Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer JON DAVIS.
“I am beginning to learn how to write.”
—William Butler Yeats in a letter to Dorothy Wellesley, 1938
I wake in darkness and shut off the iPhone alarm just before it starts vibrating. Without disturbing my partner Teresa, I slide out of bed, slip into my writing uniform (gym shorts and sweatshirt), and step out into the hallway. A recorded jungle rainstorm and chittering bird calls—a sleep aid—are playing a little too loudly from my stepson Gregory’s room. My nephew Andrew is exhorting his fellow online gamers from his room. He’s been up all night playing some vaguely medieval-themed computer game. It’s six o’clock. The house is dark. A light, cool breeze curls around my bare legs. I have an hour and a half before my day as director of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts begins. An hour and a half to wander the moonscape of language, but first I must complete the only two rituals of my writing life.
The first of these rituals is to step into the east-facing courtyard—the placita—and witness the horizon a half hour before sunrise—my favorite time of day. I have written several poems against dawn. The bright sun spilling over the horizon always feels like a threat, like the triumph of the literal. “I dwell in possibility,” Emily wrote, and in that indefinite landscape before dawn everything poetic seems possible.
I live in Eldorado, New Mexico, fifteen minutes southeast of Santa Fe. When I step out into the pre-dawn gray, I’m facing the rounded foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. If I turn to the north, I see the same mountain range at its full height. Twenty-five per cent of all sunrises and sunsets here are dramatic enough that you want to text someone or post a photo to Facebook. This morning, however, the drama is minimal: crisp white horizon, a few inky clouds, stark outlines of Russian elms, pinons, and junipers. Mountain weather, this morning. Fall is, as they say, in the air. Other than a hammering cold rain accompanied by gusty winds, this is my favorite weather, my favorite season.
My other ritual: coffee. Lately, the routine involves a dollop of coconut oil and a noisy blender, a process introduced to me by my stepson Matt, who lives in Brooklyn and knows what’s what. And what’s what is, apparently, a dollop of coconut oil in the coffee. It’s a tasty and allegedly, at least until new studies come in, healthy addition. From the kitchen I can see the Ortiz and San Pedro ranges to the southwest, the Jemez Mountains and the angled slash of house lights that marks Los Alamos to the northwest. While I drink my coffee this morning, as every morning since I turned sixty, my thoughts turn to, well, decline and death. I once made a list of poets’ best books and was not surprised to find that ninety per cent of poets write their best books in their forties. Then it’s the flat line of poetic career arrest. I usually try to cheer myself by thinking of Yeats, who wrote nearly all of his great poems after his sixtieth birthday.
I make my way to my writing space, a beautiful ten by five foot wooden table in the corner of the high-ceilinged great room. In addition to Yeats, I am also thinking about six-foot-tall indri lemurs. While I was running on the treadmill last night, I watched a video about the lemurs of Madagascar. The script and narration had that melodramatic quality I loved as a kid. “Five hundred miles to the south,” the deep voice intoned, “a very different creature haunts the dreams of the locals.”
The clock is ticking, so I begin writing about those lemurs. I have no idea where I’m going or why. I slip on my headphones, thinking I’ll put Thelonious Monk on. I generally listen to music before and after and sometimes while I write, and I can match my books to what I was listening to at the time—Bruce Springsteen for Dangerous Amusements, Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix for Scrimmage of Appetite. It looks like Thelonious Monk is getting three books, Preliminary Report and the two books currently in manuscript. I start writing, though, and I get so involved I forget to put the music on.
Nothing in my head these days but that race of humans in Madagascar
who remained in the trees.
The peaceful black and white ones, the babakoto who munch leaves and greet
the day with a mournful wail.
The poem immediately assumes an odd, accidental shape—long line followed by short line—so I let it, knowing that I won’t long be able to tolerate that goofy-footed thing. But the scatter and thump carries me down the page. Still, my heart sinks a little; I have little time and I may have made a terrible start. But I soldier on.
The poem turns out not to be about lemurs, of course, but about me. Mainly because being me has been an exercise in moroseness lately, and moroseness is, of course, a magnet for a poet.
The poem surprises me in the last two lines, swerving to address the plodding, largely instrumental approach I’ve taken to language in the poem itself. When it makes the turn, I think, This could maybe grow up to be an actual poem. Then I immediately think I should have written about the election or the epidemic of police shootings or climate change or anything besides me and my relationship with language. There goes the MacArthur, I think. The phrase “navel gazing” pops into my head and immediately I think, “Yes, but my navel contains multitudes.” Which makes me laugh out loud. Which makes me look around to be sure nobody is watching me entertain myself alone here at my writing table.
I decide I must look up the lemur story, even though the poem is partly about not remembering the story. While looking up the indri lemur or babakoto, a Minus the Bear song called “Lemurs Man Lemurs” pops up in the search. It’s then I realize I still have my headphones on, so I listen to the first minute and ten seconds of the song. Another curious item pops up in the search: Science of Man: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society of Australia, November 22, 1900. I read a dozen or so pages and am appalled but not surprised that Australian anthropologists in 1900 saw themselves as the handmaidens of colonization, which they liked to call civilization, though we know better now. I briefly append some of those appalling but not surprising lines as an epigraph to the poem I’ve written, which I call “Language” for about ten minutes, then call “Babakoto.” I look up how to pronounce Babakoto. Apparently it’s more like Bebekoot. This is welcome news.
Ten minutes pass before I remove the epigraph.
Now it’s time for the ravens to make their daily pilgrimage to our flat roof. Two huge, glorious, shiny black birds, they caw and croak and warble. They clamber and prance and hop. They bat their collection of roadkill around, lifting and dropping it on the roof to tenderize it. I know this because I have visited their charnel ground up there—skulls and bones and fur in various stages of decay, even a pack rat skull staring straight at me, placed artfully on the upper roof parapet.
With the ravens banging around up there, I rewrite the poem five or six times. I abandon the long-line short-line alternation in favor of long lines that exist as discrete stanzas. Then I decide the line-as-stanza thing is a trick that the poem doesn’t warrant or need. Thinking that “mournful wail” is both a cliché and not quite accurate, I look up the tradition of “keening” at funerals. I’d thought of keening as an Irish tradition, but historians suggest it is much more universal, with deep historical roots in the Middle East and elsewhere. The “mournful wail” becomes “high-pitched keening” becomes “tremulous keening.” In rewriting, I’m always pushing the language to take the poem out of my control and to deepen the mysteries of the poem. “Poems,” as my good friend Chuck Calabreze likes to say, “don’t explain the world, they rescue the world from explanation.”
I print “Babakoto” out just as Teresa comes out of the bedroom.
It’s 7:30. My writing day is over. I beat the buzzer.
But do I have a poem in the making? No idea. I pull the poem from the printer and read it softly to myself:
Nothing in my head this morning but that race of humans in Madagascar who
remained behind in the trees.
The peaceful black and white ones, the babakoto who munch leaves and greet the
day with tremulous keening.
It is said they miss their lives among the other humans, miss the small talk, the
I don’t recall the details of the story: two brothers, one went to till the land, the
other stayed in the trees—
nothing about why each chose the life they chose. Yesterday morning, briefly, just
before the sun rose,
coyotes yipped and howled close enough to my window that they seemed to be
calling me to join them.
What was I thinking, trying to make language perform when language itself is the
howling inside me, calling me away.
The plainness of the language concerns me, as do the words “beast” and “howling” in the final two lines. But maybe there’s something there. I am curious about the relationship I’ve created: babakoto is to farming human as language is to willed cognition. Sometimes a failed poem will lead to a more fully-realized poem later, one that incorporates the failed poem like a tectonic plate in a subduction zone, melting it and reforming it. That could be what’s happening here.
The rest of my day will be spent balancing budgets, writing grants, and dealing with e-mails (it’s an e-maelstrom, truth be told). This afternoon I’ll host the novelist Ru Freeman, who will be visiting the IAIA campus courtesy of the Lannan Foundation. I’ll carry the alleged poem with me, folded in my back pocket. I’ll scribble on it, read it aloud in my car and again in my office, and remain utterly baffled about whether there’s anything worthwhile there. I’ll secretly hope that it’s a finished poem. My hold on that secret hope will be tenacious. I’ll realize that I’m as mystified by poetry today as I was when, as a twelve year old, I first read “The Emperor of Ice Cream” and fell in love with that mysterious assemblage of words. When I finally abandon the poem weeks from now, I’ll have learned some things—about lemurs, early 20th century Australian anthropologists, the history and practice of keening, Minus the Bear, and my own psychological profile. And I’ll have relearned for the thousandth time something about the delicate balance of sound and meaning during poetic composition, the way the part of the mind that understands the language is least qualified to use it.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- These days, I spend almost all of my reading time editing students’ and friends’ manuscripts. When I do read a published book, I mostly reread. Recently, I reread 19 New American Poets of the Golden Gate, an anthology that came out in my last year of graduate school and changed my life. 1984 was an exciting year in American poetry. The language poets were challenging the complacency of the workshop lyric and compelling poets to write with more awareness of the complex relationship between language and experience. This change was on display in 19 New American Poets, which placed Robert Hass and Jorie Graham next to Michael Palmer and Leslie Scalapino—all poets who helped me understand what the real work would be.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- It’s obvious, but with the powerful pull of social media these days, it probably bears repeating: Don’t let any of the extraneous temptations—to publish, to be applauded, to be granted or prized—enter the sacred space where you do the work.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I often begin writing nonsense, just words that sound good next to each other. I suppose it’s a little like a songwriter writing a melody first then writing the lyrics. I try to create a soundscape that will both move me into the poem itself and prevent me from becoming too direct, too literal, by pulling me constantly back to sound.
By Jon Davis: