Whatever it is you make, you address it to the smallest chance.
Hélène Cixous has said, “It is really the fantasy of the poet who confides his written heart to a vessel, but the most lost vessel in the world, to the smallest chance.” We are writing toward the future, putting our messages into fragile green and blue and clear bottles and flinging them ahead of us, out, into the vast sea. What an act of courage, what an act of confidence! And you yourself have been given that smallest chance – reading a favorite obscure poem, looking at a painting in the less traveled part of a museum, one, perhaps, that doesn’t fall into the canon. You have received the message, the written heart.
I think that we fill up with those messages, that we are capable of filling up on very small messages, that it’s possible to seek these particular types of messages out, and that in doing so, we discover what is in our own heart that needs sharing. Ray Bradbury has said, “We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.” Every day life fills us up. Making breakfast, setting a glass of orange juice on the table, buttering a piece of toast, putting a spoon in the jam, arranging things so that when your child arrives at the table, bleary eyed, these things are waiting. You open the back door to let the dog out late at night and stick your head out to look at the stars, the blast of winter air enveloping you, waking you into a hard clarity. All of these gestures. But yes, how to find a way to let the beautiful stuff tip out?
I suppose my own method has been to seek out for inspiration those books, those paintings, where for me, it’s visible – I can feel or see the stuff being tipped out. I don’t imagine ‘the stuff’ is the same for everyone. But when you find those writers who reveal this to you, remember to say their names, whenever you can. How important this is! Keep howling them out, singing them. By this I mean, acknowledge your indebtedness. Share those messages you have found. What we read is what makes us as writers, what we see is what makes us photographers, allows us to see possibilities, small openings. All those writers, those books, images, that become part of your skin, part of the howl you howl when you've lost your nerve.
One of those writers, one of the many writers I have turned to over the years to find the beautiful stuff that spills over in her writing, is Elizabeth Smart. Best known for the poetic novel based on her affair with George Barker, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Smart raised four children on her own and worked as a copywriter. Thirty two years after the publication of Grand Central (thirty two!) another work would see the light of day. And it’s in this book, Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals, that she says, “Isn’t there some statement you’d like to make? Anything noted while alive? Anything felt, seen, heard, done? You are here. You're having your turn. Isn't there something you know and nobody else does?” You are here, she says. And you’re already having your turn – you’re in it, you’re here.
You must use it, this turn of yours, you might as well. It’s a chance, however small. You must use it.
There’s an excerpted interview that I read online quite awhile back, and when I typed out the words by Smart, it came to mind. The interviewer is the wonderful Bill Moyers, who did the popular series, The Power of Myth, with Joseph Campbell. But in this case, he’s speaking with the poet, W.S. Merwin. Merwin reads a poem (Rain Light), chosen, he says, because it’s close to him:
W.S. MERWIN: “All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning”
BILL MOYERS: “Even though the whole world is burning.” It is, isn’t it?
W.S. MERWIN: Yes. It is. It is burning, and we’re part of the burning. We’re part of the doing it. We’re part of the suffering it. We’re part of the watching it helplessly and ignorantly. And we know it’s happening. And it is just us. It is our lives. We’re burning. We’re, you know, we’re not the person we were yesterday. We’re not the person we were 20 years ago.
This feeling that it’s our turn, that we’re part of the burning, that we’re alive – isn’t this reason enough to throw our bottle into the waves as the stars watch us from long ago, isn’t this reason enough to contribute our own statement? To say what we have seen or felt in a particular moment?
At the very least the quality of your day changes when you attempt to express what you alone can express on that one single day, when you say those things that are close to you. Thoreau said, “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts.” When you adopt the spirit of the person standing in front of the immensity, the burning, the wild ocean, throwing yourself into it alone, that message, then will you not feel alive?