Where Poems Come From
Once, driving to New Hampshire for a winter weekend getaway, we’d made it halfway up the mountains when snow started to fall.
My then almost-three-year-old must have noticed how tightly I was gripping the wheel and clenching my jaw and started asking over and over: Are we here yet? Are we here yet? Are we here yet?
Poems, for me, often begin with such tiny slips of language, and her substitution of here for there felt riddled with existential angst, as though she were posing some sort of Buddhist koan.
I started thinking about how hard it was to stay present, these days, and live in the moment and how writing often felt like my only means to approaching the ever-elusive here-and-now.
The sun was starting to set behind us, which, under different circumstances, would have been a magnificent sight. But, for now, it just meant poorer visibility. Our worn tires, which would fail inspection a week later, offered us little traction or tread, and I was driving with one hand on the emergency brake.
My wife suggested pulling over and calling Triple-A, but there was nowhere to pull over.
Our six-month-old was beginning to cry, probably hungry or needing to be changed.
My wife turned around and started singing in a calm and soothing voice, but it felt like the wrong music for the occasion. It was strange to think about a boat floating gently down the stream while we inched our way desperately up a mountain through a blizzard on bald tires in the dark.
Papa, my older daughter said suddenly.
Yes, I said.
Are you a teacher, she asked.
Yes, I said.
Are you a boy, she asked.
Yes, I said.
Do you have a penis, she asked.
The car in front of us swerved left and then right, almost skidding off the mountain.
And though I was too focused on the road to offer an in-depth response at the time, I remember thinking that this, too, was at the heart of all our modern existential angst – that surreal swirl of terror and the absurd.
And again I could feel if not a poem then at least an essay starting to stir.
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, came out last year from Able Muse Press. And his new book, Then Again, is due out in 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. www.ben-berman.comSee other articles by Ben Berman