There is a quote by poet Barbara Guest I love so much that I used it as an epigraph for my poetry collection Many Ways to Say It. It goes like this: “A landscape appears before us, solitary in its incidents of meadow broken by low running water, the sky dour, the earth in twists moving like water into continuous drainage. This landscape appears solitary and yet there in the short grass is the hidden person placed there by the writer who desired a human instrument to bear witness to this attempt to construct with a fictional or real landscape a syllabus of art.” I kept that quote in the forefront of my consciousness as I wrote those poems, and as I wandered through the woods, or stared out the window, my journal open in front of me. Perhaps one of the things writers love most about writing is to step outside the everyday self and inhabit that witness I, what translates into the voice and persona and point of view of a work. The witness I is the one who sees what we might overlook, and not only sees, but remembers. While I walked through the woods with Craig yesterday, it was the witness I who internally noted the plumes of gray mud spreading out on the forest floor from wash-outs, so that I could, this morning, connect it with that phrase of Guest’s “moving like water into continuous drainage.” It is the witness I who wonders what that phrase might truly mean about the nature of life on earth, a whole world flooding, breaking up, draining, ever on the move. It is the witness I who might even write a poem about it.
And it is the witness I who remembers, at this moment, a familiar poem by Juan Ramon Jimenez. “I am not I” is the poem’s first line. “I am this one/ walking beside me whom I do not see.”
How often we lament when the writer turns out to be, in person, so different –unrecognizable, even – from the voice and persona who relates the unforgettable story, poem, memoir, play. How often the writer, in the flesh, disappoints, or baffles, or surprises. The writer of strong opinion turns out to be painfully shy, the wise writer a letch, the mystic poet a Nascar or golf or gun fanatic, the horror novelist a peach. The nature poet distances herself angrily from environmentalism. The iconic poet turns out to be a fascist. Which I is I? A friend once attended the same writing residency as Cormac McCarthy. He told me that McCarthy spent his spare time playing golf. My image of the Marlboro Man recluse writing in a cold shack vanished instantly. We don’t know why writing comes to any particular person. So often the oral storyteller is urged, “You’ve got to write this stuff down,” and can’t. Perhaps it’s a lesson in our common, flawed humanity. The genius and the saint don’t often inhabit the same body. And maybe the pure genius and the pure saint don’t even exist. Who’s to say that at the writing desk, or in the imagination, and maybe only there, a writer asserts to the world “I am not I.” I am not this outer. I am this other. Don’t look at me. I am this one, too. Hidden in the landscape. Bearing witness to what we think we cannot bear. To what we miss or dismiss or forget. To what we can’t even imagine. “I contain multitudes,” wrote Walt Whitman. We all contain wisdom we can’t enact out in the world, as bodies. We all contain wisdom we can’t access with our conscious minds. “The person is our conduit,” Guest writes. “Hidden arms are stretched pointing to the variations, the hollows, the deliberate judgments of time within the work of art.”
And aren’t we deeply thankful for that? For that other walking beside us our whole lives, the one we can’t see, that no one can see? Our writing voice, our witness I, hidden inside the inner landscape? At the first meditation retreat I attended, I thought I’d go crazy listening to the chatter and drivel of the multitudes within, the pettiness, the low-brow, the neediness, the boredom, the jealousy, the self-scrutiny, the acquisitiveness. It felt like a bird-spat, a flock of various species fighting it out inside the cage of my head. At the retreat, if the question had arisen, “Which I is I?” I might have run screaming into the woods. Writing, when it is going well, the question doesn’t even enter my mind. But when it is not going well, when the voice sounds phony, condescending, imitative, put-on, uppity, whiny, or know-it-all, in other words, inauthentic, I grit my teeth and press the pencil so hard into the page that it tears and the point breaks. And it’s complicated: each piece of writing wants to speak in its own particular voice. Perhaps the witness I shape-shifts too, depending on weather, subject, latitude, longitude, mood. But we know it when it’s true, right? And aren’t we so grateful that writing lets us step out of all the tedium, the chortle and babble? Lets us find a voice that knows more than we do? Again, Guest: “ 'I' becomes the bystander and the poem is propelled by the force of the ‘person’ stripped bare.” It’s why, when we’re authentic in writing, we’re so scared. It’s why our hands shake when we pass a draft into the hands of another. This I is I.
All of my working life I’ve had to switch voices, from the voice of the scientific paper, to that of the natural history book conveying orca information to the lay public, to the narrative poet, to the lyric poet, to the narrative essayist, to the lyric essayist, to the cancer blogger, to the Latvian. Some of these voices do feel put-on, like an outfit suited for the occasion. I am not I! I want to shout while writing such sentences as this one: “Three genetically and acoustically distinct, non-associating ecotypes of killer whale occur between southeastern Alaska and the Bering Sea: residents (fish-eaters), transients (or Bigg’s) (mammal-eaters) and offshores (shark-eaters) (Matkin et al. 1999; Ford et al. 2011).” It is the first sentence of a scientific paper I am writing. Pay no attention to the woman speaking in such stilted, detached terms about animals she loves, who will soon launch into the passive voice. But I also want to shout I am not I! when I read old journals. Or recall the shrill, hissing voice I used this morning, arguing with my love.
This issue of containing multitudes is very much on my mind as I transition toward another field season on the water, my other life work, studying orcas in Prince William Sound. Sometimes, after we've taken all of our identification photos, biopsy samples, recordings, and the light fades, we shut down the engine and just watch the whales out of sight. We put down our pencils and stash our gear, and then the witness eye/I loses its intense focus on its list of particulars, and widens out and fills my whole body. Then my eye strains to open further, but can never open wide enough.
I don't know all the ways that my subtle leanings and longings and history and genetics and language-impinging impinge upon my observing eye, my witness I, my authentic voice. My mind separates science from beauty, narrative from lyric, I from I, art from not-art. My mind is divided, but the witness I is not. The witness I is whole. In its mysterious way, perhaps it contains multitudes, all the clamoring voices washed down from their separate points of origin, mingling, spilling across the forest floor, flooding, flowing in continuous dark drainage to form one true voice.
Eva Saulitis' most recent book is Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas, published this January by Beacon Press. A poetry collection, Many Ways to Say It, was published by Red Hen Press last fall. Her homeground is comprised of Latvian sand and birch forest, western New York State farmland and beech-maple woods, and Alaskan muskeg, old growth and islet. Visit her at her www.evasaulitis.com.