The important stuff

On Thursday afternoon of last week I thought I’d organized all my obstreperous administrative ducklings into a row and marched them off into a soft-focus sunset. Or, if that metaphor isn’t working for you, you could say I was heading into Washington and Lee’s weeklong break with a clear desk and a nearly-empty email box, ready to produce a stellar grant application for the NEH Public Scholar Program (due 3/3, yikes) and prepare to give a talk and a reading at Roanoke College on 3/24 and get my final revisions of my poetry manuscript to my publisher and relax and read several books and, oh yeah, maybe do a little work on current writing projects.

Well, THAT was foolishness. A minor bomb dropped on Friday at noon, and since these bombs often have my name painted on the side like I’m Wile E. Coyote or something, here I am shifting personnel around again on my mental chessboard, spending hours reorganizing our course offerings and conferring with colleagues. In the face of unanticipated bureaucratic responsibilities, triage: of all the NON-department-head work I meant to do this week, what’s the most important?

The rational answer is the grant, since that deadline is the soonest and its success would have the biggest potential impact on my life. I’m working on it. But I’ve also slept in some and read aloud excruciatingly funny passages to my son from Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, a book Deborah Miranda gave me last fall and which I found again this past Sunday under a pile of papers. Both kids have been home due to school closures and now, for Cam, a bad head cold. Lawson’s memoir is hard to read aloud, because you start weeping with laughter and can’t see the pages, but this almost-futile exercise still goes on my important list. I’m hyper-aware that our family will change when Madeleine goes off to college next September, so I find myself treasuring non-productive interactions with my kids, like our rambling dinner discussions about presidential politics and time travel.

Teaching feels important too, but breaks from it are helpful. Poems and essays have been harder to believe in, and therefore to heave into being. I’m rarely as poetically productive in the winter as in other seasons—maybe my muse is a hibernating bear—but I’ve had a particularly intense existential despair about it in the past few weeks. You know, the usual poet thing: what’s the point of striving at an art so few people want to read? I’ve gotten over such fits of reasonable bleakness before, so I presume I will again. I tell myself the despair is triggered by bad weather, or steroid withdrawal (the sciatica is finally somewhat better), or exhaustion at the prospect of promoting another book later in the year. At any rate, poetry has always wandered back, so I don’t really fear it’s abandoned me forever. And as I reread the Radioland manuscript, too, while I do keep finding improvements to make, I also think: you know, this is good work. I can help it find its way in the world.

While I ponder my menagerie of ducklings and bears, here is a guest blog on some other important stuff for the Tahoma Literary Review. It refers to a poem, “Sticky,” in their current issue. You can download a free electronic copy of the issue here (or order the print version). Thank you, kind and supportive editors of the world. Now this coyote, super genius grant candidate, has to make like a roadrunner after the fellowships, dodging work-missiles along the way: wish her luck.

The Unbeliever Takes a Hike

The Unbeliever Takes a Hike

Winter is a cracked path, all the plush of moss
and needles, mulch and soil swept away
by the god of water. I have no choice

but to sit down or follow it, so I follow, day
after heathen day, sometimes watching my feet
lest I trip on an exposed blade of shale,

usually muttering, indiscreet,
since no one is listening. Once in a while
the sheen on the creek will interrupt

my monologue, its coppery greens will spill
into the air and I remember about
the world. Its shadows crowd, its leaves fall

with no display of self-regard, no doubt
that spring will come again with crocus,
clouds, and frilly tender feelings. Devout

branches pray their red beads with breezy hocus-
pocus: they believe in the slanting sun, its power
to bring them to life when it wishes. So, I focus:

I can at least believe in looking. I stare
over the bank’s edge, where the burble has skin
like a cold pudding, and see filigreed feathers,

ice shaped like a dove, like some spirit-sign,
where two bare branches dangle in a cross.
The creek looks back at me, without design.

I recently included this poem from my first collection, Heathenin a winter-themed reading at the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival. Afterwards an editor said, hey, we may want to link to it when we publish you later this year, so I went looking for the poem online. It turns out “Unbeliever” was a Poetry Daily selection years ago, but it has now rotated out of the archive, so voila, this blog post hereby resurrects its virtual body.

I must have first drafted it at least seven years ago, but it’s a touchstone poem for me. “I can at least believe in looking” remains a mantra: I can rarely fix what’s wrong with the world, but at the very least I can attend to the lives and scenes around me, the beauty and the suffering. I still take that particular walk by Woods Creek all the time, and I really did see an ice-cross one day while I was thinking about my own irreligiousness. And terza rima remains my favorite inherited form for its propulsive energy, although I almost always skid through it on some pretty dicey slant rhyme.

I had forgotten, though, until I dug through my old computer files, that right up until I finalized the book manuscript, the poem had a different last line:

Chills. All this nature a prank to take me in.

The earlier version is more cynical, isn’t it? I have a hard time with endings so last-minute fussing around is typical, but in this case I’m particularly glad I reimagined it. For one thing, the revised ending is just truer: the natural world has its own agency, but not of a malicious kind. To think that the ice-cross was all a big set-up, a mind-game: that’s pretty hubristic. Poe in the snow

A larger point, though, is that to increase the openness of a poem is often to make it a better poem. I know this is true when writing about human relationships: when I can manage to acknowledge the humanity (and maybe the sacredness?) even of hurtful people, that generosity complicates and enriches the work. Why shouldn’t that principle be the same in representing human relations with the nonhuman? I’m still not sure I arrived at the best possible endpoint in “Unbeliever”–the Frost reference seems heavy to me now–but “the creek looks back at me,” yes, that acknowledgement feels right. We’re both burbling along, minding our own business, and then we notice each other. Maybe we can’t really know each other’s “minds,” but there’s a flow or a moment of connection, no more or less imaginary than any other relationship in my life. That’s close enough to god for me.