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QUINTESSENCE

IN THE CENTER OF IT


ONE LIFE TO LIVE
by Billy Collins

 

This is the only life I have, this one in my head,
the one that travels along the surface of my body
singing the low voltage song of the ego,

the one that feels like a ball between my ears
sometimes, and other times feels absolutely galactic,

the life that my feet carry around like two blind
scholars working together on a troublesome manuscript.

This is the only life I have, and I am standing
dead in the center of it like a man doing a rope trick
in a rodeo, passing the lasso over his body,
smiling inside a twirling of ovals and ellipses.

This is the only life I have and I never step out of it
except to follow a character down the alleys of a novel
or when love makes me want to remove my clothes
and sail classical records off a cliff.

Otherwise you can always find me within this hoop of
myself,
the rope flying around me, moving up to encircle my head
like the equator or a halo or a zero.


What a dazzling sketch of imagery. The mundane wrestling the extraordinary. What are we breaking, what are we taming? Our wants, our transgressions? Collins's poem breaks open a nugget of strange truth. To be human is both small and "absolutely galactic." Days and thoughts loop in continuous gyration. As if this one life were a tilting, dizzying ticket to ride.

 

We soon will end one year and begin another and I imagine that lasso tossed through time, whirling, whirling, circling over our heads. Is this the the year of mastery? Will the lasso sail around with ease? What is past is finished, and what is yet to come a thing of both hope and dream. 

 

I wish for you in this new year the deep belly joy of belting out your own song. Let life be that tune you hum in your head, the beat that carries you along. The sweet spot of this one life.

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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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Motions

Mosaic, Pompeii

 

How came ye muffled in so hush a masque?

- "Ode on Indolence," John Keats


Waiting coils inside her and licks and licks its paws.

I go through motions already made in another life [wrote the husband].
The room is cold. I must unpack. But not yet. Night is almost here.
Another one without I was going to say but that would be weak.
Another one.
I stand firmly on the foundation of the love I fashioned, yes, our love.
You will disagree. But look inside yourself. there you see a world
traveling silently through space. On it two specks. We are
indissoluble. Three minutes of reality! all I ever asked.

She stands looking out at rain on the roof.

 

 - from "The Beauty of the Husband," by Anne Carson

 

A good book plucks us from the present and lifts us from our preoccupations to chart navigation coordinates we've never flown before. A good book sits in our parlor like the most charming and giving of guests, discussing the world at length long after the last page. A good book is an all-night diner, our favorite people seated across from us, stirring coffee with a bent spoon, chin in hand, asking, "And after you decided to do that, then what?"

 

Anne Carson, in her book-length prose poem, THE BEAUTY OF THE HUSBAND, a fictional essay in 29 tangos, examines the philosophy that beauty is truth, an ideal made famous by John Keats in his 1815 poem, "Ode on a Grecian Urn." In his meditation on the perfection of an object, in this case an antique urn, Keats reframes the poet's traditional use of ekphrasis to redefine beauty. Beauty is more than an aesthetic ideal, Keats argues, it is a reflection of an object's inherent, authentic truth. The organic essence is the perfection. Carson twists the ideal of beauty yet again in the story of a marriage, THE BEAUTY OF THE HUSBAND. In this sharply observed telling, Carson employs a framework of "tangos" to chronicle the passionate back and forth of the couple as the prose sweeps through a concentric narrowing to the truth of the couple's marriage. Truth becomes personal, subjective, illusory, intimate. The relationship's beauty released in the telling. Beauty, like truth, we understand can be cruel. Transcendent. To quote the poet Masahide, Barn's burnt down. Now I can see the moon. 

 

A good book dwells within because it resonates. We have touched the edges of understandings we sense to be universal, eternal. Motions we have already made. A good book offers truth, sometimes beauty. Always a new way of seeing. "The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit." A sentence from ULYSSES by James Joyce and perhaps the most beautiful sentence in the English language. I gift it to you. Be overwhelmed.

 

 

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Good Enough

 

VARIATION ON A THEME BY RILKE
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 it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.


We try so hard to be perfect, we miss life. 

 

What if we stop the pendulum swing of self critique and judgement. Allow our souls to find center, to come to rest. To neither push nor desist but just hold space for awhile. In that sacred space embrace our permission to be. To luck into, to try, to change our minds, to give it a shot, maybe fail... Perhaps settle, ever so gently, into ordinary happiness.

 

Emotional and mental ebb and flow are not the antithesis to life success. Perfectionism is. In the pursuit of "perfect" lies the negation of all that is not. Perfectionism is an eraser we drag across life. Crossing out what may have been our best efforts, our bravest moments. Scars of bootstrapped, gut wrenching, all-out-there struggle. All those unwanted gifts of deepest courage. When we devalue our smallest efforts, be they honest, sufficient, or barely forward motion, we also devalue our human nature to strive.

 

Humans are not born perfect, they are born to evolve. To seek to understand, to take action, to plan, to expand, to be joyful. Life is not a target. There is no bulls-eye. Life is about process. About being vividly, messily, actively present in our own skin. Accepting that wherever we may be in our lives, just getting by or progressing along the spectrum of our goals... Well, good enough. This is today.

 

Carpe Diem. Put down that edit pencil. Stet. Let today be a day of 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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Call and answer

Bernini, Rome

 

Hush, beloved. It doesn't matter to me
how many summers I live to return:
this one summer we have entered eternity.
I felt your two hands
bury me to release its splendor.


~ "The White Lillies," Louise Gluck

The aria and the catalyst.

I am deep in the quiet hours thinking back to an essay on passion posted here in 2010. My mind is looping down riverbanks of slow moving thought as it did then. I am thinking about connections, the bonds of romantic love. Eight years ago I wrote about the question of truthfulness between couples, saddened by the infidelity and subsequent breakup of the marriage of a friend of mine. At the heart of their parting lay a painful truth neither had wished exposed, and when brought to light fatally erased the foundation between them. He played roulette and lost. She wished she'd never known. What was their truth? Did it matter, or was its value entirely in what was lost?

The fundamental song in dramatic love is the aria. A longing opened wide across the octaves. And then from the wings, an echo. The entrance of a duet. A melody and a response. A call and an answer. A cry and a caress. Two voices that sing the heart's passion. In the twining melodies, in these whispered dreams, dwells a wordless language. What we ask for and what we are given. What we offer and what is taken.

The call and answer determine the fate of the lovers.

I am thinking now of the French film "Coco & Igor," the story of the complicated, secret, and oftentimes emotionally harsh relationship between Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. Who called out first? Who answered? Much of their exchange remains wordless, physical. The interplay of their passion, and the way obsession fuels their individual art underscores the importance of the secretive nature of this exchange. Two muses. The lives of others. What was sacrificed to art. The affair itself not important, what mattered to Chanel and Stravinsky was its bonfire of inspiration.

There are so many arias, so many whispers we do not hear.

Romantic love is, finally, what is made of it. Are we lovers content in the small, sacred moments of living? Or lovers skating uneasily across life's dangerous territories? Love is perhaps only as permeable, as pure an elemental essence, as what we give of ourselves. How we value one another. Do we build or destroy? Some of us love in a kind of rhythm of labor, an endless garden we diligently and attentively hoe. Some cast nets to the sea, discover the catch gone and love onward in sorrow or separation. Others hold the hand of someone in comfort. Others fall into that certain slant of light that gilds the heart, left with an imprint that haunts forever.

Love unfurls. Place a rose on your kitchen table and watch the bloom drench the passing moments with its grace. Unlike Coco and Igor, or the dramatic opera, most of us love in quiet, ordinary ways. We experience love as an act from the soul as transformative for the lover as for the beloved.

Yet there is no denying that elemental spark. Love is catalyst. Once lit, what will you make of it?


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sacrament, mystery, light

"How to Build a Cathedral," Cildo Meireles, 1987 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 work, "How to Build a Cathedral," filled the entirety of the subdued space.

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

This art space has all of the sacramental hush and reverence we associate with the interiors of cathedrals, composed of the metaphoric elements with which we erect them. Rock. Bone and muscle. Ritual. Money. And death.

Sacrament, mystery, light.

Cildo Meireles has conceived an experience for us that improbable as it would seem, is made profound by our innate human inclination and worldly cultural intention to honor what we believe to be sacred. A space for contemplation. A space constructed of the elemental world. What is sacred, born of the ordinary.

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Eyes of An Observer

Harbor, 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 on the distinctions lately between fiction and history. History is most often defined as a factual narrative, a narrative based on defined action and without speculation. Perhaps as Francis Bacon declared, "history" is a particular reasoning applied to aspects of human life in order that we may define a meaningful past. A greater understanding of event and consequence than the restatement of a simple timeline. The writer Jorge Luis Borges argued in "Other Inquisitions," that Universal history is the history of a few metaphors. Is there a worthy difference then in how we understand ourselves through history versus narratives of fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction? Do these ways of telling bleed across lines?

Take as an example "narrative nonfiction," sometimes called creative nonfiction, and defined loosely as creative embellishment without factual distortion of the structure of true information. This is how many of us think of classical history. The past relayed to us by the ancients in essay, epic or ballad, in religious texts, song and theatre. And then there is the truly personal narrative. Memoir differs from biography beyond its intimate focus and use of dramatic structure. Memoir is inherently less universal a narrative form than biography, more personal. What may or may not be true is accepted for its subjectivity. We have wandered some distance from pure event and into its interpretation.

Many have argued the metaphor is the doorway into fiction. The fable, the parable, the psalm. But what is fictitious is not necessarily untrue though it may not be fact. The parenthesis of information in any given story may only be that of one perspective, or a subjective retelling. Does an oversight differ from a lie? A misrepresentation from an omission? To look at the question sideways for a moment, if fiction lets us view life through an artful staging of inventions, does that form differ from the craft of a reasoned essay, an interview, or newsprint bulletin "from the front" if the basic premise of truth-in-telling is observed?

Truth in telling. Consider always the filter of the narrator. These events are, what is, what could be, might have been, or surely were once upon a time. The beloved preamble to all narrative, "Once upon a time" pardons the telling. My favorite histories of the world weave fact with interpretation, story with reflection, event with consequence. Day after day we lay speculation across fact and spark an invention of story. We retell mystery, catalog observations of crumbling or evolving culture, make sense of old tragedies and recurring dreams in our use of story.

As a human, I sympathize with Blake. Let us deem for ourselves the meaning of things. Yet Camus hit 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?

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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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