November 15, 2018
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Backstory to a love poem

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Many, many moons ago, I found a poem hiding in a handwritten love letter on a scrap of lined notebook paper tucked in a dog-eared paperback. It was a delightful “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” and I think about it on Valentine’s Day.

It fell onto the floor and caught my eye. The book was a donation to a secondhand book sale at my school. I was sorting hundreds of titles in preparation. And that’s all the provenance I can muster. Whose box had it come from? Who was the author? The recipient? No clue.

It was not yet a poem, it was just a note written to a boy named John by a girl named Tracy, neither of whom I knew. As soon as I read it, I sensed its poetic structure and content — its pulse on love.

So I called it “Sixth Grade Love Letter,” and I arranged the words slightly until it went like this:

Dear John:

I love you and how have you been fine I hope.

Next Friday come and wait for me

at People’s Market.

And I will be waiting for you.

Please don’t have on play clothes.

Put on some clean clothes.

And I will be dressed up for you.

We will go for a walk,

so do not bring the bicycle, or Jamie

or Debbie or Mel or Robert or Jeena—

just bring yourself.

And I really will meet you. So be there.

I think I know you love me. Do you?

Circle Yes or No.

Yours,

Tracy

Tracy’s letter became a poem at the instant I thought of it as one. The poem lurking within came out. Isn’t that what poets do? They see or feel something that needs elevation, isolation, clarification — synthesis of some kind; an object of affection?

I sent it to an editor who published it in 1990. And as I think back on it, all these years later, I relearn something about the very source of poems — the words themselves and the imagination they come from.

And I think about its author and subject and wonder, “where are they now?” Was Tracy’s question answered? Tracy, you were so brave to ask it.

Now, Tracy and John live on, in all their sixth-grade yearning and decorum, in my imagination. They will be forever 12, as words on an errant page, with so much possibility still awaiting them at the People’s Market. I hope that Jamie, Debbie, Mel, Robert and Jeena did not join them. They needed their exploration to be unobserved. Did John even receive Tracy’s letter? Or, which one of them left it in the paperback?

“A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned,” W.H. Auden said, paraphrasing Paul Valery. I think I like the fact that this love letter is unresolved. Its possibility lives in perpetuity.

On the other hand, I wonder about John. Did he read or answer Tracy’s letter? I would have. When I was a sixth-grader, I awaited Tracy’s letter — though she would have had a different name. And I would have answered her.

Tracy:

I have been fine. I did not know you knew my name,

Or that you loved me.

I am not allowed to go to People’s Market,

But I have clean clothes and I will wear them,

If we can meet in the park?

And if you are going to the dance on Friday,

I will have the DJ play your favorite song — the one with

The tambourine — and I will practice dancing to it before I go.

I will wear my purple shirt. Will you braid your hair?

I have high tops that are good for dancing.

No matter who is there, we will dance.

My bicycle got stolen.

This is my letter back to you.

Did you receive it?

Yes, or no.

I hope that anyone who needed to receive this letter got it; anyone who needed to have sent this letter, did. And I hope that Jamie, Debbie, Mel, Robert and Jeena also found their clean clothes, a walk from People’s Market, and love.

Todd R. Nelson is a retired English teacher in Penobscot.

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