Remembering How to Listen: A Welcome from Creative Writing Director
The strangest aspect to September this year, as school in its inevitable routine renews, is how green is the grass in Colorado. Usually, by late August the grass is sere, yellowing long ahead of the trees whose dark green leaves seem to ignore the fact of the impending season. But this summer’s monsoons have come regular as clockwork, dousing lawns and all with water enough to keep the winter-tilting world verdant. I admit, it’s caused some schism in my mind. Running with my dog the other day I saw on a tree far ahead a yellow circle that I thought must be a Frisbee some kid lost—but running closer I saw that these few leaves among all had altered. Strange when what you should expect the most comes as the surprise.
Such subtle shocks—so subtle one feels only the after-tremor of thought recoiling from perception like pond ripples from a thrown stone—feel to me much of what poetry has to teach us. Easy to guide the mind out of the rut of its thought by willful experiment, though seldom does such work renew our ability to see and feel the world in ways that don’t simply resort back to habit. Keats was on to it, no doubt, when he claimed that poetry must work by “fine excess.” Excess so fine, I’ve come to think, you hardly know that in your hands all of it is overflowing. Emerson, too—saying we must see that every day arrives bearing in its hand untold gifts.
But it’s hard to open such gifts when the day feels most like it approaches as something simply due to arrive, a train on schedule, a book that opens when the syllabus says it should open, and closes when it’s told to close, a mere routine. So, as my small offer of medicine—to myself and to others—I’d like to recommend some non-required reading to keep company with this semester. Maybe there is nothing so casually dismissed from usefulness as distraction. It seems to oppose the rigor and discipline with which a good student, a good professor, approaches his or her work. But I’d like to suggest that distraction is the mind escaping the bond of duty and returning to the root of thought: that glance in the periphery of the eye that makes the head turn up and away from the page, tracing after a motion that caught the ragged nerve but whose cause has disappeared deeper into the foliage from which—dear Keats—it still may sing. Well, if we think we can hear it, perhaps it does still sing; at least, it can be so, if the mind remembers how to listen.
Two recent books capture the wondrous paradox in which daily distraction becomes revelatory of more eternal cycles: Laynie Browne’s Lost Parkour (Ps)alms (Presses Universitaires de Rouen) and Merrill Gilfillan’s Red Mavis (Flood Editions). Browne’s short lyrics here remind me of something I need constant reminder of: that a spiritual life of any depth requires an improvisation on matters daily, mundane, domestic, minor. A fluency in surfaces may well mark the genius of actual depth. She gives us what any book of truest prayer must: not a way to look past the world, but a way to be in it. Likewise, Gilfillan’s Red Mavis exults in moments so brief they’d seem to deny a word’s ability to record them. His poems are as quick as the warblers that flit through his lines as they do through brush and tree. He offers in startling abundance a quality I sometimes forget belongs also to poetry. That quality is joy. His poems are riddled with joy to such degree that I begin to think there must be a name for it, some compound noun to designate the sighting of such poems. So, in place of a “murmur of starlings” or a “murder of crows,” I send you his way, to watch in pages for a “gilfillan of joy.”
Don’t worry. Neither book is the syllabus. You’ll get no grade. You’ll have to explain nothing to anyone about it. It’s just for you—these small field guides to get you better lost in the daily world.