This poem is another of my senior year at the university notebook poems. In the house that I shared with Claud and Neal I had the bedroom in back corner with windows on two sides, facing South and West. My single bed was along the South window and the desk faced out the West window toward the back yard and a creek that most often was dry. The three of us were pretty focused on our school work. Claud was a chemistry major and would spend long nights at the university in the lab doing whatever chemistry students do, and then he would appear without warning in the middle of the afternoon, make a couple of sandwiches put on a stack of Joni Mitchell albums on the stereo, move the speakers into his room, close the door, and fall asleep. We would or wouldn’t see him the next day.
Neal, the artist, was involved with a Christian church and deeply involved in a kind of meditative art process that he had made up, as far as I know. He had certainly moved away from representative art. He could draw representationally very well: one year I commissioned two drawings based on a photograph of my mother sitting in a backyard lounge chair and I gave these to my sisters for Christmas presents. But he found his artistic voice in abstract art. His practice, then, as far as I understood was to stare or meditate on a sheet of white drawing paper and to notice, discover, answer the lines that he began to see in that paper by drawing lines very faintly in those places. He had moved away from Bonnard, an influence of his I very much appreciated, and discovered Paul Klee, but perhaps also Pollack, perhaps, and maybe Picasso’s later drawings. This period in his work had a very light, delicate touch, but later moved from pencil to charcoal and the lines developed greater contrast, and remind me in memory of Franz Klein’s work, though I didn’t know Klein’s work then. But mostly, these drawings grew from Neal’s spiritual life, and he, like Claud, was focused on his work and spent long hours at it.
One afternoon, I was at my desk, reading and writing, like English majors do, and I heard Claud and Neal outside my door talking loudly about going outside to throw a baseball or footvall around or something. They were gone for five or ten minutes and then they came back in and very loudly, again, began discussing a terrible smell in the house. Claud opened the door to my room and walked in and asked me if I smelled anything. I said I didn’t, he turned to Neal and said, “It smells like dog shit, doesn’t it?” He kind of fretted, and shifted in place, and sniffed the air. Then with a calm but inquisitive look he eyed his feet, and raised a foot. “I bet that is it,” he said, and ran the forefinger of his right hand down the side of his shoe, and lifted a glob of brown gunk for us all to see. Then he put it to his nose, smelled, stuck out his tongue and licked his finger. Neal started gagging loudly in the hall. And what did I do? I don’t know, sat there aghast and horrified, “Oh God, I can’t believe you did that!”
After a moment, Neal and Claud began laughing very loudly, clapping each other on the back, jumping, dancing around, pointing their fingers at me. “You should have seen your face!” It had all been a joke, all along. Everything has been a ruse, a con. They hadn’t played ball. They had just gone on the porch while Claud had spooned peanut butter on his shoe. But I had bought it all along.
Having been initiated into Claud’s sometimes very lengthy and complicated practical jokes, I was later persuaded to call one of Claud’s shy, retiring, homophobic friends, Andre, inviting him on a date because, supposedly, I had seen his telephone number in the chemistry building. Claud has set him up several days earlier with some temporarily placed “For a good time” announcements, with Andre’s telephone number, left where Andre would find them. Writing this today, in a world that is accepting of different sexual orientations, I am somewhat ashamed we did this. We were who we were, but, happily, we didn’t have to remain that way. We can revise our values also.
As a notebook poem, we have here the lines falling down the page as they occurred to me, capturing the moment of elation and loneliness that writing often is. I suppose this poem could become something more, with a lot of work, but I was not, then, and am not, now, interested in that kind of work for this poem. Maybe it could become something of a Wallace Stevens-esque poem that outlined what inspiration is and is not, that alludes to various theories of how poems come about. But I am not so interested in that.
Just let the poem be what it is. For me, it said what it needed to say to the twenty-one year old poet about to graduate from college. Have faith! Don’t let all the intellectuals get you down. Don’t let all those people who tell you that you have to groom yourself for success, to change who you are for some outside entity, who doesn’t necessarily have your best interests at heart.
Is it a big joke that you are playing on yourself to believe that the world, God, wants you to see this leaf, to notice it, and that it displays itself for you? Of course, the idea is ridiculous. The leaf did not move for me, so that I would then notice it and begin to reflect on prime movers and patterns and the interconnectedness of all things, so that I would contemplate the role of the poet in the world and how one can and must pay attention. It is certainly possible that I had already discovered Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with its essay on seeing. I know that was reading Sam Keen’s books To a Dancing God and Apology for Wonder. I mean, I wasn’t just making this stuff up. Ideas were penetrating me. These are ideas of attentiveness. But the ideas about magic and transcendentalism—Emerson’s all seeing eye—is in the mix here, also.
So you are a beginning poet, and people are telling you that you need to be objective, you need to establish distance from your poem and your subject matter. Sure, it’s true. But do you have to do it now? Or is there another, better path? Just to trust yourself, trust the universe. You know there are so many people who don’t see that leaf move, don’t even notice it. Do you want to be one of those people? Indulge. Luxuriate. Be blessed by what you see, and believe it is all meant for you.
Assignment: Perform a kind of walking or sitting meditation in which you either take a walk in a new place and just look and listen and smell and touch, register every little thing you can notice. Get up close to a tree or lie on the ground and watch ants. Bird songs? Colors? Just look, watch, and record what you see. Maybe use a tape recorder. Or go to a coffee shop and, again, just watch and look. Take it all in. Listen to the conversations, record everything you can. The world is performing just for your enjoyment and inspiration.