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Finding poems

"The Poet Tree in Cabbagetown, Toronto" Photo by Kelly Rogers

When I sit down on the bench outside, I see a sheet of notebook paper with writing on it. The sheet has been unfolded, and the writing might be Polish. A poem, by the look of it. I lean over to see if I can spot who might have left it, but there’s no one around.

Someone so moved or offended—devastated by impossibility, or annoyed by the attention—simply walked off without it. Or so I imagine.

I hesitate to pick up something so intimate, and yet I feel I have to. There are five poems on three sheets of paper. Then I see the envelope they’ve been torn out of. A Canada Post “Return to Sender” label covers the address.

I imagine the poet, confident that the poems are on their way, their intended recipient waiting. Or would they have been a surprise? And a welcome or unwelcome one?

I assume they are love poems, but they may not be. One thinks of Rilke’s short poems describing animals at the zoo. Or William Carlos Williams’:

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


In my hand, I hold five distinct moments, each with its own title, saying something intended for someone else. Private. Suddenly I feel worse than the thief who stole them, and tearing open the envelope, discarded them because there was no money.

I can’t drop them into the nearby trash bin, so I decide to become a messenger, the poet’s friend and ally. I think of all those who have carried poems from Emperor to courtesan, between wives. A job not without its dangers. Pages tucked into a doublet or sewn into the lining of a vest to get them across hostile borders.

Secret. Hidden.

How many poems have traveled this way and never arrived? Something tender and vulnerable is imperiled here—the contents of a poet’s heart, too often lost.

The writing on the envelope is hard to read. A nervous script—hurried, urgent. There’s not even a stamp.

W. H. Auden once said, “poetry makes nothing happen,” but how can that be so?

Seduction. Marriage. Infidelity. Revolution. Poems carry subtle and crucial information from one private chamber to another. I think of the world described in The Tale of Genji in eleventh century Japan. Or eight lines scribbled by de Beauvoir on a napkin to Sartre at Les Deux Magots 900 years later. Or Anna Akhmatova addressing Marina Tsvetaeva in verse under the Soviets.

Poems of love, admiration, admonition, scorn, longing. A secret code, a puzzle, a riddle designed to befuddle the Gestapo, or the Czar’s police, or the KGB. Safe, each poem a world unto itself, open only to initiates.

The poems in my hand are in a language I cannot read, but I know enough to know they are important—to the poet if to no one else.

And so I carry them upstairs and address a new envelope in my own square hand: To the poet who resides at … and then the address as best I can make it out, trusting Destiny, the Muses, and all Protective Spirits of the Art of Poetry—that the poems will return to the poet and that the poet will perform the next necessary act of faith.


Portrait of the poet Alexander Blok by Irina Belova 2008, oil on canvas.


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