Friday, October 28, 2022

Outlier/Indweller: Writing as Walking

Milkweed Editions, 2022.

“The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods.” – Cheryl Strayed
In her 2012 memoir called Wild: From Lost to Found, the American writer Cheryl Strayed recalls taking herself off on a thousand-mile hike of self-discovery, observing, “I’d finally come to understand what it had been: a yearning for a way out, when actually what I had wanted to find was a way in.” She was also sharing her experience of wanting per se, almost as a location in space and time, one she could arrive at by escaping from its insistent desire, even comparing her wanting to a wilderness she needed to be liberated from. Unfettered physical space and its traversal are frequently perceived as a conduit to expanded consciousness, but the latter is, however, not the only way to free oneself from the sense of confinement which often ironically accompanies a heightened sense of self-awareness.

The Canadian poet and visual artist Adam Wolfond’s new book of mesmerizing poems, The Wanting Way, is perhaps an ideal example of how effectively a being who at first glance appears to occupy a profound sense of confinement can, upon reflection and closer observation, reveal himself to be freely traversing interior expansive landscapes of exquisite beauty with a charming sense of humility and grace. He has, in fact, clearly documented, in his own inimitable style, how he manages to travel as an exceptionally gifted poetic flâneur and arrive at an often poignant way out of the woods of wanting and also to arrive at a way into self-expression of a truly extraordinary sort. He explores an interior wilderness.

What is extraordinary about his manner of delivering these shimmering emotive postcards, directly from his heart to us, is how fervently they occupy a zone I often to refer to as nirvanarama: the utter absence of self-consciousness. Wolfond’s poems are also tender-hearted evocations of several of the most powerful movements in 20th-century poetry, those groups known as the Vorticists and including Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis and T.S. Eliot, and also the new image stylings of Charles Olson, John Berryman in his Dreamsongs and especially the ever-enigmatic e.e. cummings. But not consciously so, since it is uncertain which of those artists Wolfond is familiar with. Nonetheless, The Wanting Way does have resonance with Pound’s Pisan Cantos and with the Tulips and Chimneys stage of early cummings, as well as with much of William Carlos Williams’s uniquely fervent devotion to everyday life.

Which brings me to my first dilemma in discussing Wolfond’s work: whether I should simply explore his touching poems all on their own merit, which is considerable in the contextual overlap with such impactful stylistic movements as the ones I mention, or should identify them as the uncanny insights of a gifted artist. In the end, Wolfond himself, and his editors, provided the way out of that dilemma by being open and upfront about the personal place from which his private poetic postcards originate. As per the book’s designation: “Adam Wolfond is a non-speaking autistic artist, prose writer and poet. He has two poetry chapbooks, In Way of Music Water Answers Towards Questions Other Than What is Autism, and There is Too Much Music in My Ears. He is also the co-founder, along with Estee Klar, of dis assembly, a neurodiverse arts collective in Toronto.” And Milkweed Editions offered this synopsis of their Multiverse program: “Multiverse is a literary series devoted to different ways of languaging. It primarily emerges from the practices of neurodivergent, autistic and non-speaking cultures.”

The proposed program of this highly engaging alternative editorial emphasis is that of making gestures towards a correspondence – human and more than human; gestures that “lovingly exceed what is normal and normative in our society, questioning and augmenting what literary culture, is, has been and can be.” And Amy Sequenzia, a social activist who writes eloquently about disability rights, civil rights and human rights, has cogently observed about Wolfond’s deeply moving communication methods, “Through words full of musicality, Adam advocates for his right to be himself, demanding that his very way of existing in the world be respected. Adam invites ‘talkers’ to quietly listen to his non-speaking language.”

So then, let us quietly listen.

from I Am the Pace of My Body and Not Language:

think the days of the week
           are paced in the line of rocks
                     and the water of the ocean

Water talks by pacing waves against them

Rocks respond by allowing their surfaces to be worn

Time is perceived by the appreciation
         of language but I am
                   the pace of my body and not language

Upon encountering these alluring and elliptical lines, I was immediately struck by their resonance with a number of my favourite poets from a wide range of centuries and diverse styles who all shared a singular desire to bend language, beyond its most conventional shapes and structures and into a startling new alignment with their own private interior worlds. Isidore Ducasse, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, André Breton, Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, for instance, all strove to dislocate the meaning of poetic insights, whether via the symbolist agenda, the surrealist project, or the cut-up method of free-form scissored juxtapositions.

Indeed, two of my very favourite poets instantly sprung to mind in a kind of echo of Wolfond’s creative flow, the welsh visionary Dylan Thomas and the Romanian-German wordsmith Paul Celan, both of whom utterly transformed their native tongues merely by insisting on being themselves. And if you’re reading this Adam, by no means is my comparison of your thought and feeling vibe to Thomas and Celan in any way a diminishment of your own achievement as a two-decade-old human. On the contrary, I believe that if you explore the works of these two authors you will wade deeply into a breathtaking synchronicity and feel right at home in their dream-landscapes: for they were inherently and essentially writing specifically for acutely tuned ears such as yours.

Dylan Thomas, from Fern Hill (1945)

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
     In the moon that is always rising,
          Nor that riding to sleep
     I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
          Time held me green and dying
     Though I sang in my chains like the sea.


Paul Celan, from Black (1948)

like the memory-wound,
the eyes dig toward you
in the by heart-teeth light-
bitten crownland,
that remains our bed:

through this shaft you have to come—
you come.

In seed-
the sea stars you out, innermost, forever.

The namegiving has an end,
over you I cast my lot.


Even though all the poets I referenced, especially Thomas and Celan (who sometimes even resorted to creating neologisms such as “breathturn into timestead” to reach his goals) are gifted emissaries from a distant land of human insight, they still do often feel like they are striving, searching for a way to exceed the limits of language. But Wolfond exhibits no striving; his is a natural and innate ability to pull magic out of the air at will. Which is why I believe this young poet would also experience great benefits from close readings of another of my favourite poets, Wallace Stevens, as he goes forward on his own path. Not because he should make any adjustments in his style or technique of sharing his “wanting way,” which I easily acclaim as quite extraordinary in many respects, but merely because he will find in Stevens a kindred spirit: someone who has left footprints to follow out of the woods.

Returning to my dilemma of whether or not to divulge his non-talking autistic state of mind, which he resolved for me by doing it already himself – although at first glance Wolfond may appear to be an outlier, a person situated away or detached from the main body of system and differing from all other members of a particular group (and ironically, as a metaphor this young poet will likely appreciate, in geology: a younger rock formation isolated among older rocks) – he is also paradoxically an indweller. Indweller means literally abiding within as a guiding force; it often refers to the activation of an inner spirit, force or principle. In his case, that inner spirit is both the wanting way and the way of poetry, and its core embodiment in a shared, silent meaning which at times even feels prayerful, or perhaps at least contemplative, in Thomas Merton’s use of the term. And among the many signposts Adam has erected on his way out of the woods of selfdom, usually using the twigs, branches and sticks he treasures so frequently in the making of his assembled sculptures (which are nevertheless still physical poems), this one poem, in its entirety, has remained with me as a kind of an island beacon pointing inward and outward at the same time:

A Typology of Water

Rain is mastering thought
with landings that
eagerly run and toward
more thoughts go

Stream of thought
is the pace
of the thinking apparition
of the way thought
is landing

Lake is the pool
of thought
and the always
pleasing calm

Pond the simple pause
of words
opening insides
puttering to more boredom
where the bottom of ponds are still

Ocean is like the inside
of the palpitating heart
where love is pleasing
place of pampering
universe in my head

In my head is my heart

When he was recently conversing with author Jeevika Verma on the PBS network, while using a speech-generating device, Wolfond observed not just what poetry means to him but also how it feels to him: “It is nature to me. And I think that non-speakers like me dance with language.” And language, or what the poet more actively calls languaging, is “an event in which the body and the atmosphere are related.” Chris Martin, the editor of the Multiverse series, also uses the more active term languaging, which he learned from Wolfond: “For me, there’s this huge gap between the way I language myself in poetry and the way I language myself in everyday life. What felt so transformative to me about being in a community with non-speaking writers is that there wasn’t this gap in expression.”

Exactly so: in Wolfond’s verses, there is zero gap between what he is thinking and feeling, and the manner in which he expresses it in words. As he puts it in his silent but eloquent way: “Languaging can open many ways for persons who are not able to walk the talk.” It suddenly struck me that all of Wolfond’s poems, and indeed even, or especially, the physical poems we call sculptures, were functioning as a kind of algorithm or code for living the way he lives, as in the technical meaning of the term: a process or set of rules followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations. So I was especially delighted to come upon a series of short poems in this current collection which play on both that meaning and on the word itself.

Algo Rhythm 6

Walk the ways of thinking each step is answering the call to word the ways. Open the call—divings to the underland of thought. Understand how the watchful eyes answer to what art is and not what art does.

                                                    * * *

“Divings to the underland of thought”: now, there is a line of poetry that is truly worthy of Celan or Thomas. Indeed, it is also one worthy of Adam Wolfond and his shared yearning to find a way out and a way in at the same time. By sharing that yearning, and sharing The Wanting Way, he has demonstrated that all language, and all true poetry, is an invisible architecture within which we can all conduct our lives with a quiet grace and a humble charm. T.S. Eliot, whose Waste Land was released upon an unsuspecting world a century ago this year, once remarked that genuine poetry can communicate long before it is fully understood. I therefore propose that, given my belief that poetry can hardly ever get more genuine than Wolfond’s, a simple taste test can prove this salient assertion. Pick a few of his poems from The Wanting Way and read them out loud: you’ll find that they make more than perfect sense. He may not talk much, but his poetry speaks volumes in a cool, clear voice that feels like music, precisely because it is music. It’s the body’s own music of calmly walking across an expansive landscape of words.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work in progress is a new book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.

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