Evelio’s Garden: Memoir of a Naturalist in Costa Rica is coming in September (as soon as I have a few reviews to put on the back cover). Published by Atmosphere Press, a small collaborative publishing house, it looks almost too good to be true.
I had let it slide for a while (ten years???) after contacting a zillion agents who were not thrilled — although some said it was beautifully written — because in the hurly-burly world of major publishing, a small, even beautiful, book needs a lot of extra work to become its own little profit center.
Even after all the work editor Allyson Latta had put into it, I still lacked confidence after so many rejections, but something stirred me when I saw a call for submissions by Atmosphere Press in a publishing newsletter. After I had jumped through so many hoops with the agents (send first and third chapters; send first five pages and a marketing summary; send synopsis of no more than 300 words, etc.) all this press wanted to see was the manuscript!
Well, that was just too easy, so I sent it — what the hell? — and a few days later I had a note from the publisher, Nick Courtright, a well-known poet in his own right, saying they would like to take it. I was flabbergasted: this was really too easy. So I hemmed and hawed for a few days (was that weeks, Nick?) until agreeing to go forward.
Nick put me in touch with one of their editors, with whom I had an excellent few weeks of working together — he liked it! — and I was beginning to feel a little jazzed. So, here it comes:
Jorge Luis Borges
“A writer — and, I believe, generally all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”
“I find my position as a poet today a curious one… For a long time I have maintained that the poet’s affair was the individual human soul, the story of it in one man, in my case the transforming of personal emotions into written events. Now it has become impossible to guard one’s soul — death to do it — we are forced to read the papers, and yet I still believe that our job is somehow or other to be above the mêlée, or so deeply in it that one comes through to something else, something universal and timeless.”
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up having simply visited the world.
— Mary Oliver
|Every Sunday Creative Nonfiction releases a “Sunday Short Read.” These are always worth reading, and I found this one especially good in its use of similes and metaphors. One can identify with virtually all of them in this piece, and they add a richness that makes the simple ending ever more powerful.
Published in the November 18, 2018 issue of the online journal, Leaves of Ink.
Fine strong planes
pain between brows.
I touch the pain –
Soft ears listen
mouthcurve speak to me –
Curve of back
finely taut at hip
knee leg toes
sharp angles here
and soft here.
Fingers dry and strong
like rushes touch me
in the wind.
© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2018
Why is it that people don’t really listen to each other? Oh, they hear one another, but not what’s lying between the lines and under the words, not the emotional content, not the things – unconsciously hidden or not – that the other is saying, not the “where is this coming from?” question we should all ask when someone else is speaking to us.
Not all conversations are fraught with emotional content, but all are driven by who the other person really is.
People often just want to have the “last word.” Or they want to prove their superior knowledge of the subject. Or even humiliate their interlocutor with a “grand slam.” Some simply reply with an irrelevant acknowledgement that words have been heard, if not really understood.
I have often wondered at the failure of communications between people, especially in personal relationships where the stakes can be so high. Someone has to “win,” so the words of the other are barely heard.
I believe this is a product of our hurry-up western culture. We don’t take the time any more to sit quietly and absorb what the other is saying, think about it a bit, and then try to offer some response that will further the discussion in a positive way. Indigenous cultures do this. They make a ritual of important conversations, passing a pipe, or a feather or noise-maker of some kind so that the one given the portentous object knows that it is her turn to speak without interruption and that all the others will really hear – and think about – what she is saying. Then, in a very democratic way, the ritual object is passed to the next person, who may take quite a while in forming a thoughtful response. In this way, important decisions of the group are made, and every participant is satisfied that he has been heard.
How did we lose this?
It’s a stress-filled world we live in, and all relationships – from the personal to the business – suffer for it. I am reminded of when I was a young public relations consultant out on my own visiting my first referral, a psychological management consulting firm. We had a cordial greeting in reception and went into his office. I took my notebook out of my briefcase and prepared to make notes as we talked. I asked questions. We spoke, or rather the potential client responded to my questions, for about an hour. And at the end of my note-taking, with a fair understanding of what was needed, I shoved my notebook into my briefcase and started to pull myself out of my chair.
“One moment,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me something about yourself?” I’m sure my face reddened as I planted myself back in my chair. I had no rehearsed phrases about my experience or expertise and I fumbled my responses for an embarrassing 15 minutes. I learned that, in whatever relationship, the communication needs to open up in both directions, with both parties listening carefully. My new client was a psychologist, and I was intimidated (I’ve always believed psychologists have this magical ability to see right through you), so I failed to remember that he needed to know something about me other than that I was a good, but shy, listener.
I later invited a man with superior experience into the firm – a creative guy, who was more entranced with his own creative input than with the client’s real needs or budget. With my ability to listen, I was able to temper his impulsive responses, but the partnership didn’t last long.
All lessons learned. Now I know to quiet myself inside when someone else is speaking – especially people I love – so that I can offer the most thoughtful, even wise, responses. This has taken a lifetime to work on and get right. And I’m in no way perfect. I have just learned to leave my own little ego in the pasture while I really hear what the other person is saying. And sometimes it makes me want to cry, because the process of listening from the heart, as well as the head, activates empathy – a precious commodity these days, and something every writer must cultivate.
© 2018, Sandra Shaw Homer
Recently published in Ponder Review, Vol II, Issue 1.
My grandmother’s hands tore helplessly at the tissue paper surrounding the new dress in its box. I leaned in and folded back one leaf of the paper, so she could better see what she was doing.
I had bought her the dress, a dark green knit, because in the nursing home all her dresses that hadn’t been stolen were covered with food stains, pilled and frayed. I had taken her to lunch at Peddler’s village, to the Cock ‘n Bull, where she sipped her frozen daiquiri through a straw and ate a ball of butter whole, perhaps thinking it was cheese. I didn’t mention that it wasn’t cheese.
Trying on the dresses after lunch – none of them like she used to wear; the styles had changed, and this was a long way from the dress shop she had patronized in Albany for 27 years – I noticed that her slip was gray and wanted mending. There was an unclean smell about my grandmother, an old, sour smell. I knew they bathed her regularly in the nursing home, or at least I hoped they did. The smell must have been coming from the dirty slip, but I remember hearing that death has a smell, and for many hours, even after many cigarettes, I couldn’t get that smell out of my memory’s nose.
And now, a week later, I was collecting her to take her back to Philadelphia for her 90th birthday party, packing up her meager things so that she could overnight in my grownup house, trying to find her toothbrush, the bed jacket, clean underwear – all jumbled together in the several drawers of the antique dresser we had moved into her room.
I knew that she didn’t know where she was going, or why, but I hoped her mind, long past complete utterances, was also beyond worry. She followed my instructions meekly, like a guilty child.
When she pulled off the sweater and trousers, neither of which belonged to her, I was surprised to find her naked below, the small pale V sandwiched between loose thighs and the hanging flesh of her abdomen – gray, wrinkled, vulnerable. In our great old age, almost 90, we step backwards, I thought, stripped of our minds, our memories, even our dignifying pubic hair. Why wasn’t she wearing panties? Her bra was in place – someone must have to help her into that; her arthritic hands, once pianist’s hands, could never fasten the hooks of that bra.
There was the faint smell of urine hanging in the air of her room like an acrid fog. And, as I turned away to hide my sadness, fumbling through the few possessions I had gathered for our trip, it occurred to me that she must finally be incontinent. I found some panties – not her style; she had always worn open-leg panties, and these had elastic around the thighs – and held them out for her to step into.
First the mind, and then the body goes, the bare little wedge of pubis now hiding a urethra that betrays her. I helped her into the panties, her swollen hand supporting her weight on my shoulder, and then I made her sit down on the edge of the bed to stretch on the pantyhose. She never used to wear those either, always a girdle with garters. Even if she were staying at home all day with no one coming to visit, Grandma would pull her girdle over her plump hips, slip into her all-in-one, fasten up the nylon stockings, put on a nice dress and the single-strand pearl necklace that was her signature.
She never put a worn garment back into the closet, so that everything there smelled fresh and new.
While she was struggling to get the pantyhose straightened around her hips, I looked in the cabinet under the sink in the bathroom she shared with the occupant of the room next door and found a box of disposable diapers. I packed it to into the bag for home, not certain if I could ever insist she put one on.
Next, I helped her into the slip I had washed and mended, and finally I gathered up the dress and held it over her head. She lifted her arms up straight like an expectant child, and a small uncertain smile touched the corners of her mouth. A new dress. This much she understood. I guided her arms into the sleeves and pulled the dark green knit around her, straightening the shoulders over the narrow bones. I led her to the mirror above the dresser, fished my own comb out of my purse and arranged her fine, pale hair. The eyes reflected back at me were expressionless. Did she know whom she was looking at? Did she remember the music?
I put my arm around her shoulders and squeezed gently, putting my cheek next to hers in the mirror, trying to smile through the constriction of my heart. “You look beautiful,” I said. And, for just the flicker of an instant, the distant memory of a smile in her eyes, I thought she recognized me.
© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2018
I’m sorry I’ve lost the attribution for this quote — if anyone can help me here, I’d be grateful. Meanwhile, I thank the nameless writer for some important thoughts about what we need to start paying attention to.
Hello chatter, my old friend.
The sounds of silence are a dim recollection now, like mystery, privacy and paying attention to one thing — or one person — at a time.
As far back as half-a-century ago, the Swiss philosopher Max Picard warned: “Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence,” once as natural as the sky and air.
As fiendish little gadgets conspire to track our movements and record our activities wherever we go, producing a barrage of pictures of everything we’re doing and saying, our lives will unroll as one long instant replay.
There will be fewer and fewer of what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being,” intense sensations that stand apart from the “cotton wool of daily life.”
“In the future, not getting any imagery or story line or content is going to be the equivalent of silence because people are so filled up now with streaming video,” said Ed Schlossberg, the artist, author and designer who runs ESI Design. “Paying attention to anything will be the missing commodity in future life. You think you’ll miss nothing, but you’ll probably miss everything.”
From John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos:
Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat. Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.
Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out. Poems are nearer to prayers than stories, but in poetry there is no one behind the language being prayed to. It is the language itself which has to hear and acknowledge. For the religious poet, the Word is the first attribute of God. In all poetry words are presence before they are a means of communication.
Yet poetry uses the same words, and more or less the same syntax as, say, the Annual General Report of a multinational corporation. (Corporations that prepare for their profit some of the most terrible battlefields of the modern world.) How then can poetry so transform language that, instead of simply communicating information, it listens and promises and fulfills the role of God?
That a poem may use the same words as a Company Report means no more than the fact that a lighthouse and a prison cell may be built with stones from the same quarry, joined by the same mortar. Everything depends upon the relation between the words. And the sum total of all these possible relations depends upon how the writer relates to language, not as vocabulary, not as syntax, not even as structure, but as a principal and a presence.
The poet places language beyond the reach of time: or, more accurately, the poet approaches language as if it were a place, an assembly point, where time has no finality, where time itself is encompassed and contained.
If poetry sometimes speaks of its own immortality, the claim is more far-reaching than that of the genius of a particular poet in a particular cultural history. Immortality here should be distinguished from posthumous fame. Poetry can speak of mortality because it abandons itself to language, in the belief that language embraces all experience, past, present, and future.
To speak of the promise of poetry would be misleading, for a promise projects into the future, and it is precisely the coexistence of future, present, and past that poetry proposes. A promise that applies to the present and past as well as to the future can better be called an assurance.
During the 18th and 19th centuries most direct protests against social injustice were in prose. They were reasoned arguments written in the belief that, given time, people would come to see reason, and that, finally, history was on the side of reason. Today this is by no means clear. The outcome is by no means guaranteed. The suffering of the present and the past is unlikely to be redeemed by a future era of universal happiness. And evil is a constant ineradicable reality. All this means that the resolution – the coming to terms with the sense to be given to life – cannot be deferred. The future cannot be trusted. The moment of truth is now. And more and more it will be poetry, rather than prose, that receives this truth. Prose is far more trusting than poetry; poetry speaks to the immediate wound.
The boon of language is not tenderness. All that it holds, it holds with exactitude and without pity, even a term of endearment; the word is impartial: the usage is all. The boon of language is that potentially it is complete, it has the potentiality of holding with words the totality of human experience – everything that has occurred and everything that may occur. It even allows space for the unspeakable. In this sense one can say of language that it is potentially the only human home, the only dwelling place that cannot be hostile to man. For prose this home is a vast territory, a country which it crosses through a network of tracks, paths, highways; for poetry this home is concentrated on a single center, a single voice, and this voice is simultaneously that of an announcement and the response to it.
One can say anything to language. This is why it is a listener, closer to us than any silence or any god. Yet it’s very openness can signify indifference (the indifference of language is continually solicited and employed in bulletins, legal records, communiques, files.) Poetry addresses language in such a way as to close this indifference and to incite this caring. How does poetry incite this caring? What is the labor of poetry?
By this I do not mean the work involved in writing a poem, but the work of the written poem itself. Every authentic poem contributes to the labor of poetry. And the task of this unceasing labor is to bring together what life has separated or violence has torn apart. Physical pain can usually be lessened or stopped only by action. All other human pain, however, is caused by one form or another of separation. And here the act of asuagement is less direct. Poetry can repair no loss but it defies the space which separates. And it does this by its continual labor of reassembling what has been scattered. Three thousand five hundred years ago an Egyptian poet was writing:
O my beloved
how sweet it is
to go down
and bathe in the pool
before your eyes
letting you see how
my drenched linen dress
the beauty of my body
Come look at me.
Poetry’s impulse to use metaphor, to discover resemblance, is not to make comparisons (all comparisons as such are hierarchical) or to diminish the particularity of any event; it is to discover those correspondences of which the sum total would be proof of the individual totality of existence. To this totality poetry appeals, and its appeal is the opposite of a sentimental one; sentimentality always pleads for an exemption, for something which is divisible.
Apart from reassembling by metaphor, poetry reunites by its reach. It equates the reach of a feeling with the reach of the universe; after a certain point the type of extremity involved becomes unimportant and all that matters is its degree; by their degree alone extremities are joined. Anna Akhmatova:
I bear equally with you
the black permanent separation.
Why are you crying? Rather give me your hand,
promise to come again in a dream.
You and I are a mountain of grief.
You and I will never meet on this earth.
If only you could send me at midnight
a greeting through the stars.
To argue here that the subjective and objective are confused is to return to an empirical view which the extent of present suffering challenges; strangely enough it is to claim an unjustified privilege.
Poetry makes language care because it renders everything intimate. This intimacy is the result of the poem’s labor, the result of the bringing-together-into-intimacy of every act and noun and event and perspective to which the poem refers. There is often nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty and indifference of the world than this caring.
From where does Pain come to us?
From where does he come?
He has been the brother of our visions
From time immemorial
And the guide of our rhymes.
. . . writes the poet Nazuj ak Nak’-ika.
To break the silence of events, to speak of experience however bitter or lacerating, to put into words, is to discover the hope that these words may be heard, and that when heard, the events will be judged. This hope is of course at the origin of prayer, and prayer – as well as labor – was probably at the origin of speech itself. Of all uses of language, it is poetry that preserves most purely the memory of this origin.
Every poem that works as a poem is original and original has two meanings: it means a return to the origin, the first which engendered everything that followed; and it means that which has never occurred before. In poetry, and in poetry alone, the two senses are united in such a way that they are no longer contradictory.
Nevertheless poems are not simple prayers. Even a religious poem is not exclusively and uniquely addressed to God. Poetry is addressed to language itself. In a lamentation, words lament loss to their language. Poetry is addressed to language in a comparable but wider way.
To put into words is to find the hope that the words will be heard and the events they describe judged. Judged by God or judged by history. Either way the judgment is distant yet the language, which is immediate and which is sometimes wrongly thought of as being only a means, the language offers obstinately and mysteriously, its own judgment when it is addressed as poetry. This judgment is distinct from that of any moral code, yet it promises, within its acknowledgment of what it has heard, a distinction between good and evil – as though language itself had been created to preserve just that distinction!