Friday, December 6, 2013

I Wish I'd Written This

If We Have No Soul
By Natalie Goldberg

If we have no soul
Something aches in us anyway
Heaves our breath
Pumps our blood

Sun thrown across tree tops
Do you see New Mexico?

Wind storms crack across it
Days break against it
I hurt for dry dirt
Big sky
Bell in a tower
Sage across the eye

Burnt land
Old sand carcass
Your rosebuds are hardening
Your leaves turning

My heart burning

This poem appeared in Natalie Goldberg's novel, Banana Rose, as written by the protagonist. So of course it was actually written by the author. I think this protagonist has a lot in common with her author, actually, and this poem has the flavour of other things Goldberg has written about that landscape, such as the poem I Want To Say from the book Top of My Lungs.

I (like most people, I'm sure) first encountered her via her wonderful book for writers, Writing Down the Bones, which was published in 1986. I've owned it since about 1990, when a writer friend visiting America discovered it and was so thrilled with it that she brought back copies for her closest writer pals as well as herself. I return to it again and again, and am always recommending it to people. I even ended up buying a spare copy so I could lend it and still keep it by me.You can find it and her other books on her website. Most of them are also available as ebooks at Amazon. Top of My Lungs was out of print for some time, so I'm delighted to find it on her website too. It's not available as an ebook, but you probably wouldn't want it to be: it includes some of her colourful paintings.

If you haven't yet discovered her books for writers, let me also recommend Wild Mind, the sequel to Writing Down the Bones. The others are good too, and my favourite so far is her most recent, The True Secret of Writing, which is simply beautiful. She always nurtures and sustains me. I am about to start reading her book on writing memoir, Old Friend from Far Away.

Goldberg is a Zen Buddhist, and that influences her writing. 'Make writing your practice,' her teacher told her long ago. That led to her particular approach to writing, which has benefited so many others around the world. She has recounted how, although she was initially acclaimed as a promising new poet, her poetry book didn't take off. So she tried something else, and we're all the richer for her having found her true work in the world. 

I've looked at reviews of her poetry online. They differ. One person finds it sensitive and lovely, another thinks it disappointingly poor. I am still awaiting my copy of Top of My Lungs, but I must say that the two poems I've found online do not disappoint me. I like the sparse but evocative language and the feeling of connection to the land. I like the directness and honesty, the precise yet original imagery. I can see the Zen influence here too — the mindfulness with which she pays attention. What do you think?

Poems and photos used in ‘I Wish I’d Written This’ remain the property of the copyright holders (usually their authors).


  1. Natalie Goldberg is an amazing and inspirational writer. I have three of her books and 'writing down the bones' is one of my favorite books of all time! In addition to writing poetry, she also paints! :)

    1. And in addition is evidently a gifted facilitator of writing classes.

  2. like music critic and art critics, I have great disdain for their subjective antics. something is not for all and or for everyone. sometimes I think they should say what was attractive to them and not attractive to them but not so much to use words like 'good' or 'bad', 'right' or 'wrong'. Ms. Natalie Goldberg is her own visionary and an artist. that is 'good'.

    Gracias for this

  3. I have most of her books, Rosemary, and one people dont mention often is a truly wonderful one, about her path into Buddhism: Long Quiet Highway, Waking Up in America. About her relationship with her teacher, her quest, her spiritual journey. Reading it is like a meditation. I love this poem and also I Want to Say. Had not heard of her book Top of My Lungs. Thanks for featuring this beloved author who has given such a gift to writers by telling us: just write!

    1. You're right; that's a good one too. But then, they all are. Do get hold of True Secret if you haven't found it yet.

  4. Oops, just realised I didn't include a photo. So now I have.

  5. This poem is new to me. I love it. How did she do that? Take the top off the world and pour on through?

  6. Oh, I like this poem very much, Rosemary. I am familiar with Natalie Goldberg's 'how to' books, but I had not read any poetry of hers. I also will be interested in what you think of Natalie's poetry book when you receive it.


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