May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
November 14, 2019
We all know that poetry does not appear out of thin air. History is scientific, the examination of things that no longer are, but were. Detail matters, and perspective. Who and what will I allow myself to see? You could write two pages, ten, twenty on the doorknob, if you only found the proper mode, the voice, the angle, the moves. What’s around a thing is part of it, like a nimbus, a halo, a set of threads thinning in every direction. The ball tells you where to put your glove. The ball tells you when to swing, though not so clearly. The ball tells you when to leave the field, when to leave the stadium, when to find a quiet bar with decent beers on tap.
There is data, but also improvisation. Trust your intuition, and don’t. Allow history to analyze itself, to split like the atom, to cast its particles in every direction, to sing like the rubbed rim of a glass. The old guy said it all comes down to three things: Oh honey, I’m lonely with you, I’m lonely without you, I’m walking in the woods and I feel a little religious.
Johnny Cash didn’t shoot anybody, in Reno or anywhere else, but there are burial grounds below the cities, below the prairies, all over, hidden and precious and not for you and me to go sniffing after. Bones, shards, the taproots of ancient bluestem, switchgrass, prairie gentian. What we truly do is less than what we can see, sliding over the surfaces, blind to everything below. What we find, imagine, spin out inside our foamy heads—a little more, maybe.
In the Civil War photos, even the blind men carry rifles. What they did with them is lost in the fog of time. In the dream I decided to leave my friends and eat by myself, without explaining to them, without knowing why exactly. One question is who lived to lie about what happened. Another is why all maps are failures. Without knowing either answer I know why Rilke wrote all those angels: not out of belief, but out of desire.
The future, it seems, is a great storm, and so is the past, and these days are not so spiffy either. At least there is art, great art even, especially in New York City, especially on long dark winter days, when the wailing underneath things can be heard. There are always the wars, darkening someone’s sky. We forget too much, remember too much. We are ignorant and fearful, but we must try to understand. At least the Romans were intelligently cruel.
I don’t want anything much, cherubim and thrones, dominions and powers of the air. Not all the powers. Even in the plain church the miracle can be proclaimed, the testimonies rendered with eloquence and conviction. Later, elsewhere, the naked family was so patient with the police, explaining that Satan had occupied their clothing. Others insist there was no cat in that bag.
Sean the farmer is so red and tall and kind, he’s like a fever dream of a farmer. His face is all in shadow as he describes the calf book he keeps: an asterisk is a bad sign, he says. A hard pull, only to save the mother. And the storms, and the branch like a spear, thick as your arm, through the roof and quivering upright in the bedroom floor.
I want to know what shines and glows, what just glitters. My people scrambled through the net of American violence like fish too small for the webbing, mostly neither killers nor killed, living as we all do on stolen land, oblivious, ungrateful, bored, rinsing the rare arrowheads clean and displaying them under glass. We were as boring as we were bored, playing the team sports in their dreary season, our artificial excitement fertilized by pep rallies and what we called, impenetrably, school spirit. We hated the kids from the other schools, who were exactly like us, for not being us. Surely this was both better and worse than hating the kids who were not like us. They did not even register, they were somewhere else, hard to get to on the county roads, on the two-lane State Route 116 that led only to Pontiac, the fast food joints, the Woolworth’s, and the prison. Every day we did the farm work, the inside work, gathered eggs and fed the chickens, plowed and planted, weeded and gathered, and all of it seemed reluctant and implausible prayers.
Jeff Gundy has published eight books of poems, including Without a Plea and Abandoned Homeland from Bottom Dog Press and Somewhere Near Defiance from Anhinga, for which he was named Ohio Poet of the Year. His most recent prose book is Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace from Cascadia. Gundy’s essays and poems appear in Georgia Review, the Sun, Kenyon Review, Forklift, Ohio, the Christian Century,Image, Cincinnati Review, Terrain, and many other journals. A 2008 Fulbright lecturer at the University of Salzburg, he teaches writing and literature at Bluffton University in Ohio.