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QUINTESSENCE

The Last Passerby

ODE AND ELEGY OF THE STREETS

by C.P. Cavafy

 

The footfalls of the first passerby;

the first peddler's lively shouting;

the first windows opening,

the first door--these are the song

of the streets in the morning.

 

The steps of the last passerby;

the last of the peddlers shouting;

the doors and windows shutting--

are the elegiac sound

of the streets in the evening.

 

I am recently back from travel. Hiking and exploring in the Alps of Switzerland and the lakes of northern Italy. There is a rhythm to a faraway journey. First the excitement of planning the journey, then the taking leave and letting go. There is disorientation, a solitude, the opening of heart and mind. Finally, the thoughtful return. In chapters of travel we lose and find and redefine ourselves, along with our sense of the world we live in.

 

Travel gives us our definition of home. In strangeness are found the outlines of self and belonging. Where we are and where we are not. Yet what lingers of our explorations resets the familiar. We are somehow bigger in spirit, more generous, less partisan about our niche in place and time. We have come to know something of the larger world, the connected community of peoples and histories, and the unturned stones and sweet curiosities still to discover. 

 

When I was young, I traveled with my family in the military life of my father's career. I also traveled in books, reading voraciously across history and geography. In my early career I explored every corner of the planet, curious to know it all. To understand new things and to see the places I had only read of in books come to colorful life. Their grandeur, their ruin, their romance. The worn footprints of human history. The bold direction of change.

 

I travel now to understand myself and humanity. Pursuing what connects us to this earth and to each other. Translating the past. How will we engage with the future and our collective presence in the here and now? The Alexandrian Greek poet C. P. Cavafy (1963-1933) was himself a lifelong traveler. His poems of the Mediterranean and its history lead us from fabled Ithaca into the dusty streets of late afternoon in the medina. If you have not read much of Cavafy's work, I encourage you to do so. His is a way of seeing and writing about strangers and strangeness, the sensuality of unfamiliar places, and of the inscrutability of history in a way that, like storytelling, becomes the song of a journey.

 

Journeys are our own, very personal, human myth-making. In our curiosity we find our connectedness. In our solitude we make friends with ourselves. In reaching toward the unfamiliar we find home.

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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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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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a call back home

Hans Christian Andersen's LITTLE MERMAID, Copenhagen

 

THE ART OF DISAPPEARING
by Naomi Shihab Nye

When They Say Don't I Know You?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.

Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say Why?

It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.

Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.



This poem came to me via the wonderful tiny chapbook by Roger Housden, TEN POEMS TO LAST A LIFETIME. (I have spoken of this collection before.) Housden has this to say: "I find the strong and sober stand of this poem a welcome inspiration. Yet I know there are those who feel otherwise. People have told me they feel it to be ungenerous and curmudgeonly in its attitude to others. On the other hand, I remember seeing Bill Moyers on PBS one evening, and him saying that ever since being called into the hospital for heart trouble, he has kept a copy of this poem by Naoimi Shihab Nye in his top pocket. For me, it's that kind of poem. A reminder poem, a shake-your-tree poem, a wake-up-and-live-your-own-life-before-it's-all-too-late poem."

Housden calls a poem that speaks deeply a "message from a trusted friend," that is, "the persistent murmur in our own chest." He adds this observation by Keats [which I find the single greatest secret to cultivating any art]: Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a Remembrance.

The promised-to's, the ought-to's...how we endlessly defer our personal must-do's. We shelve for later the experiences, projects, and journeys that call us deeply, explorations that delve into the corners of our being. Do you remember the moment when you knew the shape of your personal life dream? When you crested from childhood into young adulthood, and set your sights on the world's horizon? Do you recall how you felt the truth in your bones that hot August afternoon, lying in the grass under the silver branches, staring up through an endless sky?

That sudden shiver holding a newborn. The life history suddenly recognized in the still, veined hand of your grandmother as she held that tea cup and waited by the window. Nye's poem is a call back home. Live your life, know life; for life is finite.

I resonate with the honest fierceness of Nye's poem. This poet doesn't mince words. I need that. She reminds us that a given day on earth is not about obligation. Being present for our own life is essential. "Being present" is not the denial of relationship, an avoidance of responsibility or connection, but it is practicing our purpose. Inhabiting the originality and truth that is ours alone. Answer the call.

You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bells at twilight.



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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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Goldenrod


On roadsides,
in fall fields,
in rumpy bunches,
saffron and orange and pale gold...

- from "Goldenrod," Mary Oliver, 2004

I hiked the bluff trails early this morning. In these mountains the coming fall brings crisp air to the lingering warmth of summer. The trails were absent of a certain joy however. Absent my dog, McDuff, a sturdy little wheaten-colored Scottie. McDuff passed in December of 2012, and the years since are marked by the absence of his beautiful presence at my side. Today I dedicate my blog post to McDuff, and revisit a post from late summer 2010.

September 3, 2010:
Yesterday afternoon McDuff and I headed out to the bluff, lulled outdoors by a late afternoon warmth. Pools of mellow light fell through the trees. We walked through wild oat and dried thistle, the hillside adorned in a palette of caramel, dusty tan, and white yellow, the sweetness of summer at its fullest. Fall hovers at the edge of the valley in crisp mornings and cool nights, but here on the bluff, summer fiercely holds court.

As we walked, a wordless song played through my thoughts and Duff fell behind, his nose in a rabbit hole. I stopped and stood a moment, looking across the valley. A raven cry drifted up from somewhere near the creek and I was filled with an inexplicable happiness. As if everything truly had its moment, and this moment had now. My thoughts touched on my son and daughter, far away, anchoring into a new school term at university. I felt the river width of time, the slow flood across geography. The delicate knots and stitches that bind us, one to another.

Here, the final stanzas of Mary Oliver's poem, "Goldenrod" -

I was just minding my own business
when I found myself on their straw hillsides,
citron and butter-colored,

and was happy, and why not?
Are not the difficult labors of our lives
full of dark hours?
And what has consciousness come to anyway, so far,

that is better than these light-filled bodies?
All day
on their airy backbones
they toss in the wind,

they bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,
they rise in a stiff sweetness,
in the pure peace of giving
one's gold away.


May all of you find delight in summer's last song.

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Eye of Night

WILDERNESS
When I lay down, for the night, on the desert,
on my back, and dozed, and my eyes opened,
my gaze rushed up, as if falling up
into the sky,
and I saw the open eye of night, all
guileless, all iris of a starshine grey,
scattered with clusters of brilliant pupils.
I gazed, and dozed, and as my eyelids lifted I would
plummet up out of the atmosphere,
plunging and gasping as if I'd missed
a stair. I would sleep, and come to, and sleep,
and every time that I opened my eyes
I fell up deep into the universe.
It looked crowded, hollow, intricate, elastic,
I did not feel I could really see it
because I did not know what it was
that I was seeing. When my lids parted,
there was the real -- absolute,
crisp, impersonal, intimate,
benign without sweetness, I was roaring out, my
speed suddenly increasing in its speed, I was
entering another dimension, and yet
one in which I belong, as if
not only the earth while I am here, but space,
and death, and existence without me, are my home.

- Sharon Olds

This poem by Sharon Olds transports us into the boundless mystery of the universe. To be under the stars, open to the darkness, where as Olds shares, "there was the real -- absolute, crisp, impersonal, intimate, benign without sweetness." Olds unveils the familiar strangeness of the universe at night. The presence of what can only be described as an encompassing unbounded living pulse. A life force more felt than it is defined. And so we trek to the wilderness. To reach and touch a greater-than-the-known truth, singing from afar.

A song deep in the quiet.

We encounter moments of unbounded awareness throughout our lives. Sensing what more there may be to what we think of as the entirety of our existence. Perhaps lying on a lake dock under a tent of a million distant stars, or seated by a beach bonfire, watching as sparks pop and pirouette and splinter upward into the dark. That moment that causes us to pause, chasing fireflies in the dark of a meadow. Before dawn, bathed in the illumination of the Milky Way.

At the edge of a pond, unaware of the night heron yet aware of us.

We experience a shift of dimensions as the poem "Wilderness" opens. A softening of borders, an awareness of strange yet familiar truth. As though diving beneath the surface of a still lake, into a universe hidden below what we take for granted every day. One dimension among many. One part of an integrated, endless layering of existences. Visible and unseen. Present and past, known and distant.

Look long into the velvet sky with me. Seek the tiniest point of fractured light. Do you feel how we belong?
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Doors and Wings

Starry Night Over the Rhone, Vincent van Gogh

It is the night of the ocean, the third solitude,
a quivering which opens doors and wings.


- from “Serenade,” Pablo Neruda, 1967

Pablo Neruda's poetic brush is dipped in tints of language that create shifts in definition for me. His words name the human mystery, the unspoken ache. His poem “Serenade” is on one level about the wide deep night, the pulse of quintessence. The place where sea and sea life meet under the whisper of moonlight. On another level it is about intimacy, the elemental purity of all that breathes in darkness.

The words the third solitude stop me in my tracks. In the poem's original Spanish the word "soledad" is translated as solitude. Does the word more delicately infer aloneness? The alone? I wonder. Does this third solitude the poet speaks of in “the night of the ocean” describe a deep undercurrent, what never sleeps, or life itself? What are the other two solitudes? Those of earth and sky? Two souls at night? These subtleties of word meanings give rich and secret freight to Neruda's poem.

Poetry on its subtlest level disengages the reasoning mind. Poems are subtle word mandalas, cryptic designs that rearrange the furniture of ordinary thinking. Invite in a conscious, unchained meditation. Sometimes, just a quick sideways glance. A bit of reflection in the glass that catches the eye. A flash of wing of something strange yet familiar. A glimpse. The poets allow us to step across borders. Contemplate the secrets and wonders of the everyday. Apple, star, stubbed toe, love.

So go on, today read a poem. Better yet, write one.

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Threshold Between Worlds

BOTH WORLDS

Forever busy, it seems,
with words,
finally
I put the pen down

and crumple
most of the sheets
and leave one or two,
sometimes a few,

for the next morning.
Day after day -
year after year -
it has gone on this way,

I rise from the chair,
I put on my jacket
and leave the house
for that other world -

the first one,
the holy one -
where the trees say
nothing the toad says

nothing the dirt
says nothing and yet
what has always happened
keeps happening:

the trees flourish,
the toad leaps,
and out of the silent dirt
the blood-red roses rise.


- Mary Oliver

This is a beautiful time of year. Even if you stand, as many do, on the threshold of crisis, unsure of your next step, may you find comfort as I have in the truth of Mary Oliver's simple observation, "out of the silent dirt the blood-red roses rise."

Take a moment. Leave your work, set aside worry, step gratefully into the world. We exist at the threshold of possibility.
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