Monday, June 05, 2006

A Garden Among Forked Paths

The weekend is essentially over, and as I sit in office, with the puppies sleeping on separate sofas as my wife reads a thriller of some sort late into the night, the scent of wood burning in my neighbor’s fire pit wafts in through the cracked open window that looks out over our backyard.

This afternoon, when I stepped outside for a moment to check on the canines and ensure that they hadn’t finally clawed their way into their own version of The Great Escape, I found both puppies darting into and out of the flowing daffodil and bamboo foliage that lines the rear wall of our house. They sniffed fiercely at the ground, shaking stalks of Ohio spiderwort as they weaved through the greenery and circled half-buried flagstones, and dashed past the trunk of our magnolia tree. They were, apparently, hunting rabbits.

They hurtled about in their commotion, sniffing furiously and letting low tumbling growls escape from their tiny diaphragms, and as I watched in fascination as they plunged again into depths of foliage, a small brownish rabbit with specks of black fur all along its coat hopped hesitantly along the edge of the flower bed and then nestled, in plain sight to me, between two earth-scraping branches of a hardy weed. Small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, the rabbit did not stir. Its black, pebble-sized eyes stared up at me, unblinking. Yet there was not a single twitch of movement.

The dogs hurried about, oblivious to the rabbit’s escape and tactical retreat into camouflage. They bounced over the foliage, scraped at bits of fur, and sniffed along the patches of soil where they first spotted the tiny creature. Fearful for the rabbit—no more than a baby—I called to the dogs, “Dixie! Archie!” I called to them again, clapping my hands until they looked up and then I hurried them inside where my wife was eating dinner.

All day, I have felt like my dogs must have felt. I have been circling around a goal, edging closer and closer until night fell. You see, I copyedited all day. Instead of focusing on poetry, my thoughts on poetry, or even a good novel, I strained my eyes against a computer screen to make certain that phases and subtypes were spelled properly. The work was, alas, tedious.

As night fell, I finally finished, and managed to jot down a few lines of what seemed a clever poem, but now seems to me to be the worst type of first draft. Indeed, I think by tomorrow that poem will be torn to shreds with the same lack of compassion my dogs would have shown that tiny rabbit. I also managed to stare a bit longer at pages and pages of prose, and this pleased me. Hopefully, I can say the same tomorrow.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel I spent the entire day on circumnavigating the edge of a goal, of a wish fulfilled, of a tactical decision made deftly. Night, now, is slipping away. Michelle has joined the puppies in slumber. My back aches, and I know that I am up far too late.

Perhaps, this feeling of incompleteness is a bit like reading Borges, or like a character in one of his “fictions.” It is on the edge of reason, on the edge of reality, but only just so.

I’ve been speaking endlessly here about the necessity of reading, but have I yet mentioned fiction? I think, typically, many poets fail to see how valuable fiction can be to the development of one’s poetry. After all, many of the same techniques—and concerns—found in fiction are unavoidable. A first-person speaker, for example, can’t have direct knowledge of another character’s thoughts. The speaker must glean those thoughts through indirection or simply describe the movements, the gestures, the words of another character, allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions.

Likewise, if your poem tells a story—any kind of story—then you are bound by the construct of plot. There will be a beginning, middle, and end. The plot may be labyrinthine, but there will always be a beginning, middle, and end—not necessarily in that order.

More, I think that in modernist and contemporary fiction you can find worlds upon worlds of overlapping ideals. You can experience places unimagined. You can find enviably brilliant similes, like Gogol’s comparison of cockroaches to raisins in Dead Souls, and if you have the wherewithal to read Joyce, perhaps you can ask yourself more questions about poetry: What is it? How did it get here? Where is it going? Indeed, huge passages of Ulysses read like perfect alliterative verse. It hurts my head.

Personally, I consider Kafka, Borges, and Angela Carter to be among the most important influences in my poetry. In fact, I’d argue that a single story of Borges has likely had more impact on how I approach a poem than the entire oeuvre of W.S. Merwin—a poet I admire immensely for his utter originality, deft use of imagery, and penchant for elision that somehow heightens meaning. Yet a single one of Borges’s stories (and even his essays) opens up entire worlds while exciting your intellect with an electricity so violent that I sometimes wonder if it couldn’t explain the phenomena of spontaneous human combustion. Consider, for example, “The Garden of Forking Paths” or “The Library of Babel.” The stories are so carefully crafted that even the meticulous footnotes referencing works that may—or may not—be extant in our world lend credence and power to unbelievable tales. And who among us has not, at one point, felt utterly lost in a book, as Ts’ui Pen’s novel would have us be?

Ah, you see, there are many paths through the garden. One fork leads here, another there. One allows you to see the rabbit hidden near a hole; another does not. One path is festooned with spring flowers; another brings only the harsh snows of winter. The hour grows late, and I am weary. I sip on my tea, but it is cold now. And, at last, I realize the goal around which I’d been circling. Tomorrow is trash day, and I have forgotten.


Post a Comment

<< Home