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  • Writer's pictureJo Page

Past Perfect

My poetry teacher when I was an undergrad--she, the ultra-cool Heather McHugh--taught that the key to making your own writing better was to read it more closely. It would critique itself if you just read deeply into its density.

I love that idea. I don't think it's entirely foolproof, but that still continues to be how I edit whatever it is that I'm writing: embody the words and find the aches and pains within and then be tender to them so that they will become more fit and a better fit for the purpose for which I've chosen the words.

But I also remember a poem she wrote from those days, a poem that has stayed with me for years. It begins:

"A brilliance takes up residence in flaws

that all the unchipped faces of design


"A brilliance takes up residence in flaws." I'm not sure there is greater insight or greater comfort to be had than in these words. Imperfection is interesting. The shattered and restored shines rainbows where it's broken. We slide right past polish; but prisms draw our eyes.

It seems we spend most of our lives spit-shining the surfaces, jousting with order. I'm cut from that well-loomed cloth. A labelled spice shelf, trim and tidy, gives me pleasure. My desk is worn wood, but Shaker-spare. And yes, I do arrange my clothes by color in my closet. I stand by these peculiarities. They don't harm anybody.

But the mess isn't in cupboard or closet. The mess is existential and so is the brilliance in the flaws. All my life I wanted to be the perfect--whatever it was. Like the ballet dancer I was so long ago, I knew that every plié, every passé, every port de bras had its perfect expression. No, not the Platonic ideal, maybe, but the sharpest of shadows and as bold as a colonial silhouette. Only the shape was sublime, with no internal and distracting detail. Silhouettes were not portraiture. Nor was dance.

If pandemic has taught us anything beyond sorrow and rage, it may be that we can learn a strange mercy. For those who can't accept the mess of the personal soul or perspective or however you name it, the isolation of pandemic won't quit bumping into our psyches, like a moored boat bucking a dock. The isolation of pandemic will not let you escape into sleep because that moored boat bucking a dock bucks itself into your deepest dreams.

So if you can't get away from yourself, what do you do with yourself? A million more pliés will not perfect you. Not now. It's too damn late. It was always too damn late.

Maybe tenderness is truly all. Toward oneself. Toward others. It's better in French: la tendresse. In the extremis of pandemic, maybe tenderness--paired with ripeness--is all.

I trust that this is a worthy insight. I'm not good at it. I am emotionally ham-fisted, chronically ham-handed. Awkwardly non-kosher even in metaphor. So I use the words that bring the thought and hope of goodness--and then I stumble apace after them, playing catch-up.

Maybe I can do it onthe run. Maybe that's the best I can do. "A brilliance takes up residence in flaws." Let that be, O World. Let that be true.

And so I live in hope. Because there are ample opportunities for brilliance.

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