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, Heathen, in 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.
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.
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