Go to the Ground: An Interview with Christopher Martin
Christopher Martin is author of three poetry chapbooks: Marcescence (Finishing Line Press, 2014), Everything Turns Away (La Vita Poetica Press, 2014), and A Conference of Birds (New Native Press, 2012). His work has appeared in such publications as American Public Media’s On Being blog, Broad River Review, Buddhist Poetry Review, Poecology, Shambhala Sun, Still: The Journal, Thrush Poetry Journal, and Waccamaw, among others. Chris is the editor of Flycatcher, a contributing editor at New Southerner, and winner of the 2014 George Scarbrough Award for Poetry. He lives with his family in northwest Georgia, between the Allatoona Range and Kennesaw Mountain. You can find him online at www.christopher-martin.net.
[Poecology] Tell me about what the project of poetry holds for you as an ecopoet, an editor, teacher, and reader. What do you listen for when you’re out in the world? Has your “listening” changed over time? How does this listening manifest itself, for example, in Everything Turns Away?
[CM] Yes, my listening has changed over time, very much so. So much of being a poet, for me, has been about reclaiming the child-mind, some childlike sense of wonder, that I brushed aside—never completely abandoned, but certainly neglected—somewhere along the way. Learning to listen closely has been part of that reclamation. Spending time with my kids has taught me a new way of listening to the world, of sensing the world, too, which in turn has influenced my writing.
Janisse Ray uses this great epigraph to open her memoir Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, a line from a poem by Iain Chrichton Smith: “Words rise out of the country.” I guess that’s part of what I’m trying to get at, as well, perhaps especially with my two most recent chapbooks—this idea that though their terrain is squarely in the suburbs, words rise out of Acworth and Kennesaw, too, whether anyone hears them or not, however much concrete and however many mini-mansions are piled on top of them.
Your question made me realize the sonic quality that weaves through Everything Turns Away, which I suppose is a function of the generally untranslatable words that are here if someone will listen. There’s a poem in there about a hawk resting on the cross of the First Baptist Church and eventually flying from that cross “by such wisdom / as I do not have, its call trailing / trees in a tongue I do not know.” There’s another where I basically strip down and follow a kingfisher’s cry—also rendered as “laughter”—into a lake cove. There are a couple in there about silence, which of course is its own kind of sound—“My Son Points to a Confederate Flag and Asks What It Is” and “At the Periodic Table Display” (which I’m now calling “My Daughter Touches the Plutonium Square”) are examples of this kind of charged silence. There are other “sound” poems in there, too—I guess “The Wish to Sing with Primitive Baptists” is another about imagined sound, a desire for communal sound, sound that ultimately might not be possible but is nonetheless beautiful. There’s one about a dead coyote on the shoulder of an I-75 exit ramp that makes me think of this theme of sound in context of these lines from Wendell Berry: “Listen to carrion—put your ear / close, and hear the faint chattering / of the songs that are to come.” A few others in Everything Turns Away (or maybe all of them) are about sound, about listening, in some way. There’s also the epigraph from R.E.M.’s “Texarkana,” and I guess the title of the book owes as much to Ecclesiastes, Pete Seeger, and The Byrds—“to everything there is a season,” “turn, turn, turn,” and all that—as it does to Auden and Breughel.
Beyond that, there might not be anything more important to the progress of humanity than learning how to truly listen to one another. Listening is extremely undervalued thing in the mass culture, though—in the structural culture—so I guess some of my work is about reclaiming the art of listening, holding it as thing of great worth, though of course I often fall short of that.
[Poecology] That’s really interesting. Can you give an example?
[CM] Take what’s happening now with the debate over the Confederate flag: A white supremacist goes to Charleston and murders nine black people in a historic AME church—a present-day act of racial terror of the very same lineage as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, 1963, to give just one example. Many black people, and many empathetic people of all races, point to that Confederate flag flying in Columbia and say it’s a symbol that causes pain and that has historically caused pain, and that maybe it’s time to take it down. Some people listen to that pain and try to respond appropriately and constructively. But then before you know it, you’ve got rushes to stock up on Confederate flags and memorabilia, parades of trucks flying Confederate flags down the highway, planned KKK rallies, and so on. That an expression of pain on the part of black people could lead to everything from a KKK rally to an individual who imagines himself bereaved unfurling a Confederate flag over his porch rail, that the loss of black lives has in certain respects come to be overshadowed by the overdue loss of a symbol, is a profound failure of collective listening.
You specifically asked about listening in the context of being an ecopoet, so I’d like to explicitly link what I just said about the failure of collective listening—as related to the Confederate flag, racism, racial terror, etc.—to ecopoetics. And to make that connection I want to turn to Natasha Trethewey—not only a poet I admire, but someone I regard more along the lines of a hero.
A couple years ago, I had the honor of assisting my friend William Wright conduct an interview with Natasha Trethewey for the Atlanta Review. In that interview, Will asked a question about the theme of nature in poetry, specifically Southern poetry, and this was Natasha’s response (which I’ve only slightly redacted):
“I think of the poet Camille Dungy, who edited a volume of poetry called Black Nature in which she brings together all these black poets who deal with nature in some form. She uses as an epigraph some lines from Lucille Clifton, a few of which are ‘but whenever i begin / ‘the trees wave their knotted branches / and…’ why / is there under that poem always / an other poem?’ The implication here is that when she begins to think about trees in a landscape, it’s impossible to stop thinking about the violence of the landscape, the lynching. So I think that the landscape for Southerners—both white and black—is steeped in the violence of the past.
This is true of my own perceptions; it’s hard for me to escape this idea. I can’t walk around my Mississippi, for example, and not think of all the people erased from the landscape. How we have so many places—places that reflect Native American history in their very names—that have for the most part vanished, been bulldozed over […]
So I think that’s why we as Southerners, and indeed, likely poets in all parts of the world, focus on nature as a motif—at least often why we do so: because under our feet lie the remains of another people, another time, a record that informs us.
The landscape also has these manmade additions on top of it, so the palimpsest of a body hanging in a tree is part of the manmade landscape we’ve created. I think there is a need in our literature to make sense of the distance between those two things, what I call the terrible beauty of my Mississippi—the beautiful natural world there and the palimpsest on top of it.”
I don’t want to be prescriptive, but I don’t think anyone interested in ecopoetics or who writes ecopoetry can stay true to any sense of oikos, any sense of home, without acknowledging these ecologies of violence, or, as Natasha Trethewey says, without trying to make sense of the distance between beauty and violence. Kennesaw Mountain and the Allatoona region, for example, are beautiful places. The whole Georgia piedmont is a beautiful place, to get right down to it. But there’s also this malevolent palimpsest right on top of it all that can’t be ignored if achieving some sense of wholeness for this place and everybody and everything in it is the goal. Poecology readers might be interested in “What Hangs on Trees,” an essay by Glenis Redmond published in Orion Magazine a few years back, for more on this kind of thing. I believe it’s immeasurably important to think about, to talk about, to listen to each other about.
[Poecology] Can you talk more about how teaching, editing, and listening work together?
[CM] As a new teacher, I try to nurture a space for that kind of listening to happen. For example, in one of my classes last semester, we got on the subject of the Civil War in a discussion about Walt Whitman’s poetry. The Civil War was a subject that many students in the class resisted, and when I pressed them on why, one student, capturing the feeling of many students in the class, said that thinking about that war and why the South fought it often leads to shame. I allowed the necessary space for that emotion to settle, then we acknowledged it and talked about it. For a few classes thereafter, we focused heavily on Natasha Trethewey’s work. Her work, which requires deep, meditative listening, provided an entry point to discussing the Civil War. By the end of the semester, for some students, that shame had started to turn to knowledge and understanding, which for some led to creativity, which I believe can lead to change and to healing.
It’s kind of the same thing that guides my editing of Flycatcher—I guess I’m just trying to nurture some sort of literary space where listening can happen. The current issue is dedicated to Charleston, for example, and is filled with work that has creatively emerged from similar moments and climates and histories of violence, strife, and discord. I would like to think that poems like Imani Marshall-Stephen’s “How Do I Fight?,” J. Drew Lanham’s “Because of Black Hands,” Charlie Bondhus’s “Box,” to name only a few, would if but for a moment still anyone’s urge to immediately respond. The poem is the antithesis to the soundbite, a way to true listening, which leads to empathy.
Holly Haworth has a great poem in the issue that ends with the lines “I have grown / aged here listening,” which really could be an epigraph for Flycatcher itself and for what I hope to do as an editor.
[Poecology] Marcescence: Poems from Gahneesah, co-written with David King, explores Kennesaw Mountain in the suburbs of Atlanta. It’s a place-based collection that is generous in its contributions to place, and is responsive to the history and people of that place. One of the epigraphs to Marcescence comes from Walter Clark, a sergeant in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, who writes: “Standing beside the breastworks on that summer evening, under the shadow of grim and silent Kennesaw, with twilight deepening into night, there were shadows on all our hearts as well, shadows that stretched beyond us and fell on hearts and hearthstones far away, shadows that rest there still and never will be lifted.” There’s a strong legacy of these sentiments in poems such as “Deer Crossing Old Mountain Road,” “Battle Hymn: Highway 41, South,” and others.
Here, I read an homage to the history and stories of the place, into which you weave strands of personal experience, and into which I read a yearning to preserve meaning while also making new meanings. In what ways do you see this collection revisiting Clark’s idea of “shadows”? In what ways do these poems attempt to “lift” these shadows?
[CM] Since so many of the poems in the book reference the Civil War battle fought at Kennesaw Mountain, it was very important to David and me that one of our epigraphs come from a soldier who was there. David and I are Southerners; we’ve both lived in Georgia all our lives. Much of our work is about grappling with what that “Southerner” label means and all the burdens it carries. So, as not to shy away from that, we wanted the epigraph to come from a Confederate soldier, specifically one from Georgia. After several months of poring over all the books on the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain and the Atlanta Campaign I could find, looking for primary accounts of soldiers who fought there, those words from Walter Clark stood out as being quite complementary to—even synchronous with—the tone of our book. Most if not all of the poems in the book were done by the time I found that passage.
Walter Clark was an Orderly Sergeant in the 26th Georgia Infantry. His words in our epigraph are from a journal entry he made on June 29, 1864, two days after the worst of the fighting at Kennesaw, reflecting on roll call the night of June 27. Before he wrote about those shadows falling “on hearts and hearthstones far away,” he wrote about how “the voices of twenty-two of those who had so promptly answered the call of duty a few hours before were hushed and silent when their names were called.”
So one way this collection revisits Clark’s words is in its attempts to speak for those “hushed and silent” voices, because in the full context of what Clark was saying, his metaphorical shadows were a result of silence.
But “speak for” is a bad way of putting it. I don’t want to and can’t presume to speak for anybody else, not even for ghosts, so maybe it’s better to say this collection attempts to turn down the noise and open the doors and windows to better hear those hushed voices. Whether the collection is successful in that regard is up to readers, of course. But the truth is that ignorance of history and the silence that surrounds it are pretty big problems around here. Hardly anybody here seems to understand or even feel the gravity of the Civil War, which I know might sound strange given that this is one of the most so-called “conservative” parts of the country where Confederate imagery and allusions are commonplace and the Civil War is still being fought in many people’s hearts and minds. But the true gravity of the Civil War is lost in the mythology that surrounds it, in the way people romanticize it. Even calling it “the Civil War” can be controversial around here, where plenty of people think of it as “the War between the States” or, worse, “the War of Northern Aggression.”
I suppose David and I, in our own ways, were trying to cultivate some sense of the Civil War’s gravity with this book. No romanticizing it, but no ignoring it, either. Romance and ignorance are probably the two biggest metaphorical shadows this collection revisits, at least in the negative implications of that metaphor, and they are two of the big ones we are trying to lift. You see romance in everything from Confederate flag t-shirts and flip-flops to the untenable yet strangely popular notion that slavery was not one of the Civil War’s causes.
Several weeks ago, in the wake of Charleston, as debates about removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol and other government structures were taking place throughout the South, and as debates about the very meaning of that flag were taking place here and across the country, I saw shoppers walking out of Wildman’s Civil War Surplus and Herb Shop in downtown Kennesaw with bagsful of little Confederate flags, showing their support for a symbol that needs to go. I don’t think it’s any happenstance that Wildman’s dilapidated crypt of a store, one of the places around here where folks seem to be stocking up on Confederate battle flags and other such merchandise, has a noose-wielding Klansman mannequin in the middle of it.
I suppose that could be a metaphor for this whole area: there’s a moldering-robe-wearing, battle-flag-waving specter in the collective heart of this place that hardly anybody is willing to acknowledge. Thus the flags, the romance, the ignorance, the misinterpretations—which, incidentally, do nothing to bolster anyone’s understanding of or respect for the common Confederate soldier, much less for the causes and effects of the Civil War, less still for those who suffered through it. I doubt any of the folks waving that flag and talking about heritage could tell you about Fort Pillow, for example.
So yeah, I guess that’s one of the shadows David and I were trying to lift with these poems, and to do that, to attempt to do that, we had to go to ground in the heart of Gahneesah—which I don’t think I’ve yet mentioned comes from an Anglicized form of the Cherokee name for Kennesaw Mountain, and means something along the lines of “burial ground” or “place of the dead.” Not to overstate our significance, but the process of daydreaming about these poems and eventually writing them was something like going on a Dantean pilgrimage in our own backyards. There are shadows everywhere here—some a refuge, some more like a shroud.
[Poecology] One of the things I admire about your voice is the caring fearlessness with which you balance a critique of contemporary American culture with a religious respect for its iconic places and traditions. It’s a tension that comes out so naturally in your work and expresses a certain need to revisit and mull over connections between place and spirituality. If I can quote from the first nine lines of the poem “Feeding American Bison at the Yellow River Game Ranch,” from your unpublished full-length collection, All Formations, All Creatures. Here this tightly woven tension and beauty unravel in a way that uncontrollably hooks me:
I held my son by his legs, making sure he was secure
on my shoulders as we looked through the fence at bison
abiding in the sludge on the banks of the Yellow River.
Remembering Job and how the Lord spoke to him, saying,
Behold now Behemoth which I made with thee; he is chief
of the ways of God, and only his maker can approach him,
I watched a bison draw near through tires and hay bales,
its great head rocking over black earth, the air reeking
of Kentucky Fried Chicken, chicken shit, and smoke.
Can you give some insight on how you write with an eye for this tension between reverence and irreverence?
[CM] This is another incredible question, and I thank you for what you say in introducing it. Reverence tangled with irreverence—there’s evidence of it everywhere, right?
You see this tangling of reverence and irreverence here in a region often called the “Bible Belt” for example. Take the story of Mary Turner, which I only recently learned. In 1918, at 21 years old and eight months pregnant, Mary Turner and her unborn child were murdered by a lynch mob outside Valdosta, Georgia. Anyone interested in more information can find it at the Mary Turner Project, and Poecology readers might be particularly interested in Derrick Jensen’s account in his book The Culture of Make Believe. I mention her name here for two reasons: 1) Hardly anyone knows about Mary Turner—or much about the history of lynching itself, for that matter. And it wasn’t until 2010 that a state historical marker was placed at the site where she was murdered. 2) If something like this, and this is only one example, could happen in a place that many people have believed and still believe to be particularly holy—the so-called “Bible Belt,” as I said—and if people here and anywhere such things have occurred continue upholding myths about godliness rather than grappling with the real story, the real history, then I don’t put too much faith in whatever it is we supposedly revere. Reverence and irreverence thus become so entangled that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish one from the other.
I’m thinking here of the lines from William Blake:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Speaking of Blake, and back to that bison: Aside from the trip to the Yellow River Game Ranch the poem describes, my poem was inspired in part by Blake’s “Behemoth and Leviathan,” from his Illustrations of the Book of Job. In Blake’s rendering, behemoth seemed to me in many ways to resemble a bison.
Of course, behemoth, as it appears in Job and in Blake’s rendering, is not literally an American bison; but behemoth, like leviathan, can be taken to be a composite creature, a sort of synecdoche, and in that respect the bison is exactly the kind of megafauna that behemoth could be.
So along with this ancient, scriptural, sacred imagery connecting behemoth to the bison, you’ve got this creature, the bison, quite iconic in its own right, a symbol for the American ideal right up there with the bald eagle. And yet there an individual bison was, living in a crowded pen full of sludge and shit in the middle of the suburbs. Layer all this with the historical abuse and near extermination of the bison as a species, and you’re back to that insurmountable tension between reverence and irreverence.
Wendell Berry has a poem with the lines “There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.” This difficult truth is always on my mind, and I think it gets to the heart of your question and of what I’m trying to say. Where there is desecration, where there is irreverence, there is always a remnant of the sacred, of something worth revering. Sometimes these remnants can be numinous, elusive, but generally I think they’re plain enough to anyone who is awake.
[Poecology] Your children make an appearance in a number of your poems. How has fatherhood changed your view on writing, and particularly environmental writing?
[CM] Well, for one, I’ve typed out some of these answers with cartoons playing in the background! And there’s the constant up-and-down, back-and-forth that comes with being a parent. At the moment, I’m sitting at the end of the hall by my kids’ room, typing while waiting for them to go to sleep. Uninterrupted writing time is hard to come by, as is the solitude that generates good writing. So in that regard, fatherhood changed the view I might’ve held at some point that the writing vocation is some precious thing that answers to nothing but itself. I was listening to an interview the other day where Shelby Foote was talking about Faulkner, and said something about how Faulkner wouldn’t let anyone within twenty feet of him while he was writing. If that were my policy, I’d never be able to write a word, and I know I’m not the only one for whom that’s true.
And yet, while dismantling whatever idealized view of writing I might’ve once had, fatherhood helped me to personally understand the lasting significance of the writing vocation. It’s a vocation that can easily lead to self-aggrandizing on the one extreme and self-loathing on the other, and each writer has to figure out how to avoid those extremes in order to do good work. The ways we learn to avoid them are many and varied, and fatherhood has certainly been one of my teachers. In this household’s economy, for example, the immediate worth of finishing a poem is less than the immediate worth of any number of things, from breaking up fights to handing out Band-Aids to making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But that doesn’t mean that finishing a poem isn’t worth something.
But to get more at the heart of your question: Fatherhood has strengthened my sense of empathy and has made me think—forced me to think, really—on a generational scale, generational in terms of both past and future. I feel I should emphasize here that this is all just personal, probably even a result of my own weakness and limited vision. Too often, being a parent is presented as the end-all, be-all of human existence, which is a cliché, and a potentially harmful one at that. So I’m not going to be prescriptive or claim that being a parent has given me some sort of special vision unavailable to anyone else by other means. But fatherhood has helped me do good work and leave things better than I found them, and also to understand when I fall short of that.
I’m often characterized as this “Southern narrative poet” simply because I’m from the South and write mostly about actual moments in time in the first person, but I do write to effect change, and I do so thinking more about what my children will have to endure rather than what I will have to endure, though there’s of course no telling what we’ll have to endure together. And my love for them makes me more constantly aware of my love for other people. All that has lately informed my view of writing. There’s so much at stake, and we have to leave something good. Fatherhood helped me see that more clearly, and writing—whether it’s about social justice or the environment or a simple moment with my kids or whatever else—is my way of expressing it.
[Poecology] Rick Bass said that “all writing is about loss or the recognition of impending loss.” The poems in Everything Turns Away echo and expand upon this notion—these works never leave us with a simple sense of loss, but also a poetic longing for connection that transcends mourning and sadness. Can you talk more about how loss figures into your work?
[CM] This is a great question, not least because it made me realize that loss is one of the most persistent themes of my writing. And you’re right that the poems in Everything Turns Away engage this theme directly. I see now that loss was there all along, guiding the book to what it would become. It emerges in just about every aspect of the book—the title, the content of the poems themselves, the epigraphs, the allusions to Icarus, and so on.
I suppose loss figures into my work and this particular book so strongly because of what you say about that longing for connection. I’ve lived in the Acworth, Georgia, area—which more or less constitutes the geography of Everything Turns Away—for many years now. About four years with my family (by which I mean my wife and our two kids), and probably about ten years, not all of them successive, from high school to the point where my wife and I bought a little house here after living a while in Smyrna, which isn’t far away. Twenty miles, maybe. It’s still Cobb County, which is the county I’ve lived in since 1995—just shy of twenty successive years split between the towns of Kennesaw, Acworth, and Smyrna.
So one might think, given all the time I’ve been around here—even without considering those twenty years, just focusing on the past four—that I would feel connected to this place. I don’t. I want to, but I really don’t. Given that connection to place means so much to me—Wendell Berry’s influence on me has been profound, if that gives you some sense of what I’m talking about—and that I’ve tried and am still trying to find connection in this place, the disconnect I’ve felt and continue to feel here is itself a kind of loss. There are some things I’m trying to do to make that connection—I’m hoping to help establish a local literary scene, for example, working with a new cultural arts center in town (which I think is a blessing), but that sense of belonging still isn’t there. Most of the time I feel like an outsider, a stranger, even though this is a place that I know and love. I guess this is especially true during political campaign seasons or in times of national crisis. This place is very pro-gun, for example, and in the wake of Sandy Hook, some people from around here didn’t hesitate to let everybody know it. It was very upsetting. But of course my privilege plays a part here, too: At the end of the day, it’s easy for me to fade into the background, into the crowd.
I’m glad you say that Everything Turns Away managed to transcend mourning and sadness, though, because sadness drove this book to completion in more ways than I probably know. I’ve never really talked about this publicly or even in the context of my writing, but for the past three or so years, I’ve been estranged from my mother and stepfather—and my little brother, as a result. They live about five minutes down the road, and they were the ones I lived with when I was going to high school here. It’s been a long time coming, I suppose, as these things don’t generally come out of nowhere. But I’ve felt incredibly sad and burdened over the past couple years, which is roughly the timeframe in which I wrote most of the poems that made it into Everything Turns Away.
I suppose this sadness just made the sense of loss and the recognition of impending loss that Bass was talking about more acute in the context of the place from which these poems emerged. Take the poem “Gulf Fritillaries, Allatoona Creek,” which to me is a key poem in Everything Turns Away, functioning as a sort of bridge: It invokes the violent history of this place, from the Trail of Tears to slavery and the Civil War, as well as the current tendency toward suburbanization and homogenization, and contains certain images that reflect this place’s pathos—Confederate flags (which, incidentally, seem to have proliferated in the wake of what happened in Charleston), church signs talking about the devil and hell, NRA decals, and so on.
Yet, as Hopkins wrote, there still “lives the dearest freshness deep down things,” and being awake to these things (or maybe it’s better to say being awakened by them) —whether butterflies on coyote shit or children splashing around in some insignificant creek—helped prevent this pervading sense of loss from turning into morbidity over the course of writing this book. There’s a ring of hope to it, too.
[Poecology] I recently read an article in The Atlantic titled “The Poem That Made Sherman Alexie Want to ‘Drop Everything and Be a Poet’.” Do you have a poem like that? If so, how do you see the inspiration of that poem appearing in your current work?
[CM] Thanks for leading me to that article—it’s really great, and I’m sure I’ll keep returning to it. Funny thing, synchronous thing, is that Sherman Alexie links what he’s saying to some of the themes that have emerged in our interview here—when he writes, for example, “So you can see the broader applicability: I’m in the suburb of my mind.”
I guess the poem I’d select would be any of a handful from Leaves of Grass—“Song of Myself” if I had to choose. In 2005, at 22, I took a semester off college, distanced myself for the first time ever from a toxic situation at home, and went for a 500-mile walk on the Appalachian Trail, from Damascus, Virginia to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. I’d been seriously reading Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr. for about a year or so up to that point, and I finished Walden not long at all before I left. I took Walden on the hike with me to read again, and also read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass early in the hike. I eventually sent those home so I could carry The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Leaves of Grass. When I got home, I started reading Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Thomas Merton, Janisse Ray. All these books and writers, and a few others, were the ones who shook me awake and got me to take my voice and my writing seriously.
And old R.E.M. Always old R.E.M. Without their music as part of my subconscious since I was about 12, I don’t think any of the books I just mentioned would’ve hit me the way they did at 22.
But I guess Walt Whitman is the main one who got me thinking seriously about poetry. Lines like these from “Song of Myself” come to mind:
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or
lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.
It was at the very end of my hike that I really connected to those lines and so much else from that poem. I’d gotten word from my sister back home that our mom had been arrested, so I was worried about going back but also knew that I needed to go back. Even out there on the Trail, I was “in the suburb of my mind,” and Whitman, maybe even more than Thoreau, helped me navigate that with words like these:
I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own
funeral drest in his shroud,
And I or you pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick of the
And to glance with an eye or show a bean in its pod confounds the
learning of all times,
And there is no trade or employment but the young man following
it may become a hero,
And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel’d
And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and
composed before a million universes.
And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God.
(No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by
by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.
That will wake you up in the morning—or in my case, before falling asleep on the porch of a hostel outside of Harper’s Ferry, looking out at the stars, on one of my last nights on the AT, worrying about things.
As to how it inspires my current work, I guess I’m just trying to show some of those letters I’ve found dropped in the street by God, or whatever you call God, whatever I call God—to show that, like Whitman said, those letters keep on coming, and they’ll keep coming forever, wherever I go, wherever we go. R.E.M.’s “These Days” has kind of the same message: “All the people gather, fly to carry each his burden / We are young despite the years / We are concern, we are hope despite the times / All of a sudden these days, happy throngs take this joy / Wherever, wherever you go.”
This is essentially what informs my poetry. If I ever talk about violence, about desecration, about irreverence, it’s because I think it’s best that we hold and read and live by these dropped letters rather than rip them up and burn them, or just toss them aside because we assume we’ll never understand them. And I’m talking to myself here more than anyone. If I’ve ever been able to get just one word of any of those letters into a any of my poems, into anything I write, it’s a miracle. But the real miracle, the real work that goes well beyond anything I or anyone else writes, is realizing that we are those letters, too, and to go forward in that knowledge. It’s a difficult knowledge to hold close, but I don’t think anything is more lovely or essential.