Faith

It’s almost the end of summer break and I’m nearly through a notebook. Like most who spend much time with such accoutrement, I am fussy about my ink (black, fine, rollerball or fountain) and my paper, which cannot under any circumstances be white with blue lines. Cliche aside, I’m partial to Moleskine, the “cheap” ones with the cardboard-y covers. They’re slim and they lay flat when open, and they come in nondescript parcel-paper brown, the cream-colored pages faintly lined with grey. The last fifteen pages are diminutively perforated, the slightest dashes running the spine to make for easy tearing, and though I’ve never torn a page from a writing notebook (it is amazing to me to realize this truth, given the years), I’m always aware of those minute interstices, how they signify both completion and division, the paradox uncanny in this season of uncertain time. The hours dilate and blink. Sitting down at the desk in the cool light of dawn, I’m surprised by mid-morning’s heat, how summer muscles on — busy old fool, unruly sun. The narrow sheaf of unthumbed leaves feel like middle August, the notebook’s completion the passage of time itself. I never feel done with a notebook, always wanting to have wrung more from the half-formed thoughts, unfinished lines. I want to transfer the scrawled phrases and orphaned words, the middle-of-the-night revelations that dry up in daylight, to the new book, because I haven’t finished with them yet, haven’t got them sorted, haven’t gotten the order right. I want time to stop, which is another way of saying: I’m not ready. I don’t want to keep going.

*

A long time ago I wanted to quit, among other far-more-important-to-staying-alive things (eating, sobriety, breathing) writing poems, certain that doing so had caused me grievous pain. A mentor I trusted very much said six words that stuck somewhere in my heart and never left: “Just don’t quit. Keep the faith.” Those phrases didn’t do much to make me write — to this day, I am uncertain as to how I finished grad school — but they did persist through the long, silent years when it seemed impossible to believe in anything, which I suppose is the very act of keeping faith. A writer’s silence always feels eternal. Since 2001 I have carried around a typewritten index card given to me by the same teacher, who read me well enough to know before I’d lost it that faith would always be my fight. I’ve propped it up on a series of desks, stuck it in various picture frames over the years. Tonight it’s tacked to my bulletin board, one green pin through the centre, bearing Auden’s description, from The Dyer’s Hand, of his own crisis of faith: “In the eyes of others a man is a poet if he has written one good poem. In his own he is only a poet at the moment when he is making his last revision to a new poem. The moment before, he was still only a potential poet; the moment after, he is a man who has ceased to write poetry, perhaps forever.” I took it down just now to check my accuracy, and smiled to see the water stains and faded drop of ink left by a hand not-mine, the dog-eared corners. The hole made by my pushpin joins a constellation of previous punctures, a small scattering of stars first glimpsed by one who came before me. Just enough light to see by.

*

I’ve been listening to Waltz for Debby and Paul Desmond Live and this is not at all a big deal, maybe even obvious because each goes so well with the subtle shift in the angle of the sun, the slight waning as the earth leans back, takes a breath. The music is languor and its scion, nostalgia: the slight quickening, towards the end of the album, of Desmond’s alto into “Take Five.” Evans with all the time in the world, the seconds stretching out between the notes as the last track dissolves in a shimmer of cymbal and applause. There’s an acute sentimentality to a live recording, particularly those that capture the atmosphere — applause, approbation — not only at the end of each song, but the ongoing murmur of the audience, the clink of glassware and laughter, interspersing the music itself. In fact it is an enormous deal that I am listening to these albums, having put them away for over ten years, wary of what memories would come winging back with their melodies. But it has been a notebook-filling kind of summer, one of reclamation and hard thinking and difficult feeling. I have written every single day that I have not been traveling, and some days that I have. I finished a handful of poems and most of the essay that is without doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to write. But those forty-ish pages aren’t nearly enough to show for all that I’ve done, work that is rarely visible — in long letters to cherished friends and notes to myself I keep finding scrawled on the backs of receipts and business cards (one reads: “It doesn’t exist until there is language for it”), in the sweet response to a long-overdue email I was afraid for years to send. It doesn’t look like much, but it sounds like Desmond leaning into “Manha De Carnaval,” a song I loved until I felt it torn away from me, and it feels like evening coming out of the earth, clinging cool to the furrows in fields stretching out exhausted, ready for harvest.

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