Another early morning at the hotel coffee shop in Boston. Outside, the blizzard still rages. It was quieter here yesterday, but this is the second day of the conference, and the governor has been turned up very high. The writers are amped. All around me people are talking about writing. Books contracted, reviews published, favorite talks, books read, writing projects, poetry. At one table, three people tap madly on their laptops. Others peruse the catalogue, trying to decide which panels and talks to attend today (deciding among twenty concurrent sessions). Beside me, a man and woman passionately discuss the poet Elizabeth Bishop. I think this conversation is actually the rarest magic. Not “networking,” or sitting passively and exhausted listening to panel discussions, then moving like en masse up or down an escalator to the next session. In conversations, random encounters, connections rooted in love of writing.
But then there are the ideas lifted from the overwhelm of language coming at me, all day long. There’s another way to look at all this. It’s like I’m wandering around in a daze through a summer meadow with my butterfly net, trying to snatch some exotic, startling new species from the thrum of millions. Yesterday I netted a phrase from a reading by Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort, something about wanting darkness to get even darker. And my insides leaned toward those words as they flitted by, saying yes. And in a morning talk about eco-poetics, a neurobiologist’s theory was bandied, that religion is an evolutionary response to the fear of death. Without it, the speaker said, we would live in a constant state of horror. And my insides leaned in, then back, and said, “Wait, is that true?” It is easy to collect and collect such specimens of language and idea, and like a naturalist, jot notes, lose those pages as the onrush of new data floods in. It’s such a big, astonishing and confusing meadow. But how do you let such strange butterflies escape without studying them?
Because people do it every day, religious or not, face up to their own “annihilation.” People diagnosed with a serious illness face it. People in their late years face it. People who lose a loved one face it. Who does that leave? Poets do it every time they sit down to write, and maybe it’s even why they sit down. Last night, two master poets, Seamus Heaney and Dereck Walcott, both quite ancient, discussed their friend the late Russian émigré poet Joseph Brodsky. Walcott said that Brodsky lived (and wrote) in constant fear of his failing heart. When he was dying, he wrote about a “wild darkness” toward which he was heading. Walcott also described his belief that poetry is rooted in silence. It doesn’t just arises out of silence. It creates silence. A poem’s initiation (maybe a moment of inspiration) makes a space of silence from which a poem emerges.
At the eco-poetics panel, which examined how poetry and science relate to each other, the word “wonder” kept flying around. The panelists claimed that the expression of wonder was what separated science from poetry. My friend the writer Doug Chadwick would disagree. He calls science “an organized form of wonder.” But arguing that claim isn’t the point here. Something else didn’t ring true about it. I couldn’t stop thinking that poetry isn’t just an expression of wonder. We aren’t just open-mouthed and wide-eyed dreamily swishing our nets around at the swarm of insect life above our heads. We are running for our lives, or we are lying face down, gripping fistfuls of grass, holding on to the earth, weeping bitter tears into the dirt. Poetry is about horror as well as wonder. The wild darkness we confront when we write.
Am I implying that poetry is my religion? It’s true, writing is what gives me the courage to face the wonder and horror of life and death on earth, and the inevitability of my own annihilation. Meanwhile, I want to stay part of this buzz and hum. I want to drink coffee and walk out in the blizzard, the wind gusting so hard, I’m afraid to cross the street for fear it will knock me down. I want to flit and flirt and comingle. But without stopping, without writing, without daily confrontation with the wild dark forever at my (your) heels, I risk another kind of annihilation.
Here are the lines of Valzhyna Mort’s poem “Mockingbird Hotel”:
But often, to shed light on the darkness, light
isn’t enough. Often what I need is even a darker
In her poem, hallelujahs break out on the gritty streets. They wash over the ground, stir up birds. Now night has fallen on the meadow. I wander, the tall grass shushing my thighs, my net flailing in the air above me, gathering darkness, along with a few stars, giving them back.
(In memory of Ginny Hill Wood, from wild aliveness, passed into wild darkness. She won't feel a stranger.)