Dangling Poems in Knotty Places

IT had once been Moseley estate, 480 lush acres along the Merrimack River in Massachusetts. But the mansions had long been razed by fire and swept clean by generations of New England weather. The formal gardens were wild and overgrown, though the famous banks of mountain laurel and azalea still bloomed each year. And now it was purchased by the commonwealth to become Maudslay, the newest state park. Because of his long-standing commitment to the arts, Jim Gutensohn, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Management at the time, decided that Maudslay would have a special focus on "art and the environment." To inaugurate the park, organizers arranged for a day-long celebration of the arts - music, dance, theater, poetry. But the featured event that summer would be an outdoor sculpture exhibit. Two dozen Massachusetts artists would each create a new site-specific piece especially for the groves and fields of Maudslay. I was invited to be one of two poets to perform at the celebration. I was pleased to be asked to participate ... until I made my first visit to the park. I came to Maudslay with a sculptor friend who was preparing a piece for the show. The land still had a bit of wildness to it, the signs of its former human habitation subtly taken over by the growth of trees and vines. The air that afternoon was crisp and warm as it blew in off the river. Everywhere I wandered in the park, I'd come across sculptors busily exploring their tiny art domains. Each had selected some wooded grove or grassy mound as their own private stage on which to erect some surprising cons truction. The overall feeling was one of pure and unbridled play. "Serious play" is perhaps at the heart of all artistic creation - a childlike delight in experience blended with an adult's curiosity and skill. These people were having such fun inventing their Maudslay offerings. I suddenly found myself quite depressed. I could clearly envision what my part of the celebration was going to look like. Even outdoors, poetry readings have a deadening sameness to them: the rows of serious faces, the dignified introductions, the reading of the poems, the solemn nodding of heads, the thoughtful mmmm's of approval. The audience is passive. The poet tries to be as energetic as the occasion permits. Polite applause, and we go about our business, thinking our private thoughts. I couldn't bear to be an accessory to such an event - not when the surroundings were so beautiful, and the sculptors were having such a good time. So I began plotting, hunting for some new way to inject poetry into this landscape. The concept I came up with resulted in over a half dozen additional trips to Maudslay before I was through - and led me to the most delightful way I've ever shared my writing. On opening day, carloads of spectators, picnickers, and strollers arrived at the park. They each were given a map to help uncover the dozens of sculpture sites. Walking up the main path, the crowd saw what appeared to be a giant Stonehenge-like dolmen on the crest of the field. Magnetically, people were drawn from the paths and across the meadow, moving in slow processions, to approach the 4-foot-tall rough granite slabs. Their arms were extended like sleepwalkers toward the monumental shape - only to touch the cold stone and realize: papier-mache! Light and supple, Marty Cain's sculpture was pure surprise, like those instant transformations that deftly overturn us in our dreams. Many of the spectators laughed out loud. Others, still amazed, wandered quietly in and out of its shadowy presence. In a circle grove, adorned with primitive signs and talismans, Judy Berman's "Blue Dog" bayed at the sky by day and - we were left to imagine - at the moon alone at night after we'd all gone home. Charlie Gibson and John Chandler erected a purple doorway on the very spot the threshold of the Moseley mansion had stood. Looking up, we were compelled to imagine the lives that had passed through such a portal, the great rooms that now were only filled with tree limb and cloud. NO matter how abstract or challenging the artworks were, the spectators seemed to be sharing the artists' pure delight in creation. No one wore that protective look of solemnity that is de rigueur in a gallery visit. None hurried past the artwork with a mere glance at the nameplate. They too were playful, curious, and talkative about their reactions as they came to terms with each exhibit. When it came time for the poetry reading, I dutifully appeared at the designated grove. Out of the 5,000 people who visited the park that day, 28 came to hear the poetry. They sat in clumps, much as I'd imagined, listened appreciatively, and then went on their ways. Not unenjoyable, but hardly an intimate sharing. But from their first arrival at Maudslay, there was another poetry event taking place. Coming upon the first hedge-lined clearing where the gardens had once bloomed, the spectators found two long grape arbors, the vines now tangled and withered. But dangling beneath the arbors from the knotted stems: poetry! Bunches of poems on blue strips of card stock that, as you read them, were addressed to you. "Seed-Poems at Maudslay" read the bold heading, followed by this simple explanation: "Wandering around the park, I kept a poet's journal - images, lines, observations - of the moments and special places that reached out to me and required inspection. I've left these poems for you to find where they first found me. As seed-poems, my hope is they will prompt new poems, new discoveries." The poems that hung from the vines began:

No grapes, sorry. Too many seasons since tendering hands coaxed clustered night-blue sweetness from these matted vines. But after a rough and rainy time, I am pleased to report our crop of poems is burgeoning and perfectly ripe...

As you followed your map, tracking down sculptures, you'd happen upon bunches of these multicolored handbills floating from branches or tucked in with the azaleas or draped along the stone bridge by the pond - free poems for the picking. Each one had been written on the spot you were now standing. Each spoke directly to the listener in a confidential voice - as if you were the very reader it had been waiting for. And if you eventually collected all six poems, together they formed a suite that focused on the very experience of looking and questioning that presently occupied your attention. At a poetry reading, it is quite clear who is offering up these packets of language. But for most of this day, I could wander free, incognito, and just observe people's reactions to my word-seedlings. One old woman read the grapes poem, head craning back to savor the last lines. When the poem came down in her hand, she looked around guiltily and tried to reattach it to the stem. Others plucked the cards as brashly as you'd take a ticket at the bakery counter, and read the poem half-daring it to engage. And when the poem did, engendering a smile or a frown or a second look at the surroundings, I was pleased to see it carefully folded into pants pocket or handbag. At the little stone bridge, I watched groups of people pick the poems, and give each other a spontaneous poetry reading. I'd overhear debate about "just what the poet was getting at." I passed two groups of picnickers, obviously old friends who'd met by chance, and listened to this bit of conversation: ve got No. 1, 3, and 4.Hey, where'd you find No. 6?" I remember collecting baseball cards as a boy with that same enthusiasm - but poetry? And then, by the riverside, I saw one young woman with my yellow poem No. 5 - on the back of which she was scribbling her own poem. In response to me? To the seeds? To the river? Or something else. Finally, near the close of the day, as the crowds began to gather for the concluding concert, they plucked copies of "The People's Symphony" from along their path - a poem in which I'd imagined the ensemble of noises and voices we'd all make together as we approached this musical experience. I watched the readers look up, a little startled, eavesdropped upon by some poet, now eavesdropping on the people around them. Slowly they realized the fullness of sound they'd been part of all along. The looks on th ose faces meant more to me than any poetry prize. By the end of the afternoon, not a single poem of the 1,000 remained on branch or pathway. People drove home from Maudslay that evening filled to the brim with new images, shapes, sounds, questions. Art's voice and nature's, more often than not, are set in harmony. And once the seeds are planted, it becomes your job to tend them, to wait, to discover what they'll grow inside your days.

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