Guest Post, Elizabeth Bradfield: In Praise of Jackalopes and Secret Agents

Elizabeth Bradfield

Secret agent in the field

Sometimes, on an airplane, I wonder if the person beside me thinks I’m a pathological liar after they ask, “What do you do?” and I begin to answer.  Or fumble toward answering.

Sometimes I want to lie.

Do you lie?

Sometimes I do.

By omission, if nothing else.  Too many answers when they want one.  I work on ships.  I am run a press.  I teach.  I do website design. And then the real answer, which to many is strange and either provokes awkward silence or too many questions: I am a poet and a naturalist.

At the core of my being, that reply rings and resounds.  Poet and naturalist are callings I heed.  Passions I am grateful to follow.  They are ways of moving through the world.  Words for how I navigate.  They are not careers.

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A career is paystubs and (hopefully) promotions.  It is marked progress or at least marked time.  It is commerce.

Being a naturalist is not commerce. It is carefully observing the world without humans at its center.  You might get paid to lead a walk or give a talk, but being a naturalist constitutes more than that calendared moment.  Being a poet is the same.

Poetry is not commerce. Sometimes, a little money might come from a poem.  Sometimes.  A little.  But not often.

And that is our freedom, as poets.  The poems won’t pay the rent.  Their value is reckoned differently.  Even after they go out into the world, they are ours.  And we can allow whim and art and passion to make them.  For most poets, there is no “brand” to protect for market-driven reasons, a narrowing of expression which would hinder our making with self-consciousness.  The exploration and the experimentation of each new poem is the thing that makes us poets.

Career: v. move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way in a specified direction. “The car careered across the road and went through a hedge.”

If you’re like me, you’d probably say “careened.”  The car careened around a corner.

In North America, that’s become an acceptable usage of the verb.  But to careen is more truly to turn (a ship) on its side for cleaning, caulking, or repair.  Where I live, we see ships careened in the summer.  Wooden hulks coaxed to float by annual patching.

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A boat out of the water is a vulnerable and strange thing.  It keens with the weight of its careening.  It does more than list.  It leans.  And it leans hard—maybe against a piling driven into the sand to hold it upright when the water pulls away.

Meander, when I was younger, was one of my favorite words.  I loved the way my mouth had to work around it.  Now, it sounds a little whiny to me, mewling, and I don’t use it in poems.

I would be careened without poems, without the deliberate observation, the delighted surprise that springs from being open to what emerges, that comes from both writing and being a naturalist.  I would lean and break.  I would be a hulk on the shore.

I career between these selves, these lives.

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Odd hybrids have always held power.  Minotaur, selkie, siyokoy, Anubis, angel, jackalope.

“In the 1930s, Douglas Herrick and his brother, hunters with taxidermy skills, popularized the American jackalope by grafting deer antlers onto a jackrabbit carcass and selling the combination to a local hotel in Douglas, Wyoming.”

Praise the jackalope.  Praise the strange beauty of two lives deliberately brought together.  And the secrets and omissions that conjoining must necessarily entail.

Secrets are held within us, alive but invisible.  Some, of course, can be horrible and dangerous.  But not all.  Some fuel us.

When I am speaking as a poet, talking to students about image or line, the secret of my naturalist life pulses within me.  I am comforted by its warmth.  My shoulders hold an echo of the weight of my binocular strap and my eyes a squint of light on water.  I need the power of that other, more physical life to buoy me when I flounder in the world of words.

When I am working as a naturalist, searching for animals or coaxing people to bend down and look at feeding barnacles, poems sing in me. Lines by other poets, phrases that might become a poem of my own. I don’t share them.  I joke with the crew, drive the boat, do head-counts, take data.  I don’t want to talk about writing poems.  I want that buzz in my pocket, that secret gathering power in its unspoken form.

Sometimes, though, shuttling between poet-self and naturalist-self leaves me disoriented.  As if I’m too much in limbo, liminal, always becoming and never there.

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Dedicating oneself to two worlds can mean slower progress in each.  There is a benefit to laser focus, to sustained and dedicated effort in one field.  But not all of us are wired for that.  Some of us struggle and itch if we have to offer only one answer to the question, “What do you do?”

I want to honor the power and necessity of that non-singularity.  The energy of that pendulum swing between ways of seeing, ways of engaging.  Poetry and plumbing.  Poetry and psychoanalysis.  Poetry and parenthood.

Many writers (myself included, at least partly, for the past four years) earn a living by teaching writing.  But not all writers are in the academy, and not all writers want to be in the academy.  Some hold writing apart from whatever they do to make money, keep it separate from their working lives, free to range and explore unseen by supervisors or colleagues.  Free to rebel and speak against as well as for.

It’s harder, sometimes, to find these writers.  It’s harder for them to take time to travel and give readings; they don’t have students who go out and share their work.  But their books are out there to be found. Their voices sing.

Writers who have wandered, whether it’s into teaching or doctoring or carpentry, know that I claim you as kin.  We won’t have “careers” as writers, but we will career, and the energy our non-writing life—its vocabulary and systems and specific conundrums—will make the words we explore vital and strange. We will have lives as writers.  As jackalopes, as secret agents of words.

Guest Blog Post, Elizabeth Bradfield: Here/Now/There/Words

Elizabeth Bradfield I’m on a sailboat, traveling north from Mystic, Connectictut, reading the Odyssey.  I’m on the boat because a friend asked for help (and I love boats, miss boats, miss the essence of myself that enlivens upon them).  I’m reading Homer because I’m mentoring a low-residency MFA student, and we’re exploring on “the long poem” (and I haven’t read Homer since I was an undergraduate, and I love boats).

It’s day two of our sail.  There are four of us aboard.  It’s spring.  Cool on the ocean, lilacs blooming on land.  It’s morning. We’re having coffee before leaving Cuttyhunk Island.  Common eiders moan in the harbor, a crèche of chicks following three females (they nest here?  Holy shit.  They nest here.  This is not in the books.).  Oystercatchers cry overhead, pairs scribing the early sky.

My friend asks me if I’ve read Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar.  It’s just the two of us on board.  The others—her girlfriend, her girlfriend’s father—have taken a morning stroll.  Yes, I’ve read it… but it’s been years.  I can’t dredge up a single thing.  In the book, she says, past lives speak.

The book she’s reading is about past lives and being in the present.  She is a healer.  She is a seeker.  All lives, she says, are also with us in this very moment.  I am woefully untuned to her world, but I’m reading.  I’m reading of sailboats in the Mediterranean while I’m on a sailboat.

I turn a page. Odysseus is sharpening a stick to thrust into the eye of the Cyclops.  It’s gory.  The boat.  The wine-dark sea.  The Westwind Odysseus wants to take him home….

We’d welcome it.  We’d welcome any breeze other than one on the nose, because it’d let us sail instead of use the engine as we head north to my home.  I am heading home.  To the tip of Cape Cod.  Odysseus is trying to head home, too.  He’s not making very fast progress.

My friend is laughing.  I am laughing.  She is reading a book about being in the present, and she can’t concentrate because… well, because it’s a beautiful morning.  She’d rather be in the present than read about being in the present.

When she talks about being in the moment, about all those pasts converging, David Byrne’s lyrics come to mind.  I sing to her:

Oh my brother, I still wonder, are you alright…

Everything that happens will happen today.

 Nothing has changed but nothing’s the same

and every tomorrow will be yesterday,

and everything that happens will happen today.

Past lives. Tomorrow.  Today.  The ducks are breeding.  The boat floats on the tide. We read.  We rouse ourselves to the morning. We are distracted and awake.  The world feels limpid and clear and of this moment.

Odysseus carried his lives with him.  The past, the past, the past, his wrongs and hurts and the gods that he must cannily anticipate and placate.  He’s with the goddess/monster on the island. He’s in Troy. He’s on the boat.  Today is about yesterday. Determined by yesterday.  It’s about stories and how they are told.  It’s about layers of disguise.

Where do poems come from?  The world insists itself.  A common tern chirrs and dives for fish.  The tide seems, in Cuttyhunk, to never rise or fall.  We are alongside a dock and have set our mooring lines to allow the tide to lift and drop us.  We can see the seaweed and barnacles on the pilings, but we seem to never rise or drop.  Is Cuttyhunk one of the magical isles of the Aegean?  Is there a goddess at work?  A god?  Dawn arrives on her gold throne.  We put on sunscreen and hats.

A goddess arrives and addresses Odysseus.  He lies to her.  She likes it.  On the beach, oystercatchers play their game of broken wing, luring walkers away from the nest.  I like it.  I like it more than the page.

Odysseus.  Homer.  Alice Walker.  Then. Now.  Now.  Now.

The world is so fucking insistent.  And that’s what I love about it.  Rose-fingered dawn.  There are poems about dawn.  There are poems about boats in harbors.  It is dawn.  We are in a harbor. Soon, we will cast off.  Odysseus will come with us, shut in his covers, riffled by wind.  I might open him if I’m bored.

We will scout for rocks.  We will watch the buoys set out to warn us against grounding—are they our gods, the things Odysseus would have poured wine to placate?—we will sail the tv glow-blue sea.  We will not be lured by sirens.  We will sing of a woman and of a voyage.  We will make our short journey.

Words will travel with us from Homer, from Byrne, from Walker, from sage minds that help us find our way.  We will invent words to detail what we see and what gives us wonder.

The currents will eddy around us.  The currents of what we’ve know, what we’ve read, what we’ve learned.

Odysseus, the wily, the brave, the canny, is going home.  I am going home.  I am carrying a huge horse full of lies and trickery with me.  I am carrying those ducks, those birds, the fact of the narrow entrance into Cuttyhunk.  Alice Walker, temple-maker, you are with us, too.  We are traveling together.

Everything that happens will happen today.  Look up. Look up from the page.  Everything that happens…