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An Occasional Word

Tension, Release. Ahhh. Good Poem

Tension has a bad rap. We have multiple strategies for dissipating tension in our lives. But in art—and maybe in everything else—tension makes things interesting. Who wants to watch a movie with a predictable ending? Tension keeps us awake, involved.

Poets and other writers play with creating patterns of tension and release—and that’s where satisfaction comes from. Oh, my.

But back to poetry. Here’s a poem by Robert Cording, who lives in New Hampshire and writes beautifully crafted poems. He’s particularly skilled at turning his gaze on his own human failings. That’s a quality I admire in general, and I think it gives a poem a certain heft, a certain credibility.

In this poem, “Lines for Friend,” from his 1991 collection What Binds Us to This World, Cording responds to a phone call from an old friend. This is a friend who has struggled, is still struggling, and is frank about it. Cording wrestles with his own feelings, and it gives the poem multiple levels of tension.

Lines for a Friend

Late last night you called, and I heard again
how your most cheerful voice skates a thin ice

over grief. In those pauses we can’t seem to avoid,
you fell through, and only those clicks and taps

echoed in the background distance of the wires.
All these years I have needed to see myself

as the wiser and more skillful, to explain the way
your life has gone continually wrong as some weakness

of your own. When your wife left you
for your closest friend, I read your sorrow as a lesson

in gullibility…After my closest friend
was killed, after I’d beat on his closed coffin

and cursed him for the pain I could not undo,
I swore I would not love what too soon could disappear

or perish. I was nineteen. For twenty years
I have learned to live by doing whatever it takes

not to be hurt. Last night, before you would put
the phone down, you said, “I love you, man,”

in that voice I have needed to call pathetic.
That same passion in your voice still embarrasses me.

Years ago, home each Friday from your AA meeting,
your uncensored talk, your simple declarations

of faith, kept rushing headlong: “I am an alcoholic,
I know that. Despite the pain, we got to keep trying

to love every day.” I’d smile weakly or look away.
Last night, after a final pause, you hung up.

I kept the receiver to my ear for a moment. Then,
from the hollow behind my house, I heard

the first peepers spilling their song over
the rain-softened grass. Their chorusing came

through the open window where I stood, the phone still
in my hand, and, for a time, my entire body

seemed to breathe in the sappy spring-struck air.
In one night last month the river let go

of a full winter’s worth of ice. This morning
these measured lines still take the long way.

And the love letter sealed inside an envelope
years and years ago remains to be sent.

Cording, Robert. What Binds Us to This World. Providence, RI: Copper Beech Press, 1991. 45-6. Print.


Isn’t that terrific?

The first tension I notice is the silence they can’t seem to avoid, the silence of two people for whom talking is uncomfortable. Tension. But then Cording reveals his real feelings in his poem. Release.

That gets me thinking about the tension inherent in the situation: the irritation of talking with someone you love but who drives you crazy because if he/she would just follow your advice or do one simple thing differently his/her life would be so much better and he/she wouldn’t be bothering you with all of his/her problems. Tension.

If that person would just get it together you could spend your time on the phone talking about really important things like chocolate or the Detroit Tigers, or best of all, your own problems. After all, what are friends for? The genius of Cording’s scene is that already I’m laughing at myself. Release.

How easy it is to fall into this trap of not really listening or thinking we’ve got all the answers, even with our beloved friends.

And how in the world do you write about a thing like this without doing damage to your friend?

Early on, I might think, uh-oh. I hope Cording isn’t going to be mean. There’s plenty mean in the world already. Tension.

Except that the more I read Cording, the more I trust his voice. He’s a master at flipping the camera back to look at himself. And sure enough, he does it. Mercilessly. Release.

By the end of the poem, I’m faced with a big question: Which is worse: to be so embarrassingly open about one’s own strategies for getting through life, or to be so closed and afraid of pain that one is unwilling to risk love and its expression? Ah. More tension. I think I know the answer, but sometimes it is so hard to live bravely.

Cording doesn’t lord it over us, and doesn’t tell us the answer to the question either. He doesn’t tell us what to think. Restraint! How wonderful to find restraint in this narcissistic age, when fools of every description show us every fool detail of their lives on the fool TV. (Or on their fool blogs.)

There is so much to admire here I am afraid of overloading you with ideas. But here’s one more I can’t resist. Check out how every little image Cording records supports his epiphany. The window is open, rain has softened the grass. The real estate in a poem (I mean the space of the actual poem, not the real estate it may admire in the course of a poem) is limited, and therefore highly valuable. Cording doesn’t tell us every detail of the natural world he’s noticing, only the details that will support the idea of opening up, of softening, of letting go of fear. That river letting go of “a full winter’s worth of ice”—Wow. That’s a beautiful release.

And just in time for spring.

What other tensions/releases/details do you notice here? What do you think of Cording?
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