Starting Line (Can You Hear Me Now?)

The page (and this screen you’re looking at here functioning as its surrogate) is an odd thing.  It marks our separation (you are not here as I write this; I am not there as you read this).  Yet it partly overcomes that separation—I place this whittled stick in the notch of this electronic tree on the chance that you might look up as you walk along the trail, notice it, and think about the odd pine bird that implies singing but doesn’t actually sing, except in my mind as I was carving and perhaps yours as you regard fingers the knifed marks.

When I was even more of a California redneck than I’ve since become, the way the page separated writer from reader and writing from reading bothered me.  I wrote for a while in spite of this and had some success (poems in a number of journals, a chapbook, The Chester H. Jones National Poetry Prize, a collection in the final round of review at a major press).   But then I stopped writing for a number of years, many years (nearly twenty).

Oddly, old fashioned scholarship brought me back to my own writing.  As I trudged through Robinson Jeffers’ manuscripts editing his poetry and thinking about the ups and downs of his critical reception, I realized that the page is a mechanism that can function in at least two quite different ways.  It can be treated as a surface on which to inscribe writing, but it can also be used in a quite different way—as a space where speech can be enacted and stored for later retrieval  (for some initial attempts to conceptual these alternatives, see “The There There & Not There in the Writing of Writing” and “Toward a Rhetoric of the Page” in the Textual Mediation section of this site).  In thinking about the implications of this for Jeffers’ work, I began to recognize that I had been expected to write (and had expected myself to write) as if I were, as it were, writing writing, but that what mattered to me was writing as if writing were a kind of speaking—something that moved onto the page with the pauses and turns and inflections and shifting paces of talking to a someone.  I then began writing again, but not to an audience of readers but rather to whomever at the moment of reading might happen by, pause, and choose to listen.

This piece, written one morning on Guemes Island, looking across the water toward Anacortes, Washington and imagining, instead, that “you” and “I” were in the Peets coffee shop in Berkeley (or had once shared that experience) is from Fault Lines, the collection following my return to writing—a collection of pieces written as if you are truly you and as if in some way the writing were actually a speaking to you in spite of your absence and the gap in time and space between us:

Peets

At the Peets in Berkeley, I am drinking a double
espresso with unrefined sugar in it; you, a mocha.
Do you remember in high school how we would
walk the campus, prowl the bookshops,
then sit here as if this were more real
than the little town to the north—
the apple trees and canneries, evenings
of Rawhide, Lawrence Welk, Route 66?

No, you don’t.  Because I am not in Peets.
Here, no one else is up yet.  I am drinking tea
(from the Peets in Portland) as the blue
squeezes down against the fog, and the trees
come out across the estuary.
And you?  I don’t know who you are
as I write pretending I do.

But if you were you and we were sitting in Peets, each
detail would draw another.  “Do you remember
when?”  “And how we . . . ?”  “And that time . . .” until
we could put on the world we’d woven
and stare off through that window at what might pass by.

Or, to remember differently.  It is Sunday evening,
a small college town in Maine.  The control panel’s meters
cast puddles of light on the spinning vinyl
feeding Ellington to all the someones who might hear
if they happened to turn their radio dials that way.
Is anyone there?  Or am I alone with the Duke and Johnny Hodges
talking to myself between numbers as I pretend
to talk to you and you and you, each in your separate
living rooms, where the light is different in each.

Here, this morning, the air is still cool, it lifts
off the water as the light grows within it
and you draw the ink across the page.
Perhaps where you are the light is also
warming your skin.  Perhaps
as we share the passing by
these words are not silence.

It is still true, of course, that you are not there; just as it’s still true that I am not here.  But perhaps (if we look past these black marks on this screen-as-page or the black ink on bleached wood fibers should you at some point hold the book) we can talk anyway—even though we both know how different it is to speak (whether “to” or “with” a someone or a group of someones) and to write (as if “to” a “someone” who must literally be an absent, usually “unknown one” and who may well prove to be “no one”).

As this page develops in the coming days, the titles below will become links to pages on the site that introduce and supplement the three primary collections (Fault Lines, The Tao of Twang, and Poem’s Poems & Other Poems) and the various chapbooks (Lake County Diamond, White Levis, Redneck Yoga, and Thirteen Ways of Talking to a Blackbird).  Additional site pages will provide access to poems available on line, interviews and recordings, and such.

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