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QUINTESSENCE

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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Things Which Enclose Me

Moonshell


somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
by E. E. Cummings

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully , suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands



I am revisiting e.e. cummings today, and this poem which I have shared here in the past. The language is what holds me. Unexpected phrases such as "the voice of your eyes," the chiseled coiled core in "the power of your intense fragility," and the pang, the lonely yearning within "your eyes have their silence."

How does someone, anyone, ever know language, and the terrain of the beloved intimately enough to paint mystery so fully? Truly, what we find beloved encompasses all compass points of the heart, be they person, place, or thing.

Poetry sings deeply for me. The ability of the poet to encapsulate our longing, our disoriented suffering. The single note bittersweet rhapsodies. Human emotion is a melange of honey, spice, and salt, and it is poetry that invites us to cup the exquisite, grapple the unsettling. Even in times like these, of great moral tremor, of polar conflicts between ideologies, virulence and decency, we may find solace in poetry. Words are not mere window-dressing. They are bricks and swords and ointments and shelter. They are so many things, things which enclose us. Possessed of intense fragility, silence.

Dive under, swim deep under the surface. Find your peace.

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Hope and Sky

Today I am musing on the young, and the ways in which we tend the future singly and as community. Let me begin with work from Ohioan Maggie Smith and a poem written in answer to a question from her own three-year-old child. Maggie's poems, truth-telling wrapped in enigmas graced by flashes of magic, include last year's widely loved "Good Bones," the title poem of her forthcoming book of poems from Tupelo Press, Good Bones.

SKY
Maggie Smith

Why is the sky so tall and over everything?

What you draw as a blue stripe high above
a green stripe, white-interrupted, the real sky
starts at the tip of each blade of grass and goes
up, up, as far as you can see. Our house stops
at the roof, at the glitter-black overlap of shingles
where the sky presses down, bearing the weight
of space, dark and sparkling, on its back.
Think of sky not as blue, not as over,
but as the invisible surround, a soft suit
you wear close to the skin. When you walk,
the soles of your feet take turns on the ground,
but the rest of you is in the sky, enveloped in sky.
As you move through it, you make a tunnel
in the precise size and shape of your body.


We do this. Bring innocence into the world. This world of love as well as darkness, a place at times without hope of joy. How difficult as new parents to question the essential goodness of the world. What "gift" do we bestow upon our children at their birth to protect them? There is no invincibility shield.

The gift we bestow is joy. To grow and play and pursue delight in a thousand adventurous ways. The good and the bad and the ugly all entwined together within risk, mortality, and the sparkle of being alive. It must be enough to believe each child shall find a good life in the midst of the world’s crushing disarray. We must remember each child brings the potential of change. This, this is how we build the world, lift it up and fix it, again and again. Not just for ourselves but for the future. Good. Good bones.

To parents everywhere, the young and the worn, you are the givers and builders and healers the world needs. To those who raise children not by birth but by intent, you are angels among us. And to those who give simply, widely and generously in cherished circles of the heart, unknown souls brighten and find shelter within your selflessness. All of you are constructing, infusing, singing a better world by your work, your passions, and those tired-everyday-but-I-go commitments.

The long shadow of the coming August solar eclipse presages life given of the world; for without light this world would be still and in darkness. Without love, there would be no garden of new green. Without wakeful midnights the young would not sleep. It is truth, that in the wisdom of ancestors and the strength of the aged there is hope. And we guard hope, because of the young.

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Right Words

THE NOTEBOOK
by Mary Oliver

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


I have been looking through old journals lately. On a mission to muck out files, sort through my book shelves. A surprising thing struck me rereading a period of journals from 1998-2001...the mixture of notes, fragments of creative idea, the pen and pencil sketches. I was equally taken aback by the implacable boundaries time brackets around words. As Mary Oliver writes, "How much can the right word do?"

I was drawn to sketches in the margins of journals. Drawings of strangers in coffee shops, interesting hands, a peculiar expression on a face in a workshop. All these drawings triggered a kind of memory muscle for me. There were several of my daughter's cello teacher and his centuries-old cello, for example, dashed off in ink on college-rule paper during a lesson. Looking at a cello sketch I remembered sitting uncomfortably on the low sofa, the confines of the tiny practice room, the dim light from the drawn venetian blinds, the rustle of sheet music on the music stand...even the strange plastic wrap this expressive Russian refugee, who had once performed in Leningrad alongside Rostropovich, had so carefully layered around the neck of his beautiful instrument to protect the wood from the sweat of his hands and forearms.

There was no "right word" in my notebook to describe these scenes or events. Instead, a drawing; imbued with shape, mood, unusual detail. Seeing the thing or person before me, and seeing completely. Translating everything imperfectly but somehow accurate in its essence. All too often as writers we glance, and then look away to think, searching for le mot juste, the perfect word. And in doing so, we may step away from the experience, abandon our own innate presence in the moment. I find myself keeping these pages with sketches and half-lines of poems, the penciled scenes from travels with my husband and children. We were all keepers of travel notebooks. We lingered places; taking all the generous, unhurried time required to sketch something of what we saw.

I re-experienced this slow pleasure on a recent trip abroad. There was a gentleman with our group, a painting conservator from a major museum, who did not dash off frenzied smartphone shots of ancient ruins and excavated pottery. He stepped aside as we hiked, opened his sketch book, and freehanded a perspective, employing a few strong lines and shading to capture the heart of the object, the mood of the light. And then he moved on. His notebook of sketches becoming a sensual, visual encounter with objects of mystery -- fallen stones, abandoned boats on the sand, a whalebone, a rune obscured by moss. Looking over his shoulder, these thoughtful sketches were themselves experiences.

My late husband Ken, a black and white photographer, used to say that the reason a photographer lifts a camera is not in order to preserve what he sees, or to interpret the object his lens is focused on. No, the photographer photographs to see. The photographer does not step outside the experience to think through how to describe it as the writer does. The photographer steps into it and lets the moment speak for itself. The photographer encounters the material world as it is, shaped only by his own aesthetic, the light, and perhaps the incidental intrusion of equipment or the development environment. There are only unexpressed truths.

Mary Oliver's observed turtle sees the morning rise around him, registers the universe with simple awareness. The poet knows her awareness, her thoughts about this exchange are somehow stealing her from the fullness of her own experience. She notes this distance, this distraction, and returns her thoughts again to observing, to awareness without translation. A meditation on essence, not story. She makes a poem of her observations on the failures of observation that manages nonetheless to convey what is lost in translation.

Writing may be impressionist, subjective, symbolic, abstract - all these things. Narratives, knotted together by insight, observation, and imagination. But first comes simply being present.

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The Honey of Life's Busyness

Our lives were stored in our heads.
They hadn't begun, we were both sure
we'd know when they did.
They certainly weren't this.

We read, we listened to the portable radio.
Obviously this wasn't life, this sitting around
in colored lawn chairs.

- from "August," Louise Gluck

The tension between imagined life and reality. The dream and the truth. What we dream our lives to be and the way we see them unfold; our tomorrows, construction projects of the imagination. Poet Louise Gluck's young narrator is confident she will be sure when actual life begins. When life, as imagined, will spread in technicolor across the white screen of summer days. The poet observes, "Our lives were stored in our heads."

Some of us wait, and are lost in the waiting. Some of lost looking longingly over our shoulders.

Today must not be a souvenir of yesterday, and so the struggle is everlasting. Who am I today? What do I see today? How shall I use what I know, and how shall I avoid being victim of what I know? Life is not repetition."
- Robert Henri

We are not meant to abandon our futures absorbed in nostalgia, lost in musings, in fixation upon the past. Today must not be a souvenir of yesterday, philosopher Robert Henri warns. Life is found within the common hours of our days, here in the honey of life's busyness. The vanishing moments that link days to years, that hang like droplets of dew in the throat of an iris.

This universe of one is a universe of many. And it is beautiful. And ordinary. A summer of books, the radio, and colored lawn chairs.

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Rhythms

THE NEWS
by Joshua Mehigan

What happened today? Where did it go?
The raindrops dot the window and roll down.
One taps the glass, another, three at a time,
warping the view of black trees limbs and sky.
Long hush, quick crescendo. Wind leans on the sash.
Behind me in the shadows sleep two cats.
Nearby, like something small deposited
tenderly by a big wind on the bed,
my wife sleeps deeply through the afternoon.
The sky is gray. What color is the sky?
Rhinoceros? Volcanic dune? Moon dust?
Breast of mourning dove? Gray butterfly?
Blank newsprint. There's no news, no news at all,
and will be none,
until, at long last, in the other room,
one light comes on, and then another one.


Much of 2017 has unfolded for me as though it were an existential play. We are now somewhere in the middle act. A startled audience, debating amongst ourselves if this violent dramatic arc in world news, and personal local news, is growing exponentially more unreal and negative, or if our minds have simply not yet grasped, This is the way things are now.

I remember childhood conversations with my father as he told me the stories of his father, an army commander, a prisoner of war killed near the end of the second world war. How everyone around him in those days felt confused, dazed by the news of the day. This cannot be real, they said. No, this cannot be real. This falling of nations, these public squares of screaming fascism, plans for calculated genocide, squads of fanatic teenagers, dirt mounded on the unmarked graves of murdered children. An entire planet finally pressed by a horrific enormity of events that "could not be real" to take up arms against the most human of aggressions, power and hatred.

When we walk in the footsteps of the wars across Europe, these ghosts are never far. The wars before, and since. When we turn on the news of the day, the media box foments back at us with rage and hatred and murderous prejudice. Can this be real? Has nothing changed?

I don't have answers. I can't begin to foresee the future for our next generation. The world is rapidly and continuously changing its geography, cultures, and concepts of its own humanity. I sometimes feel as the poet above -- the news of our times is lost in translation. Is hatred a shape? Is that volcanic or stone disbelief? Rose red graves? Or the garden, there, half touched with dew in the midmorning sun.

I listen to the rhythm of the rain; of the dog, breathing heavily, stretched out on his side and asleep by the back porch door. The fast-beating fury of the hummingbird as it plunders the lavender. That unhurried galleon of trailing cloud tilting and slipping across the sky. Rhythms. The half-phrased poems of life. The heartbeat of the world, the word. The news.

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Tending the Quiet


I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Loaf with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.


Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Song of Myself (5)

One of the lingering impressions of the wine country in France I carried home is of the peacefulness of the cultivated fields. Especially in early mornings. Alone I walked the dust and gravel paths at the perimeters of the many small and neatly tended vineyards in Champagne. The hour was not exactly quiet, but within, I felt quiet. And I found myself listening.

First there was the riotous joy of full-throated birdsong. Then there was the sound of the light breeze, ruffling its way down the neat rows of vines. The fields slept, the workday not yet begun. I looked at the growing vines. Each gnarled root dark and whorled with age, the young vines rising, unfurling along the trellised lines in a lattice of interlinking green bowers. I thought about the patient work that is a vineyard. Each vine hand-tended throughout the years. Its well-being shepherded through drought, or a too-cool spring or late hail storm. The hands of the vigneron testing vines and nipping suckers or ill-formed leaves, always encouraging the root to pump its life force into the strongest vines and ripen a bounty of grapes.

It is slow work in the fields. A worker may sit with pruning tools on his stool in the sun and work a single long row for an hour, or perhaps half a day, the time it takes to do the work thoroughly and perfectly. There is no rush with wine.

One morning I noticed there was evidence of blackened earth at the base of the low stone wall that bordered the fields, and nearby piles of loose straw, eight to fifteen feet apart. I learned there had been an unexpected May frost and fires were lit in the night from the straw along the stone walls, the smoke furling along the rows, its warmth protecting the young vines. I thought about the truth of nurturing any growing thing. It is a partnership, an understanding, and a rhythm. The process cannot be rushed, each task must suit its need; born of everything unpredictable about life itself. When we nurture a thing we take responsibility for it. We must give nature space and accept the variability of what lies ahead. It may be a season of sun and perfect rain. It may be a season throttled in the soil, or by a killing frost, a blight. But still we cultivate, we tend, we are patient. We hope.

I was thinking of Whitman this morning on my walk through the green sunlit neighborhoods. About the whisper of the soul and how it frequently speaks to us in the quiet, in the ambient lull, the pause. And that we must listen. As our hands tend the vines of our daily tasks perhaps we can slow our hours down, give the soul a space to speak in. Cultivate ourselves.

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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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Years From Now

Pompeii

ONE HUNDRED YEARS FROM NOW
excerpt from Within my Power by Forest Witcraft

One Hundred Years from now
It will not matter
What kind of car I drove,
What kind of house I lived in,
How much money was in my bank account
Nor what my clothes looked like.
But the world may be a better place
Because I was important in the life of a child.



In 2009 my son's high school teacher for AP Senior English completed the academic year by having each student in his class submit two or three poems they particularly cared about for a class anthology. "Verses from Yesteryear for Future Perusal," the students titled their booklet. The poems ranged in subject and style from Khalil Gibran to Shel Silverstein, Robert Frost to Billy Collins, Stephen Crane to e.e. cummings. The poem cited above is taken from the poems submitted by the students in this class.

There are many reasons a poem may strike us as grand or meaningful or inspiring. But this poem, an excerpt from a longer verse, struck me as significant for the long view it offers of life and what constitutes a meaningful existence. And notably, that a seventeen or eighteen-year-old would choose this poem, find value in mentoring, and choose to continue that thread throughout adult life. We frequently dismiss our youth as self-centered or shallow, but in fact, I have found the opposite to be true. Ask a young person what truly matters in the world, and you will receive a very thoughtful answer.

Today in the aftermath of the dropping of MOAB, the biggest bomb in the US arsenal, on a vague and undefined target for vague and undefined reasons, I think about the state of the world we grown-ups are leaving our young. What we wear may not matter, but the world we leave behind for our children does. Next week, April 21 marks the anniversary of the founding of the great city of Rome. For 2770 years the old city has stood upon the seven hills above the Tiber. A crossroads of cultures, a place of magnificent temples and cathedrals, rare and beautiful art, old stone and older shadows still, marble war monuments, and layers upon layers of the triumphs and losses of human history.

Rome is a testament to the endurance of life, to the passage of beliefs and cultures and dominions. Proof our future is built upon the past. Should we not want to leave our children something they, too, can build upon? Should we not all want Rome?

Let me end this post with one last poem from the student anthology.

a song with no end
by Charles Bukowski

when Whitman wrote, "I sing the body electric"

I know what he
meant
I know what he
wanted:

to be completely alive every moment
in spite of the inevitable

we can't cheat death but we can make it
work so hard
that when it does take
us

it will have known a victory just as
perfect as
ours.




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Tunnels of Time

Ostia Antica, Italy
BUDAPEST
My pen moves along the page
like the snout of a strange animal
shaped like a human arm
and dressed in the sleeve of a loose green sweater.

I watch it sniffing the paper ceaselessly,
intent as any forager that has nothing
on its mind but the grubs and insects
that will allow it to live another day.

It wants only to be here tomorrow,
dressed perhaps in the sleeve of a plaid shirt,
nose pressed against the page,
writing a few more lines

while I gaze out the window and imagine Budapest
or some other city where I have never been.

- Billy Collins



This complicated, imperfect, imbalanced journey through life.

To you. To all that is required. To that parenthesis around the ridiculous dead-ends; the difficult, often needless "learning experiences." The self-confidence that maybe didn't arrive until late, almost passing us by. Here we are, arrived at some embarrassing "what-have-you-been-up-to" adult decade, arm-chair fossils of thinking and living. And yet. Your tales of self-discovery, the thrashing near-drowning. The bumbling, insecure, hopeful human being that miraculously aged into self-assurance by sheer survival. Has not time left a thing fine and unbreakable in youth's place?

Time occasionally finds us on the right or wrong side of some imaginary mark in the sand. A bar others seem to vault with greater ease. A cherished goal, unmet. Let the anxiety go. Celebrate victories. Live life on your own terms. This is the true prize. The becoming of you.

We are here, my friends. Lost and found. Here in the raw, relentless beauty of the world.

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