Thursday, October 12, 2006

Predecessors

The late Amy Clampitt wrote poetry that’s a bit rich for many palates, though I enjoy her work in small portions, doled out like slender slices of pâté de foie gras. Speaking of geese, I just read a brief address Clampitt gave at her alma mater, Grinnell College, in 1986. On her way to Iowa, Clampitt had visited a friend in Lancaster, Pa., on the chance she might see and hear the Canada geese on their northerly spring migration. Here’s how Clampitt describes the scene in “Predecessors, Et Cetera,” from her prose collection of the same name:

“I’d made my appearance, and we were just coming out into the snow – into the snow, mind you – and my friend said, `Listen!’ – and there they were, the geese honking as they passed overhead! It was the first time I’d heard that sound, I think, since I was a child on the farm – but I’ve thought of it often, and I’ve watched geese in flight and tried to write about how they looked…Is any of this important? It is if you agree with Wallace Stevens that the worst poverty is not to live in a physical world. I might paraphrase that and say that for me it would be a terrible deprivation to live in a world that took no notice of the migration of geese or of the ways of goshawks, falcons, kestrels…”

In another writer we might take such observations as evidence of sentimental nature worship, the sort of rubbish Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver won’t stop writing. But Clampitt was born a Quaker and is made of less frivolous stuff. The physical has primacy. Near the end of her address, she describes standing close to a kestrel perched on the back of a friend’s kitchen chair, and reminds us that another name for a kestrel is windhover. Of course, she quotes Hopkins’ great sonnet:

“I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon…”

This leads her to conclude: “What does a writer need to know? In one word, predecessors. I don’t know why it is that things become more precious with the awareness that someone else has looked at them, written about them. But so I find it to be. There is less originality than we think.”

I love that final bald statement of humility – a fine motto for any writer, even a blogger. Clampitt reminds me of an April evening 11 years ago in upstate New York. Even in the southern foothills of the Adirondacks, snow remains on the ground into May – dirty black bergs in parking lots, scattered white patches in the woods. I took my oldest son, then 7, to a nature preserve near Albany, where the rangers were leading a twilight walk into the marshes to witness the spectacle of frog courtship. The frogs were Hyla crucifer, peepers the size of postage stamps with a pattern of ill-defined crosses on their backs. In April, males serenade females – a more reliable gauge of spring’s imminence than the return of the robins. At that latitude, spring returns incrementally.

We carried flashlights, 15 or 20 of us, and approached the booming in the night. Though tiny, peepers en masse, thousands of them, are almost deafening. Even when we shined our lights on them, to watch their throats balloon as they called, they ignored us. Everyone laughed, out of amusement and astonishment. Then another, more raucous sound began, impossibly, to drown out the peepers. It was past sunset, black without the flashlights. Directly overhead, flying no more than 25 feet off the ground, a flock of Canada geese honked like drunken saxophonists. In the dark, I felt privileged, disoriented and a little scared (the combined volume of frogs and birds was overwhelming). The darkness and the noise created an illusion of closeness, as though we were indoors, and again everyone, kids and grownups, laughed.

In Walden, Thoreau described “the circling groping clangor of some solitary goose.” Multiply that by dozens, and add the steady basso of the peepers. His journal is filled with references to frogs, including the genus Hyla, but he made relatively few observations of geese. Concord, Mass., is at the same latitude as Albany. On April 30, 1852, he followed the sound of the peepers and noted:

“It seemed to be a note of alarm. I caught one – It proved to be two coupled. They remained together in my hand. This sound has connexion with their loves probably.”

The bachelor Thoreau on the sex life of amphibians: “their loves probably.” Thoreau brought home several peepers. On May 1 he notes in the journal:

“One that got out in the evening onto the carpet was found soon after by his peeping on the piano. They easily ascend the glass of the window – jump 18 inches & more. When they peep the loose wrinkled skin of the throat is welled up into a globular bubble very large & transparent & quite round except on the throat side behind which their little heads are lost – mere protuberances on the side of this sphere. & the peeping wholly absorbs them – their mouths shut or apparently so. Will sit half a day on the side of a smooth tumbler.”

Clampitt in the kitchen with a kestrel. Thoreau in the parlor with a frog. Humans in the swamp with frogs and geese. “There is less originality than we think.” Another word for “less originality” is continuity.

1 comment:

brian Sholis said...

Great post, Patrick. In this vein, you might want to read some of Kathleen Jamie's writing. Next spring, FSG will publish one of her recent books. I mention it toward the end of this post: http://www.briansholis.com/insearch/archives/2006/09/one_last_sontag.html

Best,
Brian