Our Endless and Proper Work

11 October 2013
8:53 AM


I am struggling not to fall asleep on my desk. I haven’t been to bed; been reading essays all night.

The frustrating thing is, it takes me a long time before I can write a response. I want to do the reviews justice, I want to let someone know that I took the time to read what he or she has written. It matters, I believe, to convey that. To say, you have my full attention.

A revelation, around five in the morning:

A student likened reading a poem to stepping on stones. You move line by line, word by word, and the act of putting your foot forward, of taking a step, illustrates the pause, the line break (she calls it a wobble). The tension lives there, she says. I thought it was brilliant. I told her, I liked the idea that as readers we are crossing carefully, slowly, towards meaning.

J., who’s part of the ModPo staff, was the one who shared the essay. He said that the stepping stones reminded him of the Japanese tea garden he went to when he was a child. I was enamored with that image. I have had my fair share of zen gardens while studying in the university, and a memory came back to me: I once stole a stone while I was at a ‘pocket garden’ at the back of the management building. It was grey and smooth, heavy and warm, like an egg almost, or a small, hard heart.

I said I stole it because all of those stones were meticulously laid out (and I bet accounted for). That afternoon, I finally had the courage to just pick one up and place it in my pocket. My cigarette almost fell out of my mouth when I heard someone behind me. I turned and found my friend, who told me I was stupid for wanting to bring a stone home.

It’s still on my desk after all these years.

“…What I was groping for was something larger, a sense of vocation, what it means to live as a poet–not how to write poetry, but wherefore.”

– Adrienne Rich (WFT, 195-96), pg. 190, from Why Write Poetry?: Modern Poets Defending Their Art by Jeannine Johnson

The stones laid out in a pathway at a Japanese garden are called tobi-ishi. Here is a little bit of history about it:

According to Japanese legend, the notion of laying stones in artfully devised paths goes back to the 16th Century, when a certain tea master chanced to observe a shogun making his way across a muddy courtyard to his teahouse. To keep the shogun’s wooden clogs from sinking in the mire, his attendants ran before him, spreading their garments on the ground.

The tea master, mindful that passage through the tea garden was supposed to confer a state of inner harmony consistent with enjoyment of the tea ceremony, thought there ought to be a better way to keep feet high and dry. He began experimenting with flat stones, setting them out in various ways until he had formed a path that not only served his immediate purpose but added to the beauty of the garden. In no time, the stone-path idea found wider use as Japanese gardeners used steppingstones in hill gardens, stroll gardens and rock-and-sand gardens, and in countless walkways that linked dwellings with their surroundings.

– from A Japanese Path Leads To Perfection by Wendy Murphy

I wrote J. and said, I like the idea of harnessing calm and peaceful energy even before you have your tea, that it starts with the walk towards it, the journey. It complements what we do in ModPo, or in reading poetry in general—how you go on a path, how you must pay attention, on the way towards meaning-making.

There is so much more to the article, and I find that it is connected to everything that I am doing at the moment. Who would’ve thought I would find such reciprocity from the world?

In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be. Wordsworth studied himself and found the subject astonishing. Actually what he studied was his relationship to the harmonies of the natural world. That’s what created the excitement.

Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

– Mary Oliver, excerpts from Upstream, from Blue Iris

Threads, M. When bits and pieces of my life suddenly fit, suddenly slide into place, I am in awe of the universe.

Good morning,


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