Sunday, August 31, 2008

Adventures in Photography, Continued

in the Basin & Range, central Nevada

If my photography has been influenced by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston—and who as a photographer dare deny their influence?—then it has been equally influenced by Georgia O'Keeffe, and various graphic designers. I look at shapes and composition at least as much as topic. I look at forms, contrasts, lighting, shapes.

There are photojournalist photographers for whom subject is paramount, for whom composition and lighting and other "artistic" factors are of secondary importance. This is reportage, and it's occasionally led to great photos.

"Drive Owly," Paso Robles, CA

In many ways, while I rely on serendipity for subject matter, and while some of my favorite photos have been spontaneous "accidents" or moments of "luck"—as the saying goes, Luck favors the prepared—I don't think about subject matter much. I focus on the moment, and paying attention. When something appears that catches my interest, my discipline is to be ready to capture it; so I always have a camera to hand. (On the other hand, those rare times I don't have a camera to hand are also liberating, in that one is just looking, with no agenda. That can be very relaxing.)

Let the subject generate its own photographs. Become a camera. —Minor White

Become a camera. That's the method in a nutshell: see what is there, rather than what your filters make you think is there. It's the essence of spiritual practice: to see what is really there.

Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence. —Minor White

The Western Lands: somewhere in Nevada

Becoming the camera means staying still. It means waiting, always calmly looking at the world, until the world looks back at you. This has happened to me lots of times: I stare at the night sky, taking in the stars, till it feels like the stars are looking back. This is a common experience, actually. It's nothing special. It's the root of the so-called religious experience. It's the time when the universe becomes embodied with sentience: something we can relate to.

No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen. —Minor White

Paso Robles, CA

There are reasons to revert to older technology, from time to time: to remember one's roots and history; to (re-)explore older technologies to see what can be done with them that's new; to work with limits as a way of freeing oneself from the terror of the blank page, the horror vacui of infinite possibility, infinite choice. Older technologies in the arts can be rediscovered, and used to learn how to open one's viewpoint in new directions; or old directions, but perhaps new to you, or new this cycle of art-making.

That's in part why I am exploring B&W versions of my photos right now. It's a way of going back to explore the past, to explore my influences, but also to see the world in new ways. It can open up new possibilities, shake you loose if you're stuck, and also, perhaps, provide a new direction for your work. It's a good exercise to undertake.

There is a spiritual aspect to photography, though, which interests me more than the literalness of reportage.

Often while traveling with a camera we arrive just as the sun slips over the horizon of a moment, too late to expose film, only time enough to expose our hearts. —Minor White

on the Utah-Nevada border, Hwy. 50

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Friday, August 29, 2008

The Joys of Monochrome Photography

Mono Lake, CA

Let's expand the palette a bit, from purely Black & White.

A significant amount of my own photographic body of work is monochromatic, but not black & white. Just as I work with my photos in B&W, I work with them as sepiatones and cyanotypes. These are "looks" that I create digitally that emulate antique printing technologies. (More about some of my sepia work here.)

Those old sepiatone photos in your parents' attic, or in the antiques shop. Those 19th-century officially-printed cyanotypes. I love the look of the antiqued photo, and I love the tonal qualities of cyanotype and sepia prints. I was in an antiques store in Paso Robles, CA, in yesterday, and there was, as there are in such stores, flip boxes of antique prints from several eras, going back to anonymous formal posed ancestors on tintypes. Sepia is in part just aged black & white, as the old chemicals fade in the sunlight after many years. Cyan prints were often sun-prints, using a very forgiving chemistry (invented in the 1840s) that allows one to make contact prints in direct sunlight rather than in the darkroom.

Changing the color values of an image, without changing its overall monochrome palette, can change the mood of the image. Sepiatone is associated in my mind, as in others', with age, antiquity, the gracefulness of the anonymous fabric of receding time. Cyan is something I associate with coolness, and serenity. I have made large cyanotype prints of forest and ocean scenes, and they have a timeless quality to them, as though representing eternity.

(One contemporary photographer whose work evokes older technologies, and who largely prints in cyanotypes, as sun-prints, is John Dugdale. Dugdale makes sun-prints using old camera technology, contact prints, and old chemistry. I highly recommend Dugdale's books illustrating Walt Whitman's poems and Henry David Thoreau's journals.)

Here's a cyanotype version of the same photo I placed at the beginning of this column:

Mono Lake, CA

For me, this version is an improvement, because it emphasizes the tones of the water, and the dark volcanic ashes of the bluff across the water, also reflected in the lake's mirror surface. The blue tones bring out the serenity of the image, for me, and are entirely appropriate to use with scenes that are mostly water and/or sky. I have been experimenting with cyan prints a long time, both digitally, and as actual sun-prints.

Taos Plateau, fall 2004, Taos, NM

When I lived outside Taos, NM, I made several small sun-prints that I later assembled into a book as a gift for my mother's late-fall birthday. The hand-sewn chapbook contained poems written there on the Plateau, and several color photos, bound in a sunprint made outside my trailer on the Plateau. I rediscovered this little book when I was cleaning out my parents' home earlier this year; I set it aside to keep, a gift returned.

Arroyo Hondo, NM

freight train, Grants, NM

I find the mood of sepia to be at times equally quietist, but also warmer. It is a good photographic style to depict melancholy, a sense of aloneness, duende, soledad.

Grand Marais, MN

There is a stillness that appears in monochrome prints that color photography doesn't contain, because colors are life. Colors are lively, colors are life.

The presupposition that monochrome photography is more artistic than color is in part based on the fact that monochrome prints are manipulated, always processed as art, and are self-consciously aware of their non-reproductive status. That is, they don't pretend to be picture windows into real life. (Whatever that is.)

Colors reproduce life. Color photography is an emulation. It is only apparently reproduction, of course, since the photographer still chooses the moment. Photojournalism, paradoxically, is still a largely B&W medium; that was true in part because newspapers and magazines found it cheaper to process and print B&W film than color film. (Sometimes assumptions of normality are based purely on habituation and tradition. It's absurd to presume correctness merely from habituation, but that is the normal practice.)

So, for me as an artist/photographer, I find color and monochrome to be different and occasionally complementary media, not in opposition, and not in competition. I intend to keep practicing both.

Mono Lake, CA

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Yosemite, California

cirque glacier
in the cold high air—
old snow falling

high chaparral
under the peaks—
flowers of light

Tioga Pass; note the buck feeding on the shore at the other end of the stream

erratic boulder
left by glacier trail that
polished stone

Half-Dome seen from Olmsted Point

lone juniper
alert on the cliff's edge:
sierra sentinel

river log
separates wind from calm—
water zones

Merced River

sun goes down
in fog of distance—
waves of hills

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Joys of Black & White Photography

Firehole, Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, Wyoming

Photography to the amateur is recreation, to the professional it is work, and hard work too, no matter how pleasurable it may be. —Edward Weston

I’ve been working hard these past few days, making photos and video. I've retraced some of my route from my last road trip, eighteen months ago, visiting the Badlands, Bear Butte, and Devil’s Tower, although I stopped in different places, with different light than last time—which was winter, this time it’s summer, and hotter than blazes all day long, usually in the 90s, well over 100 degrees according to one readout, and I’m a bit sunburned—and took different kinds of photos. I am reviewing them now, and liking several so far. I am also experimenting with converting the best of them to black and white from the color originals.

I was reading Edward Weston: Color Photography before leaving on this trip, and it both inspired me and stimulated my thinking.

The prejudice many photographers have against color photography comes from not thinking of color as form. You can say things with color that can’t be said in black and white. . . . Those who say that color will eventually replace black and white are talking nonsense. The two do not compete with each other. They are different means to different ends. —Edward Weston

Firehole, Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, Wyoming

Black and white is more artificial than color, in the original sense of the word artifice: rather, B&W allows for more of the photographer’s control and decision. A color photo can be apparently pure reportage; or rather, it is unquestioned in a way that B&W is not. One is reduced to pure tone and form. Some subjects are better suited to color, because there is critical information in the color values. But one reason B&W is still considered—rightly or wrongly—the more artistic medium is because it is more akin to artifice than is the quick color snapshot. The aesthetic prejudice for B&W over color is debatable at this point in time; Weston is correct that neither supplants the other, but at the same time each is valid as an artform. It's no longer accurate to say that B&W is "more artistic" than color. Yet I am drawn to it, as a change from color. I've often worked in monochrome; indeed I have a whole body of work that's monochrome, which I return to from time to time.

You find a few subjects that can be expressed in either color or black-and-white. But you find more that can be said only through one of them. Many I photographed would be meaningless in black-and-white; the separation of forms is possible only because of the juxtaposition of colors. —Edward Weston

In the desert Southwest, scene after scene can be monochrome, pure shape and form. But then there are also many wherein color is the whole point. The colors of mountain strata turned on their side make a display as brilliant as it is unforgettable. Painters have achieved this; although one remembers that east coast art critics didn't believe at first that the colors in the canvases Georgia O'Keeffe painted in New Mexico were real. They were accurate in every detail.

Dinosaur National Monument, Utah/Colorado

The artist can adjust tonal gradations in editing and printing black and white. Weston’s exquisite and influential prints were all 8x10 contact prints from the negative. Ansel Adams developed the zone system for B&W printing, and was equally influential in establishing photography as a valid artform. Both of them were masters in the darkroom, which is where the print really came to life, reflecting the artist’s input and intuition. Printing is more like painting than making a negative, perhaps.

When I work with a B&W digital image, the process feels like the darkroom process. Everything I ever learned about tone and shading, dodging and burning, all the technical aspects of producing a good print: these all apply. You look to bring out the tonal areas that need enhancement, and leave those alone that do not. It can be very engrossing. The end result is a B&W image that is as carefully mastered as in the darkroom. What matters is the end result: the finished image.

But anyone who thinks that any photograph, color or B&W, is somehow pure and untouched, has fallen for the myth of photojournalism's honesty. In fact, all photos being with a decision: when to open the camera's shutter. After that, the artist makes many other decisions. A photo is not pure: it is always as worked through as an art object.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Devil's Tower, Wyoming

too big to see all at once
it appears and disappears all day—
towering stone massif

clouds paint the sky
darkening the tower—
mountain sunset

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The Badlands, South Dakota

a long way below
this window between tall spires,
nothing moves

cottonwoods dancing
in the river bosque brush
and cool the air

endless prairie wind
bends over the long grasses,
whispers in my ear

bighorn sheep graze
while tourists stop and stare:
wild nature stares back

travelers lost
in vast canyons and ridges—
listen to the wind

traveler's rest:
sunlight fingers its way
into the tipi

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Poem of the Journey

it’s been a long day driving another long hot day another heat wave even after I promised myself not to drive so long so far in one day on this trip unlike last trip still I am retracing my route from eighteen months ago when dad was still alive and I drove out west that cold january I am retracing my path as far as devil’s tower wyoming until I veer south through wyoming one of my favorite places and on into the deep southwestern desert utah nevada arizona and eventually to the pacific ocean where I will dip my toes into the water toes that were wading in the atlantic ocean a brief month ago the things I carry with me from ocean to ocean traveling across the face of the world to be washed in both waters salt tear waters and sunlight

when I crossed the missouri river today the land changed as it does from eastern verdant farmland to hillock and hummock bare grassland rangeland but I still don’t feel like I’m out west yet I expected to feel a sense of arrival all I feel is a sense of farewell

when will I feel home that sense of being in my proper place settled rooted strong I don’t know it’s beyond imagining for now I just keep traveling on across earth face and into the day’s end when will I've arrived in the west when will I fell home again home in the west at the ocean at the shoreline birds wade and dance

sunflower fields everywhere on the plains tall growing golden in the later afternoon sun dancing in the endless wind the strong and heavy katabatic wind that flows from the rocky mountains done to the great plains and across to the riverine and great lakes country of my original home although the west is my home too the mountains and passes and high country of these states from north to south each bigger than the last each requiring more endurance than the last to cross

lakota territory Indian hills circle powwow fancy dancers under the united states flag the sun on the hills and now in the late night wind and stars and the smell of mown hay powwow country the circle including everyone even the youngest dancing the pole dance the circle walk everyone under one sun no one ever ignored or left to be mocked boy fancy dancing polio on crutches painted and feathered like coup sticks and poling himself across the dancing ground

on the road vision
expanding across open prairie—
a great blue heron

South Dakota
at last I feel on the road
that openness
the windy sky
heavy with clouds

endless wind and sky,
fields of golden sunflower:
South Dakota

sun goes down
then comes up again
driving over rolling hills

I am writing some haiku-like poems as I travel, sometimes writing them without stopping driving, in a little notebook with a dragon on the cover. It’s a metal cover, a hard case that means I can carry it anywhere without damaging it. I don’t care if these are formally haiku; I find myself caring less and less about form, and more about content. Perhaps this is a product of aging, of maturing as a poet. Not that I pay no attention to form, but rather than the content matters more.

Denise Levertov writes in a 1991 essay in her collection New and Selected Essays:

We have long assumed that it is an aesthetic truism to assert the indivisibility of form and content—but there is a certain amount of hypocrisy in the statement, after all. Perhaps it needs to be reformulated, to say that although inadequate formal expression always diminishes or distorts content, yet form itself can be perceived, admired, and experienced as pleasure or stimulus even when the reader’s attention is not held by content. Thus, while content cannot be fully appreciated without a fusion with form equal to its task, from can be apprehended and absorbed in and of itself. The assertion of indivisibility does not cover this contingency. At all events, I as a younger poet was often drawn primarily to the structure or technique of poems I read, and paid less attention to what was being said; whereas the older I grow the more I find myself concerned with content, and drawn towards poems that articulate some of my own interests. This primary importance given to what doesn’t imply a loss of interest in how; if a poem strikes me as banal, trite, flabby, pretentious or in any other respect badly written, I’m unlikely to read further no matter what its subject matter.

In one respect I differ with Levertov above, as I was never once principally interested in form over content at any time in my career as a sometime poet, not even when young. This is especially true for me perhaps as I am always most strongly drawn to content in poems that is transformative, spiritual, shamanic, or mythopoetic and archetypal. I was interested in possibility, and I took validation from certain poets who were writing the sort of thing I was hearing in my head, but had not yet felt permitted to write. (Jean Valentine was important to me for this reason.) In form-as-form itself, though, I was only peripherally interested. Not even in haiku, which is the dominant form I use, other than those I myself have invented, or discovered, or developed. I admire perfection in haiku, and in haibun, and I emulate a certain kind of self-complete totality of vision in these forms—that point at which the content and form do complement and complete each other. Perfection in haiku and its cousin forms is as much aesthetic and spiritual as it is technical. There are many great haiku that move into the sublime; not by ignoring the formal constraints, but by transcending them, by synergy, by being something more. Lots of poets still get stuck on technical form, and never move towards its apotheosis.

What we can take from Levertov's proposed adjustment to the theory of the unity of form and content is the perhaps bitter realization that bad execution always kills a poem, whereas great content can’t always save a poem purely on its own. Good execution, or performance if you will, makes or breaks a poem, regardless of content. This is true even if the content is something that under normal circumstances would intrigue and inspire me. Nothing kills a buzz like banality and clichés.

I care less about form than ever, except again for those forms I’ve developed on my own, and haiku. I keep expanding the palette, but I also keep my distance from normative poetic formal values. Few things interest me less than academic arguments over the technicalities of bad poetry. I cannot claim any special knowledge in any of this, or any special aesthetic insight; I stumble along like the rest. What I do know is that I find myself more often than not in the pathfinder or inventor role, rather than the duplicator or imitator of tradition. I’ve often been accused by being experimental in my writings; I don’t dispute that, nor do I take as pejorative, although sometimes it has been proffered as such. My point is that it doesn’t matter, and I write wherever the poem itself wants to lead, and don’t care beyond that about the technical details. I don't mind being called experimental, in other words; my race isn't with the critics, or with some other poet liking or disliking a poem because of personal style or taste. It doesn't bother if they do or don't.

As I spin out across the Great Plains towards the Rocky Mountains, the wheels endlessly humming on the asphalt, the one thing I need to know is that I can still be in love with this land. So far I am still numb, still unkempt, unconnected. maybe I'm moving too fast, and I need to catch up with myself. Maybe it's the continuous exhaustion. Of the list of things I can find to care most about, finding myself again, out of the long void of losing myself, is paramount.

old days when indian boys raced barefoot across the trampled grass sprinting horses crossing the sea of grass old days when the girls raced also old days when everybody won something respected for something praised for something

sea of grass ocean of grass step out into the midnight wind I hear voices calling old ancestor voices my father's voice my mother's on the midnight wind a distant sigh the dream of roads and somewhere behind the moon a lost edge of the world tirelessly rising into the sun

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

What They Carried With Them

Today I'm packing for a month-long journey. I will be driving from my home in southern Wisconsin over to South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada. I will be at Burning Man in the Nevada desert for a week; this is a radical arts festival I've wanted to attend for well over a decade, but never had the chance to before. After that, I'll be spending time in California, Oregon, and the Rocky Mountain States, wending my way around to make photographs and videos, catching as much material as I can, and no doubt writing my way through my travels.

When I travel I always carry a few art-making supplies. I travel with the laptop, but I don't always get it out; for one thing, many places I go are well off the grid. It's actually nice to have a break from the online world, from time to time. I carry a big journal book that I write in almost every day, in longhand, often including poems and drawings and sketches and random observations that I flesh out later into actual Road Journal entries, with photos. I sometimes record ambient soundscapes as I go; sometimes I record poems or journal entries in the field, and post them to my Road Journal podcast. My current journal is a big blue artist's sketchbook; it's about half-full, since I only write in it when traveling. I often write a lot in the tent, after a long day's journey, or an eventful day of camping and gathering and being. There are several earlier volumes of this journal, which I do not write in every day, that I have kept for over two decades. How do writers learn to write? By writing. (And by reading, of course.)

I am spending all day today packing and preparing. I have spent time today gathering together the small stack of books I'll be taking with me. I always travel with a few books. I like to read in the tent, in the evening, and often to start the day. It continues my daily practice of reading and meditating every morning, and sometimes writing down my dreams, before I begin my day; this is a daily practice that has made a big difference in my life. It's a daily routine that travel does not interrupt, only expands.

The short list of books I plan to take with me this time out on the road is revealing. I am re-reading old favorites, mostly. After the past few years of major life changes, I feel as if I am starting over again, in all ways, on all frontiers. So I am pulled to revisit some books that first got me started, those many years ago. Every single one of these books is personally inspirational, and none of them is being read for the first or last time. Most of these are also in small pocket editions, rather than full-size trade paperbacks. (The Shambhala Pocket Classics are essential both for their contents and their portability.)

Some of these are books I've already proclaimed my love for and pleasure in. Some of them have been discussed here before. Old favorites and newer friends.

I also notice how a few of these are desert wisdom books. Since I will be spending a significant amount of time in the Southwestern desert regions this journey, this is beyond appropriate. Each of these are reminders, though, of the silence and solitude that I find in the desert's open spaces, the Big Empty, that heals me and recharges my lifeforce every time I go there. I have been looking forward to the void emptiness of the open desert for many months. I always feel myself expanding when I'm out there, half-lost and wandering.

Matsuo Basho: Narrow Road to the Interior (trans. by Sam Hamill)
The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. Stephen Mitchell)
Thomas Merton: The Wisdom of the Desert: Inspiration from Sufi Wisdom
Andrew Harvey and Eryk Hanut: The Perfume of the Desert
T.S. Eliot: Four Quartets
Octavio Paz: Sunstone; A Tale of Two Gardens
Barry Lopez: Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven; River Notes: The Dance of Herons
Robert Sohl and Audrey Carr, eds.: The Gospel According to Zen (Beyond the Death of God)
Federico Garcia Lorca: Poet in New York (a new translation with notes, lectures, and letters)

Also included are a few newer books that seemed to say, Take me with you and read me. One or two of them have hung around awhile, unopened, but now are ready to be delved into.

F. David Peat: The Blackwinged Night: Creativity in Nature and Mind
Will Roscoe: Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love
Rilke: Sonnets to Orpheus (a new translation by Willis Barnstone)
Rilke: Stories of God (a new translation by Michael H. kohn)

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

What's Worth Reading 2

As a writer, I read very little "fine art literature." Writers and critics usually just say "literature," or "writing," but we all know the "fine art" is implied. There's an inherent elitism and in-crowd vibe to writers' giving lists of what they're reading. Often those lists are thinly-veiled attempts to tell readers what they should be reading.

A lot of indirect coercion lies behind the word "should," which is one reason I banned it from my daily working vocabulary some time ago. Instead, I substitute "You might enjoy/appreciate/like . . ." or something phrased more to entice than to dictate. The word "ought" seems to be a lighter form of "should," a little less blunt, a little lighter touch. Still, both words can be used as bludgeons to influence the reader, rather than more neutrally.

So when I encounter a list of books that a writer is currently reading, I look for the unusual. To be frank, the non-literary. One reason the world of professional writing, especially poetry and literary criticism, can become so insular so quickly is that it is all too often a closed world without a lot of off-topic discourse getting in. Far too many poets, on their lists of what they're reading, list only poetry or poetry-related materials.

This isn't to say that poets shouldn't read poetry—to the contrary. Reading a lot of poetry is best way to learn how to write poetry: by example; by observation; by close study. One may learn to write poetry well never having gone to a writer's workshop, or critique group, or college class in creative writing; one may learn to write well simply be reading a great deal, reading more, reading, writing, and reading more.

However, poets shouldn't feel obligated to read only poetry. Like all artists, the more well-rounded and eclectic one's interests are, the better. Reading on a wide range of topics beyond one's narrow professional interests is a sign of an inquisitive mind: a basic tool for an artist.

Still, far too many poets, on their lists of what they're reading, list only poetry or poetry-related materials. Perhaps this is because they think this is what they ought to be reading, or at least ought to list amongst their reading. Perhaps it is a symptom of wanting to be taken seriously. It's an adolescent stage of writerly study, however, to believe that reading only Great Writers will lift one up by one's own lapels into the state of Great Writer oneself. How many young writers go around carrying Proust, or Keats, or Rimbaud? As much to impress potential dates, one surmises, as much as to broadcast that they are Serious About Writing.

Here's the thing: Broadcasting one's tastes is a fundamental sign of insecurity about one's tastes. Broadcasting one's reading is often a sign of uncertainty.

Give me a writer who lists whatever they're reading honestly, without pretension, with no compromise, and no need to puff up themselves, or their reading lists. Give me honest reading lists which include bad writing. Who doesn't love reading a trash novel every so often? Don't fool yourself.

I appreciate writers who tell us what they're reading, and their lists contain very little or no fashionable literary writing. Nobody on their who's considered "hot" in lit-crit circles. A lot of what is the critical flavor of the month will be gone sooner rather than later. Few such books endure, or are ever re-read (except to show off what a cool reader one is oneself).

Keep in mind, at any given time, pretty much all published fiction is dictated by literary fashion. The publishing world is driven by profit, and thus driven by fashion. You certainly must have noticed how typical it is, after a book in one genre does exceptionally well—because it was well-written and/or tapped into the cultural zeitgeist effectively—suddenly there is in print a whole swarm of very similar books. Whole genres and sub-genres have been given marketing space on the mall bookstores, simply because they're riding a temporary wave of interest. Do you think Chick Lit will endure as a genre? or Postmodern Ironic Self-Mirroring Fiction? Not likely. (Although they might well morph into other genres and sub-genres over time.)

The exceptional books that are not like any other book at the moment are so often overlooked or ignored by critic and writer alike, that the habit of overlooking is barely noticed. The tribe exerts a powerful force over the individual; it's easy to just go along. There have always been great books that were not published because the publisher couldn't figure out how to market them, pure and simple. No one knew how to present them in a way that they could make a profit. Merit and quality alone have never been sufficient reason for getting publishing: never think that they have. There are always other factors.

This is not an inherently evil state of affairs. It is difficult, and challenging, and sometimes painful and the cause for cynicism, but in fact it is value-neutral. The good news is that it's easier than ever to be published nowadays. The bad news is, you're competing against a million other voices, many of which are just as good as your own. Reflecting on these truths should serve to keep any writer's ego from becoming overly inflated.

So, to return to my original statement: As a writer I read very little current (fine art) literature. I read very little of what all the critics are recommending at the moment. I read very little of what I'm supposed to be reading, in order to keep up with current affairs (i.e. keep up with the Joneses). I read very little of what's fashionable.

Actually, to be completely honest, I sometimes go out of my way to not read something, if too many people recommend a book to me too often. Fads turn me off. Sometimes I just wait awhile, and read it later, once the buzz has worn off. In some cases it's as good as recommended; as often as not, though, it's not. It's interesting how an idea can build momentum beyond its merit, once enough people get on board. Again, merit and quality alone have never been sufficient cause for generating a buzz.

Where am I going with this? Digressions aside, I am leading up towards doing exactly what I have been decrying: the listing of what I have been reading lately, that I think is of merit. Although it's an eclectic list, and as stated above there's not much "literature" on it.

Edward Weston: Color Photography
Computer Music magazine; okay, this is a bit of a professional read, for my studio work, but it's such a terrific magazine that I always enjoy reading it
Jim Harrison: Off to the Side: A memoir
Ronald F. Fox: Energy and the Evolution of Life
Alexander Tzonis: Santiago Calatreva: The Poetics of Movement
Chris Packard: Queer Cowboys (and other erotic male friendships in nineteenth-century American literature)

I just have to make one literary note before leaving this be. Jim Harrison, Michigan poet/novelist, gourmand and food writer, essayist and outdoorsman, is one of my favorite writers. Off to the Side is the memoir of his life that he was coaxed into writing. It is more revealing than most of his prior essays, even those pulled from the marrow of life. I am finding this book melancholy going at times, no less engrossing and full of well-phrased opinions than usual, but aware of mortality and the endings of things. I admit that the melancholy may be mine alone; there are so many experiences and places Harrison relates that speak directly to my own life, another Michigan boy. A month ago I spent the day at Ernest Hemingway's home in Key West, and felt completely at home; Hemingway was another northern Michigan boy. Is this the connection? There seem to be a lot of common patterns, that resonance to the stories. It's a book I am unable to put down, and at times it gets under my skin and I have to back away for a day before getting back to it. I can only recommend a book like this: recommend it as a genuine pleasure to read, remembering always that pleasure is not always a superficially joyous thing.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Random Notes on the Unconscious in Poetry

I spiral around this issue again and again, as a poet and artist, since I feel that a great deal of both my personal power and my creativity is sourced in the unconscious, that vast shadowy part of the self that the conscious-mind personality-ego knows nothing about. That's why things sometimes seem to just appear: not from nowhere, but from nowhere known and mapped.

However one conceives of it, or works to understand it, the unconscious is bound to be part of a poet wrestling with language. In Jung's depth psychology, the unconscious is separated into the personal, and the impersonal or collective. In the realm of the collective unconscious live archetypes, or organizing principles that recur as patterns that shape our perceptions and responses. Archetypes are not images as much as they are constellations of situations and energetic patterns. Archetypes have also been called "poemagogic images," placing the creative response at their center.

One way that we connect with our personal and collective unconscious is via dreams, the underworld, and numinous and liminal experiences. james Hillman wrote in The Dream and the Underworld:

I and my shadow are born together and act together always. It is just as valid to convert our usual way of thinking, "I cast a shadow," into the proposition, "my shadow casts me." Consequently, the shadow may be reconceived. Let us now say it creates the heroic endeavors of the day—ego as a sort of expiatory function for its psychic torment "below." Rather thatn viewing the soul as expiating in a nightworld for our shady actions in the dayworld, we may imagine dayworld actions to be expiations for shadows we have not seen.

Are we moved by the stars, by our daimon, our other self within reflected from without? Jung once wrote: When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate. Much of what we see coming at us from the outside, that seems beyond our control, is in fact a reflection or projection of part of ourself that we do not know about, the Shadow, that is not fully realized or integrated into the larger self. The old saying about standing beside myself might be literally true, at least psychologically. When we write, we are beside ourselves; our shadows stand behind us, breathing quietly.

I think that many of the post-Jungians would postulate that the only real way to track the Shadow is by looking at the trail of actions it leaves behind. Sometimes those are poems; there is probably overlap with the territories of visionary and mystical poetry. But the Shadow is by definition unconscious, at least when we first set to explore it. One can bring it up into the light, and work with it—and sometimes all it wants is to be noticed, be developed. By definition, looking into the Shadow is a process of discovering what the Shadow was doing while we weren't paying attention: the trail of its behaviors, left behind. It's like tracking: reading the evidence and signs, in order to find the beast. We hunt the Shadow, not to tame it, but to feed on it, and also to incorporate its life-force into our own. I think of the shamanic practice of soul-retrieval, practiced in some but not all shamanic cultures, as a paradigm of integrating different parts of the self into a larger whole: much like the Jungian practice of the opus, the work of a life in which all aspects of the self are integrated into a greater, synergistic whole. Soul-retrieval and the quest to the otherworlds can lead directly to visionary, prophetic poetry. You go into the dark, and come back with poems running out of both hands.

Images do arise out of the Shadow, the unconscious, as archetypes, not only in dreams, but in many semi-trance states such as the hypnagogic state between waking and sleep, or the shamanic trance-state. What does a shaman do but meet the archetypes, and have dealings with them? It can be impossible to tell the difference between the archetypes that arise within, and the gods that appear to act from without; that is the rather the basis of Julian Jaynes' theory of the development of consciousness, as presented in his The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. (Which BTW is one of the best-written books on psychology ever, if we consider psychological writing as literature. In fact, storytelling is an art Jung approved of, and practiced himself.)

Having had the experience myself of poems just being "given" to me, and feeling like all I was really doing was taking dictation—it's sometimes hard to claim "ownership" of such poems, while noting that they might be quite good poems—I think that "poemagogic imagery" is quite a nice way to put it. I am reminded once more of Conrad Aiken's assessment of Surrealism in Lorca's poetry: To call him a surrealist is a mistake, for to be a surrealist is to be something else than a poet, something less than a poet: surrealism is perhaps one of many names, merely, for the substratum out of which poetry is made. That last line I think also refers to the unconscious, both in its collective and personal elements: one of the many names, merely, for the substratum out of which poetry is made.

Self-monitoring is one way to track the Shadow: looking back at what I just did, or what I just wrote, to see if something of it was Other than what I intended: how did that get in there? This is also how one sometimes discovers that one has written something with layers of meaning in it beyond those one was conscious of during the writing process. It's tempting to say that poetry that has depth, and resonance, and layered meanings arises from spelunking in the Shadow.

In the same way, the work of depth psychology is a process of removing the filters of protective self-delusion from our perceptions of our own actions: to get at some sort of truth, by removing the layers of self-deceit, mediation, etc. Self-analysis can be an excruciating enterprise, in that one becomes very naked and vulnerable, and all one's darkest aspects are revealed. It can be harrowing; it can also be ecstatic.

The classic mistake is to assume that the Shadow contains only darkness, evil (yes, use that word), and bad things. In fact, the Shadow contains all those things that we have not yet developed in ourselves, good or bad, socially-acceptable or not. In the Shadow can also dwell your undeveloped inner strength, and encountering and incorporating that into your daylight self can mean you won't ever suffer from writer's block or stage-fright again.

Just bringing it up into the light is not enough: we also have to incorporate it into our solar, waking, daylight consciousness. This is the work of integrating the Shadow. We bring some of its dark Dionysian wildness into our Apollonian daylight selves. The next mistake many people make is to assume that, once some personal quirk is brought into the light, it will dissipate. Not at all: even now, the Dragons must be fed. (In my case, the Dragon isn't an archetype, it's an identity: an expression of other, higher Self; there's a long story behind why I use that name, and the visions that led up to it, and all the many synchronicities surrounding it; a long story for another time.)

I think most of the creative arts, not just poetry, are rooted in the poemagogic imagery of the unconscious. I think that's where most of what we label as "inspiration" or "the muse" comes from. I think that's the home of the Daemon. That substratum out of which poetry is made.

Rudyard Kipling wrote an essay about the daemon as source of creativity, in which he advised: When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey.

Federico Garcia Lorca was getting at this, all throughout his long essay on the duende.

I have wondered if this substratum is where all genuine music comes from: to the head-oriented music of craft-perfect composers such as Milton Babbitt or Arnold Schoenberg, or the heart-oriented music of emotive expression such as most of the late Romantics (Brahms' symphonies); but rather that ever-sought-after third stream in music: the music of something Other than the merely human, that appears sometimes in human-made music: Scriabin's synaesthesiac music, some of Hovhaness, some of Bartok, Debussy's late works such as the Cello Sonata, and Brahms' dark and intimate late chamber works. (I cite here only some well-known composers of the past 150 years, to make this point; obviously, many other older and newer composers could be included.) These Other musics, these musics that also arise from the deep unconsious, are very close to the poemagogic imagery of shamanic, visionary, vatic, and mystical poetry: layered, resonant, deep, rich with allusion, and dense with life.

Perhaps to locate this inner music one must go snark-hunting in the unconscious. Which means hunting in the dark, often fearfully, often without a map, and very often without those familiar and well-trodden paths that make up the formalist poetic Tradition. There may be no other option.

Baudelaire hunted in these realms, with his prose-poems, while many of his contemporaries still played in sunlit fields. Rilke spent his life and career mining these darker, terrifying realms; and his advice, in so many letters, was to risk everything and dive deep.

The archetype of Leviathan is all about this poemagogic journey, appearing across many cultures and in many tales, from the Biblical books of Jonah and Job, through Moby Dick, to William Blake and others. Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark contains not only madness but danger, the frisson of the unknown, the fearful, the dangerous: For the snark was a boojum, you see.

Diving into the dark is part of the journey of finding out what's in the Shadow, and there's already been a lot of poetry and art and music about what has been found there.

An old Celtic/Norse bit of wisdom, associated with the Rune lore, can be paraphrased as: When in deep water, become a diver. That is, when you find yourself drowning in dark waters, turn over and dive deeper. I wrote a poem to myself many years ago: To get through each Garden to the other side, Eden to Gethsemane to Golgotha, the only way out is through.

We said earlier that we agreed with Aiken's assessment that Lorca was not a Surrealist. Let's look at Surrealism a little more closely, both its strengths and weaknesses:

The Surrealists' best ideas and inventions were when they sought material and inspiration from the unconscious, via dream work, automatic writing, hypnosis, and other "irrational" and/or aleatoric (chance-determined) games such as Exquisite Corpses. Their intentions were to use what they found in those non-rational realms as raw material for art-making.

However, they viewed this as material to be mined, used, sampled, i.e. dominated and controlled, ultimately, since the daytime waking mind was still considered to be The Artist. (Remnants of the Romantic ideas of The Artist being the heroic outsider.) They never gave over complete control to the unconscious processes; they needed to remain in charge. André Breton, for all his own artistic gifts, allowed himself to become Surrealism's gatekeeper and enforcer, constantly rewriting the Manifesto of Surrealism, and deciding who was a genuine Surrealist and who wasn't. This degree of autocratic control seems antithetical to the very mission of going into the chaotic unconscious, where inherently there are no rudders. So, the dictatorial control of the Surrealist product became the very autocratic tendency that the Surrealists had originally been rebelling against, in their pursuit of the irrational: they became their own enemies. (They were neither the first nor the last to fall into this trap.) Ultimately, this led to Surrealism being just another historical -ism in the history of art and literature, just another movement; they had intended to radicalize the very processes of art-making, but ended up just developing another method of art-making, available among many other methods.

Marcel Duchamp remained radical, however, not only with DaDa, but also with his continued ability to think sideways, to think outside the box, and let the genuinely unpredictable into his work. His influence on John Cage and others, in terms of chance-determined processes, was enormous. Duchamp's work to this day contains that extra level of resonance that much Surrealist art does not.

Similarly, René Magritte, who very separated himself from Surrealism as a movement, continued to pursue the dreamscapes and altered states of consciousness in which the unconscious can be accessed. Magritte sometimes referred to himself as an explorer and student of consciousness, more a philosopher than a painter. He once stated: My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question "What does that mean?" It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable. Magritte's art remains vital and alive, as does Duchamp's, when you encounter it face to face.

Returning to Lorca again, while he was friend and collaborator with some of the Surrealists briefly, that was never his entire working method. Even at the height of his friendships with Dali and Bunuel, Lorca was already exploring his ideas of the duende and cante jondo, or deep song.

My own theory has been for some time—time in which I've been crafting a long essay, yet to be completed, on this topic—that Surrealism actually reached its full flowering in the literature of Central and South America; that while it began as a movement in Europe, it was elsewhere that it reached maturity. There is ample evidence for this theory in the poetry (and essays on poetry) or Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Xavier Villaruttia, and several others. The European group who reached a higher level of Surrealist intensity in Europe was not the founders of the -ism, but those who were influenced by them, such as modern Greek poet Odysseas Elytis, or Italian poet Eugenio Montale. I'll get back to this set of ideas eventually.

There's a point at which, in poetry, perhaps when we genuinely approach that substratum, that conventional syntax and structure break down completely, just as conventional time-binding and narrative dissolve in the unconscious. In the Shadow, synchronicity replaces coincidence; simultaneity can occur in place of linear sequentiality; and everything happens all at once. Getting this into words is often difficult, because grammatical language is normally structured precisely to bind time into narrative. Occasionally radical forms and syntactical experiment can serve to open the ears and mind to experiencing the substratum's possibilities. It remains always a challenge, a struggle uphill against gravity.

What's interesting is when poetry itself breaks down and away from language. When the word-based medium becomes something other than purely words. That is perhaps another trail of clues by which we might track the action of the unconscious in our poetry. Experience abounds. We have but to follow it to its end.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Non-verbal Film

still image from Baraka by Ron Fricke

In the past few days I have edited together two segments of multi-frame video for one of my own ongoing DVD projects, Waves. This has been a long time in the making; it’s the last of four short films for a set called Dreamtime Ocean. I am experimenting with multi-frame, multi-window video and still montage, and the results so far are mostly positive. Occasionally a segment edges towards the sublime, often as a result of the content, the beauty of the shot itself.

The multi-frame aspect comes in when I have more than one video image onscreen at the same time. The simplest version of this is two moving pictures placed side by side. But I’ve expanded that to a palette of up to nine or ten layered positions possible onscreen at any given moment, including a full-frame image in the background behind a smaller window. Sometimes as few as one frame is present, sometimes as many as six. Positions change with shots. Sometimes shots are layered and duplicated in different positions simultaneously. The eye is called to move between frames, or to sit back and soak it all in as one larger overarching frame. One can focus in on one element in context, or use what in martial they call “soft eyes,” the relaxed vision that takes in all of the visual field at once, including the peripheral vision.

My first set of four short videos (can you label them films if they weren’t shot on film?), Basin & Range, was based entirely on collages and montages of my still photography, and also my visionary digital artwork done in Photoshop. This next set of short films was begun a year later, but I needed a lot of time for the project to mature to completion. In the interim, we began Liquid Crystal Gallery, our series of commercially-released DVDs designed to be both . We are gradually incorporating moving images in with the animated stills, to expand our palette and our horizons. I am probably not going to move entirely into moving pictures—unless I suddenly get a gig as a cinematographer, or have some similar reason—as I am too attached to the advantage that still photography has, of being able to contemplate a single image for a long time, without distractions. This is that boundary region between painting and cinema, sharing some qualities of both.

still image from Baraka by Ron Fricke

This morning I was looking through Mark Magidson’s book of still photographs taken while traveling for the production and filming of Baraka, one of the films he has produced with Ron Fricke. Baraka is one of my favorite films of all time. It’s all images and music, and tells its narrative without dialogue or traditional film structural narrative, using only a sequence of images and music. This is one goal for my poetry, one way of working, that I continue to pursue: a poetry of only images and musicality, that never tells you what to think, or what’s going on, and speaks without voice, leaving the reader/viewer to interpret the work how they will, and how they can.

Non-narrative is risky for both film and poetry: there are many who have expectations that will not be met. Some expectations that both audience and traditionalist art-makers have can be viewed as merely the products of inertia rather than necessity, however. Artistic inertia is never an excuse for closemindedness, although it is often the underlying justification. I do not promote newness for its own sake, either. What I promote is the appropriate approach the materials at hand, to accomplish the work as it needs to evolve. If that means using traditional verbal-oriented story-telling narrative, that’s all to the good; but if a project requires one to step outside the linear story-telling box of assumptions about how to structure time-based art, then so be it, and that too is all to the good.

More and more this genre of film is being labeled "nonverbal cinema." It's tempting to want to generalize that towards a "nonverbal poetry." One immediately thinks of concrete poetry, visual poetry, and related cross-disciplinary genres. The difficulty of course is the words are the artistic medium of poetry. If you take away the words, make it truly nonverbal, is it still poetry? This could be debated in the same way that non-narrative art is debated. There are expectations about what artforms can and cannot do. It is obvious to say that, if you take away the words, all you have left is the music; but it might also be facile, a little too easy to say. This also gets us into the distinction between "poetry" as an artform and "poetic" as a descriptor.

Certainly films like Baraka are "poetic" films; but so are other films that do incorporate speech and narrative. I wrote recently about director Michael Mann, stimulated by an interview quote he given about the harmonic of human experience. Mann's favorite moments in his own films could easily be called poetic. But even some recent action-adventure films such as Bryan Singer's Superman Returns contain several poetic moments.

Music is often called "poetic"—perhaps a failure of critical language—when it achieves something sublime. We use the word "poetic" a lot to describe things that are liminal, numinous, transcendent, archetypal, and sublime. It is in some ways a cheap fill-in word, that doesn't really mean a lot. But can a non-verbal poetry be poetic? That is still an open question.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Painters of Light

Who are my favorite painters? my favorite artists from history, alive or dead, mortal and immortal?

One group of favorites are those painters who worked directly with light. Those who portrayed natural light with remarkable clarity. Those whose subject, no matter what else going on in the painting, was light itself. Perhaps this is a photographer's bias, and I have always been fascinated with light. A lot of my own favorite photographs are of light, and the sky, no matter what else is going on in the photograph.

Jan Vermeer

The subtleties of Vermeer's lighting, the soft gray light typical of The Netherlands in northern Europe, is what I love about these paintings. Vermeer is all about the subtleties of light, the delicate shading of indirect light on subjects, the tones of natural indirect light, the illumination of the spirit within the person reflected by the illumination of their surroundings. Many of Vermeer's surviving paintings are of women performing tasks of the everyday; but in the paintings, the everyday takes on spiritual significance. The moments are only apparently random moments during the day. What the paintings capture, and the lighting both subsumes and supports, are quiet moments of inwardness in otherwise ordinary, eventful lives. Moments of contemplation and perfect attention. Moments wherein the smallest action, the tiniest detail, takes on the significance of the the Divine.


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was the master of chiaroscuro, the qualities of shadow and darkness in painting. His style was innovative and controversial during this lifetime, and was influential on generations of painters after. He also painted ordinary people as models for sacred subjects, bringing the sacred down to the secular level; this was sometimes considered blasphemous, but ushered in a level of realism in painting that again was highly influential. Caravaggio's use of shadow, in which his canvases are often more dark than light, serves to focus the attention on the characters. Caravaggio's life and personality were tempestuous; the moods in his paintings are often dark moments that had traditionally been painted brighter by previous generations of painters; the point is that Caravaggio carried the dramatic moments of life into his art. His people are ordinary, sometimes with unbecoming dirt on their feet and clothes, and the dimly-lit interiors in which they appear only suggest or hint at the significance of the moment being painted.

It's interesting to me to contrast Caravaggio with Vermeer: the brightly-lit paintings of Vermeer were painted in a cold, dark climate, while Caravaggio's darknesses were all painted in sun-drenched Mediterranean cities. The opposition of light and shadow is intriguing, and the reversals of what one might naturally presume the environment of each painter would reflect or enhance.

John Singer Sargent

I've written about Sargent before, in appreciation. This time I just want to point out how his figures, even in the formal portraits for which he was best-known, seem to glow from within. The lighting in Sargent always has a personality of its own, and whether the figures are bathed in the indirect reflections of bright sunlight, or the softer skylight shades of twilight, the illumination brings out the inner self. The light is not of surface only, but comes from within. Sargent was often thought of as a superficial painter: superficial in the technical sense, an artist of surfaces and appearances. What's intriguing to me is the depths of character he conveys in the subjects of even his most formal and comely posed portraits. Here there's a shadow lurking in the eyes; there, an actual shadow subtly darkens a face, turning the meaning more inward than might be expected in a formal portrait.

Georgia O'Keeffe

With O'Keeffe we also approach shape and form as inspiration, and as energetic reality. (I'll be looking at another group of painters from this approach as well, later.) The exhibition of her work that I saw last fall in Minneapolis, themed Circling Around Abstraction, was remarkable in that it pointed out how her forms often returned to the edge of abstraction throughout her career. She was never far away from circular and spiral forms, and the energy they gave her paintings is transcendent.

What I notice as I re-read through the exhibition catalog book (which I recommend highly) is how often this work approaches the darkness of the void and simultaneously the sublime brightness of the sky. Light and dark swirl around each other continuously, each birthing itself from within the other. The truth is, O'Keeffe's lighting never holds still. It sometimes approaches the sublime, as in some of the desert-bone paintings wherein the lighting is often coming from multiple directions, confusing the figure-ground orientation. Illumination in the harsh desert sunlight was both easy for O'Keeffe to represent, and also very difficult to convey with meaning and accuracy. These are not photos, these contain more information than a desert-light-overexposed photo ever could.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

Music from My Mother's Piano 4

In the last few days before my mother's piano was wrapped up to be crated off to Europe, I managed to get in several more good recording sessions. I also improvised around a new piece or two that turned into finished compositions. I still need to notate them, and maybe re-record them, as the piano was going well out of tune by the end; one of these new pieces is long, and I still have some cleaning up to do of the recording before I post it. I am pleased with what I accomplished. I set out to record a lot of new music on my mother's piano, and also to take a lot of new photographs of it, to use for future art pieces, and also to remember the piano by; and I got both of these projects done, in and around everything else that had to get done.


badlands no. 2


I also recorded lots of little narrative, sometimes abstract pieces: things to use as bumpers and pauses between poems or other texts recorded for the podcast. I have a growing collection of these little musical moments, and was pleased to get several new ones down on this piano.

piano abstract

piano narrative no. 2

Some new pieces I played inside the piano, directly on the strings. An avant-garde technique composers have actually done for a century or so, but still considered unusual and radical by most listeners and players. As if every musical instrument could only produce sound one, pre-designed way. The open mind can always find new ways of turning sound into music; there are always possibilities.


And here's a bit of an hommage to one of my favorite composers, Olivier Messiaen: an abstract improvisation in the style of his birdsong-influenced and celestial/mystical piano compositions:

Messiaen's Night Birds

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between trees, a light, moving

crows at sunset
edge along salmon clouds—
flowering pines

streams of light swimming upstream against the ether the sky the stars
half moon in and out of clouds and trees depending where you sit the crows
incessant plaintive lost once across the dry desert in the grey rain the sky looked
this way scalloped at the edges layers moving across each other in never rained
bleak and forbidden but near the skull pass the holes in the outcrop small sculptures
waiting to be laid arranged down onto tan dust iron slate black burned shale
scrape along the tide where an ocean remembers itself standing high here drowning
the road and every isolate driver moonreturn and cloud breakup ice coexistent ice
streams of loss everything flowing up and away leaving an emptiness the hole in the stone

the fireflies, peering through lost vessels, the curved ear canal
blocked with ancient sound, never dying away, never

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