The first poem I ever read deeply was Delmore Schwartz’s The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me. I was 17, in my senior year in high school, taking a special freshman English class through Syracuse University. This was the first poem I read word by word, parsed closely, learned to understand.
the scrimmage of appetite everywhere
No one seems to read Schwartz any more and it was an odd poem to share with teenagers. It’s about our greedy, tiresome, fallible bodies, how our appetites are ungovernable, how we have a shining essential self which is separate from our corporal beings. It’s about desire, about sex and alcohol and eating, how we are hungry for honey of all sorts and lose our minds in its presence.
But I understood it, in theory, living inside a female body which already had its own urgencies. Teenagers understand, on some level, that the madness of their bodies is governing their minds.
Now, in middle age, the poem makes even more sense. How many times have I–and you–been defeated by my base appetites? How much joy there has been in those moments, and how much regret afterwards.
the secret life of belly and bone
My 14 year old son, still mostly a child, has a fever and dreamed of a bear in the house, one who could sense his emotions and would attack if he felt sad. Yes, I said, I know that bear, and I thought of this poem, which I haven’t read in 30 years. Maybe those teachers were right to share it with me then.
Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
A sweetness intimate as the water’s clasp,
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.