Things didn’t turn out the way we had them planned in Nashville the summer of 1985. At the US Diving Nationals qualifying meet, I missed the cut by a tenth of a point. Afterward I couldn’t help but think of Nancy Duty and her lost Olympic dreams. Jamie and I—we’d planned to drive to St. Louis for the national championships—decided to skip Missouri altogether and drive cross country to go backpacking along the Montana-Wyoming border near Beartooth Butte. Once on the road I couldn’t keep up my letter-writing effort with the woman back in Boston, and that all fell apart. I wouldn’t see her again until the Creeley reading at MIT.
I’d never known how much driving across America is like a beautiful dream. It’s as if you’re unconscious for four or five days as you surrender to the road, and you don’t so much forget how to live as learn to live anew. Driving like that, crossing mile marker after mile marker under the long skies, is a kind of happiness, a prosperity of sheer energy. But I also didn’t feel the happiness was mine. It was as if the happiness existed outside my body and I was stepping into it briefly and feeling some exalted transfiguration take place like a puzzle being decode—much as it happens during writing. The road would hum beneath the little Volkswagen Scirocco we were in and break the spell, but I could still feel whirrs and whispers in my ears.
We let the miles take us in. They’d crinkle and release. With the windows down, I’d lean against the door frame and feel the rush of light. The sky above would become a dome of wind. At night we’d sleep in the open air of a state campground, and the stars would dot my brain, stitching memory into projections about the future. Jamie and I were in the process of evolving from coach-and-athlete to friends on that trip. Sitting side by side in the car we seldom looked at each other but, taking turns driving, we would watch the hours of horizon and the blurting landscapes as if following the sketches of a painting or the billows of the ocean. A lot of the time we listened to cassettes of the music Jamie had on hand—J. J. Cale and Little Feat, Johnny Cash and the Stanley Brothers, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The music converted the trip into a light revision of daily life. We rehashed the failed competition over and over—you’d think if you get 8s and 9s on a front three-and-a-half, I kept saying, you’re going to make the cut—until somewhere around Sioux Falls when we had nothing more to say about it. And that was that.
Once we got past the Badlands in South Dakota, we dipped up and down the interstate until finally arriving somewhere south of Red Lodge. The big sky of Montana wasn’t so much full of promise as it was implicitly fleeting, and I understood the notion of fleetingness as much as I understood the meanings of those letters and the expression of a single dive. So Richard Hugo goes—
the end is limited by light, the final note
will trail off at the farthest point we see
Looking into the sky from the car on the highway, it was as if my identity were being stripped away with the size of it all. In front of me was a new life.
We hiked two straight days into the Shoshone National Forest and made base camp near a narrow lake. I like to think that Frank Stanford’s take on starting a fire at morning has something of what our morning fires were like too—
I got out of bed
I had the long handles on
It was cold
I threw some wood on the fire
I put the dime around my ankle
I put my boots on
I put a knife in the boot
One evening about dusk we were resting next to our small campfire. We were high above the back-country and heard tromping noises on a hill up behind us. We scampered in that direction to take a look even though the sun was starting to set in long and coppery lingering layers and orange-and-pink waves. Stars were already coming on directly above us too—“Non est ad astra mollis e terris via,” I half-whispered a line from Seneca I’d memorized in high school Latin to Jamie, pointing his attention upward at the stars. “There is no easy way from the earth to the stars,” I said. What we’d heard and found in a bright clearing was a herd of elk. We kept our distance. Watching them we both felt a little exalted, perhaps blessed. Another dozen elk trotted through, followed by five or six more, then three more, then seven or eight. Elk after elk for about twenty minutes continuously—and then I noticed the full moon now coming up big and fast in the east, just opposite where the light from the sunset was still waning in the west. The moonlight was casting a silver net over the narrow trees, forcing its way through the cracks between the branches.
We sat down on a boulder and looked at the moment beginning to overflow in front of us. The elk were moving through but not hurrying, just keeping pace, appearing before us and disappearing behind the trees again as if they were arriving and departing out of thin air, panting a little. The stars above us seemed tireless too, emerging like small bright heads of nails into the darkest part of the skies overhead. There were still glints of sunlight dappling the ground. I was feeling totally disarmed when suddenly I noticed in the far sky miles and miles to the north of us there was a lightning storm. It was roiling silently. The jags flashed and counter-flashed. It seemed as if the lightning was responding to the sun setting and the moonrise and the stars coming on and the elk in the clearing above the hill, and perhaps to Jamie and to me, too. If every shard of lightning far off in the north sky was a reminder that I’d be separated from the earth one day, I doubt I thought it at the time. And Philip Sidney says in Sonnet 63—
For late with heart most high, with eyes most low,
I crav’d the thing which ever she denies:
She lightning Love, displaying Venus’ skies
I watched it all with great curiosity and wished I knew the words to describe what was happening. Or at least the questions to ask.
But even if I had known what questions to ask in that moment, there would be too many answers for me to comprehend. Some kind of truth was being offered but it was an un-explorable truth, a mystery, like water, that no survey could completely map. None, but poetry, I started to think, years later, when I kept coming back to that experience in my mind. As John Haines says, in moments like that, no one—
comes to see me
but I hear outside
the scratching of claws,
the warm, inquisitive breath
The elk had moved on, and the moon was higher, smaller, and the sunlight all but gone. But that moment in the Shoshones was an introduction to freedom and danger. Neither of us talked on the way back to camp under the darkness of the trees. What could I have been thinking, I wonder? That if there is something more to witness, I may never discover it? That confusion is also a small harbor from life or love? That failure is inevitable? That death might be disappointing?
The next morning as I restarted the campfire, lost in the transformation still of what had happened the night before, and lost in time, too, the way you lose track of time in the wilderness and where everything I understood previously about my life and the expressions I had to describe them seemed impossible to recover, and the absences impossible to fill, and I could feel all of the wilderness even inside my nose and I could feel a knowledge come over me that I would always be able to breath that wilderness even when I was thousands of miles away, as if I were breathing hope—as Gerard Manley Hopkins says—
What the would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet
—right about then I suddenly realized my flight from Denver back to Houston was leaving in just two days. We packed up camp quickly and began to hike what we figured was a ten-hour downhill trek back to the trailhead where we’d left the car. If we were lucky, we could get to the car by nightfall and then drive all night down to Cheyenne then south to Denver and make it to the gate with a few minutes to spare. All the day long we kept a fast pace, jogging when we came to the steeper downhill switchbacks.
Even if that was the whole story, and it’s not, but even if it were, I would have taken so much from that experience on the mountain into my writing life, not least of which would be the idea that failure is not an unbearable shimmering and success is not an endless brightness. Our understandings of our experiences are sometimes shapeless. Like shadows, they move on. We might think we’d forgotten them entirely—and then we might, later in life, tread upon them again when a kind of uneven dust gets kicked up in our imaginations, dust fine as powder, but for a few hoof-prints still left behind like the spirit of a forgotten creature. This creature becomes a private archetype of forces we are unaware of. But they surround us always—even sitting in this room just now, writing this sentence, listening to the inscape rattle of my voice—just as they have with my forefathers so that we are always beset by temptation.
Meantime, hiking down to the trail, I noticed something worrisome in the offing. Behind us, to the north, in billowing layers in the skies, that thunderstorm from the night before was bearing down in our direction like a massive wave of disappointment. We didn’t have time to stop for breath all the day long, hiking and trotting downhill. When we made it safely to the trailhead parking lot just as darkness was coming on, the rain fell finally down too in a howling icy noise that seemed might never come to an end. And as I got behind the wheel and wiped the water from my face, I did not think of these lines by A. E. Housman but I sure I wished I had—
These are the thoughts I often think
As I stand gazing down
In act upon the cressy brink
To strip and dive and drown
Then I drove all night in a blinding rain. About an hour in Jamie fell asleep and I caught up to a semi-truck rolling ahead of us. Like a guide out of a magical labyrinth, that truck led me for another six hours straight from midnight until dawn. And when the truck went ten miles per hour around steep, slow, uphill curves of the highway so did I, keeping the little VW a few feet off as the rain poured down on us and sloshed in the wipers. When the semi-truck went 85 mph on the straightaways, I did too, punching it to keep his silent array of red rear lights in my blurry vision. And all night J. J. Cale was singing plaintive Oklahoma ballads inside the car—
Jody May, she got a dollar
Down the road you can hear her holler
“Get up Clyde, we got something to do
That old dog can sing the blues”
He don’t move, he don’t flinch
Clyde, he don’t move an inch
Just sit on the porch without no shoes
Picking his bass and singing the blues
Finally, in the first light of morning, when the semi-truck turned east at Cheyenne, the driver raised his left arm high out the window into the damp air and bid his two unknown traveling companions farewell. It was long wave, and then he hit the horn. I honked in reply and flashed my lights and turned the little world of our Volkswagen toward Denver.
Back in Houston I made a visit to Nancy at the JCC’s pool and told her I thought the following year would be my last as a diver. We were next to the gate that led onto the pool deck, and I could see the opening to Braes Bayou in the thick August air. She was taking diet pills, she said, and talking up a new prospect that had joined her team the year before. And because she had to get to the deck to coach a workout, we had a short goodbye. The following spring at the NCAA Conference Championships at Harvard’s Blodgett pool back in Boston, I qualified for finals on three meter, taking the last of eight spots. Finals consisted of just three dives. Aware this would be my last competition, Jamie pulled me aside and said, dive for the elk. Right, I said back, and climbing up the ladder to do my front three-and-a-half, I briefly thought of them emerging in waves as if out of a dream on the hilltop. And I thought of my months in Nashville too and my failure about nationals the summer before. That failure was full of arousal. I smoked that first dive for 7s. Underwater, I felt transfigured as if my body were one answer to the inconceivable wonder of living. Then I did a reverse two-and-a-half also for 7s. And finally for my reverse one-and-a-half somersaults with two-and-a-half twists, my favorite dive and my most difficult dive, I took off from the board and could sense the water fall out beneath me and get far away like a past life, giving me ample time to do the tricks. And I could sense the crowd in the stands peeling away too in a dry silence as my legs stretched out straight together and pointed sharply down to my toes. And I flipped around and twisted around once, twice, two-and-a-half times, and—says Larry Levis—it’s “all or nothing in this life / …Sweet nothing / Sweet, sweet nothing”—and I lined it up to see the water coming up fast. I was orienting myself through the air like a compass needle and then ripped through the water without a splash and stayed down underneath for as long as I could and felt the old life wash over me. I knew I hit the dive and didn’t care about the scores. By the time I emerged from underwater, the judges had tucked their scorecards away.
Even then I knew writing was next. When that decision to reorient my life came a few months later, I determined to use my years as a diver as a peculiar sort of model for a literary life—for training, for discipline, and for patience. I’d been a competitive athlete on and off for fifteen years and I knew it was time for me retire. So I was determined to give myself fifteen years writing poems before I’d even begin to evaluate whether to keep going.
Click to read: “From the Earth to the Stars Part One”.
“From the Earth to the Stars” is the seventh in a sequence of autobiographical portraits to be published on Poetry Wire on the subject of my beginnings as a writer.