A Writer on the Run

Thomas Gardner’s Poverty Creek Journal is part diary, part nature prose

In 2012 Thomas Gardner kept a journal chronicling 52 runs across Poverty Creek Trail in Virginia. In this small volume, spring is ‘thicker’, the world ‘streaming towards’ him ‘like figures in a silent movie’. Gardner, a literary critic and poet who taught English at Virginia Tech University, works between genres: it is nature prose and a diary; fragmented, it is close to experimental literature and poetry. But mainly it is a work of detailed attention – to the pond he circles, the fog lifting on some days, a snake on the trail, the rain, the temperature. Gardner is incredibly specific (‘steady light rain, 54 degrees’) and time is measurable and quantifiable (a sub-eight-minute mile). But running is also a time when thoughts wander, and on the trail everything reminds Gardner of culture: from movies to Virginia Woolf, but especially poetry. He thinks about Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, an American canon of poets who described similar landscapes to the one he is in. He details a sunrise and cites artist Robert Irwin, ‘gradually eliminating line and colour and even the play of light’ from his work.

It is also a book about grief. On 29 February 2012, Gardner writes directly, shockingly: ‘My brother John died yesterday, of a heart attack in his sleep. He was fifty-eight.’ After that, Gardner’s life and thoughts are shaped by loss. There is the first run with friends after the funeral (he doesn’t speak of it). There are multiple times when, out on the trail, he remembers competing against his brother. There is magical thinking, where Gardner sprints alongside his brother in his mind – racing absence – and finds a kind of presence, a coming together.

I run every day over a decommissioned canal turned into a park, a deurbanised part of South London: the result of shut-down factories, bomb damage in the war, housing blocks that were abandoned. Reading Gardner describing the fog, the paths, the woods, I think of a city park, a trail carved out of a former life. In these different landscapes is an analogous motion forward. ‘It’s the dailiness of these runs I like,’ Gardner says in the last entry. This small book, an account of paying attention to the world, is an exercise in how to keep going.

Poverty Creek Journal: On Life and Running by Thomas Gardner. Daunt Books, £8.99 (softcover)

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