt pocket.


But there was something so intimate about that gesture it reminded me of why I fell in love with poetry in the first place – how we come to it expecting magnificent flight, and it just wants to hide in that closed-off space closest to our hearts.

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About the Author

Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.

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