Where do the Words Go?

The title for this section, which comes from the poem “Procedures for Underground,” suggests that you can learn “wisdom and great power” from the “underground” but that “for this gift, as for all gifts you must suffer” for you will always hear the dead whispering to you. And certainly many, though not all, of the poems seem to deal with memories of the past and death.

My favorite of these poems deals more with the loss of the past and how we deal with that loss rather than death itself:


The house we built gradually
from the ground up when we were young
(three rooms, the walls
raw trees) burned down
last year they said

I didn’t see it, and so
the house is still there in me

among branches as always I stand
inside it looking out
at the rain moving across the lake

but when I go back
to the empty place in the forest
the house will blaze and crumple
suddenly in my mind

collapsing like a cardboard carton
thrown on a bonfire, summers
crackling, my earlier
selves outlined in flame.

Left in my head will be
the blackened earth: the truth.

Where did the house go?

Where do the words go
when we have said them?

For those that have been following this blog, much of what I’ve been trying to do is to look back on the past, come to terms with it, and use it to make what’s left of my life more meaningful. This poem deals beautifully with precisely some of the questions I’ve been facing in looking back.

For instance, the lines “I didn’t see it, and so/the house is still there in me” reminds me exactly of the way I feel about events that have happened in my life and places I’ve been. Is the truth what I remember, or is the truth what has happened since, something I often have little awareness of. Is Walnut Creek California still that sleepy little bedroom community that I lived in where Stan’s Brickhouse was the main attraction? Does the fact that it must have changed make a difference? If I go back, will I suddenly see massive growth and change?

But, most of all, I like the lines, “Where do the words go/when we have said them?” Do words have a life of their own? What happened to the words I offered students for many years? Did they just disappear, or do they have a life of their own? Do they live on in the minds of others, and, if they do, do they mean what I meant when I said them? What happens to the words in this blog? Do they make anyone see the world in a different way or motivate them to change their lives or their world? Will my grandchildren ever read them and see me in a different way? Or, will they disappear in flash, victim of a hard drive crash? Electronic particles randomly dispersed in a random universe?

My other favorite poem in this section seems atypical rather than typical of the poems in this section:


You, going along the path,
mosquito-doped, with no moon, the flashlight
a single orange eye

unable to see what is beyond
the capsule of your dim
sight, what shape

contracts to a heart
with terror, bumps
among the leaves, what makes
a bristling noise like a fur throat
Is it true you do not wish to hurt them?

Is it true you have no fear?
Take off your shoes then,
let your eyes go bare,
swim in their darkness as in a river

do not disguise
yourself in armour.

They watch you from hiding:
you are a chemical
smell, a cold fire, you are
giant and indefinable

In their monstrous night
thick with possible claws
where danger is not knowing,
you are the hugest monster.

This poem reminds me of myself when I’m roaming around at night in the wilderness with my handy, hi-tech headlight strapped to my forehead to free my hands to wash the pots and pans or deal with any monsters that might lurk at the edges of the campsite.

This, or course, seems like the natural thing to do. How else are you going to see the animals that inhabit the night, waiting to ambush you given half a chance?

Of course, I’m out there precisely to experience the wilderness, and what’s a wilderness without animals? Her advice here reminds me of Faulkner’s advice in “The Bear,” where the boy has to rid himself of man’s tools to truly experience the woods and to finally confront the bear. I suspect most of us would be terrified to confront the wilderness on its own terms without our high-tech gear.

The image of a one-eyed monster seems particularly apt. It is what you physically look like while using a headlamp, and you must, indeed, appear as a monster to most of the animals out waiting in the darkness.