The Job of Becoming a Poet

THE journey to words, a cat climbing a blanket that is stretched across a clothesline, the afternoon sea with its gulls at full mast. I sit on the pier's edge, looking for depth in the barnacles close to the kelp-clad rocks, and think back to earlier in the day.

The time I sat beside a man from another generation and watched men in a fishing boat in a bay full of waves. We spoke the language of shared silence, participating in the wake of waters to shore.

There were other explorations, like reading the plays of Shakespeare while drifting across a great lake, or diving beneath a floating garden and catching the shadow of a salmon at play.

I hear my name being spoken. I pay attention to the cat perched atop the blanket, and then gaze in the direction of the gull beside me.

I hear my name again. This time I look around and see a woman of years carrying a splitting mallet and a couple of wedges. She begins to work on a section of log that I brought in from yesterday's waves.

Shall I help?

The cat decides it is time to descend the blanket and prance across the pier to where the woman of years is busy.

I find myself pitching in, at first by watching the woman of years deftly place the wedge with one hand and tap it with the head of the splitting mallet.

She asks me if I want to split a section of tree. I take the mallet which weighs as much as a bucket full of sea water.

The cat jumps on the handle of the mallet, and then finds its way up my arm. It perches on my shoulder. I place a wedge in the center of the log. The woman of years suggests I take a closer look at the log. "See where the wood wants to split."

I take a good look and replace the wedge.

I tap the wedge just enough to set it. The cat leaps from my shoulder and runs over to the blanket. It re-climbs the blanket.

I take a good swing and feel the mallet make contact with the wedge. The log starts to split.

I smile at the woman of years, and she asks me if I have ever experienced what the log just experienced.

I think for a moment, and look over at the cat. For an instant it looks like a penguin. I think back to the time I felt like a penguin perched on a sea of ice in the wilderness of self.

I must have been in my mid-30s. The tragedy of the Munich Olympics had changed my outlook on life. I felt awareness in my soul for the first time, and it was like the sea of ice that had been me suddenly split. It was that time in my life to rise above merely being aware and turn to some form of creative expression. I wrote my first poem.

Recently, I returned to that first feeling of inner manhood, when I saw a picture of a Kurdish mother holding her infant. She was standing in the mountains of her agony.

The cat has a friend. The gull takes to the air and circles my pier. It lands on top of the blanket. The cat eyes the gull, but does not pounce on it. There is some kind of understanding that defies the laws of nature as I have seen them in action: This cat and this gull have become friends.

The job of becoming a poet is never over. Each awareness affords a poetic insight, and then the work at hand is picked up. The woman of years picks up different kinds of wood.

She tells me about the property of cedar: It is good as a fire starter. Fir wood burns longer and gives off more warmth.

I look at the pile of logs, and realize each log was once a certain kind of living tree, and after that a piece of driftwood.

I am not through yet. The woman of years wants to show me where her favorite broom is. To her way of thinking, cleaning up is part of doing the job.

She unlocks the cottage next to mine. I can't believe the assortment of treasures from half a hundred years of living on a mahogany deck above living waters. There are oarlocks from a small boat that once plied uncharted inlets on the Isle of Man, a feather from an eagle in its 20th year of perching on a barnacle-covered rock, and the imprint of a prehistoric sole.

The more common items are stacked on top of each other: lawn chairs for guests, a garden hose to feed the flowers that adorn the reading desk of the woman of years. There are books from Plato's era, a play by Pliny, poems by all the poets who ever lived beside the full range of tides.

The woman of years has words that capture the mystery of a mustard seed as well as the path to the inner summit. At the same time, her knowledge of the sciences has a specific focus: the anatomy of the vital organs of human awareness in communion with everything under the sun.

And of course, because her cottage is very old, there are cobwebs in all the out-of-the-way places, and nails in the ancient walls, which hold up such things as fishing boots, a climbing stick, and a magnifying glass.

The cat is comfortable everywhere, while the gull prefers to sit on the railing just outside the front door that came to shore decades ago.

I am careful to treat everything with respect, even the thought process that inhabits my soul. At the same time, I am not afraid to put my hand into the living waters, once she brings me a basin of sea water.

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