Poverty Creek Journal
(Tupelo Press, 2014)
An interesting question to attempt to wrestle with regardless of the inclination of your spiritual life is, “What’s the purpose of prayer?” Not of specific prayers: even if we’re not of a religious bent, most of us understand there are certain prayers taken up for certain things (mostly filable under gratitude or assistance, largely). But no, no: What’s the point of prayer—like, daily prayer? Those people who say prayers daily, nuns and the faithful, what is it they’re doing? Are they—the prayers—a matter of establishing some proximity to god, or some parochial yaya-getting-out, or what? What is prayer when it’s not a direct request for some sort of intercession, some answerable plea?
Questions like these arise in the reading of Tom Gardner’s book of essayish poetry things (they’re called “spiritual improvisations” on the book’s back, which goes a good distance) that track 2012—one entry per week for the year. The pieces are brief—one of them is two sentences, a few of them clock in at barely more than a page—and in their austerity they introduce and offer a vigorous awareness, a keen precision of noticing, that is to my knowledge unmatched in contemporary poetry (or fiction, for that matter). The journal’s realm is the book’s title: Poverty Creek is an actual place in Virginia where Tom runs (he’s been a runner for years, and not the going-for-a-jog sort but the does-the-Boston-marathon-with-regularity sort), and the pieces come to make up something akin to a wildly thickened, deepened, and complicated runner’s journal, considerations of poetry and spirit standing in for split times or pace. That said, you do not need to know one thing about poetry or running to savor the sustenance on offer: an awareness of bodies and their abilities and pains, and an awareness of words and their attempts and failures at capturing experience, seem all that is required.
Here’s the book’s first entry—January 6th, 2012:
Finishing up the run this morning, cresting the ridge above the pond into a sudden blinding sun reflecting off the ice. As if the light were alive, preparing to speak. And then turning ordinary again as I came down the ridge and the angle changed and the light pulled back into itself. My right calf is still a little stiff from where I strained it last week doing mile repeats in the cold. Just enough to not let me out of my body. When Emily Dickinson writes about Jacob, she never mentions his limp, even though that awareness of limits is everywhere in her work. Instead, she writes about his bewilderment—Cunning Jacob, refusing to let go until he had received a blessing and then suddenly realizing, as “Light swung . . . silver fleeces" across the "Hills beyond,” that he had been wrestling all night with God. He had seen God’s face and lived. The limp is what we take away. It means there must be a way back. It almost goes without saying.
Quite a bit of the book’s working and machinery is on evidence in this passage, from how Gardner’s language is simultaneously lush and precise, the words glancing along, drawing you into a very specific act and realm of noticing, to the quickness of his movement from landscape to poetry to the animating idea kerneled within the poetry, and the casual way in which what’s happening in and to his body (the stiff calf) attaches so simply and naturally not just to the Dickinson, but the light as well—this sudden blinding (as in nearly painful, as in straining from doing mile repeats) then returning to ordinariness (as in the body bearing its price). Plus there’s also, at entry’s end, this devastating multivalent flourish: “The limp is what we take away. It means there must be a way back.” The reader is left wondering to what the way back leads: to our moment of astonishment itself, wrestling with some great essence (god or beauty), demanding a blessing? Or a way back to the body once our interaction with or experience of some greater magnificence has passed? Gardner—mercifully, cleverly, intentionally, or all of the above—leaves it unspecified, and whatever ambiguity presents is minor compared with the awareness we move forward with: this is a book of lingerings, of experiences and their echoing through bodies.
The central event of Poverty Creek Journal is the death of Gardner’s brother John, the details of which the reader’s given in the February 29th entry: “My brother John died yesterday, of a heart attack in his sleep.” It’s the book’s eighth piece, meaning we’ve got by then a context through which this shattering’s going to process: there’s running, there’s poetry, there’s the world around, a world Gardner continually tries to see into, or feel into; to recognize. In the book’s fourth entry, he brings up the Elizabeth Bishop line “Heavens, I recognize the place,” and writes “Isn’t that what we hope for as we move through the world...[t]o recognize in a landscape a landscape you’ve moved through before[?]” This task is everything in Poverty Creek. Gardner’s pieces almost to a one attempt to get toward, or dance around, those shivery moments in which some deeper sense feels to be streaming through the grayscale of the day-to-day present—a task of course that’s plenty tough to engage in in our best, most-rested states, and through an emotional devastation, is much more complicated.
Plus, it’s not just that his brother has died. Here’s how Gardner puts it: “He was eighteen months younger than me, but up until we finished college we were pretty much the same person, although back then neither of us would have said so.” Among the large themes in Poverty Creek Journal—themes might be the wrong word, maybe processes approximates—is the way the physical carries the emotional, the spiritual, and the mental. That sounds obtuse. Here’s what I mean: he writes of his mother’s father and how, on her wedding day, he walked her down the aisle with “skin burnt black as the sky at night” because of a fire, an accident. Gardner connects the incident back to a feeling he has of “some uneasiness I can’t quite locate” because of a “dull ache” in his running, and, deeper, to his mom’s experience of seeing a plane crash in her backyard when she was a child. He writes—in one of the most moving things I’ve ever read—of his daughter, and it’s worth quoting from thoroughly:
Ten years ago, when Allison ran track, I’d hang over the fence and study her stride—her hands drifting up, her shoulders starting to hunch. When she slowed one night on the far dark turn, I knew what she was saving herself for. But that’s not it. Go deeper. There was something last night in the sound of the rain—Allison’s last race, trying to qualify for State. The look on her face when she was passed in the home stretch, as if some invisible current were sucking her out to sea. I’ve never known how to describe this. I suddenly found myself outside myself, no memory of being swept out and over the fence. Her heaving shoulders, the two of us crying, stock-still in the roar and foam. The shore at best a distant gleam, gulls in the wind, their voices high and torn.
I need to come clean here: my temptation after quoting that is to say, “Do you see?” and that temptation exists in me because it’s what Tom Gardner might say on quoting a passage of Stevens or Bishop or Dickinson in class—“Do you see?” I want to say “Do you see” and point out the ways Tom’s asking the reader to look at a moment, his daughter running track, but then also look at and acknowledge the way in which he cannot get it right—this moment, this feeling, and how he tells himself and us (like Bishop’s italicized Write it!) "Go deeper." He writes later, in the 47th entry, “But there’s something else to look at, Cavell says. The body does have its limits, and your fingers will eventually fumble everything you love. But go on and think of what you could build there, ‘sentence by shunning sentence,’ your words most alive where they’re most disappointed in themselves. Why else would you race? Why go back there, year after year?” He’s writing specifically about the Roanoke half marathon, but the passage hangs throughout the rest of the book just as well: this is a book of the body fumbling, of words failing, of carrying on and abiding not just through the risk of failing but the knowledge of the risk—likelihood, really—of failure, of not quite right.
That attempt at trying to get experience right, trying to articulate the daily miraculous, those moments of charge in which it feels profoundly as if the spirit’s moving through is what Tom is chasing. One of the ways that chase manifests for anyone involved in that pursuit is, of course, the daily practice of it. By establishing, say, a framework in which one writes every day from 5 - 7 a.m. or something, one can, maybe, with dilligence and effort and unearnable grace, say something or get at something that actually says what we need and most hope to say. Tom Gardner runs. This practice, this day-to-day almost banality of effort, of showing up, of preparing to receive what is, of practicing awareness: this is Poverty Creek Journal. I can’t imagine any of us so great at this skill to not need the monumental offering available in this shockingly thin book. Like some of the very greatest works—Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It—this is a book that asks you to read slower and slower to savor. Tom’s moves and developments, line to line, may seem jittery and leapily connective at first, but as you continue through the book, you’ll see they develop according to not a formula, but a routine. We feel or notice things. We want to connect what we feel or notice to deeper things, internal things that are awoken by the noticing. And how do we connect that work? How do we live the making of those connections? How do we bodily enact them?
There is a ghost here, too—Tom’s brother John, who comes in occasionally as a you Tom addresses. What’s most interesting is that, by book’s end, you know the identity of this you, and yet that second person’s just as general as anything. It’s John, certainly, but it’s also that spirit, that person, to whom we want to offer our best, truest, deeper self, the you by whom we hope most to be completely, fully seen. In this way does Poverty Creek Journal feel most like prayer to me: the purpose of prayer is prayer. The purpose of Tom’s decade of running through Poverty Creek, paying such monumental attention, trying to draw so much together, trying to be aware of the amazingly thin but overwhelmingly present connections between things, has been just that: the means are ends themselves. You feel this on reading the book, how Tom’s not making these connections to bring John back, or to transcend the twanged calf muscles, the cold, the inarticulability: these things simply are, and the fact that we now get to read them is the sort of pure gift that comes only a few times in a reader’s life.