Trouble in mind; or, Hayden’s Middle Passage

Middle Passage 

by Robert Hayden

I

Jesús, Estrella, Esperanza, Mercy:

Sails flashing to the wind like weapons,

sharks following the moans the fever and the dying;

horror the corposant and compass rose.

Middle Passage:

voyage through death

to life upon these shores.

“10 April 1800—

Blacks rebellious. Crew uneasy. Our linguist says

their moaning is a prayer for death,

ours and their own. Some try to starve themselves.

Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter

to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under.”

Desire, Adventure, Tartar, Ann:

Standing to America, bringing home

black gold, black ivory, black seed.

Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,   

               of his bones New England pews are made,   

               those are altar lights that were his eyes.

Jesus    Saviour    Pilot    Me

Over    Life’s    Tempestuous    Sea

We pray that Thou wilt grant, O Lord,

safe passage to our vessels bringing

heathen souls unto Thy chastening.

Jesus    Saviour

“8 bells. I cannot sleep, for I am sick

with fear, but writing eases fear a little

since still my eyes can see these words take shape

upon the page & so I write, as one

would turn to exorcism. 4 days scudding,

but now the sea is calm again. Misfortune

follows in our wake like sharks (our grinning

tutelary gods). Which one of us

has killed an albatross? A plague among

our blacks—Ophthalmia: blindness—& we

have jettisoned the blind to no avail.

It spreads, the terrifying sickness spreads.

Its claws have scratched sight from the Capt.’s eyes

& there is blindness in the fo’c’sle

& we must sail 3 weeks before we come

to port.”

               What port awaits us, Davy Jones’

               or home? I’ve heard of slavers drifting, drifting,   

               playthings of wind and storm and chance, their crews   

               gone blind, the jungle hatred

               crawling up on deck.

Thou    Who    Walked    On    Galilee

“Deponent further sayeth The Bella J

left the Guinea Coast

with cargo of five hundred blacks and odd

for the barracoons of Florida:

“That there was hardly room ’tween-decks for half

the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;

that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh

and sucked the blood:

“That Crew and Captain lusted with the comeliest

of the savage girls kept naked in the cabins;

that there was one they called The Guinea Rose

and they cast lots and fought to lie with her:

“That when the Bo’s’n piped all hands, the flames

spreading from starboard already were beyond

control, the negroes howling and their chains

entangled with the flames:

“That the burning blacks could not be reached,

that the Crew abandoned ship,

leaving their shrieking negresses behind,

that the Captain perished drunken with the wenches:

“Further Deponent sayeth not.”

Pilot    Oh    Pilot    Me

II

Aye, lad, and I have seen those factories,

Gambia, Rio Pongo, Calabar;

have watched the artful mongos baiting traps

of war wherein the victor and the vanquished

 

Were caught as prizes for our barracoons.

Have seen the nigger kings whose vanity

and greed turned wild black hides of Fellatah,

Mandingo, Ibo, Kru to gold for us.

 

And there was one—King Anthracite we named him—

fetish face beneath French parasols

of brass and orange velvet, impudent mouth

whose cups were carven skulls of enemies:

 

He’d honor us with drum and feast and conjo

and palm-oil-glistening wenches deft in love,

and for tin crowns that shone with paste,

red calico and German-silver trinkets

 

Would have the drums talk war and send

his warriors to burn the sleeping villages

and kill the sick and old and lead the young

in coffles to our factories.

 

Twenty years a trader, twenty years,

for there was wealth aplenty to be harvested

from those black fields, and I’d be trading still

but for the fevers melting down my bones.

III

Shuttles in the rocking loom of history,

the dark ships move, the dark ships move,

their bright ironical names

like jests of kindness on a murderer’s mouth;

plough through thrashing glister toward

fata morgana’s lucent melting shore,

weave toward New World littorals that are

mirage and myth and actual shore.

 

Voyage through death,

voyage whose chartings are unlove.

 

A charnel stench, effluvium of living death

spreads outward from the hold,

where the living and the dead, the horribly dying,

lie interlocked, lie foul with blood and excrement.

Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,   

       the corpse of mercy rots with him,   

       rats eat love’s rotten gelid eyes.

 

       But, oh, the living look at you

       with human eyes whose suffering accuses you,   

       whose hatred reaches through the swill of dark   

       to strike you like a leper’s claw.

 

       You cannot stare that hatred down

       or chain the fear that stalks the watches

       and breathes on you its fetid scorching breath;   

       cannot kill the deep immortal human wish,   

       the timeless will.

 

“But for the storm that flung up barriers

of wind and wave, The Amistad, señores,

would have reached the port of Príncipe in two,

three days at most; but for the storm we should

have been prepared for what befell.

Swift as the puma’s leap it came. There was

that interval of moonless calm filled only

with the water’s and the rigging’s usual sounds,

then sudden movement, blows and snarling cries

and they had fallen on us with machete

and marlinspike. It was as though the very

air, the night itself were striking us.

Exhausted by the rigors of the storm,

we were no match for them. Our men went down

before the murderous Africans. Our loyal

Celestino ran from below with gun

and lantern and I saw, before the cane-

knife’s wounding flash, Cinquez,

that surly brute who calls himself a prince,

directing, urging on the ghastly work.

He hacked the poor mulatto down, and then

he turned on me. The decks were slippery

when daylight finally came. It sickens me

to think of what I saw, of how these apes

threw overboard the butchered bodies of

our men, true Christians all, like so much jetsam.

Enough, enough. The rest is quickly told:

Cinquez was forced to spare the two of us

you see to steer the ship to Africa,

and we like phantoms doomed to rove the sea

voyaged east by day and west by night,

deceiving them, hoping for rescue,

prisoners on our own vessel, till

at length we drifted to the shores of this

your land, America, where we were freed

from our unspeakable misery. Now we

demand, good sirs, the extradition of

Cinquez and his accomplices to La

Havana. And it distresses us to know

there are so many here who seem inclined

to justify the mutiny of these blacks.

We find it paradoxical indeed

that you whose wealth, whose tree of liberty

are rooted in the labor of your slaves

should suffer the august John Quincy Adams

to speak with so much passion of the right

of chattel slaves to kill their lawful masters

and with his Roman rhetoric weave a hero’s

garland for Cinquez. I tell you that

we are determined to return to Cuba

with our slaves and there see justice done. Cinquez—

or let us say ‘the Prince’—Cinquez shall die.”

 

The deep immortal human wish,

the timeless will:

 

Cinquez its deathless primaveral image,

life that transfigures many lives.

 

Voyage through death

to life upon these shores.

 

 

Robert Hayden, “Middle Passage” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1962, 1966 by Robert Hayden.

 

Prepare ye the way; or, On Poetry I’m Reading, and Possibly Stealing From

I love when I’m reading someone else’s poem and find it’s inspired me such that I have to put it down and run over to my own notebook to write something. Usually when I go back to the triggering poem by the other poet, I can’t for the life of me figure out how I got to what their poem said to what I felt compelled to run to write down. But hooray for the whole enterprise. So I turned with relish to the pile of books of poetry that has been growing at my elbow, and will today share some of the choice lines from them.

So thanks to some trade deals, I have three wonderful little handsewn books from Ethel Zine & Micro Press:

– From Joanna Penn Cooper’s When We Were Fearsome, from “The Keening”:   “…That scene in The Shining that terrifies/a child, the beautiful woman falling old./Now when I see it I think, It’s just a woman./His whole big horror was just embracing/the woman’s changing body.”

And this from her “Existential Kink”: “…My whole life has been one long/creative exercise, a Life Prompt, if you will. Try it. Go/from something kind of funny to something kind of sad/and back again. Repeat. Keep repeating….”

– From Annmarie O’Connell’s Hellraiser, from “Tonight I’m sitting in the front room”: “Im telling you/that a story can remember me/hunt me down/and sooner or later/knock me dead into the past/with its invisible/arms.”

And this from “This is a road.”: “Suddenly inside we are better people/miraculous/with the undertow of failing.”

– From Barbara Ungar’s Edge, from “Madascan Moon Moth”: “To distract bats, he spins his extravagant/and expendable long red tail./They aim for that/and miss him as he burns through the dark,/improbably and fleeting, the Comet Moth.”

And from “April Journal, 2018”: “Though living in the end days/with thirteen kinds of crazy/still the birds return one by one.”

– From Prolific Press and Ann E. Michael came her Barefoot Girls, and this from “Roller Rink”: “…We never missed the novelty tunes,/triplet skate, Elvis and Glenn Miller recast as honky-tonk/organ numbers, blue collar kids doing the hokey-pokey/under the red lights and the mirror ball, you and I/at fourteen, putting our whole selves in.”

And this from “Beautiful Cause”: “You are sixteen. What you already know/about longing could fill/the relentless, empty sky.”

– Stuart Bartow’s new book Green Midnight is out from Dos Madres Press, with this moment from “Merlins”: “…To be//a merlin for one day, to eat life raw…”

And this from “Double Helix”: “…The infinite/must loop around itself/carrying chromosomes like galaxies,/genes like stars.”

– And finally a book I was excited to receive but ultimately could not make much sense of, Spring Ulmer’s Benjamin’s Spectacles from Kore Press. The philosopher Walter Benjamin pops up in my ken on a regular basis, so when I was looking for a book to order from Kore, I saw this and leaped on it. But I struggled to find what Ulmer was telling me about him or what she was making of his life and its work. I’ll work on it. Nevertheless, I share a couple of lines. Here from “The Typewriter”: “To write his way home pounding the keys of the Olympia, Benjamin (who normally employs someone else to do his typing) must break the glass voice of his childhood into fragments he shakes like dice. Each ding of the carriage’s end returns him to the city he can never again love….”

And this from “Fairy Tales”: “I pick at the glow-/in-the-dark stickers on my wall…//I take down the moon and all the stars, too.”

So if you heard anything that intrigued you, please support these small presses by buying a book.

And did I mention my own from Grayson Books? http://www.graysonbooks.com

And you always show up late; or, On Words (and Life) That Go Forward and Backward

The other meaning of the word “career” got me thinking about my “career” and my life’s career, and about how much I love double-entendre and the tricksiness of words. So as I careered (derived from horse riding) and careened (derived from ship repair), from one kind of life to another, little remained that looks like a career (derived from wheeled vehicle).

In fact I cleaved from path after path, quitting this, trying and quitting that, cleaving to a desire to be true to myself, whoever she was at any given time.

I buckled up in each trajectory’s car, buckled down to the work, but inevitably buckled from the pressure to sit.

I overlooked clues to what make me satisfied, overly concerned with some imagined authority who overlooked my choices.

Okay, maybe I’ve pushed the game too far. But I love that these are known as “Janus words,” that old two-faced bloke. But truly, I have careered, and cannot claim to have had a career, a definition that includes the notion of durability, of a devotion of time.

And the only thing I can say I have been devoted to across time is words. I have also loved silence. And there we have poetry.

But where am I? Who am I in all this mucking about? Harvey Oxenhorn in the wonderful Tuning the Rig has this to say about that: “Maybe…the problem isn’t knowing ‘who you really are’ but thinking that you can ever know. In an age when experience is far-ranging and the demands of daily life are so complex, perhaps integrity resides in not one ‘true’ strand of endeavors or desire but in the intelligence and love and dignity with which each person’s crazily conflicting strands are parceled, warmed, and served. That kind of strength is filamented — flexible, though prone to fray. It bind against itself, and holds.”

I love the generosity of that thought, how it allows us all to stumble and be contradictory, to be wrong and strong and uncertain, changeable and changed. It opens its arms to confusion. I pinball, therefore I am.

 

And speaking of looking backward: here are links to two poems published online in lit mags that are now in print inside my new chapbook, Being Many Seeds (www.graysonbooks.com/being-many-seeds.html):

https://amethystmagazine.org/2020/01/15/the-unfolding-earth-a-poem-by-marilyn-mccabe/

https://89b51d07-bdbc-4f8c-8b62-740f86360cd5.filesusr.com/ugd/61020d_1712d51103d94ed4be98f6b3470e2e9d.pdf

I’ve made a few; or, On Imperfection and Finding Mistakes Too Late in a Manuscript; or, Oops

Welp, I found a  mistake in my newly released chapbook. Oops.

I even sort of remember now what happened. In this chapbook I have poems, but also a running essay across the bottom of each page. I tried to, in some degree, have the sections of essay have some kind of reflection on the poem with which it shares the page. I think I took out a poem, then had to figure out how to rejigger the essay. But then I revised the essay, and needed to juggle the sections, but couldn’t figure out how to re-cut the sections effectively. So I set it aside to think about further, and stuck as a placeholder a copy of one of the sections.

And the brain being the ragged blanket it is, I never went back.

And in the processes of revision and proofreading, I never ended up reviewing the actual essay in one read-through from front to back, only in a page by page. Somehow it escaped me that one section of the essay is repeated twice.

It could be said that the repetition does serve as an emphasis on that particular passage, perhaps the most central passage of the essay. The shift of poem does add a slightly different coloration on each segment. That in itself is sort of interesting. Yeah, that’s it. I meant to do it that way.

Still, I feel very foolish, as it is such an incredibly obvious error. And I’m a professional proofreader! But, that said, my publisher didn’t find it either. Anyway. What is the lesson here?

Happily, my first response when I found it was to laugh. My second was to shrug. Oh well. Shit, as they say, happens.

I do know that after spending much time with a piece of work, especially a whole manuscript, a veil seems to lower over the thing. I can’t see the trees, can barely make out the forest. It seems a blur of what it has been, what it has become, what it might have been, what I perhaps had intended but since have forgotten. I can’t even answer questions about work after the veil has fallen. People ask me what I meant by things and I just make stuff up on the spot. At some point the work becomes no longer mine but something that has escaped into the world.

That’s why we need copyeditors and proofreaders. Long may they reign. Or rein, as the case may be, as in “in.” Sometimes rain, as in “on the parade.”

But how freeing it is not be upset by a mistake. I mean, I didn’t back over the neighbor’s cat. Nothing was injured or killed in the making of this mistake. This is less a mistake, in some perspective, as an imperfection. The stakes are not particularly high, here. I don’t think the Pulitzer Prize committee will even notice. This is not one of those errors that will haunt me in some 4:00 a.m. self-hatred session.  And believe me, I have made some of those kinds of mistakes. To be able to look at an error and think, well, look at you, being human, is a very nice thing. Mistakes are made. The book as a whole I think is interesting, diverting, creative. Not to mention the gorgeous cover. So. What’s a little imperfection among friends?

So there we are. Live and learn. Now read up.

I don’t know I don’t know; or, On Writing a Chapbook: The Story of Being Many Seeds

So with the birth of a new collection of poems, I thought I might share the backstory, as the poems came together in an unusual way, for me.

The poems in this book began as a monthlong exercise in imitations. Each day I’d choose a poem from a literary magazine or book of poems I had lying around, and I’d try to do a word-for-word imitation, but trying often to use opposite words. That is, if the poem started “One early morning…” I might say “Every late night….” I tried to choose poems that seemed unlike anything I might write: longer lines, narrative rather than lyric.

I didn’t overthink the process, I just let words rise up as prompted by the original poem, and figured whatever subject matters were lurking in my brain would arise naturally from this process. So then I had thirty or so of these, and looking back through, I was interested in many of them.

I began revising them back toward my own voice and rhythms. But they never felt entirely OF me, there was always something a bit different about them. So I thought I’d try a radical revision, really strip each poem down. That was fun.

So I decided to strip them down again.

Then I realized that each of these stripped down versions had something interesting to say to the version before. When I began understanding them as erasures of themselves, I got interested in presenting the poems in all three versions, particularly when the erasures began heading in different directions from the originating text.

Still I felt something missing. I remembered a couple of Rebecca Solnit books had a separate text running across the bottom of each page, like a murmured conversation happening elsewhere in the room. In real life this would have made me crazy, such an eavesdropper am I. But on the page, I loved that view out the corner of my eye of this sort of secret subtext.

So I thought about what the poems seemed to be talking about and around. And I got thinking about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I’m not sure why. I had read bits and pieces of his work over the years, and I knew I had a book or two hanging out on some dusty shelf. So I began reading his work again, and thinking about his ideas, and having my own response to his thoughts. And so I began to set my thoughts running across the pages of the poems.

I had begun to envision this as a digital object, something you could watch while the erased words disappeared before your eyes, and the essay text appeared down the side of the virtual page. But I didn’t know how to do this, nor did I know how to contact an organization or person that did, nor did I know how I would get such a thing out into the world. So I created a paper-based version, at first having the essay text running sideways on each page, so you’d actually physically have to turn the page around. But some beta readers questioned this, so I ran the text across the bottom.

But the idea of a visual version haunted me, so I began experimenting with what software I did know how to use to try to approximate my vision. This was arduous and had several dead ends, but I finally figured out how to make it all happen in iMovie, and created some music/sound and manipulated some of my own photos.

So more than any other collection of poems, this one came together through a series of “lemme try thises” and “maybe I’ll try thats.” I felt through much of the process that I was moving through a combination of instinct and blunder, like walking around a familiar room but in the total dark. I was never entirely comfortable. It was a really stimulating process, and fun, in the end, if a bit bumbly in the middle.

So I encourage you to get uncomfortable. Turn out the lights, get up and wander around. Let something catch your eye and turn toward it, try it. Don’t think too much. Have a little fear, but not too much. Whether my book or video appeal to you or not, you will have a very interesting experience, I can promise you that.

Being Many Seeds, the book: www.graysonbooks.com

Being Many Seeds, the movie: www.vimeo.com/marmccabe/beingmanyseeds

 

I write the book; or, On My New Book of Poems

I am pleased to announce the publication of a new collection of poems. “Being Many Seeds” won the Grayson Books Chapbook Contest and has just been released into the world:graysonbooks.com.
The collection is a hybrid thing in that, in addition to the poems, running across the bottom of each page of poetry is a brief essay of some thoughts about the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest and paleontologist. Plus each poem has three parts: the first poem, then another poem I “found” inside it by erasing some of the words, then a third such erasure, with each iteration either distilling, moving away from, or suggesting something different from the original poem. I’d say the theme of the collection is our connection to each other and to the earth.
It is a “chapbook” of poems, which is a common form in the poetry world meaning that it is about half the length of a full-length collection, and tends to be more thematically focused than a full-length, but also, since it is staple-bound rather than having a spine, it is a format often not sold in bookstores, as it has no shelf presence, nor carried by libraries. Buying a copy from the publisher helps this little press keep up its good work of getting poetry into the world.
I also have a stash of copies and will likely keep a box in my car, should we ever see each other again.
But if you are creative in some other realm and commit to trying to use this collection as a leaping off point for a creative work — turn the pages into origami, bake a poem cake, compose a symphony, dance a quadrille while humming the poems, soak the pages into a pulp and make sculpture, knit a poem scarf, whatever — I’ll send you a book for free right now!
Also, if you write book reviews and want to consider reviewing the book, I’ll send you a copy.
Here’s a videopoem I made from a condensed version of the book:www.vimeo.com/marmccabe/beingmanyseeds
And here’s a the image on the front cover, a gorgeous photograph by Nina Shengold.

Turn it up, turn it up, little bit higher; or, On Music

I have been painting rooms in my house. I don’t really mind this task — well, except for a few key moments: roller tray full of paint tips over on the hardwood floor, walking into the room I’d thought I’d finished a week ago and seeing TONS of unpainted spots — but, by and large, I enjoy it. Mostly because it’s about the only time in my days when I listen to music for several hours.

Usually I’m trying to read, or write, or whatever, and if I’m trying to concentrate, I can’t listen to music at the same time. Because when I listen to music I listen to music. So I often don’t listen to music. But I listen to music while I paint, and it’s glorious.

There is nothing like music to raise my spirits or to bring me to my knees. There is nothing like music to bring back old memories, good or bad.

In this painting paroxysm I’ve been listening to Pandora. It’s playing a nice range of stuff. It reminded me that the last time I painted this living room, we listened to every album of The Band we had. I’m reminded by someone’s rendition of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” that I was stunned in, probably, 10th grade when Elaine Askew sang it at a school talent contest. Regular people could be that talented?! I was reminded of old friends — I’m talking about you, Ellen Lamb, and old apartments, distant places, old lovers, old bad times of unutterable loneliness, times of laughter.

And there’s something about music that lets you sing terribly sappy lyrics and it works! I’m thinking about a song I love, for example, Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” “Lonely,” he says, frankly, “lonely.” “Love, love me do,” urge the Beatles, without much imagination. “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth,” say the kind of dumb words to Pharrell’s undeniably catchy song. I can’t get away with that in a poem. But man, put some music behind it and you can get away with all kinds of stuff.

But it’s not just lyrics. Pandora played at one point a beautiful instrumental, and I was stopped still by the lingering final note of the cello. What is it, these vibrations that get to the heart of things? I am awash with paint splatters and nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a word from -agia, or pain, and nostos-, or returning home. And indeed, the return home can be painful. Oh, I guess it’s usually understood as the pain of the desure to return home. No, it’s not for me the desire to return to anything — I’m happy where I am, but some ache that has to do with the passing of time, I guess, the passing of those moments of sheer presence, or experience that seep into our cells. And with music, or sometimes scent, bubble those old sensory inputs back to surface, like the stream now is muddy from a storm’s churning. And we taste things again, feel things in an uncomplicated way, at least for a moment.

And I suppose too there’s something in it of what Hopkins expresses in “Spring and Fall,” a poem to a young Margaret, “It is the blight man was born for,/It is Margaret you mourn for.” And something of Zagajewski’s unreachable Lvov: “Which station/for Lvov, if not in a dream…” (Gorczynski translation).

Yes, I love words, love good poetry, but lord, let me give music its due. I raise my paintbrush to you, you musicians out there around the world.

 

Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles; or, Anatomy of a Poem Making

Here’s a sentence I see on Facebook or heard spoken at open mics that I do not understand: “I wrote a poem today.”

There is no way what I write in a day could be considered, in my mind, “a poem.” It MIGHT become a poem. Someday. But in one day, it is and can only be some stuff I’ve written that is amorphous and possibly colossally crappy or just random thoughts that will never be more than that. I guess other people work differently. The best I could say in a day is that I took some lumps of stuff that I wrote x days/weeks/months/years ago and poked and prodded and twisted it into something that either might be a poem or is The Best Poem Ever Written but check back with me tomorrow.

I’m working with a bunch of pages of thought over several days, seeing whether there’s anything in there that seems like a poem, i.e., seems like it’s saying something more than it’s saying and doing so or can do so in some kind of interesting way that can make use of silence and pauses and imagery and rhythm.

Which I guess is my basic definition of what a poem is.

So I’m taking these pages of longhand and moving them onto my computer, and, interestingly, to me anyway, they are taking the form of triplets, that is, three lines that seem to form a whole, a whole that is somewhat distinct from the three lines that came before and after, but that speak across the gap (Can I call them tercets? Do tercets have to rhyme? I don’t know). And by three lines, sometimes I mean three sentences or three fragments, or one extended thought that seems to have three parts or within which the introduction of the pause of a line break, or the wink or nudge of an enjambment or caesura suggests a deeper layer of how to read the thought.

It’s interesting to me that I did not set out to think in threes nor to develop a form at all but rather the content itself dictated this approach, at least in this first round. Isn’t that funny? This is form finding itself, or content finding its form, elbowing out all awkward and sticky, stretching and yawning.

When I see it finally all stretched out, then with fresh eyes I can try to “hear” it, assess whether it’s something greater than its parts. As I read it to myself, I want to feel the movement of air in it, of sound and quiet, but also a sense of things moving in the dark. This is a gut-level response.

Sometimes I know right away that what I have is not working, it is too filled with, e.g., self-consciousness, or feels effort-full, or just falls flat, no feathers nor loft. Sometimes I think, oh, yeah, this is a Thing. In that case, as I’ve written here many times before, only time can provide me with a check on that response.

Before I do much more fiddling around with this Thing-Possible I’d better let it lie for a while. Back to the Great British Baking Show for me. Tomorrow is another day.

Of Rich and Royal Hue; or, On Writing and Paying Attention

Having cancelled an anticipated spring trip, and maintaining the recommended isolation, I’m experiencing the wakening of wanderlust, as friends south of me post pictures of croci and daffodils but all around me is the bleak of northern early spring.

But isolation is forcing us to roam very locally, trespassing here and there, following logging roads or ATV trails currently quiet. With leaves not yet out the land remains revealed in all its lumps and wrinkles, and we course through it, following streams or the lines of topography, discovering a neighbor’s old apple orchards, a rocky and windy hilltop that seems elf-haunted.

In Boundless, Katherine Winter wrote this: “What if we were to stay in one place, get to know it, and listen? What might happen if we were not always on our way somewhere else?”

I took a tracking class once and was so envious of the teacher’s intimacy with his land. He took us to where he’d been checking on a porcupine family. Imagine knowing where a porcupine family was living! I did notice this winter from a large brush file on a neighbor’s land the crisp stink of what I think was fox musk. That was exciting. My trail camera delights me with capturing the comings and goings of a deer family, the trajectory of a fox every few nights, and many many shots of moving leaves, and how the day’s shadows move through the backyard. I know the chipmunks are making good use of the area under the porch, and I just hope it’s not them I hear in the wall. For the past three months, I have watched daily the stream’s many faces, from frozen to frenzy. The other morning an odd bird peep made me look out the window from my bed in time to see a male turkey walk past, with a female peeping at him, then another male hurry up and inflate himself to his puffed up glory. What drama!

When early hominids began to develop what we now know as language, surely it was driven by both need and wonder. So it’s a long history I feel when I say — either to myself, or my husband, or in a poem, or right here — “Hey, look at at that!”

This is Katherine Winter again: “I hadn’t before known earth as a text underlying any word spoken or written by man.” I love this idea of earth as text, of the wildlife around me as text — and by text I mean, and I presume she means, something to be “read,” studied, interpreted, and is a word that in origins means woven.

So even as we’re homebound in our neighborhoods, whether they be urban or rural, small town or suburban development, we’re part of the fabric of what’s around us. And as writers and readers, I guess we might as well weave.

He blows it eight to the bar; or, On Moving Forward, Breaking Out, Stepping Up, Boogying Down; or, On Writing Better

I have an MFA in poetry. I pursued it because I felt I’d come to a plateau in my work, and I feared I did not really know what I didn’t know. And I felt like an MFA would be a good way to get some outside input into my work and to have a good impetus to focus focus focus. I was largely self-taught before that, reading texts of craft and some criticism, having some conversations, and, of course, reading reading reading poetry.

The MFA experience sort of kind of worked, but as I had never had any undergraduate preparation in poetry, nor English at all, it was not quite enough. Once I got my MFA I felt like I was really ready to pursue an MFA. I am lacking great gobs of history and information and could be more skilled in how to read a poem as a poet.

Fortunately, there is no end of great books about all this, and I try to keep a regular practice of reading them, but have fallen down in the recent past. I am feeling again on a plateau, and am happy to have stumbled upon Craig Morgan Teicher’s We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress. He examines the work of a variety of poets, sometimes in depth over the course of a lifetime’s work, sometimes in a more focused way, trying to determine the forces at work in someone’s work over time.

Although I don’t always follow what he’s saying, and am often perplexed at his assertions of examples of a poet’s best work and work that is weak. (It’s not helpful that he uses words like “obviously,” when what he is saying is not at all obvious to me; and assertions such as X work is “the best of the decade,” or Y is “a bit too much.” It makes me uneasy and insecure in my own assessments, and I don’t really need any more of THAT, thank you very much.) But he has a generous and sensitive eye, and for a poet, it must be a gift to be read by Teicher, for all that he can be bit stern in his discernments.

The chapters cover in depth and breadth of work: Merwin, Plath, Gluck; and in more concentrated segments, Ashbery, Francine J. Harris, Yeats, Lowell, and others. Again I’m reminded of the importance of taking one’s time in reading poetry. I cannot be reminded of this enough. And indeed I come back again and again to reading as a primary tool in a poet’s progress.

I have talked before about how to improve: More Better Blues. What I say then still applies now, and in the spiral of life, will apply next time I find myself stopped and slightly confused about how to move forward. But it occurs to me that this moment of pause, lifting my head and looking both back at where I’ve been and forward toward where I might go is itself a part of the process of improvement.

Although the word “improvement” is maybe not quite right, as it implies some scale, some external and rational system of measure. What do I really mean when I say I feel plateau’d? I think I mean I’d like to feel more out of my depth when I’m in the process of creating. If I feel too sure-footed, then I’m not in learning mode, I’m not bobbing around in a sea of possibility. I think I make better work when I’m splashing and flailing a bit, work that is more interesting — to myself, anyway. I guess it’s that old Frost quote about no surprise for the writer, none for the reader either.

One of the things Teicher identifies as breathrough moments in the work of some of the poets he examines is the breaking free of social constraints. I’m not sure if I feel particularly under the weight of social constraints. But of course, does anyone know that until they’ve broken free, or until someone later, in another decade, looking back, identifies what might be considered a zeitgeist, a social expectation or bind, and what might be considered a breaking?

I don’t know that in the moment any of us can understand our time and then act out of it. I think what he means is they broke with their own conventions.

So my takeaway is less that I should examine my constraints and break them than that I try new things. Try this, try that. Scattershot. Haphazard. Downright willy-nilly. Downright boogie woogie. How hard can that be?