You’re my meat; or, On Words as Artistic Material

I’ve been thinking about materials and art. I have an acquaintance who sees everything as either a print or a device to make a print — he’ll stack objects that have a certain association and then drip liquid down them to make a mark that changes over time, distilling, as it were, that association. I was talking to an artist recently who is interested in making objects out of very thin ceramic to see what it can do with light. I read about an architect professor who encourages her students to design a structure and choose a material to make it from, regardless of whether that material lends itself to the structure designed — in fact, the more the idea pushes the material, the better. (This strikes me as a profound example of the hubris of human-the-maker.) I was looking at the work of an artist who makes walking sticks from old paper maps of places she’s been. I feel like these artists have a different relationship with the material they work with than I do.

It seems to me they can regard their material more dispassionately, as it contains no inherent meaning. My material is words. The same thing we use to say “pass the salt” is what I’m trying to use to say the unsayable, to express something beyond words — an experience, an emotion, a viewpoint, an idea.

Sound is important to me, but comes secondary for me to the word and its meaning(s) and what image(s) it might invoke. The number of words in the world is everchanging, especially if I start using words from multiple languages, make words up, dredge up archaic words long gone out of use. And of course, new words are coined all the time. But my relationship with them is inevitably complicated by the prosaic matters that are also made by this “material.”

On the other hand, my toothbrush holder is ceramic, I still use actual paper maps to find my way around, and I’m pretty sure the structure of this old couch I’m sitting on is about to buckle after years of my weight on my favorite end.

So maybe it’s not so different. I mean, the whole enterprise of writing poems is stacking words and sentences and stanzas to let some intentions drip down and make a mark on the reader, ideally one that changes over time.

 

 

 

Like a Southbound Train; or, Writing out of the Animated World

Lately I’ve been exploring my emotional response to rocks.

Does that say something unfortunate about me? Shouldn’t I be exploring my relationship to my long-dead father, or my inner fears, or why I hate my neighbors, or my notions of gods and the spirit?

Or is it all the same thing? Am I on some spiritual trip, a connection with the ineffable, that thing we humans can’t seem to resist, finding something bigger than ourselves? And in my case at the moment, LITERALLY bigger than myself — this glacial erratic my forest trail has led me to.

This giant boulder takes up space, it has a relationship to time, albeit far different than mine. It is a natural history of which I am a moment, one hand on the cool side of the rock, a sinew in the grand continuity of matter and energy, as far as we know. We are briefly together, erratic and I.

Why does some landscape seem to speak to me? I write into this question over and over in my work but cannot come to a satisfying reply. Why did I feel uneasy in New Mexico’s desert lands until we drove up to where the pine forests grew? Why was I drawn to the austere beauty of Newfoundland, why am I halted always in my tracks at the magic of a certain turn in the trail on Hadley Mountain?

Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “My life … runs back through time and space to the very beginnings of the world and to its utmost limits. In my being I sum up the earthly inheritance and the state of the world at this moment.”

I’ve been reading about consciousness — i.e., what the hell is it? There is a notion that is creeping onward (with the kind of eyebrow-raised reluctance that was engendered by Shrodinger’s cat poser), panpsychism, that consciousness is one big thing, of which material objects like bodies are merely a portion. This is tragically woo-woo and yet so sensible, I think, as I pat pat pat the side of my rock, its chilly nubbled and damp cheek.

Rachel Carson wrote:“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.” She wrote that we have a “grave and sobering responsibility…a shining opportunity…to go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”

I just finished Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Gathering Moss, so am hyperaware of the patches of tiny furled mosses, some dry and black caked as tar; and the lichens, which I read somewhere described as an algal/fungal sandwich. We are each a universe, I think, with a nod to my inner bacteria.

As a member of a talky species I rely on words. But I also know I am missing something vital when I chatter into the quiet, especially the quiet of my own mind, and when I ask incessantly “what is this” when I’m stilled by a moment in a landscape. Is the moss winking at me from its fisty matt? No, it’s just a brief glint of sun through storm clouds. Right? Is that my bacteria talking, or am I really hungry? Was it that New Mexico’s pines nodded to me as I rose among them, saying, Oh, yes, we’ve heard about you? This great stone is speaking to me without words. Or am I crazy?

The idea of the subtle quivering of all things, becoming attuned to it, and letting it inform my writing — this is worth thinking about. It’s not just the beech leaves in wind that shiver but the very bark of the branch, the roots, the soil. Even on the rare instances I write about an urban experience, to be aware of all the vibration around me — from the literal metro rumble under my feet to the shimmering electrons of the pitcher of water on my table, the wayward stone under the slim sole of my shoe. From such magic may I reach out, and may my works be as alive.

 

Cross over into campground; or, on Houston’s Deep Creek

I usually have at least three books I’m reading at the same time. One is often either poetry or poetry craft or criticism, one is often science or some other kind of nonfiction, and one is what I keep by my bedside or read in the late afternoon when I’m tired of doing whatever I’ve been doing. In search of something for the latter category, I chose Pam Houston’s Deep Creek, just because I liked the cover — the viewpoint is looking up the back of a dog toward a meadow and mountain. Finding Hope in the High Country is its subtitle, and who doesn’t want a little hope nowadays? I expected, I don’t know, a nice meditation on what Gretel Ehrlich termed “the solace of open spaces.”

Well. I had never read anything by Pam Houston before, but certainly I had heard of her, but knew nothing about her. The book begins pastorally (or pasture-ly) enough but takes an abrupt turn into a horrifying chapter about her early life. Actually there is much harrowing in this book, as she has lived a life of much risk, some but certainly not all of her own making. She was verbally, psychologically, and physically abused by both parents. She lived a rough and rugged outdoor life — I’m still nightmaring from her tossed-off-in-one-sentence tale of backcountry skiing alone and breaking her leg.

But between these difficult chapters, including a nail-biter about fires ringing her Colorado ranch, is indeed a reach toward hope and the possibility of transcendence. She details the astonishing people she encountered throughout her life who saved her, both literally and figuratively — including a random other solo backcountry skier that day who, incredibly, happened by and was able to carry her out. And the amazing things that have happened to her along the way in her amazing life — including, and I’m so envious of this I could spit!, seeing narwhals in the Northwest Passage.

She also talks about the beautiful and terrible conflict of loving a world that is utterly changing under the abuse of our hand, the necessary torment of staying open to love and grief at the same time.

It was quite a wonderful read. But perhaps not just before going to sleep.

Sing it sing it; or, Telling the Daily Story

Although I may have spent a little more time performing in public than the average schmo — singing, speaking and reading poetry, giving speeches, presenting information — I have never gotten comfortable with it. It occurred to me the other day that even having someone turn to me and say, “So how’ve you been?” strikes me deer-in-headlightsish.

I often hear myself stumble through some down-in-the-mouth response, and wonder why I’m doing that. It occurs to me that the other thing that strikes me in that moment is that fear I have of bringing the wrath of the gods down on me if I admit to contentment, to positive thinking, to having good fun.

I also have experienced more often than my anxious ears care to, in the event I do manage to report positively on my beings and doings, someone say something along the lines of “It must be nice,” which gives me some kind of survival guilt.

Cripes, I’m a delicate flower! How did this happen to me?

Well, that’s for the shrink’s couch, but now that I’ve become aware of what all happens when I’m confronted with this pretty easily foreseeable situation, maybe I can better prepare myself for the risk and resilience of answering positively. Because I have generally been doing pretty positive things: new work, little projects, outdoorsy things, keeping good company, and generally going about my business noticing things, generally being “pretty good.”

Or I can just do what my old colleague Arnie Will would do in the face of such question: consistently and with great ebullience, he’d reply “Ab-so-lute-ly faaan-tastic.” It pretty much stops the conversation.

Then maybe in the moment I can quickly piece together a little narrative, something from my recent days that can anchor the conversation.

Constructing stories of our days and lives is something we humans seem to do innately. It seems to be how we make sense of life and the passage of time, and how we connect to each other, each of us tumbling around in the tempests of our own teacups.

But we can also be stuck in a story. It’s fashionable nowadays to talk about a “narrative” and “changing the narrative,” and in many ways, it’s a wise realization — that what we believe transcribes what is possible. If our story of our own situation is limiting, it seems entirely possible that we are limiting our situation and story, that if we edited our story, we might shift our understanding, we might open up possibilities.

I heard a commentary on the radio referring to a new book out called The Queen, which examines the “welfare queen” narrative that was used successfully in the Reagan era to cast deep aspersion on the social service system by painting welfare recipients as living large through government handouts. That story persists, even in the face of other more credible and widespread stories of people scraping by.

The American pull-up-your-own bootstrap story is a double-edge sword: it can give hope to those who want to change their circumstance, but can discredit people screwed by their circumstance, indeed by the generational history of their circumstance by highlighting the stories of people who were able to overcome their circumstance. Must be nice…

On the other hand, the old American democratic narrative notion that “anyone can be president” story has proved itself in…well…all kinds of ways.

So my thoughts have meandered far from the simple question “how ya doin” and my ridiculous response. Sometimes stories do that, I guess. And that’s absolutely fantastic.

With the coming of the sun (in this northern hemisphere anyway, you southern hemispheres also have cause to pause), this seems like the opportunity to tell our stories anew. So, spill it, sisters and brothers. And maybe the most important story is the one we tell ourselves about ourselves. Might as well make it a good one.

 

 

Somebody was watchin’; or, On Participant Observation and the Artistic Urge to Tell

Once out of high school, I never again took an English class, so dismayed was I by those classroom conversations that started with “What do you think the author meant by [insert image-thing apparently symbolic in nature that all along I had thought was just the thing]….” I felt at the time that such discussions sapped all pleasure from the reading. I was impatient then and hubristic.

Gee. How I’ve changed.

I went to college intending to be a biology major and spend my life observing animals of some sort. But what with one thing and another (such as the almost-failing grade in Bio 101) I ended up an observer of an animal, all right, the human animal.

As an anthropology major I learned of the anthropological art of “participant observation.” Indeed discovered that it was a skill I had been practicing all of my life. As the youngest-by-more-than-ten-years member of my family, most converations took place over my head, with me listening in and trying to make sense of it. As the child of a volatile father, moving quietly and keeping still and having one eye peeled for what might happen next was key to avoiding conflict. As a shy and introverted child, I naturally tried to blend in, avoid attention, even as I still wanted to be part of the group.

It was in part that tendency I had anyway of sitting and watching and taking note that had attracted me to animal behavior studies in the first place. And, as it has turned out, is the skill I use most as a writer of poetry. Thanks to my anthropology studies, I can understand what I’m up to as I sit in whatever milieu, observing, and trying to look like I belong there.

I was reminded of all this recently as I have been reading Akiko Busch’s How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. The book is Busch’s extended meditation on the powers and prisons of invisibility. I’m not entirely sure what the takeaway is from this book as a whole, but each chapter provided an interesting set of thoughts ranging from the deliberate invisibility of some species’ adaptations to the imposed invisibility of homeless people on busy streets.

She talks in one chapter of Keats’s assertion that the poet specializes in being a chameleon: of becoming a planet, a creature, another person. Busch was moved to write the book, she says, by the vehemence with which society insists on flouting the self, branding the self, identifying the self as a political act. Maybe, she suggests, a little wallflowering isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe if we keep still, we can see more clearly.

But haven’t I written in this space that art is an attempt to communicate? To stand up from the group and say “Let me show you what I’m seeing.”

Which makes for an interesting tension sometimes  in the artist: the urge to merge, and the impulse to emerge and speak.

Oh, the water; or, on Kathleen Graber’s Capacious The River Twice

I was thrilled to see a new book by one of my poet gods, Kathleen Graber. The poems unfold, or unscroll, down the page, sometimes multiple pages, and are polymathic in their contents. One moves from an eipgraph on the recalculation of the age of the universe to a comet no one will ever see again, as its orbit is longer than any one human life, to her brother who died before ever seeing a cellphone to vultures to two photos taken of that comet and finally to how long grief lasts.

If that sounds like too much for one poem to hold, I did not find that to be so. It seems like in these poems Graber is pushing the outermost walls of the poem’s container and it holds and holds.

Last year I spent several months on a project on this very thing — pursuing where the unfolding threads of a thought took me and how much digression a poem could stand. I found I thought it could stand more than some editors and trusted advisors could, so I pulled in the ropes of thought. But reading these poems I’m not sure now. I have the urge to go back to that poem and unleash it again.

As I read and reread the book, called The River Twice, knowing I wanted to write a blog post about it so I could encourage you all to read this brilliant poet, I searched for excerpts I could include. But the poems are so braided that I couldn’t pare off a piece of a poem without losing the power of the whole. So here are a couple of links to poems in their entirety. Throughout the volume are these “Dear America” poems, which, although at first made me think of Stephen Colbert in character in his old show (“America,” he’d begin, pompously…), I found to be among the most poignant in the book.

Here is one from the American Poetry Review: https://aprweb.org/poems/america-peaches.

And here is one that was published in Plume: https://plumepoetry.com/america/.

I hope you enjoy her work as much as I do.

Ring the bells; or, On Successishness

Every year around my birthday I pause to do a year-in-review. This was a particularly good year with regard to my creative life. I had a chance to participate in two visual art shows, which put me in conversation with new people on new topics, including process, product, and science, plus again was part of a festival of short films. I got a chance to see my work shown in a public space and projected large in both a gallery and a theater space. This was huge fun for me.

I got a handful of poems published. I still haven’t broken through into my A-list lit mags, nor even my B-lists, but work that’s out in the world is better than work that’s sitting on my computer twiddling its thumbs. So that’s cool.

Had some great writing retreats and a conference that were rich in friendship and creative stimulation and beauty.

And I’ve had another year of exposure to wonderful art, music, dance, nature, architecture, and food. And chocolate.

I had the thrill of riding a bike past blooming fields of redolent hyacinth. I had the unforgettable and awful experience of watching in person Notre Dame burn; but, not to appropriate a tragedy, but I must say there was a strange grace in being able to be among Parisians and tourists sharing the grief on the bridges surrounding the cathedral.

And I have a whole new swath of poems that I’m in the in-love with stage about. (That won’t last long, but I’m trying to enjoy it while I can.)

I think it’s important, this year-in-review ritual — and I usually combine it with going to a fawncy cafe in my town for a once-a-year cappuccino and the best croissant in the world. I don’t do it often enough, and often fear counting my blessings aloud, as I’m superstitious and generally walk around feeling like there are several large shoes over my head waiting to drop (or am I thinking of Damocletian swords?), and worry that too much reveling will…well…I don’t want to talk about it.

Anyway, a pause like this helps me to live that kind of life worth living: the examined kind. And to ring my own personal bells that still can ring, and let some light in. And I share it here mostly to remind you too to ring a bell.

Here’s a blog post from some time ago in which I think about the definition of “success”: https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2019/03/04/pass-go-collect-…r-successishness/