North of St. Louis
Jesse Breite

I am often asked about an epiphanic first experience with a book—something that I should have realized in Junior High or early High School as emotionally profound, like the first significant relationship post-puberty when you experienced that rite-of-passage which forever wed your mind to text, reading and re-reading books, and even wanting to etch out some lines yourself. I know the question, but I struggled for years attempting to answer it. I tried to play along, but I could just never provide a natural answer to this—like that day in the summer of ’96 when I stayed up all night drinking Coca-Cola to finish The Catcher in the Rye and woke up, book in hand and cheetos stuck to my cheek.

To be honest, I did not realize how books began to have an influence on how I thought and expressed until my second year of college. In Contemporary American Literature, I first experienced a “possibility moment” when I thought wow, reading this author, say William Faulkner, has really expanded what I think is possible with a book. But the more I have read, the more I have found that my favorite writers struggle with and articulate the opposite—that language is severely limited in accurately conveying life experience. This is ironically nowhere more evident than in Faulkner’s haywire language. “My mother is a fish” is one of the more straight-forward statements. I began to grasp how many great, virtuosic writers are so aware of and obsessed by the meaning of what they find helpless to communicate. This more mature consideration allowed me to reconfigure the question. I realized I sought a more mystifying experience from my youth when I began to comprehend the roots of language awareness.      

My ability to answer this question was a much easier consideration. The first text to have a profound influence on my reading and writing process was a 15 acre plot of fallow land an hour north of St. Louis. My grandparents owned the land outside of Bowling Green, Missouri, well before I came into being. My grandpa built the house and the shed on the land. I’ve heard and believed my father’s and grandfather’s speculative talk about the history of the place far more than I care to admit, but the land—its woods and open pastures—was a text that I re-read every time I returned from infancy to young adulthood when I, with tears in my eyes, told my bewildered grandparents, recently moved into a nursing home against their will, that their home had deeply affected my imagination. From a young age, I remember dad asking if I wanted to go for a walk, and this other man who fell asleep every time he sat on a remotely soft surface leading the way from the house into the woods and back.

Like any great text, its lines and tones excited the nerves and became malleable as I studied them. Under the shady canopy at the back of the wood, the air was fresh as spring water and dank with detritus. The shaded and brown-leaved earth decayed into fresh air and lung, and brightly haired mosses burst forth—electric verve from dirty barks. Branches webbed across and rooted up through the blue sky. A creek bled through the woods; the hills fractured and scarred around it. Pine trees fell over its watery earth-wounds. As a child, I didn’t care that each thing had been named and classed, subject to the business of humans. I relished the dumb and tactile quality of the rural space and the hale sensations spilling through the environs. Though we did not willfully attempt slower, softer steps, I remember each step in the party as softer, more attentive to the sudden animal spirit, or traces of living things. I offered attention and focus to each subtle motion, sound, spear of light. Unchanged by the absence of words, each round stone held some mysterious purpose. The wood was an unhinged language, symbols stripped of their metaphoric obligation. Fresh and savory, the things of the wood were rich in their “thingness” and secrecies, but they also shared a kind of synergy, burning together in the invisible fire of the present.

Once or twice a year throughout my youth, I studied its scenic habits. Hills. Creek beds. Wind-spawn. Rusty barb-wire. Leaf-sediment. Grassy Meadow. At 10, I hurled my body up a tree only to realize it was a thorn tree. Climbing down, each needled spike I missed on the movement upwards pierced my pale skin, teaching me its logic.  

A part of the wood and the grass consumed an old rust-rotten Ford just beyond the wood line closer to the house. At 12 after trying to comprehend it for years, I pushed through its old metallic skin, analyzing its immortal frame and disappearing, air-devoured lack.

Every spring the green exuded bright light. Flowers grew astral. Even in pictures now, the glow is too much for the photo.

In my early teens, I found the deer stands built before my grandpa, unused in his lifetime. Old nails jagged out of each rotting piece of wood, crucifying each step to the tree. On top, the stand smelled of rich decay, and I lazed over it. Sitting like a fat hawk, I observed turkey, deer patterns—silent, precise journeys.

Every year I could hear howling at night. I imagined the yellow rings in coyote eyes as they killed my grandpa’s mutt—the strange devouring, redemptive spirit of the wild.

In retrospect, I recognize this slow, tactile approach as a model for my discovery and revelation of texts and for the sort of path I follow to realize a poem. I had none of Thoreau’s Latin dictionary. I didn’t grow up to become a ranger or learn to walk out a blank verse. But I inherited awe before natural landscapes, matured into the humming quiet that the land offered, and re-imagined the impossible expression of it. I learned to smell, to touch, to envision, and to employ the poverty of words as failed attempts at expressing health, sickness, worded, and un-worded things. I wandered into textured places, and overwhelmed by the multitudes, I grew to a modest awareness within a magnificently coded kingdom.

This first text has and always will be powerful for me because the encounter was a physical experience that I learned by sensory register, but it will always remain mysteriously inspiring. I don’t understand it completely the way one thinks one understands the commonplace, the disciplines of living—driving to work, going to the grocery store, work. I believe that any activity or process—from a sport to a relationship, even religion—becomes more meaningful if you intentionally devote your body to it, employ the body in its physical work. When I read and write, I hope to suffer the text with more than my mind. I listen to the tones, practice the emotions, learn the arrangements of the words on my tongue. I want to breathe the text in and feel its external and internal exchanges, so that the text becomes atmosphere—Whitman’s atmosphere as he describes it in the 1855 “Song of Myself”: “It is for my mouth forever . . . . I am in love with it,/I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,/I am mad for it to be in contact with me.” Whitman’s words were physical, and “Song of Myself” is a constant merging of body and soul, word and idea, expressible and inexpressible. My grandparents’ land was the familiar, physical text that pulsed out alien language. This made it catalytic. And since, it has become an access point for reading and writing, as well as the wonders of the natural and the quotidian.    

As readers and writers confronting a text for the first time, we are ignorant of meaning. Some meanings come while others linger. Reading and writing are each a wandering into awareness, the slow fortuitous appreciation of emotional multitudes and patchwork mysteries. In these generally isolated activities, we register the physical, tactile practice of words, filling our mouths with confusing and elucidating sounds. We become so aware of the fiction that it can become a reality like our reality that is sometimes clear, understood, reassuring and at others cryptic, misleading, disappointing. Through the process, everything changes—perception of self, others, the grandeur of coincidence and irony, the plain and the strange. But in order to feel the text, you must be curious, be sensitive, and allow the quick tongue to warm a cold language by saying it again and again, finding humility in the miraculous possibility of conveying any given moment despite language’s limitations but also holding dear and celebrating those very limitations. Whitman honors the strange nature of this empirical, ever-complicating, but worthy process when he writes, “The facts are useful and real . . . . they are not my dwelling . . . . I enter by them to an area of the dwelling.”

Return to Spring 2013 Table of Contents