“Anytime we engage with mystery, a practice of mystery, we learn and unlearn.”
-TC Tolbert, while discussing his poetry at the University of Illinois
I got to see TC Tolbert read last Thursday, and he read a selection I’ll never hear again. I won’t be able to: he didn’t read a sequence of poems, he read a collage of them, with lines and thoughts pulled from different places inside his work. I’d never heard a poet read like that. To be honest, I wasn’t sure about that at first, but as I wonder about it I love it more and more. It made the poems something halfnew, halfknown. It brought us–the listeners, the poet–to a new edge of the firelight, and past that edge are stars and ice and mystery.
On Sunday night, for the first time in months and months, I let myself cry.
Tolbert describes writing poetry as the process of taking something that’s you, collecting it in your hands, and gathering it to a place just outside you so you can work with it. He showed what he meant with his hands. His motions reminded me of a potter working at the wheel: he gathered clay from his arms, his breath, pulled it out in front of him, turned it, shaped it. And then of course (he laughed) it becomes a part of you again and changes you, but because it’s you brought out of you and worked with and brought back in, it changes you “honestly.”
Dr. Gordon Neufeld suggests that, once you’ve lost touch with your tears, you might need someone to help you find your way back. I didn’t cry alone. A friend sat with me, talked with me, gave me a hug. I’d been intentionally moving toward that moment, that accepted vulnerability, for a while. I’ve been practicing a walk toward the sea that I so often avoid. I don’t think my tears were over this incident, or that one. They were more roots than leaves, more subterranean than geographical. I started learning what they were as I started unlearning the habits that had held me back from them. I wonder, now, if I was feeling what TC Tolbert described.
There is always so much more than we understand. There is always a mystery. When I’m intent on being productive and capable, on doing what I need to, I try to sail across the top of that mystery without looking too far down into it. When I swim down to float inside, when I practice being part of it, day after day, different things happen. Big things happen. Perhaps I find a part of myself, and let that part move out, let it live–in writing or a song or a friend’s words, or the pattern of roots in earth–in the world as I work with it. Then something that’s not mine but is me comes back to change me. To change me honestly, says TC Tolbert.