Cleaning out a closet recently, I encountered a series of blank books I filled during the time I was studying for an MFA—notes on books perused and lectures attended, lots of elaborate doodles, poetry recommendations, and random epiphanies. It’s been long enough now that they looked like someone else’s labor, as if I’d entered a prison cell and stared at the scratchings of an altogether different mind.
I was amazed at what I’ve forgotten.
Graduate degrees ought to come with expiration dates. Some must remain relevant—maybe the ones where learning is practical and essential—but everything unused fades quickly. And the thesis sitting in your attic or the spirals of class notes from college are more mementos than records. I’m not sure why I kept mine.
Here’s something I found on page 78 on my second semester book, my notes on Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions:
Completed only months before Neruda’s death in 1973, he revisits, “that vast well of perpetuity”: the imagination of regeneration and vision. These poems express dedication to what Hayden Carruth calls “structure of feeling” underlying experience. Neruda’s “passion lay in finding and improvising upon basic rhythms of perception to reveal unspoken and unspeakable traits.” These poems, “integrate the wonder of a child with the experience of an adult. The adult usually grapples with the child’s ‘irrational’ question solely with the resources of the rational mind.” These questions do not produce, and aren’t intended to produce, any rational answers.
These notes must come from Hayden Carruth’s introduction, an explanation I hardly understand for a book I don’t remember. At the time, in 2000, the notes aimed to enhance a poet’s education, but “the vast well of perpetuity” swallowed them, and this rational mind wonders how, even if it understood them entirely, how it might apply what it found.
As Neruda’s book still sits on my shelf, I’m not sure why I wrote my favorite questions on the opposite page. I’ve carefully copied, “At whom does rice smile / with infinitely many teeth?” and “Where can a blind man live / who is pursued by bees?” along with “Will my sorrowful poetry / watch with my own eyes?” and two more pages.
Was the idea to write as Neruda did? I couldn’t have been so naïve… because he is Neruda and I’m not… and at the bottom of all my careful scrivening appears a rushed note to myself, “The fact is we don’t know what’s going on and why do we place such emphasis on saying we do?”
Perhaps my books of purple calligraphy would have a different meaning if they described the structure of the heart or equations to determine the weight distribution of a suspension bridge. Perhaps only an arts education is so perishable. And maybe these notes were meant for a paper I’ve forgotten, or they hoped, in examining what exactly made Neruda’s best questions, to gather something I might use in my own poetry.
But another conclusion occurs to me—maybe only aspiration matters. As foolish as hoping to remember might be, something of those notes must persist, some determination laid down like substructure, pipes, wires, and conduit. If your aims are sincere and their effect real, the result isn’t in notes but in the influence of reading and writing intently, actions designed to copy learning somewhere unconscious and untraceable.
I could be rationalizing endless hours spent scribbling—they have to count—but the “structure of feeling” they communicate must be real. Most patterns we create without noticing. They assemble themselves like currents aligned to regular movement. Like Neruda’s questions, those “basic rhythms of perception” that “reveal unspoken and unspeakable traits,” arise, at least in part, from us and what we want enough to labor for.
At the end of each of these books are a few pages I never reached. The semester ended and I picked up a new book. Those empty pages speak as vividly as some of the full ones now. I’m not sure whether I know what these notes do anymore, but they tell me I wanted to know. I don’t mind witnessing their desire anew.
Maybe I will find something for their empty pages yet.