In Conversation with Life


the-way-under-the-w59649b4I began writing poetry when my first love moved on. I was nineteen and my heart was broken. I didn’t have any true friends yet and so I began talking to myself, by writing. In time, I began to mend and realized that through my raw and honest reflection I’d begun a lifelong conversation with the Universe. This is the medicine of poetry: that through raw and honest reflection, we deepen our conversation with life. The purpose of poetry and expression is to make life real, to remove everything that gets in the way, and to help us live.

For me, the poems arrive with their wisdom. I retrieve them, more than create them, and they become my teachers. What they have to say becomes my inner curriculum and, by staying in conversation with the poems, I learn and grow.

The longer I live, the more the life of poetry and the poetry of life blur. Early on, I wanted to write great poems, but when brought to my knees by cancer in my thirties, I needed to discover true poems to help me live. Now, in my sixties, I want to be the poem. After all these years, I’ve learned that, in the deepest sense, poetry is a way of engaging the world with our being and care. And more than understanding whatever a poet might mean in any given poem, the poetry is there to ignite your own exploration of aliveness.

Poetry is the unexpected utterance of the soul that comes to renew us when we least expect it. More than the manipulation of language, it is a necessary art by which we live and breathe. It is the art of embodied perception; a braiding of heart and mind around experience. Consider how a simple fish inhales water, and somehow, mysteriously and miraculously, it extracts the oxygen from the water. In doing this, it turns that water into the air by which it breathes. This ongoing inner transformation is poetry. A much deeper process than fooling with words. For us, the heart is our gill and we must move forward into life, like simple fish, or we will die. And the mysterious yet vital way we turn experience into air, the way we extract what keeps us alive—this is the poetry of life that transcends any earthly endeavor. All this while the Universal Ground of Being we call Spirit is working its unknowable physics on us, eroding us to know that we are each other.


As sheet music is meant to be played, poetry is meant to be felt and heard. In this way, what we feel in our depths is poetry waiting to be voiced. And just as music, once heard, stirs our very being, voicing our feelings stirs our consciousness. So I encourage you to take the time to read aloud the poems that touch you, so they and you can come alive. After all these years, I can affirm that the gift of poetry is how it allows us to be intimate with all things.

The assumption of all poetry is that when we’re connected, each of us is able to be more fully alive. Poetry finds and gives voice to those connections. But as we keep trying to inhabit the possibilities we carry within, we’re inevitably stopped by the fires of experience that burn down the temples we have built, whether it be the temple of our dreams or the temple of our love or the sanctuary of our secret ambitions. Like it or not, the fire of experience is a stripping away—a stripping down of the ways we feel compelled to please or meet the expectations of others, a breaking down of the demands that tell us who and how we should love. Until the soul sheds what holds it back. Until we look to Spirit and Nature to teach us how to live. This undoing is necessary because it’s breaking surface through our pain and sorrow that liberates us. It’s coming alive again in the same life that releases beauty in the world.

There are a thousand ways to break surface, a thousand ways to survive the burning of temples, a thousand ways to raise our heavy hearts so we might be surprised by the release of our inner beauty, and a thousand ways to enter the great opening that follows heartache and loss. My poems explore some of those ways.

Like beads for a necklace I didn’t know they would form, I worked to polish each—only to discover, beyond any conscious knowing or intent, that these expressions were a suite of poems. They were revealed to me slowly, the way the insights of our lives appear, forming one by one. Over time, the beads of wisdom we earn reveal their power as we discover that they and we and everything living belong to each other.

Where to Now?

Now that I’ve come out of hiding,
my fears are forgetting to be afraid.

Now that I’ve dropped my opinions
in the rain, my story is too small
to cover my heart.

Now that I’ve put down what I thought
was important, I’m surprised by angels
lost along the way.

How we got here doesn’t matter
and where we’re going is just
something for the mind to chew.

I’ll meet you here, in the palace
that difficulty opens—the magical
doorway, the shape of who we are.

Stalled Between Dreams

I’m standing on Macdougal near Bleecker
where the heat of the living swarms on by.
I can feel everyone’s anticipation and dis-
appointment, the eagerness not to miss
anything and the windedness at getting
there too late. And stalled between dreams,
a few like me stare out, surprised that nothing
is lacking. Now someone steps in a puddle that
splashes up my knee. It’s a baptism of sorts, an
anonymous blessing that says there’s nowhere
to go. I inhale the dust of all our attempts to
love which makes me cough. And there you
have it. Now my dream-dust is up for grabs.
Yeats pined for Byzantium and the Vikings
longed for Valhalla. But I through chance
and tumble have found a dirty corner of
Heaven right here. A sad angel in a torn
shirt asks me for a dime. It’s God again
in one of his infinite disguises.

Long Way Home

I want to have a conversation
that we can return to without
conclusion, one that lasts for
years, that feels like a walk that
has no end. Until the walk
itself is home.

I want to converse this life with
you, the way the old horse and
the young bird trudge and circle
each other in snow.

I want to reach with you into
the heart of things, where the
stitching of the Universe
shows its golden knots.

Thinking Like a Butterfly

Monday I was told I was good.
I felt relieved.
Tuesday I was ignored.
I felt invisible.
Wednesday I was snapped at.
I began to doubt myself.
On Thursday I was rejected.
Now I was afraid.
On Saturday I was thanked
for being me. My soul relaxed.
On Sunday I was left alone
till the part of me that can’t
be influenced grew tired of
submitting and resisting.
Monday I was told I was good.
By Tuesday I got off the wheel.

To Be and Belong

Let go your want for greatness
and feel the tool that’s in your hand.

Let go your fear of emptiness
and receive the wave still reaching
from the beginning.

It only wants to enliven you
the way water refreshes every hole.

So let the web of things
entangle you.

Only stars are free
and they are so lonely.

Curse what you will
but give thanks

that everything alive
wants something from you.

Excerpted from The Way Under the Way: The Place of True Meeting by Mark Nepo, published by Sounds True, November 2016.

Top photo Courtesy of Harpo Inc./George Burns


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