Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Poems for Samhain

Outside the big east-facing window at which my writing desk is placed, the constellation of Orion is rising, filling all of the sky between the shadows of the trees.

Redwood door with candle, Butano State Park, Pescadero, CA

It's been a night for lighting candles and fires. I have been burning candles all evening, instead of electric lights. I put out several different kinds of candles on the porch, to light the way for the kids. I built a fire in the fireplace and have kept it going all evening. I have had remembrance candles burning in Dad’s old bedroom all night long.

Like every Samhain, it's a night of lights, a fire night, a night of starlight, moonlight, firelight, candlelight, and inner light.

the Stars, from Spiral Dance

I've decided to share here a few of my older Samhain poems, written between 1985 and 1995 originally. I've spent a quiet day, putting up some Halloween decorations and giving out candy to costumed kids, but also sitting and remembering my father.

involuntary words

little prayers we say,
little strings of words
like pearls around the necks of the dead,
little automatic movements of the eye
flicking towards half-seen things on the peripheries of vision,
hands curling around in warding signs;
out of darkness come the white trees, suddenly there—
we give a little exclamation, a puff of exiled breath,
and riding out with it float the white tongues of fear;
shimmering in green light,
the hummingbird floats above the pool,
we give a soft cry of pleasure
as its flickering iridescence vanishes;
small red leaves swirl about the mossy shelf above the water,
stirred by children’s unseen hands, little girl ghosts
who watch from the shadows and giggle;
alone and silent
while rain comes weeping down,
we speak quiet words over the stone,
pearls strung together by song,
a little laughter, a small child’s wide eyes;
and you, beneath the stone,
do you hear it? those little prayers
and unnoticed sighs; they ring for you through the silence,
the darkness, the silence, the voices of the soil,
the sounds of the living,
given to the dead.

All Hallow’s

the voices of the dead.
are you with me, grandfather?
do you hear me, spirits of the past?
is the night hurrying because of you?

the answers are not in unhoped for words
but the images of night: the cloak,
the stillborn wind ripping brown leaves,
rain on the sidewalk, clay earth
becoming mud, mute stars,
the tree sighing as it dies, the ending
of the day, the halo of dawn,
the nighttouch, the wolves’ howl,
the heart, the soul of the dark.

because we know, we know you well.
the voices of the dead carry
my heart, whispering, wind-voiced.
what do they know but time?
timelessness is not theirs; they surpass it,
as they surpass the images of night.
my time is coming. I must leave,
as we all must, as the dead have,
wandering in their cities of different light,
strange and still, touching each other
as they pass, tenderly,
with the fingertips, as they pass,
walking home.

Pescadero, CA

words over the stone

the earth, newly opened to the sky
and newly closed,
was cool over you
where you slept

we laid all the flowers in the world
on you as we closed you in,
then the soil, a handful each at first,
a spade, a stone, a painted marker briefly given

the air spoke first, then the earth,
dark words flew above the hills,
clouds sang as they stood over you,
covering your head in deluge, in farewell

a stone, a flower, a changing of the light,
a gathering of everyone touched
by your life, who you had touched,
your living a star in you, a flower

then the light broke, and the rain
fell, hardly waking you
but quietly weeping
from the sky, melting into the soil

the flowers melted down into you
and their fragrances bathed you;
the earth was cool over you where you slept:
you stepped into the light, that last morning,
leaving us to follow, tracing you, singing

Fire Night, from Spiral Dance

And, to end the night, a blessing I have been using more and more these past few years:

A Blessing to be Spoken at Night

Earth shelter you
Fire be inside you
Water cool you
Air gentle you always.

By starlight, sunlight,
moonlight, candlelight and firelight,
Who created us all at the beginning,
receive us all at the end.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

A Spell for Samhain

    (Samhain No. 1, for solo piano and processing effects; AD, piano.)

A Spell for Samhain

The black sky glowers its gentle apprehension.
The land spins under a load of snow.

Geese cry on the pond, lost souls calling.
The bare tree shakes in the wind.

How many days and nights, wandering?
He said, from his wraith’s barrow: Let me come home.

Last year at this time I posted these poems. This year, I am posting music as well as a poem. Two piano improvs, recorded at moonrise, three nights after the full Hunter's Moon, and two nights before Samhain itself. (Click on the player button to hear the recordings.) The walls between the worlds at their thinnest, this time of year. This is what happens when you open yourself to that opening.

These two poems are older, but they catch the October/All Hallow's Eve mood for me. Maybe not my greatest poems, but I keep coming back to this subject matter, and making fresh attempts at it. These two poems are, at least, not the worst of these "October poems," some of my earliest attempts at which make me cringe now.

    (Samhain No. 2, for solo piano; AD, piano.)

the Dead

the dead open their hands:
their hands are filled with light.
the dead move upwards,
out of the earth, treading
on the stairs of time.
he comes to the earth
where he was born, moving
out of life's reflections,
into the gap.
no words to describe him:
the bleak face, the gentle,
moving hands. but his eyes,
firelit, obscure;
lonely, empty of
the warmth of life.
he whispers his secrets.
he stares, and you are caught.
a question unresolved.
in his measuring nothing asked.
his eyes turn away, and cold death
returns, indifferent.
he comes to the earth, he is reborn.
the shovel turns the earth;
the earth breathes,
rich, loamy.
the earth knows itself, complete.
but his eyes; the gentle hands.

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What Is This Horrid Thing That You Are Writing?

There's a scene in Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternak's great novel with poems, echoed by a great movie, where a commissar of the Party has a long talk with Zhivago, the doctor-poet. The doctor is sympathetic to the Revolutionary cause, but for subtle contemplative reasons, not easy ones expressible in platitudes; that can be dangerous, because his opinion could change tomorrow. When the doctor asks the commissar if he thinks his poetry is ridiculous, a petit bourgeousie waste of time, the commissar says Yes—but in his own mind the commissar admits to himself immediately that he lies. And it stabs him through to realize that Zhivago cares a great deal about his opinion. But he can't take his word back, nor can he bring himself to contradict the Party line; even though he wishes to be honest with the poet, for their safety's sake, he cannot be.

There is a parallel to this moment that has stood as an ongoing argument in poetry—an argument without end, and usually with petty rationales used to bolster arguments that reduce to little more than personal opinion made to stand as de facto law. This argument is the constant attack on "formless" poetry by the formalists, especially the neo-formalists. Virtually every time I read an essay some poet has written about free verse, it is immediately attacked.

The situation has a parallel in the criticisms of Mozart's avant-garde music during his lifetime, with "too many notes" being a common charge—yet Salieri keeps his own counsel, loathing himself, because he knows how great Mozart's music truly is, but he cannot openly admit it. In his own mind, like the commissar, he stands split in two, unable to resolve the tension within between what he knows to be great and true, and what he must, by circumstance, be never able to openly say.

You see it over and over again: the neo-formalists constantly attack free verse as decadent, superfluous, and somehow morally lax. Yes, the argument is at root a moral one, not a technical one. Moral arguments disguised as technical arguments are easy to spot: they always cloak prejudice in the guise of rationale, and attempt to bludgeon any opposition into submission.

I could accept the neo-formalists' objection to free verse if they would only be honest about their motivations. Plain, honest opinion based on nothing but air is far preferable to reams of rationale that conceal and cloak hidden agendas. If you're facing honest hatred, at least you're clear where you stand.

Lately, except for the usual haiku output, I have been writing things that are like nothing I can explain, or justify, or even explain to myself. I am told by wise grief recovery counselors that what I have been through, this past year and more, was a life-changing experience, and that I have changed—and that I must expect my creative energies to change as well. And they have. I am now doing actual video. The music I am hearing inside myself is different, not yet coming to the surface. And what I am writing, in terms of essay and poetry, is radically new, for me. I cannot escape this, and I am not trying to.

What I am writing now, if you insist on categorizing it, falls into the nebulous and dangerous (to formalists) realms of the prose-poem, the haibun, and creative-non-fiction-prose: the poetic essay, if you will. The same search for the truth that I have always pursued, as a poet, is present: that has not changed. What has changed is my inner landscape: all the old maps are useless or incomplete. I now have no reference points, no landmarks. I have become again an explorer, an adventurer, a journeyman. Any sense of mastery is lost. All this is exciting, as well as daunting. I look forward to it, even as I still don't know how to proceed.

I know, by charting my own inner landscapes, that many motivations are hidden. The core practice of attaining self-knowledge and self-awareness is to pay attention to one's inner weather, and constantly make note of one's own prejudices, fears, hidden agendas, and motivations. Over time, you begin to develop a keen nose for the movement of waters below-the-surface in your own self. And that experience trains you in sniffing out the under-surface waters moving in others, as well.

My new writing has been under constant attack. I won't say anything here about the unfairness of the attack, or how hard it can be to respond, given the rest of my situation (overwhelmed, if mostly coping, by the grieving process). I won't beat my breast and call the universe unfair. The universe mostly doesn't listen to such griping, anyway.

Yet I will say that, in every case, the attacks have contained more than a whiff of anti-experimentaion prejudice; a tang of neo-formalist rejection of poetic material in unfamiliar forms; a hint of anxious insecurity concealed benath the cloak of the rejection of chaos. I sometimes think that the reason many neo-formalists seek form and order in art, and are so quick to attack apparent chaos, is that they are very insecure in their own selves. They seek out and enforce form (as formalism) wherever they can in life, because so much of the rest of their lives is so chaotic, so disturbing, so unsettled, so formless, so very terra infirma.

Are the (neo-)formalists so insecure that they can brook no contradiction to their own values? Apparently so. If so, then are they so self-blind that they cannot see how the dynamics of their arguments exactly mirror those of religious fundamentalists attacking the demons that they themselves have projected out onto the world? Apparently not.

I feel blessed to have learned, via the stringent requirements of caregiving for my ailing and aging parents, that indeed, chaos never dies, there is no certainty or security, and that the only certain thing in this universe is change. I have been changed by the experience. One of the changes has been that I have actually arrived at a place close to my own long-standing spiritual goal of learning to live in the present moment. When you care for a parent with Alzheimer's, you learn that there is only the present moment: no past, no future, only today, this moment, this instant. If you cannot comprehend this, I urge you to go spend a day at a residential care facility for Alzheimer's patients; you will either learn to take things as they are, from moment to moment, or you will crumble into a bloody heap, a victim of your own expectations for continuity and social cohesion. Such things do not exist, in such places. When you care for another parent with cancer, who might live, and who probably won't, and for whom any morning could be their last, you learn to appreciate the present moment, and stop caring about what might happen, or what might not. The words might happen are the first things you learn to let go of: because nothing is predictable, nothing is certain, and no knowlesge can protect you from the uncertainty. Chemotherapy usually doesn't work: most patients die anyway. You cannot count on anything working. All you can do is appreciate today, just today, only today.

So, I am writing a series of longish pieces—if one dared call them poems, they certainly don't look like any poems I've written before—mostly not about my experiences of the recent past. Yet experience colors art, as it must. You change, so must your art change. That's inevitable. Clinging to an idea of what your art is supposed to be like is delusion. The only thing you can do with your own past artwork is look at it dispassionately, noting what you did before, and not expecting it to be that way ever again. Don't expect the past to have anything to do with the future: both are illusory, and neither are real.

I realize, and I have said it to myself several times recently, that I am now writing a series of poems/pieces; a series that is new and undefined. Most of them have titles from technical terms in Greek which are used in theology, or otherwise have a connection to spiritual studies. I find the Greek words to be much richer than their English equivalents, containing both historical resonances and nuances of translation that have depth and ambiguity.

Deliberate obscurity in poetry usually conceals a lack of depth, using smoke and mirrors and parlor tricks to deflect awareness from the essential incompetence of poet, or the fact that they have really nothing to say; but genuine poetic ambiguity adds depth, by adding layers of meaning, and multiple interpretations, all of which can contain truth.

Not one of my poems/pieces in this new series has evaded attack from some self-appointed formalist keeper of the sanctity of poetry, language, orthography, and/or poetic craft vis a vis grammar, syntax, etc. To which the best reply is silence, and a shrug. If I really cared what the neo-conservative neo-formalists in poetic criticism thought of this new work, I might be moved to reply.

Not one of these new poems has been uncontroversial. Most of these new poems have also received a certain kind of baffled, offhand praise: I like this, I think, but I sure don't know what the heck it is.

Thus, I can only surmise that I must be doing something right. And that's enough, for me, for now.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Liquid Crystal Gallery Debuts

It's official!

Our Liquid Crystal Gallery DVD project is now real.

The first DVD, A Day in the Natural World, has been duplicated, and is available for all to see, and hopefully purchase. I have also built a website for LCG, and will add to it as time goes on, and new DVD films get made.

We have previews of the first four films on the website, available to be viewed as streaming or downloadable video, including previews you can view on your iPod.


There are four DVD films completed, with one already duplicated, and the others soon to follow. More films will be on the way. (This past month I have been photographing and shooting HD video of the autumn color changes here in the Upper Midwest, which will be the material for our next DVD.) I really want to get back into this, now that I have more time available for it. We have a long way to go to make this DVD business a viable concern, but at least the first steps have now been taken. It's taken me more than two years to get this far, but now I'm at the threshold, and waiting to cross over into the new life.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Fragility, Ephemerality, and the Autumnal

Fish Lake, Illinois

Of course it's a cliché to start thinking about death in autumn. Death always happens, in contrived literature, in melodrama, as a shock as a surprise. It comes out of nowhere, so of course it must come in spring. Melodrama, unlike tragedy, is contrived. Tragedy is inevitable; it can't be avoided.

A little over a week ago, my email software went belly up, forcing me out of contact for four days. Eventually, I completely ripped out and did a clean, fresh install. I lost some emails in the interim, but I restored my email connection. But the experience made me think about fragility.

How fragile all this is. It takes so little to disrupt a life, to destroy it, to kill it. We are very fragile, and the one experience we will all eventually share, whether we wish to or no, is dying.

Do you know where your spiritual life preserver is?

The ephemeral nature of life is both it's horror and its joy. It is a constant reminder of mortality. Every ten years, all the matter in your body has replaced itself. Your bones are completely new. They are also weaker, after the telemeres at the ends of your alleles start to wear away: replicative failure, the planned obsolesence of the body's ability to replicate itself.

The human body is not a thing or substance, given, but a continuous creation. The human body is an energy system which is never a complete structure; never static; is in perpetual inner self-construction and self-destruction; we destroy in order to make it new. —Norman O. Brown

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. —Mohandas K. Gandhi

A few days after that, my computer died of mechanical failure. I was in the midst of completing one of those freelance graphic design jobs that had seemed simple at first, but then mushrooms into a monster that eats up all your free time. So, I had been putting off migrating my data and software into my new laptop. Now I had no choice. Fortunately, it was a fairly easy migration, although I'm still shaking out some minor glitches.

But it makes you realize how easily and quickly things fall apart. Your expectations and assumptions about life never take this into account. You never see it coming. You are bound by the assumptions that allow you to take life for granted—until it gets disrupted, and you can no longer be contentedly, willfully blind to the stark truth that rules our entropic universe: Everything changes. Everything dies.

I can never go back to that simple, simplistic worldview. I have become too aware of the fragility of it all. Anyone who has been near death will tell you this; as will anyone who has survived a great loss, is grieving, and trying to move on. You're not the same person that you used to be; and the new person isn't fully formed yet, so you don't yet know who you are, or who you are to become. It's all unclear. This is a very vulnerable time. It's ripe with possibilities—but you can't escapte the constant awareness of how easily it can all crumble. You move slowly and carefully, if you are wise—and recklessly if you are not. You take care not to bump up against the furniture, even if it means re-learning where everything is in the room.

Still, I don't believe in apocalypse. I believe in apokatastasis. There is nothing that cannot be redeemed. Every time we fight back against entropy, we make the universe live a little bit longer. We slow down it's inevitable death. As fragile and vulnerable as we are, we still have the power to spend ourselves in the cause of life, rather than death.

There's an old samurai saying that goes: When you know you are going to die, you can do anything. That's a Warrior awareness, a warrior's enlightened attitude: when you know you won't survive the game, you can do anything. That is what true freedom is.

I think that if every person were at birth made to understand that life was temporary, and we all are going to die, how much more we would cherish and value the life we have. There is nothing worse than having died inside, years before your body stops breathing and walking around. Someone ought to tell us, when we are born, that we are already dying; then we might learn to live life to the utmost, every day we are still alive.

The truth of the warrior's awareness of death is simply stated: If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve. Letting go is a continuous, daily practice. The body's instinct is always to try to cling, at all costs, to its own existence. My father's body took three days' time between when he left it, and when it stopped breathing; my family's entire purpose during those three days was to hold vigil, and wait. Then the body finally let go. But the person who had been wearing that body had already chosen to move on, and there had been no fear left in him. He was ready. He achieved a good death. Still, death ends a life, not a relationship. I'm still here—for now.

As a well spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death. —Leonardo da Vinci

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. —Mark Twain

A dying man needs to die, as a sleepy man needs to sleep, and there comes a time when it is wrong, as well as useless, to resist. —Stewart Alsop

So I look out at the leaves on the trees yellowing, turning to red and brown, and being torn loose by the October winds to eventually lie on the grass, and return to the soil which fed the tree that grew these leaves. A perfect cycle of return. Trees feed their own roots by letting the leaves fall on the ground around them, and decompose into the nutrient humus that the roots will later take up again. The color of the sky in October in the upper Midwest is like no other color: it is the most deep and sublime and clear cyan or blue imaginable. It is the color of lightning, and of enlightenment. On a clear day, the yellow leaves against that blue sky vibrate, too impossible to believe.

Yet the leaves are most beautiful just as they are dying. The cherry blossoms are beautiful because they will not last, but will fade quickly into nothingness. The crabapples are pink and white, glorious for a week at most; eventually the fruit will come, but the flower has to die to make the fruit.

Someday I'll be a weather-beaten skull
resting on a grass pillow,
serenaded by a stray bird or two.
Kings and commoners end up the same,
so more enduring than last night's dream.


I look out at the deer herd that wanders through our woods here. There are too many of them. They will either die from hunger brought on by overpopulations (humans have killed off their natural predators), or by wasting disease, or by misadventure.

"Death by misadventure" is a phrase medical examiners use in their reports when someone dies by reckless stupidity, accident, or just plain being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Only 15 percent of those who die, die suddenly, without warning—but the other 85 percent fear that death worse than any other.

So, these deer will die. This spring, there were twin fawns in the yard, dappled coats, long thin legs, and playing with each other, running and chasing. There are no coyotes in my woods to kill them. But this year there was the river in flood, and there are always cars along the busy roads in this area.

Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life. —John Muir

I shall tell you a great secret, my friend. Do not wait for the last judgement; it takes place every day. —Albert Camus

There is no big apocalypse, only an endless succession of little ones. —Neil Gaiman

The end of my world is not the end of yours, until yours too comes to its end. Every time an elder of the tribe dies, a lifetime of experience disappears from the collective consciousness. It's all lost. Yet nothing is lost, that can't be regained. There is nothing that cannot be redeemed. Not one soul shall be lost: not one. These are the truths of apokatastasis.

I doubt the deer know or care, or the turning leaves. But I do, and maybe that's enough.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Autumn Scenes

near Beloit, WI

storm clouds over corn, Beloit, WI

Japanese garden, Rotary Gardens, Janesville, WI

a few leaves falling
makes ripples in the still pond,
reflecting the sky

clearing storm over dry corn, Janesville, WI

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Limitations (of Words, etc.)

You wake, the day feels already half over before the sun rises. You look out at the deer and theystare back at you, saying nothing. It's raining, and the whiteboard sky has no texture, no ripple, remains a solid blank slate, nothing written on it. A late-blooming rose is a shock of pink against the leaf-strewn lawn.

There are so many things you cannot say with words.

I have been feeling many things, since my father got ill and died this past summer, that poetry cannot contain. I haven't been writing much "creative writing," and what I have been writing has been so new, so unfamiliar in form, to me, that I don't know what it is, or what to call it. I am still looking for the right container, the worthy crucible. My trust in the ability of words to convey what I experience, which was never strong, has eroded even further. The bards knew how much needed to be said with lacunae, silence, and obliqueness. You can talk around the crater, or you can describe its circumference, or you can talk about what lies at its epicenter: but it's too big to really contain.

The ancient rhyming skalds, the tellers of the Old Norse epics, would talk around a hero's pain without directly addressing it. Some mystery remains as to inner world and motvation. Perhaps the real discontinuity between then and now is that, now, we carry the assumption (ever since Freud) that inner motivations mean more than outer, and that if you don't know the inner person, the childhood traumas, you cannot understand the acting adult, the outer person who engages with the world, whether by ax or rime or coin. Some days I question the validity of this modern assumption. Some nights you want to leave the inner turmoil alone, to let it sort itself out, without having to give it all your conscious obsession. It can be exhausting, emotionally, leaving you with no room to maneuver.

Words fail you. Words fail all poets, eventually, and the poets who claim otherwise have never really met life head-on.

Those who know don't have the words to tell
and the ones with the words don't know too well.

—Bruce Cockburn, Burden of the Angel/Beast

There are some experiences that words only limit, in their attempts to encapsulate them: they make the reality smaller. They divorce the emotion from the experience somewhat.

Words lie. I danced that out around the fire circle, last weekend, furious, very martial, very firece, letting the Dragon take me, thrusting and punching the superheated fall air, my eyes burning, my body moving fluid and powerful through the circle of witness. I barely heard the drums. The only words I could squeeze out, and it was an effort, surrounded as I was by cheap facility and easy poetasting: Words lie.

This is the song of unfolding: first you must tear down what is false, so you can build up what is true.

So, I will claim this truth: I cannot tell you (in words) what I feel, what has happened, where I am going. I can dance it, barely; being a poor dancer with bad knees. I can make music about it. I can refer to paintings that open the fields. I can edge around the crater, but I can't guide you into it. The sun hasn't risen far enough to illuminate what still lies in cold shadow. Not even the bards or the skalds had words for these depths, and they wisely left them alone. (Remember, a bard's task is also to conceal and misdirect.)

It's our modern era that's wrong, wherein (multiple choice:) everyone is told they must confess everything, where nothing is to remain private or mysterious, where there's always a (glib) explanation, where you're expected and demanded to share, share, share till it hurts, whether or not you're ready to share. When you just don't have the words, you're expected to find some anyway. Confession isn't always good for the soul. Poetry that too easily reveals the poet is worthless. Poets who believe that words are the best domain for conveying information are engineers, in truth, not bards. Poets who hold words in too high an esteem have never (yet) been betrayed by their art, by their tools; they shall remain shallow, until their own vessels, their own containers, are cracked open and broken, to be reforged better, stronger, more sure. More aware of the limitations of their principle tool. Till then, you can't trust a word they say.

Words cheapen. They fold large things down into vessels too small to contain them. They pretend to be able to explain it. They pretend to be capable of containing the world. At most, they contain an image of the world, a reflection, a shrunken virtuality, a quasi-mathematical representation that formulaicly tries to capture an essence in equations. Words reduce, inappropriately and incorrectly. By reducing experience to manageable descriptions, words falsify: another kind of lie, the lie of incompleteness and omission. The emotion again divorced from the experience. Poems that don't leave lacunae, open spaces to breathe through, breathing spicules, will die of suffocation, gasping for air. Poems that are too self-contained leave you nowhere to go.

When the haiku master Kobayashi Issa's small daughter died (one of many personal tragedies), he did not weep in his poems, he did not wail, he did not gnash his teeth in an unseemly display of self-pity, he did not confess his sorrow directly and explicitly. Instead, he wrote one of the most profoundly Zen Buddhist poems of all time:

this world of dew
is just a world of dew—
and yet . . . and yet . . .

(trans. Sam Hamill)

Issa knew that yearning, and without saying it, said it. His poetry speaks across the confessional fashions of our times to say something profound, without saying it at all. A rich, insightful, bardic silence. What is unsaid means so much more than what is.

The most words can do, even when they are at their most sublime, is point at the truthes that lie beyond words. Words can be effective pointers, and even guides; but it is not wise to confuse the map with the terrain. The words themselves are not the path, despite what poets claim. Experience makes false any claim that poetry is the highest artform, because poetry so often fails to contain silence and what cannot be said in words. Poetry can barely contain music; the most it can do is report. As easy facility with technique and craft is no sure bulwark against being stared at, in the depths of your being, by a raptor who can eat your liver. It is hubris to believe that we are the pinnacle of either the hunt or the build (the making, the creation). The raptor and crater are both larger than you.

Yet we struggle against limitation, we push back, we surge against it. We deny its power over us, and even as we fail to transcend our limits, we deny our failures. (Words lie.) It's all so much shouting at the void, the abyss. They raise the stakes constantly, especially those poets who calim mastery of words, and constantly increase the volume of their cheers: because the abyss never answers back, not even an echo. It just absorbs. Even the void with stars in it is too large for you to hear back an echo.

Still we dare to circumambulate the crater. Still we fight back against predation. This is either hubris or valor, and it might be dignity as well.

This is the song of unfolding: first you must tear down what is false, so you can build up what is true.

So, I will claim this truth: The daring is still worth doing, even knowing in advance that you will fail. You have to have a sense of your limits, and the limits of your tools, before you can transcend them. Before you can see where words can succeed, and where they must fail, you cannot write a true poem. Five-finger exercises and etudes, to be sure; but no bardic silences, no skaldic deflections. Your poems will remain abstracted, the emotion divorced from the experience somewhat. But dare nonetheless. If you're very lucky, your crucible will be cracked and broken open, so it can be remade.

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope's chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)

—William Butler Yeats, Long-Legged Fly

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Photos & Haiku

Chicago, IL, September 2007

late night alley walk—
doves in rafters softly coo
like distant sirens

drumming rattlesnakes
wind across desert flatrock—
cicadas, gongs, night

Wisconsin, October 2007

alien landscape
of early winter tundra—
sun and whipping cloud

Rotary Gardens, Janesville, WI, September 2007

koi come to poolside
in the pink lotus garden,
asking for handouts

Grand Marais, MN, August 2007

climbing Gunflint Trail
an hour before sunset—
suddenly, lilies!

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

into the light

I should be climbing the mountain, climbing into the cold thin light and whipping air, staring into the volcano’s heart, the glowing stone and rising vapor, should be moving to birth the new life, clean and strong and free; be above the world, bathing like an eagle in the sun, an unbroken cry relieved by fast-moving white clouds, breaking out of the chrysalis of waiting, rising from the earth to fly into the sunlight, the day breaks, you shatter into a million lives: an embryo, a child, a boy running in the dayshine streaming in an open window, dark wood of the interior, the young man lost in dreams, the old man dreaming of what is lost, the man in the middle an infinite row of changed faces, masks set outward into the heart of light. I should be climbing the mountain, mounting breathlessly ever higher and brighter; to never reach the peaks, to stand and speak the first word of living; to always climb, until my bones are bleached and stonelike in the flesh-ripping wind and sun. In the cold and the heavy light, to break free of past and present and future, to exist only as a break in the wind, a point of flame on the side of the mountain, a quiver in the mind of the stone, a wave in the downflowing stream. I should be the tree tossing in the wind, the green soul of leaves with silver highlights like water in the sunlight; the bear fishing in the icy mountain river, turning and lifting its head to sniff the air and stare towards the high peak, and leave its familiar range, and climb; the leopard frozen on the mountain ridge, the edge of the light, how it got there no one knows, or why. A tatter of wind in the sunlight, walking up the mountainside. I go up the mountain. I go up the mountain. I go singing up the mountain. I go singing up the mountain. I go up the mountain.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Epic (Narrative) Poetry

Poet Beth Vieira asks:

Is epic a mode, genre, or what have you, that poets work with anymore? If so, I would love to hear about it and maybe gather some examples. I am having trouble finding anything. If not, then why not? Is there something inherent in the ambition of epic that makes it suspect?

It occurs to me that the question that underlies this question is a more urgent question, and solving that one would also solve this one. I would say, therefore, that the real question about whether epic is possible in poetry anymore is entirely dependent on whether one believes that narrative, especially long-form narrative, is possible anymore in poetry.

Since Browning and his generation of epic narrative poets, since the Modernists, a great deal of poetry, even the confessional lyric, has been anti-narrative, and therefore non-epic by deafult. (Even most Modernist poems on the grand scale, such as Pound's Cantos do not qualify as epic, individually, because they are fragmentary, not sustained; nor are they single narratives. His state goal was for the entire tribe to speak through the overall, unfinished poem.) Similarly, because of the accelerated pace of modern life, with all its clamor for attention, the incresingly short attention span of the reader who wishes to be passively entertained is also a factor. Epic requires concentration and duration of attention, so you have to ask yourself if your reading audience is even up to that. (For example, what's the overlap between the populations that have read all the Harry Potter books and those that have only watched the movie versions?)

The only poems in recent memory I can think of that might qualify as epic are ones like Vikram Seth's book-length Golden Gate, described as "a novel in sonnet form." Another example is Craig Raine's History: The Home Movie, a "novel in verse." What's interesting here is the conflation of the novel form—a prose narrative form, which is the dominant form of fiction published in the last several decades—with the book-length poem. I note that the word "epic" is not used, whereas the word "novel" is. Is this because the general reader is more likely to pick up and read a novel than a poem? Does it rely on the general readers' interest in fiction over poetry? (When's the last time a book of poetry was on the best-seller list? For that matter, how often do books of short stories make the list? The novel is king, clearly.) Is this purely a marketing tactic, a label that's designed to sell more books? I wish that could be ruled out, but I don't think it can.

Epic poems are still being written—Frederick Turner's Genesis, Harry Martinson's Aniara, Robert Penn Warren's Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, Robinson Jeffers' The Double Axe, to name a random sampling—but they are not being well-read. Not even the average reader of poetry reads them. The short-form poem has become the dominant mode in poetry's mainstream, just as has the confessional-lyric poem. One feels at times that even poets don't read such longer works, except out of a sense of professional obligation.

Even most poets seem to think that "epics" are poems of the past—in many cases, about the past. Even most of the long poems of the Victorians that reach epic length, be they verse drama, or narrative poem, are set in the classical past of ancient Greece and Rome, or the more recent past of the Renaissance and Middle Ages. (I am thinking of Browning, Arnold, Shelley, and Tennyson, primarily.)

Anthropologist and linguist Alfred Lord wrote his most influential book, The Singer of Tales, to demonstrate that epic poetry, performed by a bard accompanying himself or herself on a musical instrument (lyre, harp, lute, etc.) is a sung or chanted genre of performance. Formulaic phrases and imagery are used to fill out the line; and alos to give the singer time to remember the next event in the plot. By comparitive textual analysis between epics sung in indigenous cultures throughout Europe and Central Asia, Lord and his contemporaries effectively proved that the Homeric epics were also sung performances. There are the stock phrases and imagery, the descriptive passages that pause the action, and much more: all the elements of performed epic poetry, as described by Alfred Lord, are there. The same sorts of textual analyses have been effectively applied to the Anglo-Saxon and Olde Englisch poems still surviving, such as Beowulf or The Pearl. Even if these texts were later written down, they retain earmarks of their sung or recited pasts; and the more recent texts in the same style, even if they were written first, contain the tropes and patterns of sung formal poetry.

The big difference between these historical sung epics and contemporary poetry is that contemporary is not a performance art. it is poetry that has moved away from song—has usually self-consciously divorced itself from song, popular or otherwise, and now declares itself to be a "pure" artform. There is also the issue of technology, in that sung or recited epics were an evening's entertainment; nowadays, we have movies, TV, and other media that fulfill similar functions.

How many readers nowadays sit down of an evening's entertainment with a long book, and read it aloud to a room full of listeners? Do such venues still exist? (I discount poetry readings from this category, since most of these at this time are about reading a variety of short poems to an audience, usually of other poets, rather than a single long poem. Issues of ego-display are also relevant, but I'll save that discussion for another day.)

So, is the epic poem dead? No, not really. There will always be poets who seek to paint across a very large canvas: poetry of large scale and scope. But the question of its viabilitiy as a poetic form that connects to the reader remains a good question.

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Odysseas Elytis

I am particularly fond of the modern Greek poets such as Constantine Cavafy, Angelos Sikelianos, George Seferis, and Odysseas Elytis. All of them are richly tied to the ancient Greek past while also being completely modern. It's a doubled stance that few other modern poets have carried off; perhaps only Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda have equalled this feat.

Elytis was a poet of deep ekstasis, as political as Neruda in his thirst for justice, but always lyrical and sun-drenched. He even talks about the impact of the sun on Greek poetry, and in his poetry.

One thing I find very congenial in Elytis is his ability to stay within the tradition of the Greek poets while also being deeply experimental, and arranging poems in ways you've never seen before. He constantly creates new forms for his work, but they are so connected to the subject matter that they seem to grow from within, organically, and even though they are new they seem completely natural and right. (This is an acknowledged influence on my own poetry.)

Burnished day, conch of the voice . . .

Burnished day, conch of the voice that fashioned me
Naked, to step through my perpetual Sundays
Between the shores’ cries of welcome,
Let your wind, known for the first time, blow freely
Unfold a lawn of tenderness
Where the sun can roll his head
Can enflame the poppies with his kiss
Poppies nourished by men so fine
That the sole mark on their bare chests
Is the blood of defiance that annuls sorrow
And attains the remembrance of liberty.

I spoke of love, of the rose’s health, of the ray
That by itself goes straight to the heart,
Of Greece that steps so surely on the sea
Greece that carries me always
Among naked snow-crowned mountains.

I give my hand to justice
Diaphanous fountain, sublimest spring,
My sky is deep and changeless
All I love is incessantly reborn
All I love is always at its beginning.

—translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

It is more typical than not that most English-language poets do not know this poet, or these poems. It's unfortunately very typical that English-language poets rarely know much about non-English poets.

A great deal depends on the translator. In my opinion, the best translators are poets themselves, with an ear for sound and rhythm and music. Perhaps many English-language poets are afraid of investing the time it takes to learn to translate poems properly. I learned enough German in graduate school to begin to do my own translations of Rilke. I was fluent enough in Indonesian, when I lived there, that I was able to read great poets such as Chairil Anwar in the original. I studied French for many years, enough to be able to read St.-Exupery and Voltaire in the original. This was years ago, in my school days, and I regret none of hte time spent on it, even though I'm out of practice now, and doubt I could do as good a job anymore.

Elytis' tone is often elegiac: the past exists for him as though a living image, a living place, still present in us now. This is another tone and topic that's common to many of the great modern Greek poets. Yet I find it continually fascinating that Elytis can say old things in such new, living language. He makes you feel it in your body, and your eyes are blinding by that Aegean sunlight.

Gift, Silver Poem

I know that all this is worthless and that the language
I speak doesn't have an alphabet

Since the sun and the waves are a syllabic script
which can be deciphered only in the years of sorrow and exile

And the motherland a fresco with successive overlays
frankish or slavic which, should you try to restore,
you are immediately sent to prison and
held responsible

To a crowd of foreign Powers always through
the intervention of your own

As it happens for the disasters

But let's imagine that in an old days' threshing-floor
which might be in an apartment-complex children
are playing and whoever loses

Should, according to the rules, tell the others
and give them a truth

Then everyone ends up holding in his
hand a small

Gift, silver poem.

—translation by Marios Dikaiakos

For modern Greek poetry, Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard are one of the best translating teams around. They have done Complete Poems of Cavafy and Seferis, and several anthologies of others. Another really excellent translator from the Greek is Kimon Friar; his Modern Greek Poetry anthology is over a thousand pages of good reading. Friar was also the chief translator into English of the novels and essays and letters of Nikos Kazantzakis, the writer of Zorba the Greek and The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, among many other well-known works.

Sikelianos is under-translated in English. I would like to see a Collected Poems in translation someday. One of my favorite poems of his is The Sacred Way.

For Elytis, Copper Canyon Press has several of his books translated by Olga Broumas, a Greek-born American poet in her own write. Copper Canyon has also put out spoken word CDs of some of their poets. I have one of Hayden Carruth reading from his collected shorter poems that is terrific. The Olga Broumas CD from this series contains both her own poems, and her translations of Elytis. I have seen her give readings, and she's really good at performing the poems; she almost always reads some Elytis as well as her own poems. I think her Elytis translations are luminous and exalted.

Seferis and Elytis were both awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. That's one reason they're well-translated, while Sikelianos isn't as well-known. There is a Sikelianos Collected Poems in Greek, but it hasn't yet been fully translated into English. By contrast, there are two Elytis Collected Poems by different translators, that I know of, and three different Collected Poems of Cavafy, and also two of Seferis. Sikelianos is, of this group of modern Greek poets, in some ways a quiet mystic, with a quieter voice. But all of them are Greek to the core. English poet Rex Smith has done a few excellent translations of Seferis; they were friends, too. Seferis openly admitted to having been strongly influenced by T.S. Eliot, but what he did with that influence, in Greek, was I think very original, and not at all dour or despairing the way Eliot could be.

The one Elytis anthology to have, if you can only have one, is Eros, Eros, Eros, which is a selected and last poems anthology, which also contains some extracts from Open Papers, a book-length essay in which Elytis writes incredibly poetic prose about poetry, his writing habits, his sources, and much more; it's like a poet's journal, but exalted and filled with bright sunlight. Truly inspirational.

Elytis wrote this in Open Papers, and it stands for me as one of the best artist's statements of all time:

Don’t think me exalted; I’m not referring to myself; I speak for whoever feels as I do and is not naive enough to confess it. If a separate personal Paradise exists for each of us, I reckon mine must be irreparably planted with trees of words the wind silvers like poplars, by people who see their confiscated justice given back, and by birds that even in the midst of the truth of death insist on singing in Greek and saying, “eros, eros, eros.”

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Two Kinds of Poets?

Young British poet Simon Armitage, who likes to say provocative things, was quoted in an interview as saying:

You can probably split poets into two distinct groups. There are those people who want to try and work out the chemical equation for language and pass on their experiments as poems and, very simply, on the other side there are people who want to sing songs and tell stories—and I’m with that bunch.

To which my immediate reply is: There are two kinds of poets: Those who think there are two kinds of poets, and those who know better.

Yes, let's divide up everything into little binary polarities, then put them in either/or opposition, shall we? and ignore that the Universe really operates in a both/and way, with most either/or propositions being the artificial constructs of philosophical game-playing. They're mostly not real.

We could talk about two other kinds of poets, if we wished—pretty much picking any topic at random: for example, poets who teach in universities, and those who don't. One might go so far as to point out that while there is some overlap with Armitage's glib categorization of song-poets vs. science-poets, in that many poets who teach in universities right dry, uninteresting poetry that is often about playing with the words as though they were "chemical equations," in fact some of the most prominent of, say, the Language Poets, have no professional university ties whatsoever. Overlap, yes; identity, no.

This brings me back to a rather geometric and mathematical way I've been thinking about poetry and criticism lately. Namely, the visual representation in multi-dimensional space of axes of criticism. The axis of judgment, for example, between good poems and bad poems is a different axis of judgment for any given genre or sub-style of poetry being written today. There are points of convergence and congruence, to be sure; yet the axes of critical judgment are not identical.

I think this way of thinking about the topic is useful largely because it makes things three-dimensional rather than one-dimensional. It complexifies the topic, alleviating some of the more egregious errors of over-simplification to which poet-critics such as Armitage, who make sweeping generalizations about poetry without giving examples, are prone to. Re-complexifying an over-simplified subject is service to humanity, not just poetry.

Poet-critics who insist on framing the contemporary debate about poetry as a binary polarity have allowed themselves to be (unconsciously?) suckered into an Us vs. Them entrenchment. Armitage is clearly making an Us vs. Them argument, even if he doesn't openly acknowledge it. Ron Silliman, when he recapitulates his definition of all contemporary poetry as being aligned with one of his invented categories of "The School of Quietude" and "the post-avant-garde," is also creating an Us vs. Them categorization; one guess as to which category he places himself and all his poetic allies into. (I have a great deal to say about Language Poetry, which is Silliman's camp, both positive and negative; but I'll save that for a later series of essays.)

Armitage and Silliman are both wrong.

There aren't two kinds of poets at all. There are probably a million; there are demonstrably at least three or a dozen. The mere existence of so many different Us vs. Them formulations in poetry, with all their individual axes of judgment, and between which there are many different and disagreeing formulations, makes the case by purely statistical means. Even such problematic terms as "postmodernism" define themselves as being in opposition to the very things they are rebelling against: Modernism. A truly after-Modernism poetics wouldn't feel the need to include the name of the enemy within its own categorical label. In point of fact, they're still dealing with all the things Modernism implied, and implies, still working out how to embrace or otherwise incorporate or reject Modernism itself: hence, "post-Modernism."

What these binary polarities are really expressing, on a deeply unconscious level, whenever they set themselves as an Us vs. Them polarity, is a deep insecurity about self-definitions and self-confidence. The anxious expression of categorical separation is really saying, There's us, and then there's everybody who came before us—but we're better than they are, and cooler, and we know more about what's going than they did. Make no mistake: this is artistic insecurity at its most obvious. Pretty much every artistic "school" which has appended the suffix -ism to the end of its name has passed through these gates.

The problem with categorical rejection of the Others is that you cut yourself off from learning from Them. Eventually, you have only Us to look at, and refer to. These tends to be a death-knell for artistic vigor, though, as pretty soon poets start writing to fit the party line rather than writing wherever the brush leads them. Pretty soon, the new movement becomes decadent, implodes, and the artists who are more interested in making art than in talking about it move on.

And so, eventually, another internally self-referential -ism or school is born, to be eventually superceded as a Them by a later, newly-minted Us. Some -isms have all the bad characteristics of transuranic radioactive isotopes, including short half-lives and a tendency to emit toxic radioactive byproducts, before settling down to become inert and ordinary.

The next time you are tempted to separate poets into two competing or opposed camps, resist the temptation. Resist even rhetorical oversimplification and reductionism. Let the arts be as complex as the field of life itself. Just as fractal geometry more accurately reproduces actual natural forms than Euclidean geometry ever could, a more complex literary criticism is going to be more inclusive, and ultimately, more enriching.

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Coming Back to What You Really Want to Do

Which shall it be, the question was asked of the leader of his people, The love of power, or the power of love?

Coming back to what you really want to do means doing what you love. The oft-quoted phrase (from Joseph Campbell) is Follow our bliss. The big problem in parsing what that means is the word bliss; far too often misunderstood, Campbell was not referring to the pleasure principle, or "doing your own thing," or equally soft-headed new-age excuses to avoid becoming a responsible, integrated person. He was referring to that purpose in your life that, once you discover it, will not let you go.

No matter what it is, your soul will never be satisfied until you make the attempt. You'll always mourn, if you hold yourself back from taking the risk. You'll alwasy fill something is missing, like a tooth; your tingue will worry at the gap, when it's extracted, or falls out, or breaks and must be removed.

It will demand your allegiance in the face of all rational, sensible advice to be respoectable, conform, and don't go crazy. It is that siren call that keeps you up all night, till you get busy listening to it.

Bliss is not a light, easy cruise between happiness and satisfaction. It is a soul-deep demand to do what you're supposed to do. To find out what you were made for, and get about the business of doing it.

It won't leave you alone.

It's what you really want to do.

All you have to do is find permission to follow it. And therein lies the problem.

Most of the time, permission won't come from anywhere outside. There are always bills to pay, responsible, adult tasks to be done, the house to clean, the kids to take to school, the mortgage, the car payments, all the ordinary, everyday, mundance details of surviving a contemporary existence. And maybe that's okay. Could you really give up everything in order to follow your demanding bliss? Most people won't, even if they could. They can't let go of what they think they need to hold onto, what they think matters. And maybe it does.

You think you can put it off till later. And maybe you can, for a little while. Maybe you can squeeze it in, on weekends, during vacations, when you have some free time. But one morning you wake up, an know you've put if off too long, and the opportunity is passed. That's when regret begins to be a stabbing pain rather than a dull ache. That's a device we torture ourselves on all too willingly.

And we actively avoid it, because of the changes it will force us to make in our lives, of the allegiance it will demand from us, which often flies in the face of what is respectable, familiar, comfortable, middle-class, and ordinary. Could you really give up your security and safety, and take a big risk? Could you really?

What makes a person take that journey, finally? Sometimes it seems like fate. But "fate" is a word you only get to use if you don't really know how the Universe operates. (So is "coincidence." So is "miracle.") "Fate" is a word you only get to use if you choose to remain unconscious, and refuse to grow up and become an adult. The illusion is that outside forces are working on you, forcing you to do things you don't want to do, or would not have chosen to do. But all the time, it's your inner self (or selves) which are manipulating you into situations in which you are constantly faced with decisions; all of which can be summarized as the choice to remain unconscious and asleep, or wake up and become consciously responsible for your own life. Your inner life projects itself onto the screen of the world apparently outside you, and appears to be somehow separate from you; in reality, it only appears to be separate from you because you remain unaware that it is a part of you.

Gordon Dickson postulated a three-way split in human consciousness, between the Warrior, the Mystic/Philosopher, and the Man of Faith. Of course there is some overlap; the pure forms of each have their domains of direct application, and they also combine in alliance in the pragmatic world. But Dickson also postulated that this split can best be healed by combining all three functions into one person, which he called the next step in human evolution: Responsible Man. Dickson is neither the first nor the last to postulate that the next stages in human evolution will be less physical, and more spiritual and psychological. The Responsible Man integrates the disparate parts of self into an integrated whole, which is a good way to rid oneself of self-delusions. You know how you think and feel, and you can watch yourself reacting to events in ways that you learn to see as patterns.

Integration of the varous parts of the self into your awareness means that they don't have power over you any more. Once you become aware of some habitual pattern of yours, you can choose what to do about it. You may even choose not to change it; but you'll never be able to pretend again that you don't know what's going on, or that you're being acted on by some outside force of "fate." You can no longer pretend you don't know. You don't let yourself off the hook, and pretend to be ignorant. That's what becoming Responsible, and living consciously, means.

Coming back to what you really want to do in life—what you are called to do; your purpose; your reason for being; the thing you were born to do this lifetime—that then becomes a choice. It's an available choice you get to make, now. You can no longer pretend you don't have any choice. You already know what you've chosen, and are no longer able to kid yourself about it.

Coming back to what you want to do becomes a work of art, a creative act, a choice to move into alignment with your highest purpose. And everything becomes energized. Life surges forward. Thigns appear brighter, and you feel healthier in your body and soul. Obstacles fall out of your way like bowling pins; or, if they remain, your attitude towards them has changed. You are full of sudden and impossibly unlimited enthusiasm. You vibrate in a field of living ecstasy, you are positively charged with electricity, with life-force.

That is what bliss is. Agreeing to go along with the process that makes you feel that way, is what it means to follow your bliss. You learn to stay with that feeling, and you learn to trust it as a clear and present signpost. if you veer off-course into fear-based rather than bliss-based responses towards life, you'll instantly know. If you stay with the bliss, wherever it leads, you will be fulfilled, no matter what else happens, or however you feel like you've failed, or however anyone else feels like you've failed, or simply doesn't understand.

Staying in alignment with the living electrical feeling, the life-force; learning to listen to it; learning to trust it; that's what it means to follow your bliss. Because bliss is, after all, the core and root and branches of happiness, if happiness is that joy which fills you whenever you know you've done the right thing.

And that is what turns your life, no matter what you do, into a work of art.

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