A Cold and Lonely Hallelujah; or, Art and Vulnerability

I read recently this quote from Yo Yo Ma: “Any experience that you’ve had has to be somehow revealed in the process of making music. And I think that almost forces you to make yourself vulnerable to whatever is there to be vulnerable to. Because that, actually, is your strength.”

Surely that’s true also of writing poetry.

Vulnerable is a word that alarms me — the v tumbling into the deep well of the u, the nervousness of the ner, the complicated movement from l to n that gets stuck briefly in the mouth. It comes from the Latin vulnus, or wound, after all.

So much of surviving life is about girding oneself against vulnerability — all that thick skin growing, that growing of water-shedding feathers so stuff will roll off our backs, that creation of a strong center around which the winds can swirl, that hollowing oneself out like a reed. To deliberately pull back the tough skin, part the feathers, to probe the wounds to make art is terrifying. Also, which wounds? How deep do we scrape into the scar?

To make art fromthe wound, though, is not to make art of the wound, necessarily.

I’ve been looking at and thinking about Van Gogh’s work of late. I also just watched part of At Eternity’s Gate, where Willem Dafoe employs his incredibly vulnerable looking face and eyes to portray the wisdom/madness of Van Gogh. (I found the movie itself so arty-farty self-conscious and boring that I stopped watching it — although it must be said that I was on an airplane, which maybe lends itself better to an action film or something.) He did not so much seem to be investigating his own madness. Van Gogh’s wound seemed to be the world in all its shivering beauty against his thin skin. (Or is that the same thing?) Out of that he made his art.

I’ve been thinking too about Faith Ringgold reflecting on her experience as a black person in America, and the history of the black experience, using the venerable craft of quilting to speak of and from history, personal and cultural, those layers, the mix of colors, the many stitches like a scar. She said in an interview in Ebony: “You have to work with what you have, the history, the experience that you have, you take that and you create out of it. You create your music, you create your dance. But that is what you have to do it with. The impact of the history is real and it comes out in different ways, ways that are fascinating… [a]rt comes out of the experience. Art is a form of experience of the person, the place, the history of the people….” She is looking at “the wound,” the wound of slavery, among other things, which is both her wound and that of an entire population.

But look at the so-called confessional poets — are they not probing the personal wound, and sometimes gloriously so? Here is an Anne Sexton poem, “Woman with Girdle”:

Your midriff sags toward your knees;
your breast lie down in air,
their nipples as uninvolved
as warm starfish.
You stand in your elastic case,
still not giving up the new-born
and the old-born cycle.
Moving, you roll down the garment,
down that pink snapper and hoarder,
as your belly, soft as pudding,
slops into the empty space;
down, over the surgeon’s careful mark,
down over hips, those head cushions
and mouth cushions,
slow motion like a rolling pin,
over crisp hairs, that amazing field
that hides your genius from your patron;
over thighs, thick as young pigs,
over knees like saucers,
over calves, polished as leather,
down toward the feet.
You pause for a moment,
tying your ankles into knots.
Now you rise,
a city from the sea,
born long before Alexandria was,
straighway from God you have come
into your redeeming skin.

As we have learned and have been schooled, “the personal is political,” political, after all, meaning of citizens or the state.

And Walt Whitman, tending the wounds of the Civil War battlefields, and yet singing his pain to praise.

All this is to say I have been far from my poetry-making self, eyeing nervously the reengagement, wondering how, in the end, to transcend my sears and contusions, my world-against-skin, -against-vital-organ experiences through art-making that finds strength in vulnerability.

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There’s a hole in the bucket; or, the Stories of Objects

I have been thinking about made things — a poem, a piece of visual art, a pie, a cabinet, a bolt. There’s a poignancy, I find, to the things we humans make and make, lose, throw away. Here’s a poem I wrote some time ago, the title the name of a train that travels through the US northeast.

Lakeshore Limited

Skeletal small towns’ rebar remains,
heart of a grange hall, a church revealed, shards
pierce and work their way inwards, shattered
bones all alight. A coil of brown barbed

wire, a torqued stave, some fence rod or road tie,
the curled hand of a man blasted
by sun, rain, snow hip deep. How we unfold
across our own horizon, beautiful

waste of our made things strew,
slow destruction of our mettle.

I studied anthropology in college but took all the archaeology courses offered. I was less interested in the (oh, endless) study of different types of arrowheads than modern archaeology, what our material world now tells us about ourselves now. We are what we make, buy, and throw away, even more so than what we say we are with words.

I read an article recently about an exhibition of what remained of the refugee camp at Calais, the things carried by people who, forced to again move on, carried them no farther. Notes and small weapons and paper dolls. I think about the artwork by the children of the Terezin ghetto, now held in Prague’s Jewish Museum. In an article in the Atlantic, “Elegy for the American Century,” George Packer writes about Richard Holbrooke and the break-up of Yugoslavia, and atrocities in Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. In the article, Holbrooke visits a refugee camp near Zagreb hosting Bosnian Muslums who had escaped the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The author wrote:

“As Holbrooke started to leave, the baker brought out a dirty plastic bag from under his mattress. Inside was a pair of small figures, three or four inches tall, in blond wood. Human figures, with nearly featureless faces and heads bowed and hands together behind their backs. The baker had carved them with a piece of broken glass while he was interned at the Manjača camp, where the prisoners had stood bound for hours with their heads down to avoid being beaten.”

We are makers, we people, of objects that, though mute, express the best, and the worst of us (there are at least eight torture museums in Europe alone). For all our wordiness, our flapping mouths, it’s what we make that remains to tell the tale.

Poetry too is a made thing, and I love the “poem in your pocket” day idea, although I’ve never actually taken part, love the idea of that little curled piece of paper, an artifact of a tender skinned human in the world.

Don’t Show, Tell; or, Reading the Book v Watching the Movie

I read the Game of Thrones series, and did NOT watch the TV version. I enjoyed the series for the most part, and am (somewhat) impatiently awaiting R.R.’s concluding volume(s?). And I was tempted to watch the show, given the infernal ubiquity of cultural references and endless Facebook spoilers, but I didn’t want to disturb my own inner vision of the characters and settings.

I often don’t want to see movie-ized or TV-ized versions of books I’ve read for this very reason — they are alive in Technicolor in my head, and why should I let someone else’s vision replace (as it inevitably does) my own?

I do have to say that, for example, the movie version of The World According to Garpeither so mirrored my own that I could accept it, or perhaps was superior — forever will Garp look like Robin Williams, who already in the movie sort of reminded me of the photos I’ve seen of John Irving, who is Garp in my mind, as one being. I confess I did not read the original Wizard of Oz books, so bowed always and forever to the movie, and I don’t think I want to disturb the movie’s sacred status with a reading of the original text. I actually think Disney did quite a good job with its cartoon of the Toad chapters of my sacred text, The Wind in the Willows. I can’t even remember if I read The Princess Bride, so thoroughly does the movie inhabit my brain. (And I can never forgive Mandy Patinkin, as I watch him age, for not really being Inigo Montoya, nor really ever living up to that role.)

I don’t want to have my opinions about the Game of Throne characters disturbed at all by some actor’s rendition. I want to remain thoroughly bored and irritated with tiresome Daenerys. Ugh, get over yourself. And I don’t want to see what they did with doughty Brienne of Tarth. I have my own complicated feelings toward the scoundrel Jaime. And my hating to love Jon Snow. Sansa is an idiot, and I’ll brook no doubt in that. Arya in the books has swirled into some eddy and I only hope R.R. has something better in store for her.

That brings me to the other problem — I know that the TV version veered from the books, and this would have made me crazy. No, no, I’d insist, that’s not what happens. And I didn’t want to be that person.

Why do people take books and make movies of them? What is this impulse? I guess it’s that the books live vividly in a creative person’s mind, and that person wants to show the world that vivid screen. But it’s kind of authoritarian — the imposition of one person’s vision on what is each reader’s individual right to create.

On the other hand, there’s something so tempting about being able to see into someone else’s brain this way, to see the same scenes through someone else’s eyes. This is all part of our need to connect, I think. Do we see things the same way? Is watching someone’s visual version of a book the purest form of communication, the only true way of seeing inside someone’s mind?

Of course, there’s also the money to be made from the vast audience of I’d-rather-watch-it-on-a screen people who can be extracted of money for, for example, years of HBO membership versus a one-time (well, okay, 6[?] times) for a book purchase.

I confess I would dearly have loved to see Peter Dinklage as Tyrion. But I held fast. Well…really, I was saved from my own worst impulses by not actually having HBO.

Bitter Pill; or, Considering Irony in Poetry

I have written a short collection of poems that consider the uneasy work of living together in society, but I don’t like the collection. It has too much irony in the poems. Rilke said irony has no place in poems; but Lia Purpura was able to explain to me why.

She wrote in an essay in her book All the Firece Tethers: “Irony is the outward sign of a feeling one’s trying not to have…There isn’t a bit of longing in it. No failure. No danger. No dream.”

And I think it’s true, these poems of irony mask, for example, the admiration I have for Franklin, Jefferson, and the guys, yes, men, white men, slave owners, yes, andthinking deeply about society and the individual, the collective and the future, liberty and cooperation, what a document of declaration must say, what the foundational contract of a society must do. They made mistakes. They drank, whored, backstabbed, ducked some vital issues. They met heated hour after heated hour, wrote, listened, shouted, considered, drafted, redrafted. It was a monumental effort to craft this country. Extraordinary.

The irony I used masks the fears I have that we human beings are still so far from being able to love each other; that I am so far from being able to love my fellow humans; that we are killing each other and the planet because of it. It masks the grief I feel around the virulent divisiveness of the world.

How to write those poems?

A real laugh riot; or On Cleverness or Humor in a Poem

A recent critiquer of a poem of mine averred that in two particular places I had “substituted cleverness for humor.”

This gave me paws. Ha ha, see what I did there? Isn’t cleverness humor? Humorous? Humor-ish? Is it a lesser form of humor?

It could be said to be superficial, perhaps — wordplay, for example, whereas humor, perhaps, should dig deep, have a little of its tragedian partner. Is there not room for cleverness in a poem?

The first place the critiquer red-penned in this way was indeed wordplay. I was trying to reconsider the meanings of a word. But maybe I had made my point with the image I presented, and didn’t need to emphasize it with the wordplay. In which case, it wasn’t the cleverness at fault but the redundancy. Fair enough.

The second offense was a quick lightening of the mood — I used an old song lyric to describe a situation. I’m not quite so convinced cleverness was a problem there (or indeed, anywhere). In the poem in question there are a few lighter moments in a poem otherwise taking itself seriously, and this was one of them. Can’t a little levity allow the reader to take a breath, to share with the writer a chuckle?

But maybe such cleverness calls too much attention to the writer. Look at me and my cleverness, it may say, and take the reader out of the poem in a way that is harmful to the poem and its atmosphere. Do we really need to share a wink, you and I?

If I want to inject humor, shouldn’t it be of the deeper kind and arise from the poem itself, not from the author’s ego?

I don’t know. I like to laugh. But when is humor organic to a poem and when is it hiding something or asserting itself in a show-offy way? I just don’t know, in the case of my poem; although I may recognize it immediately in someone else’s.

At any rate, I think it’s an interesting question.

Looky Lou; or, Enjoying Lia Purpura’s Work and More on Form

I heard her read many years ago, and enjoyed it thoroughly, and thought I’d read her book On Looking. But I remembered nothing about it when I feel deeply into the fascinating essays of this writer’s deep gaze. I also picked up and am, based on how much I’m enjoying so much of On Looking, looking forward to her newest collection of essays All the Fierce Tethers.

Listen to this from “On Form” in On Looking (again I’m being drawn to discussions of form — for someone who stubbornly writes in free verse, this seems peculiar):

“Sketching, I consider the line: ‘These fragments I shore against my ruin’–from a time when so much felt to be coming apart. But no. My fragments I shore to reveal my ruin. And all the similarities my eye is drawn to: flaw. Torque. Skew. I make a little pile by the shore: cracked horseshoe crab, ripped clam, wet ragged wing with feathers. I look because a thing is off, to locate the unlocatable in its features, forged as they are, or blunted, or blown. I look because the counter flashes its surprising grin.”

The essays luxuriate in the odd things noticed, the lovingly catalogued deformities noticed in her fellow humankind, in herself, in the world.

In the wonderful “Glaciology,” she recalls a week in which she was waiting for the results from a cancer test as her area was wrapped in snow, school cancelled, the usual rhythms disrupted. She wrote: “Of all the names for snow considered, of all the shifts in tone it made, I found clamshell, bone, and pearl. That week I found lead in the white, mouse in it, and refracted granite. Talc with pepper. Layers of dried mud, zinc, and iron. Blown milkweed and ashy cinder. Silvered cornfield. Uncooked biscuit. Mummy, oatmeal, sand, and linen. Some morning glory. Some roadside aster.”

Her interest in similarities reminds me of Magritte’s interest in such things. Think of his painting of a bird cage containing an egg, the curve of the cage echoing the curve of the egg; the thing containing the thing containing the thing to be contained but not yet birthed.

Which is sort of the form of a good essay, it occurs to me.

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Wake Me Up When It’s Over

This was an interesting moment from Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman, p130:

“There are about a hundred billions neurons in the average human brain, and each neuron is connected by long filaments to between a thousand and ten thousand other neurons. The electrical and chemical components of these neurons are largely understood. The manner in which electrical signals are created and fly through the fibers of a neuron, then generate chemical flows at the juncture between one neuron and the next, then start up the electrical signal again in the next neuron is understood in quantitative detail. The creation of long-term memory, upon which so much of our self-identity seems to be based, is accomplished by the material generation of new connections between neurons and the strengthening of existing connections, all caused by specific proteins. Despite the known material nature of the brain, the sensation of consciousness— of ego, of “I-ness”– is so powerful and compelling, so fundamental to our being and yet so difficult to describe, that we endow ourselves and other human beings with a mystical quality…To some that mystical thing is the soul. To some it is the Self. To others, it is consciousness.”

So we know all kinds of stuff about how the mind works, but we don’t know what this feeling is of knowing. Which makes me so confused I feel sleepy. And, let me tell you, from all the articles people insist on forwarding to me, we really know very little about sleep — how it works, why it works, why it works the way it works, and what’s going on when it doesn’t work, not to mention how to fix it. So we not only don’t know what this thing called “I” is but we don’t know why “I” can’t sleep. I’ll tell you, it keeps me awake at night.