The year after my father died I didn't know what to do but keep moving. I walked so many miles and in so many landscapes--kind of my version of an Australian walkabout. bird blind records that year of wandering. I start in Maine, go to PA, then I hike the Olympic Peninsula in WA, spend a winter break in Florida, and then return to KY.
bird blind will be released April 28 in Huntington Beach, CA, and I can't wait to see it in print! I am thankful to my publisher, Mifanwy Kaiser, and her award-winning press, Tebot Bach. And I am thankful for so many others. I tried to name all I could in the book, but I am sure others have been left out...for which I apologize in advance. The cover image is a painting by Kevin Muente titled Dry Creek Bed.
Fourteen students and a colleague, Jessica, and I spent the weekend at the Sisters of Loretto retreat space, Knobs Haven, to consider contemplative creativity (my portion) and how the public and private meet in creative nonfiction (Jessica's portion). What a gift to retreat and reassess during this weekend of change and turmoil. We were unplugged all weekend, but it was beautiful to see the images of the women's marches when I returned last night. Thanks to all who marched!
For me, the most profound moment of the weekend (and we had so many! such a special group of people gathered!) was our visit with Brother Paul. Brother Paul read us a Mary Oliver poem about how a bird's song is its own prayer, and then he read us some of his own work and discussed how a life of contemplation and silence (Trappists take a vow of silence) and poetry are interconnected. He told us that Thomas Merton's sermon to the birds each morning was "Be birds!" And how Merton said that was one too many sermons the birds needed. : )
Beside, the pic of some of the students on retreat while Br. Paul talks with us under the trees at the Abbey of Gethsemani and below, some information about Brother Paul from an interview. I feel like I've returned from a spiritual spa and I am only trying to figure out how to hold on to the peace while I enter the work week.
JUDY VALENTE, correspondent: The lumber shed at the Abbey of Gethsemani in northern Kentucky. It’s late February. Each night at 8:00 Brother Paul Quenon walks to the shed, as he has every night for 20 years. He goes around back, where he finds his mattress. This is where he will sleep—outdoors, no matter the weather.
BROTHER PAUL QUENON (The Abbey of Gethsemani): I can’t be a full-time hermit, but I can be a night-time hermit, and there’s something about waking up in the middle of the night, and there’s nobody around. There’s a kind of an edge of solitude that you cannot experience in any other way.
VALENTE: Here, a monk seeks to live every moment in the presence of God, in unity with God. Brother Paul came to Gethsemani 52 years ago. He was 17, inspired by reading the autobiography of the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who introduced many Americans to the contemplative life. Merton would eventually become his spiritual director and would encourage Brother Paul to write. Thomas Merton said monks and poets are people who live on the margins of society. Brother Paul decided to become both. He says monks and poets remind us to pay attention to the world around us, to focus on what’s essential.
BROTHER PAUL: Poetry is the language of the heart, and it’s the language of the imagination, and so the mind abides in silence. Contemplation is an abiding in silence, and what comes out of silence are words of the heart, words of love. When the heart is really full, the mouth goes silent.
I've been collecting shed deer antlers and arranging them throughout the house. I'm not sure why. Perhaps as a form of protection. But they are also so very beautiful.
Yesterday, on my way to the open mic reading in Fort Thomas, I hit stand-still traffic on 275. When I got closer to the police lights and accident, I saw only one car pulled to the side of the road and a few feet beyond it, a four-point buck on his side. I couldn't shake the horror of that image. I even ended up leaving the event early, since I couldn't get myself into a "public mode."
I was raised in Western PA where Thanksgiving also meant that my father and brothers would be heading out early the next morning to hunt. The next day, deer carcasses would be strapped to roofs and tied down to truck beds.If the men in our family "got" anything, my mom and I would head outside and all of us would take turns posing beside the deer, each of us having the chance to hold the deer head up by his antlers and smile for the camera.
As a child, part of my imaginary play would include talking to the deer heads on the walls, petting the soft spot between their marble eyes.
And here I am, years later, trying to reconnect with the deer of my past. Some spiritualists say that deer were thought holy beings, since they were given antlers like crowns whose height made the animal closer to heaven. Others believe deer are signs of regeneration and renewal, since they shed their antlers each year and then grow new ones. Some Tibetan legends say that deer are sent to help people solve problems. Native American legend speaks of deer as messengers.
This afternoon, I visited my dear, old horse, now nearing 25 years-old, and after spending some time combing her white mane and brushing down her coat that has grown thicker for winter, I left the barn and a gorgeous four-point buck stepped out of the brush, looked at me, and then gently walked away. Uncanny--as if the deer of yesterday shook off the hit of the car and rose again. Of course, it did not, but what a wonder life can sometimes be--how a small bit of hope and life can enter when the world may seem unsure and frightening--especially after this election.
My dear friend, Roxanne, sent me this message from the Jennifer Benka, Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets the other day, and I am happy to share it here: "A country needs its poets, especially now. Their lines are life lines, keeping us connected to one another and to hope—whether it is a thing with feathers or the assertion, 'I, too, am America.'” And here are the links to the Dickinson and Hughes' poems the quote refers to: "Hope is the Thing with Feathers" and "I, too"
Since 2010, I have lived in six homes. Four of the homes I purchased. If you haven’t read Meghan Daum’s Life would be Perfect if I lived in that House, then you should. It seems I'm not the only one working out identity issues through home purchases.
Oddly, three of the homes I lived in replicated each home of my childhood. I lived in a duplex (I was born in a duplex); I bought a Ryan home in a subdivision (and my first real “home” was a Ryan home in a subdivision); I bought a country house with acreage (my teenage home was a country house with acreage). And I did all this without knowing, all unconsciously, and quickly.
I'm not sure why I needed to do this. Perhaps I needed my adult body in the childhood walls. Perhaps it was a way to rewrite history so that a stronger self could inhabit the weaker childhood self. Like an adult body with child eyes. Or adult hands with child fingers feeling everything out again but from a stronger place.
Right now, I am in my sixth house, windows open, an early fall day. This house doesn't mirror an earlier one. It was built the year after my mother was born: 1937. I've put up blue curtains and have decorated the tabletops and mantel with shed deer antlers and stacked my books inside a blue-green jelly cabinet and placed oversized ottomans near couches and chairs. It's a good house; it resonates a tucked-in feeling, but it is not a perfect house. Perhaps it took five houses to be comfortable in this sixth one, to let go of the feeling that a home could save me, protect me, or act as a projection of me. After all, I am inside a house, not a metaphor. How odd that it took me so long to (I hope) come to terms with that. Each time someone asks me how I am doing, I say, "I am happy. I'm nesting." And I really am. Each day, I search for that "one more thing" the home needs and it feels so good to lay down that rug, hang up that towel, and so on.
I think I've found a symbol for me-at-this-moment via our most common bird, the robin. She is almost so common that I forget to pay her her due attention. She returns to her territory each year, and I learned on a site titled "Wild Bird Watching" that the females sometimes "build a new nest on top of their old one. I've seen as many as three on top of one another." I love that as a image and can see the stack of my homes, one on top of the other. And with all that history of nests under her, with all that vulnerability under her in the form of tiny blue eggs, she sits quite sturdily on top.
We spent the holidays in Scotland--right in the Highlands in Inverness on the River Ness. Here are some pics of Loch Ness. A first glimpse of the Loch from the boat (yes, rain, lots of it while we were there) revealed how dark the water was. Peat rushes down from the mountains and make the water a near-black. I can understand why so many fantasies are set in this land, since there is a darkness to it and a mystery too with its odd crags, black waters, thick pines, short days, isolated towns. Urquhart Castle sits on the Ness. It was raided many times by the MacDonalds and was ultimately destroyed to keep it from being taken and used by the Jacobites. I was particularly interested in the Doocot, a pigeon house built in the 1500s with its stone base still standing. They kept pigeons for meat and eggs. Oh, and after imbibing enough of a Scottish whiskey liqueur called Stag's Breath, I was able to spot the monster. ; )
This past January I had the opportunity to visit Thoreau's Walden Pond and gravestone in Concord, Massachusetts. I walked the pond twice, about four miles: first, by shore and second, by woods.
At the shore that would have been directly in front of Thoreau's cabin, the ice formed curves and circles and I stood there for a long while, listening to the sound of ice melting. The scene could have been an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture. Goldsworthy "creates outdoor sculpture that manifests, however fleeting, a sympathetic contact with the natural world. Before they disappear, or as they disappear, Goldsworthy, records his work in superb color photographs." More here and here about my favorite artist.
I realized that I was listening to the sound of something disappearing (in this case, ice) and it was profound. And I thought about this as I walked Henry's pond. His essay, "Walking," describes how "possibly the day will come when [the land] will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only." He believed landscape should not be owned; it belongs to us all. I am happy Thoreau cannot see his America now.
I love his description of a walker as someone holy, so I will leave with it. And pics below.
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived "from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre" — to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a sainte-terrer", a saunterer — a holy-lander [...] For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this holy land from the hands of the Infidels.
I studied silence for years and years by going on retreats to Trappist monasteries in Colorado and Kentucky. But lately I've been asked to pay attention to sound (animal and language sounds in my book, Coo) and now the sounds of the universe.
My colleague, Jessica, told me that NSF has been able to record the sound of a gravitational wave (and it is "tuned" to C!). My student, Cody, told me yesterday about the sound of our Earth and how it sounds like it is crying. He sent me this link and it is haunting. Enjoy listening to them both and taking in what all this means.
I, like most/all creative writing teachers, advise my students to "show, not tell." We read chapters on how to create images and we read poems that do this well, but I still see poems that do not include concrete, visual details. Linda Gregg, a teacher to me in many ways via her canon, made me realize what the gap may be--what it is that the students may not be grasping, which is the "art of seeing." I'll include a bit of her article below. I'm particularly interested in the "active passivity" and learning "to see carelessly" and I'll be thinking about what this means, exactly. Let me know how this makes sense to you.
I am astonished in my teaching to find how many poets are nearly blind to the physical world. They have ideas, memories, and feelings, but when they write their poems they often see them as similes. To break this habit, I have my students keep a journal in which they must write, very briefly, six things they have seen each day—not beautiful or remarkable things, just things. This seemingly simple task usually is hard for them. At the beginning, they typically “see” things in one of three ways: artistically, deliberately, or not at all. Those who see artistically instantly decorate their descriptions, turning them into something poetic: the winter trees immediately become “old men with snow on their shoulders," or the lake looks like a “giant eye.” The ones who see deliberately go on and on describing a brass lamp by the bed with painful exactness. And the ones who see only what is forced on their attention: the grandmother in a bikini riding on a skateboard, or a bloody car wreck. But with practice, they begin to see carelessly and learn a kind of active passivity until after a month nearly all of them have learned to be available to seeing—and the physical world pours in. Their journals fill up with lovely things like, “the mirror with nothing reflected in it.” This way of seeing is important, even vital to the poet, since it is crucial that a poet see when she or he is not looking—just as she must write when she is not writing. To write just because the poet wants to write is natural, but to learn to see is a blessing.
Her full article, "The Art of Finding," can be found here.
In my refrigerator right now, I have an entire bucket of farm-fresh eggs. Each morning, I imagine I am the farmer who knows the chickens who gave these eggs--who can identify which egg came from which chicken--and I feel such a connection with this egg offering. Of course, this has everything to do with poetry. Jane Hirschfield mentions that one must be in a state of concentration, aware to how language wakes up in the morning, and then feel able not only to be present to that language but to respond to it, feel one's way through to why this particular language arrived on this day and on this page. (Why this egg and from this chicken?)
I am in the process of this, composing my new book, Coo. I love the sound of coo and all the associations that come with that one syllable word.
I am also falling in love with prose poetry and, yes, a bit in love with fiction too. I haven't read fiction in years (all poetry, all memoir all the time), but I just finished four short story collections: three by Alice Munro and one by Lucia Berlin. Is it strange to see one's self as "she" instead of "I"? Perhaps not, fiction tells me, so why not in poetry as well? Read this poem by Hirschfield, how much it teaches and how it borrows from fiction:
A woman tells me
the story of a small wild bird,
beautiful on her window sill, dead three days.
How her daughter came suddenly running,
"It's moving, Mommy, he's alive."
And when she went, it was.
The emerald wing-feathers stirred, the throat
seemed to beat again with pulse.
Closer then, she saw how the true life lifted
under the wings. Turned her face
so her daughter would not see, though she would see.
I shared this poem with my graduate class last week and we spent some time trying to uncover "the true life."
Maggots, of course, but also the mystery of maggots.
Just so much to wonder at tonight. And I am thinking "Egg Offering" could be a good title. And "Is it strange to see one's self as 'she' instead of 'I'?" as a good first line. And then I can dip into the rest, cooing.
I fell a bit behind with the blog, since I traveled to Galway for a few days. I took the bus from Ennistymon to Ennis to Galway, and Patrick (an elderly gentleman in Ennistymon) helped me figure things out and assured me I would be okay. I've since seen Patrick a couple times in town and he was happy (if I say a little surprised) that I found my way back.
Ah...Galway is the Paris of Ireland. Jessie lived in Galway for years, so she thinks it is "all tarted up" now, but I was smitten.
Street artists and buskers and strange puppets (and even stranger puppeteers) fill Quay Street. In the Latin Quarter, it is a tad quieter, and I found a shop, Judy's, that sold images of the Ogham Stones and immediately fell into a passion for the primitive Irish language, which was carved in stone in 5th century Ireland, the main twenty "letters" or symbols based on the twenty trees sacred to the druids. Wow. Just wow. I ordered a book immediately from Jessie in order to learn more.
Of course, this is the city where Joyce first met his mother-in-law in the (now famed) Nora Barnacle house (pic of her door and window above). Also, this is the city famous for the hooker. No, not that kind of hooker...though our guide had tons of jokes about it...but a traditional fishing boat (also pic above).
I spent a couple days listening to Irish flutes and traditional Irish music in the streets, sipped a bit of Irish coffee and ate a good deal of goat cheese, and watched men fishing for salmon (a license that is hard to get, I was told). I walked a too much, and ended up with blisters from my new Doc Martens--meant to empower me as Amelie on this transformative trip--so I had to buy Connemara socks to wear over my tights (yes, it is still cold enough to wear "jumpers," or what we Americans call sweaters, and tights!). I walked about feeling a little silly but too enamored to care.
And I leave the slideshow with a few medieval dog jawbones from a medieval wall in the city center. Always, our companions. : )
I adore my routine: wake at 8, shower, read a bit with coffee, and then open up the shop at ten before going to the Guru Teahouse for porridge and strawberry tea. The rest of the day includes walking, meeting folks, hanging in the shop, exploring, etc. By evening, I settle myself by the peat fire, sip wine, and write.
This morning we had a doggie visitor. She moseyed in and proceeded to sniff every shelf as if looking for a good book to take home to her mum. You can see a picture of Elizabeth (a lovely emerging novelist who works with the press) with our doggie customer. The mum was in the florist a few doors down and collected her, but I would have loved on the pup all day. : )
Oh! And I found an Irish Wolfhound mug! I've been searching for years. Of course I would find one in Ireland!
Today I met an aspiring poet, a young man who recited his (memorized) verse to me and purchased a copy of my book for his "brilliant English teacher." How beautiful that poetry is still so instilled in the hearts of the Irish schoolboys! But why should I be surprised? The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, publishes poetry. In fact, this young man shook the hand of the President and was told to keep pursuing his dream of being a poet. See? Poetry can become a part of the fabric of our lives (and should!).
Above: more pics of the shop and of Elizabeth with our doggie guest (yes, she arrived with her own lead and poo-poo pickup bag!--the dog, not Elizabeth) and of Rebecca (an aspiring publisher--here to learn) at the till behind my book. : )
Ah, wildflowers from the Irish countryside (hollyhocks!) with the best cherry tomatoes I've ever had and carrots handed to me by a farmer who still had dirt on his hands along with a bit of kale and mushroom--Ireland, I'm finding out, is a dream come true for a vegetarian! Today Michael delivered peat from his hardware store (yes, it was that cold--suddenly the weather turned) and I ended my evening drinking sherry next to a peat fire and eating those amazing vegetables and a tad of chocolate cake while church bells tolled in the distance. Am I in a Joyce story? : )
The most interesting part of Salmon Bookshop and Literary Centre is the owner and publisher of Salmon Poetry: Jessie Lendennie. My first night in town, Jessie and I had an indulgent three-course meal (local warm goat cheese!) while watching the cascades and I learned all about her fascinating life. She was born in Arkansas then her family moved to California and her mother died. She was left with her father and couldn't wait to escape the states, so she did, moving to a commune outside of London with her baby and attending university. Eventually, she ended up in Galway, creating the press with her former husband, Michael, in order to give voice to Irish women poets who were being severely underrepresented. Now Salmon has published poets from around the world is just about to celebrate its 35th anniversary! Jessie is in the midst of writing her memoir, and I can't wait until it's complete. I admire her in every way.
But I am in love with her three big sheepdogs! When we take walks, they beg for Jessie to toss them rocks so that they can carry them about all proud. Check out the pictures of Jessie and of the pups. (Shannon is hard to capture--she's my favorite, but she tends to be the "watcher" and sticks closely to her mom.) Also, a couple picture from my walk in the countryside. The trees formed a sort of portal for me to pass through. And, of course, the peat fire watched over by four crows. Oh, and I can't forget the sheep. They are all naked! It must be shearing season.
And I almost forgot! The strangest thing happened today: an Englishman stopped by the shop and bought my book. He toured with the Beatles 24/7 on their North American tour in 1964--even got drunk with Ringo. He's a keynote speaker for many Beatles' conferences. Check him out: Ivor Davis. Crazy. So the man who touched the hand of Lennon has touched my book. : )
I couldn't stop chuckling at this store in Dublin. The Irish have a sense of humor. Clearly tongue-in-cheek. This was taken in Dublin--a store that (literally) sells door knobs and knockers. Ha! I had the chance to visit the bog people (made famous by Seamus Heaney) and do the tour bus thing that drove us past the president's house and the miles and miles of Guinness land and storehouse and, of course, St. Patrick's.
It's funny but it has taken me all of this time (two years) and a trip all the way to Ireland to realize why snakes have been haunting me (see previous post--let's just say I almost stepped on two copperheads...followed by more snake encounters!). I saw the Book of Kells and on one decorated letter the monks rendered a snake to illustrate/represent resurrection, a shedding of skin. I paused behind all the tourists and said almost aloud: "Aha! I've been guided to shed skin and resurrect!" Climbing out of depression _is_ like going from a mole to a snake above ground with sensitive, new skin. Imagine that.
While walking with Jessie this afternoon at the Glen with her three gorgeous sheep dogs, I asked her if it is true that Ireland has no snakes. It is. It really is. Again, imagine that. : )
I'm settling into my residency at Salmon Books and Literary Centre and I'll narrate some of my experiences here. I can't wait to see what my new skin will feel in the coming days.
Well, perhaps I should place "farm" in quotation marks. We have nine silkie chickens (aren't they adorable??--see left for a quick pic of some supervised "free-ranging"--too many hawks to leave them out alone), four beds of lettuce, spinach, and kale (we are preparing many other beds but I'm tickled that the little green and red heads are peeping up--the first time I ever planted seeds!), two dogs, and a cat. I long for sheep, goats, my horse...but we are going about things at a slow pace.
Joe found a snake in the basement last night. I'm both terrified and intrigued. I stopped hiking so much last summer, since I nearly stepped on snake after snake, and (since they fill me with fear) I thought better of it all and started going on a paved path. Now the snakes are finding me. Not sure what the message may be, why they are coming...
Also, I have found three four-leaf clovers so far this spring! And a phoebe has been announcing her name over and over again while perching on the tallest branch in the big walnut tree near the house. This morning, I found her near the birdhouse on the porch, in a bush nibbling on a worm, tearing it apart bit by bit. Perhaps she has made a nest and more phoebe will be calling come summer.
All little, beautiful things. Important things, of course.
We have moved to our little, hobby farm. Our favorite part: Stoney Creek! It runs right through our property. I've taken to sending pics to my friends and family and wonder if I've come upon my new subject (which is really my old subject): shifting landscape. As my dear friend Mary Ann wrote to me today: "I meant to say: the creek changes so much!" It does. It really does. As I told her, "It is a near day-day shifting."
A part of my composition, which is also a part of my meditation practice, is to observe (as if from a distance) each mood as if each were a wave passing overhead (or a cloud passing, which would make more sense, but my moods feel more like waves than clouds). I think of this as my interior landscape. And while I have difficulty noticing where my interior boundary ends at the exterior one begins, I think Stoney Creek a lovely thing to watch, an external thing to notice change by.
I've been in touch with a guinea fowl breeder. Guinea roam the land, eating all ticks, small snakes, and other pests (like beetles). And they are cute too! I read that they like to voice a running commentary on their activities.
Mary Ann Samyn:
So they're poets, yes?
It's all about white peacocks these days. I am in Frankfort, my little house of windows in Cincinnati has sold and I am waiting to move in to a fifteen acre hobby farm in Frankfort. Thirty vegetable beds, peach and pear trees, a creek, and all kinds of beauty wait for me! What's most on my mind (other than a horse named Molly who I have fallen in love with and very much want to adopt..we'll see...) is the white peacock. I didn't even know such a creature existed! But now that I do, I am dreaming of raising white peacocks on my little farm.
I've come to realize that it's not about color (the kind of beauty I am drawn to); it's texture.
I may call one peacock Merrill and another Mirabell and another James. (Yes, I am a Sandover fan, but mostly I adore anything that seems somewhat magical and out-of this-world.)
Life can really be this lovely. : )
I'm in love! Michael Combs' Swan sculpture (to the left) will be the cover image for my new book, Bird Blind, that will be released in January by the California publisher, Tebot Bach.
I happened upon the sculpture last year at 21C and thought it perfect for the new collection. Here's the write up about the exhibit and Combs' work.
I can't wait!
A picture from this morning: my dog, Slyvie Mae, enjoying a moment of peace in the sun. Leave it, always, to the animals to teach us about resting in the most important spaces.
Of course, the box Sylvie is resting in is a poem-box. She is teaching me how to "fill in." : )
Look who stopped by the backyard this afternoon! She was with her brother (sister?). I hope their mom was in the woods, waiting. Yes, a fuzzy picture, but the only one of several that wasn't an utter blur. (Clearly, I was excited.) : )
John Hoppenthaler featured some of my poetry in his July "Poetry Congeries." An honor, to be sure, after I read through the poems of the other featured poets. If you get a chance, check it out (scrawl down a bit until you see my awkward photo): Connotations Press July Feature.
A beautiful July so far, yes? I'm thrilled that I can keep every window open and listen to every peep from the cardinals that tend to my feeder.
It has been weeks since I've written here. Such upheaval in my life. Moving, an ulcer, stress and stress over a million little things. My daily intention now: "calm." I am trying to maintain calmness in my little house of windows. Today, for example, I've been reading about the artist via Otto Rank and watching "my" chipmunk run from the feeder to his hole. Over and over. Finn and the kitty were fascinated with the chipmunk for a bit (see their darling picture?). And then they bored of him. I'm still watching.
Also, going to a nursery sale. I long for cone flowers, more daisy, some black-eyed susans, maybe a rose bush with small, pink flowers.
Every artist needs times of filling and emptying. Fill, please. Fill.
My horse made a friend this week. What awe to witness the gentleness of a 22-year-old mare and how kindly she offered her back. And then how trusting the sweet cat must be to take a seat!
I've spent the day making revisions to the new book, Bird Blind. (Yes, it may seem that books are pouring out, but I have been luckier than
I have been--the first book was all the way back in 2008. Maybe I have more to say lately?)
I have difficulty making decisions in my life. There's too much to consider, too many people to consult.
Today, though, I had the gift of the page by returning to poems I wrote in a frenzy in Maine, Kentucky, Washington, and Florida: all in one year.
Revision is a funny bird (for me). I've tried to revise these poems for months, but I couldn't find my way back into them. Today I was able not only to enter, but to divine the language and make decisions about what should stay/what should go with utter conviction.
I've experienced this before. It's as if time/knowledge/understanding/care/attention/gentleness/conviction all come together just when it's ready to and I’m along for the ride. (But I'm not sure if I am the horse or the cat...) ; )
There is a certain resistance to the first person lyric in our post-postmodern landscape, and I have tried to step out of my “I,” but I’ve been resistant to it, and I think I am understanding why, and I’ve gained this understanding via another trend: the selfie.
Why do folks love the selfie? I’ve not seen a particularly flattering one. In fact, the people who take them are always more beautiful in “real life” than in the picture that represents them. Perhaps due to the angle or the short distance that an outstretched hand can allow, the faces seem distorted, “off” in some way, and always somehow far more performative (self-reflective) than if someone other than the author took the shot.
This reminds me of the beginning of Marvin Bell’s poem, “To Dorothy:” “You are not beautiful, exactly./ You are beautiful, inexactly.” I love the commas in those lines, calling attention to “exactly” versus “inexactly,” how we must pause before getting those words out.
Like the selfie, the “I” in the lyric never represents the author-speaker in a particularly flattering way. In fact, the best lyric poems show the speaker in a human, and often humbling, light. Think of Sei Shonagon , a court lady of 11th century Japan, who wrote a list of “Hateful Things” that include:
An admirer has come on a clandestine visit, but a dog catches sight of him and starts barking. One feels like killing the beast.
One has been foolish enough to invite a man to spend the night in an unsuitable place -- and then he starts snoring.
A carriage passes by with a nasty, creaking noise. Annoying to think that the passengers may not even be aware of this! If I am traveling in someone's carriage and I hear it creaking, I dislike not only the noise but the owner of the carriage.
Some children have called at one's house. One makes a great fuss of them and gives them toys to play with. The children become accustomed to this treatment and start to come regularly, forcing their way into one's inner rooms and scattering one's furnishings and possessions. Hateful!
Shouldn’t everyone be ashamed to have a “clandestine visit,” be gracious to ride in another’s carriage, and adore children—always? Of course not. I love that Shonagon can be genuine. I adore her for the utter ugliness of her beauty.
The best lyric poems never cast the speaker in a kind light. They give us the “I” in all its raw distortion (which, in the end, is more “real”), and that’s why I can’t let it go.
Mary Ann and I took a break from AWP and had a lovely dinner and night out at the symphony in Seattle. Here we are—each with a flight of wines. Mary Ann chose the “Heavy Hitter” that was described with one word: “Stomp.”
I picked the “Bullfighter.” (Who wouldn’t?)
At the symphony, we sat in a box, and I felt quite fancy and even imagined myself a Lucrezia Borgia. It was Mozart all night. I felt as if in a cloud. If only a poem could move as a symphony, I kept thinking. Also: how is this like/not like a sequence? Mary Ann confirmed for me, though, that “no, poetry can’t do that.” A different beast, it seems.
As for Mozart: did you know he died at 35? I had no clue! So sad.
And as for tone: the program notes kept describing his work as “melancholy.” We didn’t recognize it as so. (If we know anything, it is “melancholy.”) Clearly, the world of music considers tone differently than the world of poetry. (Or at least the world of our poetry.)
Overall, a transcendent evening. Everyone should spend a night in a box with a poet, watching cellos and considering the life-blood of Mozart.
Last week I was quite obsessed with learning how the earth thaws. What a thing to witness! (And what a better thing to consider than the icy roads and flooding rivers.)
This week, I am reminding myself to be full of hope and wonder. Life is stressful, no? Especially without sun.
But remember Grease 2 when Stephanie thought she lost her “cool rider,” her Michael, forever, but in mid-performance as a Christmas tree, Stephanie sings to him and he reassures her that “love will turn back the hands of time”???
Yes, life can be a star shooting out of our hands. Oh, how beautiful and silly!
Check out Michael and Stephanie here--lovely and cheesy and perfect: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqxZySNJ9VE
Bring on the fog machine and spinning arms! I’m okay with sitting in that if I can’t sit in a grassy field. : )
I have news! Salmon will release the new poetry collection this February at AWP, and the title has been changed to A Thousand Wings.
What I am most excited about right now is what (very likely) may be the cover image: Jean Fouquet’s Virgin and Child, c. 1450.
Johan Huizinga describes this painting in his Waning of the Middle Ages as having “an air of decadent impiety” and that "there is a flavour of blasphemous boldness about the whole, unsurpassed by any artist of the Renaissance." (Not to mention, the model for the Virgin is said to be Agnès Sorel, mistress to King Charles VII.)
I adore Noah Charney’s description of the piece: “The painting itself is strikingly modern. The skin tone of the Madonna and child has been bleached into a marble-like whiteness with none of the warmth of humanity. This is a painting of an impossible stone sculpture, complete with gravity-defying breasts slipping out of loosely-fitted blue leather garments. Mary is far too sexy.” Though other critics believe that wasn’t Fouquet’s intention; rather, he was depicting the Virgin in the tradition of Virgo Lactans (lactating virgin), which symbolizes Jesus’ humanity, since he, like all children, was breastfed by his mother.
I’m in love with the striking colors of this piece. It was, in fact, one of the last major artworks composed with tempera—before oil took over.
The ecstasy mixed with fear (would I want those angels surrounding me??) and how the holy seems beyond-human, starkly white and nearly stone, illustrate much of what I discovered and wrote about in this collection that was written while retreating to Trappist monasteries for nearly four years. In other words, the sacred seemed both out-of-reach and utterly present (and a bit overwhelming when it was).
And what is Jesus pointing to? There is no St. John the Baptist there (who he traditionally points to). It seems as if “into the distance.” That, too, makes absolute sense. : )
I’ve been mourning the death of a horse I do not know. (Long story.) Grief is a strange bird.
Life is accumulation like that. A collection of stories and experiences that become a database of sorts.
Hence, when I am sad, I search for “why” and then search my mental “files” and label that moment as “sad due to x.” So I cry in the car and then I search for the reason and come upon the story of a horse I heard earlier that day.
Really, though, “sad” can simply be “sad.” As happy can be happy. And etc. There is something luxurious about emotion in that way—perhaps what makes life full color. Tiny gifts.
Shanique Smith, New York sculptor, bundles cast-off clothing and creates hanging sculptures. For me, these sculptures visualize life-as-accumulation. And the colors and shape act as physical depictions of all those bundles of emotions—the spectrums, the layers. Gorgeous. Check her out: http://shiniquesmith.com/ .
I was able to see one of my idols last Wednesday: the MacArthur winning artist, Ann Hamilton. If you don’t know her work, you could start with her art21 segment.
At the lecture, Hamilton walked us through a decade or so of her work. The first image she projected on the screen was of a mouth full of stones. (!!) Here are some of my notes from her talk (and don’t they sound like poetry??):
Stand in the work.
What falls out?
Work finds form once it meets its conditions.
How much of our lives we spend in text—how do we “language” that experience?
Hair—at the cellular level—holds the memory of the animal.
Make a condition for the voice that is not theatrical.
Consider the event of a thread.
Walk the architecture into your feet.
The common sense that all species share is touch.
We read to a pigeon.
The table is my other blank page.
We are plucking wild figs.
It was a wonderful night. More wonderful, actually, since my colleagues and friends, Tammy and Kevin Muente, were able to join us. Kevin is an amazing artist too. I’m haunted by his figures and his landscapes. Check them out.
Art! Every time my “tank” is empty, I find art is the only thing that can fill it.
Some months ago, while on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, I read through Merton’s vol. 6 journal: Learning to Love. While in the hospital in Louisville, Merton met nurse M. and fell deeply, utterly in love. Of course, this brought with it a crisis of faith and direction (should he leave the monastery? should he run off with M.?). Ultimately, Merton stayed, recommitted to his life as a monk/hermit, but he found a truth about love, and journals (as if directly to M.):
“I love the aloneness of the night. In a way I cannot be without you: you are a part of my life itself, and of my very loneliness. I know we are together in our hearts…To be alone in a solitude that is with you, though without your bodily presence, is certainly a special kind of freedom.”
A theologian, Marilyn Sunderman, writes that Merton’s love for M. “took him out of himself in greater vulnerability and changed him forever.”
I understand the connection Merton makes of love with solitude. Love is a strangely solitude excursion, perhaps kenotic.
Mary Ann Samyn and I were invited to read at the historic Puddler’s Hall in Milwaukee last night. It was a fabulous evening with a labor toast, candles, and great poetry, such as this amazing stanza by Mary Ann (“Tending the Nectar”):
Seeing myself in the floor-to-ceiling windows.
A picture of a bird discourages the real birds.
It's hard not to pose in this life.
My colleague and friend, Andrea Gazzaniga, was there, too. She was our greatest supporter, finding a poem left behind at my seat that I intended to close with (and fetching it for me in the most graceful way one could when called upon mid-reading), repeating her favorite lines from our poems to us, and generally being the ultimate presence a poet could hope for during such an event.
And thanks to Marquette faculty member, Angela Sorby (also a fabulous poet who read too), for arranging the event and making us feel so welcome!
You can check out Mary Ann’s new book here: http://www.oberlin.edu/ocpress/Books/Samyn.htm .
I’ve really been thinking about the fragility of poetry. One poet says the poem is as gentle as a dandelion seed. The act of creation—the words from mind to page—is quick, fleeting and delicate—just like the fluff of a floating seed.
I used to catch dandelion seeds and make a wish and then let them go. It became a ritual.
The poem itself is fragile too. The best kind of poem seems nearly there. About to slip away. Such as this poem by Jean Valentine:
The moment you turned to me on W. 4th St.
Your gentleness to me
The hard winter grass here under my shoes
I knelt in the frost to your parents
light on the right hand side of your face
The light on the Buddha's eyelids
I knelt to my parents
Their suffering How
much sleep there was in sleep How no
suffering is lost
I love the kneeling, the frost, the moment-to-moment glimpses of happiness and how close that is to suffering. But the part that catches me is “how much sleep there was in sleep.” I live so much life in that state—not attentive, barely there—but also there is something intoxicating about a trance-like state, something grasping and nearly blind. Like the act of creating poetry.
Like a dandelion seed.
I’m thinking about mystery this morning. My friend and past teacher, Mary Ann Samyn, used to mention her love for Nancy Drew. I admit; I’ve never been a fan (of Nancy or the Hardy Boys or any mystery for that matter). Or so I thought.
I roam the woods and hang out at monasteries for one reason: to use a lever on the landscape in order to “lift up” the immediate in order to see the world inside of this one. I sense there is some kind of mystery hanging out in there and that I only need to be attentive in order to see glimpses of it.
I long for this in poetry too. In the introduction to The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine by Christian Wiman, he writes about one of the criteria he used when editing the anthology. He said that he kept “an eye out for the unexpected—the one-off masterpiece that juts up like a mountain from the landscape you thought you knew” and he uses this poem by Belle Randall as an example:
The summer that my mother fell
Into the hole that was herself,
We children sat like china dolls
Waiting mutely on a shelf
Wow—“the hole that was herself.” While in this poem that “hole” represents depression, I like to think that hole is much like the Alice in Wonderland hole. That when I think I am using a lever to the world, I am, instead, falling into the hole of myself.
That is where the true mystery lies: in the psychology and spirituality and interior landscape of the self. So, I guess I am a bit like Nancy.
I am seeing lines everywhere.
In the run-off of the waterfall in NC, in the vein of the rock I took home, in the markings of my mother’s antique dresser. My eye is tracing lines.
And my friend wrote recently, describing her new passion with sewing, so my eye started following the stitches in my mother-in-law’s quilt, the pillow my sister-in-law made me, the wall hanging my mother pieced together. I found the stitches that were, for me, most pleasing were the crooked ones.
Even with a machine, a stitch could go crooked. It could be the tension of the rod. The quality of the needle. An unsteady hand. But in any of the online forums, I couldn’t see a reason for creating (deliberately) a crooked stitch. There are lots of questions about how to fix a crooked stitch, and there are videos about how to make a curved one, but not a single thing about embracing a crooked line.
My poems lately have been less controlled. I think it has something to do with Yeats and how one must enter a certain madness before spiritual understanding. Also, it’s the enactment of the imagination let loose on the page. I’m finding that my language and my lines are finding a sort of rapture. And rapture can’t be easily contained.
So, I am interested in the idea of the imperfect stitch, of the crooked line, of embracing a “failed” moment of craft. Mostly, I’m interested that even with the involvement of a machine that perfection, that straight line of straight stitches, can’t always be reached.
I’m breaking lines where they shouldn’t be broken. On a verb or a preposition or an article. I’m also varying lengths. I’m going beyond the stresses a line may willingly hold—nearly into a prose poem—and all of this seems beautifully sloppy. Kind of like the dress I made in my school years that still hangs in one of my mother’s closets. One hem a bit longer than the other.
The most human part of me is my stumbling. I’m coming to embrace that.
I’ve decided the cricket is my new “totem” animal. (Sorry, snails. Sorry, slugs.) I’ve spent the last 20 minutes or so sitting beside one in my backyard. Just a little guy. But with a loud squeak.
"Cricket" comes from the French word, criquer or “little creaker.”
Last night, I fell asleep to what, at first, sounded like a bomb. Only, though, a neighbor letting off a firework dangerously close to my fence. My room shook. More came, but soon I found the sound comforting, expectant. As if: here is another time my earth will shake. I fell asleep to the sound.
This morning, the little creaker. Only the males sing (to attract mates) and this is sad, since I long for the women-crickets to sing too, but at least it is up to the women to seek out the men they want. They follow the sound.
Of course, this is a metaphor for poetry.
The male crickets make the sound by rubbing their wings together. The rough file of vein scrapes against their wing. This process is called “stridulation” or “making a harsh sound” in Latin.
Sometimes following the harshest resonance (like the banging of keys randomly on a piano) makes, in the end, the most beautiful music. This is true of emotion too. Following the hard spots, continuing the squeak of the pain/beauty/sorrow until something resonates attracts the muse.
Mostly, though, it’s about rubbing parts together to see what sings. In this case, language.
I turn to Robert Creeley as a guide for this. He is my literary cricket:
I Know a Man
As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking, -- John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.
Creeley gives us the bomb, the squeak, and the stutter. And I’m ready to follow. Drive, for Christ's sake, drive.
I’m getting closer to understanding the force behind powerful writing, classroom experiences, and connections with another human being: humility.
What weakens art, class, or conversation is pride. (As Merton writes: “Pride makes us artificial; humility makes us real.”)
In a lecture in 1962 at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton discussed how humility functions. To be humble, he explained that we need to be generous, willing to see the good in others, and we need to trust, believing others will see the good in us.
This involves a great deal of vulnerability, approaching everyone (our readers, our students, our friends and family) with open arms. And when we have our arms open, we are literally and metaphorically exposing the most vulnerable part of ourselves, our hearts.
Humility is at the center of it all. Then all those other hard but good things can evolve: generosity, trust, and vulnerability (the ingredients of art).
Simple, yes? ; )
I’m on a final summer retreat at St. Meinrad in Indiana and wondering how to carry this retreat into my life next week. (It’s the Friday before classes begin.)
I’m sitting beside a pond near a treeline and thinking about real trees versus false ones. I never would have thought of such a thing if it weren’t for a sculpture I saw last week. The sculpture is tucked away beside the St Louis art museum as a tree among trees, except this tree is made of steel. (Check out the picture to the left!)
I must have taken a dozen pictures at all angles. And I really liked seeing my face reflected in a “trunk.”
I am also reading The Genesee Diary by Henri Nouwen—all about his time spent in a Trappist monastery acting as a monk in every way other than taking vows. Of course, his time there taught him more than he was, perhaps, asking to learn, but mostly his solitude and silence taught him about community, about how to be one among many, and how his self preconceptions led him to interpret and behave different ways with his new cloistered family.
During a talk with the Abbot (John Eudes), Nouwen came to this realization of a self-fulfilling prophesy:
“We talked about the vicious circle one enters when one has a low self-esteem or self-doubt and then perceives other people in such a way as to strengthen and confirm these feelings. …I enter into relationships with some apprehension and fear and behave in such a way that whatever the others say or do, I experience them as stronger, better, more valuable persons, and myself as weaker, worse, and not worth talking to. After a while the relationship becomes intolerable, and I find an excuse to walk away feeling worse than when I started it. My general abstract feeling of worthlessness becomes concrete in a specific encounter…” (91).
The Abbot and Nouwen came to the realization that it is at the moment, the place of such an encounter, when meditation is most needed, that “when you find your mind competing again, you might plan an ‘empty time’ of meditation, in this way interrupting the vicious circle of your ruminations and entering into the depth of your own soul” (92).
It is hard to believe how much that steel tree took me to that depth. I was forced to see a form (that I see every day, a tree) in an entirely new way. Look at those curves! Look at the way that limb reaches!
This is precisely what I must do with my self. Take myself out of my own context. Cover my “self” in steel and see it anew. Meditation can be the steel that covers me to break the “vicious circle of [my] ruminations” in order to enter a deeper self-space. Go to meditation in the moment of the encounter when I hear some of that negative self-chatter.
And even if I am one among many, like that steel tree, I will be steel at least briefly enough to see what shape my mind decided to take.
I gave away my iPhone last night. Sigh.
As I fall asleep at night, I search Huffington Post and Pinterest. I wake up to the sound of "old phone" and as I click it off, I check to see if any important emails came in during the night. During the day, I keep up with my friends' emotional lives via text and work and student concerns via email. As soon as I am done exercising, I check the phone. When I am "without service" at the barn, I worry. I can't seem to find anything without being led by Siri and Google Maps navigation. My days are filled out in the calendar and my writing notes and overheard conversations are on the notepad. In short, my days are measured not by "spoons" as Prufrock, but by the iPhone. I'm not sure which is more desperate.
Then I read this article, "Why I Quit Facebook," by Sumi Loundin Kim:
It was quite interesting to observe the psychological effects of leaving Facebook, in addition to reducing online connectivity in general. I see that I was living with a divided mind: one in reality and one in a kind of mental dialogue with my online/media world. My mind had been playing a continuous loop, asking and answering seven questions, at all times, even when I was away from a computer or tech gear:
What’s new on Facebook?
Did an email come in?
Did I get a text that I might have missed? Who’s on Google Chat now?
What’s new on Huffington Post/in the news cycle?
Is my phone ringer at the right setting so I can hear it?/Did I miss a call?
Are there any messages on the home answering machine?
As I’m letting go of the alternate reality of the online world, I find myself much more attuned to actual reality. I am more interested in the people right in front of me because I am not half-attending to the virtual people online. I kind of feel like I am waking up: Oh wow, there’s a blue sky! There’s the sound of birds chirping!
I have been concentrating on leading a contemplative life, but I was meditating using the alarm ap on the iPhone! Imagine that!
There is no better way to develop the ego, I think, than to consider oneself important enough to be "on call" 24/7. It's time to let go.
It's not easy, though. This morning I reached for the alarm and missed, immediately, the smooth, white mini-computer and how cool it felt in my hand early mornings. But I am ready to be present for the family, friends, students, and colleagues right in front of me. I'm ready to hear those birds instead of those virtual tweets.
Let's see how it goes.
This summer I was able to see Yeats’ grave in Sligo, Ireland. He composed his own epitaph (taken from one of his final poems, “Under Ben Bulben”):
Cast a cold Eye
on Life, on Death.
Horseman pass by.
The tone seems bleak. Yeats led a frustrating life and even in one his plays, he writes: “What is life but a mouthful of air?” When I stood at the grave, I thought only of the isolation of the man, of life.
Yet there is an interesting duality in the cryptic epitaph. We are asked to “Cast a cold Eye” and “pass by” both life and death. That the two are equal. We are guaranteed both. It seems, somehow, that since we know one (life), we know the other (death).
I feel there is something to learn in this. That the mind (or our culture) naturally divides the two, but really, Yeats shows us a Unity of Being.
At monasteries, the graveyard is always in sight. Even at the barn, I walk past the horse graveyard on the way to fetch my horse from her pasture. When I was in Ecuador in May, I saw a Mary Magdalene statue holding a skull and a cross. In every instance, there is both life and death intermingling, both present together.
But what does this have to do with creativity?
I believe that the core of creativity is tapping into that sacred space where life and death meet. To write from that center. That sacred charnel ground. Here's a bit about the charnel ground from an article in Shambhala Sun:
In many traditional Asian societies, the charnel ground was where people would bring dead bodies, to be eaten by vultures and jackals. From the tantric yogi’s perspective, this was an ideal place to practice, because it is right at the crossroads of life, where birth and death, fear and fearlessness, impermanence and awakening unfold right next to each other. Some things are dying and decaying, others are feeding and being fed, while others are being born out of the decay. The charnel ground is an ideal place to practice because it is right at the crossroads of life, where one cannot help but feel the rawness of human existence.
This is the ideal space for creation--where we can "feel the rawness of human existence" and write from that space.
I found this tree in Rowe Woods a couple days ago, and it has been on my mind. I took the picture, since it seemed a metaphor about how internal weakness can bring down anything—even a large tree.
I had just finished listening to the audio book version of Tony Hendra’s Father Joe: The Man who saved my Life. Hendra is an unlikely person to turn to for spiritual direction (think: Spinal Tap), but he wanted to be a Benedictine monk before finding that satire may be the way to change the world--“through laughter.”
The memoir chronicles his time—a forty-year friendship—with Father Joe, a Benedictine monk who I wish I would have known. Consider this conversation.
Father Joe asks Tony why he (and others) do what they do (satire—since it can be such an aggressive enterprise):
Tony: “The truth is we all do it for attention.”
Father Joe (after much silence): “When we get more and more attention, the more and more we will become what people want us to be. In this way, you really exist only in other people’s minds. You only have a personality that other people have shaped.”
Wow. That hurt. This is, sadly, what I have become—due to my profession, perhaps. Maybe it is due to tenure binders or course evaluations or maybe it is more about the need to mentor and to be looked up to in that mentor-way, but I am afraid that my drive has been an external one and that I, too, “have a personality that other people have shaped.” (And something to be saved for another entry since it is an even scarier prospect: has my writing been shaped in this way too?)
So, sure, the tree fell due to an internal weakness, but I had to reconsider what I thought the tree stood as metaphor for. No matter how weak, in the end, external forces pushed it down.
Perhaps this is the reason for the Buddhist concept of “right livelihood”? Or does all interaction with others offer an opportunity for the formation of a false self, and it is up to us to see this and uncover the true self?
And a final thought: the destruction, I admit, is beautiful. I took a picture, after all. At least I saw the struggle, the process, the life of the tree, and, in many ways, found it more beautiful than the stronger trees that towered above me.
I’m in Maine. Beautiful Maine. The place where I find/forget/return to/lose myself each summer.
(In fact, there is a loon just now hollering and cackling. It speaks just as my soul would if my soul could holler!)
Last night I dreamt of a woman who I hated more than any woman I’ve ever hated. Ever. In the dream, I dug through drawers and her purse. Somehow I knew that if I found her gold wedding ring, I would be able to have her fired from her job and ruined for life. (What a soap opera my dreams must be!)
On the way to the dock just now, a squirrel got so scared of me that it preferred to leap off the log it stood on and jump into the water rather than run past me. It surfaced quickly, leapt from the water and clucked at me in the meanest way as if to say: how could you--!
How cute a wet squirrel can be! Also, how frightening.
And there is a picture of the Virgin Saint of Water from Ecuador beside me.
I’m certain the squirrel and woman-in-my-dreams and the loon and the Mary and the dock and the water are all related. I’m not sure how just yet, but I know they are.
And that is where I begin.
I jump in (like the squirrel) and see where all these things take me.
What an adventure!
We have arrived in Quito, Ecuador! Right away, I am learning new words and realizing how patient and kind the people are here. Yesterday, Jose spent time teaching me pequeno, medio, and grande by showing me different sizes of nails and every morning we are served fresh juice and fruit at the Hostal Sur. Dora tells me the fruit is sweeter, since it comes from the Amazon, and with each bite, I keep asking myself: is it really sweeter or is it just that I have fallen in love with Ecuador already? (It is sweeter; a glass of pink grapefruit juice confirmed it for me this morning.) Tonight we are reading our poetry and opening Dora's exhibit that features her poems and work by Julie Struck and Kathryn Drury, and then we will have a reception with wine, borscht, fruit, and potato sandwiches while listening to local musicians. I am so honored to be here and so thrilled to witness Dora's moment. Thank you Anita and Casa Cultural for hosting us!
Domesticity. I’ve hated the word all my life. I resist curtains and fine hand towels. Every chance I get to leave the house and enter the woods I take. I resist marriage too—during the entire 15 years that I have been a wife. (Who wants to be a wife when one could be a Merton?)
But then there was Harlan Hubbard.
Hubbard loved Thoreau, but unlike Thoreau who spent 2 years in the woods, Hubbard spent over 40 years. He lived with his wife, Anna, on seven acres in Payne Hollow, KY, and grew/raised/caught his own food, cut his own fuel, built his own home, and wrote: “All our living is regulated by the revolving seasons. They determine what we do, what we think and talk about, what we eat, the pattern of each day.” Imagine.
I thought my happiness could be found only when I was alone in a hermitage of sorts (like the one-room cabin I retreat to each summer with my dog), but Hubbard found how to live in solitude with another person—a shared silence.
Listen to this:
In due time we were seated before the fire on low chairs which allow an intimacy with the blaze…Lighted candles and the simple food our supper consisted of were arranged between us with the care and thoughtfulness that Anna gives every meal. The silence of the night was but little disturbed by our fragmentary conversation, given as it is to long pauses in which on the fire is heard. Our conversation might be compared to the fire, at times going forward briskly, then subsiding into glowing embers…Our truest communication and understanding is attained with only a few words between periods of communicative silence. (Hubbard, Payne Hollow, 82)
That feels like heaven to me: “communicative silence. “
Hubbard presents us with a communal solitude. How beautiful. Solitude can be a shared experience. I never would have thought...!
Seems I’ve been approaching domesticity all wrong.
Okay, Joe. Let’s go.
A group of us visited with Br. Paul (monk, poet, photographer) at Gethsemani Abbey Saturday. Here are some insights Br. Paul offered us:
“Walk in silence. It’s good preparation.”
“There is no bad location—no light that is too poor—just different results.”
“What would your last poem be?”
“There is a point in photography, the punctus, that makes the photograph. Look for the punctus in your poem.”
“Revision means making a poem more true to itself. Don’t be too attached to results.”
That last comment, especially, hit me. Lately, I have been taking a different route when I revise my poems. Rather than cutting out the parts that don’t work (that seem tonally or contextually different), I listen to why they arrived.
I have been sharing this process with my students too. Last night, a grad student had a sudden stanza of anger embedded in a poem about longing and loss. Previously, I would have advised him to cut out the anger, but (perhaps due to my time in meditation) I asked him, instead, to listen to that moment of anger and explore it. The poem wanted it to be there, now find out why.
I believe this is one way in to making a poem “more true to itself."
Also, I’m finding, it’s a way to make a self more true to itself. When something arrives that doesn’t seem to fit the situation (like anger when I should be happy or sad or whatever), I settle into that still, quiet space inside me, and I sit with the anger. I explore it in a curious way—as if a small animal just arrived in my office—and “listen” to it rather than resist it and cut it out. “Oh—isn’t that anger cute. What does it look like? What is its shape? Why is it calling now? What does it want me to be attentive to?” And so on.
This exercise does not yield immediate results as a therapy session might, but it allows me to be still and to listen and not to be “too attached to results.”
I’m finding the unexpected has lots to teach. As does Br. Paul, of course.
I spent Sunday in Joe Drury’s artist studio, working with kiln glassmaking, and I lost myself for three hours—as if I sunk into a body of water and didn’t surface until I had to leave. (Yes, that’s me over there. Nicci caught me and I didn’t even realize she did! That’s how deep I was.)
I was in FLOW.
Zen practice describes flow as being one with all things. Psychologists define it as being utterly absorbed in an activity.
Flow can’t be forced. It just happens. But we can encourage it by immersing ourselves wholeheartedly in an activity for some intrinsic purpose. For example, art.
For example, poetry.
We know we have been there—in flow—if we have lost all track of time. Perhaps, even, forgot about lunch or bathroom breaks or important meetings (ahem—sorry students).
Entering into flow, into being one with all things will allow us to hear, to record the world under the world, as Donald Revell does in this poem, “Lissen:”
There is a sound in birdsong
Just before the song,
And you can hear it,
Though only a few,
And those are reflected on lake water
like beautiful ghosts
Always just at sunrise,
Tell the truth exactly, it will make
But it will. It will make sense. We know this world; we sense its presence. It’s up to us to pay attention, to sink in.
Even the rain is beautiful this morning. And I’ve learned something: I don’t like worms. I hate to say it. I adore the worm “cousins:” snails, slugs, etc. But worms! I don’t trust them. They move too fast!
This morning, watching the crowds of worms on my driveway (and, yes, they always seem to travel with friends), I wanted to love them, to think of them as exposed and as vulnerable as slugs—after all, two robins were watching from the nearby cherry tree—but I couldn’t.
The way they move—the speed by which they slide in one direct, straight line to find the cracks to hide in—I just don’t feel safe! I see them, somehow, filling my shoes.
Thomas Merton in his preface to Thoughts in Solitude (his Japanese translation, which resonates most with me) begins by stating that anything he has to say “has not been said better by the wind in the pine trees.” He tells us that his purpose is to capture, “to echo,” the sound of that wind. But, he writes, “who hears it? Who hears silence?” I imagine the slugs do. And certainly the snails. They stay still enough to capture it.
The worms are covering too much ground. Too quickly.
Silence has to be heard before solitude can be understood: “the proper climate for such Hearing is solitude,” writes Merton.
So my object of meditation is the slow, still snail. The plump, solitary slug.
I’ve been reading Greg Orr’s The Poetry as Survival and thinking what the “personal lyric” means to me. “Personal” is not necessarily autobiographical—though in some ways it is. My poems rarely grab after self-story, but they include details about my inner-world and the landscape I walk through. For example, I write about affairs a great deal, but I haven’t had one. (My father had many…)
I try hard to ensure a certain intimacy in my poems—to snare and create a personal space—but that space is not for confession or therapy or even secrets; rather, I want a safe space to explore the hard questions with an implied you (the reader? my husband? myself? a god? silence? my “you” varies but is always specific). From Orr:
"We often experience the world as confusing and chaotic, especially during crises. This confusion can be outside us, in the objective conditions of our social and political lives, or it can be inside us, in the swiftly-shifting world of emotions, thoughts, and memories. Even as we recognize the power of disorder in our experience, we are likely to become aware of a strong need we have to feel there is some order in the world that helps us feel safe and secure."
The self is the machine through which the chaos passes into the poem, into an “order…that helps us feel safe and secure.” I love thinking of the poem as that safe, secure space where chaos can reside.
I like to think of this self (this machine) in the way a medium might consider the body’s role in this process: as a conduit for energies and understandings to pass through. Though I do not want to talk with the dead (literally), in many ways I guess I do—especially if the “dead” include past psychic weight and lack of understanding and internal chaos that must be resuscitated into external order. Or as Orr describes the chaos: as “the swiftly-shifting world of emotions, thoughts, memories.”
Thanks to the lyric goddess, Mary Ann Samyn, for tagging me for The Next Big Thing. Last week, Mary Ann blogged about her new book, My Life in Heaven: http://creativewriting.wvu.edu/creative_writing_blog . This week, I’ll talk a bit about my new book (coming out AWP 2014), When the God of Water enters your Basement, Bow. Look for the writers (below) who I tagged for next week: Alan Michael Parker, John Gallaher, and Sandy Baldwin.
Q: Where did the idea come from for the book?
A: Is it inappropriate to say a dangling Jesus? How haunting is that—to find the grotesque in the most beautiful spaces (cathedrals, gardens, graveyards). That is, if you consider the crucifix in this way. I spent four years regularly retreating to Trappist monasteries to enter a space where small dramas happen: where monks who take vows of silence infuse a space with incense/meditation/prayers and somehow transform the mundane into the sacred. I wrote all the poems in the collection in those spaces (literally).
Q: What genre does your book fall under?
A: Poetry. Though I agree with Mary Ann: “falling under” sounds like a tragedy of sorts.
Q: Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
A: Wes Anderson would have to direct. Would it be weird to say I’d like Owen Wilson to be a monk? Sigh. (Swoon.)
Q: What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
A: (inner-outer) landscape + monastic silence = (g) od (maybe)
Q: Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
A: Salmon Poetry accepted it for publication—to be released at AWP 2014. I’ve admired the press for years. Other poets on their list include Adrienne Rich, Ron Houchin, Carol Ann Duffy, and Marvin Bell. http://www.salmonpoetry.com/index.php
Q: How long did it take to write the first draft of your manuscript?
A: I’m a slow writer, since I “write” in my head long before the poems become poems-on-the-page. I visited the monasteries for two years and then wrote these poems over the course of the next two years (while staying in the same monasteries).
Q: Who or what inspired you to write this book?
A: Silence and gods. Urgency. A few snails and slugs and birds.
Q: What else about this book might pique the reader’s interest?
A: There is a cow in it. Some monks. Landscape (of course). Language, though, stars, as always (that stage whore that she is—love her). Sorry, Owen.
Now it is my turn to tag the next poets! Alan Michael Parker, John Gallaher, and Sandy Baldwin have agreed to post their answers to the above questions next week.
The brilliant Alan Michael Parker (author of three novels and seven collections of poems) will be posting on facebook. Search “Alan Michael Parker” on facebook to check it out. I’ve been a fan for years.
The great John Gallaher (author of five collections of poetry) will be posting on http://jjgallaher.blogspot.com/ . I fell in love with his collaborative collection (with G.C. Waldrep), Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, and I can’t seem to get enough of his world.
The mind-blowing Sandy Baldwin will be blogging at http://www.netpoetic.com/
He’s the executive editor of Electronic Book Review and the Computing Literature book series as well as author of basra: a new world order, coaldust, black mesa (poetry machinima).
Her art? Consider:
christening dresses from the 40’s embroidered with hair from 2007
teacups re-fired with decals taken from 19th century women’s diaries
pulleys of cockleburs dangled into teacups
vintage handsaws covered with flower fabric
What is there not to be obsessed with??
Summer and I are collaborating this summer. Our goal: to use my chapbook, Ghost Act, as inspiration for an exhibit. The book is based on my inheritance from my father: a 21 year old white horse. When the horse arrived at the barn near my house in KY, all I could think of was this old, white horse is my father’s ghost. Hence, my chapbook of elegy poems hidden in horse anecdote.
Our material so far? Horse hair, old saddles and bits, and a gorgeous riding outfit Summer’s grandmother wore when she was young. My, this will be fabulous. Stay tuned! And check out Summer’s work: http://summerzickefoose.com/home.html .
I'm in love with language. Of course I am. Words are like those lottery balls in those lottery machines popping. Popping! I've been having fun this morning with two text mixers. I paste in my poems and the programs cut up (as in Burroughs' cut up methods) and mix and return my poems in new forms. The new language combinations are wild. Check them out:
I teach Robert Creeley’s poem, “The Language,” often, but today I just realized why the center of his poem resonates so deeply for me:
As a child, I would get in trouble for giving away my toys. Girls would visit my room and leave with bags full of goodies from my toy box. I would try to sneak the visitor out of the house without my mom seeing, but she would always see, and would always warn me that she would not fill the box with what was now gone. Eventually (birthdays, Christmas, etc.) more toys would arrive and the box would be filled again (and emptied when I had the opportunity and then filled again and so on).
I’ve spent a lifetime filling then emptying then filling. Just three years ago, preparing for a move to Cincinnati, I had a yard sale and sold almost everything I owned. Some folks asked, ”Are these prices real?" I was very nearly giving away my bookshelves, my sofa, my washing machine, books, cameras, my hammock, etc., etc.. I wanted everything to be gone.
When I moved to the new, empty house, I had to go to Ikea to refill it. Sigh.
I learned about the concept of kenosis from my Catholic education (that one must empty oneself in order to be filled with God), but I didn’t personally relate to the term until I read about the process via Merton who called it “self-emptying” and likened it to the “no-self” of Zen so that “the ego-self is no longer the principle of our deepest actions.”
But how to get there?
I emptied toy boxes and houses only to rid myself of the burden of possession. For years, I thought I was only acting in response to my understanding (conditioning?) of kenosis, but my ego-self motivated the letting go.
To be empty, to understand poverty in that way, I need a poverty of self, an emptying of ego, not of the external.
Yes, acts of kindness are fine. But it's the internal work I need to do next.
I’m afraid I, like Creeley, emptied only for the pleasure to “fill, fill.”
Contemplation, according to the great Trappist monk known for interreligious dialogue, Thomas Merton, is the highest expression of “intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive.” He describes it as “spontaneous awe” and “wonder.”
For weeks after my father passed last March, I hiked the miles of trails at the nearby nature center, Rowe Woods, searching for something to catch (reawaken?) this spontaneous awe and wonder inside of me. Early mornings, I was often alone—except for the birders who crossed my path and disappeared as swiftly and quietly as they arrived. These birders never spoke, only nodded, as if we were on a similar quest and we had business to do and we better get on with it already.
Merton describes contemplation as a “response to a call” and that we must, in a sense, “die” in order to find ourselves “on a higher level of life.” I found this, oddly enough, in the shells of snails and turtles and the awkward metamorphoses of the frogs during my morning hikes. I have a poem that describes how I knelt to get close enough to a snail in order to hear “the most important sounds” as “those intimate, quiet ones.”
Being in the presence of an animal, an animal encounter, has been considered holy even as early as the Shinto religion—a sort of charnel ground where the vultures arrive to take care of the bodies of our dead. I felt that connection—of the snail caring for me in that moment of my attentiveness. All left me. I emptied in the way that the only thing left was my “eye in the peephole,” watching the slow movements of the snail. No thoughts of my father, or my body on the ground, or the bird people roaming the woods. It’s from this place I think we must create.
A description of Lieve Van Stappen's work (I feature one of her installations above) reflects, for me, what I long for poetry to be/do:
"Combining glass with moving image and sound, Lieve Van Stappen constructs physically and emotionally brittle spaces...A complex material fraught with ambiguities, glass protects but it does not mask or hide." (Flemish Institue of Art)
My weakness as a poet may be that I find "the poem" too precious a creation and demand each one to contain something deeply at stake, but I can't help but consider the small shape on the page to be as glass that creates a "brittle space." While the "I" may be masked or transformed by elements beyond autobiography, I like the idea of it being protected behind the glass of the poem--but only slightly so, so that it cannot hide.