After I left Boston for Vermont I thought that now, at last, I would have my own life. I felt like a man who goes to Europe to find himself. But instead I was going into the north woods. Fewer than forty people lived in Brownsville at the foot of Mount Ascutney when Giff and I leased a small house on a hundred acres in the summer of 1986 and took a couple of teaching jobs in the public schools. I had a romantic feeling about moving to Brownsville. Like Henry David Thoreau’s travels in Concord, Massachusetts, I was intent to travel widely in Brownsville. I was intent to have my discoveries, to learn “by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” I too went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately—
to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
Going to Vermont I saw myself as someone who was leaning into his youth. I wanted to be at the beginnings of something—and I could hardly imagine what a life would be like without such an ambition. To someone who hasn’t lived like that it’s almost impossible to describe what it’s like.
Brownsville was filled with fortunes. There were the natural delights of every season and to every plant and tree and blade of grass. Each curving dirt road or long blacktop was an invitation to meander. The old hills and fields longed for nothing in particular, and the crooked stone walls held onto some broken steadiness of standing still. The walls seemed to have no memory of the farm they were meant to surround even. And the skies were usually full of wind that carried with it a loneliness that felt familiar. The wind came to me and turned back and came again like the birds or the foliage or remembering the right way home. For a time every fence post brought me to some new emotion. As would the first buds on the apple trees, passing nights with a slender moon, red and gold leaves unveiling a skeleton of a tree against the coming weather, the blurring of autumn colors into long snows, then the longer nights where the fields crawled into a bright freeze, and then a day and another of heavy snow, and days more of the passing whiteness. And the air smelling of woodsmoke.
Anatole Broyard says that to look back at one’s youth is like looking back at some “medieval town in France or Italy and trying to visualize the life of its inhabitants in the thirteenth century.” You can remember only isolated, unexpected, uninterrupted images. My first efforts to write in Vermont involved learning how to split open my consciousness. I was still one person, but I felt I had to open myself in order to get around whatever I’d always felt forbidden to do. To get around how I might censor myself or punish myself for thinking and feeling. I felt as if I had fractures in my unconsciousness and that each zone of my self had some difficult urge.
I set up a writing desk in the back room overlooking the desolate but also charming acres of field and woods so deep beyond my vision I might as well have been back in the Pale of Settlement in Russia before my great-grandfather Harry Borg came to America. My view now was the dappled stone hills sloping toward the house in velvet, green waves. At night the stars would dot my imagination, stitching together words I longed to write down. Nothing can tell you what it was like to be so alone as a writer. And to start writing I knew I had to be alone. Not that I was entirely alone. Moving to Vermont with Giff gave us years of new adventures, not the least of which was our experiences with the Ralph the town constable—who was built like a retired left tackle, a kind of barn-sized ex-marine—chased us off the only road in town our first week there in the early fall because we were throwing a frisbee. “No throwing objects across the highway,” he said from behind a cracked window in his vehicle. “Even to each other?” we asked. But he won us over later in the springtime on town hall meeting day when he requested a bulletproof vest. How many times, someone asked, have you been in a life-threatening situation, Ralph, in the decades you’ve been constable. Ralph approached the microphone near the stage, hitched up his belt and kind of sucked in his stomach, said, “Only takes once,” before we all voted, unanimously, to give him his bulletproof vest.
But to become a writer I needed at least to learn about my own superstitions. I needed space in the house to sketch with words. I needed to commit heresies. And those acts had to feel pleasurable. At first the writing was clumsy, tormented and hair-raising. The very idea of writing was a physical pleasure as much as it was a psychic one. It was like discovering another person’s body for the first time, naked and striking and flowing in time. I was hungry for archetypal fantasies as much as sexual ones. My sense of myself as a physical being aware of the cadences and idioms of my body had been a long chain of events that led to my arrival at that desk.
To do so, I can see now, I had to live in a distant place like Route 44 in Brownsville in the county of Windsor. I had to live far removed from the bright streets of my Texas upbringing. It was like I was taking revenge against my life. I might as well have been living in a foreign movie much less a foreign country. Still there had to be affection and love, too. Word by word, phrase by phrase, line by line, I was un-despairing myself into the love of writing poems. Which was, for me then, like the love of love itself. Like most beginning writers I hadn’t learned how to translate boredom or desire. I hadn’t learned how to just be with words, to exist near poems with a high degree of comfort with uncertainty. My sense of formality, learned in my studies of poetry in college as much as in my private readings, made it difficult for me to be natural in a poem. For awhile I was just acting in my poems. I was guilty about that, too, like I was using models to dress up into my own consciousness. I hadn’t realized yet how elemental imitation was. And so I was constantly disappointed in what I was able to write and say.
I suppose what I was searching for and not finding, perhaps lacking, was how to undress as a writer. And then how to dress in the conscience that was my inheritance. My poems were a kind of wardrobe that was startlingly unfamiliar. But all along I knew I was supposed to be trying to strip the clothing off. I would assemble and disassemble my poems. I would cut up stanzas, literally cut them up with scissors into strips and try to rewrite the strips. Dozens and dozens of little strips of paper littered my desk that offered me, in that Vermont room, a view out onto the watery-like acres of lapsed farmland and stands of trees. The scraps of paper lay on the desk like marooned houseboats piled up alongside a river.
It is almost impossible for people who don’t write to understand how much gratification I took from all that failure. When I started to write I only knew how to make guttural sounds, and these I felt I was copying from the past. Style and idiosyncratic little maneuvers I used in place of honest thought and feeling. I disassociated my inner life from the skills I was carving out from other poets in the books I kept at my desk. They gave me their most intense, unmitigated secrets, and I spilled them into my repressed poems. So I would plead with my poems to open up to me. And I could hear them pleading back to me to be patient. I was lit up with lust for my writing. I was practically lecherous, enraptured, ravenous. In the process of pleading with my poems, I thought I was trying to present or reveal a better person. That my interior world was better than who I was as a man in the living world. If not better, then purer. What an effort it took! And how willingly and freely I made it.
I remember one night, a frozen February night, alone in the house, and the snow falling for hours, I was writing in the back room in the darkness with a single lamp shining over my desk. I was writing as if I were running in a straight line into a dream, running for miles and miles even as the snow fell. My energy that night was limitless—a joyous, unspent energy that was created out of writing. I felt covered in doubt, of course, but ennobled too. On my desk was a passage by William Wordsworth from the Two-Part Prelude. It was a passage I understood that generations of poets had underlined before me, and so it made me feel connected to the arc of poetry in English:
I might advert
To numerous accidents in flood or field,
Quarry or moor, or ‘mid the winter snows,
Distresses and disasters, tragic facts
Of rural history that impressed my mind
With images, to which in following years
Far other feelings were attached, with forms
That yet exist with independent life
And, like their archetypes, know no decay.
There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct pre-eminence retain
A fructifying virtue, whence, depressed
By trivial occupations and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
(Especially the imaginative power)
Are nourished, and invisibly repaired.
I longed for that kind of nourishment, to have my mind impressed with life. I wrote only with this aspect in mind without concern for sense or arrangement. Writing like this was almost better than later when I was able to explain to myself what it was I had in mind to do. It was an extreme form of inspiration. Perhaps writing is most pleasurable when it preserves some of that unknowableness that you feel in the beginning, when you’re a little frightened and jubilant and fired up with your absurd, quixotic love of words and the white spaces between them, love of the physical formation of the letters themselves, and you can feel released from the living world.
Writing always went badly when I tried to define the terms of the moment: what was this poem going to mean and why was I writing it? And because I never knew the answers to those questions, I would try to make them up. And so my writing would begin with a lie. As I pressed up against my ideas of writing, as I felt its fevers and shuddered against its glow, the literary overtook the honest. But then I would carry the images and words from the poems with me everywhere into my daily life as if I were responsible for carrying civilization. My little metaphors were always on my mind. Each one a new object I hauled all over the days and nights like an ornament. But I didn’t know what to do with them so I felt like I needed to look away. Then I would peek back at them like a voyeur of my own imagination.
I used to imagine that my poems would then apologize to me for not living up to my expectations. Their lines too long. Their words too Latinate. Their metaphors too thin or too fat. Their meanings too acrid or furtive, insidious or guileless. And so I wavered around my poems. I hovered over them. I read them aloud, as if I were talking to myself, mumbling, syllable by syllable, the doomed words keeping me awake, puncturing the silence of the woods. Counting the syllables on my fingers and saying the words out loud, I was like a man in a house talking to himself in a language it seemed no one would ever understand. But then one poem began to stand out. It was in the springtime. All this writing was, it seemed to me at least, beginning to enter a new kind of idiosyncrasy. I was starting to understand the bone structures of a poem. This one poem had an aquatic vibrancy to it. I could hear it in my heart for days separate from other poems, separate from other events in my life, as if it were lapping against a shore nearby. The poem was like an easy tide coming in and out of being. And then the poem began to get away. It started to become relentlessly rhetorical and began to float away entirely.
In the zone of time that the poem began to depart from me, what I was left with was a sad silence. At first I was dogged about it and then sullen. Followed by hopefulness, discretion, and then a plain silence of curiousness. The silence got colder like a burbling stream. It was the kind of silence that can depress a writer. I did everything I could to avoid it. But the silence didn’t go away and yet I was determined not to be judged by it. Still, it vibrated in me. And there was nothing I could do to let go of it all. Surely this is what restlessness means for a writer. An inability to become natural and relaxed with the language, and so nothing could survive.
But then something broke. You could say the soul of the poem arrived. It had been outside the poem. And so I drove back to the place a few towns over where the impulse to write that poem had first taken hold of me. It was a little inconvenient since the source of the poem was a small cluster of flowers I’d seen up the road fifteen miles or more away. The likelihood of the flowers still being there was small. What I’d seen was my first mountain laurel of the springtime—miniature white umbrella petals with static, pink strips. I hadn’t been looking for anything at all when I’d noticed them before, and for a time I was just confused by it. But I felt an excitement over the discovery, and then a tension, and it was hard to differentiate the two feelings from each other. It was like watching waves somersault into the shoreline from a distance, and trying to distinguish each wave, like words, from the next.
But when I arrived at the spot the laurel was gone. I wandered around by the road as if on a hunt for something that might be like the flower, charming and pink. I was extremely alert, and there was something deeply graceful in my looking for the old inspiration, something satisfying really. It felt like I was in the spirit of recollection. Everything about it, moment to moment, was familiar, tangible, pregnant, fructifying. Nothing about the moment was routine. The disturbances of my past were like a dying bird. Right then the poem I was after became a kind of embodiment of significance. I wrote something while standing on the side of the road, just a few lines as a metaphor of my experience—
I found a chimney swift by mountain laurel along the road
Dying. I tried to shake a breath out of the beak but no
Air was left. What remained
These lines would become the makings for the first poem I published. It was as if I was learning about myself that, in some mysterious way, words had never been static things for me. I moved through them physically. Metaphysically, they moved through me. I wrote them down in the present moment—in a notebook, at my desk—and yet doing so let me travel to something hidden like some unknown future. The reason words offer themselves to this kind of experience so easily rests in the physical nature of phrases and clauses, lines and sentences and stanzas. To write is to uncover, to recover, what the words are hiding. The immediate shapes of letters are like a thicket into a nearby woods. And beyond every thicket of words I might select in order to construct a poem, beyond every thicket of phrases or stanzas, are the ghosts and shadows of all those poems I did not.
But first I had to drive home and sit down at the desk and type up my lines for the poem. When I was done and had placed the paper with the poem on it in a drawer, I leaned back from the desk a little. No one was around. The early afternoon sunlight seemed altogether old-fashioned. The hills and wood in the back of the house survived there like a kind of continuous life, the shadows preserving some ancient memory of shoemakers and tailors, of gathering in a distant town to shop for salt and sugar and matches and kerosene, of waiting for the peddler to arrive from over the hilltop with his wagon of used rags and second-hand suits and silver pots and pans. I wonder what I could possibly have been thinking at that moment? That decisions taken privately begin with alertness to pain and suffering? That my ambition to write meant I wasn’t trying to understand the meaning of life but just to experience moments of my existence? That before I took up the journey to write I had to believe that to write meant I was willing to make changes in my life as a result of becoming a writer? That I knew writing might be bad for me, even dangerous? That to change my life I would have to change my knowledge of language? That to become a writer meant asking less of the world, not more? I leaned forward again and reached over to the desk to pick up a strip of paper with a few stray lines on it. The paper was about the size of a shirt tag. I crossed out a word and then another so that I could draw myself deeper into the depths of the words. It was like I could taste the blue ink.
“The Pale of Vermont” is the sixteenth in a sequence of autobiographical portraits published on Poetry Wire on the subject of my beginnings as a writer.