This evening, I am on the brink of finishing my rereading of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek--which, if you're keeping score, you know has taken me some considerable time. I was strolling along toward the bookstore this evening, planning to read until closing time, when I spied my beloved Greek mentor's car, pulling up to our town's now-defunct gas station. Now, there are two cars of this make in Gambier, so it was possible that I was not seeing my friend after all. I approached casually, ready to veer back off toward the bookstore if it were not he. But it was indeed my friend, who instantly invited me over for talking. And so off we went.
The title for tonight's post both comes from and is a tribute to the kinds of night talking he and I have done for many years now. I have known this man for more than thirteen years; he is the reason I picked up a classics major while I was here as a student. When I was a senior, I knew the sound of his office door's opening and closing, and I knew him well enough to know when it was okay to stop in and say hello at 11:30 p.m. and when it was better to leave him working. When I graduated, he was one of the people I cried to be leaving. When he retired, not so long after I graduated, I cried all over again, though I wasn't quite sure why, that time; I suspect it had something to do with the beauty and justice of watching him be honored for twelve straight hours, during a symposium in his honor, and I suspect it might also have had something to do with my recognizing the onward passage of time in a particularly forceful way that day.
When I was in graduate school, Kenyon was about two-thirds of the way from Ithaca to my parents' house, and so I often stopped off in Gambier for visits, coming and going. I always stayed either with my excellent friends or with my Greek mentor. And no matter whom I actually stayed with, I nearly always managed at least one night's long conversation with this man who is among the dearest and most consequential people in my life.
Tonight, we swapped stories about bibliography (he has all these old books, and now I know how to interpret their physical make-up! and so we both just marveled) and neoplatonism, about poetry and mysticism, about religion and uncertainty and complexity. And we talked Elizabeth Barrett Browning, since he has just joined the fold of people who have read (and loved) all of Aurora Leigh. Paging through a volume of Barrett Browning's late essays, I discovered that the first line of her writing about the English poets is "The voice of the turtle is heard through the land," which happens to scan in precisely the way many of my poems' first lines--the first lines that often get shaped and reshaped and then scrapped, though they've birthed a poem--come to me: an iamb (stressed + unstressed: "the VOICE") and three anapests (two unstressed + stressed: "of the TURtle is HEARD through the LAND"). I wonder whether EBB's ear also ran to eleven or twelve syllables naturally and then had to be brought into line when she wanted the neat iambics of blank verse.
In any case, the line struck me as being so wholly unexpected that it seemed the perfect textual correlative for the pleasure of randomly encountering a dear friend whom I'd been meaning to call anyway (and whose opening salvo to me was "I could show you in the calendar where it says, 'Call her'") and then spending a lazily vigorous few hours with iced tea and old books. It's also a perfect example of the way our evenings have always gone: intellectual discussions with him are, have always been, pure play and sheer joy, experiences that leave me feeling younger and stronger and older and wiser than before, all at once. For thirteen years--and especially for the nine since my graduation--I have believed that something about our friendship manages to eradicate the decades of difference between us, leaving us roughly the same age--and an age that never groans on to growing old, at that. He has long been my mainstay; in that, I am blessed. It is one measure of how astonishingly hectic my first years back in Gambier have been that I have not actually spent so many more evenings perched in his red study, sipping tea and bandying about ideas.
Walking to my house a little while ago, I realized the extent to which we are now in the loud days of August, cicadas and night insects percussing away in the trees in a high-chugging call and response that would be maddening if it didn't fade out from my conscious hearing so swiftly each year (or each day that I recognize anew that it's part of my soundscape). I could rewrite EBB's line and make it true for this night: "The voice of the insects is heard through the land." I would rewrite it again and make it "The voice of the insects resounds through the land." And then, I'd be off and writing--as, perhaps, I am.