Years of tutoring from friends, football coaches, and professors could not solve the way my brain scrambles numbers. Until I said my final goodbyes to math after college, the subject was always a painful one. People often assume math skills on my part because I’m a professional musician, and musicians are supposed to be good at math, they insist. Sure, the two subjects intersect, and even a basic chord involves mathematical concepts. Those are truths with which I play, express, and improvise on a daily basis. But as much as I can approach mathematical principles, I’ll never be able to work with numbers. The explicit, objective language of math eludes me, a young woman with a graduate degree who has had to blushingly count on her fingers in front of her boss. As it turns out, she could never quite escape numbers.
In college, ever the cliche, I was no less a mental health disaster than any other music student. This was in the Deep South, and when a lesbian at a religious college complains of excess worry and sadness, well, nobody thinks to look any deeper than that. The problem is plainly visible, staring you in the face with sunken cheekbones from sudden obsessive weight loss. Numbers, and all that.
In the wake of traumatic events, faded collections of images holed up in my cells, resurfacing uncontrollably when I tried to eat or sleep. Thankfully, it’s not so severe anymore. But if you ask me to recall the details of my trauma, like "what exactly happened," memory fails and words escape. It is the same helpless feeling as when I try to copy down a phone number and write a 6 where a 9 belongs. I’m reaching for something I can’t grasp, like reaching into a wound and expecting to pull out a date and time.
But you came to read about writing, and here I am talking about trauma.
Writing poetry allows us express mysteries that we cannot articulate in plain terms. Nobody reads a poem to be told outright, “There is both beauty and sadness in the world.” Where’s the proof? But when you see two boys examining bones in the forest, the clues they unearth about the crime scene point toward the broader truth. Nobody reads a poem to be told, “Some things are too tough to be killed” with a line break here or there. But when you see the alligator crawling back from the edge of extinction and moss unfurling over an abandoned shack, then you may feel some approximation of the truth.
So writing poetry is like doing math. “Pi” is a number that is infinitely more than a number, but if even if we could know all its digits, the concept is still better expressed by a simple circle. Math and poetry both work from the same ideas of logic, of economic precision, of man-made languages. Both explain the universe with the help of our own imaginations to fill in the gaps, the unknowns.
There are many ways to suss out truth or, at least, pieces of it. Poetry does not demand explicit recounts of emotions, experiences, and stories, which perfectly suits the PTSD survivor who doesn’t remember what has happened to her anyway. Instead, she can point you to the ruler, the raised voices, the textbook slammed down on her knuckles. Then, the poet can solve a problem or beg a better question. Even an awkward first draft can at least prove a connection where she may have forgotten one existed.
A graduate of Mississippi College, Amy Lauren was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Poetry Prize. Her chapbooks include Prodigal, God With Us, and She/Her/Hers. Her poems have appeared in publications such as The Gay & Lesbian Review with four Pushcart Prize nominations. She lives in Florida with her wife.