On the Poems of Heaven

I’m spending the summer at a ranch that is also a school in the High Mojave, at the edge of the Great Basin, on the California border with Nevada, in a valley ringed with mountains and accessible by two passes. The more tortuous of the passes brings you from California, taking about thirty-five minutes from Highway 395. When I lived here for four years three years ago that drive became like the streets of a real neighborhood. Either to pass the time, or to amuse myself, I divided the road into sections and named the sections: Pinball, The Chute, Tabletop, Topsy-turvy. Nothing special—-just obvious names based on physical properties of the road. I could preoccupy myself with at what point one section ended and another began and re-make the distinctions. I once told a young farmer I’d done this to the road and he smiled to hear it. This farmer once said to me, “you know, people don’t think this, but farmers spend a lot of time in their heads.” Constantly reorienting, the mind is like a Denny’s in a Western town, Always Open. When we sleep, we dream, and when we wake, we’re in the middle of everything.

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Everyone knows something about nature, or believes they know it: once I rode the Northeast Regional into Penn Station, and right before we tunneled under for the last ten, the conductor, possessed by some impulse, urged us to pause in silence and look at nature, and by that he meant the Manhattan skyline. Strunk and White have something to say about it, too, admonishing the writer to clarify any statement that begins “a lover of nature,” since such an expression could mean anything from a skyline to a squirrel, the etymology of the word being Latin, and vague: natura, course of things, universe. But what about wilderness? Nature retains a quality of containing all that is most familiar; wilderness retains a quality of all that is mysterious. In our dealings with it we label it ‘untouched’ to bless and value it. ‘Wilderness’ confuses and disorients. Emily Dickinson, in a letter to the Master: ‘perhaps her odd Backwoodsman ways (life) teased (troubled) his finer nature (sense).’ Nature inspires contemplation, but wilderness provokes. As an art form, poetry can pride itself on manifesting and following whim, but in recent years I’ve been so desperate to get home I haven’t had the wherewithal for that.

*

One version of how poetry happens: the mind keeps trying to answer unsolvable questions with actual answers. The visual cognate—-the metaphor—-for this is the landscape, an approximation of the eye, which is neither ever forever nor a gaze of 360 degrees. Western-moving Whitman’s catalogs do what large landscapes should do: get everything in. But landscape’s capaciousness—-the desire to compose a scene—-teems with anxiety. How do you frame a river, and where do you cut off the picture? If you can’t get the whole valley in the picture is your goal to give a sense of the whole? What dwarfs you can easily become narcissistic. You want the landscape to look at you from every angle at once. The landscape provokes, in its composition, a set of questions about your place in it. All of the decisions you make about what to include answer these questions and articulate more.

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James McMichael, in his long poem ‘Four Good Things’ from The World at Large, asks a good question: ‘What if we tried to memorize the present?’ Isn’t this the predicament of the landscape in any genre—-an attempt to fix simultaneity, to find not just the importance of the moment but a plan for the moment? McMichael’s eye tends to fall upon people rather than on the natural landscapes themselves (and mine tends to do the same). But what is a family but a landscape in time? When you write about family you are trying to put everyone in the picture in proper relation. And this is, of course, completely impossible. In McMichael’s case, the circumstances of his birth make it immediately difficult:

With my conception I was virtually
coincident with cancer in my mother’s body.
To exist is to be placed outside, where there are
things to fear. My body. Me. The visible
pulse at my right ankle, thick blue vein, the skin,
sunlight on my ankle in a cold house, now.
When I’m afraid, I try to think of everything.
I try to change the possible by thinking some one
part of it and giving it a place—-gratuitous
murder, accident, a flood, the separate and bizarre
pathologies that could be mine and final.
Worry is somewhat less possessive, less complete,
more frequent and deliberate, self-amused. It too
displaces where I am with something that I make
inside me. Each thing I worry is secure,
familiar, almost home. Its difference is
mine and not the world’s. The house wren, when it sings, says
“Here I am.” It looks around and says it.
My worrying and fear are notices that I don’t
have a place outside and don’t know how to
find or make one. They are as free of people as a
garden is, or as a plan.

McMichael’s landscape is a landscape of worry, and it reveals anxiety to be what it truly is, a certainty of the meaning-making imagination that consciously disregards the circumstances of life in favor of the circumstances it itself can make, a kind of sublime garden. My admiration for these lines—-and for the entire book-length poem—-comes from their relentless clarity, which occurs in each sentence, even if sentence by sentence the lines don’t always make accumulative sense. They muster their energy, their Thelonious Monk-like commitment to not knowing what happens next, precisely because they don’t make sense together even if they make sense apart. In their ability to state so clearly and so quickly the circumstances of the problem, and the mental solutions to the problem that then become manifested, they attempt, through clarity, understanding. But clarity isn’t understanding. The clarity of these lines—-and by this I mean, the aesthetic clarity, the use of conceptual vocabulary to make present the senses of the body, the short sentences, the diction that feels to me like that of an extraordinarily smart person talking to you and not talking down to you, intimately, but not for your sake in a way that makes you feel implicated or judged or like you have to take the responsibility of ordering all the parts of the story yourself—-reveals a mind at work in clarity, not a mind that sees things clearly. For all his clarity, McMichael remains completely mystified. Even when he lands in an understanding, that understanding—-that thinking, that making of a thought, that made thought—-doesn’t solve the problem at hand, but leads to another thinking. Being able to represent clearly the range of thought, the possibilities of thought—-this isn’t certainty at all. You make a world that seems like a whole and then you look at it and it lacks conviction and you have to go back and figure out why.

*

This relentless clarifying, a constant search for answers in which answers are manifested and discarded or accepted, rather than one in which unanswerable questions stay unanswered with a kind of holy adoration of question-asking itself, is what poetry has in common with mourning. In grief you try to think of everything: you try to remember the dead person, you take the unconscious activity of memory and elevate it to conscious reality. And if you want to forget, you must also, at times, try: if your loved one has cancer, perhaps, and you don’t want to remember the chemo and the radiation and the wig. Or dementia—-perhaps you don’t want to remember the disorientation and forgetting. Or maybe you want to remember everything. Grief makes a person try anything, sometimes to end and sometimes to keep it going. I can now recognize my relentless thinking during my mother’s illness, as her cancer spread to her brain, and that was bad enough, and then to her spine, which was grim, as the first forms of the grief-thinking that would take hold of me when her body actually quit its breathing. The falseness of this: that if I could manage the information I could master the experience.

*

Someone is gone; the mind seeks replacements. The replacements are found wanting; you find new replacements. You think of an idea to replace the idea of replacement and you call that idea ‘growing up,’ or ‘getting over it.’ Even if you decide not to think about it, you are trying, in fact, you’re trying harder aren’t you? These Western landscapes I am attracted to, more sublime than beautiful, present the mind with the powerful overwhelming rather than the idyllic pastoral, a topographical map rather than a sense of enlightened intuition. James McMichael talks about how his worries are ‘as free of people as a / garden is, or as a plan.’ Categories, clarities, that (not even ruthlessly) distance themselves from legibility and from other people even as they assume legible shape. The mind’s sublime is not a place for you, but a place that you are constantly moving through.

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But the mind is restless. There must be other kinds of poem and now I want to know them. Not happiness, but Heaven is the opposite of grief—-it’s the fantastical place where they’ve already thought of everything and everyone who ends up there, belongs there. As I imagined heaven after my mother left the earth, I couldn’t shake the idea of it as some kind of an elegant but low-key cocktail party, with just enough snacks for a few drinks and no more, and everyone with somewhere terrific and different to get to after it. My imagination focused on temperature (warm, with a breeze, but not yet cool enough to require the mandatory California light sweater), seating (chairs and couches in small groups, and stand-up tables as well), drinks (whatever you want, but some magic quality of the drink makes you only drink one or two, making the trip to the bar the perfect halfway point), and attire (elegant casual). As I continued to imagine this I realized I had come up with an idealized version of my mother’s actual funeral, which was itself some idealized version of the party she wanted to have the summer she died. Other people’s heavens will certainly be different, but I think the feeling I’m trying to convey has something to do with your needs already having been met, and the anxiety about meeting them ceasing to become characteristic of your interest in them. Maybe the whole world of poems divides itself into poems of grief and poems of heaven. Maybe this year, maybe after I leave this valley and do the pass one more time, I should try to write the poems of heaven.