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Last updated April 25, 1999; first published to the web: November 22, 1998.
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Looking for the Light:
Making Poems from the Improbable
For the past fourteen years, he and I have built hundreds of feet of wall, an anomalous act in the Midwest. Unlike the Northeast, in the Midwest one must seek out the stone. Each spring in Massachusetts, rock surfaces like the bloated bodies of the drowned, and farmers have no choice but to drag them from the earth. In Indiana far fewer perish. Instead we plunder the alluvial fan of the creek that runs on the north border of my parentsâ land, using a wheelbarrow during the driest months of summer to haul our precious stone up the bank to the waiting tractor-wagon.
I have learned the most about writing poems in building these walls with my father. It seems to me that too often we writers allow words to consume us, blinding us to the forms that flood our vision in the world beyond the text. When we allow the light of living, imbued with the sacredness of flesh and spirit, to guide our eye, we will be amazed, perhaps even stunned, into revelation. What we see, of course, will inevitably differ for each writer, but in our new-found sight we will begin to understand how to make poems from the world that surrounds and sustains us, how each footing stone pushes into the ground, laying a foundation for the building of a wall, not unlike the first word in a poem that begins our journey.
One of my earliest memories takes place in Connecticut at my maternal grandparentsâ home. Iâm playing on an old stone wall that borders their backyard. A row of cedar trees grows across the way. The green seems almost unbearable when I remember it today: both of my grandparents dead, my own parents growing older. I spy a rose-colored piece of granite three stones from the top of the wall. At this age, I donât understand the way rock latches to rock, holding back the weight of the sky. I slowly wrestle this hard rose from the gray thorns that surround it. Several large stones crash down when I finally pull my prize free, and my index finger is crushed, leaving an indelible impression about the price of beauty.
Wrestling with words is an equally dangerous act as removing a stone from a wall. Each word precariously balances upon the other, and like a stone wall, the words take on another life when placed together, standing for something that they could not stand for alone. If William Carlos Williams is correct that there are no ideas but in things, then we carry an especially difficult burden in trying to find the words that can adequately represent the things of this world. As most writers will confess, however, I am more than willing to risk the pain in building poems because of my desire to touch others with what I have seen. The problem many of us have is in discarding romantic notions about what is worthy of our attention and what is not. The subject of a poem matters little in comparison with our way of seeing that subject.
When I first began to write, I thought there was nothing I could say. I didnât live the urban experience of Ginsberg, nor was I capable of the dizzying aesthetic heights of Wallace Stevens. It seemed as if every poet I read lived a life so foreign to my experience and so much more engaging that to begin to write was already to admit defeat. What could the son of a veterinarian have to say? I mucked shit from kennel floors, fed boarders, and buried the dead dogs and cats whose owners had no other place to bury them in a small field out near the railroad tracks. Not exactly the stuff of poetry, I thought.
I didn't break this dismal spell on my own. In a poetry class taught by the Zen poet Lucien Stryk, I finally was helped to walk into the open field of poetry where one can see for miles as on the prairies. A Zen Buddhist, Stryk's own poems demonstrate the sacredness of the most simple or mundane act. And with his help, I discovered the work of Raymond Carver and Mary Oliver and Jim Harrison and Maxine Kumin and Stephen Dunn and Wendell Berry and a host of other writers whose work spilled out before me like light shining through the canopy of leaves in a maple. With the help of this light, I began to select stones from my own life, carefully brushing away the mud so I might see all of the blemishes and imperfections that make such stones unique and worthy of telling. Soon poems began to appear, their structures unfolding out of the natural world where they were born.
Of course, there are still many days when I cannot find the light. I am part of the earth, and the rhythms of sky offer days of cloud, as well as days when sun and moon hang together into late morning. On gray mornings, I try to remind myself of the blessing found in all days - the kind of light that sifts slowly down through cloud and fog - and then begin my work with words. Some mornings this means waiting in silence, but more often I find in the silence some memory breaking in like a fallen branch snapped underfoot, white bottom of a doe flashing back into the undergrowth.
This past weekend my father, my son Noah, and I scoured the creek-bed for good footing stones. The wall that will be built with these stones will hold this memory: deep blue sky of autumn; late light of day slanting across the tops of the trees that begin at the edge of the meadow; a single red-tailed hawk catching an upward current, soaring like the words I hope to find some time in the coming winter months in a poem that says how much I love the things of this world and the people that walk with me in it.
Copyright © 1998 Todd Davis, all rights reserved
Todd Davis is an associate professor of English at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, where he teaches creative writing, film, and American literature. His poems have appeared in numerous literary reviews, including The Worcester Review, The Red Cedar Review, Yankee, Appalachia, Blueline, The Journal of Kentucky Studies, Image, and Aethlon. He has published or has forthcoming essays in such journals as Critique, Studies in Short Fiction, Mississippi Quarterly, Literature/Film Quarterly, and Style.