Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Out of the Willows

There’s a new ‘game’ going around Facebook these days in which one must go through and list the ten most influential books he or she has read. Each person is supposed to go through and tag a few more people, and whoever is tagged must, in turn, play the game. I haven’t been tagged in the game thus far, but it got me thinking about what my most influential books would be. It is a question I have asked myself before because during my time at Pacific, and in several situations since then, I have been asked what made me want to be a poet. I’ll say the general things all of us say. Things like, “I’ve always been a poet.” “I’ve always just paid attention to things.” “I hear these stories in my head, and when I write them down, they’re poems.” “I just love beauty and I want to bring it to the page.” And so on. But every poet has a different story, a different book, a different light shining on the water that made him or her see the world in a new, right way. For me, it was one book in particular.

It was that time in a kid’s life when one almost feels like a teenager—but not quite—and almost feels like a kid—but not quite. Our family received a lot of hand-me-downs for everything. This meant I got my older cousins’ and brother’s clothes a year or two after they went out of fashion (which suited me just fine), jewelry they didn’t want anymore (which I never wore), movies they got tired of (that I ignored or watched until they wore out), and boxes of books they no longer cared for. At the time, I had just lost my favorite book of all time, Snow Dog by Jim Kjelgaard, and I was slowly, but not completely, tiring of my red-covered collection of short stories, of which I have sadly forgotten the name.

My cousins had recently cleared out their bookshelves, they being beyond my particular in-between age and, therefore, stories of talking animals and fantastic lands were no longer acceptable to their public school friends and their teenage sensibilities. My brother and I sifted through the box to find anything we might want before our parents sent the box on to the church library or the salvation army store in town. I dug through books depicting animals in armor, sylvan scenes of elves in forests overgrown with large ferns and majestically elongated trees, men in buckskins riding across the prairie (those books I set aside for my own shelf), and I noticed a red book cover peeking out from under all the others. I had recently misplaced my book of short stories, and I decided I must have lent the book to my cousins. I grabbed the corner and tugged it out to put it back on my shelf.

It wasn’t my short stories; it was a smaller, slightly thicker book with water stains on the yellowing pages and wear to the corners and at the spine. A collections of creatures I couldn’t quite name—a badger, a frog, and some rodents—wandered about beneath a bright white title: The Wind in the Willows.

At that point, when I took the book from the box, I reminded myself that I was nearly beyond books about animals. I set it down. I picked it up. Set it down. Turned it over and read the author’s biography. And I’ll be honest: two things sold me. First, I found that Kenneth Grahame lived primarily in England. (If you know me at all, you’ll know that’s a major selling point.) Second, the weeping willow was my favorite tree; if someone was going to go on about willow trees for a couple hundred pages, it was at least worth a read.

I was a child of C.S. Lewis, of Elleston Trevor’s Glade series, of Jim Kjelgaard—of wanderers and forest wonder. Grahame didn’t disappoint. I identified with the sensitive, overdramatic Mole. I was in awe of the ever-resourceful and caring water Rat. I wandered in my forest, dreaming of meeting the mysterious Badger. And I, like every other character in the book, frequently had an urge to slap the selfish, changeable Toad.

But Grahame’s book was more to me than the stories. I had dabbled in poetry. I had scribbled off little bits of silly rhymes and more serious attempts to capture the world the way I saw it. But it was Grahame who made me see “it”. Never mind the fact that Ratty is a poet—in the grand scope of things, he mostly just dabbles; though, he did make me prick up my ears and listen.

It was late one afternoon, and I was reading my “new” book. I was a fast reader, but I didn’t know how fascinated I might be, so I was reading it a chapter at a time. At least, that’s how I remember it. I also remember a setting sun throwing golden light on the wall, but my bedroom faced east, so we’re all aware of the fallacies of remembrance. I was reading Chapter 7 – “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” Otter was worried because his son had run away and been gone for hours. Good friends that they were, Ratty and Mole hopped into Rat’s boat and rowed to the backwater to see if the little one, Portly, had gone swimming alone and was unable to swim back against the current. But when they stepped off the boat, they heard the most incredible, haunting music they had ever heard. It was more beautiful, tragic, and hopeful than the music of the river that Rat loved best. It drew them through the forest until they came to a stump upon which sat an enormous, wondrous beast playing a pan flute. Having read the Chronicles of Narnia, I knew the creature was a faun. I knew, before the characters knew, that the characters had met Pan. Little Portly was safe, curled up at the creature’s feet.

The wonder of the scene was partly the description; every detail was alive in the text. Another part of it was that Pan never said a word. He gazed down on them while he played his flute, and sometime during the course of the song and the sunrise, he was gone. The two friends took Portly back to Otter, but instead of going home, they were full of that fear and wonder they felt in Pan’s presence, and they wanted to hear his music again. They floated the rest of the day and night on the river, the water flowing so gently it could hardly be heard. Instead, they heard the music again as the wind blew through the willows on the riverbank. Ratty, eyes closed, told Mole it was a song: “Dance-music—the lilting sort that runs on without a stop—but with words in it, too—it passes into words and out of them again—I catch them at intervals—then it is dance-music once more, and then nothing but the reeds’ soft thin whispering.” The words come to him then, soft and quiet, fading in and out, but there just the same.

Grahame composed a poem through the reed song—a poem full of mystery that drew from the story and the details and called for a particular form of attention. Once he set the scene just-so, he let the world speak. That, I realize now, is what I’m listening for. Not that I believe in the old gods, I don’t. But if I listen long enough, I can hear stories and songs gathering in my thoughts. It’s not that nature “speaks to me,” but I have grown and fed my sense of wonder with tales of an interactive world, and my imagination is strong enough to hear my own songs and poems in the willows.

Grahame’s characters do not merely wander about listening to reeds without a care in the world. I love them because of how real he made them. They have hopes, and they have hopes dashed. They feel listless sometimes, as though they don’t belong. In this vein, the other chapter that stands out to me most is “Wayfarers All.” Summer is getting on, and the birds and field mice are chatting about relocating before the cold comes on. Rat doesn’t see the point of rushing off to other places. Sitting in his river house by the fire while the water rushes by is all he needs to be happy. The birds tell him there’s nothing like going off to see the warmth and the beauty of other places. When he asks why they bother to come back to the river, they tell him “in due time…we shall be homesick once more for quiet water-lilies swaying on the surface of an English stream. But to-day all that seems pale and thin and very far away. Just now our blood dances to other music.”

Rat feels restless, but not enough to be swayed, until, down on the road, he meets up with a Sea Rat that has been staying on a nearby farm for a few months. They duck into some shade for the Sea Rat to rest his tired feet. As they sit, the Sea Rat fills Ratty’s mind with visions of jewels and silks in seaports, of captain’s cabins, stormy seas, the sounds of chanties ringing through the hold late into the night. Ratty staggers home in a daze to pack, swayed by the intoxicating rhythm and images of the Sea Rat’s stories. He has planned to meet the Sea Rat on the road and go to the ocean with him.

Mole just happens to be home, and when Rat tells him goodbye, Mole, in shock, grabs his friend’s shoulders and “looking into his eyes saw that they were glazed and set and turned a streaked and shifting grey—not his friend’s eyes, but the eyes of some other animal!” Terrified, Mole pushes Rat into his arm chair and all but sits on him to make him stay there until Rat stops fighting, tries to explain himself, bursts into tears and cries for an hour, then, exhausted, falls asleep. When Mole looks in later, Rat is busily working on a new poem.

That image of Rat’s changed eyes has haunted me since I first read it. I’ve tried time and time again to put that interaction between the two rats into a poem, and I haven’t been able to do it. There is such a desolation of the character of Rat that I can’t help but wonder if he was ever quite himself again. And I wonder if, for a time, the Sea Rat had Ratty’s warm, brown eyes. I wonder if he sat down and put his feet in the river and listened to the willows’ song thinking he could stay there; that he could find adventure along the river bank. And maybe not. Maybe Grahame didn’t wonder about things like that. But I did, and I still wonder. And I still go back to that book to revisit all of those perceptions it awakened in me.

After that book, when I read Kjelgaard again, I could hear all of nature. I could hear the poetry in Snow Dog, “The snow spread long, shadowy fingers in the lee of every tiny rise.” I could feel the abandonment, loneliness, and happiness in The Horse and His Boy by Lewis. I could let the wind in the trees tell me stories, the few snowberries still clinging to their bushes spell out poems in Braille, the water tumble leaves across a palette of stones in a literal watercolor and see the painting.

The Wind in the Willows was not of course, the only thing that brought me to poetry, but it was a keyhole that gave me glimpses. My forest home, my books, my parents who are passionate about the beauty of and respect for nature, and my biblical studies inspired my sense of awe for what has been, as the wording goes, fearfully and wonderfully made; these things inspired my desire to capture it all in written words as vividly as the authors I love.