I’m essaying essay again, and, I say, it’s not easy. I sway and sashay between knowing and no no, and oh, forget it. Foregoing knowing for shoving shovels of details, the retail of retelling, but what am I selling? I start with specifics and go on and on in hope the whatnot will give way to some what: a quest, a question that reveals itself in the veils. Or me. Oh me. Or you. The ideal “we” of the “in this together,” but I’m stuck on the weather. Whither from the wind and wet? Onward ot eht egde edge the to to the edge. Or start again. I want to write about what I’m writing about, but why? I can’t say. And so I can’t say. Oh, essay. I why. I try. I flail and flail again.
I posted this a year ago, and am reposting it as full of useful thoughts on craft. Well, useful to me anyway. Maybe you too.
I’ve been keeping this blog for several years now, and decided to combine all of my posts thus far that have dealt specifically with issues of poetry craft, as I’ve wrangled over the years with my own poems.
In the document linked below, you’ll find general observations, notes on some specific poems, and, most importantly, my thoughts on the guts of poems and editing considerations. I hope you will find something in there of use. Write on.
“Will you let me take my long steps in the cold sand?” — Gerald Stern
Evening breathes onto Lake George, a subtle fog wrapping the hills, the electric lights slowly sharpening the figures of the Stony Creek Band, the Lac du Saint Sacrament eases its white bulk behind the stage, and a graceful touring vessel, its warm wooden interior lit against the night, drifts toward its dock. Beautiful. On the drive home down the highway, I suddenly flashed to Syria. No one can travel there with such aplomb. Bombs, checkpoints, gunfire. There may be beauty there — moments of it in a sunset, in a family celebration, a song or prayer. But can anyone there feel this freedom of movement and easy pleasure? I recently was among a small group of people listening to a woman tell of a decision she made that had had unexpected benefits. “It was meant to be,” she proclaimed weightily. Everyone but me nodded solemnly. “That’s a load of crap,” I thought to myself as I looked away. Things are not “meant to be” — my friend’s son’s death, an acquaintance’s stage four cancer, a refugee’s terror and desperation, a casual trashing of a pristine island, the just-in-time winning streak of someone at the racetrack, the missing of a ship that then went down, an unforeseen meeting of two old friends. None of this was fucking “meant to be.” It’s a lucky life. Lucky, lucky life. Sometimes. Or not.
Recently I read an article exhorting newly published writers, and the rest of us too, to protect the inner life. It suggested that the outer life of taking in hand the trembling self and promoting the work, giving readings, trying to get reviews can all chip away at the inner life. And I thought yes, this is my problem. I’ve been overly concerned with what my outer life could/should/would be, leaving my inner life to grow wan and undernourished.
But I wonder, as I wonder about all perceived dichotomies and dualities, if I’m missing something with this perspective. Because I have learned that so little of life is dual or dichotomous, so little is always one thing or another, so much is mutable, connected, tricksy.
When I am working well, I am at ease. My outer life can be whatever it happens to be when my inner life is engaged. At least, to some degree. If my outer life is engaged, my inner life is content to travel along. At least, for a while. So the inner and outer lives aren’t quite two things, nor are they a continuum. Are they that thing of light, particle and wave? Are they the Pushmepullyou?
Is it really about the sense of engagement, regardless of the nature of it? A sense that I’m “working,” the brain firing, the mind making leaps, that I’m reaching out and the world is reaching back in some way — is that what I’m looking for, whether it’s to be found in a rich discussion with other people, or a task well done, or a fruitful day at the page? In this way inner and outer are only the gallery of engagement, the engagement itself the goal.
Numero Cinq is shutting down, so I wanted to post in one place the work that has appeared there. Turns out the archive has a single link to The Marilyn McCabe NC Archive Page. I’m so flattered. Here I am, in the Numero Cinq drawers:
Insects at great number fly into our front porch by the front door and then fail to find their way out again, ending up corpses littering the windowsills. They keep coming in and coming in. My 97-year-old mother has outlived her money, her memory, and may be outliving her lifelong good health, but she herself continues to live on and on. It’s been five years since my 9-year-old friend died from the brain tumor that had been pursuing him since he was 2. Earlier this spring I buried a tiny bunny that something had chomped a leg off of. All over the country people of all ages are dying stupid deaths from opioids because they want to get high. People join groups like ISIS because they think they want to die for a cause. People confuse love for hate and vice versa. Every day new babies all over the world are born and born and born into it. My point is that making art seems stupid in the face of this; or making art is the only reasonable response to this unreason. I haven’t decided which yet.
I was castigating a coffee bean for making a run for the back door, trying to evade its fate in the grinder, which got me thinking about consciousness. There’s nothing in existence that doesn’t have skin in the game of existing. We know plants “feel,” have hooked them up to monitors and done things to them. Trees make choices. There is a single-celled organism that makes itself a protective covering from pebbles. Some variations of these organisms choose only clear pebbles. One type of this organism always chooses one pebble with some red on it, the way some people insist on having granite countertops. How is choice-making implemented in a single-celled organism? I quit my job recently and am trying to figure out what to do next, who I am now, what I need to grow. Why does it matter what I do, who I am, or what I need? I’m constantly astonished at what a random act of science I am. Constantly aware of how ephemeral all this is. And yet I am persistently focused on the future, always looking for the back door. Does a pebble accept its fate? Water or wind wear away at its edges in the world and its shape shifts, as my skin is getting thinner and my body bulging oddly here, sinking there. What is “knowing”? What is the difference between the pebble and its single-celled owner? I guess the key difference is this idea of life, of biological function. Pebbles don’t poop, as it were. We could hook it up to a monitor, poke it, and it would flat-line. Wouldn’t it? It has electromagnetic impulses running through it, just as I do. I don’t know that it would ignore the indignity of a prod. I know it was a simple accident of physics that the coffee bean got caught up in the scoop but fell to gravity’s pull to the counter, on which it glanced off, its curvature sending it rightward and, upon its floor landing, skittering it toward the door. Maybe on my demise I’ll be as delicious to the universe’s tongue as this coffee, intransigent bean included. My choices make all the difference, and? or? little difference at all. I’m an organism gathering pebbles. If I insist on pretending there is a future, I guess I’d better pretend my choices matter. Or resist the pretense. Enjoy the cup.