170.1: Garth Graeper:: Letters to Dorothy Wordsworth & The English Lakes 170

In this series of letters and poems by Garth Graeper, one could return to the discussion of the relationship of William and Dorothy Wordsworth and specifically of William's poems circumscribing Dorothy out of his lyric, Romantic visions. One could discuss Graeper's own circumscription, calling for Dorothy to enter his lyric circle and ostensibly leaving William out in the cold. But as we read these letters and lyric poems, what we realize is that Graeper himself is not the one setting the boundaries of circumscription. Rather, it is Dorothy who has drawn the circle and Graeper who is wandering (writing) within that line: "Dorothy, I hope you will see these poems as a longing and as a record of kinship. I have always had trouble keeping myself in my writing, but your journals changed something. After walking away again and again from dismembered texts, I find myself still carrying your words with me, below the surface, like flashes of memory." We could look at this acknowledgment and say Hey, let's return to William, let's look and see how he writes within the world Dorothy delimits! But why return agency in this process to William? Haven't, for the moment at least, we said enough about him and his poems? Instead, Graeper asks us to consider Dorothy as the high point of inspiration, as the end point of the English Romantic creation: "Isn’t that what we want? A stranger, more splendid world." Andrew Wessels
Dear Dorothy,

Thank you for your journals—they are a comfort to me as I wander, lost in my poems.
I admire your selfless contact with the natural world, the way you melt calmly into
trees and lakes, while still keeping enough of your personality to make the scene
different. In the most generous sense, you know how to lose yourself. In your
descriptions, you know how to leave space. And it’s in that space that I now write.

I’ve lived through your journals, swirled through your daily accounts. Your visions
threading themselves together:

We both lay still, & unseen by one another … in lines &
chains & patterns scattered over the mountains … my tooth
broke today … a weary body—a very sharp clear night …

The mountains were black and steep … miniature mountains,
alps above alps … a light came out suddenly that repaid us
for all … I kept myself as quiet as I could …


To make poems, I find texts, move through the words, keep a few of the right ones, and
build from there. Cutting enough to remove the original context, and then shaping the
remains. Images rise up through the ground. I thought your Grasmere journals might
work, and I did make a series of poems. Dorothy, I hope you will see these poems as a
longing and as a record of kinship. I have always had trouble keeping myself in my
writing, but your journals changed something. After walking away again and again
from dismembered texts, I find myself still carrying your words with me, below the
surface, like flashes of memory.

The past few years, I’ve needed to find a space less densely packed than NYC, and this
is the gift and lovely invitation of your journals: you open a world where I can move
through my own wilderness. Circling the lakes with you, recording the trees, stones,
and animals. Recording the patterns in trips around the water. Our world together,
filled with color and texture, comfort and discomfort; moments alone with hills, fog,
and a brother. I can hear the wind blowing, and the trees sound like a road.

Garth





The English Lakes


I cannot remember

my body before the light

but still these hints

linger of a cabin, a voice

a wave of arms

waiting to happen

flickering

through dense woods

toward this dark

loop of breathing

sleeping

and needing




Dorothy,

I feel our wildernesses have merged, outside of time. We’re talking through the thick
woods; we’re walking here together to understand how our bodies want to be whole.
We keep moving to find a way to say something about ourselves.

Like walking, making a poem requires time and surprise. I give up my own shape in
poems: working with the right texts, it is easy to slip through the words, to find patterns
and a new life underneath. But your journals are different, not because of the density of
language, but because of the generosity of space. Your words collide and react with
what is in my air. I keep trying to fit into these words, to pull them across us both, like
a blanket. You make me want to feel more present in my poems. I am forgetful, and
poems help me remember how it feels to walk and record the world with you, drawn
together by the satisfaction and secrecy of the work.

Making poems becomes a question of how to be alone. Being alone is a skill and a
survival, but so is being in the world. You wander for miles with William and wander
miles alone. Repeating daily tasks, becoming lost in repetitions. There, in the cottage,
trying to be alone with him, to be comfortable alone with him. Wanting to be of use
and out of the way, to be essential and invisible—but always, to be in communion.
There is such a seduction in emptying oneself out, and in facing the risk of becoming
entirely lost:

The fire flutters & the watch ticks I hear nothing else save the Breathings of my
Beloved & he now & then pushes his book forward & turns over a leaf.


Dorothy, I don’t have a brother, except in my poems. I feel his weight, feel how he
protects me and leaves me with just enough to breathe. He is out there, in the trees. I’m
not sure how close we are to coming together. In the face of this, I just keep carving
myself out. Carving a natural language: this is what I see happening, and it is
happening: a red light in the trees, many miles away, a sudden pull of space through
the woods. This is personal and happening here—in this physical world, with this
body. This is how poems can seem to be real, to be done. But who knows? If we come
back to this same spot in the woods many years later, would we even recognize the
bodies we’d left behind?

GG





The English Lakes


we’ve surfaced again

in hands and feet, night

after night tracing

trees by their scent

as the woods move

through us

a ripple of fat

in the branches, fluid in

the roots; these trees

are bound to us

and so is the voice

rising up from the soil




Dorothy,

We walk along, navigating the thickets, pulled by a kind of gravity into the darker
woods. We must put a face on this darkness, something that gives us a way to
understand and confront our attraction. Like you did, that night in March 1802: But as
I climbed Moss the moon came out from behind a Mountain Mass of Black
Clouds—O the unutterable darkness of the sky & the Earth below the Moon!


Reading that, I can’t breathe. I feel the weight of the Alps. I’ve only visited them once,
in Germany, but I look at them most nights in an old photograph I found, “Mont
Blanc—Clouds … Wyman” handwritten on the back. In this grainy photo, the
mountains hover, separated from the land by a low, indefinite sky—how are the
mountains taller than the sky? How can we understand trees at this scale, against a
mass too gigantic to be a real point of comparison? Mont Blanc, tallest of the Alps, is
always drawing tiny human bodies into its orbit (another fatal avalanche just a few
weeks ago). It’s crazy what these mountains do to us, Dorothy, and how we go about
life anyway.

William wrote about mountains more by blackness visible / And their own size,
than any outward light
, and it’s the black heart of Mont Blanc that I want to explore
with you. We’ll find relief in the intimacy of tunneling inward. We won’t know what
we are looking for; we’ll only know ourselves by moving, by pushing ahead and
feeling what sweeps past us in the darkness, what brushes our arms or punctures our
feet. Dropping to the floor and tracing the feel of gravel, the feel of our hands touching,
we’ll begin to find a way forward, out from ourselves, into the darkness. We’ll find
where our body stops and where the mountain begins; we’ll find what this mountain
brings together and what it shears apart.

At its best, this is a place for transformation. To change this darkness requires an
intense, generous attention that connects one time with another, connects halfremembrances
with an actual body. Moving through the mountain, we leave part of
ourselves behind at the start; part in heavy darkness, stretched into the tunnel walls;
and part blinking in the light as we tear ourselves from the back of the rock face.
Poems help us remember what we’ve left underground.

GG





The English Lakes


I watch the grease

on our books thicken

I lay here in a pile

of soft human smell

mixing with the smell of wood

I rub my skin smooth

write a poem on it

to you, I want to keep

this longing private

but the light slips out of me

into the words I say

into my breath

a tangle of light

that won’t unwind




Dorothy,

What kind of person would bring you here? Tunnels and darkness are not safe. Still, I
feel you have already been here, and I have already been here, and it is hard to travel
alone. The darkness offers such potential, but we must move forward through fears of
being lost.

In my poems, images sometimes do drift up from fear. (In 1999, a fire ripped through
the Mont Blanc Tunnel—a deadly mix of poison, smoke, and melted fat. The flow of
air spread fire, and then the air thickened until no one could breathe. Four months later,
a plane crashed into the ocean. Flying unaided at night, body betrays mind: instead of
moving forward, you slowly descend into a “graveyard spiral.” And even if you
survive the crash, with no light, you don’t know which way to swim for air.) Darkness
removes direction and scale: it turns us loose from our bodies. We are used to the
sound of own heart beating, so the silent darkness can cause hallucinations. In poems,
we latch on to these visions. Leaving a body to exist—for a brief time—in words, and
then leaving those words so that others, in reading, might also leave behind their
bodies: this seems like the best face to put on being lost.

Your journals record a night in January 1802, when you almost vanished into the land:
We were afraid of being bewildered in the mists, till the Darkness should overtake
us—we were long before we knew that we were in the right track but thanks to
William’s skill we knew it long before we could see our way before us
. Even
through the darkness, even blind, we keep moving with the hope that our instincts will
guide us. I imagine you lost that night, leading William to a point where he could lead
you home. I don’t know where your words will lead me, but I feel the guiding push.

I read the other day that scientists have detected a cloud of water vapor in deep outer
space with a mass 140 trillion times that of all the world’s oceans. Perhaps there is
some comfort in being subsumed into a darkness larger than we can imagine, but I
have trouble seeing beyond the terror. Still, if we make the choice to trace a path
through the dark, we must give a part of ourselves over to the vastness. And to share
what we have learned, we must be ready to come back into our own unique body and
embrace its own unique utterances. There is honesty in traveling blind.

GG






The English Lakes


beneath this waterfall

of grass, I sit a long time

watching and turning

into an absence

of mountains and birds

remembering

how we found a way

to keep our bodies

apart; alone here now

I feel like at least four

different people, all

miles from help




Dorothy,

Being absorbed into the night, losing our own body to the darkness—how do we bring
back what we’ve found there? We reemerge invisible, so we have to find a way to see
ourselves again, a way to show others who we are. I come back using poems: I wrap
words around myself to see what form I’ve taken, how much I’ve changed. But the
return doesn’t have to be immediate. We can enjoy the liminal moments:

As I lay down on the grass, I observed the glittering silver line on the ridges of the
Backs of the sheep, owing to their situation respecting the sun—which made them
look beautiful but with something of strangeness, like animals of another kind—as
if belonging to a more splendid world.


Isn’t that what we want? A stranger, more splendid world. Perhaps we all require
moments when sheep are sheep, when identity is concrete and simple. To understand
ourselves in the world, though, we need to capture the in-between moments, when we
are not-just-ourselves. Making poems can help strike a balance between being directly
active in the world and still floating outside of it. And we must be active: using the
body stirs recognition. Sounds in the head become vibrations in our throat and lungs.

Last year, I flashed back to a story that I had read a long time before. I remembered
just enough detail to find the story again (in a 1991 issue of the magazine Analog:
Science Fiction and Fact
). What I remembered turned out to be a small moment in a
long, complex novella (Scott Orson Card’s Gloriously Bright). A young girl takes part
in a ritual, she’s crazed with an all-consuming feeling of filth, she’s desperate and
nearing death, but then she finds a way to purify herself: giving herself over to the task
of tracing wood grain lines in the floorboards.

In order to survive, we all find our own methods and talismans. We learn to follow
some rule, and follow it the right way, so that we can stop and breathe at the end of
each day. For me, now, this is making poems. The work of tracing a path—whether
through wood grain or found words—is a deep concentration, an immense exposure to
the present moment, a near-total hollowing out. But not total: the small bit of us that
remains is what allows us to walk away with something new. We make ourselves a
container for others; we let them have our senses. Whatever their vision, whatever they
hear, the rhythm beneath come from our own blood. I’ve learned the sound of my pulse
from the sound of your pulse, Dorothy.

More soon,
GG