Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2023  Vol. 21  No.3
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The “Invisible” Path

This last August, I moved from Richmond, Virginia, to Athens, Georgia, to start a PhD in philosophy. This is not a move that lends itself to a lot of time for writing poems. After spending the last few years in an MFA, immersed in poetry full time, the PhD has been a completely different world, one in which most of my time now is spent reading contemporary analytic philosophy on a variety of topics: just war theory, environmental ethics, epistemic injustice—you get the idea. And while this switch has been interesting, fulfilling, and intellectually stimulating, I’ve had to shift how I think about—and, by extension, where I find—poems.

One of the activities that has become increasingly important since getting to Georgia is trail running. I started in Richmond, running every now and then on the trail system that hugs the bank of the James, but it’s become more serious since moving, routine and quasi-ritualistic. Now, every Sunday, I drive out to the botanical gardens managed by the university and run the orange-to-white trail loop, which takes you down to wetlands and then carries on along the Middle Oconee River. I don’t have the space here to do it
justice—but right now, the trumpet daffodils are blooming and the recent rains have given the small creeks and streams a power that feels disproportionate for what I know of the place, a power I feel lucky to have experienced.

There are poems there, sure, in the spring’s fresh and dynamic things. But I’m thinking instead about last fall and the runs I took in November when the trees had finally let go of most of their leaves and the trails were covered—overrun, even—with seasonal fallout. It was during those runs that I’d find myself shocked, both by how little I could actually see of the trail and by how sure I was, in spite of this fact, that I still knew where the trail was. Sometimes I was sure I could see the edges, those places where the trail banked against itself and the surrounding soft earth, but often it was a trust immediate and wholly physical, not a confidence in knowing the shape of the land but a confidence in how the body gravitates toward the path, toward staying the course, even when the nature of the course is uncertain.

For me, I think writing poems often takes shape in a similar way. Sometimes I’m sure I can see the edges of a poem, but sometimes they’re wholly imagined—and sometimes they’re entirely incorrect. Even when I get it wrong and revise (and then maybe get it wrong again), I feel strongly that there’s something essential about having the confidence to move forward along the path of where the poem takes me, even if that moving forward is marked with moments of tentativeness and hesitancy, or fear. It’s trust, and a form of discovery, too, characterized by the sort of risk we might associate with drafting and revision. The initial image strikes the wrong emotional register; I follow what I thought was the continuation of the trail that abruptly dead ends—I walk back, reorient, try again.

I find myself writing ceaselessly about place, about how philosophy and meaning are inherently tied up with the landscapes of our lives, however brief our presence in those places may be. I find something truly valuable knowing that as I write, as when I run that loop out in the botanical gardens week after week, there will be landmarks and images and sentiments I will recognize. Those moments of recognition lead to occasions where, for a split second, I know exactly where I am in the world, and know that I cannot stay there long. But I think that’s what writing poems is about for me—moving forward along the path hopeful, and certain, that I’ll get to stand next to some knowledge of the world, if only for a moment.  

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