“The Unconditioned Air”: Poetry and the Practice of Affection
By Andrew Lazo
In his poem “How to be a Poet,” Wendell Berry frames up all kinds of emptiness, and before he finishes, I find what he describes looks a lot like a primer not only on how to be a poet, but also on how to craft a silence that makes space for love.
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
It starts, Berry seems to say, with clearing out some emptiness, creating a place. Recently, I did just this. I brought in a chair, a blanket and a lamp and put up some shelves and a candle or two. I’ve made for myself a small spot to come to first thing in the morning, to curl up with coffee and to peer into realities I cannot see. And, each morning so far since then, I sit and seek to let my words be few.
Instead of speaking so much, I remind myself again and again of a love that looms over me with singing, that knows my name and counts the hairs on my head. As I try each morning to align myself with love, I find I need this place where I can lean on affection, on ancient words, on more than I have.
I’ve begun to write some of this down in a journal, but for me, this sort of writing serves more as an act of making silence rather than refusing it. Words pour out of all parts of me, all the time. Selecting a few and hearing the quiet scratching of my pen as I pin a few of these words to paper helps me get the rest of the thoughts and words all sorted. Stills me even. Can language invoke silence?
In my chair I’ve begun to learn about waiting, and about waiting patiently—two very different things. And because I don’t have many readers for my poems, or whatever else comes out of this quiet place, I doubt my own judgment in the dark mornings. But waiting patiently in this silent time usually leaves me feeling helped, hopeful, clean, and well aware at the dawn of day that there’s no need for me to do anything alone.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
I’m terrible at this stanza. I surround myself with screens and wires. But I’ve begun to find ways to let them help me, ease me into unconditional breath. Even as I type these words, I choose them slowly as I use a screen, sitting in my morning chair, lit by good lamps and candles. And I can hear myself breathe and can feel the affection that affords me this breath. Sometimes finding peace proves simply a matter of slowing everything else in my head and my heart so that peace can come over me. Lately I’ve found myself more than once surprised with a gift of profound peace. Although I cannot conjure or create it, yet it still falls on me likes Cummings’ snow “carefully everywhere descending,” if only I will allow it.
But Berry confuses me when he warns me to “[s]tay away from anything / that obscures the place it is in.” I’m not sure what he’s trying to say.
Maybe he means more of the same, for me to sit still and see. Or, if I’m right about this poem describing how to love, then perhaps these lines call me to favor clear people, whose eyes invite you see down into the depths of how they’ve lived their days. And surely he means I must speak truth about myself, that I dare not dissemble.
Berry warns me against allowing my inner vision to become a sort of circus mirror, ridiculously distorting who I am and how I’ve grown to get here. And, surely, honesty, even about unpleasant things, offers an early step in making all things new, gives me some small instruction in the daily practicalities of this consecration.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
As I read these words, my eyes filled up with tears. This stanza certainly describes the task of loving someone. “Accept their silences,” it urges, “and embrace the ways they may disappoint you or disappear. Don’t leave, not just yet. Let their silence offer you at least a patch of bare ground to plant something in, the seeds of something that may bloom someday if you will only wait.”
Every person, even those we know best and love most, spin round in their own solar systems, and who can understand the ways the dance of keeping all those planets spinning? Who can hear the music of another person’s spheres?
This stanza speaks so powerfully as it exhorts me to take my place, to sit back down, to still my heart, and to receive whatever comes from those I love even when they only offer pain. For who can know all that moves and works inside a woman or a man?
When Wendell Berry urges me to “make a poem that does not disturb / the silence from which it came,” he fills me with such hope in love, that someday I can slowly learn some way of emptying myself enough to offer silence to the ones I care for most. A look, a smile, a prayer, a whispered word the other person may not even hear—these speak loud enough if I will let them, if I learn to sit, depending on an affection that I sometimes cannot see or feel. I too must remind myself.