Sunday, September 14, 2014

Wild Congruence

Early this morning I finished reading Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. I wanted to read it after reading Tiny Beautiful Things this summer, a compilation of several of the advice columns she wrote for The Rumpus. I love Tiny Beautiful Things, so full of compassion and heart and wisdom. My paperback copy has the short orange cover with the quotation sticking out, "Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start here." I did start there, and then I wanted to hike the Pacific Crest Trail with her in Wild, but only as a reader, not in actual hiking boots. (Though I did spend a week on the Appalachian Trail and loved it!)

Because things are tying together lately for me, linking up with The Language Archive, by Julia Cho (the play I directed that just opened), I was particularly delighted to run across this reference in Wild to another work with "language" in the title, The Dream of a Common Language, by Adrienne Rich. This was the book Strayed kept with her in her heavy backpack, nicknamed Monster, the whole hike.

"I'd carried it all this way, though I hadn't opened it since that first night on the trail. I hadn't needed to. I knew what it said. Its lines had run all summer through the mix-tape radio station in my head, fragments from various poems or sometimes the title of the book itself, which was also a line from a poem: the dream of a common language."

In the play, L.L. Zamenhof has the dream of a common language, Esperanto, and the character of Emma has a dream of Zamenhof! A baker carries a heavy burden in the shape of a box. (An early thought of mine was to strap it with bungee cords to a backpack! Who, as I like to say, gnu?) The character of George reads all the time and has words echoing in his head.

In Wild, Strayed continues:

"I opened the book and paged through it, leaning forward so I could see the words in the firelight. I read a line or two from a dozen or so of the poems, each of them so familiar they gave me a strange sort of comfort. I'd chanted those lines silently through the days while I hiked."

Now here's the part that struck me as a "tiny beautiful thing" and wonderfully, terribly true, shining with other mysteries in the dark:

"Often, I didn't know exactly what they [the lines of poetry] meant, yet there was another way in which I knew their meaning entirely, as if it were all before me and yet out of my grasp, their meaning like a fish just beneath the surface of the water that I tried to catch with my bare hands--so close and present and belonging to me--until I reached for it and it flashed away."

Poetry is often like that, yes. I advise people at poetry readings just to listen attentively and let the words wash over them like water, not struggling after some exact meaning. Poetry expresses the inexpressible, after all. Keats advised a kind of negative capability, or the ability to rest in uncertainty "without any irritable reaching after fact or reason." In general, art is not about catching a fish. It's always going to flicker away.

But even this connects to The Language Archive! The character of the Language Instructor was once in love with a Dutch girl. "She could swim in frozen rivers, catch rabbits with her bare hands. She taught me how to cook a fish and build a kleedhokie." The play is full of funny, lovely, whimsical, unexplained things! For instance, it leaves "kleedhokie" delightfully untranslated and undefined, but you can look it up! Another character, trying to explain her "big thought" realizes "this is about much bigger fish." There are many fish that get away in this charming play, swimming along beside characters who say exactly what is on their minds and in their hearts, and it seems wise to me just to let that be! Let it be a part of the play-going experience of The Language Archive to leave some of it untranslatable! That's art, that's genius.

Update: I meant Julia Cho's genius! And a corresponding genius in the open mind of the audience. Plus, I do hope someday to read The Compleat Angler.


Marcoantonio Arellano (Nene) said...

gracias. your a wonderful source ot information and inspiration

have a wonderful, fulfilled day

Kathleen said...

Thank you, Marcoantonio!

Collagemama said...

Flicker away, Kathleen. Nice poetry definition.

Cathy said...

"I advise people at poetry readings just to listen attentively and let the words wash over them like water, not struggling after some exact meaning. Poetry expresses the inexpressible, after all. "

This is right, so right, but it's also terribly difficult, and something I'm still learning -- or more accurately, still trying to learn.

All my schooling centered around reading things and then being able to explain them. Every letter grade was tied to how precisely a student could recall important bits of information and tie them together to make sense of them. The idea of reading or listening to language without doing that sends me into an irrational tizzy about getting an F. Sort of the same way hearing a school bell as I'm walking down the street haunts me with the fear of being late to class.

Kathleen said...

So terribly true, Cathy. On the other hand, nobody would expect you to perform surgery or know exactly what the surgeon did if you were observing a surgeon at an operating theatre. You might analyze a video of it later, compare it to your anatomy text, etc.

A good poem can be studied very closely on the page, and all the evidence is there that would lead to a good interpretation of meaning or a great analysis of form, etc., but at a poetry reading you might want to let yourself simply be open and moved, and to keep pondering it later. A play, likewise, has various effects, and some of the meaning comes through the words, some through the subtexts, some through the visual and sound effects, and some through contemplation of the the moment and later, over time. Poetry and theatre go on meaning...