Saturday, September 26, 2009

Gardens, Poetry, Silence, Absence

Here's a short piece from my memoir / manuscript Morning Glory: A Story of Family and Culture in the Garden....


My family has grown up on the prairie, in the Midwest, on land that, according to author Kathleen Norris, rubs off on us to make us feel that “we don’t need to connect. The prairie landscape isolates us from each other as well as from our history, and yet the plains are quiet, absent of people and their noise, provide for an experience of self to fit within the environment, to notice the little things that mean much.” Norris, who grew up and lives in North Dakota, frequently stays at upper Midwest monasteries for reflection and to continue her monastic-influenced spiritual education. These monasteries, according to Norris, often “follow silence at certain hours, but I had never before immersed myself in the kind of silence that sinks into your bones. I felt as if I were breathing deeply for the first time in years. To live communally in silence is to admit a new power into your life. In a sense, you are merely giving silence its due. But this silence is not passive, and soon you realize that it has the power to change you.”

There are places for silence, moments in our days that we require, not that we want, but that we absolutely need. And the more we have them, I think the closer we get to ourselves and the world. I know that when I am dusting or cooking, the world drops to the side, but not completely away, and I am absorbed in the focus of my work, just as those monks who are finding praise and glory in their silent prayers of work. But most of all, I find the kind of silence Norris speaks of so deeply and transformatively right here, in this moment, writing out these words. I suppose that I have mini moments where I allow myself to daydream on the chair or on the porch, but they are soon interrupted by other thoughts. Here, the focus is intense, onrushing, consuming, it sinks into my bones to the point that every part of me is aerated and I breathe deeply some fresh, new life—as one might do on a cool summer’s evening after a hard rain.

In these silences, these deep breaths, there is a necessary mystery I follow, sometimes discovering new roads, new ideas, sometimes ending up in a place I’d never dreamed of, sitting back, and feeling blessed for having had that moment. It is an intense shuddering through my body, it reverberates, it’s like a limb warmed up after coming inside form the winter cold, tingly, pulsating, coming alive again. This is the same feeling I get in some poetry, like this short piece by James Wright:

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in the green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.


Did you feel that pulse? That fear and hope? Read the poem again. I’ll wait.

There’s a pensive tension in it, an unexpected rhythm, a shuttering of sense and realization and finally transcendence as we move from one image to the next and take on new perspectives—and this happens daily in our lives. It happens in smaller, almost imperceptible degrees, but when they happen we feel releases, we breathe deeply just once with a newly changed sense of realization and we can never go back to the same life before. I also think to have such an experience is terribly frightening. There is so much uncertainty in living a connected life, a fully aware life. There is much more room for heartache and destruction, to be so open is to be so vulnerable, so touchable. But to be alive one must surely dig into the unknowable. How intoxicating that this can happen even in the smallest moments.

Here’s Stanley Kunitz talking about poetry, gardens, silence, and discovery:

The poem holds its secrets and keeps its tensions by closing out the opportunity to explain…. Art conceals and reveals at the same time. Part of the concept of the garden is that you never see it all at once. This I got from my understanding of Japanese gardens, that the way to see a garden is by circling it, by walking through it.

You don’t see the garden as a whole form any point, but you begin to know it by making a tour around it. Then it becomes a garden in the mind, and you become the instrument that defines it, just as you have to create the wholeness of the poem in your mind….

In the poem, there is an impulse that moves form line to line, from image to image, but complete revelation is not achieved until the poem arrives at its terminal point, at which time what has been secret before in the poem begins to reveal itself, and you have to really meditate on the poem. It’s like someone removing a garment slowly, slowly.


When Kunitz says art conceals and reveals at the same time, he’s not talking about art—he’s talking about being alive, breathing, eating, sleeping. But what’s the payoff of meditating on anything? Who gives a rip? The absence of a thing is that thing. Look at the garden in winter. All I can see are monarda, coneflowers, iris, rudbeckia, asclepias, sedum, miscanthus…. Look at your life, what do you hunger or long for the most. Suddenly, it’s just as or more real then having it, and maybe the reason is partly because you’ve spent so much time becoming intimate with the idea that you know the thing in more meaningful ways than the shortcut of physicality could ever allow. One of the huge issues with modern language and communication and media, and a continued appeal of silence in the face of it, is the realization that too many words and images pollute the direct power of the original. Less is more. It allows us to circumnavigate an issue and find our way to the center—it allows us to discover ourselves in the places we inhabit, physical and emotional. I think that’s sort of what Kunitz is getting at when he’s talking about tensions and silences, and what Norris finds in monasteries. But why not hear it from a real monk, Thomas Merton:

There are not a few who are beginning to feel the futility of adding more words to the constant flood of language that pours meaninglessly over everybody, everywhere, from morning to night. For language to have meaning there must be intervals of silence somewhere, to divide word from word and utterance from utterance. He who retires into silence does not necessarily hate language. Perhaps it is love and respect for language which imposes silence upon him.

I get in trouble all the time for being silent. Even after nine years of grad school and being silent in classrooms, and being chastised by peers and teachers alike, no one has ever suggested—and me neither until just right now—that my silence wasn’t ever so much about shyness (though certainly it played a part) as it was about respect for language and the search for belonging and understanding in this chaotic world. In my personal relationships I’ve noticed a tension of silence in my refusal to chit chat with those closest to me about things that seem to be already implied or said. Words can fail when there are too many of them, and frankly, there are too many of them. They confuse the issue of being alive, of being alive not “with” but “in” the world.

I don’t understand people who jog or garden with headphones on, and I certainly don’t understand and even despise the construction workers with loud stereos fixing the siding on the house down the street. There is so much language around us everyday that there’s an overload of perception in place before we wake up, and I’m not talking about human language at all. Here’s Merton again.

I came up here [to his hermitage] from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!

Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.


When I’m in the garden I learn the names of birds without having to turn my back, or shutter with the seemingly large shadow moving over me. I don’t jump back (as much as I used to) when I’m dive bombed by a bee. I’ve learned to comfort myself outside by the presence of the wildness around me. I know the call of the red wing blackbird, the cardinal and blue jay, house finch and grackle and yellow finch and mourning dove and so many more. The other day a buzzing, a terrible buzzing came up behind me and I thought fur sure I’d stumbled across a hornet’s nest, but it was just a dragonfly come to perch atop a penstemon. How beautiful it was, clear shoji screen wings, pencil like abdomen and tail. And how beautiful they are at dusk, plastered along the west side of the fence in the fading sunlight, a full warmed silence until the crickets and frogs take over at dusk. Yes, language is all around us, and so much of the time we tune it out and call it silence when in fact it’s not even a fraction of true silence—it’s an echo or afterimage only.

A high school art teacher once told me that in drawing and painting you should first sketch the shadows, and then the forms of what you intended to draw would reveal themselves more truthfully on their own.

12 comments:

Rosey Pollen said...

I am speechless. :)

Susan Tomlinson said...

Funny thing, I am just now working on an essay about negative space--I hadn't thought about it in terms of silence, I guess because I come first from a visual background, rather than an verbal...

our friend Ben said...

Wow, Benjamin, you can find silence while writing prose? I'm awed. Poetry, of course, but prose? Not me, I'm always there, thinking, writing. Damn. Anything that occupies the hands in repetition, yes, the silence is there in it. And it's been too long since I read Merton, thanks for his quote about too much language, certainly I feel that breathing down my neck with every page and every novel I write. Who needs it? Who wants it? And yet...

Benjamin Vogt said...

Rosey--Really? Does that mean you'd buy the book? :)
Susan--It's a cool topic. My book not only discusses it in several places, but uses it as part of the narative and structure. Sometimes I think it's too much, but I believe a reader should not only see but feel the topic.
OFB--Poetry is FAR too noisy for me, and I'm a poet first (or recently was for most of my life). Prose opens up the gates for me, clears the chaff, et cetera.

Gillian Lee said...

"Silence" achieved while writing? That is almost incomprehensible to me. In such a case, would you consider yourself more CONDUIT than CREATOR?

Benjamin Vogt said...

GL--Yes, intense silence, intense focus. What is the difference between conduit and creator? I'm Jeffersonian in my creation: humans are on the middle rung, and as such, as a priveleged species, we are pre-programmed to try and ahieve balance (with ouselves, with other species, to provide other species with their own balance). That we try so hard to not be balanced speaks to our willingness to be ruled by ideology instead of our innermost spirit. It is easy to be human, far harder to not be, yet we work and succeed in not being human.

I rambled. "Conduit" to me implies vessel, a tool, something acted on. Don't like that. "Creator" implies my thoughts and actions are original and unable to be refuted. Don't like that either.

I rambled again.

Rob (ourfrenchgarden) said...

You write well Benjamin and your appreciation level is high.

Simple as that.

Christopher C. NC said...

Well that is deep. It gives me avenues of response to explain the silence I literally physically require for my sanity to those other people who are constantly enveloped in all that noise. The most strange thing happened when I moved to this very quiet mountaintop. Sounds that I would have paid no mind in the past now annoy the hell out of me. The beeping buzz of the truck when the door is open or the seat belt isn’t fastened, the microwave, oven timer and cloths dryer beeping and buzzing makes me actually shout at them to shut up. Horrible noises disturbing the silence.

This is just in case you copied and pasted this excerpt from your book, but I noticed two uses of “form” that I think should be “from” and one “fur” instead of “for”.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Rob--Thank you, you're really too kind.
Mr. NC--Thanks for pointing out those errors! I'm ashamed! On the other note, most noises scare me anymore, or startle me--simple things like you mention, and the doorbell and phone are like nuclear explosions to my ears.

Pam said...

This is wonderful.

'I have wasted my life.'

I've read some of Kunitz' garden writing lately - and I've really e njoyed them. It's so nice to have you integrate these works with your own - I'd be interesting in reading more...in due time of course.

Gillian Lee said...

Yes this is truly beautiful, what you have shared with us. I've been thinking about this poetry & the concept of silence & absence with "connectedness" to Nature.

"Acts of creation are usually reserved for gods and poets." - Aldo Leopold

Benjamin Vogt said...

Pam--Of the few books a person needs, Wright and Kunitz re up there!
GL--Thank you. I wish I had more negative space / silene in my life. I love Leopold, but he's set an impossible standard, an unjust one even!