January 29, 2013

By Heart

It was May and it was almost three years ago and I was charged with the task of doing a creative project for a seminar about interpreting art ecocritically. Our assignments were all manner of wonderful, like keeping a nature journal and hiking Rock Canyon together and reading out in the grass and springshine. That class was also my first rendezvous with Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, who is now a major part of my master's thesis. (For my sanity and yours, I'll refrain from saying "thesis" ever again in this post.) 

I was also a little bit in love at the timewith a boy, with a poem, with the universe, and mostly with two snails that I perchanced to meet. Actually, I take back the part about the universe. I was having a rough go of it that spring, and for more reasons than the fact that I couldn't figure out what to do about my creative project. I'm not a painter or a photographer or film-maker or gardener. My forays into writing poetry have been sporadic and uneven at best, so the last thing I wanted was to share one of my haphazard efforts with that little band of eight bright colleagues and a professor I had come to admire for his brilliance and sincerity.

A little lonely and a little frustrated and a little heartbroken, I found myself sitting out in the JFSB courtyard on grass and pavement one afternoon among some ducks, who promptly scuttled away. Because I wanted the option to never-share-my-poetry-with-anyone, I had opted to memorize a poem instead: Wallace Stevens's "This Solitude of Cataracts" (the internet was lacking in clean, readable versions of this poem, so I uploaded one here). Every couple minutes, I would consult my paperback book of poems and then trace the words in my mind, shaping them with my mouth, until they made grooves and felt natural.

He never felt twice the same about the flecked river,
Which kept flowing and never the same way twice, flowing

Through many places, as if it stood still in one

It had rained the day before, so the air was thick and the snails were out. I saw one of them, inching and creeping along as I let the language swirl around: 

He wanted the river to go on the same way 
To keep on flowing. He wanted to walk beside it...

Something about who I was at the time and/or who I am always allowed me to begin believing that the snail understood me. (Such an experience is not unprecedented for me, as manifest by a similar encounter I had with a fish two years prior.) We were friends, that snail and I, living out that moment. He seemed a little lonely, too, so naturally when I noticed another snail creeping along some inches away (though to them it probably seemed like miles), I tried to introduce them. They seemed unaware of each other's existence, so I nudged my little buddy along with a stick. He retreated and started frothing from under the shell. I decided to just leave them alone and watch.

Somewhere in all of that, I pulled out a trusty little notebook and wrote something like this:

On the Fragility of a Snail’s Shell, Among Other Things

I wanted to write a poem regarding a snail I came across,
            snailing along the pavement (as only snails do).
But I picked up my heavy pen
            and it snailed along the paper (as only pens do),
            rudely neglecting the whistling quality of the birds’ aria (now libretto),
            the drowsy lilac air
            thick with yesterday’s rain,
            whose nonchalant breeze subtly battered at the pages
            (as though they didn’t belong there),
            blew back moments so delicate. 

The poem shares thematic qualities with "This Solitude of Cataracts," namely that the passage of time, the reminders of our own mortality, the impossibility of actually capturing a moment, etc. are all burdens we shoulder every day. It's natural to want something constant in all that wind-blowing and river-flowing.

I was also in a French class at the time. We read a lot of things, one of which was a novel called La salle de bain about a man who traps himself in his bathroom so that he doesn't have to confront change, especially his own aging. He reminded me a lot of the "He" in the Wallace Stevens poem, so I shared the connection with the class. The professor asked me to recite the poem, since I'd memorized it by then. I did, to the wonder and amazement of all my classmates (because how many of us even know our own mother's phone number by heart anymore?), and in that moment I felt as though I'd found a way out of the bathroom, so to speak―out of that fear that I can't bottle up my moments and keep now forever.

Memorizing, it just felt so good.

The Bible has something to say about this in what has come to be one of my favorite passages of scripture: Ye are our epistle, written in our hearts... written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). 

Writing something on your heart―isn't that beautiful? Knowing something by heart.

There is a professor well-loved in my circle of friends who once wrote this in response to a student's e-mail asking how he is able to memorize so many things (including all of his students' names, and usually by the second day of class):

Makes me realize I must have decided early in life that most of our lives are lived in our heads, inside our souls. So I wanted, I think, to furnish it with good stuff, so that if I ever got thrown in jail or into outer darkness, I’d still be in a good place.

Memorization is strictly rote for me, hard work and getting harder as I age. There’s only one trick to the trade I’ve noticed: love. If you really care about something, it’s easier to commit to memory. I know every contour of my wife’s face.

So lovely.

My invitation to you today is inspired by all of this in combination with the Facebook status of a dear friend, miss Kaitlyn, who has introduced me to more beauty than I can tell:

If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat. ―Catherine Robson

In sum,

Go memorize something today.

I'm serious. 

Memorize your sister's phone number or your favorite scriptural passage or a song you always want to keep. Memorize a poem (and may I kindly suggest the Stevens one as a place to start?). Write on that fleshy table, your heart, and feel a rhythm, feel at peace. And if you can befriend a snail while you're at it, more power to you. 


  1. This is beautiful. And quirkly. Like sparkly mixed with quirky ;) You need to enter my V-day giveaway girl! http://theartofbeingbald.blogspot.com/2013/02/announcing-valentines-giveaway.html

  2. This is my favorite post yet. Beautiful. And wise. Maybe the highest compliment is that you've inspired this emotionally distant person to want to be a poet. But I'm settling for just memorizing a good poem I once read. First stanza? Done!