This is the best version of the story I’ve ever done, I think. I took it from a letter to a friend, though I usually try not to mine my letters. Makes one too cloyingly self-conscious. Hope you’ll forgive me this time. I’m including a few poems that relate.
Once, when my daughter Lynnika was about three, I was a brokish lowly poet in the small town of Arkadelphia, Arkansas, serving as poet-in-residence at the two colleges in the town and as Clark County’s on-call poetry-in-the-schools guy.
What the poet-in-residence bit meant was that $2500 of my $10K annual grant was billed by the colleges as providing me office space. Which meant a desk and a chair in a room without windows, that I never spent any time in at all. We were living down in the Ouachita River bottoms outside Arkadelphia. Then my grant went belly-up. We had been paying a mortgage on ten acres out in the Oauchita Mountains west of Arkadelphia,(and Hollywood, Arkansas). I’d decided to build a cabin on it for us to live in.
Getting back to nature’s hard. I did build the cabin, and we did live in it. Briefly.
But back before all that, before the grant folded, we used to go camp on the land overnight–Lynnice, whose husband I was, and our daughters. Lynnice was pregnant with our second daughter, Sarah. So we were more or less going out and dreaming. Very enjoyable. There was no structure except a falling in old corn-crib, and there was a lot of punk pine on the hillside we thought of as ours. Dead and fallen trees, grown soft with decay. The gravel road looped around our ten-acre tilty but with a relatively flat top piece of rocky topology carpeted with pine and oak and gum and plum and so on.
Anyway, so we one morning we drove out to our place and camped that night. This was a day in early spring. Buds were coming out. That wonderfully luminous but just a bit icy light when we arrived, then afternoon, evening, night. When night came I constructed a huge fire that threw big flapping shadows on the corncrib and the trees, and underlit the trees, and threw off a rising tornado of sparks (because of the punk pine I’d used).
That morning, Lynnika had wanted the word for “minnows.” It was one of the more wonderful periods of my life, witnessing my first daughter come into language. It was entirely magical, how it started so simply with the names of things, and then, supposing things, supposing relationships between things, and then relationships of relationship, but all as beautifully ordered, as greenly exfoliated as any growing tree.
We say people learn their language. Not exactly. Language grows in people, is a living being. I’m talking about something I actually saw happen.
I was Lynnika’s dictionary. She would come to me for the names of things. That’s what “To a Young Man Working His Way through College” is about. This kid on my doorstep trying to sell me a “dictionary” for children—another one of those condescending constructions in which children are treated as stupid and requiring that the subject be dumbed down–when already, in her, language had attained such power and spendor that such a trivial little collection was laughable. This happened after the events on the land I’m telling you about. In mere weeks she would be constructing elementary sentences and then all of sudden it happened so fast we couldn’t keep up with it.
But this day I was still primal word-giver. So at her question I gave her minnows for the little silvery flashing swimmers in the sheer thin shallows and swells of our WPA pond (its translucent green dusted and discriminated with a fine powder of yellow pine-pollen) and fish for the category.
As I say, then the night and the big fire flapping. Over us in perfect clarity if we stepped away, the lucid stars.
And the fire throwing off its torrent of sparks.
And Lynnika had never seen sparks before. But this time she couldn’t wait to get the word from me. This time she needed a word right now.
She said, laughing happily, “Look at the fire-fish, Daddy.”
I think most people think language makes poetry, that it’s a refinement, an artifice, a purification. I saw as clearly as I could possibly see that it went at least exactly the opposite way. It’s poetry that has made language.
That moment, that creation, that spark of naming. I became convinced that it is born in every one of us (not to say there are not varying degrees of innate ability), which if it were true would be at least astonishing and maybe miraculous, and that most of us, even the poets–and by poetry I mean to include all writing, possibly all language (Lynnika has found a different way to love language–she’s a linguist, a scientist of language, ABD from U of AZ)–become from frequency and habit inured to the astonishing innate human behavior I see as a sort of goddess in the species. I became convinced that what genuine poetry does is restore the potency, the freshness that language had when we were first learning it.
The poems (the first one is there to set the time-frame roughly. It happened after Lynnika was born but a year before we moved to Arkadelphia).
JANUARY 27, 1973
Dear Lord, as if by plan it happened:
All day long, the soul-dulling rain,
but by sunset the cloud-cover opened
here and there gaps, and let a stain
of lemon dawn on building walls,
and trees were crooked light again,
and the gaps widened, and fiery halls
opened in sunward clouds, and umber
glowed on the underbelly shoals
of clouds running eastward to slumber,
and just at six the porch-lights lit
all over town and starlings past number
flocked overhead, and watching that,
I heard the sirens announcing peace,
and people honking in the street.
All the last clouds blew off like fleece
and all the western branches flamed,
leaving the sky a polished piece
of onyx-blue. Let blame be blamed,
let who wants credit take the credit,
let it be as it has been claimed,
a bitter debt till we have paid it—
I say all the sober should get drunk,
and the celebrators celebrate it
in drive-in church and honky-tonk,
and all the car-horns honk honk honk.
My daughter sits jabbering.
I lean around the corner to look at her.
There she is tilted to the wall
in the mirror I have not yet made time to put up,
pretending to read.
She pulls the pages anyhow apart.
The main thing is to get them separated and make some noise.
Time enough for fine distinctions later.
Come on, typewriter keys,
BLUES FOR LYNNIKA AT TWO
You gone blue write?
Darn right I gone blue write, blue girl
at such a sleepy loss
at my armchair’s arm.
I gone take this yellow pencil (why
did you say blue?),
I gone write you,
I gone blue write all right,
blue like stars
come out in deepening blue
over the bare black
over the sharp black
ideograms of trees,
untranslatable—raw oak sorrow, perhaps,
dotted gaities of gum?
Oh but blue, blue,
like blue going down
undone in puddles, thinning in water, dissolute, gone,
no least tinct like taint of salt, no ghostly hint, none,
but gone, blue,
You gone blue write?
I gone blue write,
like sleep is blue, pure blue, and you, you,
where do you go,
let go, to?
And what, oh blue, are blue fathers to do,
to think, helping you
let be, let go, let blue
be blue be blue be blue. You do
it so well, so simply,
let die your day, lay down all color, color
by color, singing:
Up-up-up a worse a high,
ha I wunner whatcher are—
you do it. Ah blue, it
is so blue, you, how you are
not afraid, so love will lie by you
in the blue dark,
not afraid, blue, not afraid
to be blue, less, bluely, bluelessly
dispersed, timelessly blue
past blue past all blue blues blued
till yellow Jesus day bang open.
HOW MY DAUGHTER GAVE ME THE WORD
I find it impossible to speak
without music any more—
as if all language had finally
become poetry. And why not? Why not?
What is a word but a spark
somewhere in the brain, in the flesh therefore, a white-hot
leaping, a plasma so faint, so tinily
schooling with fellows,
and how they swerve in a manifold flashing,
the whirl of a mood, a thought, a hushing . . .
Like minnows spinning in shallows,
one silvery host in reversal,
flaring with sunfire, diffracting the scales of color,
moment beyond rehearsal.
Say in 1974, the spring,
early, when we stood on a cold hillside,
you and I and your mother,
you in my arms and prompt as the sunlight
spilling its differentials. You never denied
surprise but wanted always to know
the name of the never-before-met,
why rain was rain and water was water,
and water was always wet,
but water wasn’t always rain, but rain was always water,
and why the pond below
was not water, but a pond with water in it,
and those minnows, those fish flashing and schooling,
What do you call them? Quick as a minute,
I called you, and gave your mother a glance—
that archaic woman, so supple, so clean in her bones—
Oh things had names which were songs which were
a springing of item and light. This was before
I raised us a roof with my own hands, and named your sister
for the treetop blossoms of running yellow
jessamine, open for solstice.
This was before the sound of my restless
hammer, the singing of driven nails in a gridwork, a halo
of hopeful space.
This was before I began to build, but it was ours,
the land, the pond, the place—
the late afternoon in shallow,
in jade-lucid water . . .
All of it ours. And later
we made our night camp
beside the old corncrib falling in and useless,
but an architecture nevertheless,
the shadowy starpunctured frame and stamp
of the human, of the desire
for form, for mastery, for kinship, for the warmth
of a fire. And you knew fire,
its leonine pounce, its agile blue tongue—
but this kindling went whoomph!
like the big bang.
I had dragged punk pine from the undergrowth,
the jackstraw halfrotten aftermath
of starved-out seedlings, so that against a thick black smoke
a vortex rose, a host that went
almost to the starfixed sky, and broke
to meteors, the children of the arc.
And you were too excited this once to wait
for the father-word,
the old slow story of the spark.
Grace jumps before we’re ready,
before we can plan or fail. And so occurred
the ionic, the shellstripped fresh,
the radical made flesh:
Look Daddy, look Daddy–
for my father, Jack Butler, Sr.
The formal ocean has its watery hooks,
and here, far inland,
the water has gotten its hooks in me again.
Oh primocane and floricane and dead old sticks, oh thirst
for tantalant polyhedrals,
leaf-hidden, glimmering–packed purple beads
my eye can cull from wrangle of shadow
somehow halfway across a road!
For here, in the thrumming of a summer morning,
I’m making like a country boy,
thinking of fatherhood and childhood
and lost time like form–
My father, I provide, provide (my fathers)
with a rolling of wrist, a trained mumble
of palps to fat clusters, a dropping
of plumpness to palm till palm brims,
must dump in a bucket: Enough moral here
(for a preacher’s boy with a child of his own
twenty years later) in how
the one-too-many, greedily plucked-at,
will tumble a dozen out of the hand,
or how the outventured arm, drawn suddenly back,
will make the barbs clamp, close inward together—
Oh I am one to praise the very
thorns of the blackberry,
rose-cousin and edible tart fruit.
My mind drifts like a child’s, in visions of floating order,
my body attentive, sweat-beaded, mosquito-haunted . . .
These green canes, lashes,
sprung up limply on the wild rolled bramble,
the stiff, persistent stuff
of its own past history—I hardly need
to say like a wave, processions of vanishing structure,
there and not-there,
there at the corner of the eye,
to be gathered . . .
I aint said nothing about chiggers of course, horseflies
in relentless whizzing precession,
the possibility of copperheads or moxicans
somewhere under the interthreaded
honeysuckle and greenbriar: Those forms that threaten invasion,
that are not merely there to be taken
but do their own taking.
one may mutter and permutate: sumac,
blackberry brambles to bind it,
sumac and greenbriar, greenbriar and blackberry,
honeysuckle (its flowering spent) and sumac,
honeysuckle and sweetgum, whose stars,
immediate and thick as weeds,
appear in the ditches just now, greenbriar
arresting the flowering elderberry–
And what of the triplets or the white dragonflies
with electric black wings
or blue slender naiads and the dark blue blur
of their whizzing wings, the orders of lizards, rabbits,
all of blue fulminant itchy summer
in one groined prehistoric non-tree,
sumac groaning with bees, heavy-blossomed, in heat,
and me under it with ringing ears looking up
at the branch-vaulted blue,
glad of the sweat-sodden weight of my denim,
at loose in the wild, uncomfortable, happy
to have made my escape,
for once, from breakfast.
Vine, bee, bramble, shrub, tree, and flower
in their tangled communion and trade create
a world, whose verity
is not a function of pain exactly,
though I have come back
with hooks in my face, a sunburnt nose, and later,
ankles nubbled with redbug bites
a man will scratch bloody to make quit itching: Not a world
whose harsh truth poetry cannot enter,
but a world poetry must follow a man into—
let the barbs snag me, let me shit seed,
bite down on a stinkbug
hidden in a handful of winedark fruit.
Lynnika loiters at the pick-up,
the game gone dead for her
after the first few roadside fruit. What are we for,
but to learn persistence in the right directions,
the useful stubbornness
no child can manage, the pains to take
for the sake of the story.
I think now of my father’s sermons
in all those backwoods churches, hard seats and dragged-out hymns,
two-week revivals he had to get it up for
after a hundred
two-week revivals, scratching a living and knowing himself
a sinner as bad as any he scolded,
his children troubled. And I was the fat
unpleasant eldest, lazy and book-ridden,
swearing by dreams and wrong-headed,
itching with sleazy and sexual ignorance.
The hardcore faithful to prayermeeting came
on Wednesday nights, the rich midweek,
the church close-grained with pews,
spilling a yellow radiance to dust and sparse grass
as the deacons smoked on the porch and talked
and crops and spiders and kingdoms
rose in the talk and crumbled away, and, as I wrote
in a fragment that has long since crumbled, mosquitoes rose
like angels in the darkening wood, and sang.
Those roads, my daughter, we lived down,
those gravel trails with a church
or store with gas-pumps,
or a little town
at a drowsy focus, way back, the back way,
haunted with wooden bridges and tree-shadows—
I thought we brewed the New Jerusalem,
the world’s own change
and new meaning. I didn’t know.
It has been hard to lose those meanings
and keep my own, but the rest of the world
does exist. I am not much
of a country boy. Except. The fat fruit
seems always to shelter under cool leaves.
Bend over, twist your head, look up.
I’m sorry about the mosquitoes, the dust,
the blazing sun, the hard sharp rocks of the gravel,
the stink of dead animals.
Your father’s a poet and not a preacher.
Not much difference. You roll your own, that’s all.
a man walking through trees
breaks with his face,
those lost roads
are broken and gone
on the face of the round world’s present. But
what poetry has had for me
more beauty or order or mystery
than that we thought of in wooden churches
late at night
under the stars, our odd harmonic cries
troubling the owls?
The other night, out at the place,
the new place,
the one we own in two years, our first,
preparing to sleep
in the moon-barred corncrib (its logs unchinked),
exhausted and solitary,
putting in time
to make it our home, this scrap of land,
whipping its call.
the cat snoring,
I thought of my crimes: Imagined monsters
were loose in the woods,
and I could feel the Methodist cemetery
across the road,
its bodies gathered and packed and crumbling,
and thought somehow
of that whole chambered boneyard,
from which I had conjured moldering skeletons,
vengeful and grinning with their own lost crimes,
to come at my scalp
through the moonlit door,
as a fruit like a blackberry, rich with form,
composite. And slept.
THE LOST ANIMALS
Barbara from Truchas came into the room radiant
with cold air, to say how
the horse at the fence, suspicious, had taken at last
a slice of sweetness from her naked fingers.
Once a hummingbird
stirred in my palm, uttered a single high note,
and took the winter air.
In Jayme’s hand, its stunned mate woke, sang, went.
Why is it we want to talk to animals?
None of the animals want to talk to us—
except, of course, those we have kept beside us
all these years: Miaow,
they say, or Wunf. Wunf. Wunf. And mean, See me.
All of our animals
are strays—the wounded, forgotten, misplaced, cast out:
A scrap of kitten with a rotted haunch
howling at ditch-edge, now a fat and happy
three-legged tom. Or our latest, Lawsted,
a mewling in the dark
arroyo last Christmas eve. We spent an hour
scrambling through sand, chamisa, juniper,
persuading her to our help,
persuading her not to become coyote-meat.
But she had called out to us. Lost as they are,
they have developed the syndrome,
self-awareness, have thought to themselves, I exist,
and then, inevitably,
but I will vanish unless they see me, see me.
This is our blessing, the fruit
of the tree of knowledge—of what? Of anything.
Ah, we are the species with questions which we disguise
as answers, we are the true lost animals.
My brilliant friend, the saint of smoking genius,
Big Al Varo on the twelve-string says
it is essential loneliness: We would
cry out to stones, Oh speak, because we are
alone. Perhaps. And perhaps also, of all
creatures most generous, we wish to transmit
the gift that stars our genes and makes us dream God,
we wish to touch as we have been touched,
to say that loneliness
may not be forever or at the last:
Our oldest, Abigail,
in morning, shut out, cries Mama at the door,
the only time—I swear it—
she makes that sound. And Jayme
rises from a warm dream to let her in.
THE MOTHER TONGUE
On the occasion of the Faulkner Conference, New Orleans, September 1999, with deep gratitude to Rosemary James and Joe DiSalvo, and particular appreciation for Richard Katrovas, Mark DeFoe, Peter Cooley, and Janet Turner Hospital, fellows on the “Meter and Musicality of Literature” panel—
I don’t know what my father is—
my mother is this tongue.
I see a many-branching tree,
forever aging. Or else a river,
or else a fractal of light,
blooming for an instant in
hallways of night.
I have become that tree, that water,
exploded with that fire.
I’ve spent myself on poetry,
not on desire,
so honor all those vanished singers
who shaped the words I say:
I host their breath, and with it sing
all poets today.
We ask for heritage, for spirit,
we ask for sacred flame,
and the burning past spills from our lips
name after name
unnoticed. She moves unseen, the goddess,
she makes us kin, and ken.
What are we but monkeys, for all
our science and zen?
What are we but tricky bastards, upright
by means of continual will,
teetering from balance to balance,
so seldom still,
so busy with continual talk
we hear what isn’t there,
the footstep of the imaginary
on the living stair.
No longer animal entirely,
a tribe of voluble clowns,
we are what the mother has made us: Let lions,
let leopards pounce—
we will die pronouncing incredible arias,
we will die singing our fathers,
our mothers, the sun, the moon, the stars,
and all of those others.
And what are poets of any tribe,
however we differ and quarrel,
but wilding fools, enchanted to music?
but holy stuff, almost familiar,
strange music that isn’t
quite music, but is, surprisingly, not
at all unpleasant—
no, no, in fact quite lovely,
in fact the fact of existence
hissing so sweetly across our beings
into blue distance.
What are poets but spirit-talkers
who make the dream-world visible,
as lightning wakens the night river
with an impossible
chaos of pathways, a branching of fire?
Talk dirty, talk mathematics,
talk trash, talk hip, talk tall, talk cardboard
boxes in attics
full of old photos. Talk turkey, talk sense,
talk straight, talk terms, talk to my lawyer,
now you’re talking, you talk the talk
but how do I know ya
can walk the walk? What are humans
but poetry-spouting apes,
changed animals who do strange things
to woids and grapes?
So lift a glass, Popeye and Olive,
hoist up your long-stemmed flute:
With a high and a ho and a hey-derry-do,
down the old chute!
—Here’s one for the language, not as a goddess,
but as a goddess might be.
—And here’s one for beauty, and here’s another
for just you and me.