slow magic

If I were to ever teach a writing course, it would be in poetry. I would only teach it in spring and I would call it Slow Magic and I would begin it the way my first-ever poetry workshop started, with exercises in scansion and meter. I would ask my students to bring in their favorite sentences, and together we would write down each line by hand, counting and weighing the syllables of every word, marking their stresses in notation. I would ask us all to read out loud, carefully and deliberately to feel for the slow magic of each sentence. We’d determine if the feet were iambs or dactyls or trochees or spondees or my favorite kind, pyrrhic, which is double un-stressed, two short syllables like the beat of a drum. It is, for example, is a pyrrhic foot.

A pyrrhic foot will never sustain a line; you cannot write a poem and expect it to move on only pyrrhic feet. There is fatalism in its rhythm, but no music. The term shares its origin with a Greek war dance, where in a replica of battle the feet move quickly; a pyrrhic victory, though, is one where more is lost than is won. When I first learned the term, I had dreams about bonfires, confusing the root—pyrrhic comes from the name Pyrrhus, but pyre comes from pura, which means fire. I was eighteen; I was hungry to experience the world. I started writing a play—I never finished it—where the pyrrhic foot was a formal motif. It seemed fitting at the time, because the rest of my life felt like it was aflame too, and everything happening so fast.


Sometime in the last half-year, I fell in love. I don’t know how it happened, only that there is a buried feeling in me that wasn’t there before, and every day I learn something new about it. I call it love, because I think it must be love, though I know too that when I move to call it something I walk close to its edge, and look at it, and the colors change and the brightness shifts and then I’m not sure of what anything is. Words have contours; I am wary of capturing anything I do not want to own. Still, this love is here, awake in me; it is a dowsing rod, something that runs through me looking for water. I am alive; I am alive in the world with you. Did it happen fast? I don’t think so, though again, I couldn’t tell you how it happened, or even the moment when I knew when. There was never an epiphany, just another kind of slow magic that settled in me, and is part of me now, and will require an excavation if I am to be rid of it.

When I was younger, I wrote poems. I wrote poems because they seemed to be the only thing that could capture the swooping, soaring dizziness of feeling something for the first time. I was a live wire, a raw nerve; everything was delicious. Then everything stopped being the first to anything, and I found different ways of describing, and now, at twenty-five, I find myself circling back to feeling something for the first time. I have never loved before, not like this. There is so much beauty and joy, and also fear in it. The fear isn’t that I have something to lose, as I have feared before, but that something will be transformed and in transforming I will have to re-find myself. It feels big, almost too big, like trying to imagine the size of a planet.

The other day, when we talked about making work, I called it slow magic. That is, I know it’s work, but there’s some part of it that’s out of my control, or yours, or anyone’s. We know the moves, like the steps in a dance or the words to a song, but there’s still something that has to make it come alive and together. That’s what I think of when I think about making, that there’s still some alchemy in what happens between my hands and my brain. I never know how I come up with a first draft, it’s like blacking out and riding a hundred miles across a vast expanse, but every time I sit down to write again I imagine myself getting back on that white horse, its body whipping us both around.


Now, lately, I have been finding it hard to write. To admit this feels weird and shameful because I quit my job to write, but my brain feels feverish and half-empty, like a wind has blown through it and left the ground deserted. I have work, of course—I am writing reviews, an essay, a column, all things to pay my rent—but I feel unsettled, and searching for the idea that will hold it all together. It’s not quite the same thing as the regular existential crisis I have about making things, which comes every year and wears the same clothes, but something more tired and boring and ordinary. It’s easy to think of a beautiful word; people love to make lists of them. Trickier is putting words together. Then eventually you have beautiful sentences, but the sentences must mean something, and they must all live together in the frame of something larger, the scope of which feels—right now—like looking at the veins in a leaf and trying to imagine a whole tree.

We say falling and we mean growing closer. We say falling and we mean the music’s getting louder. I have always been someone who rushes into everything. There’s never enough time, and there is so much of the world to take in, a whole ocean rolling away toward the horizon. I say magic and you think a trick played with scarves and cards, but what I mean is slowing down to listen to the meter. If I were to ever teach that class, I’d teach it with the windows open. The magnolias would bloom outside, unclenching their little fists to show their glowing centers. What I am trying to tell you is, there are patterns inside the magic. And in holding this feeling I am slowing down to listen. I have been aflame before. I don’t want a fire, I don’t want anything that destroys the ground when it moves. All I want is a garden.

Here is a lesson in scansion. “I think I’m falling in love with you” is almost perfect iambic tetrameter.


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