Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Friday, December 31, 2010

Readings for the 12 Days of Christmas: John Granger

I had a great love first for George MacDonald (as a child and young woman) and then for the Inklings; some of them I have reread, some not. But I have retained an affection for their books and concerns. One of the people involved (via J. K. Rowling) in a resurgence of interest in the Inklings is John Granger. I must have discovered him some time ago while delving about in search of some piece of information about alchemy. And what I found first, I think, was "The Alchemist's Tale," a lucid little explanation of alchemy, The Great Work, and literary alchemy, followed by a discussion of Rowling as in the tradition of literary alchemy--an idea that is pretty clear early on (a wand with a phoenix feather! Albus! Rubeus! etc.) in the books if you have, as I have, read the whole series outloud to a child or wandered through them on your own. But if you are a Rowling fan, Granger goes very deep into the subject and has published books and websites on Rowling and Meyer (I haven't read Meyer, but he classes her as a literary alchemist.) And if you don't know anything about alchemy, the article is a great capsule introduction, both to the original practice and its transformation into story.

Here's an excerpt:


Literary Alchemy

If English Literature from its beginning to Rowling is front-loaded with alchemical devices and images, why is this so? What is the connection between alchemy and literature that makes these images such useful tools for writers?

I think the connection is probably most clear in drama. Eliade even suggested that alchemical work grew out of the initiatory dramas of the Greek Mystery religions.11 Shakespeare doesn’t just make asides to alchemy in his plays; many if not most of them are written on alchemical skeletons and themes. The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labours Lost, and The Merchant of Venice come to mind.12 Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory argued persuasively that Shakespeare built the Globe Theatre on alchemical principles for the proper staging of his alchemical dramas.13 Why?

If you recall your Aristotle on what happens in a proper tragedy, the audience identifies with the hero in his agony and shares in his passion. This identification and shared passion is effectively the same as the experience of the event; the audience experiences katharsis or “purification” in correspondence with the actors. Shakespeare and Jonson, among others, used alchemical imagery and themes because they understood that the work of the theater in human transformation was parallel if not identical to the work of alchemy in that same transformation. The alchemical work was claimed to be greater than an imaginative experience in the theater, but the idea of purification by identification or correspondence with an object and its transformations was the same in both.

Alchemical language and themes are a shorthand. The success of an artist following this tradition is measured by the edification of his audience. By means of traditional methods and symbols, the alchemical artist offers our souls delight and dramatic release through archetypal and purifying experiences.

That may be harder for some of us than the idea of alchemy as a sacred science. If you are like me, you grew up with the idea that reading was entertainment and diversion, and anything but life-changing. This idea, really only in currency for the last seventy or eighty years, is a gross misconception. Anthropologists, historians of religion, and professors of literature will tell you that the rule in traditional cultures, and even in profane cultures such as ours, is that Story, in whatever form, instructs and initiates.

In his The Sacred and The Profane, Eliade argued that entertainments serve a religious function, especially in a profane culture. They remove us from our ego-bound consciousness for an experience or immersion in another world. C. S. Lewis, in his Preface to Paradise Lost, asserted that this is the traditional understanding of the best writers, namely, that their role in culture is “to instruct while delighting.”

Alchemy and literature are a match because they both endeavor (in their undegenerate or orthodox state) to transform the human person.

* * *
Want more? Try here. And if you want more Granger, you can hop to wikipedia and check out the list of external links.

Illustration: "Old burnt door in Jerusalem" by Ekaterina Boym-Medler, graphic designer and photographer, Russian by birth but now living in Israel. Photo courtesy of Ekaterina Boym-Medler and sxc.hu.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Readings for the 12 Days of Christmas: Sébastien Doubinsky

WARNING

This is the reading for the sixth day of Christmas. However, do not expect It’s a Wonderful Life because The Babylonian Trilogy is not located in your literary and movie atlas anywhere near It’s a Wonderful Life.

UNDERWAY

I’m current reading French author Sébastien Doubinsky’s first book in English, The Babylonian Trilogy (P. S. Publishing.) I don’t know whether to say that it has been translated into English or whether Seb has re-formed the book from the original French book. Is it a translation when a multi-lingual author makes his own new book?

CORRECTED BY SEB

Mr. Doubinsky himself informs me that it was written in English! Couldn't that make a writer jealous?

He also has two more books coming out from P. S. Publishing (UK), and both of these were written in English: Absinth (2011) and The Song of Synth (2012).

CONTENTS, The Babylonian Trilogy


Introduction by Michael Moorcock

The Birth of Television According to Buddha
Yellow Bull
The Gardens of Babylon


My comments below are based on The Birth of Television According to Buddha.

BIO-of-SEB

Sébastien Doubinsky was born in Paris in 1963. Having spent a part of his early childhood in America, he is completely bilingual and writes both in English and in French. An established writer in France, Sébastien Doubinsky has published a more than 10 novels, covering different genres, from classical literature to crime fiction. The Babylonian Trilogy is his first novel published in English. He currently lives in Århus, Denmark, with his wife and his two children, where he teaches French literature at the university.

EXCERPT IN WHICH CLOCKWORK FATHER (Matthew Revert) LIKES SEB


http://clockworkfather.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/book-review-the-babylonian-trilogy-by-sebastien-doubinsky/


THE BABYLONIAN TRILOGY is comprised of three lengthy shorts set in the fictional city of Babylon. The chapters within each story are broken down into many individual threads that, as the story progresses, begin to bind. The structure of each story is fascinating and requires time for the reader to orient themselves. Doubinsky doesn’t allow you to linger on one moment too long before plucking you away and dropping you into another. Peppered throughout each story are aphoristic meditations about life that lend a distinct gravitas to the proceedings.

Rather than a story as such, I’d label THE BABYLONIAN TRILOGY a book about themes. The setting of Babylon is used to dissect issues that are so firmly embedded in our world that it’s hard to read it as fantasy. In the first story, an ever present, unending war is occurring far away from Babylon, yet, the tendrils of the war affect everything. From the soldiers themselves, we’re taken into the mind of a bloodthirsty journalist who just wants to exploit the devastation and capture the grandeur of death on camera for the distanced, pacified television audience to consume. We are introduced to a struggling author, with ALL the typical pretenses, who exploits the war in order to find elusive success. The second story concerns a detective on the hunt for a serial killer and smears on a thick topping of noir to invigorate it. The third story concerns the nature of Babylon itself and reinforces the previous two stories as three protagonists try and escape the city.

IN WHICH I QUIBBLE WITH CLOCKWORK FATHER,

and this is rather rude because I have only read one of the three books in the trilogy so far. Not that I didn’t like Clockwork Father’s review: I did. But I had some quibbles. Since he is Antipodean, I shall try to see how far I can go in being upside down from him, just for the fun of it.

Causality is rather bigger in this book than “themes” suggests. Actions (infidelity, say) have costs and lead to results and ensuing actions in many of what Clockwork Father calls threads. And causality suggests p-l-o-t, even if it is plot that doesn’t lead to tidy resolution.

(Side note: I don’t really think this way of handling a book is—while rather odd-looking on the page, perhaps, since some of the chapters are so short and sometimes playful in form—all that many miles off from the way somebody like Dickens weaves many threads into one fabric. It’s just that the world Seb Doubinsky has made makes considerably less sense than the one Dickens creates. That means that the threads can’t be neatly tied together. We can’t arrive at a happy comedy ending for the characters because there is no original happy world to return to—no happy state that preceded events and to which the story can be restored.)

Clockwork Father says that the issues (journalism as sensationalism, the hunt for fame, the inability to clarify the meaning of war, the writer’s temptation to “sell out,” etc.) are so true of our world that it’s “hard to read it as fantasy.” Some of what he says there is easy to argue against: a sequence like man becomes dog, dog flies, dog perches on the Buddha is fairly distant from our world and the chocolate lab I see by the door, pressing her nose against the glass to leave a cloud of nose prints and barking for a walk. But I see what Clockwork Father means, as the thematic concerns are familiar and strongly stated. While the place is “Babylon,” it is no long-gone city-state of Mesopotamia but a kind of version of the West, with some of its soldiers fighting in a foreign land; the concerns resemble the concerns of the contemporary Western world.

This is, nevertheless, a world with its own mythology and creation story that differs in fundamental ways from those that have governed the West. In this version, God kills Lilith, and Lilith’s lover “the Other” kills God. The narrator watches. God’s blood streams upward into the sky, an image rather like the blood of Christ that Marlowe’s hopeless Faust sees streaming in the firmament. But in this world there is not much salvation for anyone. The narrator (who is eternal witness, moving from tale to tale, only his name changing) knows that the ruler of this world is the Other and that the Other is insane. Insane rule means insane events and people who are not, as it is said, “adjusted” to life. The closest thing to a redeemer in a world like this one is the narrator who is all around the reader and characters and who moves through time and space, a narrator who can destroy and save.

The fantastic world view here stems from the idea that an insane spirit holds sway over the world. Essentially there is a kind of dualist religion: first God and the Other are at odds, but God is destroyed. With God absent, the world shifts to a second kind of dualism where the insane Other is balanced by the Narrator, who in himself is dualist and contains opposites.

LET’S GO TO THAT DISTANT WAR

FIRECRACKERS

“Watch out! Somebody screamed, as hell’s fireworks began to fall in a deadly shower, suddenly turning the jungle into a tragic Chinese New Year’s party. The soldiers began to run in very direction, except the right one. The captain fell on the ground, holding his belly Steve bent over to help him, but a violent shock on his back threw him to the ground. The wet earth felt sweet under his cheek Little by little, chaos began to fade, and the world whirled slowly out of sight. Everything was peaceful and turning black. So black he couldn’t even see his hands. So black he couldn’t remember his own name. So black he had forgotten to count.

HOW ABOUT YOU MEET WALDO THE DOG?

DOG

“You’re a dog!” she said, and suddenly Waldo realized it was true. He fell on his four legs and began to chase her out of the apartment, barking, drooling and growling. When she was gone, he curled up on the carpet and got ready for a nap. Right before falling asleep, he wearily looked up and saw that the world was much better when you looked at it from underneath.

WANT MORE WALDO? I DID.

DOG DREAMS

Waldo is dreaming now, sleeping on his favorite carpet. He is in a street, trotting along and sniffing his way through the city. The smells tell him beautiful stories that make him long and ache inside, wonderfully. The sidewalk is full of clues. No more riddles. No more labyrinths. No more fears of getting lost. Waldo is a good dog now, attached to his master—that is, to himself. Waldo smiles in his sleep and grunts with pleasure. He is holding his leash in his mouth.

THAT CURIOUS NARRATOR

THE NARRATOR, AGAIN

You are wondering who I am, perhaps.

Haven’t you understood yet? I am the colors in this text, the mysterious chapters and the thread between the words. I am the sound of the turning of the page, and the silence of your reading. I am with you and within you. I am above and under. I am the song of the trees and the satellites’ radio waves, the laughter of Lilith and the wind on the sea. I am the witness and the actor, the culprit and the innocent. I am the last face you see when you fall asleep, and the first one you meet in the morning. In the paper theatre of your existence, I am the candle which sets everything on fire, and watches you crumple and turn to ashes. But I am also the one who takes you by the hand and leads you out of impossible situations. I am the ink in the pen and the bullet in the chamber, the sigh of relief and the cry of despair. I have no name, but many nicknames, of all of which my favorite is, of course, the narrator.

* * *
Dear Seb,

I think it is entirely unfair to all the English-speaking readers of the world that you have only translated--re-made? re-written?--one of your books into our language. What are you doing in all that spare time when you're not lecturing or attending to family or writing new books or working with students? You're not too busy, are you? You've got those nice dark Danish winters with nothing much to do!

And now you will have to excuse me because I have a book to finish.

XD Marly
*
* * *

Also: Merry Sixth Day of Christmas!

Just a little message from my world, where no snow fell today, nobody quarreled, the tree is lit, and it's a wonderful life.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Readings for the 12 Days of Christmas: Viktor Frankl

How about an old book for today, though new to me--a reading from the only book shelved in the "self-help" area that has ever drawn me. It is also the only book I read this year that made me weep.

Flap copy: Man's Search for Meaning has riveted generations of readers with its description of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Between 1942 and 1945 psychiatrist Viktor Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the stories of his many patients, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose.

Born in Vienna in 1905, Viktor E. Frankl earned an M.D. and a Ph.D. from the University of Vienna. He published more than thirty books on theoretical and clinical psychology and served as a visiting professor and lecturer at Harvard, Stanford, and elsewhere. Frankl died in 1997.

* * *

"Can't you hurry up, you pigs?" Soon we had resumed the previous day's positions in the ditch. The frozen ground cracked under the point of the pickaxes, and sparks flew. The men were silent, their brains numb.

My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn't even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing--which I have learned well by now. Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.

* * *

Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious "Yes" in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. "Et lux in tenebris lucet"--and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.

* * *

There is little to tell and it may sound as if I had invented it; but to me it seems like a poem.

This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. "I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard," she told me. In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously." Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, "This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness." Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. "I often talk to this tree," she said to me. I was startled and didn't know quite how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. "Yes." What did it say to her? She answered, "it said to me, 'I am here--I am here--I am life, eternal life.'"

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Readings for the 12 Days of Christmas: Mezzo Cammin

I stayed up till 3:00 working on a promised Anglo-Saxon translation and talking with my daughter, and now must finish cleaning the remains of the flood--in-laws are due tomorrow. So for today's 12 Days of Christmas reading I shall quickly pilfer some poems from that lovely online venue, Mezzo Cammin, edited by Kim Bridgford and featuring formal poems by women.

Enjoy!

Maryann Corbett

Fist

It looks like knucklebones, the way the lines
fist up in fours, each rhyme a hardened stud
under a leather glove. Or meat-fork tines.
You stab with them; the puncture holes ooze blood.

It's built for doing damage. It's compact.
It lays its weapons down in ordered rows,
puts on its ninja costume, silk and black
and disciplined, adopts its kung fu pose,
waits. Is silent.

*************Then it whirls around,
flips on its superpowered X-ray glance,
and THWACK! your nemesis is on the ground.
(And, God, the satisfaction when he lands.)

You feel like watching someone's entrails twist?
Write one of these. A sonnet is a fist.


Jennifer Reeser


from Sonnets from the Dark Lady

1

In the old age black was not counted fair,. . .

The world knows black as universal sin.
No Paris stylist passionately swearing
The chic are rendered chicer, thin more thin,
Persuades the bon vivant into its wearing.
In black, the child is chased away, affection
And understanding, though it clothe demurely;
Compassion, color run from the complexion.
But since life thrives through compromises, surely
Let raven, sable, rook be my disguise.
Make murk my brow, in ashes root my hair,
That while I live, none but my master's eyes
May gain one aureole to find me fair,
And thereby--in fair finding--obfuscate
My mirror's counter and uncountered mate.


Barbara Crooker


Stone Fruit (A Sevenling)

Now they come in, all at once:
peaches, nectarines, plums; thin skins
that can barely hold the fruit, the juice.

But what I'm hungry for is cold soup:
cucumber with dill and yogurt, fiery gazpacho,
velvet avocado, with a curl of shrimp on top.

And at the heart of all flesh, a pit.


Annie Finch

Elegy for Her Mother

For K.V.

When your mother joined October,
took the questions from the earth
with her body, left you shining
with your answers, how did earth
close around her? Was it startled

by a further laugh of grain?
Did a field of hard earth open
over her, till she was grain?

Was she brought to flame again
in the mothers' month, October,
when the dead come closing in?
Was she made to a green flame
by a further laugh of grain?

Did a field of hard earth open
over her, till she was grain?
Was she brought to flame again?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Readings for the 12 Days of Christmas: "Mark this Flea"

On the third day of Christmas, I'm recommending an online 'zine, The Flea, edited by that cunning man, Paul Stevens.

In the Flea's own words: THE FLEA Broadsheets are a Seventeenth Century brainchild of Mr. Paul Stevens, upon whom the conviction periodically seizes that he dwelt in that era in a former life, and indeed was an associate of Jack Donne (one of whose metaphysical meditations has inspired the title), Andrew Marvell, Will. Shake-speare, Ben Jonson, Sir John Suckling, & diverse others.

The intent of THE FLEA broadsheets is to serve the Soveraigne Muse, by publishing first-rate poems which accord with Her Ideal of poetic Delight, in an occasional Broadsheet, using cutting-edge Seventeenth Century Technology, & state-of-the-art Alchemy; as wrought by the excellent skills of Mr. Peter Bloxsom of Netpublish, a cunning & learned Doctor of the dark electric Arts, who, in devising this Metaphysical Flea, to hop nimbly along the Hermetic threads of the Ætheric Web, is a very Dædalus for Craft, & yet himself a poet of most subtle Wit and Cadence, an Orpheus who masterfully plucks the poetic Lyre.


Sample poems, plucked from the swollen belly of The Flea, follow. For more poems or to learn something about these poems, sproing upward like the hoppingest flea to http://www.the-flea.com.


The Drift Glass
by Cally Conan-Davies

Along the spit of shell-packed sand,
while combing for the green, the blue,
the rarer bits of washed-up glass,

I nearly didn’t bend to take
the common piece of bottle-brown;
but shapes embossed across its face

intrigued me, so I picked it up
and found ‘TO BE’—a fragment phrase.
I showed it to a fisherman

and asked him what it might have meant.
He rubbed the risen words, and said:
“A warning. ‘POISON’ once it read,

‘NOT TO BE TAKEN’”. But it was.
The ocean took what hand had tossed,
dulled its gleam with salt and sent

the hazard to be broken up
by tides, the edges blunted by
the run of water over it

and let it drift onto this spit
as if pronouncing from the sea
the curse, the cure, the cusp—to me.


Takeoff
by Janet Kenny

Fasten your seat belt, close your eyes, ignore
the musical panic caused by what you hear,
count very slowly as the engines roar,
clutch at the arm rest as the time draws near
for that unstable moment as the vast
body turns round and moves towards the spot
where it will snarl and tear along so fast
that you relive your past, then like a shot,
up, bumping through the cloud towards the sun
breaking the hold of earth with jolts till high,
suddenly freedom floats you through the spun
wisps Leonardo dreamed of in a sky
he never saw except inside his brain.
You are his heir, through you he lives again.

While I claim to have swooped down on these fleas and pinched them between my fingers with an arbitrary hand, I am not quite telling the truth here, because who can resist plucking up a ditty with the swinging name of "Whigamaleerie," by a poet named Snoddie?

Whigmaleerie
by Alec Snoddie

Oh what a pass we’ve reached, dear wife,
worn down by constant stress and strife,
the arguments like knife on knife,
**the world grown dreary.
Of all but gentler drums and fife
**my heart is weary.

Once, and counting this no fault,
I lived at a lick with hardly a halt.
You mind when I glaggered for sweet and salt
**and was hearty and beery?
But now I am wed tae the merciless malt,
**and oh, my dearie!

The Flea is stout with blood, and you may find Clive James and Ann Drysdale and Anna Evans and many another swimming about in its great blood-belly. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Readings for the 12 Days of Christmas: Makoto Fujimura

The 24th ended 12 Readings for Advent. The 25th began Readings for the 12 Days of Christmas. Each of these series deal with artists and writers I know--mostly in person, but occasionally via correspondence.

Today's artist-and-also-writer is Makoto Fujimura; this and other lovely, thoughtful essays by him may be found at http://www.makotofujimura.com/.

Makoto Fujimura is a fascinating person whose Nihongan painting is known worldwide, and who has labored not just as a painter and writer but as a sort of catalyst for the arts. I was lucky enough to see Mako twice a year for three years through a national working group directed by Miroslav Volf of the Yale Divinity School. I had the great fun of doing a collaborative project with him--he dared me to write something based on the Ten Commandments, and I wrote not the essay I was supposed to write but a nine-part and rather strange fiction (Why nine? Combined two!) Meanwhile he did a group of small paintings to go with the story. We presented the project as a reading and talk and art show twice at a Divinity School conference. Makoto Fujimura struck me as the perfect artist to celebrate on the Second Day of Christmas, when the Day is done and the time with much to do and make and be is begun.

In the essay below, you may notice that he has a love for the story of the anointing of Christ--the broken jar, the pouring out of the costly ointment. This feeling for the story relates in secretive, deep ways to his work, for his Nihongan-style paintings make use of the most precious materials: lapis lazuli, malachite, gold leaf, cinnabar, and other powdered materials mixed with traditional unguent. Something precious is broken in order to give a greater gift, an idea that fits the story of Jesus and the jar of ointment is several different ways. I've been lucky enough to see many of his paintings and get to visit Mako in his Chelsea studio--and this month I saw several more pieces on loan to SUNY-Oneonta. A viewer does indeed have a strong sense of the beauty of both materials and work and is likely to drift deeply into his rich, crystalline layers.

Here is the biographical sketch snipped from his website. It hardly covers his manifold activities or suggests the enormous ambition of an organization like International Arts Movement, but I steal it because the idea of encompassing all that he is seems daunting: Makoto Fujimura is an artist, writer, and speaker who is recognized worldwide as a cultural influencer by both faith-based and secular media. A Presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts (2003-2009), Fujimura has contributed internationally as an advocate for the arts, speaking with decision makers and advising governmental policies on the arts. Fujimura’s work is exhibited at galleries around the world, including Dillon Gallery (New York), Sen Gallery (Tokyo), The Contemporary Museum of Tokyo, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts Museum and Oxford House, Taiku Place (Hong Kong). He has painted live on stage at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall as part of an ongoing collaboration with composer and percussionist Susie Ibarra. A popular speaker, he has lectured at numerous conferences and universities, including the Aspen Institute, Yale, Princeton, the Q Conference, and IAM’s Encounter 10. Fujimura’s second book, Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art and Culture, is a collection of essays bringing people of all backgrounds together in conversation and meditation on culture, art, and humanity. Fujimura founded the International Arts Movement in 1992.

And here is his "A Letter to Young Artists," meant to reach artists of all persuasions--no matter their precise vocation in art and whether religious or not.

Dear Young Artist:

Remember your first love—how much you enjoyed creating as a child. If you ever lose that sense of joy, you will need to reflect on why you lost that spark. Of course, the craft of expression takes much “dying to self” and much discipline. A discipline of any form takes perseverance. But when we are going through a period of training, we must remember the reason for our training. Our journey needs to have a specific direction. Our direction need not be toward being successful and being famous. We need to start from your first love; what we cherish, what we are, and what we value. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”

C. S. Lewis writes about what the Bible calls the “Good News”: “God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature” (Mere Christianity, p. 167). The message of Jesus has been distorted in recent times in culture. The gospel of Jesus is not a message that we can be trained to run faster and jump higher in a race of moralism. The historic work of Jesus is still relevant in the Twenty-First Century because, despite the advancement in technology and communication, the distance between us is greater, and the bloodshed of hatred continues to spill, spreading our “Ground Zero” conditions all over the world. We cannot possibly meet God’s standard of righteousness and goodness. We do not love each other. We cannot even keep our own promises, let alone God’s commands. St. Paul reflects on his own efforts of trying to meet God’s standard and confesses: “What a wretched man I am!” (Romans 7:24) And he emphatically states, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus’ love for us can only be received as a gift. Only when we rest upon himas a gift,does he give us wings, to hover between heaven and earth. These wings are gifts of grace, aligned to the original intention for our being. Our journey will begin in a Garden and end in a City. We are headed toward the City of God, a reconciled city, humanity, nature and God.

Since I do not assume you to be necessarily religious, let me call this state of flight “future grace.” When we focus on future grace, then our current reality of frustration becomes an opportunity, not a set back. We will, no doubt, battle with our pride, our ego, in doing so. We have been taught to be self-sufficient, that the ego is the only source of creativity. Lewis’ suggestion is that there is a greater source outside of ourselves to create from. There will be a quiet joy even within that wrestling. In that world to come, you are already famous and successful. You just can’t hear the sounds of accolades yet. You already know that the creative journey is not an easy one. Lewis continues in the same passage, “But there may be a period, while the wings are just beginning to grow, when it cannot do so…The lumps on the shoulders…may even give it an awkward appearance.”

Have you ever felt awkward, and felt the “lumps”? If you are an artist, perhaps you began your journey realizing that you are different from others. We have gotten used to having these “lumps” and accepted the fact that to the world the “lumps” looks strange and unnatural. Your teachers and your friends may not fully understand your intuition to try to fly with your winged “lumps.” What started out, at first, as trying to be yourself, may have become an effort to shield and protect your true identity from the world. Perhaps rebellion became the only path you could journey on. Your “lumps” became a defense mechanism, or even a weapon.

What if Lewis is right, and you are destined to “fly”? What if our awkwardness, and our uniqueness points to the potential of the person we are meant to become? In order to learn to fly, you need to be patient, and ready to experience many failures; we need an environment where we can fail often, but you also need opportunities to peer into the wonders and mysteries of the vista of the world to come. Since many, including those in the institutions of the schools or churches, will not understand, you may have to create “fellowship” yourself. Do not be surprised by their rejections.

In Mark chapter 14, there is a story of a woman who broke all the social rules to get to Jesus, in a small room full of his male disciples. Mary brought a jar she had been saving for her wedding, and we are told that the jar of nard cost a person’s annual wages. When Mary barged in, broke the jar and poured her expensive perfumed oil upon Jesus’ feet, Judas and the other disciples responded, “What a waste!” In the same way the world may see what you do and see what you are doing as wasteful extravagance. The male disciples were shocked because what she did was not only extravagant, but sexual. The only time that aroma of perfume wafts into the air is on wedding nights! But Jesus said to all: “Leave her alone… Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me… I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mark 14:6, 9). What a commendation! Jesus, the ultimate Artist, recognized Mary as an artist, transgressing in love*.

Strict moralism has never produced great art. Like Mary’s expensive oil, our expression flows out as a response to grace in our lives. Even if you are not cognizant of a grace reality, you can still create in the possibility of future grace. That takes faith to do, but if you can do that, you will be joining so many artists of the past who wrestled deeply with faith, doubt, poverty, rejection, longing and yet chose to create. Know that the author of creativity longs for you to barge in, break open the gift you have been saving; he will not only receive you, he can bring you purpose behind the battle, and rebuke those who reject you. Mary’s oil was the only thing Jesus wore to the cross. He was stripped of everything else, but art can sometimes endure even torture. A friend of mine said that in the aroma of Christ, Mary’s oil mixed with Christ’s blood and sweat, there are da Vincis and Bachs floating about. He will bring your art, music and dance to the darkness of death, and into the resurrection of the third day.

So endeavor to create generatively. Don’t be a critic when you create. You can look at your work later and discern what is good. Your growth as an artist is not in being able to impress others, or even God.

Growth comes by understanding how limited you are. Learning to use your wings means learning the discipline as a means to grace. Give yourself boundaries and goals; start with small things, like having a small table dedicated to your poems. Emily Dickinson wrote her poems on a small 18 inch by 18 inch desk in her room in Amherst. Do not put anything other than your poems, though, on that area. Guard against the world invading your boundaries. Learning to paint, play the piano, or dance has much to do with keeping your self-set boundaries, otherwise you will not own your craft. We are each given unique wings with unique particulars of how to use our wings; no one else can fly for you. You have to jump off the edge, and spread your wings.

Pray. Even if you do not regard yourself as religious, pray. As Simone Weil wrote, “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” Artists know instinctively the artistry behind the prayer of the faithful. Pray that our imagination be “baptized” by this future grace. Pray through your materials. Go into galleries and museums and pray so that you can learn to “see.” Listen to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Charlie “Bird” Parker’s Burnin’ Bird and pray that you can “hear” the music behind the music. Go see Our Town and Othello, and pray that you can experience the drama pulsing through our lives. May your work become a prayer, an offering.

Saint Paul wrote: “creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:19). The whole realm of nature waits for our arrival onto the stage of life. God “frustrates” creation so that the very groaning of life produces expression by children of God. In the theater of life, we see in the darkness and suffering all around us a world that beckons for our arrival. Our creative endeavors are mandated to begin with that understanding of suffering and darkness. Art helps us to confront darkness head-on. For that reason, you must not cease to create, even in the darkest of hours; by creating, you can participate in announcing that great arrival. You can also help your community to articulate their suffering, with a deeper call for community.

Further, by “showing up” on the stage, what we announce to the world may be a key to unlocking someone else’s story. The Good Book tells us that we are loved. Because of that love, which exceeds our own love, we can move out to take risks in creativity. Love is the ultimate fruit of the Spirit and our total dependence on the true source of creativity will nurture love. Art, ultimately, is expression of that love. Therefore we cannot create but by sacrificial love. We need to redefine art and its effectiveness by how it helps us to love one another sacrificially. Fear and terror, in any form, will destroy creativity and people. Fear and terror will twist our creativity to expand our “Ground Zeros.” Even when we cannot paint or write, love is available to us a creative resource to share with others. Stand on the ashes of your “Ground Zero”; look up and create in love and hope.

Lastly, remember you are not alone. A soliloquy can become a symphony of soliloquies. I look forward to hearing many voices joining, , through the echoes of time, when future grace becomes reality, when mourning is transformed into dancing. Live generatively, taking today’s challenges head on, spreading your wings at the precipice of your Ground Zero, daring to leap into the miraculous.

Essay originally written for Michael Card’s Scribbling in the Sand: modified October, 2010

*see notes on Martin Luther's "Sin Boldly" comment. "Transgression" can be a confusing word, since it is tied to Christian notion of sin, but I am using it in a provocative manner, as part of cultural reality today. Also, to me, it can also mean "coloring outside the lines," which is one of the transgressive gift of an artist.



Photographs: I chose "Golden Pine" (sumi ink, silver, gold, and semi-precious minerals on mulberry-gampi paper over canvas) since it is the Christmas season. The work is a commission, sited at Taikoo Palace in Hong Kong, praised for its interaction with the setting--echoing the reflection of trees in the high glass wall close by and shedding a golden light in the afternoons.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Readings for the 12 Days of Christmas: Graham Ward

Merry Christmas, one and all--light and birth to you in winter.

As it is no doubt a day of much-to-do for most people, I am simply giving two links to the world of marvelous Graham Ward. The image is his electronic Christmas card, which I have pilfered from my email to pay him homage.

I met Graham through painter Clive Hicks-Jenkins, and we're planning a collaboration in the new year. His paintings have great sensitivity and charm, as does he!

One of his images jogged my memory back in the latter half of October--I went back to the Red King, about whom I had written a story published in Postscripts (UK) and began writing poems about him and the figure of the Fool, who has a place in Graham's work. Every now and then I get--receive? am given?--a sluice of new poems, but never have I gotten one like this. As of 2:00 a.m. this morning, I have written 66 new poems about these and other figures, all set in a world of their own. Who knows how many I will keep, but it is a delicious run of new work. It was Graham who made my mind turn to these figures, and so I am grateful for that impetus!

You may look at Graham's paintings and other work here. And you may read his words here. His self-description: Graham Ward was born in Bradford, West Yorks, and grew up in Sussex. He studied Fine Art in Manchester and Stoke, and is a painter and illustrator. He has been an archivist, bookseller and librarian for the past thirty years, and his specialist field of interest is British art of the 20th century, He has twice walked the Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain, and plans to undertake the Portugese route from Porto. He is currently operating a small cafe in Broadstairs after an abortive stint as archivist for the Dreamland Project in Margate.

He does not mention that he is working on a book about the walk to Santiago de Compostela, but you can find out about that and more via his blog.

Merry Christmas, one, and Merry Christmas, all! Light and birth to you in darkest winter.

Friday, December 24, 2010

12 Readings in Advent: The Wet Nurse's Tale

Erica Eisdorfer, born in Durham, North Carolina, was the first of the three children born to her parents, who had moved down south from the great city of New York and lived for some years in culture shock. The family rented a wonderful house edged by forest and she and her two younger brothers spent a great deal of time playing in the trees where she, due to her birth order and general bossiness, was constantly the admiral of the ship, the mayor of the town, the principal of the school. This sort of innocent play lasted only until her brothers, in what must have been a co-epiphany, realized that they didn’t have to take it anymore and went off by themselves to play with their trucks, leaving her alone forever. This is when she discovered reading.

That’s from Erica’s website for The Wet Nurse’s Tale. If you want to know how she met her husband Dave in the midst of enormous loss, hie thee to her page and read, for it is mightily entertaining and touching.

What her account leaves out is that Erica has been good to almost every author who has passed through Chapel Hill, North Carolina. No doubt she knows many of them well. No doubt many of them are fond of her. She is a great bookstore manager who makes sure handselling is not a dead art; she throws a good reading for visiting authors. Back when she was reviewing for UNC radio for eight years, she gave the most heartfelt and passionate reviews ever sent on radio waves. I feel lucky to have been reviewed by her long ago. I feel lucky that she hand-sold my books. I feel lucky that I met other writers and interesting people at readings that I gave at the Bull’s Head. And most of all, I feel lucky that we have been friends.

I knew when I met her that she had a book under the bed—several books, possibly. The Wet Nurse’s Tale is one of those books she quietly wrote while managing the Bull's Head and raising her daughters. Let’s hope there are many more that make it into print.

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY In her first novel, Eisdorfer offers as a guide to Victorian England her entertaining and surprising protagonist, Susan Rose. A bawdy young woman who could easily have walked off the pages of The Canterbury Tales, Susan ends up wet-nursing after getting unexpectedly and illicitly pregnant, and her alcoholic and abusive father forces her to leave her child and take up the occupation. Her journey into the intimate lives of England's upper crust proves an illuminating and dangerous one as Susan jumps from family to family—until her father sells her son. As Susan attempts to balance other peoples' babies with her quest to regain her own, she is faced with difficult choices between duty and love, and between her life and her child's. Whether she is carousing in the Jewish quarter or planning how to reclaim her son, Susan navigates the stratified social world with humorous vigor. A promiscuous, randy and hefty lady, Susan's a vibrant character, at once sweet and scheming, and given to such a crass frankness that even readers wary of historicals may want to give this a look.

From Carolyn See’s review in THE WASHINGTON POST: "The Wet Nurse's Tale" turns out to be informative, unusual and intelligent. Again, the strength of "The Wet Nurse's Tale" [is] in the common-sense character of Susan Rose, who is far from the received notion of bawdy, but nobody's victim, either. And also for the hundred little details about what it was like to keep a middle-class home going then, how a poor person managed to change her wardrobe, how the shopping got done and the babies got raised. The whole notion is light-years away from noblemen out on prancing horses looking for girls to ravish, but it may be a pretty good take on how people actually lived in those days. I liked it very much.

Top 10 of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award


From The Wet Nurse’s Tale:
For a fortnight after Davey was born, all fared well. I stayed abed a deal and my mother brought me soup and porridge, and I nursed my child til he began to unbend a bit and his lashes unpeeled and shewed themselves. I loved little ones like this, with their head a’bobbing. And this one was mine! I thanked God for him.

He was strong for being so little, able to hold his head up very early. If I didn’t take care to swaddle him tight, he’d kick off the cloth with his scrabbling. At night, I placed him on a pillow so that he was like a gem in a ring and then took him to bed with me. When he woke in the night and began to bawl, I needed only to bring him to my breast and he’d suckle away very serious. Ofttimes, when he had just waked and was ravenous, his little chin would judder with the wanting. Every baby does this same; this one was mine and thus it seemed charming to me.
At first, my father had little to say about the baby. For a man as full of anger and ale as he, it seemed strange that he was quiet. I watched him, as he pretended not to watch me, and never left the baby alone for long. I did not know what he might do, and I trusted him not at all.

One day he spoke.

“You’lll go to nurse, missy?” said he.

I had been waiting for it. “No, sir, not just yet,” I answered. “I will not lose another. I’ll wait til this one is set before I go.”

He growled. “And how long might you be planning to loll around, eating and rinking what all’s in the house?” he said, his lip curled like a nasty dog.

“Six months, perhaps.”

“Six months! And who’s to pay for you and your bastard?”

I looked at him straight. “Why father,” said I, “did you drink it all away, the money I sent while Joey was here dying”

Thursday, December 23, 2010

12 Readings in Advent: Mountshang

Detail of a Moses by Phillippe de Champaigne (1602-1674)

"It's the high-level of orderliness that is so distinctive -- reaching down into the structures of appearance (light over skin over flesh over bone)and composing them into sweet, poignant chamber music --- that is so fine in the detail and so grand in overall effect. Can you really see this Moses leading an illiterate rabble of fleeing slaves accross the desert ? This is an intelligent, sensitive scholar of the 17th Century, pondering the great spiritual issues of his time."

MOUNTSHANG

Today I am going to recommend a blog that has been in existence for years but is, to my mind, under-visited: Mountshang, located at http://www.mountshang.blogspot.com/. Chris Miller has some fifteen blogs, covering various fascinations and passions, so it would not be surprising to find that some were visited more than others. I like Mountshang very much. Chris goes to see exhibitions in Chicago and reviews them, regularly going out and bringing back the goods in the form of many photographs and opinions about the work. He is funny. He is irreverent. He takes curators to task. He takes artists to task. He occasionally takes people to task in every aspect of life and makes sweeping judgments. He is a distinct figure, drawn sharply in his loves and peeves. In other words, he is wonderfully opinionated. I don’t always agree with his opinions, but that’s not the point. They are stimulating opinions that make me question what I think. When I climb the mount and visit with him, I encounter an astonishing number of visual artists whose work I would never know existed were it not for Chris and his great job of both hunting and gathering.

CHRIS MILLER’S SELF-DESCRIPTION

I live life dangerously by ignoring the advice of Chuang Tzu: "Your life has a limit but knowledge has none. If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger". Badly spoiled by my wife, I spend mornings in sculpture studio, afternoons in record shop, evenings on the internet, weekends at the Palette and Chisel Academy and Art Institute of Chicago, and, the time spent in between, reading ancient history."

FORM:

He gives us tons of pictures. His prose appears in a quirky mode that looks rather like free verse but is more interesting than a lot of free verse.

ENTERTAINING SAMPLE COMMENT FROM A POST:

Copeland Burg (1889-1961)

What a fun story!

Copeland Burg was a crime reporter
who started dabbling in art,
attacked Mrs. Logan's "Sanity in Art" screed,
and was told by his boss to
"Stick to rape and murder"

And his father
was a circuit judge
who was lynched by ranchers
in Montana?

No wonder his life was so confusing,
and eventually,
he quit his day job at the newspaper,
and just spent his life painting.

Not all of his pieces
are quite as minimalist
as the one shown above

ANOTHER SAMPLE, WITH UNEXPECTED OPINIONS:

Andre Masson (1896-1987)

Here's the kind of nightmarish stuff
I really can't stand.

Except that -- I couldn't stop
looking at it,
like this creepy statue [links elsewhere]
from the Aztec empire.

Jamie Adams

Here's a huge painting
that was hard to ignore,
perhaps because of those
"superficial skills that denote art"

As a viewer,
I feel like John Belushi in "Animal House,"
peering through the window
of a sorority house.

Oh no!

The ladder is starting to fall backward!

ANOTHER SAMPLE SHOWING HIS LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP
WITH THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO:

Perhaps I'll calm down
in a few months,
but the only word
I can find for the new
Roger L. Weston Wing
of Japanese art
at the Art Institute of Chicago
is
Disaster

And I could kick myself
for not photo-documenting
the display that it replaces.

Perhaps it's only sentimentality
that attaches me to the
quiet, meditative space that
the museum's collection of
Medieval Japanese sculpture
used to inhabit.

But I think that Cleo Nichols,
who designed the space in 1992,
successfully solved the problems
involved in displaying a diverse collection
of Buddhist sculpture
that originated in many different
centuries and temples,
and cramming it all into a small,
but aesthetically pleasing space.

The key, I think,
was letting one statue sit freely
on a platform in the center of the room
protected by a railing instead of a glass case,
allowing it to command the space of the room;
then setting the other sculptures into
glass protected niches set into the
surrounding walls;
and leaving the whole room dark,
with dramatic lighting on each statue.

Now,
as you can see at the top,
the pieces have been set into
glass display cases that protrude into the room,
making the entire display
feel like those cases
of ethnic paraphernalia
that used to be found
in the Field Museum of Natural History
(back before they updated their displays)

The sense of sacred space is gone.

And the room feels dry, dead, and clinical.

(though maybe that's O.K.
for displaying the pre-Buddhist
tomb effigies that are shown above.
After all, those pieces were made for a crypt,
not a shrine)

Thankfully,
they mostly left the Ando Gallery alone,
except that even there
they damaged it
by removing the heavy glass doors
that used to seal it off and make it feel
like such a quiet, secluded place,
that was part of Japan
instead part of an art museum.

What was the head designer,
Kulapat Yantrasast,
thinking about
as he made these woeful changes?

And as final slap
in the face
of anyone who enjoys
the rest of Asian art,
the Chinese painting and Korean ceramics
that used to be located in this area
have been removed,
while announcing that:

“The movement of several collections into the Modern
Wing last year has allowed us to better demonstrate our commitment to the arts of Asia by reworking existing galleries and creating new galleries for their display"

A statement which would only come true
if some of that new space
were ever used to display the Asian art
that was taken off view
to make room for the Japanese.

But I think that
no more new space is left.

It's all been taken
by the new galleries
of African and Pre-Columbian art.

But now that I've vented my disappointment,
here's some of the good stuff
that has been put on display here
for the very first time.

Much of it coming from the collection
of Roger L. Weston.

AND MORE ART INSTITUTE:

Here's one the signature pieces of contemporary art
that will be on display for a very long time
(it's too big to be moved,
and had to be installed before the building
was finished)

Do you notice what has drawn the attention of the crowd?

The label.

Because without that label's explanation,
who would give a second thought to this
meticulous reproduction of a rotting log?
(commissioned by Charles Ray)

And the light in the gallery is so dim and flat,
if the carving on that log were actually beautiful,
you would never know it.

(I've noted elsewhere that visitors are liable to trip over it --
and apparently this keeps the guards very busy)

More contemporary art
from the second floor (1950-present)

This pattern was repeated,
like wallpaper,
over an entire small room.

Got it?

Something about racism and national guilt.
If you can't figure it out,
read the label.

CHRIS AND FAMILY:

Chris appears to have grown up in a colorful family. His father was Midwest artist (sculptor, primarily, I believe, but also printmaker and painter) and important teacher-to-sculptors R. J. Miller, who appears to have a colorful, salty way of addressing the world that no doubt infected young Chris with the ability of making pithy and sometimes devastating remarks. Dick Miller was student of Milton Horn. He kept learning new technologies and modes and later designed sculptures via computer design. Chris is just as sharp on his father’s work as with anybody else’s, by the by. Evidently Chris has what his father called (with approbation) a “wild head.”

HOW ABOUT A LITTLE BITE MORE?

Rushing out of the modern wing in anger,
I come across one of its benefits:

a new (though small) area
devoted to Medieval Islamic ceramics
and painting.

Ahhhh -- the visual delights of work
that does not require
explanatory text!

Athough much of the space vacated by modern painting
has been filled with the new
"Eloise W. Martin Galleries of European Decorative Art"
... i.e. a lot of furniture, with some ceramics,
most of which fails to excite me.

Which reminds me
of one final question:

why is the museum director (James Cuno)
called
"The Eloise W. Martin Director" of the Art Institute?

Shouldn't he be called
"The People of Chicago Director" of the Art Institute?

I mean.....

how can the Eloise W. Martin Director
say "No"
to Eloise W. Martin ?

CHRIS, CHRIS, CHRIS—

How we relish you, you impetuous boy of . . . sixty or thereabouts! The Art Institute staff is probably fuming mad at him, but the truth is that he is its greatest lover in his own curious way.

I love people, I love energy of personality, I love character: Chris is character writ large.

An Eye for Snow

The next 12 Readings in Advent will be up this afternoon. In the meantime, go see the wonderful snowflake photographs taken by Kenneth Libbrecht of CalTech. Found via poet and novelist Jeanne Larsen on facebook.

http://www.newscientist.com/gallery/dn16170-snowflakes/1

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

12 Readings in Advent:: New galleys, no. 2: three short readings

Illustration credit: I would like to thank sxc.hu and Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo of Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico for the use of the photograph, shot using car headlights and the spray from a garden hose at night!

* * *
Last night I drove with my elder son to see a wrestling meet at Mount Markham. My third child started wrestling last year and is a bit of a nut about it--he is altogether sports mad. Then this morning I woke him up at six to finish the remains of his homework, an essay and then a revision of another essay. Meanwhile, I was thinking about posting some poems about children.

For another selection from the galleys of The Throne of Psyche, I'll pick one short poem written about each of my children. I tend not to write autobiographically because I like the pleasure that comes with making things up, but I do have some small poems written for each of them.

This little poem was for my youngest, who is now 13. It's a good example of how you can make a poem out of anything. He was six and dreaming that his sister transformed into what I thought was called a Goldrick but see nothing of that name online; perhaps it was a Magikarp. At any rate, it was a dratted dream-infesting Pokémon, not a particularly appealing subject for a poem. It certainly does not leap to my mind as a potential topic, at any rate! It was originally published in Books & Culture.

TEARS OF A BOY, AGE 6


Waking, he tells the woe
About his sister--twelve
And slender like a bow,
Taut as the silk an elf

Is stringing. Glints of light
Declare he’s lame to halt
The arrow of her flight.
Birds say it’s not his fault.

The little sands imprint
Her passing feet--she is
More lovely than the tent
Of dawn. She is not his.

Sea pours against the world
As she transforms to fish
And leaves behind all girl.
The boy is caught by wish.

The sea’s a wilding stream
Of tears. Inside a shell,
Like a recurrent dream,
Her name echoes its spell.

This one I wrote for my daughter while she was in Hawaii. I suppose she was around twelve then (as she would have been in the prior poem as she grows away from her little brother and swims away). Pele's hair is formed when volcanic matter is tossed into the air and spun into threads by the wind. At this point she had already had a picture taken with parrots on shoulder and knees. First publication: Mythic Passages.


A CHILD AT THE TROPIC PAVILIONS


The smolderings of Pele’s hair
Are her delight, with fires
Of eucalyptus in the rain
And coral’s glowing spires.

A braided crown of palm adorns
Her buoyant curls, and leis
Of frangipani scent her throat:
She has no need of praise,

For sea’s auroral whisperings
Aren’t secrets to her ear--
Her counselors with gaudy wings
Suddenly appear

To sing of castles made of sand
And childish dignity
That takes the throne in Chinese silk,
With parrots on each knee.

And here is a more somber one that involves a major event in our lives, a time when our elder son was in second grade and in the hospital with meningitis. He came home from school feeling slightly ill and asked to sleep on the little couch in our bedroom. In the morning he sat up, looking pale and strange, and said that his neck hurt. With a great pang of fear, I recognized what was the matter. After his hospital admission, he remained motionless for seven days.

During his time in the first of two hospitals, the St. Francis' children's hospital in Greenville, South Carolina, a nun came in and asked if she could pray with me. I said "yes." During those moments while I held her hand, I received what I am only willing to describe--because there are some pearls in life that should not be strewn about in a careless way--a powerful revelation that included the knowledge that my child would survive.


First publication credit is due storySouth (in a special feature about poets who are Southern women, edited by poet Tara Powell.)

IN EXTREMIS


Is this mine? The child of stone
Or iron, the unmoving one?
Did I bear him in my body?
And has he been changed for good?
Seven days without a stir.

A nun appears to hold my hand—
I am listening to the words,
But I am also with the boy,
And I am removed, gazing up
Toward a shoal of golden light.

It has been gathering all day,
And I perceive that it is made
From thousands of my unshed tears,
A cloud of small gleam-catchers
That glints and floats in bleak twilight.

The gold grows heavy, and the freight
Of teardrops slides and spills as rain.
My heart’s torn between grief and joy.
The nun is speaking without stop.
I know in my bones, This child will live.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

12 Readings in Advent: New galleys, no. 1


The snowy garden photograph was taken by friend and penpal Clive Hicks-Jenkins. I hope he will forgive me for snitching it from his lovely artlog!
http://clivehicksjenkins.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/snowed-in-again/


Having spent quite enough time this morning as a laundrywoman and ferrywoman, I am looking at the galleys for The Throne of Psyche, forthcoming from Mercer University Press in March. Marc Jolley, the director, is expanding the press and building up a literary house, and I must say the recent books I have seen are beautiful and unusual. And while galleys are never quite the same as a book, I love the little surprises here: those leaves! Just a few: sparing but tumbling across a page.

I’m going to offer two posts of my own work since my yesterday was devoted to Christmas preparations—and today to a certain amount of drudgery, more Christmas preparations, and a wrestling meet (did I say that N won at Center State meet, 8-6, 4-0, 6-0? Am I proud to have given birth to that most unexpected thing, an athlete? Yes, I am! He certainly does not take after me in that way. Perhaps he takes after my father, who ran six miles a day until he became ill, and who would steam past the undergraduates on the university track.)

The first poem is perhaps a little bit of a pinprick to Billy Collins; it was first published in The Raintown Review in an issue guest edited by poet Joseph Salemi. It will be in the second section of The Throne of Psyche.


FIRE IN ICE
A riposte to Billy Collins, “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes”


Don’t think because her words are wild
That Dickinson’s a sylphine child

For your undressings—don’t rend the haze
Of veils that shields you from her blaze.

Her hands are capable and know
The ways of burning—how sparks blow

When flames are jostled by a bold
Adept, her fingers tipped with cold.

And though in after-hours she threads
The dew she plucks from spiderwebs,

Or answers Who? to midnight’s owls,
Or strokes the cats, returned from prowls—

Or takes to skipping to and fro
With moonlit maidens made of snow,

She’ll freeze, inviolate and meek,
If you so much as try to speak.

Shove off—avoid those brazen wings:
She’s not for your unbuttonings.

The polished stone above her head
Declares her state among the dead:

Here waits that sphinx whose secret power
In riddles found her finest flower.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

12 Readings in Advent: Carrie Jerrell


Yesterday I received a new book, After the Revival, and today’s reading is from its seductive pages. The poem here is simply plucked from my last-read page, but I like many elements of it: the black womb of the earth that produces not white vernix but black; the search for coal-fire songs; the pitchy night that is pitch-high and pitch-dark and pitch-of-song; the unclean mortal hands that may yet handle the pour of sky-high light. High-pitched in dream, radiant revelation offers blinding sight, “blazing light,” music that is a sustaining “air” to breathe, and transformation that lends wings—that batters the screen between the dark and light.

NOCTURNE
for Matthew

Twenty-two, come from the underground,
you’re through with the mine’s night shift and wear coal dust
like vernix while playing Clair de Lune. Moths crowd
the porch-lit screen door, and you’ve come to trust

your ear for every chord. Dark note by note,
how many hours you’ve searched for songs that burn
like lustrous rock—your damp neck creased with soot,
your hands unclean—only to be spurned

by stars repeating, Time, Time, Time.
My brother, in the pitch of sleep, may hymns
Resolve for you. May dreams be more than ash.

May you climb to a house of blazing light and blind
Yourself at its windows, breathe its music in,
And beat your wings like prayers against the mesh.

I don’t know a lot about Carrie Jerrell, but so far I like her poems. I am glad to hear her spunky voice, spilling over with vim and verve. Her book, After the Revival, won The Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize of Waywiser Press (UK). The judge was Alan Shapiro, a poet I like and respect.

Shapiro writes, “While pain of one kind or another informs nearly all her poems, there is nothing but radiant energy to be found on every page of this marvelous book. Jerrell brings a wild exuberance to the world and everything in it, an exuberance ‘that’s two parts sex and one part scripture, / that wears work boots to wardrobe / on opening night and when handed pink chiffon / says, Baby, you know I don’t do delicate.’” He praises her “distinctive genius” and bringing-together of “a heterogeneous mix of worlds and influences—to be open to everything formal and informal, profane and seacred, foreign and home grown.”

Saturday, December 18, 2010

12 Readings in Advent: Yolanda Sharpe
























Broad Stroke

Yesterday afternoon I went to the Mullen Gallery at SUNY-Oneonta to see several of Makoto Fujimura’s Nihongan paintings and enjoyed the “Shadow” group show, of which they were a part. I went with Yolanda Sharpe, whose “Urban Fragments” one-woman show preceded “Shadow.” Yolanda is one of those people who is interested in a number of art forms; she is a wonderful soprano, and she often writes poetry to go with her paintings.

For the “reading” for today, I’m posting images of some of her encaustics from 2009, along with the poems that accompanied them in the show.

Of her 2009-2010 encaustics, she says, “I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, relocated to upstate New York, and yet continue to celebrate the vibrant, creative energy of that city. This current series is part of the continuum of this energy. My creative impetus is shaped by my formative years in Michigan, and by a desire to capture Detroit’s beauty in the midst of decay and re-ruralization.” Yolanda Sharpe holds an MFA from Wayne State and has had many solo and group shows. She also has received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. Currently she is ending a long stint as chairman of the art department and will soon go to Russia on a Fullbright scholarship.

01 More Miles
More Miles and Fat Times,
jamming to swirls, blurry, heavy metal and wax.
His tempos insist on porosity,
on time and space,
and move past fabrications
called walls to rule my mind






















02 Miles Davis’ Fat Times (Part 3)
You are way cool, too cool by far
By paint, rhythm and blues,
Jaaaaaaazzaay (sing this if you want to).
I nod my head, shrug my shoulders,
pour halos and love that lava that bees make.


03 Miles Davis’ Fat Times (Part 4)
Drywall screen, framed by decisions,
Mood shifts, chroma and funky bee nuggets.
Fat Times you play infinity’s rim
rediscovered in every layer

























04 Stars
I see my Star and I sing oracles,
and fly through orange fields,
to polish golden corners.






















05 Inverted U-Shape
Inside the Inverted U,
I step on sidewalks and cracks like rocks in riverbeds.
The blue edge is the city.
With chunks I swim, glide, and am frozen.
Crayola slabs are sewer grates
and I am transformed from the mundane
into a glorious letter that is both C and U.

06 L-Shape Foliage
Look under the L-Shape Foliage,
behind an old idea turned into new.
Spring is on Kirby Street,
and the city’s thin air and grass is green and cold.






















07 Ropes
Ropes hang from shadows locked in yellows, reds, nets, and roots. I cannot forget the urban tempo,
a syncopation and angular insistence against the sky.
Not even just for a while.

08 Broad Stroke [picture at top of post]
The jet stream is bold, white, fat, and flat.
It paints across the sky as it flies to God-knows-where,
and I go with it too.
I wish that crumbling bricks were bejeweled, or whole gems.
The Broad Stroke is a sea of billboards where paper is ripped,
and new ads are slapped on phone numbers, and faces.
They make promises ancient layers could not fulfill.























09 Sunflower and Leaf
Sunflower, you are the sun I look at.
You bathe the spotted leaf with red, gold, and black showers. Round boxes catch your glow
before your cousin
sets her table on the horizon.























10 Adrift
The act of painting is often like floating.
It is fabulous, uncomfortable, unknowing.
I paint adrift in questions.
Blue raft, let me know when to sit on both sides.
Let’s ride down the middle of the river
where whirls and eddies don’t stop.
Make us move, stay, and move again.























11 Grass and Brass
The diamond glistens in the grass,
and rainbows hover over blades,
green and sure of summer.
Pink is the color of love, I am told.






















12 White Field #1
Say it is not winter!
No. I was fooled.
This is residue from the river at Belle Isle.
This is when I remember to squint before the shore of the other side of the island.
This is when I look at footprints from the river.
I choose colors for this memory of refreshment felt briefly,
when the muggy hot air dissolves into this one cool, cool, second.
13 The Rose
They told me they liked it funky.
So, I obeyed and kept it that way.
Rose, you are turned upside down
from the time I first drew you
the year before.
Now, you are on a thin veneer
and fused into the funky groove of white and black,
next to the yellow fence and sky below.























14 Red Raft #1
Red square, turned diamond, you are frozen,
and more hip than I thought you could be





















15 Red Raft #2
Because your cousin is so much hotter, saucier too.
Her raft says she will race you, beat you,
with her blue and yellow boxes.
The white “L” comes from you
so that you can beat her instead.




















16 Yellow Brick
I took this road to get away, to destroy decay.
My road is from the sun, from the east where it is born.
Blue hope and amber brick knit another wall.

Friday, December 17, 2010

12 Readings in Advent: Jeanne Larsen

More light in the darkness of the year . . .

I have returned after a trip to Bard-and-back with much dirty college laundry (and a child, a precious child) and a middle school concert and a staying-up-late-and-getting-up-early time to help with test-studying for the youngest, whose study hours were eaten up by said concert plus wrestling. So today I feel like an old-fasioned zombie: not those new, fashionable zippy ones but a lurching, slow-moving monster. But I am going out to lunch with painter friend Yolanda Sharpe (that will be fun) and to a show with work by another friend, Makoto Fujimura. Unfortunately, the shambling zombie-of-me is rather sleepy.
*
Perhaps what I need is a poem. That might wake me up. And right next to me is a stack of books that includes one of my birthday books, Why We Make Gardens, by another friend, Jeanne Larsen. I have a feeling that 2010 has been a grand year for friends to get work done and out in the world. This book is a lovely production from Judith Kerman’s Mayapple Press in Bay City, Michigan. (Judith is a much-published poet who founded Mayapple Press in 1977, as well as Earth's Daughters, the oldest feminist literary magazine still publishing, in 1971.) The cover illustration is “Kroger’s Chrysanthemums” by Jan Knipe, and it adds much to the pleasure of holding this marvelous (as in Andrew Marvell and his gardens!) little book.

I’ll think more about Jeanne in a moment, but for now I am busy waking up with a poem fit for the season.


GARDEN AFTER WINTER’S FIRST STORM

Over snowfall, a layer of sleet:
rustling like white leaves, it fell through
night. Borders vanished. The world

Is suspended, its riotous differences
almost erased. Here is
what’s left. Twigs reaching,

In clear bark that may snap them.
Flat hulls that hang. Wasted pedicels.
Winter’s first garden shows

x-rays. These harmonious outlines
are phenomena standing, noiseless,
in self-silhouette, given

dimension by time. Day’s moods
in their light become no more
than petals. Out in the sunbed, a dry

rainbow unbolts—buff, umber, cinnamon,
hazel, auburn, sepia, rust. A front
has moved past. The visible

spectrum shifts.

I feel more wakeful already because Jeanne is being wakeful. Immediately I like the rustling that leads to silence, the idea of “self-silhouette,” the dry and austere rainbow, the shift of spectrum, the move from the riotous to the more streamlined world. The complicated, multi-syllabic line four gives way to utter simplicity: “Here is / what’s left.” The poet has a good ear (singing to us from the start through consonance like snowfall-layer-sleet-leaves-rustling, assonance like sleet-leaves, and the occasional rhyme.) The stanza breaks sometimes rise to significance (a thing that would be annoying were it constant, but is just the right amount here), as when she breaks between “The world” and “is suspended” or gives us surprise in the move from “sunbed, a dry” to “rainbow.”

Outside it is snowing again. It is, of course, almost always snowing. And I am wakeful, Jeanne’s words now moving around in my head and, I hope, stirring in yours.

Jeanne Larsen’s first book, James Cook in Search of Terra Incognita, won the AWP annual award series in poetry. She subsequently published two collections of translations as well as three novels, Silk Road, Bronze Mirror and Manchu Palaces. A new novel, Sally Paradiso, is out in e-format from Brown Fedora Books. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in many journals, and she has received numerous grants and awards. Most of the time, Jeanne Larsen lives in southwest Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, just west of the Blue Ridge. She is currently Susan Gager Jackson Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University.

Oh, and I also like her translations very much! Those would be Willow, Wine, Mirror, Moon: Women’s Poems from Tang China from BOA and Brocade River Poems from Princeton.
She also makes a mean mango salad.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

12 Readings in Advent: Victor Davis Hanson

Last night was battling snowstorms to and from Mohawk, where N, now 13, won two wrestling matches, 4-3 and 8-0. When we came out of the gym, huge flakes of snow were falling and the world had changed. Our eldest, Ben, was fetched home from the Albany airport after the meet, and now I must abandon him (snoozing happily) and head out to Annandale-on-Hudson to fetch home the middle child, who I do hope woke up in time for her French exam. So I do not really have time for thoughtfulness about a book but must putter off into the snowy, snowing wilderness between here and there. It’s a gorgeous snow coming down—just wish it would go away and come back at a more convenient time.

Since I won’t be around till later, I’ll cheat and offer a quote for the day and recommend a book that was popular in our family. Not long ago my husband read A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War (Random House, 2005) by Victor Davis Hanson, and enlivened life for a while by reading passages and dropping weird tidbits (as, the Spartans hated trade and merchants and used long iron bars for money—no pocket change!) He enjoyed the book very much, its clarity about a war that lasted so long and its wealth of surprising information, the work of a retired professor of classics and scholar of military history. Later he passed it on to our eldest son. It's on my To Read list. I thought of the book this morning because in noodling about the web (while I was helping our youngest grasp convection, absolute zero, specific heat, and other fascinating subjects), Mike came across an article by Hanson defending the liberal arts, and later he read it to me over tea and corn muffins baked in the shape of teddy bears. I throw in the teddy bears as an antidote to Spartans. Of course, they were baked in cast iron molds, so perhaps they are already little Spartans.

Here is a little scrap of Hanson’s thought, saved from breakfast with the bears:

The more instantaneous our technology, the more we are losing the ability to communicate with it. Twitter and text-messaging result in an economy of expression, not in clarity or beauty. Millions are becoming premodern -- communicating in electronic grunts that substitute for the ability to express themselves effectively and with dignity. Indeed, by inventing new abbreviations and linguistic shortcuts, we are losing a shared written language altogether, much like the fragmentation of Latin as the Roman Empire imploded into tribal provinces. No wonder the public is drawn to stories like "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" in which characters speak beautifully and believe in age-old values that transcend themselves.

Life is not just acquisition and consumption. Engaging English prose uplifts the spirit in a way Twittering cannot. The latest anti-Christ video shown at the National Portrait Gallery by the Smithsonian will fade when the Delphic Charioteer or Michelangelo's David does not. Appreciation of the history of great art and music fortifies the soul, and recognizes beauty that does not fade with the passing fad.

America has lots of problems. A population immersed in and informed by literature, history, art and music is not one of them.