Check out Meet the Press in Best American Poetry’s blog series, to read Karen Schubert’s interview of me. If you’re not familiar with this site, you have a lot of good blog-reading in store:
A couple weeks ago I received one of those manuscripts that make the tiny hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I love those moments, the ones where you simultaneously feel a sort of ecstasy at what you’re reading, and the painful wish that more of what you read—what you yourself write—was this shockingly good.
It’s berry season and all I seem to want to eat is blackberries, blueberries, small puckery sour strawberries from the local organic farm. If I took a bath in espresso every morning I’d still want more. What is it about summer that makes the body lean to extremes? We’ve already passed the longest daylight of the year, but being near the western edge of our time zone makes for a deliciously late sunset even in July. Now the news around here is full of a new curfew for two little business strips in town—no kids allowed unescorted by parent after 6 p.m. Nobody’s talking about a youth center or job programs. Just, get the teenagers off the street.
A photographer who’s doing a book with us has put that project on hold. I could have predicted this would happen when spring arrived. He’s too busy wandering the woods for extreme close-up shots of blooming things, photographs that reveal a life of flowers nearly pornographic in its innate sensuality. The book he’s got on tap here at the wompus is an original fairy tale woven through ice photos. He’s been known to get so engrossed in taking those shots, belly down inside a cave, that his jeans freeze to the ice and stone. We’ll get him working on our book again once the weather’s not so friendly. Meantime I’m scheming about what sort of book we might do with his flower photos. These shots, like film of the creatures who inhabit the deepest oceans, make me feel like I’m on an alien planet. So much mystery and sheer strangeness right under our noses.
This summer I’ve seen bats out in daylight. Sometimes, like the morning when I was walking the dog before the heat of the day, it’s just one lone bat cruising the bugs high up above. Sometimes it’s whole colonies out well before dusk. One very hot afternoon, I was parked near a wooded area when I noticed a thick swarm of bats feeding at treetop level. A violent downpour hit, and they kept right on feeding through most of it. I don’t know whether this is normal behavior or a harbinger of something. It seems odd. Normally when I see nocturnal animals out and about in daylight they are either ill or overpopulated and desperate for food—or both.
Three years ago a disheveled raccoon showed up just after lunch, foraging in a bag of garbage on our back porch. We were entertaining masses of guests that weekend for a family event. Rain was falling steadily and someone had tossed that round of garbage on a porch chair rather than carry it out to the can. We humans generate a lot of refuse when we celebrate. The raccoon and I locked eyes but it kept on rifling through the ripped bag. I found the raccoon later that night, huddled on a rafter in the garage. It growled when I came close. I didn’t know if it was sick or if it had babies nearby. I wanted to catch and release it but the animal control guy who brought a have-a-heart trap told me it’s illegal here, and when we found the raccoon trapped next morning, we had a vivid explanation of why. There was fur clouded all around the base of the cage and when the animal control fellow stepped close to lift the cage onto his truck, the raccoon lunged, snarling, at his hand. Wearing thick work gloves, he tilted the cage smartly and said over his shoulder, “Either distemper or rabies, don’t know which,” as he carried it off.
Bats can carry rabies. They don’t harbor it just in saliva, like most animals. They ooze it from all their pores. If a bat brushes you with its wing you’re as much at risk of rabies as if a raccoon bites you. Emergency room doctors will give the whole rabies shots series, if you even say you woke up to find a bat in your bedroom. But I don’t think these day-feeding bats are ill. Their behavior seems otherwise normal.
Symbolic interpretations of animal sightings, by Ted Stevens (Animal-Speak) and others, describe bat as the animal who asks us to stop and reorient. To surrender to the transformative moment, a death and rebirth to a new way of doing things. With its usual penchant for bodily metaphor my physical self provided me this month with a resurgence of vertigo. Full-blown vertigo is remarkably disabling. Most of mine has been milder, like this. Enough to force me into stillness more often than is my way. It’s strangely draining, too, as if the body is working overtime to reconcile what the mind tells it should be happening, against the physical sensation of rotational motion.
We live in a pivotal historic moment. Some of what I do at the wompus is my attempt to rise to that moment, to take responsibility as a citizen. Sometimes we do that with forthright political speech and action, and sometimes we do it by honoring art and its inherent transgressive, transformative potential.
When I stumble onto writing that embodies some kind of opening unsuspected by the conscious mind, it’s a kind of homecoming to the planet we truly inhabit—not the Disney-fied world we misapprehend—but the genuine article, rife with mysteriously compelling creatures we’ve scarcely glimpsed. Reading this new manuscript I had that chill of homecoming, of fresh amazement. I had a chilling glimpse into who we are, and that tingle of optimism I feel when human beings create powerful works of art.