“Yes, Einstein was a Badass.”

So declares Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History, and director of the Hayden Planetarium, in his 2017 book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.51kyOGIHeIL._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_

And that single quotation probably tells you all you need to know about how fun a read the book is, as one learns  about what we know (“Matter tells space how to curve; space tells matter how to move.”), what we think we know but don’t ( “Just how voidy is the void of space?” is one of the questions Tyson poses [it’s not very voidy at all, as it turns out]), and what we don’t know: what dark matter actually is, for instance. Though I am pretty confident that I personally know the answer to that: based on its characteristics and effects on ordinary matter –which can be detected– dark matter is obviously the unconscious of the cosmos itself.

Would it not have an unconscious if we do, since we ourselves are stardust? But that’s a post (and poem) for a later date.

Anyway, my brother, a software engineer who designs stuff that keeps the Hubble up (literally) and an astrophysics geek, gave me this book for Christmas, knowing of my obsession (is not too strong a word for it) with the more micro-focused quantum physics, and thinking it would be good for me to (again, literally) expand the scope of my physics-related self-education.

Which I have been doing with great pleasure by way of this book. I love the humor and delight in the way Tyson writes, making for a seriously laugh-out-loud science page-turner…which is also a substantial one. But what I most love is the stuff itself, and the mind-blowing, breathtaking challenge of trying to understand —even a teeny bit— the principles, laws and concepts of physics. I love it because their laws and concepts are ultimately impossible to fully comprehend, and yet we live in the most intimate relationship to them possible: we are made of the very energies and matter and forces and trajectories that physics attempts to comprehend. So to grapple with these intellectually and imaginatively is to plunge deeper into the mystery of oneself also; into Mystery itself. Into “more awe, more awe,” which is perhaps what creation asks of us, in exchange for the consciousness we have been given with which to witness it?

And it occurs to me that the practices of psychotherapy (at least as I practice it), of creative activity (ditto), and of theoretical physics are really pretty much the same thing (not that the scale of my understanding is equivalent!): different roads and means of transportation in the same direction. All three (as well as– needless to say– lots of other disciplines also) are about exploring the mystery of existence in all dimensions, and not about “solving” and “deciding.” The latter impulses and activities have their place –oh yes for sure– but as a reflexive reaction to a confrontation with the unknown, the impulse to reduce everything to a problem or a certainty tends to make the world of our understanding smaller, not larger, since it seeks to make things fit into the frameworks of how we already think things are, and to minimize or “solve” away the stuff we’re troubled by. 

Which brings to mind the beloved-to-me opening stanza of the poem, An Hölderlin (“To Holderlin“) by Rainer Maria Rilke (translation mine):

We are not permitted to loiter
even with the familiar.
From what’s fully-imagined the spirit
casts itself off and plunges
abruptly toward other imaginings
yet to be fulfilled.
Still waters are for eternity only.
Here, it is best to fall, to surrender
from the known feeling into the unknown one,
and beyond.

 

Or, as DeGrasse Tyson himself lyrically puts it: “We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out — and we have only just begun.”

 

 

 

It’s Always Lightest Before the Dark

Just before 5 a.m. the moon set, and it was finally dark, just before the dawn…which this morning brought to mind the saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

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And perhaps because at that moment that saying had no significance to me whatsoever (that is, I didn’t need its intended reassurance in any way) , what struck me was what a banal and in fact judgement-laden (or at best preference-laden) bromide it really is, not to mention a not-always-factually-true one.

Examined at face value (without the cliché of its significance, I mean), it is nothing more than a self-evident observation of phenomena. Of course it is always darkest before the dawn (except when it’s not, like when a late, bright moonrise complicates the picture): that’s what dawn is: the light that comes after the dark. Night comes, getting dark, then darker, and keeps getting darker until it starts to get light again, which light we call “dawn.” One might just as well say, “It’s alway’s lightest just before it starts to get dark,” which is also stating the obvious: that light arrives, peaks and begins to fade into darkness, which then deepens and is eventually overtaken by light. So to take that moment of peak darkness and invoke it as significant— as the “bad thing” (dark) that is overcome by the “good thing” (light)— is to make the dark about light, somehow, like the villain and the good guy in a story which ends with the good guy saving the day. Whew, the light is here, finally! It was not looking like things were going to end well… 

Making the dark the complication and tension in the plot, the “light” its denouement.

Which brings to mind an essay (“The Narrative Gift as a Moral Conundrum”) by the late, great Ursula Le Guin (which can be found in her 2017 collection of short reflections on many things, No Time to Spare)   51mqlEfbrGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_   on the difference (and the significance of the difference) between “story” and “plot.”  The novelist E.M. Forster, whom she as having had “had a low opinion of story,” is said to have characterized the difference between the two this way: “‘Story’ is ‘The queen died and then the king died,’ while ‘plot’ is ‘The queen died and then the king died of grief.’” In the first, she says, there is “succession without connection,” (bad, to Forster), while the second, by deliberately introducing causality, plot is introduced to make sense of the story for us. “Story goes,” writes LeGuin, and “Plot elaborates the going.”

LeGuin then goes on the make a case for the plotless story, pointing out that narrative itself has, by definition, movement…and that a narrative cannot be told without choices made by the narrator (what to include, what to leave out), which choices themselves are inherently meaningful.

Situation: a woman and a man are taking a walk from here to there. Notice that I myself just made a choice with that introduction —one had to be made— to begin the description with “a woman and a man,” and not “a man an a woman,” or “two people,” each one of which inherently resonates with a different significance when we read it, doesn’t it? Right from the get-go. Then, there’s the choice of whether the story of the walk from here to there will be told from the perspective of (or privilege the point of view of) the woman, or of the man?  All those choices (and many more) and their inherent significance are going on in the story, even without any introduced complications of plot.

And what I would argue is that that we have become (in the west at least) dangerously dependent on the structured arc of  “plot” (situation, complication, tension, catalyst, resolution) as a lens through which to understand and to make meaning of our lives. And when the only stories we tell and read provide this, they in effect continue to train us to expect it, and to look for it: for everything that happens to contribute to some ultimately satisfying (i.e. existential anxiety-lowering) making-of-sense which reassures us that everything is meaningfully about us, whether for good (in the plot sense) or for ill.

The problem with this is that it encourages us only to see that which fits into those patterns (or which seems to).  Which involves in turn rejecting all that doesn’t “make sense to us,” leaving us no more able than we were as children to tolerate pain and tension without needing to make it go away, nor to become any more capable of exploring questions and complications without seeking certainty (a position, an opinion, a judgement). 

But most of what occurs in the world does not, in fact, “make sense,” so to the extent we relate to phenomena and experience by way of our ideas of how things are “supposed to be” and “supposed to go,” we are not actually engaging to any significant degree at all with the Mystery of Being. And there is terror there, yes, but there is also (and nowhere short of there) awe, and —ultimately— freedom. And we can enter and explore the Mystery of Being in all its mysteriousness only to the degree that we are willing to relinquish the need for “meaning,” in the sense of needing it to be about us. That we are willing to be curious, that is, not about what experience and phenomena mean, but about what they are.

A question often invoked in couples therapy with partners in conflict is “Would you rather be right, or be close? Because you don’t get to have both.”  And I love that saying for the way it is as true about how we choose to engage in our relationship with All that Is as it is true for our intimate personal relationships. We can be “right” (decide how things are and how things should be, and live primarily in relationship with that) or we can be “close,” which begins to happen as soon as we drop our notions of how things are and/or should be…including ideas of what they should mean. To us.

So, to simply observe, then, that  “Light comes and then dark comes and then light comes and then dark comes and then light comes […]” is to recognize and acknowledge something more profound (and un-self-centered) than the reassurance that “It’s always darkest before the dawn” offers to our discomfort with pain: it is to observe and acknowledge instead the nature of  impermanence: of how things simply are in themselves, and of how they change, without seeing in them a metaphor for our own personal dramas.

                                                                   ***

An Afterthought: For these very reasons, I am more and more drawn to reading the kinds of stories that take me into a deep experience of a character’s experience, without the story necessarily ending in any kind of satisfying sense of closure, with respect to its plot.  In particular, stories which take me into the experience of what it is to be someone very different from me, living a life very different from mine. The kind of person who, in life, I might be more inclined to judge and avoid instead of seek to empathize with. The kind of person, for instance, who might join an armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Which is the kind of character Maxim Loskutoff (who is currently at Playa finishing the draft of a new book) writes about in his short story collection, Come West And See  (to be released in May by Norton). tumblr_static_dbbqt09z0jwog4s80wwkskcwwI love these stories, which I find richly, empathetically disturbing in the way stories are which take the reader up-close-and-personal with a difficult character’s experience, without providing the easy exits that judgement, irony or sentimentally offer.  I’ve already pre-ordered; for a preview, you can access links to many of the stories which have been previously published elsewhere (many of them in the Cimarron Review) through Max’s website: http://maximtloskutoff.com/books

“Leap Before You Look”

Along with walking and watching and writing at Playa (and other mark-making activity; see below), I have been reading a lot: mostly poetry (specifically, Rilke) and a book on astrophysics, both of which have been strongly informing and infusing my new work. But as I was preparing to post about exactly that, my attention kept being distracted by some passages and images in another book I’ve been reading (in fact I am kind of obsessed with it at the moment): Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957.

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Published in 2016 by Yale University Press, this enormous and exhaustively-researched compendium contains close to 500 high-quality color and black-and-white images (historical photographs and artwork), as well as interviews with and/or other contributions by a huge number of the students, faculty, founders, patrons and others who were part of this singularly legendary and visionary school of the arts in the mountains of North Carolina. And while so much content could make for a tedious read, author Helen Molesworth’s lively and deeply engaged writing style and organizational choices makes it an  enlivening and inspiring one. 

Many of the American poets (Charles Olsen, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, John Ashbery) and and visual artists (Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Annie and Joseph Albers) whose work I have been most drawn to were in some way associated with the Black Mountain School. And Warren Wilson College,  where I did my own MFA studies, was more or less modeled after (and often shared activities with) Black Mountain, which was located just five miles away. For both reasons, I have wanted for some time to know more about the school’s history and vision.

All that is about why I myself personally am so interested in this book. But it only occurred to me to post about it when I read what may be the best articulation I have ever read of the reason that the practice of art (which at Black Mountain was the only kind of required course; all other subjects were electives) is central —in fact crucial to—sustaining a democracy, rather than a frivolous pursuit, to be dispensed with when federal funding is tight.

Black Mountain was a college founded between world wars, and many of its faculty and others involved in its vision and curriculum were European immigrants. Many of those were Jewish refugees who came to the U.S. (or  who were recruited by the college to do so) to escape fascism and its consequences. People who, having been directly subject to (and/or in other ways involved with) the conditions which gave rise to fascism, and the resulting horrors and losses resulting from both totalitarianism and war, knew what was at stake with respect to an individual’s choice of how to spend a life in service of the vitality and humanity —even the very survival— of a democratic society.

And since we are living in a time when our democracy itself is under assault by our elected leadership, and our collective fear seems to be shutting down our abilities, individually and collectively, to listen to each other with curiosity and compassion (which is what fear does, and I mean at a physiological level), it seems to be particularly urgent to comprehend, articulate and defend the role and practice of art in our lives, individually and together.

So here’s the passage I wanted to share (quotes within the passage are from the school’s catalogs):

What most distinguished Black Mountain from other schools was the vital role the arts played in the college’s democratic aims. Both Rice and Dewey [Founders John Rice and John Dewey] believed that art—or the ‘art experience’—was essential for nurturing an individual’s capacity to participate in a democracy. The arts, according to Rice, are ‘least subject to direction from without and yet have within them a severe discipline of their own.”  […] “Through some kind of art experience, which is not necessarily the same as self-expression, the student can come to the realization of order in the world; and, by being sensitized to movement, form, sound, and the other media of the arts, gets a firmer control of himself and his environment than is possible through purely intellectual effort.” “The theory is that the process of making art hones not only observation but also judgement and action, so that students who acquire intelligence through art both notice what is happening around them and develop individual responses to it. In Rice’s words, “The artist thinks about what he himself is going to do, does it himself, and then reflects upon the thing that he himself has done.” By encouraging both self-reflection and the translation of thought into action, pedagogy at Black Mountain began with art to end with democracy.  (bold mine)

Selah.

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“Playa & hills, January afternoon.” (Watercolor, local charcoal and playa mud) DCH

So in honor of Black Mountain College and its visionary founders and artists and writers, here’s a poem I have long cherished by Black Mountain College poet, Robert Duncan.

Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,
that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein
that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.
Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.
She it is Queen Under The Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words
that is a field folded.
It is only a dream of the grass blowing
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun’s going down
whose secret we see in a children’s game
of ring a round of roses told.
Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,
that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.
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“Feet of Clay” . 2/3/18. Brown envelope, local charcoal, Playa mud and Conte crayon.

Between

It was a good garden, but I wanted it
moved from its plot uphill to the pond’s edge

so I could work by the water—green glaze
shimmering away toward some distant willows—

and near the house a marsh
bridged the shift from dry to wet, erasing

seams, the ground going softer, then spongy, then
sunken but still visible through a crest of reeds

where cattle shambled hip-deep and ducks
churned; all the swimming and flying and walking things

met, it seemed to me, in that marsh,
grazing and gulping.

And I wanted to transplant my garden into that turgid soil
against all sense; to bury rootlets of kale, leeks,
squash among the muscular grasses, the wild seeds—

So I stood awhile like that, passing my hands
through the shallows, imagining the joy of whole days

kneeling between those solid and fluid worlds; all day
dipping and lifting. 

                                          (“Between,” Donna Henderson. The Eddy Fence, Airlie Press, 2009

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Playa marsh grass, Summer Lake, OR, 1/18/18

The poem above was written over twenty years ago, from a dream which involved the longing and images it describes. Over fifteen years later, my friend (and sister-poet), Cecelia Hagen  urged me to apply for a writing residency at Playa,  an artist and writers residency program on the shores of Summer Lake, in Oregon’s Great Basin country– a spectacularly wild and remote part of Oregon’s High Desert region. I did apply, was awarded a month-long residency there in late March of 2012…and arrived to find that I had driven straight into the exact landscape of that dream those many years ago– a “place between” I had not known existed, but which poetry knew.

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Six years later, I am at Playa again, IMG_1367halfway into my third week of “dipping and lifting,” along with the 9 other residents which include another poet, two novelists, a filmmaker, a volcanologist and 4 visual artists.

In the Great Basin, a playa (Spanish for “beach”) also means a large, shallow alkali lake that floods in winters and dries up to a desert in summers. Summer Lake, where the residency program is located is such a playa, and since we are here in the winter, our view includes the water that covers much of its 20 mile length and 5-10 mile width…at a maximum depth (or so I am told) of 18 inches. With the constantly changing skies (the wind blows most of the time, whatever else the sky is doing) and with no clear delineation  between marsh, shore, and lake water, the playa is truly a “place between,” surreal and disorienting in its beauty and drama. It demands to be seen, not just viewed, and in doing so, we step into the yet-unknown in all kinds of ways. As Rilke writes in the poem, “To Hölderlin:” […] Hier ist Fallen / das Tüchtigste. Aus dem gekonnten Gefühl /überfallen hinab ins geahndete, weiter” (“Here, / it is best to fall. To surrender, falling, from the known feeling / into the guessed at, and beyond” [translation mine].

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This is what we have come for: the space and supported solitude in which to learn again to see, and to fall from “the known feeling into the guessed at, and beyond.”

Below are a few new poems written here, including (and ending with) the poem “Language,” which was written in french, and I can only say “arrived” in the night, inspired by Ahmad Jamal’s composition, Marseille which I have been listening to here.

But first a few others which are part of a poetic sequence collectively entitled Send Word ( which is also the title of my new collection-in-progress as a whole). For that reason, they are not individually titled, and instead simply numbered.

1.

Then light began its slow blaze over the blue-black hills,
glazing the lake’s dark muck.

I expected a ruckus of geese
but one did not arrive.

Nor did a wind stir the grasses to whisper,
nor shiver the waters in mute
delight.

It was to me then to greet it,
for me to rise
to praise.

 

2.

This was the thrill
of the new:

that I did not have to decide,
or strive.

–Love is the primary mission
of language,
I heard.

That I could listen inside of it.

 

3.

At last I can hear my angels.
They speak simply

of basic things:

        Eat more.

         —Slow down

        —Sleep now

No divine revelations—

but then I guess those are.

4.

 

So what of  Love in the primary mission of language” ?

I knew it was true when I heard it,

but I wanted more language to love it with,
what I knew.

                    Oh— I see.

That will do.

 

5.

 

I waited for the next poem,
patient and silent,
palms on my thighs, eyes
closed.

Waited some more.

—No more right now
I heard after awhile.

“If I use a red crayon?”
I asked.

No more right now.

 

 

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Finally,

Language                        

Language, je voudrais commander les langues —tous—
le mieux de caresser chaqu’un dans ma bouche, pour vous.

Language, je nage et mange de vous,
partout.

Language, je sent que vous entendez tout, tel que
le moment que je deviens perdu dans quelques vague regrettes,

desires, vous offrez vous: des mots,
mes guides certains dedans l’angoisse et through.

Language, chaque nuit vous informez mes rêves. Depuis
que vos arômes, vos sons et vos saveurs infuse

mes jours. Language, c’est vraiment infinite,
la vue par vous.

Language, lorsqu’a de temps en temps je quittais vous
Vous ne me quittiez pas, maintenant je sais,

jamais,
jamais,

Vous dormez pas ni départez—
vous attendez

toujours,
toujours.

Language, je suis content d’explorer jusqu’a but
l’infinité des routes que viennent et passe par vous,

bouleversée même par les petites rues
que par les grandes boulevards,
language, de vous.

Language, je voudrais commander les langues —tous—
bien de caresser chaqu’un dans ma bouche, pour vous.

Language, je nage et mange de vous,
partout.

Language, je sent que vous entendez tout, ce que
le moment je deviens perdu dans quelques vague regrettes,

desires, vous offrez vous: des mots,
mes guides certains dedans l’angoisse et through.

Language, chaque nuit vous informez mes rêves. Depuis
que vos arômes, vos sons et vos saveurs infuse

mes jours. Language, c’est vraiment infinite,
la vue par vous.

Language, lorsqu’a de temps en temps je quittais vous
Vous ne me quittiez pas, maintenant je sais,

jamais,
jamais,

Vous dormez pas ni départez—
vous attendez

toujours,
toujours.

Language, je suis content d’explorer jusqu’a but
l’infinité des routes que viennent et passe par vous,

bouleversée même par les petites rues
que par les grandes boulevards,
language, de vous.

***

(For audio file of my recitation of the poem, click below:)

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Dream Awake

This August, the Italian record label Ravello Records released composer Bill Whitley’s wonderful cd of new music, I Dream Awake. The recording includes “Little White Salmon,” a piece on which Bill and I collaborated (the music is all Bill’s) , and on which I also perform the vocals.  Since the poetry has (as poetry does) a music of its own, I have transcribed the lyric it below.

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But oh do listen to the recording itself also– it’s such wonderful music! In fact, I just learned that the cd has had thousands of listens on Spotify, and “Little White Salmon” its own thousands. TEXTURA online music review also just named the cd as one of it’s picks for the top ten classical albums of 2017!  (Read the glowing review here).

You can listen to a sampling from the cd (including the opening (“White Water”), read about the composer and musicians, and then buy cds for everyone on your gift list! All at http://www.ravellorecords.com/catalog/rr7971/

 

Meanwhile, “Little White Salmon”:

 

I. White Water

I stir awake—  

my restive limbo.

I stir awake—

my restive limbo.

I stir awake—

and sleepless, rest

a restless stillness

slips off like a sleeve, a spell

released I stir I shake I

swim and leaves swim, loom

and turn with me a swirl I

stir from sleep remembered

by my cells, by ancient selves…

A spiraling of cells and selves

remembering the snows and thaws and

humming summers’ roar and thrum

of falls continuous with us,

our very sinew even as

we’re new…

A gleam of blue, a bloom of green

they shimmer-glow

I go

 

II. The Eddy

I

wake inside a room of brown

and red — no sound I

wake inside a shadowed

leafy lake, still whirl of fallen alder,

maple leaves, of bracken’s ferny

wake.

 

III. Flow

 

Oh sleeve of sleepless rest,

Oh longing’s limbo, slide

away and I’m alive again

I rise

a dash

     a rush

it tastes like tin.

 

IV.  Mouth

 

Oh stun dissolved, oh nervy

stir of urges free to forge a way, re-

calling as we go, re-knowing

in the coalesce 

and press and flow

of cells

and wet

and light.

I plunge I slide I turn

I writhe through green and blue

with light and shine I push

against the current’s rush the pull

of time.

 

V. Flows In, Returns

 

Then: stone taste of the past,

a past when stone was flow

I waken into this: the ebb

and flow of all that was before

the stone that goes,

returns, is now.

*

I do not know this shape

I am, this red! Awake,

I try to shake it off

and fail.

*

I dream I die

I dream in yellows, blues and reds

I dream awake

I dream I-84 east.

VI. Eddy (Reprise)

The soundless room so brown,

red, shadowed, warm, a swirl

of warm and brown and leaves and

motes and ferny curls, so soundless

brown and warm.

 

VII. White Water (the return)

I stir awake—   my restive limbo.

I stir awake— my restive limbo.

I stir awake— and sleepless

rest, a restless stillness

slips off like a sleeve, a spell

released I stir I shake I

swim and leaves swim, loom

and turn with me a swirl I

stir from sleep remembered

by my cells by ancient selves

a spiraling of cells and selves

remembering the snows

and thaws and humming summers’

roar and thrum of falls—

a gleam of blue, a bloom

of green, a glow continuous,

the past and us,

the now, the flow.

 

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Little White Salmon River, Washington (photo credits: Wet Planet Whitewater)

The Passionate Poetry of Pattiann Rogers

Pattiann Rogers writes some of the sexiest science poems I know.

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And that’s saying a lot, given that the eros and mystery of the material world  has been the favorite subject of many poet-mystics and their poems…as it is mine.

So as I found myself wrestling recently with some nascent new work of my own, I suddenly wanted to re-read Rogers’ poems in particular, drawn to the complex, textured intensity of her imagination and gaze. Her poems reveal a deeply science-informed knowledge and almost forensic attention to texture and detail which become, in her poems, not a means by which to distance from the world, but to immerse in it more deeply…and from that immersion, rise to praise. As such, these are poems what are at once “science text and psalter,” as the poet Albert Goldbarth has described them, representing (and drawing the reader into) the kind of surrender to that passionate, vulnerable wonder by way of which we re-find our deepest, truest selves.

If angels were to agree upon a language to describe creation, a tone of voice and a point to view that would adequately celebrate the divine,” Barry Lopez has written, “these would be the poems they would write. For they would know that without love there is no divinity, and without passion life is dust” (italics mine).

Below is a personal favorite of mine among her poems, originally published in Splitting and Binding (1989), and included also in her 1994 “selected poems” collection, Firekeeper  (1994), the dedication to which reads,

                                                   “For the celebration,

                                              and for all the celebrants,

                                          every one of them, everywhere.”

 

***

For Passions Denied: Pineywoods Lily

 

Who knows what unrelieved yearning

finally produced the pink-and-lavender-wax control

of these petals, what continual longing

resulted in the sharp arcing of the leaves,

what unceasing obsession became itself

in the steady siren of the ruby stigma? That tense

line of magenta disappearing over the boundaries

of the blossom is so unequivocal in the decision

 

of its direction, one is afraid to look too long. 

 

I can understand, perhaps, having a hopeless

passion for gliding beneath the sea, wanting to swim 

leisurely, without breath, through green salt

and sun-tiered water, to sleep all night, lost

and floating among the stroking of the angelfish,

the weaving rags of the rays. And I can understand

an impossible craving to fly unencumbered,

without effort, naked and easily over sandstone

canyons, through the high rain of river-filled

gorges, to feel the passing pressures of an evening

sky against the forehead, against the breast.

And I can understand the desire to touch a body

that may never be touched, the frenzy to move

one’s hand along a thigh into a darkness

which will never have proximity, to take into oneself

the entire perfume, the whole yeast and vibration

and seethe of that which will always remain

aloof, a desire so unrelenting it might easily turn

any blood or pistil at its deepest crux

to majestic purple.

 

I don’t know what it is that a pineywoods lily,

with all her being, might wish for. Yet whatever dearest

thing the lily was denied, it’s clear

she must very greatly have suffered, to be before us now

so striking in her bearing, so fearsome

in her rage.

IMG_1320

 

(For more by and about Pattiann Rogers, visit https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/pattiann-rogers )

 

 

On Hesitation: A versay

 

(A “versay” is a form I invented; a kind of essay which considers its subject by means of the sort of reverie by which poetry thinks things through. This one was originally published in the Seven Thunders  newsletter [Autumn, 2006]. 

On rising this morning, two readings gave me     pause                                                             on the dogged course set by my “Tuesday” lists.

The first:

A Good Habit: You can add “intentionality to your day by pausing and taking a breath and then saying to yourself what you are just about to do. By placing these little pauses between tasks you bring heightened meaning to oven overlooked, so-called mundane things. Just before you answer the phone, take a breath and on the exhalation say that you are answering the phone with gracefulness. When you sit down for meditation, tell yourself what you are going to do, and then take a breath, sit down. This way, you nurture the subject self and avoid the automatisms of being an object self–that machine-like you that does just one thing after another without being present as a Thou. In time, you will not even have to put out the effort to do this; it will become “second nature.” (from The Way Through: A Contemplative Companion. #22, Spring, 2006, p. 2)

The second was this poem:

Hesitation: An Assay

Sometimes only a slowing                                                                                                                  

so momentary it can scarcely be seen–                                                                                          

as if a dog,                                                                                                                                  

chasing something large and swift and important,                                                                      

were distracted by the white tremor of  an overhead moth.                                

 

Other times a full lifetime tentative, lost.                                        

 

The line of the roof in the child’s crayoned drawing                                                                    

can show a hesitation almost fatal.                                                                                              

The rain                                                                                                                                          

comes to it hard or less hard,                                                                                                

knowing nothing of hesitation’s rake-toothed debate.

 

And the two lovers                                                                                                                          

now concealed around the corner?                                                                                              

They fool no-one, not even themselves,                                                                                    

pausing in their own shadows outside a locked door. 

If pleasure requires prolonging, then these lovers.

Yet slowness alone is not to be confused                                                                                          

with the scent of the plum tree just before it opens.

(–Jane Hirschfield, After)

When I read A Good Habit, I am gently chastened and directed, told how certain behaviors might bring me closer to (w)holiness. The words are met by the mind, and the mind is grateful: grateful for the focus toward behaviors which, practiced, might instruct the heart.

Reading Hesitation: An Assay (by poet and Zen Buddhist Jane Hirschfield), I am illumined, in-formed– a different quality of experience. In Hesitation, the very reverie which the poem contemplates –of which it speaks– is the one through which it also sees (this, I would argue, could define “a poem”). The words are met by the heart, and inscribed there, and the heart is directly instructed (from the Latin, in-struere, “to build into”). That is, it is transformed. No need, after (or not the same need) to willfully direct ones’ attentive behavior; the self which attends and behaves is changed.

On this difference between the effects of poetry and prose, Theodore Roethke wrote,

The novel can teach us how to act; the poem, and music, how to feel: and the feeling is vastly  more important. […] Once we feel deeply […] we begin to behave. 

And I feel so grateful for both of these: for the power of prose to chasten (which means “to purify”), by way of the mind, and for poetry’s power to aim from and for the heart. Grateful to prose for its power to effect, by way of the mind, the heart’s receptivity. While poetry is the way by which my heart (once receptive) actually receives.

On the dogged course set by my Tuesday lists, I hesitated,                                                            veered into this.

Then this:

Truth

Isn’t fixed       (I saw, and cut the                                                                     

“The” from its name above)

Nor does it change–

Truth is always in motion,

Belongs nowhere, to no-one–

Doubt’s its receiver,

Certainty the deaf ear

(What does certainty offer?

Only anxiety,

Only itself to blame)…

–Donna Henderson

***

Notes:

1. The Way Through, edited by nancy and Marv Hiles, is a seasonal publication of the Iona Center, Inc., an organization housed in the Santa Sabina Retreat Center in San Rafael, CA, “dedicated to the nurture of contemplative life through publications, retreats, and programs.” Correspondence and requests for sample copies may be directed to the Iona Center, P.O. Box 1528, Healdsburg, CA, 95448 

2. Hirschfield, Jane. After (Poems). New York: Harper-Collins, 2006

3. Roethke, Theodore, “On the Poet and His Craft.” Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965, p. 26.