Thursday, November 26, 2015

Guest Post by Caroline Goodwin: List and Litany

I love lists of all kinds. Grocery lists, to-do lists, “catalog verse,” Wikipedia tables (there is a page that contains a list of microorganisms tested in outer space). My interest in the form was sparked when I was an MFA candidate at University of British Columbia in 1992 and I discovered a book by Robert Kroetsch called Seed Catalogue. One long autobiographical poem, it begins with a listing from the catalogue for “Copenhagen Market Cabbage” complete with the catalogue number. I had never seen anything like it before, and it both irritated and fascinated me. This was poetry? Why? I have since read that an implicit lesson in this kind of writing is that “from the apparently innocent, ‘documentary,’ past we may inherit important meaning and ways of seeing” (Russel Brown, “Seeds and Stones: Unhiding in Kroetsch’s Poetry,” Open Letter, 1984). It was my introduction to the concept of poem-as-palimpsest, an ongoing conversation with ourselves, other poets and collectors, science and history.

Or maybe my fascination began with my initial interest in poetry itself. It was 1989, I employed as a forklift driver in the warehouse at Alaska Pulp Corporation in Sitka, and a friend called me from Fairbanks with an urgent request. “You have to hear this,” she said. She had just attended a Joy Harjo reading, and she proceeded to read “I Give You Back” to me over the phone. I was twenty-five years old. I was stunned. You could say these things out loud? You could list your fears and speak directly to them? The world could receive your obsessions and anger, and this was poetry? I wanted more. I enrolled in a creative writing class at University of Alaska Southeast, with Ken Waldman.  Three short years later I was living in Vancouver, BC and in a graduate-level poetry workshop with people who are still my dear and fast friends.

There is a gorgeous 1982 documentary film called Poetry In Motion, directed by Ron Mann. It features several different poets of different schools; some of my favorite clips are Amiri Baraka reading “Wailers” and Toronto experimental poet Christopher Dewdney reading from A Natural History of Southwestern Ontario, Book 2, “Grid Erectile.” In this clip, Dewdney repeats the word “because” at the beginning of every line. The effect is hypnotic. The repetition and the detail become a sort of mantra:

            Because it is a predator.
            Because of its inky fur. Tunnels twisting around roots.
            Because it is a southern species migrating northwards.
                        Evidence for an inter-glacial warming trend.
            Because of their glowing eyes in the driveway at night.
                        Their rasping marsupial cries.
            Because of the caves.
            Because of its unearthly face.
            Because it is all of night.
            Because it is a falcon.
            Because it is sub-tropical.
            Because it is a stilted & accurate blue mist.

The poem goes on like this, exactly like this, and my favorite moment happens much later (and this moment is “favorite” to me because it comes back to me again and again): -- “Because I grew up beside them and they taught me everything I know.”

Here, the natural world becomes both universe and university. For me, growing up on Dimond Drive, walking to Tudor Elementary School and playing in Wickersham Park, skating along Campbell Creek in the winter and watching the Campbell Creek Classic from my back porch in the summer, the “they” in this line are the willows, the moving water, the nasturtiums in my neighbor’s yard, the collie named “Lady” running up and down the chain-link fence next door, the gooseberry and red currant patch beside the house, every curve of the creek, the black spruce, a winter sun coming up into St. Mary’s Church in the morning, Mount Susitna, Russian Jack Springs, and so much more. They are William Carlos Williams’ “reddish, purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy stuff of bushes.” They are Keats’ autumn sun that would “touch the stubble plain with rosy hue”. All quite romantic, I know, but what do we have, as writers, but the lists and the catalogs of those images that obsess and fascinate us, and the early experiences that taught us everything we know?

The repeated word or words can act like an anchor for the imagination. Repetition, coming back, anaphora, whatever you’d like to call it -- the obsessive quality of this kind of writing is gorgeous to me. And listing is not just for poets -- I am sure many a fiction writer has pushed through a stuck place with a list. Here is a link to some of my own list poems:

RANA DRAYTONII (California Red-Legged Frog)

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving Him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his Way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
                                                -- Christopher Smart (1722-1771), Jubilate Agno

for my hands also held him
for he was dry and tiny at the edge of the pond
            where the mud shone
for the rain arrived with the tides and it filled my dreams
            and in my dreams we gazed into our own skulls
for the poem rose up the tree trunk
for paint held the dust motes and pigment
            and the young man painted an owl on the bricks
            and it was good
for there were the torn clouds
            and sea lavender   the purple stems
for behind the white latticework the weeds glowed
            and a light arrived from the coast
            and the hissing was high in the cypress
for he also held me in his hands
for the end of life is nothing
for a fragrant sage blew in from the desert
            and the hummingbird and woodpecker made
                        their sounds in the lane 
for the man on the corner in the twilight 
for the bluish smoke
for he called to my beloved on the other side
            and i nearly sensed her
for the turtle in the ocean filled with eggs
for the burrs and the weeds
for the shape of feathers
            and the ways in which they feel
                        against the skin  
for their fine hooks and barbs
for he dies every day of starvation
            and of thirst and of abandonment
for the ways in which we take our leave are manifold and growing
for the sound of his voice was like nothing
            and was like everything
for the soil held it all rotting
for the flame and the bowl of fresh water
for the music of the pearly throat
            and the pond that finally
                        called us all by name

If you are interested in learning more about this technique or working with Caroline Goodwin, she is teaching a class entitled "List and Litany" in Anchorage on December 12, in Juneau on December 17, and in Sitka on December 19. For more information or to register, please go the 49 Writers website.

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