Rocks rolled and clicked along the asphalt road across from my rental cabin in what appeared to be a cosmic game of bocce ball. My wife and I had barely set up house and it was time for Sunday brunch at Marlboro College with the only-slightly newer first-year students. In four days, classes were to start, and this was Orientation Weekend. My own orientation as a new faculty member had concluded two days earlier, and I was keen to get involved and meet my students. The Vermonters I’d been meeting suggested putting aside a few milk jugs of water and cans of beans in case winds from Hurricane Irene caused power outages.
I walked up the road in that unrelenting rain to the intersection of Town Hill Road, where I could hear heavy equipment rumbling above and beyond me. A man in a backhoe was redirecting a blown-out ditch, trying to stop that dirt road from completely washing down to the bedrock. Another minute of walking brought me to the Meetinghouse, where cars with New York and Connecticut plates were parking, and I learned that they were there to find shelter—Route 9, the main east-west road over the Green Mountains in Southern Vermont, had suffered landslides and was impassible in both directions. It was at that point that I decided I could safely skip the new student and faculty brunch.
Two days later, I rode my mountain bike to campus to teach a haikai poetry communal writing exercise to new students who were seeing the first day of classes pushed back until the roads were reopened. Poetry. In the face of all the destruction, I wanted poetry, and medieval Japanese poetry at that. Jeffrey Yang, poet and editor at New Directions, argued for poetry in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and in the face of a year that saw a record $200 billion in damage from weather/climate disasters in the US. “Poetry brings us to a certain kind of awareness . . . a lot of it is about how we heal . . . from these disasters.” Yang cited German expressionist poet Gottfried Benn:
The drunken torrents are broken,
grown alien, to you, to me,
our only possession the silence
of a bone washed clean by the sea.
The floods, the flames, the questions —
till the ashes tell you one day:
“Life is the building of bridges
over rivers that seep away”
(Trans. M. Hamburger, from “Epilogue”)
Safe back in the little cabin, my wife and I wrote poems, painted pictures, and secretly rather enjoyed the fact that we weren’t supposed to drive anywhere. We ate our ice cream before it melted. We looked at the black streaks on the exposed posts and beams of the 200-year old shed, now cabin, and I thought too of other disasters. Poets have created from destruction as long as there have been words.
My own work on early American literature made me recall Anne Bradstreet, the Puritan writer who wrote “Verses upon the Burning of our House, July 10th, 1666” and I felt a new kinship in the face of all the destruction we witnessed. That poem begins with the baleful lines:
In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I wakened was with thund’ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
Although Bradstreet ultimately finds redemption, she takes her time getting there and surveys the aftermath carefully.
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sate and long did lie.
Here stood that trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best.
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Poetry comes from the ashes and the torrents. Although our bridges and houses, our stores and pelf will pass away, the creative impulse will remain. Here are a few stanzas we created on August 31, 2011, sitting on the grass at our officially “cut-off” campus.
Wandering for hours
Alone in the dark
One flickery flashlight. Ivy
A heron on the roof:
Why so much worry
Over a little mud? Kyhl
A kinship with the mountain—
We revel in the seclusion. Marty
Once gone and now returned
Everything is right. Raina
– Kyhl Lyndgaard
Marlboro College Professor — Environmental Studies, Literature, Writing