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)
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.
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?
I haven’t been writing much. This is not unusual for me. I go for long periods without writing much, or writing little bits that I discover later, or writing quite a bit only I haven’t noticed it. Mostly these days the notebook sits closed. But I’ve been willing to paint. Maybe not with alacrity, but I’m more likely to open my little sketchbook than my notebook.
I’ve been painting mostly from photographs, even though I know from my artist friends that that is frowned upon, although I’m unclear why, but one friend is Rather Stern about it. So I do it anyway, but feel guilty about it, which I figure makes it okay. Something about the efforts of imagination or something. But a photograph reminds me about how light and shadow works. I tend to be afraid to go too dark, and unsure how to maintain light, so a photograph keeps me working forward on those fronts.
Anyway, after reading about one artist’s more freeform approach of putting down water and color and then finding an image in the patterns it made and enhancing it, I decided to try that. Rather than doing my usual wet onto dry, I wet the paper well, added color, and a bit more, then rewet and added a new color, turned the paper around so the colors veered and wandered. I contemplated that for a bit, liking the soft hues. I wanted some darker stuff, so I did some spattering. For some reason, that didn’t sit well with me, so I decided to fold the paper in half, like little kids do to make those butterfly-sort-of pictures. Disaster. My spatters turned into pale squashes, and now my paper had a fold in the middle of it. Contemplated that. I still liked the colors and had just received a card that had a cutout garden on top of shiny paper, so I thought to do something like that, and dismantled the card and laid the cutout on top of my paint. Ick. What I really wanted was the opposite — I wanted the flowers to be cut out and the background intact, but I had no interest in the persnickety Xacto knife requirements of such a thing.
More brooding. In the end I turned to my usual go-to, my pen. I lack a very fine-point brush, so I end up using my pen often to outline things in my paintings. I scrawled some squiggly flower and leaf and grass shapes on top of my colors. I quite liked it, and thought to myself, “Well, that was an adventure.”
And I thought what a wonderfully human moment that was, a moment of contemplation of the past, its frustrations and questions, coming out the other side appreciating the, dare I put it, “journey.” I suppose it’s possible that the maple tree by my house comes through a windstorm, boughs intact, and has some equivalent sigh of satisfaction. But it seems like a very human thing. And it occurs to me that my writing efforts would also benefit from that kind of shake-up, of venturing into unfamiliar methods. Unknown, unknowing, trying this and that, contemplating, folding, turning upside down, mopping up spilled words, doodling. I’d like to look up from a writing session and think, “Well, that was an adventure.”
Unusually for me, I find myself 8 handwritten pages into…well, what it is I can’t yet say, but I’ll loosely term it at this point an essay. I decided to start with a geographic point and then try to get myself to spin out from there, writing in whatever direction consciousness, or subconsciousness, or unconsciousness took me. I’m bemused at this, and am trying to still the anxiety I always feel to conclude a piece of writing, to tie it off, like a scarf from a knitting needle.
The urge to end is, well, urgent. What more could I have to say? How will I ever make all this work together? I’m trying just to keep knitting. What if it never ends? Well, won’t that be something?
Anyway, I found this quote from the ever-enjoyable essays of Olivia Laing, this from her engaging To the River: A Journey Beneath Surfaces, which traces the river Ouse, the same river that swallowed Virginia Woolf. Laing wrote:
“A river passing through a landscape catches the world and gives it back redoubled: a shifting, glinting world more mysterious than the one we customarily inhabit. Rivers run through our civilisations like strings through beads, and there’s hardly an age I can think of that’s not associated with its own great waterway. The lands of the Middle East have dried to tinder now, but once they were fertile, fed by the fruitful Euphrates and the Tigris, from which rose flowering Sumer and Babylonia. The riches of Ancient Egypt stemmed from the Nile, which was believed to mark the causeway between life and death, and which was twinned in the heavens by the spill of stars we now call the Milky Way. The Indus Valley, the Yellow River: these are the places where civilisations began, fed by sweet waters that in their flooding enriched the land. The art of writing was independently born in these four regions and I do not think it a coincidence that the advent of the written word was nourished by river water.”
Here ice is just catching the edges of the rivers and streams. I watched today a small eddy surge up through the hole it had created in the thin ice. I persevere.
As I mentioned last week, I created some monoprints from which I made a handmade book. I’ve made other little books. The making of them pleased me, and as I look at them on my desk, I’m pleased by the having-made.
But if Marie Kondo has named the zeitgeist: “throw it away,” should I really be making objects? I ask myself what is the point. Shouldn’t I be un-making? Dis-making? Should I burn all these little books? If I do it as some offering to some gods does it make that un-making sacred, and therefore worth doing more than just chucking them in the recycling bin?
I live in a dusty house. Or, perhaps, it could be argued, I never dust, so there is dust. Dust on my things, and on my little books. Dust on me, and I will be dust. And someone else will have to decide what to do with my books. Who will be left to dust me? Will all my making be recycled? Ashes to ashes.
I’ve been reading about the human species. We despair of what we’ve done to Earth, but what we should really despair about is what we’ve done to us and our fellow denizens. The Earth can take a lot of abuse and will roil along with our without us until its own destiny is played out. Dust to dust.
I don’t believe in gods, nor even really in life, I mean, I don’t believe that life has a purpose except to sustain itself. Living being that I am I did not reproduce myself, but my body has fed some strange beasts: bacterias and protists, spiders and mites. My books are probably doing their part too, paper that they are and likely highly digestible.
A word, however, is an ephemeral thing. A poem fleeting in the air. Unless I write it down, either on paper or in my laptop, in which case suddenly it takes up space. And if it’s printed in a magazine or a book, and it sits on a shelf, well, I’m profligate. And if you buy it? If you read it, find it pleasing, however briefly? How lovely. And if you then recycle the book someday during your own existential — that is, how can I have such a preponderance of things that exist — crisis? Well, that strikes me as a good thing. Sort of. (It’s lucky that books of poetry are usually paperback.)
I have a box of my own books, unsold, that I’m about to take to the attic, where it will sit until I hit the attic with a frenzy and decide no one will ever buy one and chuck ’em. But these handmade books, the largest one only a bit bigger than my hand? Well. I’ll keep them a little while longer. A bit of me for those booklice to read over, digest.
I recently watched Free Solo, that documentary of a man’s extraordinary un-roped ascent up El Capitan. Before I saw the movie, if I thought of his journey at all, I just that “wow, that’s nuts.” I had somehow not expected the amazing preparations he made, both with his body, and certainly with his mind, but also the carefully mapped, hold by hold, route, which he practiced roped again and again until he had every move internalized. Certainly this was a tale of an internal journey, for sure, both into his certainty that he could do it, but also, I think most significantly, when he was able to say, cameras trained on him, partway up the wall face, “No. This is not the day for this.” And called it off and went back down, knowing he’d have to wait another six months to try again, knowing he was tangling up the film producer and his crew as well. But when he finally did the ascent, he knew every move so well, he went surely and rapidly right up the face in a scant few hours with no hesitation, as a strange dance with the wall. It was indeed a kind of choreography he created.
I thought of this movie in contrast to the “journeys” described by two poet friends of mine who got it into their heads to each write a heroic crown of sonnets — that is 14 sonnets of 14 lines each, the 14th of which contains the first lines of each of the previous sonnets. Or something like that. Wow, that’s nuts.
But what struck me, in contrast to Free Solo, was how each of them talked about the great unknowns of their journeys, every step being felt out in the dark. They said things like “I thought I was going to start in this way, but then decided to try this other way” or “I thought I was writing about this thing, but the more I got into the unfolding of the poems the more I realized I was writing about this other thing entirely.”
Their journeys were more like the first ever roped ascent up El Capitan, no doubt accomplished in fits and starts, heading up one way only to retrace and try another route. One of the two adventurers started with the crowning final sonnet and backed into each of the others. The other started that way then realized she didn’t need the “heroic” part and just revamped to do a regular crown, as that is what served the movement of the poems she was writing.
It was exciting to hear about. Both of them found the form created interesting limits they had to figure out how to negotiate.
Of course, they also embarked on these adventures after years of careful study of the art and craft of poetry, and some poking around into the history of sonnet crowns.
And of course, El Cap had never been free climbed, so the whole thing was an unknown. For mortal stakes.
I guess my only point is that any crazy idea one might want to try is part dream, part incredible preparation, as well as part throwing yourself into it and figuring it out as you go along. Any such challenge is part flinging your body at a stone wall and your mind into the well of form and chaos.
My other point is how much I’ve enjoyed lounging on my couch with little ambition, hearing about other people playing out their crazy ideas.
I’m trying to write a poem about skiing the Jackrabbit Trail and although I now have a poem about skiing the Jackrabbit Trail it seems to be just a poem about skiing the Jackrabbit Trail instead of what I really want to talk about which is that something about the experience feels more like the trail is skiing me or I am the terrain being skied on.
I am both the dip in the land where a small stream moves through and the bend in my knees that takes me down and up. I’m the curve around the glacial erratic and how I curve around the erratic and yes some part of me is the erratic, this one, furred with moss and lichen, dripping some days like I’m my own little microclimate, my own world, rock and sediment and weepy. How is that? What is that? Do you know this feeling too? But the poem does not capture that.
So I take things out, leave half-sentences and space the wind blows through, leave some parallel tracks of where I’ve been, how I go, but still I’ve said nothing of this ownership, terrain of me, me of terrain, meandering through the great hummocks of rockmass, stringing marsh to marsh. I fail to mention how I stand in the bowl of one marsh, often in snowfall as if a globe’s been shaken, and I’m the small plastic form inside, or I’m the bowl, or the shaker.
I want to say something about finitude. I want to say something about endurance. Rock and water. The deceptions of snow. Something about my body in motion, the land at rest; the land in motion, body at rest. The poem utters, mutters, but in the end fails.
Filmmaker Agnès Varda said in an interview something along the lines of “I believe the surroundings inhabit us, guide us.”
This is no circular route. I go out. I come home. Muscle and bone and panting breath. Broken rhythms. Mute mountains. Sky blinks. Snows covers everything quietly. Light glints on blown snow, disappears. The lines of my passage disappear. Highlight. Delete.
A friend asked me recently what I hoped to accomplish when I wrote a poem. I stammered something about it not reallly being a desire to accomplish something, but more the way you say ouch when you bang your elbow. Only more pleasant. Sometimes.
But that didn’t feel entirely right.
Then I said something about wanting to show the reader something, startle their perspective, the way the view changes when you shift the kaleidoscope and the colored fragments fall into different patterns. But that certainly didn’t seem entirely true. I rarely think about the reader at all.
I started to say something about how poetry appeals to me because of its compression. But although that’s true, that’s not really why I write it.
I started to say something about art as communication, but at that point I knew I had my cerebral hat on, and that that didn’t really get at what she was asking.
So don’t I run into an article by that damned George Saunders, who got it just write — I mean, right. In a Guardian article from 2017, he wrote this: “We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he ‘wanted to express’, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.”