Easter Sunday and I am in Iowa City, waiting for the shuttle to take me to Cedar Rapids. The Examined Life Conference: Writing and the Art of Medicine has been three heady days of talks, poetry readings and rich exchanges, but now I am tired and ready to head home. I watch the clouds in the blue sky drift above the swiftly flowing river. Easter Sunday without hymns or eggs, without family and friends, feels odd.
The shuttle driver comes, a wizened elf with two hearing aids, and gamely grabs my overloaded suitcase. He tells me Easter isn’t big at his house–one daughter, a stewardess, will be in Maui, the other is in Boston. We pass a hawk standing on the curb, calmly scanning the road, and my elf remarks that he’s killed two of them who were eating his wife’s songbirds. That leads him to the story of the old Tom Turkey and his mate, the two of them standing in the middle of the highway. “Yep, I passed them twice today. They’re gone now,” he says, “not killed, just wised up and got out of the road.”
I ask him about his daughter in Boston, but he can’t hear me, which is fine, because I’m out of talk myself. I gaze out the window as the miles of now gray clouds gather over the golden stubbled fields, the black, black earth, the greening hills. We pass a creek, a silvery snail trail in a marshy field, stands of trees reaching bare branches to the sky. A trio of blackbirds startle, exploding like scattershot. I am silently marveling at the balm nature is, how these sights soothe me, when we come upon a strip mall of big box stores plunked down in the middle of empty farmland. It looks incongruous and arrogant in the windswept landscape. Then we are back into pure farmland, the patchwork fields unrolling like a Hockney painting–patches of green, black and gold. A dilapidated red barn and farmhouse appear, walls sagging, roof showing sky, sheltered by large trees. My heart goes out to the abandoned place, a place that seems singular, built on a human scale, and I find myself imagining the life lived there. I picture a rusted plow still in the barn, a pitchfork and spade, their wooden handles worn smooth with the farmer’s hand. I imagine the interminable snow storms, the smell of wet wool and kerosene inside the house, cornbread baked in an iron skillet over a wood fire. I tell myself not to romanticize it, to remember the children born dead on kitchen tables, the lack of resources, education, stimulation, and yet, still, I can’t help imagining a child walking through those woods, fishing in that clear stream, time stretched out for him like the field itself.
The night before, I had the pleasure of attending a reading by poet Robert Pinksy. He called himself a crank, aware of our possibility of self-annihilation, the fact that we may leave our civilization to the cockroaches. There was an elegiac feel to many of the poems, and he said he is aware more and more, not only of his physical and spiritual ancestors, but also of the ancestors of words. Using Yiddish as an example, he said “We lose whole worlds when it dies.” As an example, he cited aYiddish expression his grandmother used that meant literally, “Go away!” but meant, actually, “Come here!” The intimacy, the humor, the play of feelings in one short expression, gone. I thought of that as I passed the old farmhouse, thought of the words and worlds and experiences lost to us, those of my prairie ancestors, my Irish immigrant ancestors, all superseded by ever more current jargon, the often reductionist speech of the academy, of the various professions, or the vacuous shorthand of tweets and textings.
Pinsky in his poems, insists on the singularity of the made thing. He takes something as simple as a shirt, examining the way it is crafted, its “nearly invisible stitches” and from there imagining it being turned in a sweatshop by “Korean or Malaysians/Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break.” He examines a cuff and imagines the Triangle Factory fire, then notices how the patterns match perfectly “….like a strict rhyme/Or a major chord” and then his mind segues to the clan tartans “Invented by millowners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,/to control their savage Scottish workers…” ( “Shirt). Language, for him, is a repository of living history; poetry, for him, is embodied breath. “Air an instrument of the tongue,/The tongue an instrument/Of the body, the body/An instrument of spirit,/The spirit a being of the air.” (“Rhyme).*
An old man shoots a hawk that kills his wife’s songbirds. A worn spade handle disintegrates in a barn, its owners’ descendants, oblivious, shop for shirts made in sweatshops by people who place votive offerings to golden Buddhas. It is the world; it is the world we weave with words.
Robert Pinksy, Selected Poems, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York