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Yes, There Will Be Singing
By Marilyn Krysl
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2014 Marilyn Krysl
All rights reserved.
If you are on earth, you are on a landscape, and you can get off it for a little, like Michael Jordan, but not for too long.
— Ed Dorn
I try to imagine that first English-speaking Homo sapiens who imitated a Magpie's feisty insistence and coined the pronoun "I." I, I, I, we squawk, I'm a poet! But no poet writes alone. We are never not part of the live warp and weft of earth's breathing, changing interdependencies. As a child I spent rich swaths of time at my Kansas grandparents' wheat and cattle farm where I experienced this interdependence as play. I mimicked birds' twitter and song, and I put my ear to the ground's hum and hummed along.
I sang poems to chickens, conversed with sunflowers. I believed that the words people uttered came from deep, oracular orifices in the earth. Words rose to earth's surface, currents of air blew these sounds into my mouth. I was supported by swallows flying overhead and by earth and its underground rivers of speech. When I learned to spell, poems appeared on my tablet. My grandmother said I'd made them up. I said no — the words flew up from the grass and into me.
I resembled the Greeks' Aeolian harp which stood on the earth where the wind might sweep through and play melodies. I sensed the scientific fact that my body is inextricably enmeshed with the natural world outside my body and with the one hundred trillion microbiota "inside" my body. If my grandmother were alive, I'd point out that every person who refers to themselves as "I" is connected to and dependent on this encompassing mesh. Think of King's Letter from the Birmingham Jail. "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."
For the sake of convenience, the independent pronoun "I" has become a hallowed and misleading convention. The pronoun "I" makes poets sound as though we're not fleeting events, not live linkages in a linguistic progression through time, but stolid solids. I beg to disagree. Humility Training has taught me that I'm made up of a lifetime of momentary events, events sometimes graced by a wave of words.
Notice that Flannery O'Connor avoids the pronoun "I" and says instead that "in art the self becomes self-forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing ... being made. "She depicts herself as a humble receiver, a location where utterance emerges.
The playwright Harold Pinter said of his play The Birthday Party:
The thing germinated and bred itself. It proceeded according to its own logic. ... The writing arranged itself with no trouble into dramatic terms. ... The play was now its own world. ... determined by its own engendering image.
Germinated. Bred. Like flora and fauna, "the writing arranged itself with no trouble."
Like most writers I spoke for many years as though I'd invented "my" poems, but this was a lie of convenience. Now, when words appear on the page, I understand that I'm a live "place" where language declares itself through me. Instead of saying that I write poems, I've begun to say that I'm lucky to be a place where poems sometime appear.
But, you object, this assertion that language comes from our live surround ignores a poet's "labor." Yes there's labor in "receiving," and that labor is the willingness to wait and to welcome the mesh of the offering world. Revising a draft of a poem may seem an act performed by the poet — excising, adding, rearranging the furniture. But even revising isn't solely the poet's work because the poet is embedded in the poem's network and in earth's live networks. Annie Dillard described the linkage of the poet to the supporting world as "unmerited grace."
You break your heart, your back, your brain, and then ... from the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. ... it has two white wings. It flies directly at you. ...
Richard Rodriguez also speaks of words as autonomous beings.
I write things, but I don't write them. They write themselves. All the metaphors that writers use imply that the writer is more passive than active agent in all this: Holy Ghost, the muse, the graces. ... you are forced to just wait there like an idiot. ...
"We don't obtain the most precious gifts," Simone Weil wrote, "by going in search of them, but by waiting for them. There is a way of waiting ... for the right word to come of itself at the end of our pen, while we merely reject all inadequate words."
So who is this scribe who sits and waits? The "poet," but not the poet alone. The poet-in-the-mesh-of-the-world. When words come into us, we are taking the wafer in our mouths, we are swallowing the wine. The world around us resonates, and we become larger and kinder. We remember then, gratefully, that when we listen the land will speak. I want to speak with D. H. Lawrence's accuracy. Not I, he said, but the wind that blows through me.
We who stand before audiences at poetry festivals have the opportunity to point out that readers too are a crucial part of writing's living, breathing network. Lewis Hyde has said that if a work of art is to live, it must keep moving. When a reader consumes a poem, what she passes on into the surrounding world is her changed perspective and transformed actions. In this way readers are poets' collaborators. But most readers aren't conscious of their collaboration. They imagine the poet an autonomous genius. How do you write these poems, a reader asks, out of thin air? "Thin air" indeed — for air delivers each breath without which no word can be spoken.
I imagine a reader, opened and energized by the words in a poem, leaving the book open to that last page, and going out into late morning air. That pine tree across the gulley has been there seventy years, but now it seems washed clean of the grime of the ordinary. The grasses whisper come here, come here, and the reader feels energized and remembers a prior intention to bike instead of driving, so as to put less soot into the air.
I think of this reader and of the words I heard rising from my grandmother's pastures. When a reader asks what time of day and what location I find most conducive to writing poems, she has offered me opportunity to respond, not with a casual "I do it at a desk from nine to one," but in sensuous, revelatory detail. Writers, I tell her, are scribes taking dictation from the earthy network, and reader-receivers are crucial links through which the work of art keeps moving, and keeps improving the world it moves through.
The poet Alicia Ostriker said, "I am an aperture through which the words arrive." Arrive from where? The poet Ruth Stone reported that at certain times she could "feel a poem coming over the landscape," and declared that the poem's words arrived on a "thunderous train of air." And from where? From earth's interdependent networks that have evolved for billions of years.
"I've crawled from the mire," Theodore Roethke wrote, "privy to oily fungus and the algae of standing waters, / honored ... by the ancient fellowship of rotten stems."
Worship means not to figure out, not to analyze, not to pin down, but deeply to value.
— William Bryant Logan
I was born in the middle of the Twentieth Century on the Great Plains, place of stillness and tornado, heat and blizzard. Earth's two human truths, beauty and wrath, were just other versions of the weather. And part of that weather was the language of the King James Bible my grandparents read aloud from every morning. I was two, three and four, listening, rapt, to this language rolling from their mouths. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it. At first I heard only the sound of that language. I listened to its musical cadences, and was rocked by those cadences. Only much later did I begin to understand that these were the words of God, and that he wanted us to take heed and distinguish right from wrong.
The Bible's language reminded me of my stately grandmother and her land, where corn, wheat and sorghum flourished on acres of dependable dirt. She was a benevolent force moving through the world, and like the men who worked for my grandfather through the harvest, I was smitten. I needed to hear her voice, watch her walk.
"Get your hat," she would say, putting on her wide-brimmed straw.
It pained me that I never succeeded in liking the feel of a hat, but I put it on, took her hand, and we stepped out into the live, vibrating world. Humans and birds, air and water, stones and soil — we were all alive, and we all recognized each other. And since I was the youngest, the one nearest to the ground, I noticed something special beneath my feet: an element called dirt.
Dirt was the earth's floor, everywhere, and right here. It was the most basic of materials, elemental and magical. I knew places where dirt was dried and hard, other places where it was soft and powdery — ground's talcum. When I helped my grandmother weed the garden, fat worms drilled their passageways through topsoil, giving the roots of plants an airing, and I scooped up a handful. Dirt, I imagined, was like me: it liked being handled. I crumbled it with my fingers, helping it breathe.
Later I would learn that ancient peoples believed that gems, stones and metals lived a life like animals lived. Thales, a Greek, believed chunks of amber were alive. Had I known this, I'd have declared myself the Thales of dirt. Scientists hadn't yet discovered the microorganisms which prosper in dirt, but I sensed that dirt was beneficial. I talked to dirt and patted it, told it stories, sang to it. And I assured dirt that it wasn't dirty. It was a sacred powder that had the power to make plants, animals and people grow.
The earth was made from dirt, and the earth, according to the Bible, was holy ground. My grandmother let me get high on the glory of being dirty, and I got as dirty as I could, and stayed dirty for as long as I liked. One day I piled dirt in the cracked bluewillow bowl my grandmother had given me, and set it on top of a box: this was my altar. In the middle of the bowl I placed a single candle and lit it.
"Let there be light!" I shouted. "And darkness, and the waters! And fish and robins! And the snake! And pancakes and syrup! Let there be lots of stars every night," I demanded. "And give us all the dirt you've got."
Stunned by heat those long afternoons, I stirred water into a pan of dirt. So unlike each other, dirt and water, but together they became a third thing: the thick, primal goop of creation. A long swath of afternoon lay before me, and I mixed a pan of mud, and from this rich, wet muck I sculpted Adam and Eve. I gave them arms, legs, faces. Eve had breasts, Adam a penis. In the beginning, the Bible said, they couldn't see each other's nakedness. But I thought blindness was unfair, so I gave them eyes.
Presto: they saw me, and their mouths cried out for sustenance. So I mixed a pan of mud brownies and baked them on the hot metal slab of my grandfather's combine. When the brownies were done, I fed my creations. While they ate, I recited verses from the Bible. From dust thou comest, I intoned. Everyone and every thing came from dirt, and it was obvious that we all should be friendly. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
In a solitary moment, I knelt, laid my ear against the ground, and heard, far down, a subtle grumbling, like distant thunder. It was the moan of a creature, the audible irritation of a great being. A thing as big as the earth, I thought, had its own plan. It was fine that humans dug up topsoil to plant crops, but beyond that, I believed, we should refrain from meddling. If earth wanted to move the furniture around, it could make an earthquake. Who were we to interfere?
I wanted whatever changed to do the changing itself. Gardening was fair, because we massaged dirt and let it breathe, and we fed it compost. But please, no men with shovels and picks, hacking a mountainside, hungry for gold. I was against building dams or drilling oil wells, and I disapproved of bulldozers leaving the imprint of tire treads.
"Why are those men doing that?" I asked my grandmother.
"They're building us a road," she said.
"But we already have one!"
How many roads did it take to get from one place to another? One, I thought, was plenty.
Days later, one of Adam's arms broke off. Eve's feet began to crumble. I repaired my creations, and this worked for a time. But things made from dirt were subject to disintegration, and a day came when I could no longer postpone the funeral. I scooped out a grave and laid my dried mud mummies in. From dust thou cometh and to dust thou shalt return. The things of this world appeared, stayed a while, then disintegrated. I stood over my creations with the hose, helping Eve and Adam fall back into the earth they'd come from.
Decades have passed since I served as dirt's minion, and still we know only enough to realize that human ignorance is vast and dangerous. And we find ourselves in a curious position. We're sentient beings, a living part of the data, and at the same time we're observers of that data. We can trace much of our human responsibility for how life on earth evolves, and when we reckon up our part of the damage, we understand that we are not heroic. We mount a campaign here, while ignoring a frightening reckoning just over there beyond that hilltop. We say we're concerned — a word that merely hedges our fleshy responsibility.
For these reasons I would mix again some dirt, some water, and fashion another Eve, another Adam. Both would have legs, arms, hands, a nose, mouth, ears and genitals. And this time too I would give them eyes. Look: They gaze at each other, and go on gazing, and when they have looked their fill, they survey their surroundings. Was that a sound, over there where the leaves moved? Eve pokes Adam. He looks where she's pointing. Leaves? A bird? Sunlight, a breeze, insects. Grasses. These supposedly discrete and separate things are one singleness, a weaving of the myriad strands into one felt field.
Now Adam and Eve notice there's something in the air, an animation, an expectancy. The clearing where they sit has a life of its own, a life that will go on without them. Eve picks up a handful of dirt and pours this dirt into Adam's palm. His fingers register dirt's texture, its fineness. There's something here, he thinks, something to notice.
In sunlight dirt looks bright, he says.
Yes, isn't it bright, Eve says. Because it's not a dead thing, but something alive.
They go on sifting dirt through their fingers, and now they feel the life stuff sparking.
It looks like just a handful of dirt, Eve says, but I can feel it breathing.
Adam nods. Yes, he says, and that means that you and I are not alone.
Teaching Taste, Making Soul
Two days after my birth my parents brought me to my grandparents' stone house on the plains. The snow disappeared, wheat sprouted and spread across swaying prairie, and words rose from those fields offering themselves to my grandparents' mouths by way of the King James Bible. Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. It is like the dew that descendeth upon the mountains of Zion.
My grandparents' voices had the resonance of a cathedral's struck bells. When they read Genesis, it was though Adam and Eve spoke. I listened to incantatory narratives of history, the prophets' scolding authority, the praise and pleading of Psalms, the love poetry of Solomon, the fiery prophecies of Revelation. The King James Bible constituted a fertile sea of language, and I felt no demarcation between myself and these voices, myself and the land. I was an open system, improvising my relation to whinny of stallion and mare, to chicken chatter and Meadowlark call, to my grandmother's voice reciting beneath stars. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voices are not heard.
That Great Lap the earth was alive, and it offered up words. I heard them rise and passed them on to heifer and rooster, bugs and hogs. "You made up a song!" my grandmother said.
I shook my head. I hadn't made up the song — I'd heard it.
"That song came out of the ground," I said. "I'm singing it on."
My grandmother read me Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. At four I learned to read. There were as many words as bits of limestone gravel on the road so white it looked like a path to heaven. Much later, at ten, on the assumption that the longer a book the more pleasure awaited me, I checked out the longest book in the library: War and Peace. On words came, Greek and Roman mythology, The Secret Garden, Little Women. In fifth grade I read Moby Dick alternating each chapter with a chapter from the adventures of Nancy Drew.
I lived with working-class parents in a house so small and shabby that I trusted only one girlfriend enough to invite her there, and to endure getting through senior year I read all of Faulkner's novels and The Brothers Karamazov. Except for a high school lit class where I read Emily Dickinson and Dylan Thomas, education was a series of accidents left largely up to me. Every student of writing needs to read the classics, and by reading at random, I'd inadvertently devised a curriculum for myself.
Excerpted from Yes, There Will Be Singing by Marilyn Krysl. Copyright © 2014 Marilyn Krysl. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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