What Matters
Tom Brush

Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path––birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes––and so singing the world into existence.

––Bruce Chatwin

I like that and believe it absolutely. And its twin, “In the beginning was the word…” Sure. The world is created by words. I used such quotations in every class I taught. Those or an epigraph from Cormac McCarthy or Joseph Conrad or Ellen Gilchrist or any number of poets, novelists, essayists, playwrights. I just like the idea of beginning with something startling or gorgeous or thought provoking to start the day. And hope the students take literature seriously, and I think they must if we’re to have any humanity left at all.

Today the attacks and trivialization of the humanities are ubiquitous. We’ve all heard the joke that English majors should be sure to minor in tending bar. Schools are cutting back on what they’ve designated as frills. We know what frills are. The self-appointed education experts appear to be concerned only with what they’ve labeled STEM, and the corruption caused by the for-profit test making corporations relies on multiple choice tests and seldom if ever have students write anything, all the while claiming that creativity and communication are vital. Yet they are only driven by the accumulation of wealth––and by wealth I mean money, not what used to be called a liberal education or even, perhaps, the soul.

Shouldn’t everyone have a life beyond that, whether writing, photography, growing roses or building wooden boats, something that maintains who we are? Or can be? James Dickey wrote “The medical profession may save your life, but it can never make your life worth saving.” What makes our lives worth saving? Perhaps the recognition of the importance of song, myth, drama, poetry, music, literature, works of art.

I have been writing for a long time. My first poems appeared in Poetry Northwest in 1970. It’s not that I think my writing will change lives, except my own, but it might. And that is important and is becoming increasingly so in a world controlled by CEOs and politicians and lobbyists. What’s needed isn’t greed, but more books that can be held and read and celebrated. If the accumulation of money is the only thing we value, then we are truly lost.

Ah, what matters? The poem “John Chapman” (also known as Johnnie Appleseed) by Mary Oliver is one example. Here’s the ending. I hope you find the entire poem. It’s in her magical book American Primitive.

“Well, the trees he planted or gave away
prospered, and he became
the good legend, you do
what you can if you can; whatever

the secret, and the pain,
there’s a decision: to die,
or to live, to go on
caring about something. In spring, in Ohio,
in the forests that are left you can still find
sign of him: patches
of cold white fire.”

Down the street from my favorite bar, The Octopus, is Open Books, one of two bookstores in the United States that sells only poetry. The other is in Cambridge. Open Books has been going strong for 25 years and I encourage anyone interested to check them out, buy books for all the reasons I’ve stated and if for no other reason than they make great gifts.

Finally, I think that the quotations in “Open Books” play off so much, the echoes of lives lived and imagined, memories, and the resonance, all that may lead to inspirations and finally transcendence, something we need especially now.

Tom Brush has published in Poetry, Poetry Northwest, The North American Review, The Cimarron Review, Prairie Schooner, Tar Review Poetry, The Indiana Review and other magazines and anthologies. He has been awarded a NEA grant, two NEH grants, and fellowships from Artist Trust and the Washington State Arts Commission. His latest books, from Lynx House Press, include, God’s Laughter, 2018, Open Heart, 2015, and Last Night, winner of the Blue Lynx Prize, in 2012.


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