What are you going to do with your time-keeper heart?
Poetry tends to collapse—or compress—our experience of time. A poem, like a short story, can encapsulate years, or even a lifetime.
When I was a young mother, a sign reading “Time-keeper’s Office” hung in the little garden my boyfriend and I had cultivated behind the triplex where we lived. We called our apartment the tree-house because from our perch on the second floor we had a perfect view of the branches of a giant eucalyptus and for several springs we watched hummingbirds nest and their young learn to fly. We lived in a beach town in Southern California, so plants grew with ease. We planted orchids and herbs—basil, oregano, thyme. The garden was long and narrow, and we brought stones from the ocean to line a winding path to a back bench under an orange tree. That was where the sign hung—on the fence behind the orange tree. The Time-keeper’s Office was a place to slip away from the constant calls of motherhood, at least for a minute or two, and listen to my own heart tick.
Fifteen years later I wrote a poem called “Time-keeper Heart.” I was in New Orleans for a friend’s wedding, and I’d just finished reading Twilight. Not the vampire saga, but the brilliant book of monologues by Anna Deavere Smith, which explores the 1992 Los Angeles riots from the perspectives of fifty people who experienced the tumult of that event. She interviewed a wide variety of people, from gang members to politicians, and used their words verbatim in her work of “documentary theater.” I’d been researching those same riots for my novel Further Out Than You Thought, but I’d put off reading her book until I’d finished mine. I wanted my book to remain true to my (and to my protagonist Gwen’s) experience of the riots, and to not be swayed from its singular perspective. Having finished writing my book, I was ready to read Smith’s. I devoured it in a matter of hours. The voices are raw and powerful, and that infectious sense of fierceness seemed to write “Time-keeper Heart,” which spilled out of me (as most poems do not) in the space of a single day.
The poem is a meditation on death, and therefore on life, and this is how it ends:
. . . if we’ll be something that’s something other than what we are, & the rats will eat the marrow of our memories, if someday we’ll fall & not move until the birds and the rats & the worms, & our atoms will turn, will turn to soil and to air, & we know this, this means right now here’s the thing— you have this body you can move around in, this body that talks and moves & what are you going to do with your time-keeper heart, what are you going to do? Ready or not, time has come for you to open your mouth, time has come for you to sing.
Living through an upheaval like the Rodney King riots can make you feel this way—aware of your mortality and at the same time of the gift of your life. Your heart pulses in your ears and the present moment opens, revealing, perhaps, a radiant hunger, a song that you alone can sing.
The Time-keeper’s Office sign still informs my garden—it sits in a back corner of my yard on a fence camouflaged by grapevines—though my garden is now in the backyard of a house in another town, an Arizona mountain town far from the ocean, and my children are much older and will soon up and leave me altogether. So too, my time-keeper heart ticks away, whether I hear it (and heed it) or not.