Saturday, February 14, 2009

Keeping Things Whole

As noted, I went to Dallas for a couple of days to be a guest author at this annual literary festival. I've lost track of how many times I've made this trip-- maybe six? And always, it is an outstanding event. The school has a lot of money and so every year they bring in some heavy hitter for the keynote after which all of us smaller names have dinner with the literary star at this awesome mansion in one of the toniest neighborhoods in the country.

In years past, I've had a chance to dine with Russell Banks, Michael Chabon, an Kaye Gibbons among others. This year, former US Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, was the guest of honor. I confess that, though I was gifted with Collins' Sailing Around the Room years ago, as is the case with so many other books that arrive in my life, that one was relegated to the stack known as One Day I Will Get Around to Reading These.

Well, I still hadn't read it by the night of the keynote so I walked into that reading a total blank slate. I walked out a hardcore Billy Collins fan. It wasn't just his poetry that got me, though that certainly is true. He is funny and silly but also, beyond topic, has this astonishing ability to use a very small handful of words to convey all sorts of things. Beyond that, though, listening to him read, I was thrown back in time to a number of pleasant places.

I have to say that, a big problem I have (and it is a problem) is that I associate nearly everything in my life with something else. So, for example, last night, as I was about to sit down on a patio chair in my backyard, and I saw a pair of gardening gloves there, I didn't think the simple thought, "Move the gloves." Instead-- and I wish I was making this up (making up both the event and the association), I flashed back to when I was 18-- twenty-seven years ago-- when a relative of mine (let's make the story even richer as I confess he was, in fact, a priest) goosed me as I sat down in the passenger seat of his car. Those were no gardening gloves then, but a priest's hand grabbing my ass.

Sadly, I think by far the majority of associations I make are negative and often traumatic. So to sit in a packed auditorium listening to poetry, and having it take me only to the Good Places, was nothing short of remarkable. I was reminded of being in college, when I did not at the time realize the luxury I was living, spending all my days immersed in great literature taught by incredibly passionate professors. I entered that mediocre state college hardly familiar with Shakespeare. I left with an image burned in my mind of Frank Fabry, standing at the head of the class, a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth as he gave the most dramatic reading of Hamlet that I have heard, even to this day, despite the fact I am a Shakespeare junkie now, forever seeking out the next production of the bard.

And I recalled my John Donne professor (though not his name) and how I entered his class dreading metaphysical poetry and left it with a deep appreciation for looking beneath the surface. Dr. Smith taught me Wordsworth, and, upon running into me in the elevator my very last day of my senior year, embraced me and proclaimed how much he had enjoyed my eagerness as a student. There is no understating what this validation meant to a young woman struggling so hard for some self-worth at the time.

I flashed back to more recent-- if still long gone-- memories. A trip to Lincoln, Nebraska in 2001, where I stayed with two friends, both pursuing doctorates in literature, both now professors. And how we read poetry aloud, unselfconsciously, not always the case when reading poetry. I mean, really, how often do you sit around swapping verse with friends?

I thought of my days in Austin as a drunken slam poet. And, even before that, my days in Knoxville, also drunk, when I first attempted poetry. I'm hardly a good poet, but those days (both here in Austin, and reading at the Vatican Pizza in Knoxville) I found my voice and an appreciative audience, and-- this is not hyperbole, this is true-- it was nothing short of exhilarating.

But of all the memories, the one that came in clearest, was Valentine's Day, twenty years ago, a mere month into the romance that would yield my son. His father, also an English major, and I, sat at the kitchen table and read aloud the poems of Mark Strand (I think he was a Poet Laureate, too). For a Jersey girl with blue collar roots, to sit and be part of such an exchange was...well, pick your sappy, romantic description and still, you won't even come close to knowing what I felt that night.

In particular, one Strand poem, Keeping Things Whole, has stayed with me all these twenty years. It is both puzzling and perfectly clear to me, and feels like an especially good definition of my life-- me, one who finds it nearly impossible to sit still (with my thoughts, with my body), who has meditated daily now for more years than I can remember, and who still twitches nonetheless, always in some hurry for clarity or the motion or whatever might be next.

Keeping Things Whole
by Mark Strand

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body's been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.


MaryAnn said...

a beautiful post, spike. happy valentine's day!

Katie said...

Thanks for sharing the Strand poem, Spike. Wow!

BRnPa said...

I knew Frank Fabry at the Univ. of South Florida and, now, 20+ years later, I still love reading Shakespeare even though my advanced degrees where in technical/engineering. My office is filled with books on software development, but there's a place on my shelves for English literature and I turn to those books quite a bit.