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Eva Saulitis

 02-03-2015

 
Eva Saulitis
 
Naturalist's Prayer
 
                  after Ilya Kaminsky
 
If I speak for the earth I must sing.

I must sing the same song every morning, sing
like the unidentified bird with its repetitive
cry, that nameless bird in the morning

who bleats & bleats like a lamb of

the wild. If I speak I must crawl

along its convergences:
         slough &

         forest & forest & floodplain & floodplain &
         meadow & meadow & delta collecting data:
Transcribing the falling,
the hardening. The wet, the cautious.
the curious quick licks of an animal
at the furthest

edge of its range, pressing its pads
deep into groundcover, marking

trees with its foreign scent,

its foreign name. If sing it's because

the earth persists & this is just my brief
wandering between

trees alive & dead & fallen, on all

fours through the under-story. To breathe

in a windstorm is singing. To sing is to praise
Earth's madness, placing

carefully as a predator my tread

upon each, the darkest,

the coldest. It's like dying each time,

not crazy to pray: Let this day, earth,

let it be given.

Injured and blistered amen.


And God Opened A Window

And there’s a north wind in it.
And a few houses with lights on
         sprinkled over the day that we’ll eat.

And the view plane lightening and there’s a little
         death in it, settling behind the knees of animals.
And an orange stain bleeds out of a ridgeline
         but everywhere else it only gets bluer.
And the morning plane slices into it
         as it banks toward Anchorage.

And the crowns of trees are all connected in it.

And crows don’t care, they just burst right through it.
In the killing cold a search plane looking down on it
         would see small fires moving across the landscape.
And bigger fires, human beings constructing
         themselves every morning from sticks and paper.

We forget that through infrared glasses we all look equal.
Forget we could walk into that scene,
         meet death halfway to where we’re going and not
         sit in our houses waiting.

Because when God opened a window something had to be done.
Walking into the landscape, the faithful are departing.

This is the far-off country I’m writing to you from.

 

The Clearing

It would be spring. I'd be out walking.
I'd stumble across a field in a clearing.
A shock in the woods I thought I knew.
There'd be my mother wielding a hoe.

I'd stumble across her in the clearing.
Smoke from a stovepipe: her sister cooking.
There'd be my mother wielding a hoe.

She wouldn't be wearing a slip or stockings.

Smoke from the stovepipe: her sister cooking.
Nights they'd drink sting-nettle tea.

They'd be barefoot, no slips or stockings.

I'd call-but they wouldn't hear me.

Nights they'd drink sting-nettle tea.
As if it had always been this placid.
I'd call-but they wouldn't hear me.
The jokes they'd tell, dark and ironic.

As if it had always been this placid.

As if it had always been this place.

The jokes they'd tell, dark and ironic.
They wouldn't be raped-they'd be safe.

As if it had always been this place.

As if there'd been no reason to beg.

They wouldn't be raped-they'd be safe.
Under her dress, my mother's strong bare legs.

As if there had never been reason to beg.
Beside the woodstove, the little hatchet.
Under her dress, my mother's strong bare legs.
Where it was ripped, the careful stitches.

Beside the woodstove, the little hatchet.
Beside the door, a man's shoes.
Where it was ripped, the careful stitches.
While the kindling popped and the tea cooled.

Beside the door, a man's shoes.

Where have they gone, those men?

As the kindling popped and the tea cooled.
Song of a night-jar, song of a wren.

It would be spring. I'd be out walking.
A shock in the woods I thought I knew.
I'd stumble across a house in a clearing.
My mother stepping into the sun.

                             -from Many Ways To Say It

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Poems - Bio -Review - Essays - Reading

Trained initially as a marine biologist, Eva Saulitis received her M.S. from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1993.  Since 1986, she has studied the killer whales of Prince William Sound, Kenai Fjords and the Aleutian Islands and is the author and co-author of numerous scientific publications.

Dissatisfied with the objective language and rigid methodology of science, she turned to creative writing – poetry and the essay – to develop another language with which to address the natural world, receiving her MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1996.

Her essay collection, Leaving Resurrection, was a finalist for the Tupelo Press Non-Fiction Prize and the Foreword Book Award, and was published by Boreal Books/Red Hen Press in 2008.  A poetry collection, Many Ways To Say It, was published by Red Hen Press in September 2012, and a memoir, Into Great Silence:  Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas was published by Beacon Press in January 2013.

Her essays and poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Crazyhorse, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, Northwest Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, Carnet de Route, Seattle Review and Kalliope.  They have also appeared in several anthologies, including Homeground:  Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez; she has read essays she contributed to that volume on the PBS radio series Living on Earth.

She lives in Homer, Alaska, where she teaches creative writing at Kenai Peninsula College, at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, and in the Low-Residency MFA Program of the University of Alaska Anchorage.  She continues to spend summers studying killer whales in Prince William Sound with her partner, biologist Craig Matkin, through their non-profit research, conservation and educational organization, the North Gulf Oceanic Society.

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Poems - Bio -Review - Essays - Reading

In her first book of poetry, naturalist and award-winning essayist Eva Saulitis explores the web of connections between nature, science, language, and the continually opening territory of the self, where all of those topographies intersect and the individual must navigate a course through their beauty, terror, and mystery in order to reach that “far-off country,” a place to which the only map is her poems. In Saulitis’s work, we see the mind of a scientist and naturalist grappling with the deeper nature of the environment—the places that are beyond observing, cataloguing, measuring, or even naming. In her biography, we read, “dissatisfied with the objective language and rigid methodology of science, she turned to creative writing—poetry and the essay—to develop another language with which to address the natural world.” This goal is beautifully realized in Many Ways to Say It, which is evidence of her knowledge of both the natural world and the inner world that it reflects.

Saulitis writes poems that are full of nuance and subtle shades of emotion. She recognizes the “missed pleasure blossoming / at the edge of everything / familiar.” Her poems entice and invite us to see beyond the way science and even religion have taught us to relate to nature and to recognize our own desire to be seduced by its mysteries. In one of my favorite poems from the book, “Maybe I’ll (Go),” she presents this longing as a lover we might try to resist, but who is calling to us from the inside:

There’s a woods in my brain,
I think I know. I don’t know.
There’s someone who goes,
and she’s not me. She leaves
the bucket under the tree,
follows the tracks he’s trampled for her
in the decomposing snow.

Saulitis’s imagining of this shadow world, this unnamable place we can only find in ourselves, is haunting, erotic, and irresistible. She seems to be telling us in every poem: There is a world next to this world. It is hidden, but, any minute, you could fall into it, so you’d better prepare yourself. When that happens, the things you thought you knew will be of no use and you will have to learn a new way to see, a new way to say it all.

Saulitis is intimate with names of the plants, animals, and minerals that inhabit her surroundings and her poems, but she also knows that those names are often an inadequate way to express the magic under the surface. She recognizes that behind every name is something that cannot be said. This idea is played out in the second section of the book, which presents the character of Linnaeus (the father of scientific taxonomy) as a sort of King Lear figure, taken up with nomenclature and sexual classification (“As he looked // he touched. As he touched he named. As he named everything / changed.”), which, Saulitis seems to suggest, is a kind of madness. She writes, “Winter will / confound you, nature’s butcher’s block / unman the names and ranks.” Nature does not know nor need our names. Each thing is only itself:

No, adamant, it’s a pond,
no stranger, it’s nature actual, unnamed,
unmanned, no metaphor, no lure,
a pond drinking in desire
as only water can . . .

Set against Linnaeus is the persona of Cordelia, a daughter who refuses to submit to this vision of the world, to the role she is being asked to play. Saulitis deftly weaves images of domesticity, submission, and wild longing into poems that take the traditional correlation between women and the natural world to a new level. She draws more than the simple equals sign that says both women and nature have been subjugated, boxed in, and brutalized. Instead, she claims the power of that connection: “go girl, disappear / into that leaf-thrash vegetal / mosh-pit, tangled, but with openings, / openings, everywhere:” Ultimately, the Cordelia persona moves past the Linnaeus/father figure and becomes herself that entry point between what we think we know about the world and everything that remains secret and shadowed. She writes:

… I stopped. But my other self, the third person,
she got up. There was a smell like overturned peat. She forgot
all the names. She was tree & she was splayed,
like the fern. Pond and bog flame. Observed, observer, leaf
& lover. She was witness. She was water.

Saulitis forces us to face the edge—the place where our knowledge, skill, and imagined power is going to fail us. The places that are here and now, around and inside us, that we will never know on a rational or critical level. The places we don’t even have words for:

a place where knowing
ends, where language founders,

where the wind carries off all her word
endings. Remember that edge,

ships plunging off explorer’s maps,
& someone’s marked the margin: Here there be … ?

But the crucial part’s worn away–?
Remember? That’s where she begins.

This is the place Saulitis invites us to begin as well. She recognizes that we all live in this concrete world of words and things, of GPS and pollywog, of shrew’s den and feng shui, but that world can’t be the one that we end in. We must move past it, see through it, understand that the deeper we dig, the more is revealed. Everything is saying something and part of our work is to learn that language beyond names and to accept that we will never fully know it. Saulitis writes these poems that are like messages from the dark, lush country inside us, carried by “that nameless bird in the morning.”

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Poems - Bio -Review - Essays - Reading

The Goshawk Within by Eva Saulitis, first published at 49 Writers

Some flim-flam grand slam, glitchy
as religion, this is, with its chronic
key-and-padlock, hit-and-missy cerebellum,
its sturm and drangish, bum-
rushed, all-thumbed cockalorum.

—from “Inspiration” by Hailey Leithhauser (featured on Poetry Daily, May 10).

My friend says we all have a hungry ghost inside us. Both Buddhism and Taoism recognize this entity, which can arise from neglect or desertion of an ancestor. My friend isn’t using the term in that traditional sense, of course, but metaphorically; a hungry ghost can never be satisfied.

Hungry ghost. The term popped into my mind unexpectedly this morning as I walked with the dogs through the woods, searching for signs of spring. I was, myself, hungry, gulping in a kelpy scent coming off the bay, a smell I associate with the open ocean. Salty, low-tide, far-away. After a day of sun and promise, this morning a smoky gray pall had greeted my eyes when I’d pulled back the curtains. No shadows. No bright patches. Cool, only 40 degrees, trees leafless, ground wet, fifty shades of brown, sullen. Spring, so corporeal yesterday, transformed into a ghost again.

Writing is like that. The hungry ghost craves inspiration. Yet it’s hit and missy, as Leithhauser puts it. Unreliable. There’s a key. There’s a padlock. Some days the key in your hand just won’t fit. Some days, inspired, words, true ones, flow from head to hand to page. Some days, dull words clomp, clad in cement boots. You sound so damn stilted. Years ago, daunted by my first writing retreat down in Sitka, a wise poet-friend said: “One good sentence a day. One sentence worth keeping. What if that were your goal?” One inspired sentence. A hungry ghost whispering, more.

But inspiration comes unbidden, like the rare sighting of an owl or wolf in the woods. How many times have I walked the loop full of expectation – down the dirt road, a left turn at the dead spruce, a short walk along the wetland, a jump across the ditch, hands in the earth pulling me up the other side into the birch forest at the edge of the slough, stopping every twenty feet to scan for moose or coyotes or a bear – and saw nothing I hungered for. This morning I saw: in a copse of birches, the tree stand someone long ago had nailed up, collapsed. What did it mean? All the obvious metaphors drifted by, like dead leaves down the rivulets in the slough below. Ideas, inspiration. The support beams had rotted underneath, spilling the plywood sheet to the earth. Nothing more.

A writer is a hungry ghost. For a writer, a walk is never simply a walk. It’s a collection trip. It’s a beseeching sort of prayer. Inspire me. Shake me up out of this lethargy. Knife a hole out of this heavy sky. Wake me up. Teach me how to see. Tweet a first line in my ear.

And when the prayers go unanswered, we sit before the page anyway. We walk the same trail, over and over, laying down a muddy path through familiar woods, collecting what’s given, squirreling it away, using it later. Things are always falling in the woods. Last winter, a beautiful birch. A tree stand. One spruce tree in a grouping had died. I stood and puzzled at its rusty needled self. What went wrong?

There are two sides to the hungry ghost of writing, a useful one, and a destructive one. How many rituals do we devise, telling ourselves we must enact them in order to write? Time, a certain span of it. This pen. That notebook. Quote tacked to the wall above desk, stack of poetry books beside computer. Coffee made just so. Quiet. This place, that music. And when we do sit down to write, never enough pages. Never the right voice or word. And when we publish, never enough praise. Never enough attention. Ad nauseum. That hungry ghost is nauseous, of course, throat stretched tight, mouth wide, stomach gnawing its own insides raw.

Day of dank, exposed gray mudflats, drizzle, air almost particulate in its graininess and weight. Day inarticulate, brooding. Nothing green poking up out of the dead and fallen meadow grass. I followed the trail of a moose. Its dropping here and there were fresh, gleaming. I could see its prints in the potato patch. I think it’s a she, trying to find a place to bed down to give birth. I pocketed my observations, stopped to note the progress of the rhubarb nubs pushing up out of the earth. I remembered yellow birch leaves, edges burnt brown, mottling the surface of that plywood tree stand last fall, and all the falls before.

And yet. The hungry ghost is also the best of us. The hungry ghost urges, tugs, niggles, nags. The hungry ghost drives us out the door, a journal in our pocket. It urges us to look, to pause, to listen to the wetland surging with snowmelt, to listen for our own voice buried deep as a scaly fiddlehead under a bed of leaf-rot. It urges us to write, and not always what we think we should be writing. What the hell does this mean, the fallen tree stand, the hidden moose, the trail I walk and walk, repetitively, leaving my boot prints. Bear witness to this life, begs the hungry ghost. Bear witness.

What is writing all about? Which hungry ghost do we feed? It is humbling to sit before the page each day. The page, like this gray, uninspiring sky, like this empty, waiting woods. It is humbling to strive to get perception translated into words, knowing we will never get it exactly right. To find that one inspired sentence. To wait, day after day, to cultivate patience in the midst of hunger.

When I teach a class, I sometimes begin by asking people the simple question: Why do you write? No one answers: for attention, for praise. They answer like people who’ve just staggered out of a desert and are asked “Why do you gulp water like that?” Thirsty ghost. Ignore it and you suffer.

And if we think it gets easier, this hungering and thirsting after words, here is what John McPhee wrote about first drafts in a letter to his daughter, who was struggling with writing: Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something –anything—as a first draft.

And then, and then, I swear to you, here at my kitchen table, laboring over this blog post, flinging broken tree stands and moose turds at my computer screen, plopped down in this same spot where I sit every day, a white blur catches my eye, a swooping something, and then I hear strange cries. I open the door, and the cries are loud now, bleating, beseeching, something in pain (you know what it is, the dying rabbit-baby squeal) and then a snowshoe hare suddenly bounds through the underbrush, and on a fallen tree, sits a blue-gray goshawk, baffled, looking this way, that, wondering how the hell that pealing, frantic, fearful beast escaped its grasp. What’s its ratio, I wonder, success to failure? No matter. Driven by hunger, the goshawk flies up into the trees, to begin the hunt again.

I write to feed the hungry ghost, the one for whom inspiration, ever just out of reach, leaps like a self-saved rabbit through the trees. I write because it takes me underneath the mundane, the slog, the muck, the sleep-walk, the petty, the dull, the bored. I write because it gives me back my most-alive life.

Why do you do it? Why do you write? Tell me about your hungry ghost.

Click here to view another essay by Eva Saulitis at 49 Writers

 
Click here to read from Eva's field work

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Poems - Bio -Review - Essays - Reading

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Click here watch Eva's reading presented by Alaska Quarterly Review




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Click here to buy Eva's books

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Eva Saulitis



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