Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Papier-Maché Art Bowls

Another new direction for my art-making. I've been thinking hard about how to break out of the two-dimensional limitation of most visual art, especially the photographic print. I have several ideas that combine photographic prints with sculpture, with multimedia, with multiple displays of parallel work. That combine imagery with form, that break out of the two-dimensional frame into the realm of sculpture, and of multimedia.

I've always liked paper arts. I've long been interested in hand-made paper, art books, and hand-printing. I haven't pursued this interest very deeply before now, although at times I've wanted to make my own paper; and I think I may be able to explore that craft this winter. I have been setting up a crafts worktable in the basement, to be able work on several projects as time permits, from woodcarving, to paper arts, to candlemaking, and more.

Someday I would like to make an art book. I want to make the paper myself, print my written words on the hand-made paper, sew the binding, make the covers. In other words, a completely hand-made art book, containing original images and poems. Obviously, like most art-books, a limited edition. A lot work to make, and not intended to be mass-produced.

My artist friend A. had the idea to explore papier-maché recently, which I felt immediately enthusiastic about. I sought out some gluten-free recipes online for making paste—most papier-maché is, like wallpaper paste, a combination of flour paste and water—the most effective one being made from white glue, like the famous Elmer's Glue-All seen in many schoolrooms, mixed with water. (Two parts white glue to one or one-and-a-half parts water.)

That very night, lit on fire with the idea of making a paper art bowl—decorative, artistic, not for food, certainly not waterproof—I made two. I have a stash of really good art papers, most of them designed to run through a printer. I've made some laser-printed art-books with some of this paper, publishing a limited run a few years ago.

I tore this purple paper stock into strips, and made two papier-maché art bowls. I have a set of three or four blown-glass bowls made by another artist friend of mine, when she was working in the University of Wisconsin glass lab. I used two of these glass bowls as molds. I followed the instructions of one of the papier-maché recipes I had found, and lined the mold bowls with petroleum jelly. This worked well, but had the downside of leaving some traces of petroleum jelly on the bowls, which took a while to get off, after the bowls had dried.

To make a paper bowl like this, you tear paper into strips, soak it in the bonding material (the white glue with water, or paste) for a minute or two, till the paper is pliable, then form the strips into the mold. After making the paper bowl in the mold, you can sop up the extra wetness with a paper towel. The bowls need to dry for a minimum of 24 hours, typically, before they can come out of the molds without falling apart. Once out of the mold, it usually takes another day or two before they're completely dry. Once dry, they are quite firm, strong enough to hold shape, even strong enough to be containers for other materials. (Not food!)

All in all, for a first effort, I'm very satisfied. I'm still learning what I'm doing. I expect to do several more simple bowls, while I learn what I'm doing, then move on to other forms. Perhaps some plates, platters, and other forms that have relief could make interesting molds. I have seen some square Japanese plates, for example, that might make very interesting forms. Maybe even something like a wall sculpture.

Next, I made two more experimental bowls, made from strips torn up from old photo-prints of mine. I have several boxes full of laser-prints on paper, made from my photographs and digital art. Most of these I made when I was working at various graphic arts jobs which happened to have printers that they let me use. Laser prints, while quite crisp and permanent, are on standard printer paper, not photographic paper. That means I can't really sell them as photo prints. So what am I to do with them? Why, recycle them into other art.

So I made two more bowls from these laser photo prints. The interesting thing about using the photo prints this way is that I can make different images inside and outside; so you can make a themed piece of art using more than one static image.

I tried lining the molds with plastic wrap rather than petroleum jelly this time. This worked very well, as the finished bowls popped right out of the molds after drying, and the plastic wrap left nothing behind, unlike the petroleum jelly. A day more of drying, and the bowls look very good. Abstract yet representational.

One of this second group of bowls uses photos I've made of my small collection of vintage typewriters; the outside of the bowl is typewriter keys, while the inside uses photos of other parts of the typewriter.

Bowl of Type

The second bowl uses photos I've made of nudes in nature—part of an ongoing series of photographs of the nude male form in natural settings, which I began in 2000 and still continues. The photos used for this bowl were made over two or three years of camping in northern Minnesota. The different models were all friends who agreed to pose for me.

Bowl of Eros

As i said, i view these as experiments. This is brand new art for me, although I have been intrigued by paper arts for several years. I've seen lots of beautiful paper-arts pieces over the years, which can be sewn as well as glued, containing swatches of fabric, of woven paper, of feathers, and other materials. There is potential here for making something more shamanic, as well. I find myself also moving towards abstraction rather than representation; even the bowls made from paper would be cubist, or refracted, not perfectly pictured. Layers and nuanced complexities and resonant associations of image, word, meaning, context.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010


There's a small town, not far from that corner of the Twilight Zone in which worlds unravel and blur, known as Spooksville, where the moon hangs in a chill sky while the ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night come out to play. . . .

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Art Therapy and Art Not Therapy

Spent the night last night mostly in a turmoil. Personal fears, medical fears, the uncertainty of the future. Not knowing anything more than I do now about outcomes. Some part of you always wants to control what can't really be controlled, or even known. Wants to put a reconciling face on chaos. Wants to find predictability as comforting security where there is none.

Life's too unpredictable. I'm worried about things in the future, while I could die today in an accident. You never know. Every little setback seems magnified to giant proportions in the face of my recurrent fears about my own future.

You don't know what's going to happen. You really only have mastery over today. The rest of it, no matter how upset we make ourselves over worrying about it, isn't really in our power to control, no matter how dire, no matter how graceful. Faith and trust come into play at just such moments. I don't hope for anything. Hope is a toxic word that lets you build castles of expectations in the sky, which are doomed to crash on the mountains of inchoate reality. Faith is the irrational belief, sometimes supported by experience, that no matter what happens, you'll be all right in the end. Trust is the irrational sense that things do mean something, after all, even if you don't know what, and never do. That things mean something, that there is a point to all this random suffering, that somehow it does all mean something. Even if the only meaning to life you can ever grasp is the meaning you make for yourself, the meaning you invest in whatever seems random and meaningless.

I only mention any of my personal dilemmas because it leads to a discussion of art and therapy.

I hope, no doubt about to be disappointed, that art-making is not only therapeutic. Certainly making art can be therapeutic. "Art therapy" as a practical psychological discipline has a long history, and has helped many people. But there's more to art than therapy.

I grew up being taught by my birth-tribe (the Norwegian-American Lutherans) that expressing any strong emotion, much less anger, was forbidden. Even expressing too much joy was looked down on as aberrant. The ideal man was laconic and stoic. But I was always a passionate person, with very strong feelings, who had a problem with conforming to those expectations. I bottled a lot of anger in my youth, which came out very badly. When pushed too far, I lashed out far in excess of provocation. I scared myself with the intensity of my own emotions, which led to a renewed cycle of suppression.

As an adult, I learned and now still believe that expressing strong feelings directly is not only good, it's healthy and necessary, and can be done in appropriate ways. There are appropriate ways to express anger, and inappropriate ways. Most people, it seems to me, get tangled up about how to express their feelings, not whether they have them or not. Many people have a lot more emotions than they think they do, because they live in their heads, disconnected from their soma, living life virtually rather than immersed in it.

The stoic and laconic archetypal hero is sometimes afraid of his own feelings; he might be able to kill the monster with dispatch, but he has a hard time saying "I love you." The entire genre of popular "action" movies can be framed as artistically-sublimated male rage, in which blowing things up and cracking wise are deflective substitutes for genuine personal expression of one's feelings. Far easier to watch someone else fight the battles onscreen that you are fighting internally; it's supportive of one's fragile ego, attacked on all sides by life, to see the hero win the battle onscreen, when you feel like you're losing it in real life.

I learned through hard personal work to express my anger in the moment, and then it's done. I have ways to do so that don't cause problems. Many of my friends have mutual understandings and agreements about venting. Sometimes you just have to vent, to get it out of your self, and blow off some steam. Blowing off steam, reducing the internal pressure, keeps you from blowing up, later, more forcefully, and more inappropriately.

Of course one can do this with one's art, and I occasionally do so. I write the occasional poem that is nothing but emotional dumping. I write the occasional piece of music that expresses strong emotion artistically.

But I'd hate to think that art-making was only therapeutic. And in fact I don't think that for even one minute.

I have no problem with the occasional poem being used for deflecting anger, or blowing off steam, such as my own (controversial) poem "Kenosis." But I don't think it's something one can build an entire poetics on, no more than one could build on any other form of purely therapeutic behavior. Of course, that is exactly what many who practice the poetics of the post-confessional lyric believe that poetry's major function is: therapeutic. But this turns poetry into just another tool of (therapeutic) self-expression, and that narrows and limits poetry's scope unnecessarily.

Poetry must express all of the conditions and experiences of life, even beyond just human life, or it becomes too simplistic, even reductionist. Art must joyfully praise as well as be a source of solace. I think Robert Lowell, the poet most associated with the origins of confessional poetry, was unable to make this leap out of pure self-expression; although I think Philip Larkin started from a similarly splenetic place, he occasionally did make the leap past the purely confessional into something more universal. I'm not a big fan of Larkin, I find him generally too dour and misanthropic, but I do appreciate his ability to take nasty bits of life and make art from them. By contrast, I view Robinson Jeffers as not misanthropic, but focused, rather, beyond the human drama, onto a larger canvas, in which human drama plays a part, but not the central, most important role. Confessional poetry leads all to quickly to narcissistic mannerisms, whereas the poetry of Jeffers—and of some who followed in his footsteps, like Gary Snyder—leads us towards transcending the human tendency towards self-regard with the knowledge that we are part of a larger world, and not always the most important part.

There are some performance artists who, in using themselves, their own bodies, as part of their artistic process, who speak of stepping out of themselves into a kind of trance, or other transcendent state. When you watch one of their performances, when they are totally engaged with what they're doing, it becomes almost ritualistic. Is it therapeutic? I think for some performance artists, it's like shape-changing: changing the self. For others, I think they never get out of their heads, really; they sort of distance themselves from life by enacting their art. I think artists who live in their heads can be found in every genre. The psychology of this is interesting.

I've heard it said, since we're on to psychology now, that sociopaths are never creative. I think that's wrong. I think it comes from some wrong definitions, although that may be open to discussion.

Sociopaths are a specific kind of personality trait and set of behaviors. It's not yet known if there's an organic component; there may be, but childhood environment also contributes. I've known a few sociopaths in my time; one of these was my paternal grandmother. To a sociopath, other people are not really real. Sociopaths know that it's not right to hurt other people, they know that their actions have consequences, but they can't perceive other people as being as real as they are themselves, so they often hurt others without realizing it. It's not always malicious, but it can be manipulative in the extreme. To sociopaths, only their own emotions and needs are real; other people aren't perceived as having similarly authentic feelings. A sociopath is perfectly capable of being creative, and more than one artist-sociopath has become famous or considered a great artist. What sociopaths seem incapable of feeling is empathy, even sympathy, for others, and unable to really understand others' feelings and needs. A sociopath still knows right from wrong, however, which is something a genuine psychopath cannot understand. It's a matter of degrees.

Art can be a way of enabling empathy. It can be political, which often evokes little more than the empathy of mutual revulsion, it can be personal within the larger context of being social, which to me seems more nuanced, more capable of making connections. If you ask artists what they're to do, they might discuss their politics, or their craft (technique), or what they're trying to do in a social or theoretical context. But artists can't be entirely trusted to reveal themselves, or their core selves, in anything but their art. A lot of art criticism by artists is about hiding the self, rather than revealing it. Even the poet of total honesty and self-celebration, Walt Whitman, edited and censored himself, when talking about his poetry. Artist often have large egos, and both painters and performance artists can be notoriously self-involved. It's not just ego, though: it can be using one's own self as raw material for exploring larger meanings. You start with the self, but you end up in a larger space. Except for course, for some artists, their process stays stuck in self-regard: and that can end up as therapy-art, confessional art, and never reach transcendence. Is that egotistical confessionalism? Sometimes, perhaps, it ends up there.

If you surmise that I'm biased towards transcending the personal self, say rather that I think it's a greater life-goal, not just an artistic goal. Art reflects life, which reflects art, and so on. I'm more interested in art that goes beyond: beyond my own limits, and conceptions; beyond the ego, beyond self-representation, beyond involvement with the self. If that's transcendence, well and good.

The bottom line is that confessional art just isn't very interesting to anyone but the artist, if it doesn't somehow get past the personal and into the universal. The ego tends to love itself so much that it can't see past the mirrors it has set up around itself to regard itself in.

That would be an interesting performance art project: to have an artist, naked, stuck inside an eggshell-shaped container made of mirrors, which she would have to break to get out of. Until then, all she could see would be herself. Breaking through to the outside world might involve cutting oneself by accident on the mirrors. (Just like my own nighttime worries about my future.) A little blood might be shed before she could escape into the outside world—which might be like being born.

But once you realize, with your greater self, that there is much more to both your self and the world than the ego, or the personality-ego, you start to see a bigger picture. You start to have faith, perhaps even trust, that something more than yourself is out there, and is worth paying attention. Artistic self-regard might open up into artistic splendor. This is harder than it seems, as the personality-ego is tenacious: even nature poets have a tendency to simply use nature, as a set of images or events, as a reflection of self. The worst kinds of political poetry, the bathetic "I feel your pain" political poetry that tries to generate empathy through associating lists of atrocities with one's personal dramas, never get past self-regard, because the only person the poet can really see is the one in the mirror. It is a laudable attempt to generate or recreate empathy. But it's not genuine. It gets stuck in the mirror.

Breaking the mirror is possible, though. The best political poets recreate the experience of empathy in the reader, and in themselves, not with mirror-tricks but with simple reportage. Whitman's poems of long lists manage, through sheer accumulation, to pull the reader in by direct connection. The best poets who sometimes get labeled nature poets give us an experience of true empathy, by evoking life directly: by giving us what the hawk feels, soaring on the wind, rather than telling us what the soaring hawk makes the poet feel, which we ought to feel as well. The simplistic, clichéd workshop formulation for this evocation in poetry is "show, don't tell." I would rephrase it as "evoke." Get me inside the experience. I am become the deer nibbling the sedge in the mountain glade. I am become the world turning slowly. This requires imagination, not only narration. In fact, the best "nature poems" often have a sense of time that is eternal, timeless, not bound to linear progression, the Now in which most animals live. Do wolves spend sleepless nights, as I do, worrying about their futures? No. The wolf rules for life are ever more useful to me as a role-model.

Art can be therapeutic, in this sense, too: that it takes us out of ourselves, away from our petty concerns, for even a little while. It can be a brief vacation. That's perfectly valid, although again it's not all that art is, or can be. It's okay to take a break, though. Which is why "escapist art" like occasionally reading your average blandly-styled beach thriller novel is nothing to feel guilty about. You can't survive on a diet of only "art" literature; a little trash fiction, or doggerel, is good for the digestion. I sometimes go back and re-read a well-thumbed favorite SF novel just to have a break from myself and my daily life.

But art cannot be limited to the therapeutic purposes, the relief of psychological pressures, anxieties, or needs. It must be more than that. Just as with my domineering birth tribe, the Norwegian-American Lutherans of the Upper Midwest, just as with my passionate later-life rebellion against those social constraints, art can container joy as well as sorrow, ecstasy as well as suffering. The rebellious boy who feels so much joy at being alive that he can't contain it, it will certainly blow his heart right out of his chest at any moment—that's a feeling that can come from great art, too, no matter what it's theme or subject matter might be. Art is a container. Not just for what's judged valuable, but for everything.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Autumn, Sky, Waves

Sky Trace


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

John Cage on Silence

Marjorie Perloff on Cage and Cunningham: Constructed Anarchy. A bit from the article gives us the keystone to the concept of structured openness, structured performance in which the performers make as many or more decisions as the composer:

When in June 2010 I had the chance to see Roaratorio performed at the Disney Concert Hall—a beautiful Roaratorio but no longer graced by the presence on stage of Merce or by the actual speaking voice of John Cage—what seemed especially remarkable was the tight formal structure of a composition once billed (both in its radio and dance incarnations) as an anarchic Irish Circus, bursting with random sounds and unforeseen events. For, however differential the leg, arm, and torso movements of the individual dancers (sometimes in pairs or threes, sometimes alone), all are metonymically related in a network of family resemblances, and all are, as the charts show, mathematically organized. Yet wasn’t it Cage who defined his music as “purposeless play”—“not an attempt to bring order out of chaos . . . but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord”? And wasn’t it Cunningham who insisted that dance “is not meant to represent something else, whether psychological, literary, or aesthetic. It relates much more to everyday experience, daily life, watching people as they move in the streets”?

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Monday, November 22, 2010

André Gide: An Appreciation

An open letter to all of my gay (and non-gay) friends on the occasion of the birth anniversary of a great man of letters:

If you can pry yourself away from your most recent narcissistic piece of personal drama long enough to realize that the bigger world not only doesn't care but has seen it all before, try walking for a mile in the shoes of French gay writer and mystic André Gide. Gide made history by being frank about his gay lovers, and his friendship with Oscar Wilde.

Gide was born on November 21, the same birth date as my late mother, and also of two of my best friends. Gide was a radical who wrote both openly and honestly about his own life. He was one of the greatest of French short story writers. I remember reading in the original French, back in high school French class, his short story "The Prodigal Son," a modern retelling of the Biblical parable is profound and moving. I read this story in order to translate it, but it has stayed with me, and opened the door to reading the rest of his writings. (I had great French teachers in junior high and high school. This was also how I was introduced to Saint-Exupéry, who has remained one of my favorite writers throughout my life.)

Throughout his career, Gide's writings give voice to the universal and gentle sides of homosexual love. Without glossing over the hardships of life, and the emotional difficulties of coming out and being who you are, he was always positive and life-affirming. He showcased in Corydon, which is structured as a modern Platonic dialogue, how essential the contributions of gay and lesbian artists, writers, and musicians have been to the history of Western arts and literature. (Corydon is highly readable, with enchanting characters, and not at all didactic in tone while conveying vast amounts of historical knowledge.)

One of Gide's most powerful, oft-repeated messages in his writings was the simple truth (which seems to be lost on so many gay men lately) that: You cannot demand that others treat you with respect, and take you just as you are, if you then turn around and judge them harshly. More bluntly put, as Gide might phrase it, You cannot expect to be treated with respect if you show no respect in turn for others.

I can't tell you how often I've run into this fundamental truth in recent weeks, in conversation and encounters with my LGBT friends. Some of the younger, more militant of them are all up in arms about being respected for being just who they are, while without apparent irony turning right around to voice judgmental sweeping generalizations about others. One other lesson one takes away from the mature writings of Gide is that sweeping generalizations do more harm than good; we are all complex stories, with many individual paths taken that cannot be fit into stereotyped categories.

On December 10, 1947, in Stockholm, Anders Österling, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, spoke to France's ambassador in his award ceremony speech about Gide, "the venerable master of French literature whose genius has so profoundly influenced our time." (Gide was at the time too ill to receive his Nobel Prize for Literature in person.) Österling said as part of his speech:

The seventy-eight-year-old writer who this day is being honoured with the award of the Nobel Prize has always been a controversial figure. From the beginning of his career he put himself in the first rank of the sowers of spiritual anxiety, but this does not keep him today from being counted almost everywhere among the first literary names of France, or from enjoying an influence that has persisted unabatedly through several generations.

The award capped a rollercoaster career that began with the publication of a novella when Gide was twenty-two in 1891, reached successive peaks with The Immoralist (1902), Strait Is the Gate (1909), and Lafcadio's Adventures (1914); plummeted with the publication of Corydon (1920), his nonfiction book in praise of homosexuality; soared again with what some consider his best novel, The Counterfeiters (1925); and immediately shocked certain segments of the public again with his autobiography, If It Die (1926), with his joyful memories of teenage masturbating under the dining room table with the concierge's son, or his lovemaking with an Arab youth on a sand dune in Algeria. While in North Africa, Gide had also befriended Oscar Wilde; Gide wrote of their visit together to a tavern to seek out boys for pleasure.

In 1927 Gide published Travels in the Congo, his hugely influential attack on French colonialism, which turned out to be prophetic in his predictions of how colonialism would fail because of its own success. That trip also marked the end of Gide's eleven year relationship with Marc Allégret, who had eloped with him when he was 16 and Gide was 47. (Allégret's father had been the best man at Gide's never-consummated wedding and wasn't bothered at all by their affair; Gide's wife, however, didn't like being left behind and burned all of his letters in retaliation. Marc Allégret went on to direct more than fifty films.) After spending the war and post-war years in Tunis, Gide returned to Paris where he died in 1951.

In 1952, the Catholic church put all of his works on their Index of Forbidden Books, where they remain. That alone is testimony to his radical thought, his courageous self-revelations, and his courage in speaking out on forbidden topics.

(Hat tip to Band of Thebes.)

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Still Lives

Not everything needs to be seen from afar. The world is seen anew when seen close up. Consider a meditation on form, when content is obscured by scale and distance. No set-up; just discovery of objects that already happen to be on the table. Not all distances that obscure are large. Make a shape into a giant, or a gnat's view. It doesn't matter either way. The world is content to shape itself, whatever you care to think of it.

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Solace for two hands

In St. Paul, MN, visiting friends for a few days. When I left WI to drive up here yesterday, it was cold but winter hadn't yet arrived. There were still tufts of green lawn under the scudding clouds. Here in St. Paul there is snow on the ground, and it feels like winter is already settled in. I'm spending a quiet morning in a corner coffeeshop blocks from the Cathedral, sipping hot chocolate, integrating my thoughts and experiences from the past few days.

Observing my own processes. Contemplating the mysteries. Finding some quiet time before diving into the day's threads of active pursuits.

Last night, tired after driving all day, after a long dinner conversation on topics metaphysical, I sat on my friend's couch while he took a bath to unwind, and felt myself growing into that uncommunicatve, reflective mood in which I want to make something, anything, right now. I got out my camera and took B&W photos of his apartment, of his cat, of the streetlight through the night window. I made photos of a piece of Mexican tribal art that he has hanging on his wall near the window. And I made a drawing as well.

You get in that mood, and you just have to do something with it. The creative pressure builds behind the mask of self that you normally present to the world, and you have to get busy doing your creative work, or explode. The mask falls away, and you can seem to be a bit anti-social for the duration. What it really is, though, is concentration on the moment of making, the process and act of creation. Giving it your full attention is respectful both to yourself and to your process. (It helps if the friend you're visiting is also an artist, recognizes the process, and leaves you alone to do it uninterrupted. One of the advantages of having artists as friends is mutual understanding of the needs of the creative process.)

After making photos, and making a pencil drawing, I went back a page or so in my journal and added to a poem that I'd begun last week, then set aside unfinished, as the mood waned then, and as I had chores to do. I knew at the time that the poem wasn't done, and as usual I didn't know if it ever would be. Sometimes they just lie there, unfinished sketches. Sometimes lightning strikes, and you come back to it later, with a fresh eye, and suddenly know just what it needs.

Sometimes the glue that binds the poem together only appears later—and suddenly the poem's structure reveals itself to you, and its theme, and what needs to happen to it in order to breathe life into it, and make something that doesn't just lie there on the page, but comes alive.

In this case, the glue came with the realization of what the poem was about. I had no idea of a title as yet. I did what I often do, which is to look into the poem for a line that can become the title, or indicate what the title might be, as a point of resonance. I noticed the repetition of the word "solace" in the poem, and suddenly the glue made itself known to me, and the poem came into focus and more or less finished writing itself.

Solace for two hands


Stepping away from the overwhelm
that sense you can't get anything done
and back toward a long line of notes
that together make up something
like a sonata, a solace for two hands

Threading simple wires of sound
between warp of carpet and curve of chair
a place to sit under shade trees and listen
while leaves press notes into lyres
a fulcrum settled under waves


Slant of wolf in light
scant knowledge of the terrain
come down a hill covered in snow
silent behind wind
that absorbs every thought


Pure design of light swerving
on highway gap between suns
a soliloquoy within an alley
that silently makes a cat inside
a black windowpane look up at distant geese

The solace in between of in-betweens
become in stained glass blue a summons
to mushroom-clouded glare and roar
some time later like a solstice quiver
expecting bright snow where none has been

Don't think of it don't think
of anything at all in this catacomb
don't let it stumble into form
no form of ending is worth such penance
this revelation at the end of ropes a surcease

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Aubade of the Poet and the Candlemaker

The impoverished saint, rising from his bed of love,
walks naked to the shower, sheathed in last night's memories.
Can you start life as a poet? Is it learned? He can at least start the day.
Writing words of love on the fogged bathroom mirror,
finger calligraphy on warm glass. His touch on shoulder,
tracing lines on shin with the poet-calligrapher's loving touch.

To shave or not to shave? Maybe tomorrow.
A day's scruffiness won't kill anything.
Lips feel almost bruised from heavy kissing.
Herons behind those lips taken to himself, taken wing.
Morning rituals. A slight whatever.

The problem is he thinks too much. Turns everything into words,
even before he's finished living it. Thinks of lines while lips are on thighs,
wants to write them down, wants to write them, instead commits them
to memory, while writing ideograms with spit on skin.
At least as sensual as pen, as brush, as tongue.

Last night's candles, some burned down to shapeless puddles,
still everywhere, on every flat surface in the apartment.
Massive clean-up. Some wax on the rug. Dammit.
Shortcut to heating a home: a hundred candles,
and two bodies together.

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Keith Douglas

On Veteran's Day last year I presented a poem or two from Wilfred Owen. This year I thought to quote from another poet of war, Keith Douglas, an English poet of World War II.

Keith Douglas was born in 1920 in Kent, and educated at Oxford. In one of his letters written in 1940 he looks back on his childhood: "I lived alone during the most fluid and formative years of my life, and during that time I lived on my imagination, which was so powerful as to persuade me that the things I imagined would come true." Within days of the declaration of war he had reported to an army office with the intention of joining a cavalry regiment. Like many others keen to serve he had to wait and it was not until July 1940 that he started his training. On the 1st February 1941 he passed out from Sandhurst, the officer training school, and was posted to the Second Derbyshire Yeomanry at Ripon; he spent most of his war service in North Africa. In 1944, he took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, during which action he was killed.

His poetry shows the range of the best of the English war poets, showing what Owen called "the poetry and pity of war," from lyrical to polemical. His poems from the desert are filled with descriptions of the lives of desert civilians as well as warriors, with insight into the burdens of the warrior and wounded. One of the things Douglas thought about, which has become a major theme among veterans over the past century, is: how do you come back home, when the war is done?

Douglas talks less directly about war and politics than other war poets might, but the context is always there. It's the quiet backdrop of his poems, some of the most memorable of which were written in North Africa.

Villanelle Of Spring Bells

Bells in the town alight with spring
converse, with a concordance of new airs
make clear the fresh and ancient sound they sing.

People emerge from winter to hear them ring,
children glitter with mischief and the blind man hears
bells in the town alight with spring.

Even he on his eyes feels the caressing
finger of Persephone, and her voice escaped from tears
make clear the fresh and ancient sound they sing.

Bird feels the enchantment of his wing
and in ten fine notes dispels twenty cares.
Bells in the town alight with spring

warble the praise of Time, for he can bring
this season: chimes the merry heaven bears
make clear the fresh and ancient sound they sing.

All evil men intent on evil thing
falter, for in their cold unready ears
bells in the town alight with spring
make clear the fresh and ancient sound they sing.

Cairo Jag

Shall I get drunk or cut myself a piece of cake,
a pasty Syrian with a few words of English
or the Turk who says she is a princess—she dances
apparently by levitation? Or Marcelle, Parisienne
always preoccupied with her dull dead lover:
she has all the photographs and his letters
tied in a bundle and stamped Decede in mauve ink.
All this takes place in a stink of jasmin.

But there are the streets dedicated to sleep
stenches and the sour smells, the sour cries
do not disturb their application to slumber
all day, scattered on the pavement like rags
afflicted with fatalism and hashish. The women
offering their children brown-paper breasts
dry and twisted, elongated like the skull,
Holbein's signature. But his stained white town
is something in accordance with mundane conventions—
Marcelle drops her Gallic airs and tragedy
suddenly shrieks in Arabic about the fare
with the cabman, links herself so
with the somnambulists and legless beggars:
it is all one, all as you have heard.

But by a day's travelling you reach a new world
the vegetation is of iron
dead tanks, gun barrels split like celery
the metal brambles have no flowers or berries
and there are all sorts of manure, you can imagine
the dead themselves, their boots, clothes and possessions
clinging to the ground, a man with no head
has a packet of chocolate and a souvenir of Tripoli.

The Knife

Can I explain this to you? Your eyes
are entrances the mouths of caves
I issue from wonderful interiors
upon a blessed sea and a fine day,
from inside these caves I look and dream.

Your hair explicable as a waterfall
in some black liquid cooled by legend
fell across my thought in a moment
became a garment I am naked without
lines drawn across through morning and evening.

And in your body each minute I died
moving your thigh could disinter me
from a grave in a distant city:
your breasts deserted by cloth, clothed in twilight
filled me with tears, sweet cups of flesh.

Yes, to touch two fingers made us worlds
stars, waters, promontories, chaos
swooning in elements without form or time
come down through long seas among sea marvels
embracing like survivors in our islands.

This I think happened to us together
though now no shadow of it flickers in your hands
your eyes look down on ordinary streets
If I talk to you I might be a bird
with a message, a dead man, a photograph.

How To Kill

Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

Desert Flowers

And here's a brief animation built around Douglas reading one of his most famous poems, Simplify Me When I'm Dead:

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Tuesday, November 09, 2010


Not bad, to have made it into sleep this far,
as though sleep were another country, its agents waiting
to see a passport stamped with dream destinations.
Getting to sleep is one thing, waking up another.
The Buddha, after everything, woke up, and sketched out
a map for awakeners to follow. Even the fish
under glass, underfoot, fish nobody eats even though
they inhabit a restaurant's garden pond, even these
have a chance at waking up, assuming they ever sleep.
The monkey mind fishes around for ladders to climb,
knobs and vines to grasp, to keep going, to never stop,
keeping you awake when you'd rather nap. The Buddha
was a scientist of self, his first experimental subject
his own mirror, discerning in his meditations how to winnow
what works from what doesn't. Having awakened, the same
old stuff. Hard to tell the difference. The way to sleep
is also the middle way, between endless monkey chitter
and the deadness of sleep-inducing drugs. Mostly, I just sit,
not pretending to do more than that. It's enough.
Eventually the clatter fades, even those distant voices
at the end of the row, heard as human hum, with no content.
Like the backlit silhouette of a naked youth emerging
from sparkling sea-glint, gender indeterminate, ambiguous,
recognizably human, that's enough. Clothes make the man
even when the man's not a man, but someone other.
Emerging, are you a boy, are you a girl, and should it matter?
That's just another tin mental box to emerge from.
Buddha's monkey doesn't care; a hole's a hole.
Waking in the morning with the unknown sleeper sharing
your pillow, a dream that pops like those cartoon
thought-bubbles the instant you both awaken. A quick
meeting of eyes before both vanish to their separate days,
or wherever waking leads you.

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Monday, November 08, 2010

In A Landscape

Last night, unable to sleep, I went down into the basement and did a bit of sorting and filing.

(Organizing everything in the basement is an ongoing project; so far, I've created two or three divided room spaces. About half of my book collection is down in the reading room, with comfortable lighting, reading, and my big black couch. I have all my music gear down there that doesn't fit into the music room upstairs, including the vast majority of music scores and books.)

Last night I spent some time sorting through my piano scores, deciding what to bring up to have by the piano, to have at hand for when I feel like playing.

This afternoon, I played through a favorite early John Cage piece, In A Landscape. This is a piece for solo piano from 1948. You can hear a very good recorded performance of the piece here. There are other recordings of the piece—it's even been marketed as a precursor to New Age meditative music—but this is the one I like best. When I play the piece, I tend to follow this model, rather than others.

John Cage: Writer (1993), edited and introduced by Richard Kostelanetz.

A book found and read recently, added with pleasure to my collection of books by Cage, and about Cage. Kostelanetz is one of the best editors and commentators on Cage and his legacy. He has produced a vast body of Cage-related work that is among the most insightful and worthwhile. Kostelanetz begins his Preface to this book—selected writings that was being prepared with Cage's support, and published a year after he died—with a very direct statement:

To me, John Cage has always been a writer as well as a composer, as major a writer as he is a composer, and so for the past quarter century I have been writing about his writings, as well as anthologizing selections from them as poetry, as social thought, as esthetic philosophy. That accounts for why it is a pleasure to edit a selection of his previously uncollected writings—pieces that haven't appeared in any books published under his name or with his name in the title. Customarily, such writings might be classified as poetry or esthetics or reportage, but since those categories don't work for Cage, here they appear in chronological order, in sum illustrating my thesis about Cage as a major American author.

I agree completely.

Cage was at least as important to 20th C. writing, including poetry, as he was to music, and just as influential. He was an experimental artist in whatever artform he worked in, in the sense of: experimentation, invention, exploration. He pushed art farther in several directions than it had ever been pushed—which is the source of both his fame and, in the minds of people who felt pushed too far, his notoriety. Whether people are fascinated or infuriated by Cage says a lot about them, but not much about Cage. I am firmly in the fascinated camp, for whatever that's worth.

Cage wrote short notes about his compositions for the catalog of his music publisher, C.F. Peters. Kostelanetz gathers these together in this book. Here's what he wrote about In A Landscape:

In A Landscape (for harp or piano, 1948) was written in the rhythmic structure of the dance by Louise Lippold. it is similar to Dream [another solo piano piece from the same period, for the dance by Merce Cunningham] but the fixed gamut of tones is more extensive. Its performance depends on the sustaining of resonances with the pedal.

The piece is indeed rather dreamlike. Cage did a lot of music during this period wherein the musical elements are repeated, compressed, and stretched following mathematical relationships. Cage was also interested in the formal aesthetics of Hindu mythology, and this is sometimes reflected in to the shapes and titles of the pieces.

In terms of In A Landscape, it's interesting to hear the basic motifs return at certain times, in sections that are determined in length by the mathematical rhythms tied to the dance. The opening theme, for example, returns one last time near the end of the piece, in a perfect recapitulation. But this is not at all a traditional musical form from Western classical music, such as a sonata or rondo. It is measured and precisely placed, and what happens in between can in no way be called a development of themes.

In A Landscape is a good piece for me to play before bedtime. It's good night music. Music that helps calm the mind, calm the emotions, return one to tranquility before lying down to find sleep. I have other music to attend to tonight before bed, but I will perhaps play through In A Landscape again, in hopes of finding a better night's sleep for myself.

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Sunday, November 07, 2010

Teton Windows

Teton Windows
(Click on image for larger version.)

A collage made from two photos of the Tetons, made by improvising in Photoshop till inspiration struck. This piece is thematically tied to the series of Ocean Windows and Sunset Windows pieces also made in Photoshop.

Each piece in this series is made of two or mote layers of photos of the same setting or subject, with "windows" in the upper layers masked out to reveal what lies beneath. There is an apparently Cubist aspect to this collage method, with multiple viewpoints of the subject within the frame; but for me the visionary art aspect is more important, with each of the multiple viewpoints being a window or door one sees through into another aspect of the scene, or into another world entirely.

On one level, my inspiration here is from contemporary stained-glass windows in cathedrals. These collages evoke standing inside Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, for example, the stained glass illuminated from outside, flooding the walls and floor with colored patterns of light, the sacredness of the space created as much by this illumination as by any conventional religious association. I plan to print some of these "windows" pieces large, and hang them so that they in turn evoke the feeling of cathedral windows.

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Dusk in the Grand Tetons 2

images from Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, March 2010
For previous images look here.

Two days at Jackson Hole. Found a hotel I could afford, and later a dinner at a very good restaurant downtown. I checked in, then grabbed the cameras and drove up to the Park not long before dark. I had just enough time to make some images like these at dusk, from two or three known vantage points, before the light entirely failed. In the morning, I checked out of my hotel, went up to the Park and spent most of the day there again, before driving east towards Casper. Next trip, I plan to spend at least two or three nights in Jackson, to give me more time with the region, and to make video as well as stills.

At the last moment, just at dusk, a spread of cloud south over the Teton peaks opened up, letting a blue veil of light through. A thin window in the sky into the blue light just past sunset. Not long after, the light failed completely, and I drove back to my hotel in full dark.

These images of the clouds letting through a slash of brighter light over the peaks are some of my favorites from this entire roadtrip.

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Saturday, November 06, 2010

Entering the Matrix

Consider creativity as a matrix of possibilities.

Visualize, if you can, a multi-dimensional grid, with various loci on the grid being locations of different types of creative action. You can add as many dimensions as you can work with. I do a lot of 3D geometry in my mind; I have a knack for spatial geometry, I've always been able to do it. (It took me longer to absorb the algebraic equations that describe spatial geometry, not to mention nonlinear dynamics, but being able to visualize everything is a big help.)

At the moment, I'm idly watching woodworking shows on public television. Or listening, mostly, as I slice red potatoes chip-thin to fry them up in olive oil and spices. I like them extra crispy, so I get the potatoes going before I throw the Angus beef burgers on the grill. When the potatoes are three-quarters done, you throw the burgers on the already-heated grill. Don't need anything on burgers but a little sea salt, but I like to spice up the potatoes. Not eating a vegetable tonight, mostly because I didn't get to the store earlier. A glass of one of my favorite wines from Paso Robles, CA, J. Lohr Wildflower Monterey Valdiguié, and my evening is complete.

Earlier today, at sunset, I was on the public park docks at the Rock River north of town, making HD video of the sunset, gold past the bare trees, the thin pinking clouds, and a hundred Canadian geese on the river, drifting, calling, sometimes taking off in flights of a dozen, heading west. Other flights come in for a landing. The geese follow the light west, as the sun goes down, till they cannot see, and rest for the night.

The woodworking (or other craft) shows have become something I leave on the TV in idle moments, if I have nothing better to do while cooking and eating, because of my own deepening interest in woodworking. I don't have the shop full of amazing tools that they use on these shows, nor do I have the tools to make some of the custom tools they use; but I'm learning. And I'm getting ideas. I love the look of laminated woods, layers of color and texture. I will work up to some larger projects someday, but I have become interested in making small wooden boxes, as parts of larger art pieces.

Think of a shadow box, which has an image or a small sculpture on its face, perhaps a relief carving or a glued abstraction. Then you open the box, and inside discover another mystery. An image, a smaller puzzle sculpture within, who knows. All of it themed to an idea, or a cluster of ideas. Imagine a wall filled with art, including boxes, photographs, triptychs, and pieces that break the frame of assumptions around both 2D and 3D art.

At some point I'd like to get a woodturning lathe, and turn some bowls from tree logs, using the grain and faults in the wood as features. Natural woods interest me for woodcarving, because of their irregularities and flaws, which bring character to the piece.

I feel myself entering a new phase of creative productivity. As if I wasn't already productive enough. I am gradually recovering my strength and health. (The IV drug therapy treatments are working, although from my perspective it seemed to take a long time to notice real results. But I'm a lot less anemic than I was, and that takes at least a couple of burdensome stressors off the list, now.) I am gradually improving my outlook on life. Even though my body is still tired much of the time, it's not all of the time, they way it had been for over a year now. Not to say there aren't still the occasional setbacks, the days where you have to take the day off and rest, and the times when you still feel like crap. Yet I feel myself more able to do things, even on those days, because my mind is clearer now than it has been in many months.

Some good things have happened, creatively, these past few weeks. I have my new piano, and have been playing regularly. I am starting to compose a new piece. I played the Monster Jam gigs for Hallowe'en in Madison last week, even though I had walking pneumonia at the time, then came home in time to give out treats to the kids. And even though I'm tired out, I'm not so tired out that I'm dead on my feet. Nothing that down and out. So I guess that's another sign of improvement.

I've made a lot of visual art this past month. October has always been a month of unusually high artistic productivity for me. I first noticed this when I was in college. Something about October always makes me extra-productive, extra-alert. There's a quality of light that's unique, a smell of autumn in the cooling air. There's the thinning of the veils between worlds coming up to Samhain. There's the sense of the Yearwheel turning, the old year ending and the new one beginning. And there's often the first tentative snowfall, which doesn't endure for now, but crisply chills the air with prescience of winter.

Creativity is for me a vast underground river of black water, which can rise up to be tasted from many wells. I don't just write words, I make visual art, and I write music. In fact, writing words is not even my principal means of artistic expression. I know I've said this all before; I'm restating it to make the case for another kind of analogy about creativity.

My purpose here is to demonstrate that creativity is not a scare resource. It's infinite. One can always tap in.

I recently read some commentaries on fine art by critics who, it seems to me, don't really understand the creative process. One of these opinions was that anything that isn't recognized as fine art is not art. Another opinion was that artists should be in a vacuum, with no consideration of the rest of the world. Both of these opinions are incredibly wrong-headed, and no working artist would agree with them.

Dealing with the second opinion first, it's not possible to be a human being, making art or not, and be totally isolated from the world, from the need to make a living, from relationship, from contact. HIstory has proven that total isolation is liable to drive one crazy. Of course it's also been proven that too many distractions interfere with getting the work done. So the truth, as usual, lies in the balance.

Now, I might actually agree that fine art is art, and that many things that are called art are not. But creativity is not restricted to the fine arts. Anyone who states that creativity is only in the fine arts knows nothing about creativity. Creativity can be found anywhere apply imagination, intuition, ingenuity, and heart to whatever they're doing. Creativity can be found in cooking, in woodworking, in photography and videography, in winemaking, and almost anywhere else that people apply themselves. In my experience ,creativity is the most available thing in the universe, as abundant as hydrogen. The only thing that blocks you from applying your creative process to whatever you're doing is your own inner idea that you can't. Or some critical idiot telling you that you shouldn't. Both of these voices are just plain wrong.

So consider creativity as a matrix of possibilities. Visualize those possibilities as points in space on a multi-dimensional grid. Some cluster close together; others are farther apart, some quite far off by themselves. Each locus is a way of being creative. Not all of them are fine art. But all of them are true.

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Suffer the little clouds in my mind to become bigger clouds.
Rakes of punctured trigrams obscure the sun; going down slow.
If days of travel, driving and being driven, can make you tired,
how much more likely then is it that I'll stumble.
Frustrated I can't do more, can't help more. Nothing
takes me out of my own abbatoir like being of service.
Even then, failed monk that I am, I can't fix even a corner
of the world, of this house, without another corner caving in.
Ashes, we all fall down, and the chimneys crimson with sunset.
The old house windows into the new, making logs into ash.
If there's a nobler part to suffering, which is doubtful though some
say it, it comes from the honest democracy of pain. Accept what's there,
stop telling tall tales. Even poets can be liars, if it suits the tale.
Nothing's intended, although the weak-willed keep flailing with blame.
Try to become less irrelevant. Make a radical revolution of the heart.
If there were something like a box I could put you in, I wouldn't.
Boxes spin into more boxes, obligatory puzzle of the self.
My feet for some reason are restless, wanting to chasten this cloister.
Maybe it's the wind, the last day of fine weather.
Leaves falling everywhere, shocked out of the sky by last night's
impossible storms, bracketed by placid cool blue suns.

Then suddenly we're in the Cajun moonlight, a hoodoo violin
mapping territories woken from old grids of Germanic regularity
trying to organize the bayou into regularized overlaid streets.
it's absurd. No wild thing would would walk those ways. Certainly no singer.
Where did I exit? This wasn't part of the plan.
The town plans got lost in the mangroves, chewed by manatees,
pecked to nothing by egrets. Suffering alligators, it's hot.
We've gone astray again. Time to return to pretending to be
normal. Thickets in northern Michigan seem more normalizing
than the Everglades, but perhaps only to boys who grew up
walking carefully to avoid trampling the protected woods trillium.

And the redwing blackbird, sentinel that shouted hunger into my mind.
Finding other ways to wake up. A thicket rather than a swamp.
Somewhere I left a stash of letters to mildew, maybe in an old desk
abandoned at the old house, too heavy to move with memories.
Oak is a lesson in stolidity. Its very surface a black pollen
of forgetting. Black pollen of hail and thunder, of night storms.
Black incense of forbidden desire. Now we rove back to it.
There's nothing here but the recordings. Enough soul-searching.
If it doesn't serve, cease. Stop everything that won't stop.
I've taken enough tollbooths, there's no certainty past that bridge
back to where we begin.

Notes on the poem series, again:

Is this series of poems brought on with summer's brush with near-dying running dry? It doesn't matter, of course. I'm gearing up to do some music composing, and I know that when I'm musically satisfied I tend not to make poems; or at least fewer. And indeed I have made fewer poems of late. That surge that arrived with the darkest times this past summer may be passing on, now that my health is gradually climbing out of the bucket again. The urge to write is less urgent; I have other things to think about, too.

Some poems remain in my journal, untranscribed. Some are half-finished; they started well, but then something interrupted me—like a doctor entering the room—and I lost the momentum. I will go back, perhaps, and finish them, if I can find the momentum again. Some I think are only sketches or warm-ups; maybe there's a salvageable line or two, but not the whole piece. I am gradually going back to look through this set, however, as time and interest move me currently, so a few more poems may appear here.

I feel right now as though the best of this series of poems was made in the summer's darkest hours, when I was as down and out as I've been. But I also, hopefully wisely, don't fully trust my own opinions about my own art. No artist should; it risks self-delusion. You can, with practice, be ever more objective; but never totally so, as that would also be delusion. So I can't predict what the best poems of the series are. I can only on my taste and intuition. For all I know, the best is yet to come.

Forward momentum is the key to endless creativity.

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the Wild Hunt

Earlier I wrote about the mythic, archetypal pencil and brush drawings I had made during my last morning at the clinic, receiving the IV drug therapy, sitting for hours with a needle in my arm. What I didn't mention, when I wrote about making those drawings, was that I also had written a poem on the same themes, as accompaniment.

Increasingly I'm interested in multi-media. The pure two-dimensionality of visual art is more alive to me, lately, if it breaks out of the frame, to become three-dimensional, or if it's a triptych or series, or if it is haiga, poem-with-art, Complementarity interests me.

This poem was written after the making of those drawings, as a kind of reflection upon their themes. A reflection from another angle, in another medium. I find the resonance of art increases with more angles, more reflections, more directions. The more ways you look at something, the more rich and complete, and interesting it becomes.

A cinematic poem: a sequence of images, a non-linear narrative made up only of images. Reflections of the painted caves, the transformative mysteries deep in the dark underground. A prayer for those oldest gods and hunts known to us.

wild hunt hounds bay hunter's moon golden sky ring lambent
lone stag still water wading reflect evening sky light
hero effigy breath totem ancestor enter heart enter belly
altar stone hawk eye errand of rebirth
mark these walls with treasure of clay red uranic paint
hunter god barrow god ride tornadic sky howl
geese or hound those distant voices above bleak clouds
waning moon touches black hills liquid amber water blur
sorceror in limestone underhill spear rampant thrusts
make of us your shaman's dance sorceror's hunt wild and howled

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Friday, November 05, 2010

Idaho Snow

images from Idaho, February 2010

blank wall of snow
covers cold river valley—
long march of trees

ice and fire
and the end of the world—
respite of stillness

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Thursday, November 04, 2010

Three Ways of Making

Journal Poems

Piano Waves


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