Poetry and presence


Tess Taylor just gave a great reading here, and either there or during my class afterwards, she described poetry as “a dance with absence.” I know what she means–all that white space, evocation, closing in on loss and other big subjects through image and fragment–but when I’m finding my way towards a poem I tend to feel, instead, like I’m dancing with presence. There are stories written everywhere. I’m just not very skilled at reading them.

So I ended March, the cruelest month no matter what Tom Eliot claimed, with a walk through nearby woods–Brushy Hills–guided by geologist Chris Connors and archaeologist Don Gaylord. These hillsides, I learned, were likely sites of Monocan winter camps, then, during the colonial era, woodlots for settlers, before Lexington bought them to protect its watershed and preservationists prevented them from being sold for development. Don told us the trail may have once been a native road and then become a way for Scots-Irish settlers to drive hogs upslope for early spring grazing; later, enslaved people were hired out each year to expand paths for logging, before spring made their labor more valuable agriculturally. Chris told us Rockbridge County had once been a shallow, salty sea, then showed us examples of outcropping and floaters from various formations: Conococheague dolostone fluted and scored by the soil’s acids, hunks of more resistant chert. Someone from the Friends of Brushy Hills, meanwhile, identified a weird cry bouncing around the ridges as a raven’s. I recognized a retired biology professor among the group, so I peppered him with questions and he identified trees not yet in leaf: hornbeam, cedar, tulip poplar, ash, plus all of those American beeches shaking parchment-colored leaves still hanging around from fall. The sun shining through them was way lovelier than a cathedral’s stained glass. Presence.

So I begin another National Poetry Month with my head full of names and histories, partial as they are. I wish life were all walks in the woods then, afterwards, shaping fragments into poems. It won’t be! But I will be spending some time on poetry each day: writing new work, revising poems or expanding notes jotted this winter, working on submissions. Early spring, for me, is poetry season.


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