Up here, it seems we’re tied in nots: not-winter, not-spring. A glance out, my eyes lifted up from the blank page, and I think things look bleak. But wait. Stands of young ash are still clasping their old leaves, the color of palominos here or the insides of pumpkins there. The ground is variegated nut and mud. Six shades of green moss cap the rocks, and bull’s-eyes of lichen bloom on bare trunks a color I’d love to paint a bathroom, if it wouldn’t lend a questionable pallor to my already wan reflection in the mirror. The forsythia this year: larger than an elephant it sprawls and glows in the gray light of these moody days. Something’s up in this between-times. From sandy verge of the roadside stagger the small battered suns of coltsfoot, gleam of madness. Lightly the pen of spring scrawls on the rough page. Many years ago I wrote this:
Even in the is-ness of all things— snow doused rut, bleak skeleton of blackberry— there is a waiting: water of what’s next, small fist of intent. Who can live in the moment amid all this soon-to-be: bud of laurel, aspen’s catkin, thirst of the dirt road?
(from Rugged Means of Grace (Finishing Line Press) and Perpetual Motion (The Word Works)
It’s been a long time since I’ve read any Annie Dillard, and I don’t know why. I have loved her work so, and have rerereread Teaching a Stone to Talk and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and remember laughing out loud reading An American Childhood. Her poems haven’t done it for me so much, but her essays. Good lord.
But I had not read For the Time Being. I vaguely remember it coming out and having good intentions, and then, oops, 22 years go by. So I found it on the library shelf and grabbed it.
What a strange book it is. It seems an even closer and unmediated glimpse into her mind than the other books of hers I know. Short and long snippets of notes fling us from a clinical book on birth defects to standing in China amid the unearthing of the terracotta army to the stony streets of S’fat, Israel, with the ghost of Rabbi Akiva. We dig with Teilhard de Chardin and watch a NICU nurse bathe tiny, wrinkled, multicolored newborns. We learn about sand. We think about God.
Sometimes I think she’s the Delphic Oracle, among us still. Sometimes I think she must have been drunk. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive.
Entries jostle each other, sometimes loop back around to each other, sometimes just sit on their own, leaving the reader to make connections as she can. Each chapter has almost the same group of subheadings: Birth, Sand, Encounter, Now, among others. This lends a slippery netting to the whole enterprise.
She’s irritable in this book, and bemused, she’s righteous, and amiable, argumentative, generous.
The book is a button box, clackety and multivarious. It’s irritating, bemusing.
I’m quite sure if I understood what she was saying, I would understand Everything. As it is, though, I’m never entirely sure what the hell she’s getting at. It’s confounding. I love it. I’m perplexed by it. I can’t wait to read it again.
I’ve written about this before, but I’m always struck by how violently fluid my responses to my own poems can be. Sloshing between: Love! Detest! Adore! Blecchh! Hey, this ain’t bad! Good lord, what were you thinking!
And I’m talking about the same poem, mind you. Back and forth. I exhaust myself.
If I could take a moment in each of these buffetting experiences to note exactly what I’m enamored of in the poem, or what is making me retch, then maybe in some saner(?) moment in some calmer time hence I can actually pursue revision in some sensible manner.
Sometimes I have to come back to a poem after it’s been lit-mag-rejected many times and think, okay, bud, is there something wrong with you? I’m having such a moment with a poem that’s been around for a long time and for which I’ve felt fondness. But I’m wondering if it is really nothing more than a well-sculpted description of thing, and never transcends itself.
Basically it says, Here’s a thing, and here’s how another thing is like the thing. I mean, it’s well said. But it’s not really reaching toward anything other than itself. I feel sad for it.
Maybe it’s in the imagist tradition, I say to myself. (Per Pound: “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”) Yeah, okay. Maybe. But in truth I’ve rarely found poetry in the imagist tradition very interesting. Sometimes, yes, but it’s not my favorite approach to poetry.
No matter how lovely, the thing seems to remain just a thing with a bunch of words plastered on it.
What was I thinking about when I wrote it, lo these many years ago? Surely I can touch those few adverbs, the images, and make contact with that person who wrote this thing. Can I tap into something from that moment, based on the kind of description I created, and in so doing write onward toward some more complex and interesting poem?
Or is sometimes a pretty thing just a pretty thing? Love it. Disappointed in it.
I don’t know yet. Not quite ready to give up the ship.
Here I am again. Is it spring, with its stuttering reenactment of incarnation, that renders me numbskulled, vacant?
I’m inert. Such a great word, short-stopped by that cul-de-sac of an -ert.
Like the newly snow-emerged and dim-colored field, I am empty.
I have not written in a long time. Nothing is on my mind. I am thought-less. Seem to have nothing to say. Have no idea how to write a poem.
No idea why I would even do such a thing.
Have no sense that I’ve ever done such a thing in my life nor that I will ever do so. As the damp field curled with squashed lines of old weeds and broken stems of milkweed, languid pale humps of grasses tangled in mud will never be anything other than that.
Anthony Cody’s Borderland Apocrypha has been an engrossing read. It details violence against Mexicans in the United States in poems that splash and splatter across the page. Set in landscape format, the book unfolds with white space and quick bursts of text, as if almost every poem is a kind of erasure, the text a struggle to stand against the white space.
A central poem is “Prelude to a Mexican Lynching, February 2, 1848, Guadalupe Hidalgo; or The Treaty of Peace, Friendships, Limits, and Settlement” which is an almost-30 page erasure of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which, as an end to the Mexican-American war, required Mexico to cede to the US all or parts of what we now know as the entire Southwest. The so-called treaty was bilingual, and Cody’s erasures show two erasures on each page, a dotted line separating the English and the Spanish. The erasures from the preamble and Article 1, for example say in English, “animated by a sincere desire to/end/the people/as good neighbors/There shall be/ America and the Mexican/without place.” And on the Spanish side: “las calamidades/que/existe entre/paz y/ciudades/sin/personas,” which I translate as “the calamities that exist between peace and cities with no people.” (Cody himself supplies no translations of the Spanish threaded throughout the collection, which meant some happy leafing through and discovery in my Spanish-English dictionary.)
Lynchings of Mexicans were widespread before and after the war, and many of the poems serve as witness.
Some poems bunch text, as in “Nightjars,” which ends with a flock of the word “before” or the cacophony of “this had a name.” Others play with the structure of text or interact with photographs. Official words are scrutinized, historical photographs are questioned.
The word “apocrypha” means hidden or secret writings. Cody takes history as a text to be broken open, and in so doing he reminds himself, and the reader, “Recall that beneath you, are the others.”
Many of my poems call on science in one way or another. I usually have some science-y read going, and that informs my considerations (Is consider from words meaning “with the stars”? I must look that up.). But someone recently observed that rather than centering the science, my work seems to center the self. (This was offered not necessarily as a critique, but of course the result was the same.)
I’ve been thinking about this, and wondering without “my” “self” in the consideration, what do I have? (It also makes me laugh because it’s also been suggested that I can have a tendency to keep too much distance of “myself” from my writing, by which I take to mean some emotional fire.) Or have I confused a presentation of a self with a presentation of some emotional response. I am therefore I feel something?
I take as my starting point for much of how I view the world “my self” as a member of the human species, and move outward from there. As I encounter the world, learn about it, observe it through my personal senses, I write. Without a point of view that somehow brings home in some personal way what I’ve been thinking about, I tend to find my poems veer into the polemical, clinical, or earnest tones I find dreary when I read poetry. (Of course, then there’s the tricky “we,” which I’ve written about before.) But maybe I’ve lost some opportunity along the way. Maybe come to put too much “I” in my work and not enough peeled eye.
Out of curiosity, I dove into the newest collection of poems I’m putting together and was amused to find that, besides a few persona poems, which I didn’t count in the “I” category, more than 20 of the 36 poems contained an “I” standing around somewhere in the poem. (Of course, as I’ve said in this space before, not all poetic “I”‘s are the poet; or, in some ways all poems are persona poems. Or none are. Oh, dear, I’m wandering into a wall of mirrors.)
Am I too much with me? Am I getting in the way of the reader seeing what I’m trying to show?
I guess every poem has its own requisite distance between the observing self and the observed, and the position of the observer in relation to the observed. This is interesting. I think, for example, about one of my all time favorite poems, a poem I find so powerful, and thrilling every time I read it: Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which although it contains a closely observant eye, contains no “I.” The thing seen is center, the seer is so transparent the reader sees through him.
I’ve worked to inject my emotional self into my work, but it seems like I’ve done that in some sort of a narrative sense, with the I as a character having an experience in some unfolding scene. I used to rarely put an I in the poem. Now it seems I pop up everywhere, like some Waldo-in-a-Box.
Now I’m challenged with injecting the work with the deeply felt response I am experiencing in considering whatever I’m considering, but taking out the “I” who considers. Now you see me, now you don’t.
I am mesmerized by this videopoem, linked below, the rapid flash images that nevertheless seem rarely to change, short stops in motel or diner parking lots nothwithstanding, and an occasional glimpse of the changing character of the landscape, but only a glimpse, as the landscape is chiefly anti-land, it’s the roadscape, mostly the highwayscape. We all know it. The blacktop, the yellow lines, the signs flashing by flashing by and the rear ends of trucks, stolid, unimpressed with your own meager mileage-eating.
The voice drones on and I mean that in the nicest way, because it’s saying interesting things, mournful things, meaningful things, and I drift in and out of focus, as I do on the road as the miles slip by and I think suddenly, wait a minute, where am I.
There is music in the background that is meant to live in the background, the way the radio blurbles along as if anyone is really listening, when often times it’s just noise against the great and awful silence, the silence of Life, or Aloneness, or Eternity, or The Grave, and the DJ prattles on, and the songs merge as if one long song and what you thought at one point was your finger bopping to a beat had become many miles before just a nervous tapping, or vice versa.
And arrival becomes a strange and new way of being, disorienting, and for a moment you forget how to live in one place, and you miss, a little bit, the moving road.
I skied today under a wide blue sky, and had the trail to myself, and was thinking about this videopoem, and also wondering, as I often do, what is the purpose of life, if life has a purpose. Sometimes I go down a nihilistic spiral with that question, but often I end up at Rilke: “Maybe we are here to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate…”
Another book-length poem has come to my attention, and although I don’t think I have the effort of will and attention to create such a thing, I do find I’m attracted to the ambition of them. This one is Dart by Alice Oswald, published back in 2002 by Faber and Faber. The Dart is a river in England, and Oswald traveled the length of it, talking with people who live by and on and with the river, and has created a chorus of these voices and the river itself murmuring and splashing through the length of the book.
In a brief intro she suggests that all the voices should be considered those of the river, but I actually found that conceit distracting. A river, after all, is not necessarily just the water running through a channel, but it’s the walls and marshes of the channel, the rocks in the way, the grasses smoothing the bottom, the fish in the grasses, the woman laying a fly along the surface with her line, the man floating on a tire, the kid kerplashing in from a rope swing. I think about The Wind and the Willows and its river, a character itself, which was the river’s own stories blended with the wind in the reeds and the River Rat in the bank and Toad splashily sculling.
Oswald’s voices include a bailiff seeking poachers, fishermen eluding the bailiff, a worker in a milk production plant that uses the river water, sailors, birdwatchers, kayakers, the dead, the living, the water, its currents. In truth, the first time through, it was not an easy read, so slippery did it move through different tones and material, although the voice changes are signaled with a note in the margin. But the second time through was smoother and I was more easily able to ride the current.
Here’s a bit from the beginning, the source, as it were:
one step-width water of linked stones trills in the stones glides in the trills eels in the glides in each eel a fingerwidth of sea.
how water orders itself like a pack of geese goes up first in tatters then in shreds then in threads and shucking its pools crawls into this slate and thin limestone phase…
Not every bit has this level of movement and liquidity, but my favorite portions do. Here, memorably, terribly, the river takes a kayaker:
come warmeth, I can outcanoeuvre you into the smallest small where it moils up and masses under the sloosh gates, put your head…
Sleep was at work and from the mind the mist spread up like litmus to the moon, the rain hung glittering in mid-air…
I saw a sheet of seagulls suddenly flap and lift with a loud clap and up into the pain of flying, cry and croup and crowd the light as if in rivalry to peck the moon-bone empty then fall all anyhow with arms spread out and feet stretched towards the earth again.
That’s just a taste and glimpse of all that’s encountered in the book. It was a wonderful ride.
I’m referencing here something a friend said that I agreed with in the moment but now think I may disagree: she said the context of a critique should always be the poet’s intent for the poem. I’ve also preached intent as a necessary level in the revision process. But I’m thinking now that if the poet has an intent for the poem, she’s already lost the poem. “But that’s not what I want the poem to do” is a phrase I hear — and say — in response sometimes to critique. But it’s that very wanting, that very conscious intention, that maybe should not be trusted.
Am I saying that a poem develops its own path, and the poet needs to learn to get out of the way? That sounds awfully woo woo for me. But maybe I’m kind of thinking that way.
But I’ve also argued that if you don’t know your intention for a poem, you’re in danger of writing too superficially. Could that also be true? Am I overthinking?
I think I’m perceiving that at certain stages in the development of a poem, the poet needs to move at first without much conscious thought, much the way I just laid water and color down on my paper, and then turned the paper around and around. What I intended was that somehow the colors would create some shape that would allow me to find something on the page to make a picture of. That didn’t happen. In the absence of that intended result, the absence of a discernible object or presence, I had to find another way. The frustration of my intent turned out to be a freedom and a way to discover something new.
The word intend is from Latin meaning stretching toward something. Sometimes in the writing of something, the process of writing itself causes the thing to stretch toward something unexpected. And it might take a clear-eyed view, probably after some time away from the poem, for me to be able to see what my own poem is saying, what it’s claiming as its own intentions or my own subconscious ones.
I’ve got a few poems in my holding cell at the moment, and keep revisiting them. They’re not bad. They’re not good. One in particular came out of an art exhibit the details of which I can no longer remember, but I know I wanted to write something out of the experience of that exhibit. I’m wondering now if I need to leave the exhibit behind, and see if the poem is actually reaching toward something entirely different. But no! That’s not what I intended! Plus if it goes in an entirely different direction then it won’t fit in with this manuscript I’m developing!
Tough luck, kid. Is this an adventure, or ain’t it?