On December 1st, Blood Orange Review, an online literary journal at Washington State University, announced its newest edition, volume 8.2, was now live. That edition includes a poem of mine called “As If We Were Solid and Did Not Go On Forever.” This poem is about an experience I had over 20 years ago that I mentioned in the post Return to Elk Creek. The blog post I wrote a few years ago celebrated my return after 20 years to find I was able to do the whole hike and get down to rest my feet in the cool rushing water. Here’s what I had to say about writing the poem in that post:
“Elk Creek Falls was the first scenic place Mike and I went to visit in our first month in Idaho. Mike was none too happy with me for hauling him up to the boonies and away from his life in California, so I wanted to show him something he’d really like here. But we didn’t see it that day. When we got to the parking turnout we were met by a state ranger that told us the falls were closed. A teenager had slipped and fell, hit his head on a rock and drowned. They were searching the water for his body. It turned out this boy was the close friend of the son of one of my new colleagues at the university. I ended up attending the memorial service, which was so large it was held in the junior high school gymnasium, and then the burial. So one of my first introductions to our new town was seeing people gather together in memory, love, and mourning. It was a powerful threshold to witness, and to feel. I later wrote a poem about it. I haven’t sent it out for publication, but it did find its way to the friends of Jacob, the boy who died, and I’m told they put it on his grave. So Elk River Falls lives in me on that level as well.”
This experience happened 24 years ago, and this poem that tells about it was written soon after, so the original draft of it is over 20 years old. Most of the substance and wording of it is still in the same form, but over the years I worked hard on the lines and the exact phrasing I wanted to make the music of the story most clear. I remember writing it all out by hand in order to find the write/right lines. Those are the lines that are now in print.
Another problem that took two decades to solve was the title. I can’t remember what I first called it, but it was not a good fit. For several years it was called “The Sign of Two Fish,” but a poet friend of mine rightly raised concerns about that evoking a very traditional Christian ethic which is not really part of the poem, when I actually meant it to refer to the astrological sign of Pisces.
Yet another obstacle was the subject matter. At the time I wrote it, I felt the contemporary poetry community was not all that open to an elegy that also allowed for communication with the dead, involuntary mudras, and a matter of fact approach to a belief we must go on after we leave the physical body. I just didn’t see anything else like it out there. It didn’t help that as a grad student one of my mentors, Louise Gluck, has said, simply, “nobody’s doing what you’re doing.” I know she meant it as a compliment, and encouragement to go on in a private writing program which I couldn’t afford, but instead it also made me worry about how what I wrote would be received in the world of editors.
And yet, I had to write what I had to write. And then I got the diagnosis of MS, and writing poetry became mostly about trying to finish the ones I had already started, and somehow get them all marshalled into a second book manuscript. Most were long, and unapologetic about their approach to the many strange experiences I’ve had that make me trust dimensions beyond those which I can experience with my five senses. Revision crept down to a geological crawl.
When I did write something new, it was shorter, more condensed, often restricted to the immediacy of a moment. Or maybe not. Now that I think of it, the first poem I wrote after a long time of not being able to, was this one. And in it, I was telling myself I could wait:
Before the Stars
I have come to the end of the road.
Those long shadows cut the soft dust
with their sharp, dark arms, and the light falls.
The blinding layers of brilliant day
fade away, one by one. Only the deep
gold lingers, which, soon, will also be gone,
turned away from night’s blue home
raising itself slowly, in silence,
to draw each shadow in and close
the indigo doors. Then just stars.
But now, at this moment, the door
is still open, and the end of the road
reaches out across those dark arms
cutting, inviting me to its tangle
of wild grasses back lit in the reflection,
the gold air. The land drops down
beyond. Yet I could sit there,
no more traveling, in stillness,
at the open, green mouth of a new world.
No road. Just the murmurs of water
far below. The breeze that blows out
the last threads of sun would tangle my hair,
the tall grasses. I could sit there. I could wait,
breathing in and out before the stars.
Many many more years later, after coming to plant-based eating and improving the way I did, the sonnets in my chapbook If A Sparrow arrived. But still, there are these long poems, only one of which has been written in the last 5 years, and they needed homes.
One by slow miracle one, this is being accomplished. The book manuscript, as it currently stands, has been rejected roundly at many contests thus far. But the accretion of the publication of the individual poems within it slowly builds, like dripping water creates stalactites in an underground cave.
Perhaps the most wonderful reason for the publication of “As If We Were Solid and Did Not Go On Forever” is that there is now, after two decades, a new generation of poetry journal editors and upcoming poets. They seem to do yoga, to walk the Camino, to give the inanimate a voice beyond what Gary Snyder started over a half century ago, and in general, just be more open to the sudden appearance of what I can only call angels, or the way my hands might move without me telling them to. After being told when I was younger “you can’t write about that” when I wrote about the day we had to put my Samoyed down, it is like the fresh air after rain to have this generation of editor say unabashedly “I love your work” and suggest the current title for this poem, which is perfect, but which my much more careful older poet friends would never have dared to think of, let alone suggest. Or at least if they would have, no one ever ventured to say so. It was all seen through a lense that couldn’t commit to something so “unknown.”
But it is the unknown, the nothing that is something, that draws me in, and continues to draw me in. In the big scheme of things, this publication is not making world news. It is not leading me any closer to getting the whole manuscript published either. But maybe it is. For the first time in a long time, I’m beginning to think this new title might need to be the title of the manuscript. It just might. And that now I might have the fortitude to go back and read it, yet again, and see.
I am ever grateful to editor Bryan Fry at Blood Orange Review, for giving this poem a place in the world beyond its long ago placement on the fresh gravestone of Jacob Windsor. For believing in its beauty, despite the sadness and loss, and for giving its perspective a place to be. I am in the tremendous good company of other excellent writers in this issue as well. If you are so inclined, I hope you’ll give it a good read.
When I was a little girl, I never liked it when my parents said “All things come to he who waits.” And when I was a young woman, I didn’t much like it when another dear mentor poet friend of mine, Brenda Hillman, told me not to rush getting my manuscript or poems out into the world. But now, after having lived for many decades, I can honestly say both of these things are so very profoundly true. And so is another phrase a dear writer friend of mine used to intone: life is long. We’d laugh to say that, instead of the expected “life is short,” but it was particularly meaningful for her to write me that the publication of this poem after 24 years certainly is proof of that. Thousands of miles away from each other, I know we both smiled from ear to ear. In other words, as a famous baseball player once said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”