You asked for a poem and suddenly

my mind is empty

–something

I’ve been trying to do for years–

I ought to at least

thank you for that.

(Yes, I see the tall rocks pushing up from the ground

against the backdrop of snow

and spring, buried beneath the cold foot of winter.

Yes, I remember the same hills in early summer,

nodding in wild flowers

swelling with colourful suggestion.

Alongside these images

crowding in

are all the walks

we have not taken,

all the conversations left on the wind

all the secrets embedded in the pale skin of the wakeful moon.

I am distracted.)

Summer will come, my pen,

Fall will surely sweep away the ideas of

This, Not This.

Winter will come over a curved hill

and nestle in

against the warm breast of October,

against the murmuring voices

of change

and I, who have been silent

will be drowning you in words,

building dreamscapes–

open places for your

images to appear.

© 2005 lekshe. Used by permission.

For me, poetry is best read before bed, perhaps because the best of it makes the kind of dreamlike connections my body is preparing for, though I never see coming. And – who knows? – poetry may make my mind supple enough to dream well.

Like a vivid dream, good poetry always surprises. Fragments of life and thought add up to more than they should. Multiple readings of a favorite poem bear up like a compelling, recurring dream.

Experiencing a dream and understanding it (if the latter is possible) are two different things. The same goes for experiencing and understanding poetry. Experiencing a poem is like waking up from a dream struck at first with an inexplicable impression or feeling. I’ve been somewhere emotionally I wasn’t expecting to go. Understanding a poem, on the other hand, is like trying to reconstruct a dream’s events in order to explain its force.

I can’t really know a poem I haven’t experienced. I may be only fending off a poem by carrying on about its alliteration and assonance and allusions. After experiencing a poem, though, I might have some unacademic questions: Why do these weak fragments pulsate on the page? How do these six lines reduce me to tears? What is the poem inviting me to see about myself?

Analyzing a poem without experiencing it is like sending a rocket to the moon without ever tasting green cheese. To quote Thomas Merton out of context: “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?” I can take poetry courses and still live without poetry and the part of me that poetry would feed.

In a sense, something understood is something diminished; something apprehended is something locked away. No one stays happily married by solving his wife. We infixed a flag in the moon, but we haven’t solved it. Indeed, the moon may help to keep us from solving and benighting ourselves.

Poetry is like the moon. It comes and goes. It shows up in different guises. It can guide us on a journey. It can spare light in a dark time. To live without poetry is to live in a moonless world, or to sleep in an atmosphere sucked clean of dreams.

Reading something for the second time is so much more satisfying than that first read-through. So many books withhold their full treasures from the first-time reader. Not that the first time can’t be special too, of course: surfaces are beautiful, and not to be taken lightly. During that first, heady encounter with a text, it is not merely the words that entrance us. The typefont, the design, the texture of the paper, the look and feel of covers and slipcovers, even the smell of the bindings – if new – or the patina that comes with good use: these too are manifest occasions for pleasure and surprise.

But few of us possess the skill as readers to avoid succumbing to that first-time excitement and finishing the book too soon. And to lay it aside at that point, never to return, would constitute not simply callousness but profound disrespect. Unless the book at hand be some cheap, manupulative thing, in which case even a single reading amounts to little more than “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” as Shakespeare once said about something else entirely.

As a reader, I must always aspire to do better next time and never become satisfied with my current techniques. If I know that my first time through a book tends to be a bit on the shallow side, I may change strategies and begin by lightly skimming through what look like the best spots, or re-visiting it at unexpected times and places, dipping into it just enough to whet my appetite for the first, prolonged session. But by then the first reading is really the second, or the third – it doesn’t matter. I’m no longer keeping score.

The kinds of books I enjoy most don’t necessarily need to be sampled in a set order, and sometimes I like to start with the last poem or chapter and work my way slowly toward the front. Or sometimes it’s fun to start in the middle and work toward both ends, alternating between the front half and the back. Hence, I suppose, my disdain for tightly plotted novels that insist on rigid conformity with standard procedure. Plus, given my addictive personality, I hate to get sucked into a book like that because I know I won’t be able to sleep, eat or do much of anything else until it’s done. Ten or twenty hours later I’ll emerge from the novel as if from a parallel universe, shaking with adrenaline and ready to drop from exhaustion at the same time. After an experience like that, it will take me several days to undo the spell and fully return to my own, familiar weltanschauung.

There was a time in my youth when I thought that kind of full-throttle excitement was indispensable to the enjoyment of a book. But as I near the threshold of maturity I find myself craving a calmer and – I would argue – deeper form of immersion. This doesn’t rule out novels altogether, but it does definitely favor the second reading over the too-hasty first one. The plot once exposed for the artful contrivance that it is, one is free to take one’s time and relish the writing for its own sake. All goals have been abandoned aside from the most general: to advance in pleasure through insight – or is it vice versa? Unless one has some ghoulish analytic project to complete, some heartless application of the whips and restraints of academic theory, one can dwell within the garden of the text almost indefinitely for the colors and the scent alone. The mind explores gently and almost by instinct now, enfolded in a matrix where word, image and meaning are coterminous and virtually indistinguishable. The senses return to an almost Edenic innocence. Freed of judgements and distances, the patient reader at last attains a kind of high plateau, every pore fully open and flooded with the clearest, coolest light.

*

What the writer finally wants to save,
laboring into the white afternoon
at her kitchen table,
adrift in drafts,
ringed in scraps for
the compost, is just this savoring
of time’s luxuriant spread.

.
© 2005 Dave Bonta. Used by permission. Dave Bonta is a poet, editor, and web publisher from the eastern edge of western Pennsylvania. He’s the managing editor of qarrtsiluni and the author of Odes to Tools. He blogs at Via Negativa.

[Steve’s preface: In the next few weeks I‘ll be able to return to my beloved Midwest. I just accepted an offer to transfer to that most punned city of Illinois, Normal. Even before I received the transfer offer I began putting together highlights of my year (actually year and a half) in Philadelphia. I’ll begin with a look at the Far Northeast Philadelphia, taken from the prologue to a novel I hope to write. The narrator may be a lot like me, but he’s still fictional: I came to Philadelphia for financial reasons only. No failed marriage, no love affair, and I’ll withhold judgment on the job. But St. Luke’s Church has been a refuge for me:]

I had come to Philadelphia for escape–to flee a failed marriage, a dead-end job, and the memory of a love affair that had doomed both marriage and career. The city I found was not the Philadelphia of William Penn, Benjamin Franklin or Edgar Allan Poe, but Far Northeast Philly, a vast suburban sprawl which happened to be inside the city limits. That’s not quite true. There was beauty in Northeast Philadelphia. One just had to look for it. There was Pennypack Park, that lovely stretch of forest and stream which meandered through the Northeast. There was of Bustleton, the Civil War-era village now surrounded by post-World War II development. And within Bustleton was the Memorial Church of St. Luke, an English country church in all but location.

St. Luke’s provided solace for me that first year after I left the Midwest for the City of Brotherly Love. I found out quickly that I did not belong on the East Coast–that I was what writer Hamlin Garland called a “son of the middle border.” But the little Episcopal church was a refuge from the stresses of living alone in a strange city.

Like many small urban parishes, St. Luke’s was struggling financially. I regret that I could only afford a few dollars on some weekends and nothing on many. And because the parish didn’t have a lot of money, it had trouble keeping a rector. When the last rector transferred to a wealthier parish, there was a temporary rector, and then a series of visiting priests–retired clergy or priests who worked outside the church.

It was January–the feast of the Epiphany. I was struggling with depression and did not want to get out of bed that morning. But I told myself that this was an important day in the church year, and dragged myself out of bed, ate my usual breakfast of fruit juice, peanut butter toast and instant cocoa, dressed, and walked the six blocks from my apartment over to St. Luke’s.

It was a cold day, but bright, and I began to feel better as I breathed in the crisp air. Walking up Old Newtown Road, I passed the one holdout Victorian house at the corner of Gregg Street, and tried to imagine the neighborhood as it had been when St. Luke’s was built. At the top of the hill, I headed west on Welsh Road, and made my way to the red door of St. Luke’s.

The red door was once a sign of sanctuary. Because Christ’s blood had been shed for all, the red door was a sign that no blood was to be shed within that door. I doubt whether the church would be able to offer sanctuary today, though why such thoughts entered my mind, I didn’t know.

I found my usual pew, just behind the choir, and had time for a brief prayer before the organist began the processional: “Songs of thankfulness and praise, Jesus, Lord to the we raise…” A young black girl led the procession, carrying the cross in front of her. I bowed to the cross as she passed by. The other two acolytes, a white boy and girl followed, and joined the cross-bearer on the altar. Then came the lector, holding the Bible high above her head. The choir followed, filing into the pews in front of me, singing, “Anthems be to thee addrest, God in man made manifest.”

The priest, a woman with graying black hair,was last in the procession. It was only when she turned to enter the pulpit that I recognized a face I had last seen behind the doors of Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City, where she had sought sanctuary from an enemy I did not then understand. As we sang the third stanza, those intense brown eyes focused on me. Was I imagining it, or was she singing it for me–for us?

Manifest in making whole
Palsied limbs and fainting soul;
Manifest in valiant fight,
Quelling all the devil’s might;
Manifest in gracious will,
Ever bringing good from ill;
Anthems be to thee addrest,
God in man made manifest.

© 2005 Steve Wyler.  Used by permission.

The roof is agleam with rain. Lustrous, vitreous, liquid. The lilacs are already leaning close to the grass with the weight. The succulents are baccate and bursting. The tulips’ silky petals have fallen off and litter the ground, leaving the stamens bare, the pollen squandered.

The bamboo are thirsty. They drink, drink, drink. They shudder in the slight wind and plan the takeover of another inch of land.

The soft fiddleheads of the fern uncurl in the dampness. The Solomon’s Seal gets greener every day. The herbs have woken up-oregano, lemon thyme, rosemary-others whose names elude me. The mint already threatens to crowd out its less robust neighbors, spilling over the edge of the herb garden onto the hazel shell path. The lemon balm is bride’s bouquet feathery, lucid juice. The violets drop their last shy offerings.

Tiny sweet peas are reaching, wrapping their sinuous embrace around the small twig fence, calling each other to bloom and bless. Every curved and curling thing belongs here, reaching up, wanting the blue sky of summer.

The honeysuckle is out of hand, creeping across the rafters, threatening to grow up through the crack in the roof and down to Pearl’s yard. The nervous wisteria is grasping, twisting, clinging-as always, unsure. The purple clematis has had its way with the trellis and is reaching over, unsatisfied, to entwine the rose, who leans now over the lettuce to protect her from the elements. They love the rain. They love each other, mannerless but well meaning youth.

The chard and potato vines are small, still. Waiting. Waiting for a more certain invitation from the sun. Soon. Can they feel it?

The sun shines through all this green and it speaks of summer coming-of thick clumps of orange, yellow and pink-edged Hemerocallis, the elegant tetraploid daylilies whose slender stalks will bend under the weight of the fully bloomed flowers. Of strawberries. Mouths full of evergreen strawberries. And blueberries for the tiny fingers of greedy children who climb the fence and visit. Of blood-red roses so big and so peppery they make me lazy. Of the shy climbing rose that hides herself along the edge of the garage, dropping a lithe branch to tease. Of the stately elephant grass that will be the last stubborn thing to linger after the fall freeze.

Tiny grape hyacinth, marigolds dutifully fencing out sluggish intruders, peasant-bright geraniums bravely leafing and blooming. These are only the ones whose names I know. There are more, and all live under a stately maple tree that threatens to drop an ancient, mossy branch on the garage.

I don’t have this garden. It has me. It will have me in summer, late at night, under strings of colored lights, leaning over the teak table, tea in the chipped cup, reading the last post on your blog, wondering, as I do, always, what grows under your feet and out your window.
Copyright Lekshe. Used by permission.

Or, Just because you fall off a cliff doesn’t mean you don’t have some hard choices to make

The coyote looks down. There’s nothing beneath him but the warm tones of the desert far below the top of the mesa he neglected to keep underfoot. He realizes he’s going to fall. He holds up a sign to us, or he unfolds a well-used parasol. Maybe he waves good-bye. At all events, he falls.

My eight-year-old son and I have watched this Looney Toones gag over and over on DVD together, and we laugh every time. I always thought we were both laughing at the foolish coyote because he carelessly steps (or rockets or bicycles) over the mesa’s edge. But it turns out Warren has been laughing because the foolish coyote foolishly looks down. Now I understand my son better.

I discovered Warren’s point of view last night, halfway through Warren’s bedtime routine. Warren’s routine includes our adaptation of the coyote gag. Warren’s stuffed snake loses control of his tail and it becomes a helicopter blade. The snake screams as he takes off from the bed, but things get worse for him: his tail sputters and droops when it runs out of gas. The snake looks Warren in the face, the snake’s eyes bigger than usual, if that is possible. “Oh, no,” he says, softly; then he falls.

Warren laughed, as always, but last night he was not completely satisfied.

“Pause the game. Next time, have the snake look down before he falls.”

Huh? Oh.

The difference between the truths we extrapolate from the coyote’s fall is precisely the difference between Warren and me. Examine the competing laws, stated succinctly here.

My Law: The coyote won’t fall until he looks down.

Warren’s Law: The coyote won’t fall unless he looks down.

Get the distinction? I understand that the gag works because the coyote will fall. Warren, on the other hand, sees the possibilities.

It comes down to the difference between unless and until.

Until is a preposition, inexorable as its object. Prepositions let you know things about the world, things you have to know to get along. Your job is to adjust, to understand your limitations, and to show as much individuality as conformity will permit. Your medicine fell under the table. You’re driving on the wrong side of the road. You came after your sister. That remark was over the top, Warren.

Unless is a conjunction, a grammatical contrivance evincing a far different human impulse than a preposition. Conjunctions put pieces of life together, and you have a lot of latitude there. Stick an “and” in for an “or,” and maybe you have two cookies instead of one. (Warren, in fact, often holds up his index finger and says, with a slow detective-like voice, “Unless…”) Life is not preset. Just because you fall off a cliff doesn’t mean you don’t have some hard choices to make.

Until has its soft side, too, when it also serves as a conjunction. I can relate to until’s ambivalence. After all, many of my fixed stances have fallen before Warren’s conjunctive assault. Here’s a discussion we had two weeks ago:

W: [Holding up two of my screwdrivers.] If you were going to give me one of your screwdrivers, would you give me the big one or the small one?

P: Warren, I’m not giving you any of my screwdrivers.

W: I know…

P: You may use my screwdrivers, but they remain mine.

W: I know, but if you were going to give me one, I think I know which one you would give me.

P: Okay, which one?

W: The small one. [Grins.]

A week later, it was his screwdriver.

I hasten to add that I’m not the only authority figure bending. When Warren was about five, he discovered prayer. He applied it by his bed each month on the night before his children’s church program held its drawing. He won the drawing and took home nice toys four months in a row as children more needy than he looked on.

Warren got so confident of his hotline to God that he tried to whip up a little unscheduled vacation for us that winter. One morning when I woke him up for school, Warren closed his eyes and mumbled for a moment, then gave me a knowing grin and rolled up the window shade. He was surprised not to see two feet of snow.

I thought Warren was in for a crisis of faith that morning. Instead, he took the bungled snowstorm in stride and walked down to breakfast. But he doesn’t pray much anymore, as far as I know.

Sometimes I wonder how Warren can have lived on this planet for eight years without assimilating more of the rules required for life down here. Victoria and I struggle to make sure Warren is aware of some certainties, expectations, and conditions precedent. But our work doesn’t often seem to have much effect. Maybe Warren showed up on the planet just yesterday, after all. How long have any of us been here?

Or maybe Warren never got here, and never will. Unless he looks down.

Paul describes knowledge as a scent. God “uses us to spread abroad the fragrance of the knowledge of himself,” he says. (2 Cor. 2:14, REB) I understand that the sense of smell brings back memory and emotion more viscerally than does any other sense. I remember smelling my grandmother’s apartment in some strange place six years after she had died. It was as if she were in the same room with me.

Who else might an acquaintance of mine experience while with me? If I have knowledge like a scent, the possibilities are endless, I suppose. Paul goes on: to those on the way to salvation he and his pals are “a deadly fume,” but to those on their way to destruction they become a life-giving fragrance.

Paul understood the kind of religious knowledge I focused on for years. It’s a cheap substitute for knowledge like a scent. “’Knowledge’ inflates a man, whereas love builds him up. If anyone fancies that he has some kind of knowledge, he does not know in the true sense of knowing.”

I took Tori to the Portland State library so she could read some articles for a paper she’s writing. She studies steadily, with a calm discipline that amazes me. Read her way carefully through two articles in difficult academic journals, taking careful notes. She’s old enough to look perfectly at home in a college library, now. Gave me a curious twinge.

As did wandering through the stacks at PSU. Wandered up to the Middle English section and pulled down my only publication (Chaucer Review, 1991 — “Anelida and Arcite: Anti-Feminist Allegory, Pro-Feminist Complaint.” Check the big department stores and airport bookstalls; bound to be copies there.) There I am, in all my glory — quoting in French, Latin, and Italian (what a fraud! I knew not a word of Italian). Making a trendy and somewhat dubious argument. But it was a good reading of Chaucer’s poem. Even at my worst, I’ve always been a sensitive reader.

And my footnotes are — still — magnificent. The only genre I’ve ever mastered is the footnote. The magisterial evaluation, the wry aside, the six-line demolition of unworthy critics, the hinting at vast learning and contemplation held in reserve — I had it all.

Odd that I published that. I had already given up on an academic career when it was accepted. I had, in fact, forgotten that I’d sent it off, when I got the acceptance. It was an early chapter of one of my dissertations: sending it out may in fact have been a sort of surrender on ever finishing a dissertation. “Here: there’s a piece out of all this wreck that might be worth saving, but there ain’t no book here, I know that!”

A vanished life. And one just blossoming. And an accidental, grizzle-bearded father walking through the sour book-dust of his past.

Not a past I look back on fondly, for the most part. Like so much of my past, I mostly just feel grateful that I escaped from it more or less intact. So much of my past is a tangle of false hopes and masquerade. Pretending to know Italian, pretending that I’d read all of the Teseida in the original, is pretty typical of my past. I’m glad to be in the present. I carry on my various poses and pretences for only minutes at a time now, rather than years. It’s a sweet, hard-bought freedom.
© 2004 mole. Used by permission.