Beyond Survival

My grandmother’s glass cabin, perched high in the Sandia Mountain Range of New Mexico, is a place I would visit each summer of my childhood without fail. This is my first time back since I left home for college, and with it, left childhood. Everything seems, although familiar, smaller as well–the drive up the mountain shorter, the cabin diminished, the ponds shallower and grasses shorter even than they were in my late adolescence.

New Mexico represents a spiritual home to me much more than the barren Sonoran desert where I spent the remaining eleven months of each formative year. As such, I wanted to bring my wife here more than anywhere. And I brought my adult self, too, as a bemused observer, along with a paperback copy of Christian Wiman’s collection of essays entitled Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.

This place is dense with evocative glimpses of earlier selves. I have been rifling through internal snapshots like an old-time flip book, hoping the rapid succession of annual impressions might create a trajectory of motion that I could identify as “my development.”

In grandma’s framed collections of family photos that line the walls, I could find no evidence of what I looked like toward the end of my visits here–dyed blue hair, dressed religiously in black punk rock band t-shirts, jeans, and combat boots, with a ring dangling from the center of my nose like a cartoon bull. Still, I recall her shock, and even sadness, the first time she encountered what must have been to her a stark transformation from one year’s grandson to the next.

“I turned out all right,” I reassured her, and my mother, over coffee this morning, “and it helps me to remember that when I see other young people acting strange.”

True, I was disenfranchised then. But I was not rebelling against a loving family or fortunately engaging public-school education; I remained a good son and student, at least until college. Instead, I was manifesting something deeper than hormones or a desire to fledge–a lapsarian sense of separateness that Wiman describes in some poets as “feeling themselves wrong.”

If I had read the first half of Ambition and Survival as a teenager, I would have no doubt simplified his arguments to the all-too-common idea that, if I wanted to be a poet, I should learn to be poor and travel a lot. Instead, I read Emerson growing up, who gave me the impression that all travelers were simply running from themselves. So I spent long hours in meditation and introspection, and felt superior in my small-town way.

Unlike Wiman, I never wanted to be a poet. I wanted instead, from an early age, to master myself, and went through form after form in pursuit of mastery–chess, archery, painting, fiction–trying to find “my thing,” the daimon that would carry me through to transcendence. Like all children, and especially teenagers, I never questioned my survival. Nearly all of my suffering was internal–me pitted against my own laziness, struggling to become “great.”

After the death of our infant son, I returned to poetry, not for any greatness, but out of necessity, discovering what Gregory Orr put succinctly in the title of his book: Poetry as Survival. In his central essay, Wiman touches not only on poetry as a survival skill, but also recognizes the need for poets to transcend this relationship–to bring about in their work “a peace that surpasses understanding,” that they might therefore bring momentary solace to readers as well. Orr likens this to the shamanic tradition in which the wounded become magic healers; Wiman’s Biblical reference to an otherworldly peace springs from his roots in Christian evangelism.

For my own part, I liken this greater impulse toward poetry to the Tibetan tradition of creating sand mandalas. These elaborate creations in colored sand are painstakingly rendered, regarded, contemplated, and then swept back into nothingness as a reminder of impermanence. Yet I imagine the experience for the mandala-maker, and know for myself as one fortunate enough to have once seen an enormous sand mandala on display, can be transformational.

I am grateful to Wiman for looking deeply into himself to bring this testament forward, even as it helps me to retrace my own steps on the journey from ambition to necessity, and beyond survival into a now deep-felt desire to give back what is mine to give into the affirming conversation of poetry.

“I turned out alright,” I repeat to myself here in the upstairs study, surrounded on three sides by views of blue-green pine trees, as another cloud drifts over the roof, spattering the sound of rain. I have the other half of Wiman’s book to get through, and plenty more to think about and write. But for now, I have sequestered myself here long enough. Time to head downstairs, to join the voices around the kitchen table, laughing.