02-03-2015

Eva Saulitis

 

Naturalist's Prayer

 

                  after Ilya Kaminsky

 

If I speak for the earth I must sing.

I must sing the same song every morning, sing 
like the unidentified bird with its repetitive 
cry, that nameless bird in the morning

who bleats & bleats like a lamb of

the wild. If I speak I must crawl

along its convergences:
         slough &

         forest & forest & floodplain & floodplain &
         meadow & meadow & delta collecting data: 
Transcribing the falling,
the hardening. The wet, the cautious. 
the curious quick licks of an animal 
at the furthest

edge of its range, pressing its pads
deep into groundcover, marking

trees with its foreign scent,

its foreign name. If sing it's because

the earth persists & this is just my brief 
wandering between 

trees alive & dead & fallen, on all

fours through the under-story. To breathe

in a windstorm is singing. To sing is to praise 
Earth's madness, placing

carefully as a predator my tread

upon each, the darkest,

the coldest. It's like dying each time,

not crazy to pray: Let this day, earth,

let it be given.

Injured and blistered amen.


And God Opened A Window

And there’s a north wind in it. 
And a few houses with lights on
         sprinkled over the day that we’ll eat.

And the view plane lightening and there’s a little
         death in it, settling behind the knees of animals. 
And an orange stain bleeds out of a ridgeline
         but everywhere else it only gets bluer. 
And the morning plane slices into it
         as it banks toward Anchorage.

And the crowns of trees are all connected in it.

And crows don’t care, they just burst right through it. 
In the killing cold a search plane looking down on it
         would see small fires moving across the landscape. 
And bigger fires, human beings constructing
         themselves every morning from sticks and paper.

We forget that through infrared glasses we all look equal. 
Forget we could walk into that scene,
         meet death halfway to where we’re going and not
         sit in our houses waiting.

Because when God opened a window something had to be done. 
Walking into the landscape, the faithful are departing.

This is the far-off country I’m writing to you from.

 

The Clearing

It would be spring. I'd be out walking. 
I'd stumble across a field in a clearing. 
A shock in the woods I thought I knew. 
There'd be my mother wielding a hoe.

I'd stumble across her in the clearing. 
Smoke from a stovepipe: her sister cooking. 
There'd be my mother wielding a hoe.

She wouldn't be wearing a slip or stockings.

Smoke from the stovepipe: her sister cooking. 
Nights they'd drink sting-nettle tea.

They'd be barefoot, no slips or stockings.

I'd call-but they wouldn't hear me.

Nights they'd drink sting-nettle tea.
As if it had always been this placid. 
I'd call-but they wouldn't hear me. 
The jokes they'd tell, dark and ironic.

As if it had always been this placid.

As if it had always been this place.

The jokes they'd tell, dark and ironic. 
They wouldn't be raped-they'd be safe.

As if it had always been this place.

As if there'd been no reason to beg.

They wouldn't be raped-they'd be safe. 
Under her dress, my mother's strong bare legs.

As if there had never been reason to beg. 
Beside the woodstove, the little hatchet. 
Under her dress, my mother's strong bare legs. 
Where it was ripped, the careful stitches.

Beside the woodstove, the little hatchet. 
Beside the door, a man's shoes.
Where it was ripped, the careful stitches. 
While the kindling popped and the tea cooled.

Beside the door, a man's shoes.

Where have they gone, those men?

As the kindling popped and the tea cooled. 
Song of a night-jar, song of a wren.

It would be spring. I'd be out walking. 
A shock in the woods I thought I knew. 
I'd stumble across a house in a clearing. 
My mother stepping into the sun.

-from Many Ways To Say It

BIO: Trained initially as a marine biologist, Eva Saulitis received her M.S. from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1993.  Since 1986, she has studied the killer whales of Prince William Sound, Kenai Fjords and the Aleutian Islands and is the author and co-author of numerous scientific publications.

Dissatisfied with the objective language and rigid methodology of science, she turned to creative writing – poetry and the essay – to develop another language with which to address the natural world, receiving her MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1996.

Her essay collection, Leaving Resurrection, was a finalist for the Tupelo Press Non-Fiction Prize and the Foreword Book Award, and was published by Boreal Books/Red Hen Press in 2008.  A poetry collection, Many Ways To Say It, was published by Red Hen Press in September 2012, and a memoir, Into Great Silence:  Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas was published by Beacon Press in January 2013.

Her essays and poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Crazyhorse, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, Northwest Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, Carnet de Route, Seattle Review and Kalliope.  They have also appeared in several anthologies, including HomegroundLanguage for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez; she has read essays she contributed to that volume on the PBS radio series Living on Earth.

She lives in Homer, Alaska, where she teaches creative writing at Kenai Peninsula College, at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, and in the Low-Residency MFA Program of the University of Alaska Anchorage.  She continues to spend summers studying killer whales in Prince William Sound with her partner, biologist Craig Matkin, through their non-profit research, conservation and educational organization, the North Gulf Oceanic Society.

The Goshawk Within by Eva Saulitis, first published at 49 Writers

Some flim-flam grand slam, glitchy 
as religion, this is, with its chronic 
key-and-padlock, hit-and-missy cerebellum, 
its sturm and drangish, bum- 
rushed, all-thumbed cockalorum.


—from “Inspiration” by Hailey Leithhauser (featured on Poetry Daily, May 10).

My friend says we all have a hungry ghost inside us. Both Buddhism and Taoism recognize this entity, which can arise from neglect or desertion of an ancestor. My friend isn’t using the term in that traditional sense, of course, but metaphorically; a hungry ghost can never be satisfied.

Hungry ghost. The term popped into my mind unexpectedly this morning as I walked with the dogs through the woods, searching for signs of spring. I was, myself, hungry, gulping in a kelpy scent coming off the bay, a smell I associate with the open ocean. Salty, low-tide, far-away. After a day of sun and promise, this morning a smoky gray pall had greeted my eyes when I’d pulled back the curtains. No shadows. No bright patches. Cool, only 40 degrees, trees leafless, ground wet, fifty shades of brown, sullen. Spring, so corporeal yesterday, transformed into a ghost again.

Writing is like that. The hungry ghost craves inspiration. Yet it’s hit and missy, as Leithhauser puts it. Unreliable. There’s a key. There’s a padlock. Some days the key in your hand just won’t fit. Some days, inspired, words, true ones, flow from head to hand to page. Some days, dull words clomp, clad in cement boots. You sound so damn stilted. Years ago, daunted by my first writing retreat down in Sitka, a wise poet-friend said: “One good sentence a day. One sentence worth keeping. What if that were your goal?” One inspired sentence. A hungry ghost whispering, more. 

But inspiration comes unbidden, like the rare sighting of an owl or wolf in the woods. How many times have I walked the loop full of expectation – down the dirt road, a left turn at the dead spruce, a short walk along the wetland, a jump across the ditch, hands in the earth pulling me up the other side into the birch forest at the edge of the slough, stopping every twenty feet to scan for moose or coyotes or a bear – and saw nothing I hungered for. This morning I saw: in a copse of birches, the tree stand someone long ago had nailed up, collapsed. What did it mean? All the obvious metaphors drifted by, like dead leaves down the rivulets in the slough below. Ideas, inspiration. The support beams had rotted underneath, spilling the plywood sheet to the earth. Nothing more.

A writer is a hungry ghost. For a writer, a walk is never simply a walk. It’s a collection trip. It’s a beseeching sort of prayer. Inspire me. Shake me up out of this lethargy. Knife a hole out of this heavy sky. Wake me up. Teach me how to see. Tweet a first line in my ear.

And when the prayers go unanswered, we sit before the page anyway. We walk the same trail, over and over, laying down a muddy path through familiar woods, collecting what’s given, squirreling it away, using it later. Things are always falling in the woods. Last winter, a beautiful birch. A tree stand. One spruce tree in a grouping had died. I stood and puzzled at its rusty needled self. What went wrong?

There are two sides to the hungry ghost of writing, a useful one, and a destructive one. How many rituals do we devise, telling ourselves we must enact them in order to write? Time, a certain span of it. This pen. That notebook. Quote tacked to the wall above desk, stack of poetry books beside computer. Coffee made just so. Quiet. This place, that music. And when we do sit down to write, never enough pages. Never the right voice or word. And when we publish, never enough praise. Never enough attention. Ad nauseum. That hungry ghost is nauseous, of course, throat stretched tight, mouth wide, stomach gnawing its own insides raw.

Day of dank, exposed gray mudflats, drizzle, air almost particulate in its graininess and weight. Day inarticulate, brooding. Nothing green poking up out of the dead and fallen meadow grass. I followed the trail of a moose. Its dropping here and there were fresh, gleaming. I could see its prints in the potato patch. I think it’s a she, trying to find a place to bed down to give birth. I pocketed my observations, stopped to note the progress of the rhubarb nubs pushing up out of the earth. I remembered yellow birch leaves, edges burnt brown, mottling the surface of that plywood tree stand last fall, and all the falls before. 

And yet. The hungry ghost is also the best of us. The hungry ghost urges, tugs, niggles, nags. The hungry ghost drives us out the door, a journal in our pocket. It urges us to look, to pause, to listen to the wetland surging with snowmelt, to listen for our own voice buried deep as a scaly fiddlehead under a bed of leaf-rot. It urges us to write, and not always what we think we should be writing. What the hell does this mean, the fallen tree stand, the hidden moose, the trail I walk and walk, repetitively, leaving my boot prints. Bear witness to this life, begs the hungry ghost. Bear witness.

What is writing all about? Which hungry ghost do we feed? It is humbling to sit before the page each day. The page, like this gray, uninspiring sky, like this empty, waiting woods. It is humbling to strive to get perception translated into words, knowing we will never get it exactly right. To find that one inspired sentence. To wait, day after day, to cultivate patience in the midst of hunger.

When I teach a class, I sometimes begin by asking people the simple question: Why do you write? No one answers: for attention, for praise. They answer like people who’ve just staggered out of a desert and are asked “Why do you gulp water like that?” Thirsty ghost. Ignore it and you suffer.

And if we think it gets easier, this hungering and thirsting after words, here is what John McPhee wrote about first drafts in a letter to his daughter, who was struggling with writing: Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something –anything—as a first draft.

And then, and then, I swear to you, here at my kitchen table, laboring over this blog post, flinging broken tree stands and moose turds at my computer screen, plopped down in this same spot where I sit every day, a white blur catches my eye, a swooping something, and then I hear strange cries. I open the door, and the cries are loud now, bleating, beseeching, something in pain (you know what it is, the dying rabbit-baby squeal) and then a snowshoe hare suddenly bounds through the underbrush, and on a fallen tree, sits a blue-gray goshawk, baffled, looking this way, that, wondering how the hell that pealing, frantic, fearful beast escaped its grasp. What’s its ratio, I wonder, success to failure? No matter. Driven by hunger, the goshawk flies up into the trees, to begin the hunt again. 

I write to feed the hungry ghost, the one for whom inspiration, ever just out of reach, leaps like a self-saved rabbit through the trees. I write because it takes me underneath the mundane, the slog, the muck, the sleep-walk, the petty, the dull, the bored. I write because it gives me back my most-alive life.

Why do you do it? Why do you write? Tell me about your hungry ghost.