http://www.klcc.org/audio/Alexis%20White%20040912.mp3

Advertisements

Reading for Spring Creek on Monday, April 9, at 7 pm. They’ll be some winning poets and also a screening of Journey of the Universe.

We drive into civilization to get the tire fixed and sort through the million emails that have accumulated in my inbox. I get a final grade issue sorted as best I can, email the department secretary (in whose hands all our fates do rest), pick up a prescription. Andy left me a voicemail, his ravaged voice all but gone by the time I call him back.  He’s a lovely man I hope I’ll someday see again. It’s going on six years now.

I call my father and tell him the good news about the contest, and ask if Karen and I could sleep over at their house Friday after the interview. He asks that I send him the winning poem (thank goodness it falls under the category of “family –safe”—more and more I am censoring what my parents read.) Dad says he’d be delighted, and I can hear the stifled excitement in his voice. I know he is trying hard to let go as next year approaches, with absence as its only certainty.

At the coffee shop I am joined by Dan, then Jackie, Chris, and Andrea. “Wow, what an exciting spring break we’re missing,” Karen observes when she sees all five of us bent over laptops. It’s a big writing week for all of us. No crazy hot spring/snow shoe trips this break. I still remember getting lost in the Rogue River Valley with Andrea and her then-fiance Nico, and how Nico mustered fire from snow-drenched logs. When Nick and Becky finally found us I became hysterical and had to take a valium. I have a photograph someone took of me, passed out on the couch hugging a half-full beer bottle. Sitting warm and dry around a café table with my friends, I am struck by how incredibly blessed I am to be surrounded by this brilliant circle of writers.  I am also reminded how transient our gathering is: Chris will surely be moving up to Portland after this spring, Karen might be on the other side of the state, and I might be on the other side of the country.

We grab some Thai food on the outskirts of Philomath, a really excellent place with a weird logger theme. Mango curry, and lots of it: tomorrow’s lunch and dinner.

The rain’s pouring when I pull up to the cabin, so I hook my iphone to the speakers and blast some silly dance songs. I figure Karen and I are used to one another enough for her to see my crazy dancing. When the rain lets up I go out for a hike.

My first mistake is underestimating how quickly night falls in this deep valley. The second is believing the trail will loop when all evidence is to the contrary. The path is full of blow-down, and a shortcut becomes a detour becomes a wild scramble down a tangled hillside. I half-slide, half-crab-walk to the base of the hill, my bangs spackled to my forehead, my jeans plastered to my butt, and my gum boots filled with twigs and dirt. I strip on the cabin’s threshold, and, wrapping myself in a towel, detail my adventure to Karen. She chuckles, and admits she didn’t even notice the darkness falling. I take a long shower, washing dirt from remarkable places. We drink hard apple cider cut with grape juice and play trivial pursuit until ten o’clock runs around and I’m buzzed enough to write this down.

Wondering in the woods I had been thinking about how a boy I’d gone home with in D.C. He told me about being stalked by a mountain lion, how it had pursued his scout group all night through the canyon, the tracks revealed in stark morning light. How, lying in his apartment near the capitol, I felt those same wild hungry eyes on my naked back. He was the first and last boy I had slept without really knowing. We go down that dusk-kissed canyon, the mountain lion padding silently above us. Who knows what eyes watched me in the woods today, or what blindness.

In the morning we prepare for our fellowship interviews in our pressed blouses, jackets, and skirts. The interview is all the way up in Portland, so as luck would have it, we must break the sanctuary of our retreat and head back into civilization. But the morning light reveals a tire rim sunk almost to the ground, the flat beyond imagining. We try triple A, but they are reluctant to traverse a forest road, especially since Karen’s membership did not transfer when she moved from Texas to Oregon. I hear her slip into a deeper version of her southern drawl, calling the operator “hun” and asking, with sweat-tea sugar in her voice, if “there isn’t anything y’all can do?” Apparently there isn’t. So, marooned four miles up Shotpouch road in leather dress shoes, we call Ann Powers and reschedule  for Friday. What this amounts to is more continuous days of retreat, which I find an unexpected boon. It’s only that I’d been so looking forward to a nice meal in the big city, maybe Ethiopian food, and visiting my parents on the Eastside.

All communication must go through Charles (the residency director) or those with local numbers, so I dial out, asking him to pass a message along to my parents not to expect me for dinner. I pray that my father, who once called the mayor of Portland a “dipshit,” can maintain a respectful air with Charles.

Marooned on our mossy little island, Karen and I venture out of the cabin for the first time to explore the grounds. A brittle, bare-bones garden sits behind an open deer fence. A plastic box affixed to a tree contains paper for impromptu poems. All the slips are blank.

Behind the cabin, the lower trail is flooded to impasse. We take the higher trek, little more than a deer-run, into the forest primeval. The arms of trees are swaddled in moss, like many-armed fleece jackets, and beards of Spanish moss hang from every bow and bushel. Little white stars of trillium are shining in the middle of the path, and we must step around their delicate splendor.

            The woods are clamorous with birdsong and rushing water. Wherever we step, we sink three inches into thick peat and fern-fall. A small rodent scuttles across our path. A wren flits from one low bush to another, tittering. The rain is little more than a pervasive mist. When the damp begins to seep into our socks, we turn back to the house, taking the same path back, along the rill and trillium, as the lower loop is covered in a foot of water.

            It’s difficult for me to stay awake long, in the silence and the warmth of the cabin. I drowse over my book, and awaken to the noise of Charles rolling up the drive. Outside, under our hooded slickers, we watch as Charles, kneeling on a pink bath towel, unscrews the nuts and jacks up the car, replacing the tire with the little donut. We offer pie and coffee, but Charles’s wife is waiting for him back in town with dinner in the oven.

            Back inside, we listen to Abby Road as I plié around the living room. Then it’s crackers and coffee, and back to writing. I think I have written more (not counting essays) in the last twenty four hours than I have in moths; I’ve been stuck in revision mode for my thesis for a long time. Next term we are doing the long poem with Jenn. I’m thinking I’d better generate some material fast in preparation.

            I exploded the short poem into a long one. It’s about my usual absent lover (they seem to reoccur) but also about Tim and rivers, and there’s a bit with a tiger I’m particularly fond of. “If you die in India, how will I recover your body? How will I recover?” My absent lover is not so much a love lost but a love for loss. A genealogy of loss. The years roll by, merciless. The woods offer little comfort. The waters are the places where we go to drown.    Image

 As my boyfriend was departing after a night spent at the Shotpouch cabin, leaving me utterly alone for the duration of my stay, I cried out, “You can come visit!”

  “You mean, after the madness takes hold?” He shot back, deadpan. I had done much to make it clear to him that this was not to be a romantic get-away, unless it be between me and my art. I had agreed to “let” Travis spend the first night with me (my companion-to-be having had a personal issue that may  or may not prevent her from joining me). The truth was, I was more than a little nervous to be out in the “wilderness” alone, far from cell service and even a land-line with the ability to call up to Portland, in a two-room cabin whose big picture windows only exacerbated the poor heat retention and the impression that, in the pitch-dark of country night, something might see in that you could not see out.

I also had developed the pretext that I was treating Travis to a night in the country, after he had shelled out an undisclosed amount to get us an opulent hotel room on the Oregon Coast (his engineer’s salary providing the funds for the nicest hotel room I had stayed in in my adult life). It turns out there is quite a bit less to do after dark in the Mountains of Oregon without TV, internet, or any restaurants for fifteen miles, not even a sea to watch, stormy and shifting under the mighty Pacific winds. Travis and I read each other H.P. Lovecraft stories and played a highly competitive game of Jenga. Armed with only a market and a large pad of paper, Travis explained abstract mathematics, glancing up occasionally to gauge the degree to which my mind was “blown”. Travis’s undeniable brilliance and ingenuity continually surprise and impress me, making it clear why Hewlett-Packard pays this youthful 23-year old such an ungodly amount, and ships him to such exotic locales as Barcelona and Singapore (where, Travis informs me in his characteristic deadpan, that one can peruse “seven floors of whores”). I am reminded again and again why I fell in love with this gregariously funny man, who is just as comfortable drinking beer and making prostitute jokes with friends as hob-knobbing with my department chair.

 Travis, who, whether for work or fun, spends several hours on the internet a day, paired with a healthy dollop of Television and videogames, developed an immediate dislike of the cabin.  He made “Deliverance” jokes and developed a scenario in which I, having succumbed to a Shining-like madness, write poetry on the walls with the blood from my partially-chewed fingers. Bearing up against my own feelings of reticence, I put Chopin on the record player and painted idyllic scenes of communing with my craft, penning the Next Great Nature Tome, and achieving international renown. After a late dinner of pre-baked pie and deli sandwiches, we retired to our wool-blanket bower.

Did I mention it was cold? We spent most of the evening huddled beneath wool blankets, and then retired to a bed piled high, complete with electric heating pad, which I characteristically hogged. Travis was tolerant, as usual, as I pressed my icy feet against the backs of his knees. Travis, at six-four, is nearly a foot taller than me and puts out a satisfactory amount of heat. I tried not to dwell on the fact that the next night I would be sleeping alone.

           

In the morning, Travis rose early to prepare for work at Hewlett-Packard in Corvallis, some twenty miles away. As he kissed me good-bye, he reminded me of my inevitable madness and/or violation by hillbillies. I reminded him that he could drive up and violate me any time he’d like.

Until then, I was utterly, completely alone.

Since it was still early, I retreated back to my motley tortoise-shell of blankets to await my companion’s arrival. When the phone woke me at 10:45, I was disappointed to discover my companion absent and my solitude palpable. Travis’s voice on the other end—business-like and remote, a voice I recognized as his “work mode”—inquired about my companion’s whereabouts and assured me he’d contact my parents and let them know I was OK, as we had been unable to reach them the night before.   “I’ll make up some story,” he reassured me, reminding me how upsetting they would find the truth: me, isolated in the woods with no means of transportation or communication with the outside world. After the I-love-you’s and telephone kisses, the receiver clicked and a deep loneliness descended all around me.

Despite the demands of my career, I am not particularly good at being alone. This is partially why my “day job” is a people-heavy pursuit, teaching writing at the local university. I feel energetic and enlivened when I am up in front of a class, or conferencing one-on-one with young writers. With a large dose of histrionics dominating my personality, I don’t really feel my experience counts unless it is shared with others. This is probably the biggest reason I write: my deep psychological need to feel connected to other human beings. Writing also helps me sort the wheat from the chaff of ideas and come to terms with my own feelings and experiences—but this is always a secondary function. First and foremost I write to bridge what Prof. Biespiel calls the yawning chasm of solitude between individuals.

 I put on Debussy to give myself the impression of another soul moving about, picked up a book by our own Kathleen Dean Moore, and, without bothering to dress (What was the point?), sat down to read. I availed myself of the pie from the night before, immersing myself in Moore’s thoughtful prose, which, thankfully, reassured me that we are all connected and solitude is an illusion of western philosophy. When I realized I was procrastinating (a recognizable pattern in myself—oh, this laundry needs doing, this coffee needs of brewing, this book needs reading, etc.), I got out my sticker-spackled laptop and got to work. This was, after all, a writing retreat, not a Kathleen Dean Moore-reading retreat.

 

As I said, the cabin at Shotpouch Creek is dominated by big windows, one set of which comprise a kind of open sunroom, the others, facing the creek, form great triangles of forest and sky. While this leaves one feeling exposed in the nighttime, during the day it yields expansive but private-seeming views, shielded as one is by the narrow valley on one side and wall of costal pines on the other. Outside, a crazy-quilt of green-brown grass and pure-white snow blankets the ground. Spanish moss blankets everything, and a few brave daffodils and crocuses poke their heads above the cold earth. Though the cabin took practically the whole night to warm up, it is now toasty, and the music of Chopin’s first concert blends with the scent of clementines and hot Yorkshire tea. I am seated in a generous leather armchair, complete with ottoman, on which the morning’s breakfast still perches, and with my laptop resting on my outstretched legs I am typing away.

I am seated in the big main room, with kitchenette to my left, demarcated with chilly stone tiles. Along the eastern wall runs a bookshelf, ending with a great series of windows. Most of the northern wall is dominated by big windows providing a clear vista of the creek. The western window opens on the gravel drive, and the southern wall opens to the cabin’s red-cedar door, the stairs up to the loft, and the hallway to the bathroom, laundry and back bedroom (all frightfully cold). The walls are covered with Native American artwork (which I, despite my general ignorance, recognize as Chinook, those happy, rain drenched peoples who fished a few scant hours a day, covered themselves in tree-bark rain slickers, and had giant potlatches in warm, dry lodges made of the same bright, fragrant material as this little cabin). Also hung about are home-made sculptures and paintings from previous artists-in-residence. My lack of visual artistry certainly precludes me from any showcase there. Still, I like to draw, and if I get bored enough I know I can amuse myself for a few hours with a pencil and pad. Travis had already covered one such pad with the strange, irregular art of chaos theory and abstract math. On seeing his sketches I experience a pang of longing, despite the fact our relationship is still young and he has only been gone a handful of hours.

The loft upstairs where Travis and I had slept the night before smells heavily of wool and cedar. I was less charmed to discover the several mousetraps scattered around the room’s four corners—the nasty kind that you dread finding a mouse inside. When I was a child, a single field-mouse occupied our urban family home—cute, with a sleak brown body, long whiskers, and tiny, white, anthropomorphic hands. I remember how we delicately corralled our uninvited house-guest into a humane trap lent to us by a neighbor who worked for the Audubon Society, and then released him in our local cemetery to scamper among the headstones. There would be no such happy endings for the mice at Shotpouch Creek.

To combat a growing sense of unease, I engage in what my friend Chris calls “eating my feelings,” finishing another quarter of last night’s store-bought pie. I think of all the pies I’ve baked over the years for friends and lovers. In particular, I remember the near-perfect pie I back for a boyfriend from New Zealand, who claims he has forever since associated the smell of pie (Tillamook sharp cheddar on top) with America. He is long gone, building bike powered water-pumps in Guatemala and planting trees in southern India, but I remember with fondness one morning when we woke next to one another, fully clothed, and he took me by my hipbones and purred that what a delight it was to be the one who got to unwrap me.

The pie is gone and, beyond Le Boheme, silence forms a contracting circle around the cabin. I might read Moore to hear another voice in my head, the presence of another soul hovering in the ether around me. Ecology teaches us we are all connected, but here I feel profoundly alone.

 

The hummingbird that had so delighted me an hour earlier is now dead outside the picture window. His tiny wings are still outstretched, in a sad mockery of flight.

 

I call Travis to tell him about the hummingbird. He says, there is no hummingbird. That is just the madness taking hold.

 

Karen’s car crunches up the gravel path, so I hear it before I see it. She is extracting herself and several large suitcases from her Suzuki station wagon, and I run to help her, chatting excitedly. I’m a little embarrassed that a mere morning alone has rendered me so starved for company. I rationalize to myself that Karen has had an exciting morning and I get along well with her and am just eager to hear details. We go into the house and I help her unload her groceries, which augment mine nicely (I hadn’t thought about soda pop or cereal). She’s also made muffins and a chicken salad, which I immediately eat half of. She goes and lies down in the bedroom, and soon I can hear her heavy almost-snoring. Earlier I had taken an allergy pill against the dusty cabin, and, feeling companionable and drowsy, I am soon sleeping as well.

Another of Travis’ phone calls wake me up. We chat briefly (I can’t get over his business-y tone) and then do the dishes, make tea, and do some yoga. I watch the creek slough by on its languid downhill trek to the coast, imagining it ending up somewhere near Waldport. I entertain the notion of hiking the few miles to the general store along the highway, but I don’t want to wake Karen or to have her awaken to find me gone. I read more of Kathleen Dean Moore’s book, and then I write a poem.

It’s an old poem that I wrote one summer back in college, and I write it again almost verbatim. I’d like to think nearly two years in an MFA program has improved my writing, but I can’t think of a way to change the poem for the better. I toy with the idea of putting it into sonnet form, but I like the long first line. I am very pleased with it as it is. Here’s the poem:

 

I thought that to see the face of beauty would be to see your face,

so I looked for your face in every wildflower.

But there was nothing of your eyes in the sun-bleached sky,

nothing of your touch in the deer-pressed grass, nothing of your voice

in the green river sliding songless past my hips.

Even in the night, in the wilderness-darkness,

no poetry could fool me:

I never once felt you there.

 

I realize that every poem I wrote after it was basically a variation on the same theme: I stay, you go, I look for you in words and things. Sometimes, as in this poem, symbols fail their role as proxies for the real and poetry, in a sense, fails. But this failure is poetry, and is therefore a kind of success. Other times the symbol succeeds, becomes even more powerful and present than the absent real. Either way, the theme is “I stay, you go, I make art.”

 

When Karen wakes up we decide to go to the store at the mouth of the highway to buy some coffee. I packed coffee, but I did it in a half-full cocoa tin, and the blend of coffee and cocoa clogged the little paper filter. We drive to the end of the road in the fading light. The store has been closed for half an hour. We drive to the next town over (I use “town” generously) and purchase coffee and Cheetos. I stuff my mouth with Cheetos and regret the decision immediately. The gravel road from the highway is bumpy and Karen’s shocks not particularly helpful.

I tell Karen to stop when we pass a tiny cemetery with wooden crosses. Thinking it must be a pet cemetery, I am startled to discover the little hand-painted grave markers memorialize people. We pry open the heavy, rotting wooden gate, which had been latched with a rusty length of wire. The crosses within are new, but the graves old: dates of death begin in the late 1800’s and continue almost up to the present. There are a few really old stone markers. Three wooden crosses in a neat row mark the graves of “Baby Burbank” one, two and three. Their mother rests alongside them, all dateless. Farther off: “Baby Boy Burbank.”

There is a field with several llamas behind the fenced-in cemetery. Farther off, a donkey guffaws into the deepening darkness. The air is cold and moist, and, although the sea is still thirty miles over pines and mountains, I think I catch a whiff of salt air. Refastening the gate, we scramble up the muddy slope to where the car is parked, and I am once again surrounded by the mildew musk of Karen’s Suzuki. Image

As the term draws to a close, I’m looking forward to spending some time in residence at the Spring Creek Project’s cabin on Shotpouch Creek. The Spring Creek project is run through Oregon State University’s incentive for environmental humanities, and has given me and fellow poet Karen Moon the opportunity to spend a week in the Coast Range working on place-themed writing projects. Spring Creek does some amazing things across the state. Check out their website:

http://springcreek.oregonstate.edu/index.html

http://www.weavemagazine.net/

Check out the above link. My poem “Newfoundland Woman Speaks After the Cod Collapse of ’93” will appear in the 9th issue of Weave Magazine, out Winter 2012. Thanks, Weave!

Although I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I remember, I have always felt equally grounded in my body and my mind. Since I was a child, I have had a natural grace in the water. Having grown up in Oregon, I had a myriad of natural swimming holes available to me. However, I have never been permitted to swim outside. When my uncle Tim was twenty-four, he drowned in the Columbia river. My father never spoke of this event, although it was to dictate our lives so completely. My family history of drowning is also my family history of secrets. Airing those secrets is like learning to swim, and is just as vital for survival. Therefore, my next writing project is to investigate the story of my family. There is no better place to do this than Willowa County, a few scant miles from where my great grandparents first settled in the west. This is also the place where my uncle drowned, and where our lives were changed forever.

When I was in my early twenties I nearly drowned off the coast of Isla de la Plata, Ecuador. I was there on a teaching grant, and, away from home for the first time, I took full advantage of my newfound freedom. On a snorkeling expedition, within a few minutes in the calm waters of the doldrums, my limbs grew both sluggish and frantic, and I had to be fished out by an exasperated skipper. What became clear to me then, as I sat shivering under the warmth of the equatorial sun, was that family secrets create the exact conditions they are meant to guard against. Just as my uncle’s drowning translated into my own near-death experience, my secret family history of depression resurfaced dramatically in my own life. Shortly after college graduation, I was blind-sided by a crippling sadness without an apparent cause or explanation, but that was inherited from both sides of my family. I have realized that it is vital to write about our shared histories in order to learn from the past and survive.

Only recently have I become comfortable writing about my family, and it is largely through the support of the MFA program that I have gained the bravery to do this. Before this term, I only felt comfortable writing about the relatively safe topics of friends and boyfriends. If my poems had a focal point, it was the absent center of my own story, the sense of a loss of something I never even knew I had. I have always written to fill that silence, exploring what Prof. David Biespiel recently called “a crushing loss coupled with intense desire.” Now I want to both explore and fulfill that desire. Recent poems I’ve written include “Gum Erasor,” which investigates my grandfather’s double life as a painter and a colonel, and “The Walls Look Brighter,” in which I investigate the cover-up of my own childhood tragedy. My poem “Three-Legged Fox” explores how our defense mechanisms often conflict with our ability to live, and “You Asked to Com In,” rencently appearing in the Blood Orange Review, explores the possibilities of intimacy after intense loss. I am interested in silence-breaking and its role in healing trauma.

I have deep roots in Eastern Oregon, where my ancestors lived on both sides of the law, carrying with them what my father calls “our family curse,” which might be murder, magic, or madness. “White” isn’t even really our family name— it was changed in Ireland under dubious circumstances, perhaps the same circumstances that pushed my family out of the Bronx, the hills of Oklahoma, and eventually out  of Athena, Oregon. To go forward I must go back.

Windmills Literary Zine, Deakin University

“Dreams of Blue Whales” is appearing in Windmill’s upcoming Bones themed issue. A little secret: the poem is about my friend Carisa, who really is afraid of blue whales and likes bones. I changed her name to ‘Cat’ to protect the innocent.

Blood Orange Review

“You Asked to Come In” in the upcoming issue. Thanks, Blood Orange Review! Check them out.