You’ve got to meet this character. She’s a stenographer by trade:
From the outset she was the obsessive type,
maker of lists: dates, births and deaths, diagnoses,
times of arrival and departure, the amassing of coins, weapons
and works of art, portions of letters, speeches and grocery lists,
though soon it was statements of motivation, speculations
on the nature of the original crime,
the 33 million names for God.
She goes easily, as here, from the mundane specific (“grocery lists”) to the cosmic (God’s names—but thirty-three million?! She has certainly been around to collect so many).
You’ve got to meet this character, unbound by time or space, whose appearance has shifted with each era through which she has lived:
She likes the comfort of these side-zip twills
with a touch of lycra, but she’s worn it all: shirtwaists
underwired by girdle and bra, empire-waisted gowns,
deerskin tunics, the hair shirts of saints, pleated chiton
draped just below the low slung beauty
of her left breast.
You’ve got to meet this character—but you already have. In a sense she’s the scriptural figure of Wisdom, present since the dawn of creation. “Where did I come from?” the Stenographer wonders:
Did I lie alongside the flatworm and sea cucumber,
the scuttlefish and giant sea snail at the beginning of days?
Was the space between stars my first cradle?
You’ve got to meet this character—which might be a challenge, since she’s invisible. Reading Emerson’s essay “Nature,” she asks, “hasn’t she always been a ‘transparent eyeball’?… ‘I am nothing. I see all’ could be her mantra.”
I got in touch with Kathleen Wakefield to ask her: why is your Stenographer invisible?
“Because women were invisible through most of history,” Wakefield said. “Think, for instance, of all the mystics whom we know nothing about, because their experiences weren’t deemed worth recording.”
Wakefield’s Invisible Stenographer is herself a mystic of sorts, redeeming the omissions of women’s voices over the epochs. Stepping into a stream, she muses that “she’ll take time to rewrite / the history of nonbeing”:
Isn’t the scribbling of sunlight on water,
eloquent alarm startling the brown trout
back to the shadowed bank,
its own treatise on salvation?
Elsewhere she “considers the metaphysical life”:
Who can say if she really exists?
What can the mind know independent of itself?
Time to put aside the stuff of the world,
relics, bones, catalogues of inventions,
their manuals for operation
every stone etched rune,
coroners’ reports, ink’s travail on the page…
The fun here is that while the Stenographer decides, in posing metaphysical questions, to “put aside the stuff of the world,” she’s actually cataloging all that stuff. She just can’t help doing her stenographic work.
All her compulsive lists are great fun. Wakefield is brilliant in finding just the right specifics for her Stenographer to record. One of my favorite lists turns into a wild, wonderful escapade. The poem, “The Invisible Stenographer Rediscovers the Wheel,” begins:
Seems like only yesterday,
the log roller, then potter’s wheel
and Sumerian chariot, fixed axle and spoke,
tires leather and metal (not until 1888 Dunlap’s pneumatic tire),
and don’t forget the water wheel, pulley, windlass and clock,
all the possibilities and problems
of continuous motion.
But conscientiously recording the wheel’s evolution makes the Stenographer suddenly restless:
Is it boredom or the cloudless blue sky that sends her
five stories down from the rooms where she writes these days
to the 3-speed red bicycle someone’s left to rust in the alley?
She hops on expecting to tip but it’s as if
she’s always known how the pedal’s resistance
melts between two walls of air.
And between those “two walls,” she finds herself riding along, bisecting concepts as she goes:
She wonders how fine a line she could trace
between what’s true and false, the self and the other, the yin
and yang of it all. The point she’s balancing on
could be the present turning into the past…
She’s on such a roll that she hazards a wheelie, “lifted out of time and space”:
Prayer wheel, mandala, untouchable, unnamable nothing,
she sings, pedaling faster and faster until breathless.
Legs aching, she thinks she may be human after all.
Yes, occasionally in these poems she does seem human—just briefly, before she takes off on yet another swirl through time and space.
But in the final poem of the series, “The Invisible Stenographer on Her Knees,” she poignantly prays for humankind—appropriately, in terms of how we relate to the minutiae that she has been endlessly recording through her timeless life:
I pitied your human beings, saw how they fretted
over every petty detail when all they wanted
was to have loved more than they did.
Force field of compassion,
purveyor of cosmic dust, lift them up—
mist from the field’s stubble.
Wakefield’s Invisible Stenographer is the most original and engaging character I’ve met in poetry since Whitman’s persona in “Song of Myself”—with whom she shares a lot: the ability to inhabit a range of individuals, to sweep out into the cosmos and back, and to feel compassion for us poor time-bound mortals.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Peggy Rosenthal
Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.Image above is the cover of Kathleen Wakefield’s poetry collection Grip, Give and Sway, reviewed here.