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Starting Line: Can You Hear Me Now?

(the poetics of textuality or the textuality of poetics?)

The page (actually the screen you’re engaging as its surrogate) is a curious thing. It marks our separation. You are not here as I write this; I am not there as you read it. Yet it also links our separations: I place this whittled digital stick in the notch of an electronic tree on the chance that you might notice it as you hike along the trail, then think about the odd pine bird that implies singing but doesn’t actually sing (except in my mind as I carve it and perhaps yours as you finger the knifed marks).

When I was even more of a California hillbilly than I’ve since become, the way the page separated writer from reader, and writing from reading, bothered me. I wrote on for a while in spite of this and had some success (poems in journals, a chapbook, The Chester H. Jones National Poetry Prize, a collection in the final round of review at a major press). But then I stopped writing for some years, many (twenty-five or so).

Oddly, old fashioned textual scholarship brought me back to my own writing. Trudging through Robinson Jeffers’ manuscripts as I edited his poetry and thought about the ups and downs of his critical reception, I began to realize that the page is a mechanism that can function in multiple ways. It can be treated as a surface on which to inscribe writing, but it can also be cast as a space where speech is enacted and stored for later retrieval (for some initial attempts to conceptualize these alternatives, see “The There There & Not There in the Writing of Writing” and “Toward a Rhetoric of the Page” in the Textual Mediation section of this site, and for an illustration of how this distinction might be used critically, see “’It is out of fashion to say so’: The Language of Nature and the Rhetoric of Beauty in Robinson Jeffers”). In thinking about the implications of this for Jeffers’ work, I began to recognize that I had been expected to write (and had expected myself to write) as if I were, as it were, writing writing, but that what mattered to me was writing as a kind of speaking—something that moved onto the page with the pauses and turns and inflections and shifting paces of talking to a someone as if someone was there. I then began writing again, but not to an audience of readers but rather to whomever might be as if present and listening.

This poem is from Fault Lines, the collection following my return to writing, which gathers pieces written as if you are truly you and as if the writing is in some way a speaking across that gap in time and space between us that the page both marks and mediates.  I wrote it one morning on Guemes Island, looking across the water toward Anacortes, Washington but imagining, instead, that you and I were in the Peets coffee shop in Berkeley (or had once shared that experience):


At the Peets in Berkeley, I am drinking a double
espresso with unrefined sugar in it; you, a mocha.
Do you remember in high school how we would
walk the campus, prowl the bookshops,
then sit here as if this were more real
than the little town to the north—
the apple trees and canneries, evenings
of Rawhide, Lawrence Welk, Route 66?

No, you don’t. Because I am not in Peets.
Here, no one else is up yet. I am drinking tea
(from the Peets in Portland) as the blue
squeezes down against the fog, and the trees
come out across the estuary.
And you? I don’t know who you are
as I write pretending I do.

But if you were you and we were sitting in Peets, each
detail would draw another. “Do you remember
when?” “And how we . . . ?” “And that time . . .” until
we could put on the world we’d woven
and stare off through that window at what might pass by.

Or, to remember differently. It is Sunday evening,
a small college town in Maine. The control panel’s meters
cast puddles of light on the spinning vinyl
feeding Ellington to all the someones who might hear
if they happened to turn their radio dials that way.
Is anyone there? Or am I alone with the Duke and Johnny Hodges
talking to myself between numbers as I pretend
to talk to you and you and you, each in your separate
living rooms, where the light is different in each.

Here, this morning, the air is still cool, it lifts
off the water as the light grows within it
and you draw the ink across the page.
Perhaps where you are the light is also
warming your skin. Perhaps
as we share the passing by
these words are not silence.

It’s still true that you aren’t there; just as it’s still true that I’m not here. But perhaps (if we look past these digital marks on this screen-as-page or the ink on bleached wood fibers should you at some point hold the book) we can talk anyway—even as we both recognize how different it is to speak (whether to or with a someone or a group of someones) and to write (as if to a someone who must literally be an absent, usually unknown one and who may well prove to be no one).