Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reading the Body

In thinking a lot about Walt Whitman, as I've been doing lately, unavoidably the body comes up. Not only in terms of embodiment, of Whitman's lists of experiences and bodily attributes; not only in terms of sexuality (since in revisions after the 1862 edition, even erotic Whitman started removing explicit sexual connotations from the poems in Leaves of Grass, rather than adding to them, as he did in the massive 1860 edition); not only in terms of sensuality and hedonic sensibility.

Rather, the body keeps coming up as the neglected partner of the spirit, or mind, or soul, which has been its problematic place in Western culture since St. Augustine made his doctrinal formulation of original sin, of the fall and its redemption, in which matter is defined as innately fallen (evil), and the bodily flesh being made of matter, is thus also fallen. This is the root in Western culture of everything that has followed, that seeks to separate soul from flesh, that separates "dead matter" from "living spirit," that has led to every branch of Christianity that is more rational than sensual. In philosophy, it is the root of mind-body dualism, as expressed by Descartes and many others. This separation of body from spirit is particularly true of the Protestant sects: the Catholics at least maintained, until the present era, the spectacle of the Mass as theatre, with incense, special lighting, and special sounds.

If you read the criticism and reviews and assessments of Whitman from his first publications through, say, the 1950s, you are confronted with this issue again and again. Whitman's eroticism is central to his work—eroticism in the sense of eros, the life-force, the greening, the fecundity, the Green Man, the Great God Pan—and is what makes Whitman still radical. Even those who defended him, as D.H. Lawrence did, must confront the mind-body dualism split in our culture, defending Whitman as one who transcends that division, who addresses it only to pass beyond its limits, who defies the conventional wisdom.

Any Lowell thought Whitman wasn't Modern enough—by which she means, not Imagiste enough. (There are few points on which I agree with Ezra Pound on any subject of discussion; but his criticisms of Lowell's ideologies are spot-on.) Lowell accepts Whitman as a precursor of the Modern(ist) poetry of her era, but she portrays Whitman as a failure relative to what her poet-contemporaries were achieving. This isn't standing on the shoulders of giants; it's spitting from on high.

Even Emerson and Thoreau, Whitman's early champions, backpedalled after the 1860 edition of Leaves, which was the most sexually explicit and erotic edition; and from which Whitman did back off, over time. It's not just the "Calamus" poems that are problematic; it's also the "Children of Adam" poems, which are equally erotic; although in "Children of Adam" Whitman wears the poetic persona of a lover of women, just as he is explicit about loving men in "Calamus." These poems remain radical, original, and daring. Not because culture has changed since Whitman wrote—rather, because it hasn't, all that much.

In his most important book, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), the American philosopher William James discussed Whitman in order to discredit some of the myths of the "natural man" that had grown up around him—and which Whitman himself constructed and promoted, of course. James wrote:

Walt Whitman owes his importance in literature to the systematic expulsion from his writings of all contractile elements. The only sentiments he allowed himself to express were of the expansive order; and he expressed these in the first person, not as your mere monstrously conceited individual might so express them, but vicariously for all men, so that a passionate and mystic ontological emotion suffuses his words, and ends by persuading the reader that men and women, life and death, and all things are divinely good.

Thus it has come about that many persons to-day regard Walt Whitman as the restorer of the eternal natural religion. He has infected them with his own love of comrades, with his own gladness that he and they exist. Societies are actually formed for his cult; a periodical organ exists for its propagation, in which the lines of orthodoxy and heterodoxy are already beginning to be drawn; hymns are written by others in his peculiar prosody; and he is even explicitly compared with the founder of the Christian religion, not altogether to the advantage of the latter.

Whitman is often spoken of as a "pagan." The word nowadays means sometimes the mere natural animal man without a sense of sin; sometimes it means a Greek or Roman with his own peculiar religious consciousness. In neither of these senses does it fitly define this poet. He is more than your mere animal man who has not tasted of the tree of good and evil. He is aware enough of sin for a swagger to be present in his indifference towards it, a conscious pride in his freedom from flexions and contractions, which your genuine pagan in the first sense of the word would never show.

James goes on to discuss what he terms "the religion of healthy-mindedness," both in terms of a naturally positive attitude and in terms of the conscious suppression of the negative. He believed Whitman to be a conscious suppressor of the unhealthy-minded and negative, and so did not accept him as a classic "pagan" and visionary poet.

But in fact Whitman, like Robert Frost, another oft-misinterpreted poet, contained almost as much shadow as light. There are many poems in Leaves of Grass which are set at night. There are dream passages in several of the longer poems, which do not suppress the nightmarish even if the poem's narrator moves to comfort, as in "The Sleepers":

I stand in the dark with drooping eyes by the worst-suffering and the most restless,
I pass my hands soothingly to and fro a few inches from them,
The restless sink in their beds, they fitfully sleep.

The "Calamus" poems are as much about regret and loss and unfulfilled yearning as they are about radical loving. (The poems in which the lovers are content with one another are incandescent in part because they stand out in high relief from their darker backgrounds.) As with Frost, there are layers of darkness and suffering hidden beneath the surface that seems so light-filled and positive. Many of these darknesses, these mysteries, in both poets have to do with the body, its desires and losses, its demands and splendors, with loving and with death. The body's night magic is an experience of liminal opening to space and time; not exclusively sexual, but not denying sexuality. And death is the ultimate threshold experience.

Here is the remarkable, oneiric third section of "The Sleepers," a memorably dramatic and frightful vision, its archetypal tone common to many of Whitman's poems:

I see a beautiful gigantic swimmer swimming naked through the eddies of the sea,
His brown hair lies close and even to his head, he strikes out with
     courageous arms, he urges himself with his legs,
I see his white body, I see his undaunted eyes,
I hate the swift-running eddies that would dash him head-foremost on the rocks.

What are you doing you ruffianly red-trickled waves?
Will you kill the courageous giant? will you kill him in the prime
     of his middle age?

Steady and long he struggles,
He is baffled, bang'd, bruis'd, he holds out while his strength holds out,
The slapping eddies are spotted with his blood, they bear him away,
     they roll him, swing him, turn him,
His beautiful body is borne in the circling eddies, it is
     continually bruis'd on rocks,
Swiftly and ought of sight is borne the brave corpse.

This passage is both sensual and erotic, and also nightmarish. The body of the giant swimmer, crushed on the rocks, is archetypal, mysterious, not fully comprehensible to the rational mind. To illustrate this section of this poem, we might call on Salvador Dali more appropriately than on N.C. Wyeth. On some subconscious and hallucinatory level, perhaps, the poet has discovered a profound symbol for the denigration of the body itself. (I cannot know if this interpretation is justified; nonetheless it seems apt in the context of discussing Whitman's rebellion against the cultural suppression of the body.)

The Augustinian and Christian roots of the denial of the body are explicitly addressed by German theologian Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel in her thoughtful and luminous book, I Am My Body: A theology of embodiment (1994). She writes, in a section titled "The body and the church":

[M]any people are aware of the way in which Christianity distorts the body, and this already begins with the rituals of the church. Penned into the pews, Protestant Christians above all experience that in worship their heads, their ears or perhaps their wills have been addressed, but nothing else. Unfortunately isolated hearing also leads to fatal obedience.

This was precisely my experience of the Lutheran church in my childhood. What redeemed it was the music, which was often sublime and liminal. Lutheran theology is excellent in terms of its reason and logic, and many of the great theologians have been Lutherans. But there is no room in this for mystical experiences, for body-prayers, for the experience of sexuality as another sacrament. (It is always wise to remember that Luther himself was a reactionary reformer, more conservative than progressive, more political than mystical.)

For some people prayer with closed eyes seems like a flight from the world. "It is remarkable," writes the Latin American liberation theologian Ruben Alves, "that we close our eyes to pray. Anxiety about the body? Are we fleeing from the body . . . ? We close our eyes are look inwards—in search of a spirit. But the spirit of God is in things, in bodies, in creation and above all in the laughing and weeping of children and those who suffer."

I don't remember when it was, that I began to pray with eyes open, raised to the ceiling, rather than with eyes closed and head bowed. I feel a great deal of sympathy for Alves' questions here. It is suitably ironic that liberation theology, and Alves, were eventually suppressed by the Catholic Church and deemed heretical. There has always been a strain of creation-centered spirituality in Christianity, and it is profoundly Biblical; it often is intertwined with the history of mysticism, almost inseparably linked to the experience of revelation and enlightenment. Spiritual ecstasy was not historically divorced from physical ecstasy—except by later church doctrine.

Is it not precisely this repression and denial of the physical experience of ecstasy that Whitman was rebelling against? "I Sing the Body Electric" remains a radical statement, beginning with the poem's title. Whitman has been placed in the company of religious mystics by more than one of his readers. (Literary critics, always careful to appear rational and objective, tend to avoid this discussion entirely. Most lit-crit remains more Apollonian than Dionysian, more Protestant than ecstatic.)

But the repression of the body and its innate wisdom is disastrous. Moltmann-Wendel quotes Swiss psychotherapist Annie Berner-Hürbin on precisely this point:

Church history is a telling example of the dangers of being imprisoned in the negative and the loss of numinous powers of life which runs parallel to this: whether there is still enough power in the material of the Christian tradition for it finally to allow or even encourage comprehensive subtle relationships or, if this is impossible, to give itself relevant help could be decisive for its survival—in whatever form.

What William James misread in his analysis of Whitman was that Whitman's positive attitude was not in denial of the experience of horror and suffering, but was rather deeply rooted in such experiences. Whitman, after all, nursed the sick and dying during the Civil War, and had numerous other direct encounters with the darker parts of life. Of course, James himself wrote movingly, also in The Varieties of Religious Experience, about the via negativa, the dark night of the soul, and of his own depression and experiences of an existential void, of his sense that life was at root meaningless. It is perhaps understandable that a depressive such as James, who has been through the dark night, might think Whitman was trying to avoid or deny the dark night. Yet it seems to clear to me that Whitman experienced his own shadow times, his own spiritual crises, his own dark night—and this is precisely what led him to write about the beauty and glory of life.

Not in denial of the shadow, but as a way of overcoming it.

Whitman did not deny the darker parts of life—they seep into many of the poems, no matter what—but he chose not to dwell upon them. It is typical of James and his followers, in their attitudes towards psychology, that they often seem unable to perceive the dynamics of overcoming suffering, and interpret overcoming only as denial or repression. As if the world contained only bleakness. As if, not only is there no light, there is not even the possibility of light.

Of course a great deal of contemporary literature has bought into precisely this belief: that the negative is somehow more real, more true, more honest, than the positive. This is a very Modern attitude. You see it in criticism all the time. All post-Modernism adds to this belief is a wink and a smirk: not solutions to the dilemmas of suffering, but complicit engagement with suffering that presumes it to be normative. The post-Modernists didn't solve the existential crises of Modern life: they merely gave in and gave up the fight. Thus we have made a habit of believing that only the bad things that happen to those we care about are authentic experiences, while we dismiss all good things (which must come to an end) as Polllyannaish and unreal.

Yet the body is a source of suffering.

Some will immediately leap to the conclusion that I refer to the doctrine of the flesh being inferior to the spirit, of being somehow wrong and evil, and dragging the spirit down. But what I mean is that suffering arises from the body in part because the body fails, because life is ephemeral, and eventually we all must die. The suffering comes from our attachments to ideas of perfect physical health, of presumptive physical immortality (an attitude which leads even medicine to view death as unnatural, as a disease that might be cured, if only we knew how), and we judge our physical existence so harshly because it doesn't live up to our desires and expectations.

Buddhist thought is often misunderstood in the West to be life-denying, to be nihilistic, to be body-negative. But this is a typically Western misreading, which tries to shove Buddhist thought into the frame of Augustinian fall/redemption ideology. In fact, the Buddha never judges the body as evil, and never says that the body was the cause of suffering: what he said was that our attachments and our expectations are what cause suffering. Suffering is very much a mental and emotional state. Prolonged suffering can have profound effects on the body, it's true; but even those persons who live with chronic pain will testify that their attitudes towards life are what make all the difference. There are those who are in pain who do not suffer. It is our attachments to what we think life should be like, when confronted with the dissonant experience that life is often not like that at all—it is these attachments to what we think life should like, rather than accepting it as it is, that creates suffering. Whitman exemplifies radical acceptance of things just as they are. As the Zen teachers say, "Just sit!"

It is typical of James and his followers in both philosophy and psychology (two disciplines in which the intellect tends to strongly dominate) to completely miss this point: they get stuck on what life ought to be like, and often miss completely what is like. It is the frustrated idealist, the child who has lost the belief that the universe is inherently good, that has lost all innocence, who then tends to define existence as inherently bleak and bad.

This is not to deny suffering. But what James missed about Whitman was that Whitman was not denying suffering—rather, he was choosing not to dwell on it. He chose to expand beyond suffering, rather than contract into it.

And we are the heirs of William James, and the history of the ideas of psychology, as much as we are the heirs of the history of Christian theology. We still tend to view the body as tainted, as a problem to be overcome, rather than an experience to be embraced. Whitman remains radical because he embraced all of life—even those parts you or I might not approve of. Whitman remains provocative because he does not disregard any part of life, but includes it all. Even the famous "i" in Whitman is not Whitman's own ego, but stands in for all of us: a larger, more universal "I" than most philosophers and psychologists (and the literary critics who swim in their wakes) comprehend. The "I" in "Song of Myself" is all of us. Whitman might start out from his own experience, but he immediately universalizes the poem, and includes the rest of existence within his frame.

In this Whitman is again erotic. This large embrace of all of life, which the creative life-force has brought into being, into dancing, is what eros is, what eros means. This is the eroticism of everyday life, of everything in unitive coexistence. Confocal and copresent, we, if we dare, are invited to set out upon that road together, arm in arm with Whitman, and all he embodies.

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Acadia 3

images from Acadia National Park, Maine

sea and stone
treeline shadow and cliff edge
haunted shallows at low tide

sea and stone
tremble of wind in seagrass
kelp fingers touch and part

sea and stone
map rain into sky
along broken hunchback boulders

sea and stone
blackrock intrusion into pale sand
where gulls roost silent and cold

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Acadia 2: Color

images from Acadia National Park, Maine

cracked shell of granite
calving off the mountain's shoulder:
eggs of earth

In early spring, in the cold bleak rain, in the white mist from the ocean, what few spots of color appear are enhanced. Reds and greens all the more vivid and precious for being still rare.

It's tempting to make only B&W photographs, in this place, in this light, but the colors when they appear are angelic, and cannot be overlooked. They are visitations of the summer to come, prescient foretastes of life's return.

twilight at midday
the infinite mists hide and reveal
cold mountain slopes

green man face
emerging from the lichen
climbing tree bole

bloodred buds
of new leaves stretch out
spring flags

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

the Greening

In the 12th Century C.E. abbess and mystic Hildegard of Bingen coined the word veriditas, a blend of the Latin words for "green" and "truth." Verditas describes nature's divine healing power, the power under life that sustains all life. When we eat green plants, we take in veriditas. We re-connect with nature through veriditas.

Gardening is an active participation in the lifeforce, in the mysteries of the universe, in creation, in management. When I garden, I feel connected to the earthpower. When I tour caves, deep underground, one of my favorite kinds of place to visit when I am traveling, I feel surrounded by the earth, by Earth, by Gaia, by the earthpower, by the element of Earth, the element I am naturally strongest in. When I re-connect with Earth, I come back to center, I find healing, I find solace and comfort. Earthworms constantly churn the topsoil: everything we love that grows, every ounce of soil, has passed through an earthworm's digestive canal, at one time or another, to be cleansed.

There is a spiritual capacity in carbon as there is a carbon component functioning in our highest spiritual experience. If some scientists consider that all this is merely a material process, then what they call matter, I call mind, soul, spirit, or consciousness. Possibly it is a question of terminology, since scientists too on occasion use terms that express awe and mystery. Most often, perhaps, they use the expression that some of the natural forms they encounter seem to be “telling them something."
—Thomas Berry

My purpose is to garden, to watch the cycles of life and death that spin the Yearwheel round. My purpose is to make art, music, poems, because to make is to participate with the Divine in Co-Creation. My purpose is to get out of my own way. My purpose is to keep going, to keep making art, even on the day I die.

Meister Eckhart compares the work of the artist with the Annunciation scene. The spirit that comes over Mary and begets the Christ in Mary. He says this is the same spirit that comes over the artist and begets the Christ. So this is the Cosmic Christ being born in you. And of course it’s Eckhart who says, “What good is it if Mary gave birth to the son of God 1400 years ago and I don’t give birth to the son of God in my own person in my own work.” That’s art. What you give birth to is the Christ, or the Shekinah the wisdom, or the Buddha nature. You are giving birth to it just like Mary.
—Matthew Fox

Everything that is, is alive. The world is alive with beauty, with grace, with seed. I make thousands of photographs of flowers in bloom: flowers, the sexual organs of the plant in question. The sexual display. The Divine's creative sexuality, fecund with the greening, with veriditas. My friend Al calls these photos bee porn.

There is no creation that does not have a radiance. Be it greenness or seed, blossom or beauty, it could not be creation without it.
—Hildegard of Bingen

Gardening is aprticipation, is co-creation. So is making art. But art-making needs to be done with the intention to co-create. Poets most praise, for poetry is either praise or masturbation. Art-making must be done with concentration, focus, and attention. It must also be done with intention. Not mere self-pleasuring, but in order to get something out, to get it down, to spell it clearly.

The mere process of fixing imagery onto surfaces or forms does not ensure spiritual development. It is the intention and awareness from which artists create that determine whether their work will serve mammon, ego or spirit.
—Alex Grey, artist

Intention does not mean fixing meaning. It does not mean interpretation, or programme. Intention does mean focused awareness, and thinking of the consequences of actions. Why is there so much ugly art in the world? Is it still trying to shock us with its newness?

I plant lilies, I plant hosta, I plant bulbs and rooted plants, and know they will eventually spread. Fecund and green, the rising life that emerges each spring from the soil in my garden is life itself, returning after winter's dormant slumber. In early spring the ferns grow from fiddlehead to full expanse, from mere fingers of light into long shade-shelters.

And there is an inner music. I hear the roots grow, ever so slowly. I hear the worms crawl inside the soil, rough and smooth, rasping and swallowing. I hear the scrape of cricket's legs on fallen leaves. I hear

Underneath all the texts, all the sacred psalms and canticles, these watery varieties of sounds and silences, terrifying, mysterious, whirling and sometimes gestating and gentle must somehow be felt in the pulse, ebb, and flow of the music that sings in me. My new song must float like a feather on the breath of God.
—Hildegard of Bingen

The soul is a breath of living spirit that
with excellent sensitivity
permeates the entire body to give it life.
Just so,
The breath of the air makes the earth fruitful.
Thus the air is the soul of the earth,
Moistening it; greening it.

—Hildegard of Bingen

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images from Acadia National Park, Maine

A smaller National Park, in terms of acreage, but hugely diverse. Many different kinds of landforms, tiny climates, small ecosystems, different soils. One could hike some of the trails across the hills and meet several different kinds of land in an afternoon. Complex geology. Cadillac Mountain a giant exposed batholith of pink granite. This used to be a mountain range here: the glaciers polished these hills smooth, exposing the granite, scraping off the top layers and rough edges. When the ice retreated and sea level rose, the coastal mountains partially submerged, becoming islands, gradually drifting off to sea.

On this day I was in a quiet, rainy-day introspective mood. The previous day had been emotionally exhausting. Maybe the quiet days after a storm should be called process recovery. I've experienced this state many times before, after a major piece of psychological or spiritual work leading to a breakthrough. Resting. Integrating.

As I drove up the coastal highway in Maine today, Highway 1, which runs from the top of Maine to the tip of Key West in Florida, I listened to rainy day mood music. I sang along with a John Dowland CD. I know many of the words to his songs—the Elizabethan blues—and I was feeling good about my own voice. Having sung again in male chorus for over a year now, I've regained some technique and skill. I liked the sound of my own voice today: good breath control, good tone. It was remarkable to feel good about my performance, rather than inadequate. Maybe it's a mark of returning self-confidence.

When I get back home, I want to record soon. To set up the studio and do some musical work. Maybe even record some Dowland. "Flow, My Tears" is a favorite song; one I know well; one I've sung for auditions.

Yesterday's emotional breaking point, which broke me, which I broke over, was another reminder to not overplan, to not have too many expectations, to go with the flow, to take things as they are. I've thought about that all day, driving. I've made some peace with my inner weather, which today is directly reflected by the outer weather.

wrapped in bands of kelp and stone
rising from the rainwet sea
after this land, after this water
another land made of water

The rain worsened later in the day. Nonetheless, I was able to get some good video and photography, by using the truck shell as a rain cover, and setting up the cameras from under its protection.

place where sea sky and mountain merge
place where mist shields stone
place where the one fades into the other

from Cadillac Mountain
the long lines of the hills dissolve
into the ocean

all gray all day all sea sky and land
the darkened trees at dusk
reveal bright lightning forks of aspen

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fifteen Books In Fifteen Minutes?

Here's an exercise to try, that might give one some insight into oneself as a writer.

The exercise as originally proposed by critic Terry Teachout: Rules: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.

The exercise as somewhat modified downstream: Name the fifteen books that have most influenced your thinking, that you have found yourself referring to most often in reflection, speech, and writing.

(For examples, one might look here, or here, or here, and here.)

My initial reaction to this exercise was: What's the point of yet another list? Isn't this just another list of one's favorites? (Interesting as that might be.) Aren't critics are likely to give different answers than writers? This is one of those things that gets passed around the lit-blogs, and while it's interesting to see what some folks put on their list, in the end what can it teach us?

Probably it can mostly teach us about ourselves. So, for the sake of furthering my own self-knowledge, I'll play along, and make a list.

It's not like I've never made lists before. Previously, I've made lists of mentors, of books about hermitage, of books I'd recommend as texts for a course in photography, of books worth reading (plus a follow-up), of books I'd make required reading for young critics. Perhaps the lists showing the most overlap with the current exercise are my list of formative books given at the tail of an essay asking how did we get here, and my list of books that turn you on as a writer.

I'm going to modify the exercise a bit more for myself: I'm going to take only fifteen minutes, as proposed, but I'm not going to limit myself to fifteen books. I won't count titles as I proceed, nor put my list in any order, or number it. I desire to make no suggestions of ranking or hierarchy. I will also list collected works, in the case of certain writers whose work, as a whole, has influenced me with more or less equally; I find it stifling to only list individual volumes when more than one from a particular writer is relevant to the exercise. I'll make a list knowing full well that any such list must be incomplete.

For the very important reason: If you're an artist, you're going to be influenced or inspired or responsive to almost every encounter with art that you experience. If you're a writer: What books have you read that have not had an influence on you? If you let yourself go deep enough, this could become the sort of list that partially addresses the question most writers are asked, sooner or later: Where do you get your ideas from? Since ideas as well as experience influence every writer.

With all this in mind, I'm going to list here, out of everything I might choose, only two kinds of books, or writers: those which I am aware have directly influenced my writing; those that powerfully and permanently changed my thinking, my worldview, my conception of life itself.

That's what makes this list more than just another list of favorite books: While there is some inevitable overlap, not all of the books listed here would appear on a current list of favorites (in that I have not re-read them recently), and I must leave several favorite books off a list like this. Yet each book listed was profoundly important to my writing, my life, and my thought.

Viktor Frankl: Man's Search for Meaning

Albert Camus: Exile and the Kingdom

Constantine Cavafy: Collected Poems (for years I've preferred the Keeley & Sherard translation, but the new Daniel Mendelsohn translation is currently rising to the top)

Huston Smith: The Religions of Man

Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters to a Young Poet and Duino Elegies (I could also include the letters, the plays, and the rest of his poetry)

Phillips, Howes, and Nixon, eds.: The Choice Is Always Ours (subtitled "An anthology on the religious way," this volume of excerpts, poems, and essays was so seminal to my life, when I first read through it as a young teenager, that I cannot overstate it's importance; it was my first introduction to Rilke, Jung, Meister Eckhart, and several others)

Michael Novak: The Experience of Nothingness

Caroline Myss: Anatomy of the Spirit

Matsuo Basho: Oku no hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Interior) (and his other haibun-style journals)

C.G. Jung: The Collected Works (I suppose I could narrow this down, list only those volumes which I refer to most often; but the truth is, I refer as much to the concepts emerging from the volumes as to the individual volumes themselves; and if you're going to get into reading Jung, you do eventually need to read it all)

May Sarton: Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing and the several Journals

John Cage: the collected writings, with Silence or A Year From Monday most likely at the core of his concepts I most often reference

Marshall McLuhan: The Medium is the Massage

John McPhee: Annals of the Former World

Barry Lopez: his slim volumes of mind-blowing short stories, especially River Notes, Desert Notes and Winter Count

Frank Herbert: Dune

Alex Grey: Sacred Mirrors

Frederick Franck: Art As A Way and Echoes from a Bottomless Well (and several others)

Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass (most especially the "Calamus" section)

Ursula K. LeGuin: the Earthsea books

Sheila Moon: Knee Deep In Thunder

Herbert S. Zim's numerous "Golden Guide" books which introduced a couple of generations of schoolchildren to science; especially, in my case, Rocks & Minerals and Stars (both are still in my library)

José Argüelles: The Transformative Vision

Jerome Rothenberg, ed.: Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin (two huge, seminal anthologies of ethnopoetry and world poetry)

Lyall Watson: Gifts of Unknown Things

Thomas Merton: The Wisdom of the Desert

Bruce Chatwin: The Songlines (I changed a fellow composer's life, he told me later, by loaning him this to read)

Conrad AIken: Collected Criticism and his "Symphony" poems

John Blacking: How Musical Is Man?

Antonie de Saint-Exupéry: Wind, Sand and Stars

Stryk, Ikemoto, Takayama, eds.: The Crane's Bill: Zen Poems of China and Japan (Lucien Stryk's various translations and anthologies were central to my introduction to Zen)

Paul Reps: his various books of Zen-inspired "poem-pictures," such as Zen Telegrams

Norman O. Brown: Love's Body

Eric Hoffer: The True Believer

Octavio Paz: Sunstone

James Joyce: Ulysses

Jean Valentine: Ordinary Things

Samuel R. Delany: Dhalgren

Stop. TIme's up. Yet I feel like I have left off so many books that were equally important and influential. Nonetheless, one can see certain recurring themes even from this short list, and most books I might add to the list would probably continue those themes.

What can be learned from making such a list?

If I were to discuss my choices above, I could in each case describe exactly the importance and/or influence each volume has had on my writing and thinking. These are all books I've thought about, and re-read (if not lately, in some cases), and absorbed deeply. They are the threads woven into much that is central to my thinking even now.

One theme I can see from making this list which might not be obvious to anyone but myself: Reading some books in their original language. As a student, having studied French enough to be almost fluent in it by the end of high school, I read St.-Exupéry in the original, both Wind, Sand & Stars and The Little Prince. I also read Voltaire's Candide in the original, albeit with a dictionary standing by. Later, having to fulfill a graduate school requirement, I studied enough German to be able to read some of Rilke's easier poems in German, and translate a few of his shorter poems for myself. Yet later, spending a year in Indonesia, I read Chairil Anwar's collected poems in their original, idiomatic Indonesian. (Burton Raffel's translations of Anwar's prose and poetry into English, published in 1970, have not been improved upon as yet.) Being required to read these books in their original languages also deepened my absorption in them, giving them more time to have an impact on me, to influence me, to deepen into my memory.

One of Anwar's most famous poems culminates in a line that is both a personal yearning and a reminder of the revolutionary influence he had upon poetry and prose in his own country: "Aku mau hidup seribu tahun lagi. ("I want to live for another thousand years.") There are resonances and layers of meaning in this single line that would require another full essay to get into.

One thing I observe, in reading some lists made by other writers, is self-censorship. They discuss what they leave out, as I do above, but in a way that censors entire themes in their reading, giving me the sense that their final lists, as given, are neither spontaneous nor honest.

More than one list-maker has made comments that overtly discuss self-censorship; for example, and I quote: In creating this list I'm attempting to leave out the extremely influential genre fiction . . . from my youth and the angry authors . . . who I devoured in high school and, as much as I still appreciate the work, have attempted to remove from my conception of what the novel must do ever since. I strongly disagree with this kind of self-censorship: it's biased and pretentious. It makes the list of influential books seem all too Adult, all too Serious, all too Academic. To be blunt, all too Fine Art Literature. It reveals precisely the bias that "mainstream" fine-art literature critics maintain against "genre" fiction.

You might notice there's not much literary (fine art) fiction on my list. It's mostly non-fiction and poetry. Most of the books that have influenced me have not been literary fiction; especially (fine art) literary novels, which I see many other list-makers biased towards in their lists. It's a stretch to include poetry under "fiction," although I've seen it done; I suppose the premise in such cases is that fiction equates with "anything made up by the writer," in which case a lot of history writing and anthropology are fiction, too.

if I were to exclude the genre fiction read in my youth, which was indeed deeply influential, or the angry literature read in my activist years, which was also deeply influential, then I would be left with almost no novels at all on my list. If I were to include all the science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels and novellas that blew my mind, altered the way I saw the world, and from which I learned a great deal, this list would easily triple in size, and still be incomplete.

I am thinking now of a comment Jerzy Kozinki once made in an interview: Novels are a rehearsal for life. When I first heard that, I thought it was an absurd comment: of course novels are nothing like life, and have nothing to do with life: they're fiction. Years later, however, I realized Kozinki was saying that fiction is a way we can work through moral, ethical, social, and personal problems before we encounter them directly in our personal lives; they are also a way we can clarify our thinking about important issues and choices in life. A sort of virtual-reality practice session for life's deepest dilemmas and most profound questions. (What does it mean to love, and to die?) That is a principle functions of storytelling: To mirror life, to reflect it, to give insight as well as entertainment. A great story is something one can enact, just as one's cultural stories and myths both reflect and guide one through life, by both positive and negative example. The mythic stories in our culture are repeated again and again, emerging time after time in new forms, but archetypally consistent at their deepest levels.

I suppose I could cite more novels on my list. Most of what I would cite would be science fiction, speculative fiction, or novels in translation from other languages, other times. I have been as deeply influenced in my thinking over the years by two or three mind-blowing short stories—say, E.M. Forster's "The Story of a Panic"—as I have been by full-length novels—say, Forster's A Passage to India.

Some of the novels I could cite are "young adult" novels, which is a "genre" dismissed by fine art literary writers even more readily than SF. It seems to me that dismissing YA fiction as juvenile is way some writers try to separate themselves from their own juvenilia, the turbulence of their own coming-of-age. We throw away childish things, when we become hard-core Adults. Yet the books one reads in childhood could validly be cited as extremely influential—even formative—if they made a deep impact on your younger self, so that the ripples still have not settled in the pond at the back of your mind. Fairly tales are formative, as are the myths we read in school: These are our cultural myths, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Above, I cite Sheila Moon's Knee Deep in Thunder, first read at age eleven, never forgotten, constantly echoing in the back of my mind, until encountered again almost thirty years later. I could cite the books of Greek myths I read at that same age. I could cite, even more formatively, in my own case, the stories of Hindu gods and heroes—which I encountered even earlier in life, as I spent the first half of my childhood in India.

To be blunt—and this one of the principal issues around this sort of list, and around list-making as a habit in itself—I'm put off at the moment by the pretensions, subconscious or conscious, of various other list-makers I've seen play with this exercise, who redact their lists (again, subconsciously or consciously) to be weighted towards Great Works of (Fine-Art Fiction) Literature. That pretentiousness reveals very hard-core Adult biases. It's a form of bragging about one's own education and erudition. It reveals the puffery of self-inflated adulthood—else more lists would contain those books that shaped one's mind permanently when very young. If you cite Lolita or Ulysses or Gravity's Rainbow, then you'd better not be ashamed to cite Tom Swift or The Lord of the Rings if they were equally important to your younger self as the Great Books are to you now. In other words, don't abandon your formative years, don't suppress your childhood.

And, finally, I tire of what such literary pretentiousness leads inevitably towards: the biases of list-makers who denote their personal lists as Great Books but who denigrate (no matter how subtly or gently) alternates and disagreements as subjective—as though "subjective" denoted a viewpoint less pure, less valid, less thoughtful than one's own.

To be honest, I weary of all similar uses of the word "subjective" as a means of invalidating the viewpoints of others. Have you noticed how some interlocutors work hard to get you to admit to your own subjective viewpoints, then bray "see? told you so!"—while at the same time they are very reluctant and unwilling to admit that their own viewpoints might be just as subjective as yours? That's a way of trying to capture some higher ground by pushing down on the grounds all around you.

One of the less savory dynamics surrounding all this is a tendency on some writer's parts to take on the mantle of authority as a kind of power-play. Of course, what writer-critic (especially one protected by an ivory tower) does not get tempted to impart wisdom, to provide teaching moments, to lecture from authority rather than experience? The list-making urge itself is a "teaching moment" urge—it's hard not to view it as concealing underlying urges towards control and domination—in that it contains inherent choices based on criteria of merit. What I tried to do, in making my own list, was not choose among those books that quickly came to mind, but to be open to letting anything come in. I tried to be as spontaneous and quick as possible, as a means of hopefully side-stepping my own critical biases. I included books, therefore, that were influential but that don't have much fine-art literary merit (according to critical consensus). I also included books that influenced me early in life, but might not have much impact on me, were I to discover them for the first time, now. I did my best not to exclude my childhood and adolescent reading from my list, but to include those books that genuinely ignited my mind in those formative years. (I read both Ulysees and Dhalgren in my 16th year, and saw even at that time several connections and influences between them.)

Avoiding choice is not a lasting solution, however. It's just as silly to say, everything one has ever read has had an equal influence on one, as it is to say, give a list of only fifteen books. It's a fun exercise, but it's too small, and also too big. It did lead me, however, to these meditations on the pleasures and dangers of list-making itself; for which I am grateful.

One final thought, which is perhaps another byproduct of the self-censorship I've discussed above. That is: a certain bias on the part of those engaged with literature to neglect other modes of learning, and of being.

Do all ideas come from books? If your quick answer is "Yes," you might consider the possibility that you're a literary snob, if only in the mild sense that you place literature above all other ways=of-knowing in your personal ranking.

That may not be a bad thing, in itself. But it can become a bad thing if you collapse into the belief that all you need to know about life is what you can discover in books. It can lead to a certain blindness to what surrounds you. It can lead to a certain neglect of other modes of being, a certain inflation of the intellect at the expense of lived experience.

I once was walking in Muir Woods, in California, when a group of observant Jews walked past me on the trail. They were probably out on a daytrip away from their Torah studies in their yeshiva. It was a group of mostly younger men, led by a few elders. They were having a deep philosophical discussion, bouncing between Hebrew and English. They were deeply engaged with their discussion, passionate in that quietly heated tone of voice one overhears in similar discussions. I could hear the excitement in their voices as they passed me by. I was ambling, they were walking quickly, as though on a mission.

And not one of them was really looking at, really seeing, the beautiful, three-hundred-year-old giant sequoia trees surrounding them, sheltering them on the trail, scenting the air, weaving the sunlight into patterns on the fern-covered ground.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Relative Ignorance & Its Discontents

Just a few quick, passionate comments, this time out, the writer having been driven to the brink at last by one too many encounters with literary ignorance amongst his fellow scribes. The ever-thoughtful Frank Wilson recently posted a thought for the day that inspired me to voice my complaint, for once, rather then just it let it go as a bad business best ignored:

Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you've got to say, and say it hot.
—D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence's thoughts here are the reason why prophets are never beloved in their home towns, and also the reason most vatic poetry is overlooked in most poetry-critical circles. It's a very unpopular mode these days, usually ignored where not actively ridiculed. But Lawrence is correct about the necessity to speak out—even if only for the sake of one's own mental equilibrium. Langston Hughes once wrote something similar, about the suppression of what one is born to say, to be, to do:

Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—
and then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

In reading encounter after reading encounter lately, my eyebrows go up whenever I see writers of some genuine accomplishment and skill, and even of renowned stature as literary critics, casually mention their ignorance of great works of fiction or poetry outside their usual reading knowledge. The first thing that happens, after the eyebrows come back down, is a nearly unavoidable urge to ask, "Where have you been lately, or all your life?" As a lifelong voracious, eclectic reader interested in nearly everything, I find this attitude astounding, particularly when encountered in literary criticism in all its vicarious splendor. I find it hard not to judge, lest I be judged in return.

Granted, no one has time to read everything. I fully realize that. I don't have time to read everything, either, or be up on all the current literary trends and fashions—setting aside for the moment any questions about the necessity or value of being so tied to fashion and trend. Yet I do find myself able to read a great deal, absorb what I've read, think about it, and weave it into both imagination and experience. Is this so difficult? Apparently so.

In the end, one perceives that there exist within writing-about-writing levels of relative knowledge and relative ignorance. One cannot help but wonder: If I can read all that different material and find links between it all, surely everyone else can, too. Surely I am not unique? It's impossible to believe that I am.

There are plenty of poet-critics out there who throw off names like rainwater of a deer's shoulders, expecting everyone else to be In The Know. Surely we've all read the same things, especially the New Things. The publishing industry can be as fashion-driven as any other time-sensitive, value-based, commercial industry: publicity and marketing are always time-limited in their approach, piping up about The New Thing much more often than The Enduring Thing—unless of course The Enduring Thing has just been republished in a new edition. People who function as critics, professors, and writers, or all of above, certainly do not have time to read everything ever published. What is eyebrow-raising is the apparent lack of interest in even attempting to do so, on the parts of writer-readers who one might think would understand why the attempt is worthwhile, even if doomed to incompleteness.

Some of this is a simple, basic parochial attitude: Why, for example, should any New York City-dwelling critic ever look at anything produced in the "flyover" zone, after all, since all arts and all people eventually come to NYC anyway; and besides they have everything they need right there? Or think they do. This attitude of course ignores that great New York City native, Walt Whitman, who did in fact look everywhere else, as well as at home, for inspiration. Living outside the Big Cities as I now do, I find such parochialism laughable in the extreme. One wonders what many of those "we live in the greatest city in the world!" New Yorker types would do if, for example, Midwestern farmers suddenly stopped shipping their goods to the east coast. Other than complain about the high cost of living, that is.

If you think I'm anti-NYC, think again. What I am is anti-parochial.

One of the most annoying aspects of parochialism in literary criticism is a tendency, probably subconscious on most writers' parts, to praise opinions they agree with on some fundamental level, while both condemning and dismissing viewpoints they disagree with—and thus tend to over-praise those writers who seem to agree with them, and under-praise good writing with relatively unloved contents. Few critics seem able to separate their technical assessments of a work—i.e. the mechanics of craft, the convincing use of method and style—from their value-based assessments of a work's merit as a work of art. This is not an argument against having strong values or opinions, nor is it an argument in support of postmodernism's "value-free level playing-field" cultural and ethical relativism. Rather, it is a reminder that criticism, as a genre itself, is less value-free and less subjective than it tends to think it is. An observer with a bit of psychological training, who might stand on the sidelines observing the literary-critical fray might find his or her eyebrows permanently lofted above their hairline. The by now well-known observation about academia, or about poetry, seems necessary to quote again here: The reason [literary] arguments are so heated and vicious is precisely because there is so very little at stake.

Yes, I could be talking about celebrity-literary-critic James Woods here: but I am also, perhaps more, talking about his disciples, and his detractors. I give Woods credit for having opinions strong enough to incite passionate response, both pro and con. I nonetheless think his attempts to dictate an overarching aesthetic for writing literary fiction, and his many comments dictating what works and what doesn't, what should be done and what shouldn't—his overarching aesthetic is on shaky ground philosophically because it reduces to an essentially moral stance. It is more taste-based than Woods will openly acknowledge; and his tastes are traditionalist. He is trying to universalize an issue of personal preference, by making it into Critical Theory. He's hardly the first to attempt this, of course. In essence, Woods' program confuses the desire to conserve what is good and great in literature with the desire to repress what is not. Woods is a smart man, and there are many points on which he is insightful. Where he often fails to convince me, though, is when he tells us something is bad novel-writing, with little to back up his pronouncement except arguments that reduce to personal preference; his arguments against certain forms of the novel he dislikes are not efficiently rational or objective enough to be entirely convincing. This is most obvious when he is discussing experimental fiction. (It's as if Borges and metafiction didn't exist.) Some of Woods' critics, those who claim Woods to be reactionary, elitist and smug, are unfortunately correct to some extent.

Woods edges into conservative literary bloviator Harold Bloom's territory, with his attempts to dictate, once and for all, a Canon of Great Books. Canonization is fraught, as every good critic knows, with the near-universal human tendency towards list-making, categorization, and ranking. Nonetheless I observe that attempts at canonization tend to come more from the conservative wing: those who would preserve and conserve what they value are more likely to generate these non-ironic Best-Of lists. Yet conservation is not required to be (morally, socially, politically) conservative, a truth overlooked by both Bloom and Woods, and most of their disciples, who conflate the appearance of authoritative opining with genuine wisdom. Conservation of what is good may also be (morally, socially, politically) progressive: choosing to build on what is good, rather than man the battlements against what is bad. In other words: pro-evolutionary and expansive, rather than defensive and reactionary.

Woods can be very convincing when he praises. But when he condemns, he becomes critically uneven. Again, he is not the first critic to do this. In some instances Woods' arguments verge on pretzel-logic when he wants to include some writer's work that he really likes, but contradicts the rules of good fiction that he's previously laid down in stone. (The only way to include Borges in the canon is to redefine metafiction as non-experimental.) I have no problem with logical inconsistency—except when one speaks in absolutes then contradicts those absolutes in later assessments. You want to have your cake and eat it, too? Well enough. Just don't expect me not to notice. It's perfectly fine to say one likes something a whole lot; if it were just left at that, the pretzel-logic would become unnecessary.

The assumption that critics and writers must engage in endless literary and moral warfare, that competition and battle are the only paradigms by which to determine quality, which is the underlying assumption behind all Top Ten and Best-Of lists, is an assumption deeply rooted in our culture's tendency to frame thoughts in binary polarities; but it is a problematic assumption in that it incites competition in both humanistic and scientific spheres of study, where cooperation would be more useful, and perhaps more accurately reflect reality.

Woods is not an iconoclast, even if his tone is rebellious when in opposition to what he views as entrenched -isms and opinions within lit-crit, especially academic lit-crit. Woods is, rather, an icon-maker, one who would forge a tradition (a canon): he uses the language of renewal and preservation, true enough, but behind that curtain one detects a whiff of the perfume of canonization.

Who is the ordained priest within the citadel of literary criticism? Who is the abbot directing the Scriptorium? Who believes he knows better than anyone else what is right and what is wrong? Where is the humility in this enterprise, and where lies its ambition?

I resist saying this is just "egoism," but it is tempting.

And, at last, my real point of dispute: Woods is far less well-read than he thinks he is; for example, his plaudits for Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road displayed a shocking (to me) ignorance of the history of apocalyptic fiction, both within "genre" writing (SF) and within literary history. As a result he overpraised a work of fiction far, far less original than generally assumed, and far more derivative than generally believed. (Many reviewers who arrived at similar conclusions, in all the critical reading I've encountered surrounding this novel, seemed equally ignorant of the genre's long history.)

How much of this is cliquishness, of being part of The In Crowd? Nose-in-the-air types are almost always compensating for some other aspect of knowledge or experience which they utterly lack. Literary pretense is often camouflage for poor literary self-esteem.

The general (mainstream) literary-critical dismissal of "genre" fiction, for example, has got to stop. Let's not mince words here: Most of the ghettoization of "genre" fiction comes from critics who, when they say "mainstream fiction," really mean "Fine Art fiction." As in, the Great Books tradition of fine-art fiction writing; as opposed to entertainment fiction, pop culture, and folk traditions.

One habit of fine-art literary-criticism that gives away the game, that tells us it's really about fine-art pretensions rather than good writing per se, is when the mainstream "literary fiction" world is so ignorant of "genre" fiction that they think they've discovered something new whenever a mainstream "literary" writer attempts a work of speculative fiction—i.e. science fiction, fantasy, mystery, or some combination thereof. Such work often gets praised to the skies as original, innovative, brilliant, insightful—when any experienced science fiction reader can tell you that not only was it not particularly original in its speculations or philosophical underpinnings, but that some of the great SF writers of the past century had already written on the same themes numerous times, and written about it better to boot.

For example, when a mainstream literary critic complains about a lack of psychological realism in SF, refer them to Alfred Bester, Ursula K. LeGuin, Kate Wilhelm, and/or James Tiptree, Jr.—among others. Or, when a mainstream literary critic opines about SF's (by the way, no genuine well-read science fiction fan ever calls it "sci fi") lack of experimental or avant-garde literary writing techniques or styles, refer them to the entire New Wave period of the 1960s, as exemplified by the Dangerous Visions anthologies edited by Harlan Ellison, which brought experimental literary values into SF permanently; refer them also the ongoing writing of Samuel R. Delany, Ellison, and Walter Jon Williams—among others.

Alfred Bester practically invented the SF-crime noir thriller detective hybrid novel, with The Demolished Man. Bester also practically invented the serious literary SF-adventure novel, with The Stars My Destination, in which serious readers will note several parallels to Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. Bester also wrote one of the definitive stories of psychological speculation in SF, "Fondly Farenheit," in which the first-person narration shifts constantly between two lead characters, bound together by psychosis, projection, and sociopathic personalities.

Of course, one thing that mainstream "literary fiction" criticism is, if it is nothing else, is highfalutin' and far too full of itself. This is directly proportional to the extent that mainstream "literary fiction" criticism is attempting to establish a lineage of Fine Art Literary Fiction.

Before you get out all your darts of disapproval for what I've been opining here, this is no ignorant anti-intellectual attack on my part; I make no apologies about being well-read or for being versed in the realms of critical theory normally associated with the academic intelligentsia. My target is silly ignorance, not intellectual insight.

Let's return to the bottom line: Far too many lit-critics overpraise bad writing because it deals with a subject matter never seen before by them; far too few read outside the narrow parameters of the artforms they are most directly engaged with.

But reading outside one's realm of expertise is precisely how one makes linkages, thinks new thoughts, discovers new possibilities, and new realms of discourse.

I don't claim to be better than this at anyone else. I contain vast lacunae of ignorance which can never be filled in, as I no more have an infinite amount of time to read everything ever written than does anyone else—nor any desire to, since, as Sturgeon's Law reminds us, Ninety percent of everything is crap. (Theodore Sturgeon was a great SF writer who coined this law decades before computerized publishing technology led to the current boom in writing and publishing. The full original quote reads, Ninety percent of science fiction—heck, of everything—is crap.) A critic might use Sturgeon's Law as a (moralizing) justification or excuse to avoid reading outside their field. One might instead read omnivorously in the full knowledge that one can never grasp it all, but nonetheless do one's best to die trying. So I no longer apologize for being well-read—apparently, at times, more well-read than many professional literary critics, which is shocking—nor do I apologize for having a good memory that retains most of it: this is what allows me to link things together, to follow the brush, to discover patterns and connections, to overview and articulate both the overarching paradigms and the subconscious assumptions, which I love to do. For me, it's always been about seeing the patterns.

The late great SF writer, Octavio E. Butler, in her first published novel, Patternmaster, articulates a worldview in which linking information and experience can lead eventually to transcendent awareness and self-awareness. The novel contains much power-politics analysis enacted by the characters; a great deal of literary-critical writing about Butler's oeuvre has focused more on her politics and ideas than on the quality of her writing, which is not what I'm interested in discussing here. Reading this novel as a young man was no doubt influential on my thinking, if only because it gave me the language to describe my personal experience of gestalt thinking. It was Butler's concept of patterning that stayed with me, as a way of describing how ideas and objects often seem to cluster associatively into larger gestalts, larger concepts, and worldviews.

Well, we're only human. It's difficult to resist the gravitional tide of entropy, of cynicism, of We have limits. We cannot do everything, read everything. But we can try. We can reist entropy, and do our best to fight our way up against the pull of the tides, do our best ot climb out of the gravitational well and into the clerar sky. It's not too much to ask that we do our best. One isn't required to like everything one reads: but one is required to do one's best to comprehend, to place it in context, to find the links and patterns, and to scatter the net of those links and patterns as widely and broadly as possible.

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night's wing and rustle, thunder perfect mind

Nandi bell and vajra
ring out lightning and hard rain—
first summer thunderstorm

hot humid sensual sticky-skinned green flash naked bolt across sky
bowling giants ninepin mountain trolls hall of the tetrahedron king wildeyed cattle
hustle redbird woodpecker beak under wing deep in pinesway creak and bough
thirteen eggs of the dragon's children awoken to fork tongues across heaven
burst and reburst and reburst multiple flashes paling naked skin eyes wide at window
in midnight humid heat sudden rough scrape of nerve across bone
turning chill run to root cellar to hide in cold damp soil under heaven
as the god's forked trident sketches night by day by night

long tongues of the moon twirl sinking into the fields
smokeblackened stump of the bloodwood tree

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Maine, At Last

I spent my first night in Maine, after the long day's drive across Vermont and New Hampshire, including my stop at Nelson, at a wonderful hotel in Kennebunk. It's called The Lodge at Kennebunk, and I recommend it highly. I arrived after dark, and the night clerk was very welcoming and helpful. The hotel room was exceptional, one of the best I've ever had, on my many travels. How often do you get polished wood floors, beautiful dark furniture against the plain white walls, with an entire alcove set aside for a writing desk, fridge and microwave? The bathroom was light and sunny. There were windows on both sides of the room, the one in back overlooking a large lawn with picnic benches and playground equipment for traveling kids, all under huge trees. I left my windows open for the breeze and the night air scented by flowering trees and shrubs. In the morning, they had a terrific breakfast room available. There was classical music playing, and the concierge offered to turn on the TV for my pleasure, but I assured her that the music was by far preferable. Television before noon is an assault on the senses.

After the long day's drive, it was a solace to take a long hot shower, then lay out my journal and some of the books I'd already acquired during the trip, books of art and poetry, and read and write into the night. I was too tired to last long, but it felt like a writer's retreat, for that brief time. A very good end to a long day.

I also downloaded the day's catch of photographs, and made some preliminary choices among them.

I drove up the interstate for awhile before turning towards the Maine shoreline. I was anxious to reach the Atlantic Ocean, but I also wanted to make time in the morning. The weather became cloudy and rainy, as the day went on, but when I finally reached the shore, I was in too much of a mood to work on photographs for it to matter. The weather is the weather, and you capture whatever you can.

By day's end, I had spent most of the afternoon in Acadia National Park, and had captured some good seaside and rain-in-trees footage. I feel I made several good B&W photographs. Although I did shoot in color, too, the weather was primarily monochrome, and the land and sea followed suit. I did have to stop and wipe off the camera lenses a few times.

I was in an introspective, rainy-day mood. I often get those moods after a day of high psychological or spiritual drama, or process work, or whatever you want to call it. I need a day to integrate, to rest. I spent some time singing along with John Dowland songs while driving.

One of the previous day's lessons had been a hard reminder to not overplan a day, to take my time when traveling, to let go of expectations, to go more into the flow. I hit an emotional wall again, after leaving Nelson, when it seemed like I was driving in circles, making no progress across the face of the land, under a featureless gray sky where one completely looses one's sense of direction and duration. So what if on this trip I'm running a few days later from my original expectations? It will even out at the end, and even if it doesn't, I'll still get home in time for what I need to do.

Maine enchants. It's as beautiful as advertised, even under gloomy weather. I found the people everywhere I stopped to be very friendly, quite willing to converse with a strange visitor. There's a neighborliness I like. They'll leave you alone if you don't want to chat, but they'll also talk if you want to, and quite openly.

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Red Roses 3

June 15th of this year was the second anniversary of the day my father died. I had a very emotional day. What was surprising was not that I had emotion, but how much of it there was. I couldn't listen to a single piece of music without becoming overwhelmed with tears.

These were the feelings I didn't have time for, two years ago: there was too much to be done. And I carried the vast burden of it, it felt like at the time; far more than I could deal with. I tensed up, and kept myself from feeling too much. I shunted these feelings into the future, where there would be more time to deal with them. That time is now.

Dad had a major sweet tooth, even though he was diabetic. Towards the end, he indulged himself a little. Not so much that he made himself sick. But his philosophy was, better to enjoy it now, because later you won't be able to. I can't really argue with that; and I don't want to. Dad would have appreciated this set of remembrance roses being next to the candy bowl. And the pretty chocolate and peanut spheres would have suffered gradual attrition, appreciated each time they slowly disappeared.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My First Typewriter

This is my first typewriter. My parents gave it to me when I was in my teens. It's a Smith-Corona portable. I have many memories of sitting crosslegged on my bed in my room, or at my desk, typing on this typewriter. It has a hardshell metal carrying case that it locks into. When I wrote on my bed, I set the typewriter on top of its case, which made it a comfortable height for typing. I wrote most of my school papers on this typewriter, from 8th grade through the end of college. I can see spots on the rollers and shell where I accidentally painted White-Out, that most essential liquid tool of revision and rewriting before the invention of digital cut-and-paste.

My sister had an identical typewriter, and so did my mother. They were all purchased at the same time. I have two of the three typewriters in my collection.

I am fascinated by old technology. I enjoy reading about the history of technology, which is also the history of ideas and innovation. We are a technical culture, and much of our self-esteem as a culture is bound up with our developed instrumentalities; as is much of our hubris. So I have small collections. meaningful to me if no one else, of older tech. I have my father's old stethoscope. I have about a dozen antique typewriters, including iconic Royal and Underwood montrosities; but my collection is mostly focused on vintage portables. I have a small collection of navigation tools, working reproductions, commemorating my grandfather's leaving Norway at age 14 to sail in the merchant marine; I have a couple of telescopes, a sextant, several unusual compasses, etc. I have photographed many items in my collections on more than one occasion, and they appear as elements in both my visionary artwork and my commercial illustration work.

I typed up most of my first poems on this typewriter, when I started writing poems in my teens. Doesn't every writer write poems in their teens? Other than a school unit in second grade wherein we were taught haiku and cinquain as forms, I don't think I wrote poetry at all, until I entered puberty. Aren't these early poems usually forgettable? Recently, going through my old papers in storage in the basement, I found several old journals I'd forgotten about, and a sheaf of poems typed on this very typewriter. One or two poem sets are pasted into a journal volume. Others are loose, in a folder, paperclipped together. I plan to photograph these early poems, as I am doing with many of my old documents, to preserve all such papers as part of our family history, but also to explore my own personal history. I am still in that period of re-discovering and re-assessing my own life's story, in the wake of my parents' deaths.

A few days ago was the second anniversary of my father's death. At the same time, I was moved to purchase at a thrift store, for the first time in several years, another vintage typewriter, an old Underwood portable, to add to my small collection. I've also been thinking about the interconnections between my typewriter, my poetry, my calligraphy and handwriting, my design and typography work, including my original type designs, and my computers. To the mix I can now add photography, video, and multimedia aspects. I am working towards some combination of all these modes, or an exploration of what's possible when all these modes merge, overlap, or combine.

Nowadays I often type my poems directly to the screen, on my laptop, when they come forward, ready to be captured. I still handwrite poems in journals, too, but mostly when I'm away from the daily technology; for example, when I'm traveling or camping. But I remember typing to the page, composing directly on this typewriter, in my teens. That was the probable beginning of my fascination with type, and with writing directly at the typewriter, and later the laptop. I know several poets who state they can only write by hand, not to the keys; only later do they transcribe to the typewriter or computer. They say they can't write to the screen, they have to start with handwriting. Apparently I've always been able to do both. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I've never felt limited to one or the other mode of writing; the words come when they come, and the medium I write them down in is not as essential as getting them down. I still handwrite a journal, as I said, mostly when I'm traveling, when the laptop isn't handy or available. I write fast and I write legibly, another legacy of being a trained calligrapher. It all ends up in the computer now, eventually.

Among those rediscovered journal papers I also found a handwritten journal I had made on my first trip to Wyoming, as a geology student. It contains occasional entries—again, I was never a daily diarist; I can think of few things less interesting—but also many drawings and sketches. Mostly doodles, done idly during downtime, appearing as often as one is moved.

What I get from this rediscovery, now, is a renewed awareness that many of my adult artistic themes and concerns were already present in my writing and art even when I was very young. I abandoned drawing in my early twenties, thinking I was no good at it. (I was unable to cease comparing myself to more accomplished artists, and thus developed almost no self-confidence.) I look back at these old drawings and they're more interesting than I recall; but I am also remembering who I was when I did them, an explorer, an experimenter, as I am still. I gave up drawing because I thought I was no good at it, and gave all my attention to my music-making. Nonetheless, this rediscovered journals give me evidence that I was a confirmed writer and artist much earlier in life than I have recently believed. I recall starting in college the first volume of the journal that I have kept continuously ever since; but now I know I started earlier than that, I just let it drop before picking it up again more seriously later on.

I have many memories of sitting on my bed, typing on this typewriter. I wrote some of my first poetry on this typewriter. I wrote some of my first erotic poetry on it, as well. I kept a journal even in my teens, but it was a small, limited project. It was mostly for thoughts, sketches, and poem drafts. It was never a diary, a daily record of events. When I was 16, I began a long homoerotic poem that I wrote off and on for almost twenty years; I would set it aside for awhile, then come back to it; eventually it reached over 2000 words, and I transcribed it into the computer, revising it and adding to it once more. The three longest poems I have ever written have been erotic poems. I remember writing poems in a clean hand, too, when no typewriter was available. I wrote an entire chapbook of poems while on my Fulbright year in Indonesia. I copied them out in a clean hand which I mailed home to my mother periodically. I only gathered them together into a book later on.

But my mother kept everything I had ever given her; every painting, every letter, every poem, every piece of music, every drawing. She collected all my young work, and saved it for me, to be rediscovered when we were clearing out the house after my parents had died. So I have this early record now. It's juvenilia, mostly. One or two themes I can see recurring and revisited more maturely in later years; but already present in that teenage work. I'm grateful to my mother, now, for saving all this stuff: not because it's any good, as art or writing, but because it tells me that she cared, she did understand and support my art-making, and she loved me. This has been good for me to learn, now, when I need such reminders that, maybe, after all, despite everything, it has been worthwhile.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

for Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy

at the thrift store today
a new old typewriter
ancient Underwood portable
saw it a few days ago
still there still unsold
bought it brought it home
cleaned it up ribbon
still works some of the keys
stick the X key sticks
watched a documentary
about Christopher Isherwood
and Don Bachardy lovers
thirty years age difference
didn't matter didn't ever matter
why would it why should it
if it's love it doesn't matter
older younger mentor student
father son mistaken by some to be
what mattered was the words and images
the old writer and the young artist
the artist stopped drawing anyone else
for the last six months of the writer's dying
then spent all day drawing his corpse
the sunny day after he died
Christopher eyes closed jaw slack
skin folded in wasted away not much hair
everything gone pale and faded
pose in repose drawn again and again
while the artist kept looking
and seeing seeing clearly even if eyes clouded
the last look of the body of the writer
in pose and repose looking exactly

the same my father did in the hour after he too died
two years ago today

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In the Garden

in the garden
of earth and stone
mists stride between stalks
of greening
humming dawn

I've been obsessed with my garden lately. Giving it a lot of my creative time, a lot of my energy. It has been, I know, a way of bringing life to my home when at night all I can think about is death and resurrection.

I've planted several lily bulbs, and impatiently I wait for them to emerge. Impatient, I purchased and planted four already-grown, already-blooming lilies: I needed the color now, the reminder of life now. I was drawn not to classic colors but to the outrageous, to the extraordinary, to the saturated, rich palette of vibrant reds, golds, oranges, yellows, dappled and drawn with some wild god's pollen-dusted crayons. Their wild colors a splash of arterial lifeblood on the lawn.

Three of the rose bushes are blooming wild, and the rest of the roses are bunching out, filling the air with red-green leaves; whether or not all the roses blossom this year, they live, and that's good enough. Not all are as prolific, but take their time; roses require patience, even cruelty. And they reward it.

The reliability of hostas: those green fronds, so tropical, those exotic white and pale lavender flowers that emerge on stalks in autumn, like exotic alien fronds. And they come back, and grow to fill in the rows along the walk, spreading more every year, till a jungle riot of greening lines my walk and livens my door. All returning.

I dig in the dirt, I get dirt on my shirt, on my knees, under my fingernails. It feels like magic: earth-magic, connecting me to something richer in the soil. Bringing me back to some kind of life.

I don't know what I'm doing, or why. It's just there. And driving home, pausing before the house while the garage door takes its time rising, I see what I've planted around the tree in my front yard, before my door, and I am cheered and content.

The garden brings me back. It gives me something living to do. It returns me to life.

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