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QUINTESSENCE

Carried You Everywhere


Today I remember an extraordinary poet, Galway Kinnell. This Irish-American poet's work was awarded both a Pulitzer (for "Selected Poems," 1983) and an American Book Award. An ardent individualist, Kinnell stood apart from his peers and the literary influences of the Twentieth century. He immersed himself in the gritty issues of his day and was a passionate advocate for freedom of expression. A poet of almost photographic sensitivity, his words pulse with an exuberant love of language, a lyrical style distinctly his own and possessing a rare and gorgeous musicality.

 

RUINS UNDER THE STARS
by Galway Kinnell


1

All day under acrobat
Swallows I have sat, beside ruins
Of a plank house sunk to its windows
In burdock and raspberry canes,
The roof dropped, the foundation broken in,
Nothing left perfect but the axe-marks on the beams.

A paper in a cupboard talks about "Mugwumps",
In a V-letter a farmboy in the Marines has "tasted battle…"
The apples are pure acid on the tangle of boughs
The pasture has gone to popple and bush.
Here on this perch of ruins
I listen for the crunch of the porcupines.

 

 2

Overhead the skull-hill rises
Crossed on top by the stunted apple.
Infinitely beyond it, older than love or guilt,
Lie the stars ready to jump and sprinkle out of space.

Every night under the millions of stars
An owl dies or a snake sloughs its skin,
But what if a man feels the dark
Homesickness for the inconceivable realm?

 

 3

Sometimes I see them,
The south-going Canada geese,
At evening, coming down
In pink light, over the pond, in great,
Loose, always dissolving V's-
I go out into the field,
Amazed and moved, and listen
To the cold, lonely yelping
Of those tranced bodies in the sky,
Until I feel on the point
Of breaking to a sacred, bloodier speech.

 

 4

This morning I watched
Milton Norway's sky blue Ford
Dragging its ass down the dirt road
On the other side of the valley.

Later, off in the woods, I heard
A chainsaw agonizing across the top of some stump
A while ago the tracks of a little, snowy,
SAC bomber went crawling across heaven.

What of that little hairstreak
That was flopping and batting about
Deep in the goldenrod,
Did she not know, either, where she was going?

 

 5

Just now I had a funny sensation

As if some angel, or winged star,
Had been perched nearby watching, maybe speaking,
I whirled, and in the chokecherry bush
There was a twig just ceasing to tremble.

Now the bats come spelling the swallows,
In the smoking heap of old antiques
The porcupine-crackle starts up again,
The bone-saw, the pure music of our sphere,
And up there the old stars rustling and whispering.

 

 

The imperceptible balance of image with emotion. Never too much, always exactly enough. Poet, translator, essayist, teacher. Galway Kinnell wrote about life, death, and the fragility of beauty. His obituary in the New York Times (October 29, 2014) concluded, "Through it all, he held that it was the job of poets to bear witness," ending on these words of the poet, ''To me,' he said, 'poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.'"

 

I invite you to explore the wrok of the late Galway Kinnell. To close, from "Trust the Hours (Wait)":

 

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven't they
carried you everywhere, up to now?

 

 

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The Last Flower

 

The last flower has opened on the stem,

the first two mostly done by now: call home.

 

I slipped my skin

walked off & left myself & left

 

feeling the first snow of the season falling

cold on my face running to catch that downtown bus leving

 

my life behind & abandoned my whole self, was I

a colt or a fresh coal afire with each chain of nerve

 

alive naked & loving the feeling of feeling

my heart beating feeling my blood too feeling

 

- Lightsey Darst, from "Thousands"

 

 

Lightsey Darst's quiet revolutionary poems, THOUSANDS, are written in journal form, in a notation of private thought that rages across the page. The above poem is taken from "Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2012."  A mysterious shift of awareness powers Darst's poem. I am drawn by the element of recovery. As though the shape of some unvoiced loss has only just revealed itself. The line "I walked off & left myself & left" traces the poet's slip from the familiar into the unexpected. Chasing her bus, a first cold snow swirling in her face, Darst surroundings dissolve on a wave of raw sensation. A transformation of presence. As if tasting a bite of watermelon we remember a summer in Kansas, a particular garden bothered by horseflies and dust. 

 

The daily self has met the deeper dreamer. 

 

I thought of this poem today and that opening, The last flower..., noting an unmistakable mark of fall color, of rust, crimson, and dry brown, in the wilderness foliage. Trees standing silent in a stagnant haze of wildfire smoke and heat. No breeze rustles the leaves, there is no murmur of birdsong or insect life. It has been a difficult, burning summer in the Northwest. Yet the turn toward a changing season is unmistakable here. The downshift. Letting go after a fierce season of difficult growth. This transition in seasons feels equally personal. As though I, too, will turn a corner. That I will have "left myself & left," rediscovering what is lost as though new again, experience what is hidden as seen.

 

Autumn can be a rest or a beginning. Perhaps both.

I am ready for my heart beating feeling my blood too feeling. Aren't you?

 

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The Slow Hours

 

MONDAY MORNING, LATE SUMMER
On the fence
in the sunlight,
beach towels.

No wind.

The apricots have ripened
and been picked.
The blackberries have ripened
and been picked.


- Robert Hass, from the poem "Cuttings"

 

I've been looking back at posts about writing and creativity, living and making meaningful choices. Have I done the things I said I would, made the changes I want, pursued priorities that matter? Sometimes. Admittedly, not always. There are days it is struggle enough to want to slow the busyness, savor the quiet moments. How hard in this modern world to make space for clarity, for peace of mind amidst the nonstop pings, alerts, and alarms that surround our work/life schedules. We live task to task, crisis to crisis. Have we forgotten how to slow the hours?

 

Summer gives us the long, hot day. The ripening of the fruit on the trees and the grain in the earth. Nothing happens in summertime that happens in a hurry. The baking heat and light-filled days are a tutorial in slowing the hours. An invitation to open to the quiet ripening in our own complicated lives. A pause to welcome the simple. To celebrate joy in singular moments.

 

Summer is nature's reminder to follow our instincts toward the life well-lived. All of us have that place, person, or time of day, where the spinning world slows, life opens, and we experience deep happiness. Where will you be in these last weeks of bright golden light? I am headed north to the remote quiet shores of the lake once again. You will find me on the deck at sunset, feet propped on the rail. Scotch in hand, I will end each day in rhythm with the hours as the evening star rises over the lake, bright against the rose-colored Selkirk Mountains. I will toast you, wherever your slow has taken you.

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Wings

 

WINGS
I saw the heron
poise
like a branch of white petals
in the swamp,

in the mud that lies
like a glaze,
in the water
that swirls its pale panels

of reflected clouds;
I saw the heron shaking
its damp wings -
and then I felt

an explosion -
a pain -
also a happiness
I can hardly mention

as I slid free -
as I saw the world
through those yellow eyes -
as I stood like that, rippling,

under the mottled sky
of the evening
that was beginning to throw
its dense shadows.

No! said my heart, and drew back.
But my bones knew something wonderful
about the darkness-
and they thrashed in their cords,

they fought, they wanted
to lie down in that silky mash
of the swamp, the sooner
to fly.

~ Mary Oliver

There is something about the delicacy of the transitions from spring into early summer and then from summer into late fall that always remind me of the poetry of Mary Oliver. The way in which Oliver captures the voice and imprint of the unseen; the song of living things, the guardian silence of the skies. When I read this poem, it reminds me of my late husband Ken, who passed away in 2003. His presence still among us is the heron at the water's edge below the cliffs where he is buried. For a week after his death, a single gray heron waited there at the river's elbow, braced against the rushing waters. Still and tranquil, it watched us where we stood on the bluff above him, mute with grief. Eventually on the last day, as twilight fell to its deepest hue, our heron spread its feathered wings and rose into the sky. Lost in the dark.

All of us sing an unfamiliar song when it comes to life. We receive, we give. We perhaps only imperfectly hear the melody as we progress through the years. But how important it is that we celebrate life. Cherish family, love, the accomplishment of big dreams. The having of big dreams. The still moments though they become years. The translucent ice newly veined with cracks. The reflecting clouds. The trace of the past like the taste of cold water in an iron cup. The bloom, and the fossil. The liminal presence.

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A Memorial Day, Then and Now

 

And still it is not enough, to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the immense patience to wait till they are come again. For the memories themselves are still nothing. Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves - not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

I found myself reading back through old journals this week, thinking about Memorial Day. I stopped on one from seven years ago. Those of you who know me, know that I come from a long tradition of military service, and have many generations of family members, including my father, who lie in military cemeteries in the United States and around the world. Here is part of what I wrote in 2011:

My husband is buried above the wild and tumultuous Spokane River, downriver from the traintrestle bridges. Freight trains roll high above the river, making their way across the continental U.S. Great diesels haul palettes of stacked container goods and seemingly endless chains of barrel cars of crops, oil and chemicals, and the double-decker slatted stock cars. The cars sway down the tracks and then disappear from view through narrow granite cuts in the basalt mountains. We called them "wishing trains," because we'd whisper secret wishes crisscrossing the roads beneath them as they passed. My husband liked the idea that for all eternity he would lie beside the wide, wild Spokane River, in view of those industrious magical trains. Nature and commerce. Chaos and fortune. Our lives are ruled by them.

On this day, Memorial Day, breezes wave ribbons of color along narrow cemetery paths lined with the stars and stripes. Families, lost looks on their faces, clutch plot grids and wander the treed acres looking for their buried. The hands of little ones are tucked in the hands of grownups; in the little fists small flags or bunches of garden lilacs. America does not forget its loved ones. It does not forget its soldiers. Yet the numbers buried in the green shade seem to swell in a continuous sea of monuments. Already a newly engraved stone, a simple bench, stands next to my husband's. A nineteen year old boy, lost in Afghanistan. Someone's son, someone's brother. There are two flags flying in his honor, on the grass the gift of a baseball mitt.

Bending low, I place a flag in the ground the requisite distance (a boot length away) from my husband's marker. A Vietnam era Air Force veteran, he was proud of his service. I couldn't help but think of our own boy, now twenty, at the US Naval Academy, his life at a crux point as well. National service opens us to community beyond family. Opens us to our shared identity as American citizens. In the fall my daughter will run her first half-marathon for Team USO, proud of our soldiers, her brother, her father, and all those whose names she does not know. Those who came before her and follow her now, hands open and ready to do whatever work needs doing. Whether serving in the military, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the USO, or organizations like Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross, let us take a moment to thank the persons we meet giving of themselves to America and to the needs of the world.


In the time since I wrote this, my daughter has become a physician, committed to the well-being and needs of others. My son has become an electrical engineer, using science in the invention and service of technology and art. Their father still lies beside the murmuring river downriver from the rumbling trains. Time has passed, and things have changed. And yet, the families come to the cemetery this and every Memorial Day, bearing their tiny flags and garden flowers.

Let the poems of memories carry the day. Whomever it is you think of on this day, whomever it is you miss, I know you will find peace in the devotions of remembrance. I give you love.

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Herd Me Homewise

 

AMEN
by Ellen Dore Watson

I believe in trees. Sun-stunned,
forking, house ofshade and moan
and burning. I don't want a god who
bleeds, I want a shepherd to herd me
homewise, toward wood and stone
and making. Tomorrow is the place
we put what we're afraid of. Today,
lists. Give me a now where whispers
come bidden and unbidden, visions
follow. Give me belief not outward
but in -- I want what's waiting to out.


Here we are, one third into 2018. As promised, time to revisit my resolutions and see how I’ve fared implementing these changes to date.
Welcome to the New Year. I know all of us hope that 2018 will be kinder and more positive than its predecessor. It seems fair to simply state we know this not to be the case thus far. This morning the news is filled with distressing photographs of Guatemalan refugees held at our southern border with Mexico. The last weeks nothing but a Scrambler ride of government and White House scandal that make me wonder if, indeed, civility is dead. Or perhaps, abroad. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could tweak our routines more favorably toward both productivity and joy? Here’s to trying.

Let’s revisit my ten goals for 2018:
1. Back to paper journals
Returning to journaling and drafting book notes on paper has been relatively simple, and I can report, productive. Folding together my morning cup of tea with time at the kitchen table organizing the day has made my writing goals come together and also helped me to step back and find a mental center. I added a Lemome bullet journal specifically for mapping writing goals and progress, and am happy to report bullet journaling is as productive as those of you who use one told me it would be.

Slow down first drafts
The plan was to return to handwriting first drafts on yellow pads. The flexibility of a notepad has opened up many more writing opportunities in impromptu places (waiting on a delayed flight anyone?) and freed me from the usual outlet hunt. The process of later translating handwritten pages onto the computer has resulted in draft pages that feel stronger and more clarified, and help target the following sections of work.

2. Rethinking social media
Hello, Facebook, privacy anyone? Deleted my Facebook account (as I detailed here in an earlier post). I find Twitter and Instagram offer excellent outreach and connection. You are all so creative on Instagram! I think we connect more meaningfully than ever, honestly.

3. Self-attunement
Certainly the return of spring has made daily exercise an easier, more pleasurable outdoor pursuit, and after having read the nutritional, eye-opening fact-fest of “How Not to Die” by Dr. Michael Greger with Gene Stone, my commitment to a more thoughtful vegetarian diet has resulted in genuine better health. Cutting social media and television out of my late evenings in favor of reading has also been good for a solid night’s rest.

4. A “year without shopping”
Ann Patchett described her year without shopping (with the exception of books and a few requirements related to family life, her bookstore, and life as a writer) in her 2017 New York Times Op-Ed. I intend to use this maxim to reset my own expectations and habits. To strive to own or purchase only what, to quote Marie Kondo, “brings joy.” To date that has meant the purchase of books (of course), support for the arts (museum and all varieties of performance), cuisine (the pleasures of dining out), travel, etc.

6. The vegetable and me
The health pay-offs in terms of my annual medical labs and health have proven the value to me of a fruit and vegetable diet. Reducing alcohol intake, upping exercise—all the usual suspects, yes.

7. Books Read List
Time to get back to keeping an annotated list of books read each year. This has proved to be more of a challenge than anticipated. I discovered how many books I keep going and stashed in different places. One for travel, one by the bed, several in my study… Getting organized and finishing books and entering them into the list will require more focus. I'm on it!

8. Off the fence
Warren Buffet recently tweeted that “sometimes it’s necessary to unfollow people in real life.” Time to clean house (declutter emotionally) the obvious dysfunctional relationships in my life, and deal with fence-sitter issues. Initially tough, the aftereffect is a true tranquility. While a work in progress, I am taking steps to release the not-good and nourish the good.

9. Tech diet
So tired of life on screens! I gave away the iPad. I reduced my devices to my laptop and my smart phone. They “do it all” with minimal fuss and interconnected efficiency. I've freed the rest of my life for actual people and actual conversations, reading books (paper books) and listening to audible books on my phone while I exercise or travel.

10. Balance
The goal is to seek a wide range of input from books, film, television, music, live entertainment (concerts, dance, theater), museums, lectures, podcasts, etc., to achieve a satisfying balance of the best of culture and critical thought this life has to offer. Working on it!

I’d love to hear from you about things that you've changed, routines that work for you! Send me your comments here or on Twitter. Here's to more joy!

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Days in Goodness Spent

Gardens of Kyoto

 

SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling place.

And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent.

- Lord George Gordon Byron, 1780


I have always loved the opening lines of Lord Byron's poem. There is honest praise in the words, She walks in beauty. To walk within virtues both given and borrowed, appreciated by others, or rough-cut and unknown. Byron's poem celebrates an ideal, certainly. An ode to qualities pure and principled as the stars in the sky.

Romantic love is believed by many to be the opening toast of a lifelong dance. Like beauty, the first blush akin to bubbles of champagne that break on our tongues; a heady intoxication of light and delight. It is also the first step toward the tempered partnership. That which grows to become strong and steady, solid in its core. A union but not a transformation.

So here's to the blush and the confusion, the yearning and its bliss. Indeed the old poets are right. Let us not forget to dance. For within the heart's folly lie the seeds of a good life.
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All Things Made New

Ostia Antica
OF THE MUSE
by May Sarton

There is no poetry in lies,
But in crude honesty
There is hope for poetry.
For a long time now
I have been deprived of it
Because of pride,
Would not allow myself
The impossible.
Today, I have learned
That to become
A great, cracked,
Wide-open door
Into nowhere
Is wisdom.

When I was young,
I misunderstood
The Muse.
Now I am older and wiser,
I can be glad of her
As one is glad of the light.
We do not thank the light,
But rejoice in what we see
Because of it.
What I see today
Is the snow falling:
All things made new.


This poem by New England poet May Sarton stands as the final poem in her book, "Halfway to Silence." What I love about this poem is the poet's quiet sense of slipping through experience into a sense, as English writer Julian Barnes defined it, of an ending. Opening to wisdom. Aged, reflective, and questioning still, Sarton seeks an elusive muse. A bolder, nobler inspiration. Answers.

"Of the Muse" reveals a distilled personal truth from Sarton: that her lifelong art has not been the gift of inspired flights of stark originality but the gift of incidental moments of awareness. Found truth along life's most ordinary path. Leaning in is looking closer. "We do not thank the light,/ But rejoice in what we see/Because of it."

Truth, not appearance or form, defines meaning; unvarnished and unaltered. Whether one speaks of the heart or the earth, ambitions or sins, perceiving honestly is the beginning point. "There is no poetry in lies," Sarton writes. Listen in, the poet advises. Hear the tighter, deeper, stronger, resonating beat of experience. There is no mantra or magic. No easy hack for enhancing creativity or making a life.

There is only this: honest awareness. A raw truth. "But in crude honesty/There is hope for poetry." Can the essence of understanding be put more beautifully or simply? Sarton lays aside the ego and its masks. Only comprehend, she asks. See that which is before you. Bow to the pre-eminence of what lies in all things, and therein, find wonder.

To see the snow fall, all things made new.

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Against A Sure Winter

Ghost Ranch, New Mexico
WINTER TREES
by William Carlos Williams

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.


'Tis is the season of quiet. We slip deep into the heart of who and why and where we happen to be. This lovely small poem, like so much of Williams's work, frames nature in mideas res. In the midst of narrative, without preamble. In "Winter Trees," Williams sketches an orchard, emptied of fruit. Nature at her turning point in the cycle of do and done.

Activity and rest. We enter the deep cold months of waiting in stillness. The silver season of the "liquid moon."

I invite you into winter. Into the space between moments and years. The break among days, marked by small distances between stars. I invite you to the quiet and the stillness, to stand comfortably with me in this fallow space; in the geography that is love, both present and gone. As many of you know, the place others hold in our lives and the space our feelings occupy is important to me. I believe we find ourselves and welcome truth into consciousness in the pause between event and stillness. All life requires space to rest and regroup. People in particular need a pause to gather and consider, and most of all, breathe beauty. Breathe in the essence of the present.

Bone-white moments of clarity, fragile barrenness, lush extravagant joy, tenuous fulfillment. We take our experiences up even as plants absorb oxygen, slowly. We absorb living on the broad leaves of our soul. And with growth, even as the wise trees, we collect ourselves in stillness. An expanse of stillness.

Do we know where we stand as this year "disattires" of its days? I am not sure that I do, not yet anyway. The time is now, to stop and abide the hours. In the quiet comes the story of what has been, and what we hope will be. Barren branches fill with winter moon as we celebrate or lay to rest what has come before. Tomorrow seeps into awareness. Now, in the time to dream.

To all my readers - dear friends one and all - thank you for a rich and meaningful year. I am grateful we travel the stars together. See you in the new year.

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Wooden Palace

I don't think I am old yet, or done with growing. But my perspective has altered - I am less hungry for the busyness of the body, more interested in the tricks of the mind. I am gaining, also, a new affection for wood that is useless, that has been tossed out, that merely exists, quietly, wherever it has ended up. Planks on the beach rippled and salt-soaked. Pieces of piling, full of the tunnels of shipworm. In the woods, fallen branches of oak, of maple, of the dear, wind-worn pines. They lie on the ground and do nothing. They are travelers on the way to oblivion... Call it Rest. I sit on one of the branches. My idleness suits me. I am content. I have built my house. The blue butterflies, called azures, twinkle up from the secret place where they have been waiting. In their small blue dresses they float among the branches, they come close to me, one rests for a moment on my wrist. They do not recognize me as anything very different from this enfoldment of leaves, this wind-roarer, this wooden palace lying down, now, upon the earth, like anything heavy, and happy, and full of sunlight, and half-asleep.

- WINTER HOURS by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver's essays in "Winter Hours" contain thoughtful observations, detached and yet deeply intimate, marked by crisp, curious writings of what it means to grasp one's life whole. An organic, evolving theme. Oliver explores the ways human endeavor is a construct. A shelter for creative thought and action.

This idea of settling into one's life. Oliver stands before a cabin in the woods she has hand built. A private retreat she intends for writing but which over time has devolved into a little-used potting shed. She realizes she built the cabin not for work, for poetry, but for the sake of building. To construct something with her hands. The task completed, she lies in its humble shade among the blue butterflies, free to make use of it or not. It matters not at all. Her presence simply is, she tells us. A part of nature. Neither something proven or disproven in construct.

Oliver points out it is instinctive to examine life. To ponder what makes things work, what influences one thing to nurture another. The linking of ideas and experiences creates the future out of the past, and while we understand ourselves as part of the vast natural interchange of what lives and dies, we are still stricken by the secret wish to be beyond all that. Thus, we build, Oliver concludes. She adds wryly, "You can fool a lot of yourself but you can't fool the soul. That worrier."

To have built the house.

We voyage through our days lost in the work of working at life. As another year comes to its close, we take stock of our "constructs." Family, work, home, friendships. These complex symbols of the living we have done. Have we lived up to the soul's expectations? Have we lived strong and true, within the essential principles as nature would have them? Are there places we have followed the blueprints of a construct, not life?

Within ourselves is a potting shed in the woods. There we may rest "upon the earth like anything heavy, and happy, full of sunlight, and half asleep."

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