By Debra Kang Dean, Spalding School of Writing Poetry Faculty
For any circuit the electrical current is directly proportional to the voltage and is inversely proportional to the resistance.
As a consequence of my bewilderingly high scores in the electronics section of the battery of tests I had to take before enlisting in the Air Force, I was recruited into the field of ground radio repair. It turned out to be a poor match since I never really got beyond being able to read schematics; I console myself by believing that one need also have mechanical sense to do well, and my scores on that part of the test had been dismal.
After I’d made it through tech school and was stationed in Texas, on a slow day at the shop, one of the guys began explaining electricity in a language I could actually understand. Think of the current as a stream of zingers, he said. When they hit the resistor, it slows them down. With a capacitor, they get all bunched up on one side until the load is catapulted to the other side. A light bulb went on: I was able to figure out what the words and symbols meant.
Although I’ve thought of a poem as an act of attention for a long time, I’ve also come to think of the poem as an act of resistance, time being the current that passes around and through it. Say a poem is like a boulder in a stream, a self-contained object that alters but does not necessarily change the general direction of the forces around it. It withstands them.
In 1978, sculptor David Nash fashioned a boulder from part of a tree that had to be taken down in North Wales, then pushed it into a nearby stream, where it seemed to have wedged itself fast under a waterfall. Nash assumed it would stay put. But it didn’t, and so he began tracking and sometimes assisting its movement for twenty-five years until it disappeared, presumably having made its way to the Atlantic. But then, apparently, it resurfaced in 2009. That wooden boulder offers a time-lapse glimpse, a long view in the wake of a stream of human and natural disasters that reveals the mutability and fragility of things we looked to for evidence of permanence. It challenges so many of the old hopes and maybe renews a few, too.
As metaphor, that wooden boulder reminds us that a poem is a made thing, an action, proceeding from within, that can sometimes assume a life of its own. Rather than a glimpse of the eternal, we are made more mindful of the flow of time; we see it in the erosion and displacement of this wooden semblance of a boulder; it seems to say, Question what you take, as a student once wrote, “for granite.”
What is true of the poem is true of the line: the line as a unit of attention and as a unit of resistance. “How do you know?” I asked one of my teachers about breaking the lines in a free-verse poem. His face lit up when he answered, “You just know,” a response that made sense coming from a fisherman.
Say a poem is a fish. One practices to develop a feel for when to pay out the line and when to reel it in. And say each fish is a unique source of energy. After casting and then setting the hook, one learns over time how to merge with and respond to the momentum and weight the line carries so that the fish doesn’t get loose.
But there is also another way of fishing and thinking about fishing that takes us beyond the line and into form and meaning. Chuang-tzu describes it this way:
The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. . . . Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?
Elizabeth Bishop’s phrase “a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration” describes for me the pleasure in writing: wholly absorbed in the making, it is myself I forget. With the utterance “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow,” the penultimate line of her poem “The Fish,” I know I am in presence of someone who has gotten the fish and leaves words, not the world, behind.
In an age of the imperative mood—Get up to speed! Forget it! Do something!—just to sit and think, to observe without calculation, can seem self-indulgent, “useless” by conventional standards. Whether one writes or does not write through such intervals, invisibly, a current still runs through it. Although one may have a loose connection to the voltage — whatever its source — something is happening. In the writing is a visible trace of the level of resistance, and it has everything and nothing to do with the poems yet to come. During such periods, I, for one, have sometimes been caught in my own trap, which is, I think, the opposite of self-forgetting.
Maybe during such periods, it might be useful to ask yourself, What are you waiting for? not as a call to action, but as an invitation to reflect, a prompt, a way of keeping alive the connection.
Debra Kang Dean is the author of five collections of poetry, the most recent of which are Totem: America (2018) from Tiger Bark Press and Fugitive Blues (2014), which won Moon City Press’s Blue Moon Chapbook Contest. She was raised in Hawai’i and lives in Bloomington, Indiana.