“Gatherer’s Blog” is an invited feature that provides emergent as well as seasoned writers with opportunities to reflect upon aspects of their own writing processes.
As Leaves to a Tree
by Laurie Clements Lambeth
Tuneless Numbers and a Glove
John Keats wrote in 1818 that “if Poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” I used to think this suggested that lines would spill forth from my mind to the page, would “arrive.” Arrive from where? I didn’t ask, when I was the age of Keats, who died at twenty-six of consumption, today called tuberculosis. I identified so fiercely with Keats when I studied his work in my twenties, that late one night, around three a.m., bleary-eyed from writing a bibliographic essay on his odes, I saw his face pass in front of mine in the bathroom mirror. I did bear a striking resemblance to the poet, but that’s beside the matter.
One result of education and time, if we have too much of it, or at least live long enough, beyond Keats’s years, is that we may start asking questions of beloved quotes from our idols, and of ourselves. Such as:
- What, exactly, is “naturally”?
- How do leaves come to a tree? How often do they come? Once a year?
- What about bare branches amid the leafy?
- What about autumn, to which Keats wrote one of his most beautiful odes?
- How do you write in winter when the branches are bare?
- Why aren’t you writing, Laurie?
Sitting in a room at Keats House in Hampstead, London, I read a bound facsimile of Keats’s medical notebook from when he studied medicine at Guy’s Hospital. What fascinated me most were the doodles, his brief sketch of a foot next to lecture notes of its anatomy. I lost a knit glove in that room. It must have slipped off the chair. The outline of my hand that first slipped into the numbness of multiple sclerosis (MS), the same hand that later numbed with stress, the same one that, years further on, could not type for months until retaught. I’d like to think the glove fingered its way towards a sketch in that medical notebook, but someone probably tossed it. Let it nest nightingales.
Poems used to come far more naturally to me—if that means rapidly, fluidly. Essays did, too. When reading and brightness caused immense pain behind my dominant eye and the large white letters swelled and blurred on a dark screen, I wrote hungrily, eyes down, sometimes closed. I trusted the words and images that arrived and they took me. I trusted my memory to hold my place, to make the associative leaps intended in my cryptic sticky notes. To know what I meant when I made those notes. To pick up where I left off. I still trust those instincts, but sometimes I feel lost. I question my ideas, the movement of a work. Some leaves curl into oak apple galls. Whole branches fall in storms. Some remain bare, even in the height of spring, surrounded by full, leafy sisters. I live among trees and take note of such occurrences.
The truth is, cognitive symptoms of MS have made it more difficult to maintain multiple branches of thought. I am supposed to be working on three books. Maybe four. But I also teach Medical Humanities classes that pull my mind in other directions, down other branches. There I’ve stayed for months at a time—re-reading, re-watching materials I’ve read and seen at least ten times but don’t remember clearly—until I’ve found time to write again. Time waits. Writing waits, there above my head, that hazy cloud, inaccessible.
I keep noticing a large branch suspended like a wishbone from a great height in the far corner of my garden. Its tree is home to screech owls, birds, squirrels, opossums. The top of the tree, visible only in winter’s bareness, looks charred, like it once caught lightning. Its thin, leafy branches and twigs cradle the loose wishbone branch like a body or a word. Nature is also delay, patience.
In part, work obligations—and even the ambitions that come with the pressures of multiple projects that tend to erase each other—have kept me from a generative creative practice, particularly when the kind of analytical thinking needed for that work is at odds with the thinking I do while writing. Thankfully, some new work obligations have actually reawakened my writing practice. I was fortunate last year to be invited by Stephen Kuusisto to join him, Ona Gritz, Daniel Simpson, and Georgia Popoff as faculty for Numberless Dreams, a free, online, accessible, generative writing workshop community for young, teenage writers with disabilities, offered through the YMCA of Central New York’s Downtown Writers Center and Syracuse University.
Every Saturday we meet on Zoom and take turns sharing prompts with our young writers and each other. We break to write, and then post our work in the chat or read it to the group, aware that these are early drafts. Many of the young writers who participate in Numberless Dreams are non-speaking individuals with autism. They are joined by their communication partners (usually a parent), who help with tools like letter boards, and these young writers release into words their fierce and beautiful insights, images, and perspectives they have waited so long to express. In this pressurized time and web of space spanning the North American continent, we write together and apart. Technology has enabled this new space that is entirely natural—for what is more natural than the variation afforded by different ways of moving, perceiving, and addressing the world, and the interdependence that arises from it? In nature, leaves fill out bare spots, and the empty yoke of two branches provides a strong foundation for a nest to be built.
Here—wherever “here” may be in Numberless Dreams—Disabled creative people challenge, celebrate, and offer accommodation, encouragement, and inspiration for one another’s creations. And we are astonished by our writers’ words, blessed to bear witness to varied imaginations and perceptions, to our shared work, shoulder to shoulder, across space and time zones. Rather than wait for our work to arrive, we arrive at it. I am learning, perhaps rather late, that a poem need not hold the promise of full leafy splendor when first written, but maybe a branch with a single leaf will, after exploration, bear the weight of a fully encumbered bough.
It is an honor to read aloud the words of our young writers on their behalf. I’ve learned that the sounds created in the mouth’s cavern and voice box’s triangle are not equivalent to voice. Whether writers “speak” or not, we are always capable of voice. The young poets and writers in Numberless Dreams each display quite distinctive voices in their writing, urgent to be read and understood. One such young writer, whom Georgia Popoff calls “Basho Incarnate,” writes tight, spare poems with the pressure of silence and space for contemplation. His mother shared a video of his piano recital recently, during our “good news” segment, and I was struck by the similarities between his method of playing music and his writing: they shared a parallel sense of voice, with room for silence, soft notes, and long-awaited strong chords. The silences build anticipation and offer room to wonder, notice, and reflect. I felt inspired to craft a prompt around finding silence in our writing. During our writing time, I wrote “Shadow and Light.” The poem merged my memory of viewing this young writer’s partnership with his mother holding a translucent letter board out for him in dim light as he pointed to the letters he needed to express his thoughts—and the musical performance.
Shadow and Light
Listen to the poem read by the author
His mother offers a slim white plastic sheet of letters. The silhouette of his hand grows close behind it, index pointing. Glow of choice, deliberate, like his hands on piano keys, waiting for the right moment, resting, reflected in polished wood.
These words came like leaves to a tree, steeped in my mind, patiently waiting, silent, wading past speech, past the thoughts that crowd around it. Leaves come when they can, when they will, when willed—and when the wind blows, they quiver and dance to their own music.
About the Author
Laurie Clements Lambeth is the author of Veil and Burn (University of Illinois Press, 2008), selected by Maxine Kumin for the National Poetry Series. Her poetry publications include Poetry Magazine, Crazyhorse, Seneca Review, and Bellevue Literary Review, where her poem won their 2014 award for poetry. Her creative nonfiction has most recently appeared in The New York Times, Ecotone, and Crab Orchard Review. She teaches Medical Humanities courses at the University of Houston’s Honors College and Creative Writing with Numberless Dreams.