Past Lives


1
In my first life, I see myself
second daughter to the late lieutenant and his wife,
he a soldier fallen on the front lines of Dong Xoai,
she a concert pianist, now teaching me along with
the neighbors’ children after school. She straightens
our postures, raps our knuckles with a ruler as we mangle
Rachmaninoff. Sometimes, at night when she thinks I’m
asleep, she plays for herself, their song.

2
In my second life, I see myself
a teacher in the jungles of Mindanao, two months pregnant,
my partner and I marching villagers through irregular verbs.
Typhoons trespass across the borders of our peace, stirred
by the shrapnel of insurgent monsoons. Gunfire.
We dive for shelter, covering our heads and mouthing
prayers in a foreign tongue. Sometimes our prayers are
answered by a different god.

3
In my third life, I see myself
at the bus stop, sniping with my son, third grade now
at St. Luke’s Catholic School. He wants to bring
with him this morning’s letter from his adoptive father;
I tell him later. When I open it myself on our driveway,
fine sand seeps out, swept into the envelope from the storms
that ring his barracks, a thin stream marking time
until the grains run out.

4
In my fourth life, I see myself
cursing a vending machine at Dover AFB,
its stark metal denying iced tea for my mother. And suddenly,
inexplicably, my life, all my past lives, come clear to me,
forever framed in that inexorable cycle of reincarnated grief.
My mother takes my hand. An hour away, the transport
from the airfield at Basra drones toward us, draped
in mourning, bearing her grandson home.
.....

42 comments:

  1. Incredible, start to finish. This one took some work. And the lives you "lived" are so rich with detail. Love it.

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  2. Wow, i envy how often you're able to update this blog with quality work each time. I definitely notice your attention to detail here. The repetition in the first line of each stanza is so effective to me, i didn't even notice it as a literary device. it runs smoothly and naturally. please do continue inspiring your audience!

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  3. Thank you! There's a simple twist in this poem, of perspective, that - when you catch it - changes everything.

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  4. For me, that comes in the last verse. Because the 4th life is in the present, suddenly the tragedy hits home - here, now, inescapable. And "mine" - the me of the poem - as "her grandson" must be "my" son. In the earlier verses, despite sadness and trauma, knowing them as "past life" made for a softening, relating to them like fiction (even allowing for "willing suspension of disbelief" and accepting the premise). I read the last verse and wondered for a minute if you, the poet, were describing a reality of your own life .. then realised you must be far too young to have a son killed in Iraq (I hope!).

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  5. Short link - http://bit.ly/s4pastlives

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  6. I can't get over how in depth this is written! Amazing talent penned here.

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  7. Sam, thank you for sharing this link with me. The past lives and the gender effect resonate. Ironically, I had a friend who was MIA until recently, killed at Dong Ha in Vietnam, his remains now identified, so that "slingshot" made this, for me, a very personal moment. Bless you. Amy

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  8. You don't need anyone to tell you this is excellent work, it just is.

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  9. such awesome storytelling sam...love the different parts of her life...love esp. that part....
    When I open it myself on our driveway,
    fine sand seeps out, swept into the envelope from the storms
    that ring his barracks, a thin stream marking time
    until the grains run out.... i just stopped breathing while i read this...such thick emotions in such few words...awesome work...

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  10. wow sam...that rocks....really great progression through the lives...and the realization in the end on how they come together...i was waiting on it and you delivered it masterfully....very nice write man...

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  11. Beautifully written, Sam.

    There is a large theme of loss here, how it equalizes us all, the differences only in the details.

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  12. This just builds and builds and then closes with such weight. For me this conveys a particularly strong message, and that is 'life is suffering'- I don't mean that in a crass way- but rather in its beautiful truth...your imagination to put yourself in the places of these people just renders me speechless ...fantastic poem

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  13. Great detailing throughout. a powerful poem that does indeed build to the last line. Wonderfully done.

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  14. Sam, this is impressive. You are so good at writing from different voices. The ending, oh so sad, war brings nothing positive, which is my theme in my poem this week as well.....

    http://inthecornerofmyeye.blogspot.com/2012/04/history.html

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  15. Coming back to this one a second time (this time knowing the 'twist') it gives me even more pleasure to read. A wonderful use of the particular to suggest the universal.

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  16. 'that inexorable cycle of reincarnated grief' was the emotional axis for me that resonated within. Your storytelling is so assured and smooth, I believe every word.

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  17. This is a finely imagined work, Sam--and faultlessly executed. The detail, so seemingly humdrum, then turned red with war and death, with life going on, with prayers answer by the wrong gods, with a mesh of commonality and grief catching us all like flies on the outside of where we want to go. Fine fine writing--understated and all the more powerful for it.

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  18. This is so well done, Sam, and so sad. Your progression through these lives collecting grief is very effective. The seconnd life is my favorite, filling me with many mental pictures and sounds.

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  19. Lovely in all ways. A lot of sadness in world. k.

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  20. Amazing. I really enjoy reading your work, Sam. Thank you.

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  21. Ugh, that ending. Powerful and surprising. I misread the line about the sand and loved the (incorrect) imagery; I thought it said, "When I open myself on our driveway, fine sand seeps out." For a moment, I was picturing a person opening his soul and sand spilling out. As an hourglass is breakable solid filled with practically liquid material, so are we in our essence. Fragile creatures moving from one grief experience/life to the next with bits of solid moment in between.

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  22. Oh will we ever learn...
    Nowhere to hide from man-made grief nor any day and age. I liked the time-spaced format you placed this in.

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  23. Oh.. Yes there is some synchronicity here .. I took the subject in different way but i liked yours , every life a story . Powerful. Thanks for stopping by at mine.

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  24. i very much like the progression in this... it tells your story well. and your language is exquisite, as ever. especially in that 2nd verse/life.

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  25. Such a modern poem here. Telling it as a woman is very effective, soaking yourself in the pain of loss and the necessity of courage to forge on, continue carrying weight in each one. And while it has that modern free verse flow, there are also hints of the Asian poetic disciplines that you deconstruct here with clarity and elegance. Another majestic write, sir!

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  26. Attentive and searching all realms of emotion i enjoyed each line

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  27. I really adore the way you always put us readers into a place and time. In your longer pieces, that might seem easier, perhaps, but here you show that that ability is not a matter of space but craft and historical poetic sensibility. What I especially love about these pieces is the sense of mystery that surrouns them, like an aura of time, as though you can see and feel that time here and now. An amazing accomplishment, really.

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  28. I love the concept this poem puts forth in its construction--beautiful. The layers of life build pushing the reader to thirst for more of the poetic tale. Being concrete by adding real places rather fictious ones lets the reader feel as if they are a part of the narrative, or better yet connected to it. This poem is impressive and one we poets should take time to study. You continue to amaze us with your brillance, something that is a wonder to continually behold.

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  29. A story of loss with fine detail and imagery...love the foreshadowing of the grains running out in stanza 3 to the loss in stanza 4... "reincarnated grief"-- any war, in any place or time, has this constant: grief and loss. A finely crafted, beautiful piece.

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  30. Oh good grief, I wasn't expecting the last stanza to be so chilling in its truth. How sad is the reality.
    An amazing write many levels deep Samuel. You really get into each character either male or female and, give them and, their surroundings, life.

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  31. Absolutely and unerringly brilliant-- a poem I wish I'd written, bearing me home..to the heart-- gorgeous! I love these lines especially:

    I tell him later. When I open it myself on our driveway,
    fine sand seeps out, swept into the envelope from the storms
    that ring his barracks, a thin stream marking time
    until the grains run out.

    a generosity in this poem, and gathering in of lives as memory--lyrical, uncontrived, potent. xxxj

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  32. Poignant story telling, Sem!A lot of happenings in the Far East, something rarely seen at others'! Great write! Thanks for sharing1

    Hank

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  33. Wow. Powerful writing. The whole thing is wonderful, but this phrase in particular resonated with me: "inexorable cycle of reincarnated grief." It feels both personal and universal - beautifully expressed.

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  34. Good gosh this was good. I mean very good. This was art. Congrats. Vb

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  35. did you actually go under hypnosis and do past life therapy?

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    1. No, that's just how it is written

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  36. Sam, this is so amazing...brought me close to tears. A unique, effective way to present the story. Thank you.

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  37. Love this. What a journey.
    De Jackson

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  38. Sam, I have a question about something you said in response on someone else's blog today. You said ".......all disguises are self-portraits; and in revealing others, we reveal ourselves. And what are poems except masks behind which we pretend to be someone else?"

    I have done some thinking about that. I have written many poems that are about myself, but some that are not at all about myself. Today I wrote "The Laborer's Song" which is not about me. Yesterday I wrote a poem about a young woman who died texting, which was not about me in any way. I wonder if you believe all poems are in some ways self portaits. If so, could you explain. I'm responding a few poems of yours back, and you are welcome to just delete this comment if you respond. Email dixibear@aol.com Your words have me thinking.

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    1. Thanks for asking - I myself have thought long and hard about this subject, cluminating in that quote you have from me above.

      Many people remark on how real my poems feel. They believe - because of the detail in my poems - that these are small autobiographies: that I have been married in Haiti, or have served in Kandahar, or in the example from "Past Lives" taught English in Mindanao. All of this realism has been achieved through research, and I always deny that any of these persona are myself. I seldom appear explicitly in my own poetry.

      However, none of these poems would have come into being the way they have except through the crucible of my own experience. Had you written about these exact subjects, or anyone else, they would have turned out completely differently. Why is that?

      It is because, in order to express that experience, I have to - consciously or not - use the palette of experiences that make up my self. My response to instances of life - meeting with a lost lover, a dewdrop falling from a leaf, a woman dying while texting - would have some universal aspects - happiness, wonder, grief - but would be indelibly tinged with a shading that is only mine.

      The observer affects the observed. To observe a molecule, photons from a light microscope must be made to impinge upon it, and these photons move the molecule ever so slightly out of the focus of the instrument.

      The very fact that one chooses a particular subject to write about already betrays personality. And the way one writes about that subject, the emotions one chooses to elicit, or not - all these are further reflections of the author, a self-portrait, if you will, however subtle it may be.

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