For most of my life, I’ve had a bit of a poem printed out on a piece of cardstock, laminated to make it last longer, tucked into my wallet. I’ve had to re-do it from time to time – even lamination doesn’t last forever. But I hold it and look at it and whisper it sometimes like a prayer.
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
-Gerard Manley Hopkins
One thing about living with a poem for a long time – and it has been long. I am forty now. Soon I will be forty-one. I’ve had this same bit of a poem in my pocket or purse or wallet since I was fifteen – is that different tangles of language find their way into the gears of my mind and become lodged there. There was a time when I sought the truth from dragonflies. There was a time I listened to the ringing of stones. There was a time the natural world played for me like an orchestra – each leaf, each blade of grass, each feathered wing was for me the tucked string ready to play its song. The whole world was for me the swung bell.
My name, I felt, was a thing flung. Myself it speaks and spells.
That is still true. All of those things are still true. My soul falls on different beats of the poem and lands there for a while. And where it lands feels meaningful. It is meaningful.
I am writing a book right now that has an ancient creature who quotes an ancient poet. Which means I have been having to make up some ancient poetry that would be for Glerk – my beloved swamp monster – as this poem has been for me: touchstone and riddle; puzzle and balm. This is good because I am reading more poetry than I usually do. Ancient poetry. Sappho and Rumi and Enheduanna and Matsuo Bashō. I discovered “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor”, an Egyptian epic poem over four thousand years old that I had managed to never know about until now. This is a good thing. It is good to learn.
After all, what I do is me. I learn. I wonder. I go outdoors. I stare too closely at the sun. Each bell’s bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name.
When we write stories, we do not do so to express ourselves. We write stories in the same way that a carpenter builds a chair – it is an exercise of skill and precision and artistry and form. It is creating a thing that is separate from ourselves. We tell ourselves this, and it is true. And yet. Each time I write a story, I find my way toward something central in me as well. And often it is an aspect of me that perhaps I have forgotten about. I am writing about a swamp monster who quotes ancient poetry. Researching ancient poetry has led the paths of my mind circling back toward the person that I was when I first printed out that poem and laminated it. A person who looked toward an unknowable knot of language and tried to find the true thing hidden in the spaces between the sprung rhythm. I am writing about Glerk, and Glerk is leading me to me.
It is a strange thing to notice. Glerk is a character borne out of my imagination. And yet he is bossing me around. Typical.
I read another poem today that made me cry. I used to write poetry every day. Now I never do. Perhaps it’s time for me to start again. Maybe that’s what my imagination is attempting to lead me toward. Perhaps that is why I started writing this book – to lead me back toward myself. What I do is me; for that I came.