Out of nowhere, the question came to me: Why are you not reading Novica Tadić right now? And you know, I didn’t have a good answer for that.
I’d been about to head out for a walk, but I’d just been mowing the lawn for an hour and a half, so it’s not like I needed the exercise; I just wanted to go up in the woods. So here I am in my favorite close-to-the-house spot in the oak forest—close enough to carry a camp chair—with three volumes of Tadić in my lap, two translated by Charles Simic—Night Mail and Dark Things—and one translated by Steven and Maja Teref, Assembly. A hen turkey is going past with some chicks, by the sound of it, less than 100 feet behind me, but I can’t see them among the lowbush blueberries. A red-eyed vireo drones on and on. When the wind blows in a certain way, one of the nearby trees squeals, rubbed raw by the fallen corpse of a comrade.
And so to Tadić. The first poem I open to reads almost like a translation of a modern tanka:
AS I WATCH
through smoke rings
I see a yellow tongue
a crested sparrow hawk
Novica Tadić, Assembly, tr. Steven Teref & Maja Teref
Mosquitoes are beginning to find me, and I them. I doubt they appreciate my findings, which are very heavy-handed.
I’m guessing that poem was from Tadić’s 1990 collection, Sparrow Hawk. Simic also translated some of the poems from that collection, including “Apple”:
I cut an apple in half
and found there
the familiar signature
of the last
In the sky
a jet plane
was leaving a white trace
Novica Tadić, Night Mail: Selected Poems, tr. Charles Simic
I love how effortlessly he suggests the analogy between airplane and animal emissions, and how it draws a literal and figurative line under the whole thing.
There’s a twin-prop plane going over right now, a sound I rather like—I guess because it triggers memories of happy summer days when I was a kid and no day of freedom could ever be long enough. A world away from the Yugoslavia of Tadić’s youth, I’m sure.
Still not keen on the sound of the lawnmower, but it’s a vast savings in time over hand methods to achieve my goals, which are to provide the garden with mulch and compost. For years we didn’t own a working lawnmower, just used the tractor and brush hog to whack down the grass in front of the parents’ house every few weeks. Two years ago when my brother was living with me he got Dad to agree to get a new push/powered mower, and initially I was not a fan, because I do much prefer looking at a weedy meadow to an utterly domesticated would-be monoculture. Only this spring did it occur to me to wonder whether the mower might have an attachment to catch mowed grass so I wouldn’t have to rake it. It might, and it does!
The thing wouldn’t run after only two years of sitting idle, but our neighbor Troy, who understands engines and anything mechanical in a Vulcan mind-meld kind of way, determined that the problem was the poorly formulated gasoline they sell these days with too much ethanol in it, so its carburetor needed some special magic which he took it away to perform. The mower was healed a few days later and has been working fine ever since.
I hadn’t mowed a lawn in decades, and had forgotten just how meditative it can be. I haven’t settled on a fixed time to do it but today the grass was plenty dry enough to cut during what I think of as my peak creative time, mid to late morning, which used to find me at my laptop but nowadays usually finds me on a walk. Well, mowing lawn with this kind of mower is a walk, too, albeit at one mile an hour.
And the finished product! So green and uniform (if you squint and ignore all the broad-leaved plants)! And two days later, if it’s a rainy summer, you’re already seeing unevenness creeping back in… I can see how the mania starts, this very American rage for order amid the increasing chaos of our lives.
Just heard a weird scream from up on the powerline right-of-way. Must go investigate.
Well, of course I didn’t find anything, so I filled a small collecting bag with sweetfern leaves and carried on with a walk. For one thing, I need breezier spots to stop and write now that the mosquitoes are out.
Today is not a day for photography. I don’t know why. Is this flatness I see in the light, or in my head?
Yellow cinquefoil — something else with fond childhood associations. I might be more of a forest creature now, but I clearly spent a lot of time in old meadows as a small child in Maine, but also here. I was pleased to notice, the other week when I was stalking the wild asparagus, that there’s still a half-acre of brome among the acres of goldenrod above the barn, where as kids we spent countless hours playing in the long grass.
Which of course refutes one of the prime arguments for mowing vast swathes of suburbia: the children need somewhere to play! Bullshit. Get them to download some good nature ID apps and send them on a scavenger hunt. Scavenger hunts helped preserve Mom’s sanity whenever we three boys became too much of a handful. And it was all field guides back then, in the waning decades of the second millennium.
I suppose any writer’s children would quickly become acquainted with the out-of doors, let alone a nature writer’s kids. We were doomed from the start.
I’m now at the high point on the southwest corner of the property, a maturing oak–black cherry ecotone. I had thought last winter I might like to have a bench up here, but now with the leaves out and everything alive with the wind, I like the spot I’d chosen much better as it is, a circle of trees with only a few clumps of native grass and some random seedlings in it. It looks like a high point should. A very low high point to be sure, but let’s allow it some dignity. I need to fight the urge to domesticate wild places.
Watching a male scarlet tanager at eye level 50 feet away. When he flies, I feel an almost physical pang. I might say I’ll never fall in love again, but how can that be true when I fall in love several times a day?
I find in reading Tadić some excellent guidance, as I thought I might:
To live without any news
in the boonies
like any wretched, luckless person.
Go to town and buy a spade
as if intending to turn over a garden.
Instead, find your humble place
in the village graveyard,
swing high and dig yourself a grave.
Set it up, decorate it, write on it.
Find your humble place
in a world gone mad.
Novica Tadić, Dark Things, tr. Charles Simic
In the blues, I believe that state of mind is known as “down so long it looks like up to me.” And maybe that’s where I am, but you know, I feel fine. Like, yeah, that-R.E.M.-song fine. And the poem has an odd resonance of the videopoem-of-place I posted at Moving Poems this morning. My Father’s Bones by Zoe Paterson Macinnes, who grew up on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides and talks about knowing from an early age exactly where she would be buried.
I wonder sometimes if my life would’ve been more coherent if I’d chosen a more conventional lifestyle. As it is I’m resistant enough to herd behavior that I’ve never gone full lifestyle with any of my passions. For example I’m obviously very interested in Japanese short-form and diaristic literature as a model for my own writing, but I’m not going to go all Zen and turn my weedy front garden into the Daisen-In.
Though I would kill for the chance to visit Kyoto and see some of those temples again. It’s a myth that Zen played a major role in the haiku tradition, but certainly if you idolize Basho in particular, Zen might be a good fit for you. I was always way more of a Pure Land guy (to the extent that I was into Buddhism at all) because c’mon, Shinran was like a Japanese St. Francis, a truly inspired populist. Zen was for the Samurai oppressors.
I do have to smile at some of my parents’ choices of spots for their benches. Who else would place one next to a vernal pool, which in normal years turns into a damp spot in the woods by the end of June? Though last year it never dried up at all…
a tadpole trying out