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QUINTESSENCE

Right Words

THE NOTEBOOK
by Mary Oliver

Six a.m. -
the small, pond turtle
lifts its head
into the air
like a green toe.
What it sees
is the whole world
swirling back from darkness:
a red sun
rising over the water,
over the pines,
and the wind lifting,
and the water-striders heading out,
and the white lilies
opening their happy bodies.
The turtle
doesn't have a word for any of it -
the silky water
or the enormous blue morning,
or the curious affair of his own body.
On the shore
I'm so busy
scribbling and crossing out
I almost miss seeing him
paddle away
through the wet, black forest.
More and more the moments come to me:
how much can the right word do?
Now a few of the lilies
are a faint flamingo inside
their white hearts,
and there is still time
to let the last roses of the sunrise
float down
into my uplifted eyes.


I have been looking through old journals lately. On a mission to muck out files, sort through my book shelves. A surprising thing struck me rereading a period of journals from 1998-2001...the mixture of notes, fragments of creative idea, the pen and pencil sketches. I was equally taken aback by the implacable boundaries time brackets around words. As Mary Oliver writes, "How much can the right word do?"

I was drawn to sketches in the margins of journals. Drawings of strangers in coffee shops, interesting hands, a peculiar expression on a face in a workshop. All these drawings triggered a kind of memory muscle for me. There were several of my daughter's cello teacher and his centuries-old cello, for example, dashed off in ink on college-rule paper during a lesson. Looking at a cello sketch I remembered sitting uncomfortably on the low sofa, the confines of the tiny practice room, the dim light from the drawn venetian blinds, the rustle of sheet music on the music stand...even the strange plastic wrap this expressive Russian refugee, who had once performed in Leningrad alongside Rostropovich, had so carefully layered around the neck of his beautiful instrument to protect the wood from the sweat of his hands and forearms.

There was no "right word" in my notebook to describe these scenes or events. Instead, a drawing; imbued with shape, mood, unusual detail. Seeing the thing or person before me, and seeing completely. Translating everything imperfectly but somehow accurate in its essence. All too often as writers we glance, and then look away to think, searching for le mot juste, the perfect word. And in doing so, we may step away from the experience, abandon our own innate presence in the moment. I find myself keeping these pages with sketches and half-lines of poems, the penciled scenes from travels with my husband and children. We were all keepers of travel notebooks. We lingered places; taking all the generous, unhurried time required to sketch something of what we saw.

I re-experienced this slow pleasure on a recent trip abroad. There was a gentleman with our group, a painting conservator from a major museum, who did not dash off frenzied smartphone shots of ancient ruins and excavated pottery. He stepped aside as we hiked, opened his sketch book, and freehanded a perspective, employing a few strong lines and shading to capture the heart of the object, the mood of the light. And then he moved on. His notebook of sketches becoming a sensual, visual encounter with objects of mystery -- fallen stones, abandoned boats on the sand, a whalebone, a rune obscured by moss. Looking over his shoulder, these thoughtful sketches were themselves experiences.

My late husband Ken, a black and white photographer, used to say that the reason a photographer lifts a camera is not in order to preserve what he sees, or to interpret the object his lens is focused on. No, the photographer photographs to see. The photographer does not step outside the experience to think through how to describe it as the writer does. The photographer steps into it and lets the moment speak for itself. The photographer encounters the material world as it is, shaped only by his own aesthetic, the light, and perhaps the incidental intrusion of equipment or the development environment. There are only unexpressed truths.

Mary Oliver's observed turtle sees the morning rise around him, registers the universe with simple awareness. The poet knows her awareness, her thoughts about this exchange are somehow stealing her from the fullness of her own experience. She notes this distance, this distraction, and returns her thoughts again to observing, to awareness without translation. A meditation on essence, not story. She makes a poem of her observations on the failures of observation that manages nonetheless to convey what is lost in translation.

Writing may be impressionist, subjective, symbolic, abstract - all these things. Narratives, knotted together by insight, observation, and imagination. But first comes simply being present.

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The Honey of Life's Busyness

Our lives were stored in our heads.
They hadn't begun, we were both sure
we'd know when they did.
They certainly weren't this.

We read, we listened to the portable radio.
Obviously this wasn't life, this sitting around
in colored lawn chairs.

- from "August," Louise Gluck

The tension between imagined life and reality. The dream and the truth. What we dream our lives to be and the way we see them unfold; our tomorrows, construction projects of the imagination. Poet Louise Gluck's young narrator is confident she will be sure when actual life begins. When life, as imagined, will spread in technicolor across the white screen of summer days. The poet observes, "Our lives were stored in our heads."

Some of us wait, and are lost in the waiting. Some of lost looking longingly over our shoulders.

Today must not be a souvenir of yesterday, and so the struggle is everlasting. Who am I today? What do I see today? How shall I use what I know, and how shall I avoid being victim of what I know? Life is not repetition."
- Robert Henri

We are not meant to abandon our futures absorbed in nostalgia, lost in musings, in fixation upon the past. Today must not be a souvenir of yesterday, philosopher Robert Henri warns. Life is found within the common hours of our days, here in the honey of life's busyness. The vanishing moments that link days to years, that hang like droplets of dew in the throat of an iris.

This universe of one is a universe of many. And it is beautiful. And ordinary. A summer of books, the radio, and colored lawn chairs.

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