“Poetic surgery”: the alchemy of using words to transform heartache to beauty

I believe in the power of poetry.

We have the great fortune to be surrounded by poetry. Poems can fill your email box every day, for free, by asking the Academy of American Poets. Slam poetry abounds in YouTube videos on the Poetry Slam Inc channel. Hours of carefully curated poetry is broadcast every other Sunday by my friend on his Rhythm Running River radio show.

Poetry s-l-o-w-s the writer, and the reader, down to one word, one phrase at a time. Poetry teaches us how to contemplate, to meditate, to ruminate.

Much as I turned to piano as a tween/teen/young adult as a conduit for otherwise inexpressible passions, I turn to poetry to help untangle my deepest-felt quandaries. Poems are one of many art forms where we can hide the specificities of our torments in not-so-plain sight.

Months ago, a tender part of my psyche stumbled and fell, and there was only me to pick up my unhappy self off the pavement, soothe my scraped knees and elbows, and walk on. As is my custom, as soon as I could, I found a quiet place, took out a notebook and a pen, and performed “poetic surgery” on myself, aiming to discover what underlay my stumbling – the roots of the roots of my self-inflicted pain.

(Because we all do it: we inflict pain upon ourselves.)

Weeks after the poem was composed, I spent several days in the tiny southern Mendocino county town of Gualala, a place that has become my “go-to” spot in a county I’ve been connected to for over thirty years.

Walking along Cooks Beach (two spits of sand – the second spit only accessible at low, low tide – monitored and protected by the volunteer group Friends of Cooks Beach), I spotted a solitary pelican, filmed her/him, and thought, “oh well, I’ll have to rely on one pelican to carry the entire video poem.”

(Another thing that we do: we think we must settle for less, rather than hoping for more.)

The next day I traveled a few miles further south to have breakfast at Trinks Café, a locally-run coffee house with scrumptious pastries and savories (plus to-go soups, meats, and other provisions) in the heart of Gualala. Sitting at one of the pandemic-inspired dining tables set onto the backyard lawn, awaiting another artist friend, suddenly my peripheral vision was filled with dozens of large birds.


Walking towards the coastal bluff, I looked onto the beach, stunned to see something I’d never witnessed before.

Hundreds of pelicans were lined along the shore, paddling in the surf, flying overhead.

Pelicans filling the mouth of the Gualala River, California

Just on the other side of the beach – where the Gualala River meets the ocean – more pelicans were gathered in a lagoon, beating their wings against the surface of the water: a new sound to me, that was beyond thrilling. As an ecologist, this signaled to me that life was returning to our coastline: and most especially, the re-emergence of bull kelp, the foundation species and “rainforest of the ocean” that had largely disappeared for the past few years.

Life begets life.

(Another truism we are all familiar with, yet we can forget this, caught up within our oversubscribed, device-dependent lives.)

This is how I was able to capture the majority of the video footage in my newest poem, All the Pelicans.

And this is the backstory of how one particular poetic surgery resulted in another one of my poems being broadcast on Rhythm Running River‘s September 19th show, with the first hour of poetry dedicated to poems recorded between 2005-2019 (by the inimitable Dan Roberts) of the recently departed, searing, witty poet from Gualala, Janet Debar.

I find it particularly serendipitous that all of the pelican footage included in my poem – the poem coincidentally selected by Dan for the date of his show honoring Janet – was shot in Gualala: at Cooks Beach, and near the mouth of the Gualala River.

This is the backstory of how the alchemy of poetry can transform pain into beauty.

Each time we stumble into pain, we have the potential to transform the experience into something else.

But we have to devote the time, and have the courage, to sit with the pain. While sitting with the pain, we must be willing to own our part in the pain. And then we must practice even more courage to let go of the pain: so that instead of the pain defining us, we define how it is transformed.

Every healer I have had the honor of working with during my life has helped show me how to do this.

But it is nothing new: Marcus Aurelius spoke of this in his Meditations, published in the early AD 100s. The Japanese have practiced this particular art for centuries.

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold — built on the idea that in embracing flaws and imperfections, you can create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art. … Kintsugi reveals how to heal and shows you that you are better with your golden cracks.”

Candace Kumai

And I would venture to guess that much of Janet Debar’s poetry in the first hour, and that of my fellow poets in the second hour, involved creative transformations of pain.

My poem is in the second hour of poetry, towards the end, interwoven with the poems of a wide range of fine poets and world music.

May this poem, and the poetry of others, continue to inspire us to transform our sorrows into joy.

(I have provided the streaming links; it is also possible to download every hour of every amazing poetry show in the series, if you subscribe to Dan’s listserve. And if you do so, please donate to his PayPal account.)

Second hour poetry line-up, Rhythm Running River, 19 September 2021

2 thoughts on ““Poetic surgery”: the alchemy of using words to transform heartache to beauty

  1. Oh my goodness!

    Finally, the propitious moment arrived this morning and I listened/watched to “All The Pelicans”. Loved it. Am still loving it. The last line made me gasp and smile in recognition.


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