“A Mile In” was selected by 2011 judge Nancy Eimers as the winner of our annual New Ohio Review Poetry Contest, and was published Fall 2011, in New Ohio Review 10. What grabs me about this poem is the non-event it describes: a sudden and inexplicable hyper-awareness, prompted by an inherently insignificant announcement.
A Mile In
The snow had been with us for awhile
and was dingy and not well lit.
But the sun promised to come out.
The light fog lifting
against the skinny tree trunks
and the grounded limbs they’d lost
and the thick, half-detached vines
would lift off,
dissolved, by the end of our walk.
We’d taken the footbridge
across the creek and followed the bend
away from traffic and toward the west ridge.
We’d gone a mile in,
to where usually I begin to listen to
our progress in the twigs and gravel of the path,
and past this, and past my own
periodic reminders to the dog
to the short, uncomplicated songs
of winter birds. And there,
near the spill of rocks in the creek
where the fog was still passing through branches
and a little farther and to the right
where a stretch of tall grasses
received a wide gift
of sunlight and several cows,
the air that stood still
between the trees and shimmered
over the grasses filled with sound—
a big voice moving through
a hundred thousand habitats—
and it said, “Attention in this area.
The following is a regular monthly
test of the Outdoor Warning System . . .”
It spoke from the west first,
sounding closer than it could be.
And it spoke from the southeast next.
This is a test,” it said, “only a . . .
“This is a test . . ." it began again
from somewhere else.
The dog returned to me, cowering.
I’d wondered before
without much curiosity,
where were those speakers housed,
were they towered, did they revolve?
Ordinarily heard in the yard
while I stood pinning laundry to the line,
the broadcast soon plunged and sank
into the noise of passing cars
and blown and rolling garbage cans
and faded like the little ringing
that emanates from construction sites.
But here, it seemed full minutes long
before my breath was back again in my chest,
and my dog’s breath,
steady and rough, was back in hers
when the voice had left the air
between the trees, as had the fog.
At last a bird sounded from a twig.
At last a squirrel came down
and sent the dog. And then,
made up of other sounds
I could not have singled out,
a normalcy rolled in.
Infinitesimal bits is all it was
—quick beaks breaking up the peat,
the slow collision of a leaf landing, scooting
half an inch along a big flat rock,
a splat of excrement in white,
a flinch, a flap, a flick. But as it came it felt
to be a counter-vigilance. Or like
the sound of consciousness. The is.
> - - - - - - -
Those announcements, heard in the context of routine from the safety of the speaker’s backyard, were merely part of life’s backdrop, sound coming from a single direction. But on this day she hears them “a mile in,” so deep into her walk that she has left the cluttered multi-tasking zone behind and reached a focused and meditative state. The first twelve lines are what I like to think of as gray language: words in the monosensual service of describing literal fact, every detail flat and purely visual. Once we pass the point of her “beginning” to listen, released from the duty of reprimand or “reminder” – beyond civilization with its traffic and garbage cans as well as its expectations of comportment – the language lifts onto a more lyrical plane: we hear about “the spill of rocks”; “a wide gift/of sunlight”; the shimmering air; and the sudden imaginative perception of those “hundred thousand habitats.” In this second state, her ears are alert to the several directions from which the announcements emanate and reverberate, and despite the announcement’s semantic reassurance, animal instincts kick in. Both the speaker and her dog are alarmed to the point of breathlessness, suspended for an indeterminate pause. Once signs of normalcy return, the world picks up where it had left off, but the speaker has arrived at a third level of awareness. We are privy again to multi-sensual details of natural events at an almost excruciating pitch of awareness. She not only hears whisper-soft sounds distinguished as flinches, flaps, flicks; now she can make out the “sound of consciousness.” The announcements have functioned here in the woods as an annunciation, delivering to the hearer a kind of transcendent alertness. Nothing in the usual sense of the word has happened in this poem. The speaker hears a sound she has heard many times before, and yet this time she feels changed by it. She recognizes only "infinitesimal bits” of some altered perception of the world.
I admire the modulated gait of this poem, how it saunters casually into “the test,” freezes, and then emerges into a more deliberate movement, “a counter-vigilance.” What exactly is meant by this? Certainly not casual indifference, which would be the reverse of vigilance, but a progression beyond fearfulness toward a purity of focus and awareness per se. It calls to mind “The Great Figure” by William Carlos Williams, in which a similar momentousness is achieved by the urban passing of a fire engine, a common enough occurrence. There too, we feel the excitement of the witness and his sudden sense of urgency to find significance in the “unheeded” golden figure 5 clanging past. (The painter Charles Demuth also tried to capture that feeling, inspired by Williams’ poem, in his work The Figure Five in Gold. It’s hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. )
Robert Frost also has more than one poem about non-events; notable among them are “The Most of It,” “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” and “For Once, Then, Something.” In each case the speaker reaches a heightened watchfulness, leaving us with ambiguity concerning the actual thing learnt or seen. Emily Dickinson, in “There’s a Certain Slant of Light,” discovers “internal difference, where the Meanings Are” – which is a statement simultaneously, maddeningly, vague and precise. That is, it feels precise, but upon examining what’s been illuminated, we have gained only questions. When the light leaves, we are left feeling shaken as after a long journey; our values have shifted like the contents of an airplane’s overhead bin.
The pleasures in Hanson’s poem sneak up on you – that description of the “little ringing/that emanates from construction sites” is superb, as is the line “quick beaks breaking up the peat” – and they leave me hyper-aware of the sounds and shapes of the place I’m now reading in, giving new meaning to the phrase living room.
Julie Hanson’s first collection, Unbeknownst, won the Iowa Poetry Prize in 2010 and was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2011. I’m going to be watching for more of her work.
See you next week, when if you just close your eyes and focus, you’ll be able to hear everywhere around you the little ringing of Back-to-School cash registers. – JAR