Ruth L. Schwartz, the poet, hasn't written a poem in three years. But that's OK. It's better than OK, as you can glean from the last poem the Oakland, Calif., resident composed, "Springtime in the Central Valley." It's an ecstatic paean to life and death side by side in full swing, where "The cows are blooming: great brown roses" even as "Animals die and bloom on the roads / revealing the plump burst plums of their organs." Schwartz concludes, "Marry me over and over, says the world, / offering sun on our shoulders, a mantle, a cloak of hands."
"Springtime" was among a group of poems Schwartz submitted to Pittsburgh-based Autumn House Press, which awarded her its 2004 annual prize. Published in 2005 as Dear Good Naked Morning, it's a beautiful collection. Schwartz begins with poems full of sadness and pleas to be comforted, in which even trees and happy children seem to grieve. But the poet's voice moves toward embrace of the world, including its seeming cruelty. "Now a hole opens up in its skin, where it was torn from the / branch," Schwartz writes in "Tangerine." "[R]ipeness can't stop itself, breathes out; / we can't stop it either. We breathe in."
Though she wrote from early childhood, says Schwartz, her poetry leapt forward when, as a senior at Wesleyan University, she came out as a lesbian. Three books of poetry followed, then 2004's Death in Reverse: A Love Story (Michigan State University Press), a memoir about the year after she donated a kidney to the woman who was then her partner.
Along with some university-level teaching posts in creative writing, Schwartz, 43, had worked as an AIDS and cancer educator nearly as long as she'd been a serious poet. Her poetry has long explored death, violence, corporeal frailty and the dark side of sexuality. "I wanted to believe the body was right," she writes in "Green Fuse," the long poem that concludes Dear Good Naked Morning. "That even the rapist and molester / Carried seeds of rightness in some hidden chamber / of the wrong they did ... I wanted to believe the body was right, / but it was not. / (Neither was it wrong.)"
Three years ago Schwartz got interested in "core shamanism," the study of traditional medical practices from around the world. That was also about when she wrote the poem of "total acceptance" titled "Springtime in the Central Valley."
"I feel as if my poetry came out of a very specific grappling I was doing with the world," she says by phone from California. "Since I wrote that poem, I haven't felt that I needed to write any more."
Now Schwartz has a private practice in depth hypnosis and shamanic counseling, mostly treating the sort of clients -- suffering from depression, addictions, relationship difficulties -- who might otherwise seek psychotherapy. "It connects people with a vehicle that is capable of delivering compassion," she says, "and it gives us a way to access the hidden or sealed-off places in our beings that are in need of compassion."
In that way it sounds a little like poetry -- a pursuit Schwartz hews to even though she hasn't written any lately. "I feel that poetry was my teacher, writing it and reading it," she says. "I still love it and honor it and love to share it."