Ishmael

Recently, I’ve been going through books on my shelves and pulling out the ones that I find to be ugly and transforming them into beautiful physical objects. It’s an outlet for my creative brain outside of writing, and yet connected to the written word. Some of the pages become erasure poems, some collage, but all draw me in to engaging with the artifact and physicality of writing, which is something I’ve always loved.

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I didn’t know I would be a poet until my fist undergraduate poetry workshop at the University of Virginia with Rita Dove. Before that I had been writing all along, but it seemed to me in those years to be an exercise or practice that connected me to my body and the presence of physical being, more than what I thought then of as spiritual practice. I must have had a certain Gnosticism with regards to poetry and the real world. I must have believed that poets were religious and mystical in the sense of spirit divided from matter. But for me, writing was always about re-centering my self into the world.  Did I really exist? Who was I? These were foundational questions for me, because in early childhood there was so much upheaval and fear and dislocation. I started writing as a child in church. One of my earliest memories was writing every word I could think of on the church bulletin, winding around the prayers and the titles of hymns, a collection of words. Later, I would write my name like this:

HEATHER

HEATHER SUE

HEATHER SUE DERR

HEATHER SUE DERR PENDERGRAFT

And then I would add other names I knew were in my family, STRICKLER, WATKINS. I wasn’t sure who I was or who I belonged to. I knew that Pendergraft, my stepfather’s name and my adopted name had something to do with writing. I knew DERR had something to do with blood and roots and loss. I was told in church I was a child of God, adopted by God, and grafted onto the tree of life through salvation in Christ. But I knew very early on that this didn’t feel true to me. I tried to remedy my sense of abandonment or exclusion by getting born-again, again and again. But it never took. Later I was overjoyed to read of Emily Dickinson’s failure in this area. To grossly paraphrase, she said something to the effect that poets are exempted from this ritual of walking the aisle or bowing their heads to ask Jesus to come into their hearts, because they spend so much time wrestling with the angel already; Poets must find their own path to God.

emily

She writes in east of Jordan:

A little East of Jordan,
Evangelists record,
A Gymnast and an Angel
Did wrestle long and hard—
Till morning touching mountain—
And Jacob, waxing strong,
The Angel begged permission
To Breakfast—to return—
Not so, said cunning Jacob!
“I will not let thee go
Except thou bless me”—Stranger!
The which acceded to—
Light swung the silver fleeces
“Peniel” Hills beyond,
And the bewildered Gymnast
Found he had worsted God!

In high school I thought I wanted to be a philologist, which makes perfect sense to me, that I imagined this for myself before the thought of being a poet. I used to sneak books of runes and hieroglyphs home, hide them under my bed, because they were contraband, occult. Writing for me was an art and a craft and a gift I gave to others: letters to my friends in class, often folded into the shape of birds, pages torn out of old art books and folded into envelopes to send letters by mail, lyrics to songs my friends would ask me to write on their Converse or jean jackets because they liked my handwriting, liner notes in mixed-tapes I gave as gifts.

 

I’ve been reading Moby Dick out loud to my son Owen, who is seventeen and says he hates to read. He likes me reading to him,  and we both think it’s funny that he can someday say he never reads, except for Moby Dick once. I hope he learns to love books, but I tell him often that I love him just for his being and presence in the world and not for anything he does. He struggles with depression, an inheritance in our bodies passed down from generations, along with our names.

I was delighted then, to find Jean-Michele Basquiat’s Unknown Notebooks in which he had copied the Table of Contents from Moby Dick– what for? Just the pleasure of it? I write words down for the pleasure of it myself: pleasure, like breath, an attachment to the body, another form of mindfulness in play, senses, desire, regard, attentiveness, connectedness.

I love the story of Ishmael in the Qur’an, how Abraham was commanded by God to abandon the child and his mother, Hagar in the desert. There the child grew thirsty and cried out and as the mother lifted him, his feet scratched in the dirt and suddenly up rose the waters of a spring, which is found in Mecca, near the Kabaa where pilgrims come to circle. It reminds me of Jesus writing/scratching in the dirt which startled those who read it and saved the life of a woman about to be condemned.  Our wandering, our pilgrimages, our scratching in the dirt, what will we find there? Will it save anyone’s life? Our own? I think it can.  I want to write as if it matters like that.