I had meant to use this as the opening essay for a chapbook of poems. It was not until after I had put the collection together that I idly searched the phrase only to find not one but two poetry collections published during 2010 were titled Dead Reckoning. Am I swimming with the Zeitgeist? is it simply a commonplace idea? or the instant appeal of a more richly suggestive phrase than most?
In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds.
Thoreau, from Walden
Dead reckoning improves with experience, since the navigator must rely not on the revelation of instruments, but on a few precise calculations, based on an uncertain starting point, extrapolated with the rapid subconscious computation we call intuition. Without certainty but with dispatch, the sailor takes all the available data into account and moves on, always unsure whether the morrow will bring a new found Eden or a school of sea monsters or, more likely, something far more complicated between.
The territory between heaven and hell, between void and plenum is where the action is. History begins after Eden, when the plot thickens. With Hopkins I am greedy for that play of unpredictable patterns, glad for the pied beauty of dappled things, the irregularity of the calico cat’s colors, the chiaroscuro of the bright day forest floor. My heart, I confess, is an English garden far from M. Le Nôtre’s French style and always, for better or worse, neglected in spots, intensely cultivated in others, and overgrown in little-planned ways.
The reader or writer moves through a book as the traveler moves over the face of the globe, facing always the unknown. When I first arrived in Europe I had no itinerary at all, but simply set out, and in this I had the precedent of Byron’s Childe Harold who addressed his vessel at embarkation, saying he cared not “what land thou bear’st me to,/ So not again to mine.” But then one never returns to quite the same place after a journey, whether reader or writer or tourist.
I was once called a bricoleur, and I suppose I might plead guilty. My last book was divided into categories, but at bottom it, too, like the present collection is this and that, here and there, moving with the moment from one focus to another without architectural connections, rather as the eye does over the field of view. I admit that what results is a rag-bag, as Pound called his Cantos, a variety show in which a juggler or dog act may succeed a singer, as, indeed, once a hurdy-gurdy player preceded my poetry in what struck me as a most effective opening, and, if this collection is a hodge-podge, it is so only to the extent that the day just passing could be similarly described. I like to think my method has something in common with the young child whose arrangements of objects, using whatever is at hand, are quite often entirely arcane to some, but pregnant with intimate significance for the maker and for others who know how to play.
The fact is that, apart from the word’s adoption by Levi-Strauss and Derrida, the most common meaning of bricoler is “to fiddle or tinker” and thus “to make do with what is available.” Does this not parallel the catch-as-catch-can character of consciousness as one combines every new impression with the myriad that have come before to create an ever-changing model of the real? Everyone who has not received stone tablets from on high is, after all, fiddling and tinkering with the little that is known, making do.
My home’s kitchen runs at what I fancy to be a high standard, though with a methodless method. We buy utterly without plan and always privilege the cheap. This leads to fresh products, whatever is plentiful and in season, good in both quality and price. So what-it-may-be becomes the basis of the week’s menus. For cooks with catholic tastes and a bit of knowledge, this method cannot fail. For poetry, the reader may judge.
Just as every fruit has a particular grace in form and flavor, so has every place. I have lived in cities and countryside, in the West, the Midwest, the East, and abroad, moving not due to some grand career plan or life design, but because of slight or chance circumstances, and the appeal of a new scene, a series of “pavannes and divigations,” to use Pound’s lovely title. But who can do other than wander? Our very existence is dependent on countless unlikely conditions back through generations to the dawn of life, itself all but impossible – indeed, every fact is as improbable as a lightning strike or lottery win.
Not my writing alone, but my reading as well has always been altogether desultory, more dependent on what turns up in the Salvation Army or what catches my eye in a chance glance at a review than any scheme. I read works from every land and every age and admit that immense breadth cannot fail to compromise depth, but I doubt I shall reform.
Billiard players also use the verb bricoler, meaning in this context to play off the cushion, that is, to pursue one’s goal by indirection, just as literary texts use irony and metaphor rather than “straight” talk. These poems, then, may be seen as a sort of scrapbook, a collage, reminiscent of motley, tossed together in the backyard of the brain, art’s own atelier.
Starbuck, anxious about Ahab’s leadership, muses "...and in these same perilous seas, gropes he not his way by mere dead reckoning of the error-abounding log?" But which of us has access to one with fewer flaws?
Dead reckoning is good for to sail for the Deadman;
And Tom Deadlight he thinks it may reckon near right
Melville, from “Tom Deadlight”