April 28, 2010

Whether or not you know you will know

Last weekend, something prompted my daughter to tell me that "the pokes of light coming off of the sun" are actually my father's legs and his toenails. She knows that he is gone. She knows that death signals the end of being in your body. She is 3, but we've talked about that. How she got to the notion of spirit and light is beyond me. And the simplicity of it -- right down to the minimalist line-drawing of the sun that she describes -- is profound.

Today, I saw W.S. Merwin read his poems at Princeton. He is 83. He lives in Maui and the south of France. For me, his poems are like sunlight. And he closed with this:

Rain Light

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning

A dying mother points to the sun waking the flowers from behind the curtain of a white cloud. We don't see the sun on a day like that, but the flowers "wake without a question." They don't need to see something to know it is there.

I read a piece about Merwin earlier in the day in which he spoke about "the dimension of existence ... that embraces the unknown and recognizes that our roots are in the unknown." I am struck tonight by these two ways of seeing death and by the notion of embracing the unknown.

March 6, 2010

There is Always the Risk

Change appears to happen suddenly. It doesn't. At Thanksgiving, my cousin shared the perspective that the birthing process is a perfect metaphor for change. Even while you are in a safe and comfortable place, there are pressures and forces working on you. A birth can be sudden. The change it brings about is monumental and obvious. Each day of pregnancy the fetus is changing, and it is readying for the ultimate change. Nothing about a birth is expected to be simple or painless.

Most change, I suppose, is the same. An outcome looks like a transformation, but it is typically the final manifestation of a substantive process. The more significant the change, the more likely it is to have included stress, difficulty, and profound new ways of seeing.

One of my favorite accounts of change is Adrienne Rich's "Prospective Immigrants Please Note." With a door as a metaphor for change, Rich starts: "Either you will / go through this door / or you will not go through." And she finishes: "The door itself / makes no promises. / It is only a door."

As Rich points out, you can resist -- not go through -- change and still "live worthily." At the same time, she cautions: "much will blind you, / much will evade you, / at what cost, who knows." What I hear behind her words is the truth that for her, the resistance would have meant continuing to live her life as a lesbian in a heterosexual cloak and relationship.

The power of change is, as she says, "the risk / of remembering your name." To me, "remembering your name" means knowing your true center and being deeply rooted to the person you are and the life you are meant to be living.

Change is courageous. It is generative.

"Either you will" or "you will not."

February 26, 2010

An aperture, nothing more, but wide open

The past month has been a headlong sprint. Two things have brought spaciousness into my days and drawn me deeply into the present. One has been my family, and a great gift of all this snow has been that we have seen much more of each other than we had expected the month would allow. The other has been my students and the poetry we have been studying together.

Tonight, three poems -- all about sky and boundlessness -- surround me with presence and stillness.

In "Sky," Wislawa Szymborska says that "the highest mountains / are no closer to the sky / than the deepest valleys." She goes on: "Division into sky and earth -- / it's not the proper way / to contemplate this wholeness."

When Emily Dickinson says: "I dwell in Possibility -- / a fairer House than Prose," she names the openness of poetry. "For an everlasting Roof," she has "The Gambrels of the Sky."

In a translation of Muso Soseki, W.S. Merwin writes:

"In the world outside of things
there is nothing
to get in the way"

Near the end of Szymborska's poem, she clarifies that drawing a distinction between sky and earth:

"simply lets me go on living
at a more exact address
where I can be reached promptly
if I'm sought."

I am grateful both for my "exact address" and for my daily encounters -- with family, poetry, and learning -- that point to the "wholeness" Szymborska describes.

January 24, 2010

And My Son a Handle

As a senior in college, I was flying home from Maine to Baltimore what felt like every other week. My father was dying. I often spent my visits at his bedside, sometimes at home, sometimes at the hospital. I read him the poems I was studying, some of them naming things I would never have been able, otherwise, to name.

In Gary Snyder's "Axe Handles," a father goes from teaching his son to throw a hatchet to crafting a new axe handle so that his son has an axe of his own:

"We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
'When making an axe handle
the pattern is not far off.'"

Yesterday, our dear friend lost her father. Her son is four months old. I know some of the contours of grief stretching out ahead of her, and I know that for her they will have textures all their own. I would like to say a long prayer for her that will last as long as her grief will last. I don't know a prayer like that.

As Gary Snyder's poem continues, he remembers that his teacher, "Shih-hsiang Chen," "translated that and taught" him that "in Lu Ji's Wen Fu, fourth century
A.D. 'Essay on Literature'" it says in the preface that:

"'In making the handle Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.'"

At the close of the poem, the speaker reflects:

"And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on."

She posted a picture of her father with her son. I think there should be a name for the feeling that comes when you look in wonder at your child and simultaneously feel the absence of a lost parent. It is sweet, full, and empty. Every edge of it is touched on both sides by a kind of love, and on one side by absence, and on the other side by hope.

January 19, 2010

We Only Write What We Know

My students from first semester are typing away at their exams right now, and I am thinking ahead to the poetry course that I start teaching next week. In a recent interview from The Writer's Chronicle, Colum McCann says that he tells his students, "Don't write about what you know. Write toward what you want to know." He goes on to say, "That's the liberating thing. I try to find out what I want to know. And then I see what comes of it. One has to, in the end, discover that we only write what we know. That's the essence of honesty. But in making that peculiar shotgun leap toward what we supposedly don't know, we transform our vision of what we are."

This feels like a way to marry Frost's idea of "No suprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader," to the old adage, "write what you know." McCann's point feels like useful advice for a new writer, and it hits me like a total revelation. Elizabeth Bishop used to tell her students that they didn't need to worry about having "something to say." If they worked at the craft of making a poem, what they needed to say would inevitably surface.

These are perfect reminders for me to carry into the work of teaching poetry next week...

January 1, 2010

Hold It Up to the Light

I'll be teaching poetry in a few weeks. I can't wait. One of the books I'm going to try this year is Poetry 180, an anthology that Billy Collins put together when he was poet laureate. His vision was that poems should be read in schools every morning over the loudspeaker. 180 days of school, 180 poems. I once heard him talk about the project and he referred to choosing poems that could be caught on one bounce. Read it aloud, experience it in real time, and take something with you.

The first poem is -- appropriately -- "Introduction to Poetry," by Collins himself. He says that he wants his students to "take a poem / and hold it up to the light / like a color slide." Instead, "all they want to do / is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it."

I'm with Collins. There's certainly a purpose for explicating a poem, unfolding it to see precisely how it is made. But there's a pleasure in words and images that is sometimes best accessed if you can just "waterski / across the surface of a poem / waving at the author's name on the shore."

December 30, 2009

In a Speeding Car

In "A Quick Poem," Adam Zagajewski's speaker is "listening to Gregorian chants / in a speeding car / on a highway in France." He tells us that his life is "tattered / on both sides of the road, brittle as a paper map."

He notes a contrast between his pace and circumstance and that of the chanting monks. For him, "the trees rushed past." For "the sweet monks," it is as if "salvation were just growing in the garden."

For me, when a poem works -- as this one does -- the words lead me deeper into a quiet and stillness within myself. They bring me to a more deliberate state of contemplation. They are like prayer.

Later in the poem, Zagajewski's speaker again contrasts his circumstances with the monks:

In place of walls--sheet metal.
Instead of a vigil--a flight.
Travel instead of remembrance.
A quick poem instead of a hymn.

On the road myself today, I spoke with my great-uncle, always an exercise in clarity, wit, and wisdom. He said prayer, religion, meditation -- anything designed to bring transcendence -- ultimately slows us down so that we notice the amazements directly in front of us. If it all worked, he said, we'd just stand around staring at the world, slack-jawed with wonder.

New year's eve and new year's day are another an opportunity to consider time, pace, what has passed, and what is possible. I will try to spend some of it -- as much as possible -- in sincere contemplation of the mystery and magnificence of it all.