Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Raft of Inspiration

Daniel was a boat-builder.  He made boats by hand using hand tools only, the way his Greek father and grandfather had built them on the island of Kefalonia.  When I met him first, he was making a boat for his brother who planned to come down to the shore when it was finished, then the two brothers would sail it home again.  I'd never seen anything built like that boat, from the first plank up, so I was curious despite the fact that I'd been wandering that cove looking for a quiet place to read.  Daniel was a man who generally kept to himself, a private man, even among others in that place who loved boats and sailing.  He was always cordial, but he rarely added anything to the conversation when someone happened by and noticed his boat. He seemed wholly unimpressed by the exuberant talk of fiberglass and speed and outboards that riddled the vernacular of other boaters who stopped by.

Why he spoke to me and invited me to "stop by anytime and watch" is still a bit of a mystery to me. Now, I think it probably had something to do with the book I was carrying around that day – Yehuda Amichai's slender book of poems, An Hour of Grace.  Daniel had noticed it and nodded at it.


He'd said the poet's name as if he were making a statement, not asking a question. As if the name were an acknowledgment of something.  Or an approval. As if he were recalling suddenly the name of a friend.

I was reading Amachai's work for the first time, a school assignment to read poets from other countries, and that I didn't really know his work well yet.

While he straightened his tools and rearranged a pile of dusty wood, he asked me to read him line or two,something I liked. I opened the book to a page and read a line I'd highlighted that morning, out of its context:

      Among the stars you may be right,
          but not here. . .

The man was very still at first, looking out over the water. He nodded and picked up his chisels.

     This is a good place to be alone, he said then. Almost no one comes by. Come here anytime to read your books. And maybe you will read to me again.

I didn't get the significance of that plural – books – at the time but, looking back now, I think he might have known, even in those first moments, that I spent a lot of time with books – more than with just that particular book I was carrying. Maybe he sensed it in the manner in which I'd read that line, which swelled with more than just the saying of the words.  It has always annoyed me how my voice quivers when I read something aloud, something that matters to me deeply.  It has always annoyed me deeply that what I most care for, I give voice to so poorly.


I stopped in many days that late spring and then on deep into the summer – to read for hours in the shade of that giant cypress tree, sitting myself down on the rough, alluvial ground at the water's edge, knowing when I got up again to go, I would be filthy with the grit and dampness of that ground.  For many days, I watched the man work: planing and sanding and bending the boards, nailing them into place, building the hull which I thought was beginning to look  elegant as a well-wrought piece of furniture.  I hadn't known teak could be so pliable, such an amenable medium, until I saw how he worked with it. He didn't master the wood into place so much as he convinced it to doing his bidding.  All day long as he worked, he hummed to himself or spoke softly, his mouth close to the wood as he planed and bent and nailed and sanded, sopping his brow with the back of his sleeves.


The man had names for things that appealed to the poet in me.  The wide, concave braces on which the hull was supported as he built the boat, he called the "angels."  They didn't look like any kind of wings to me, at least not like those feathery contraptions little girls strap on for Christmas pageants and Halloween, and they didn't resemble the angels I'd seen in paintings. But they held the boat up as he composed it, board by board, the way I'd heard, in childhood stories, that angels swaddled the infant world in dark space as God spoke the Everything into being.

Daniel said the angels had to be fiercely solid  as they held the keel – the most significant part of the boat to build precisely, and upon which every other board and bolt and hinge was dependent.  He said the angels were a "necessary evil" as it was important that the wood not rest on the ground: moisture could leach into the wood and rot it before it had a fair chance in water. Early mornings, first thing, he would lie on his back on the ground, edging his shoulders as close to the keel as possible, and he'd run his hands slowly along the keel, cupping its curve, making certain the wood was dry and intact.

     It is not yet time for water, he'd say, as much to the boat as to me.

 He pressed soft, bleached pieces of cheesecloth over the dew-moist keel, absorbing the water, discarding each square of cloth until finally one came up dry.  One morning as he was stretched out like that, daubing the keel with the white cloths, I told him I thought those braces did not seem anything like angels to me.  Even as it came out of my mouth, it sounded peevish.  The man under the boat went still.

Don't rely so wholly on your eyes, Daniel said. The eyes love symmetry and beauty and they will see it even when it isn't there and miss what is there in plain sight; the hands know a thing for how it feels against the bowl of the palm, its shape. The nose can detect first rot.  The skin, well, it has its purpose too and, today, mine is blistered by sun.

I understood what he meant, I think, that stern warning to not rely so wholly on my eyes. Working the graveyard shift, making my rounds in the dim-lit corridors of the pediatric ward years before, I'd relied more on my hands and fingertips to check the brow and pulse of a sleeping infant than I did on how the child appeared to be doing.  A boy's brow looks pacific in deep shadow, but place a cool hand on his forehead and you will know how fever-bright he burns.


Daniel did not speak of the boat's length; he spoke of its longitude – as if the vessel were a world unto itself – with latitudes and longitudes.  I suppose, for him – as it came into being on those long summer days – the boat had become a kind of planet that he was orbiting.  In the worst heat of the afternoons, I'd look up at him, working there, and I would see a heat-haze around the ribbed hull that made it seem to shift its solid wooden shape, to waver at its edges. It seemed not quite a thing of solid earth, as if it were already preparing itself to leave the realm of terra firma and enter a more fluid one.


That heat-hazed afternoon I had been studying selections from Yannis Ritsos' Selected Poems – or, rather, I had been reading English translations of his poems. Daniel loaned me the book each day when I came to the shore but I had to give it back each evening because the book belonged to his brother, Dimitri, whose name was scrawled inside the cover in a childish hand.

Because I only had access to the book there, because I could not carry it away, I had taken to bringing my notebook with me, copying out, by hand, passages that I wanted to remember.  I had written RITSOS in black Magic Marker on the cover of the spiral-bound, blue-lined notebook so I would remember, in years to come, whose lines they were.

But all that afternoon, the wavering of that boat in the heat distracted me and many times I had to make myself look away from it, had to force myself to go back to copying lines before the afternoon cooled and the coming twilight meant I would have to surrender the book again. I read Daniel a passage from the book that day, partly to distract myself from the eerie mirage and partly to rouse myself from the sleepy languor that was overtaking me in the late afternoon heat. I asked him to say what he made of the lines:

      Every house has its slain. Behind the windows
          stand those who are missing, and the pitcher with water they never drank.
         And this star that fell at the edge of night
         is like the amputated ear that does not hear the crickets,
         does not hear our excuses. . . .

He stopped sanding and looked at me and I did not understand his look.

     What troubles you about that passage? he asked me.

I stared down at my notebook again, at the lines I'd copied into it, reluctant to speak my mind and, in doing so, risk insulting the man who'd loaned me the book.

     It's that "amputated ear" part, I said.  Something isn't right about it.

He shrugged. I tried to explain.  

     Four syllables . . . too many . . . too distracting . . . draws attention from the dead at the windows, from the pitcher and its undrunk water, the solitary ear listening but not hearing the crickets and the excuses being made. . .

It was clumsy, that explanation, and I was embarrassed by it. Sweating. Irritated. I knew I was sounding quarrelsome. I gave up, said what I was really thinking.

     I'd have written " severed ear."

Daniel walked over and looked at the passage in the book.  He looked from the right hand page – the translation – to the left-hand page, the poem in Greek. A frown creased his brow.  Then he laughed, a great laugh, and the sound of merriment and delight in that laugh shocked me into silence.

     That is closer to what Ritsos wrote, he said and he went back to his oakum and chisels.  It was the first time I had been made to acknowledge the slight, important distinctions between the poem Ritsos had written and the translation of that poem into my own language.  It was an important lesson for a student of poetry.


All that summer, I was troubled by a recurring dream, a dream in which I was building a boat, a fine boat, a well-crafted boat, but each time I looked away from it, it became a pile of sticks.  I built it again and again. I sanded and turned the wood. I planed and nailed things into place.  I varnished the beautiful hull and dried the keel.  But each time I turned my back on it and then turned to it again, what I found was knotted rope and unfinished sticks held up by the rough angels.  Not a boat at all. In no way sea-worthy.  Not even a raft. 


That summer waxed and waned, like a moon filling and emptying and then, one day in August, the boat was complete.  I walked down to the cove to see it a final time, though I was done by then with my summer reading, with my books and notebook of lines.  I was a part of the thing then, that boat and its angels, though I hadn't built it and couldn't sail it and didn't yet even know its name. It had pulled me in somehow, though I hadn't yet even met the man for whom it was being built.  I only barely knew the man who'd built it right in front of me. But I felt connected to it all in some inexplicable way. I wanted to see it, to set it firmly in my memory as the fine craft it was.  I wanted to see it – whatever it was - all the way through to the end, or at least as far as I could.  I was, as my grandmother used to say, invested in the outcome.

That morning, I rounded the hill leading to the cove just in time to see Daniel standing with a bent man, a priest in white and gold vestments, who had his hand on the bow of the boat, speaking in a language I couldn't understand. I slipped quietly into the cove and stood at the fringe of water, near where the two men stood.

Every boat Daniel's family has built for generations – before it forsakes its angels,  as it surely must, and enters the water – is blessed. In this blessing, it is traditional for the priest to say the boat's name aloud for the first time.  It was the only word I understood in everything he was saying. Dimitri had named his boat:  Magdalena.  His mother's name.

Daniel went inside to pack his suitcase.  He'd already told me he would captain the boat, his brother as his sole passenger, and he'd sail it from this cove out into the wide estuary where the fresh water of the bay meets with the salt water of the sea.  From there, he would continue north, following the shoreline to his brother's home in Delaware.  He would take his brother to see the sea and then see his brother safely home again. That was the map he was following. And though he stopped at that, I imagined from there he would go back to wherever it is he goes when he is not building a boat by hand, back to whatever work he does there, in whatever far city he lives.  At summer's end, I would go back to my studies and my notebooks and poetry and, occasionally, I would look back at that summer spent reading under the cypress while a man I scarcely knew worked in the hot sun, building his brother a boat.  That is how my map looked.

But the two of us were, that morning, still tangled together in the last moments of that waning summer. The ten men he'd hired arrived at noon to lift the boat on their shoulders and to carry it into the water where it would be moored for the rest of the afternoon and evening and through the night, where it would complete its taking-up:  that final, critical stage where the oakum stuffed into the fine separations between the planks of the hull takes up water and expands and makes the boat sea-worthy and safe.  As the men eased out from under the weight of the boat, it rocked and seemed to float from their shoulders. Daniel tied it to the dock where it would remain until Dimitri arrived the following morning. I turned for home again but it troubled me that the exquisitely-made hull was submerged, out of sight.  So much time spent on it, such effort, and who would appreciate it now, who would see its fine beauty and solid craftsmanship?  It seemed a dreadful waste of time to me, all those hours he'd spent sanding the wood, rubbing it, oiling and finishing it until even its small imperfections shone warmly. Daniel's explanation to me seemed cryptic, insufficient:

      That no one knows it's there, its beauty submerged, is not the point.  That no one sees what I put into the making of it or what drove me to build it is not the point.  That it is rugged, that it is stable, that it will hold sway in a strong wind, that it will stay true to the course set – that is all good but also not the point.  There is more to a boat than what you can or cannot see. Remember: do not trust your eyes so much.


All night before his final departure, I turned in my bed, twisting the sheets, throwing them off of me, agitated, waiting for sleep, waiting for the sun, waiting to return early-morning to the shoreline where Dimitri's Magdalena was undergoing its taking-up. What if she took on water?  What if she had to return to shore, unfit to sail?  What if? What if?   Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong – at least in my mind it did.  My crooked mind, my poet's-mind. 

I drifted into and out of fitful sleep. Cricket-song gave way to birdsong and I woke late, threw on my rumpled shirt and jeans, and headed to the cove.  By the time I got near I was winded and had to lean against a tree to catch my breath again. I was trying to steady myself for the rush downhill.  I looked down and I could see Daniel on the dock. He was lifting a slight man from a wheelchair, the man's legs wrapped in a soft gold blanket.  The man's head was angled back, up at the sky, the way a child's head tilts who has cerebral palsy.



Daniel must have wondered why I hadn't shown up to say goodbye, to see them off that final morning.  He'd hesitated once, looking back at the shore and at the cypress trees after he'd unmoored the boat, his brother propped next to him.  Maybe it hadn't been that he'd been looking for me so much as he'd been saying goodbye to the cove, that he had been committing it to memory the way someone does who knows he is leaving a place for good. It had been such a small hesitation. I wonder sometimes now if I hadn't just imagined it. Maybe I had imagined much of that summer's boat-building, caught up as I had been in books and distracted by that mirage of the wavering boat. 

I was standing then, beginning to breathe easily again, just inside the thick copse of junipers uphill, the palm of my left hand against the rough bark, my feet planted wide on the slope so I wouldn't lose my balance and topple down the gravelly hill. I'd caught sight of the two brothers there on the dock, Daniel, the younger, stronger brother, lifting his crippled brother carefully into his arms as if he'd done it for many years, stepping quickly onto the boat, steadying himself as the boat tipped in the water under the shifting weight of their bodies. I don't know now how long I stood like that – watching Daniel lower his fragile brother into place on board the boat, covering his legs again, pulling a windbreaker around his bony shoulders as Dimitri smiled up at him. Or at the sky.

I must have known just then that I both was and was not really part of that moment, that summer. What city of brotherly love or suffering can any outsider really enter, complex as the gates are, rusty as the locks seem?  That moment was theirs.  That beautifully-wrought, hidden hull and the love and sorrow that had built it belonged only to the two of them.

What I did, just then – as I braced myself against that hillside tree, breathing in, breathing out – was what I do best, despite that man's earnest counsel: I trusted my eyes. I took it in. All of it. I stood in my place, out of sight, and let it happen without me. I held to that tree and, as if my life depended upon it, I watched that man take his brother and the Magdalena out of the beautifully-lit cove, into dark water, heading for the estuary, and then out into the great sea.