Earth (earth)

“when any heat at all rises,/ and becomes a visible thing”

When I was 24, my car broke down in Cherokee, Oklahoma, about 60 miles from my parents’ home, one week before I hopped on a plane that would take me to Fairbanks, Alaska. In Fairbanks, I would meet the poet Derick Burleson, who was born and raised in Cherokee, Oklahoma. There aren’t many people who have lived Oklahoma prairie and Alaska boreal forest. Derick lived this. He also lived Texas and Montana and Kansas and Rwanda and many other places. There aren’t many people who have lived a life as varied and rich as Derick Burleson’s, even though that life ended too early, at the age of 53, just a few nights ago.

I last saw Derick at AWP in 2014. I heard his laugh first, big and a little cracked. I followed the sound until I saw his beard, and then the rest of him. Like his facial hair, the man was bold and brilliant and slightly wild. He brokered no small talk, immediately moving to the horrors happening at UAF, and from that to championing the poetry of Marick Press, and of Alaska poets, and of Oklahoma poets, and of any other poets he could manage to champion in our short chat. We said we would try to catch one another later that week for a drink, perhaps while seeing Eddie Kim, whose poetry we were both so happy to see getting support and recognition at Kundiman.

We didn’t catch one another that week. And, aside from a few scattered emails over the last nine years, we didn’t really catch each other at all. I won’t pretend he and I were terribly close personally, because we weren’t. I was not, and am not a poet, and when I was in Alaska, and to a lesser degree now, I was/am a judgmental shithead, and he quite rightly didn’t really want to hang. He was very close to many others, though, and the outpouring of love for him across social media has been a heartening thing to see.

I did take a class with him, Forms of Poetry, and before the semester began, I met with him in his office and told him I was taking it so I could better teach an undergraduate Intro class, but that I had no delusions as to my poetic ability—I was not, and would never be a ‘real’ poet. He squinted at me until I finished talking, let me sit in a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, then told me that everything I had said was bullshit. I needed to celebrate taking that course. I needed to take that time to be a ‘real’ poet. That being a ‘real’ poet was about a way of seeing, a way of living. How privileged was I to be given the chance to spend time as a poet in this life?

That’s my paraphrase of our conversation, anyway, filtered through time and memory. But I do remember specifically that he used the word privileged.

Derick taught English in Rwanda from 1991-1993.  His first book, Ejo, bears witness to the community experienced before the genocide, the lives of those murdered, and the lives of those who survived. Most remarkable, I think, is his ability to celebrate and mourn with equal vigor, to see the joy and humor and sadness and horror and articulate it all. He brings this same honest eye to his books Never Night and Melt, which also celebrate the beauty and joy in life even amid its horrors, whether those horrors be enacted by the intimate violence of child abuse or by the global violence of climate change. Through all three books—throughout his life—Burleson kept his eye vigilant and steady, and he rendered, beautifully, what he saw with words and with paint.

I believe real harm is done by flinching away from life. Flinching happens in several ways. Sometimes it is the refusal to see life as it is at all, to close our eyes and make our own realities. Sometimes it is willfully seeing only the joy. Sometimes it is willfully seeing only the horror. But to do any of this—to flinch—is to bear false witness. Art of any meaningful kind cannot flinch.

On election night this past year, like so many, I sent this poem to friends (pardon the GIGANTIC screenshot font, there is not a great deal of editing going into this post):

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I wasn’t as surprised by the election results as others. I grew up among the stone throwers. I have lived among them elsewhere, as well. But even within places where the stones fall in hailstorms, I have found people building shields, mending wings, working to help the people taking aim question why they do so.

In this poem, whether there are good bones or whether this is solely a sales tactic is not explicit. In the weeks following the election, I found myself waffling over whether America has good bones or if social progress is simply a sales tactic of capitalism. I still do this waffling at times. I won’t pretend otherwise.

Right now, I think America does have good bones. There are also some shitty old pipes and entire walls that need to be demolished, and a helluvalot more work to be done as well, but the popular vote count has helped to reassure me that there are good bones, meaning, of course, that there are enough good people to get the work done.

Progress is not a solid, forever forward-moving process anymore than a house, once built, is forever sound. Both require diligent, vigilant, difficult work. The damage sets in, I think, when we flinch.

My adult New Year’s Eve tradition (barring the few times I have been persuaded out into the world, which have mostly ranged from disappointing to disastrous) is to light some candles, make several pots of tea, or pour several glasses of wine, or tip several measures of whiskey (usually all of the above), and write and read until I absolutely can no longer do so.

And while New Year’s Day belongs to writing and reading fiction (and eating black-eyed peas, which is a thing, I promise), New Year’s Eve night belongs to poetry. There is something more contemplative, for me, about the form, and I am at my most contemplative on this night, a natural enough response, I guess, to a communal marking of the passage of time.

I read again Heaney’s “Beowulf.” I read again the poems I favored in childhood, like Noyes’ “The Highwayman” and Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and certain Shakespearean monologues like Edmund’s bastard speech. I dig back into Richard Hugo’s letters. I go honky-tonking with Carrie Jerrell and head into Katrina with Natasha Threthewey. I let Claudia Rankine school me on my white privilege and fragility. I mosey back to Oklahoma with Joy Harjo and Jeanetta Calhoun Mish and John Berryman and B.H. Fairchild. I find poems from old friends on ancient computer files and read Jacob Robert Stephens, Brooke Sheridan, Lisa Janout, James Raines, Eddie Kim, Damien Cowger, and so many more. I pick-up books by newer friends like Melissa Range and Anne Barngrover. I spend some time just trawling the Poetry Foundation’s website with words I love—myopic, cleave, scurry, hollow, etc…

This year. This night. I will be reading Derick Burleson. A few poems of his—“Ejo” and “Never Night” (from which I pulled the title of this post)—are part of the yearly refrain, but this time I’m going to sink into all I have with all I have. Through child abuse, alongside genocide, beside melting glaciers, and more, Burleson looked at life and saw the good bones amid the real shithole. He saw it and he did what I hope to do this coming year and all my coming years. He kept a steady eye. He did not flinch.

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To Cleave

On a bright June day a few years back, I crouched beside a creek in Yosemite National Park and lifted a stone from the water’s edge. It fit the well of my palm, and its weight sat like a good ink pen—enough to notice, but not to wear heavy. Bits of ore sparkled from its cleavage line. The edges, despite their stay in the water, remained sharp. I carried the stone to my friend so she might share this small wonder in a place made of the larger kind.

It is a long-standing habit of mine to mark a memory with a found object: a railroad spike from a romantic hike in Alaska; a soda bottle from a fishing trip with my grandfather; a wine cork from a toast to a friend dead too soon. But the objects I find are usually stones, probably because my memorable days are mostly spent alone in a landscape, maybe a good dog by my side.

That day I was not alone. My companions were a friend and her soon-to-be-mother-in-law. We were on a day drive through the National Park and had stopped to stretch our legs. My friend knows my habits well, so when I showed her the stone in my hand, she smiled. The mother-in-law, seeing my intention, said “Take only pictures; leave only footprints” in the same tone I imagine she uses when saying ‘a moment on the lips; a lifetime on the hips.’

I bristled, as I often do when receiving unsolicited advice, but in the interest of a congenial trip, I took a breath and knelt to return the stone to the creek bank. A car horn sounded in the parking lot behind us, reminding me of the line of cars had extended before us and behind us that day. And as I lay the stone back onto the ground, I saw not only my own hand, but thousands of hands reaching to the earth and taking pieces of it. And as they did so, the ground around me began to soften, and the creek before me flattened, and the Cascade Mountains lowered, until I was no longer in California, but in the far-less-spectacular Winding Stair Mountains, offshoots of the Ozarks that drift across the Arkansas line and settle over Southeastern Oklahoma. This is where my family has lived, through immigration and removal, for more than a hundred years. It is also where I chose my first stone.

My grandparents’ place. Thanksgiving weekend. The women were in the kitchen slinging flour and gossip. The men were on the front porch spitting tobacco and making certain the teller kept the story straight. I was young enough to be an annoyance in either place, and so I was allowed to wander. Or maybe I left without permission, knowing my absence would not be missed until the meal was served. Whatever the case, I grabbed a windbreaker and headed toward the creek that ran sixty, maybe seventy yards from the house.

Woodstove smells drifted over the damp fall light. The rust and canary and crimson of maple and bois d’arc and pin oak perched in contrast against the loblolly and cedar and juniper. It was in this rocky stretch of Oklahoma Ozark on this late fall afternoon where I first understood what it meant to feel a place. In the house, among dozens of people, I had been transparent—the youngest child by more than six years, and a girl, and therefore of no use or interest to anyone. Here, away from everyone, I felt solid. Here is where I discovered that lonely occurs more easily among others than when alone.

Not that this was a conscious thought at the time. But I do remember thinking that if I breathed enough of the air into my lungs, that if the cells of my body could absorb that place, then some part of it would become a part of me and work as a talisman against the crush of the evening meal, and nightfall, and nowhere left to be but alone among others again.

I stomped and stretched the barbed wire fencing, worked my way around a few cows, then squatted by the creek. I dropped leaves and twigs and watched them move in the dawdling current. I placed my fingers in the water, tried to make my hand weightless so it might also drift. I mimicked bird calls so that later I could ask my father the names.

A leaf rustle sent a sharp jolt up my back. I’d been warned of the hillbilly families who would shoot anyone on sight. The boars and bearcats and wild dogs that could shred a body. I cursed myself for not bringing a gun, though what I thought a .22 rifle—the only gun I could handle—might do to a charging boar, or a brain-damaged mountain family, I do not know. The next rustle produced a squirrel that bounded up a tree and scolded me for scaring it.

I laughed to get the nerves out, then walked along the bank a ways, observing how some rocks could break the current, while others were overtaken by it. This made me sad, and I had no idea why. It makes me sad still. I do not know the why any better now.

When my nose and ears began to chill, and the fall colors muted under shadow, I knew the meal would soon be laid, so I turned lazy-kid feet back from where I had come. In my scuffle, the thin rubber toe of my Wal-Mart Ked connected with a good-sized rock. My foot smarting, I went after the offending party.

It was not pretty in a way people think a little girl might like. It was not heart-shaped or pink. It did not sparkle. Dull tan and not of any interesting shape, it is a piece of sandstone common to the area. But I knew as I lifted this rock that it held that moment, that peace, and so I pocketed it and carried it back to the house. That night, when I felt alone and anxious, when I seemed to disappear, I thumbed its solid, rough sides and felt my shoulders ease. The rock now sits on my writing desk. I sometimes do this still.

There was no one beside me that day to say “take only photos; leave only footprints.” But of course, thousands of people do not daily arrive to drive through those hard-scrabble hills and gawk at opossums and persimmon trees. I hope they never do. And not only for the selfish reason of wanting a place of unknown quiet, but because I think we need both places if we are to salvage our relationship to the earth. It is important to remember that, wherever you find yourself on the continuum of creation beliefs—from Adam to Stardust, we are pieces shorn from the larger whole. And this act of shearing, of breaking-off, is called cleaving.

But note that to cleave also means to adhere, to cling, to join together. The most famous use of this, perhaps, lies in the Genesis passage, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” Two separate people made whole, but not to the point of eviscerating their original forms.

In my more ephemeral moments, I think of all life as pieces cleaved from a single whole, then cleaved together again, so that there is a distinction, but not a separation. I find this philosophy or ethos or whatever it is supported by the fact that our language has a single word, a single syllable, that means both to separate and to join together. Surely if we can hold near opposite meanings inside a single syllable, we can also hold inside ourselves these opposing, but equally important ways of treating the earth.

A young girl in Oklahoma should pick-up a rock and carry it with her for the rest of her days, a reminder of the first time she felt a landscape, a reminder that she is part of it.

And that same girl should replace the rock she finds in Yosemite because that is a place set-aside to experience wonder, a place to feel small and insignificant in the face of something greater than oneself.

We must take pieces from the earth and hold them and keep them with us.

And we must protect the earth and keep her separate and be content to observe her wonder.

We must be both separate and joined.

We must cleave.