blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1
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The Names of Birds

The names of birds.  Or: cup plant, lobelia, spiderwort.  My son sleeping sprawled on his bed, beads of sweat on his forehead (or, in his parlance, fork-head).  The garden in late spring.  Lake Michigan.  Cats. Dogs.  The Experimental Forest, with little placards naming each tree: black oak, sycamore, jack pine. Explaining single-motherhood.  The sounds of words: daughter, slaughter, capricious, cadence. An orchestra tuning, buttery yellow of the stage floor.  A pile of student papers moldering on the kitchen table, seventeen trips to the mirror, the scale. 

I grew up in a family where it was impossible to escape the fact that language—both written and oral—is an utter failure.  That metaphor, that bridging of the abyss of unknowingness, is both necessary and suspect: three out of four sisters are musicians.  One is profoundly deaf.  I argued with my Philosophy of Language professor in college that language is not in fact predicated in utterance; how can it be?  I know language to be rooted somewhere deeper, somewhere that precedes or slips past utterance, roots elsewhere. I wanted to be a novelist, or a playwright, or an actress or an opera singer.  I liked—like—making things up.  Queen of hyperbole, my best friend says. 

I wanted to tell stories, but things kept scattering off, fracturing like light on the surface of a lake.  Like waking up naked in a stranger’s bed.  Like the way you can lift out of yourself sometimes and things slow down: cottonwood drift, lake against the pier, your son curled in your lap, smelling sweet and earthy, his improbable hand on your shoulder.   And somewhere in my early twenties, I landed on poetry, but writing it becomes, always, an act of avoidance:  of cleaning the kitchen, of weighing myself every ten minutes, of watching the sky outside the kitchen darken and robins call across the yard.  I haul bags of mulch into the garden; I argue with my ex-husband; I run until I can’t breathe; I dance with my son in the kitchen wearing only a T-shirt. 

But I return, as I suspect we all must always return to our center, that which terrifies us most and makes us feel most alive.  Writing is work, I tell my students.  Don’t rely on inspiration, or else you’ll never write at all.  I mistrust anything that comes “from the heart.”  I take copious notes: on birds, flowers, natural disasters, music, biological functions, medical reports, historical accounts, the revelations I am always blessed to have in the classroom: people coming into their selves.  A question about Walt Whitman, about the veracity of I.  I like the way words sound, the music that comes from placing this one against that one.  I sing; I hold my own with orchestras. I write; my heart breaks.  Is broken. Cleaves onto itself, onto the luminescent world.

But about process? I write out loud when running, when in the woods (though there is no Dorothea Wordsworth following me to transcribe it all down); I write when my students’ heads are bowed in their own writing; when my son is asleep or at his father’s house and the house is terribly quiet and it’s write or face the specter of being a small woman, alone.  I read everything.  I copy it shamelessly. I give myself assignments.  Mostly, I am terrified that I’ll never write again. Mostly, I’m suspicious that it’s all terrible. 

I write by hand; I revise for at least a year.  It isn’t easy, I say to my students in that privileged moment where, in their writing, I see scraps and breakages of their lives, their becoming.  It’s work and it’s the self, naming her place in the world. I like names.  I like knowing about the things in the world around me: white-breasted nuthatch, titmouse, snakeweed, physics, evolutionary biology. I write in the small moments I have, the small machinery of my life churning on around all of it. What does it sound like when you sing? I often imagine my sister asking.  And how do I explain, when she has never known sound?  Does it make sound less real; her experience of the nature of the world less real?  I want to know the names of the birds singing outside my window.  I want to open and open and open this world. And so I write toward that dark space, toward the abyss near which we all balance: that place of falling off. Of unknowing.  Of belief and faith, and ultimately hard work. Sometimes poems get done. Sometimes, they don’t.  end

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