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In the early half-light I usually make tea and sit surrounded by books near the windows in the southwest corner of the room. Like a photographic print developing in a chemical bath, Woodshed Hill's outlines slowly emerge behind the west-facing glass; the south window to my left gradually fills at this time of year with a snow-covered field. For the past few weeks the eyes I've opened each morning have been partly Cézanne's: I open Götz Adriani's catalogue of Cézanne's paintings where I've left a bookmark and turn the page: plate seventy-one, "Large Pine and Red Earth." The world-material spell. Stillness in things.
Before I have stepped out of the house, even before the outdoor world is discernable in the windows, I will have passed through a series of pages under the reading light and will likely have opened my notebook and filled a few pages with observations and fabrications of my own. These pages will be passageways to the rest of the day — perhaps programs, themes the extent of whose influence has no clear end. Being steeped in the page, being so accustomed to its landscape and creatures, it is hard to say where the natural world begins and what in the surrounding, oncoming world does not belong to a page.
What are some of the books scattered around my chair? Cézanne Paintings, Margaret Atwood, Robert Macfarlane, Anton Chekhov, Knud Rasmussen, Javier Marías, Clarence Glacken, Emily Dickinson, Salt and Silver, Nikolai Leskov, Samuel Beckett, On the Art of Fixing a Shadow, Thoreau, Xi Chuan, Susan Howe, Michel de Montaigne, Chagall and Music, Walter Benjamin, Christine Desdemaines-Hugon, Jean Clottes, Bash?, Peter Wohlleben, Max Oelschlaeger, Hans Peter Duerr, Jorie Graham, Tomas Tranströmer, John Kinsella, Daniel Everett, Louise Glück. Below this layer are others I can't see.
There are many kinds of page. What signs and expressions will appear there? What world or mind will they seem to be coming from and what will they hatch in your mind? Will you welcome what the page conveys, will it fade quickly or leave a lingering pleasure or distaste? Will the page in some way change you forever?
And if you prepare to make marks on a page, what will you put there? What will you send by way of the page for someone to receive?
Signs of various sorts cluster on the page. Its customs and messages relate to occasions of waiting, receiving, discovering and offering. The potentiality of the page, the expectancy it sets up is related in my mind to the archetypal events of birth, hatching, sprouting and other sudden arrivals: a new life, a new presence might appear there to share our personal world and engage our energies. Versions of the ancient experiences of hunting and fishing are embedded there: the attentive waiting and observation, the sense that at a distance some encounter is pending, something will be met with and captured. Stargazing, watching for danger, watching for a lover, watching for seasonal signs, for ripening plants, approaching weather. The page can be experienced as an offering of food, as offering or receiving a gift.
Yes, yes, the page is a clay tablet marked with an inventory of wine jars, but before that it was a clearing where something might appear, where the movement of time, the world's changing narrative was epitomized. The page is a performance space. It is an area framed by expectation and practiced conjecture: a ritual space, a forum for appearances and disappearances.
And when we write? We speak to someone or something absent. We detach our words, our intentions, from ourselves and send them out or leave them to be found. We hunt inside ourselves, watch for a birth in language on an inner page and give a performance in words.
It seems to me that what is at the heart of literature, what is most meaningful in it, involves a speaking to someone or something absent or distant. This involves a faith in space and time and perhaps a belief in fate or destiny: that the message (the information, the thought, the wish) that has been sent or left will travel or wait unchanged, intact, and meet with its intended recipient at some future time. This is clearly at work in a letter or a prayer but also in every poem, story and song, every diary entry and tombstone inscription. There is no need to leave messages for those who are immediately present. In the remote past I imagine our preverbal ancestors would have communicated with those nearby using gestures, touches, glances and vocal sounds, but once they began devising and leaving signs for those not present — markings, selected objects, shaped objects, images — they were already engaged in a kind of writing. I think of that ancient sign-making as lying just under the surface of what I'm doing here.
So, the page is still a clearing in time and space, a kind of axis point where we might have contact with those elsewhere and in another time. On its periphery are the dead, the gods, our past and future selves as well as everyone we might want to contact for whatever reason. The signs we send through the page and that appear there have the power to cross barriers of time and space and dimensions of being. They can pass from one heart into another like travelling dreams. Clearly, signs sent like this — with metaphysical force — are the language of spirits and a means to communicate with the powers that move the visible world.
If we go into a cave (some form of cave) and wait for signs to appear to us and scratch those signs on the cave wall, we are at the doorway between the spirit within us and the spirits in the surrounding world. I think the page is always a version, a descendant, of this place and action: a passageway where a spirit coalesces, defines itself, and goes to meet other spirits — perhaps to win their favour, perhaps simply in fellowship or to strengthen their company. In any case, the page is much older than paper or clay tablets.
And the modern blank paper page, although it looks empty, is an architecture of rules, a court awaiting some statement, some display of meaning. It is a room in which no one is welcome who cannot trade in symbols, who cannot recognize themselves in mirrors or recognize the outlined shapes of conifers, stars, elephants, mice. The cat, for example, sees nothing meaningful in the mirror or in the mouse I am drawing for him right now. He wants to sprawl across this page in the hope that I'll stop scratching the paper with my pen and instead scratch him behind the ears.
For book lovers the page is, first, always a welcoming home where the writer can get to work and the reader can journey and make discoveries in a state of great privilege; but there are gaps and discontinuities on the page for both reader and writer. This is partly because the reader is also a kind of writer and the writer a kind of reader.
The reader cannot be merely a passive recipient of the words on the page. The act of reading is a collaboration in which the reader reconstitutes the information — the ideas, the emotions — condensed and encoded in the text, although the reader rarely reconstitutes everything the writer has sent out without some critical reservations. For some readers the writer's offering is a kind of found material to be taken up and fashioned into a new structure. But for most readers the art of reading — perhaps the pleasure in reading — is partly the art of suspending disbelief. In the same way, in the theatre the audience members' imaginations work with what is onstage and lit up; they welcome the unknown nature of what's behind the scenes and unseen in the dark margins. On both the page and stage what we can't see, what we can't anticipate, is as important as what we can see and predict.
In choosing a clearing in which to witness things arriving, we are also choosing the obscure surroundings from which they arrive. As readers, we participate in creating the written event, but that participation goes only so far. Ultimately, we want the signals to come from somewhere off the page, offstage, outside the book. We want a gift, a thing that augments us: the world opening before us. This is a compensation for being ignorant mortals. An all-seeing god can never be lost or separate from an environment, can see everything coming and therefore can never be surprised or discover anything new. But, as limited mortals, we set out on a fairy-tale journey over and over. Opening a page highlights that moment.
And for the writer — for the poet especially — this whole process has its internal, subjective analogue. I, at least, find this is true of much of my own experience as a writer. What I write is not purely a creation of the page. It does not start and end entirely on the page's built environment. It's possibly a delusion for me to think that what I'm putting on paper has some more remote origin than the conventions of language and the page themselves, but this is a delusion I need to keep — a gap in attention and control, a region behind the scenes and offstage that frames and, in a sense, supplies the lit clearing where the words get set down.
What is gratifying — what is necessary — in writing and reading is the sense that some experience, some discovery has occurred off the page, on the margin of culture if not entirely outside it, in the not-yet-known region of nature, in the world we don't fully control. What this involves, I suppose, is a reliance on intuition, a process in which the writer's imagination is itself a kind of stage upon which things appear. The act of writing, the craft, is in large part a preparation of the page, a theatre- building. We make a clearing and watch with all the learned skill of our culturally structured tradition to see what will walk out of the unknown surroundings into the open space.
Using words, we try to make the reader's page resemble this space.
My idea in writing these pages is to explore my own lifelong relationship with language and writing, but I find myself generalizing that relationship and speaking of "our" use of language and the way our immersion in words affects our subjective experience and our interaction with the natural world. Why do I do this? Am I imitating linguists and philosophers who theorize about the role of language in human culture and behaviour? Do I hope to join the ranks of Jakobson, Saussure and Chomsky? Hardly. I'm a poet with an interest in the relationship between the human-created world we occupy and the raw, natural world we also occupy in often problematic, sometimes graceful, sometimes unacknowledged, unexplored ways.
I think one of the reasons I generalize my experience of language is that I don't assume that relationship is unique to me. I'm sure I use English in slightly idiosyncratic ways, that I have a style or voice of my own, but I also have no doubt that I speak and write fundamentally the same way as countless other people. A shared vocabulary and syntax has to be the basis for linguistic communication. And I have inherited language along with a culture and a biological history. Although the particularities of my life are personally mine, I think of the language I've inherited — an accumulation of thousands of years of ancestral experience from a vast range of eras, places and situations — as something like a sea I swim in or the land I was born in. My experience of language is in many ways transpersonal. And yet it's the personal living-in-language that interests me as well as language's broad role in culture.
I like to believe that I can think of language generically, as a human custom or practice, and that it's possible to imagine or know the world beyond language. Perhaps I'm deluding myself. Perhaps I am so much the product of my specific language that I can never experience or imagine anything that is free of its matrix. I do have the sense, though, that the natural world is itself inherently nameless — an integrated whole, a continuous anatomy — to which people have applied language like a transparent film imprinted with a map, diagrams, outlines demarcating certain features and processes. I think of this template of naming being applied not only to the natural environment but also to our sensory and emotional experiences and to our dreams. I think we can (here I am using "we" again) experience the external and internal worlds in ways that go beyond language and then try to bring those experiences back to be framed and shared in language. The tools, the implements of language both enable and formalize that process.
Why do I make this kind of pronouncement? I'm exploring my experience of writing and language in an effort to discover points of influence, points of energy, insights that can initiate further engagement and making. I am looking for insights into what I take to be a real, factual world; I am not hunting for gratifying fantasies; but nor am I trying to arrive at settled conclusions. In fact, each time I set out to explore my experience I tend to take slightly different routes and arrive at different discoveries — hence the ongoing writing, the accumulation of pages. The discoveries might overlie each other or sit at odd discordant angles or contradict each other. I accept that. All that matters to me is that what I'm discovering seems honest and true, a depiction of a real experience.
I'm not interested in promulgating an unassailable theory. I recognize that you might not agree with things I've said so far about writing and language; your experience might be different or, even if it's similar to mine, you might not be as confident as I am that it is common to all. What I hope, however, is that, instead of simply pushing my ideas away and going on with something else, you get some pleasure, some energy from exploring your own experiences of these things. This is what I look for in essays. I read not to have my prejudices and settled opinions confirmed but for prompts, for sparks of ideas that stimulate my imagination, my memory, my appetite for making things and investigating the world. This is what is still so exciting about Montaigne's essays. His rather pedantic scholarship is of his time, but his honest inquiring imagination is entirely modern and timeless. That's more what I'm trying to imitate.
It's possible, I imagine, that the names of things might not seem like arbitrary human impositions on the world but rather like channels, arteries reaching out from things or creatures to people, channels whereby energy and spirit flow from one to the other. Perhaps it is my English or Indo-European heritage and the industrial culture to which I belong that has caused me to seek experience beyond the reach and template of language. But I think it would be too easy for me to blame English. I notice that Lao Tzu in the sixth century BCE wrote (or was quoted as saying), "The way that can be spoken of / Is not the constant way ... The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth." This is how the Tao Te Ching begins. Translations vary, but the idea is clear: reality cannot be directly represented or apprehended in language. Zen and other spiritual practices have also recommended wordless silence or have deliberately confounded the conventions of language and logic to achieve a direct experience of reality.
So, I use the universal "we" when I think of the broad human use of language, but I wish to apologize if this seems blindly arrogant or presumptuous. English — this increasingly global, international language, one of the key languages bound up with industrial culture — is my first language. If my or my parents' first language were an Indigenous language or that of a cultural minority — perhaps a language threatened with extinction — I imagine the word "language" and the phrase "our use of language," at least at first sight, would mean something quite different to me.
Here's my linguistic biography. I grew up speaking English but with German, in the form of Pennsylvania Dutch, as a peripheral, vestigial language in our home. My paternal ancestors had come from German-speaking Alsace in the early nineteenth century; my mother's grandparents had come from northern Germany in the mid-nineteenth century. Both their families had lived for generations in the Kitchener-Waterloo area in Ontario and had continued speaking German as their first language up to my parents' generation. When my mother or father came out with a German word or expression, it was usually in a joking way that would lead to memories of how things used to be when they were growing up, memories of relatives or old customs or events. In this way I learned a smattering of disconnected German words and sayings that enabled me to surprise and amuse German-speaking people I met later in life. I could say: "Greif zu!" or "Greif es!" ("Dig in!" or "Grab it!") at the start of a meal and make everyone laugh.
My consciousness of a German background meant that I always felt a bit like an outsider. Most of my friends came from immigrant families, and I did not identify with the British-Canadian mainstream.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Forty-One Pages"
Copyright © 2018 John Steffler.
Excerpted by permission of University of Regina Press.
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Table of Contents
I Corner Window,
I Haven't Looked at These in Years, 19,
Dark Surface, 31,
Since Life Values Nothing Higher Than Life, 37,
II We Worked Our Normal Shifts But Whispered About Revolution,
A Word Fights Speech River to Its Highest Pool, 53,
The Day the Earth Smiled, 54,
So Close, 57,
III Ten Thousand Teachers in a One-Room School,
From Behind the Page Something Pushes Against Each Written Word, 61,
Barrens Willow, 68,
Self-Portrait near the Window Facing Woodshed Hill, 75,
Minification Glass, 80,
IV Out All Night — What Do They Do?,
A House in the Forest, 85,
Body and Mind, 88,
Fashion Plate, 91,
A Movement Catches the Eye, 94,
Tabula Inscripta, 95,
Caution: Unstable Bridge, 101,