In early July 2006, my family and I took a three-day trip to Dauphin Island, Alabama, where for many years my friend Wil Mills had vacationed with his own family. He told me I had to go to Lighthouse Bakery one morning, sit on the porch, and write him a poem. I said I would, and on the morning of July 5th, I sat with a muffin, coffee, notebook, and a stack of books; and I wrote “Palette” for (and in many ways to) my friend Wil.
Dauphin Island, AL
So much richness, we should say, in the colors coming off the bay
and in this waking to the mockingbird quiver-glimpsed from branch
Who can keep up? Who can spend even one day slaking after
the sip-of-it, the hum-again center, the sweat-drenched headlong
rush of being present in the present?
Turn the words to paint
that will not dry, the paint to words that none can speak. Turn rocks
to birds, birds to blooms, pampas grass to steeples, numberless steeples.
Turn rain to falling notes and sycamores to bursts of twilight trickle-shimmering
down to child hands fluttering back to sky.
Turn turning into coming back,
where every turned out word’s interior sings here and now and grace.
I had just begun a new notebook, and “Palette” was the second poem I wrote inside it, the first being “Along the Trail” the day before, a poem of similar shape on the page. The journal’s pages were unlined, allowing me to write either down the page or to turn the journal sideways and create a wider space—a canvas perhaps, more of a “palette.” In fact, I don’t usually write poems with such longish lines—most of the poem’s lines fall between fourteen and seventeen syllables.
In addition to being a brilliant poet, Wil was also a talented painter. He used his own paintings for the covers of his collections Light for the Orphans and Selected Poems. Among our many discussions regarding poetry, we argued about what a poem should look like on the page. Wil’s favorite metaphor was a field. Thus, lines were essentially furrows; they produced a “yield.” I liked to remind him that some poets thought of the page as a canvas, a spatial and inherently visual representation of the space and pace of thought. The page might be experienced in the way a painting might be experienced, i.e. stood back from, taken in, beheld.
Each of us admired certain “moves” we deemed the other especially good at as a poet. I admired Wil’s musicality, his innate gift to hear the depths of words, their etymologies, their interiors singing in ways I could not imagine. In addition to being a poet and a painter, Wil was also a musician, a wonderful guitar player and songwriter. As “Palette” moves toward the end, I speak of turning “words to paint” and “paint to words,” a nod to Wil’s poet-painter sensibilities. I wanted Wil to see that such mixing, though, such richness in the palette, might also move into the landscape, turning rocks into birds, birds into blooms, pampas grass into steeples, and rain into falling notes. In the last line, even the words themselves are “turned out,” their interiors revealing song. They sing “here and now and grace.”
Wil, on the other hand, admired the ways in which I hyphenated words, juxtaposing unusual pairings. In a very early poem, written when I was 19, I referred to a “bent-weed idea.” He loved that. In poems in my first book, Fall Sanctuary, I used such hyphenations as “ground-bursting,” “shiver-spray,” “mercy-flushed,” “light-stunned,” “tree-shine,” and “slither-clangs.” Within the first two lines of “Palette,” I refer to a “mockingbird quiver-glimpsed from branch/to branch,” while a few lines later I ask—wondering about our ability to keep up with the “palette” of the “richness” of the world—“Who can spend even one day slaking after/the sip-of-it, hum-again center, the sweat-drenched headlong/rush of being present in the present?” Writing a poem for Wil on the front porch of Lighthouse Bakery on an island he knew well, I was trying to have a bit of fun, letting all the ideas of our shared poetry-world merge together, i.e. hyphenate.
Interestingly, “Along the Trail,” the poem I wrote the day before, on July 4th, speaks of finding “a pond along the trail,” despite not expecting to find such a thing. Nonetheless there is a “rightness” in its “being there/and nowhere else…//in the place of its moment/the moment of its place, for where else could it be its being/as intently.” Visually on the page, this poem is a companion piece to “Palette,” but it is also companion in other ways. Wil and I merged in many ways—in friendship, in poetry, in faith—but we also stood separate from another, for where else could we be ourselves as intently? There was a “rightness” in Wil’s poems being the only ones he could write. I certainly couldn’t write poems in the ways he did. Likewise, he could never write the kinds of poems I wrote. Still, we came together as friends, in a fellowship of seeing through each other’s poems a “richness” in the world we might not have seen otherwise.
I often felt that in Wil’s poems, and in my own too—just like that pond discovered along the trail—we were “waiting on what’s next/that hasn’t been before and will not be again.”
And isn’t that the “richness” of the daily canvas any of us glimpses? Isn’t that our shared and deepest song, this singing of what it feels like to be “present in the present”? Isn’t that the turning, the call to repentance, at the center of all words? Isn’t that “the mystery of time”? Isn’t that “here”? And “now”?
Isn’t that “grace”?