Monday, November 10, 2008


I’ve been slowly learning by heart a long poem called alphabet by the Danish poet Inger Christensen. I’m up to the eighth section, the letter h:

whisperings exist, whisperings exist
harvest, history and Halley’s

comet exist; hosts exist, hordes
high commanders, hollows, and within the hollows,
half-shadows, within the half-shadows occasional

hares, occasional hanging leaves where . . .

The poem is based on the Fibonacci sequence – a mathematical pattern that describes the spiral of a Nautilus shell, numbers of leaves, branching patterns in trees and bronchioles.  Proportions found over and over in nature. 

It’s a simple and infinite pattern beginning with zero, then 1.  To produce the pattern you take the last number and add it to the number right before it: 1 + 0 = 1, then that second 1 + the 1 right before = 2 , then 2 + 1 = 3.  So that soon you have a self-propelled sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 . . .)  

You can think of the originating 1 as a gift.

And you can imagine, in a poem patterned after the Fibonacci sequence, how quickly sections which begin very short may become very long. For example, in alphabet, the first section (a) is one line:

apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist

The second section (b) is two lines:

bracken exists and blackberries, blackberries
bromine exists, and hydrogen, hydrogen

By the eighth section (h), I’m looking at 34 lines, and what began as a simple feat of memory – a matter of minutes – has now become more of a challenge.

But the work of committing something to memory centers me. And this poem (which contemplates – as it pleads against – the possible destruction of the world) especially helps me to quiet my mind. The word that is repeated over and over is “exists”:

doves exist, dreamers and dolls;
killers exist, and doves and doves . . .

I find it incredibly settling to recite and to start in my mind a measured procession of all that exists – horrors taking their place beside hopes and comforts, ugliness another entry in the encyclopedia that contains beauties as well.

I find myself noting that not only:

seclusion and angels exist;
widows and elk exist; every
detail exists, memory, memory’s light;
afterglow exists, oaks, elms,
junipers, sameness, loneliness exist,
eider ducks, spiders, vinegar
exist, and the future, the future

But also, here at our house:

Daylight savings time exists and then does not, real time exists, our own internal clocks that perversely wake us at three-thirty or four in the morning exist.

Laundry exists, warm from the dryer.

Pumpkins exist and the seeds inside them.

Swimming exists, buoyancy, wavering rings of light reflected in the moving surface of the water exist.

Bike helmets exist, forgotten on the kitchen table. The softness of the air moving through uncovered hair exists.

At the food bank, cans of corn, cans of tomato soup, cans of tuna exist, even when there are no cans of chili, no bags of bread for worried parents to make school lunches. Bags of raisin bagels exist and stale cake. The last frozen packet of ground pork exists. People living in cars exist. People who have lost their jobs just today exist. Children who do not recognize a pear exist.

Courthouses exist along the river, ballots exist and the mailbox to receive them. Cars on the road beside me exist, the risk of slipping, swerving, injury exist, but only as possibility. Arriving safely exists as well.

Empty churches exist, friends filling them exist, quilt squares and quilt frames exist, needles and yarn exist, even when they are forgotten up the hill at home, left on the table beside the bike helmet. Cars that quickly, easily climb the hills home exist and people who lend them and laughter exists.

Grass exists and rain; dry sidewalks exist, especially when they are pointed out to you. Doors exist, doorbells exist. Visiting exists, small talk, the usual questions and answers. And better questions exist, my clear-eyed friend with her gentle voice, "Tell me about how you first started coming to church," and the quiet, thoughtful answers.

And news exists. Elections exist. Differences of opinion exist, and mutual respect in spite of everything. This nation exists.

A son exists who meets his mother at the door near tears because losing candidates exist.

In the kitchen, older sisters exist, listening to the official news of the count. Their jubilation exists (for winning candidates exist as well), though subdued out of respect for a brother's distress. Listening and nodding and putting arms around exist. Democracy exists. In some places, candidates who won’t concede, presidents who won't step down, fighting in the streets exists, one neighbor against another the next street over. But not here in this country, not now. Gratitude exists.

The radio exists. Stirring speeches exist. Hope exists and worry.

Dads exist and political allies. A son asking, "Are you mad that McCain didn't win, Dad?" exists. Fatherly words about being one nation and praying for the new president exist. Paper and pen exist and a son asking to borrow them.  And then a new thing exists - a boy's letter introducing himself to the new president, inviting him to come visit our house and his school, "Hi, President Obama. Good luck!," ending, "P.S. - if you come to our house my sister will make cookies." And "You are welcome any time."

And the next day and always laundry still exists. Haircuts exist; the cut hair swept up in a dustpan exists.

Elementary schools exist, copy machines exist and teachers and papers and backpacks.

Bikes still exist, cars still exist, choices always exist.

Grocery stores exist, aisles of food exist, and for me, money exists to pay for the milk and the fruit in my basket. Panniers exist to carry food home on the bike. Hills exist, hard breathing exists, thoughts about prayer as a complete exhaling exist. Gray days exist and cold.

Potatoes with the dirt still on them exist. New carrots exist, chopped into coins; fresh-grown celery. Local beef exists, raised by a friend of a friend. Tomatoes exist, a row of them bottled last autumn. Bay leaf and its fragrance. Blue and white stoneware bowls filled with soup I've eaten every winter (every winter?) of my life exist. Parent-teacher conferences exist, husbands who take the day off to attend exist. Sewing machines exist and daughters who are making and remaking dresses.

Artists’ receptions at the community center exist and a son’s painting of a single huge leaf sprouting out of a trunk against a black sky with a small faraway moon like a pearl. 

Nearby, a painting called Hope exists, first-graders’ lovingly detailed paintings of identifiable species of birds exist and Emily Dickinson’s words lettered in gold paint:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune - without the words,
And never stops at all . . .

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