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QUINTESSENCE

Poetic Drama


It is a function of all art to give us some perception of an order in life, by imposing an order upon it. The painter works by selection, combination, and emphasis among the elements of the visible world; the musicians, in the world of sound. It seems to me that beyond the nameable, classifiable emotions and motives of our conscious life when directed toward action - the part of life which prose drama is wholly adequate to express - there is a fringe of indefinite extent, of feeling which we can only detect, so to speak, out of the corner of the eye and can never completely focus; of feeling of which we are only aware in a kind of temporary detachment from action. There are great prose dramatists - such as Ibsen and Chekhov - who have at times done things of which I would not otherwise have supposed prose to be capable, but who seem to me, despite their success, to have been hampered in expression by writing in prose. This peculiar range of sensibility can be expressed by dramatic poetry, at its moments of greatest intensity. At such moments, we touch the border of those feelings which only music can express. We can never emulate music, because to arrive at the condition of music would be an annihilation of dramatic poetry. Nevertheless, I have before my eyes a kind of mirage of the perfection of verse drama, which would be a design of human action and of words, such as to present at once the two aspects of dramatic and musical order. It seems to me that Shakespeare achieved this at least in certain scenes - even rather early, for there is the balcony scene of "Romeo and Juliet"- and that this was what he was striving toward in his late plays. To go as far in this direction as it is possible to go, without losing contact with the ordinary everyday world with which drama must come to terms, seems to me the proper aim of dramatic poetry. For it is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring to us a condition of serenity, stillness, and reconciliation; and then leave us, as Virgil left Dante, to proceed toward a region where that guide can avail us no further.
~ T. S. Eliot, POETRY AND DRAMA, The First Theodore Spencer Memorial Lecture, 1950

Here is the challenge with which drama must come to terms: To go as far as it is possible to go without losing contact with the ordinary everyday world. The meat of all art lies in that single sentence. Eliot defines a powerful philosophy of creative endeavor - "For it is ultimately the function of art, imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a condition of serenity..." And? And? Leave us. On the edge of an unfathomable abyss of the undefined; intuiting an understanding for which words fall short.

I am musing today on favorite works of art and music. Books I have read for which this alchemy of order-imposed-upon-mystery rings true. You must have them as well. This morning I am listening to a recording of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Is this the voice of poetry? Hear the secrets. The weighted crack of heartbreak - the single clear notes quivering in the air. I am lost in the farewell aria Addio Fiorito Asil. She is singing, "The boy's name is Trouble, but he will be renamed Joy upon his father's return..." And then I glance at my bookshelf and think of the description of winemaking in Anne Carson's prose poem, The Beauty of the Husband, that lays forth all of what she will say about love in one devastating sentence - "An ideal wine grape/is one that is easily crushed." Or of late, closing the book on Anthony Doerr's exquisite All the Light We Cannot See, "Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world."

The perception of an order in life: words and images, a nuance. A tangible thing composed, danced, hammered, sketched, or sung from the everyday ordinary. The world arranged for us in transcendent verse. Awareness gathered in a glance, from a tear drop, plucked from a tide pool abandoned by the sea. The hint of possibility.

If you can, take a moment. Study the way light falls across the stubbled field. Hear the wind worrying in the birch leaves. Speak aloud the words of a love letter. Follow a painting in, in through the artist's eyes. All that life is, actually is, lies at the edge of comprehension. There but not there: the lingering strands of a dream. Find your way. Seek the brave unknowing. As Virgil left Dante.


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Fast and Slow

North Sea at Sunset

There are times to work rapidly and times to go slowly. In the beginning one sets a fast pace, blocking it in, pushing the paint or clay around - large forms, areas of color. Later on in the work, one makes subtle refinement - details, smaller forms - the pace slows down and a meditative state takes over.

When all parts of the work start coming together, a renewed excitement is generated and builds until the harmony and balance of what you have been trying to accomplish work. You feel like a conductor bringing the full sound of an orchestra to its grand finale. You have reached the peak experience toward which all artists work. It is at these times you can see me back dancing, clogging, discoing, and Indian tribal dancing around my studio.

- "Art & Soul: Notes on Creating," Audrey Flack

I woke up with Scotland on my mind. The English and Scottish threads of my family heritage have always been happiest entwined, and so I personally hope these two countries stay united. But change is always difficult, and its value impossible to discern from that hundred foot balcony safe above the tumultuous zone. "Both feet in," my Dad used to say, right before he tossed us in the water to practice our swimming. He had something there. Nothing is worth a bean, half-assed. Right or wrong, what we commit to should at the very least have our whole-hearted engagement. Arm-chair quarterbacking the play can be saved for later. For now, are we in or not? Is what we are doing THIS VERY MOMENT receiving our full attention and effort?

This question relates to what Audrey Flack has to say about creating, in that life change - personal change - is akin to creative work of any kind: it comes fast and slow. There may initially be a pile on of ideas, a surge of wants and dissatisfactions, an itch to move on. We study the ground, and then build new framing. Slow, we layer thoughts in; translate our ideas into elements. Energy compounds. Integration. The momentum in our undertaking physically redefines the shape of our lives. Shift happens.

I am contemplating a large change in my own life: committing to an undertaking I am unable to really evaluate properly beforehand. I only sense this new direction needs to be explored; and even so, I may not accomplish what I set out to do. How does that make me feel? Wracked by doubt. Nervous as hell.

In the midlife years the rush of all that is passing - the essential zeroing out that is expiring time - reaches the level of continuous white background noise. In this noise floats a quiet question: Is this moment, this action, this decision, the right choice among all the possibilities for this one life I have to lead? When we are young we are growing, our real challenges yet to unfold. In the middle years - in the prime of adult capability and prowess and courage - what we let go, choose not to do, has as significant a weight in our happiness and fulfillment as what we do choose. We feel the truth: Now is when the most can and may be accomplished; and when a thing is let go, it will not circle by again. Poised on the edge of the diving board we curl and bend deep and then push off, rocket high into the air to execute - what? Choose, choose.

I've had some laughs at myself lately, making my way with all the sideways, suspicious scoot of a tidal crab into this sea of change. We forget that until our last breath, life is an adventure. Somewhere along the way we wobble into our ruts, dig ourselves in deeper, and eventually roll to a stop. Yet to begin is as simple as possessing the courage to want to. Whether we are speaking of Scotland and what may be an uncertain future, my writer's life the next few years, or any one of us, tomorrow, placing our hand on the doorknob of any door we both dread and need to open - be brave. Begin. Be slow. Let the harmony and balance of what you are endeavoring to create come gently, intentionally together. Let it be crazy. Open to the dance.

When you're in the studio painting, there are a lot of people in there with you. Your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics...and one by one, if you're really painting, they walk out. And if you're really painting, you walk out."
- Philip Guston
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Autumn Strikes A Bell


VARIATION ON A THEME BY RILKE
[The Book of Hours, Book I, Poem I, Stanza I]
by Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me - a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic - or was it I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew:
I can.

Time to revisit this beautiful poem by Denise Levertov. Autumn is my favorite season: afternoons of long golden light, the warmth of the earth slow to rise, seeking to linger. The sun bright and scraped of heat, days clear and crisp at the edges. September skies can be so hard a blue your gaze deflects, skitters away. White nimbus clouds pile into low banks of gray on their stately southern march.

This is a time of preparation, renewal, focus. The field mouse scurries to gather seeds, the squirrels are stuffing nuts in holes all about the yard. Overhead the geese are on wing and the small singing birds dart about building fat reserves, their songs set aside. Nature offers its harvest bounty and the creatures of the earth gather it in. Do we not also feel this gathering of energies, the tingle of change in our bones?

Levertov's poem so clearly speaks of wholeness, aliveness, presence. Easing from the months of warm summer into bleak winter signals something to our souls. We know this as the Monarch butterflies know now is the time to begin their journey to Mexico. We stretch. We shake off summer somnolence and look to the future. The new school year turns childhood forward a year, our days of rest and play behind us. We gather and tend and set aside. What is there yet to do? What is there that must be done? Autumn signals an accounting and an assessment, a refresh of goals and plans for our tomorrows yet to come.

Autumn strikes a bell that all may hear. If we listen, we hear the reverberations within ourselves. Gather the ripe September apples and take a bite of the tart goodness. What does the sound of your whole self ringing sing to you?

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Summer's End

Moonlight, Priest Lake, Idaho

POEM: JUST AS THE CALENDAR BEGAN TO SAY SUMMER
by Mary Oliver

I went out of the schoolhouse fast
and through the gardens and to the weeds,
and spent all summer forgetting what I'd been taught -

two times two, and diligence, and so forth,
how to be modest and useful, and how to succeed and so forth,
machines and oil and plastic and money and so forth.

By fall I had healed somewhat, but was summoned back
to the chalky rooms and the desks, to sit and remember

the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,
the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn't a penny in the
bank,
the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.


So here I am. Down from the mountains, down from the blue lake, seated once again at my desk in my study of wood and dog-eared books, baskets and pottery and black and white photographs of wild and beautiful places. I am of the two places; and of two minds about where I belong. Needless to say the contrast between each place enhances the beauties of the other. They beckon when missed.

I learned much on my digital-free retreat. A cup of tea on the deck first thing in the morning as a gold sunrise steams mist off the lake is about as close to heaven as this girl can get. Or perhaps that last tumbler of scotch, underneath the maypole dance of twilight bats as stars debut in the indigo night. And how well one sleeps after fourteen days straight of mountain hikes and simple meals! How perfect to wile away an afternoon on the edge of the dock, legs dangling in cool water as the sun heats your back, a book open on your lap, gazing on distant islands.

I learned that disconnecting from all things digital is as jittery a process as breaking away from caffeine. Online business, friendships, news, happenings...these are real and important, and yet not and not at all. I was hungry to know, and out of the loop, feelings that sit like an itch in the brain. In my two weeks offline, the world spun neither better nor worse for my absence.The cohorts of the Today Show and CNN held up daytime civilization as always, as Atlas must have done, unthanked and unseen. Publishing seemed to bring out more good books and still bemoan the end of print. Celebrities had pictures become public that maybe shouldn't have been pictures to begin with and the rage goes on about "the cloud" and secrets and idiocy and ignorance and meanness. Democracy got beat up pretty bad in my absence however, especially the right to a free and open press. Weeds took over my back yard, but then that was always their master plan. It took two books (Provence 1970 by Luke Barr, and the incandescent All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr) and the poetry of Campbell McGrath to free myself from tech anxiety. This real-time feed we imbibe daily, all urgency and immediacy and shock packaged as "Breaking News,""Breaking Update." An endless media headline crawl of tragedy and scandal.

I learned that intending to be digital-free and being given NO CHOICE about it is a quite different power struggle for the ego. Near the Canadian border it was quite a hike out to find a bar of cell reception: wifi the random echo of a fishing lodge. Initially my frustration yielded to hard surrender, which finally softened to acceptance. A funny thing began to occur - conversation. In pleasant pockets around comfortable silences. Balance in the mind's inner ear. Conversation with strangers opened up as real news, big news, found its way into boat-side conversations and shared newspapers, headlines two days old. The world could be perceived with sense and clarity. Not only was unimportant hype and hyperbole scrubbed out of the day, but real nuggets of importance stood out and meant something. Information that could be taken in and thought about, perhaps resolved - truly absorbed.

I'm no idealist. We live in a wired world and that's a one-way avenue in our technological evolution. There is no "back to Eden" pulpit beside the backpack I left hanging in the garage. But I do feel stepping back gives needed perspective, and for me, that was useful. I could see at a glance after two weeks disconnected the ways in which I waste my time with social media and google tourism and Twitter chat. But I also sifted the real and important relationships from the chat, value the abundance of knowledge at my fingertips, have proof the paper book is not dead (and vastly more lake friendly than its electronic doppleganger), and yes, "Dots" on the iPad is no better or worse than a bus station hand of solitaire. We choose our ways to work, our ways to play, our connections, our solitude. What two weeks in the mountains taught me was the difference between habit and choice. And that, is a good thing.
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