Poet’s Corner: This luxury is steeped in mystery
A letter arrived from Wales and I
never opened it. That was my one
luxury, before the cherry blossoms opened
in the park. It was the spring I had
a broken heart and a neighbor who played
Greensleeves every night on her violin.
I dyed my hair blue, then bluer. I think
of Wales as a country of sailors and shepherds.
My ancestors came from there, long ago, and once
I visited: a castle on the edge of the Irish Sea.
Very delicate cups of tea. The sheep
were so shy on the hillsides: I think
I am generalizing. I don’t even know
for sure that it was a letter. I thought of the bells
and the pints of beer. The sailors.
The envelope was thin and white as a petal,
a blossom from a distant tree. My one luxury:
it was enough it was addressed to me.
— By Karin Gottshall
Karin Gottshall received her MFA in writing from Vermont College. Her first book, “Crocus,” won the Poets Out Loud Prize in 2007 and was published by Fordham University Press. Her second book, “The River Won’t Hold You,” won the Ohio State University Press/The Journal Wheeler Prize in 2015. She has also published three chapbooks and in 2015 received a Fellowship in poetry to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Karin teaches writing at Middlebury College and directs the Young Writers’ Project at Bread Loaf.
When I first read the poem “Luxury” in Karin Gottshall’s book “The River Won’t Hold You,” I was at my friend’s house, which perches on a ledge looking down over Vermont’s forests, fields, a few farms, and off to the Adirondacks in the west. The landscape is all pre-spring beige, brown, and gray, except for small isolated pine groves and silvery patches of wetlands reflecting the sky. It is not unlike that of Wales this time of year, a land we are taken to in the poem’s first few words.
Sometimes a change of season alone can be enough to make our minds wander to distant places. In the case of spring, maybe it is in the wanting and desiring that can well up this time of year. It is a time of rain, of awakening, of imminent change. But a season or a landscape can also carry for us whatever we’re carrying — joy, lament, loss, or possibility — making it all the more complex.
In the poem, a surprise arrives for the speaker, one that seems to be too much to take on amidst a broken heart. It sounds odd at first, to not open a letter (or whatever it might be) from so far away, in this case Wales. Such an unexpected arrival could contain anything, and perhaps it’s better to stay in the not knowing, in the possibility, the mystery. Instead of opening it, she dyes her hair blue and goes on extended mind travel. Her journey is full of romanticized tour book images of Wales, but they are what she needs: castles by the sea, sheep on the hillside, “very delicate cups of tea.”
I admire how each tercet is a complete scenario and experience we are invited into. I feel the presence of sailors and shepherds. I hear bells and taste the beer, not because of excessive use of adjectives, but because of the clear choice of nouns and the deep feeling of lament and longing that comes through. The speaker’s memories become almost our memories via the tight particles of words she weaves. And near the end appears the gift of a most evocative image:
the envelope was thin and white as a petal,
a blossom from a distant tree.
Something unexpected has been bestowed upon the speaker, and so us too. It no longer matters if there was a letter and what it might have said. She has been taken, transported by the mysteries of mind and imagination, and in that process she has been gifted something unlikely. And she seems to have returned a bit readier for receiving spring, for receiving even, perhaps, something as magnificent as cherry blossoms.
Susan Jefts is a poet and educator living near Middlebury, whose work has been published in various regional and national literary journals. She is currently finalizing a book of poetry and offering workshops using poetry to move into the energy of spring. For more info, contact her at email@example.com. Her website is manyriverslifeguidance.com
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