Friday, June 16, 2017

Wondering Woman

In this blog, I discuss the currently-in-theaters movie Wonder Woman, and while there are no real plot spoilers (unless you don't know which side won World War I), consider before you read this that I am alluding to plot points.

I know that one does not see superhero movies expecting 100% logical consistency. A movie based on real-life events rarely even achieves 100% logical consistency, given the narrative and temporal constraints inherent to the medium. And superhero movies have their own logic, as does any narrative in the speculative fiction category. Ironman was one of my all-time favorite movies, so I don't dislike the genre. I was really set on liking Wonder Woman. Grrl power, and all that.

But.

I didn't leave Ironman pondering the logical inconsistencies of the story. (And again, I'm certain there were hundreds, beginning with the whole let's-replace-his-heart-with-this-nuclear-magnetic-thingie —seriously, I'm fine with that; I get that it's central to the story and to the character and is perfectly in keeping with the trope. So I'm good.) But Wonder Woman...

...so if the dashing young man whose life she saved had been a German spy, and it was the British forces who stormed the beach of Paradise Island, then she'd go with him to fight on his side????

...so she speaks all these modern languages, but knows nothing of the existence (let alone the mores) of these 20th century nations????

...the Amazons invented bullet-proof armor without knowing about guns and bullets????

I could live with the little things, like numbers 2 and 3 above. But it's that first one—the sheer accident of it being a spy on "our" side whom she saves and then joins, that has me most troubled. And I know she isn't joining him to fight the Germans per se; she's looking for [I won't say whom, in case you haven't seen the movie yet—let's just say she's looking for someone who is above nationality]. But still, she'd be fighting with the Germans, and her character at that point doesn't even know about "sides" or who is fighting whom or why, so she'd be just as likely to take up with the Germans. Right?

And let's talk about killing. Diana is deeply troubled by the wounded soldiers and suffering civilians she sees as they near the front. She cannot understand the "big picture"; it is these victims of violence in front of her who capture her attention and whom she must help by...(wait for it)...killing dozens of German soldiers who of course are the equivalent of those British soldiers she was just looking at five minutes earlier. She's a warrior, yes; she's looking for [again, I won't say] who is the root of all evil [she thinks—but that's another thread that actually would be a good thread if not for the logical inconsistencies that tangle it all up]; but killing young men in order to save young men (neither of whose "sides" or cultures or countries or reasons for being in this war in the first place does she understand) just has my brain hurting.

Men wrote this screenplay. I won't blame all men for the logical inconsistencies. That would be...illogical.

But if we want a feminist superhero who can be kick-ass AND logical, I think we might need to start writing, sisters.

I'm sure we can include a part for Robert Downey, Jr.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Language and Song

I'm reading C.K. Williams's On Whitman, in preparation for a presentation on WW I'm scheduled to give this coming December, plus of course American Lit and future Modern Poetry and who knows what all else that will call for a little extra studying of this one-of-a-kind poet and seer. Williams writes, "Poetry is song and language at once," which will definitely find its way into Modern Poetry the next time I teach that course. I would have said "language and song," in that order, to make the point that language comes first, but I quibble.

This morning I sat for a few moments looking at an ad in the back of Smithsonian Magazine, an ad for dry-erase boards that can be custom fitted to line the walls of a room. I daydreamed about having a dry-erase-board-lined room, on which I could draw and color and of course write. How geeky is that, to daydream about being surrounded by one infinite dry erase board.

And then thinking of Ben Platt, who won the Tony Award last night for his performance in the play Dear Evan Hansen. He ended his acceptance speech by saying, "The things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful." I feel vindicated in my room-sized-dry-erase-board fantasy. Power!

Those strange poets, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Power!

...to be continued...






Monday, June 5, 2017

Diminished Things, Part 2

What to make of a diminished thing—It is a terrifying question, at least to me, as I sit here pondering the state of the world, the receding of all that seemed promising, the sudden looming predominance of all that is absurd and unhinged and ugly.

Diminishment is a difficult concept to grasp because it is natural. Think entropy. Even in his poem in which he concludes with the phrase "what to make of a diminished thing," Robert Frost holds out the hope that everything is cyclical, like the seasons themselves. This is the problem with being a nature poet: There is always hope in the short-term. And that makes us uncertain of how to deal with the reality that something is always being lost. Yes, the return of spring is nice...as long as one doesn't go extinct over the winter. The rainy season is a relief...unless one drowns.

Hope vs. wishful thinking. That is our dilemma as human beings, as artists, as teachers. That is our on-going challenge. Something is needed in place of hope, as we ponder what to make of a diminished thing. Especially when the diminishment is our own fault.

Fate vs. choice was another of Frost's grand themes. How ironic that we have the choice here of what it is that will be diminished, what will be lost. And we keep choosing to diminish ourselves. What to make of this diminished thing, indeed.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

These Diminished Things

Robert Frost's poem "The Oven Bird" ends with the phrase, "what to make of a diminished thing." John Ciardi's luminous poem "The Catalpa" ends with the line, "What should I keep if averages were all?" These two questions (though in the Frost poem, it isn't actually posed as a question) keep playing in my mind as I walk in the late spring woods and as I watch the all-day news.

What to make of a diminished thing?
What should I keep if averages were all?

Frost, of course, is known as a nature poet; Ciardi, not so much, although many of his poems use images from the natural world to create modern metaphysical conceits like a 20th-century American John Donne. "The Oven Bird" and "The Catalpa" make one realize how even seemingly non-political poems are, in fact, political.

Think of our world today and all we see being destroyed: human lives; regard for truth and beauty; the noble experiment of democracy. Diminished, all. And yet, still we hope (and thus protest, argue, witness albeit in disbelief, write, teach, read...); still we ask, each in our own way, "What should I keep if averages were all?" and wait for some sign that this, too, shall pass, and that perhaps the diminishment is temporary and the golden age will return again. One thing I learned in my college statistics and probability course was that there is no such thing as average—average never describes the reality in one's hand, in front of one's eyes.

And if there is not to be another golden age in our lifetime, well, then, like good Stoics, we shall ponder what to make of this diminished thing, and write poems, and make music, and eat chocolate.

And still, we shall rage against the dying of the light.
Funny how all these lines of poetry describe our times, yes?

***

nest building—
don't they read the papers,
these birds?

Monday, May 22, 2017

Impermanence, Sort Of

I have made several collages that are made permanent only in photos, such as this one. I assemble the scraps but do not glue anything to anything. The paradox of assembling images in whole that remains unglued and can fall apart at any moment is thrilling, intoxicating. Controlled chaos at its finest, with the knowledge that chaos will win. And of course, I cheat by taking a photo, so in a sense it is permanent, as permanent as anything digital can be.

What do I discover as I go through this process? First, that it is the process itself that I love: the tearing of scraps; the finding of already-torn scraps in my box of scraps; the way-leads-on-to-way of it all. Then there's the freedom of it: I can arrange the pieces without having to worry about the logic of gluing something under one piece but atop another. So many of the collages I glue into permanence are not quite what I intended, because the logic of sequencing the pieces sometimes defies me.

What I haven't done yet, but may try soon, is using the exact same pieces to make a different collage, a series of collages all with the same elements...

Permanent impermanence, repeating itself again and again.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Scraps

I belong to a Facebook group where collage artists post their work. I am always fascinated by the way these artists see and interpret their world, turning chaos into order and exposing the underlying chaos beneath what seems like order. And oh, the colors!

These artists turn scraps into works of art; they see the potential in those scraps.

Imagine if we had politicians who could see the world this way. See what's wrong, and create something to right that wrong. See what's right, and incorporate it more fully into people's everyday lives. See chaos and ask why; see the patterns of the past, and ask, why not break those destructive patterns.

Instead, we just get the chaos interspersed with the destructive patterns (because destruction is easier, after all, and has no intellectual prerequisite).

Instead, we have scraps of human beings who see only their own dark impulses. The rest of us might as well be swept up and discarded. The rest of us become the pieces we try to pick up.

Sorry; I have collage-on-the-brain these days.

*

lily-of-the-valley
from petal
to hand
to bird

Monday, May 15, 2017

How Does This World

In pieces; that's how this world does.

In a deceptively simple poem titled "In Vain," Jack Kerouac has a beautiful image:

"The windowshade string upon
            the hand bible
In vain—"

I discovered this poem while prepping for Modern Poetry; it is the voice of a somber, haunted, poet Kerouac rather than the road-delirious, live-for-the-moment novelist Kerouac that emerges in these lines, each image "in vain," whether highbrow or low, distant or at-hand. It is the voice of a poet trying to make meaning; the voice of a poet asking, "How does this world?"

It is a collage. It is in-the-making, imperfect, working its imperfections into the whole. It is tactile and immediate, present tense despite the absence (or rather, the implication) of the verb "is" throughout the poem. The implication of a motel room in those things—"windowshade string" and "hand bible"—evokes Kerouac on the road, but exhausted beyond sleep, wondering what it's all for. Wondering how does this world.

It feels almost absurd, but this isn't far from anything Emily Dickinson does in her poems, as well. "How does this world" could be her question, explored in nearly two thousand poems.

Over the next few blog entries, unless I go off on some interesting tangent, I hope to explore some of the pieces that comprise the endless answer to "how does this world."

See the complete Kerouac poem here:
https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/vain

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Onward We Go

And so, the creative season stretches out before me, mysterious, dream-like, just waiting for me to shape its imagery into metaphor and its meanings into poems. I also find myself in search of a new project.

If only such internal shaping of this world could smoothly translate into the external shaping of this world, the immediate creation of certitude, peace, help for pain (see Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach" for the context of that allusion). Alas, I am not even certain any more that there is an external world until I at some point during the day turn on the television to see the same talking heads talking the same foolishness.

If it were all poetry, I guess, poetry wouldn't matter so much. We live by paradox. We figure it out as we go along. We figure out what to keep, what to treasure, and what to remember only so as not to repeat. Onward we go, into the creative season.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

In the Mind's Eye

It is still on my shelf, my 1987 copy of James Gleick's book Chaos, one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books. One of the gems that I highlighted: "In the mind's eye, a fractal is a way of seeing infinity."

In the mind's eye—what a wonderful phrase, validating of both intellect and imagination, of the necessity of both working together as a means of interpreting perception in the reality of the moment. As always, I am reminded of poetry and collage, each of which is also "a way of seeing infinity."

How to describe the blindness of those who lack this "mind's eye," those who live by destruction rather than creativity? Or those who cannot balance the two—balance, as one thinks of Jackson Pollack, so many inner demons and yet the capacity to create something new, something that changed our collective mind's eye and made us see everything anew (those waterlily panels of Monet! We get it now!).

For an artist, what better evocation of chaos theory (infinite possibilities within finite parameters) than Pollack's drip paintings. Understanding those finite parameters—the edge of canvas or page; the poetic line and stanza; the letter and spirit of the law; the boundaries of human dignity—lets us manage and even thrive within the chaos of daily life. We are witnessing the beginning of the end of the ability to thrive. We must find a new way to see infinity, to brush up against those finite parameters and pull back, creating a new possibility that was there all along.

Artists and poets, please keep showing us the way.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Women's Work

A little bit of everything; a patchwork. Women's work. I spend so much time writing persona poems inspired by nineteenth century people that I think a lot about what those people's daily lives must have been like. I always circle back to the thought that their lives were more similar to our than dissimilar.

The modern "convenience" of television and other media is nothing if not consistent in driving home the point that our ideas about one another and our ways of treating and speaking about one another have not changed all that much in 100 or 1000 or 10,000 years. Women have always done everything and put up with the accusation that they can do nothing and that they like it. And "it" there means...everything.

Everything is political, especially, especially, the personal.

Back to work...


Friday, May 5, 2017

Secrets

I love secrets. Not too many at once, and not a self-destructive one, but a good secret or two is power. Poets (and here I may be projecting) seem to me a reticent bunch; we hold our secrets close and allude to them in poem after poem.

More than a year of working on poems related to Emily Dickinson has filled my head with imagined secrets, as well. And again, poems are filled with such imaginings...


pieces of wings and who did the piecing

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Touch (2)

Touch

each season has its own
but first we should agree
upon a definition of skin
organ of touch
through which all
little by little
you become
icicle
lilac
thistle
bulb

--jean leblanc 4-30-17
Collage: Thistle (touch series)

Touch

The last day of poetry month, except every month is poetry month for those of us fortunate enough to have a predilection for this art form. I may begin exploring images of touch/texture in poetry; today's collage, Poison Ivy, is the first step on that journey, or the billionth step of the journey always already begun...

dogwood blossoms
why didn't I think
to touch —

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Just Overhead

Well, my "What Is Poetry" talk of course could not live up to its name, promising more than it offered...but it got us thinking about all the ways to attempt to use words to describe this process in which we use words to describe these moments we feel may offer meaning.

A moment of transition, a moment of meaning, a moment of wonder, a moment wherein something is named...

...that's as close as we get.

***

just overhead
one more small hunger
called sping

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

What Is Poetry?

A poem is a small but powerful interval of a world, characterized by order and beauty, with grief made small enough to hold in one's hand. 

That's one of my radical assertions (well, mundane suggestions) that I'll be offering and supporting with numerous examples in my presentation this coming Friday, April 28, 2017. You are invited! Yes, you! Because of course, if you are reading this, you want to know what poetry is, and why poetry is, and how poetry is. 

Please join me at Sussex County Community College in Newton, New Jersey, in the Atrium of the Performing Arts Center (that's Building A). I'll begin at 1:00 and we can go until 2:30, with (I hope) lots of questions, fueled by the cookies that will be provided!

I will have books for sale, and we'll celebrate Poetry Month and everyone will leave newly inspired.

See you there!    

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Bright Impossibility

It has been a little over five months since I began this blog, which has given me so much more satisfaction than the website it replaced, calling me forth on as many mornings possible to add a thought or two about poetry and the creative process. Is it time for a taking stock, a what-have-I-learned moment? If it is, I have no easy response, feeling that, if I have learned anything, I have surely forgotten it. Every day seems new, in a perverted way, in these dark times; every day a wonder at the degradation of the human mind feeding on its own capacity for stupidity. It's a wonder that artists persist. And that may be the lesson, after all.

"Such sumptuous—Despair—" mused Emily Dickinson, as she pondered why we need art, why we are drawn to its "bright impossibility." What an oxymoron, "bright impossibility"—what a perfect description for these times of hope-bred-from-despair, of why some of us keep getting out of bed every morning, to teach, to read, to think, to create something that may outlast this current incarnation of Ozymandias.

Onward we go.

(The above quotes are from Emily Dickinson's poem that begins, "I would not paint—a picture—" which is poem #505 in the Johnson anthology.)

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Flint unto this Day

We met as Sparks—Diverging Flints
Sent various—scattered ways—
We parted as the Central Flint
Were cloven with an Adze—
Subsisting on the Light We bore
Before We felt the Dark—
A Flint unto this Day—perhaps—
But for that single Spark.

***

Emily Dickinson and her imagery of stone and minerals. Here she and the one from whom she is parted are chips of flint, which at one time met and created a spark (and the meeting of flints that produce a spark is not soft, but sudden, hard, one may almost say a violent event). And except for those brief sparks, the two are cold, hard, lifeless flint for eternity.

To me, the further metaphor is that of poems from a flint. And for that, the flint must be alone, must be by itself, striking air, and from the nothingness it strikes appears the poem. What a vision of the artist as a little God, creating, in a shower of sparks, a world from the void.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Haven

A poor — torn heart — a tattered heart —
That sat it down to rest —
Nor noticed that the Ebbing Day
Flowed silver to the West —
Nor noticed Night did soft descend —
Nor Constellation burn —
Intent upon the vision
Of latitudes unknown.

The angels — happening that way
This dusty heart espied —
Tenderly took it up from toil
And carried it to God —
There — sandals for the Barefoot —
There — gathered from the gales —
Do the blue havens by the hand
Lead the wandering Sails.

***

A fascinating poem, filled with potential symbolic readings (is that death in the first stanza, the "Ebbing Day," "West," "Night"...). That "torn" and "tattered heart" is still "Intent upon the vision / Of latitudes unknown" — Heaven, if one continues with the pattern of symbolism. If one does, then the word "havens" in the final stanza makes one pause: Did she mean "heavens," and (as we often do when writing) accidentally omit a letter and not notice her "typo"? Or did she intend the unexpected yet beautiful "havens," the word itself a latitude unknown until experienced? Is "havens" here another word for "angels"—quite unexpected, that!

As she worked out her world view in her poetry, she seemed determined to avoid cliches. This relatively early poem (#78 in the Johnson anthology, identified as circa 1859) is a wonder of craft, technique, and attention— itself a haven soothing one's poor, torn, tattered heart. (The book I would love to write would be titled An Atheist Talks to Emily Dickinson.)


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Within My Reach

Within my reach!
I could have touched!
I might have chanced that way!
Soft sauntered thro' the village —
Sauntered as soft away!
So unsuspected Violets
Within the meadows go —
Too late for striving fingers
That passed, an hour ago!

Wow, how did Emily Dickinson in that poem know how I felt yesterday morning as I waited for the day to warm and the bloodroot blossoms to open? I had to leave about (I'm guessing) thirty minutes before the ones in the warmest spots in the woods were fully open. Just missed.

Just missed. It would break our hearts, to know all that we just missed. It would also inspire billions of poems, for this "just missed-ness" of life is the key to poetry (perhaps music, too)—more so, it seems, than any other of the arts (although dance would capture it, as well).

Is every poem, in some way, about what was "just missed"? What was within reach but not reached out for; what was there but passed by, overlooked, taken for granted? What was seen once and then searched for again, a lifetime's desire never seconded?

The rare bird at the feeder. The wildflower on the forest floor thirty minutes from fully open to the sun. The thing you saw an hour ago, or almost saw...

...The thing you missed while looking...

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Identity

I have been thinking of the topic of identity this semester, as I teach Modern Poetry. There's a balance one sees in a successful poem, a balance between what the poet reveals of him/herself and how the poet recedes in order to allow the reader to see him/herself in the poem. Even a poet with a strong, distinctive, unmistakeable voice, such as Emily Dickinson or Elizabeth Bishop, is able to allow the reader some space.

(And now that I have written that, I wonder if it's true: Can one say this about Emily Dickinson? I think so, even if she didn't care [and one feels she may not have cared a whole heck of a lot] about giving the reader space. But space there is, if only for a reader to discover him/herself trying to find common ground with this uncommon poet—and that's a pretty remarkable space. So.)

Modern poetry certainly did not begin as confessional poetry: think of Dickinson; think of Whitman who, for all his frankness, did not "put it all out there"; think of Eliot (another strong, distinctive, unmistakeable voice)—all of whom remain "hidden" in a sense (in many senses) and yet whose words we read again and again, returning to the words, returning to them, the ones who are hidden and yet who reveal so much. The idea that poetry is a means of self-discovery is a modern one; the truth of which "self" one is discovering as one reads (or even as one writes) is what makes it so deeply and infinitely interesting.


Friday, March 31, 2017

As much of Noon as I could take

Before I got my eye put out
I liked as well to see —
As other Creatures, that have Eyes
And know no other way —

But were it told to me — Today —
That I might have the sky
For mine — I tell you that my Heart
Would split, for size of me —

The Meadows – mine —
The Mountains — mine —
All Forests — Stintless Stars —
As much of Noon as I could take
Between my finite eyes —

The Motions of the Dipping Birds —
The Morning's Amber Road —
For mine — to look at when I liked —
The News would strike me dead —

So safer — guess — with just my soul
Upon the Window pane —
Where other Creatures put their eyes —
Incautious — of the sun —

Knowing what she did, how she saw, how writing saved her life and sanity and to not write would have been to not breathe, imagine how she felt when she feared she might go blind. Emily Dickinson had an operation on her eyes in Boston (one of several journeys she made that both negate and explain the myth of her reclusiveness) when she was in her early 20s, and was told not to read for several months, to avoid bright light, and all sorts of other tortures for this person for whom reading and writing were life. One imagines her vowing through those dark days, that if she regained her sight, she would devote her life to poetry, wasting no time on frivolous social calls or small talk or infants or as many trivialities as she could possibly avoid.

And she did.

The Meadows — mine –
The Mountains – mine —

And they were.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

And Staples in the Song...

The Soul has Bandaged moments - 
When too appalled to stir -
She feels some ghastly Fright come up
And stop to look at her -

Salute her, with long fingers -
Caress her freezing hair -
Sip, Goblin, from the very lips
The Lover - hovered - o'er -
Unworthy, that a thought so mean
Accost a Theme - so - fair -

The soul has moments of escape -
When bursting all the doors -
She dances like a Bomb, abroad, 
And swings opon the Hours,

As do the Bee - delirious borne -
Long Dungeoned from his Rose -
Touch Liberty - then know no more -
But Noon, and Paradise 

The Soul's retaken moments -
When, Felon led along, 
With shackles on the plumed feet, 
And staples, in the song,

The Horror welcomes her, again, 
These, are not brayed of Tongue -

***
I often think of the line, "The soul has bandaged moments." Sometimes I wonder, what moment isn't bandaged. There are so many images in this poem by Emily Dickinson, the poem itself is almost like a collage. Look at the next-to-last stanza, where you think there's going to be some relief—"retaken moments"—but no, "retaken" seems to be even worse than "bandaged," because the soul has become a prisoner to that stapled song...

Seriously, "And staples, in the song." I wish I'd written that line! 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Saint (not) Emily

"I heard a fly buzz — when I died—" begins a poem by Emily Dickinson. Past tense: "died." Metaphor; we die a thousand deaths a day, after all, though we usually use more banal euphemisms: heartbreak, disappointment, setback, shock.

Saints do not write poetry. Saints are probably not even saints, except (to those who believe) in retrospect. Poets are human beings (what a radical thing to say, I know), with the spectrum of human emotions on display, and sometimes that spectrum is on display in a single poem. From acceptance to denial, from tranquility to upheaval, from sincerity to sarcasm—if every poem is an exploration of some aspect of the human condition, how can we expect a single tone throughout?

We have been conditioned to read Emily Dickinson as Saint Emily, living her monastic existence at a remove from such quotidian things as anger, desire, rebellion, discontent. We do her (and our own critical thinking skills) a disservice when we turn to her poems as examples of sainthood or sacrifice or selflessness. Instead, we should look for what is real, for what constitutes a living, breathing, rejoicing, hurting human being, susceptible to a thousand deaths a day, with the ability to tell us how it feels.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Bloodroot

A time-worn cliche, but one without which we cannot seem to do: the heart. I reread Louise Erdich's novel Love Medicine earlier this week (ah, spring break—week of favorite books!); in the title chapter (my English Comp. II students of recent years may recall this as a short story) hearts play a significant role, although the "medicine" doesn't quite work as expected.

Emily Dickinson uses the heart as a metaphor, though of course she puts her own spin on it. Here, for example:

The mob within the heart
Police cannot suppress
The riot given at the first
Is authorized as peace

Uncertified of scene
Or signified of sound
But growing like a hurricane
In a congenial ground

One of the ways she "spins" any metaphor is to mix it. What begins with a "mob" ends here with "a hurricane," all happening within the heart. Talk about interior landscapes, interior weather! Crowds and unrest—not two of Dickinson's favorite things, and yet this poem is almost an acceptance—almost a celebration—of the press and turmoil of one's inner "mob": memories, desires, one's entire storied and peopled past. The heart as a scene of a "riot"—something unlike our usual cliche, and that much nearer truth.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Reduceless Mine

To own the Art within the Soul
The Soul to entertain
With Silence as a Company
And Festival maintain

Is an unfurnished Circumstance
Possession is to One
As an Estate perpetual
Or a reduceless Mine.

It is tempting to look at Emily Dickinson's poems and assume that, for her, every moment was fraught with the potential for a poem. She seemed to live poetry, live on some higher plain of existence than most of us can manage. Of course, this can't be true. She had ordinary moments, no doubt. One cannot be always hearing that roar on the other side of silence (to paraphrase George Eliot, because I'm too lazy to get up and find my copy of Middlemarch and look up the exact quote).

(Brief tangent: Emily Dickinson read Middlemarch and loved George Eliot; one wonders if she lingered over that quote, put the novel down for a moment and allowed herself to go behind the silence...)

She did spend her adult life exploring how art is a bridge between experience and meaning. The artist takes what she or he perceives and reorganizes it, emphasizing what needs to be emphasized and discarding what isn't (at that moment) needed. The result is a creation in which possibility and meaning are represented and presented.  A poem to include in a letter to a friend. Or a poem to keep to herself, written in the middle of the night, a "reduceless Mine" as she reorganized her world according to her own vision.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

In the Zone

There is a Zone whose even Years
No Solstice interrupt—
Whose Sun constructs perpetual Noon
Whose perfect Seasons wait—

Whose Summer set in Summer, till
The Centuries of June
And Centuries of August cease
And Consciousness—is Noon.


I'm wondering what I can learn about the creative process from reading Emily Dickinson. I am focusing on her lesser-known poems, feeling there must be something I have overlooked in all my years of reading her work. This poem struck me as her statement of being "in the zone," carried away by the imagination to the land of truth, the place more real that that world outside her window (and yet, informed by it). A simplistic reading, I am certain, and yet it resonates: "And Consciousness—is Noon"—the acme of creativity. She felt it too: looking up and wondering how the oil in the lamp had gotten so low in so short a time, then realizing she had been writing for hours, not minutes, as it had seemed. Her "Noon" may have been midnight, but the metaphor holds. Is there any creative person for whom noon is Noon?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Delight without a Cause

It is a lonesome Glee—
Yet sanctifies the Mind—
With fair association—
Afar upon the Wind

A Bird to overhear
Delight without a Cause—
Arrestless as invisible—
A matter of the Skies.


"A lonesome Glee," "Delight without a Cause"—this Dickinson poem presents us with paradox upon paradox about what "sanctifies the Mind."

The magnitude of how she chose to live is no small matter. A life seemingly small in terms of its boundaries, yet limitless in intellect and imagination. "Arrestless as invisible— / A matter of the Skies." Breathtaking.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Her Parting Face

Frigid and sweet Her parting Face—
Frigid and fleet my Feet—
Alien and vain whatever Clime
Acrid whatever Fate.

Given to me without the Suit
Riches and Name and Realm—
Who was She to withhold from me
Penury and Home?


There are Emily Dickinson poems that feel as if they were written in a warm pantry just off the kitchen, the air fragrant with cinnamon and freshly-baked bread. Then there are poems that feel as if they were written in a room at the top of the house in the frigid and sweet hours, the hours when solitude and loneliness duke it out.

"Riches and Name and Realm"—the best description of love ever penned. Unrequited, unreturned, unregarded. The mind goes round and round, imagining the scenarios that could have inspired this poem. The mind alights on its own scene of past anger, of back-turning, of indignation. Dickinson transports us always, and the journeys are swift, and we find ourselves in midnight worlds.

The Little Toil of Love

I had no time to Hate—
Because
The Grave would hinder Me—
And Life was not so
Ample I
Could finish—Enmity—

Nor had I time to Love—
But since
Some Industry must be—
The little Toil of Love—
I thought
Be large enough for Me—


Emily Dickinson's ironic voice is all the more intriguing for the way she is able to turn it off and on, the way she slides in and out of it. With a word, you suddenly find yourself in a whole new poem. "I had no time to Hate / Because" life is too short...for all the hating that needs to be done! And there isn't time enough to love, but, eh, one needs to do something.

Is this her way of telling the truth slant, of shocking our mild sensibilities with her hyperbole of hate and belittling of love, to make the reader consider the waste of the first and the real waste of a life without the second?

Or was she really of this frame of mind at this moment, that as for hate, where does one even begin, and as for love, well, why not? No irony intended? As with almost everything she wrote, it is never the same poem twice.


Monday, March 13, 2017

Then Thought of Us, and Stayed

Sweet, to have had them lost
For news that they be saved—
The nearer they departed Us
The nearer then, restored,

Shall stand to Our Right Hand—
Most precious and the Dead—
Next precious
Those that rose to go—
Then thought of Us, and stayed.


Another collage inspired by a poem by Emily Dickinson. I have always felt that a great poem names for us something we have always known. In this poem, that last line—that little explosion of surprise and joy when someone "thought of Us, and stayed." Funny, too, that I found this poem this afternoon, after this morning contemplating "The Soul that hath a Guest." This supposedly reclusive, antisocial poet cherished company, though one supposes she was very choosy.

The Soul that hath a Guest

Another Emily Dickinson poem for this morning's collage inspiration:

The Soul that hath a Guest
Doth seldom go abroad—
Diviner Crowd at Home—
Obliterate the need—

And Courtesy forbid
A Host's departure when
Upon Himself be visiting
The Emperor of Men—


Emily Dickinson wrote a lot about the internal landscape, its wondrous and terrifying topography, its dark places, the ever-changing quality of its light. All poets do this, of course, but Dickinson is our standard, the extreme by which all others are measured. She mapped this internal landscape in ways few of us would be willing to do.

What is a soul? Perhaps it is this willingness to look within, to explore one's inner landscape. That's about as true a definition as I have found, having never felt an affinity to any traditional religious or even spiritual definition of "soul." And "the soul that hath a guest"—wow, that must be a very beautiful, very inviting soul indeed, willing to look within and willing to be seen.

Soul and solitude and sense. Diviner crowd at home.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Shadows 1 (While I delay to guess)

Today's collage was inspired by this poem by Emily Dickinson:

Oh Shadow on the Grass,
Art thou a Step or not?
Go make thee fair my Candidate
My nominated Heart—
Oh Shadow on the Grass
While I delay to guess
Some other thou wilt consecrate—
Oh Unelected Face—

I could try to explicate that poem here, but like so many other poems by this poet, it deserves a book all for itself. The syntax alone provides enough ambiguity for about, oh, let's say fifty possible interpretations. The speculation about whose or what "Shadow on the Grass" could lead us to another fifty.

But that line, "While I delay to guess" is what, for me, is the crux of this poem. While one hesitates to make a decision—hesitates either out of fear, or the desire to make a well-informed choice—a decision is made without one.

It doesn't help that I misread the last line when I first looked at this poem this morning. I thought it said "Oh Unelected Fate," rather than "Face."

And what brought me to this poem was the word "shadow." I need to check a concordance, but this is not a word Dickinson seems to have used too often. More about this after I do some actual research.

It is the shadow in the poem that seems to be doing the consecrating, doing the choosing during the moment of the speaker's hesitation. That's one important shadow. Could it be her own shadow, the self that makes a difficult decision, only to regret or question oneself for the rest of one's days?

Well, as I said, it would take a book to even begin to understand this poem. That's what I love about Emily Dickinson.

The collage is titled Shadows 1 (While I delay to guess).


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Dream

Who were they, the people in my dream? I mostly saw their outstretched hands as I handed them glazed and patterned pieces of...pottery? Pieces of something that had something to do with each person's identity, each person's relation to me...

Ah well, as far as dreams go, this one was beautiful and mysterious and not too upsetting. Pieces of creativity, pieces of poems I think as I type this, which brings the dream back in a little more detail. I dream in color, but this dream was in earthtones. Perhaps my dreams are being influenced by my typical collage palette?

Why were they not each choosing their own? Perhaps they were.

*

memory
plus
dream

[each]
choosing
just
the
right
shard
for
each

Sunday, March 5, 2017

March

Weeks 5 and 6 of the semester are particularly trying. The routine that isn't quite routine is about to be made less routine by midterms. Even in classes in which I do not give an exam, everyone has the midterm blues. Spring break will bring the whole show to a halt, and then we begin anew, with only eight weeks until finals.

In my own creative work, I have put what may be the finishing touches on my new collection of poems, capping off a little over a year's worth of time wondering about the mind of Lavinia Dickinson. Two of these poems are being published in a journal, and by early summer I hope to have the manuscript off to be read by a publisher. Fifteen of my haiga will be posted on a haiku website sometime this spring.

And what's happening in the world? A madman for a President. (For the first time in our history we can say that: "We have a madman for a President. And we elected him.") Prejudice gaining ground. A whole new tide of pollution about to be unleashed.

Can a tide be unleashed?

Forsythia, are you certain you want to bloom this year?

I wish I could go for a long walk. I wish I could sleep for ten hours straight.

And that there is the story of early March.

*
rushing the season
in every winter dream
spring birds

Friday, February 24, 2017

Going Dark

I need to "go dark" for a poem I want to write. I need to visit that dark inner landscape of loss, grief, even hopelessness, a place of going through the motions of life even when one is certain there is no point to such motions. I have explored this bleak landscape in the past—a little bit in my own life, but mostly as a way to access poems. For those of you who don't know me well, trust that I balance journeys to this empty place with many, many journeys to brighter places of warmth and creativity and purpose.

At least, I once was able to effect such balance. I need to "go dark" now, but I am finding it difficult to access the bleak, empty place. Because...we are living it. It's that "new normal" we're all insisting isn't normal. How can I go dark when it's all dark? Why go dark; why not just look at the front page of any realnewspaper? Why write another poem?

I know, I know. Because one must. Because...poetry. Because the world needs. Because to not would be to surrender to the forces that have co-opted darkness and turned it into a place that feeds on grief and sneers at empathy and scoffs at emptiness. A place darker than dark. A place from which even darkness recoils. A place not of darkness, but of evil.

I'll figure it out. Poems will be written. Darkness will be visited; motions will be described; the reasons for those motions will be hinted at. Gardens will bloom. Graves will be dug. Here we go.

*
go dark black bird in a gold sky singing

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Inspiration

Inspiration from yesterday's museum trip:

Spring! I know it's still the middle of February, but this weekend's little reminder that another season is inevitable is most welcome in what has seemed a season drained of charm.

Sunlight on water.

Birds.

Books. They still seem to matter. They still feel new.

Friendship.

And of course, art. That thinking, feeling human beings take up a pencil or brush or or pen or camera or even a sharp blade and make one little square yard-or-so of the universe a little less chaotic, a little more thought-provoking, a little more beautiful...

*

how to say
they
fly
but
will
not
rest
or
nest
these
words




Friday, February 17, 2017

Seeking...

seeking comfort
from stone
after stone
after stone
after stone
after stone
after stone
after stone

*

Well, it's been a week, eh? Too much talk, too little communication. Words as weapons, leaving us longing for silence. The worst full of passionate intensity, and the best trying their best to counteract the forces of evil that seem hell-bent on equating language with chaos.

Art museum tomorrow. Perhaps that will help.

*

granite
words
this
is
why
silence
follows
stone



Sunday, February 12, 2017

Experience[s]

Experience is never singular. We live in super-imposed moments, several moments deep (perhaps more than several, perhaps countless). Every moment contains its own memory, and every memory is a parade of ghosts of itself, each ghost newer than the one before.

Generations of ghosts, there in the synapses of our neurons.

I'm moving toward that in my poetry, an exploration of these super-imposed moments. They may (I am discovering) (though I've no doubt known this all along) have occurred days or months or years apart, but they are one.

Winter is like this, as well. Each winter becomes all winters; each storm contains the one before, the one before, the one...

Think of your own moments, how they inform one another. A collage of moments.

*

the longer he lives

[downriver heron
february's gray and gold]

the more he

[remembers]
remembers

her voice

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Archaeologist, Historian, Poet

Speaking to the past: Your lives will end, but two thousand, three thousand years from now, we will be learning what we can of your daily existence. Please leave us scraps, flakes, shards, scratches in stone. We will even listen to your bones. Sprinkle your bones with flowers, and we will hear even more.

We can't know ourselves without wanting to know you.

Archaeologist, historian, poet.

The afterlife: Art, poems, the good work you do now that will enhance all the lives to come. Scraps, flakes, shards, scratches in stone.

Our bones. The pollen our sorrow leaves behind.

*

obscured
now
reveals hundreds of
portraits atop landscapes

Friday, February 10, 2017

Skirts of Sight

in search of any lingering
moon and stars
in wide, wide
like
skirts of
sight
we shine

*

I am thinking of the concept of pilgrimage, which leads me to think of what I mean by "holy," as in a holy place, or some tangible thing or intangible concept held sacred. These are not words I use too often, since I am not religious.

Or, rather, I use these words often, just not out loud (or in writing), because I actually am religious: about writing (as sacred act), art (sacred objects), museums (sacred places), visiting the shrines of those who tried this thing called "living" before me and succeeded (or even failed) in ways that still inspire.

Skirts of sight — seeing more than one thought possible. And that's always a possibility (one might even say probability)—always something more to see, outwardly as well as inwardly.

In ever-widening circles of experience, perception, awareness, appreciation. In wide, wide like skirts of sight we shine.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Thinking

So here I sit, waiting for word of what surely, surely! will be a snowday, thinking back over the past three weeks of the semester.

And thinking about the herons I've seen this winter, a relatively mild winter but still one would think that anything with wings that stands around in water all day would go at least a little farther south.

And thinking of those class discussions that took off, and I couldn't write on the board fast enough. Prufrock as Odysseus!

Thinking of the weeks to come, the poems to be read, the essays to grade.

Thinking of the snow everywhere carefully descending (that's e.e. cummings); thinking of the pavement gray (Yeats), thinking of the mermaids singing, each to each (Prufrock).

Thinking of a collage idea I had while trying to fall asleep one night, but I don't think it's possible. The idea had to do with language, a torn language, a language that almost, almost means somethi...

Hmm, that gives me an idea...

*

distrust
each
word
not
what
I
mean
to
heron

Sunday, February 5, 2017

All Is Not Lost

I finished this haiga collage yesterday evening, after dinner with friends, wonderful conversation, a couple glasses of chardonnay.

I was also, as I was creating this, remembering a time in my life (more than twenty-five years ago) when I felt lifeless, outwardly composed but gray inside. It was reading and my own work with poetry that helped me compose my inner self, helped me form the inner life that sustains me to this day.

I love how collage can capture these inner compositions as well as the impressions of one's outward life, the snippets of conversation, the pieces of memories and stories, the laughter, the bald eagle suddenly crossing the winter sky, the light on the lake settling in towards another evening.

All is not lost.

*

the idea
is not lost
set down
by the soft light
of evening

Friday, February 3, 2017

Onward with Poetry

The first two weeks of the Spring semester have been full of poetry, writing, discussions. For the most part, my classrooms have been politics-free, a relief for me as well as for my students, a space in which to exercise one's intellect, rather than wallowing in the stupid and useless. Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Derek Walcott, W.B. Yeats, E.A. Robinson (the ending of "Richard Cory" gets 'em every time)...

A brief respite from the books today; a walk in the frozen park, the big lake almost all ice, though the ice is thin. Hepatica leaves on the forest floor are getting a little sheen to them; in about six weeks, the flowers will be out, the first spring blooms.

But we have miles to go before we sleep...

*

ice topography
if I could write
love letters like that

Sunday, January 29, 2017

In Praise of the Ordinary

In an ordinary place on an ordinary day, several people get together to choose poems for a poetry journal.

In an extraordinary place on an extraordinary day, several people get together to choose which hateful, ignorant acts to codify into law.

In which group of several people do you think there is the most discussion about the merits of the words on paper, the most empathy, the most concern for the unseen lives that will be touched, the most regrets for the many no's that must be said?

Why bother with the poetry at all, when there is such an uphill battle to be waged against the ignorance and hatefulness?

If I need to answer that question for you, you might want to look around and ask yourself how you came to be in that extraordinary place.

*

have it both ways
raven    crow
historians all






Friday, January 27, 2017

"No Hope" Is Not the Same As Without Hope

I've been busy teaching six college courses...Anything happen this week?

Seriously, I've been busy teaching, and everything that happened in my classrooms has provided a stark contrast to everything that has happened in the Oval Office and other Trump-tainted venues. Focused and engaged discussion by adults who want to learn about one another's world view, versus...well, versus the exact opposite in every possible way. So I've had a great week. And not.

And that (added to the previous couple of months) has caused me to rethink the concept of hope. I don't think I believe in it, if I ever did (I am a gloomy poet, after all). And it's not hope, so much as magical thinking...That's what I am really trying to understand: The line between hope (inspirational, bring-out-the-best beliefs, uplifting, influencing in a positive way of current behavior) versus magical thinking (delusional, bring-out-the-denial beliefs, paralyzing, influencing in a negative way of current behavior).

I cannot hope my students do well, and then sit back for fifteen weeks, signing "executive orders" to the effect of "That chapter shall be read" and "That paper shall be written" and "That poem shall be explicated." Old, odd habits of hope must be put off. The new abnormal must be met with something equally as new. It was met with something new last weekend in cities all over the world. It has been in my classes this past week: a new energy, perhaps coming from me, perhaps from my students--I'm certain only that I felt some little glimmer of renewed effort to do something, even if that something is learn. That's yuge, right? Into the mist, old habit of hope.

*

into the mist old habit of hope
into the mist odd habit of hope
into the missed odd habit of hope
into the missed odd haven't of hope
into that missed odd haven't of hope
into that missed odd haven't any hope
isn't that missed odd haven't any hope



Sunday, January 22, 2017

And, Singing, Made

And then sometimes, these things just happen right outside your window.

This morning, I was reminded (by George!) of Wallace Stevens's poem "The Idea of Order at Key West," specifically the lines,

                                            ...Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

And then sometimes, a poem just happens right outside your window.

*

by
every
moment

invited
to
dance

what
better
grace

Notes to Self

Notes to self, because self is a little overwhelmed these days to remember on its own:

1.  Beauty is there, in every moment. You may need to look within to find it, but really, it's there before your eyes. The challenge is to see it and name it and give it staying power through art.

2.  Yes, beauty can be squandered, damaged, defiled, wasted, even destroyed. But it also has a way of passing on its own. Try to see the passage less as passage and more as transition. A new beauty will arise.

3.  Be an agent of arising, not an agent of squandering.

4.  Seek the bridge between the beauty within and the beauty without. That is the thing tyrants always miss.

5.  Every day is a new season.

6.  Most of all, remember, remember, remember: We name ourselves. The word hole that spews carnage is the word hole of carnage incarnate.


*

winter meadow
the grace
of broken things

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Shame On Us

I almost feel as if narrative poetry has died. There is no story to tell, at least not until we can answer the unanswerable "why" of how we arrived in this story-deprived place, a place of fear and depravity and lies.

And so, in place of narrative, stream-of-consciousness, perhaps a little word association, a souvenir of story in a place with no beginning, no middle, no end. If not story, then look around and describe what is outside, what is within. The connection between the two (without, within) will offer the possibility of something sublime.

Shame on us for killing off story. Story was what kept us human.

*

why remember winter why remember flood
why come to the meadow to remember
winter flood why crow why river
winter flood winter meadow meadow flood
river crow remember why remember

Friday, January 20, 2017

Thin Ice

There is no such thing as ordinary, I tell my students, usually in the context of teaching a poem or short story. Every work of art celebrates something, even if the work is also a catharsis of pain, anxiety, grief.

Too often, we must simultaneously celebrate and mourn.

Here and gone. Hoped for and feared. Together; alone.

Overcome, then overcome again.

And so we go forward in a way that feels like going way, way back. Let us call it creative mourning. Let us think of it as thin ice. May we find one another on the other side.


*

a
secret
out
and
maybe
back
thin
ice