David M. Harris – Four Poems
Crossing the High Desert
The air is thinner, colder
in the permanent winter. We struggle,
discrete with one goal,
to survive despite each other.
We do not know how wide
the desert is, or what we might find.
But carving cactus for food
and drink is easier with four
hands than two. We prowl the unmapped,
much-traveled land, seek a way
to the far boundary, whatever direction
that might be. Even if the end is separation,
we will find it only if we work together.
Not enough of us in that neighborhood
to make teams, but we had two patches
of woods straddling the road that led
maybe a quarter-mile from our corner
to the drive-in. Only a few acres, but enough
for a world of exploration. Unlike our own neat
yards, with careful trees and well-tended
aromatic roses. No one tended the woods.
If my father wanted firewood,
I could lead him to the windfalls.
Otherwise, none of the adults ventured
into our woods. Mostly the place was abandoned
except for me and maybe another kid,
never more than three of us,
poking around in the familiar wild.
The boggy smells, some fallen trees, wild blackberry canes,
and the remains of old kid-projects that might have been
meant as forts, or clubhouses, but forgotten
by some earlier generation of explorers, or by us.
Cars whizzing by on the raised highway, on the edge
of what we could choose not to hear.
Now the road passes a sports complex
on the way to extended parking for the shopping mall.
Our woods have vanished, from the Parkway
to the disappeared drive-in, familiar to the imagination,
respite from the neat imagined lives
of our parents.
She has a nice face, but not much to say.
I’m in a tiny, soundproof room, tied
by headphones to a computer. And she says,
“Ba.” Or is it “Ga?” She has only two syllables,
a few seconds in front of the camera
at the study’s birth, replayed on the screen
until all the data is gathered. “Ba,” she says.
Then, “Ga.” And she’s done. I must choose,
and hit the right key. With sound or silent,
in sync or not. Ga or ba? Someone researches
something, my responses part of the ocean
of data. Can I remember the list of words?
Can I count the flashes and beeps? Can I
identify ba and ga? The subjects will devote
minutes, quarter-hours, to staring at her
unrevealing face, at her recorded moments.
Ga or ba? In sync or not? Ba, plosive, is easy. Ga,
deep in the throat, is hard to see. I imagine
I can please the scientists with good scores,
although they do not care, as long as the data
can prove or disprove a thesis. Ga, ga. Ba, ba.
To keep the data pure, the thesis
is inscrutable to me, as to the intern
who administers the tests.
It might as well be ga, ba. All I can do
is strain for meaning in that face.
I came to you a published novelist,
a science fictioneer and fantasist,
and you respected my accomplishments
and arrogance. Just a few suggestions,
you said. Write a journal,
by hand, to get the feel
of pure writing again.
I learned to use dip pens,
the rhythm of dip and write and dip
again, the lightness of the nib on paper,
the permanence on the page,
and draft now with fountain pens,
in small, fine notebooks. You said,
“I’d like to see you write something
Put myself on the page? A lifetime
digging that hole, and now to trade
the shovel for the pen, depth for depth?
So here it is,
a note of thanks, two decades later,
after those words finally tipped me
off fiction’s stool, to write toward the light,
the know the light, to fall into poetry.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
When I lived in Manhattan, I found West 10th Street beautiful. Now, in rural Tennessee, I get as much pleasure from the belted Galloway cattle. Much of beauty seems to depend on what you get to see, on what is around you.
I’ve heard it said that when The Rite of Spring was first performed, most listeners found it horrible. Now it’s magnificent.
Similarly, Whitman’s poetry was reviled, and is now almost too gorgeous. And think of all the British poets laureate, or Pulitzer winners, whose names are utterly unfamiliar to us.
If there is a constancy to beauty, it lies in function, not content. So what, then, is that function?
Let’s set aside natural beauty or accidental beauty and worry about art. And let’s not be too snobbish about it. There is some beauty to be found in the Euphues, as there is in the paintings of Thomas Kinkade. We might not want to spend a lot of time with either, but there are pleasures to be found.
Where bad art fails, even when it has elements of beauty, is in teaching us about our world. The more abstract arts, such as music or much of modern art, may do this in ways that I cannot explain, but the narrative arts – fiction, film, and so on – do it very clearly. At the end of the story, someone is rewarded or punished. Certain ways of behaving or thinking are endorsed or condemned. Along the way, we are introduced to ways of thinking about, and dealing with, the universe.
Poetry does the same thing, except that it works (or tries to work) more directly on the perceptions and emotions than through narrative logic.
We aren’t likely to accept as great art something that promotes a view of the universe that we find loathsome. So good art, or created beauty, is something that advances or reinforces our ideas about how to function well (successfully, morally, whatever) in the human universe.
Plus, of course, it has to do so in an aesthetically pleasing fashion – if it’s unattractive, we won’t pay enough attention to learn from it.
Beauty, then, is the lure that draws us into what art can teach us.
Well, that’s a start, anyway.
Until 2003, David M. Harris had never lived more than fifty miles from New York City. Since then he has moved to Tennessee, married, acquired a daughter and a classic MG, and gotten serious about poetry. All these projects seem to be working out pretty well. His work has appeared in Pirene’s Fountain (and in First Water, the Best of Pirene’s Fountain anthology), Gargoyle, The Labletter, The Pedestal, and other places. His first collection of poetry, The Review Mirror, was published by Unsolicited Press in 2013. On Sunday mornings, at 11 AM Central time, he talks about poetry on WRFN-LP in Pasquo, TN (www.radiofreenashville.org).