Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Dear Sherman Alexie

Dear Sherman Alexie:

Someone donated one of your books to my library today. It was in such pristine condition (a freakish quality in any donated book to begin with), that I thought it was a new book of yours. It isn't. You're not going to love this, but I haven't read all of your books. This one is called War Dances. It came out in 2009. But I guess you probably knew that.

I opened your book and read the poem that was at the very start. It is called The Limited.

I liked it. I like your writing a lot, but I always seem to have some strange reaction to it. This time the ending was uncomfortably familiar. 

It goes:

...Why do poets think
They can change the world?
The only life I can save
Is my own.

You might not like this either, and seven years after the fact I can't imagine you haven't heard about it a few too many times to feel entirely comfortable, but, um, Mary Oliver:

...and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I am a person who draws conclusions perhaps too quickly and with too much heat. But lately I have been trying to draw more humble conclusions. I don't know if there is an allowable difference here, or if your poem is consciously issuing a touch of homage, after all, The Journey, by Mary Oliver seems like it must be a pretty famous poem. In this sort of situation the answer, when I find it, is always a little different than I can ever imagine it, and my interpretations are always a little short of what I might have known.

So what say I just throw my hands up, and you can say what you want about it. I can't help but wonder about it all, and so I am writing you, but I am not accusing you of anything. Indeed, I like your poem and do not make that provisional.

But I was thinking about both of these poems, yours and Mary Oliver's, which are both touched by the humility of being human, and I thought they were funny coming from two writers who have turned a few hearts towards light in their work.

It's true, of course, that the only life anyone can save is their own. But I have noticed, in a careful few of the people around me in my life, in pieces of the best art for me, that in saving one's own life, in the accident and virtue and trial of that journey, one sometimes, in strange ways, saves a few other lives as well. 

Maybe that's why poets think they can change the world. But yes, you should probably keep quiet about it.



  1. Beautiful! Thank you.

    1. How kind of you to say, Anonymous, or should I say, how kind of you to say, Sher... no, probably not.


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