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Words in the Woods with Poet Judith Chalmer
Enjoy the fall colors of New Discovery State Park and the poetry of Judy Chalmer in this Words in the Woods video, recorded when foliage was near its peak. Chalmer reads from her latest collection, Minnow, including some poems that were inspired by visits to Vermont state parks.
Verbal Description of the Video
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I’m Judith Chalmer. I’m here at the entrance to New Discovery State Park in Marshfield, Vermont with Vermont Humanities for “Words in the Woods”. “Words in the Woods” is a joint project of Vermont Humanities, Vermont State Parks and Vermont Arts Council to bring poets into state parks for readings and discussions and I’m especially grateful to Vermont Humanities for making this happen this year when we can’t be together to do it in person.
We’re starting out as Osmore Pond, which is a pond without human development all around it. It’s available within the park for paddling and walking around. There’s a beautiful path that we’re going to be traveling. It’s available for fishing and remote camping.
I’m going to be reading today from my book “Minnow”, which was published in February of 2020 by Kelsay Books. The poems in “Minnow” begin in close observation of natural detail and they move from there to questions of love and awe and purpose and mortality and most of the detail from natural settings was derived from experiences in Vermont state parks, so I am so especially pleased to be sharing them with you here today.
And as I read, in between poems, I’m going to be talking a little bit about the process of close observation, what it means, how it can vary and what are some of the ways that you might consider it in new ways from wherever you are.
I’m going to begin with a poem that was written after experiences on a pond very like this in a nearby state park at Ricker Pond. There are seven state parks in Groton State Forest, so you can tell I’m a little bit enthusiastic about Vermont state parks. I’m going to start reading. “Autumn”.
And if there are sorrows, not the duckweed in the dense, sulfurous mud, nor the grumbling party boat motoring to the dock, not the clotheslines cinched or the last open flap tucked neatly into the tent. Not the dog bed dampish under the table, or the sticky branch piled next to the fire. Not the mallard raising a baffled wing, loose feather floating over the lake. Not the tilted tarp or the bandaged stand of birch. Not the rinse bucket or the ragged cloth. None of these will mind them. When the book bag yawns, when the chipmunk dives, when the young loon feeds, when the songbird preens and the fog starts to break and the web starts to sag, when the acorn drops and the lichen curls, when the beetle shines and the rain jacket drips would that I too could unknow this longing.
Sometimes when I’m observing and then writing, it’s almost enough to name what I observe. It’s a kind of mindfulness meditation. I usually begin by making notes either while I’m walking or after and then find an indoor spot to make notes about an internal landscape, and what I mean by that is what I’ve been thinking and wondering and feeling lately and it’s asking the questions of how observation of the world around me matters to observation of the world within that becomes the poem.
So how do you start observing? I’m going to look at this pond now and I’m going to think about a kind of progression of ways to describe it. So if I were to want to orient myself in space, I would say that I’m looking across a pond that is small enough that I can see branches in the trees across, but I can’t distinguish leaves. I can see that the hillside rises behind it to a blue sky with very few thin clouds overhead. And if I were then to think about detail, I might say that there is a light ripple and a bright beam of light shining across the pond, that there are low bushes around me with a few remaining leaves, looks like a blueberry actually with a few red leaves still clinging to it, but these are nouns, these are things and when we think about poetry, we’re often thinking about an animated landscape, we’re thinking about things that change and so what would I do to begin describing verbs? I would say that the branches behind me are blowing lightly in the breeze, I would say that the wind is raising slight waves, but these things are still a bit inanimate and there’s a way that we can think about connecting what’s happening to the human experience of how we experience the world, which is through human bodies. So in terms of literature, it’s called personification
I think of it more as a way of more deeply connecting so that the meaning that I’m deriving from the natural world can emerge. And that can emerge not only from verbs of movement, but of also stillness.
So let’s go back to talk about the light breeze on the water and the ripples, is the breeze charging across the lake, is it caressing the lake, is it piercing the lake? They’re sort of verbs that are more accessible in terms of the human experience. I have a bag with my hat in it sitting on a boulder, so what is the bag doing sitting on that boulder? Is it resting, is it refusing to go further? These are examples of ways that you can think about what is moving or what is still in a landscape. There’s a beautiful, old stone fireplace in this sight and one could ask just as easily of, is it sitting and remembering?
So I’m going to read a short poem next. It’s going to take you on a very quick tour of a whole week in a campsite. “Daybook”.
Sunday, September clouds trail the hillsides, misty shoulders in size. Monday, pancakes, a little burned, gold leaves spend all their luck on scent. Tuesday, you, a splash of yellow, you, the sun in the brook, our legs twined like branches. Wednesday, the dog lolls on the rock, ducks murmur to the reeds, layers added and shrugged off. Thursday, the tall reeds cupping their hands, the fire sputtering awake, quiet path to the bathhouse. Friday, the last hour of the day, the day with its heaving, its hike, everything thrown together. Saturday, skin softly wind washed, tinted and warm, my soul untaut, bashful and surprised.
So the first poem, you could say it was more like a landscape painting in the sense that there were many, many details all put together. This one, if you were going to use the same method of description would be more like a sketchbook. There were very, very few details for each day and little bits of narrative, little burned pancakes and rushing around.
So how do you find the connections in your life between the natural world and what you’re thinking about? I’m going to offer you an exercise that is not going to sound very poetic at all, but I think it can be useful. Don’t worry about getting paper or opening a doc or anything. I’ll explain it to you. It’s easy to remember and it doesn’t have to be done exactly as I say. So the idea is to make some columns on a page and put headings at the columns. And I’m going to give you some examples, but don’t worry about what they are or remembering them ’cause you’ll see that that’s not going to be so important, but the examples I’m going to give you are for instance, you could make a column for the news, or childhood toys, or an important relationship, or social justice, or the drive that you took today.
And the important thing about these columns, it doesn’t really matter what they are, but the key ingredient of them is that they are from completely unrelated parts of your life and the exercise is to make notes in these columns, not filling up one column and then the next, but really going from column to column, interrupting yourself if you have to to do it. And the purpose of that is to encourage associative thinking. That’s our ability to make connections and to find connections between things because truly, we’re whole human beings, so all of those things from different parts of your life do have a connection and really the pleasure is in finding new ones. So the more you surprise yourself, the more rewarding the whole process can be.
Next, we’re going to a poem that unlike the first two has a lot of story in it. It has story because things happen in sequence, but also because it’s written in complete sentences, so it has a much more conversational tone. And I’m especially happy to share this one today because it was written after an experience at this exact spot on Hosmer Brook, which is along the trail around Osmore Pond. And it was at almost exactly the same time of year, so it’s really a treat to be here to read this for you today. “Muddy Brook”.
After the glory, everyone giddy with the color in our cameras, the drones gorgeously skimming forest and mountains, sound tracks rounding the river bend, I’ve come back with my crackers a week after season’s peak on the other end of the big wind, leaves everywhere but above. They cover the trail side table and both plank seats, they cover the heavy grate of the fireplace and the outspread arms of the Evergreens goofy in their costumes of clown red and yellow. The dog joust with a frayed end of a stick. The ground he jostles, strange and excitable, stirred with every step. I’ve taken a day from work, away from my finch gold office with its one high window where the paper strewn desk and the hastily framed photos, one of a child’s hand swirling paint with an apple blossom onto a paper plate, sunset colored cloth on the round table, the table a little too big for the room, scissors sticking up out of a cup of pens, sweater draped on a chair, small stains on the rug are kind of home when it’s hard to leave at the end of the day, full as it is of hope and newness, people to know and things that are yet to be done. The common room, its tiled tabletop littered often with treats gathers also the faces of those I admire to think and to make dreams happen. There was a sweetness today as the dog and I circled the pond. Crushed leaves whispering with a breath and palette rich as a summer salad, beet and Valencia orange. Even the blackberries staining red. Only the ferns like torn herbs still green scattered in the wild mix. It’s a world turned upside down. Roots rising from the leaves all fists and elbows. It’s a hard thing to work, to be held by a purpose and then to drop in the wind and retire. At the brook, trumpet curls of the bronze birch float to a still pocket behind a rock. The dog’s done with the stick. A bare branch pushes at my back where we sit on the bank watching a boulder bury its mossy head under a bright maple cover. The dog paws for awhile at the muddy bottom, then walks back to shake, splashed with ripening seed.
So that poem has an intense indoor landscape, an office like the kind in 2020 that we have not been going into very much. And what are the important indoor spaces in your life and how do your experience outdoors affect, deepen, change your reflections on indoor space?
It’s hard to leave this spot on a wooden bridge over Hosmer Pond with its happy clutter of downed trees and branches and fallen leaves that you can still see intact in the water.
The next poem returns to a more impressionist-like use of observation. “Minnow”.
Covered in mist, cover of night, the serious air, cold fog swirling around us, the minnow that lingered while we talked. Dirt surrounding us, soot everywhere, the path fringed with fungus. It takes something serious, something drastic like leaving your bed, like finding a stick to really change. All night, we stayed covered, cold, the path frilled with fungus, soot all around us and still, we smelled Wintergreen, we smelled apple and berry. We made a bed that was soft in the night, the serious night. We touched hands and our breath was swirling. Sticks snapped, turtles fled, we looked different to each other and smelled. It was good, it was serious. The path was fragrant with fungus. We slid a stick in the water and talked. The minnow we saw, disappearing.
So how do you enter a poem when you hear one or read one? Some people prefer narrative poems that tell a story, some people prefer lyrics that may dwell in a feeling or a thought, some people go to poetry to be uplifted and some people go to poetry to find expression for outrage, some people go to poetry for windows into others experiences and some people go to find comfort and shared experiences and of course, there are many more ways into poetry and most of us have more than one way, but the reason I wanted to describe a few of those is just really to validate that your approaches are the ones that are fine for you. But what do you do when you encounter a poem that you don’t immediately like or you don’t feel that you fully understand? You can just pass it by.
It’s perfectly fine not to like a poem, absolutely, but there is a problem in scanning for poetry. Let’s compare to if you went into an art gallery or a museum. If you’re using vision to enter that gallery, within seconds, you can find the painting or the sculpture that you want to stand right next to and pay more attention to and the ones that you just as soon walk by. If you’re entering with a sighted guide or someone doing verbal description, you can have a delicious conversation that will help you decide which paintings you want to pursue.
But poetry is not presented in a way that it’s quickly scanned. If you’re looking at an anthology, you can scan the table of contents, but that will tell you which titles you like. It’s not necessarily a good guide for which poems you’re going to like. You have to kind of spend time with poetry in order to decide. And what if you’re not finding that many that you like? It’s easy to get discouraged and think, well I don’t like poetry or I don’t like that kind of poetry or I don’t like the poems by that poet, and that may be true, but what if you want to increase the range of poems that you can connect with or just increase the number of times that you connect with poems as you encounter them? What can do you?
So I think back to a book that was published in 1959 by John Ciardi who was a poet and a translator and an etymologist and a professor and for awhile, was director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference here in Vermont. And he wrote a book called “How Does a Poem Mean?”. He was very intentional in creating that title, which was an alternative to the more obvious question of what does a poem mean, which he thought was kind of a damaging question when it comes to poetry because it narrowed down the possibilities for a poem and kind of treats it as if it’s like a secret code and it’s your job as the reader to crack the code and find out what the poet really meant to say. Well, poets really do say what they mean to say.
So Ciardi was more interested when he said how does a poem mean and looking at the ways the parts of a poem work together to open up opportunity. And we can think about that in very similar terms to the way we were talking before about the parts of your life and the details in nature, how does that all come together to create meaning.
I’d like to read you a little bit from John Ciardi’s book when he talks about symbols. And again, when he talks about symbols, he’s not talking about one thing that stands for another, he’s talking about something that because it’s observed, because it’s named, because it’s placed in association with other things actually gathers and accrues meaning. So this is what Ciardi says:
“A symbol is like a rock dropped into a pool. It sends out ripples in all directions and the ripples are in motion. Who can say where the last ripple disappears? The ripples continue to move and the like to change the water and the longer one watches, the more changes he sees. And such shifting and being at the same instant is of the very sparkle and life of poetry for the poem is a dynamic and living thing. One experiences it as one experiences life. Every time he looks at it, he experiences something new and it changes even as he watches. And that very sense of continuity and fluidity is one of the kinds of knowledge, one of the ways of knowing that only the arts can teach poetry for most among them.”
So in a sense, to enter poetry is to move into that world of associative thinking that we’re talking about. The idea is to let your own thoughts and feelings ripple out from the poems on the page and invite you into a new experience.
So before we go back onto another poem, I just want to talk a little bit more about observation in nature. So what gives you acuity, that sharpness of detail that you observe? Do you need to be a botanist? No. Do you need to have really good eyesight? No. Actually, if I take off my glasses, I see trees that are kind of furry. When I think about softened edges, is that available for poetry? Yes, it definitely is available for poetry. What if close observation means approaching the things that you observe with respect and even love, the way you would enter a conversation with a person? Listening in whatever ways you listen for how it describes itself and then responding with a full heart.
I’d like to read you a poem by Lisel Mueller actually that pertains to that question of observation. Lisel Mueller was a Pulitzer prize-winning poet. She died in February of this year 2020. For awhile, she taught at Goddard College in their beginning their MFA and writing program. And she writes this poem about the great impressionist painter Claude Monet at a time in his life when he had cataracts. “Monet Refuses the Operation”.
Doctor, you say there are no halos around the streetlights in Paris and what I see is an aberration caused by old age and affliction. I tell you, it has taken me all my life to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels, to soften and blur and finally banish the edges that you regret I don’t see, to learn that the line that I called the horizon does not exist and sky and water so long apart are the same state of being. 54 years before I could see Rouen Cathedral is built of parallel shafts of sun and now you want to restore my youthful errors, fixed notion of top and bottom, the illusion of three-dimensional space, wisteria separate from the bridge it covers. What can I say to convince you, the houses of Parliament dissolve night after night to become the fluid dreams of the teems. I will not return to a universe of objects that don’t know each other as if islands were not the lost children of one great continent. The world is flux and light becomes what it touches, becomes water, lilies on water, above and below water, becomes lilac and mauve and yellow and white and cerulean lamps, small fists passing sunlight so quickly to one another that it would take long, streaming hair inside my brush to catch it. To paint the speed of light are weighted shapes, these verticals burn to mix with air and change our bones, skin closed to gases. Doctor, if only you could see how heaven pulls Earth into its arms and how infinitely the heart expands. To claim this world, blue vapor without end.
I love this old stone fireplace and this picnic area. Looks like it could’ve been built by the CCC. It’s covered with leaves that I can just nestle into. Here’s my last poem of the day. “Now That I’m Here”.
I’m pretty sure I’m not contributing exactly with this. Firewood heaved into the open hatch of the car, a tackle box rummaged with spoons and an oddity of knives, a neighborly clatter of dishes. None of these for instance would answer the question, what do you do? I’m watching the young trees at the edge of the pond. Two maples and a beech hold their angled pose like dancers without fatigue. Last night, I left the canvas chair under the drip line. This morning, a blue dasher dragonfly lit on the cherry patterned oil cloth, shoveling a fruit fly into its mouth. Then I moved the fork. Maybe it’s all right. Loving as I do, the fretwork of the ferns, the folded fists of the newborn berries. Thunder rumbles for hours in the nearby hills. The tent will take hanging at home, its green walls sticking together. I’m resigned to soggy pants. Is this how I’m meant to show up? What have I done to be kind? What will I do when I’m tired and it seems a great purpose has been lost? The needles under the pines pile up the color of summer hay and honey. There’s a tub of towels, a dented pot and some red plastic plates. Somewhere near, and certain not to be found, a hermit thrush plays its bright marimba. And how is it I’m so late tending to this temporary shelter?
Thank you so much for listening and watching. I hope you’ll have many opportunities to enjoy Vermont Humanities programs, many opportunities to enjoy state parks and many opportunities to follow the ripples and currents in your consciousness as you enter the landscape of poetry.