Why I Sing in Black & White

Orlando Poet Laureate Susan Lilley ’75 ’80MA on why she writes poetry.

by Susan Lilley ’75 ’80MA

Because the line at the coffee shop
was long, and the castoff
lover behind me chanted a breakup saga
into her cellphone, all the details laid out
like ancient scarabs on velvet.

Because in a dream my long-gone
Granny walked next to me
in the surf eating fried chicken,
lofting bits to gulls above and fish
below, water swirling its mirrored sky
at our knees. She warned
of deep weather; we could smell
the dark salt in the Atlantic
and warm black inner tubes,
while babies that were mine but not mine
floated by, impossible to catch and keep.

Because as a girl I wanted not to be,
but to have (a farm with horses and collies).
Because it turns out there are too many
lives to live, and only enough time
and money for one.

Because this is the only way to set things right,
or down, or free, or on fire,
depending on the story. Because
my parents’ voices still sing in my head.
Their days of worry and joy
weave into my own
like flickering reels of truth on the
decorated walls of memory.

Because when I drank the words
of Keats for the first time, I wept
in the public square
of adolescence, a wooden
desk in the third row
where I carved “nightingale.”

Because the teacher saw the shutters
behind my eyes bang open,
and for a moment we were ageless
together. Because poetry can vanquish
shame, make it into a box
of air to stand on.

Because the stories will be told –
betrayals turned to moss and leaves,
griefs spun to gold.

Susan Lilley ’75 ’80MA is a Florida native who was recently appointed Orlando’s inaugural poet laureate. Her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, Poet Lore and The Southern Review, among other journals. She is a past winner of the Rita Dove Poetry Award and teaches literature and writing at Trinity Preparatory School.