Preface to The Timid Leaper
Catastrophes and Trophies
Report from a Victor and Victim
This collection is actually the combination and slight rearrangement of four separate volumes of verse; almost all of these poems were written in the calendar year 200I. It’s not much to show for a year of human life–that rich mystery we are twisted into by such a resolute hand. The main emphasis of this collection (as I hope will be quite clear) is Nature. Nature and Naturalism are not quite the same thing, however, and I have always had my own disagreements with those who took too dogmatically Thoreau’s painful premise “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” The Timid Leaper sets the keynote of this mixed approach. I hope this collection achieves some grace while trying to attain such goals. It is the beauty of man’s reach exceeding his grasp. The Timid Leaper leaps, not from any discernible goal he might attain, but from some more subtle cause, some interpenetration of events that defies analysis and germinates poesy. The sub-title is “inner nature poems,” and that is to help show that the weather for humans is never merely a matter of what’s over our heads it’s what’s in our hearts as well.
A victim of depression during the composition of these verses, I noticed an inability or unwillingness to assign purpose within myself. I was lax and ready to suffer unmitigated disasters with little more than a shrug and a tear. This is really a rather hopeless state of affairs, as a number of the poems outline. I remained staunchly impressed, however, with Dame Nature’s capacity to excite the recognition of meaning within myself. As meaningless and adrift as I may have been, I could not help but notice that Nature still evoked in me the wry acknowledgement of a more masterful hand in the pictures I kept seeing both before me and within me. “No Wood to Sing Through” shows the adaptability of natural instincts and impulses. It was inspired by my observation of a catbird still thriving without its native habitat, and by my own reflection that I was seeing something meaningful even when my depression had revoked my self as any inherent source of meaning. Something was helping meaning to survive even in the brain of someone who refused the acknowledgement of meaning. Something in me wanted, at least, for meaning to survive or, more exactly, for the expression and acknowledgement of meaning to continue happening, despite my conscious wishes. This is a form of nature’s nurturing weather that is both harsh and humbling. Can’t I be meaningless if I want to? Don’t take that shred of self-definition away from me! But, opposite of Sartre perhaps, it seems that meaning remains contiguous with essence, even when that essence wishes to exile meaning. It is this co-created weather of inner and outer that is charted in this volume of verses.
Full of wily wit and a bastard’s bravado, The Sword Inside was the first burn and purge preparing a place for a new self to take up residence. I had to be rid of old hopes that I had harbored too long. Hopes are the white lilies of the soul, and when their time is past, they fester as fast. There were reconciliations to be made here as well, and rueful acknowledgement followed hard upon the heels of aptly rapid self-wit. Well-rooted weeds and lingering things were burned out, or hacked at with a saber. Some villainy of habit and temperament had to be acknowledged and integrated, a black sheep returned to the fold. Such traceries of whim explored and displayed in The Sword Inside were the iron rungs I used to clamber back from the void.
The section entitled “The Soft Assault” stands apart for its being the documentation of a very severe personal storm and so shows the purely human side of the weather. Nature purists and vegans of nature poetry may safely skip this section if they do not want their nature poetry too irredeemably mixed up with the human roots of that poetry in the poet. This section is the fever chart of one of love’s bitterest victims. The natural phenomenon of the “inner weather” gives these poems their place in this collection. My retreat into nature, and nature’s “soft pursuant touch” of my capacity to keep seeing meaning no matter what, are a direct result of the catastrophes alluded to within these poems.
Indeed, it was nature’s “soft, pursuant touch,” that I could not shake off, and that led me back to myself as more than a recording barometer of outside events. Nature creates great art, but she uses dirty fingers. Soon enough, I was actively pursuing designs and meanings of my own in the material that Nature had fauceted upon me. I was ready to assign parts to clouds and prompt the trees with dialog. When this hubris expressed itself too heavy-handedly, the poems themselves rebelled and those poems have been expelled from this collection as a complete botch. But, as I now think significant, I was saved. And more than saved, I had become a victor from being a victim. Out of my personal catastrophe, I have extracted this volume of verses, which will serve as well as anything for a trophy.
[Gregg G. Brown]
Petal falling followed falling petal Till all apple trees held was sky above; Such a burst of sweetness discharged from air Put mind out of reckoning for its cares. We walked laughing through the snowing grove Whirling the fallen in splashes back up, Widening soft confusions in our wake, Chapleted in blossoms that all spring throve, Like trees ourselves glowing with tree-petals.-- Earth and air to a fantastic whiteness blown, Shining as puddles from yesterday's shower. Yet trees, for all their loss, did not look to be sad. To rely on having is to be had. New leaves yattering new green to new leaves Talked for all the world about the breeze, As if blossoms had kept them quieted as snow And, having shaken off their winter calm to play, They did not know what to say or know And so said everything in a single day. Evening found them standing solemn with the stars Thinking how little they were themselves Beneath bright things hung up so far. Starlight cast down starlight like sky decayed. All the night orchard stood restored to blaze As if no single petal of them all Had suffered earthward a single fall.
Trees that have it in them to be a wood Gather dark thoughts where bare hilltop stood. Branch to branch entreats, and root goes out to root Entangling dirt with movement deliberate As worms, and mix their living sinews With cold dead earth, its coldness to renew And above the burning hilltop bring A shadowy wing never alighting. Starless night hovers where noon once reigned And exiles grass, and laughing feet detains With extricating minuets of wait And then pass on,-- a guardless garden gate Forever shuddering in the wind trees keep, Murmuring night-long while the world's asleep.
A pony came whose coat was black as pitch, Whose blood was broody as water in a ditch. Her eyes were saucers of red command, Her teeth grew square on the taste of hands. Wildflowers grew more wild at her passing scent; Like nerves through skin she raced where she went. There was more than strangeness in what made her so. There was more of night in her hooves than men know. Proud, unobeying breed of tameless hills, Storm of strength with a godless guideless will. What light burned behind her being may Not have been heaven sent, but burned to stay. An inner star served as her only lamp: None took her, none kept her, none triumphed.
The old quarry's flooded echo came back To him almost exact, but left a blunted blank For song, a lack of deadened cold echo In so much dank; the quarry air was too Soft and queer to sough a song out right,-- Yet still the listening stone, it seemed, white, uptilted, Knew that song might be meant, to judge by crevice And shadowed device and looks that meant no peace Nor gave advice beyond the dusty tans Rained down on singing man. One saw then, The quarry was all quivered walls and rocks A mocking water swallowed at the bottom. It resembled nothing so much as a tomb. Man's voice rolled all against the abandoned lot, Echoing himself his repeated tune again Like nothing else in nature that to voice pretends; He was his own superior echo then While song pursued its end as if never begun, And time dilated some in jarring after-echo, Or made itself felt as one,-- as dark burns on in coal While fire unfolds fire. Here, some soft after-noise (As in the mare the moaning foal) made some alloy, Forging voice and form alive in the willful quarry To totter and rejoice alone where dead water stayed, -A second singing voice came from bland clay, And was heard some way. It seemed, for once, The offence of voice had persuaded voice To once not stay remanded in veined marble But grace half-garbled, but half-audible, The silent singer's startled ear, and speak Some talk of the theme he'd followed half-awake Into the choked dark of the watery quarry. What he caught of what came back made him wary. "I won't be sorry. I won't, I won't--" He straightened up half-sighing, as if he'd meant Never to hear his own want in song he'd given All his graven morning to, and that, if spent above, Would have vanished less riven into eve Than the grave day that the quarry gave.
Liberty has two edges still, One to keep free, one to kill.
Clear-headed time at a touch Shows all too much. The resentful body grows old; Youth and strength have gone Disgraced from the stage. Vague as a notion, The room swims into view; Dawn stutters into motion. Time has done to you Things time shouldn't do. An old man stares out From an oval steel mirror, Your face in one clout The face of a stranger: Cataract-eyed, his blind Grip gone round a razor.
Bright beyond belief the morning sun Presents a double blazing image Above the sink, bewitching just enough of dawn For me to throw both windows back in homage. I went forgetful about my round of chores, Touching openness neither less nor more Than I was bid by my round of chores. Sunset had sun exit as it had come, In doubled glory. A thrush burst out at once Loudly loud, as if woods and house were one And eaves leaves.-- And thank, yes, forever thank Such song for how it came and its coming in To wake indoor woods beside my sink. Thank thrush for landing home in homing in.
The upper pasture gate creaked padlocked. A wading lantern to show the latch Flared where invisible things attach, Carrying light snatched up for open use To home a tricky key and save a curse. To burn out opposing night and burn day back, And give dark description where words must lack, Light's concern was kept narrow as the lock. At a click, light soon waded on to earthy dark,-- Swung wondering in a guideless hand Familiar with the black of pasture lands; Sudden cow or knoll indifferently stood stark. I followed from below as I was, restless To see how aimless light in darkness does.