Sunday, June 24, 2007

Stepping in the Same River Twice


Night has fallen with no rain. My wife is inside, flipping through cookbooks in search of something for a late dinner. I’m sitting outside surrounded by mosquitoes while the puppies, full with their dinner, sniff around the yard. Archie is just visible at the edge of the patio. Dixie, staring, as if into the stars that break through clouds above the honeysuckle, stands beside him, her spots blurring into the darkness of night. Our fluorescent porch light staves off the darkness, offering a semblance of safety.

A few miles away, lights are everywhere. The summer fairs have begun. The Westside fair, with its whirling carnival rides, smoldering grills, and milling crowds, churns on towards closing. Until tomorrow.

Michelle needs help in the kitchen, so I retreat inside to the dining room. The dogs wait patiently for their treats and then vanish into my office, which is now one of only two rooms in the house that still needs to be cleaned. The lights flicker as the air conditioner kicks on. My wife takes a break from cleaning to contemplate a decorating idea for the living room. Dixie howls from my office. She and Archie are at play. Michelle howls in counterpoint, stalling the dog’s play for a moment, until Archie, growling, goes after Dixie, and Michelle feels compelled to join the fray.

They are, I suspect, making up for lost time. On Friday, while Michelle’s father and his twin brother visited our newly polished home, I took Archie to the vet to have his stitches removed and hear the results of his biopsy. Good news. The tumor was a histiocytoma. It was benign and the resection had clean edges. Perhaps Archie’s luck has changed—even if he doesn’t think so after his third surgery in such a brief life. But now, there are no more torturous t-shirts and no more seemingly draconian restrictions on what Archie can do (aside from those imposed by Dixie and for the good of the household).

I’m tempted to end here, on that note of something like joy, but for today, despite a general sense of happiness, that seems disingenuous. Let me begin again.


Country rock twangs in from the living room. A xylophone, recorded years ago in Texas, jaunts along a major scale and mingles with the plaintive melody of a hollow-body guitar. Michelle has almost finished cooking a late dinner. Archie, who is no longer trapped by the indignity of a t-shirt, lays patiently in the hall, waiting on his share. Dixie slips in and out of sleep as she curls near my feet on the dining room rug.

Lately, I’ve been reading John Ashbery’s Other Traditions , a little Derrida, and a smidge of Foucault. Much madness of late, I suppose. Of course, it has affected my poetry. I find myself worrying less over images and searching out big ideas that I’ve not yet seen explicated in one form or another. Oddly, this month, I’ve written eight such poems, which seem to me to bask in the shadow of Ashbery’s influence without plunging too deeply into the near hermeneutical mysteries that seem to make his work so difficult for so many. Yet, clearly, if I’ve managed so many poems in such a short time the ideas are either smaller than I’d first imagined or I’m cleverer than Michelle (and the dogs) ever suspected.

Now, we’ve finished our dinner. The lights on the summer carnival are dimmed for the night. I’ve felt a few drops of moisture glance across my skin. I’m having trouble believing it will rain.

For the past few days, I haven’t had time to write. Michelle’s father and his twin brother arrived for a visit on Wednesday night and stayed through Friday morning. Consequently, the early portion of the week was dedicated to making the house seem spotless. Now, only our bedroom upstairs and my office need a good cleaning. Laundry still lurks in the basement, and the yew bush out front could use a visit from the hedge trimmers, but the house resembles what Michelle must have been dreaming of for months of our mutual inaction.

While my father-in-law was here, he helped me unclog a sink, reset the garbage disposal, and install new sconces above the fireplace. He, his brother, and his sister, who also lives in Cincinnati, spent the whole of Thursday together. They drove to Indiana to visit the cemetery where their parents are buried. They circled Cincinnati in search of minor shopping deals. More, they spent time together, without children or spouses, for the first time in many, many years.

Yet, even after a weekend like that, I suspect he still wishes that he had spent the time elsewhere.

On Friday night, the same night his granddaughter was tapping her way through another dance recital, he arrived home after the four-hour drive back and learned that a long-time friend, long suffering the indignity of cancer, had slipped away. It was not unexpected. Only a week ago, he’d refused to get out of bed, as though the fight itself had worn him thin. My father-in-law had gone to his house, cajoled him from bed.


On occasion, prose still seems, regardless of your ability, deeply ineffective. To me, in such moments, poetry, despite its limitations, can come closer to capturing the symphony of emotions, often in counterpoint, that leaves us gasping for the right words. I’ll not argue, of course, that it’s a substitute for the weight of a loved one’s hand or the simple fact of someone else’s breath sharing the same room. Yet, there’s a reason why, with each holiday, we reach for greeting cards and their mediocre verse. There’s a reason why poetry, with its perpetual seeming uselessness, seems to survive. Everyone, I believe, has at one point in their lives been moved by a poem—even if the poem is nothing more than an adolescent’s take on existentialism.

I’m not happy with what I’ve written. I’ve approached the topics twice and found my skills lacking for the day. Perhaps, you’ll disagree, and find something lovely, here or there. But would that change my opinion?

If this were a poem, I’d set the piece aside, let it float somewhere in the recesses of my mind for a while. Maybe a few weeks. Maybe a month. Maybe years.

I’d return, like a young adult returning to her high school, hoping that I could see the sentences, the ideas, and the images anew. Then I’d wield my word processor like a scalpel, excising adverbs and articles. I’d tighten (perhaps) the imagery, so that the metaphors, in one way or another were consistent. I’d eliminate those images that seemed redundant to the imagination, and I would try to look at the structure of the piece, locating those moments when the argument (for there is always an argument) breaks down, meanders, or skips ahead like a first-grader who is too clever for his own good.

Often, I’ll fiddle with the language here and there, checking the rhythm with scansion, looking for motifs (whether they are as simple as iambic pentameter or as complex as something Gerard Manley Hopkins might have imagined) that I can use at key points in the poem. I’ll search out repeated ideas or unnecessarily abstract words and weigh the benefit of keeping such an untoward word in something so small as a poem. And once I think I’m close, I’ll read the little beasty aloud, waiting like an over-cautious driver for potholes that slow my progress.

Of course, this, I suppose, is how I imagine my process. Like our lives, the truth of revision is both simpler and more complex than I can convey here. I often trust my gut and my ears. They’ve been around, after all. More, I’ve not listed myriad thoughts I’ve had and do have about poetry. I’ve not even mentioned the aesthetics of line breaks.

It takes practice.


How would you revise this little essay? What would you say differently? Would your answers to those questions depend on your mood? The weather?

The dogs, at last, have curled on the sofa to sleep. Michelle is lounging in the next room watching television. The revelers at the Westsider Fair have headed home or to bars and diners around the city. The briefest sprinkle of rain has ceased. My muscles ache from a long day of planned and unplanned excursions. On the other side of Ohio, my wife’s family has perhaps found a respite from their grief in a night of sleep. The house is clean, though cold. The lawn, at last, is mown.

If only we could revise our lives as we do our poetry.

I hope you see why it matters so much that we can.

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