Five Notes on the Infallible
I do it all wrong. I tell my students all the expected things: freewrite at your desk at 5:00 in the morning, go observe people in airports, draw from history, draw from personal history, keep a journal to spool your dreams. Let the seed grow, go. Always, I hope they do. Somehow, art can adhere to a schedule or a whip. People seem to manage it.
The truth is I’m arrogant. I’m undisciplined and selfish. The truth is I’m the tree that loves the storm. The truth is that writing is like an affliction, a response to what is unfamiliar but manifests in me anyway, despite my best efforts at complacency. I just get restless. I half-abandon the daily. I take a notebook or my laptop out on the back steps while the kids bicker over a plastic car in the living room. When I write, my hair is a little greasier, the meals slapped together by day’s end. When I write—when I’m in the deep muddle of it all—the truth is I’m meaner, I’m barely anywhere else, I sit on the bank chipping at rocks while the river of my life goes on beside me.
Poetry is a second life. I run parallel to myself. I am the soldier’s knees on the battlefield. The kissed girl watching her lover walk away. I am as hungry as God. I’m the gate in the whitewashed home for wayward mothers. I try to write about lynching and stare at my own wrist. I miscarry in a bedroom in St. Louis. I sit in Plato’s cave in love. I’m the window smasher, the trucker, Descartes. I’m the trapped pigeon, frantic against the wall. I am all of these, I am none of these. Words are the sack I shove it all into, and it expands to shape the given moment, the poem trying to exist in me, without me.
I have just flown across the Atlantic. Here I will make a life for myself and my family, for the near future, in a drafty farmhouse in the countryside of England. My muse is a forceful yank from the soil. It loves an uprooting, the loose dirt of memory. These days I slide uneasily into sleep and am learning this new life twenty four hours at a time. I see you everywhere. Maybe the muse is a reaction to the reaction to the set-down in the exotic, telescoped as prayer: My smallness exists in this landscape. Do you hear it?
Pregnancy kills it. In pregnancy, you are pure physiology: every cell aflame, the dutiful juices flowing, all points of the body circling the baby like loyal beasts. Writing is kind of a darker place, isn’t it? It draws from some very messy human center that by all appearances is nonmoral and not always family oriented. I mean, there’s no room for it in my brain’s language center, which is the sound of hammer on nail. I have three children and have loved the sensation of growing them inside me, but it is only after birth I have drawn from those experiences and given them the attempted sweetness of words. In pregnancy, I hand it over to the blurred moment and keep warm. In writing, I stay a step behind it all, gathering them into the precise language of the outside, difficult world.
There are large-scale human failures, such as war and travesty and societal apathy and cowardice, and there are the smaller, daily, pathological ways in which we fail each other. Only recently have I realized how I spiral in and out of these in writing. Marriages fail. Bodies fail. Language fails. We don’t listen, we misjudge the gesture, we misinterpret the tone. We miss. How we love terribly and hate spectacularly. There are no words . . . Of course. How cold does absence move through you? How immeasurable the wake behind you? What is your story of the knife?
So I write a poem, a thing I’ve made about us in a tiny stormy corner of the world. I’m on the doorstep. I fail you, reader, but I bring it all the same: a bouquet of wildflowers, a note with letters flushed to the left margin, the shape of the moment we lived through. We do this. We are doing this, anyway.