Wisdom

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Skeepa
Skeepa, from a new series

The New Yorker‘s Joan Acocella recently reviewed Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright by Sara Solovitch.

Stagefright. Being a visual artist comes with plenty of baggage, but this isn’t one that is on my list of potential afflictions. Meanwhile this is a disabling condition that affects a surprisingly large number of famous performers including Laurence Olivier, Daniel Day-Lewis, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Barbra Streisand and Vladimir Horowitz. Described as “self-poisoning by adrenaline,” a feeling similar to a “snail having its shell ripped off,” stagefright doesn’t happen in my painting studio, working alone, without an audience.

And yet Acocella’s article has resonance for those of us who are not performing artists:

Sometimes, when performers speak of stagefright, one senses that they do not actually wish it gone—that, for them, it is almost a badge of honor, or, at least, proof that they’re serious about their work. As musicians, especially, will tell you, what they are doing up there is not meeting an agreed upon goal but, rather, creating something new. Horowitz insisted that the notes in the score did not tell you what the music was. The music was behind the notes, he said, and the performance was your search for it: “I play, so to speak, from the other side of the score, looking back.”

There’s poetry in Horowitz’s description. It also is reminiscent of a comment made at an exhibition of my paintings in Ireland some years ago by a young student. After spending a long time looking closely at my work, he came over to me and said, “I think I know what your work is about. You are painting the backside of everything.” That line—the back side of everything—has remained one of my favorite descriptors.

Creating something new IS daunting. Seen in that light, a performer struggling with making that happen in real time on a stage does share something with the solitary artist, alone in a studio, working to achieve a similar goal. Sometimes that very effort can result in a disabling self-consciousness, relentless struggle and/or a proclivity to self-sabotage. While those Romantic era notions don’t serve the process all that well (my practical-minded opinion), they are still real feelings and obstacles that need navigating.

Which takes me back to Acocella’s review:

The idea is that the performing artist is a sort of Prometheus: in order to bring us the fire, he has to agree to have his liver eaten. “A divine ailment, a sacred madness”: that’s what Charles Rosen called stagefright. He said that its physical manifestations were the same as those described in medieval medical treatises as the symptoms of the disease of being in love. Many performing artists would be embarrassed to go that far. “People tell you that you have to be nervous to do well,” Emmanuel Ax says. “I don’t believe that.”

I play, so to speak, from the other side of the score, looking back, Horowitz said. As different as painting is from performing a Schubert concerto, I know that feeling that Horowitz describes. Perhaps you too have been in that place where you feel yourself move in and then through a form, a gesture, an intention. And that experience resonates with Horowitz’s image, like looking down or back into what that thing is. I love when those moments happen. It is transcendence, whether in a studio or on a stage.

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Mosel, the German valley most associated with Riesling wines (Photo: Friedrich Petersdorff)

I’ve been laboring to write about (mostly) art making and creativity on this blog for almost 10 years. One of the overarching themes has been the search for language that comes in close, authentically, to the experiences I have when I am in the studio.

Artists talking about making art are uneven at best although sometimes a Philip Guston or a Tom Nozkowski hits a sweet spot. So my most reliable source has been the prose of poets. The best soundtracks to narrate my personal creative journey have come from poets like Jane Hirschfield, William Stafford, Fanny Howe, W. S. Piero, Robert Hass, Christian Wiman, Mary Ruefle, Dean Young, Donald Hall, among others. Poetry and painting, the parallels are many. And the wordsmithing by poets about poetry is a remarkably useful overlay that maps onto the terrain of the visual arts very well. It’s like a cartographic graft.

But who knew that another exquisitely well matched overlay existed, and in the world of wine of all things?

It isn’t all writing about wine of course. More specifically it is the writing about wine by someone who approaches his topic with respect for what is ineffable, a someone who brings his language as poetically proximate as is possible to that impenetrable core. Call it beauty, joy, oneness. An extraordinary wine is a portal for him much the way an extraordinary work of art is for me.

Terry Theise‘s beautifully written book, Reading Between the Wines, has become my new touchstone. One of his first sentences captures the spirit of his approach and made it clear to me we were on the same wavelength in our respective métiers: “I have an abiding and evanescent concern about wines that show a strange force of gentleness that makes us grope for a language by which it may be described.” And from there the parallels between wine and art just continue to unfold.

Consider the distinction he makes between “noisy” wines and more quiet ones:

Many wines, even good wines, let you taste the noise. But only the very best wines let you taste the silence…silence isn’t merely the absence of noise. It is the presence of eternity. A wine that can offer such a thing to you is a wine that breaks bread with the angels.

He goes on to describe the experience of drinking these wines that allow you to “taste the silence”:

These introverted wines seem to draw some sheer curtain, and suddenly the world falls away. They banish preoccupation. They deliver repose. They embody a calmness, they channel the daydreams. And they do it with no perceptible effort. They combine a serene diffidence with a strangely numinous beauty in a poignant and haunting way. And such wines are full of flavor, often the most searching and complex wines we’ll ever know. But they hold you in their theta-dance, and some crust starts to dissolve in you, and you liquefy to your core, a place hardly anyone ever sees, and the wine seems to know you, like some strange angel…

If it moves you, and if you try to talk about it, you feel like a fool. You don’t have the language you need, and so you fumble, and people think you’ve been hitting the bong pipe. For you it is entirely definite as feeling and spiritual sense, but in language it is nebulous. How do we delineate between wines that enact and wines that reveal?

And that’s just from the preface.

My entire copy of Terry’s book is marked up with exclamation marks and underlines. It particularly touches into an issue I struggle with constantly: making the distinction between art that screams and art that whispers, between art that feels distanced and detached from the artist who made it and work that seems to still have its umbilical connection in tact. We live in an extremely noisy, extroverted culture. Advocating for what doesn’t scream to compete is hard work.

I also resonated with his description of a polarity that exists in the winemaking world:

Consider the schism between two groups of vintners and drinkers: those who feel wine is “made,” and those who feel it is grown. It is a fundamental split between two mutually exclusive approaches to both wine and life. If a grower believes from his everyday experience that flavors are inherent in his land, he will labor to preserve them. This means he does nothing to inhibit, obscure, or change them. He does not write his adorable agenda over his raw material. He respects the material. He is there to release it, to take this nascent being, slap it on the ass, and make it wail.

If, on the other hand, your work as a “winemaker” is all about the vision you have a priori, the wine you wish to “sculpt,” then your raw material is a challenge to surmount, almost an inconvenience. You learn to be expert at systems and procedures. You make wine as if you were piloting a plane, and there’s nothing wrong with being a good pilot. But terroir-driven vintners make wine as if they were riding on the back of a bird.

That’s a much more poetic portrait of a similar distinction I see in the art world than any efforts I have made to delineate how differently art making is being approached these days. As Terry points out, there’s nothing wrong with being a good pilot. But like his terroir-driven friends, I would much rather ride on the back of a bird.

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Kana'an 3
Kana’an 3, from a new series

Jane Hirschfield, poet and Buddhist, is my favorite guide to the overlapping territory shared by spirituality and creativity. In her books Nine Gates and most recently, Ten Windows, she moves back and forth between the artistic process and the interior life of the soul. In Ten Windows she writes, “The desire of monks and mystics is not unlike that of artists: to perceive the extraordinary within the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look.”

She continues:

Within a summoned and hybrid awareness, the inner reaches out to transform the outer, and the outer reaches back to transform the one who sees. Catherine of Siena wrote, in the fourteenth century, “All the way to heaven is heaven”; Marcel Duchamp, in the third year of the First World War, submitted a porcelain urinal to an art show, titling it Fountain. Both say: to form the intention of new awareness is already to transform and be transformed.

But how aware are any of us are of that process in our own creative efforts? Reading what artists have to say about their work makes it clear that intentions are often very different from results. Art historians still argue about how aware Mark Rothko was of the profound spiritual transcendence his paintings elicited in viewers. Agnes Martin doggedly insisted that her work did not contain references to the landscape and nature.

As we all know, saying doesn’t make it so. Freud and others have made the case that everything is autobiographical, that everything we do is a portrait of us. What attracts us and draws us in is all part of that unique matrix that is us, a unique blend of personality, history, identity, experiences.

But there is nothing fixed about that process. It’s a current we enter into, one that allows us to constantly expand what we see and what we understand.

Hirschfield again:

What a writer or painter undertakes in each work of art is an experiment whose hoped-for outcome is an expanded knowing. Each gesture, each failed or less-than-failed attempt to create an experience by language or color and paper, is imagination reaching outward to sieve the world. To make a genuine work of art, or even to take in such a work fully, is to tie a further knot of that fisherman’s intricate fly.

Sieve the world. Hirschfield’s metaphor suggests that understanding can increase, bringing the idea of accretion into the daily practice of making. Perhaps that is a more dynamic way to think about studio work than my old standby, the Zen koan phrase that describes what you do to reach enlightenment as well as after you achieve it: “chop wood, carry water.”

Or maybe this is best greeted with my favorite response to just about everything: Can we have both/and?

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agamya-2
Agamya 2

“May your imagination know
The grace of perfect danger.”

Those are lines are from the poem, For the Artist at the Start of Day, by John O’Donohue, the warmhearted Irish poet and former priest who died in his sleep at just 52 seven years ago.

Writing this poem for anyone who spends their day making, O’Donohue begins with the essential invocation to slip clear of the “sticky web of the personal.” It comes with “its hurt and its hauntings,” he warns. Once past the perilous distractions of the quotidian, the possibility then opens up to find the “rhythm not yet heard,” that “calls space to/A different shape.”

But my favorite line in the poem is these five words: The grace of perfect danger. It is a phrase that is so concise but encapsulates an enormous idea. I have had that sense many times in my studio, where precariousness lives inside a canopy of exquisite, inviolate sureness. That essential tension was a feeling I knew in my body but could not describe in words. Until now.

Perfect danger, with grace. That’s it.

____
Thank you Linda Crawford to sending the O’Donohue poem my way.

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Himnae
Recently completed: Himnae, 42 x 84″

We all have a favorite go to distraction we turn to when things aren’t flowing (or don’t seem to be, which is a common deception.) Books, especially really great ones, are my Balm of Gilead.

And right now, for whatever reason, I have a huge stack of new and “must read” books.* It is like someone brought a truck load of mangoes and emptied them in my front yard, all of them perfectly formed, fragrant and ripe.

Managing excess has never been my strong suit.

As deep and delicious as my book stack is right now, reading in that full immersion manner comes at a cost. Too much of it, even when it is so satisfying and insightful, precludes other things from happening that are important for creative practice. I’m a painter, not a writer. While books will always be an essential part of my creative life, they are not my métier. My work is turning ideas, impressions, hunches and evocations into a visual language.

I found some needed grounding from the poet Jane Hirschfield. In her new book (but of course!), Ten Windows, she articulated the work I need to do:

The mind does not remain rooted in any one statement; it, too, moves ceaselessly from one state to the next. One of the ways it does this is by musing—no accident, that word used to describe the ways in which thought’s more fluid transformations occur. “To muse” implies entering a condition of idleness, outside the responsibilities of the fully adult: a playfulness marks the self-amusing, musing mind. It lifts a thing, turns it over, licks it, sees if it moves; explores in a way that leaves behind both simple preconception and the directionality of strict purpose. Here, too, etymology reveals. “Muse” derives from the Latin mussare, meaning first “to carry in silence,” then “to brood over in silence and uncertainty,” and then only finally “to murmur or mutter, to speak in an undertone.” Musing, it seems, is a thing that happens best in the circumstances of quiet. Undogmatic and tactful before the object of its attention, musing does not impose, but bears witness. It quietly considers, and then, when it finally speaks, does so with the voice, respectful of other presences, that we use in a library, church, or museum—the voice used, that is, when we feel we are in the company of something more important than ourselves. The mind that muses is modest and un-insistent, permeable to what lies beyond comprehension, amenable to some sense of proportion and the comic. Arrogance reserves itself for the more self-involved.

To lift a thing, to turn it over, to take a lick. To sit in quiet, in modest un-insistency. That’s my job: engaging with the self-amusing, musing mind.

________
*
For those of you who are, like me, always on the look out for that next great read, here’s my current list:

Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal (and another book about Martin written by Briony Fer is coming out in a few weeks)

Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel, by Annie Cohen-Solal

Chatting with Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview (Thank you Kitty Bancroft for flagging this Getty Publication from last year)

The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st Century Art World, by Roger White

The Artful Universe Expanded, by John Barrow

Ten Windows, by Jane Hirschfield (her earlier volume, Nine Gates, has been quoted from repeatedly here on Slow Muse)

On Elizabeth Bishop, by Colm Tóibín

No Other Gods, poems by Todd Hearon (and so honored to have one of my paintings on the cover)

My Struggle Book 1, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, just the first of what could be a double digit volume set of this unexpectedly hypnotic account of an ordinary life (thank you book lover and kinswoman Rebecca Ricks for encouraging me to jump in now)

What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, by Lynne Tillman

Open City by Teju Cole (thank you Tim Rice)

Euphoria, by Lily King (recommended by the reliable book scouting team of Michael and Mary Pat Robertson)

And my favorite indulgence: Games of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin. After getting completely seduced by the HBO series, I had to research how the storytelling could be so expertly crafted. Amazingly, Martin’s writing is really compelling. Who knew?

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Sarah-Manguso-007
Sarah Manguso, photographed at home in Los Angeles. Photograph: Barry J. Holmes for the Observer

I read Alice Gregory‘s review of Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, by Sarah Manguso in the New Yorker a few months ago. I knew I would love this slim slip of a book, which I do.

Gregory’s review is so good—as is the one written by Maria Popova on Brainpickings—that I don’t feel the need to spend time explaining the curious nature of this book that is about writing a diary while never including a single line from that compulsively written, 800,000 word document. Manguso’s exploration is a memoir and a meditation, full of wisdom about about many things but most notably about time and how it passes through our lives.

Manguso’s sense of time and of herself shifted deeply when she had a child. “When I am with my son, I feel the bracing speed of the one-way journey that guides human experience.” She continues in this vein: “Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments—an inability to accept life as ongoing.”

After a lifetime of being fixated—I think it is fair to say obsessed—with writing down everything that was happening to her, she no longer needs the diary. Manguso arrives at this simple but beautiful place:

The best thing about time passing is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know. No more time, no more potential. The privilege of ruling things out. Finishing. Knowing I’m finished. And knowing time will go on without me.

Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.

One step more: Gregory ends her review by moving beyond the strictly personal and looking at how our lives are playing out in a 21st century world of social media, self reporting and ever morphing personal relationships:

One could argue that reading memoirs comes more naturally to us now than ever before. Our critical faculties and emotional voyeurism are primed as they’ve never been. Social media barrage us daily with fragmented first-person accounts of people’s lives. We have become finely tuned instruments of semiotic analysis, capable of decoding at a glance the false enthusiasm of friends, the connotations of geotags, the tangle of opinions that lie embedded in a single turn of phrase. Continuously providing updates on life for others can encourage a person to hone a sense of humor and check a sense of privilege. It can keep friendships alive that might otherwise fall victim to entropy. But what constantly self-reporting your own life does not seem to enable a person to do—at least, not yet—is to communicate to others a private sense of what it feels like to be you. With “Ongoingness,” Manguso has achieved this. In her almost psychedelic musings on time and what it means to preserve one’s own life, she has managed to transcribe an entirely interior world. She has written the memoir we didn’t realize we needed.

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fig01
Native American weir

Consciousness is a weir. What gets snagged in the watery carapace of life flowing through us often has meaning that is very particular and specific. It’s a bit like dreams, those cinematic wonders that are designed for and about only us. The wisdom that gets caught in our consciousness weir is a bit easier to share however, and I’ve had a few pass through these last few days that may speak to you too.

From the ever-extraordinary Rebecca Solnit, in her Orion piece called Finding Time:

The Four Horsemen of my Apocalypse are called Efficiency, Convenience, Profitability, and Security, and in their names, crimes against poetry, pleasure, sociability, and the very largeness of the world are daily, hourly, constantly carried out. These marauding horsemen are deployed by technophiles, advertisers, and profiteers to assault the nameless pleasures and meanings that knit together our lives and expand our horizons…

I believe that slowness is an act of resistance, not because slowness is a good in itself but because of all that it makes room for the things that don’t get measured and can’t be bought.

Solnit’s words dovetail nicely with Patricia Druckerman‘s commencement advice for the Paris College of Art, published in the New York Times:

Stay in the room. It needn’t be an actual room. You can be alone in a busy cafe. I’ve gotten some of my best ideas while walking, or riding the Paris Metro…I’ve never gotten a good idea while checking Twitter or shopping.

You need to be blank, and even a little bit bored, for your brain to feed you ideas. The poet Wendell Berry wrote that in solitude, “one’s inner voices become audible.” Figure out your clearest, most productive time of day to work, and guard this time carefully.

Always carry a pen, a paper notebook and something good to read. A lot of life consists of the dead time in between events. Don’t fill these interstitial moments with pornography and cat videos. Fill them with things that feed your work and your soul.

These are messages that speak to the interstitial, that space in between a something that was and a something that will be. Time zone displacement can create that in betweenness, but it also can happen when one large arc of work is finished and the next large gesture isn’t quite clear. As described by Interstitial: A Journal of Modern Culture and Events:

In the modern era, interstitiality, or the space between one boundary and the next, has become an urgent area of investigation. Existing within and between entities, interstices challenge conventional understandings of boundedness, inviting us to rethink the space between objects and ideas as an erupting site of transformation.

I’m there.

Note: Thanks to my ever resourceful friend and niece Rebecca Ricks for flagging the Solnit quote.

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birds

The headline in the Parrot’s Weekly read: Titantic Sunk. No Parrots Hurt.

–Katharine Whitehorn, quoted in The Artful Universe by John D. Barrow

Oh the power of a point of view…Parrots may not be your thing, but something is.

Washington’s poet laureate Elizabeth Austen speaks to our proclivity to narrowbanding in her piece, How poetry can help us say the unsayable:

We make our world by what we choose to see.

I wrote that line years ago, and have copied it from notebook to notebook, waiting for the rest of the poem to arrive. But lately I’ve begun wondering if maybe it’s less a fragment of a future poem and more a manifesto.

At first glance, it might seem like an endorsement of confirmation bias, that all-too-human tendency to only value evidence that confirms our existing ideas and opinions.

Confirmation bias is most insidious as it relates to beliefs we’re not conscious of: We filter the world around us, selectively noticing, believing and remembering things that affirm our ideas, all the while unaware of the unconscious editing we’re doing moment by moment.

We make our world by what we choose to see.

The operative word is “choose.” We can actively cultivate—seek out, take in, consider—perspectives that complicate and expand our view and, thus, our world. Or not.

And from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

From the mountain you see the mountain. We animate what we can, and we see only what we animate. Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them.

These jewel-like mantras feel very useful, and they will fit easily in my backpack of supplies as I head to “new to me” destinations in Asia.

It isn’t hard to get caught in a life that is way too focused on tracking parrots—or whatever it is that consumes the conscious mind day in and out. And as Emerson suggests, we can animate the world anew no matter where we are. But one of the best aspects of a trip to somewhere else for me is the involuntary shift in the frame I have been using. That dislocation forces my hand, gratefully. So yes, I am so ready for a full scale reboot.

I’ll be back Slow Musing in June.

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unnamed
From Astronomy Picture of the Day:
Milky Way over Erupting Volcano (Photo: Sergio Montúfar)
Explanation: The view was worth the trip. Battling high winds, cold temperatures, and low oxygen, the trek to near the top of the volcano Santa Maria in Guatemala — while carrying sensitive camera equipment — was lonely and difficult. Once set up, though, the camera captured this breathtaking vista during the early morning hours of February 28. Visible on the ground are six volcanoes of the Central America Volcanic Arc, including Fuego, the Volcano of Fire, which is seen erupting in the distance. Visible in the sky, in separate exposures taken a few minutes later, are many stars much further in the distance, as well as the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy situated horizontally overhead.

After reading my previous post about hiddenness, Mike Dickman alerted me to an article by Kathryn Schulz in the New Yorker, Sight Unseen: The hows and whys of invisibility.

Hiddenness and invisibility are different of course. Schulz is less focused on the metaphysical realms of hiddenness that Jane Hirschfield explores in her book, Hiddenness, Uncertainty and Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry (and discussed here.) Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, is a writer with an eye for the rational. She starts her piece lightheartedly by taking the counterposition—an actual 17th century magic spell believed to bring on invisibility (“Begin by acquiring the severed head of a man who has committed suicide…then bury the head, together with seven black beans, on a Wednesday morning before sunrise, and water the ground for seven days with fine brandy. On the eighth day, the beans will sprout, whereupon you must persuade a little girl to pick and shell them. Pop one into your mouth, and you will turn invisible.”) She quickly moves back to her more rational comfort zone however, discussing a new book by the very engaging science writer Philip Ball: Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen. The article then delves into the darker psychological implications of invisibility through a smorgasbord of references: Harry Potter (that cape of course!), Dr. Who, science fiction writer Douglas Adams and the story from Plato‘s Republic of a shepherd who finds a ring that renders him invisible (and all the trouble it causes, like sleeping with the queen, murdering the king and claiming the kingdom for himself.) As Schulz points out, “Broadly speaking, there are two reasons for wanting to turn invisible: to get away from something or to get away with something.”

But while Schulz does unpack many of the darker psychological aspects of our natures, she does not leave the sublime behind. Her final paragraphs touch into the enormity that is The Great Invisible, floating in its immensity as we are:

***
Almost everything around us is imperceptible, almost all the rest is maddeningly difficult to perceive, and what remains scarcely amounts to anything. Physicists estimate that less than five per cent of the known universe is visible—where “visible” means only that we could, theoretically, observe it, given the right instruments and sufficient physical proximity. A far smaller amount of the known universe, roughly 0.3 per cent, is dense enough to form stars. Perhaps 0.000001 per cent exists in earthlike planets. As for the part that exists in or near our own planet, the stuff that is visible to us in any literal sense: that is a decimal attenuating out almost to nothing, a speck of dust in the cosmic hinterlands.

Even here on earth, with our senses seemingly full to the brim, we see almost nothing of what matters. Molecules, microbes, cells, germs, genes, viruses, the interior of the planet, the depths of the ocean: none of that is visible to the naked eye. And, as David Hume noted, none of the causes controlling our world are visible under any conditions; we can see a fragment of the what of things, but nothing at all of the why. Gravity, electricity, magnetism, economic forces, the processes that sustain life as well as those that eventually end it—all this is invisible. We cannot even see the most important parts of our own selves: our thoughts, feelings, personalities, psyches, morals, minds, souls.

***
And more remarkable still: from our own tiny bulwark against the invisible, we have looked into what we cannot look at—inferred its existence, and, to a stunning extent, figured out how it works. It’s hard to know which is more astonishing: that the visible sliver of the universe should betray the unseen structure of the entirety, or that the human mind, by studying that sliver, could begin to reconstruct all the rest.

We can do this because the invisible, although it keeps itself hidden, makes itself felt. I cannot see the people I love as I write this, but I can sense their pull, and I act as I do because of their existence. Taken literally, that is how the cosmos works. An invisible mass alters the orbit of a comet; dark energy affects the acceleration of a supernova; the earth’s magnetic field tugs on birds, butterflies, sea turtles, and the compasses of mariners. The whole realm of the visible is compelled by the invisible. Our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, our universe: all of it, all of us, are pushed, pulled, spun, shifted, set in motion, and held together by what we cannot see.

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planetary1

Of all the poets who delve into writing, creativity and the nature of art making, Jane Hirschfield is the closest to my way of seeing things. I go back to her books over and over again. Now another to add to my library: Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry. These three essays were delivered as part of the Newcastle/Bookaxe Poetry Lecture series in 2007.

Those three words—hiddenness, uncertainty and surprise—are fundamental elements in my studio practice. As is usually the case, Hirschfield’s explorations are salient to poetry as well other creative efforts. Her strong interest in Eastern thought and meditation also spills over into the inner life as well.

The first chapter on hiddenness is full of relevance. That which contains the hidden—a poem, a painting, a musical score—is “inexhuastible to the imagination,” Hirschfield writes. “It is their inability to be known completely that infuses aliveness into good poems.” Poet Donald Hall has used the analogy of a house that has a secret room at its center. That’s the place where that which cannot be paraphrased or verbalized is stored. That room can never be used for ordinary habitation but its very presence changes the house. That unopenable room does not exist in the world or in the work of art itself: It resides in each of us. And yet the very existence of that secret room changes everything.

In the course of her contemplation of hiddenness, Hirschfield asks a biologist friend about her views of how it plays out in nature. I loved the answer she received: “For most of life on the planet, being hidden is the default condition…visibility is a luxury. Rarely are earth-colored tones the symbols of opulence and royal blood. We are most comfortable being hidden but we yearn to be seen.” (This is the biological version of the often quoted description of an artist from the writer and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott: “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.”)

A few more memorable passages from the first essay, “Poetry and Hiddenness:”

***
“Heard melodies are sweet,” wrote Keats, “but those unheard are sweeter.” A fidelity to the ungraspable lies at the very root of both biological existence and what we experience as beauty; the steepest pitches of the heart and mind make their own shade. Within that cool and dimness, emotions and thoughts small as new mosses and lichens begin the slow, green colonisations of incipient life.

***
Hiddenness, then, is a sheltering enclosure—though one we stand some times outside of, at others within. One of its homes is the Ryoan-ji rock garden in Kyoto: wherever in it a person stands, one of the fifteen rocks cannot be seen. The garden reminds that something unknonwable is always present in a life, just beyond what can be perceived or comprehended…it is our subjectivity of stance, not the world, that creates the unknown.

***
Hiddenness is the ballast in the ship’s keel, the great underwater portion of a life that steadies the rest. The thirteenth-century Zen teacher Eihei Dogen described its weight of presence thus: “…there are mountains hidden in treasures. There are mountains hidden in swamps. There are mountains hidden in the sky. There are mountains hidden in mountains. There are mountains hidden in hiddenness. This complete understanding.”

More about Jane Hirschfield on Slow Muse:

It’s the Honey

Silky Attention

A Truing of Vision

Safekeeping the Not Knowing

Your Own Way of Looking at Things

Necessary Wildness

A Silky Attention Brought to Bear

Spirit and Body

Roasted Chestnuts and Persimmons

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