Kindling (Notes on Cedar Toothpick)
Story about hiking in the forest. It is summer. The sun is up, the sky is blue, chipmunks are anthropomorphically charming, and the clouds are feathery and benign. You put an ear to the breeze and hear: “All is well.” And so you keep following an unfamiliar trail toward an unspecified destination. Boulders are still warm, you reason, not considering the fact that every step away from the trailhead will need to be retraced at some point.
Epilogue is about being in the woods at night, and shivering because your jacket is too thin. But that’s the epilogue. Present tense here is the moment when, emboldened by sun on boulder, you reckon you’ll have plenty of time to double back, and so forge foolishly ahead. It’s when the Old Crone, as shape-shifting zephyr, whispers “All is well.” And you believe her, hook, line, and sinker.
The poems in Cedar are built mostly around nouns: a rock, a spider, a block of soap, a pile of boots, a knife, a fossil, bark, yarn, roasting corn, a violin being tuned, and so on. The diorama scenes are straightforward in that what I say is happening is, in fact, what is happening. There is a man. He is wearing a bear suit. He is picking lice from Tomboy’s hair. Nothing metaphorical here. No hidden meaning. Those are just the facts of that moment in time.
But the scene is enigmatic, of course, not to mention peculiar. Who the heck is the man? Why is he dressed up as a bear? Why in the world is he in charge of delousing Tomboy? Well, the ambiguity is very much on purpose: Cedar is the puppet theatre in your head. I give you some props, some marionettes, and I hope that the combination of nouns, adjectives, and a handful of verbs can inspire their wires to begin twitching. And each time the poems are read, cadences and shadows shift, and the scene is rendered, up in the mind’s eye, from a slightly different angle, with import potentially being attached to different elements each time through.
(There is, too, the fact that the impish nouns are never quite in the same place when you return to a particular page, in the way that a visitor to a natural history museum might become aware of the uncanny feeling that every time he or she turns away from a diorama, the people and animals within spark ever so briefly to life. Look closely, dear reader, at a mannequin’s rigid jaw and cheek muscles, and you will perceive the gentlest of quivers.)
In this way I’d say that Cedar’s influences are more musical than literary. I was most influenced by songs in which the lyrics are impossible for me to analytically interpret; and yet the magic lantern images these Delphic lyrics project onto the inside of my forehead are as vivid as they are shifting/flickering.
The words do something to me, move me deeply—even if I can’t tell you what, specifically, Karin Dreijer Andersson of The Knife, for example, means when she sings: “I saw her by the organ, she was laughing while pressing the keys; she said my favorite book was dirty and you should not show you can read.” I don’t know who “she” is (she isn’t mentioned again), how she came to be an organist, to which book she is referring, or why she feels the need to issue this unnerving warning. And yet I understand. I do. Somehow. And I shiver.
(This holds absolutely true, too, for music without words; especially the solo guitar recordings of Dean McPhee, whose tracks embrace and embody the spirit of wanderlust and—to borrow a letter from ramble and weld a word that might as well exist—rambulatory reflection.)
And then, in terms of putting each diorama together, twining the scenes . . . well, no two readers are going to end up with the same overarching tapestry-plot. And I’m okay with that, and am interested in the degree to which your “Bland sky and yams in the oven” conjures a whole different mental foreground, landscape, sky, yam-cooking oven, palette of colors, time of day, barometric reading, etc. and does or does not resonate in a completely different or else eerily similar kind of way.
At this point, it occurs to me to refer to a quotation from Philip Pullman’s introduction to his recently published collection of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm (tales whittled and retold):
“The fairy tale,” writes Pullman, “is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage. If you, the reader, want to tell any of the tales in this book, I hope you will feel free to be no more faithful than you want to be. You are at perfect liberty to invent other details than the ones I’ve passed on, or invented, here. In fact you’re not only at liberty to do so: you have a positive duty to make the story your own.”
And I would encourage Cedar’s reader to apply this very logic and license to the tale of Tomboy and the meandering hiker.
I wrote the poems to be read out loud, almost as a chant, or skipping-rope incantation. The poems themselves are cyclical (you can begin more or less anywhere you want), and I hope they’re, well, fun to read over and over again, till the echoes of previous readings begin layering like a polyphonic chant.
Fun is the right word, too, in the same way that skipping from rock to rock across a shallow brook is fun. The words are meant to be those rocks.
Bored Wolf, Bored Wolf:
Who do you see?
Swinging from the branches
of her coniferous tree?
A dear, dear Tomboy
swinging from the tree,
now balanced on a bough
drinking ceremony tea.
Now balanced on her head
with her feet up in the air,
and knives between toes,
(nails polished dark as crows).
And Dear, Dear Tomboy,
swinging from her tree,
dips those knives into hives,
spreads honey cross her thighs.
And Dear, Dear Tomboy
swings down from the tree,
(in buckskin fanny pack: knife, wrapped in cloth;
around neck: talismanic Emperor moth),
and sets off, on a dare,
through witch-mumble wood,
her flaxen hair tucked
into red homespun hood.
With Bored Wolf’s eyes
pinned to her back,
she sets off down path
to Grandmother’s shack.
Bored Wolf, Bored Wolf:
Who do you crave?
The girl whose cut lip
makes you feel brave.
. . .