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Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

The Imperative of Gratitude

full moon

What a tangled up snarl of a November it has been.  On one hand, it is November! The trees shot forth their last bright flames before settling into winter bones. And I love Thanksgiving above all other holidays. Of course, there’s the food—daydreaming over recipes, returning to old favorites, jostling for the oven. But there is also the gathering together with no purpose other than conviviality and gratitude.  A call to gratitude is about as close as we get to holiness in the secular waters where I and most of my friends swim.

And yet, there is a long shadow cast over this November. Since the brutal Daesh (let’s call them that, shall we?) rampage of November 12 and 13, the media has blanketed us with terrorism reporting. Every day is filled with news of another attack, another lockdown, another shootout. This alongside the news that an Oregon college student was assaulted in a racially motivated attack over the weekend, Black Lives Matter activists were shot in Minneapolis by white supremacists, and Western Washington University is closed after students of color were threatened online.  Oh and yes, our last hope for any kind of half-feasible climate agreement that might at least slow the earth’s incineration is dependent on the erstwhile leaders of the world pulling up their socks and getting down to business in Paris next week, a city that is more than a little distracted.

I’ve heard it argued that we have no business counting our bougie blessings while the world is consumed with injustice and oppression and violence. And under the circumstances, that’s a pretty compelling argument. The call to outrage and fear and retribution seems a lot more appropriate under the circumstances, and it offers our amped up limbic systems something to do. And plus, I’m kind of in love with my outrage. It makes me feel less powerless, and it obliterates all those pain-soaked emotions like confusion and heartbreak and grief. By staying high on outrage, I can keep moving at 70 miles-an-hour and not stop to feel what’s really happening.

I know that gratitude for my clannish family and home-grown squash and working hot-water heater and relative health and silly joyous pets and meaningful work and whip-smart colleagues and dry socks and a decent haircut and ridiculously thorough education and big street trees and beautifully maintained parks and clean water and fierce sparkly friends and dry firewood and books of heart-stopping poems (some written by those sparkly friends) and a watchful mountain and a curvy river and a brilliant husband and stunning daughters contrasts my abundance from the want and suffering of many of the world’s citizens.

Sometimes it’s just easier to be outraged than really feel how unjust it is that I have so much when others have so little. Yes, it’s definitely better to be infuriated than guilty and confused.

But it is a dangerous business to plunge fully into the pool of outrage. It is blinding and deafening and disconnecting. It feeds on self-righteousness and certainty and locating and demonizing the other. It whips up hysteria and loves a good mob.

Gratitude, on the other hand, is a call to close looking and affection. Yes, it can tip into sentimentality and self-congratulation (which don’t look that bad in contrast with mass brutality), but gratitude also ties us to the world, even in all its brokenness. Since the Paris attacks, I have seen several people return to Adam Zagajewski’s poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” which was published in The New Yorker right after 9/11. Here it is:

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

(translated by Clare Cavanaugh)

Yes, there it is. Wine and strawberries and the thrush’s gray feather in the face of suffering and brutality and capriciousness. And it is not just comfort that Zagajewski offers us, it is an imperative.  We must praise the mutilated world because the future depends on the actions we take out of gratitude and connection—and, yes, love—in addition to the actions we take out of outrage and holy indignation.  I am reminded of a stunning insight by the painter and mythologist Martin Shaw: “I have not a clue whether we humans will live for another 100 or 10,000 years.  We can’t be sure.  What matters to me is the fact we have fallen out of a very ancient love affair – a kind of dream tangle, with the earth itself.  If, through our own mess, that relationship is about to end, then we need to scatter as much beauty around us as we possibly can, to send a voice, to attempt some kind of repair.  I think of it as a kind of courting – a very old idea.”

So this Thanksgiving, I am challenging myself to keep the fire of righteous indignation burning while I kneel at the hearth of gratitude. Maybe I’ll see you there. I’ll slice the pie.

 

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garden 2015

I have been gardening for enough years now to make a proclamation: I have a harvesting problem. I love to be in the garden. It brings me tremendous, uncomplicated joy. I start looking at seed catalogues when it’s still dark 16 hours a day.

I love planting peas by St. Patrick’s Day and tomatoes by 4th of July. I love watching our seedlings grow and puttering around with my coffee cup and hose to make sure everything is good and damp before the sun gets too hot. I even get a jolt of destructive pleasure from ripping weeds out of the ground.

But every year, the same thing happens. I watch the cucumbers flower and the peppers sprout and the tiny tomatoes start to turn pink. And then, I lose interest. This year, we had unpicked strawberries and withering blueberries and summer squash that were left to grow to the size of school buses. The basil bolted, and there are still figs on the tree. That’s not to say that we didn’t harvest anything. We did. We ate a lot of Greek salads and Caprese sandwiches, and there were nights we relied on the garden for entire meals. I made a few blueberry pies and garnished breakfast plates with handfuls of perfect Hood strawberries. But for whatever reason—like other years—I just wandered off and don’t finish the job with the same gusto I started it with.

This, of course, is a trait I–ahem–recognize. I have drawers full of mostly done but not complete knitting projects and files of photographs sorted but not glued down in their albums and a wispy contrail of ideas in various stages of half-assed-startedness.

And truth be told, for the past few months, I have been heavily dithering over revisions to a manuscript. Dithering doesn’t even quite cover it. Opening it. closing it. Sleeping over it. Tearing it apart. Putting it back together. Crying. Complaining to anyone who will listen. But not bloody finishing it.

Last Saturday, I spent the whole day at a conference. When I came home, I was shocked to find that David had ripped out the garden. He—as he put it—was prepping it for the fall planting of kale and fava beans. He left the three winter squash plants, but it was Goodnight, Irene to the rest of it. In the process, he picked every last tomato, red and green; all the cucumbers that weren’t the size of the children, and about 1,000 chiles and other peppers.

Needless to say, I am deep into the days of blanching and freezing tomatoes, canning green tomato salsa, and lining up hot sauce jars on every flat surface. My life is like Pablo Neruda’s great Ode to the Tomato, which begins:

The street
filled with tomatoes,
midday,
summer,
the light
splits
in two
halves
of tomato,
the juice
runs
through the streets.
In June
The tomato
cuts loose,
invades the kitchens,
takes over lunches,
sits down
comfortably
on sideboards,
among the glasses,
the butter dishes,
the blue saltshakers.
It has
Its own light,
A benign majesty.

So, as Neruda says at near the end of the poem: “it’s time!/let’s go!” I guess I’d better take his celebration of the harvest to my stovetop and my desk and get busy, despite my leanings to the contrary.

p.s. – Here’s an easy satisfying hot sauce recipe just in case you’re in the same boat!

Master Hot Sauce Recipe
From the Bon Apetít Test Kitchen

Ingredients

1 pound stemmed fresh chiles (such as jalapeño, serrano, Fresno, or habanero; use one variety or mix and match)
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 1/2 cups distilled white vinegar

Preparation

Pulse chiles and kosher salt in a food processor until a coarse purée forms. Transfer to a 1-qt. glass jar, loosely screw on lid, and let stand at room temperature for 12 hours to ferment slightly.

Stir in vinegar and loosely screw on lid. Let chile mixture stand at room temperature for at least 1 day and up to 7 days. (Taste it daily; the longer it sits, the deeper the flavor becomes.)

Purée mixture in a food processor or blender until smooth, about 1 minute. Place a fine-mesh sieve inside a funnel. Strain mixture through sieve into a clean glass bottle. (Hot sauce will become thinner and may separate after you strain it; shake vigorously before each use.)

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bear_sleeping

It was a bumpy start to the day around here. I hauled upstairs four separate times to drag the girls out of bed. Their breakfast got cold on the counter, and when they finally did come down, they picked at it, one resting her head in her hand, the other closing her eyes while she chewed. The moved through the morning routine at a snail’s pace. Between them, they must have whined I’m tired, 25 times. Finally I snapped back: We’re all tired.

And then I thought, that’s the truth, isn’t it? We’re all tired. These days, it seems as if the answer to the obligatory how are you?  is one of two things – busy or tired. I’ve written here about busy before. But why in the world are we so tired?

Of course, some of us suffer from illness or loss or are struggling to keep a family afloat on low wages with no support. But even for those of us with no excuse, there are some well-documented reasons. Recent research is making it increasingly obvious that schools start classes way too early and that teenagers would both learn more and be less likely to crack up their cars if we started school just a little later. Study after study also shows that Americans—and many others, particularly the Japanese—don’t get enough sleep.

I know I don’t get enough sleep. I willingly trade an extra hour under the duvet for the quiet dark of the house where I can think my own thoughts and brew a cup of tea before the rush of gathering lunch and homework begins, before the email starts flowing in earnest.

But all that said, I can’t help but think that part of our tiredness—the exhaustion we feel all the way to our bones—is more than just lack of sleep.  I can’t help but think that the human organism is overwhelmed by the whole too muchness of things. Too much work, too much stuff, too much email, too many demands, too many bills, too many must-read articles, too many school forms, too many life-changing books, too many songs to download, too many helpful hints, too many choices of barbecue sauce. Too many, too much.

I have taken Gallup’s StrengthsFinder test a couple of different times, and both times I have scored off the charts on “Input.” This is how they describe it: “People who are especially talented in the Input theme have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.” You can imagine what this looks like in the information age. I could spend 24-hours a day scratching the input itch. Thankfully my children need to be driven to school

A psychiatrist who studies information overload, E.M. Hallowell, has identified what he calls Attention Deficit Trait, or ADT:

It isn’t an illness; it’s purely a response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live….When a manager is desperately trying to deal with more input than he possibly can, the brain and body get locked into a reverberating circuit while the brain’s frontal lobes lose their sophistication, as if vinegar were added to wine. The result is black-and-white thinking; perspective and shades of gray disappear. People with ADT have difficulty staying organised, setting priorities, and managing time, and they feel a constant low level of panic and guilt.’

Difficulty staying organized? Check.  Setting priorities? Check.  Constant low level of panic and guilt? Check and check. But I don’t think it’s just me. Everyone I know seems to be fighting this battle in form or another. Everyone—as I rudely snapped at my daughters—is tired.

In those precious hours when I am awake and alone with my tea, I seek solace both in the silence of the dark and in the slow reading of poems. There are so many talented poets who have nailed the pacing and freneticism of contemporary life. They are masterful at the jump cut, the darting mind, the threat of the isolation and fragmentation. And I admire them and am grateful for their commentary. But I don’t seek solace with them. No. I am looking for the singular voice, speaking from her–or his–dark kitchen straight into mine. I am searching for a mind still intact. I am straining for a human voice—fleshy and tremorous and undigitized.

Blessedly, there is always warm comfort in Neruda’s Odes, like the “Ode to a Chestnut on the Ground”:

Out of the bristling foliage

You fell

complete:

polished wood,

glistening mahogany,

perfect

as a violin that has just

been born in the treetops

and falls

And Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s “A Gilded Lapse of Time”:

I lower my foot

As if a holy stream were running past,

As if the puddle held a rain-bright cross,

Then reach down to touch

This fragment of the northern hemisphere,

To riffle and disturb

An empty place the rain is rending,

A hole spreading above the world,

A drift of dark reflected—

And Derek Walcott’s “Bleecker Street, Summer”:

Summer for prose and lemons, for nakedness and languor,

for the eternal idleness of the imagined return,

for rare flutes and bare feet, and the August bedroom

of tangled sheets and the Sunday salt, ah violin!

When I press summer dusks together, it is

a month of street accordions and sprinklers

laying the dust, small shadows running from me.

Because I am all about input, now I have to ask: What are the poems that bring you comfort? That slow your breathing? That make you feel just a little less tired?

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Shaimaa el Sabbagh In Memory of Shaimaa el-Sabbagh

1984 – January 24, 2015

Who will honor the city without a name
If so many are dead and others pan gold
Or sell arms in faraway countries?
-Czesław Miłosz

Like millions of Americans, I woke up on Wednesday to a front-page photo of a man carrying a mortally wounded young woman across a Cairo street. Oddly, I hadn’t heard a thing about the story despite the fact that the photograph—and the others that accompanied it—had already captured the attention of much of the rest of the world. The young woman was Egyptian mother, poet and folklorist, Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. The young man was her friend, Sayyed Abu el-Ela, a lawyer and activist. On the afternoon of January 24, Shaimaa and Sayyed and their friends were part of a small demonstration intent on delivering flowers to Tahrir Square in remembrance of the fourth anniversary of Arab Spring. The police fired on the group, Shaimaa was hit, and she ultimately died on the street in Cairo.

Shaimaa 2

Shaimaa is one of thousands of Egyptians who have been killed by police since the 2011 uprising, including 17-year old Sondos Reda, who was killed the same day as Shaimaa at a demonstration in Alexandria. As we mourn the deaths of Sondos and Shaimaa, we can’t help but also recall the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, also at the hands of the police.

Since I first saw the images and started reading about Shaimaa, I cannot get her out of my mind. I can’t stop thinking about her five-year-old son, Bilal, and about her friends who held her as she died. Shaimaa was doing what poets do—using the power of metaphor to re-assert individual memory and spirit  into what seems a chaotic and inhuman system. She was carrying flowers into the public square to honor the dead. She was speaking the symbolic language of remembrance and hope and rebirth. And she was shot down in broad daylight in the process.

In the cascade of daily tragedy, it is tempting to succumb to the series of “yes buts.” Yes but Shaimaa’s death was not as brutal or violent or horrific as this other act of brutality or violence or horror. Yes but this killing was not as ruthless as the one that happened two weeks ago or yesterday or this morning. Yes but Shaimaa was not tortured quite as torturously, so we dismiss her death as not quite as senseless and not quite as deserving of our attention and move on to the next horrific tragedy.

I am stepping out of the yes but stream. I am declaring my refusal to participate in the ranking of brutality. Not only is it soul-crushing, but it incentivizes those who trade in shock and terror to become ever more imaginative and callous in their campaign of broadcast thuggery.

Rather, I am going to look to Shaimaa’s life—and her sacrifice in death—as a window into the wondrousness that is the human spirit. One of the things I most want to remember about Shaimaa is that she once spent months touring the Nile Delta studying and writing about traditions and practices for making flatbread. And that in November, she supervised students who studied and performed the traditional Alexandrian dances that surround a birth. And that she wrote an ode to her lost handbag:

What might she be feeling right now
Maybe scared?
Or disgusted from the sweat of someone she doesn’t know
Annoyed by the new streets?
If she stopped by one of the stores we visited together
Would she like the same items?
Anyway, she has the house keys
And I am waiting for her

I am going to remember that she chose to celebrate the small rituals that give humans meaning in the face of turmoil and murder.shaimaa 3 I am going to remember that she was courageous not just on the day that she carried flowers through the streets of Cairo but on all the days before when she stood for what is life-giving in the face of what is brutal and destructive.
Last year, Tilda Swinton gave a talk at the Rothko chapel where she said: I believe that all great art holds the power to dissolve things: time, distance, difference, injustice, alienation, despair. I believe that all great art holds the power to mend things: join, comfort, inspire hope in fellowship, reconcile us to ourselves. Shaimaa el-Sabbagh spent her all-too-short life on the side of dissolving injustice and mending hope, and that is how I am going to remember her.

There are no platitudes to offer a five year old whose mother was murdered as she laid down flowers of remembrance. To quote Pope Francis on his recent trip to vissilenceit victims of the hurricane in the Philippines: “All I can do is keep silence and walk with you all with my silent heart.”

But for poets—in the United States and abroad—silence is exactly what we cannot keep. We cannot keep silence while journalists are being beheaded and arrested, while cartoonists are being executed in their offices, while poets are being shot down in the street. We must keep making and writing and painting. We must keep protesting and laying flowers down as offerings. We must stand for that which creates in the face of so much that destroys. We must stand on the side of mending what is broken. We must stand with Shaimaa.

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I am a baby of the first order. I can’t watch violent movies. I am repelled by songs that are woman-hating and threatening. In fact, we had to walk out of Slumdog Millionaire because I couldn’t handle the first few scenes. Once I get those images—or lyrics—into my head, I can’t get them out. It’s as if they become part of my makeup, and Robocop and RiFF RAFF are not what I want to be made up of.

Our pediatrician once suggested that I read a book called The Highly Sensitive Child for some help in raising my daughters. After I read it, I thought “My daughter probably isn’t a highly sensitive child, but I’m pretty sure I am.” As a result, I have developed a habit of protecting myself. If content gets too intense, I turn away. I shut it off. I excise it from my consciousness.

This is a week where I have sorely wanted to do that – to just turn it off. Along with the rest of America, we spent Monday evening anxiously awaiting the outcome of the Ferguson grand jury, knowing that no matter what happened, it would partially define us as a country. We listened to the tortured nine-minute statement by County Attorney Robert McCullough as he indicted everyone—the media, the public, Michael Brown—except the officer who shot and killed an unarmed teenager.

I took a big deep breath, and then I turned it off. I spent the rest of the night heart-sick and worried, but relatively cut off from the rest of the world. Tuesday, though, we were barraged with images and evidence and testimonials. We were inundated with outrage on one hand and celebration on the other. It seemed as if the whole nation took to Twitter and Facebook, and the collective impact was overwhelming. It was—bar none—the worst Facebook day I have ever had, and boy did I want to shut it off.

But I decided I could not. That it would be irresponsible and inhumane to turn away from what my neighbors were telling me. Young black men were pouring out their fear of walking down the street in their own neighborhoods. African American moms were sharing their anguish at having to warn their sons about the life-threatening possibilities of an encounter with the police. And you know what? Friends and family members were also spewing racial vitriol, calling Michael Brown a thug, and celebrating the failure to indict. I needed to see that with clear eyes, too.

And it doesn’t stop at Ferguson either. I can’t turn my face from the gang-rape of an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Virginia. Or the suffering of Peter Lanza, the father of the Sandyhook shooter, who decided he was ready to tell his story to the New Yorker.  I can’t ignore actress Diane Guerrero whose parents were whisked away by immigration officers while she was at school, leaving her to fend for herself at 14 years old.

In all this, I am reminded of Garrett Hongo’s masterful and heartbreaking poem about a shooting he saw callously reported on television. Here it is in full:

The Legend

 In memory of Jay Kashiwamura

In Chicago, it is snowing softly

and a man has just done his wash for the week.

He steps into the twilight of early evening,

carrying a wrinkled shopping bag

full of neatly folded clothes,

and, for a moment, enjoys

the feel of warm laundry and crinkled paper,

flannellike against his gloveless hands.

There’s a Rembrandt glow on his face,

a triangle of orange in the hollow of his cheek

as a last flash of sunset

blazes the storefronts and lit windows of the street.

 

He is Asian, Thai or Vietnamese,

and very skinny, dressed as one of the poor

in rumpled suit pants and a plaid mackinaw,

dingy and too large.

He negotiates the slick of ice

on the sidewalk by his car,

opens the Fairlane’s back door,

leans to place the laundry in,

and turns, for an instant,

toward the flurry of footsteps

and cries of pedestrians

as a boy–that’s all he was–

backs from the corner package store

shooting a pistol, firing it,

once, at the dumbfounded man

who falls forward,

grabbing at his chest.

 

A few sounds escape from his mouth,

a babbling no one understands

as people surround him

bewildered at his speech.

The noises he makes are nothing to them.

The boy has gone, lost

in the light array of foot traffic

dappling the snow with fresh prints.

 

Tonight, I read about Descartes’

grand courage to doubt everything

except his own miraculous existence

and I feel so distinct

from the wounded man lying on the concrete

I am ashamed

 

Let the night sky cover him as he dies.

Let the weaver girl cross the bridge of heaven

and take up his cold hands.

 

No. I can’t hide behind the preciousness of sensitivity, though I want to mightily. As Hongo says—I feel so distinct, and I am ashamed. These stories of anguish and suffering are the stories of my neighbors, yes. And I am obligated to really hear what it is they have to tell. But they are also stories of my country and my culture, they are the stories that I help create—over and over—by turning a blind eye and refusing to examine the rot in the systems we perpetuate and submit ourselves and our children to. Even as I write this, I feel sick to my stomach. I know these are stories I have taken into my body and that they have become part of my DNA. But the thing is, they were already there. I am already implicated in the shooting of unarmed children and gang rape and the isolation of mental illness. And it is my responsibility to keep my eyes clear and my heart open. That’s the least I can do.

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turkey dinner

I hate to do this.  But I am going to have to take issue with the great Joseph Campbell, from whom I have gained solace and comfort and inspiration from for nearly as long as I can remember.  Campbell was one of the world’s foremost experts on myths and culture. And yes, he was a genius. And a cultural icon.  But let me back up.

I am in a mess at the moment.  I don’t ever remember saying—or even thinking—the dreaded words writer’s block. I have always had a backlog of ideas and a drive to wrestle human experience into poems or essays or even wisps in my notebook.  Not so right now.  I have no idea what I am doing or why I am doing it.  Poems are turning to ash in my mouth. The essays I have started feel self-indulgent or derivative or—worse—wholly unnecessary.

It is both terrifying and bleak. So I am reading like a fiery fiend to try to find a path back into art-making of any form. My pen is poised over my notebook, but I will take anything. Karaoke. Macramé. Paint by numbers. Anything. This dead and doubt-filled mood feels like the mood that overcame me when I first heard someone describe dark matter in space—ice-cold, menacing, lethal to everything I thought I knew about humans’ role in the universe.

So enter Joseph Campbell.  For many years I have turned to a little book entitled A Joseph Campbell Companion, a compendium of teachings by Campbell collected by the poet Diane Osbon, with most of the material coming from Osbon’s attendance at a month-long seminar with Campbell in 1983 at the Esalen Institute in Northern California.  The book is generous and wide-ranging and is intended to inspire.

And boy do I need some inspiration, particularly when it comes to art-making. So, I skipped ahead to the section “Living in the Sacred,” which as I remembered it, is a paean to the transformative power of art.  And sure enough, there is this lovely:

Art is the transforming experience.

 The revelation of art is not ethics, not a judgment, nor even a revelation of humanity as one generally thinks of it. Rather, the revelation is a marveling recognition of the radiant Form of forms that shines through all things.

 

There. Of course, the invocation of the Form of forms doesn’t help me with my immediate problem—not being able to find a poem with both hands. But it does reassure me that art matters, that it is the light in our fumbling quest to become more human.  More alive.

But then, a few pages later, is this:

 

One application of the artists’ craft is in doing something like making a turkey dinner, another is in creating art that is of no use whatsoever except esthetically. When I use the word “art,” it has to do with “divinely superfluous beauty” and esthetic arrest. There’s no esthetic arrest in eating a turkey. That’s life inaction, doing what it has to do, namely eating something that’s been killed, putting it into your system. It’s totally different from esthetic arrest and recognizing the radiance. Are you going to look at the object or eat it? Eating the object is related to desire and loathing.

 

Vasily Kandinsky, Circle with a Circle

Vasily Kandinsky, Circle with a Circle

And there is where the issue of taking issue comes in.  I am all for superfluous beauty. In fact, the transcendent geometric forms of Vasily Kandinsky are among the paintings that matter to me the most.  I can almost see the shimmering sub-order of the constellations vibrating behind them.  But the paintings of Marc Chagall are also among those I treasure most. Chagall’s paintings are magical and otherworldly as well, but they also celebrate and embrace the world of cows and churches and broad-hipped weddings.

Marc Chagall, La Mariee

Marc Chagall, La Mariee

For me, there is even more to it than that than the difference between Chagall and Kandinsky . While I am in the dark night of the soul with regard to poems, I still have to cook dinner.  It is high summer, so I am in my garden every day.  And, I am still knitting baby blankets and prayer shawls.  And it is in those every day makings that I can still find the “radiance” that Campbell talks about, even when the well of pure art-making is dry or at least very, very low.

Every day, I am immersed in the transformation that comes from heat and water and time.  In the application of those elements to raw materials—peppers and tomatoes, radish seeds and soil, wool and cotton—I get a glimpse of the order of things. I get a chance to join in the steady business of creating and re-creating form.  For me, that is not “life’s inaction” nor does it relate my peppers or pea shoots or yarn to “desire and loathing” because those transformations have practical, daily functions. As it turns out, the very fact that I can transform a pepper from our garden into chile rellanos or ratatouille makes the idea of making a poem again seem more possible. It makes it seem as if the order of the universe favors the makers after all.  It makes me want to stay at my desk and ride out the doubt and flailing and suffering in hopes that there are still poems to be written.

And so I guess Joseph Campbell did work his magic over me once again.  He did arrest and inspire and bring me back to what matters, not with solace exactly, but with provocation and a turkey dinner.

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Violet at the Creation

 

 

Violet

Violet

Oh look at this big girl!  Today, she turns 12.  Violet is a singular spirit. . . and in honor of her day, this poem from oh so many years ago.  But it is still her!  Still Violet.

 

VIOLET AT THE CREATION

 

In April, before the clouds settled

their differences and the lake was still

nervous, she crawled into the garden

while a blue blackbird resembling nothing

 

more than a catfish sang arias

to give her cover. The apple-hipped

stepmother taught her a secret

game to fool the husband

 

who wore an egg-yolk jacket,

Dominion stitched in russet on the chest.

The pie-apple bride tossed

the little she high and her giggles

 

turned to pebbles dibblety dropped

until the husband raised an umbrella.

They tried on names like rumpled gowns.

Nanny goat called herself sloth

 

and humpback whale was torn

between winter wheat

and passenger pigeon.

Falcon christened himself

 

sapphire silence, blue jeweled

and unuttered, while she blew

spun glass through the straw

of her bones and plucked

her own name—Violet—from the new grass.

 

* And all gratitude to VoiceCatcher and Press 53, both of which published this poem.

 

 

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I love Kate Carroll De Gutes.

KCD

KCD

In fact, I must love her very very much to agree to answer these fool questions in front of God and my country. These are questions I don’t even like to think about in the privacy of my own studio, let alone hold forth about them in polite company.  Nobody—and I mean nobody—cares why or how I write.  But I was honored to be asked to join The Writing Process Blog Tour, and I really do love Kate . . . So I said yes.  

But as I sat down to work on this installment, I felt that old urge– I have a case of the vapors, the dog ate my homework. I have a pressing deadline, a sick child, a boil.  I must beg off.  I am certain nothing will be lost if I demur.

dog eats homework

And yet, I do love that Kate De Gutes, and I can’t stop reading backwards in the chain-letter that got me here.  I was moved to tears by Kate’s description –enactment?—of writing in the second person.  And then Barrie Jean Borich asked us to picture a tall grass prairie sprouting from that tall building’s roof.   And before her, David Lazar made me snort out loud at his irreverent answer to the question how does my work differ from others of its genre? Answer:   Mine is prettier, because mother put mine in a basket, and gave me a lovely red hood to wear on the way to grandmother’s house.

And Adrianne Kalfopoulou reminded me of the power of witness when she described her decision to blog as Greece unraveled:  It seemed like a way to keep something of a lit match in the forest of chaos if only as a conversation with myself in the dark, or with those who were having similar conversations.

And back and back some more.

In respect for the good company that proceeded me, I need to pull up my socks and answer. So here goes. . .

What am I working on? I am writing poems.  Mostly poems about presidents.  Or maybe not about presidents but inspired by presidents. And their families.  And their pets.  So, I am reading a lot about the 44 men who have lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (except poor George Washington who was stuck in New York, then in Philadelphia).

But, I am finding the presidency to be a little, well, male.  So, I am writing some other poems too.  I don’t know what they’re about, but suffice it to say they have something to do with Madame DeFarge.

Madame DeFarge

Madame DeFarge

I’m also working on parenting two whip-smart adolescent girls, walking a couple of unruly dogs, and worrying myself sick over the fate of democracy.

WW

WW

How does my work differ from others of its genre? Now that is a question I really cannot answer.  That is a question for the ages.  Or at least for the critics.  And I’m not even sure it is something I aspire to.  Never once—for even for one hour—do I forget that my poems are slipping into the stream of one of the world’s great arts. I cannot forget that they call themselves by the same name as The Inferno and Song of Myself and The Emperor of Ice Cream.  When I think of those great poems and all the others that anchor body to soul, I am demoralized at how my poems do differ, at how they don’t measure up, at how they pale and tremble in the face of the greats.  At this point, I don’t aspire to difference.  Rather, I aspire to a place in the art, no matter how small.  I aspire for my poems to chime in—even faintly—to a timeless conversation, for them to be in communion with poems that came before and those that will follow. 

Why do I write what I do? Right now, I am writing about presidents because I am obsessed with them.  I am obsessed with the office, with the idea that we call ourselves a self-governing people and yet we are a puddle of rice pudding in the face of money and power.  I am obsessed with the idea of scale—how does one frail human body take on the expectations and obligations of such an outsized world?

But that’s just what I’m obsessed with now.  At other times, I’ve been obsessed with Biblical women and dogs and Frida Kahlo.  I am persistently obsessed with perfecting my pie crust recipe.  I feel German Expressionism creeping into my consciousness.  I fear it is next.

But I am also obsessed with poems, and at this point, they are what I have at my disposal.  I want to believe that the art is both big enough and small enough to contain the fullness of human experience. I don’t question the capaciousness of the art.  Rather, I question whether I am brave enough or smart enough or skilled enough to do both the subject and poetry justice.

How does your writing process work?  Now this is a question I can answer without quaking.  A few years ago, I took the StrengthsFinder test.  Hands down, my biggest strength was input.  In fact, I just about admitted to you that my husband’s pet name for me is “Input,” but that just sounds wrong.  So never mind.   But for poetry, input it is!  I can research one poem for months before I ever put pen to paper.  This month, I know a lot about Ulysses S. Grant’s horses.  A lot.  I know how much Grant weighed when he entered West Point.  I know that his classmates called him Sam (as in Uncle).

But by April, no. It will all be gone, and I will be regaling my family members with the misadventures of Andrew Johnson.Andrew Johnson

So I read and read.  And take notes.  And make Pinterest boards with photos of my research.  And I share all my useless knowledge with unsuspecting friends and family. Until finally—finally—a poem’s vocabulary starts to sneak up on me.  I can begin to hear the sounds of the poem.  Then, I will write down all of those words.  Then lines will start to wobble together.

After all that, I type the lines into the computer—in no real order—to see what is there.  I move them around and experiment with forms.  I fill in and take out.  I fiddle and faddle until I arrive at a last line.  And only once I have a last line that I can live with do I call the poem a “draft.”

At that point, I either go back to the draft and tinker with it until I can no longer stand it, or I leave it for dead.

 

___

Ok, that’s it.  Thank you for asking.  And soon—very soon—I will disclose the writers that will follow in The (Great) Blog Tour.  But for now, seriously.   I really do love Kate Carroll De Gutes.

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Invocation

The Capitol

The Capitol

This morning, I will give the invocation for the Oregon House of Representatives.  I love that.  I am right up there with the lamenters about the lack of interest in poetry in this country.  But one thing I can say about Americans is that we turn to poetry for the big occasions—weddings, funerals, inaugurations.  That sense of occasion says to me that we do find solace and inspiration and common purpose in poetry, we just haven’t translated that very well to our quotidian lives.   But I adore a good occasion, and I am delighted to get the chance to thank the women and men who are doing the people’s business, and on Mr. Lincoln’s birthday of all days!  This is the poem I will read:

 

 

Logger’s Wife at Long Last Pledges Allegiance

 

It’s about time that I swear allegiance to this Republic

though I suppose those Washington counting men

have long counted me as one of their own. But I crossed

my fingers behind my back, mouthed the words,

sang Dixie under my breath. Now, there’s no hope in waiting,

and here I am shaky and tired. But that’s about right in this nation

where everybody looks rattled and shaken and tired. I understand

the shaken or shaky or shook up, but why for the love of God

and this good Declaration is everyone so tired?

Owl-eyed and slow-flanked and tired. It must be the lights,

day and night, the lights. Have you ever seen those space-shots

of earth? So bright. Even dark is light. But, I’d best raise my hand now

before the sun breaks its arc, before I break free, before I lose heart.

*

I pledge allegiance

supposing this nation needs the allegiance of shaky women, small owls, cracked leather, cracked feet, cracked minds, nurse logs and huckleberry not yet ripe, beak moss and cork boots, foxes long gone but whose spirits still nibble at fiddleheads, late-day fog, spike prongs and clear-cuts and redsides, loggers and wish-to-God-they-were-still-loggers, wild strawberry and wild mint, supposing this nation needs this sworn allegiance, supposing this nation needs allegiance at all

to the flag

 they say there are two million stitches in a flag, must be twice that many

to keep that flag on the moon. Four million tiny stitches. All sewn by hand

of the United States of America

oh sing – this broken promise, this broken nation, this broken land – sing it back to whole

 

and to the Republic for which it stands

 

Mr. Lincoln tells it best:

 

It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work

. . .It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining . . .

 we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave

the last full measure . . . . we here highly resolve that these dead

shall not have died in vain. . . that this nation under God

shall have a new birth of freedom  . . and that government

of the people,

by the people,

for the people

shall not perish from the earth.

 

 

One Nation, Under God

Calapooya . Leeshtelosh. Chillychandize. Laptambif

Indivisible

Ikenick Creek to Clear Lake to the McKenzie River over Cougar Dam past Finn Rock and Nimrod to the confluence with the Willamette to the Main Stem picking up Clackamas and Tualatin flowing north over Willamette Falls past Willamette Baseline to the Columbia at Sauvie Island, Willamette on one side, Columbia on the other, wider and faster and through Astoria with its tall ships—Ocian in View!  O! the Joy!—the dark and merciless Pacific.

With Liberty and Justice for all.

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President Lincoln's Cottage at Soldiers Home

President Lincoln’s Cottage at Soldiers Home

I spent the first part of the week in a class-A stew.  Congress can’t pass a budget.  Everyone’s blaming everybody else.  House members are yelling at hapless park rangers for enforcing the shut-down that the members themselves precipitated.  To top it off, my state’s paper of record stopped daily delivery, laid off 35 reporters, and then spent the week talking about record growth in advertising.

I told everyone who would listen that democracy is going to hell in a handbasket, that the institutions we rely on to govern ourselves are collapsing under their own weight, that the end is neigh. And I can still make a pretty persuasive case in favor of that dark and despotic future.

But it was another kind of week as well.  Under the headlines of shutdowns and name-calling and the careening fourth estate, other things were also happening. Extraordinary things.  I spent the morning at the National Press Club, where we unveiled a new organization–Voice of the People—which launched its campaign to create a Citizen Cabinet.  Without going into all the details, the theory is that we have to get more informed citizen voices up on Capitol Hill.  The American people are pretty smart, and they have a lot to offer.  Maybe it would be a good idea for members of Congress to have a better way to listen to them.

And to top it off, an incredible team of citizens, volunteers, and staff are celebrating the success of Oregon’s first major civic crowdfunding project.  Today, we surpassed the $100,000 goal for Build Gateway Green.  Gateway Green is unused parcel  of land between two freeways in East Portland.  Two incredibly visionary Portlanders imagined it could be repurposed—recycled (excuse the pun)—into a world-class bike park with amenities for everyone, cyclist or not.  After eight years of labor and love, they brought it to us, and we gave crowdfunding a whirl.  And, it worked!  Nearly 700 people have given so far, and it has been one of the most inspiring teams I have ever worked with.

It just goes to show you that regular citizens not involved in a power struggle can bring real change to the public sphere and can keep doing good even while top-drawer politicians can’t figure it out.  But, there’s more too.  David and three other friends published books this week, keeping faith with the impossible—that humans have something to say to each other and that we can teach each other stuff.  That we can step into the experience of others and become more whole.

David’s book, Charming Gardeners—if I may brag for a moment—is full of civic sensibility and wisdom.  There are outright political poems like “To Buckley from Berkeley”:

“Dear Bill—

Maybe you’d like the first hundred names

From the New York City phone book to run the government,

But I’d prefer the names came from out here in the West

Among the bare-assed and tan and with a bitchin’ view of the Bay”

 

Or “To Conda from Anaconda”:

“That’s America, too,

Eight miles from the Continental Divide

Where no one leaves for work

And everyone returns to bed,

And not God or animal, man or child

Knows what to do about it.

What would you do with your theories

Composed by Jack Kemp?”

But, there are also quieter poems that take into account the sweep and fragility and perils of the Republic, of the whole enterprise of self-governance.  My personal favorite is “To C.D. from D.C.”  You really should read the whole poem, but here is one of its must heart-ripping bits:

“Can you imagine the Great Emancipator

Standing on his back porch among the dead

As he listened to the diggers graveling the graves,

Chipping the soil, lifting in the bodies,

From Rochester and Groton and Poolesville

And King of Prussia, lifting in the bodies

With the steam rising from their skins

Into the insect-mating womb of the light

Around the city, the utterly still bodies

unquivering?”

It’s hard for me not to cry, even as I type that.  Because of the detail, yes.  But also because of the deep awareness of the sacrifice of those who came before  us who struggled to protect this crazy nation that we keep abusing.  And, yet, yet.  We’re still here.  So even as members of Congress hurl insults across the Rotunda and push each other down to cast blame before the cameras, I guess it behooves us to remember, we are a resilient people.  A foolish one, for sure.  But resilient and wise and hardy.  So, while I still want to knock some Congressional heads and carry a picket sign outside the soon-to-be-empty headquarters of the Oregonian, I am buoyed by being in such great company.  In the company of believers and dreamers and poets.  And we’re the Republic too.  So I think we might be OK.

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