About 15 years ago, I fell into a hole in a building still under construction. For a moment I floated, surprised, before dropping a full story and hitting the cement floor. I lay there unconscious. I'd literally walked into air.

I was lucky: I was diagnosed with permanent traumatic brain injury—which is to say, I survived. In the years since, I've been recovering, in and out of rehabilitation, and am now relatively high functioning. But for me, an English teacher, the most challenging part of brain damage was this: Language literally made me sick. Talking made my face go numb. Writing made me dizzy. Reading made the room spin. Paragraphs drifted off the page.

Much was lost. Once-familiar words meant nothing to me. Sometimes I forgot my partner's name. Sometimes I couldn't remember how to spell the.

In an attempt to ease the general strain on my brain, my doctors forbade me to read or write. When they realized that was like asking me not to breathe, they gave in and said I could read and write one line per day. One line. How much life could I pull out of or put into one puny line? If I could read and write only a single line, I decided, it would have to be the best line I could come up with, the finest I could find, which is how I found my way to poetry.

I could barely think at the time. Hell, I could barely hold a pen. I was always making mistakes when I spoke, misplacing words, forgetting my point midsentence. One day I sat thinking about my grandmother's red pincushion, which sat on a table beside my bed. I'm just like that pincushion, I thought. I must endure this, regardless. For my daily line, I wrote, "The pincushion's reassurance." One day my pain would end. Meantime, if that pincushion could take it, so could I.

That is what poetry can do. Poetry saved me.

Long before we created libraries, or even books, poetry was the way we humans remembered who we were, a primary means of documenting and contemplating our lives. In Greek mythology, Memory was believed to be a goddess—Mnemosyne, the mother-goddess of the nine Muses. So Memory is the mother of all poetry. We wrote poems to remember a certain tree in spring. If we'd tasted an exquisite kiss, a poem could extend that moment infinitely. At the time of someone's passing, we sang poems to the dead instructing them where to go and how to get there—a map to heaven.

Poems have power, lives of their own: In the United States, the first poem we know of by a black person, "Bars Fight," was composed in the mid-1700s by a former slave named Lucy Terry Prince. No one wrote it down—it was memorized and transmitted orally—until 1855, when it was finally published.

Poetry is this gorgeous, complex history rendered in verse and song, a blueprint that can lead you back into the world after you've walked into air. At every step since the beginning, poetry has saved us all.

Robin Coste Lewis won the 2015 National Book Award for her debut poetry collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus (Knopf).


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