Miscellaneous Essay #1: “a discrete sequence of attentions dearly paid”

It’s mid-May, and this coming Wednesday marks the final session of my spring creative writing workshop. I called this one “More World: Art and Attention.” We have been considering the nature of attention and of attending, of that which Mark Doty calls “A faith that if we look and look we will be surprised and rewarded” (Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, page 48). In class, we have looked and looked: at actual oysters and lemons; at objects from unnoticed corners of our individual lives; at the street outside our classroom; at rocks; even at language itself, this past week—who among us cannot be surprised by the strange and lovely “plenilune” or “floccinaucinihilipilification,” whose dictionary meanings I may or may not know?

And what have been our rewards? An understanding that material objects bear histories, bear other peoples’ stories, and at the same time bear our own, the one(s) we create in, and by, the nature and duration of our looking: “the eye suffuses what it sees with I” (Still Life 50). A new interest in “the rigorous discipline of […] seeing what there is to see and not what we expect or mean to find,” as Donald Revell puts it in The Art of Attention. A sense that transformation is ever present and ever possible: “these tulips and snails, grapes and cheeses are, at last, human bodies, if bodies could flower out” (Still Life 56)—or, as Revell says, “I do not translate. I am translated” (83).


To support my work in teaching this class, I have been reading The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World by Brenda Miller and Holly J. Hughes. When she inscribed it to me at the AWP conference earlier this year, Brenda could not have known how much I would need this book, how much I would need to “sit down and wake up” (the first chapter’s theme) this year. She could not have known, as I did not know, that even as we greeted each other in the crowded exhibition hall, the bones in my jaw joints had already begun their slow dissolve, the muscles around them contracting. My teeth, sensing strange new directional forces, have begun to back away from one another. After years of stressed-out clenching, my whole mouth will give itself up, will let go.


Early April of this year. A dream: All I can see is my clarinet. It looks huge, the length of a ladder. I lean over it, to look more closely at this instrument I love. An enormous spider, size of my face, lurks in a tone hole, its legs held close: fingers folding into a hand. I see the web it has spun, now, bright and cold as the silver keys.


And if I am to save something of my floundering mouth, I will let go. The dentist, the doctor, the periodontist, the radiologist, the therapist, my supervisor at work, my mother and father, my husband all tell me: There is nothing you can do. This disease is here. Revell: “What do we do having nothing to do? Be present. Commend presence.[…] Incline the ear toward those masterworks—the noise becoming music, the rain becoming glaze—always already underway”(35). The glaze here refers to William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” about which Revell has earlier written: “Spare as he seems, Williams sounds a principle of inclusiveness…how else to explain those ultimate chickens?”(30). Or, as Brenda Miller writes in The Pen and the Bell, “If we train ourselves to be alert, we, too, will experience an abundance that spurs us to ‘respond with reverence’”(15).


I’m sitting on our back patio this afternoon. It’s seventy-five degrees and the leaves of the still-growing Russian Giant sunflowers lift in the breeze. My husband is not gardening this year, yet we have a garden: volunteers of summer and winter squashes and lemon cucumber and green pole beans.

I’m listening to a song I love, by the Wailin’ Jennys (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sb3GE2K7PiM) , and feeling like they wrote it to me:

Hey when are you gonna stand

and stop looking over your shoulder

See there’s a sun in the sky

and a moon that will take us ’til morning

When are you gonna stand

just stop and begin this moment

Hey let go (will we be the ones to understand)

let go (will we be the ones to understand)

let go

Above the fence, in the yard behind ours, I can see our neighbor staple-gunning powdery gray shingles to the unfinished roof of a small shed. He wears his hair in a thin ponytail that hangs below his hat and above his wide derrière, which he rests against the heels of surprisingly white cross trainers as he leans into the slope, to make something new.


And here I am, beginning this moment, writing through things and writing to you (my students/fellow writers/teachers) who “dwell”—with me—“in the world of collapse and delight”(Doty 24).

~Kate Asche, 16 May 2013


Note: The title phrase is found on page 18 of The Art of Attention.

For your reading pleasure:

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Mark Doty (Beacon, ISBN 978-0-8070-6609-6)

The Art of Attention, Donald Revell (Graywolf, ISBN 978-1-55597-474-9)

The Pen and the Bell, Brenda Miller and Holly J. Hughes (Skinner House, ISBN 978-1-55896-653-6)

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