“The physicality of writing on paper with an implement that is silent, free from the subversive electronic tension of the screen, and blessedly insignificant, gives me a little purgatory of irresponsibility that allows regular, robust visitations to my self as a headstrong child with an enormous secret inner life.”—Anita Sullivan
On The Other Hand
By Anita Sullivan
“The first sentence uttered by the first human beings is not yet over, and as it continues they add a few more poetic moves to the ones they’ve tried already.” —Dennis Tedlock
EUGENE Oregon—(Weekly Hubris)—February 2017—There is never a pencil when I need one. But I always forget this before I sit down on the sofa with a legal pad in my lap, feet up on the coffee table, coffee cup carefully placed so my feet won’t knock it to the floor. I’m all ready to write by hand—for hours if necessary, and possibly with nothing to show for it but a pile of crumpled paper —before I commit myself to the screen.
Almost always I begin a piece of creative writing with a pencil and paper because that’s the only way I can stay tentative, and not get frozen into glibness. The physicality of writing on paper with an implement that is silent, free from the subversive electronic tension of the screen, and blessedly insignificant, gives me a little purgatory of irresponsibility that allows regular, robust visitations to my self as a headstrong child with an enormous secret inner life.
But would I write more, or better, if a fairly new pencil with an intact eraser were perpetually available? What if stumbling around looking for one, then finding it (which is never a predetermined outcome) is not a waste of time, but an essential part of what I actually write with it?
The universe has offered me this small ritual of postponing. (Not the same as procrastination, which allows you to conveniently and totally substitute another activity for the one you had originally planned.)
Like many other writers who take their language seriously, what I’m actually doing is trying to construct a relationship between language and experience, once and for all, dammit. This is like one of the ten labors of Hercules (who was, by the way, something of a thug); but I’m not a heroine, I’m just a normal mortal with an impossible mission: to write a poem or a story that allows things to finally go Click!
This is like trying to catch a meteor at the very beginning of its skoogie path across the heavens. This is like believing meteors have beginnings, middles, and ends like everything else we’ve ever heard about.
One night last August, I lay on the sidewalk outside an apartment complex on top of a hill near my house, waiting for the Perseid Meteors to make their predicted showing. It was about midnight. The year before I had done the same thing, and saw only three during the entire half hour or so I was there. This year it was more like three per minute. I practically choked. There was no way to know in advance when one would show up, from what part of the sky, how fast it would go, in what way did I actually see it? The contextual heavens were glowing majestically with the usual stars and planets in their seemingly static positions. But meteors don’t arrive, make small talk, and then leave: each one goes out without ever having come in. We cannot own that path.
A character from one of Rumer Godden’s novels once said, “Stories can never be really told, so much of them is hidden that when they are told they sound like fairy tales, as if, with time, truth leaks out of them.”
Yes, but a good poet will come along and tell a new version that allows truth to leak back in. It’s the hidden part that we continue to seek: the place that the meteors come from, and return to. The wordless realm.
Here, for example, is my mother, who lived with dementia the last few years of her life. This came in the midst of one of our regular, usually quite predictable phone conversations:
Me: “How are you doing, Mom?”
My Mother: “Oh, I’m free-spiriting right along!”
And what hit me between the eyes then was Don’t ever write her off! Even with dementia, my dear mother has a rich inner life, full of joy and beauty. And she always has. And so do all of us. It’s up to me to help her speak her mind.
Secrets are just that, hidden from view. But not disconnected, no no. Our entire waking lives are surrounded at all times with full and active parallel worlds quietly carrying out a zillion actions per second: crumblings, flitterings, breathings, whisperings, tender glances, wishful thinkings, random acts of kindness more numerous than the stars and as erratic as the paths of meteors. Our task as poets and storytellers is to keep ferrying these silent, living secrets across from the wordless realm into our own “told” world, so it won’t implode.
Here’s one of my favorite examples of a story that still waits a full telling. It comes from the Neolithic (3rd millennium BC) village of Skara Brae in Orkney, Scotland, where a small society of people lived underground for something like 600 years in relative isolation, in eight small stone houses insulated from the weather by a thick covering of bones, shells and other household garbage, each house similar but not exactly like the next, all of them connected by a dark hallway leading to the outer doorway. Today this village has had most of its roof removed so that tourists can gaze down into the houses and try to figure out what life was like for these folks. With my husband, I stood one beautiful sunny August afternoon looking down into the “pit” and trying to imagine my way into this ancient lifeway. The following is a description from the otherwise very dry and scientific pamphlet filled with known facts:
House 7, however, was different. Its floor and the beds were covered in fragments of bone, pottery, tools and ornaments. A complete bull’s skull lay on one bed. There was a bone dish full of red pigment on the floor, and a cache of beads and pendants was found in a cell at the back of the room. Two women had been buried partly under the wall of the room, and although it is not clear from the original excavation account whether the graves were earlier than the house or inserted through the floor during its use, it does seem that this was a special place
We are awaiting the poem or story that will connect this to our world.
To order Anita Sullivan’s books, Ever After and/or And if the Dead Do Dream, click on the book covers below.