August 2009

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Silent Letter

It’s what you don’t hear
that says struggle
as in wrath and wrack
and wrong and wrench and wrangle.

The noiseless wriggle
of a hooked worm
might be a shiver of pleasure
not a slow writhing

on a scythe from nowhere.
So too the seeming leisure
of a girl alone in her blue
bedroom late at night

who stares at the bitten
end of her pen
and wonders how to write
so that what she writes

stays written.

–Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt, poet, essayist and political commentator, has published a new volume of poems, The Mind-Body Problem. I found the core claim in her poem, that many tough words start with that silent first letter, to be a provocative thought. And the voice in this poem is straight on as the mother of a daughter, which she is.

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Ted Time

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The death of Ted Kennedy has brought an atmospheric inversion to Boston, one that holds the sorrow of his passing in the air, everywhere. Today the motorcade made its way through South Boston, not far from my studio, terminating at the Kennedy Library that overlooks Southie’s Carson Beach and Pleasure Bay. The sentiment heard most frequently? This is the end of an era. You can’t help but feel like we have come up short.

Two excellent sites have been developed by Blue State Digital for information about Ted and his legacy: The soon-to-be Edward M. Kennedy Institute
and the Ted Kennedy site.

So here are a few images and links to counter those feelings of loss and longing. As Howard Zinn artfully reminds us again and again, the good news doesn’t get reported with the depth that the bad news does. So here are a few high points from the last few weeks:

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South Boston MA, a block from my studio (whose campaign this is, I have no idea)
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Tomato plants growing on the roof of the B. Good healthy hamburger shop in Brookline MA
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List of animal sightings in Paradise Valley Wildlife Refuge, Lenox MA (double click to read in detail)
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Seen in Pittsfield MA
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And a few links to read or watch:

The opposite of pick-pocketing: Here

And finally, a link I have posted here before (a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert) that I find helpful to view repeatedly: Here

Artist, writer, creativity coach and friend Nadine Boughton sent this message to several of us yesterday. Her insights touch into the delicate corner turning that happens every August. It is as if the seasons give us a gentle nudge since what is to come is inevitable and sublime, especially here in New England. Her photograph and her words felt like a perfect fit for that interior preparation. Yes, it has begun.

For a glimpse into Nadine’s remarkably multifaceted world, visit her website.

Long Cove[1]

I’ve recently returned from two weeks on a pristinely silent cove in Maine, where the cottage served as a front row seat to the rhythm of the tides. One part of the day, the cove appeared as a lake with clouds. Hours later, it was a gurgling mud floor with herons feasting.

This experience has me thinking about rhythms, and whether dramatic or subtle, how the tides are shifting for all of us. These are certainly times of stripping away, realigning with our core values. And these are times of fear and confusion that call out for imagination.

My personal rhythm over the past few years has been one of diving deep in the waters of self expression, then manifesting art exhibits, a website and small books. It’s also been a period of spiritual inquiry, as I continue to sit with the dying and newborns. And I turned 65, marking the passage with an “initiation of elders” on the banks of the Colorado river. Now, I’m brimming over!

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Mad Women

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John Hamm as Don Draper (Photo: Associated Press/AMC)

If you aren’t a Mad Men fan, all I can say is, I’m so sorry. It is mesmerizing, especially for those of us who know that the brutally sexist world of the early 60s Matthew Weiner has created is authentic and legit. My kids can’t quite believe it. What can I say? Yes, I’m old enough to remember a time when David Ogilvy, the era’s anointed god of advertising, wrote the industry treatise in which he stated his unconditional belief that advertising was a man’s profession and that women had no place except as secretaries who eventually morph into suburban, supportive wives. Peggy Olsen, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, is our only hope.

And of course there is so much more in this series to chew on. This portrait of the dystopia that was American life in the 60s also includes other themes like pre-Civil Rights rumblings, closeted homosexuality, suburban/urban tensions, generational struggles, identity, freedom, Bohemianism, parenting misadventures and the evolution of consciousness, among many others. The writing is so smart.

Last Sunday’s episode even included an extended reference to architecture critic emeritus Ada Louise Huxtable in a discussion with the rapacious developers who will eventually destroy Penn Station and replace it with the still obnoxious after all these years Madison Square Garden. (Huxtable later described the annihilated structure as “McKim, Mead and White’s Roman extravaganza in cream travertine and pink granite, later soot-darkened.”)

The consummate angler Don Draper, played to perfection by Jon Hamm, tells the calloused developers how to change the spin of the dialogue with oppositional Penn Station Preservationists. “I was in California,” says Draper. “Everything is new, and it’s clean. The people are filled with hope. New York City is in decay. But Madison Square Garden — it’s the beginning of a new city on a hill.”

Who knows what Draper really thinks. His character has great presence in part because his is a highly layered, clandestine psyche. But watching this series is like being witness to an archeological dig, one that is in search of the Ur taproot of the cultural character of our nation today. The cultural dismantling that is to come—which I hope there will be seasons enough for us to witness in detail—will be extraordinary viewing.

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The Lawrence Tree, by Georgia O’Keefe. Photo: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, and Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

We spent several days last week in western Massachusetts, seeing Shakespeare plays and looking at art. There’s lots of both (plus music and dance) to be had within an amazingly small radius. As my travel wizard and friend Lesli points out repeatedly, a place becomes popular for a reason. The Berkshires have earned their stripes as a great vacation spot over years of building on a set of cultural offerings that are unmatched. This long tradition was brought home when I stood in the Fox Hollow mansion (formerly owned by the Westinghouse family and now the headquarters for EnlightenNext) and was shown the spot on the lawn where Tanglewood first began. The rest is, of course, history.

Two interior visual experiences stood out for me. One was the Georgia O’Keefe and Arthur Dove exhibit at the Clark, Dove/O’Keefe: Circles of Influence. While neither artist has ever been one of my inner sanctum influences, this show provided a context for the evolution of their work that was memorable and compelling. Unlike the staid and yawn-ish tradition of presenting an artist’s work in a chronological manner, the curatorial approach for the show was more organic and, can we say, rhizomatic. It did not require a start here/end here linearity, and the focus on the relationship between these two artists who were lifelong producers was much more of a free flowing exploration. Their interests coincide and diverge, than come together again. And the selections for the show are a refreshing break from the overviewed, canonical works that are so commonly associated with each of these larger than life figures. Some of the earlier works feel so open-faced and raw, far from the cliché of what too many umbrellas and address book covers can do to any good artist’s body of work. This is curating that shifts the experience quite dramatically.

And I was so pleased to finally see the Stone Hill Center, Tadao Ando’s structure that sits on the hill just up from the Clark.

A second memorable viewing: The Williams College Museum of Art, one of the most substantial college collections in this country. (And how cool that it is also free of charge.) In the introduction to a show of work drawn from the museum’s collection, the curator took issue with 20th century taste maker Bernard Berenson’s assertion that museums have an obligation to present only masterpieces and to provide the standard of exemplary excellence. Instead this was a show that brought together a variety of works which were interesting in their own right. Not obligated to only present the finest work by any given artist, the show gave more freedom for the viewer to maneuver and navigate on his or her own. Once again, more rhizomatic than linear, more open ended than elitist and prescriptive.

As for the visual feast that happens outside of a sequestered gallery, that happens everywhere—from the hike to the mountain top in the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Refuge to the pond full of lilies next to the Clark Institute to the gardens at the River Bend Farm. Lush, and more lush, all of it bursting out with a chaotic but hard-wired drive to manifest.

A sobering and heartfelt reminder for my return to the labor of indoor studio work.

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Lily Pond at the Clark

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Stone Hill Center, Tadao Ando

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Wood staining at Stone Hill Center

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Garden at River Bend Farm

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Photo: Cape Cod Times/Ron Schloerb

I offer a moment of silent respect for the passing of Michael Mazur, a larger than life presence in the Boston art scene for years.

Printmaker, painter and professional art advocate, Mazur’s absence creates a void of a very particular nature.

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Fall Mountains for Kuo Shi
Bowdoin College Museum of Art

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Wallace Stevens, right, with Robert Frost in Key West, circa 1940 (Photo, Alfred A. Knopf)

In today’s New York Times Book Review, Helen Vendler reviews the first edition of Wallace Stevens’ poetry to be published in 20 years. This new volume is the work of John Serio, editor of the Wallace Stevens Journal and by Vendler’s assessment, a person of “unerring taste.” I have an admittedly endless appetite for anything Stevens, so of course this is good news.

And Vendler’s review is worthy of a full read. The Stevens who was famously proper and private (many a graduate student tried, and failed, to pry some of the personal out of him) gives way to a man who, like the rest of us, struggled with life and experienced profound sadness. He was estranged from his parents and unhappy in his marriage. As Vendler notes, “because of his fierce reticence (rather like that of Emily Dickinson, whom he admired), Stevens wrote symbolic rather than transcriptive poetry. How differently might a reader take in ‘Burghers of Petty Death’ if it had been called ‘A Son’s Lament for His Dead Parents,’ or ‘The Snow Man’ if it had been called ‘Stoicism in a Failed Marriage’?”

As many times as I have read and recited “The Snow Man”* (it was one of several Stevens poems I memorized it when I was still a teenager), I did not think of those words as a reference to Stevens’ loveless marriage. Read with that as the context, the poem takes on a sense of the profoundly grief-filled exposure that exists in both the internal and external landscapes.

I also admire the way Vendler identifies the polarities that exist in Stevens’ work, a tension in his poetry that I find so compelling: “Stevens’s poetry oscillates, throughout his life, between verbal ebullience and New England spareness, between the high rhetoric of England (and of religion) and the “plain sense of things” that he sometimes felt to be more American (and more faithful to reality). He would swear off one, then swear off the other, but each was a part of his sensibility.”

Vendler also steps out to view his work from the larger arc of 20th century life:

Stevens’s conscience made him confront the chief issues of his era: the waning of religion, the indifferent nature of the physical universe, the theories of Marxism and socialist realism, the effects of the Depression, the uncertainties of philosophical knowledge, and the possibility of a profound American culture, present and future. Others treated those issues, but very few of them possessed Stevens’s intuitive sense of both the intimate and the sublime, articulated in verse of unprecedented invention, phrased in a marked style we now call “Stevensian” (as we would say “Keatsian” or “Yeatsian”). In the end, he arrived at a firm sense of a universe dignified by human endeavor but surrounded always — as in the magnificent sequence “The Auroras of Autumn” — by the “innocent” creations and destructions within the universe of which he is part.

A poetic sensibility of the both/and, and one that continues to feed, inspire, provoke.

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* Here is the full text of the poem which many consider to be the finest short poem ever written in English. (There’s lots of commentary on this famous work, but you can read a short one by Jay Keyser on NPR.)

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

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Goddessing

A Muse of Water

We who must act as handmaidens
To our own goddess, turn too fast,
Trip on our hems, to glimpse the muse
Gliding below her lake or sea,
Are left, long-staring after her,
Narcissists by necessity;

Or water-carriers of our young
Till waters burst, and white streams flow
Artesian, from the lifted breast:
Cupbearers then, to tiny gods,
Imperious table-pounders, who
Are final arbiters of thirst.

Fasten the blouse, and mount the steps
From kitchen taps to Royal Barge,
Assume the trident, don the crown,
Command the Water Music now
That men bestow on Virgin Queens;
Or goddessing above the waist,

Appear as swan on Thames or Charles
Where iridescent foam conceals
The paddle-stroke beneath the glide:
Immortal feathers preened in poems!
Not our true, intimate nature, stained
By labor, and the casual tide.

Masters of civilization, you
Who moved to riverbank from cave,
Putting up tents, and deities,
Though every rivulet wander through
The final, unpolluted glades
To cinder-bank and culvert-lip,

And all the pretty chatterers
Still round the pebbles as they pass
Lightly over their watercourse,
And even the calm rivers flow,
We have, while springs and skies renew,
Dry wells, dead seas, and lingering drouth.

Water itself is not enough.
Harness her turbulence to work
For man: fill his reflecting pools.
Drained for his cofferdams, or stored
In reservoirs for his personal use:
Turn switches! Let the fountains play!

And yet these buccaneers still kneel
Trembling at the water’s verge:
“Cool River-Goddess, sweet ravine,
Spirit of pool and shade, inspire!”
So he needs poultice for his flesh.
So he needs water for his fire.

We rose in mists and died in clouds
Or sank below the trammeled soil
To silent conduits underground,
Joining the blindfish, and the mole.
A gleam of silver in the shale:
Lost murmur! Subterranean moan!

So flows in dark caves, dries away,
What would have brimmed from bank to bank,
Kissing the fields you turned to stone,
Under the boughs your axes broke.
And you blame streams for thinning out,
plundered by man’s insatiate want?

Rejoice when a faint music rises
Out of a brackish clump of weeds,
Out of the marsh at ocean-side,
Out of the oil-stained river’s gleam,
By the long causeways and gray piers
Your civilizing lusts have made.

Discover the deserted beach
Where ghosts of curlews safely wade:
Here the warm shallows lave your feet
Like tawny hair of magdalens.
Here, if you care, and lie full-length,
Is water deep enough to drown.

–Carolyn Kizer

American poet Carolyn Kizer’s work is described in detail at the Poetry Foundation. Here’s an excerpt:

In an interview with Allan Jalon for the Los Angeles Times, Kizer explained her writing style: “I’m not a formalist, not a confessional poet, not strictly a free-verse poet.” Jalon described Kizer as, “Tough without being cold, sometimes satirical (she’s a great admirer of Alexander Pope),” and noted that “her work expresses a wordly largeness that repeatedly focuses on the points at which lives meet. ‘That’s my subject,’” concluded Kizer. “No matter how brief an encounter you have with anybody, you both change.”

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August City

I just returned from several days in New York. Some gallery shows and museums yes, but more than anything this was a set of days devoted to reconnected with old friends. Collen Burke. Eliot Lable. Mimi Kramer-Bryk and Bill Bryk.

One of the best moments: Walking the High Line in its late summer majesty of grasses and wildflowers, the city and the Hudson River in backdrop. I walked it at high noon and then again in the early morning, as soon as it opened. This is a zone of wild growing that feels magical at every hour.

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Bits and pieces of the protracted and complex story of how this elevated urban walk way came into being have come to me through various friends, and the High Line’s very existence is a kind of miracle all its own. But when you are there, you can’t help but envision the replication of this form of public access reclamation for every city.

And at another end of the same continuum of the “New York City in August” theme, this came in from my friend Andrew:

Those cooling water spouts in front of our friendly skyscraper are the perfect balm for these hot August days beside the sun scorched 9/11 site and always attract a share of tourists, whose children run shoeless and devoid of anger through the water and around the shiny sculpture, which the landlord’s website identifies as a “mirror-polished balloon flower.” I always thought it was a twisted body part.

Delmore Schwartz — who ended rather badly — obsessed about “the witness of the body” (as do I):

The heavy bear who goes with me,
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city. . . .

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Another note in keeping with the theme of Science: It works, bitches (see the posting below):

The New Scientist has also reported on research into the “smell” of fear. While the article focuses on particular research testing “stress sweat” and the brain’s reaction to it, don’t we all have our own personal experience of the correlation between smell and fear as well? I certainly have experienced the differences that exist between groups of people who have collectivized their states of mind to very specific intentions.

Here are just a few personal observations to that point. Waiting with others to be called to serve on a jury, I have felt a very different collective “aura” than I experienced in a room with a similar sized group who were about to embark on a group meditation. That shift in the group aura has a number of components to it—vibration, “geometry” (for want of a better word) and odor. But the collective energy makes what can be very subtle more apparent.

I am energized by the hope that more of the great unmeasurables of life—like fear as a smell, energetic states, vibrational differences, love itself—become more scientifically substantiated. That makes those elements of life harder to dismiss and a bit less furtive.

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