by Weston Morrow | Contributing Writer
How do you write an introduction, a student in my Introductory Composition class asks. A tough question—how to begin. I wonder, myself, where to start.
You are lost in a swamp. The weeds have grown up around the house you built there long ago, and you can’t find your way out. You need a map. You have to dig.
Look around you, the trees themselves are rooting through the ground. The wind blows gently at your back. Though you failed to notice at first, the stars, overhead, have been lighting the way all day long. Only now, as the sun fades, can you see they’ve been lighting the game trails that wander through the tall grass.
Looking through their peer-review drafts I see one student telling another I can’t see the forest for the trees, and it’s clear to me that my advice about maps didn’t take. How can I show them the way out without walking the path myself?
In every forest, there is more empty space than trees. Is this not, also, a necessary part of life—each breath between statements? The pause, to listen. Even a monologue is a conversation between speaker and silence. When the lungs inflate, the body hums. Anticipation becomes the claim.
Audre Lorde wrote, “Our poems formulate the implications of ourselves.” As teachers, we must be the map.
Genre is a path with well-trod dirt. It may even be paved. If you want to veer away, into the swamp, you have to make your own way, but then what? How can any reader follow our wanderings through the woods?
What does all this mean? The poem, the essay, the story, has to teach the reader how to read it. But what, really, do we mean when we say teach?
Take, for instance, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic. The stakes of the play—its central claim—are laid out in the very first line. In “We Lived Happily During the War,” Kaminsky writes, “And when they bombed other people’s houses, we / . . .”
Some of you may already know where the line goes, but it doesn’t matter. This line is the entire collection condensed.
What do I mean by this? Kaminsky’s book is one about silences, how we inhabit them. To Kaminsky, there is no such thing as silence. Instead, the space of silence is a language in itself. To do nothing is to be complicit.
Kaminsky’s collection has no lack of action, but the tension in the book comes equally from its gaps, its white space and silences.
In “Question” Kaminsky writes,
What is a man?
A quiet between two bombardments.
“Our poems formulate the implications of ourselves.” As do our silences.
What do the people do? In response to the bombing of their neighbors, what do the people do? I don’t know. What happens in the gap?
When they bombed our neighbor’s houses what did we do? That is the question at the heart of Deaf Republic, and Kaminsky asks it, first, not as a question, but as a pause—a silence, a bit of space, between statements.
Kaminsky invokes silence in the line long before he mentions it explicitly. In that very first line, the language maps the territory even as it builds the landscape. In this case, the map is the territory. Or, perhaps more accurately, the territory is the map.
The way Kaminsky opens the line with the word “when” implies an if/then construction. When X occurred, Y followed. “When they bombed other people’s houses, we / . . .”
We what? What did we do? Kaminsky builds his line so readers are left, momentarily, waiting for the reaction of the people, but of course Kaminsky knows we are waiting for this, and so he withholds it. Thus, the tension builds in the space of uncertainty. But this line break here is not only a method of building tension, it implicates the speakers in the space between language. If the collection asks us, ultimately, to consider how our silence and inaction implicate us, the first line builds the map for this interrogation even as it opens it.
Just as the first word—“when”—maps the territory of the first line, so too does the first line map the territory of the collection. So we are always being oriented and reoriented in the work, turned and turned until we reach our destination.
The town in Kaminsky’s collection is a fictional one. This fictional setting, crafted in relation to true events from the author’s (and our) past and present, forms a very different landscape from that of Jake Skeets’s collection, Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, which debuted the same year.
Skeets grounds his collection in the very real town of Gallup, New Mexico. The town in his collection is as much, if not more, a character than any of the dramatis personae. The town inhabits the people, so that when a person is described or acts, the town, too, is described—it acts.
Kaminsky’s town is, in a sense, a real place, but in a very different sense from Skeets’s town. The Gallup that Skeets manifests in his collection is a corporeal one, but it is also a personal one. It’s the Gallup of Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, which would be different from the Gallup of some other author, some other book. Skeets knows this, and so provides readers with his Gallup, which forms the world of his collection, in the opening lines.
Indian Eden. Open tooth. Bone Bruise. This town split in two.
Clocks ring out as train horns, each hour hand drags into a screech—
iron, steel, iron. The minute hand runs its fingers
through the outcrops.
Drunktown. Drunk is the punch. Town a gasp.
In between the letters are boots crushing tumbleweeds,
a tractor tire backing over a man’s skull.
I have read this collection, these opening lines, so many times now, and each time they show me something new, guide me to a new part of town I hadn’t known before, a back alley, a bar I’d thought was closed.
As with Kaminsky in Deaf Republic, Skeets crafts a map from the territory itself here in these opening lines. This is a way knowledge is passed on beyond the rational. Rather than attempting to collapse the territory into the map, Skeets reaches out a hand and points out the game trails, lifts up a tuft of milk vetch to reveal a jackrabbit form.
There is one town. There are two towns. Separated. Cut off from each other. The stanzas reach out, almost like hands, for each other, but cannot quite touch. Time, like so many elements of cold, colonial infrastructure, oppresses. A thing to be quantified, categorized, contained. The same with language. But Skeets, like Kaminsky, is interested in something beyond the obvious: What happens in the space between statements, between letters, beyond the limits of imperial language.
Gallup is the land at the heart of this collection, and it is land shot through with cold colonial infrastructure, cut off from the fields that surround it and inhabit its spirit. In an essay titled “Poetry as Field,” Skeets writes how language and the field weave together to form worlds: “It began in the dark. Waters swell and out bursts life from the mist and fog. From the bodies came language that created fire and direction. Language then created worlds, first a second, then a third, and a fourth.”
Tanana Athabascan scholar Dian Million writes that in many Indigenous knowledges and practices, “humans and their societies are not isolated at the pinnacle of hierarchy of being but rather are always related and relating; that is, humans are in kinship with other entities within an intricate cycle.”
In the opening lines of Eyes Bottle Dark With a Mouthful of Flowers, Skeets draws attention to the problem at the heart of the collection—the divide cut like a wound through Gallup’s fields. The men, too, impacted by the unnatural separation from the rest of the field lose something of themselves, of each other, of the land. The space, then, is not something separate from the language. The space between letters, words, strophes, is not inherently a separator. Skeets shows that space is full of life, as long as we treat it as alive.
In Maps of the Imagination, Peter Turchi writes, “To learn how to read any map is to be indoctrinated into that mapmaker’s culture.” In successful poems, essays, collections, etc., the statement can go further. The piece teaches us how to read it, and as it does so draws us into its world. Later in Maps of the Imagination, Turchi describes walking maps made by a colleague of his who refuses to include trails to follow, saying “paths are too limiting; they take you where you want to go.”
So, too, with Skeets’s work. Every element is laid with intention, but it does not build a garden path; it cultivates a field of meaning. Roland Barthes describes a text as a “methodological field” without boundaries. He goes on to write that “the Text is what is situated at the limit of the rules of the speech-act (rationality, readability, etc.).”
Skeets writes, “There is simply a field. A field beyond meaning.”
This, I think, may form the crucial difference between what I told my Introductory Composition students about maps and what I’ve increasingly found to be true. The piece of writing must teach the reader to read it, but not didactically, not—as Freire would say—through a banking model of education. The successful piece of writing teaches the reader how to read it in the same way that the territory forms its own map. As a baby is taught the way of its world—not only in the language but also its silences, in the space for interaction.
Silence, empty space—these are the hollows in the body of the instrument where the music’s made. To read the work of poets like Kaminsky or Skeets is to see the author’s relationship with space inverted.
Meaning is made when the author reaches across space (and time) toward the reader, and it is this space into which the reader is drawn.
These works implicate themselves on the page. They interrogate themselves dialogically with us, the readers. As teachers, we should treat our classrooms like any other text, work with our readers, our students, to make meaning. Join them in discovery.
In her 2015 book, Forms, Caroline Levine writes, “Every form thus generates its own separate logic.” As Levine notes later in her book, the seminar—like the poem, essay, or novel—is also a form.
In 2008, Eric Turley and Chris Gallagher introduced the law of distal diminishment, which claims that “any educational tool becomes less instructionally useful and more potentially damaging to educational integrity the farther away from the classroom it originates or travels.” I take “outside the classroom” to mean more than just classrooms generally, but the specific classroom in which the document will be used. Even adopting a colleague’s syllabus or assignment description can be damaging if we fail to adapt it to the specific needs of our class as well.
Each classroom creates its own unique logic. We must teach the students how to learn, and we can’t do that by forcing knowledge down their throats; we have to make room for learning. Create the space where the learning occurs in the gaps between answers.
I’m in San Antonio, on my way to a poetry reading, following the map on my phone to a restaurant on the Riverwalk, thinking about the way phone maps constantly reorient the viewer. How they point us in the direction we need at that moment, spinning with us as we go left or right, east or west. The poem is like this, too. There is not a single turn, but many.
At the end of each line, the poem turns, reorients itself with the reader.
The poem is, to me, an electronic map, turning always with the reader, following them but also guiding them, nudging the walker in each new direction, readjusting their perspective with every turn. North is not always up in this world; rather, up is whichever direction one needs at the moment.
The poem, also, is a kind of race track—recursive, looping back on itself. When we reach the end, we start again at the beginning, whether literally or in our heads, reshaping the meaning in light of new cartographic detail.
What may seem repetitive to the uninitiated, the hundreds of laps at the Indianapolis 500, could not be further from the reality of the driver and the thousands watching from the stands. To the driver, every lap is different, shaped by the meaning layered through each preceding lap, molded in the uncertainty of those ahead.
When, finally, they reach the end, a kind of narrative forms, but this narrative is not, and cannot be, simply the summation of the narratives built during each lap—each of those narratives factor into the larger meaning but are in many ways replaced, their divergent futures erased. They live on, however, as the many branching paths of what may have once been possible.
Turchi writes of the way authors try to guide their readers: “Usually we want their focus to be on content rather than on our decisions about presentation. We compel readers to look in the direction we want them to look, to see what we want them to see, the way we want them to see it.”
What I propose here is that we ourselves must turn, must reorient our relation to the craft of the piece. This is not to say that the piece need not be well-conceived or that the pieces need not be laid with intention. Rather, the piece should construct its country even as it draws the map, so that, looking at the form of the piece, the reader sees, also, its content. We need not direct the reader’s gaze; instead, we must build a landscape where even the empty space contains meaning to be grasped.
Think of the poem not as a 2D side-crawler video game, which sends the reader inexorably in the necessary direction. Think of the poem instead as an open world, like Red Dead Redemption, where the reader is free to look wherever they please, but in doing so, inevitably, they discover new things about the text.
I first started using Cormac McCarthy’s novels as teaching tools in my Introductory Composition classes as a way to open discussions of grammar. I found the opening passage of The Road, in particular, a perfect example of how to think of grammar not as a prescriptive and limiting set of rules but rather as a shared set of socially constructed heuristics with affordances and constraints we could wield for our purposes.
The more discussions I had with students about The Road‘s opening passage, though, the more I began to see its potential as another kind of teaching tool. The book opens like this, with the nameless man waking from sleep into a world even darker than his dream:
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granite beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.
I remember reading this book for the first time in college, when I was about the same age as many of my students, and being frustrated by the prose, feeling disoriented and lost in the jagged, unconventional landscape of McCarthy’s language. If our language shapes our view of the world, this opening passage of McCarthy’s not only builds his world, the world of the novel, but it also teaches us, the readers, how to enter, where we will go. The Road is set after an apocalyptic event, a True Grit post-apocalypse in which the man’s only reason for living is to protect the boy, the only innocent soul left on earth, as far as the man knows. McCarthy teaches us all this in the space of a single paragraph, the man reaching to the boy to make sure he’s safe, even as—in his dream—the man recognizes the boy is the one leading him, keeping him alive on the road to nowhere.
And the language, too, formulates the implication of the work. McCarthy’s language performs this dual function: at the same moment it builds the world it crafts the map for readers. McCarthy alternates these long, meandering lines that wander down the page as if lost, interspersed with short fragments lacking subjects or predicates. The grammar is disrupted. Like the man uprooted through apocalypse, we are placed in a situation for which our education in traditional social grammar structures has not prepared us. Forced to navigate an alien landscape. And through this landscape the man and the boy will wander, through long bouts of boredom and monotony unpunctuated by action or meaning. Before disaster. Terror. Some staccatic, awful nightmare. Trapped by cannibals. The path cracked—impassible—the road. Leading nowhere.
What forms in the gaps of McCarthy’s The Road? Terror. Fear not only of the many horrific outcomes, but also fear of hope and the tension between these two emotions. Space, silence. These run like ley lines through our work. The invisible arteries of our worlds created through language.
Every text forms itself between the reader and the writer.
My student asks me how to write an introduction. I pull out a blank piece of paper and two pens. I pull a branch back and point to the clearing. Tell them, if you want something done right, you can’t do it yourself. Tell them, they’re the author and I’m the reader, we’ll make the map together.
Weston Morrow is a poet, essayist, and former print journalist. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lake Effect, Sundog Lit, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. He serves as assistant poetry editor for Crab Creek Review and an editorial assistant for Ninth Letter. Find him on Twitter @WMorrow or at www.westonmorrow.com.
Cover image: George Seurat, “The Forest at Pontaubert”