Mark Doty

OK, so I didn’t do it. The poem that has been gestating is still in utero, and here’s why: It was time to sand a floor.

This was not just everyday avoidance, which is something all writers know well. Ordinary avoidance is what happens when one sits down to write and suddenly develops a great interest in, say, balancing the checkbook, or a pressing need to dust bookshelves whose condition is suddenly intolerable. Never mind that this same dust has been sitting there contentedly for months or years; at such a moment nothing’s more necessary than setting the situation aright. In truth, this type of avoidance usually means you’re about to write something interesting, if you’ll just ignore the siren song of distraction and stay put—because self-distraction is the inevitable human reaction to intense feeling, to a confrontation with reality. We crave such encounters, and we also want to run away from them.

But today my not-writing belongs to another category of avoidance, which is Major Projects—specifically, today, home improvement. The good thing about this is that something is truly accomplished. And often, by taking care of one’s space, one is caring for the inner life, too, by making a comfortable and soulful space in which interiority can happen. It’s like going to the gym; make the spirit’s house flourish, and to some degree you court the spirit’s well-being, too. Environment, if you care about it, has everything to do with how you feel in it.

Which is all a way of justifying why I need to spend a day being pulled around Paul’s new study by a huge, intractable sander—a big chrome machine with a will of its own, prone to spitting out sheets of sandpaper after quickly ripping them into shreds. The din is deafening, and despite the cloth bags attached to catch the dust, the air fills up with a storm of particles anyway. We wear masks made for sanding, thank goodness, since beneath the gray paint we’re scraping off is another layer, of old red, which in the 19th century was made from a mixture of whale oil and lead. Imagine, this dust clogging our pores and collecting on the freshly painted baseboards is made of the atomized fluids of mammals a century and a half dead! What were their lives at sea like, where were they harpooned and rendered? Was their oil boiled down here, on one of the piers poking out into Provincetown harbor?

It’s a horrible job—dusty, loud, hot, irritating. The dogs hid in the farthest corner of the house, fleeing the noise. I kept wanting to escape myself, but went back to work, cheered on by the whorls and knots appearing under the grinding wheel. Now it’s almost twilight, and the first coat of a varnish brew that oils the wood and makes it gleam without the plastic shine of polyurethane is sinking in. Paul has spent days getting his new space ready, scraping off old wallpaper, priming stained plaster, painting the pitted walls a pale squill blue. Now I’m about to go upstairs and put on another coat of varnish, the final touch, and in the last of the daylight I’ll see what I’ve made instead of a poem: restored to light and luster, glowing slabs of ancient trees.

I am feeling superstitious, to tell the truth, about talking about a poem I haven’t written yet. That’s a suspicion many a writer shares, as if to talk about an unrealized work would somehow let the steam out of the project, void the need to write it. Suffice to say, for now, that my poem-in-the-works has to do with time, the arc of our movement through it. And so what I was doing—stripping away accumulated layers, making the grain of a pineboard no one’s seen for 150 years visible again—well, this activity was not entirely foreign to the realm of my nascent poem. Which seemed to run underneath the day, like a kind of current beneath the surface, a meditation going on underground, in the mind’s subterranean layers, even when I wasn’t paying attention. Could it be that what I’m doing is really a strange, sideways kind of research?