blackbirdonline journalSpring 2020  Vol. 19 No. 1
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A Reading by Jessie van Eerden & Clint McCown
captured April 3, 2019
The works are transcribed as read and may vary from the published versions used as reference for form.

David Wojahn: Thanks to all of you for coming out tonight. I’m David Wojahn, the Director of Creative Writing at the English Department, and I would like to welcome you to the final event in this year’s Visiting Writers Series. And let me thank some of the many people and organizations who helped to make this series possible: The Department of English, the College of Humanities and Sciences, Barnes & Noble, Carol Weinstein, and our stalwart head of the VCU Libraries, John Ulmschneider. So thank you, everyone.

And it’s a special honor and pleasure to be introducing my esteemed colleague and wonderful friend, Clint McCown. Many of you here have taken classes from Clint, be they in fiction or in literature or in screenwriting, and you already know that he’s a teacher extraordinaire. But he is also one of the most accomplished and hardworking writers who I know of. And he’s a master of all the genres: novels, short fiction, memoir, screenplay, and verse. Most creative writers, obsessives that they are, just have one tool at their disposal. It’s a hammer, and they keep pounding those nails over and over again. Clint, however, is in possession of a writerly Swiss Army knife, [audience laughs] and he uses all of the attachments expertly. And I’m always astonished by the many careers he pursued before he found his calling as a writer. I have no other friend who served as a special assistant to a US President, but Clint did, working for several years as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s golf caddy. [audience laughs] I have no other friend who played Hamlet on a New York stage, no other friend whose journalism revealed a corruption scandal that reached into all the levels of the state government of Alabama, and no other friend who had a price on his head as a consequence of those investigations. I have no other friend who actually met Kevin Bacon [audience laughs] in the course of developing an HBO series for him, a series that was to be an adaption of one of Clint’s novels. I have no other friend, at least not one who’s still among the living, who belonged to a motorcycle gang. [audience laughs] And this list of accomplishments is all true. I might be hyperbolizing just a little, but it’s all true.

But tonight, I want to discuss how Clint wields the poetry tool of his Swiss Army knife, for Clint has just issued a sixth collection of verse, a new and selected volume, The Dictionary of Unspellable Noises. The book gathers poems spanning five decades. It’s masterly work, and the voice and sensibility in the poems is astonishingly consistent. Unlike most selected volumes which are arranged chronologically, Dictionary is divided into thematic units so that old poems, middle-aged poems, and new poems all rub shoulders with one another. And from the very beginning of his career, Clint’s voice has been self-assured, steady, sometimes funny, sometimes rueful. Unlike the work of so many of his generational peers, Clint’s poetry never traffics in cheap pyrotechnics or self-important solipsism or knee-jerk experimentalism. Instead, it seems to model itself on the method of one of his teachers and inspirations, the superb American poet A.R. Ammons, who sought to write acutely observant verse, always in the vernacular, but always at the same time philosophical. Clint writes very much in the Horatian tradition. He wants his poems to always give us pleasure, but at the same time he wants them to gently instruct us. Call them a version of “wisdom literature.” Listen to these lines from a poem entitled “The Inevitability of Last Words”:

I may go
quietly, or not; singing, raving, or flinging
vile curses at the nurse. So forget last
words. It’s enough if what I find upon

leaving is a fresh start, or at least a
fresh perspective, or even just one split
second free of all loneliness and regret.

A green field, a yellow sun, a rabbit in the
morning brush, a baseball nestled in a glove;
anything but the nothing of a black sky. Give

me anything, and I’ll call it a just exchange
equal in value to all the time I spent wondering
in this charred and ever-changing land.

It’s my pleasure to welcome my friend and greater maker, Clint McCown.


Clint McCown: Thank you, David. I first crossed paths with David thirty-six years ago, and that was a very lucky day for me. Thank you all for coming here. This collection covers forty-four years, so I’ll jump around a little bit. This one is a more recent one called “Secular Advice.”

Secular Advice

We never see it coming, not really—
because we don’t know what it is.
The jumper from the bridge is just

as unprepared as the pedestrian
stepping from the curb. We’re all
oblivious to the water, its mysterious

depths; we’re all oblivious to the bus,
its mysterious schedule and destination.
If there were clues along the way, we

missed them, thinking some eccentric
thought instead. That’s the trouble
with simple truth—it can hide in a

shoebox, a teacup, a broken branch.
It can hide in the way we fail to look
at one another on the street, or the way

we stare at roadkill we can’t identify.
Sure, some things we figure out—
we know that if our hands are cold

it doesn’t help to stick them in the fire.
But we’ll press the same button on
the elevator, day after day, forgetting

there’s no guarantee we’ll make it to
our floor. Ignore those idiot monks
who mummify themselves. Ignore

evangelists in shiny suits and all those
desperate salesmen trained to smile.
It’s not your soul’s salvation they have

in mind, it’s their own car payments,
their own dreams of bigger homes.
Plumb the gaps between their carefully

articulated words, and you can hear their
hearts screaming out the same reality as
yours: that one day, without warning,

there’ll be nothing left, not a single
thought, not a single heartbeat, not a
single breath. Only the search is endless,

as every generation proves, so try your
faith on that. Scan the dark world for
color and grace. Imagine music: let it

move you inward to the rhythms that
connect blood and bone. Sing every
strain that rises up inside. Keep dancing.

And here’s a slightly less depressing poem. [audience laughs] This is “Call to Worship.”

Call to Worship

The old church three farms down
the road burned to the ground.

Now it’s a charred scar on a small
rise, nothing left of it but history

and a homeless congregation. But
someone will donate a scraggly

patch a few miles up the highway,
and they’ll rebuild. It’s what we

do when day capsizes into night,
when the whirlwind comes, or the

flood, or in this case lightning.
Even so, buildings don’t matter

in the end. The body is a stain
upon the soul, or so they say, and

at times I see the logic. Nature
drives a one-sided bargain, and it’s

tough to know where we fit in.
Deer and deer ticks flourish as

much as possum and raccoon, but
we’re out of step, killing on impulse

like the lone cat or, worse, the
pack-bound dog. At Total Balance

Farm the horses come and go,
the hawk watches, the weather

changes. Cobwebs coated in stall
dust hang like silk stockings from

the barn rafters. The riding ring
offers up seashells after a rain,

the remnants of an ancient time.
I wish I could say what life is like

in this place of shelter and sudden
dangers, but language fails to

measure up, even to the ordinary.
The more a word is used, the

less it means, so some things we
take on faith, like displaced

congregants continuing the habit
of prayer. Any piece of land is

holy if we name it so. You think
seeing is believing? Humans

know the moon has no light of its
own. But it still beats the darkness.

This is called “When I Need Precision I Close One Eye.”

When I Need Precision I Close One Eye

Walking in Baltimore, my pace driven by a
salt-wind that scoured the inner harbor streets,
I passed a building with a banner on its side
that said
I listened for the whistling flutter of quail
breaking for the night trees, heard only
the tight crunch of shallow snow.

Across the empty lots from Camden Yards,
a thin man hailed me from the dark and
poured out the detailed story of his loss,
The cops, he said, had been no help at all.
His wallet and his duffle bag were gone.
He needed cash
to make the hundred miles back home.

I’d heard this con before
another cold night, another city street.
I knew already the slow progress of ice
through the sleeping mind and the long odds
against us. I told him I was too old now
to put much credence in his steady gaze.
He sighed, and asked again.

All gifts are temporary. The wool cap,
the leather belt, the chill, the light, the breath,
the moving hand. Not worthless, though.

I’ll pay you back, he swore—which was enough,
I guess, stuck as we are in this middle passage
between extremes of dust and ash.

I gave him sixteen dollars, but I got a poem out of it, so it was a fair deal. Okay, here’s a bad poem. [audience laughs] This is from 1975, and I feel I need to at least admit to some early crimes. So this is called “The History of America.”

The History of America

America was not discovered, it was
invented by a research marketer
who ran it up the flagpole and

gauged its saluteability ratio at
nine-point-seven, which was
very good, profit-projection-wise, so

he mounted it on wheels to make it
look like a bandwagon, fed it apple
pies, and even played baseball

on it to demonstrate its versatility;
but according to the surveys it
still wasn’t slick enough to fool

all the people all the time, so he
covered it with plastic gizmos,
propped the whole thing up on

Golden Arches, and taught it how
to spin wood from aluminum. The
people were understandably impressed

and America sold like hotcakes;
and the first two hundred and fifty
million paying customers received

Absolutely Free a long-playing
record of small birds singing
from the stomach of a cat.

I have two daughters, and they are grown and have moved away. So this is called “A Note to My Daughters, Far Away.”

A Note to My Daughters, Far Away

The heat of the afternoon has eased into
the gray haze of evening; the oak tree, with
its broad city of leaves, stands still as the
earth beneath it. Time slows, as it always
does for the solitary watcher. Were I not here,
time might falter altogether. As it is, my faint
shadow in the fading light will soon be gone.

O my daughters: for you I wish nothing
too steep, too far, too difficult to hold.

Given sad choices, I would wish you doubt
before I would wish you pain. I would wish
you pain before I would wish you loneliness.
I would never wish you fear—that inmost cave
where souls lose sight of everything. I’ve
wandered there for more eternities than I
can say, yet still believe there is a lighted
pathway back. Longing is unavoidable,
so live with it as best you can. Let it be
an ally, the hunger that propels the hunt.

In every case, maintain a celebration.
Remember some bright pool, some dance of
light through leaves, some spread of color from
a sinking sun. The dark descends only to
remind us: existence was a long shot at best, but
luck was with us. Let all complaints be feathers.

Sometimes a poem will just drop out of the sky, and this happened to me one day. I was walking along beside a pond, and a turtle fell from the sky, and landed in front of me. Some of you know that element of nature, and that’s what this is about. It’s called “Eagle and Turtle.”

Eagle and Turtle

When the eagle drops the turtle
from a great height,
it knows what it’s doing.
That’s how it makes a living.
The turtle will land hard,
preferably on rocks, and split apart,
allowing easy access to the meat.

But what does the turtle
make of it all?
Falling from the sky
outstrips its understanding.
As far as any turtle knows,
gravity is harmless,
a slow pull toward lethargy,
a simple means of staying put.
Shell-shattering force
is a mystery for the afterlife,
a puzzle inherited by blood,
a secret text hidden among the
picked-over remains of the fallen.

In that moment of release
does the turtle think it’s free
to get on with its life?
Is it pleased by the weightless
downward rush, relieved
to have slipped the grip
of whatever it was
that snatched it up
from its sunny slant of stone
on the warm bank beside the water?
Is the last thing it feels
a surge of joy
as it accelerates headlong
toward what it has known only
as the safety of its home?

And what if it somehow lives,
landing lightly on a cushion
of thick brush, or slicing edgewise
back into a mossy pond?
What facts of the miraculous
can it pass along to others
of its kind when there are no
others of its kind? Experience
speaks a language all its own.
Survivors are both blessed and
cursed, and have to live alone
with what they know.

Who among the ordinary could
believe in talons from the sky,
the terrifying rapture of being
taken up, the ecstasy of flight,
the freedom of the great fall,
the shock of reuniting
with the rising earth?
Who among the innocent
could comprehend the
darkness of the turtle’s dream,
the one that now
casts its shadow over
all remaining moments in the sun?

That turtle, by the way, survived, and I put it back in the weeds by the pond. Okay, this is called “Sarah, Unbroken.”

Sarah, Unbroken

My wife, Dawn, a natural caretaker, found
a car-struck fawn by the roadside and brought
it home, a doubtful rescue from the start.
She laid it in a stall bedded with fresh sawdust
and set food and water within its reach.

It never drank or fed. Our soft voices were
no balm for its broken back, and nothing ever
calmed its panic into rest. Nevertheless,
we named her, that ancient human habit so
prominent among our weaknesses.

If need is great, some animals surrender to a
soothing touch, regardless of what instinct
has to say. But others don’t, and this one
clung to fear as if it were her only hope.
She died before the week was out, the only

ending possible, and we grieved as if we had
an owner’s right. Maybe that was empathy,
or maybe just the same old hubris, left over
from those first free days in Eden, when naming
was the only means we had to stake a claim.

But either way, she was never less than wild, and
nothing about her was ever really ours except
her name, that artificial thread of kinship and
belonging, an illusion strung between ourselves
and the damage we bring daily to the world.

This was an encounter I had in my driveway. It’s called “Easement.”


Where the gravel easement
forks away toward other homes
beyond our land,
an old woman in a rusted truck
pulled up beside me
and rolled her window down.
I thought she might be lost.

Your dog kilt my cat, she said,
her voice level as water.

I told her she was wrong.
Our yard was fenced.
The yellow lab was gentle, frail,
and rarely left the porch.
He had four cats of his own.
Moreover, cancer had removed
a portion of his jaw
and left him with no bite.

He kilt my cat, she said,
her truth unassailable.
My daughter say she saw it all.

I spoke about the stray I’d seen
scavenging the neighborhood,
but she dismissed my theory
with a snorted breath.

He kilt my cat, she said again.
But I don’t care.

I argued still, while she just
scowled and shook her head.

I told you I don’t care, she said.
A week ago my
great-granddaughter died.
I got no extra room to mourn.

I told her I was sorry for her loss.

It just a cat, she said,
and drove on up the lane.

This is called “Questionnaire.”


My daughter calls to ask me questions
for a survey in her college class:

Can you name something
meaningful you’ve lost?

Interpreting my silence as a blank,
she tries to help: It can be anything,
she tells me, even a lost shirt.

She doesn’t understand the scope of
what she asks. I’m fifty-four; I’ve killed
more sacred things than I can name.

Has she noticed, I wonder, how
disjunctive the world can be, that the
heart is not heart-shaped after all?

The past,

I offer, finally, and feel her frown.
That doesn’t work, she says. It ruins
what comes next. I know she’s right.

But later she calls again, my second chance.

Have you tried to replace it?

she asks. This time I skip the silence,
slide straight into a string of useless
blather. Somehow not a word of it is

And here is a poem called “Birthright.”


When we arrive, pained and baffled, all
speech is mystery. Sure, we have some

basic answers in our blood, our bones,
whatever DNA provides. We breathe

without thinking. We generate a pulse;
consume, digest, expel. We sweat.

Cleave is our first instinct, and since the
mind has not yet learned to interfere

we know when to bind and when to sever.
Then words take shape, for ball, for door.

We cry the wish to be lifted up, the wish
to be fed, the wish to be comforted. Shades

of meaning cheat us out of certainty and
stutter the heart with vague directions home.

Only after years of dying in cold alleys
can we know that life is not a thing to be

conquered, or even put into words. Birth
is a passage we won’t remember, and so is

death, but the middle is what matters.
We’re more than just prisoners waiting to

be let out. We are the universe asking itself
a question. We are the part that wonders.

I’ll just stop it there. Thanks very much.


Brandie Gray: Good evening, everyone. I’m Brandie Gray, a third-year poet in the MFA program here at VCU, and I’ve been given the privilege of introducing tonight’s second reader, Jessie van Eerden.

Jessie van Eerden is the author of two novels, Glorybound, winner of the Foreword Editor’s Choice Fiction Prize, and My Radio Radio, as well as the recent essay collection The Long Weeping, winner of the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award. Her personal essays, short stories, and poems have appeared in the Oxford American, River Teeth, Image, Bellingham Review, The Literary Review, Willow Springs, Gulf Coast, Appalachian Heritage, Ruminate, and Blackbird, among others. Her prose has been anthologized in Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry from West Virginia, Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia, Red Holler, and Best American Spiritual Writing. She has been awarded the Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize, the Milton Fellowship, and a Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Fellowship. Jessie holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa and directs the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College. And, as a bit of breaking news, I’ve just learned and am very happy to announce that Jessie has just accepted a full-time position at my alma mater, Hollins University, as a faculty member of the MFA program. Welcome to the Hollins sisterhood, Jessie. You’re in such good hands, and I wish you much light.

I was first introduced to Jessie’s work in Sonja Livingston’s form and theory course during the fall of 2017. Sonja had xeroxed copies of Jessie’s essay “Litany for the Body” as part of our seminar discussion, and that night after class I approached Sonja with such urgency in my voice as I asked her, “What is the name of that book?” Of course she knew I’d ask, smile stretching across her face as she said, “The Long Weeping.” Yes, that book. That collection of portrait-essays which reads like gospel, the good news I’ve been waiting to hear since I began to listen, because it sounds like home. I return time and time again to the essays in this collection like some return to scripture or a well-read paperback with its spine cracked and its pages all dog-eared at the corner. I confess, I’ve become so drawn to these portraits and landscapes, it’s as if each essay Jessie writes is corporeal, for and of the body. The body of a calf caught in the cattle guard, the body of letters that bear her mother’s hand, the body of a dog’s collapse on a porch, the “morsel, bread, and meat—[the] stuff of the body” Simone Weil refused to eat, the body walking “far up the road through the little houses in the black trees, past the trailers pinned with lattice and past the cinder block ruins.” It’s the corpus of place—the embodiment of past and present hunger, temporal and eternal—in her body of work. “So we sing a litany for the body we are part of,” Jessie writes. “We sing our litany for eyes watching the dark that is only dark until you look harder—then it takes the shape of the water, pump rising out of the ground.”

Please join me in welcoming Jessie van Eerden.


Jessie van Eerden: Not fair to make the writer cry. It’s really rare to be heard, so thank you to Brandie, also to Cate for these lovely broadsides, which are gorgeous. And to Sonja, my friend, who invited me, and the department, for all of you for being here. It’s really an honor, and I think you have a very special program. I’m glad I’ll be a Virginian like you next fall.

I’m going to take a new epigraph for this essay from Clint’s poem, “Notes to My Daughters”: “Longing is unavoidable.” A lot of longing, I think, in that work. And this essay is called “Blessed Be the Longing that Brought You Here.” And it comes from—the title comes from a really beautiful book of blessings called To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue. It’s really gorgeous, and there’s a blessing in there, “For Longing,” that has kind of meant something to me, so I took the title from him, and I dedicate this essay to anyone who has used a dating app. [laughter] My heart is for you. [laughter] And also, just so you know, the names are fictionalized and some of the information is also fictionalized to protect privacy. It’s a segmented essay, too, so there’s some white space, and I’ll just pause as we go. And it’s a much longer essay, you can google on Gulf Coast’s site. I’m just going to read a twenty-minute cut.

Blessed Be the Longing that Brought You Here

Ted is a ninety-two percent match. We both mention Nick Cave, IPA, dismay over webinars. We both write our profiles with enough syntactical variation to suggest a writing habit and with enough tongue-in-cheek to balance the sincere. We answer a third of the dating site’s 1200 or so questions, lamenting at times, in the add-an-explanation box, the lack of nuance in the phrasing. You can offer your thoughts on pubic hair preferences, littering, humanity’s primatal ancestry, meaningless sex. Ted has noted his favorite cuddle position and his views on gun control, Trump, and capitalism. I can sense his deal-breakers.

What I wish the matching-algorithms could do is telescope into the nonvirtual and give us side-by-side bodies, while also adding an accumulation of the next several years, to reveal to me, in the future graying and sagging and thickening, what our online profiles portend. Whether he would hold my hand if I were dying of cancer in a white hospital gown with no hair, and whether the gown’s white would make him think of the Charolais calf, all snowy and silvery, raised on his family farm for a slaughter he disbelieved because it was too horrible to think real, and whether this would make him think of that Andrew Wyeth painting of the bull calf against the fence wall, and how Wyeth’s whites have black in them, have textured shadow and a melancholy, like that white of the curtain he painted with the wind billowing it, how Wyeth tried to paint wind as it crossed yellow-green fields, and somehow tried to paint longing, too, such that Ted would intuit in the folds of the many-times-bleached hospital gown some kind of thing he had never known he’d longed for, welling up through time like a bubble from a gaseous fissure on the seafloor of him—and would he turn and tell it to me? 

Ted is a Taurus, like me. Drinks socially, likes Tarantino always and dirty jokes only occasionally. He never litters. He prefers no drama. He prefers that my drama be so minimal it fits in an overhead bin. The most private thing he’s willing to admit is that he once took the Love Languages test, though he is not willing to divulge the language he speaks. 


A young boy hunts with his father and a guide and sees a hawk. The boy loves the bird’s “dazzling speed and the effect of alternation of its wings, as if it were flying by a kind of oaring motion.” It missiles into the trees, he asks what it is, the guide says it’s a blue dollar hawk. And the boy feeds on the name that is almost so fully what the bird is, the boy is filled with the good thing of it, and filled even more so with his newly known hunger for it, as the light of the hawk’s being shines through the small tear made in the veil by the guide’s naming. Later, in private, the father says, no, that is incorrect, it is a blue darter hawk, which is of course right. It’s an accurate description of the bird’s behavior, and the boy does not feed because the hunger no longer gnaws.

When Walker Percy recounts this moment from his boyhood in his essay “Metaphor as Mistake,” he names the hunger an ontological one. He asks, “Is it the function of metaphor merely to diminish tension, or is it a discoverer of being?” Does it satisfy or create desire? Can metaphor awaken a longing you did not know you had, to bring you to the unnamable you were not aware you were trying to name?

I would like to know the origin of desire—the kind of desire that is not prefab, hackneyed, or sold—and so I start reading Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s book The Beginning of Desire about the Book of Genesis, in which she mentions George Steiner’s bit in his book Real Presences regarding the paradox of art: art is, on the one hand, “strangeness attenuated,” strangeness made intelligible, its tension diminished, and yet, on the other hand, art—like Percy’s beautifully wrong metaphors—also “makes strangeness in certain respects stranger.” So, art slakes our thirst, but it also creates a new thirst.

And there is a space between thirst and slaking, hunger and being filled.

It is a not-yet space in which desire can ripen and you can get to know it.

It is a fertile space.


There were some psalmists who asked not for vengeance, not for wealth or throne or relief from leprosy, but only to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of their lives. Head against the mossy wood of the tabernacle frame, the cool of it, open mouthed, they said: “One thing have I asked, that will I seek after, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.” To live always in the inquiry and not the answer. It’s like asking for the roundness of hunger itself as you watch the light hit the acacia beam and then travel slowly across the lichen, so slowly across the linen veil’s blue and scarlet yarn with which someone has sewn angels in refrain, a pattern of them.


We are animated by desire the way consonants are animated by vowels. The Egyptologist Susan Brind Morrow says the vowels in hieroglyphs are not written, so you must sniff out the intent and lift and examine the leafiness of context: “The vowels,” she writes, “which pattern clusters of hard consonants into nouns and adjectives and verbs, are left out, leaving the consonants to stand for the word. Yet grammar resides in the vowels. Why are the vowels not written down? 

“Who has seen the wind?” 

You must get inside the interior of words, of names, inside the house of a name and feel the breeze blow through. Vowels are the longing of the word. Vowels are the becoming. And so are we defined by the unwritten, the unpossessed, by this that we want which we did not know we wanted because it is unseen, it is unpainted even when painted, somehow secretly seeded in us. 

Something in you is activated, vowels breathed into your hard, bony consonants.


Back at the laptop, I see they call them essays, the categories for filling out your dating profile on the site: what I am doing with my life, what I think about, who I am in summary, movies I rewatch. The weather hits a warm patch. I complete my essays with the window cracked to let in the night air through the screen, along with the sound of the neighbor’s tied-up dog, Perky, whose life is sad and circumscribed.

I worry about Joe who taps the star that says he likes me and who poses unsmiling and shirtless with his ATV in his profile photo, also Rick in a selfie in poor lighting in the bathroom mirror with his shirt peeled up as if to have his abs assessed. I worry for Ed who berates himself for having nothing to essay about himself except that he is laid back, not much else to say, and I wonder what on earth it would feel like to be laid back, and then my worry circles back around to Ted who can spell and manage punctuation well but can’t manage much else, it turns out, is on half a Xanax daily now, really, though I seem nice, he needs to regroup, he’s going on a meditation retreat and disabling his account for a while. I worry for Shelby (whose handle is LonelyGuy) and Malik (OKCupidLifer), both of whom I want to give a quart jar of soup. I know it seems suspect, or insincere, this concern for the wellbeing of complete strangers, but dating sites, as some of you might know, expose one’s underbelly such that one cannot help but be more attuned to the awful vulnerability of everyone roped into the whole enterprise. The worry becomes a hum that keeps me awake at night.

“Wanna fuck?” messages Philip from one town over, and, no, I don’t really, but I want something that I can’t name. I shut off the site’s app on my phone and carry the picture of Philip for some distance inside my head until he is free of the sports franchise attire and free of the large car against which he flattens his butt and free of, and prior to, the forty-six years of all of whatever, until he is back to his tender small newborn body when there is seeded in him something that will eventually lead him here to this epoch of screens when he will message with an impressively concise, if crude, attempt at the translation of the language of desire. In my sleepless head, he is an infant so small and flailing, so not-yet, and I think of him maybe like my friend’s baby: maybe he, too, was born three months early and cupped in the palms of the NICU nurse, his skin so thin it could hardly hold in the zooming blood, lungs so almost, all the world’s heat and light so feelable yet incomprehensible to his heart the size of a hickory nut. And the nurse maybe said, “You will live. This will be a heart to hold a whole lot.” She wiped the yellow film from his face, suctioned out the mucus with the bulb from his pinhole nostril. She said, “All the machines and tubing, all the externalized respiratory system, you will shed. Live into your shipwreck, little one, into all your fierce desire, you’ll find your way, bless you, you will be all right.”


Is desire itself a fullness? Or at least, is the space between desire and the having more than empty space to be hurried through like a bad bit of interstate?

Think of it, landscape-wise, as perhaps something more extreme than the swampy drab plains flanking I-75—think of it as a deep and sudden canyon. Real and opened-out. Such that you sleep in your car like the desirous Georgia O’Keeffe so you can wake with such expectation, to paint the stages of the sunrise above the land-gash, with an eye only for the living colors, everything in terms of ochre, verdant green, turquoise, emerald. You don’t even know where these colors come from. You can’t speak. No words beyond indigo, rose. All language pictorial and potent.


There’s this line spoken like prophecy by the roving narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping: “For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it.”

The longing is a thing, is itself fertile, is not merely a preface for satisfaction. In apophatic prayer, for instance, one creates a hollow and does not fill it. “Silence is not just a precondition for the revelation,” writes Cynthia Bourgeault in her book on this topic. “Silence is not a backdrop for form, and diffuse, open awareness is not an empty chalice waiting to be filled with specific insights and directives. It is its own kind of perceptivity, its own kind of communion.”

And when Robinson’s dear, waify Ruthie is left alone on the island by her Aunt Sylvie, the narrator taps Ruth’s young-girl desire, she writes: “For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”

I think of that. Longing putting a hand on my hair. I can sense it, kind of like my mother braiding my hair, or washing it in the tub with my head tilted back, rinsing with water poured from the big cup from Pizza Hut. And a one-time lover lifting my long hair from my throat, pushing it away, like a heavy curtain. This is memory but not only: it is also the round wakeful now. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it.

Longing is the angel-girl at the salon. I went to a salon this time, in the next town over, instead of the haircuttery inside Wal-Mart where I always go, not because the Wal-Mart stylist does a poor job, she’s very good, but because at the salon they lay your head back and wash your hair in lemon sage and tea tree oil. So when the young stylist did so I almost broke out into tears at her touch and the girl said she was bound for Tampa soon, has an apartment with a friend on the Gulf and everything, and she is so ready to go, to get out of her hometown for the very first time, and because she, too, was brimming with want, she probably would have understood, had I let myself cry.


I’m trying to talk about the pause that is not a paucity, the silence that is not empty, the ache that is not only.


The night, of course, is the most difficult. The body lain out, corpsish. The hand moves to the throat touching the accumulative untouch. And the skin is never as young as it used to be but is still young. Even so, at times, this thing can happen: it becomes enough to simply lie awake in the dark and not tear in even the slightest way at the fabric of the human community, of another fragile person also lying in state. To, in fact, do more than not tear. To even mend, to sew the fabric back together, and to even sew it with stars. I read in Susan Brind Morrow’s book of translations of the Pyramid Texts that as a young student of Egyptology she copied out earlier translations for practice, and there was this line

Sew emerald, turquoise, malachite stars 
And grow green, green as a living reed 

written on the pyramid wall by somebody fluent in hieroglyphs, in our original writing which must somehow offer a key to our original desire. I copy out what she copied out. 

Where, I wonder, does one get malachite with which to embroider? Emerald, turquoise, a yarn hued with the three greenest gems in the earth’s crust? That’s the thing. But then I think: maybe longing is generative. Maybe the source of such living color is longing itself transmuted. And you sew the stars all tessellated, in refrain, lovely like terracotta bath tiles, ornately, extravagantly. This is a kind of prayer you make when you lie there and worry. Out of you the colors come, as fluently as do your tears and entreaties, as if you’re a silkworm, and you work, one by one, through the torn-apart, delicate people from your day. You sew them up with star patterns as you sleep alone with the tick of streetlight slanting in through the blinds and a tied-up neighbor dog in her complaint, in a room so still but for your hands sewing. Try to believe it’s possible, as dawn pinks up, that you might grow into a living reed, a green that is pungent and bright.


There was this gap of time on Easter morning in my childhood, between the sunrise service held at church in the darkness, before the sun spilled into the sky and the fast was broken with biscuits and gravy and buns slathered in cinnamon butter—between that and the full Easter Day in nearly blistering light, when the day was a thing I had—in between was a drink. Was when I knew the daffodils around the large-slab rock down by the road, their heads in droop, could almost drip yellow, with the tonnage of winter lifted. I knew without seeing it the dark somehow let them be bright under only the three-thousand-year-old light of the stars. And I was in the house, the rooms dark, already drinking in the daffodils through the window screen—like Alice in Wonderland at tea, with the daffodil cup and saucer: sip then eat the pulpy side—and this seemed to me, even as a kid, better than when I would later go out to cut a dozen for the Easter dinner vase from around the stone slab across which I would stretch out in my purple jumper and not have limbs hang over, not even reach the edges. Holding a handful of stems and remembering how sweet it had been a few hours before, in the not-yet.


After his ten-day meditation retreat, Ted resurfaces, messages on day eleven. He is less fragile these days, he says, but one day at a time. I think we might be friends. I think I will ask him about that Wyeth painting of the white bull calf against the stone fence, whether he knows it. I think I will ask his input on the algorithms.

The weather has broken to a warm sog of rain, the subzero nights a memory. All I’m trying to say in these little folios scribbled by my heart is that longing is a sign of the branch bending green and toward. And that there is a loaminess between the having and the not having, and from that fertile ground can come a thing you did not know you so deeply desired, and you will be hard-pressed to name it. Maybe you will write many pages trying to name it, and, still, it will, in certain respects, only grow stranger.

Thank you.


From The Dictionary of Unspellable Noises: New & Selected Poems 1975–2018 by Clint McCown (Press 53, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Clint McCown. Reprinted with permission from Press 53.

“Blessed Be the Longing that Brought You Here” originally appeared as “Bless the Smallest Hollow: On Longing and Online Dating” in Gulf Coast. Copyright © 2019 by Jessie van Eerden. Reprinted with permission from Jessie van Eerden.

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