From What Is the Grass
Poetry tends toward the unsayable as a compass needle loves the north; the poem wants to give words to longing, to desolation, to the persistence of hope. It wants to enter into the awareness of animals and of small children, and of the dead; it wants to strip away false appearances, and to address the divine, and light up the unseen movements of those forces which turn the seasons and move forward life. A beautiful Robert Louis Stevenson poem, written for children, begins
Who has seen the wind, neither you nor I,
but when the trees bow down their heads, the wind is passing by.”
Poetry is a wind we shape; it lights up our mortal dimensions and the deep strangeness of things by showing us the evidence of invisibles, by showing us, as clearly as it can, the beautiful supplication of the trees, which have no choice but to yield.
When you love a great poet’s work, it can become a center to which all of experience may be referred, a locus of meaning that can spill out into many dimensions of a life. Indeed, I have had to check myself a bit in referring in conversation to Walt Whitman. “A bit eccentric” is a reputation I can readily accept, but I’ve seen that look on friend’s faces when they think I’ve once again dragged someone from another century into a conversation where he doesn’t belong. I know better; when it comes to a grand and encyclopedic poet, there really are no unrelated conversations. I don’t always say so.
And of course there’s that thing that lovers do, mentally addressing the other when the beloved is absent. If I’ve seen something I think would interest Alex when I’m traveling alone, I may tell him about it in my head, and imagine his response; it’s a way of feeling connected, of spending time in relation to him. I’m writing now in early September, in the small square studio I love behind our place in the country. The door’s open, and at the bottom of the view Ned – my golden shadow – is sleeping on the diamonds of slate tiles, and at the top of the doorway I can see a slice of the pale blue portico Alex has just primed and painted for me, the color you’d get if you could dilute a morning glory with milk. He’s somewhere in the garden now, half-mending and half-creating a gate. He makes things with the focus and intensity I bring to this, and though I only see him moving from one part of the garden to another now and then, or hear the occasional burr of a power tool or a bit of that private muttering that goes along with seeking a solution to a puzzle, his presence is a part of this work. When I’m away, that relation is less constant, but it does go on. When you’re away, how many times a day do you think of the person you live with?
It’s the same with the poets whose words and presence I have internalized, the ones most near to me. They seem to stand up and come forward when something that resonates with my sense of them occurs. In Key West last winter for a seminar, how could I not keep company with Elizabeth Bishop, whose descriptions delineate that landscape with such wry delight? Or with Wallace Stevens, who walked the shoreline in front of the hotel then called the Casa Marina, praising the imagination’s attempt to sing something as haunting and various as the sound of the sea?
A turning seagull near the East River or a glimpse of Brooklyn Bridge in a gap between buildings from a taxi window, and Hart Crane’s “How many dawns…” begins to unscroll in me; out there, beyond the noise and clutter of our ambition, the vaulting cables, and “over the chained bay waters, Liberty.”
So many temporary rooms and remembered moments of desire seem haunted by the unmistakable aura of the poems of C. P. Cavafy’s, the hauntingly plain-spoken Alexandrian whose poem look back at desire, at memories that wound and give pleasure at once. In these poems I find my life, in small and in larger ways, echoed and named, framed or mirrored, echoed. I am 62 as I write, and along with my married life (and with, I’ll add, my husband’s understanding and assent) I have a potent and compelling relationship with a younger man I see once a month or so, for evenings nearly always ecstatic. On one of those nights not long ago, I became afraid, truly for the first time, that in a while I might be too old for this to continue, since he then might no longer desire me. This may not be the case — fear may cause me to underestimate my friend’s capacity to desire me as myself — but at that moment, by candlelight and under a dimly glowing bronze chandelier shaped like gathered stalks of wheat — I seemed to be in a Cavafy poem, at a turn in a life you never quite believe will happen, no matter how likely the possibility. Of course I knew I would age, should I be so lucky — how many gay men of my generation perished young? But I’d thought about in an abstract way, or imagined how how I might live. But I hadn’t thought in terms of what, or who, I might lose. Cafavy named and preserved this recognition, in a tone both rueful and golden, loss suffused with the knowledge of how rich and irreplaceable what you’ve known has been.
The works of these poets have become precincts of my self, places to turn and return when a particular chord is struck. They offer ways of naming what the world offers. And of course the largest and most consuming of these presences is Whitman’s.
It feels almost impossible for me to trace the long evolution of this obsession, beginning as it did more than fifty years ago – or at least I think this is where is started. One Christmas, probably because we’d been writing haiku in my fourth grade class, under the tutelage of a soulfully rebellious teacher who cared more about her students’ creativity than anything else. We gathered native plants in the desert and boiled their leaves for dyes, dipping raw wool into the fragrant brews; we dug intricate holes in the playground, filled them with plaster of Paris and unearthed our sculptures with cries of surprise; we listened to Stravinsky; we counted syllables for haiku. I must have talked about these poems at home, since one of my gifts for Christmas that year was an anthology called Room for Me and a Mountain Lion, a collection of poetry centered on animal life. I have no idea where that book’s gone, after all these years, after so many moves and changes of life, but I go to to check the shelves in my studio and there it is. How is it possible, when I have almost nothing from my childhood?
It isn’t. I turn to the title page and find it inscribed to me, a gift from my ex-wife, who writes that it will be useful for the workshops for children I taught in those days, an itinerant poet wandering the schools of Iowa under the aegis of the state. Had I told her about a book I liked as a kid, and she’d thoughtfully gone and found me a copy?
No, because the publication date of the book is 1974. I check it twice; could it be a reprint of an earlier edition? It doesn’t seem to be. Then I check the table of contents: Robert Bly, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Maxine Kumin, not exactly well known writers, in 1963. And here’s a poet whose bio indicates she was born in 1957.
What just happened? Have I overlaid the gift of this book over an earlier memory, replacing whatever gift my mother gave me with one published 11 years later? Can there really have only been 11 years between me as a boy receiving (maybe) a book of poems for Christmas, and me at 21, given another book by an older poet, the two of us living in turmoil in an old house in Des Moines crowded with her antique furniture and china?
Or is this an embarrassingly Oedipal misremembering? Perhaps I’ve decided a gesture Ruth made belonged instead to my mother, since my memory can’t really distinguish between them?
This origin story has already clouded and complicated the memory of my first encounter with Whitman. The phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard writes that, at their deepest roots, memory and imagination are the same thing. When we recollect, what is collected? What happened, but also how what happened felt, both at the time and as it is understood differently later on. The unyielding claims of purists who think memoir must not contain a shred of fiction strike me as both puritanical and absurd; they are attempting to police a border that has forever been pierced by holes and tunnels. A boundary that dissolves into zones of interpenetration, as imagination goes to work on the given. You might say, in fact, that those areas where you remember something wrongly or not at all reveal more about you than clear and verifiable certainties. The shadowy, the contradictory, the charged zones of confusion – that’s where a psychoanalyst would go looking, and the memoirist should too.
Or, as my sister put it, in regard to a book I’d written about our family, The things you got wrong just make it that much more you.
Anyway, I believe the first poem of Whitman’s I read was the section of “Song of Myself” that begins, “I think I could turn and live with animals…” which isn’t even included in Room for Me and a Mountain Lion, but I may as well let myself misremember freely. I loved this opening phrase, because I loved animals. All children do, but solitary kids, those who don’t feel at home in the social realm, sometimes seem to connect with the world most passionately through their profound allegiance to animals real or imagined. We were forever moving, and many years I’d start at a new school in September with kids who’d known each other all their lives. One result of this were close relationships with Rikki Tikki Tavi and the white seal, with Black Beauty and Elsa the lioness and a cougar whose name I don’t recall but whose fate made me weep at the dinner table, probably confirming my parents’ suspicion that I was too sensitive for this world, or at least for literature.
“To live with animals” is an alluring idea, though in fact we already do, even those without pets in cities of concrete, steel and glass; there’s a dog somewhere nearby listening, a mouse waiting for you to leave the room, aroach waving antennae in the space behind the kitchen sink. I looked out the window of my third floor apartment one afternoon to see a squirrel, nut firmly held in its mouth, digging away in my windowbox; how many blocks would the poor creature have to travel to find a patch of diggable soil in Chelsea? And, in Whitman’s day, people lived with animals far more than we do now. He means “live with animals” in the sense of dwelling with them instead of with people, because, he writes, “they are so placid and self-contained,” a description that can’t help but summon the vision of a cow, content with its portion, almost immobile, like a heavy piece of furniture. The description may be true of ruminants, but no prey animal is placid; think of the hyper-alert deer, or the vole scrambling for cover to avoid the eyes of hawk and owl. And no animal that hunts is self-contained either.
Whitman grants himself such latitude because the passage isn’t really about animals at all. He is a superb observer of the natural world, a student of specificity, and the fact that he generalizes about them here signals to us that they’re being employed as a means of critiquing human foolishness.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania
of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands
of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
That’s a stirring condemnation of the human tendency toward complaint, and of religion, perhaps of Christianity specifically, and certainly of bourgeois materialism and conformity. It’s an elegantly formed argument, and a superb sentence, with its cascade of negatives – although it doesn’t finally say a whole lot about animals, and I’d guess there are in fact plenty of unhappy creatures on earth, and not a few that are dissatisfied.
The real allure of the passage – something I could never have articulated when I first read it – lies in the word turn. What a way to describe changing one’s life! On the one hand it sounds so casual and effortless: I wouldn’t need to struggle over a decision, or wrench myself away. I could simply turn. As if, one day while I am walking and thinking of something else, my body will just say, Now, we’re changing directions. Indeed this might be the way the deepest change comes: we turn and we’re in love, we turn and we believe, or don’t. One part of a life ends and another begins. Perhaps this is the consequence ofmsubterranean consideration, a deliberation the body has been carrying out quietly. Or maybe knowledge arrives on the wind, like the first snowflakes this afternoon, on an otherwise sunny day. Whatever the case, you don’t have to try,
you just turn, and everything has changed.