Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Berryman and Birthdays

Thinking about my recent birthday led me to this poem by John Berryman:

Dream Song 112

My framework is broken, I am coming to an end,
God send it soon. When I had most to say
my tongue clung to the roof
I mean of my mouth. It is my Lady's birthday
which must be honoured, and has been. God send
it soon.

I now must speak to my disciples, west
and east. I say to you, Do not delay
I say, expectation is vain.
I say again, It is my Lady's birthday
which must be honoured. Bring her to the test
at once.

I say again, It is my Lady's birthday
which must be honoured, for her high black hair
but not for that alone:
for every word she utters everywhere
shows her good soul, as true as a healed bone,—
being part of what I meant to say.

John Berryman

Who is the Lady? Perhaps an image of the feminine divine? The poem has a prayer-like quality, given that it includes a plea to God to "send it soon," and a message to the speaker's "disciples." When the speaker says "my framework is broken," it sounds to me like the breakdown of a world view, or a philosphy, or some kind of belief. The speaker enjoins the disciples to honor the "Lady's birthday" and "bring her to the test." Perhaps she will pass a test of truth, as a "good soul" whose words are "as true as a healed bone," and express the speaker's ideas better than he can.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

A Bone to Chew On

I'm traveling this week, and I don't have time to do much in the way of blogging, but I wanted to give you something to chew on until I get home.

Take care.

The Dog of Art

That dog with daisies for eyes
who flashes forth
flame of his very self at every bark
is the Dog of Art.
Worked in wool, his blind eyes
look inward to caverns and jewels
which they see perfectly,
and his voice
measures forth the treasure
in music sharp and loud,
sharp and bright,
bright flaming barks,
and growling smoky soft, the Dog
of Art turns to the world
the quietness of his eyes.

Denise Levertov

Monday, March 14, 2005

The Something of Nothing

My sister is a planetary scientist, and one day we had a lengthy discussion about what scientists in her field call "dark matter." My elementary understanding of this subject is that we only know, or can identify and/or quantify, about five percent of all of the matter in the universe. The rest looks like nothing to our human eyes; but the possibilities of what this dark matter may represent are seemingly endless--perhaps parallel universes where our other selves are living out all the alternative paths our lives could have taken. Freaky, but cool.

The idea of what nothing can represent is fascinating. Consider this poem by Kay Ryan:

Nothing Ventured

Nothing exists as a block
and cannot be parceled up.
So if nothing's ventured
it's not just talk;
it's the big wager.
Don't you wonder
how people think
the banks of space
and time don't matter?
How they'll drain
the big tanks down to
slime and salamanders
and want thanks?

Kay Ryan

The speaker in this poem states that nothing is one big, unquantifiable something. Maybe it's like love; can you measure how much you love someone? But the unmeasureable nature of nothing does not nullify its existence. That's why to venture it is "the big wager." You can only venture all of it, not a part.

I'll add this gorgeous poem by Linda Hogan. Feel free to read this short essay I wrote on it.


Nothing sings in our bodies
like breath in a flute.
I dwells in the drum.
I hear it now
that slow beat
like when a voice said to the dark,
let there be light,
let there be ocean
and blue fish
born of nothing
and they were there.
I turn back to bed.
The man there is breathing.
I touch him
with hands already owned by another world.
Look, they are desert,
they are rust. They have washed the dead.
They have washed the just born.
They are open.
They offer nothing.
Take it.
Take nothing from me.
There is still a little life
left inside this body,
a little wildness here
and mercy
and it is the emptiness
we love, touch, enter in one another,
and try to fill.

Linda Hogan

Friday, March 11, 2005

Silhouettes of the Past

Yesterday I was sifting through a few boxes of stuff from my life, some things going back to when I was very small: piano recital programs, science fair awards, pictures of friends, pictures of me, writings, textbooks, and other trinkets. I do not enjoy this activity. I find it downright painful. Sometimes I see a picture of myself, young and naive and trusting in the future, and I feel a sense of loss, even waste. Why? I have a pretty good life. I'm not complaining. For some reason it bothers me to think about how I felt then that I could do anything. It turned out I couldn't. This is true for everyone. There are a finite number of things we can actually do with our lives, depending on our abilities, our energy, and our choices. So why does this bother me?

I'm not going to try to answer this today. Instead, I'll just share this poem that reflects this sense of the past at my shoulders, following me, haunting me, whispering to me. It is from The Antioch Review, vol. 54, no. 2, Spring 1996, p. 157:

by Joanie Mackowski

Flying behind my shoulders cormorants
head for the sea, and erratic, endless
stream of them; their rain-bent, pterodactylan
silhouettes set low over mercury
waves seem a bit severe--listen, lessons
in love aren't always tactile:
a tarot
of overturned clam shells brims in the tangled
waves; the waves are full of tattered weed
like asterisks--maybe tonight the stars
will take a risk and bloom like barnacles
underwater--I miss you I--red-wing
blackbirds cling to the cattails, seem to say
miss you o me too or sometimes ole!
and sometimes this song continues all day--

(Photograph from this page about cormorants.)

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

"Tears and Loss and Broken Dreams"

I have heard it said that "everything looks better in the morning." I have, in fact, experienced this; I have gone to bed inexplicably worried about something, then awoken with the sunlight feeling less anxiety and a more positive view.

Is it true, then, that everything looks worse in the evening? Is there something about the waning light, the dropping temperature, and the pearly moon that brings on melancholy?

This poem by Carl Sandburg (1868-1967) describes just that feeling:

Dreams in the Dusk

Dreams in the dusk,
Only dreams closing the day
And with the day’s close going back
To the gray things, the dark things,
The far, deep things of dreamland.

Dreams, only dreams in the dusk,
Only the old remembered pictures
Of lost days when the day’s loss
Wrote in tears the heart’s loss.

Tears and loss and broken dreams
May find your heart at dusk.

Carl Sandburg

"Tears and loss and broken dreams." Do you have this experience in the evening? Do you feel the weight of your life's losses and sadder memories taking up space in your soul when the sun goes down?

Monday, March 07, 2005


I fear to love you, Sweet, because
Love's the ambassador of loss.

Francis Thompson (1859-1907)

Loss is a part of the human experience. We lose things, time, and money. We lose friends and people we love. We lose happiness, joy, and even hope. Sometimes we think we're losing our minds. Ultimately, we will lose our bodies when they pass away and join the earth's soil.

In Western culture, we try very hard to avoid loss, the same way we try to avoid pain or thoughts of death. Loss is seen as a negative experience, even a negative word. Loss is difficult, and often painful, but inevitable. How do we come to grips with that?

In the following poem by Elizabeth Bishop, the speaker describes her experience with loss and how she claims to deal with it:

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop

The "art" of losing, the speaker calls it; something to pay attention to, to think about and analyze and not to ignore. Paying attention to loss--feeling its full emotional effects and taking the time to process it--sounds very wise to me. It is important to feel and process any kind of pain so we don't get stuck in it.

But, somehow, I feel the speaker is not quite being honest. Maybe it's the cavalier way she tries to deny the importance of losing significant things, like "continents" and "realms." "Even losing you," she states, insinuating that the loss of her love is the greatest loss on her list. Not "disasters," perhaps, but I feel a hestitancy in the speaker to claim the experience of loss, the pain of it, even perhaps the agony of losing her love. To state that the loss hurts would make her feel too vulnerable, and she is not willing to let on that her former lover had that much effect on her.

What about the "Write it" phrase? What do you think? Does Bishop's poem resonate with any experience of loss you have had? How does poetry or another kind of art help you process loss?

Friday, March 04, 2005

Fiery Connection

I found this gorgeous poem by Adrienne Rich at Poem Hunter. To me it stands as an alternative to the Clifton poem "fury,"in which a mother is forced to sacrifice her poetry to the red hot coals of a furnace. In Rich's "Burning Oneself Out," the speaker experiences a powerful connection with the burning logs in her wood stove, and describes the power of the senses to make us feel pulled out of time and joined with the thing we are observing. It is a transient but true experience.

Have a fabulous weekend.

Burning Oneself Out

We can look into the stove tonight
as into a mirror, yes,

the serrated log, the yellow-blue gaseous core

the crimson-flittered grey ash, yes.
I know inside my eyelids
and underneath my skin

Time takes hold of us like a draft
upward, drawing at the heats
in the belly, in the brain

You told me of setting your hand
into the print of a long-dead Indian
and for a moment, I knew that hand,

that print, that rock,
the sun producing powerful dreams
A word can do this

or, as tonight, the mirror of the fire
of my mind, burning as if it could go on
burning itself, burning down

feeding on everything
till there is nothing in life
that has not fed that fire

Adrienne Rich

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Artistic Sacrifice

"If a man fears death, / he shall be saved by his poems."

from Mark Strand's "The New Poetry Handbook"

The two previous posts have elicited strong responses from several people. It appears many of us identify with the feeling that writing has become a necessary part of their lives, as necessary as eating and sleeping. Others resonate with the idea that to destroy one's art is to destroy a bit of one's self, and a few of us understand this feeling from direct experience. Some of us have destroyed our poems, journals, drawings, or other art we have created out of a sense of self-loathing, or misdirected rage, or embarassment, or perhaps because, like Lucille Clifton's mother, we were forced to do so.

I am very curious to know of other experiences of people who have, at some point in their lives, destroyed their art. What circumstances caused you to do it? What feelings did you have as you did it? How did you feel afterwards? What does that sacrifice mean to you now? Do you still feel the urge to do it?

I will share an art-destruction story of my own. When I was eleven, our local small town newspaper was having a contest for kids. Every day they printed a picture of a clown, and I would cut it out and color it in. You could do as many as you wanted, then send them all in. The best colored-in clown won a prize.

Creating art in my family was dangerous. Any creative risk was met with suspicion and sarcasm from my parents, so I hid these pictures in my room. (I didn't find out until I was in my twenties that my sister had been writing poems since her childhood, and keeping them in a large binder. She has hundreds of them, all kept secret for years.) I can't remember what prompted my mother's rage on that day--she was prone to fits of hostility and depression--but I remember her throwing things, yelling, and sending me to my room.

What I remember best about the entire incident is what I felt in that room. Most likely it was a warped anger against my mother, but I felt it as an intense self-loathing, a sense that I was incurably "bad," because my mother disliked me so much. I saw those clown pictures sitting on the floor of my room in a small stack, and I hated them. I hated that I had colored them, had bothered to hope that I might do something special. I hated that I had allowed myself to become vulnerable enough to believe that art was worthwhile. I hated that they existed.

I grabbed at the stack and started ripping paper as fast as I could, tearing apart the clown faces with sobbing fury. Once I had reduced the stack to a pile of ripped, colored newsprint, I felt a strange catharsis, as if I could breathe again. I stuffed the pieces in my trashcan and lay on my bed, unmoving, for a long time.

This sacrifice of my art was a sacrifice of a piece of my eleven-year-old heart. But it also helped me survive in an painful family situation. I could have never shown that kind of anger to my parents without severe consequences, and the destruction of the clown helped me proccess it, albeit it in a misdirected way. Part of me mourns the clowns; part of me is glad I had the clowns to rip up so I didn't do it to my body. It's difficult to judge.