For one of my classes, I have to write a personal reflection on the quarter. I think I’m supposed to have limited my scope and focused on how it went with the class, but how can I? Why would I want to write less?
You Got Paw Prints on my Clothes
Grateful. The whole spectrum from thanks to praise shining with excess in writing that word. As I sit, here at the coffee shop, watching cars speed through my field of vision, I think about the quarter drawing to a close, how last time I tried to take this course I ended up flaking out, failing to write the final essay I couldn’t get excited about. I think about the way life unfolds, the way the mud stays muddy, and how the ups and downs live inside the body and make it tumble forward, from day to day, like laundry spinning in a dryer. There are moments though, when the timer goes off and you get to wear the warm skin of yourself and stand there, swaddled in the garment of your own body, your barefooted-on-the-tile feet sensing that something at your center has started to thaw.
Reflecting. It reminds me of the tricks of light we used to play on the dog. Sunlight come in from the window bounced off and shown aglow on the rug, and the dog going full speed ahead, trying to catch what isn’t there. My dog died this quarter, bringing up the total to three. It’s the death I had the most difficulty accepting, still haven’t come clean through to the other side of grief, sadness still spinning in the rinse cycle. Would you believe that I believe, if he could talk, my dog could quote poetry? Coleridge, nonetheless. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree…SIT. He must have heard it a thousand times and no doubt he could parrot it if you asked him what most got on his nerves. He wasn’t the one for poems, but he listened with the full enthusiasm that you’d expect from holding before him a spoon of peanut butter.
He taught me what it means for the mouth to water, how to lick your lips like every bite mattered. I’m grateful for that. Poems are like peanut butter. They linger. Stick to the tongue, the gums. I’m grateful for the immense saving power of poetry. This is my sixth year in college, five years have passed; five summers, with the length of five long winters, and again I hear a low murmur, a trickling brook, moving through me. Sometimes it’s the clear river that carries me slowly downstream, the glassy surface in which everything is reflected, myself starfish shaped and upheld, floating. Other times it’s the wash cycle all over, the rapids dragging you along, rocky, a cyclone. I’ve been carried along all this time not knowing to what sea, what lake or pond, I’m heading for. I’ve seen people drown, half drowned myself with the narrow spout of a bottle of gin, been held and head-over-healed underwater for too long by an eating disorder.
Poetry is footing. It’s the momentary bank you end up washed up on, and dripping wet in your clothes, you lay down, chest heaving with new breath, and let the sun dry you. Then you river some stones, watch them skip and feel the child flaring inside you. It’s the distance that drives you to keep going, the number of skips and the ripples, first, their specific ringlets opening out, then the absorption, each ripple adding momentum and shape to the next, until they become one. In Tintern Abbey I confront the posture of “deep seclusion,” feel myself to be a boy in admiration of the chosen loneliness of the hermit who, “by his fire / [he] sits alone.”
During one lecture, the professor asked the class to read with more empathy. I’ll never forget that. Lately, I’ve been bringing to literature a way of reading synonymous to interrogation, as if I’ve dragged poetry to some closet to beat a confession out of it. But poetry would slip cyanide under its tongue before it tells you its final truth. Its the river that doesn’t end, held open to fresh meaning at all times. What I have felt in each poem and passage is a pact, the shaking of hands or knocking of gloves before you head back to your corner to wipe the blood off, get ready for another round. But it’s also the warm welcome. Like I’m the guest at a dinner party held by Dickens, and the whole table is set for fifty, Mr. Gradgrind on my left, Louisa on my right, Sissy Jupe sitting across from us, her raised-from-the-dead father beside her, and Merrylegs, wandering between the chairs, begging for scraps.
Maybe it’s the loss of my dog, maybe it’s the mastery of pacing balancing the images, of Dickens soliciting feelings foreknown but unexperienced. Both. I would not have wanted the circumstances of my life to be any different than they were when I read this passage:
Father, soon after they came home from performing, told Merrylegs to jump up on the backs of the two chairs and stand across them – which is one of his tricks. He looked at father, and didn’t do it at once. Everything of father’s had gone wrong that night, and he hadn’t pleased the public at all. He cried out that the very dog knew he was failing, and had no compassion on him. Then he beat the dog, and I was frightened, and said, “Father, father! Pray don’t hurt the creature who is so fond of you! O Heaven forgive you, father, stop!” And he stopped, and the dog was bloody, and father lay down crying on the floor with the dog in his arms, and the dog licked his face.
That will make the faucets run. I couldn’t stop my body from laying itself down on the rug and crying, feeling on my own face the ghost of my dog’s soft pink tongue. I never hurt my dog like that, sometimes I yelled and it drove him under the bed in my room, where he would wait, all packed in and barely fitting, until I would climb underneath and put my hand on his paw. “Pray don’t hurt the creature who is so fond of you!” And yet we do it all the time. Breaking promises, using unneeded words, driving drunk, eating a meal lovingly prepared for you and then going to throw it up. We forget the faces of those before us, how strange and similar that they are there at all. The empathy I have now for the poems, novels, and essays, is a covenant of compassion. Like the dog, bloody, still licking your face.
It is the irony, driven like a spike, into the dejection odes of Wordsworth and Coleridge, which persuades me to believe in the yes that great poetry achieves. In writing poetry about not being able to write poetry, Wordsworth and Coleridge surmount more than their attempted negation. They affirm life. Poetry acts as the sounding board and listening post of human experience, and in the poems I sense that there is in both of the poets a small child discovering a dusty harp stashed in the attic. The child may not know how to play, but I’ll be damned if they don’t make some music.
I’ll admit, I’m susceptible to the doubt that often accompanies any serious undertaking, like trying to be a poet. In a world where politics is regarded as the only way to roll back the stone and shine a little light in, art, it seems, has lost the grip it had on letting go and making space for new ideas, even of the most religious flavor, to emerge. The last thing I want to do is end up like a monk, bent over some manuscript, keeping house and never turning my attention to the world. I want to write poems that become offerings.
We’re in the middle of Lent. I am awaiting the day that Easter arrives. Before sunrise I will stand in the dark with the other members of our parish, singing hymns, burning palm branches, anticipating the next season of Lent. We will all hold candles and jingle our keys. When the bell is struck and the lights come on, the priest will sing out and the smoke from our burned-out candles will rise and undulate under the skylight. In their slow whirl-pooling I will think I think about the speed and heat of the dryer, how Jesus returned to earth in clean garments, even after the gore. It will strike me as silly, imagining a certain kind of detergent that makes the fabric more luminous.
Fetch, I tell the dog, and then lob the squeaky toy across the backyard. He bolts, kicks up dust, runs face first into the toy and knocks it around before grabbing it with his mouth. Then, as if to say “no big deal,” trots with perfect posture, almost too regal, and drops the ball at my feet. Its strange how this is a gift for both of us, how his animal joy becomes my human happiness, how whatever I give he gives right back.
We could play fetch all day. He won’t get tired. He’ll always fall for the fake-it and hide-it behind your back. He will always lay the slobbery gift at my feet, look up at me with his tongue out and wait. During this game he will bark and jump up on me if I take too long to throw it, get his dusty paws on my t-shirt, drool all over my shoes and fingers. The gleam of dirt and saliva on the chew toy I hold in my hands will make them smell of pig-ear and earth. I will remember Manly Hopkins, how in Gods Grandeur, everything “is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell,” and I will think about when to put these stinking clothes in the wash, and decide to let the dirt linger a little longer. This is the covenant I have made with the earth. Then I’ll look down at the eager dance my dog is doing, and I’ll ask, fetch?
Yes, he will say, Let it fly just one more time.