To Go Past the “If Only”! Great Wisdom from a Friend – A New Poem by Heidi Garnett

Canadian Poet Heidi Garnett

Footnote to a Letter Sent to a Friend Upon the Death of a Great Man

Strange how beautiful when we are diaphanous…
—Patrick Lane

And I wanted to add he loved you.
I hope you know this, really know it in your heart.
I say this knowing the fault was also mine
for not letting myself receive a love that big
and wholly embrace my own greatness. I say this
knowing greatness has nothing to do with others,
only ourselves. Nor is it prideful,
or even humble. It just is,
like a hinge attached to a small wooden door
set in Christ’s chest, like the left hand
typing with one finger, like love,
though not an ordinary love,
but one which Orpheus might sing of.

Today I walk the valley’s dry hills.
How strange the juniper with its stiff needles
and blue-grey berries, taste of dust,
of death, a life given,
then taken. The deer with heads lifted
watch from a distance. Frozen into mere outline,
stone, they ask nothing of me.
I shift my gaze, look beyond them
to the lake, the way water fits itself
to whatever holds it. If only
I could see without looking. If only
I could hear without listening, deaf to all,
but the merest whisper. If only
I could find the key to unlock the little door
set in my chest.

Heidi Garnett, unpublished 2019. With permission.

What a gift this poem is. What a gift when I first read it a few weeks ago. This poem by Heidi Garnett, written in response to a sharing to her and some others over my on-going sense of grief over the death of my mentor and friend Patrick Lane this past March. My sadness and confusion. And I share this here because I know others in my poetry tribe continue to mourn his death. Only a few days ago a friend emailed to say he brings Patrick along with him as he walks in the woods with his dog. That grieving.

I am grateful to Heidi’s poem for many reasons: for its consolation and wisdom, yes but especially for its skillful construction. So much poetic mastery in this poem of Heidi’s. Its construction so deliberate and precise. The shock of that first line starting as it does with a coordinating conjunction, and. This link to a conversation outside of the poem.  How that grabs my attention, Yanks me right inside the poem. And the repetitions of the indicative this. And the way the poem’s two stanza’s break the poem in half. A device that American poet Carl Phillips calls a bivalve poem. One hinged in the middle. And it doesn’t have to be hinged through a stanza break but by a shift in in the poem’s direction or leap to another way of opening up wider the meaning of the first half. And this a marvel of construction: her poem is not only literally hinged but also is a concrete reflection of the central image in the poem, the hinge set in Christ’s chest.

The other device Heidi uses is to bring the meaning of the poem back to her narrator. To make this also a poem of consolation and advice to her! This is not just some wise guru pontificating to a friend. It is someone struggling with the same challenge of self-love and acceptance. Of acknowledging her own greatness. This makes the advice so much more real and effective.

And what a shift in the second half of the poem. A first half of thirteen lines and second of fifteen.  From a place of consolation and advice, of thinking and the introduction of the metaphor of the hinge in the first half, she moves so unexpectedly to concrete description. To a particular geographical place. This extraordinary evocation of dryness, of life, in some way, arrested. Images so full of grief and loss which connect back to the first half of the poem. And then she brings us to the image of water. Fluid, wet and life giving. And now for me this poem becomes the water shifting around not just the narrator’s shape but as a reader, my shape. Buoying me. Refreshing me. And those final lines: so intimate. So full of yearning.  Wanting to unlock the door to a place of self-acceptance, of self-love. But she does not give us cheap grace by the door miraculously opening. She gives us that wonderful conditional: if only. If only!

For me Heidi’s poem is such a salve but also a warning to my own sense of inadequacy, of self doubt. Was I worthy of my friendship with Patrick? And Heidi’s answer, of course. But more important how to embrace our own greatness. To know, yes, we are enough. To know that we can find the key to that hinged door. That we can, we must: I can, I must travel beyond the if only!


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