At the Edge of the Known

 

                                    We went down to the creek

                                    The sides were filled

                                        with tiny watery activities

Brenda Hillman begins the title poem of Practical Water—part of an elemental tetralogy just finished with a flame of a book about fire—with a rhetorical question so vast that, in the poem’s second line, she admits the impossibility inherent in its very asking:

            What does it mean to live a moral life

            It is nearly impossible to think about this

In lesser hands, these lines would fall terrifically flat. They are the kinds of lines (a sweeping statement and a stark declarative) that would likely not make it past the early drafting stage. They seem like they’re functioning as placeholders for the not yet revealed real lines still unwritten. If either of these lines appeared in a poem submitted to one of the many poetry workshops I’ve taken over the years, I’m fairly certain that the normally discordant voice of the workshop would univocally say, “Cut them out!”

Yet Hillman didn’t do this, and I’d suggest that she allowed these jagged, uncomfortable lines to remain because they’re both a provocation and the price of admission for the fraught questions that Practical Water inhabits in ecological, political, spiritual, aesthetic, and linguistic ways. The provocation comes in the shape of the bewildering question the poem asks, and I would offer that being willing to be bewildered is the price of admission.

                                    The mind was split & mended

                                    Each perception divided into more

According to the OED, "bewilderment" can be defined as feeling lost. Another definition: “mental confusion from inability to grasp or see one’s way through a maze or tangle of impressions or ideas.” It wasn’t until I read Fanny Howe’s essay “Bewilderment” (collected in The Wedding Dress) that I realized how central bewilderment has been to my work as a poet in "theory" and, more importantly, in "practice."

I would imagine that many of us might describe the constellation of feelings orbiting around any kind of writing we are working on as something akin to bewilderment. Perhaps what occasions it is the negative capability of formulating the overarching question for a conference paper or a dissertation chapter. Just as easily if not more so, this feeling of being lost looms large when writing the first sentence of a rough draft. If I asked you to describe what bewilderment looks or feels like, what would you say? For me, bewilderment feels most often like either a thicket I have to pass through or a wilderness I must wander. The thicket is made of words. The wilderness looks biblical. When bewildered in the wilderness, I’m nevertheless pleased by the fact that the word wild sleeps inside them both. Writing feels and looks like that, too.   

                                    & there were in the hearts of the water molecules

                                        little branches perpendicular to thought

The very language we use to describe our relationship to our writing(s), I've found, tends to be tinged with bewilderments of all kinds: “I've no clue what I’m doing,” or “I’m totally lost,” or “I don’t even know how to begin. In creative writing workshops, this sort of talk abounds with invocations of everything from Rilke's angels to Lorca's duende. (From where, after all, does a poem come?) Since beginning my doctoral studies here at UT, I’ve been fascinated by how, whether one is on the "creative" or "intellectual" side of the fence that’s not a useful fiction, the bewilderments described by colleagues and students appear to be identical in kind even if different in degree.  

Because those of us who consult in writing centers are writers ourselves, I think it safe to say that we're intimately familiar with feeling bewildered even if we aren't necessarily at ease when we are. We've also likely internalized the adage that "writing is a process" and have learned how to thrive in that threshold—or, at least, figured out how to get the draft of the writing done. Now that I am working in a writing center setting again after several years away from one, I've begun to think about how we do and do not model this during a consultation with someone who may not (yet) have internalized that the writing process is mysterious, open-ended and, sometimes, messy.

                                    A tiny droplet shines

                                        on a leaf & there your creek is found

Most of us would probably agree that there are differences between writing an essay and solving an algebra problem, yet during a consultation I've often found myself talking about essays as though their assemblages function like equations. (This isn't to suggest there are no structural parallels between mathematical problems and essays.) But what happens to what an essay is when we reduce it the way we would a fraction?

"An ethics occurs," Hillman writes, "at the edge / of what we know," which is one way of conceptualizing how writing begins in terms of where it begins. This edge of the known, which seems to be inside and outside us simultaneously, is where consulting begins as much as where writing does. As a writer or as a consultant, it’s not necessarily a comfortable place. But I would offer, in either case, that this uncomfortable edge is where possibility exists and where, spread wide like Dickinson’s, our hands might gather paradise.

                                    You should make yourself uncomfortable

                                    If not you who

(Italicized lines come from Hillman’s “Practical Water.”)

~John Fry