Write Naked

By Andrea Bates

Inside my bedroom closet there is nothing for me to wear. Not literally, of course. I could choose from: a pair of jeans too baggy in the bum, a skirt that threatens to slide down my hips unless it is nipped at the waist with a safety pin, or a black “librarian” cardigan missing a button. Some garments are ghosts of a former self: the tailored black blazer I wore only once, three years ago, at my mother’s funeral; the white prairie skirt I wore when my lover and I sat together in the big chair in my living room and he read aloud the poems I wrote for him. Every morning I sigh, faced with the personas I have constructed from such rags.  Nothing fits anymore.

There’s that old wives’ tale: every seven years or so most of the cells in our body are replaced. We shed our skin, our liver regenerates, fresh blood flows through our veins. I can see this transformation re-reading the poems I’ve written.  The language has shifted; what once preoccupied now bores. Metaphors have ripened and decayed like fruit left in a bowl. Muses have come and gone. As I put together my first full-length manuscript, I think: the book is a body wearing poems for clothes.  Every time I read through it, I sigh, faced with the personas I have constructed from such flights of fancy, such madness, such longing. Nothing fits anymore.

In poetry, personas are masks; they are an essential component of the costume drama. They allow, as Julie Sheehan said in a panel discussion “Channeling Voices” at this year’s AWP Conference, “an escape from the relentless self.” Or, as Robert Polito remarked, personas allow “a confessional moment that is someone else’s confession.” Personas allow us to play dress up, to pretend, to transgress, to breathe life into historical figures; as Robert Thomas said, they can be “a way of interpreting a dream to someone.” Clothes, like personas, are a means of concealment. How freeing it is, then, to run naked in one’s dream. How liberating it is when you finally take off your clothes and face who you really are.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes in Women Who Run With the Wolves, “In Buddhism there is a questing action called nyubu, which means to go into the mountains in order to understand oneself and to remake one’s connections to the Great.” Deep in the Blue Ridge mountains is a little cabin at the end of a dirt road where wild blackberries grow. Thirteen hundred feet above sea level, nestled among the pines, it is the secret place of my heart. There, on the screened in porch, festooned with solar powered lights shaped like stars, I sit cross legged on the papasan chair, my eyes closed, listening to the crows. I’ve just showered, the ends of my hair still wet and smelling of lavender. I am wrapped in a soft cotton towel. I focus on my breathing. The air here smells of fresh thunder, approaching rain. When the wind moves through the trees, I hear the sound of papers rustling, all those poems I’ve written fanning out their pages behind me. Soon the lightning comes, signing its name across the sky.  I imagine I am alone in the woods with the ghosts of all the clothes I’ve ever worn. The person who wore those clothes doesn’t fit this landscape.

Some native peoples burn the clothes of the deceased a year after their death in an elaborate bonfire. Such a ritual comforts. Such a ritual is the dividing line between lives. I realize I need to burn away the longing for what cannot be replaced: a mother, the lover who used to undress my heart. Yes, I must burn away the old masks, the frayed costumes, the scuffed shoes.  On the next stage of my quest I begin barefoot, naked, alone and writing in a dark wood, a new voice rising above the thunder, ascending to the stars.

How I Spent my Summer Vacation

by Andrea Bates

“We have 62 senses at my last count.” – Paulus Berensohn

In July, through a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, I attended the week-long program Black Mountain College:  An Artistic and Educational Legacy in the beautiful mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. On day three of the program, Paulus Berensohn, poet, potter, weaver, bookmaker, dancer, teacher, and author of one of the seminal books on pottery, Finding One’s Way With Clay, presented his workshop Soul’s Kitchen: on making and keeping a craft artist’s journal.

Paulus took our group through the process of making our own writing journals. “Remember what you came to do,” he said. “Other artists—potters, painters—have a place to go to do their art. For writers, you need to recognize the journal as your studio.” We nodded, ogling the table nearby with all its pretty paper, kaleidoscope of colors and swatches of varying textures.

We couldn’t wait to begin. We folded heavy white paper into folios and selected colorful thread to hand-stitch the binding. We chose endpapers, a cover, papers we would collage or stitch onto the front. As we crafted, Paulus told us the story of the bowerbird, how the males decorate the nest and the females get to choose which bird they want to mate with based on their attraction to and approval of the male’s decorative skills. “Making a book is like building a nest,” Paulus said. “Think of yourself as the male bowerbird. Make a journal cover that woos you.”

I couldn’t resist the bling. Perhaps I am more crow than bowerbird; I like shiny things.  Most empty journals simply languish on the shelves, waiting for me to fill them. But a journal that you have made to woo yourself into writing is something else entirely. Your intense concentration in the act of bookmaking imbues the journal with your personal essence, your unique magic. “When my students make a book, they fall in love,” Paulus said, and I was reminded of a bumper sticker I had bought the day before in a downtown Asheville store: “If not for love, then why?”

As I cut and arranged and pasted and collaged my journal’s cover, I thought:  As artists aren’t we always seducing, casting a spell, whether with words or paint or clay? We want our audience to flirt, to swoon, to tumble into the sensory—to fall in love—with us and our world. We are the illuminators of the unfamiliar senses; we give voice to the mysteries of the soul as it lives through the body and as it lives through our art.

Later that night, back in my room, I mused over Paulus’s claim of there being 62 senses at his last count, and I wrote this inside my bowerbird journal:

The sense of the spider, where to cast one’s web.

The sense of the storm, how close lightning is to the house.

The sense of the dog’s watchful nose, 6 a.m., before you even open your eyes.

The sense of the golden cord that links you and the beloved, how heavy the telepathy.

The sense of bees, which flowers will yield the most nectar.

The sense of ripened fruit, how color and fragrance and weight deliver their juice.

The sense of secrets, how the curtains blow at opened windows.

The sense of flamingos, when to wear pink and where to stand pretty.

The sense of gravity, when the light of a full moon is a glass full of insomnia.

The sense of past lives geography, when as a tourist you effortlessly navigate city streets.

The sense of pheromones, how you know he has been sleeping on your pillow.

The sense of circadian rhythm, how dreams are tomorrow’s metronome.

The sense of the breathing line, how you know a poem is alive.