Edited and introduced by Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, Portland poet laureate.
Anne Tommaso teaches in the English Department at Yarmouth High School and lives in Portland. The title of her poem gives us a road map for reading it. It is made of three small experiences when words were not enough to communicate the power of a moment: one involves the speaker’s encounter with pure animal companionship and joy; in another she is struck dumb by the sheer physical and mental strength of a refugee and Olympic athlete; and in the third a reunion with a loved one is framed by a sudden burst of inexplicable natural beauty.
Full disclosure: I have visited Tommaso’s classroom and met some of her students, and I can attest that she is among the legion of highly skilled Maine high school English teachers who show their students every day that words matter and that they should be used with passion and precision. I find it instructive that Tommaso is interested, in this poem, in moments when language is not enough, while also trying to capture those moments in language. In one way or another, every poem attempts to put something beyond words into words.
When Words Were a Lesser Form
By Anne Tommaso
Riding my bicycle last week
I stopped for a red light. My right foot
balancing on the curb, my arm dangling
near a thick, brown seeing-eye dog.
He was attentive; his tail flat and patient on the sidewalk.
The man held the harness gently, looked ahead,
but the dog turned his nose to the left, casually
hung his tongue, and then snapped it through the air
to lick the salt from my hand in a moment
of self-indulgence. I swear he was smiling.
Then the walk signal came on, and the pair crossed
to the other side of the street.
I read a story in the paper about a young woman
in the Olympics without country.
She swims for the Refugee Team.
There is a picture of her in the pool, and the caption below,
stretching out like her long limbs climbing across the water,
tells how one year ago she was swimming for her life, guiding a boat
with a broken motor and twenty people somewhere in the middle
of the dark Mediterranean. They all survived.
I couldn’t read anything else that day.
And last night, meeting you for dinner at the inn
I walked down from the porch between perennial beds.
You walked up from the street. We met in the middle of the path,
but a plant stopped us both. Blue, perfect blooms
like hazy explosions and spiked foliage, stalks all arms and elbows.
We never said its name but just looked,
considered it against the other plants, kneeled down to see it again.
Even though we hadn’t seen each other in months, we looked,
then looked again at each other, embraced, and said hello.
Gibson Fay-LeBlanc is Portland’s poet laureate. This column is produced in collaboration with the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. Poem copyright © 2016 Anne Tommaso. It appears here by permission of the author.