My son and I walked the trails of a nearby state park today, miles of trails through marsh and woods along the shores of a lake which, despite the proximity to town, seemed isolated. We were leaving when I wondered why I can never properly write about so many of our walks; even the long ones like, you know, across Spain. I wrote a short book about it but with few exceptions it never caught what I wanted to convey about spending a month with Michael in Spain, walking. I understand why, of course; I’m a non-fiction writer, not a poet.
In fact, at a creative writing workshop I was at before we weren’t at anything at all, someone asked the standard “Where do you get your ideas from?” question. I used to say, “Trenton. I use a mail-order catalog,” but I realized that was somewhat snarky. Then I remembered a line from a poem by my good friend Tim Seibles:
Some things take root in the brain and just don’t let go
I love when someone says exactly what I’m thinking. Saves me time.
That’s how it works, though. Tim’s right. I might be out for a walk along the water, or perhaps driving somewhere, and one thought leads to another, and then just the right song comes on, or a smell—yes, sometimes it might be an aroma that makes me think of a place, and then the receptors in my head are off and running; I’m just along for the ride, somehow simply a spokesperson who never really gets the translation right. That’s the problem with writing; it is never right. If someone looks at a piece they’re working on and very comfortably suggests there is nothing more that can be done, I am weary of reading it. And as for me, I know what it was like to walk across Spain with my son, but no one else does, and no one ever will no matter how much I write about it. Memoir simply doesn’t excavate those moments they way poetry can.
Of all the writers I know it has always been the poets who can get me to sit back and say, “Yes! Exactly.” I can carry on conversations all day long about a subject and then toss it around in my head for a few days, write it out, readdress it, and pour some decent energy into it, only to turn to a few lines some poet wrote and I find the need to burn my work. I’ll do it too; I’ll sit here with a match and hold the pages while they flare up. It has a very cleansing effect.
Here’s an example: Tim and I went to lunch at this same dive joint in Norfolk we always go to, and we talked. We talked about our fathers, or about something in the news. We talked about a variety of things that good friends talk about; though, we rarely talk about writing. At some point a few years ago I mentioned my dad, about how I miss him; I know Tim gets it so I didn’t have to say much, but still, talking is always helpful. Unfortunately, my words are trite, predictable, and lazy descriptions of how missing a person feels. Of course, I know I’m not trying to compose a play; I’m just talking about my dad. Still, I want to get it right.
Then sometime later I flipped through one of Tim’s books and came across this:
Missing someone is like hearing a
name sung quietly from somewhere
behind you. Even after you know no
one is there, you keep looking back.
Fucker. He nailed it. I could write a thousand lines about how I miss my dad, but that covers it. That’s poetry.
Anyone who listens to a lot of music knows what I mean. Some lines just say it all.
I have tried to write essays about nature, already handicapped by the vast selection of the genre from people such as Thoreau, Muir, and E.O. Wilson. In my files are dozens of starts in an attempt to finish a piece about the fall of the year, about the onset of winter. Those brain receptors often click into the passing of time, the end of things, the changes beyond our control. I wrote one “epic” diatribe that might be the most bloated piece of crap I’ve ever attempted. The only way to make it more pretentious would have been to have it translated into Latin. Then Frost does this:
So dawn goes down to day,
Nothing gold can stay
I prefer to sit and have a beer and talk; I like running into a friend and grabbing a bite and laughing about simple things like sports and movies. But I also like reminders of our glide across this thin layer of life.
Over the course of the past several years I found a way to handle my frustrations when I can’t find the right words to express our need to celebrate being alive. I call a friend and meet him for lunch. I head to a favorite café and have a beer and talk to strangers. Every single one of my closest friends was, at one time, a complete stranger. I walk along the water and watch the dolphins breech and disappear. I feel the coolness of morning give way to the warmth of the sun on my face.
Geez, I am surrounded by poetry.
I sat on a rock in the mountains west of Tucson and watched the sun work its way across the desert. Michael and I walked past a small sign that said “Santiago de Compostella” five hundred miles and five weeks after we left France. We watched the seals at Lake Baikal.
Ice in a glass. The sound of the golf ball dropping into the cup. The sound of cardinals on the porch, looking for food. Waves. A very long hug from an old, old friend when we knew there was no reason on Earth we should have lost touch. A distant fog horn, a nearby gull, a radio on a blanket on the beach, rigging against a mast, a ball hitting a mitt.
My dad’s deep “Hello.”
A name sung quietly from somewhere behind you