Quintessence ~ the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form. Substance composing the celestial bodies.

The shoes that climbed Gonergrat, Switzerland

QUINTESSENCE

Book Review: The Road to Character by David Brooks

May 21, 2015

Tags: art and creation, intention, the moderns, faith, solitude, patterns

I recently was on travel in the Mediterranean. The point of my trip was to research places in seven countries that border, or are island nations, of this "sea of destiny." Places which figure in the continuum of history as evidenced by patterns of ancient and modern conflict. The antiquities of Greek and Roman classic battle sites - for example Troy (now in modern day Turkey), or the battle between Octavian and the fleet of Cleopatra and Marc Antony in Prevezza - to the sprawling Mediterranean battlefields of World War II in North Africa, Italy, France and Sicily. War history is profoundly emblematic of the impact of leadership and character on events in human history.

I took with me on this journey David Brooks' new nonfiction book, "The Road to Character." I knew his study of human character would reference Eisenhower, Marshall, Augustine among others, and thought it might dovetail nicely with my travels. Brooks is a readable writer, his voice genial on the page. His book is structured around separating what he terms "eulogy character" from "resume character": that is, those qualities rooted deeply within one's nature and upbringing that make a deeply moral and resilient self, versus those qualities primarily developed as window-dressing and acquired for specific goals or situations to serve the ambitions of the ego. A diametric Brooks terms simply as Adam I versus Adam II.

Setting aside for the moment the framing of a discussion of character in religious context, or the mild sexism by today's standards of the choice of the term "Adam" (as in Adam and Eve, coined in the 1965 work by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in "Lonely Man of Faith") as the framework for talking about the deepest aspects of humanity, the real problem for me is that Brooks is writing around a schematic of character he never quite defines and then bolsters with case biographies to substantiate arbitrary conclusions. This makes for a confusing read as the book moves back and forth through history discussing an odd range of men and women selected to exemplify some aspect of personal character development Brooks has deemed important to their ultimate role in events of historical importance.

Brooks organizes his chapters around ideas such as struggle, self-conquest, dignity, love, ordered love, the big me, etc., and case biographies are used to order his arguments about Adam I inner authenticity as opposed to Adam II egoism, and the development of meaningful character. The problem for me is that without Brooks defining "character" beyond its implicit religious or moral codes or otherwise hinged upon command leadership or charity, he's defaulted on something extremely hard to pin down. I found myself yearning for a solid discussion of human character not explicitly tied to historical achievement: a discussion of that slate of human traits that define and empower people to do the things they do. The very word "character" is value loaded. In Brooks' book it is used as a euphemism for admirable, and that which distinguishes someone from the greater masses.

I truly wanted to like "The Road to Character" but the narrative is uneven, and without what I would consider a meaningful metric of "character." In the end, Brooks' study is about grand personalities.

Footprints, Weavers

May 13, 2015

Tags: art and creation, family, nature, intention, presence, pattern


Why do we explore? Beyond the obvious relaxation of leaving behind the familiar for the fresh freedom of non-routine, why do we travel? What is it about discovery that produces connection in our hearts and minds?

I have noticed of late that in contrast with the travels of my youth, thirty years or more ago, today's world is less diverse and more incrementally universal in character and habit. I am sure the same might be said thirty years before that, as we slide the marker backward. Somewhere in the distant past we would discover the once true diversity of the world, large and strange, that now, in the acceleration of the electronic web, creeps toward a newly homogenized blend mixed with flavors and echoes of the old.

The idea that the present is always settling toward homogenous stability. A stability altered by any exogenous factor that challenges, and stirs; that when rooted in time, evolves itself into a new homogeneity. And thus evolution occurs, over and over, spark to stability, old to new. We change because of what is new. We absorb change by making it part of who we are.

Travel is our window into the history of humanity, bookmarked in time. The Athens I visited in 1981 is not the Athens of 2015, nor the Athens of 400 BC. The ancient relics of classical antiquity loom, dormant; yet are erasing themselves, stone by cracked stone, from the present future. Travel draws for us the shadow of history, the footprint of the world in all its past uniqueness contrasted with the familiar present from which we translate our understanding. We are always of both then and now. Points in a continuum of events that loop infinitely through points of time. In journeys of exploration we frame our understanding of an evolving world.

I am both saddened by the erosion of global differences and heartened by our elbow-to-elbow humanity. We are, despite events in the headlines, losing many of the sharp-edged facades of nationalism even as we confront the deeper conflicts in human nature and behavior. As if humanity is collectively regressing through time from the many cities, to the one village, to the family. Fractious, occasionally peaceful. We are becoming more one even as that oneness is a larger collection of us.

Travel is a way to root in historical narrative. To contemplate ancient classical arts and dramas and the stories of human history through a great sieve. What might Antigone whisper within the dreams of Shakespeare? What faith and ambitions echo in the bog burials of the Vikings, travel the Silk Road, were won and lost in the battles of the Caesars? What familiar fear would we find in a soldier's journal during the trench warfare of WWI? What tribal art echoes in the cut-outs of Matisse, what dreams of flight from Icarus to the Wright brothers? Can we taste the connection between the milled bread of Roman Ostia Antica and the brioche of revolutionary Paris? The world is a kaleidoscope of intersecting evolutions, of invention busting out randomly and intermittently - the seeds of history scattered on the wind.

As we explore we sense the patterns that weave together all things and places and behaviors. We begin to see the potholes, the tears, the unraveling across time in the grand design. We also perceive the repairs, the transmutations, the inspirations. We are weavers seated at the fire - the ever-burning flame of human history. Our narrative traversing the seasons, displayed in the cycles of the constellations overhead as we weave. We weave, we endlessly weave.

I give you this remarkable poem by Richard Siken with this thought: Might history be all that which is already here?

LOVESONG OF THE SQUARE ROOT OF NEGATIVE ONE
by Richard Siken

I am the wind and the wind is invisible, all the leaves
tremble but I am invisible, bloom without flower, knot
without rope, song without throat in wingless flight, dark
boat in the dark night, pure velocity. As the hammer is
a hammer when it hits the nail, and the nail is a nail when
it meets wood, and the invisible table begins to appear
out of mind, pure mind, out of nothing, pure thinking.
Through darkness, through silence, a vector, a violence,
I labor, I lumber, I fumble forward through the valley as
winter, as water, I mist and frost, flexible and elastic to
the task. I am the hand that lifts the rock, I am the mind
that strings the worm and throws the line and feels the tug,
the flex in the pole, and foot by foot I find the groove,
the trace in the thicket, the key in the lock, as root breaks
rock, from seed to flower to fruit to rot, a holy pilgrim
moving through the stations of the yardstick. I track,
I follow, I hinge and turn, frictionless and efficient as an
equals sign. I flip and fold, I superimpose, I become
location and you veer toward me, the eye to which you
are relative, magnetized for your revelation. Hook and bait,
polestar and checkmate, I am your arrival, there is no
refusal, we are here, you see, together, we are already here.


Meditations at Sea

May 7, 2015

Tags: art and creation, nature, patterns, finding joy, presence, solitude

WE TRAVEL
We travel too fast
through time. Skimming, crushing,
small worlds of breath.
We travel too fast
through sky, water, waves
that carry one unvoiced song.
The sun is gone
before we know that warmth,
folded, encompassing.
Behind the frayed gold ribbons
the thunder of death.
We travel too fast
through birthdays, anniversaries, one unfathomable
kiss.
We blow through the door, throw down
our keys,
too hurried, rushed.
This.
The sinking sun on an ancient sea.
The destiny that brought you
here.
We travel too fast
from the worlds
of becoming to the worlds
of dust.
We must slow.
Tardy.
And hear the song.


- GB 5/2/2015 drafted on board the small ship Island Sky


The last two weeks I have been at sea, anchoring at various ports in countries that shoulder the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean and its mythic seas, the Ionian, the Aegean, the Tyrrhenian, the Ligurian, are part of a vast and ancient seaway that traders, travellers, and warriors have journeyed upon for centuries. This nearly landlocked sea feels a bit like the block on the corner, quite honestly - alive all hours of the day with conversations and chance meetings. The chaotic internationalized ports; the vessels on the horizon pushing the sun, others looming large at daybreak.

There is a hypnotic beauty characteristic of the sea. Fresh landscapes whip in on the winds, in the ever-changing cool mists and layered clouds. These are thoughts, echoes, impressions that rise in our thinking when we still and let what lies outside of us expand and fill our inner horizons. Sailing on the sea exposes human unease, knotted emptions, longings bottomless as the deep. The sea demands surrender to her moods and inclinations: and with surrender, ease. Freedom. Keeping with the natural tides and winds. We respect the sea. The marine blue of her waters may darken to a cold gray, churn, furl, flatten like glass. The sun and moon cast ladders of light from there to nowhere.

We travel too fast through time. We skewer the seconds together as though they were not small worlds to be savored, one and then another. The sky is so vast to be contemplated, not split in transit in a sonic boom. The sea is an undulating song, a meditation, a solitary passage into the soul; an aria of what the natural elements mean to all living things.

Do not travel so fast. Slow. Feel out the surface of your time alive, let it roll, let it thunder, let it settle, but let it be expressed. Slow. Do not jet through a sunset missed in the rearview mirror; let the sinking sun fold around you and carry you with it over another horizon. The poetry of the sky belongs to everyone.

Histories and Fictions

April 22, 2015

Tags: the moderns, art and creation, intention, patterns

Valetta, Malta

Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematicians subtle; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend.
- Francis Bacon, Essays, "Of Studies"

Acts themselves alone are history... Tell me the act, O historian, and leave me to reason upon them as I please; away with your reasoning and your rubbish! All that is not action is not worth reading.
- William Blake

History, as an entirety, could only exist in the eyes of an observer outside it and outside the world. History, only exists, in the final analysis, for God.
- Albert Camus, "The Rebel"

I have been musing, of late, on the distinctions between fiction and history. Is history the retelling of a factual narrative, for the most part based on action and not speculation, or is it, as Francis Bacon declares, a particular reasoning applied to aspects of human life to accumulate an "history," and not simply a time-line?

The writer Jorge Luis Borges argued quite effectively in Other Inquisitions, that "Universal history is the history of a few metaphors." Which leads me to my question: Is there a worthy difference in how we understand ourselves through history, narratives of fiction, poetry, or creative retellings in nonfiction? Do all these various ways of telling bleed across lines?

Take as an example narrative nonfiction, sometimes called creative nonfiction. Defined loosely here as the embellishment, without factual distortion, of a skeleton of true information. Is this not what we think of as classical history? The past relayed to us by the ancients in essay, epic or ballad, religious texts, or theatre? Does memoir differ from biography beyond its intimate focus and use of filters less universal and more personal? Does an oversight differ from a lie? A misrepresentation from an omission? Or to look at the question sideways for a moment, if fiction lets us see our real selves through an artful staging of an invented series of events, how does that understanding differ from the internal drama of a reasoned essay, interview, or bulletin "from the front," if the basic premise of truth in telling is observed?

Truth in telling: That to the best of one's knowledge these events are what could be, might have been, surely were, once upon a time. The preamble to all narrative, "Once upon a time." My favorite histories of the world weave fact with interpretation, story with reflection, event with consequence. I do this same weaving of factual thread and colorful bits as do most writers. Day after day we build the imaginary, drag fact across speculation to spark the invention of stories. In this way we retell a mystery, or sketch our observations of a crumbling or evolving culture.

As a human, I sympathize with Blake - let us deem for ourselves the meaning of things. Yet Camus hits the nail squarely on the head: Who but some being who is not us will ever know the complete history of mankind and what meaning it may possess?

Vanishing Point

April 15, 2015

Tags: art and creation, finding joy, intention

VANISHING POINT
- Billy Collins, 1988


"With an apple I want to astonish Paris."
- Paul Cezanne

You thought it was just a pencil dot
art students made in the middle of the canvas
before they started painting the barn, cows, haystacks,

or just a point where railroad tracks fuse,
a spot engineers stare at from the cabs of trains
as they clack through the heat of prairies
heading out of the dimensional.

But here I am at the vanishing point,
looking back at everything as it zooms toward me,
barns, cows, tracks, haystacks, farmers, the works,
shrinking, then disappearing into this iota
as if pulled by a gravity that is horizontal.

I am a catcher behind the home plate of the world,
a scientist observing a little leak in reality.

I watch the history of architecture narrow down
to nothing, all straight lines rushing away from
themselves like men who have caught on fire.
Every monument since Phidias converges on this speck.
Imagine a period that could swallow all the sentences
in an encyclopedia.

I have reached the heaven of geometry
where every line in every theorem aspires to go.
Even the vanishing points in drawings vanish here.
And if you do not believe me, look at where
the tangents of your garage are aimed.

You have heard of the apple that astonished Paris?
This is the nostril of the ant that inhaled the universe.



A waitress at the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Minneapolis told a table of writers that the only other group to consume as much alcohol as writers were the farmers. I'm not sure what that says about farmers, but I imagine it's close to what writers think: It's damn nice to get away from the tractor now and then. 14,000 writers - mostly introverted, shy, and cringe-worthy in their self-consciousness - can party pretty well at a rodeo with their own kind. That is, once the writers get over feeling too shy to approach a favorite author or new group of writers to join them for a beer after a panel...which may take a pre-beer, or two.

What do writers drink? Last count, the leading favorite at conventions was a tie between wine and beer, with cocktails a solid second, and all of that far, far behind coffee. Tea is the beverage slacker. And of course, quiet and introverted is completely out the window if writers, readings, and alcohol are present in the same venue. Then you have what we writers like to call, "a literary happening.'

One of my new friends, a writer from New Mexico named Margaret Wrinkle, who wrote the powerful novel "Wash" (Grove Atlantic), offered some solid advice on a discussion panel on the topic of literary editing:

"The business of the writer is the story. The editor's is the reader."

I pinned this wisdom above my filing cabinet to remind myself as I work my way through a manuscript of copy edits that my work is telling the story. Not thinking about its place in the market, or worrying about critical reviews, blurbs, jacket covers, or copies sold... The writer's business is telling the story. And telling it well. In a nutshell, it is the writer's calling and responsibility to tell the story in her heart and soul with as much power and authenticity as possible. It is the editor's work to make the story comprehensible, approachable, and free of mistakes for the reader's benefit. At the AWP conference writers talked about writing, read each other's work, signed their work, purchased stacks of print books, and celebrated the successes of their peers and those who publish good writing. Nowhere was there a pitch, a sale, or a push. That may be why AWP is my favorite conference.

So why did I choose this poem, "Vanishing Point" by Billy Collins? First of all because it's an old one - from his first collection of poems "The Apple That Astonished Paris," University of Arkansa Press - that I was lucky enough to find and buy at the conference book fair. Secondly, this poem has a kind of wit and playfulness that bounces the power and creativity of language on its nose like a ball tossed about by a circus seal. It's also true. What can't one do with language? Not much, when words are harnessed to the imagination.

And so I leave you with this thought: take whatever you are doing and do it with a sense of play. A dot becomes an apple. A laugh becomes a lifetime. It's all in perspective.


Sacrament, Mystery, Light

April 7, 2015

Tags: art and creation, faith, intention, patterns, presence

copper pennies, cattle bones, pavers, wafers, black cloth
The Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin


Does a poem enlarge the world,
or only our idea of the world?

- from "Mathematics" by Jane Hirschfield

This image is of a 2013 art installation at The Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. The installation occupied (at that time) an entire room of its own. A room within a room, in which the art, "How to Build a Cathedral," fills the entirety of the subdued space.

The light is dim, the atmosphere quiet. The visitor is permitted to step inside the installation, which is curtained on four sides by ceiling-to-floor black mesh curtains (filmy and weighty). Inside the mystery of the curtains, one may stand or walk the square perimeter of the installation on an interior border of plain gray pavers. The ceiling within the space is a mammoth "chandelier" of cow bones, suspended in uniform order from the ceiling, and lit from above. The white bones funnel downward to join a thin cord constructed of stacked Eucharist wafers, and downward still into a sculptural sea bed of shiny new pennies.

The space has the sacramental hush and reverence we associate with the interiors of cathedrals and the metaphoric elements with which we erect them: rock, bone and muscle, ritual, money, and death.

Sacrament, mystery, light.

The artist has constructed a place that, improbable as it would seem, is made profound from our intention to honor the sacred. A space for contemplation constructed of the elemental world. What is sacred is born of the ordinary.

Palaces of Time

April 1, 2015

Tags: art and creation, faith, intention, nature, patterns, finding joy

Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo, Norway

PEACHES
A mouthful of language to swallow:
stretches of beach, sweet clinches,
breaches in walls, pleached branches;
britches hauled over haunches;
hunched leeches, wrenched teachers.
What English can do: ransack
the warmth that chuckles beneath
fuzzed surfaces, sooth velvet
richness, plashy juices.
I beseech you, peach,
clench me into the sweetness
of your reaches.

-Peter Davison

A few years back I featured this poem, thinking about the ripeness of its imagery, the words and rhythms that play in sound and rhyme and alliteration. What a funny kind of tribute in poetry, to "break the rules" so to speak. To let loose with jubilant, mouthwatering WORDS.

This poem is a delight to read, to speak aloud, to chisel out slim tickles of visual context and meaning. Peaches, a humorous ode to the inside-out of adjectives. And then the poet's own elegant rebuttal. Choices of descriptions that are sensual, true, and robust. Do these words fail or surpass? Surely Davison amuses us with his riddle of the peach, asking "What is?" in syllables that roll around and off the tongue - of the peach, but not the peach. And then, finally, just the peach.

Aren't words grand? As worthy of love as the stories they tell?

I invite you to think about what speaks to you in rhyme or prose, in image or sound, maybe the majesty of nature, a raw and roughhewn power. Is there a particular landscape you cannot get enough of? A melody or instrumental that is a whole world to you when you listen? Give thought to your favorite pleasures and memories and why they remain important and significant to you. Many of them include the building blocks of language. Without words, the more subtle and puzzling elements of life might elude us. In word, music, and imagery, we play with the strange experience life is.

For me, more than the eloquent silences and harmonies of nature, the music lies in language. Stories are organic to life lived and imagined - made of peaches and fires and galaxies, horses pounding through dust over a distant plain. Somewhere, long ago, it was no longer enough to merely watch the prairie lightning, it must be painted on the rocks. Human experience has been described in song, stories of the people's exodus, added to the lore of the Great Hunt. Words...palaces of time.

Celebrate the landscapes you love. The music that lifts your heart. The friendships that gift ordinary life with love and loving. Open your favorite book and delve into starfish, stairways, deserts, balls of lava, poisoned cake, Cossacks and Caribbean nights, the myths of Rome, plots of Shakespeare, three geese crossing a midnight moon... Enjoy a mouthful of experience!

The Bread And The Knife

March 26, 2015

Tags: art and creation, intention, presence, patterns, solitude, finding joy

LITANY
You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...
-Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.

-Billy Collins

This poem describes for me the difficulty and largesse of expressing any part of the beauty and strangeness of my recent sojourn throughout Umbria and Tuscany. My mind is full of imagery - the vermillion and azure of old paints, faded tapestries, and the many textures of stone. How do I describe the oblique translucence of light glancing off marble, the brick of Tuscany? Why the color Siena exists? North of the battered, worn and rounded, once rugged seven hills of Rome, are even more undulating hills. Steep cliffs; and rugged hollows of trees not yet leafed in March although limned in twining ivy. Glacial streams tumble down pebbled washes from the Apennine Mountains.

Everything about Italy is rich with human presence. From crumbling hilltop castle towers to fallow vineyards. The story of mankind plays out like paused chess games throughout hushed galleries. Etruscan graveyards, the battles of Goths and Romans, Hannibal at the Arno. Pagans and Christians, temples and duomos. The ghosts of a great empire cast a shadow across all that is Italy today.

Some impressions:
The racket of the cities. Motorbikes and careening cars contrast with the utter quiet of the countryside. Deep in narrow alleys the unexpected pocket of sun. A fountain in a roundabout. A square of open air tavernas, noisy with soccer fans.

The light, anywhere in Italy. Clear, warm, piercing; yet capable of melodrama, mystery, an interior color.

The variegations of marble, sandstone, limestone, and clay. The way a thousand-year-old marble parquet floor possesses a dull patina, scuffed from the hundreds of thousands of shoe soles that have crossed its surface.

Appreciation of the ideal: in particular the human form. The frank sexuality of the nude. The extraordinary curated collections. The power of the clergy in which they reside.

The art of symbolic storytelling expressed by a scene in paint. Before the book, before the photograph, before the film, we absorbed myth and history through painters and weavers and carvers of stone.

The importance of wealth to the existence of art, and to the development of science. Of patronage and philanthropy. Art as a luxury. Advancements in science driven by upper-class curiosity. The artist as both genius and bridge builder.

That art mattered so much to citizens it was often walled up in homes to hide it from invading forces.

The cross-fertilization and seeding of cultures through conquest and assimilation.

The difference in the way an Italian tomato tastes. The indigenous virtue of a Brunello, and the goodness of Italian cuisine, without pretense or artifice.

The way Italians eat together. Conversation, sharing, laughter, and debate - lingering at the table long after the meal is done.

Old ruins left exposed to erosion (and human appreciation) in the shadow of modern office buildings. The ancient and the modern in unending dialogue.

The severity of religion, and the counter-rise of the cult of the merciful. The gains and losses in cultural advancement within the ebb and tide of religion's influence across nations.

The idea of an ancient architect - using a sharp, pointed instrument - calculating measurements and designs on a stone "map" for a planned Temple to Jupiter. The fact that stone map survived the millennia.

The way Italians feel English is a polite language, but one should fight in Italian. That having a Prime Minister convicted of running a prostitution ring and graft is terrible, but not so much so that one would organize and act to change it.

That one's primary school compatriots will still live in the same village as their grandparents when they themselves become grandparents.

Why the northerners disdain the southerners. Why southerners immigrate more than northerners and recreate new Italy's wherever they go.

That all Italians believe that if you are to do a thing well, then it should appear magnificent in accordance with its excellence. Mussolini struck at the heart of Italian pride and morality dismantling of the beauty of Italy. Fashion is as much in the tradition of Michelangelo as The Vatican is the symbol of modern Christian Rome.

Italians love color. And flavor, fur and jewels, and fast cars. They adore and protect small children, gather for family meals, and love the cinema.

I rest with this last observation: Italy is a broad palette of human desires and passion. A cultural and historical record. A human point in time of all time that expresses an unparalleled creative genius, the fierce imperial, and the omnipotence of the political church. The footsteps of western humanity cross the threshold of Rome.

You might try the thin-crust pizza.

Emerge On The Page

March 4, 2015

Tags: art and creation, intention, faith, presence, solitude, finding joy

Swan on Lake Luzern, Switzerland
It requires faith in the process. The imagination has its own coherence. Our first draft will lead us. There's always time for thinking and shaping and restructuring later, after we've allowed something previously hidden to emerge on the page.
- Dani Shapiro, "Still Writing"

FATHER'S OLD BLUE CARDIGAN

Now it hangs on the back of the kitchen chair
where I always sit, as it did
on the back of the kitchen chair where he always sat.

I put it on whenever I come in,
as he did, stamping
the snow from his boots.

I put it on and sit in the dark.
He would not have done this.
Coldness comes paring down from the monotone in the sky.

His laws were a secret.
But I remember the moment at which I knew
he was going mad inside his laws.

He was standing at the turn of the driveway when I arrived.
He had on the blue cardigan with the buttons done all the way up to the top.
Not only because it was a hot July afternoon

but the look on his face--
as a small child who has been dressed by some aunt early in the morning
for a long trip

on cold trains and windy platforms
will sit very straight at the edge of his seat
while the shadows like long fingers

over the haystacks that sweep past
keep shocking him
because he is riding backwards.

- Anne Carson, from "Men In The Off Hours"

I chose these two things to share on the blog today because one quote is about the process of bringing our thoughts to the page - of trusting in the machinery of reflection and distillation - and the other a poem reflecting on the loss of the familiar from our thoughts.

Carson's poem is a beautiful example of the kind of poetry I feel lies within all of us. A cherished memory - Carson's father wearing his familiar blue cardigan - becomes a poem mourning abandonment by memory. Carson's observations open inward as if they were nesting dolls: the poem's primary theme of beloved familiarity is nested within yet another, more subtle theme of human connection. The poem begins with a simple blue cardigan, but as Carson lifts the layers of complexity in the memory she has of her father and this sweater, she reveals that within the beloved comfort of the personal keepsake is the memory of her father losing his memory. And in the process, the ties to his daughter.

Writing depends, as Dani Shapiro observes, on the pliable plasticity of memory. The ways we move within time as it exists in our minds to weave a narrative, a history. What is a line of poetry or a sentence of story but the distillation of the many "then and nows" of awareness ? When we describe an experience, examine something we have learned, we engage in a focused effort to scrap away reaction to reveal insight. We have faith our mental archive, our memory, holds the thread intact of all that was and is. When the thread begins to fray, or inexplicably breaks, we exist removed from our own narratives, lost and startled by all we do not recognize. "Riding backwards," as Carson describes her father. The shadows of time flying past us in the opposite direction.

I invite you to think of a "blue cardigan" in your life... an object that represents an embedded relationship or relationship of memories important to you. Create a mental picture, a poem, or perhaps a paragraph of memories connected to that object. What you feel is more than a memory. It is you.

Time, Next

February 24, 2015

Tags: art and creation, intention, presence, patterns


THE NEXT TIME
BY Mark Strand

Nobody sees it happening, but the architecture of our time
Is becoming the architecture of the next time. And the dazzle

Of light upon the waters is as nothing beside the changes
Wrought therein, just as our waywardness means

Nothing against the steady pull of things over the edge.
Nobody can stop the flow, but nobody can start it either.

Time slips by; our sorrows do not turn into poems,
And what is invisible stays that way. Desire has fled,

Leaving only a trace of perfume in its wake,
And so many people we loved have gone,

And no voice comes from outer space, from the folds
Of dust and carpets of wind to tell us that this

Is the way it was meant to happen, that if we only knew
How long the ruins would last we would never complain.


Thre is something deeply wise and thought provoking about this poem. The poet, Mark Stand, has taken the familiar idea of time and its passage and said something interesting about passage itself. We know time is transition, a flow of moments here and gone, rinse and repeat. Yes, we think of time as dynamic. But do we think of it as an architecture, a ghost? I am intrigued by the way Strand envisions time as the inexorable tumble of what was into what is. That "then and now" coexist ever so briefly before what was is no more. This is a poem of moments. A poem that says be now, let go.

The last line of this poem is particularly poignant -
...if we only knew
how long the ruins would last we would never complain.


Measured hours lean into the next and the next. The architecture of time is beautiful - a vaulted hall. A long, columned esplanade forever heading into the distance. Strand writes of the pull - we cannot stop nor begin time's flow. The culmination of expired tomorrows. In time we abandon our monuments, let go our losses, release our loves. The ring of our footsteps swallowed in silence.

A trace of perfume. How long the ruins last.