“What patience a landscape has, like an old horse,
head down in its field.”¹
Denise Levertov’s poem, “Patience” begins with these lines. This year, I’ve needed this poem. I’ve repeated the words like a mantra, picturing the horse in my mind, gray around the muzzle and slowly chewing. Later in the poem, this patience reappears:
“What patience a hill, a plain,
a band of woodland holding still have, and the slow falling
of grey rain…Is it blind faith?”
I turned the question over for weeks: do landscapes have patience?
I thought about this question every day as I drove to work through the Crystal Springs watershed on the San Francisco Peninsula.
In the low rolling hills, I saw Levertov’s lines in the terrain: the layering of the hill’s, plain’s, and woodland’s patience with my own. On the freeway, I took my eyes off the road to look over the forests of old growth Douglas firs in the west, and the streams and wetlands running east to meet hills of coastal scrub and serpentine grasslands. In the summer months, fog from the Pacific climbs over the firs and redwoods and holds tight. This is the paradigm of a patient landscape, I thought. On many of these long drives, I see and feel its patience in a very visceral sense. And I need it.
Still, there is something in me that resists the opening lines of Levertov’s “Patience”, as much as I love the poem. I can’t shake how little “patience” a habitat has when it is disturbed, let alone destroyed.
Levertov was an avid reader of Emerson, so it’s not a far stretch to draw a connection between her poem and Emerson’s famous saying: “Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience.” So how do we measure patience? Is nature the greatest measure?
To answer these questions, I needed a definition for patience. After looking at several dictionaries, I began to wonder how well language can measure knowledge or experience. Setting these limitations aside, I went to the OED to see if I could find a translation for the type of patience I felt in Levertov’s poem and during my drives through Crystal Springs. What I found in the OED surprised me:
Patience, n.1 (and int.)²:
1. The calm, uncomplaining endurance of pain, affliction, inconvenience, etc.; the capacity for such endurance.
2. Forbearance or long-suffering under provocation; esp. tolerance of the faults or limitations of other people.
3. Calm, self-possessed waiting.
4. The quality or virtue of patience personified.
5. Constancy or diligence in work, exertion, or effort; perseverance.
6. (interjection) ‘Be patient’; ‘have patience’.
7. muscle of patience n. [after post-classical Latin musculus patientiae (1666 or earlier)] the levator muscle of the scapula.
In these definitions, I couldn’t place Levertov’s “Patience”. Going back to the poem and the “slow falling / of grey rain”, I felt an untranslatable truth in the imagery. For example, the way we experience nature’s patience is hard to quantify. The line break is a portrait of our own split perception of rain: we hear it slowly falling, yet we turn and look to a hard surface like the ground or a darkened backdrop in order to see the rain.
The pace of rain (and the lack of rain) teaches us many forms of patience. In California, we’ve moved through several registers of patience in four years of drought: we’ve moved from the OED’s number 3 definition: calm, self-possessed waiting, to number 2: forbearance or long-suffering, all the way to number 5: diligence in work and perseverance. Though we still have far to go, it is fair to say we are moving into a more active patience.
When I turn to the poems in Issue 5, which I’ve been reading and collecting over the course of a year, I find possible measures of patience everywhere.
In this issue, patience looks like Rajiv Mohabir’s “Du’a” and like Bernard Quetchenbach’s “Line Creek Storm”. It looks like Christopher Martin’s “Go to the Ground” interview, with its poetic exploration of northwest Georgia between the Allatoona Range and Kennesaw Mountain. Patience is the beloved who raises wasp larvae on a messy kitchen counter, as described in Ellen Bass’s “Chalcid Wasps Emerging”.
How many forms of patience can poetry move through? The etymology in the OED entry gives us a key to unlocking the kinds of patience reflected in these poems. Like many English words borrowed or mixed with other languages, the history of the meaning of “patience” is multilingual and multifaceted. Take this excerpt from the etymology:
Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French pacience, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French, French patience, virtue which enables a person to overcome difficulties (first half of the 12th cent. in Anglo-Norman), tolerance of the faults or limitations of other people (1176 in Old French), perseverance (1256 in Old French as passiance), and its etymon classical Latin patientia: endurance, endurance of pain, forbearance, tolerance, persistence.²
The meaning I want to call out here is “patience: virtue which enables a person to overcome difficulties.” I want to talk about patience as something we can exercise without waiting or keeping quiet. However, we cannot forget patientia and its association with pain, just as we cannot ignore the fact that many calls for patience are actually shrouded pleas for acquiescence and tolerance of unjust and painful circumstances. The form of patience represented by patientia is dangerous in a different way than patience (or passiance) is dangerous.
Paul van Tongeren and Paulien Snellen elaborate on active patience in “How Hermeneutics Might Save the Life of (Environmental) Ethics”:
“Patience is, after all, not resignation but a combination of resolute resistance with the power to endure what one fights against. In an old (Hellenistic) tradition, the virtue of patience is compared with natural processes. One of the terms we find for the concept of patience is hypomonè. This indicates that something is being maintained (menein), even ripens, in what is going under (hypo)” (311).³
So what we find is a form of patience that combines resistance and endurance. Going back to Issue 5, Benjamin Gucciardi’s poem, “Foragers” is a testament to this relationship of patience between the subject and a ravaged landscape. The final stanza reads:
“If no clouds bring relief
Let us place our fingers
Like crimson beaks
Into the burn of our lives
Here, Gucciardi’s “endure” implies action, not prolonged passivity. In fact, the speaker calls us to “place our fingers…/Into the burn of our lives” and search in the char for what keeps us living. In one sense, this stanza identifies a kind of violence whose progress we cannot immediately stop. But we must do something in “the burn”– something other than waiting for relief. This is the essence of hypomonè, or perseverance.
Gucciardi’s endurance-as-action connects to Janie Stapleton’s cover art for Issue 5. In her artist’s statement, Stapleton writes, “As an artist, I feel that my purpose is to share beauty with the world, particularly the beauty found in nature. I love the wild places, and I think that the mingling of human spirit and wilderness is something few people experience today. My art is an effort to bring the wild places into people’s lives.”
In her beautiful drawing, “Embrace,” we also get a sense of the bird’s tragedy, held in the seemingly harmless grip of a work-worn hand. The bird’s patience is rigged with alarms: the strong beak and alert eye. As observers, we hope that the bird will wait for the right moment–a lapse in attention or grip–and flap its way to freedom. But this could be the hand of a rehabilitator: after all, the open hand betrays some amount of delicating handling and care. Either way, when the bird is ready, we want it to break free from the gnarly hand. For me, Stapleton’s arresting piece gives new meaning to the phrase, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” The value here isn’t tied to how many birds (or bodies) we haven’t caught, but rather in how many we have (one too many).
Given the right kind of patience, we don’t forget the gone and going away4, the trapped and freeable. We don’t “have patience.” We don’t patiently wait out current social or ecological crises. At times we have needed less patience in certain circumstances, such as saving endangered species like the Yangtze River dolphin (now believed extinct) or the Panamanian golden frog (see Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction). Who can have patience if time is running out for species, places, cultures, and people?
Perhaps the answer is that we need to enact the right kinds of patience–ones we measure out ourselves. In Jami Proctor Xu’s poem “huangmei, xiacun” the speaker, a new bride, is learning the new landscape in its present and past existences, affording us a critical view of patience in action:
in daylight we walk to the small pond where he swam as a child where
he used his hands to search for lotus roots beneath water
grabbing small snakes instead each time diving deeper
now reeds and grasses grow where the water once reached
the water buffalo roped beside them
waves of wheat rustle across june wind i listen to a dialect
i don’t yet know
When the speaker says “i listen to a dialect I do not yet know”, I imagine she is talking about learning the dialect of the people and the species and the land. Only at the end of the poem does the speaker announce the place’s name. After moving through the small pond, then reeds and grass, past the water buffalo roped beside them, past the white butterflies, the corn, and the wheat stalks – only after communing with these species in this place is the speaker able to know the place and chant it out: huangmei, lower village, south of the river.
What does this poem say of patience and place? Perhaps it says that we can’t know any place easily, but we do have to act on our quest for knowing. As threatened as a place or species might be, we must adopt its form of patience, and in possessing this patience, we possess the patience of a thing well enough to be able to understand its long story in order. Perhaps then we can do our part to maintain or ripen it.
In this way, it could be that ecopoetry and all poetry and storytelling are among the truest measures of our own patience. To reference the title of Helen Macdonald’s recent New York Times Magazine piece, “Rescuing Wildlife is Futile, And Necessary”5 (not futile, she argues), I want to believe that one aspect of environmental work – written or otherwise – is wrestling the utility out of futility. In other words, we gain utility when we are patient enough to see and believe that our work is not only meaningful but also necessary.
In Jami Proctor Xu’s second poem in the issue, “light in water: walnut creek, huangmei”, the gone and going away are central to the speaker’s relationship to the landscape. Here, the speaker senses the passing of her father-in-law:
you’ll leave us today
i feel this as i swim, eyes open
in wavering yellow light
i swim with your soul
to the line where blues touch
a life melts into the light of this world
now, in the year of horse, yang, and wood
so you can leave it
In an email Jami wrote to me, she says:
“These two poems are part of a collection of poems I’m writing about [Huangmei] village. The village is going to be demolished soon, and I started this project partly because I started thinking about how the fields and paths where I’ve walked since 1997 will be gone. I also want the poems to record some of the local dialect, and hopefully to capture some of the feeling of being there. I’m writing it partly so my son and the children of his generation will have it, and also because it is a place that I’ve called home for almost twenty years, and I want to record some of the stories people have told me. Some of it includes personal memories, some of it is more descriptive of the landscape. They grow wheat and rice alternatively, so sometimes all the fields are gold. And sometimes they’re all green. In the spring, they grow rapeseed and the whole village is a sea of bright yellow flowers. That’s the season when we visit the graves of the ancestors.”
In “light in water: walnut creek, huangmei”, I get a sense that the spirit of 爸 ba infuses the light and the water across continents (Huangmei, China and Walnut Creek, California), joining with the untranslatable patience that also permeates Levertov’s horse, hill, and woodland. There is peace and patience here—everywhere.
Poetry speaks this patience aloud. Certainly, every line, with its embedded pauses, is a measure of patience. Every line works diligently against the threat of being silenced or extinguished entirely. Of course, Patientia might at times be required. After all, reading and writing poetry aren’t easy tasks. But this adds another good layer: a writer’s patience and a reader’s patience are two registers of mutual hypomonè —the maintenance and ripening come together in a kind of symbiotic perseverance.
If each poem is its own measure of patience, than ecopoetry gives voice to the kinds of patience measures we need to address relationships between humans and the environment. And I hope Poecology Issue 5 will be another measure.
Thank you so much for reading as we celebrate the release of our fifth issue!
August 31, 2015
¹Levertov, Denise. This Great Unknowing: Last Poems. New York, NY: New Directions Publishing, 1999. Print.
²”patience, n.1 (and int.).” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web.
³Clingerman, Forrest et al., eds. Interpreting Nature: The Emerging Field of Environmental Hermeneutics. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2013. Print.
4The phrase: “the gone and going away” is borrowed from the title of Maurice Manning’s poetry collection, The Gone and Going Away.
5Macdonald, Helen. “Rescuing Wildlife Is Futile, and Necessary.” The New York Times Magazine 13 Aug. 2015. Web.