Touching the Wild Shape of Poetry

Well, this essay was supposed to enter a contest, but it doesn’t meet the specifics. So I’ll share it with you instead!

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Last semester, I returned home after a long day of teaching and found a large flat box on my bed. I could just make out a logo in the top left corner, the stamp of a local organization that provides free braille materials. I quickly grabbed a pair of red-handled scissors and opened the box. I pulled out four massive braille volumes and one small print book. In large, rounded capital letters, the print book bore the title Seamus Heaney: Poems 1965-1975, and its 230 pages corresponded with the four thick volumes in the box.

I had requested the Heaney poems in braille because I needed the reading practice. Though I learned braille during high school, I preferred large print materials and text-to-speech software. I regularly employed braille for labeling household appliances, school notebooks, and makeup, but I did not do serious reading in braille. The only braille book in my possession was a piece of choral music, collecting dust on a forgotten shelf.

Then, in the summer of 2012, I discovered a need to reexamine braille. Working in a program for blind and visually impaired teenagers, my co-teacher and I led our reluctant pupils through extensive touch-typing exercises. As I examined each student’s progress, I noticed that the students who used braille frequently misspelled words when typing on a print keyboard. To address the issues, I initiated a braille spelling bee, asking one student to contract a word and the next to spell it out.

Though the contests helped students address incidental spelling confusion, I wanted a long-term solution. I questioned students and vision teachers about existing braille materials, hoping to find a system that re-oriented braille users to print spelling. I found none. I decided, then, to brush up my braille skills; I hoped to develop a system to guide braille users through the convoluted field of print spelling. I began a routine and pragmatic review of the braille contractions I had learned years before.

The braille users around me recommended that I order a familiar book in braille, and I thought that poetry would be a less daunting choice. I ordered Seamus Heaney’s North, a short collection of poems I adored. However, the women who brailled my book could only find a copy of his larger collection, which included North and three other short books. I found myself running my hands over the extra volumes in delight. I took North to work so that I could read it whenever I had free time. Because I teach several introductory composition courses and tutor writing, free time comes at unexpected moments. Seamus Heaney’s braille volume sits in my office, waiting for twenty extra minutes between classes. When this time appears, I treat it as a gift. I leave my office – a space I reserve for grading, student conferences, and other obligatory work tasks – and search for an amiable reading space.

When I am looking for a good place to read a print book, I must consider the lighting of my environment. Because I am extremely light-sensitive, I prefer to read in dimly lit areas. I am unable to read print in any bright environment. Despite my long-cherished desire to nestle against an old oak with a volume of Romantic poetry, I cannot do it. Behind my favorite dark sunglasses, I still see words as faint scribbles on pale pages.

Remarkably, the arrival of Heaney’s poems in braille has changed my reading experience. I have been able to carry the book into any environment. Whether I’m sitting by a sunny window or in a patch of sun on a garden bench, I can comfortably read the poems. While on campus, I can carry them deep into the nature trails or settle into the wide bench swing beside the small lake. Since my hands are not disturbed by the presence of light, I can enjoy the warm Florida sun, casting glaring rivulets across the wide, white pages.

Previously, I had approached braille as a means to an end – a step I had to take before my students’ grammar could improve. I prepared myself for hours of dedicated reading, annotation, and memorization. I welcomed the task in the service of good writing. I did not expect a serious confrontation from the neat rows of small dots, pushing themselves against my hands. Thinking that I had already met everything on the printed page, I could not predict the wild transformation that braille would bring.

Braille has given me a new kind of accessibility – not just access to a text, but the freedom to experience that text in its most fruitful setting. What once functioned as a utilitarian method for labeling everyday items has entirely altered the way I read, imagine, and compose poetry. Still learning, I read slowly and carefully, and this deliberate contemplation, this meticulous immersion, carries me deep inside each poem. I think all poetry, regardless of language, is meant for braille and outside reading. The tactile act of reading braille poetry, of imbibing its potent words through my fingertips, is a kind of meditation. To read poems in braille outside is to allow my whole body to celebrate the ability to feel.

My interactions with braille poetry have not changed the shape of my daily reading. I continue to use large print materials in digital and paper form. But braille offers me the freedom to take poetry to the places that feed my creativity and fire my imagination. With braille, I escape the prosaic routine chosen from visual necessity. Breathing deeply, I retrace the words of the original poet, against the sun and wind.

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Green Tea, Green Time

I am sitting in a heavy, hard-backed chair, at a small bistro table, a few feet away from the stairwell. Tucked into the corner of the elevated sidewalk that hugs my department building, the table provides an ideal place for listening to the sounds of the courtyard below, the passing students, and the occasional birds. My large dark blue schoolbag sits by my feet, my cane lies folded across the table’s lattice top, and my bright blue thermos stands in front of me. With its subtle hourglass shape and sturdy handle, the thermos holds about 20 ounces of green-ginger tea. The early autumn breeze flicks the dangling tea tag against the side of the thermos, a soft shff shff shff in the quiet afternoon.

I pop the top and enjoy the resonant click of the plastic lid. The tea is piping hot, surprisingly welcome on a warm, breezy afternoon. Green-ginger has become indispensable to me; its spicy, fragrant flavor soothes my sore throat and relaxes my body. It’s a good tea for contemplation.

As I place the thermos on the table, I wonder how soon I should return to my office. Can I justify a half hour of quiet meditation out here? I decide that I can. After all, the green time will make me more productive.

Since I’m wearing my sunglasses, I begin visually exploring my surroundings. I can clearly see the stairwell, the rails, and the elevator doors to my left. I look to the right, where something dark and scraggly nuzzles against the side of the sky, its shape uneven and coarse. It must be a tree. I turn my head, and the corners of another building come into focus. Strong right angles and a medium unknown color set off the building’s roof.

Both the tree and the roof draw my eyes to the contrasting sky, the pale, translucent backdrop that makes each separate piece of this landscape so visible to me. I tilt my head back so that the sky fills my entire visual field. Through the dark glasses, I see that the sky is comprised of two textures: something sheer and slightly darker and something puffy with a shiny brightness. The puffy material stretches across the sky in patches—or does the sheer, smooth material stretch across the opposing texture? One of these textures must be clouds, but I can’t decide for certain which one.

I think about how often we invoke clouds in literature, film, and other art—how often we reference clouds in everyday speech. I remember countless scenes in novels and movies where two people—friends or lovers—lie on their backs in the bright green grass and find significance in the sky.

To me, the sky looks like an optical illusion, the kind where two images exist inside one frame. Is it the single vase or the two faces? Do the clouds lie along the sky or does the sky push through the clouds?

Walking

“In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is–I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”
-Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”

Wearing my sunglasses, I descend the front stairs and Dad offers me his arm. Already, Ozzie pulls at the leash in Mom’s hand. We traverse the small sidewalk that bisects our front yard and reach the curb. “Curb alert!” Dad says cheerfully. He steps off the curb and waits for me to do the same. When we are both on the road, he turns to the right, and we begin the first lap.

Mom leads the stroll, holding Ozzie’s leash as he tries to investigate everything at once. Shortly, we arrive at a small grassy area, where Dad and I wait in the shade as Ozzie explores each tree and bush. When he is finished, we resume, following the curve of the road as it rounds the neighborhood. Dad narrates various characteristics of our surroundings, commenting on the state of the trees, the construction of the houses, and the weather. With my hand firmly wedged into the crook of his arm, I glide forward, appreciating his commentary. My cane scratches along the level pavement, and I don’t have to think about where we’re going. Relying on my guide, I can relax into ambulatory reflection.

I am excited by the certainty of my steps – the rush of confidence as each foot obeys the commands of proprioception – and the comforting sensation of warmth as my muscles come to attention. I feel the ground through my feet, and the invigorating pressure of each step dispels the drowsiness in my legs. A small breeze, not powerful enough to rustle the leaves, cools my face. The sun seems to exude less heat; the air is not oppressive. I can smell the beginnings of autumn – an unlikely aroma on a September day in Florida. For us, fall is rarely a season of dramatic foliage and crisp air, but some strange hint, some spicy undercurrent, recalls the inspiring nature of autumn afternoons.

In a remarkably short time, I notice how our strides have aligned. Dad and I easily fall into an identical pace, keeping an equal distance behind Ozzie and Mom. Our small pack seems cohesive, determined, and relaxed. Traveling with this group – social ambling – calms and comforts me. I am soothed not only by my own steps, but by the audible footfalls around me and the sound of Ozzie’s small legs persevering along the road.

I think about the nature of strolls and the muscles we use to create them.  I wonder how much of the stroll is made in the legs and how much of its emollience comes from the walking-place. Walking by myself, I rarely have the luxury of reflecting as I move; I deploy my cognitive resources and sensory observations in the task of traveling safely. Among the group, I can abdicate these duties and appreciate what I imagine Thoreau appreciated in his familiar woods and fields.

It takes some practice and more leisure to become the kind of walker Thoreau describes. It is not enough to engage in the mobile preparation, to possess the ability to move and direct your own course. I believe that Thoreau’s kind of walking, the spiritual experience of movement through the world, demands a level of sensory commitment and mental calm. You must know the path you’re traveling – you must be able to travel it with relative ease so that you can lose and find yourself in the walk. Without the foundation of sensory familiarity and muscle memory, the walk cannot take place.

If I say that I walk more with my mind than my body, I run the risk of dismissing my sensory, physical experiences of the world. So I will not say it. I think that the mind and body make the walk together, so that walking itself does not depend on legs, but on the idea of them. It depends on a person’s willingness to stroll by any means, to embody the mind’s need to rove.

Impossible autonomy

Some days I feel like a substandard ecopoet. I have only walked the UNF Nature Trails twice in my six years’ experience on this campus. Yet each time has brought forth the same conclusions, thoughts that have been steeping awhile and now must be given a voice.

The first occasion, according to the dark green diary I kept at the time, was on October 2, 2010. (I am relieved by my own meticulous journaling these past few years.) I walked the trails with Angel, and it was the first time I’d ever done so. I felt elated, ready to revel in the green quiet and the soft earthy breezes, ready to be transformed. Like Thoreau planting his beans at Walden, I was prepared to accept a series of transcendental epiphanies.

And other than the beauties that surrounded me – the piercing clarion of the bird calls (birds I couldn’t name by the way since they only sounded in my perception), the soft, changing terrain underfoot, the idle cicadas by the water’s edge, the wind’s amorphous timbre as it stirred leaves of different sizes – other than these things, I found myself with one thought.

My cane is utterly useless here.

I had my cane gripped tightly in my left hand, while my right was lodged firmly in the crook of Angel’s arm. Because it was a warm October day in Florida, sweat started to loosen my grip on both items—and still I clung to the cane. I clung to it as it skittered futilely over roots, swung upward out of my hand, and caught along fallen branches. I clung to that long tube of intuitive material even as it distorted the ground beneath me. So why didn’t I fly about, trip along, stumble, tumble down into the soft uneven ground as the cane told me to?

Because my right hand had a firm grip on reality. It curled around Angel’s arm, and so, as Angel lifted a foot to circumvent a troublesome root, the arm, capturing the movement of his body, responded, and my hand received the signal. Pick up your foot. And I did.

With silent fluidity, the gestures continued to tell me what my terrain looked like, where to lift my feet, where to shuffle forward, when to stop abruptly. The cane continued to bob in my left hand with near exaggerated efforts – as if to say, “Look at me! I am still useful! Trust me!” But its responses in this place were so confusing and inaccurate, I finally stopped swinging it before me and just dragged it along.

Perhaps to the sighted among my readers, this does not seem a very drastic gesture. How can I underscore the utter unconventionality of this abandonment of the cane? Maybe I could tell you that there are only 3 places I can think of where I don’t use a cane: 1) inside my house, 2) inside my apartment on campus, and 3) in my front yard. Everywhere else, that cane is in my hand, informing my reality. It’s my fifth limb and if, by some hellish chance, I forget to grab it, I feel as though I’ve had half my body surgically removed.

So when I walked the woods 18 months ago and decided to ignore what my cane was telling me, I thought that surely this was a fluke, a rare occurrence, and a testament to my companion’s excellent ability to guide me. And this is all true.

But I ventured into the trails again today, this time with Katie, and found that, as before, the cane was of no use. Again, all the information that helped me stay on my feet and move forward came to me through the movements of Katie’s body, through my sweaty grip on her smooth elbow. I noticed also that the woods had a sedative effect on my mind; the busy brain that would normally have been lamenting and correcting my misplaced feet had been muted. I glided along, feet feeling the roots, boardwalks, soft ground, cane bumping awkwardly against the steps I had not even traveled. At one point, the cane swung up and caught a step that I would not touch with my feet for several inches—that was disorienting. To feel the cane suspended in the air, alerting me to a future situation, made me think that in some ways, the cane in the woods is like a delirious time-traveler.

What does it mean that my cane is unfit to travel these trails? I have never harbored any delusions that my cane and the natural world get along perfectly—when I return from my very infrequent trips to the beach, I have to shake the sand out of the cane’s segments before it will fold or unfold smoothly again. I know that it is not made for all climates. The cold weather makes it stiff and the segments difficult to separate.

But the cane is a simultaneous symbol of disability and of autonomy. The cane and I make One Independent Blind Woman. The cane says, “I can travel where I want.”

And the cane is utterly useless there, in the trails, where I feel such a prevailing peacefulness and delight. What can it mean that my cane won’t let me access this small piece of paradise?

How can it be that a human guide is better than a cane? No! I refuse to accept that. It can’t be! It must be that the human offers me something different, not necessarily better. Just…different.

Unless I was never meant to be autonomous in the garish, glossy, tourist-brochure kind of way. Maybe autonomy, which eludes me in this natural setting, is not something I even want.