Clannish primates have lived on this planet for a while. A quick check at the Smithsonian confirms Homo erectus was crafting tools, building hearths, taking care of the old and infirm, and eating plentiful amounts of flesh and bone marrow well over a million years ago. 1.89 million years ago, to be rather preposterously exact. My grandfather taught me how to shoot a pellet gun, enjoyed a good steak, and was capable of becoming quickly wistful while playing Satin Doll on the piano. He died about four years ago. I remember how the pauses between his ragged breaths grew longer until the final silence came, a pause that continues to this day. When I read recently that young bonobos manage their emotions in much the same way humans do, it struck me that the sadness I felt at their seemingly imminent extinction was sharpened by the fact that we somehow all shared it. The apes, my grandfather and me.
I write because of weird symmetries like this. Odd little moments that flicker like sparrows through the undergrowth. Whether these moments are observed or constructed doesn’t really concern me much. I never found it particularly soothing to be told that something troubling was all in your imagination. I doubt many people do. Because it is all in our imagination. That’s the only place we’ll ever live.
When I’m writing and I follow a poem into the woods, I have only its tracks. Sometimes the path seems clear: footprints in fresh snow. Or there’s blood spoor. Other times it loses me by doubling back at the river. It’s smarter than I am. And so I can never quite offer up the thing itself but merely evoke the chase. I believe we’re eternally surrounded by poems. Like the coyotes that have resettled so densely among suburban houses yet are rarely glimpsed. Perhaps we’re distracted. Or not looking.
When I revisited an early draft of “The Field Beyond The Wall” while considering this essay, I noticed that, as happens with so many of my poems, the seed that started it was one of the last things cut. One doesn’t eat the pit of the fruit, I guess. So at the heart of the poem is this absence:The wall is a good wall
and we will sweetly dream
our dreams tonight.
The idea was hardly new: the complacent become the complicit. I was reading Zbigniew Herbert’s travelogue, Barbarian in the Garden, in a hotel room in Boston and started writing notes on the back of an envelope. Herbert was writing from a walled city. Siena, I think. The not unpleasant dislocation of reading about his travels through Italy in 1962 intermingling with my own travels fifty years later spurred thoughts of how much I enjoy sleeping in my own bed--and what a dangerous thought that love-of-home was to the 20th century. (It was certainly dangerous to the rat I killed with a metal bucket in the kitchen of my first house, that later made an appearance in “The Differences.”) Then woman with the roasted corn walked into the poem from the central Mexican town where I lived for a year, and I suddenly found myself inside the imaginary city where so much of my work takes place.
In these two poems at least, it is a somewhat disturbing place. But if the alternative is complacency, let’s get deranged.