Nothing of my birth. No memory of the womb, the darkness, the warmth. But there is a low hiss that comes to me in dreams like the flow of a great river, and a rhythm—a sound—something that pulses in me for the rest of my life: controlling my tongue, the measure of my thoughts, the timing of my heart.
My memories go back a long way, too long to be true, people tell me. And yet they are there, stored in a wordless space in my mind, because they came before words, existing in a place that someday I will come to understand is the source of my poetry, perhaps the source of all poetry. It is a country without borders, a place without language, a universe that has not yet been talked into being.
For an infinite period, I rest outside of time. There are colors, forms, sounds, smells, but they sweep through me undifferentiated and unrecorded. Every moment is new. Nothing makes sense, but this does not bother me, because I have no expectation that it should. I feel pleasure but do not grasp at joy, because I have no sense that joy is finite. I feel pain but do not fear suffering, because I do not yet know that pain can persist, grow worse, or return.
I float in the material world as I floated in my mother’s womb: conscious and unconscious at the same time. I float in infinity, and it is beautiful. What a pathetic word to describe such greatness. “Beautiful?” Say rather “ecstatic,” and even that does not begin to capture the bliss of it.
Slowly, my parents and the other humans who surround me talk me into reality like people welcoming a child to live in a great mansion if she will only abandon all that exists outside its walls. Their words are the stones, their emotions and gestures the mortar that will seal me off from wordless infinity.
Yet I need to live in the world of other humans, the world of time, the world of words. Something in me craves this, grasps for it; and as I seize their words, suck on them, unfold them inside myself and let the long tendrils of their sounds attach to objects, that fragment of the whole that we humans have all agreed to call ‘reality’ begins to congeal around me. And this is where my real memories begin, sharp and defined, and undeniably experienced; because later I check them out with my parents and find that they remember the same things:
A wooden crib, slick with yellow varnish. Two teddy bears painted on the panel at my feet: one wearing a pink dress, one wearing a blue one. Wooden bars that look like the naked trunks of trees. A cream-colored enamel saucepan with a red stripe around the rim attached to a broom handle and stuck out the window to catch snow which is mixed with sugar and vanilla. A small child’s table with a square hole in the middle where I am placed to eat.
What do these things have to do with anything? What do a crib, a table, and a saucepan have to do with becoming a poet?
The answer is: everything. These objects are not important in themselves. They are only crucial because I remember them by name. This marks a momentous divide. At this moment, I am still poised between a wordless infinity and the sharply defined, limited, and absolutely necessary world of common human experience and culture that recognizes, among other things, cause and effect, time, reason, and death. This is a transitional moment, a moment when I have acquired my first words—priceless tools, which will allow me to communicate with other human beings and, to a limited extent, with animals.
As I sit at that child’s table eating sugared snow cream, I am still capable of sensing the infinite wordless space of my infancy, and at the same time, because I have words, I can remember that timeless floating well enough to attempt to describe it to you. At the age of two, I am in touch with a boundless source of inspiration, and I have language. In other words, I have everything I will need to become a poet except education and experience.
And words. I will need many more words before I actually begin to write, because ultimately words are what will make me into a poet instead of, say, a painter or a musician.
It is estimated that there are one million distinct words in the English language. At the age of two, I probably know 150 to 200. By the time I am three, I know something in the range of 1,000 to 1,500 words and can use them more or less in context. I don’t understand everything my parents are telling me, but without realizing it, I have begun to assemble my poetic toolbox. I talk to myself, to my stuffed animals, to trees, rocks, birds, cups, and other people; and in doing so, I learn that I have a talent for remembering and reproducing sounds. I can order them properly. I have a general grasp of what they mean.
Almost immediately, I start playing with words like toys, combining and recombining them. I ask my teddy bear: “Can a hippopotamus have a popsicle? No. Popsicles are too cold. Can a popsicle have a hippopotamus?”
I imagine a popsicle eating a hippopotamus. Cherry, I think. A cherry popsicle with a big red mouth. Hard to chew on a hippopotamus. This popsicle needs teeth.
I go on spinning out that idea, and in the process, I discover something important: In an English sentence, when you turn the order of the words around, they sometimes create a world different from the one you live in.
I find this highly entertaining. I can do it for hours at a time.
I am only a small child who cannot yet read, but in an incomplete, awkward way I have produced my first poems, because the essence of poetry and of imagination itself involves playing with language, inventing new combinations, turning things on their heads, and defying expectations.
Words made this possible. Words turned me into a writer, but with each word I acquired, I lost something vital, something important that most of us are taught to abandon at a very early age.
When, for example, I learned the word “chair,” I came to see tens of thousands of objects as “chairs” no matter how different they were from one another. In essence, when I acquired language, I entered a world of categories and abstractions and stopped actually seeing what was in front of me. This was, of course, necessary
I needed a filter that would allow me to focus primarily on things important to my own survival. I needed to be aware of cars speeding toward me when I crossed the street and not be distracted by oil making rainbow patterns in puddles.
My brain, restructured to a large extent by the language and the culture into which I was born, became that filter. Freed from a constant bombardment of information, I embraced an attenuated consciousness of reality and became a normal, sane adult human being. The price I paid for this was to become blind to much of what surrounded me. But I was not blind all the time, because as I grew to adulthood, I retained a partial ability to stand on the threshold that marks the boundary between childhood and adulthood and see and not see at the same time.
When I write a poem, my mind continues to move fluidly between the real and the surreal. I experience ordinary, plain, unadorned reality; and at the same time, I see the alternatives that reality offers, the dream-like possibilities that cluster around objects, the barely-conscious connections between words, images, scents, sounds, and touch. I can look at a bowl sitting on a table and see it simply as a white china bowl; but at the same time, I can see it—as I have written in my poem “The Breakfast Nook”—as “a white sound/ swirling into a depression/ of unspeakable depths.” I can pick up a fork and see it simply as a fork, which is what I do most of the time, because to do anything else would be impractical when I am eating. But if I concentrate on that fork, focus unwavering attention on it, I can see it as a “long shining road/that branches at the end/into four paths/that lead nowhere.”
I don’t drink alcohol or take drugs to enter this state of mind. It comes as naturally as breathing. All I need to do is shift my attention and look at something as if I have never seen it before. The world we have agreed to call “the surreal” is hidden in plain sight. It always clusters around the real the way the petals cluster around the central disk of a sunflower. I can choose to ignore the surreal, ignore the real, or use both in a poem. But I don’t create either. They just exist simultaneously.
Which brings me back to words. Valuable as they are, words, by their very nature, aren’t good at describing the wordless state. But of all word forms, poetry—spoken, sung, or written—comes the closest.
Mary Mackey became a writer by running high fevers, tramping through tropical jungles, being swarmed by army ants, and reading. She is the author of 8 poetry collections, including Sugar Zone, winner of a PEN Award and The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams, winner of the Eric Hoffer Award for Best Book Published by a Small Press. Her poetry has been praised by Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, D. Nurkse, Al Young, Rafael Jesús González, and Maxine Hong Kingston for its beauty, precision, originality, and extraordinary range. She is also author of 14 novels including The New York Times bestseller A Grand Passion. Her new book Creativity: Where Poems Begin looks at the origins of inspiration.