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Trust The Hours

An extraordinary poet passed today, 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; his a unique voice amidst the prevailing trends. As a poet and a citizen, Galway Kinnell 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 poetry pulses with an exuberant love of language, a lyrical style distinctly his own and possessing a rare gorgeous musicality. Listen as you read -

by Galway Kinnell
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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

Did you hear those leaping phrases and alliteration? Sink into the imagery of "great/Loose, always dissolving V’s"? The thread that connects is the slender steel power of Kinnell 's mastery over the expressive word. The imperceptible balance of image with emotion. Never too much, always exactly enough. Poet, translator, essayist, teacher. Galway Kinnell wrote about life, and 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 the 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 his work if you are not already familiar with 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?

Galway Kinnell was 87.

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Untrodden Ways

by William Wordsworth

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove.
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love;

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
~ Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and oh,
The difference to me!

Nature's transcendence over human life was a powerful theme for William Wordsworth, an English poet whose life straddled the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century; a fluid time of traditions in neoclassicism and romanticism and growth in rational thinking and science. This beautiful, emotionally-compressed elegy, a poem written in 1800, is one of Wordsworth's famous "Lucy" poems.

Wordsworth muses at greater length on transcendence in "Three Years She Grew." In this poem celebrating the entwined relationship of life and nature, surrendering to the fragility of human life in an otherwise omnipotent universe, the poet's reconciliation takes predominance over grief. The poet accepts the sovereignty of Nature, a pastoral realism captured in this opening line, "Three years she grew in sun and shower." In a following stanza in "Three Years She Grew," Wordsworth yields to Nature's claim on Lucy -
"The stars of midnight shall be dear
To her; and she shall lean her ear
In many a secret place

The poet then concludes the poem with, "The memory of what has been,/And nevermore will be." Returning to the personal, and acknowledging the final passing of a beloved physical presence into memory.

Return for a moment to the opening poem: What I appreciate about "Untrodden Ways" is the simplicity of language and emotion Wordsworth used to capture a universal truth - that loss takes place in a context of invisibility to the world at large. We are pained by our personal sorrow amidst the mute indifference of others. "The difference to me!" - Wordsworth's ending line - makes a powerful and poignant statement. Love is always personal, and yet in most ways, invisible to others. If you have loved and lost someone very close, you know the edged emotion expressed by Wordsworth in, "few could know/ When Lucy ceased to be." The truth that although any of us may "dwell among the untrodden ways," we shine "fair as a star" to those that love us.

Yesterday a short story I wrote inspired from a single line in an obituary I read a few years back was published online in an international journal, The Stockholm Review of Literature (www.thestockholmreview.org). The theme of this story keeps company with Wordsworth's Lucy poems - observing the ways we accept and inhabit our vulnerability loving others. An online link to "Sunday Dinner" is copied below, as well as to a poem "Coffee and Keys" featured in the same issue. You may copy and paste these links into your browser to read, or click directly to the story and poem from my home page where I include live links under New and Notable.

I hope you enjoy this recent work.
"Sunday Dinner"

"Coffee and Keys"
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Sing Your World Into Being

Shadow, Licata, Siracusa
Think about place - the places you know, long for, disdain, the places that frame your life and make you what you are... What's real to you? Where would you rather be right now? Where would you most like to never set foot again? (Ironically, those places have a tendency to stick in your mind like flies on flypaper.)

Melville's geography was ships and the sea; Alice Adam's, her beloved San Francisco and her remembered American South...if it's yours, it's
yours. You can't really fake it. You can travel places to widen your horizons literally, as Jospeh Conrad went to Africa and Christopher Isherwood went to Berlin, or you can stick with what you've grown up with. Think of Larry McMurtry's Texas (he changed his hometown's name, Archer City, to Thalia, but he had to keep the real name of that mean little line of mountains outside of town, Misery Ridge). Waking outside Archer City in the soft buzzing underbrush, you can almost see where Gus and Lorena pitched their tent, taking those cattle from Lonesome Dove all the way to Montana.

Your world is as important to you as Conrad's and McMurtry's were to them; it had better be because it's the one you're living in. As Australian Aboriginals might say, if you don't "sing your world into being," no one else will.
- from 'Making a Literary Life," by Carolyn See

The idea of geography as theme is very dear to me. I wrote an entire memoir with geography, my childhood geography, as the frame for translating my early adult choices and midlife hungers. It seems we are always running from or to something. It's worth knowing what, even if the end game is not to write about it but simply to understand.

In my life, growing up in a family constantly on the move had a very big impact. I became both acutely aware of place and part of none. "Place" had exceptional importance to me, possessing almost a Holy Grail element of elusiveness and rescue. If I only knew where I belonged, life would fall perfectly into place and the outsider's restlessness leave me. As you might have guessed, restlessness is my place. I am the outsider. I was born into it, lived it as a child and a young adult, inhabit it still. Addressing what Carolyn See identifies as the personal "real" in her excellent book, "Making a Literary Life," emboldened me to articulate and finally make the truth of my life work for me: what's yours, is yours. Own it, work it, create from it.

Time, place, and geography in all forms of art can be real or imaginary. One can expand time forward or backward, place into the ideal the truth or the imagined confronted with reality. We can speak of geography from the muted hues and pastoral wildlife of grasslands and lakes or the fierce inner landscapes of emotion and pain. What is important, I feel, is to know our place on the map. To be sure of our footing first, and then brave enough, if we can, to step off the path. To look far into the valley or around those trees obscuring the corner.

Once you own your territory, surprise us with what you know and what you imagine - but begin from a place we trust. A truth we believe because it is a place you are sure of. Your reality. As See goes on to say, "No one else has your information - that's the great part. Your geography cradles your work, rocks it, beings it alive, makes it real."

As we construct our fictions and poems, line out our plays and essays, geography stands as important as point of view. The literary debate about plot, or character, and which comes first, which does the heavy lifting of our narrative, begs half the question. Where does the drama take place? I have found in both my own work and work I love that the unique framing of time, place, and geography offers the authentic twist that brings plot and character alive. Where would "The Princess Bride" be without the journey across the rocky moors, or "Heart of Darkness" without it's untamed merciless river? Unless grounded however indirectly in the personal, in authentic truth, what will your work offer?

Carolyn See reminds us, "sing your world into being." And if not you, then who? Spend time getting to know your history. Your narrative begins with you.

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Sled Carving, Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway

I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm.
- Saul Bellow

To honor our dreams and to honor our loved ones and to honor our rituals and our lives is precisely what literature is endlessly trying to teach us.
- Allan Gurganus

Permission to express our inner drive and creative vision is perhaps that one thing that most mysteriously holds the scientist, writer or artist back. Permission to begin, to commit, comes from within. Articulating a decision to take action - to do something - creates accountability. This can be intimidating. We are deeply afraid of failing ourselves. And secondarily, failing those that depend upon or observe our ambitions. William Styron stated the whole concept of his novel Sophie's Choice was the result of a dream, a kind of waking vision. What if he had never written the vision into words? Dreams we merely toy with fragment and fade, whereas dreams hammered into projects are testament to attention and hard work. Allowing commitment - permission - is what separates the two, and sometimes permission represents the hardest part of the idea-product equation.

The writing process itself is part inspiration, part mental compost. Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote that it is written in the kabbalah that when words in a dream are loud and distinct and seem to come from no particular source, these words are from God. I personally don't know if the source of such inspiration is a higher being or an awakened inner wisdom, but I do practice receptiveness. Nicholas Delbanco describes it well when he writes, "The writer gleans wind scraps; he listens wherever he can. Each day is full of instances; what counts, as with all stimuli, is the sympathetic response." In other words, allowing the idea or insight to seed, and actively encouraging its growth.

What follows is not a volley of thunder from the heavens or celestial illumination. Work unfolds. Within work burns creativity - whether in the routine of the farm, at a desk in an office, or in the cockpit of a plane. Here is how Eudora Welty described her writing work day: After she got up, had her coffee and "an ordinary breakfast," she went to work until at the end of the day, around five or six o'clock, she'd stop, have a bourbon and water and watch the evening news. Put in the hours, write the words, build the book.

Why is work that honors the creative important? Why bother at all? Because to honor our creative impulses is to honor the impetus of the soul to do more and be more. The human psyche craves expansion, greater personal growth, discovery. Refusing to honor the push forward sinks us where we stand. We are done with life when we cease to engage with our dreams.

In closing, consider this beautiful set of opening lines from W.S. Merwin's poem, "Losing a Language" -
A breath leaves the sentences and does not come back
yet the old still remember something that they could say

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Links Between Lives

Let me begin by sharing this private letter from 1955, from one writer to another. The book of short stories above and this letter connect for me: taken together, they define something of interest between a writer's courage to do the work and what validation is worth.

[December 1955]
Bellapaix, Cyprus

Dear Henry -
A brief line to thank you for the two great parcels of books which arrived, followed rapidly by two more. It was wonderfully generous of you, and its good to have something to read in this fragmented life. I'm pushing my book about Alexandria along literally sentence by sentence. I'm dog-tired by the time I get home in the evening, but every waking moment is possessed by it so that by the weekend when I type out my scribbles I usually have about 1500 words. I feel like one of those machines for distilled water - it is coming drop by drop, running contrary to physical fatigue etc. This is really writing one's way upstream with a vengeance! Never mind - i remember your struggles and blush to think of my own.

I'm writing this at 4:50a.m. A faint lilac dawn breaking accompanied by bright moonlight - weird. Nightingales singing intoxicated by the first rains. Everything damp. In a little while I take the car and sneak down the dark road towards a dawn coming up from Asia Minor like
Paradise Lost.


- from "A Private Correspondence: Lawrence Durrell & Henry Miller," edited by George Wickes

In 1935 a young Brit, Lawrence Durrell, wrote a letter to the then 43 year old American writer Henry Miller, living in Paris, in praise of his new novel, Tropic of Cancer: "I have never read anything like it. I did not imagine anything like it could be written; and yet, curiously, reading it I seemed to recognize it as something which i knew we were all ready for." What followed was an animated friendship devoted to an exchange of ideas, reactions to art and writing and the damnation of censorship. In 1937 the two met in Paris, and a life-long personal friendship was forged. Miller was often the encouraging mentor Durrell needed; "Now don't my dear good Durrell, ask me to weep with you because you are alone. That's in your favor. You can't be alone and be with the herd too. You can't write good and bad books...The toll is disintegration."

We all need our own. Those people who have our backs, support our work, encourage. Good folk that open doors and pick up pieces. Scientists to farmers, astronauts to teachers, we push and define our work from within. Artists, perhaps more than others, depend on a tight, small community of like-minded others for more than just company: beyond pounding back a beer at the end of the successful mounting of a new play or coffee at the corner after a bank account, a book, and a relationship have gone up in flames. The peaks and valleys of the creative struggle are real. Life in the unpredictable, rarely financially stable "arts" takes guts. But generous people hold us together.

It is ordinary kindnesses - the generous word, a positive outlook, sometimes even that unasked-for-validation from a competitor in our field - that floats the solitary human boat. Henry Miller was right: it is challenging to "be alone and be with the herd too." In today's digitally-connected world in which we can form community across the globe, at the end of the day many work alone. I am most familiar with books and writing, so I think of the writer at her desk. The manuscript written word by word, in solitude. Self-employed and self-motivated, the artist, without market or capital, struggles "one's way upstream." The painter at the easel, a dancer at the barre, a sculptor welding in the barn, a violist running scales - whoever we may be and whatever our artistic or life pursuit, we work in a piercing dissonance of determination mixed with doubt.

On Monday in New York City, a local Spokane journalist at our regional newspaper, The Spokesman Review, won a prestigious national literary award for his debut short story collection: Shawn Vestal's Godforsaken Idaho is the 2014 winner of the PEN Bingham Award. I know Shawn and am a huge fan of his short story collection. I couldn't be more happy and proud for him. He's a humble guy, a hardworking journalist, a devoted father. (We last said hello at Aunties Bookstore, where he attended a Harry Potter Birthday Book Party with his son.) Recognition from peers and leaders in the publishing industry is priceless, but at the end of the day, a box-full of solitary hours went into producing that genius work - as in any difficult creative challenge for that matter, building design to lab science.

All of us depend on one another for validation at some point - whether the fan letter Durrell sent Miller amidst the critical uproar following the publication of Tropic of Cancer, or the box of books Miller mailed to Durrell to sustain him in his isolation on Cyprus. Why not send some validation out today. Just my nudge, but why not go to a bookstore or click on the book image above and order Vestal's Godforsaken Idaho. Any book you feel strongly connected to deserves your voice of support. Claim what is worthy in the world.

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