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Monday, May 11, 2020

Take the Time, While It's Yours to Take

In the early evening, the cows pass by.

Halfway through a nonfiction book that shall here remain unnamed, I set it aside for the fiftieth but perhaps last time. The author was annoying me. He imagines an ideal world if everyone would only live as he is trying to live, but he doesn’t see that the only reason he is able to try to live that way is because only a handful of other people are doing it. Population density, I think with impatience. He ignores it utterly

My bookshelves, however, are full to overflowing. Maybe a novel? There is one about Custer, but I have no desire to read about Custer, novel or otherwise, and don’t care if his wife’s family did have a summer cottage in Leelanau County, Michigan (in Omena, to be precise). There must be something else….

Here is a book about wilderness with a promising introduction, in which the book’s author tells in quick outline the story of artist-poet-adventurer Edward Ruess, a well-known story but new and fascinating to me. So I pack The Telling Distance: Conversations with the American Distance, by Bruce Berger, along with sandwiches and apples and cold water on a Sunday drive to the Dragoon Mountains, and in our camp chairs at a site near the mountains that we luckily find unoccupied, I read a page or two to the Artist. 

But later, back at the cabin, I get into the book’s main text, and the first section is about one wilderness expedition after another made with large groups of friends involving complicated strategies about how many cars to take, where to leave them, how to choose each night’s campsite and each person’s tiny plot within the site -- and I grow impatient. The introduction was all about one man who went out to meet the wilderness alone. I feel like a bait-and-switch victim and set this book aside, also.

But Fate has blessed me, because in the packet of mail sent on to us from Northport by a good friend, there was within that large envelope another large envelope, and it contained – oh, joy! Bound galleys! The first volume of the Copper Canyon Press “Legacy Project” of Jim Harrison’s poetry, Collected Ghazals

Images, not argument. Experience, but also fantasies and daydreams. No chronological or logical arrangement. Couplets, most often six to a page, sometimes related but more often not. 

Surreal jump cuts. This. Then that. Now something else. Each couplet presenting an image complete and perfect in itself --

A pure plump dove sits on the wire as if two wings emerged 
from a russet pear, head tucked into the sleeping fruit.

But to slice a couplet from its ghazal home, separating it from couplets before and after, is to render it false, because directly following the dove pear of peace we are slapped with --

Your new romance is full of nails hidden from the saw’s teeth 
a board under which a coral snake waits for a child’s hand

It takes my breath away. No act of violence, but the readiness of it, the inevitability of blood and death. Nor is that, however, where the poem ends on that particular page – but I leave that for you to discover. 

Here are words on paper that carry me aloft on wings, float me on water’s surface like air sacs, and drag me through knife-edged grass and mud. Here are lines that toss and slap and lull and discard but never make me feel manipulated. The poet is not trying to be other than who and what he is, and he doesn’t care what I think of what he has to say. Each page is a dose of strong medicine. Swallow it down or spit it out – it’s all the same to the poet. And I am right there with him in city, on the farm, in the wilderness. This. Then that. Now something else. Here. There. 

When I lay this book aside – temporarily -- it is not with impatience or disappointment or boredom but only with a glutton’s desire not to have “more” be too soon consumed, even as I know (oh, joyful thought!) that I can feast again and again without the pantry ever being any less full. Glutton, miser, spendthrift, sybarite – with this precious slim volume, I can be all at once, every time I take it in hand. 

Then they go on their way.

Now I conduct an experiment: pick up again the Berger and open to an entirely new section, almost 200 pages in, and see how it reads after Harrison’s ghazals. My mind takes two sentences and pulls them from the page, making of them a couple of two long lines:

Is this the record of two animals that passed at separate times, sharing the canyon’s life blood? 
Or is this evidence of mortal chase, a frozen moment before deer’s narrow survival or lion’s successful kill? 
[from the essay “Cold Pastoral," lines rearranged]

And instead of hurrying on to the bottom of the page, I read these lines over and over and take in the entire scene they evoke, until it is spread out before me and surrounding me, all at once.

Some essay collections make a continuous argument from first to last and need to be read in order, as one reads a novel or a philosophical or historical treatise, but I don’t think The Telling Distance is that kind of collection. I’m not going to read it that way, anyway.  “Make every sentence count” is a piece of advice often given to aspiring writers. How long did any written sentence take to form in a writer’s mind before it was committed to a page -- and then, not deleted or erased or written over, but maybe it was -- or maybe it came back in some new form or was replaced by something entirely different. This sentence, these lines, as deserving of careful contemplation as the sleepy, lethargic bees that spent the night in the white bowl of a prickly poppy flower.

When have we ever had as much discretionary time at our disposal as in these days in the time of coronavirus? At last, there is time to pay attention to the world. To the nuances of a loved one’s face, to the unfolding of green leaves and the opening of flowers, to the habits of birds that were always there, perhaps unnoticed, to the way a line of poetry or prose unfurls and then the one after it does the same so very differently.

And if you've read this entire post, thank you for spending the time with me. I appreciate company here in life's slow lane, still out in the Arizona ghost town, far from my northern Michigan bookstore. Although, truth be told, northern Michigan has plenty of slow lanes, and I have always sought them out.

We hope they will visit again soon.


Dawn said...

It's hard for me to land on a book at the moment that holds my attention. And I am torn with wanting to enjoy these moments of relative freedom from daily drudge to impatience because I can't get back to my normal life, to realizing I might not want that normal life again. Enjoy your time in the West, you may never be able to have so much of it in that place again. Who knows, right? I just blogged about a magical moment I had in the garden this morning. Those are the kinds of moments I wish we could all have more regularly. But then I guess if they happened daily they might be less magical.

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, I hear you. As you could probably tell from this post, I had a lot of restlessness on that day. For years now I have thought of moods as weather. They come, they go, they change, they pass. No mood lasts forever, and restlessness is in time replaced by calm and contentment and/or productivity (which is also good). And yes, those magical moments! You are wise to create space for them to come to you. I try to do the same. Hope today has magic in it for both of us. Thanks for spending time with me this morning! That was good!