Guy Davenport was such an elegant writer. We have most of his books and from time to time I pick one up to observe the twists and turns of a truly original and interesting mind. Today, it’s Every Force Evolves A Form, his 1987 collection of 20 essays. Occasional pieces, if you like. There is no connecting thread, unless it’s happenstance. What happens if you think about birds without a direction in mind? You might begin with Wordsworth and a robin. You might move to a raven, an osprey. Whitman will enter the essay, then Hopkins and his windhover (or kestrel). You will think about the possibility that the birds are daimons, spirits, forces evolving a form, which is the titular essay. It takes its title from Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers. Davenport tells us, “In its practical sense, this axiom was the rule by which Shaker architects and designers found perfect forms.”
I am drawn to essays that make themselves out of musings, scraps, remnants, snags of light; essays that move ideas together in unexpected ways, so that you know the writer felt the same delight and surprise that you feel when you read the sentences in their lovely arrangements. Did Guy Davenport expect that a robin entering a Westmoreland cottage in 1835 would lead him to Whitman talking in Camden in 1888, then a little beyond? I hope not. I hope he just began thinking. Seeing. Sharing those things on the page. Not all essays work this way. Nor should they. But isn’t it wonderful when you find some that do?
One reason that I have this book in front of me today is that I was trying to tidy my study and went to the room we call our “library” (think Ikea pine utility shelves with books back to back and stacked to the ceiling and then three more cases filled to the brim and stacks on the floor waiting to be shelved) to put a few things away. Pushing some books aside to make room, I saw Every Force Evolves A Form and wanted to re-read it (instead of finishing the tidying).
And the reason I’m tidying is to clear room in order to begin a dyeing project. Not physical room but the sense that chores are taken care of so maybe I can do something I’ve had in mind for ages. I want to try to clamp a large piece of linen to make a series of windows once the fabric has been dipped in many baths of indigo dye. It will look something like this:
This particular fabric is only about ten inches wide and I want these new windows large. I want to put things in them. I don’t know what yet. I’ll figure that out as I go along. By pleating the linen in an accordion fold, I’ll use sturdy pieces of wood, more or less the same size, and clamp them to the cloth in a regular way. I have small clamps but I suspect I’ll need to use carpenter ones for something this size. The idea is that the dye won’t penetrate the areas clamped under the wood. It’s work that needs to be done outside and it won’t stop raining. But one day soon the sun will shine and the force of the clamped cloth will evolve a form that will lead me somewhere else.
Not all textile projects begin this way but I’m always eager when they do.