Why I wrote the poem: “How can you know when you run?”

How can you know when you run? (inspired by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: “How can you run when you know?”)

What are we running from?
Where are we going?
 
My feet hurt, but I don’t have time to rub them
Or cool them in a stream.
Like a deer,
Leaping old barbed wire, and new
 
I bound over smoldering fires
Hotspots,
Always cautious, always anxious for the herd.
I’m like an old dog
 
Showing that I still have it in me
To run and run and run.
Always, always away.
I can barely see the city rushing past.
 
I have wings on my feet.
My sight skims over the bones of things.
I see too much.
I smell the fear . . .
 
But I keep running.
I see the future like a slow-motion wave
Before which I am flying,
Before the crash and foam.
 
What message am I carrying
From god to impotent god?
What silver-winged flight have I achieved
Leaping from mist-draped ledge to fog to cloud?
 
And when will it be my time to rest?
Down there is another valley
Where war has carved a theater
Out of bedrock
 
Where there used to be a paradise.
I hear the echoes of anthems,
The booms of manmade thunder
Trailing off far behind me.
 
And now I hear only the wind in my ears.
I’m evanescent,
Like a falling star
About to flare in the upper atmosphere.
 
Where have I been?
What do I know?
How can I know anything?
I would have to stop to know.
 
Exploding like a harmless bomb
I am rising like a phoenix
Or a firebird
Born from flames, flying.
 

Initially I was reluctant to write a poem inspired by reversing the verb and the object in the iconic Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young lyrics for fear that it might come off as gimmicky but the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. And as soon as I started writing it, I was pulled in by the fantasy of the poet-in-perpetual-motion, not lingering on any one metaphor or detail. This was a chance to write a poem without a resting point. The poet’s spirit is like the Greek god Proteus, constantly transforming from deer to hound to Mercury or Hermes, to the phoenix which rebirths itself in midair.

The world of this poem is a world where everything is blurred by the velocity of the subject. He sees into the bones of things, he sees “too much”; he is moving too fast to focus on any details of architecture or people, but he “smells” fear, which probably spurs him on.

The world depicted by this piece is a world of barbed boundaries and “hotspots”, landscapes to be avoided hollowed by wars that have left only scars and echoes of explosions.

Another thing about the poem is, the pace quickens as the poem progresses and the voice or spirit of the poet, which starts out grounded, lifts off by the sixth stanza:

“But I keep running.
I see the future like a slow-motion wave
Before which I am flying,”
 
And now he is even out-distancing the wave of the future, which is cresting behind him.

What motivated me to write this poem? I think partly it is a confession: I am admitting that I use poetry as an escape . . . But I am also trying to show that poetry can attain transcendence if we let it; we can fly with it. We can be born through it, jettisoning our old self like a rocket that gains height by shedding stages.

The world that the poet is over-leaping or out-pacing is a world in serious trouble, apocalyptic, doomed but, according to this poem, (and here is the main point) that is not this poet’s world. His destiny seems to be all in his transcendence.

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