Why It’s So Hard to Start a Poem Without Knowing Yet What You Want to Say

The wind and I went wondering
I crossed paths with a wandering wind
Me and the wind shared the road
A wind went
I went
The wind
Winds

How can I describe this to you? To understand it you should be thinking of rustling leaves and traffic lights in the dark – or in the dim orange dark of streetlights under stars.

Me and the wind, we went the same way tonight. I to buy bread & eggs & beer; the wind to check that all leaves in the oaks labelled Past Due were thrown out. Orion was AWOL, or it was my bad eyes, but everywhere I looked Cassiopeia and the same Dipper they saw in Charlemagne’s day were out there blazing.

It’s odd that deer and shadows are stranger than stars so far away that light has to pack a few lunches when it wants to visit.

That’s wind for you. It brings out the (un)familiars. Well, they give themselves away, too, don’t they? It’s in the ears, for deer. No expression, but see those big ears tilt and turn; see that apparition gather itself with uncanny grace and strike out to glide away – down the sidewalk, into the bushes – nothing louder than a rustle. Then the wind whips up those bushes, fancies itself a conjuror, makes monsters of silhouettes, calls up chimeras. I don’t know how it pays the bills.

This is also about bread & eggs, Wind. While you were making trouble in the trees, I sweated something fierce carrying back that bag of groceries. My bladder asked “Are we there yet?” with the persistence of a small child.

Wind, you should have come on in to the grocery store. I think the girl at the cash register would have liked your company. Or you could have subbed for her. The mundane has such potential, but too much of it is hard on us.

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The Funniest Oak

Oak, son of Quercus, son of Beech
you astonish me.
A burl-backed librarian bent with age,
you might have been an owly tree
but Bacchanalian atoms
still revel in your limbs and leaves!
In you they itemize the drops of rain –
ocean loans – to be returned again –
feverish, they archive in your foliage,
the folios they play and prove how oft
you’ve seen the glorious oriflamme fly
(three hundred thousand days
the Sun marched down to fight
and died at the hands of English nights!)

Non Sequitur

Like an answer that bird
flashed round the corner
to a prayer unprayed.

I started, and stopped.
It thrummed there a moment,
alight, aflame, a vibrating string,
a glittering thing unlooked for,
a free green gift, inviting thanks.

I tried. I said sincerely, “Lord,
this extra grace is precious; bird,
I do not deserve this emerald word!”

But to my shame I thought,
“Oh Lord, and the prayers I prayed?
Do they matter or not?
You knew, you saw my face
when you took away so soon
what I thought you gave.”

Star Catcher

Thanks to Chaucer, I’m developing a fascination with the astrolabe. Astrolabes (star-catchers/capturers) are good to think with. And alone among its medieval-elementary-textbook-of-astronomy peers, Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe has a fascinating introduction. (Well, okay, to be honest, I haven’t read any other medieval texts wholly devoted to basic principles of astronomy.) But Chaucer’s treatise is unique. It is addressed to his ten year old son, “Litel Lowys.” And it is in Middle English, instead of Latin, the language Chaucer’s contemporaries expected to meet when they came face to face with an astronomical textbook.

I am not saying the whole treatise is a thrill. For most people it is extremely difficult to visualize the possible applications of an astrolabe – with the help of the diagrams in the original. Astronomy, even for ten year olds, is pretty heavy on the jargon. For example, what do you make of this?

To knowe the verrey degre of eny maner sterre, straunge or unstraunge, after his longitude; though he be indetermynat in thin Astralabye, sothly to the trouthe thus he schal be knowe.

(To know the true degree of any manner of star, strange or unstrange, after its longitude; though it be indeterminate in your Astrolabe, accurate to the truth thus shall it be known.)

Tak the altitude of this sterre whan he is on the est syde of the lyne meridionall, as nye as thou mayst gesse; and tak an ascendent anon right by som manere sterre fix which that thou knowist; and forget not the altitude of the firste sterre ne thyn ascendent. And whan that this is don, aspye diligently whan this same firste sterre passith eny thyng the south westward; and cacche him anon right in the same nombre of altitude on the west syde of this lyne meridional, as he was kaught on the est syde […]

(Take the altitude of this star when it is on the east side of the line meridional, as near as you may guess; and take an ascendant right away by some manner of fixed star that you know; and forget not the altitude of the first star nor your ascendant. And when that is done, look carefully for when this same first star passes anything the south westward; and catch it right away in the same number of altitude on the west side of this line meridional, as it was caught on the east side […])

Is that clear? Chaucer explains everything quite plainly, but if you’re new to medieval astronomy and astrolabes you are probably still struggling to figure out: 1) which concepts are covered by ascendants, fixed stars, altitudes, and meridional lines, 2) which markings on the astrolabe correspond to the aforementioned concepts, and 3) how to manipulate, position or “read” the astrolabe in relation to what it represents. It isn’t really like reading a map because you hold the astrolabe in the air and line it up with celestial bodies; you take measurements with it. So the device is somewhat mysterious, even when it is explained. It seems capable of just about anything, intricate and alien as it is, metal and heavy, with arcane markings, with moving parts.

But I am forgetting that you don’t have one in front of you – you need the materiality of the astrolabe to fully understand its usefulness for thinking with. Here’s a ~2 min visualization to help you get a sense of the device itself.

Why is this remarkable doohicky useful to think with? Well, in a seminar I’m taking this semester, we’ve been thinking that in some ways the astrolabe is like story. And the comparison provokes fascinating questions: What if we thought of narrative as a kind of modeling device for finding things out? As a machine, functional at the basic level but also capable of more than most of us will ever use it for? As an interface, a thing which represents a version of the mysterious workings of what we cannot really get at directly (the world), a thing with which we can engage? (A character might then be an operation or application that one “runs” to simulate a certain way of being in the world). And importantly, as a machine that simultaneously serves as an art object, which one is initially interested in for its ornate materiality – I mean something like imagery or basic plot – but eventually grows to appreciate as a way of taking “measurements.” *

To be more precise, what if we read The Canterbury Tales like a bunch of litel Lowyses, ten years old and not yet very good at navigating the world, but eager to use all the available navigational tools (and delighted to begin learning at last how they work)?

It might seem a bit perverse to take the Tales, of all works, as some kind of didactic machine. They are deliberately evasive when it comes to evaluating characters and (im)moral actions; they force us to make our own conclusions. But I think the difference between the Tales and an astrolabe is one of degree, and not kind. Chaucer’s treatise is an elementary textbook for using the astrolabe – perhaps we could imagine the Tales as an intermediate “textbook” – or even an advanced one.

I also like to think of the Tales as a teaching machine because of the apparent credulousness of Chaucer the character – who praises characters that are clearly flawed for trivial reasons – as if Chaucer the author was saying, okay, now it’s time for the difficult stuff. In the Treatise it was all about “tak kep, litel Lowys,” “Understond wel that __,” and “Forget nat thys, my sone.” Now it’s time for you to solve the problems on your own, with a different, more versatile, more complex kind of astrolabe. Here are the characters and their stories (the numbers you have to work with) – what do you think the answers are? **

(I realize that to some extent we’ve always been treating story in just this way, but I had never before realized how neatly astrolabe can stand in for story.)

—————-

*Taking “measurements” is particularly interesting for narrative if you bring in Karen Barad’s argument in Meeting the Universe Halfway. (Random, I know, but surprisingly relevant.) Barad builds on things the physicist Niels Bohr wrote about the difficulty of separating subject from object in experiments, especially those related to quantum physics – eg a phenomenon is part measurement, part thing-being-measured, not the behavior of an independent physical object – in order to advance a particular kind of socioconstructivism. (She calls it agential realism.) The main interest for me here is the concept of phenomenon: I toy with applying it to literature. If one uses a literary apparatus to measure or observe the behavior of, say, a man in a desperate situation, the result could be called a phenomenon in Bohr’s sense of the word, because the type of apparatus we choose to observe with necessarily influences the result – ie, what we see as reality. Like scientific devices for measurement, stories assume things about the world even as they observe it – “before” they observe it, in a sense.

**For those whose hackles rise at the suggestion that reading/studying literature is somehow about “finding the answers,” I want to make clear that I am more interested in how literature can be used to find things out about life than in finding out how the text works, or what Chaucer thought “the answers” were, or figuring out his real intentions (though all of those things interest me).

See John

See John.
See John be.
John is, but not statically.
John is performing his is.
John is busy be-ing.
Perhaps John is unhappy
with who he thinks John’s been
with his subjective inability
to really see John be.
(What will others think of me?
If I can’t see who I am,
how will Jane understand?
How will I see Jane?)
God knows, John;
there’s hope for you.
More than pasts
more than presents
more than are, we do.

Quickening

a celebration of lights

Over English Bay the fire
went up in one line thin from the barge.

Four hundred thousand loved ones
monitored the sky, saw the rising
miracle spike: faint, wobbling,
but unmistakably alive.

Then first beat,
crack of spectacular dawn,
Rome-in-a-day, instant Renaissance,
split-second cathedrals, bells, a song
in one moment, the Overture of 1812,
a cannon in your ears, in your drums,
high sky electrocardiogram,
joy with the force of a battering ram.

Towards Westness

Here is a part of my ongoing project on understanding “Westness”, the quality (qualities) that make the West west, and not, for instance, east. (You’ve seen some of the poems belonging to it before – on this blog.) It is a project that keeps getting out of hand. Witness for yourself: This is the first of several concerted efforts (written last February).

Towards Westness

In composing these poems, I asked myself what about the term West makes it useful for defining a region, particularly in conjunction with modifiers like “Pacific,” “North” and “Coast.” To me all three modifiers are deeply connected to the idea of Westness, but it is unclear when they are in combination whether the general sense of the regions is more strongly coloured by “West” or by the modifier(s). That is, the Pacific North West is nearly the same as the Pacific North. Alternatively, a certain region of the Pacific and the North are so often imagined together with the West that Westness is Pacific and Northish: absurdly, the Pacific Northwest is the West Westwest.

Defining Westness is harder than wrestling an octopus. One cannot even say with certainty that it is distinct from Eastness, since both East and West are scalable regions and simultaneously directions that overtake each other (our planet being perplexingly round). In other words, Western Canada has its own little East. The Fraser Valley has its own littler East. Even Vancouver Island has an East. And in terms of direction, if an explorer is traveling East, she will never stop being in the West. Unlike North and South, West cannot claim an ultimate location – a place where Westness might be conceivably concentrated. I know of no West Pole.

There is a ray of hope. Etymologically speaking, “West” is rooted in the Proto Indo European wes, meaning “evening, night,” while “East” is from PIE aus “to shine” or “dawn.” Etymology may then be the key to opening or imagining Westness. But then too, by a strange quirk of etymology, both East and West are orient-ing directions. I do not like to believe they can be solely defined in opposition to each other, though opposition has been an important part of imagining either one in the past. What then is Westness? In these poems I think of it in terms of nature (also a fiendishly slippery word) and a kind of otherworld. I am inspired in this by a passage from JRR Tolkien’s essay on Faerie Stories:

The realm of the fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.

The West I am familiar with – parts of the coast from Cannon Beach, Oregon to Nitinaht inlet, British Columbia – is too full of fire hydrants, tennis courts, libraries, gas stations and the internet to properly qualify as Faerie. One can navigate those things more or less comfortably, which is not a usual feature of the otherworld. But the natural (I use that word reluctantly) or non-human world exists much less accessably alongside them like an otherworld or Faerie might in Tolkien’s stories, or in the older stories he drew on. In some of the poems I experiment with the idea that our West might be equivalent. There are significant links between “otherworld” and the North American West in larger terms. The West has frequently been understood as frontier by, for example, geographers James R. Shortridge,

The term ‘West’ has always represented ideas of frontier and undeveloped potential for Americans. As the nation matured in the nineteenth century, ‘West’ was applied to a progressively smaller area (326)

and DW Meinig, “This famous West is generally synonomous with the Frontier and thus is less a place than a process” (159). Like the otherworld it is a place of both potential and danger (the wild West), and the Pacific really is like another world under the surface. And the expression “going west” means “to die” (according to the OED, from WWI, possibly rooted in Celtic understandings of the West as land of the dead), which is the ultimate frontier.

If we entertain the possibility that the West is (un)natural, is an otherworld kingdom right at the borders of being human, and Westness is partly the quality of “otherness” associated with the inaccessibility of all firs, glaciers, gulls, rivers, tides etc, then who belongs to the West? I think black bears, white tailed deer, orcas and pink salmon are at home there. But birds more than any animal to me have potential for representing Westness. Birds move freely from world to world, busy with errands alien to us. They frequent hard-to-reach places. And their nests are usually tucked away out of sight. For instance, the gangs of gulls looking for trouble every day at UVic: where do they come from every day? Is it a long commute? In the instant you notice a startled wren, it dives headfirst into a nearby shrub. Too bad! Of course you could go after it on your hands and knees if you really wanted to, but the wren’s paths are not your paths. By the time you got the branches out of your eye, it would be vanished. Birds appear and disappear mysteriously; half the time it is impossible for the average person to know if he is feeding the same ducks that came looking for breadcrumbs the day before. They all dress the same.

The incredible mobility of avian otherworlders is worth reflecting on because it illustrates the extent to which the West is in our faces – how much the human desire to know, to take (in uncomfortably colonial terms) and to discover is thwarted by our limitations. Even though the wild West has been inhabited in ever greater numbers, in the nerve centres of our kingdom of concrete, plastic, steel and glass, of our electric networks, the West’s people continue to tease us from the rooftops.

I do not know exactly why I (and I suppose, many others) have such a strong desire to know where gulls come from, or where wrens go. Probably it comes out of a combination of similarity and difference to human life. Birds are similar enough to us that it is entertaining to imagine their secret lives and compare them with our own. I aspire to write herons and owls as well as Don McKay writes juncos and crows. But maybe Westness goes beyond the lives of the West’s people. After all one has to account for the surprising impact of the landscapes that we live in or near. It is hard to overstress the richness of the Pacific Northwest’s forest, mountains, and beaches for metaphor. I wrote in “Understanding Hollydene” of an excess attached to beaches, deriving the notion from the “surfeit of expression” DH practitioner Alexander Galloway sees in rainbows. I think now that unusually high degree of excess characteristic of West Coast beaches is characteristic of West Coast forests and mountains too. Forests, for example, are less changeable than the ocean, but their flotsams and jetsams are comparable. All the time trees are tossing away wildly intricate leaves and needles and cones like so much trash. There is enough for the West and its people and us. The beautiful thing about leaves, needles and cones is that they are not much diminished by inflation.

The combination of otherworldliness, or a perpetual sense that the true West is inaccessible except by secret doors (yet very near), and excess, or an overflowing muchness of expression, is something unique to Westness. There is at least one other quality of Westness that is related to both of the qualities already discussed. As an otherworld, as a frontier, an unknown, the West is not especially safe. That is, Westness cannot be only romanticized birds and trees even if the romanticizations are apt. It must involve or evoke something more serious – probably hardship, possibly death. I particularly like Tolkien’s description of the realm of fairy-stories because it contains “joy and sorrow as sharp as swords,” which are necessary ingredients in my view for Westness. The deeper one goes into the territory of the West, the sharper they are, not only because hardships are likely to increase in frequency and intensity, but because the deep West forces introspection (whether it manifests merely as apparent wilderness, or something more abstract, like advanced age).