To All the Poems I've Read Before: A YA Love Story by Shefali Mathew
Updated: Jul 25
For I assume you must be a poet, if you saw this title and thought Aha!
For obviously, if your eyes are going over this word, you are a reader.
This is a love story.
Mine, in fact.
I've said story too many times.
Love stories start with meet cutes. I think. I am not an expert in romance. I can give you advice if you wish - fall in love everyday, when you fight don't say something you regret and being in love is like learning how to be a frog, sometimes its comes naturally, most times there's still a lot to figure it out. Still, I wonder. Do you have meet cutes if you're childhood friends? A quick google search should solve my question but I'm going to answer it for myself because I think the way me met was kind of cute.
Stage 1: Childhood Friends
You are sitting near the lake, your hands covered in mud. You are five and you want to throw mud everywhere. You also don't want to be in this park. People suck. A boy comes and sits next to you. Eew. Boys. He offers you a Dairy Milk bar, half eaten. "Amma told me sharing is caring," he says. You look at the mud on your hands, slathered across your palm lines. You take the chocolate - the brown of the wet mud, very similar to the colour of your hands and the colour of the Dairy milk. You eat, mud and chocolate in your mouth. You grin, your first tooth having fallen out the day before yesterday.
He grins back, all teeth in place.
I am seven and Mama says write a poem which is all well and good but I feel the need to remind her that I am seven.
Mama smiles. "Write," she says.
She sits with me and we write each word in crayons. My poem rhymes. I am going to be the next winner of the Nobel Prize. I do not know what the prize is but I know I will be the winner.
Poems will become me. I will become poems.
I will write poetry as I watch the rain, because that is poetic.
I will find spaces and rooms of my own while others play in the park.
I am seven. I am poet.
I write a poem about the sky.
The sky is high
But I'm not high
So I write. Proud. Three poems a day, eat lunch, meet poetry, eat strawberry icecream and hope you will shit pink. We are friends, poetry and I. We hold hands and play games and never fight.
We are best friends.
Stage 2: Friends to Strangers
He is a boy and he is eew but sometimes he holds your hand and you feel calm. He is nice with wise ten-year-old eyes. You are also ten now but are your eyes wise? Some days, he tells you stories - of dogs with black fur that shine and how when it is dark, all you can see are the tanned parts of the body. You wonder why he calls it "tanned". You are tanned. Dogs are not. Still, he knows better than you. He is older.
Most childhood friendships do not dissolve in moments unless people leave. Yours does, a little. You see, he is cool and all your friends think so. A thinks so and wants to be his friend. Is his friend. And if A is his friend, how can you be? You watch as they become closer, as people comment on their happy smiles and the fun games they create. It is time to walk away, you decide. To leave friends who are meant to be together alone. You were never meant to be.
I write a poem. My Dog Shadow, it is called, even though I have never met my dog Shadow. An excerpt, if you will accept it.
My dog Shadow
Is small and narrow
He is a dachshund
My magic wand
It goes on for a while. I am ten and I will soon have a dog. I will love him with all that I am and he will teach me how to write. He does, or rather, he will, but the form is no longer poetry - it is the essay. This is will happen when I am thirteen. But now I am ten and poetry and I are friends and I meet Shadow and we smile at each other.
I am proud of the poem I have written for Shadow. I insert it into all my other poems - a poem within a poem. I am Scheherazade but poetic.
People give me books of poetry and I sit and read them. One day, I will do this too, I think. I will hold a book with my poems and I will look modest while inside I will scream, joy pouring out of my mouth in blue waves. Others start to write poetry too but I am not jealous. Poetry can have more than one friend.
But someone says something, praises someone else or insults my writing, maybe it was only constructive criticism. I do not know. I cannot remember. But I believe for some reason that it was a Friday. I know I was eleven or twelve. Fridays are happy so when I went home I should have been happy about a weekend but I lay in bed cried. Poetry and I, we cannot be friends because poetry has other friends and I want her to be my friend and mine alone.
I stop writing.
Stage 3: Strangers to Enemies
The boy does not try to repair the friendship. He does not seem confused or concerned by the way you suddenly cut off all ties. Instead, he continues to make new friends, talk to new people and find new ways of being. It is obvious he does not care about you. You will not care about him either. You try to make new friends, hesitantly asking people questions - the boy who sings, the girl who paints. It does not work.
His cousin sister joins school. Her body parts are in the wrong places; her nose is next to her eye, her lips are stuck on her forehead. She is a year younger than you and him, but she says wise things, just as he did. You want to be her friend but you are scared. She is the one who reaches out to you. And just as you grow to love his sister, you learn to hate him. His words are convoluted even when they are simple, he speaks of the same thing over and over again. He teases you sometimes, not by pulling at your hair, nothing as common as that. He says things about others and through that he is teasing you, reminding you that even though you left him, he does not need you. The worst part of it all is he is not doing this on purpose.
For one year I barely write.
I still read, of course.
I read about a boy wizard full of love and courage, trying to save the wizarding world.
I read about a boy billionaire, who will learn love and courage after he kidnaps a fairy.
I read about a girl whose father reads a villain from a book into life.
I read with a passion and fire that only a child can.
I do not write.
We have to write for school and my teacher praises what I write.
I feel proud.
The essay is my form.
I will write the essay. Poetry is dead to me. We are not friends, maybe we never were. I try to write humour and happiness. To find love in words - I write about trees and essays on subjects like "Every Cloud has a Silver Lining." The cliché turns real in my writing.
But it is mine.
In school we learn poetry and I don't hate it completely. Well, most of it, I do. But once in a while I like a poem. Abou Ben Adhem, may his tribe increase.
Stage 4: Enemies to Friends (well, sort of)
You join college and you spend time with his sister. You discover your selves in each other.
Sometimes his sister's hand is replaced by a leg, sometimes the leg by a hand. Time sort of slips when you are together. It's not that you don't fight. You do. All the time. She can be cutting, brutal and you can be so unsure. But when the world comes crashing down on you, she is always there.
He also joins this college and you are asked to work together on a Chemistry project. You want to sneer at him, but you also want to be open-minded so you don't. He smiles at you, and it is so different from the grimace you are used to. His smile is welcoming. He has grown, as have you.
You are both different now. A tentative friendship begins. You work on the project together. You still spend time with his sister. She is happy that your relationship has started again.
"Start with what confuses you," the Professor says.
I start to read poetry again and again, waiting for the words to make sense. Then my teacher looks at the poem and offers an interpretation. My eyes widen as I start to see beauty in words.
As Kingfishers catch fire, I scream Gerard Manley Hopkins' words, "Whát I dó is me: for that I came." What I do is write, for that I came, I think. But then sometimes I can't write.
I am doing modernism now. And they say something about words and everything makes so much sense in class. I try to write a poem about a leaf. It's not really a poem. I don't care.
I write essay after essay, the form becoming one I am comfortable with.
And then I start to write fiction as well.
I have begun to like poetry, finding myself in it.
It does not feel as inaccessible as it used to. I cannot write it but I enjoy my English poetry classes.
I talk about poetry to my mother. She recites lines from Coromandel Fishers when we go to the Beach and from Robert Frost when we go to the woods in Kodaikanal.
It's a slippery slope and I can be pushed off any moment.
Stage 5: Sort of Friends to Friends
You both join the same college. His sister also joins. So does his brother. They've been promoted. The college decided they were all smart enough to be together. You are alone but they keep you company. Him, not so much. But his sister and brother do.
You make new friends and one of them is also good friends with him. She says nice things about him and you wonder if you know the same person. But she keeps saying nice things, wise things.
And so you decide that maybe you should try the friendship once more. He is sitting on a bench reading T S Eliot. You walk up to him, your palms sweating words and you ask him if you can sit with him. He grins at you and shuffles to give you space. You sit down. It is awkward. A friendship being repaired can often be awkward. "I... What lovely weather today," you say. It is hot and you are sweating. He laughs and closes the book.
"As lovely as you," he says, an eyebrow arched in challenge. You pick up a stick and throw it at him. This time when he laughs, you notice the sound. It is somehow both rough and clear at the same time. It is sandpaper floating in an ocean and cotton in a mixer. He holds out his hand, offering it so you can shake it. "I'm thinking," he says, his eyes dark but his smile wide. "That we should start over."
Then you put your clammy hand in his. He does not flinch at the sweat and you think maybe he's kind of nice.
I meet C, basically a poem walking around in human skin.
She quotes poetry like Mama does.
She likes words I cannot understand.
She sends me poetry sometimes and I'm surprised how little I dislike it. How I actually quite like it, the words creating music that I did not understand but were completely beautiful.
I do a research paper on Crow Goes Hunting by Ted Hughes.
I interpret it all wrong.
I don't care.
Our relationship is not the same as it was when I was a child desperate to be a poet but it has changed as we have. We learn to like each other, but the relationship is new and often fragile.
I still cannot write poetry.
Stage 6: Friends to Lovers?
I'm not sure who should ask who out at this point. Does he ask you out and you say no? Or do you ask him out and he says yes? Do you fall in love, desperately. Do you sing love songs to each other? I do not know how this story ends.
I bought a book of poetry today.
This is strange and unlike me. Carol Ann Duffy speaks of fluffy skeletons and I see words turn alive.
Am I in love with poetry?
Yes? No? Maybe?
I'm uncertain. Write a poem Shefali.
And I do.
Of teaching and uncertainty and love and the Loch Ness monster that lives it my stomach.
Do you live happily ever after? I don't think so. You have your problems, so does he. But maybe so do happily ever afters. Perhaps, happily ever after then is simply finding yourself again and again, and sometimes that can happen with someone else. But how do I end this story then? When the ending is ambiguous and the feelings uncertain.
This is what I will do.
I invite you to a reading of T S Eliot. C will be there. Mama will be there. He will be there. You will be there. I will be there. And I will measure out my life in coffee spoons, all the while telling Maya Angelou that still we'll write.
Shefali Mathew is an incoming fiction candidate at Iowa Writers' Workshop. Before this she taught English for three years at St. Joseph's College, Bengaluru.