On The Cusp of the Known World: A Field Guide & other poems
ON THE CUSP OF THE KNOWN WORLD: A FIELD GUIDE
October mornings we wake to raspy buzz and jingle —
the Lesser Anglewing, Two-Spotted Tree Cricket,
Allard’s Ground Cricket, or is it? We stand on the deck
and press “play” again to hear a clear Midwestern voice
pronounce both names of a competing candidate
for this trilling in the grass: Say’s Trig, he intones,
Anaxipha exigua. When the effort to distinguish
overwhelms, we relish the names of our insect musicians:
the Slightly Musical Conehead, the Dog-day Cicada.
I feel we are on the cusp of something. A marriage
between cup and clasp. Two curves lean
into one another, stretch upward with a cautious
yearning, as if on tenterhooks, waiting
expectantly, with baited, but not bated breath, or maybe
just hung out to dry, the wet woolen smell
on the cusp between musky and rank.
The field guides agree it is hard to pin down
a goldenrod. We sort them into tribes by shape
plume-like, club-like, wand-like and elm-branched.
It can be hard to tell a wand from a club. Don’t forget
the flat-topped clusters. Asters, likewise, are tricky.
Leaves give clues: whorled, crooked, toothed or not,
grass-like, or perfoliate. In astonishing profusion
the tiny white asters are almost unknowable.
What are we on the verge of here?
It could just be me, stridulating,
hatching out of my skin of knowing, naming,
claiming; empty of easy kinship. Fall is
alive with the strangeness of yellow
flower, red berry, swift dark flying,
rattling upriver, not toeing the line
but towing it, pulling up stakes.
Bend two hangers into an L-shape. Forearms parallel to the ground, wrists relaxed,
as Bess taught me. I wonder, can these wires detect
those watery sorrows, streams
rare to surface? When the rods cross, will I say yes, dig here,
let this land gush memories, faithful or feral.
Summers we caught fireflies in jars,
shinned up the tree to eat mulberries, fell asleep in the hammock while Bess
sat on the dusky porch & hummed softly, sipping
the hard cider we weren’t allowed to taste.
If I sulked or was sad, Bess would say, “You can talk about it
or not—the tears flow just the same.”
She sent me out in the east field behind the thicket
of Osage Orange with her rods, saying, “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Her own story seeped out during lessons: “Mark how they swing wide,
then quiver, like a tender child on the verge of being able to hide
how much she hates the daily circuit
to check the traps, hates the hare’s glassy eye, its unasked why.”
She’d quell dread with the offer to find water.
They called her witch, but trusted her to coax
a trickle at least, out of dry montane forests.
Going by scent, eyes shut to focus, she moved surefooted,
toward the grey-green tang of algae-slicked flint
and shy bristle moss, that clings to rocks.
How mourning and mirth swim beneath earth’s bones.
In dripping August heat I cross whispering fields
toward that flow, to find my level, pool up, sluice out.
SKIN OF STARS
Bring me onion skin, or vellum scraped
with a lunarium for maps, transparencies, layers of almost
knowing, reflecting patterns of transport, arcane
and common, drawn as branching vessels, like a capillary
network, or, dendrite-to-dendrite, inscribed on the land
as song lines, fluvial and lacustrine landforms, signs
of the glacier in arête and cirque, of the sloped language of my home place in
bluff and gully, knoll, defile, and draw.
For tonight I am dreaming of the infant
human skull with its fine sutures—coronal, sagittal,
lamboidal—as if to follow the flyway home.
I dowse for truths in patterns of marine migration,
read the routes of pelagic predators, tuck you in for the night
with a lullaby of skins—fur, carapace, scales—
and seeds—whorled pods of wingstem, the feathery tetrahedrons
of goldenrod that proudly persist through rain, wind, snow.
May I wake to continue dowsing as a tangle of filamentous fungi
break down decaying matter and nourish soil, root, forest.
With the ink of love, of cuttlefish alarm, let us map
our undercurrents, write deltas fed by distant rivers, mark
springs bubbling up from doubt and fear, overlay
the crab nebula on a sunflower seedhead,
knowing we are one for all,
running out, spilling over, flowing into and out of time.
AMELIA WILLIAMS answers THE WILD CULTURE SCRIBBER'S QUESTIONNAIRE
1 What is your first memory and what does it tell you about your life at that time and your life at this time?
One of my earliest memories is a dream in which I am a child in a white nightgown standing on the balcony of our house in Nigeria watching the jungle burn. I am unable to move or speak, and a malicious presence behind me is about to stick a needle in my eye – then I wake up. It has been a recurring dream and I’ve read it differently at different times, as about resilience, or the power the languages of children’s culture ('Cross my heart and hope to die / Stick a needle in my eye'). Today I might talk about this dream in terms of how the persona is both inside the landscape and observing it, frozen with fear, but also wakes herself up to avoid blindness, and finds her voice to recount the dream.
2 Can you name a handful of artists in your field, or other fields, who have influenced you — who come to mind immediately?
The poetry of W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Stevie Smith, Adrienne Rich, WS Merwin, Emily Wilson, Jodie Gladding, Brenda Hillman. Writers like A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, Jane Yolen, Jeanne DuPrau, Ursula LeGuin, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Mary Catherine Bateson. Mentorship from Cathryn Hankla and Thorpe Moeckel.
3 Where did you grow up, and did that place and your experience of it help form your sense about place and the environment in general?
I grew up overseas in many different landscapes, from Ibadan, to Cape Town, but spent five consecutive years in Istanbul. I spent a lot of time learning the wildflowers, butterflies, roaming freely with my brother from dawn to dusk catching frogs, climbing trees. Reading Gerald Durrell. There were fields and scrubby woods behind us, a crusader castle before us, and the Bosphorus below. We were on the outer edge of the city, bordering common grazing land used by villagers moving in from the rural areas, raising their own vegetables in little gardens. Our freedom to roam and explore was an incredible gift. I made a special place inside a big hazelnut bush for writing in my journal and drawing.
4 If you were going away on a very long journey and you could only take four books — one poetry, one fiction, one non-fiction, one literary criticism — what would they be?
The first three are easy: Golden Treasury of Verse (edited by Louis Untermeyer), which was my childhood awakening to poetry, Tinkers by Paul Harding, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. As for the fourth, I haven’t read literary criticism per se in a long time, but will list Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild and Joanna Macy’s Coming Back to Life as two more philosophical books that sustain me.
5 What was your most keen interest between the ages of 10 and 12?
Reading, and natural history.
6 At what point did you discover your ability with poetry?
I wrote poetry from the age of eight onward, and participated in editing college journals, but stopped writing during my PhD studies in literature. Once I started writing again in my late 30’s, I slowly realized this was something — along with mindfulness practice, and spending time outdoors — that I would pursue all my life.
7 Do you have an ‘engine’ that drives your artistic practice, and if so, can you comment on it?
I have a kind of three-stroke engine: being outdoors in nature, examining human relationships and how they work (or don’t), and mindfulness practices/dharma talks. Social justice issues and humor creep into my poems, but when I focus on these intentionally the engine sputters.
8 If you were to meet a person who seriously wants to do work in your field — someone who admires and resonates with the type of work you do, and they clearly have real talent — and they asked you for some general advice, what would that be?
There isn’t just one path. Whether you go the MFA route or not, finding a critique group and taking workshops with other writers who are serious about their pursuit is very helpful. Read a lot of poetry, learn to revise ruthlessly and be willing to let that process take a long time.
9 Do you have a current question or preoccupation that you could share with us?
A mentor asked me to think about dowsing in my poems — it seems to come up a lot. I am still thinking about that. Also, I notice the topic of journeys and pathways is like a thread running through my poems. I'm curious about how the rhythms of walking (or sauntering, trekking, hiking, meandering) may affect my writing.
10 What does the term ‘wild culture’ mean to you?
The term “wild culture” suggests that it’s important to value and cultivate wildness, while recognizing that, since 'wildness’ is a cultural construct that has changed over time, our ways of conceiving it must continue to evolve, and we may need to re-define how we interact with wildness if we hope to save our planet.
11 If you would like to ask yourself a final question, what would it be?
I like the questions: 'How’s that working for you?' and “What are you going to do about it?”
AMELIA L. WILLIAMS is a poet, eco-artist, medical writer and climate change activist living in intentional community in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in rural Virginia. Her book Walking Wildwood Trail: Poems and Photographs, features a three-mile trail of eco-poetry art installations that celebrate the landscapes threatened by the proposed fracked-gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline. She received her doctorate in English Literature at the University of Virginia. Her work has appeared in Centrifugal Eye, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Piedmont Virginian, 3Elements, and elsewhere.
MAXWELL JOHNSON, who was introduced to us by Amelia Williams, is a photographer whose work can be seen here. Their photographs were used previously to illustrate the first publication in these pages of the poems of Jan Beatty and James Owens.
This article first appeared in The Journal of Wild Culture on September 17, 2017.