Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Just Plain Lucky

Claw, bite, sting, scratch – I cherish the many wound words we draw from nature. Of course, nature sings as well as wounds. There are some one-hundred and seven sound verbs (where did I read this?) in our vocabulary that prove we love nature's bark as much as we love its bite. From wailing to whirring, humming to howling, I believe I've heard everything but a yarr or a troat.

I am thinking about language tonight, about nature. How language fails me, and me it, re: the experiences I've logged in the great and not so great outdoors and my efforts to pull those moments in all their sensory bliss (a blend of pain and awe) into poetry. How about you. What have you never captured in words that means so much to you? (Christ, that sounds like Mary Oliver doesn’t it?)

For me it is the Pacific ocean and more recently my son’s death. Two encounters so profound, they seem hopelessly beyond words to me. This seems contrary to the idea of experience as a guide, right? Intimate as I am with the ocean (or was) and my son’s death I am an unofficial expert, yet I feel both as subjects are more out of reach than I can say. I use the word expert loosely, but maybe for poor souls like me this kind of “expertise” works against the kind of objectivity I need to get at these two wonders. I feel at times like the foolish King who says no one is good enough to marry my child and hence no one comes. It is a beautiful mess in a way, this feeling that having experienced an aspect of nature so profoundly you also feel how beyond words it is but want desperately to find the lyric, the song in it. I enjoy the struggle.


I think of Wordsworth in Nutting, his cheek resting, sensuously kissing the moss cover on a rock. I find a kind of tactile and sensory honesty in poems like Tintern Abbey, Intimations Ode, The Prelude that echo my experience as a boy in El Granada, CA, the almost religious ecstasy of being outdoors in the hills above the bay, or on the shore of the ocean; of touching and being touched by nature.

Reading these poems, I recall the rather direct schooling I got in the language of nature. Yellow-jackets, for instance, taught me the word sting. As a boy, I couldn't leave the nests alone. Whether they were tree top, or underground under that blanket of dead, cinnamon colored pine needles. My record stands at 8 stings in one "incident" - one of those was in the eye, and one the penis (loose shorts); the other six were who knows where. Thirty plus years later, I remember vividly how my skin, corked with venom, swelled and a blotchy red circle appeared around the even darker dot where the stinger entered.

I learned the word bite from Garter snakes and Alligator lizards. The first time a Garter bit me I actually saw it coming, and anticipating the pain I nearly choked on adrenaline as it pinned its mouth to my thumb. But it didn't hurt. No fangs. After, I wanted more. I'd gently tap my finger at the mouth of alligator lizards I'd caught, teasing them to bite. They instinctively obliged. Feeling the pressure of their tiny mouths, the rasp of their teeth, squeezing down on my finger thrilled me in a way I still can't explain. This was the beginning of one weird kind of intercourse folks. Later, I'd read Robinson Jeffers and think if I had not moved away from California, I too might be sitting around sorry I could not feed the hawks with my body.

I learned the word poison from ivy, sumac, and oak. At times, the blisters on my hands were caked so thickly between my fingers that they were splayed apart, and I couldn't even make a fist. Blisters on top of blisters, bubbly sometimes as sacs of frog eggs.


The circus goes on and on.

The secretion salamanders released when held which made them more viscous to the touch, or the way toads jet their piss when you try to hold them. The pure energy of a snake spinning madly like a lasso in your hand as it tries to twirl itself free. I remember the thrilling feel of these scaly, smooth, or sometimes spiny bodies squirming in my hand to get free, how their heads shot side to side frantically trying to bite my hand, and when they did, how the tiny eruptions, welts, blisters, and bite marks were like a language tattooed on my skin by stinger, tooth or resin. Signed, Snake. Yellow-jacket was here. And always, I was amazed by the power of these small creatures to transform my body.

I began remembering the snake bites, stings, and others, years ago while working inside an office, inside a cubicle, inside a ten story building writing ad copy for local car dealers. There were no seasons four floors up where I worked. No true sense of the changing seasons. I was like the sad little plants that the watering service tinkled on every other week. Four years went by quickly in such a place. Milking the self pity for all I could, I wrote a poem about it once. Part Roethke (Dolor) part turd.

Here are a few well-intended, but painfully melodramatic lines:

I gaze out through webs
at faces in windows across
the street floating like fish
in bowls. We all long to dive
with the pigeon flocks that spook themselves
& break from building tops
all day.


The spiders, they happen
every June; but I don't marvel anymore,
I've become unimportant
to myself, grown jack-o-lantern-headed
with a fuck-you-middle-finger
burning like a candle
behind my eyes, & this tiny flame,
all I ever keep, only lights
the paperwork mating on my desk.


I'm being filed away here.


... elevator doors closing silently on
clusters of hard faces, making them
vanish. I want to scream, want to be the one
just for a day to draw my own blood.

Every June these great brown spiders appeared and took up residence in the windows of my office. One spider per window. It always seemed to magically happen all in a night's time. I'd go home and come in the next morning to find enormous web billowing within the each window. A grand, brown spider was always poised somewhere in the corner of the window trim. Bored or snagged on writer's block I'd sit at the windows and watch the spiders trundle up whatever insects crashed into the webs. It beat writing copy for doctor FosterSmith. Or about who had more horsepower.

The spiders reminded me of stings, bites, poison, reminded me that except for the Pacific, (which I'll remember even when I'm dead,) it has always been the smaller citizens of nature that wed me to my surroundings. Wood ticks for example. Many times I'd come home in El Granada from playing in the woods and find I'd picked up a tick or two. Having mom feel her way through my hair for ticks was as much a part of getting ready for dinner after coming in from play as was washing my hands. If she found one she'd twist it counter-clockwise. I remember feeling a small pop as a tiny rag of scalp broke away along with the tick. She'd then burn them with a match in a small ashtray. This was intimacy. My blood mingled in the flow. You might think of Stafford's blood flowing in the river after he's bitten. Nature was saying, you're in this too buddy, you're part of the web; today you're something's food, something's nourishment.


Two landscapes own my heart and imagination. One is the southern countryside of Michigan where I lived as punk from age 10 to 21. The other (which I mention above) is El Granada, a small coastal town in California located just over the hills from San Jose, and just South of San Fran. I lived there between ages of 5 to 9. I can think of no other word than paradise for this coastal place. Every day was spent in the hills above the bay playing among hidden ticks, chasing snakes, lizards, spying on nude sunbathers (hey, it was the 60s!), getting high on the heavy breath of eucalyptus, finding red-tailed hawk feathers, shooting it out with hornets. Or down at the ocean, running from high tide, digging sand crabs, goofing with anemones in tide pools. There I was doing my impression of Wordsworth before I knew who Wordsworth was.

I knew both landscapes intimately, though not the names of things. Only recently, while reaching for after the fact specificity in my writing, have I begun to research and name the plant and animal life of my childhood landscapes. We called the Michigan fields and woods I played in, the Back Forty. Now, though, I know I played in fields of yarrow, wild columbine, pokeweed. Sure, the names are fun to say, as colorful at times as bird names. Milkweed, teasel, chicory. The names fill the mouth like song. They make for musical diction in poems, some times to excess as in say Amy Clampitt's work. Here's what Audobon said on the subject of naming: "To focus on specific trees, birds, and the like--to memorize names for instance--would have diminished the joy of being outdoors by forcing me to step back and contemplate at the very moment I wished to plunge forward and participate. I had no desire to rationalize nature, to dissect that which presented itself as a seamless whole. I wanted immediacy. I still value more the instinctive approach of long ago". I like this thought and it speaks to some of the uneasy feelings I get re: naming, as if by naming we know a thing - its thingness.

Recently, I learned that the spiny lizard I frequently caught in El Granada is actually called a Western Fence Lizard. We dubbed them "swifts" because they were. The male of the species has streaks of the deepest blue on either side of its white belly. Swifts were part of the landscape's magic for me, a part that revealed itself to anyone who'd look closely enough. My father told me that if I held a swift on its back in my palm and gently stroked its throat and belly it would become hypnotized. This proved true. I once cupped a swift in my palm and traced my finger repeatedly down its throat and stomach. The eyes closed and the body became still. Perhaps, belly exposed and vulnerable, it was preparing for certain death. I didn't think of this possibility until years later. At the time, I thought in a stupid sweet way, I had hypnotized the lizard. How Orphic of me. What did I learn from this? Maybe nothing more that when I felt nature's tiny claws, teeth, & stingers, in and against my skin, I, too, was and have been ever since, hypnotized, and find myself closer to nature because of this. No, I never really knew nature by name. I knew nature by touch mostly; and by its toothy, pointed, blistering way of always touching me back. I am lucky for that. Just plain lucky.

Note: I found the images of these reptiles on Google. Funny I would come across someone else letting an Alligator lizard bite his finger.


am said...

As I was trying to think of something to say today about my "painting," I thought of the same word you used to describe El Granada and vicinity as it was in the late 60s and early 70s. It seemed like paradise to me, too. We used to call those lizards ''blue bellies." Thank you for your vivid memories.

Keith Woodruff said...


I had no idea you actually lived there once. How exciting. May I ask where you lived?

And do you remember a big fire on the hillside in El Granada - in general, up behind Santiago lane.

I am working on a long poem (going on 6 years now) about the ocean and living in El Granada. I will have to send it to you when I get it closer to where it belongs.

robin andrea said...

I keep coming back here and re-reading this post and the poem below about the monk's self-immolation. So many images. All I can think to write is that I once walked blindly into a field of stinging nettle. I never forgot.

Keith Woodruff said...

Robin, hi. Thank you for the visit and your comment. Nettles ... man. Those really hurt. Blindly in so to speak, but not blindly out.

am said...

I didn't live in El Granada, but I had a friend who lived in Miramar, and I spent a lot of time with him in those years between the time we were 17 and 21. I know that friend would prefer to remain anonymous. I remember thinking that there could be no place in the world more beautiful than where we were. I don't remember about the big fire, but I do remember driving on the coast highway with my friend late one night and seeing a burning barn somewhere south of Half Moon Bay. In a previous post, you asked about Devil's Slide. Did you ever go inside the WWII bunkers that were hidden in the hill near it?

I look forward to reading your long poem about ocean and El Granada.

chellpenz said...

Never heard a "yarr or a troat"? Sure you have--you're a father. Babies yarr and troat all the time!

Maybe it's so obvious, it's not worth thinking about it, but how is this sense of place or connection to nature cultivated? I grew up in a City, but certainly, nature is there, too. There were amazing flowers, roaches that flew around the backyard and in our bedrooms at night. Cicadas sang all summer and nothing means heat to me more than that sound. But still I don't have a strong connection to Nature, could never consider myself a Nature Writer. But is it true that to be a good writer, one must be grounded in Place (I am using these capitals consciously)? Plumly says all writers should be gardeners. What is the relationship between nature and creative writing? Is it necessary? Who were the truly great writers that were not strongly connected to Nature or Place? I can't even think of one off the top of my head.

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