“every force evolves a form”

laid out

The great thing about swimming is its capacity for meditative thinking. Not always. But sometimes, when I have something to figure out, and if I’m breathing steadily as I swim up and down the local pool, I can find my way down into the idea I’m puzzling through.  I’m going to write about it here because I know how often I read about writers and their work patterns and my own never seems to be anything like that. I’ve asked myself many times if I might in fact be a fraud, that maybe I’m not really a writer at all. But this time I actually had an insight about something and I worked out a solution that I think is pretty interesting.

Over the weekend I completed a first draft of an essay on rivers and venous systems. I was trying to understand how our veins work and how things can go wrong with them. Obviously my medical background is zero. But I also realized at recent medical appointments that there are gaps in the way doctors and other medical practitioners view (and tend to pathologize) anomalies in the human body. My essay remembers particular rivers and their origins, situating me (and my family, if required) on or in different rivers. The rivers move over and around obstacles, their water levels change, they form oxbows and meanders. I try to imagine the notion of braided rivers, channels that split off from one another for various reasons (bank erosion being one) and then rejoin each other again. And there are many correspondences with our venous system. I loved writing the first draft and now the challenge is to take the sections, written as they occurred, and make a coherence of the whole thing. The beginning is still the beginning and the end is still the end but the 12 sections in between needed some organizing.

I had in mind moving the material around on the page a little, as one would do with the sections of a poem, using the space of the page as a compositional field. Can you do this with an essay that is essentially written as straight prose? Well, maybe you can. In the pool, I remembered a little passage in one section of the essay that uses an encounter with a physiotherapist last week who was helping me to strengthen one leg.

My physiotherapist tells me that the ligaments, bones, and cartilage exist in a relationship. He braids his fingers together to show me. Then he turns them askew, like my own braided hair after I’ve slept on for a night or two, and he says our work will be to re-align the workings of my right leg. He doesn’t think it’s simply arthritis though he’s breezily convinced that everyone over 50 has some degree of it in his or her joints. He speaks of trauma, of injury. A bump or a fall or a turn too far.

So what would happen, I wondered, if I tried justifying the margins of certain sections to the right-hand side of the page rather than the left. Would you still be able to read the prose easily but might you also be able to understand how the sections are like the rivers splitting and rejoining one another, the bones and ligaments trying to do the same? Would you? Hmmm. I kept swimming up and down the pool, doing my slow kilometer, and trying to “see” the prose sections as visual correlatives of my body and the rivers I love. I know this could work with huge sheets of paper and letterpress printing, I know that space would not be an issue. But on an 8 1/2 x 11 inch page, what then?

I’ve been trying various things in my word-processing program (which isn’t Word but LibreOffice, close to Word but not exactly the same) and I’ve been cutting and taping pages to try to see which sections might look best meshing or braiding together (only at the bottom or top of a page, I guess, because otherwise there won’t be room for the actual text). And trying to remind myself that this is writing first and graphic representation second. That meaning ought to come first. But maybe there’s also room for what Guy Davenport, via Mother Ann Lee, so beautifully recognized: that “every force evolves a form.” That meaning is, in a way, a realization of aesthetic form.

one section

Ok, back to it. I can’t wait to fiddle some more.

“A work of art is a form that articulates forces, making them intelligible.”

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.