When I was a freshman in college I met a girl named Angie. And she was so cool. She had this wild, long curly hair and beautiful smile and we loved listening to Carole King records and drinking tea and talking about books we loved.
She lived in the same dorm as I did, just down the hall. Late one night she came running to my room and started banging on my door with her wild hair pulled back in a half-hazard pony tail and one of those million dollar English literature text books open to a page somewhere in the middle.
“Oh, Jenn. I just read this poem and it made me think of you and your pappa.”
This is before cell phones and personal computers and the internet and texting….and I’m so glad. Because nothing could have beat that moment. The two of us standing in the hallway in the middle of the night reading this poem, tears running down both of our faces.
A Poem for Emily by Miller Williams
Small fact and fingers and farthest one from me,
a hand’s width and two generations away,
in this still present I am fifty-three.
You are not yet a full day.
When I am sixty-three, when you are ten,
and you are neither closer nor as far,
your arms will fill with what you know by then,
the arithmetic and love we do and are.
When I by blood and luck am eighty-six
and you are someplace else and thirty-three
believing in sex and god and politics
with children who look not at all like me,
sometime I know you will have read them this
so they will know I love them and say so
and love their mother. Child, whatever is
is always or never was. Long ago,
a day I watched awhile beside your bed,
I wrote this down, a thing that might be kept
awhile, to tell you what I would have said
when you were who knows what I was dead
which is I stood and loved you while you slept.
The line that made her think of me and my grandpa with whom I had a close relationship with and died when he was 53, was “the arithmetic we do and are”. Like many other things, Pappa was the one who taught me my times tables. I had such a hard time learning them until Pappa sat me down at his big dining room table. I remember the smile of pride that ran across his face when the trick to multiplying numbers by 9 finally clicked and I “got it”.
Several years later Angie had transferred to another school but my love for literature and poetry grew. English had become my second major and I was estactic to hear that Miller Williams would be visiting our small college campus. I sat in the back of the lecture hall that night and listened to him recite his beautiful work including The Curator (about the “unseen” collection at The Hermitage in Leningrad during the war) one of my favorites. But it was A Poem for Emily that made me weep again. To hear it in his voice….undescribable.
And I remember thinking…I wish Angie was here.
I met him that night. I waited for all the freshmen to file past him first (attendance for them was probably required for English 101) and then pulled out the poem I had copied down in my journal several years back and told him, “I know you wrote this for Emily, but I felt like it was written for me.”
He kindly signed my book and thanked me. I wondered if he knew how his worked had touched me. I’d love to hear him recite his work again some day. And I’d love to bring Angie.