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Attendance & Reverence: Being and Learning with Wayne Dodd
An essay by David Swerdlow

Reprinted from the Fall 2002 Ohioana Quarterly

All the pages inside me are blank.

I have not seen strawberries in a high meadow
For how may seasons?

Now the chipmunks are thin
And restless in their sleep.

Friend, what I need today is one clear message
I can send

And receive.

This poem, titled “Letter,” hangs above my desk. Wayne Dodd, the man who served as my dissertation director, wrote the poem and gave me this framed copy as a housewarming gift. In the twelve years since completing the book of poems that served as my dissertation, I’ve glanced up hundreds of times to see Wayne’s poem, to see and hear its presence on the white wall. I’ve tried to listen for it - tried to meet it on its way.

It causes me to remember my five years in graduate school at Ohio University. During that time, Wayne and I met in his office nearly every week to talk about a poem I was writing, about poetry in general, or simply to talk. The two overstuffed yellow chairs, in which we sat, did not face one another directly. We could, because of our arrangement, comfortably look up into an open space to think or wonder. When Wayne looked toward me, it was with the power of someone who had learned to dismiss the clutter that infiltrates most academic thinking. Unlike the voices of some of my professors, both the competent and the incompetent, Wayne’s voice seemed to come from a place deep in his body and could fill a room with its intensity. We rarely spoke of how a poem could be “fixed,” but turned our attention to how a poem moved, how it came into itself, or, sadly, how it had come out of itself. Perhaps because Wayne was completely himself, it seemed natural to speak religiously of these matters. Sometimes, his arms would raise and turn in a poem’s rhythm.

* * * * *

I liked to see and hear Wayne walking down the hall. It didn’t happen very often, but when it did I was delighted. Wayne never seemed to be merely commuting from place to place. With a brisk pace, boots keeping the beat, he kept his head up as he walked the middle of the hall. He was looking around, the way a horse can look as it runs an open field. I don’t recall any of my other professors moving this way. Mostly, I remember their shoulders brushing the wall as they moved from their offices to the main office, where the copy machine awaited their arrivals, sweet papers in their hands, something on their clicking, intricate minds.

Most images of Wayne that I recall are not of him in his office, or anywhere else in the building where the English Department was housed. Rather, they are of him at his home on Peach Ridge, one of the many ridges that surround the town of Athens, Ohio. With his wife Joyce, most any day, he could be found taking care of his home and its eleven acres of woods. I would go there for instruction. Once I helped them transplant a spruce tree of considerable size. We worked for hours getting at the taproot, freeing it from the ground, bringing it to the surface intact, without injury. Though he was about sixty years old at the time, Wayne’s 5’6” frame had maintained the spring and strength he had developed in his earlier days as a lightweight boxer. His exaggerated groan, when we were forced to cut through some of the tree’s smaller, densely matted hair roots, was both comic and tender. He could not live in this world, I’m sure, without giving voice to his affection for it.

* * * * *

His poetry testifies to that love. This is the end to his “Love Poem as Meditation”:

        Or perhaps
on waking, we hear a note
plain through the morning
air. Bird, we say, or Beauty,
or utter a certain name
we recognize each other
by. The moon, let’s say,
holds then the sky
in perfect fullness. Every
word the mouth shapes is someone,

That uttered words are beings-in-the-world, in the Heideggerian sense, is an astonishing fact in and of Wayne’s life. In the year that saw the publication of the book, Sometimes Music Rises (University of Georgia Press, 1986), from which this poem comes, he spoke often to me about the relationship between poetry and Being, poetry as Being, as existence. Those thoughts are available in his book Toward the End of the Century: Essays into Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 1992), which I read often, and in which he writes:

Poems are never merely. That is to say, they have being rather than meaning. They are their own uses. They are not resolved, they are entered. Poems are where, physically, our own bodies and the bodies of words join in reality’s pulse and movement. They are where, physically and spiritually, our existence is entered, in its mysterious fullness. Poetry is not a saying: it is a becoming. It is never an errand, at the service of some other need or value: it is a journey into. It is existence entered.

To enter into existence’s pulse, Wayne hears its music, and, listening carefully to the above lines of poetry, one may take the same musical journey. Stepping down the page as crisp thought, these lines break as alertness embodied. I love the way the poem hears itself, a tension between the deliberate and associational motion of the mind: “air. Bird, we say, or Beauty,/ or utter a certain name/we recognize each other/by. The moon, let’s say . . . .” The alliteration and assonance of this passage cannot be described as contrived or, even, rehearsed. And I’d hate to speak of it in merely technical terms. Rather, for example, we might say that Bird finds itself carried forward into Beauty, which remembers the y sound of say, and both the b and the y sounds are musical parents of by’s sound, its prepositional complexity. Here, music arrives as a consequence of attentiveness, at an existential level, to the texture of language and world, to the moon and the utterance of its fullness.

* * * * *

About a quarter-mile into the woods, Wayne has built a one-room cabin where he goes to write his poems. He rarely speaks of it. Occasionally, Joyce will say over the phone, “He’s in the cabin.” In the cabin, Wayne practices his art as faithfully as possible. When I think about Wayne - writing - I often remember a passage I love in an essay by the poet Denise Levertov:

All the thinking that I do about poetry leads me back, always, to Reverence for Life as the ground for poetic activity; because it seems the ground for Attention . . . . Without Attention - to the world outside, to the voices inside us - what poems could possibly come into existence? Attention is the exercise of Reverence for the “other forms of life that want to live.” The progression seems clear to me: from Reverence for Life to Attention to Life, from Attention to Life to a highly developed Seeing and Hearing, from Seeing and Hearing (faculties almost indistinguishable for the poet) to the Discovery and Revelation of Form, from Form to Song. (From “Origin of a Poem” in Claims for Poetry. Donald Hall, ed. Ann Arbor: U of MI Press, 1988, 263-4)

When I first understood that Wayne’s going to the cabin was a daily ritual, not an academic holiday, I was awed. Once, I remember thinking that Wayne was not unlike my grandfather who walked to temple every morning and every evening of his life. How could anyone be that devout, I wondered. And how could they not be?

Devotion, it should be said, never asserts itself wholly without grief, without the inevitably of loss. Wayne knew this early in his career, and that knowledge has carried forward. In the poem “Essay in Three Parts: On Poetry,” from his first full-length collection of poems, The Names You Gave It (Louisiana State University Press, 1980), he meditates on devotion, loss, and poetry:

Let this be enough. Try not to think of anything
else. Say now the names you gave it
then - the people, the places. And it will be
true. It will have a language you
are at the center of. It will touch all
the places you have been to.
And the saying of it will sound like music,
as sidewalks pale in the moonlight
like something forgotten,
over and over.

Prayerful instructions to the poet at work, this early meditation feels what the German poet Hölderlin knew to be his and all poets’ great task: being in the trace of the fugitive gods. In that venture, loss, language and existence in their most primitive, pure forms become the central braid in Wayne’s epistemological and ontological venture. To be in the presence of that elemental perspective made me suspect of any lesser approach to poetry inspired by what I came to understand as ancillary or secondary concerns. I was on the lookout for it in my work, and in the voices of others who might affect me.

* * * * *

It is a sad fact that many well-credentialed writers in the poetry industry never achieve the devotion or the reverence and attention necessary for the creation of an authentically voiced poem. Many settle for skillfully manipulated beliefs that form a lesser music. Many of these same writers are not even on a path toward reverence.

One writer, who seemed governed by academic and poetic trends, directed another workshop I took while writing my dissertation. One evening, she gave the class an assignment to write a “political poem.” Born out of her frustration with the group’s tendency to write poems more interested in landscape and domestic relations than in the plight of the oppressed, this assignment demonstrated her willingness to belittle both the poetic and the political by directing them like traffic. I refused to do the assignment. Instead, intent on the small ambition of enraging this instructor, I brought in William Carlos Williams’s famous poem about the red wheelbarrow as an example of what could be a political poem. She was predictably livid, accusing me of undermining her assignment, which, of course, was also her authority. I argued that Williams’ poem was, in fact, political because the poem’s elegant work allows us to see the wheelbarrow, to revere it, and to feel it as it stands for itself and for the oft-overlooked proletariat upon whom, in the poem’s language, “so much depends.” I think I was right. Still, I was falling into the trap she was setting without even knowing it. I was trying to make poetry work for me, to make a language I could use instead of language that opened me to its use. Our faces grew flushed with superficial blood as we argued, and I left that night with a sense of having nothing at my core.

The next day I wandered over to Wayne’s office, hoping to be restored not by direct treatment, but by the ambiance of integrity. He wasn’t there. Soon after that, I was looking out my window, hoping for some other revelation, but nothing came. Another of Wayne’s poems from Sometimes Music Rises was with me then, though, and I remember reading it many times. Titled “Tongues,” this longish poem opens with the following stanzas:

A certain reticence to speak
out into silence may honor,
it is true, the fluent
mysteries that carve
spaces for us out of air.
But of itself such
niceness is nothing more
than finches, carnelian and
against the morning snow.

For a while a small inclarity
of light may any moment
the mind to stillness,
inevitably someone
in the room will start
to colonize the air
with thoughts as swerveless

as bombers. Ships
will declare
to the circumambient waters
of the earth some bold
plan, and entire nations
of people will strike out

along a line as confident as
red sails in the sunset.

meanwhile the tonguetied
brain courses and
courses the narrow channels
of imagination.

The poem’s critique of imagination and language’s misuses cannot be missed. It not only takes aim at politicians, would-be conquerors and their speechwriters who can utter such phrases as “the axis of evil,” but also those straight-ahead writers who, in the guise of poetry, believe they speak the truth before they have truly listened for it and its complex sound. What amazes me more about this poem, however, is how its knowledge comes forth as bodily understanding, as music - and not as discourse, itself colonizing “the air/with thoughts as swerveless//as bombers.” In 1986, many young writers, including me, were trying to find a way to permit the intellect back into our poetry that had, for so long, resisted it entirely - and not “almost successfully” as the modernist writer Wallace Stevens had so wisely instructed. We were wanting a way to make statements, political or otherwise. In Wayne’s poems, such as “Tongues,” I found language on a curve of flight not as mere intellect, but as saturated mindfulness.

* * * * *

When I first met Wayne as a student in his graduate workshop, he must have been beginning to work on the poems that would make his third book, Echoes of the Unspoken (University of Georgia Press, 1990). It is a book of such great intensity - so astonishingly close to the source of its energy - that Wayne could not help but breathe it as he lived and taught. I remember being awed by the man, yet, somehow, comfortable with him. Later, I remember realizing that in Wayne’s presence I always felt I was before a person working on a poem at that precise moment. Because this book’s poems have such a concentrated existence, because they apprehend existence at point blank, they resist being excerpted - as, perhaps, should all poetry. Given that disclaimer, here is a brief passage from the poem “O.K. Let’s Suppose the Mind”:

into charts into photographs: see
there it is

the out there

in circles, in grids
all around us the bare earth
makes a sound

we can’t hear: the roar
the hum the scream

It was, and continues to be, the world “out there,” the world “we can’t hear: the roar” that Wayne wants us to be alert to, to attend to, to be desirous of. I found that call irresistible. Still do. How to do that, though - near Wayne, but on my own - became my question, one that continues to call me, one that I listen for, one that I try to meet on its way, with gratitude.

Works Cited

Dodd, Wayne. Echoes of the Unspoken. Athens GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

- . Sometimes Music Rises. Athens GA: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

- . The Names You Gave It. Baton Rouge LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

- . Toward the End of the Century: Essays into Poetry. Iowa City IA: University of Iowa Press, 1992.

Ignatow, David. “A Poet Should Live Among People: An Interview with Sandy McIntosh,” Confrontation, Vol. 46/47, Fall 1991/Winter 1992, 294-300.

Levertov, Denise. “Origin of a Poem,” Claims for Poetry. Donald Hall, editor. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.

David Swerdlow teaches English and creative writing at Westminster College.






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