Friday, December 28, 2007

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Poem by Robert Frost, from New Hampshire (1923).
Photos by Arthur Durkee, 28 December 2007.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village, though;

He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it's queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there's some mistake.

The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Eve Day Photographs

full moon rising
over bright-lit Christmas homes—
silence of solstice

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Monday, December 24, 2007

christmas night full moon snow her tintinabulation

look in at the children
how they are dreaming into their lives—
hawks flying between trees

by starlight by moonlight by candelight and firelight by all the lights that darkness
wishes to be pierced so that all the old-voiced stories can begin again so the turning
goes into itself and becomes cold as moonlight on ice the river open banks frozen
feet of deer stumbling through and ice on the roads drifts of snow over and around
a stack of frozen half snow buried pumpkins at the field's edge at sunset the gold
and later the full moon rising silhouette black trees mars near too near for comfort
lights red and white candeholders white and red and green evergreen everliving
everlast in the breathing of sleepers long tidal pull out to sea calm tonight under the moon

long-limbed nascent gods growing
into their power in sleep in flight

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Stations of the Poet

Reading a lot of poetry, certain trends come to one's notice. Patterns that seem typical of a lot of poets. Recycled ideas re-discovered for the first time: as old as time, as new as each new poet's discovery.

Many if not all poets seem to go through a phase of playing-with-words. Often their poems are very cleverly titled, and very clever within, full of linguistic spice and clever constructions. Playing-with-words is like learning to draw: you're testing the limits of your tools and your hand-skills, and learning to expand your skills and your conception. It's a way to stretch one's techincal skills, and learn the tools.

But like learning-to-draw, playing-with-words may produce a lot of studies, but not much in terms of finished pieces. In the end it is a dead end unless the poet can mature beyond the student phase and begin to write with passion and honesty, having integrated the tools. Playing-with-words can produce cleverness, and helps support technical craft, and may be a good stage to go through. As long as you don't get stuck there. Draw every day. Write a poem a day. But don't think that every drawing or poem is a finished masterpiece.

Do all poets go through this stage of learning to write? It appears not; unless some poets destroy their "student études," as a matter of course. Looking at a poet's juvenalia is interesting, to see where their major themes may already have been present, early in their career, if not fully-formed or maturely-developed. Sometimes you can see the roots of their mature work in the juvenalia; more often, though, it's simply just recycled re-discoveries, at best imitative of one's influences. Did we all write a Poe or Keats pastiche in our teens? Did we all go through a Rebellious Artur Rimbaud or a Suicidal Sylvia Plath phase, in our youth?

I think about this when I see so many poems that are so cleverly titled, or cleverly punned, that they make me both laugh and raise my eyebrows. This is my usual response to what we might call the Playful Wing of Language Poetry, exemplified by Charles Bernstein. It's not bad stuff at all. But it's also not very deep.

It never lets you in. It doesn't move you on more than the purely intellectual level. (Which for some poets, like some other people, is perhaps all there is.) You never get a sense of the real person lurking behind the mask of persona. Well, persona is safer for the poet who would like a little privacy. That's understandable, and probably forgiveable.

The opposite of never-being-let-in is poetry that lets you in too far, and you end up with Too Much Information. This oppositional wing of poetry is of course the contemporary confessional lyric poem, which has come to dominate a large percentage of contemporary poetry, and is perhaps over-taught in the workshops and MFA programs. It's all about "self-expression." But self-expression is a mark of immaturity, of adolescence, of infantilism. It too may be a necessary stage many poets go through. Which brings us back to the Rebellious Rimbaud and Suicidal Sylvia poets: every teen Goth poet seems to go through this phase. It's hard to take seriously, because it's about as threatening as puppies growling.

Cleverness is fun, but it's not very rewarding. Maybe it can be rewarding to the poet longer than it is to the reader. Maybe cleverness is simply a phase many poets go through, on their way to something better. (The sooner, the better, one feels.) Maybe Goth poetry is also a phase. Maybe Language Poetry itself is, in the end, a phase. It certainly has the hallmarks, in that it's an in-crowd, cliquish phenomenon that doesn't let a lot of fresh air in, or new bodies, new poets, new generations. Maybe the confessional lyric, as silly as it can be, has more durability, more appeal, because it's apparently more honest. (Even though it's no more so than any other poetry: the persona of the poet in the poem is still a kind of mask.) But confessional poetry, too, seems immature, in the end.

All these phases strike one as immature, in the end. Because they don't lead anywhere. They don't often see past themselves, with rare exceptions.

Where does it all lead? I'm not sure.

Rumi had to drown his books in the fountain, like Prospero, the day he met Shams, in order to become awakened—and only then did his poetry amount to anything. Other poets only begin to write their most beautiful and complete works in their rooted age. Eliot's Four Quartets are a summation in ways The Wasteland never could be.

I don't know where it leads. But I'm sure it does lead somewhere worthwhile.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Blessed Solstice

a shaman's critique of pure poetry

they don’t shapeshift enough. becoming something other. than themselves.
they don’t take the world’s shapes, become the world. beasts. radiance. allness.
they spend too much time in their heads. they invent instead of report.
they try to make the world conform to the shapes of their words, rather than words to world.
they play with their toys, their tools, their ways of spinning their voices.
they don’t spend enough time voiceless, obscure, half-buried in else. just seeing.

instead. invite. steadfast becoming. something other than.
arches filled with sand skin abraded half-buried skin red and raw eyes closed open arch
fill waterwave enter slosh through vessel channel avenue drown bury in sand scrape raw rocks tan

other. besides.

chest sunk in sandstone breathing with calcified seas anemones tendrils awhirl skipjack leap
lungs of giant trilobites before disappear ear to the slate stone chimes

going to step outside skin take on form of skin outside stone take on stone skin form take on
to green algae rockgripping coat close shales to slab of ancient seafloor spreading veined serpentine
black peridotite alchemically greened by intrusive seawater slip into the rock cracks
spread hands arms naked self sex breath into rock transformed green life white arterial intrusion

and back to self. and breath out. and back to worldself. and breath. back to self.
spirit self beside into other. interweaving of stone skin bone brain shale sex oceanwet blood.
ocean water the alchemical same electrolyte balance as blood. we circulate remnant oceans. within.


begin with losing the self. carry nothing extra. no thoughtbaggages. no wrinkles. in time.
less to loss self lose to losing self lost left unlost unfettered left behind no wake
astrolabe of the sea. pine overlooking wet cliff. bathed bright. heron's eye. raven dreamstone.

come back to center and extent.

returned self opening eyes. blaze of sun wind wave breeze glare off sea.
opening eyes caked with dried. salt sea taste of blood sweat seawater.

and only then to make a poem.




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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Life-Changing Events & Art

When you go through a major life-changing event, your art changes. I've been hearing that a lot, in recent months, and I agree with it; hearing it from other artists who have been through powerful, intense processes, death, grief, loss, life-threatening illnesses, and more. The consensus is that it changes you, it changes your art, it changes the content and topics of your art, it can even change the way you make art. This is not a new insight, of course; it's as old as the human condition. For each individual artist, though, it can be revelatory. You learn things about yourself, and your artistic processes, that you may not have known before.

A month ago I bought myself a large set of colored pencils.

I have gone through most of my life believing I could not draw. My sister was the visual artist, I was the musician: such were our designated childhood roles, the family-dictated narratives of our creativity. In fact, she's not bad at choral singing, and I'm a very good visual artist. There was some truth behind the "separation of duties," but it created a mindset of limitations against which I have rebelled my entire life. I rebelled, early on, by taking as a role model Gordon Parks, an award-winning photographer, writer, poet, essayist, and film-maker.

All too often the conventional wisdom is that one can only be good in one medium, that one must devote one's entire life to getting good at it, and ignore all other mediums and artforms.

The conventional wisdom is wrong.

I've known this in my bones my entire life, and I am living proof, following my early role model, Gordon Parks, that it's possible to be do great work in more than one artform, and be passably good in several others. Throughout my life, I have acquired other role models who fulfill this function for me. Among the list are other polymaths such as Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, and John Cage. I make no claims that any creative work I do is great, but if it is great, it's because I've stood on the shoulders of giants.

In the past few days, an artist friend of mine has been visiting, and we've taken time to sit at the table with our tools and toys. Colored pencils. Watercolors. Watercolor pencils (an interesting medium). We've colored in coloring books, which frees yo up to explore color and technique without having to deal with subject matter. We've talked in depth about goals and desires, and where to start from. For now, I am mostly interested in drawing, learning to use the pencils, learning to shade and highlight, to create smooth transitions, feathering, and basically learning to control the materials. I have already discovered that I have much more control if I draw circular strokes counter-clockwise, rather than clockwise. My friend told me about a technique where silhouettes can be created using a pencil following a straight-edge, so that the outline of the shape is there, but entirely filled in with strokes going in one direction. I have already learned that I have an affinity for this technique.

We have played with art materials, supplies, pens, pencils, papers, markers, crayons, and other art supplies that we have found in the process of cleaning out the basement of my parents' house, now that my father has died, and my mother is being cared for in an Alzheimer's home. Now I am dealing with my own newly-diagnosed chronic illness that makes me tired all the time, and which I am barely beginning to learn how to manage. I cancelled my winter holiday travel plans, because I was too tired to travel safely. Everything is exhausting right now. This debilitation won't last forever, I hope, but for now it sets hard limits on my life.

So, I have an active, creative mind, and suddenly a lot of free time on my hands.

What are you going to do?

Make art. Be creative. Stay focused on making, rather than on what has been lost. Start over again. Start out into new conceptual territory, with new tools, and see what you can learn to do. Make new maps (all the old maps are useless). Start over. It's a new life. I am a phoenix, reborn out of my own ashes; I am a dragon, born again from my own egg and death.

The blessing of cleaning out the basement, now, is that I have discovered a rich and wide range of art materials to try out, that my amateur mother bought over the past decade or so, put away, and never used, in her long forgetting. Most of them are still fresh and usable. I've set up a studio at my breakfast table, where the morning light floods in, and there are airy, bright views of the surrounding woods and sky. I've you're going to have to stay cooped up all day, this isn't a bad place to be, and having artistic activity to do isn't a bad activity.

By the time you've gone through the cheaper amateur materials, you'll have a better sense of your color palette, your preferred papers, your preferred tools, at which point you can upgrade to higher-quality materials in a focused, thought-out manner. For now, I'm just teaching myself to draw. I'm not even interested in painting; except maybe watercolors, which my artist friend is scared of because she can't control wet mediums as well as she can her preferred dry mediums. Yet tonight, she too pushed her envelope and spent most of the evening facing the tiger, and playing with watercolors.

What we're doing is not Fine Art—except accidentally. Last night, I was very focused, and got good really fast. Tonight, I felt very scattered—mentally tired out—and clueless as to how to proceed. Last night, I did a drawing, one of my first ever, and it came out looking like fine art. Beginner's luck, maybe. Tonight, nothing happened beyond a few raw sketches, ideas that could lead to a Real Art piece someday later, and a lot of, well doodling. I doodled a lot, tonight, learning my hands' skills. I already have a very good eye, from years of photography, graphic design, and layout; I already know color theory very well; what I lack is the tactile hand-skills of drawing. This is how we begin to learn new skills, though: by practicing, and falling down a lot. And then going on and doing more. I expect to be filling up notebooks and sketchbooks alike.

I am having a tremendous amount of fun. I have no idea what I'm doing, and I'm enjoying it immensely. I may never become a great artist, or even a particularly good one; but I don't care. I'm already a good artist, in other media. I've gotten over that mountain of artistic ambition, by burning it out years ago, in another place, doing another type of art. This is for me. This is for fun. This is learning to do something new with this new life I'm learning to live. I have just crawled out of the primordial sea on stubby fin-legs, and I'm learning to breathe air instead of water; i'll probably have to dive back into nearby tide-pools several times, before I get the hang of it.

My artist friend and I continue to play with artistic tools neither of us knows how to use well. We are both starting out together into unknown territory. We are charter members of the Haven't A Clue Society: we haven't a clue what we're doing, where we're going, or what will happen next.

A lot like life, in other words.

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Photography As Memory 2

And then, when it got too cold to live in the trailer on the mesa overlooking Taos, I packed everything into the truck and trailer, got it down the hill, with a lot of help, and put it into a storage unit in Taos. Then I flew back to the Midwest for a month's visit over the Xmas holidays.

I came back to Taos, loaded everything up, and started out on the journey to California. I was going to visit Los Angeles first, then drive on up to the San Francisco Bay Area, where I ahd been offered another place to live for awhile.

I got several miles down the Rio Grande river valley, where the gorge becomes an inhabited cabin, almost to Dixon, when the trailer broke loose from the truck, broke it's safety chains, rammed the back of the truck, then flew over the cliff into the bosque by the side of the road, coming to rest against a boulder halfway down the cliff.

Managed to get a tow truck out, after dark, to pull the damaged trailer up the cliff, and onto the land of a fire ranger who helped me out that night, and the next few days, about a hundred yards further down the highway. In the light of day, next morning, I saw that the trailer was basically crushed, the eggshell of its fiberglass shell cracked or shattered in several places, the flooring buckled, the braces and wheels bent and unfixable. The weight of the air conditioner unit in the roof had caused the ceiling to partly cave in, from when the trailer hit the boulder and bounced.

So I packed up what I could, shipped off several boxes from Santa Fe to SF, packed up more, then drove on the Los Angeles. That drive was made severely more difficult by the truck being overloaded, and the trauma of the past few days. I found myself terrified of anything more happening, as I drove through Albuquerque, and west towards Flagstaff. I spent the night in a small desert motel in Grants, NM, having driven only that far, and chanting to myself, continuously, all day long, I forgive and bless every inch of this road.

And that was the end of that chapter of life.

On the way to California, however, I did manage to stop for a day at the Grand Canyon, my first ever visit there. I've been there a couple of times since, and will go back again and again, whenever I can be in that part of the desert Southwest. It truly is the one natural wonder of the world that lives up to all the hype.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

enduring, a day and night pass

This is a substantial revision of this poem, the haibun sequence that originally had the working title Thanksgiving Day and Night. This is three or four revisions later.

In the interest of following up on the idea of showing the revision process by example, I thought I'd re-post the poem, here, in a later state. It might still be a work in progress, but it feels much more "complete" to me at this time, and ready to be "abandoned," as I move on to other projects.

I believe it was the French poet Paul Valery who said, A poem is never finished, only abandoned.

I've always found that to be true.

enduring, a day and night pass

time lost to visions
overlaying the world with
interlocking wheels

Time falls around my ankles, a discarded robe before one steps into the bath, warmed by living flesh, soon to chill. Whole days wash off, slosh down the drain. A week suddenly gone, and nothing happened: or, everything happened, and you could not record it all. The recording angel naps those days when acedia rises in the east, the bloody and demanding sun. Red sky at night, sailor's delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning. I'm going to wash these blues right out of my hair.

Snow late last night, coating the gray world white. I watched it fall in that perfect silence that new snowfall brings to the world, as blessing. Juncos, round slate-blue birds, come this morning to sit on the deck railings, kicking up tufts as they land and take off again. The live-in cardinal couple is brilliant against the white land, the male a moving cursor of laser-dot red against a black and white background. The chokecherry tree will still produce its small sable berries, come January. The birds will gather in its branches, gorging themselves, stooping down to pick through the snow under the tree for more fallen fruit.

Already melting. The sun comes out, fitfully, streaks of blue between the clouds. A few more light flakes, here and there, particles of bleached air-borne ash. I worry when I can’t find my gratitudes, even a poor and starving minimal thanks for being still alive—that temporary and contingent existence universally culminated in a face-on meeting with entropy.

If the only prayer
you ever said was "Thank you"—
that would suffice.

(Meister Eckhart)

More lost time: Driving home after dinner in another town, the clouds thin and crumpled, a near-full moon hangs high over white corn rows, blue shadows on the land. I think to myself, When did you get to be full again, moon? Then I realized, I hadn’t seen it for weeks, between illness and exhaustion, and all the cloudy weather. Suddenly the moon's eye was almost round again, silver behind mottled veils.

moon and starlight
on snow-draped fields near town:
black winter berries

I sit awhile at midnight, in the armchair with my heaviest quilt draped over, staring at the fire burning in the fireplace, no lights on, waiting. Outside a silver light; a few stars peek through bare trees. The cold clear night both dark and light. The room is silent except for the sounds of the fire. Approaching silence within. Nothing moves but the flames. The black lines of treeshadows on the white snow are arteries, rivers, tunnels between now and some deeper place.

snowlight firelight moonlight
candelight sunlight night that made us—
receive us all at the end

Lost time. No stories before bedtime, collapsing breath into narrative. Nothing is more unreal than the self-talk that claims to be real. An unstill mind cannot hear the silences rising up, to break into song.

Let go, and go back to sitting and staring at the flames, while out of the corner of the eye, stars and treeshadows slowly turn the wheel of the sky’s clock, winding up, winding down. And the return to silence durable, inevitable, unexpected, tremulous, inexplicable. Light wheels through the fireplace screen, makes shadow patterns on the ceiling, splashes on floors and walls of the silent house.

unnamed falls
to frozen lakes—
silent water sleep

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Driving Across the Basin & Range

Photographs trigger memories of where and when I took the photo. I sometimes go back through the photos taken on a journey, and write from them, making a new narrative of the same road trip. Images bring back memories, even of small things like a bumper sticker seen on back of a beat-up pickup truck, and the memories turn into written impressions.

Poetic journal writing, like writing from photographs, is open-ended. The genre itself celebrates impermanence and flux, outlinging by example that daily life is not rigorously formed, with an Aristotlean beginning, middle, and end. Rather, moments each melt into the next, and you don't end a poem with a big conclusion, you just stop writing. The poem ends when you can't see to write anymore, after dark. It's low-technology, but that just makes it more portable.

Writing begins in observation, like photography. It can continue towards becoming a sketch form, like a plein aire painter; but also like photography. You can polish it later, like a sculpture made of stone or wood. But it all begins in observation.

The haibun sequence below is one I wrote on the hoof, as it were, but also added to and revised for a year after the actual experience. (Basho revised Oku no hosomichi carefully, once he was back from his long journey, to make it a better work of art, and less purely a journal.) Sometimes the words take awhole to percolate through the sediment before they come out, as a stream. Looking back over photographs of that road trip—that one day in which I drove for more than 9 continuous hours, driving up one range and down again, 3000 feet up, 2000 down, 2000 up, 4000 down, till by the day's end my ears ached from all the pressure changes; I began the day in western Utah, and ended it in San Francisco, having driven all the way across Nevada on Hwy. 50 to where it joins the interstate at Reno—added layers to the imagery, and memories were brought out by viewing the photos. Sketching is another way to evoke more layers, and add to a piece.

All of the photos I've mixed in here were taken on that long day's drive. The vast majority of them were taken from the truck, out the lowered window or right through the windshield, without slowing down or stopping: high-speed grab-shots, adding up to a record of changes.

Presenting it this way, as photos and poetry together, changes the way it's perceived. When I first presented it, as just poetry, it became quickly obvious that a lot of readers thought I was making things up, when all I was doing was recording observations. They had never seen this kind of land, not even in their dreams. While obersvational writing does require imagination, at the very least to find the words and metaphors necessary to convey the mood of the place, it's astonishing how often people forget that the universe is wilder and stranger than anything we can imagine. Ignorance tends to see wildness as fiction, when in fact it's all there to be seen by anyone passing through.

driving across the Basin & Range (haibun)

A black pickup truck in an open landscape. Somewhere in western Utah, on Highway 50, at the edge of the last Mormon-named farming towns, that last sign that says, “Next Service 124 Miles,” and you make a quick prayer to Somebody that you have enough gas in the tank, the water jugs are filled, the radiator doesn’t leak, all the engine fluids are topped up, spare jar of oil in the toolkit in back, and you floor it, leaning into the acceleration, as the asphalt streams out before you, flat and level and straight as an engineer could make it, a geodesic across the desert, spinning out, spinning off, across the moving rim of the horizon, into a vessel of grey light.

daring scimitar
of lone driver, lone drive—
bullet-hole memory

All these bowls have old names. Off to the south-east, under clouded-over skies, a mirror of flat alkaline lake; none of these lakes go anywhere, they’re all low-terrain catchments, so the rains wash mineralized salts from the hills, and the only way the water can leave is to evaporate, leaving behind crusted salts and desert varnish. So toxic, so salted, they’d kill you, or your engine, just as quick. The road is silent, but for the sound of wheels. You take your hands off the wheel, and let the truck drift smoothly onto the yellow line, straddling the dashes, aimed at the long distances that never seem to get closer.

drink where salmon
have never returned—
sweet wine of sweat

You stop, every so often, to take a photo, and to get out to stretch your legs, and pee. You have to stop: the rhythm demands it, in words no one has ever said. The photos come out bland and lifeless: empty shots of nothing, no sense of scale, grey fields with thin dark lines across them; it’s all flat and too distant to give any sense of dimension. You'd need to drop a skyscraper into the drowning pan, to give it perspective. Even then, it would just melt into the Big Empty, reflecting in the salt mirrors as it dissolved.

this melting fog
in a sheath of open sky—
unspoken rains

You pull over, after hours of nothing moving anywhere, in the middle of nowhere, and just at that moment, a car zips by going the other way: the only car you've seen in an hour. Isolated cars single free ions in a sea of vacuum; too few to make a decent probability wave. Suddenly, a call overhead, a flap of hawk wing. What’s there to catch out here, brother wind? A lonesome jumping mouse? Surely nothing that doesn’t taste of salt and sweat and endless silence.

getting out of the truck,
stopped in your tracks by sky—
birds fly up forever

At each summit, rain or clouds so low to the road you can stretch out your hands and grasp veils of fog. Or snow, in the higher passes. Slot canyons the river-carved roads up the sides of each range, then the sleety summit with robot weather stations white sentinels by the roadside, maybe a picnic area where slick tables huddle and shiver. The further west you drive, the colder towards night it gets, and nowhere to camp. Tall wind-shaped bonsai pines curve out from the rocks, in the wind's lee. Another hawk, another field being watched for voles. Then you come out over the vista over yet another long, low basin, each more desolate than the last, your ears aching for respite, and at last, for the touch of a hand.

circle of pines
veiled by blowing snow—
eyes of the earth

When you stop to listen to the wind, there is only the distance. The long silence between outbreath and inbreath, ritual pause, as whole worlds fade away then come into being again. This lowering sky. Long ago there were other voices here; the rocks, embedded with ancient seas and other low skies, remember them. You'd have to take your hammer and chip the outcrop just so, at this oblique angle, to find the polished strata where the vibrations are buried, fossil tracks in ripple marks of a shallow-duned sea that sank long ago into the dreams of snails.

scratching to get out,
light-taloned feet of old birds—
fresh rain ringing stones

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Clayton Eshleman: Juniper Fuse

Clayton Eshleman
Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic imagination & the construction of the underworld
Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2003
xxvi + 300 pp.

This is a poet's poet's book—but it's also plain fun to read. It's an Everything Book, an immersive study in a topic that matters to poets, or should, if they haven't yet explored it. It's an in-depth look into the roots of art, a poetic response to archaeology, and an essay response to the history of science as it applies to the Upper Paleolithic cave paintings found in the limestone and dolomite caves of mountainous southern France.'' I for one would be pleased if more poets took it upon themselves to dig this deeply into their own sources, their own passions, their own materials. In such a large work, though, I find it impossible to summarize without feeling like I've left out many important points; or that any description of the book that I can give would be tainted by oversimplification.

It's the sort of book that's going to irritate some specialists in the field—poets will ask, Why so much science? while scientists will ask, What's a poet doing, to be interested in this material?—but it's a book that specialists and generalists alike ought to know about. It's the sort of deep meditation one would like to see more of, on any topic relevant to art, and art history, or poetry in its essential connection to life.

The title, Juniper Fuse, is explained in the opening of Eshleman's Introduction:

Wicks made of quarter-inch juniper branches were used in many of the 130 hand lamps found in Lascaux. . . . Since the Upper Paleolithic, wick has become fuse as the conveyor of ignition for electrical purposes, as well as for shells and bombs.

Eshleman describes the format and purpose of his Everything Book better than I can summarize; also from the Introduction:

Thus in the writing of Juniper Fuse I sought to be open to what I thought about and fantasized while in the caves or while meditating on their image environments—to create my own truth as to what they mean, respecting imagination as one of a plurality of conflicting powers. I also sought to be a careful observer, and to reflect on what others have written, photographed, and drawn. Sometimes a section is all poetry, sometimes all prose—at other times it is a shifting cauldron like a Calder mobile, with poetry turning into prose, prose turning into poetry.

This fluid style of the book moves easily back and forth between poetic sections and essay; this fluidity of regard and format is what I like most about the book. Prose and poetry interfinger and interpenetrate, here. More and more, books like this fascinate me: why, after all, should poetry and prose be so separated from each other, so ghettoized, so Other? There are prose-poems in here, and "pure" poems, and "pure" essays. You can dip in anywhere, and the tone remains consistent, the authorial voice is clear, even as the style and subject change shape. I find the writing to be always lucid and evocative, never deliberately hermetic, and more importantly, retaining humility in the face of the vast scope of the book's project. This is laudable, and appropriate.

Clayton Eshleman is known as a post-modern poet, an influential editor who founded not one but two important journals of post-modern poetry, Sulfur and Caterpillar. His output includes voluminous, occasionally definitive, translations of contemporary poets in French and Spanish, including works of Vallejo, Neruda, and Cesaire among others. So, his credentials are well in place for undertaking a book of this magnitude.

If one were to run across some of the poems within Juniper Fuse in, say, a poetry journal, devoid of illustration, note and context, the poems might not impress one. They might seem guilty of the worst kinds of self-referentiality and hermeticism that one finds in the trendiest poetry journals—the fashion of the difficult, meaningless poem. But here, in this compilation, the threads of meaning in the poems are never lost, and everything makes sense in context. This is quite an achievement, in an age when poetry (especially those poetries most often labeled "post-modern") veers further and further away from relevance to daily life, to meaning, to personal symbol and archetype, even to non-specialist comprehension—or veers towards banal populism, a form of Lowest Common Denominator "communication."

I praise Eshleman for keeping his feet on the ground, and not giving in to poetic fashion, even as he explores ways of making poems that are far outside the mainstream. Some of the poems in Juniper Fuse strike one as outside experimentation, but not as incomprehensible. This is because they are all rooted in the book's subject matter. They can stray far off into odd corners, but still make sense, because they are tethered to the book's overall goal and manner. In other words: in the context of this book, there isn't a poem that doesn't work. Even the ones that I find less moving are still tied to meaning, even though they might use some radical poetic style or heavily experiment with language. They never lose their footing. (Their footings are deep underground, in the caves themselves.)

Juniper Fuse is a magnum opus, a summation. In it, Eshleman talks about the concerns about poetry he has had his entire career. A poet's life is of a whole; you can pick and choose, as a reader, but in a book like this, the pieces are integrated into a global overview. I find that to be one of the best aspects of this book.

Eshleman ties together, in the several sections of this book, images from the caves, myths of the underworld, Jungian psychology regarding the collective unconscious and the archetypes, ancient and modern poetry in its reflections of the shadowy parts of human nature, sexuality and sex-magick, archaeology, the symbols and meanings of the labyrinth and labrys, and much more. He develops two or three central themes, returning to them from new directions, and adding on new data. Here's a sample of Eshleman's style, pulling in sources and ideas from many different directions, some literary, some scientific, some mythopoetic:

Garcia Lorca's essay on the "duende" identifies this diablotin of the blood, or bloodmare, which provokes some of the world's great art, as a struggle with a wound that never closes. Is Garcia Lorca therefore caught, whether he knows it or not, in Ariadne's turnstile, responding to blood that for thousands of years has mesmerized and enraged men as it appeared in rhythm with the moon and the tides, and, without violence, ceased, to only reappear again and again?

. . .

The natural spinning mind of the earth weaves itself in personifications throughout our humanity. Biological peril is always central, and sublimated by image-making into "scorpion hopscotch," or the imaginative gambling called poetry. It is possible to formulate a perspective that offers a life continuity, from lower life forms, through human biology and sexuality, to the earliest imagings of our situation, which now seems to be bio-tragically connected with out having separated ourselves out of the animal-hominid world in order to pursue that catastrophic miracle called consciousness. If the labyrinth is a Double Axe, one might see it as humanity's anguished attempt to center a ceaseless duplicity conjured by the evidence that each step forward seems to be a step backward. And the haft? Phallocentricity that fuses the menstrual/ovulatory cycles into an instrument of inner and outer ceremony that injures but does not restore.
(pp. 86-87)

It's interesting to consider that the art-makers of the caves were on that borderline of human technology in which they were still as often prey as predators. There is evidence of Neolithic organized hunting, but there are also gravesites in which a Neanderthal child is mourned as having been killed by a bear or tiger. Are the cave paintings shamanic spells designed to summon prey? or propitiate the spirits of animals killed? There are numerous drawings in which the animal and human morph into each other, changing places, blending selves. Eshleman makes a special study, returning to the theme throughout the book, of asking whether the human-animal hybrid images meant that men were taking on the powers of the animals, or evolving to be separated from them. It is of course an unanswerable question; yet I find Eshleman to be an effective tour guide through the ramifications and speculations that result from the unanswerable.

The book is also profusely illustrated. There is a color insert, but drawings of the cave imagery appears over and over again, side by side with the poem or essay referring to it, inspired by it, and/or discussing it.

Earlier in the book, Eshleman discusses one of his primary themes, the aforementioned separation that led to human consciousness:

I believe that what we call image-making and, consequently, art, was the result of the crisis of the separation of the hominid from the animal to the distinct but related classifications of the human and the animal. Why it resulted in image-making when and where it did probably has much to do with Ice Age conditions—a considerable dependence on animals for survival . . . as well as the effect of severe and prolonged cold on a body that originally evolved under temperate and even tropical conditions. (pp. 29-30)

Another great theme of the book is the artistic response to nature, experience, and time:

Every artist participates in Ariadne. The transformation of the "given" life to a "creative" one not only involves entering a dark or "inner" life, but generating as well a resistance substantial enough to test oneself against and the shape the focus of one's work. (p. 80)

And, poetically:

Line animating stone. Incipient alphabet.
At what point did the sound lark
split open to reveal a letter,
inkfaceting our dreams?

I crack open to find my
life. As if the word

stone were nut,
I must invent the kernel,

there must be life in my shell.

—from Cemeteries of Paradise, p. 102

One might argue with Eshleman's ideas, or poetic fixations, but they are no more strange than some of the earlier interpretations of the cave art, many of which he consider in detail. And his own theories are at least as solid as some others. This is, after all, a poet's response, so the rules of scientific evidence, while attended to in this book, are not, in the end, determinative.

The one lacunae in Juniper Fuse that I don't really understand surrounds a psychological theory that to me seems directly tied to Eshleman's speculations about the separation of human consciousness from animal consciousness—a perhaps necessary separation, the original Fall from grace—that is, Julian Jaynes' narrative of how modern consciousness arose when the compartmentalized mind through which the gods spoke became the single mind of what we know as human consciousness. Jaynes' masterful book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind seems a natural fit to Eshleman's study, and is not mentioned anywhere, although a great deal of other psychological and mythological studies are. It is true that Jaynes' theories are not highly regarded, now, twenty years after he first published them. Still, Jaynes' absence from Eshleman's otherwise encyclopedic survey is curious.

Juniper Fuse is a book for all poets, and probably ought to be read by folklorists and anthropologists as well. It examines the "back wall" of human art-making: further than this, we cannot go, it seems. It's a book that's worth reading again and again, several times; there's too much in it, and too much resonant, speculative imagination, to be able to absorb on just one reading. I have not done the book justice by dipping into it and summarizing as I am forced to do in a short review. I can only say that this is work, both poetry and essay, that I expect to be responding to for some time. It is a major contribution.

This book review was written for and is also posted at Monsters and Critics as Featured Review.

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Gary Snyder: Danger on Peaks

This 2004 book of thematically connected poems recently came into my possession, as a hardcover first edition, along with the author's No Nature: New and Selected Poems 1992. Gary Snyder is a poet who I feel strongly connected to, both in terms of shared subject matters, but also in shared worldview, interests, and maybe even approach to writing. I cannot but admit to an influence on my own writing from his.

Speaking as a writer interested in both "nature poetry" and what has come in recent years to be called "creative non-fiction," I set Snyder on a shelf in my library next to Barry Lopez, John McPhee, Annie Dillard, and some few others.

I'm also very interested in the genre of writing lately called the poetic journal, which has strong roots in both Thoreau and in Chinese and japanese precursors. There is a connection to zuihitsu, which is a characteristic Japanese literary form of "random composition," literally, "following the brush." This is an open form of free writing, in which the author makes no intentional order, and topics and styles can leap widely from section to section. What creates continuity is proximity rather than outline. (Famous literary examples of zuihitsu include Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book and Kenko's Essays in Idleness.)

Snyder's book Danger on Peaks carries elements of both poetic journal and zuihitsu. It is not the first example of this work he has given us; it is a common mode for his poetry, and also appears in his essay collections Earth House Hold and The Practice of the Wild. I think the origin of Snyder's style lies in both the influence of American nature writers such as Thoreau, and his well-known Asian studies background. That he practices it so well is a tribute to his own skills as poet and prose-poet, and the balance he has found that allows him to stand on the shoulders of his precursors on multiple continents. I have said, previously, that of all the poets associated with the Beats, Snyder is I think perhaps the most enduring, and for me at least the richest and deepest. His work is a deep well that puts out streams in several directions. Snyder has said, in different ways at different times, that his values and practice are nature-based, as old as the human species; this full book of poems reinforces both values and practice, moving them forward into the new century, at the same time reaffirming their archaic, even Paleolithic origins.

Danger on Peaks does what the best poetic journal writing does: it moves easily between prose section and enjambed verse. The tone of voice is consistent, regardless of whether the style seems more prose-like or poetry-like, and it's a tribute to both style and execution that the moves between more prose-like objects and more poetry-like objects on the page are seamless.

The poems take place in the mountains, or in the frame of mind of, having returned to the lowlands, one's heart and mind being still in the mountains. Sometimes this is explicit; other times, merely the context of the poem's actions. The title of the book echoes throughout, as each poem in each section gradually accumulates to fill alll the spaces in the book. This is genuinely a book-length poem made up of additive elements that create a synergistic whole.

The book's seven sections being with "Mount St. Helens," an autobiographical poetic journal beginning withe first time Snyder climbed the snowpeaks of the Cascades, at age 13, and continuing through other memories to when the mountain blew in 1980, and the aftermath. The fourth poem in "Mount St. Helens" is Atomic Dawn:

The day I first climbed Mt. St. Helens was August 13, 1945.

Soirit Lake was far from the cities of the valley and news came slow. Though the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima August 6 and the second dropped on Nagasaki August 9, photographs didn't appear in the Portland Oregonian until August 12. Those papers must have been driven in to Spirit Lake on the 13th. Early in the morning of the 14th I walked over to the lodge to check the bulletin board. There were whole pages of the paper pinned up: photos of a blasted city from the air, the estimate of 150,000 dead in Hiroshima alone, the American scientist quoted saying "nothing will grow there again for seventy years." The morning sun on my shoulders, the fir forest smell and the big tree shadows; feet in thin mocassins feeling the ground, and my heart still one with the snowpeak mountain at my back. Horrified, blaming scientists and politicians and the governments of the world, I swore a vow to myself, something like, "By the purity and the beauty and permanence of Mt. St. Helens, I will fight against this cruel destructive power and those who would seek to use it, for all my life."

If consistency is a measure of inner grace, and commitment a measure of inner power, then Snyder's grace and power have never diminished.

The fifth section of the book, "Dust in the Wind," is a sequence of expanded haibun; not formally precise, but exploded, the intent and cohesion of the form still there. Haibun, my own favorite poetic form to write in, can be defined as densely poetic prose with interspersed haiku. Here, Snyder doesn't stick to strict haiku in form; still, each poem begins with a prose paragraph followed by a short poem. Snyder follows the aesthetic of the haibun form, in that each short poem following a prose paragraph looks at the same moment from a different angle: a new take on the topic, unified in essence but never merely repeating the prose. It's always an oblique viewpoint, but the haiku also completes the haibun. This is the classic way the haibun has been practiced by the haiku masters, most famously by Basho himself, in his masterpiece Oku no hosomichi, or "Narrow Road to the Interior."

Spilling the Wind

The faraway line of the freeway faint murmur of motors, the slow steady semis and darting little cars; two thin steel towers with faint lights high up blinking; and we turn on a raised dirt road between two flooded fallow ricefields—wind brings more roar of cars

hundreds of white-fronted geese
from nowhere
spull the wind from their wings
wobbling and sideslipping down

The seventh section of the book, "After Bamiyan," is full of lament and anger. It is political poetry, but not protest poetry: it is engaged with the world, and events, but the poet responds as a human, not as a political flack. The section begins with the destruction by the Taliban in early 2001 of the ancient, gigantic Buddhas sculpted into the rocks of the high cliffs at Bamiyan. I remember studying these Buddhas, in college art history classes, as a culmination of historical Buddhist art and architecture along the Silk Road; I had always wanted to see them in person, which is now and forever impossible.

My favorite poem in this final, lamenting section is one of the poems Snyder wrote after the destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. The most indelible images in my mind, from that day I sat watching the events as they happened, live on television, were the dots of people fallign from the sky: those who had chosen to leap to their deaths rather than be burned alive, or crushed in the fall of the twin towers. I knew, as soon as the planes hit the buildings, that the buildings were coming down: jet fuel is an arsonist's dream accelerant, burning hot enough to soften concrete and steel. The images of the people who chose their own deaths, by leaping free of the towers, is still what I remember most viscerally. Snyder wrote about it as follows, and in this his writing says all that I have never been able to:

Falling from a Height, Holding Hands

What was that?
storms of flying glass
& billowing flames

a clear day to the far sky—

better than bruning,
hold hands.

We will be
two peregrines diving

all the way down

The book ends with a final poem-blessing: We have spoken again the unknown words of the spell / that purifies the world.... Then one turns the page, and just before the brief Notes, there is a beautiful photo of Mt. St. Helens that Snyder took in August 1945, returning us back to the first poems in this collection, about his first climbs of the snowpeaks.

As poetic journal, as haibun or zuihitsu, as a continuation of a genuinely American poet's work—a Pacific Rim American poet's work, one who looks both West and East—this is a compelling book. It both summarizes, memorializes, reminisces, and moves us forward into the future. Snyder's poetic prose and more formal poetry alike weave together into a unified whole, parts capable of standing alone, but the whole greater than the sum of the parts, as well.

Any poets who are interested in what can be done with these journal forms and prose/poem styles need to read and re-read this book; for inspiration, for solace, for possibility. For me, this is one of hte most inspiring books of poetry, and poetic prose, that I have read in years. I expect to return to it numerous times, and to carry it with me, next time I venture into the Cascades.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Photography As Memory

The fall I lived outside Taos, NM, and the images from the time I spent there, come back to me tonight as I review other aspects of my life. A life's threads are all tangled together, usually not so deliberately woven that one can wear a life as a scarf against the chill of night, but not so disorganized either that no fabric can be made of them. We create fiction when we write memoir, because we're impsing order and interpretation after the fact. From the vantage point of the present, everything that led you to where you are now seems inevitable, destined, progressive. At the time, it never felt that way; only in hindsight do patterns emerge. It's tempting always to create a narrative of cause an effect, to impose such a narrative on chaos in order to bring chaos to order, and to give it meaning. But is this really the right way to go about it? Psychological history is biography is memory is fact is fiction is memoir.

on Taos plateau

I had the habit, that fall and winter in Taos, of putting several of my photos there into banners, sorted by date or by topic. Visual remnants, traces of history. I've always used photographs as memories. I suspect most people do. There was a period in the early 20th Century, when "art photography" explored the same sense of abstract forms as writing and painting had been doing, usually by doing close-ups or distant landscapes in which the details of representation melted into pattern, and meaning and image were much harder to discern. Edward Weston's close-ups of green peppers, of parts of the female body, of driftwood on the Pacific shore, were all of a piece in their explorations of curvilinear forms. In retrospect, this observation of the same forms recurring in different subjects, on different scales, and at different locations, prefigures the development of fractal geometry.

I write this at sunset—an overcast winter day with just a hint of pink in the sky for a few moments before the woods fade to indigo—after having gone this afternoon to wheelbarrow in a load of wood from the stack in the woods. I also stood for several minutes, shivering and bundled up against the cold, beside the tripod while the video camera was shooting long takes of the snow-covered blue spruce moving slowly in the wind. With the video camera, these long shots are just like still photos—carefully composed, thoughtfully cropped, carefully lit—except they move, even if only slightly.

Home trailer home

I would construct a photo-banner to illustrate an entry in the Road Journal, which I had just started to keep. (I still find the word "blog" to be an ugly word, so I avoided using it when I started this online journal, which was never meant to be a diary, or unpolished reminiscence.) The Road Journal now contains more of my life and memoir and personal experience than I had ever intended to include. I try to find a balance of poetry, prose, and photography there, since all three modes tangle themselves together in my life: biography as an illustrated book, or an illuminated manuscript. I can't think of anything more boring than memoir without photo. Because of the technology of publishing, which I have always been attendant to, I can also include music in my online memoirs, following Mendelssohn's idea for short narrative piano pieces, the Songs Without Words. And now, with Liquid Crystal Gallery, I am able to combine photos and music into films, with still photos made to move, just like the long video shots that are just like still photos, except they move.

Photographs as memories. Both aesthetic criticism and cognitive theory have looked into the implications of photographs replacing memories in their usage. Are family albums really about constructed memory, or are they designed to tell the family's idealized story, all the warts and pains removed? Almost everybody smiles when they know a picture is being taken of them. You get more natural expressions via candid or stealth photography.

remnant volcanic cone, Arroyo Hondo, NM

I went West in fall 2004, against the wishes of my family. Looking back, my birth family has undercut and second-guessed every major life-decision I've ever made. I guess they thought they were being the devil's advocate, but what resulted was that I learned that no decision I ever made, for any reason, could ever live up to their expectations, and nothing I ever really cared about would ever be supported. That's still true. Those voices you carry with you inside your head, undercutting you, are usually voices you learned from your family, somewhen.

But I went anyway. I needed to shake things up. The result of the past three years has been continuous change, accelerated disruption, occasional homelessness (sometimes literal as well as metaphorical) and, in the end, a return home to take care of ailing parents, giving up my own life for theirs. At this time, still recovering from all that, and the stress and exhaustion of it, I've become chronically ill myself. Most of my plans for the winter have been called into question.

Rio Grande River gorge, Taos Plateau region

As I look over the photographs I've taken in these past three years, several bodies of work emerge. As difficult as life has been during this high-stress period of my life, the art I've made during this time is among the best ever. Beginning in 1993, I started making site-specific landscape art sculptures. Out West, I found myself in places where all you had to do was point the camera at the ground and you could still get a beautiful image. I spent a lot of time in the Rockies, and also at the Pacific Ocean shore. I discovered that I do my best thinking, sometimes, on long cross-country road-trips.

Taos plateau

I developed a body of work that is literally about the body: nudes in natural settings. I came into my own as a landscape photographer, worked even more with portraits and nudes, and developed films based on my still photography, making them move. Now I have access to a high-definition digital video camera, the next step in the image-making process. I'm not interested in film-making except maybe as a photographer or cinematographer; I'd rather spend a week with Ron Fricke than anyone else in cinema.

home frigid tent

There's a lot more associated with photography and memory I could explore. It might take a lifetime to review the past few years, which have been more intense and amazing than I can ever explain. I know that I have begun a life review, to figure out how I got to this point. Where I started, who I was back then, seems unrecognizable now, unimaginably distant. Time shapes us, if we let it, if we're open to becoming more or less what we were meant to be. I could talk about the forge, the refiner's fire, the heat that sears yet heals.

Here endeth the prime lesson: Let no one interpret your own life for you. That's your required work.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Snow Is Falling All Over

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.

It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

—James Joyce, The Dead in the collection Dubliners

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