Ars Poetica #100: I Believe by Elizabeth Alexander
Poetry, I tell my students, / is idiosyncratic. And poetry is dirt. And poetry is (or is at least the shape of) an empty checkbook. And poetry is clam digging, a significant notion: most likely homage to Seamus Heaney or Jacques Cousteau (who once SCUBA [a device he invented] dove into a deep shipwreck with Adrienne Rich). Or perhaps a simple memory of the author’s own childhood. A childhood devoid of parents, we might imagine (for many poets do eventually misplace their parents, or vice versa), who were out at key parties/punchbowl pill parties/orgies at suburban ranch houses with deep shag carpets and dark paneling and kitchens of avocado green, kitchens visited primarily to thaw TV dinners or the stove eye used to light a Kool or a Marlboro.
So the trips to the Outer Banks (and towards the actual clams) were with siblings and grandparents. The kids no doubt living out the back of a covered pickup truck (and bathing not once, except for swims in the ocean), the scratched metal bed crammed with wadded clothes and damp towels and sour sleeping bags and beef jerky in plastic wrappers and bottles of Coke, while the grandparents stayed in a tiny (though neatly kept) pop-up camper towed by the old farm Chevy. A KOA campground, we must assume, since it’s cheap and public. Nearly on the beach, within sound (a rhythmic whooshing), if not sight, with cigarettes and tangerines to steal off picnic tables. And seagulls wheeling everywhere. And a putt-putt course with a weathered replica lighthouse. And a little camp/hardware store with Wonder Bread and fishing line and overpriced T-shirts and delicious popsicles of frozen fudge and et cetera, et cetera, the odors of sweat and gasoline and bug dope and salt.
At the store one of the boys bought a hand net. The other purchased fishing line and two small hooks. The author walked carefully around the crammed shelves. She stuck a candle into her mouth and tasted it (citronella) and put it back. She thumped her finger against a can of lighter fluid. Then she bought a small garden rake. WTF, the siblings said, though only with their eyes and scrunched lips, of course, this being 1979 and phones having cords and people owning no handheld computer to avoid one another, so they had to squint or look at the floor or twitch and blink uncontrollably or roller skate or walk beyond the dunes and out into the ocean to tread water or drown in a riptide and vanish or sometimes they even read a book …
“The hell did you get a rake for?” the grandfather asked, as he sat on a picnic table smoking a thin cigar. “You going to plant a tomato garden while we’re at the ocean?”
“It’s a trident,” the poet answered, directly. “I’m a sister of Neptune.”
“I understand,” the grandfather said, though he didn’t understand at all. He never understood her high and cloudy nonsense. He was a farmer. When he wanted rain, he got sun. When he wanted sun, he got rain. He’d already lost the pigs and he’d lost the chickens and the next year he’d lose half his damn farm to Imminent Domain, the new four-lane highway coming in from down south like a soul-eating asphalt dragon, maybe from Memphis.
The two boys showed the grandfather the net and the fishing line and the grandfather nodded and said, “Now you all run down to the sound and catch us something for dinner. Liz, maybe you can plant a row of pumpkins with your rake.”
Tributaries, brackish marshes, undulating tides. A land of in-between, of perpetual shifting, the Pamlico Sound. This is where I met the poet, if only in dehydrated and hungover vision, a night-sweat fit that I finally recall all these years later. Elizabeth Alexander waded up through the warm, shallow water, the breeze ruffling her sun-bleached hair (she wore a faded blue Charlie’s Angels T-shirt) and the nearby sea oats and the shimmering horizon all purple and orange and smeared out yellow like a vat of melting Velveeta … We stood and watched the brother with his net not catching fish, the holes too large, the small fish and crabs simply swimming through the openings …We watched the other brother with his line tangled about his hand (the flesh was crisscrossed tight with filament and shone red from constriction and honestly his face twisted in a pose of sheer agony) and the loose, frayed end floating on the water ineffectually since there was no lead weight, no bait, no technique, no luck or belief.
“Do you want the real skinny about writing poetry?” Elizabeth asked aloud, and without waiting for a reply, quickly followed, “Poetry is like a cheap necklace. No. That’s not helpful. Poetry is six different emotions. And then a body. And a landscape. You move words about, you write about a page if you can—try to keep it to one page—then you take half away … your emotions will direct the sequence, understand?”
I shook my head.
She brushed my hand with hers and said, “Listen, we did this, we saw this here”—(she pointed to a V of brown pelicans cruising by)—“so in poetry there is a reality in the imagination. Hey, don’t step over there, it’s a sinkhole or a rotted piling … Oh my, look at that fog of jellyfish! I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many jellyfish, not that species—a Cabbage Head or Sea Wasp, I believe—in such great numbers … Didn’t I mention the process is laborious? We are searching now. You feel a little dazed, right? Scarred or torn. You know Keats, right, about mining ore?”
I shook my head.
She sighed. “Look, I’ll show you, OK. Poetry is not abstract and floaty, not Peace or Love whatever, OK, all this swimming though the holes of the big obvious net, on a calendar or someone giving a speech. And poetry isn’t so obtuse; you don’t need fishing line to wrap about itself, to choke itself, to cut off your head and hands and even twisting up the innocent legs of shorebirds, whatever, do you get me?”
I shook my head.
And Elizabeth put her finger to her lips and then clutched my hand and placed it around the garden rake, warm splintery wood, gripped my fingers into hers, and we slowly raked the sand, worked it evenly and thoroughly, and after a few moments, felt—actually felt! A quivering through the metal teeth—tink, tink, tink … and the poet lunged down into the sand and dug with her fingers, and held to the sky a wet, dark, glistening clam! The boys slushed over through the water and looked to Elizabeth with awe as she turned the dripping orb in the setting sun, a gem of onyx, an earthen bowl, a magic eight ball, something simmering and mystical from the secret world right beneath our feet …
They feasted on clams that evening. The grandfather boiled them in a campfire kettle and they all dipped the glossy flesh into coffee cups of melted butter and the grandmother handed out packaged cinnamon rolls and afterwards Elizabeth slipped off behind the dunes and smoked a cigarette and blew a great cloud of smoke into the night air, a roiling swirl, the smoke acrid and awful and suddenly in my mouth and lungs (I was hovering above them all, unseen like a fluttering nightjar) and I was about to sneeze and cough and ruin everything I’d just learned about poetry—the nuance, clouds, the hushed heart of our dry mouths, the nature of sand and mollusks and touch of warm skin, et cetera—and that’s when thankfully, or maybe unthankfully, my thoughts snagged on something (a sea breeze, a murmuring of low thunder) and I drifted over the ocean, lifted up on air and gone.