Every Secret is as Near as …

Traveling Light unlike Wagoner’s last collection of poems includes selections from his earlier volume of poetry called Who Will be the Sun? Sometimes I think having lived in the Northwest so long that I, like the Northwest Indians, also see nature in everything. Ravens, Salmon, and Killer Whale have grown sacred to me, too. My favorite poem in this section, though, comes not from an Indian legend I was familiar with, but one I had never heard before:

Old Man, Old Man

Young men, not knowing what to remember,
Come to this hiding place of the moons and years,
To this Old Man. Old Man, they say, where should we go?
Where did you find what you remember? Was it perched in a tree?
Did it hover deep in the white water? Was it covered over
With dead stalks in the grass? Will we taste it
If our mouths have long lain empty?
Will we feel it between our eyes if we face the wind
All night, and turn the color of earth?
If we lie down in the rain, can we remember sunlight?

He answers, I have become the best and worst I dreamed.
When I move my feet, the ground moves under them.
When I lie down, I fit the earth too well.
Stones long underwater will burst in the fire, but stones
Long in the sun and under the dry night
Will ring when you strike them. Or break in two.
There were always many places to beg for answers:
Now the places themselves have come in close to be told.
I have called even my voice in close to whisper with it:
Every secret is as near as your fingers.
If your heart stutters with pain and hope,
Bend forward over it like a man at a small campfire.

Perhaps I like this so much because as I’m becoming an “old man,” or maybe that’s because I’m an old man, I feel like I’ve discovered truths I wasn’t aware of when I was younger and “wiser.” I must admit, of course, that it’s never really clear in the poem whether this is actually an old man or, rather, some natural force in the “hiding place of the moons and years,” like the “man-in-the-moon.”

Like most young men, these young men feel like they will find “truth” “out there.” They are on a quest to find truth. As if it could be found in “the sky” (perched in a tree), in the “water” or on the earth (dead stalks of grass). Can they find it if they face the elements alone? If you deprive yourself of sunlight, “lying down in the rain,” can you remember sunlight?

I particularly like the line, “I have become the best and worst I dreamed” because that often seems true. Both our dreams and our nightmares come true, perhaps because they lie so close to our heart. Perhaps it takes “becoming” to truly discover truth; the truth is what we have become.

The ultimate truth, though, is that the important truths aren’t “out there,” or at least you can’t find them out there. You can only find them when something within you responds to what is out there. If your heart “stutters with pain and hope,” you know you are sensing something true, but that’s not enough. You also have to tinder that flame, protect it from being blown out, pay heed to it until it is able to survive by itself.