Herons, Typewriters, wishes

I lay in bed for a long time tonight/this morning thinking about that last post. That question still dogging me.

Thursday or Friday we'll be shooting the lake scenes. Obviously, one is the accident.

The others are fantasies.

I forget now what the various stages of grief are supposed to be. One, I'm sure, is the blind acceptance of pop psychology. Another is anger. The kind of anger that makes you rave against the dead. Or hurt the living. Or throw typewriters off a dock...as we will do later this week. This scene is daydream rage. Rage against Brian, against Wendy, against God, against lakes and water and mud and night. Here's a poem that is daydream rage too (but read on after the poem, also):


In tangled hemp and scrub oak, I watch a heron
fall from a branch into a heavy glide
over the Missouri. By now, I know how a frog
or a sunfish freezes him in mid-stride
and I can guess which silence
turns his head, which ripple
will bring him sailing to the shallows.
Stillness isn't camouflage: to break a heron's back
requires careful, random movement; step when branches
scrape the levee, when the river shifts
a stone.

My brother's laughter flew from stream
to leaves when the wind lifted the dry flies
from my box into the water. One leafless branch
opened ragged wings and fled downstream.
Brian stopped laughing long enough to watch
it disappear. I searched for my lost lures,
recounting a friend's haiku: Heron following
river following heron...
Brian whipped his rod, back and forth, settled
the fly onto the surface. He said herons
scared the hell out of him. Madness.

The plan won't work--the heron feels me
watching. When branches click, I plant
a toe; when a carp's back rolls on the surface,
a heel. I stop thinking and become a tributary
winding down between the bluffs. A heron's vision
is nearly 200 degrees. It meets your gaze
from almost any angle. When my foot meets water,
the heron's eyes shoot wide; stumbling into flight,
he stretches out his neck, leaps into the air.
I throw sand, a broken clamshell,
and kick the waves.

Who's stupid enough, in rain and fog, to load a boat
with beer and friends and row until night
takes the shore? Factor in one affair
for each couple, one betrayal apiece.
Factor in two married mothers, two bachelors.
They huddle together in an unseasonably cold 53 degrees
and surely someone suggests they pull anchor,
pull oars, pull the hell out of here.
Factor in two who can swim, two who can't.
My brother exhales smoke into fog, lays
a hand on the oar and laughs.

Head drawn between its shoulders, one leg
hovering slightly forward, my heron studies
the current. For three days, concealed, dreaming
of nets spread in the overhang, wire snares
weighted in the shallows, I've watched
his shadow unfold in the river. Lately,
I imagine similarities in the accurate gravity
of beak and fist. When he strikes,
his body pours it's long neck and face
into the river: Ciconiiformus Ardea

Kicking the boat and the dock they couldn't
reach, shouting and weeping for Brian's lost
eyeglasses, which were presumed hidden
in the lake, I prayed.
Great God,
you vicious son of a bitch, tell me
one thing you love, and I'll destroy it,
and be done.
Somewhere in a clear darkness,
coursing up the long rigid trachea,
shuddering out the beak, a heron's cry
rolls across the water.

Assuming the attitude of the dead, I float:
breathing when the river breathes, pushing
away from snarls and the levee until at last,
above me, the heron glances away
from a corpse. I catch the base of his throat,
and rising--both of us--out of the water,
I snap him hard, right and left,
his sharp feet clawing my thighs and belly
until with both hands, and all my weight,
I hold him under. Choking, convulsing,
his wings beat uselessly on the current.

We'll be filming another fantasy, too. When we met in New York to work on the script, I made the first of several important friendships that have come of this project. As we worked on the final pages of the script, Andrew asked me what I would have wished for Brian and Wendy and all of us. I've been in a state of rage and loss for so many years that I had rarely considered such a question.

We're going to film the four of them, alive, on that dock, on that lake, laughing and having fun. Uncorrupted. Clean. In love with each other.

I don't know what I expected or wanted from this film when I wrote the first drafts. But Andrew helped me unearth something in the story that I had never seen in it before. Instead of chasing them into the void with anger and pain and guilt and loss, I get to send a wish after them--a snapshot they would have loved.

In the hall...

I was late getting to the set this morning because I had to stop off and answer some emails from PSU. When I got there, I bumped into Chad as I was coming out of the elevator and he took me aside for a little chat. He was very gentle. He was a little embarrassed. The bottom line, they were afraid the actors might be a little uncomfortable with me watching them shoot the morgue scene.

I'm not sore. It's a tough one. It's based on my poem, The Morgue, and it's one of the two or three harshest scenes in the script.

So I'm down the hall in one of the university computer labs (wow! EKU has invested in some nice equipment) waiting for them to wrap so we can drive out to the falls for this afternoon's shoot.

Here's the poem:
The Morgue
In the room where I walked as quietly as I could, afraid any sudden noise
might precipitate his collapse, I found my brother was still beautiful.

All afternoon, riding to the morgue, I fought the image of him, swollen,
his flesh like dough that's risen too long, become too light to support its own weight.

The mortician, disapproving of my insistence on seeing my brother
before taking care of business, promised no sign of his `ordeal'

still marred the body, a little bruise maybe, on his throat, where the hook
had caught and dragged him to the surface, and nothing else. Unveiled,

the traces of all his smiling still pulled at the corners of his mouth, for a moment,
I thought how my mother would look on her youngest child, in his coffin,

and know that in life, his smile had been effortless, the natural lay of his face.
But across the sterile basement from where the tips of his hair soothed an illusion

of living into my palm, across the room from where I bent, pressing my ear
to his chest, feeling nothing, except his awful solidity, the chill of his skin,

his hand, nerveless and so much heavier in death, beyond all these things
I glimpsed the slender black hose as it lay draped on a hook, its dull metal spout

blurred by a single thumbprint. This was the hose the man had used to spray
the mud from between my brother's toes, from the creases in his lips, his teeth

and the folds beneath his tongue. This was the hose that washed his hair, the palms
of his hands, so that on seeing his first dead body, his brother would not know

that this had been a filthy death. This was the hose that rinsed the backs of his thighs,
scoured the debris from his ears and his lashes and his clean white ankles

so that I would not see how he had suffered in the dark water, how his cries had broken
on the hard black shore, how his lungs were soothed with damp leaves, mud

and the sluggish silence of his own isolation. I tried to turn around
in the basement room, to tell the mortician that he had done nice work,

but by then, vomit had pooled in my shirt pockets and on the clean, well-mopped
floor of the basement morgue and in my brother's open, immaculate hand.

A little plug for my poetry

I'm this week's "featured poet" at the NH Arts Council web site (thanks to Pat Fargnoli, friend and NH Poet Laureate). The poem I chose to submit was one I wrote for Jeff McMillian (at our mutual friend and mentor, John Gilgun's, request) a few years ago. It's not a big deal, but I was pleased nonetheless.


Oh, and I don't know who "Bob" Coykendall is.

PBS must be reading my blog!!!

We get two channels on our TV. An ABC station out of Portland, ME, and NHPTV out of Durham, NH. They are fuzzy and the static can make me crazy. That's why I watch TV with the sound off while I listen to public radio, surf the web and/or read. I looked up tonight and there was Li-Young Lee. The segment was called "Descended from Dreamers" and he was reading new poems and talking about his family's flight to the US, his marriage, etc. It was a good interview and the poems were gorgeous. Check out their story.

What I owe Li-Young Lee

I recounted this story to my Advanced Poetry Workshop as a way of introducing a Li-Young Lee poem. They suggested I share it on my blog...

In January 2002, I was at a really weird time in my life. At 32, I was a Lead Writer at the software company I worked at. I made very good money, but I was unhappy because I had inherited two bosses I couldn't stand and I had been promoted into a position I did not enjoy. Instead of being a writer with a few other responsibilities, I had mostly quasi-management responsibilities like project planning and resource scheduling and spent very little time actually writing. But even that was not the whole truth.... The fact is, I felt that Technical Writing--writing about software I could barely use for users whose profession I barely understood, working by-and-large with people who rarely read the sort of books I wanted to read, spending my time with people whose main topic of conversation was their wide-screen TV, their snowmobile, their latest consumer gew-gaw--was not for me. I'll go even further--by giving up poetry for a corporate paycheck, I felt I had sold out. I felt isolated and unhappy, no matter what my bank account said.

But I was lucky to live in Henniker, home of a small liberal arts college with a low-residency MFA program in Poetry. Every July and every January the undergrads mostly left town and the poets came in. You could find them in the local pubs, standing on the stone bridge over the black and rushing Contoocook and staring at the beautiful covered bridge upstream (or standing in the covered bridge taking in the equally lovely stone bridge downstream), buying books in the massive used-book store tucked away above the town, reading their poetry in the student union or in the art gallery.

The whole town was alive with poets and they gave readings almost every night of their week-long residency. The student readings were great: energetic, startling, diverse. No two were alike and each was an anthology of their own influences--this poem stressing Mark-Doty-esque language-play, this one chasing the image-sermon of Mary Oliver. But this program was--at the time--also lucky to have some great poets of national reputation: Gerald Stern, Chard deNiord, Li-Young Lee, and others.

Li-Young Lee! Next to Billy Collins, I think he may be one of the biggest rock stars in poetry. His work is not as accessible as Collins' (and is therefore taken more seriously by the back-bay literature crowd) but it IS gorgeous and very sensual. Combine that with his physical beauty (they might have modeled the male lead in Mulan after him) and the guy draws a crowd.

He was my first poetry crush. When I read Rose, his first collection of poetry, I wanted to shred all of my poems and quit. I wanted to work harder, look harder, listen harder, read deeper... I went back to it over and over, the way you do with a CD that gets under your skin. I got sick of the poems. I sneered at them "Oh, you're so wiiise-lah-D-dah!" I came back to them in penitence. I wanted his voice. My own poems sounded like a donkey braying.

I got in a car with some of the poets I was in grad school with and drove over to Wheeling, West Virginia, just to see him read. His poems were, delivered in person, more magical than I had imagined. If he had started a cult we would have sold our possessions and joined. I must have driven home but I don't remember it.

A few years later, as a young technical writer in KC (still writing poetry), I got a chance to see him read again. Same story. I went to work the next day as if I was on a space walk--only the thinnest of tethers connected me to my computer screen.

Now, it was 5 years later and he was going to be reading in my little village in New Hampshire. Even more, he was going to be giving lectures on poetry at the college and generally hanging around town. I had already emailed a professor to ask if I could attend the lectures as well as the public readings and he had granted me permission (the townsfolk attended some of the readings--especially in the summer--but there wasn't exactly a crowd clamoring to attend the lectures). As January rolled in, I was already bragging to all of my old poet friends in Missouri about the density of poets in New Hampshire (I believe I claimed that you couldn't "swing a cat round here" without hitting a poet).

But something else was creeping up on me. As much as I felt like an outsider at work, I had my doubts with this crowd as well. I'm no big fan of low-residency programs--I don't see the same camaraderie in those programs that was so important to me in my MFA days--but to them, I was a "townie." That hurt. Bad. No matter what my background or interests may have been, for them I was outside of the program and therefore of little interest. Not so different from the way I probably would have reacted to an outsider during my own grad school days.

So I went to the reading, carrying Li-Young Lee's latest book to get it signed (I'm lucky to have four signed books from Lee). It was snowing heavily and the streets of Henniker were quiet and already dark as I crossed the stone bridge. There were one or two other "townies" there, but by and large the crowd consisted of students and faculty of the poetry program. It was his best reading. He was charming. He introduced each piece in a way that enlarged your understanding without giving away the surprise and pleasure of the poem. He read each poem as if it were an incantation. After the reading, he took questions then stood at the podium to sign books and do the meet&greet. I waited. The rest of the room divided into groups chatting and making plans and as he looked up from each person, they were released to move to this group or another until it was just he and I.

I was in sheer terror and awe of him, but I managed to stammer out a few sentences. He seemed genuinely interested (and touched that I felt so strongly about his work). We chatted for what seemed a few seconds--about his work, about mine, about an ad I was thinking of responding to for a teacher up at Plymouth State College--and then I looked up and the place was almost empty. It had been 30 minutes. A few people from the program were waiting for him to finish so they could move on to the college pub, located down the hall in the same student union where the reading had been.

He invited me to join them. Let me repeat that: he invited me to join them. On the one hand, I was almost light-headed with pleasure--my poetic hero wanted me to join him and his friends. But another part of me was filled with dread. I was a townie. I was a technical writer. I was a sell out. I was older than the students, less accomplished than the faculty. I was an outsider.

Like a coward, I made up some lame excuse and walked back across the bridge in the snow.

If I've ever felt more wretched about myself, I can't think of a time. Worse than the fear and the self-loathing, I felt more isolated and lonely than I can ever remember. I recognized that I was lost--and had been for more than a year--and the sadness and terror was sliding around inside my guts like an oil slick. Even worse, I felt that I was walking away from my last chance--not just with this group, but the faint glimmer of hope I had felt about the teaching position at PSC.

At home, I walked into the kitchen where my wife was making a cup of tea. How did it go? When I told her--breathless and ashamed with snow melt from my boots puddling on the floor--she pushed me out the door. "What are you crazy? You'll want to kill yourself tomorrow if this is how you leave it!" Ten seconds later I was heading for the bridge again, pumping myself up a little. "I won the goddamned AWP Intro Award as a grad student!" I had published in some of the best quarterlies! They had no right to make me feel like a townie!

So I stomped back across the bridge and up to the Simon Center and down the hall to the pub which--with all of the undergrads gone would be populated exclusively with poets...like me. But at the last instant, as cliched as it may be, I froze with my hand on the door handle. The terror and the self-loathing and the isolation were so powerful that I could not imagine opening the door. What would I say to them? How would I justify my intrusion? Why SHOULD they invite me in?

Just then, someone opened the bathroom door across the hall and made their way toward the pub. In a panic, I could either flee back into the storm, or I could open the door and go in. I'm sure it didn't happen this way exactly, but here's what I remember: all of the poets were seated at one long table running the length of the room. Twenty-five faces turned to me. Some narrowed their eyes, trying to figure out who I was, why I was there. Some wondered if I was lost. Some wondered if I was wounded--my face was surely white and drawn in fear. Then, in the middle of the table like Jesus at the last supper, Li-Young Lee rose and extended his right hand toward me. "Excuse me, everyone," he said to the quiet room. "This is Scott. He's a poet. Make a space for him."

In American movies, they would have accepted me as one of their own. Maybe even carried me around the room on their shoulders. It wasn't like that. I pulled up a chair. Had a forced conversation with several of the poets around me. And was slowly excluded to the point where, like a impurity that works it way out of the body through a red angry sore that you have to ignore away, I was pushed back out of the room.

But it didn't matter. Lee's gesture, which cost him absolutely nothing, meant all the world to me. We all need a tribe. We all need something to call ourselves because our name (who we are) is pointless without our essence (what we are). It didn't matter that they could not see me as one of their own--they were still discovering what they were. Li-Young Lee had recognized me. His gesture helped me recognize myself even in the disguise I had worn for so long. I knew that I would apply for the teaching job at Plymouth. And if that one didn't work out, I would apply for another. I might even chase a PhD. I wasn't lost, and though I was a long way from the path, I thought I had it in me to find it again.

The lectures were great. Every evening that week, I talked poetry. And all day I drifted in it, even as I tried to concentrate on project planning. On Friday, I sent my CV and letter to PSC. Two weeks later, Liz Ahl called. Two weeks after that I interviewed in the lounge of Ellen Reed House. Here I am.

I owe Li-Young Lee.

His poetry is beautiful--ripe, silken, smart. You don't need my story to see that the man is a mineral spring--restorative, mesmerizing. Check out this Youtube video of an entire Li-Young Lee reading.