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Deep in Poverty Creek

Words by Joe Demes
Illustrations by Debora Szpilman

There’s a phrase from Thomas Gardner’s Poverty Creek Journal that’s been dogging me for the past five years:
“This is private work.” 

Here, he’s referring to a hill workout—two mile warmup to the spot, five times up the incline at max effort, two mile cooldown—which he cuts short on the last sprint. A twingey hamstring makes him do it. “Bail out” is the phrase he uses, which I like for its sheepishness and physicality. Re-reading my own sentence, “cuts short” makes the decision sound stodgy and robotic, unlike how I picture him. I know Gardner’s an academic; he’s taught at Virginia Tech for almost 40 years, but most academics don’t pose for their faculty photos in Brooks sweat-wicking shirts, out on the paths which they run regularly. And in this particular photo, it’s not the camera that Gardner smiles and gazes out towards, but the length of the trail overlooking Pandapas Pond, out towards the places where he attends to his solitary task. 

For me, running has always been a private thing. Even when out with friends, with the full intention of enjoying and engaging in someone else’s company, I end up entering a remote part of myself. Talking takes on an unnatural effort, and the risk of disturbing my or anyone’s encounter with this part of themselves inclines me towards silence, towards attending fully to “the space of action marked off in the road,” to the space that Gardner, quoting Seamus Heaney, considers “poetry…the power to concentrate ‘concentrated back on itself.’” 

Lines like these bring me back to this book every year, often for more than one annual re-reading. You don’t have to be familiar with the works of Whitman, Dickinson, Thoreau, Frost, or any other figures whose writing Gardner grapples with throughout Poverty Creek Journal to appreciate the way it’s distilled the fundamental elements and pleasures of running into gleaming pieces of language. Gardner regards a 5k he regularly participates in with a kind of longing that goes beyond nostalgia, somewhere into the realm of reverence, and brings back from that place a small, crucial piece of the machinery that churns every time we find ourselves at the starting line of our own favorite competitions: “This is one of the things I have loved. This small town race, lawn sprinklers out in the road to break the morning heat, the sprawl of bodies at the end of the race, shirts stripped off, sweat pouring, runners still coming in—the anonymity of it all, those exhausted, radiant bodies.” He describes completing his usual workout despite fighting off a nagging cold “like running with a lantern in my throat.” Hands-down, that’s one of the best similes I’ve ever read—the way it brightens and magnifies the slight discomfort of a scratchy throat, makes a small part of his body billow with an unsavory fullness. Especially poignant and relatable are the divulgences of intimacy he feels towards the trails along Poverty Creek and Pandapas Ponds, the comfortable (but not wholly certain) intuition that guides us along our own favorite paths: “By now, I know where all the rocks and roots are, but even so, once or twice I feel completely lost, what my eye would normally touch taken away—the bend of the trail, where exactly it pulls to the right.” I come back to the book often for the same reason I run at all: like each day’s mileage, each reading recalls an echo of the impulse I first felt when I realized I loved running. 

And it’s all the more stunning, the overall effect of these lucid, brimming sentences, if we consider the shift that occurs only ten pages in and the tragedy that engenders it. “My brother John died yesterday,” Gardner tells us, in an entry dated February 29th, 2012, “of a heart attack in his sleep… Cold rain this morning, 45 degrees, crying hard by the time I hit the pond.” The news comes on suddenly, bluntly; we’re snapped out of the reverie that preceded this news, the quiet but energetic strains of thought and the framework of the Transcendentalists that Gardner’s operating out of and in response to. Each year, though I know it’s coming, the force of this revelation still manages to blindside some part of me, unsteady me in my chair. In the past year, especially, these lines strike uncomfortably close. The number of deaths per day attributable to COVID-19, and the overwhelming sense of grief and failure that’s pervaded the whole of 2020 makes it impossible for me to distance myself from Gardner’s loss. “I’ve been waking up most mornings and not remembering that my brother died,” he tells us. “And then I do.” We can’t ourselves avoid waking up each morning to the way our daily lives have been fundamentally altered by this disease, and each death it’s caused. I, like him, feel stuck in—or rather, behind—mourning, failing to get ahead of a feeling and reality that easily outpaces me.

At bottom, Poverty Creek Journal is an examination of how we move through and perceive a world distinctly altered by loss. Each lyric essay—52 in total, none longer than a page—progresses like an entry in a year’s training log. There’s never a neat division of time; twelve days might go by between one passage and the next, then six, then two, then five, then ten. Cumulatively, I read this irregularity coupled with the brevity of the prose as teasing out the shape and weight of loss: grief obscures the regular progression of time, blurring days together and unexpectedly bringing certain moments into sharp relief, and depletes how much of ourselves we are able to give to our tasks and those around us, since who or what is lost becomes the object of our focus. I feel more acutely in these passages the effort it takes Gardner to attend to his daily life as a husband, father, teacher, scholar, writer, and runner while mourning his brother—how much of this work he puts into his words.

After John’s death, there’s a visible shift in the book’s attention. Gardner begins to address his brother directly and indirectly, calling out to memories of them—“Swirls of pollen across the pond this morning like the oval-framed toy we used to fight over as kids”—or the presence of John’s absence: “…lit spot on the trail leading to lit spot, body and ghost. And now just ghost.” In those moments when he points to his brother with a ‘you,’ I also feel Gardner making more space for the reader to fully inhabit her role as interlocutor. It’s as if we’re running alongside him on the trail and he turns to catch our eye when he says, “If you knew what to look for, you could make out where my weight, earlier, had pressed the blossoms into the mud. I veer to the side of the trail, leaving something for you to read.” By speaking to his brother in this way, directly addressing him—and we, the reader—through the work, a parallel of Whitman’s technique of addressing the democratic self in Leaves of Grass is established. In that sentence, too, there are clear echoes of “Song of Myself,” particularly some of the last stanzas: “If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.…Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you.” It’s no coincidence that “Song of Myself” also contains 52 sections; the poem is an important figure in the book. Early on, in an adolescent memory of an inability to focus on schoolwork, his attention drawn to the track, Gardner quotes directly from it (here, presented in italics): “All spring, I heard it calling. Loafe with me on the grass, it said. Loose the stop from your throat. The smell of cut grass, its hands all over me—calling me out of myself.” Gardner invites us similarly out on his morning runs, calls out to us from his writing—a part of himself out of himself, as it were.

All books evoke this feeling, in some way; certain lines speak to us as if meant for us. Here, though, it’s deliberate. So when I read this next passage, and when Gardner addresses the ‘you’ that we take for John, I cannot help but feel as if it’s addressed to me, not just as a runner but a writer: “The body does have limits, and your fingers will eventually fumble everything you love. But go on and think of what you could build there, ‘sentence by shunning sentence’—” (quoting there from an essay by Stanley Cavell) “—your words most alive when they’re most disappointed in themselves.”  

Someone, I don’t remember who, turned me on to Gardner’s writing back in 2015. I was at work on a novel about long-distance running, one year deep in an MFA program, and having difficulty with the project. I’d come late to a serious devotion to writing and running, turning to both in earnest just in the second half of college, and lacked confidence at my ability in the former to compellingly convey what it was about the latter that so compelled me. Despite my best efforts, nothing really seemed to ring true. It wasn’t an issue with a character being flat, though, or a plot hole that I should have seen coming, or even a problem with the novel form itself as a way to talk about running. Mainly it was the same problem I think we all have when trying to explain to a non-runner why we run: we have to try and convey a very subjective pleasure we get out of an objectively uncomfortable experience, and the sensation of these opposed forces working within us is a slippery kind of feeling. It resists reasoned articulation, despite the real and resonant ways we’re affected by it. In my case, running has often been a kind of conduit for creative generation. There’s a way I’m able to play with the rhythm of phrases in my head during a workout, for example, that is naturally complemented by how my body regulates its breathing; the syntax feels embodied in a way that’s different than simply reading aloud my own work. One of the aims of my book was to allow readers to inhabit a version of the spaces my mind goes to when I run, when I begin to perceive my surroundings in something of an altered state and become attuned to a change in my interior landscape. I didn’t want the prose to bring the reader into a conversation about running, but rather a conversation with running, in running, where the sentences could go to unexpected places and embody the poetic attentiveness of the act.

Basically, I set myself up for failure. It’s a tall order, to be sure, because how do you truly convey the sensations of running? How do you go beyond mere description, even great description, and sustain contact with that frequency, that voltage which charges us during the lifespan of our runs but dissipates once we are finished? Every time I tried to open myself up to this feeling, to make space for it to inhabit my words, what ended up on the page only ever felt like a poor imitation. Even the successes of lines that felt as if they read true were tinged with the slight shame that they were not the sensations themselves, not the vibrant impressions as they were but recollections wrestled into submission with words, grown tired as I chased them down—and so not perfect, a lie. Later, reading The Long Schoolroom, I felt acutely what Alan Grossman calls the “bitter logic of the poetic principle,” this idea that every poem tries to articulate something higher than our everyday experience but is unable to do so perfectly because language is representational and not actual. We get close with our words, but only so close. Even prose is subject to this analogous limit; similes attempt to describe how something is in comparison to something else, what a thing is ‘like’ or ‘as if,’ but that’s not what the thing is itself. I began to sense my limits on the page the same way I could recognize my physical limits, pushing times and paces that were respectable but certainly not astounding, and felt like I was failing at each turn despite my efforts.

And yet, I knew what I was going for was possible. Gardner had rendered the shape of a runner’s interiority magnificently, and with economy. “I’m hardly aware of myself,” he writes of a six-mile run through January rain,“my edges grown fluid and indistinct. No real speed. No thinking. What would it take to enter this dream, to let it take me completely?” Just reading that phrase, “fluid and indistinct,” I felt as if the soundness of his language were outstripping me, performing at a level and with a force that I couldn’t give or sustain. He even describes that sensation better than I can: “There was something last night in the sound of the rain—Allison’s last race, trying to qualify for State. The look on her face when she was passed in the home stretch, as if some invisible current were sucking her out to sea.” I distinctly remember feeling myself make that face as I read that line, recognizing that what was welling up in me alongside sheer awe was an overwhelming recognition that I was way out of my league. He’d managed to bring back something from the dream that I couldn’t even privately recall, let alone put on the page, with any real certainty. 

I said earlier that running, besides being the subject of my work, was part of my creative practice; along with that, it’s been one of the main ways I regulate my mental health. As a writer, I’m far less self-conscious of my own thoughts while on a run (mostly because of fatigue), which is fairly freeing. I don’t have the energy to shoot down weirder ideas so quickly, which means there’s more room for possibility. As a person, running has been an outlet that’s helped me to actively work against some of the more inhibiting, self-destructive thought patterns that developed over the years. On bad days, a run can get me out of a mental spiral; if nothing else, it at least slows the spin. As a young writer, I ran into a real crisis of confidence and eventually abandoned the first draft of my book, starting and stopping new iterations for years. At a certain point I gave up altogether. But still, each year I turned my attention again to Poverty Creek Journal, listening closely to Gardner’s prose to understand better what I was striving for in my own work. Only recently did I start to realize that what he’d achieved in his writing didn’t mean I was an inadequate writer, but rather that I’d found a partner of sorts, someone whose work I could converse with through my own work. Not realizing this sooner also felt like a failure, though thinking about it that way—as a “failure”—just compounded things.  Part of reframing things for myself has been to think of it as struggle, as ongoing work, instead of a win/lose dynamic. One has to sustain the effort in the first place, regardless of perceived successes and failures; otherwise, the miles don’t get run, the poem is never attempted. Otherwise, there is no world to strive for.

It is incredibly easy to compare what is ours—our PRs, our form, our mileage, our finishing place—against what is someone else’s, and attribute this to a fundamental deficit in our abilities, our bodies, our efforts, our selves. In giving ourselves over to this sport, this task, we risk failure every day: failure to achieve what we set out for, but also failure to be generous to and patient with ourselves, because it is ultimately another us, the ideal us we want to be, that we are always trying to catch up to, our bodies “seemingly two bodies at once, one the other’s shadow, quietly urging more,” as Gardner describes it, and this can make it seem like we are always far behind where and who we want to be. Just before the pandemic, I felt very ready to begin writing my book again, and to start training seriously after time off from injury. I’ve made less progress than I wanted to with either endeavor over the last year. Stress and isolation have sapped what pleasure or relief writing and running bring; accomplishing one or the other requires more exertion than it ever has. I am not where I’d like to be, and it’s difficult to reconcile that.

I imagine this is how it is for many of us as we’re regularly reminded of the ways our lives as runners have been altered. The deferral of so many races has sidelined whole years’ worth of training and effort, and no virtual race can replace the real thing. Seasons have been scrapped, entire programs eliminated, careers thrown into a long blind curve. A daily fear for bodily safety is a new or further exacerbated anxiety to navigate. Of course, framing these uncomfortable contours of our lives are: hundreds of thousands of people dead, aggravated economic and racial inequality, and severe political instability. There may be very real orders of magnitude between our personal lives and the larger events at play that have to be kept in perspective. But that does not mean discounting the basic fact that we are all moving through a world distinctly altered by loss, and what kind of effort it takes to do this each day. We don’t know what things each of us are mourning, how heavy the weight feels on any given day, which aspects of our lives we feel stagnating or regressing and  the ways we take ourselves to task for this, the perceived failures adding up in our minds as we do it alone, isolated in the realest of senses.

Recounting his performance at Virginia Tech’s Remembrance Run, six years after the shooting, Gardner writes: “I didn’t race flat out, but nearly so, as if effort were a way of contributing to some sort of shared, somber speech.” The event of the race, the acknowledgment of loss in concert with the collective and individual effort, allows for some sense of closure, if only temporarily. It functions as a kind of poem, since remembering the dead does not bring them back but recalls them to us, and in doing so compels us to recognize the lives around us and our own. To concentrate in this way, and turn concentration’s energy on itself, is hard enough to do in less trying times. It means accepting a struggle. Two days after the race, Gardner is back out on the trail, sore but attending to the work. It never ends, this work. And tomorrow, we will attend to it again. 

So let’s say it was you who told me about Poverty Creek Journal. Did you know about the creek that runs through my hometown, and the path that follows alongside it? How is it there I started turning over in my head the story that would become the start of my book? My earliest memory of us is going down to one of the creek’s bridges, where you’d watch me toss rocks, some bigger than my head, over and over into the water, one after the other, just to hear the punctuation of each splash against the water’s line, until I was limp with sweat. And there’s the story our professor told us: how when her father died she kept going back to his copy of Leaves of Grass, to that last line in “Song of Myself” where there was no period—a typo, maybe. But how she read that as the possibility that the poem might never really end, that the speaker’s voice never ends—that death is not the end, her father not gone entirely—but keeps echoing instead through the grass, through the earth: “I stop somewhere waiting for you”—like that. All the time along the bluff that our college sat upon, two miles and back through the LA smog, was the work before the work. Here in Chicago, as I write this, the snow’s coming down fine and grey, another kind of curtain we step through together. Along the lake with both of you and your bear of a dog, sometimes just one of you or the other; 400 meter repeats at the Wilson track or down at Jackson Park with your family; out on the 606, the slight relief up there from the humidity as we started off by your place off of Kedzie and cover the full stretch, both ways. How you offered me watermelon slices and grapes after the whole group of you’d finished your workout and watched me complete my last mile circuit, your claps in time with my strides, even though we’d hardly even met that morning and never would again, just happened to be sharing the track’s circumference. The first summer I lived here—not the summer I moved here but the summer after that, when Danny’s was still open and we’d all of us end up dancing together, or lounge on the lawn at Jay Pritzker for the free concerts and movies, or float in the lake between two blues—on the occasions I’d happen to be going one way along Lake Michigan and you the other, once I’d reached the northern end of the trail up at Ardmore and doubled back I would look out for all of you, the words I’d written or read that day playing over in my head, all of us breathing and sweating under the sun, all of us in our time and place, working our way towards the turns where we’d meet again.

This piece originally appeared in METER magazine, an exclusive print publication from Tracksmith for members of Hare AC.