“Little is certain, other than the tide. . .” (Amy Clampitt)

Birthday number 2 - NOT un-satisfactory

Birthday number 2 – NOT un-satisfactory

This is it! The first day of my 71st year. I’m either bummed out or excited, depending on the hour of the day.

One of the few regrets (but perhaps the major-est) I have at this moment is my lack of discipline in writing. I’m a damned good writer from moment to moment, but I have no ability to sit four or five hours a day and pour over what I’ve done and make it better, make it cohere, make it either beautiful or rhetorically sound. Writing is, as, Pete Hamill, pointed out, “The hardest work in the world that doesn’t involve heavy lifting.” For many years as a professor in writing classes at several colleges and universities, I copied Hamill’s adage at the bottom of my syllabuses. My ulterior motive was to try to convince my students to “do as I quote, not as I do.”

Amy Clampitt (1920-1994) was a poet who either was or was not a “formalist” (whatever that is) according to which literary critic you’re talking to. She either did or did not write poetry with a proper “narrative.” Her work either is or is not too wordy, too descriptive.

I dunno.

I don’t know what an educated, literary person is “supposed” to think of the last stanza of her (longer than it needs to be, I suppose) poem, “A Hermit Thrush,” published in a collection of her work in 1997.

. . . there’s
hardly a vocabulary left to wonder, uncertain
as we are of so much in this existence, this
botched, cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing.

This botched, cumbersome, much-mended, not-unsatisfactory thing. I suppose the academic literary types who think her poetry is too wordy, too descriptive, would say this string of adjectives is a primary example. But I think it’s both charming and right on the money.

Botched. I’m not going there. But I can remind myself of a failed marriage, several relationships ended without much grace, a PhD instead of a DMA, insufficient savings to live the “lifestyle” I’d like in retirement. Cumbersome. So much left undone because I simply don’t have the will or the energy to finish all I’ve started. And the heaviness of still (at this advanced age!) trying to figure out how to life with freedom and joy. Much-mended. Two messages already this very morning apologizing for insensitivity and inattention to friends.

But all of this is not un-satisfactory. Clampitt doesn’t say “satisfactory” but the double negative “not unsatisfactory.” Does a double negative make a positive or simply imprecise writing? I used to tell students who wrote double negatives they were being needlessly wordy and confusing their rhetorical project by trying to express two contradictory ideas at once. (Speaking of wordiness.) I, however, being no longer an “academic” can say I like the idea: not un-satisfactory.

My life is and has been not un-satisfactory for the most part. I have a photograph of myself on my second birthday (January 3, 1947). I’m sitting outside at a small table with my birthday cake in front of me. Outside because my father’s camera didn’t have a flash so sunlight was necessary. I’m bundled up in a snowsuit and hat that nearly covers my face. Bundled because it’s January in Wyoming. Snow.

Here we have two negatives, darkness and cold. But the picture exists. My mother made a cake, and my father set up the picture to record the day. Our family was as dysfunctional as any. But that picture is proof enough to me that I was loved in every necessary way. Life has not been and is not now un-satisfactory.

Dad, brother, and little me - how I know life is more than satifactory

Dad, brother, and little me – how I know life is more than satifactory

I could write seventy years of not un-satisfactory examples, but I don’t need to. Anyone who has any imagination can imagine, can extrapolate a gazillion examples from my life and their own. Mine even includes Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and Bipolar II Disorder. And falling into a tub of boiling water a year after the second-birthday picture was taken. And. . . there’s no reason to belabor the negatives.

I’m having a little party tonight, and a few of my closest friends will attend. About 40. Who has 40 friends? Someone whose life is not un-satisfactory. And to try to keep it that way, my party will include a silent auction for the benefit of the Aberg Center for Literacy in Dallas.

I think the best way to keep my life not un-satisfactory is to remember that I am a white, male, (not-straight), highly educated American, and whatever I think might be unsatisfactory about my life, it’s better than the lives of about 99% of the people in the world—through no goodness or achievement of my own.
Happy Birthday – EVERYONE!

(Here’s Amy Clampitt’s poem. It is wordy, but to heck with the critics: it’s wonderful.)

“A Hermit Thrush,” by Amy Clampitt

Nothing’s certain. Crossing, on this longest day,
the low-tide-uncovered isthmus, scrambling up
the scree-slope of what at high tide
will be again an island,

to where, a decade since well-being staked
the slender, unpremeditated claim that brings us
back, year after year, lugging the
makings of another picnic–

the cucumber sandwiches, the sea-air-sanctified
fig newtons–there’s no knowing what the slamming
seas, the gales of yet another winter
may have done. Still there,

the gust-beleaguered single spruce tree,
the ant-thronged, root-snelled moss, grass
and clover tuffet underneath it,
edges frazzled raw

but, like our own prolonged attachment, holding.

The Hermit Thrush knows

The Hermit Thrush knows

Whatever moral lesson might commend itself,
there’s no use drawing one,
there’s nothing here

to seize on as exemplifying any so-called virtue
holding on despite adversity, perhaps) or
any no-more-than-human tendency–
stubborn adherence, say,

to a wholly wrongheaded tenet. Though to
hold on in any case means taking less and less
for granted, some few things seem nearly
certain, as that the longest day

will come again, will seem to hold its breath,
the months-long exhalation of diminishment
again begin. Last night you woke me
for a look at Jupiter,

that vast cinder wheeled unblinking
in a bath of galaxies. Watching, we traveled
toward an apprehension all but impossible
to be held onto–

that no point is fixed, that there’s no foothold
but roams untethered save by such snells,
such sailor’s knots, such stays
and guy wires as are

mainly of our own devising. From such an
empyrean, aloof seraphic mentors urge us
to look down on all attachment,
on any bonding, as

in the end untenable. Base as it is, from
year to year the earth’s sore surface
mends and rebinds itself, however
and as best it can, with

thread of cinquefoil, tendril of the magenta
beach pea, trammel of bramble; with easings,
mulchings, fragrances, the gray-green
bayberry’s cool poultice–

and what can’t finally be mended, the salt air
proceeds to buff and rarefy: the lopped carnage
of the seaward spruce clump weathers
lustrous, to wood-silver.

Little is certain, other than the tide that
circumscribes us that still sets its term
to every picnic–today we stayed too long
again, and got our feet wet–

and all attachment may prove at best, perhaps,
a broken, a much-mended thing. Watching
the longest day take cover under
a monk’s-cowl overcast,

with thunder, rain and wind, then waiting,
we drop everything to listen as a
hermit thrush distills its fragmentary,
hesitant, in the end

unbroken music. From what source (beyond us, or
the wells within?) such links perceived arrive–
diminished sequences so uninsistingly
not even human–there’s

hardly a vocabulary left to wonder, uncertain
as we are of so much in this existence, this
botched, cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing.

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