Metaphysical, haunting and meditative, Woolgathering’s lyrical musings very much mimic Patti Smith’s song lyrics in that they are constantly in structural flux, seamlessly flitting from personal narratives to abstract wanderings to slim lines of poetry. The result is reminiscent of an intimate journal, scattered with childhood photographs, reaching for truth, beauty and transformation.
Central to the journal’s philosophical arc are the woolgatherers:
Bending, extending, shaking out the air. Gathering what needs to be gathered. The discarded. The adored. Bits of human spirit that somehow got away. Caught up in an apron. Plucked by a gloved hand.
They are the sacred guides of Smith’s childhood, beckoning her into a communal, quiet, creative life with which she is enthralled. Later, the reader receives more in-depth glimpses into Smith’s artistic journeys during a trippy section which begins with her drawing, quiltmaking and following poetic inspiration on foot, leading her into various coffee houses with kidney beans on her shirt collar (which later become blood pouring from her neck and wetting her shirt), and ends with her unraveling, desperately embracing the world:
I bounded from temple to junkyard in pursuit of the word. A solitary shepherdess gathering bits of wool plucked by the hand of the wind from the belly of a lamb. A noun. A nun. A red. O blue. Twittering threads caught in the thorns of an icy branch. Running in place, a ghost in a vague expanse, I opened my arms to the sovereign trees and submitted to their pure, unholy embrace.
Smith’s language is often Joycean in its wordplay, playfully plumbing the depths of the lexicon. Her imagery is vivid, dipping straight into the pool of mysticism, which is the jurisdiction of the woolgatherer, the daydreamer.
In this slim volume, Smith not only gives us metaphysical depictions of the wandering, searching artist, but also of the child, whose mind works similarly: “The mind of a child is like a kiss on the forehead—open and disinterested. It turns as the ballerina turns, atop a party cake with frosted tiers, poisonous and sweet.”
How marvelous that something as abstract as a child’s mind can be distilled so beautifully in so sharp and familiar a gesture as a casual kiss. As the ballerina line exhibits, the child is as unbound and expansive as the artist. Smith describes the beginning of her flight as an artist in a scene of actual, physical, childhood flight:
on particularly wondrous nights, when prayer itself seemed an adventure, something would unzip and I’d be off among them. I did not run, I’d glide—some feet above the grass. This was my secret ability—my crown.
The childhood Smith here is hovering above and among the woolgatherers, participating in their spiritual task. Smith describes this flight again at the end, and it is with this image of the self, spiritually transfigured though physically whole, that she leaves us: “I was lifted and left to glide above the grass, although it appeared to all that I was still among them, wrapped in human tasks, with both feet on the ground.”
On the back cover of my copy of Woolgathering, Smith stands clad mostly in black against the stark white doorway of a stark white house. Beneath the photograph, she insists that “everything in this little book is true, and written just like it was.” Needless to say, from this first impression, I did not expect to crack the book open and find such magic.