May 2009

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And then the kicker is this: in passing from the real to the imagined, in following that trail, you learn that both sides have a little of the other in each, that there are elements of the imagined inside your experience of the “real” world – rock, bone, wood, ice – and elements of the real – not the metaphorical, but the actual thing itself – inside stories and tales and dreams.

–Rick Bass

A timely mantra for the day: Elements of the imagined inside our experience of the “real”, and elements of the real inside our “imaginary” makings… Bless those leaky margins, the boundaryless nature of consciousness.

Thanks to Whiskey River for another nugget for the deeper well.

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Dancer

Big Song

I have tried it. The brag, with permission
of democracy. The royal we. The big
words, like courage, excellence and power,
brilliance. Have tried to supercede the bound-

aries of skin, hair, scarred hands, the fatigue
housed by the majority of my bones,
to launch a spirit large as a whole group
of people–waitresses, sisters, women,

poets, lovers, mammals etc.–
so that I could be the throat, the tip of the
tongue expressed. Oh, the vocabulary
of it all, filed beside Whitman, Ginsberg,

with snips of the old testament,
the syntax of presidents and most
romantic poets. I am a student,
with flash cards and coffee, of the necessary

exuberance, the jaunty-angled hat,
the workingman’s clothes, the apoplexy
of the pilgrim, the V-Day. The cock’s strut,
the virtuoso flourish, the chest swell,

that crescendo of being that shoots through me
and explodes into the perfect us-ness
of the larger sentiments, inspiring
love and generosity in the afterglow. I have over-

studied the sweet, opened door, the letter
that solicits, the look backward with smile,
all phyla of permission, I should just
photograph them like South American birds

and be done with them.
I over-respect the bigness of some–
their unselfconscious motions to include–
and guilt’s smallnesses in others.

Some arrive at big through abnegation–
the potlatch, desecration, the holy
stamina to blaspheme has its own stuff,
its lovely scatology of excess,

the spangles of self to burn. I have tried,
analyzed, faulted, pushed, and faked,
spewing from my fist-tight lips
like a girl spinning in her mother’s chiffon,

stained prom gown, thin and scared.

–Connie Voisine

Voisine’s work is new to me but I loved this one on the first read.

Connie Voisine teaches at New Mexico State University. Her volume of poetry, Cathedral of the North, received the Associated Writing Programs poetry award.

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Tracy Emin at the White Cube Gallery (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Tracey Emin has cordoned off sex and sexuality as a major trope of her oeuvre. She has been outrageous, flagrant, outspoken and nakedly raw in her expression of pure id-ness.

So turning 50 changes all that? Come on Tracey, can’t you love ideas AND sex? Get a grip, and quick!

From an article by Maev Kennedy in the Guardian:

In the middle of her new exhibition, in which the most arresting piece is a looped animation of 150 drawings that depict a woman masturbating, Tracey Emin explained that sex is loosening its grip as her 50th birthday looms.

“It always was about sex, not money,” she said. “Sex was what held me in bed and got me out of it again in the morning. But now it’s fading fast. I don’t have the same craziness about sex that I had – I’m more interested in ideas.”

The artist was haloed by a pink glow emanating from a neon piece in the next room. Its inscription read: “Oh Christ I just wanted you to fuck me and then I became greedy, I wanted you to love me.”

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A wise friend, something of a mystic and a channeler, recently described to me an encounter she had with a non-sentient being who passed through her consciousness some time earlier. In the midst of this mystical encounter with an energy that can only be described as “other” and yet not, she heard a voice in her head speak this gentle reminder, “Remember that your conscious mind is the least of you.”

I have other friends who find that concept frustrating. They view it as a comment on deeply buried psychological conundrums and dark impulses, the sort of material that years of talk therapy would mine and process. It speaks to a world out of our control, one where rational decision making is upbraided and potentially weakened to the point of meaninglessness.

For me that line goes well beyond a comment on the hidden unconscious domains of our psychology. Rather it speaks to other realities, other states of mind, other dimensional armatures that impact our lives every day. I know too well how quickly my outlook on a particular issue can change, or how instantaneous a new awareness can appear on the mental screen, conjured out of nothing (or so it seems). There are flows and currents to life that exist outside of our proclivities to instrumentationalize our world, to track, measure and make sense out of everything that happens.

The idea of other forces at play seems to fit with this recent article by Steve Strogatz in the New York Times. As a catch all for what lives outside our model of reality, “the three-body problem” is a useful metaphor.

Here’s an excerpt from Strogatz’ piece:

In the 300 years since Newton, mankind has come to realize that the laws of physics are always expressed in the language of differential equations. This is true for the equations governing the flow of heat, air and water; for the laws of electricity and magnetism; even for the unfamiliar and often counterintuitive atomic realm where quantum mechanics reigns.

In all cases, the business of theoretical physics boils down to finding the right differential equations and solving them. When Newton discovered this key to the secrets of the universe, he felt it was so precious that he published it only as an anagram in Latin. Loosely translated, it reads: “It is useful to solve differential equations.”

The silly idea that love affairs might progress in a similar way occurred to me when I was in love for the first time, trying to understand my girlfriend’s baffling behavior. It was a summer romance at the end of my sophomore year in college. I was a lot like the first Romeo above, and she was even more like the first Juliet. The cycling of our relationship was driving me crazy until I realized that we were both acting mechanically, following simple rules of push and pull. But by the end of the summer my equations started to break down, and I was even more mystified than ever. As it turned out, the explanation was simple. There was an important variable that I’d left out of the equations — her old boyfriend wanted her back.

In mathematics we call this a three-body problem. It’s notoriously intractable, especially in the astronomical context where it first arose. After Newton solved the differential equations for the two-body problem (thus explaining why the planets move in elliptical orbits around the sun), he turned his attention to the three-body problem for the sun, earth and moon. He couldn’t solve it, and neither could anyone else. It later turned out that the three-body problem contains the seeds of chaos, rendering its behavior unpredictable in the long run.

Newton knew nothing about chaotic dynamics, but he did tell his friend Edmund Halley that the three-body problem had “made his head ache, and kept him awake so often, that he would think of it no more.”

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Portrait of Francis Bacon

I have posted two separate reviews on Slow Painting of the Francis Bacon show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, one by Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine, and one by Sebastian Smee of the Boston Globe. Both touch on Bacon’s deeply troubled personal life, in particular his experience of love as destructive and painful. Ah the Hazards of Love (thank you, Decembrists, I do love your latest.)

Nothing new about that point of view of course, but it is played out with serious drama and self-destructive extravagance in Bacon’s life as well as his art. Beauty and love are palliatives for most of us, but they weren’t cover enough for Bacon.

I’ve also been thinking about why Bacon, a major art influence in the 20th century, was never a major player in my coming of age as an artist, especially given Saltz’s claim:

Like Dalí and Munch, Bacon is an artist we love when young. Tantalized by the urgency, angst, weirdness, blood, sex, and bodies, we think, That’s me! That’s how I feel!

When I was young, I admired Bacon’s muscular viscerality, the fierceness of his painterliness. But it was never the soul match I felt with the influence of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Willem de Kooning, Brice Marden.

Part of this was a result of my proclivities towards non-representation. But part of it was also vibrational. A longing for the dark side has a very different frequency and amplitude than the propensity for the numinous. Underneath all proclivities and responses to life however is a substratum of fear and suffering. It can be engaged with or it can be ignored, but it is there nonetheless.

Thanks to Whiskey River (you come through for me again and again!) I found this provocative and relevant quote from Taoist author Deng Ming-Dao:

There is an underbelly of terror to all life. It is suffering, it is hurt. Deep within all of us are intense fears that have left few of us whole. Life’s terrors haunt us, attack us, leave ugly cuts. To buffer ourselves, we dwell on beauty, we collect things, we fall in love, we desperately try to make something lasting in our lives. We take beauty as the only worthwhile thing in this existence, but it cannot veil cursing, violence, randomness, and injustice.

That is why spiritual progress is slow: not because no one will tell us the secrets, but because we ourselves must overcome sentiment and fear before we can grasp it.

brandt_bacon

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Arombell 1, 14 x 14″, mixed media on wood panel

I’m heading into the final lap of this preparatory marathon. Postcards for my upcoming show go out this week, so my face is against the glass. (If you would like to be on my mailing list, send me an email with your snail mail address.)

For those of you in the Boston area, here’s the info on the show:

June 26 – July 8

Lyman-Eyer Gallery
432 Commercial Street
Provincetown MA 02657
508 487 3937

Artist Reception: Friday, June 26, 7PM
All are welcome

Also of note: My paintings are featured in the Spring/Summer 2009 issue of Wild Apples, a Journal of Nature, Art and Inquiry. The issue’s theme is SOIL, a worthy topic indeed. My work accompanies the poetry of Laura Rogerson Moore,
“Eat of Every Tree.” The journal is both visually engaging and content rich. For more information, you can visit them here.

Anam Cara Writer’s and Artist’s Retreat maven Sue Booth-Forbes has posted a piece about a public art project I began ten years ago in Ireland. You can read about the National School/Anam Cara partnership here.

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spk2_myc

Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard

A life should leave
deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
rubbed down to
white pastilles;
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
almost erased.
Her things should
keep her marks.
The passage
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space—
however small—
should be left scarred
by the grand and
damaging parade.
Things shouldn’t
be so hard.

–Kay Ryan

I’ve featured the work of current Poet Laureate Kay Ryan on this blog before. This poem captured me completely when I ran into it quite by accident.

But you know how that goes. Our minds are enormous filtering machines, sifting through the chaotic onslaught of information and stimuli to find that one piece of relevance, that one statement that brings a semblance of order, a sense of patterning.

I call this a “chop wood, carry water” poem. From its mystical tradition, the phrase was the answer the koan double question: What do you do before enlightenment, and what do you do after enlightenment? For many of us, chop wood, carry water is the mantra that describes creative labor, whatever its form.

In her small book, The Quotidian Mysteries, Kathleen Norris discusses the concept of acedia, a term that means spiritual torpor or apathy:

Any person called to a vocation that is inner-directed and requires one to spend a good deal of time alone is subject to periodic attacks of acedia. The writing process is notoriously cyclical—and dangerous if one is prone to either mania or depression or both. There is the “up” of an inspired bout of writing and a “down” of seemingly fruitless labor and revisions, and times when one is incapable of writing at all. When I was a very young writer, I hungered for more, always more. But deep down, I had so little faith in myself, let alone in my vocation as a writer, that I saw each poem as potentially my last. Having invested my psychic and emotional energies in a romantic notion of “inspiration.” I would panic whenever the ability to write seemed to leave me. Now, rather than succumb to despair during my dry spells, I generally employ a prairie metaphor and think of it as a lifesaver, a dying down to the roots during a drought. Although the grasses look dead, they are merely dormant, and the slightest bit of moisture will occasion a change.

How rejuvenating to read Norris’ idea, that the retreat to the roots is in fact a lifesaving strategy. And what a redemptive gift, reminding us that just the “slightest bit of moisture” changes everything.

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Gustave Flaubert

Thanks to top notch blogger Judith H. Dobrzynski (Real Clear Arts) for finding a fascinating article about Flaubert in Prospect Magazine.

I needed this, especially today. To read about how arduously Flaubert reworked Madame Bovary (and one would assume, everything he produced) helped eliminate some of the stress and discomfort with a very long and very slow moving project of completing work for my show next month.

Efficiency just isn’t part of my approach to creativity, and it clearly wasn’t for Flaubert either. I should be bold and proud enough to claim my membership in the “Rework, and rework again” tribe. It’s a big club, to be sure.

Now if only that came with a union card that guaranteed the bearer the ability to produce something as brilliant as Madame Bovary

Here’s some of Dobrzynski’s overview of the original article in Prospect:

For all its drawbacks for writers, the Internet has its pluses, too. Easier research, for one. And here’s another example: Two new websites in France are putting on display, for everyone to see, just how difficult writing novels (in particular) really is and how it was done by a master. Prospect Magazine has the story, and here’s the lede:

Flaubert, said Henry James, was “the novelist’s novelist.” And perhaps because he wanted to prove to his family of sceptical doctors that writing was hard work, or perhaps because he was incapable of throwing anything away, or maybe even because he was so in awe of the mystical powers of art, Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) kept all his manuscript drafts.

A unique internet literary collaboration that began in Rouen, Flaubert’s Normandy birthplace, now lays bare the innermost secrets of his anguished creative process. The 4,561 pages he frantically wrote and rewrote to become his 400-or-so-page masterpiece, Madame Bovary, have been transcribed by 130 enthusiasts from 13 countries and put online.

Flaubert’s manuscripts have been digitized, posted alongside the transcriptions at two websites: www.bovary.fr and flaubert.univ-rouen.fr/. It’s in French, of course, but anyone can gawk at the revisions. The Prospect article reveals plenty, too, such as:

* Flaubert wrote 52 versions of Madame Bovary’s most famous scene, wherein Emma sneaks out of her house at dawn and runs to her lover;

* He often produced 20 versions of the same page;

* He excised metaphors (“they attack me like fleas”, he said);

* He thought as he wrote, rather than plan what he would say first.

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Study for Skin I, by Jasper Johns

Two Countries

Skin remembers how long the years grow
when skin is not touched, a gray tunnel
of singleness, feather lost from the tail
of a bird, swirling onto a step,
swept away by someone who never saw
it was a feather. Skin ate, walked,
slept by itself, knew how to raise a
see-you-later hand. But skin felt
it was never seen, never known as
a land on the map, nose like a city,
hip like a city, gleaming dome of the mosque
and the hundred corridors of cinnamon and rope.

Skin had hope, that’s what skin does.
Heals over the scarred place, makes a road.
Love means you breathe in two countries.
And skin remembers–silk, spiny grass,
deep in the pocket that is skin’s secret own.
Even now, when skin is not alone,
it remembers being alone and thanks something larger
that there are travelers, that people go places
larger than themselves.

–Naomi Shihab Nye

This is for my favorite and only squeeze, D.

Naomi Shihab Nye is a Palestinian American and author of Different Ways to Pray.

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jb_dragon

Add fairytales to the list of things that may not be as old as you may have assumed. The argument made below claims that the origins of this material is more accurately traced to the print tradition than the oral one.

Understandably this thesis has been controversial. Folklorists, ethnologists and mythologists have strong opinions about what is culturally invariant, about archetypes and universal story lines. Like most issues that rely on interpretation rather than facts, this is one that can never be determined definitively. The safe and more reasonable answer is a blended one.

The report below is by Alison Flood in the Guardian:

In the 19th century, Scottish author and clergyman George Macdonald said that he “should as soon think of describing the abstract human face” as attempting to describe a fairy tale. More than 100 years later, scholars are still disputing their origins, with the latest clash arising over a new claim that, far from being passed down through an oral tradition, fairy tales actually have their history in print.

Ruth B Bottigheimer, a professor at Stony Brook University in New York, disputes the idea that fairy tales were handed down orally through generations until “19th and 20th-century folklorists hearkened to peasants’ words” and they were transformed into literature by the likes of the Brothers Grimm. “It has been said so often that the folk invented and disseminated fairy tales that this assumption has become an unquestioned proposition. It may therefore surprise readers that folk invention and transmission of fairy tales has no basis in verifiable fact,” she writes in her new book, Fairy Tales: A New History. “Literary analysis undermines it, literary history rejects it, social history repudiates it, and publishing history (whether of manuscripts or of books) contradicts it.”

She points to mid-16th century Venice as the starting point for a specific kind of fairy tale, the “rise” tale or Cinderella story, in which “poverty through magic leads to marriage and then money”, arguing that the specific economic conditions and legal restrictions of the area and age gave rise to the format, today the most popular kind of fairy tale. Laws at the time forbade marriage between a noble and a commoner, while the region was also in the middle of an economic downturn.

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Cinderella

“This was a mental environment that would have been receptive to a new kind of story line, one in which magic facilitated a poor person’s ascent to wealth. This was also the age in which stories that we can identify as rise fairy tales first appear,” writes Bottigheimer. “The elements that make up the fairy tale genre were all in place before the 1550s: the hallmarks of fairy tales – magic objects and sudden acquisitions of wealth – were not new in themselves. What was different was that rise fairy tales built in the kinds of generalised hopes for an improvement in their lives specific to the burgeoning populations of upward striving young men and women in early modern cities.”

Bottigheimer believes the “rise” genre was invented by Straparola, author of the circa 1550 collection Le piacevoli notti (Pleasant Nights), which contains the earliest known version of Costantino Fortunato (Puss in Boots). “You just don’t get that story before the 1550s,” she said of the “rise” tale in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education. It “beggars belief”, she added, that if there were existing oral templates for the “rise” tale before this time, they wouldn’t have been recorded. “It seemed to me that if I wasn’t seeing any stories like this, it was because there weren’t any stories like this.”

Her book goes on to suggest how “rise” tales could have passed from Straparola – whose collection sold well in Italy – to France, to Germany and eventually to the Brothers Grimm, emphasising the central role of print in the journey. But her views haven’t been received well by some of her fellow folklorists, according to the CHE, which reports a “hue and cry” at a meeting in Milwaukee in 2006, and an audience “up in arms against her” in Estonia in 2005. “She’s turning things upside down. Oral tradition is one of the fundamental tenets of folklore, and here she comes to upset it, and that is one of the reasons we reacted that way to her paper and her book,” Dan Ben-Amos, the University of Pennsylvania’s folklorist, told the CHE.

Other academics, however, suggest that the belief in an oral tradition owes a lot to nostalgic Victorian folklorists equating orality with authenticity, while still others say it is wrong to divide the complex history of fairy tales into either oral or literary, claiming they are likely to have had a multitude of sources.

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The Princess and the Goblin

George Macdonald, author of At the Back of the North Wind and The Princess and the Goblin, perhaps still puts it best, over 100 years on. “Were I asked, what is a fairytale? I should reply, Read Undine: that is a fairytale; then read this and that as well, and you will see what is a fairytale. Were I further begged to describe the fairytale, or define what it is, I would make answer, that I should as soon think of describing the abstract human face, or stating what must go to constitute a human being. A fairytale is just a fairytale, as a face is just a face; and of all fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful.”

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