The Bigness of Small Poems – #21 in a Series – Poem as Mirror and Solace

Danish poet Ulrikka S. Gernes

Danish poet Ulrikka S. Gernes

house lies the book you didn’t know
you were looking for, opened to the page
with the poem about solace you didn’t know
you needed; at first the letters,
then the words, little by little
the lines disappear as you read them
in the light of the faint dawn that trickles in
between the venetian’s dusty
slats and unites you with someone
you didn’t know you are.

Ulrikka S. Gernes, trans. Patrick Friesen and Per Brask from Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments, Brick Books, 2015

This gem of a poem says why I read and write poems. It is included in a collection that made the Canadian short-list for the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize. It didn’t win but this poem has made me a fan of Ulrikka S. Gernes (1965 – ), the celebrated Danish poet, author of eleven poetry collections. I wasn’t familiar with the work of Per Brask but the other translator, Patrick Friesen is a Canadian poet I have featured in my poetry-as-prayer retreats. Great collaboration!

For me, this poem cascades on to the page in a rush of its first five lines, then slows down, delaying the surprise of the last two lines: lines that perfectly describe what a great poem should do: make us see ourself in the mirror of the poem. Show us how a poem can reveal us to ourselves through an author who didn’t have us in mind when writing their poem. And in this way provides the great solace of showing us we are not alone.

I use this poem in many of my poetry workshops for recovering addicts and their family members and loved ones. Those last two lines never fail to startle the participants. I don’t know what the Danish word for solace is but that word anchors this poem. The comfort of finding a poem about solace you didn’t know/ you needed…as dawn is breaking. Up early or still awake from a sleepless night. The comfort of the solace of suprised self-recognition. The medicine of a poem.

In trying to find out more about Gernes I came across this quote from an interview with her leading up to the Griffin Poetry Prize awards this past June. It made me smile in recognition. A truth about poetry I hold dear. We don’t write our poems; they write us.

I fool myself into believing that I am in control, that some kind of planned poethood applies: that the poem is something I am in control of, something I can put in my calendar. It is rather like I am the rider and only my crazy poem horse knows where we’re going.


One Comment

  1. Geoffrey Cowper
    Posted October 3, 2016 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    As always very provocative and interesting.
    Glad to hear your readings are going well.
    I wonder whether the ‘other person’ writing the poems is actually the person pretending not to be the person writing the poem?

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