The shallowest still water is unfathomable. Wherever the trees and skies are reflected, there is more than Atlantic depth, and no danger of fancy running aground. We notice that it required a separate intention of the eye, a more free and abstracted vision, to see the reflected trees and the sky, than to see the river bottom merely; and so are there manifold visions in the direction of every object, and even the most opaque reflect the heavens from their surface.
—Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Connecticut and Merrimack Rivers, “Sunday”
There is a humility that is the threshold to ambitious vision that has, when I’ve glimpsed it, teased me out of my own arrogance and assumptions, granted me illuminated shards of the wholly/holy obvious, and even if I ended up bereft of vision complete, at least I had somewhere in the mind, through the eye, the proper distractions. Thoreau shows the way in his meandering on the “dead water” of the Connecticut River—to look up, you look down. I’m reminded of the old story about Thales, philosopher so intent on understanding the stars that, walking in the dark and looking up, he fell into a well, and the washer-girl who found him laughed at the genius, mocking him for studying the heavens when his concern should be on the ground. Thoreau manages to show us how those opposites reconcile, that to bend the head earthward is to study the stars and the forces and orders behind them, or is, as long as we can form within the eye “a separate intention” that both frees and abstracts our vision. This kind of seeing—in which the dullest surface reflects the stars, and in which the riverbank and trees in sky are seen at one and the same time—strikes me as the most necessary poetic advice I’ve been given in years. So now I stare down at the grass, at the concrete. I’m learning to read the constellations there; studying the stars.
[Dan’s Of Silence and Song will be published in December by Milkweed]