Poetry

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GreatSL

A Message from the Wanderer

Today outside your prison I stand
and rattle my walking stick: Prisoners, listen;
you have relatives outside. And there are
thousands of ways to escape.

Years ago I bent my skill to keep my
cell locked, had chains smuggled to me in pies,
and shouted my plans to jailers;
but always new plans occured to me,
or the new heavy locks bent hinges off,
or some stupid jailer would forget
and leave the keys.

Inside, I dreamed of constellations—
those feeding creatures outlined by stars,
their skeletons a darkness between jewels,
heroes that exist only where they are not.

Thus freedom always came nibbling my thought,
just as—often, in light, on the open hills—
you can pass an antelope and not know
and look back, and then—even before you see—
there is something wrong about the grass.
And then you see.

That’s the way everything in the world is waiting.

Now—these few more words, and then I’m
gone: Tell everyone just to remember
their names, and remind others, later, when we
find each other. Tell the little ones
to cry and then go to sleep, curled up
where they can. And if any of us get lost,
if any of us cannot come all the way—
remember: there will come a time when
all we have said and all we have hoped
will be all right.

There will be that form in the grass.

–– William E. Stafford

Last week my brother Tom passed away after a 13 month battle with cancer. My enormous and sprawling family gathered earlier this week to remember his life. The hole he left will never disappear. You just settle in next to the hole, and every day you remember that it used to be filled with an outrageously alive, hysterically comedic, rascally rule breaking force of nature. In the words of Anne Lamott, master of how to live with loss:

You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly, that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.

Limping along as we are, we also know that nothing stays the same. Groundlessness is life. Flying into Salt Lake, a drought-shrunken Great Salt Lake no longer keeps the shoreline where my partner David’s grandfather could swim from Tooele to Antelope Island. My childhood haunts in Layton and Bountiful are mostly paved over and suburbified. But Stafford helps. It is that form in the grass, as he has written, that thing you cannot see at first but can feel. But then you do see. Then you do get the image.

I believe that comes later.

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Nigrassa
Nigrassa, one of the pieces included in the show at Chautauqua Institution this summer, “On the Surface: Outward Appearances,” that has been sold and taken up residence elsewhere.

Ann Lauterbach, poet and educator, is the author of The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience. As is usually the case, her insights about poetry and poetry writing apply to other forms of expression as well. (I regularly rely on poets to articulate what I find so hard to verbalize.)

I don’t know if this is a technique that works for you, but the right book somehow rises to the top of my stack or falls off the shelf at an opportune moment. Open it up, and there is something that speaks to life at that particular moment. My erudite and book loving niece Rebecca Ricks recommended Night Sky to me several years ago, so I read the collection and left my markings on its pages before putting it on the shelf. This morning I was thinking about the show at Chautauqua that came down this week and about the paintings that have found new homes, and there was Lauterbach’s book sitting there ready to be re-engaged. A few phrases immediately jumped out at me, like the difference between seeing from the periphery rather than the center, and how the whole fragment (what a great term!) can be embraced.

These were the passages that spoke to me this morning which I hope find resonance with you too.

***
To write poetry in America is in itself a subversive act, a refutation of, and resistance to, certain assumptions about what constitutes “the public” and its interests.

Poetry protects language from serving any master.

One can see better from the periphery than from the center.

***
My fear is that my fragments of knowledge are just bits and pieces with too many unbridgeable gaps between them.

And so, in defense, I have come to celebrate the whole fragment.

***
Linear argument, where one thing leads ineluctably to another, is of profound practical and rhetorical value, but necessarily it discourages vicissitude and ephemera, ambivalence and dead ends, ruminations that suggest a different mental economy, one that could affect conclusions beyond the restraint of reasoning logic.

***
The crucial job of artists is to find a way to release materials into the animated middle ground between subjects, and so to initiate the difficult but joyful process of human connection.

***
Art serves no practical purpose, but to engage with it fully is to acknowledge the (pleasurable, if often difficult) consequences of choice at the crux of human agency.
***

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Dolice1v2
Dolice 1, 12 x 12″ on wood panel

Nigrassa
Nigrassa, 40 x 40″ on canvas

Both paintings are from the upcoming show, “On the Surface: Outward Appearances”, at Chautauqua Institution, June 16 – August 19, 2014

For us, honey is a gift; for the bee, it is labor.
–Jane Hirschfield

The poet Jane Hirschfield is a constant source of wisdom about making in all its many forms, and this line speaks clearly to what every writer/painter/musician/dancer/performer knows intimately. There’s honey to be had, but it comes after hours and hours of work.

In the same essay, The Circular Path, from the collection, A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith, Hirschfield includes a few more resonant insights:

***
Writing is an act that generates and expands attention. And if I’m lucky, I may write something that helps expand the life and attention of others as well.

***
Whatever people find in my poems of radiance or grace comes out of the struggle to turn away from disappearance and toward presence.

The hope—and the quiet sense of surrender—in these words is aligned with my own thoughts as I head out to Chautauqua for the opening of my show this week: On the Surface: Outward Appearances.

I’ll be back to Slow Muse next week.

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Mar Jee 3
Mar Jee 3, from a recent series

I have been spending some time contemplating where working and mystery coalesce. Here are a few thoughts about that by way of some wise practitioners…

Shaking the Tree

Vine and branch we’re connected in this world
of sound and echo, figure and shadow, the leaves
contingent, roots pushing against earth. An apple

belongs to itself, to stem and tree, to air
that claims it, then ground. Connections
balance, each motion changes another. Precarious,

hanging together, we don’t know what our lives
support, and we touch in the least shift of breathing.
Each holy thing is borrowed. Everything depends.

–Jeanne Lohmann

Jeanne Lohmann is a Quaker poet in her 90s. Her deep respect for the mysterious parts of life is evident in this poem. But she also speaks to the fundamental nature of making art itself day in and out: “What is the spiritual practice of poetry? I think we fool ourselves with such divisions, separations. Practice is practice is practice, and requires us whole, body and breath that animates.”

“Practice is practice is practice.” Reading that line reminded me of yet another quote about the need to do the yeoman thing, this one by David Rakoff:

The only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires the precise opposite of hanging out; a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating oneself long enough to push something out.

There is a tacit invitation to hold that taut point between the ineffable and the day-to-day necessity of practice, practice, practice. That pull is an ancient and essential tension, one that has been explored in every spiritual tradition both East and West. That is a pivot point many artists know about as well, one that defines their own very personal and often private wisdom path.

And yes, everything DOES depend.

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75.77_SL1
Boli (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

Bolis are abstract figures that are from the Bamana culture. The basic form, a bit like a simplified cow, is made from mud, eggs, chewed kola nuts, sacrificial blood, urine, honey, beer, vegetable fiber, and cow dung.

The role of the boli is to regulate energy, whatever is moving from the universe into this world. In Dan Beachy-Quick‘s book of essays, Wonderful Investigations, he sees the significance of the boli beyond its singular cultural context:

It is an object that keeps in balance a force, a spiritual energy, which unbalanced, could damage the world. Its likeness to a cow belongs to this world, this earth; its unlikeness to the cow belongs to the other world, the universe. It shares in both, and the oddity of its form is a result of the accuracy with which it performs its work. The boli is a form that attends to its own formlessness. It shows the body at the point of pivot between two kinds of existence. It shows the cost of belonging to two worlds simultaneously while being able to fully exist in neither. It is the object as threshold, a door which is open only by being closed. It is a symbol. It’s life is a symbolic life and brings us who believe in its power to our own symbolic nature.

Beachy-Quick is a poet, and he draws a provocative comparison between the boli and a poem (which, for me, is a reasonable stand in for many different types of works of art):

The poem on the page is no principality. It does not make a distinct place in the world, not does it make a distinct place of the world. It is not a site to travel to, not a place of destination. Rather, the poem denies location because it acts—as the boli figure acts—as a nexus between worlds, taking part in both worlds but belonging to neither, a threshold in which one must learn to uncomfortably dwell.

Given this view of things, it is not the reading a poem for understanding that is difficult, says Beachy-Quick. The harder task is to learn to read so that you can enter the environment that the poem opens up. “To think of poetry as an environment, as a space of initiation, is to learn to read so as to lose a sense of meaning, to become bereft of what it is we thought we knew, to lose direction, to become bewildered.”

We enter into a work of art to threaten the security of the knowledge we possess beforehand. We enter to be asked “a question we will not ask ourselves otherwise, a question that begins at the point of our certainty.”

These are such apt descriptions of what happens when we engage with a finished work of art as well as what we hope can happen in the making itself. Stepping beyond our certainty is what’s necessary for admission into that mysterious non-place between worlds.

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sultan
Blade, 6 x 7″, egg tempera on calfskin parchment by Altoon Sultan

Wonder, to preserve itself, withdraws. It withdraws from the mind, from the willing mind, which would make of mystery a category.

I remember being told a story about an old culture that believed the center of the forest was holy and could not be entered into. Even in the heat of the hunt, should the chased beast enter into the sacred center, the hunter would stop and not pursue. I think often about that line—which is not a line in any definite sense, is no certain marking, but rather is itself somehow without definition, a hazy line, a faulty boundary—that marks the periphery. One side of the line is the daily world where we who have appetites must fill our mouths, we who have thoughts must fill our minds. The other side is within the world and beyond, where appetite isn’t to be sated, where desire is not to be fulfilled, and where thoughts refuse to lead to knowledge. I like the moment of failure that finds us on that line, abandoned of intent, caught in an experience of a different order, stalking the line between two different worlds and imperfectly taking part in both. Such a place risks blasphemy at the same time that it returns reverence to risk.

–Dan Beachy-Quick

Poet Dan Beachy-Quick‘s book, Wonderful Investigations: Essays, Meditations, Tales is full of explorations around edges, boundaries and the invitation to cross over and into. Referencing Plato’s definition of a line as a point that flows, Beachy-Quick hopes that the reader of his book may find that point and “follow it as it flows toward that edge where the margin becomes a center, and the end of the book the hazy border to the wonder-world.”

How eloquent a description, and one that describes just what I hope happens when people invest the time to look at and be with my work. Once again I bow in appreciation to a poet’s ability to penetrate an experience I can feel but find difficult to articulate with words.

This concept also reminded me of one of my favorite posts by friend and artist Altoon Sultan on her always excellent blog, Studio and Garden, called The Burden of Content (which I recommend reading in its entirety.) She begins the post with this description of her own evolution as an artist:

Someone recently asked me why I’d stopped doing complex landscape paintings; I answered that I wanted to get closer to 20th century reductive abstraction, which I love. But that’s only part of the story: I also wanted to get out from under the heavy burden of content, the meaning––environmental, sociological––of those paintings. So this post is meant to tell the story of my journey, and it is related to my recent posts on William Carlos Williams, “no idea but in things”, and John Singleton Copley, “The Primacy of the Object”.

Altoon shares how her intentions and style of art making have moved over time. Starting with her early “‘portraits’ of domestic architecture” that expanded into an interest in larger agricultural landscapes, her focus just keeps morphing. Her eye moved in closer, and she became compelled by the very stuff of agriculture—the machinery, the implements, the silage. “I began to feel hemmed in by my content; what had motivated me before—the difficult environmental and social issues around farming—became extraneous to my concerns, which were formalist,” she writes.

And her final paragraph:

In 2010 I began to paint very small works on parchment; their compositions have become quite simple and direct….”no ideas but in things”….and the things are in themselves enough. I still find my subjects in agricultural implements; they have such variety of shape and color that they are of continual interest to me. But I don’t expect any story beneath them, any social/historical/environmental content; there is enough meaning and feeling and mystery in color/shape/form/light/composition.

Meaning and content are usually such loaded issues in the visual arts. Altoon’s ability to speak with such directness and honesty about her own experience of working through these issues is so refreshing, particularly with a topic that is usually fraught with equivocation and complexity. And where her work has taken her continues to be a wonder-world for me.

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A Truing of Vision

drum

The round object above is a Moroccan hand made drum given to me by my friend John Wyrick. It had one slight tear near the edge when I brought it into my studio several years ago. With time two fissures began to make their way slowly across the taut animal hide, following no pattern I would have expected. This self manifested morphing drum has become a talisman and reminder for me to let things choose their own direction. (The small painting next to the drum had such an unexpected resonance with the surface marks that I hung them next to each other for several months.)

They say it better than I can, those poets who who are willing to write or speak about the creative process. These quotes are from an interview with Jane Hirschfield* in Psychology Today:

***
It may be that some other writer is quite unlike me: reckless, feckless, undefended, fearless before joy and grief, pain and incertitude. For this writer I am now imagining, words come easily, perhaps to the point of glibness. For her or him, poetry will serve in other ways. Art’s marrow-request for shapeliness, particularity of experience, arc, may be what is useful. The increase of density and saturation that poetry requires may be what is useful.

What we want from art is whatever is missing from the lives we are already living and making. Something is always missing, and so art-making is endless.

***
I’m not saying that art is a matter of beauty, solace, or calmness, though it can be, and that can be welcome. I’m not saying that art is about rectification of character or making visible the existence of injustice, though it can be, and that can be welcome. I suppose I’m saying that good art is a truing of vision, in the way that a saw is trued in the saw shop, to cut more cleanly. And that anything that lessens our astigmatisms of being or makes more magnificent the eye, ear, tongue, and heart cannot help but help a person better meet the larger decisions that we, as individuals and in aggregate, ponder.

That the rearrangement of words can re-open the fate of both inner and outer worlds—I cannot say why I feel this to be true, except that I feel it so in my pulses, when I read good poems.

These words are earnest, vulnerable and ring so true for me. My time in the studio is silent time, but the conversations going on inside mirror Hirschfield’s words. Her “truing of vision” is a phrase that describes the many tiny steps, the hours of looking, the need to just be with a work as it evolves. “Art’s marrow-request for shapeliness, particularity of experience, arc, may be what is useful.”

______
*More from Jane Hirschfield on Slow Muse:

Your Own Way of Looking at Things

A Silky Attention Brought to Bear

Roasted Chestnuts and Persimmons

Spirit and Body

(Thank you Maureen Doallas for flagging this interview.)

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Sumi2
Detail of a sumi brushstroke, ink on rice paper

Twigs (excerpt)

Neither music,
fame, nor wealth,
not even poetry itself,
could provide consolation
for life’s brevity,
or the fact that King Lear
is a mere eighty pages long and comes to an end…

And so
it has taken me
all of sixty years
to understand
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.

–Taha Muhammad Ali
(From So What: New and Selected Poems, translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin)

Two thoughts from this poem are very present for me right now. One is the inconsolable brevity of life, a particularly poignant reminder at a time when someone I love is faced with the stark possibility of life’s end.

The other is the phrase, “a measure of splendor.”

What is splendid is personal and specific to every individual. But it is also a concept that is wide, expansive and limitless. As an artist I revel in those moments when my work brings a measure of something like splendor to someone else. And at the very same time, I long for that transcendent pleasure of splendor coming to me by way of other artists, writers, musicians, performers.

Existence comes with limits. It also comes with experiences that suggest things might be otherwise, those moments that expand us past the boundaries—whatever they may be.

______
Note: Taha Muhammad Ali (1931–2011) was a Palestinian poet and short story writer. Self taught, he ran a souvenir shop in Nazareth.

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yellow-porch.jpg!Blog
Yellow Porch, Richard Diebenkorn

Today’s post is from the me with my head under the hood. Here are a few thoughts about what happens in the making and the molding. Sometimes that part of the process takes precedence, when it is helpful to step back a bit to see if you can see a larger arc, a better sense of where you’ve been and where you seem to be heading. These three quotes speak to much of what I’ve been mulling over lately.

Element 1:
This list was found in the papers of Richard Diebenkorn after his death in 1993. (Spelling and capitalization are left untouched.)

Notes to myself on beginning a painting

1. attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.
3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
5. Dont “discover” a subject — of any kind.
6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
6. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
7. Keep thinking about Polyanna.
8. Tolerate chaos.
9. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Element 2:
The great question now is how to preserve and even honor the age-old stability of painting without falling into the trap of a frozen academicism. Richard Diebenkorn, in his figure and landscape paintings of the late 1950s and early 1960s, suggests a provocative balance, one worth reinvestigating. The bottom line is that each artist must now begin pretty much from scratch, obliged to develop both a personal conservatism and a personal radicalism. This is the painter’s predicament.

–Jed Perl

Element 3:
What matters is the shape-making impulse, the emergence and convergence of an excitement into a wholeness.

–Seamus Heaney

studio

I have written about Mary Ruefle’s book of essays, Madness, Rack and Honey so many times here that I thought it would be apropos to share one of her poetic ventures as well. I keep my copy of the slight but beguiling A Little White Shadow nearby. It is a visual and poetic pleasure to open it to a random page and see what shows up.

Ruefle-Mary-page2

Mary Ruefle, excerpt from A Little White Shadow. Copyright © 2006 by Mary Ruefle. Photo: Wave Books/Verse Press

Meanwhile on a more personal note…I am off to Utah for the wedding of my niece, the one and only Trina Ricks, who will wed Quinn Peterson. Back here next week.

TrinaandQuinn

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