Forgive me, it’s been over 6 weeks since i sat down and tried to think in verse. Forget about the actual work of putting it on paper and tinkering. I could blame all the obligations–work, kid’s stuff, chores, a wedding, a vacation, fiction, and this damned blog–but I don’t do excuses with writing. It’s like Kermit says to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: do or do not.
I’ve been doing not…
But the weird thing is that whenever I think of poems, and my not making time for them, my mind plugs up with two fairly famous poems, one often replacing the other when I try to force the former from my consciousness. Neither are pieces with particularly resounding significance to either my brain or my soul, but it’s as if they’ve infected me. The Dickinson poem is a ubiquitous piece in high school English classes–or used to be before poetry was marginalized in order to make more room for standardized test prep, and I’ve seen the Oliver poem frequently anthologized as well–no idea why they’re colonized my brain, though.
Anyone ever experience anything like this?
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
from Dream Work by Mary Oliver published by Atlantic Monthly Press
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –
from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson.
I get a kick out of thinking of wild-minded Walt Whitman and the decidedly staid Emily Dickinson as something between Adam and Eve and a prism. There was American poetry before, and American poetry after the pair–but almost everything before led to them and everything after sprung from them, through them, and what didn’t was still illuminated by their refracted light. I imagine some sort of cultural birth story–Walt Whitman as father figure, consuming all the verse from history before him, processing it into a seed, then planting it deep in the womb of Dickinson, the “Virgin Belle of Amherst”–it’s conveniently very Christ-like, when one thinks of it.
Some of my favorite memories include a series of nights, back in the way back, when I worked for several summers in Grand Teton National Park. It was a rather transitional time for me, arriving in Wyoming on the heels of a few dark years, embarrassingly sullen and depressed and emerging a few years later a completely different person, rippling with joy, affection, gratitude and an enthusiastic optimism which must have, to those who followed me through, seemed both cloying and redundant, certainly worth a good bit of head-shaking and eye-rolling. It’s an odd process, having to learn to be happy.
But I digress. Among the many great people who charitably shared their friendship with me–a few of whom stop by this blog now and again–were a great bunch of guys who shared my affinity for both playground basketball and poetry, two of the closest things to religion I’ve had in my life. You guys know who you are. One evening, after beating the crap out of each other at a parking lot hoop, we went looking for some trouble only to hear from our friend Kim that a bunch of girls were going into town, but we weren’t welcome. “It’s a girl’s night out, sorry” she drawled, in the sweetest Carolina voice I’d ever heard.
We were immediately indignant, but undeterred. We’d have ourselves a “boys night out” and, girls be damned, we’d have a hell of a time. We wasted no time loading up the back of my old station wagon with firewood, sleeping bags, a bounty of cheap canned beer (Busch? Keystone? shiver at the thought), and some books and rolled out to a favorite camping spot near “the Buddha stump” on Pacific Creek–an improbably big cut stump in a wash at the edge of about 8 million acres of wilderness. Our goal: build a big-ass “white man’s fire*,” drink beer, and talk shit on the wimmin who’d abandoned us.
We stoked a blaze, flipped some pop-tops, and got onto the disrespecting women, at which point, to our great consternation, our failure was evident–it quickly became obvious that we loved women, possibly more than we loved ourselves, missed them, had nothing at all bad to say about them, and quite frankly wished that we had some with us** right at that moment.
Talk about depressing.
But we moved on to the poetry, and quickly discovered that we shared an appreciation for Mr. Whitman, who quickly became Poet Laureate of Boy’s Night Out–an irony we appreciated only many years later. We read, drank, and bullshitted deep into the night before, too tired and too drunk to continue, we fell asleep in the dusty soil around the fire–taking time to all piss on it, surrounded by fresh, empty, scattered beer cans in the heart of Grizzly country. Genius.
The Boys Night Out theme was repeated, with various personnel added to the core, several times–though probably not as many, or as often, as my memories encourage me to believe. When Steve got married (to one of those women who went to town without us on that fateful night), his local stag party was Boys Night Out Writ Large–though I didn’t sleep in the dirt, but in the cab of Jeff’s truck, having spilled beer down my shirt and become paranoid about being bear bait.
Of all the electric verse we quoted on those nights, I can’t help (owing to my supreme, juvenile nature, I’m sure) thinking of this one first–in which the overtly gay Whitman, who vacillated between denying his sexuality one day and playing coy about it the next, overcompensates his testament to heterosexuality just a little too obviously, not to mention humorously.
Leaves of Grass 106. To a Common Prostitute
BE composed—be at ease with me—I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature;
Not till the sun excludes you, do I exclude you;
Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you, and the leaves to rustle for you, do my words refuse to glisten and rustle for you.
My girl, I appoint with you an appointment—and I charge you that you make preparation to be worthy to meet me,
And I charge you that you be patient and perfect till I come.
Till then, I salute you with a significant look, that you do not forget me.
*from the line in that year’s hit movie Dances With Wolves, “only a white man would build such a big fire.” **the happily married 47-year old me smiles at the idea of being unable to summon up words to whine about women–ah, to be young and single…actually, no thanks.
I love to tell stories with words and images, often with a darkly magical twist. While speculative fiction & dissecting pop culture are my primary passions, I also work with clients & brands by assisting with content creation, editing, marketing & design.