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QUINTESSENCE

Objects of Mystery

Prow of a Viking Ship, Norway
THE NOTEBOOK
by Mary Oliver

"Six a.m. -
the small, pond turtle
lifts its head
into the air
like a green toe.
What it sees
is the whole world
swirling back from darkness:
a red sun
rising over the water,
over the pines,
and the wind lifting,
and the water-striders heading out,
and the white lilies
opening their happy bodies.
The turtle
doesn't have a word for any of it -
the silky water
or the enormous blue morning,
or the curious affair of his own body.
On the shore
I'm so busy
scribbling and crossing out
I almost miss seeing him
paddle away
through the wet, black forest.
More and more the moments come to me:
how much can the right word do?
Now a few of the lilies
are a faint flamingo inside
their white hearts,
and there is still time
to let the last roses of the sunrise
float down
into my uplifted eyes."


I have been looking through old journals lately. On a mission to muck out my files, sort through my book shelves. Determined to pluck out unwanted books and notes, scribbles of ideas that never sparked any real writing... A surprising thing struck me in rereading a period of journals from around 1998-2001 - the mixture of notes, fragments of creative idea, the pen and pencil sketches. I was taken aback by the staleness of writing out of its own present context. The implacable boundaries time places on meaning. As Mary Oliver writes, "how much can the right word do?"

Instead I was drawn to the sketches I had made in the margins of my journals. Drawings of strangers in coffee shops, interesting hands, a peculiar face in a workshop. Some drawings were profiles, for example there were several of my daughter's cello teacher, and his centuries-old cello; all of them dashed off in ink on college-rule paper during a lesson. These sketches triggered a kind of memory muscle for me. Looking at a cello sketch, I remember sitting uncomfortably on the low sofa, the confines of the tiny practice room, the dim light from the drawn venetian blinds, the rustle of sheet music on the music stand, even the curious plastic wrap this old Jewish Russian refugee, who had once played in Leningrad with Rostropovich, had layered around the neck of his beautiful instrument to protect the wood from the sweat of his hands and forearms.

There was no "right word" I had used in my notebook to describe these scenes or events; instead I had made a drawing imbued with shape, mood, unusual detail. I was seeing the thing or person before me, and seeing completely; translating everything imperfectly but somehow accurate to its essence. All too often as writers we glance, and then look away to think. Looking for le mot juste, the perfect word; and in doing so, step away from the experience, and perhaps abandon our own innate presence in the moment.

Mary Oliver's turtle sees the morning rise around him, registers the universe with simple awareness. The poet knows her thoughts about this exchange are somehow stealing her from her own experience. She notes this distance, this distraction, and returns her thoughts to observing, to awareness without translation. A meditation on essence not story.

As I work my way through these old writings, I find myself keeping the pages with sketches and half-lines of poems; the penciled scenes from travels with my husband and children. All of us were keepers of travel notebooks then. We stayed in place; taking all the generous, unhurried time required to sketch something of what we saw. I was reminded of this pleasure on a recent trip to Scandinavia. There was a gentleman with our group, a painting conservator from a major museum, who did not dash off frenzied smartphone shots of ancient ruins and excavated pottery. He stepped aside as we hiked, opened his sketch book and freehanded a perspective, employing a few strong lines and shading to capture the heart of the object, the mood of the light. And then he moved on. His notebook of sketches a sensual, visual encounter with objects of mystery: the passage of time expressed in fallen stones, abandoned boats on the sand, whalebone, a rune obscured by moss. Looking over his shoulder I remembered my own experience of each of these places and objects. Our careless camera pictures offered neatly neutral two-dimensional replicas; these thoughtful sketches were experiences.

My first husband Ken, who was a black and white photographer, used to say that the reason a photographer lifts a camera is not in order to preserve what he sees, or to interpret the object his lens is focused on. The photographer photographs to see. The photographer does not step outside the experience to think through how to describe it; he steps into it and lets it speak for itself. The photographer encounters the material world as it is, shaped only by his own aesthetic, the light, and perhaps the accidental intrusion of the equipment or the development environment. There are zero expectations, only unexpressed truths. Through the lens, camera steady in his hand, the photographer addresses those elements he knows to be frank, honest. Only later in the darkroom, in its chemical bath, does the image knit itself whole. And so I think it is that these sketch notebooks carry more meaning for me than just my written notes. I am not stepping away from the experience to more meaningfully capture it in sentences and story; I am stepping into it to imprint what is there on paper, as it is.

But like our poet, who has made a poem of her observations on the failures of observation and still managed to convey what essence is lost in translation, the notebooks I will keep will most definitely offer stories. Creative writing may be impressionist, subjective, symbolic, abstract - all these things. Narratives knotted together by insight and imagination. But first comes simply being present.

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Postcard of Marvels

Cottage, Faroe Islands, North Sea.
ORIENT
by Billy Collins

You are turning me
like someone turning a globe in her hand,
and yes, I have another side
like a China no one,
not even me, has ever seen.

So describe to me what's there,
say what you are looking at
and I will close my eyes
so I can see it too,
the oxcarts and all the lively flags.

I love the sound of your voice
like a little saxophone
telling me what I could never know
unless I dug a hole all the way down
through the core of my self.


Why do we read poetry? Because a poem tells us something about ourselves or the world that we sense to be true but have not found or known to express. A poem is a gift of language. Someone hands us a poem to read, and as the words settle into our brains and senses, the poetry transforms our understanding. New language. Language that carries the odors and tastes of tinny regret, shining cities, old earth, briny sea, hot love, or wet winds. Poetry gives us a way to speak about the world beyond the limitations of our native tongue.

This small poem ORIENT by Billy Collins is both a nugget of insight and a love note. I appreciate the way Billy Collins spins the word "orient" in his poem, a double entendre. He speaks of mysterious Asia, from where he stands a distant land, and yet the meaning delves inward, invoking the distances traveled toward deeper self-knowledge, "down through the core of my self." This poem offers an appreciation of the other - for that fresh truth, that unknown knowledge of the self found in the eyes of our familiars. His friend, lover perhaps, turns him like "a globe in her hand," examining the hidden side, the shadowed side. Digging straight through to China as we used to say as kids, hand-shovels churning the beach in search of treasure.

All too frequently we undervalue what we cannot see, dismiss aspects of ourselves reflected in the observations of others. And we sometimes undervalue those who know us this well; those who see us intimately, honestly. We possess strange mysteries within us, as Collins imagines - foreign lands, stranger times, exotic ways. Those who love us know these secret festivals. Those who love us best celebrate our mystery, "telling me what I could never know." For it will always and forever be true that each of us sees the world and our selves from inside the room, looking out on what is not us, while our beloved "other" observes us from beyond those limits, watches us from the street, peeking in our windows. We are voyeurs to one another always, and this is both why and how we love. We color in our private invisible and faraway lands from the brightly-colored postcards and humorous travel notes our lovers post on their journeys beside us, hearing ourselves in their words, "voice like a little saxophone."

It's a good day to tell someone you are close to, Thank you for the way you see me. And maybe an opportunity to send a postcard of marvels of your own.

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On This Day, Catcher

Published sixty-two years ago today, July 16, 1951, J.D. Salinger penned a novel about a rebellious teenage boy dismissed from prep school, drifting through Manhattan. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE is today a 20th-century classic, a story that has been translated into nearly every major languages. As a personal fan of Salinger, and to celebrate the 52nd anniversary of "The Catcher in the Rye," I offer a small tribute with a few of my favorite "Catcher" quotes.

"What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though."
- Holden Caulfield reflecting on his favorite authors, among them Isak Dinesen and Thomas Hardy. Interesting, in that as an author, Salinger was a famous recluse.

"Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game, all right – I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game."
– Holden's response to his headmaster's remark, "life is a game." A telling glimpse of the raw, blunt yet witty rebelliousness Holden displays to the given "rules of life." Young readers readily connect with the novel's undercurrents of teenage angst.

"A lot of people, especially this one psychoanalyst guy they have here, keeps asking me if I'm going to apply myself when I go back to school next September. It's such a stupid question, in my opinion. I mean how do you know what you're going to do till you do it?"
– Holden speaks his piece as a patient in the sanitarium he alludes to at the end of the novel and from which he relates his story as he contemplates a return to school the following term.

"The mark of an immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one."
– Holden Caulfield's former English teacher, Mr. Antolini, cites the poet and psychoanalyst Wilhelm Steckel in a late night discussion with Holden - words at odds with Holden's rebellious distrust, his idea of becoming a "catcher in the rye," symbolically saving children from the evils of adulthood by showing the virtues and freedoms of nonconformity.

CATCHER IN THE RYE subtly explores complex issues of identity, belonging, connection, and alienation. In the process of unburdening himself of his story, Holden Caulfield discovers the contradictions and surprises of his own experience. Thrown out of one world and not yet mature enough for the other, Holden crashes over the boundaries of teen and adult society, rejecting structure, misinterpreting freedoms, discovering things are not as he assumed. His taste of "unfettered life" plummets Holden into dizzying paradoxical misadventures. He is curious and baffled by the inconsistencies in what moves him, what he misinterprets about school and adult behavior, by the complexities of meshing his insecurities with his ambitions. By the end of "Catcher," Holden doesn't want to continue with his tale as he discovers he misses two of his former classmates, Stradlater and Ackley. He even misses the pimp Maurice, who hit him. He warns the reader that telling others about personal experiences will lead to missing the people who shared them.

This anniversary of "The Catcher in the Rye" marks a perfect time to pick up Joanna Rakoff's "My Salinger Year," reviewed last month on this blog. And if like the young Joanna of her memoir, you aren't familiar with the books of J. D. Salinger, check them out. See where the stories take you. Happy anniversary, "Catcher."

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Pure Anthropology

Viking settlement ruins, Skara Brae, Orkney Island

Mesa Verde, Colorado
Life is point on a journey, it seems generally agreed. Between the apriorities howl strong winds. Yet the traveler, once in a long while, comes to a place he is sure, without a doubt in his mind, never having seen it before, is the one he was seeking. He enters. At first everything inside is so saturated with strangeness it is hard to breathe - but look now: already it is drying in from the edges like rainwater in the March wind and he will in fact never be able to recover that blankness in which he saw it first, the surgery of first look. That moment of pure anthropology.

- "The Anthropology of Water," from Plainwater, Essays and Poetry, Anne Carson

I am moving back into writing mode again, after a hiatus readying my last novel for market and doing the work that lengthy process entails. [Mostly the kind of promotional writing every writer likes least: casting a book synopsis and an updated bio, gathering blurbs and past reviews.] Now it is time to begin a new book. I am crackling like a live wire with anticipation. The pleasurable part of writing comes at the beginning and at the end of the work. The beginning of the process is, as Anne Carson describes so beautifully above, rooted in the impressionable "first look." One glimpse of a nascent essay or novel, the unannounced narrative flickering like film behind your eyelids. This chimera gels in the attic of your brain, awake and dreaming; sentences and details and dialogue leak onto the kitchen counter, slide across the dash of the car, stick like gum every place your thoughts find you until - at last! - you sit down and begin to write it. Beginnings are a whirl of seduction and false leads, doggedness and free-fall. They are stunning.

The ending of the process arrives in a concrete way. Ending a writing project brings the pleasure of completion. The idea has become dimensional. The outline colored in, the paper doll stands in her paper attire, ready to take the stage in a reader's imagination. You plucked your story out of the vault of heaven and scribed it to terra firma. Savor it. The thing you have made.

How do we find the catalyst of successful creative beginnings? Exploration. In the surgery of first look. That moment of pure anthropology. What stays.

Carson, in her inimitable way, deftly defines for us "unexpected awareness": the moment shift occurs. Our minds imprint the essence of a thing, opening to simultaneous impressions and intuition. Who are you? Where is this place? What is this thing? Can I? Should I? Why? We respond to the authentic power of origins, the genuineness of difference, the curiosity of strangeness, the poetry of reflection. Encounter the unfamiliar.

Invite in creativity with a clean look: a moment of unfiltered, pure anthropology. Let ideas rise, untouched, give voice. Our best work is seeded in that first awareness. How we shape this creative genesis or craft the work is less important than giving this moment its full due. Let the unfamiliar present itself without judgment or expectation. If surprised, it will be for good reasons. If deeply familiar, create room. Hope for the indescribably new. There we begin.

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Hearts and Boxes

THE LITERARY LIFE
by Billy Collins

I woke up this morning,
as the blues singers like to boast,
and the first thing to enter my mind,
as the dog was licking my face, was Coventry Patmore.

Who
was Coventry Patmore?
I wondered, as I rose
and set out on my journey to the encyclopedia
passing some children and a bottle cap on the way.

Everything seemed more life-size than usual.
Light in the shape of windows
hung on the walls next to the paintings
of birds and horses, flowers and fish.

Coventry Patmore,
I'm coming to get you, I hissed,
as I entered the library like a man stepping
into a freight elevator of science and wisdom.

How many things have I looked up
in a lifetime of looking things up?
I wondered, as I set the book on the piano
and began turning its large, weightless pages.

How would the world look
if all of its things were neatly arranged
in alphabetical order? I wondered,
as I found the
P section and began zeroing in.

How long before I would forget Coventry Patmore's
dates and the title of his long poem
on the sanctity of married love?
I asked myself as I closed the door to that room

and stood for a moment in the kitchen,
taking in the silvery toaster, the bowl of lemons,
and the white cat, looking as if
he had just finished his autobiography.


This poem spoke to me this morning for the simple reason I, too, woke up with an odd question occupying my mind. Not about a poet, but about the boundaries of autonomy. Is it possible, I wondered, for independence (the state of being independent) to nest in dependence or codependence, like so many Russian nesting dolls that symbolize the various degrees of autonomy and community? When we speak of personal independence do we mean the standard dictionary meaning - "freedom from the control, influence, support, aid, or the like of others" - or sweep all that definition of the body-politic and more into a proclamation of self-thinking? A cultural salute to the "solitary intelligence"?

The world itself is a loosely-stitched global quilt of independencies and co-dependencies, and intermingled, shifting national states between the two. Hearts and boxes. In some ways happily delineated, organized, and in others roughly folded, crunched at the corners. In my house for the next twelve weeks we will practice our own independent-comingling as my daughter, a third year medical student, takes up her old room, now guest room, for a brief set of clinical rotations at nearby hospitals, all part of her required medical training. I am beyond thrilled. It is a gift to have her home. It is also my challenge to respect and observe the shift in borders in the shadow of the old. Is she wary behind that easy smile? Does she wonder if her sturdy independence will wobble as she takes up her old seat at the family dinner table? Will she miss her personal space and newly adult world, however short the time home or respectful the daily routine? I suspect so. I would. But we love time together, and this can be an opportunity to invent a new degree of "us."

The sun this morning seems more brilliant in her presence, the kitchen tomatoes red and ripe in the bowl. The sauvignon blanc I pour for the two of us as we share the wide rocker and discuss the day under the shade of the cherry tree, ever more sweet and satisfying on the tongue. Here's to Independence, my friends. Of whatever varietal you celebrate this weekend, personal or national. It's all good.

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