IMG_7361The novel Clio’s Mobile Home is a facet of my creative work. Several characters in my novel write poems; I am serious about writing poetry. I also work on short shorts, and short stories. They are all modes of thinking about identity, transcendence and beauty in contemporary life. Art keeps us aloft, but it is more than decoration. Its force can be astounding. The artist becomes an instrument, and art lives to tell the tale.

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Storm King (Art in the Time of Covid)

You couldn’t ask for a more socially distanced, more star-studded venue in which to view art than Storm King, the famous sculpture park in New York’s Hudson Valley. You can wander the 500 acres – 500! – of this pastoral estate, see milkweed pods caught in sharp points of grass, grand allées of arbres, watch circling hawks – and boom, before you is a grand Calder, posing all kinds of questions, in its kinetic poise, about human possibility. I always feel the big heart of a circus performer in Calder’s sculpture, which is one reason why I love him.
Storm King puts a lot on the platter: in its early incarnation, the question might have been how do industrial “waste” and manly engineering coexist in the natural environment. Now, in the Anthropocene, we might ask if a “natural” environment even exists without its man-made face.
Such is sculpture that exists in space, in time. Are heroics poignantly passé? Is the immense piece of Alexander Liberman called “Adonai,” made of on- and off-again balanced gas cannisters, arrogant, the title a touch dismissive, though he insists it was random? After all, this is an era where an invisible virus has changed our entire landscape. Is a Lichtenstein mermaid against a blue-draped mountainscape worth seeing? Absolutely.
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Turn, Turn, September’s Turn

Already these crystalline days.  Already the air moving in its own way, letting sun and warmth shout at mid-day, then fall silent.  Already sound of the sea in the crowns of trees.   Already baskets full with the harvest.  Already late fruits, second round of figs, God’s tomatoes.  Already coming into peak.  Already reap what you sow.  Already reap what you have sown.

Then, as if the bonfires of vine cuttings have been let loose on the country, already fires, fires, fires.  Fire balls and lies and a house divided.  Unloosed color that are not our crystalline days.  Our, not our days.  Dazed by destruction, red-hot beauty that flashes in its rage.  Haze of underwater yellow dawn.  Smoke, air moving in its own way.

Leaders loosened from any ground.  Pronouncements. As with everything, the language exposes.  What are fears are.  What we’re not saying. 

Already turn, turn.  Turn of the twirling leaf.  Turn of teshuva of the Jewish New Year — return to a better self.  Breakdown, collapse, strip to origins.  Quiver, terror, suspense.  Turn after a long stare of paralysis.  Reap what you sow — maybe.  Reap in spite of what you sowed – maybe.  No guarantees.  Mystery.  Be nourished by all experience.  Sow, pause in the nothingness.  

The ripe tomato turns on the vine.

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The Insect Chorus

There are those who hate cicadas as they hate the summer sun. I myself love both.  The haters hear cacaphony, noise, intrusion. They hear one solid tone – abrasive – not noticing how the insect chorus of crickets and cicada throbs, then silences, throbs again.  They hear “scissor-grinders.” They hear the snapping of a tab from a cola can, up and back, in magnified repetition.  They don’t hear the hum of deep satisfaction or the sense of time passing and the moment fulfilled, though maybe they hear grief in summer’s end.

I have wracked up an array of pantheistic images of this summer soundtrack which have come in handy this most trying of weeks.  Time slows in August, that motionless high summer standstill.  But I, like many, found myself staring at spectacles of dystopia.  Further incursions of terror.  Election Day dread.  The top somehow keeps spinning, even as it slows down, teeters, leans as far from its axis of normalcy as seems possible.  Light sweat becomes greasier.  The levels of cynicism keep upping, possibly a way of preservation.

The insect chorus kept spinning.  For some species the high-stakes erotic daytime display is a suicide song. But at night, the song softens to a rhythmic chant, a round of pure incantation.  As the dervish dances into trance, the insect night calms to its given.  I’ve heard an eternal soundtrack, the god in timeless dance shaking her string of bells, every night from a different limb.  Or worshippers in thrall to cosmic energies, in a public display of meditation. I’ve heard a sound girdle across the earth’s broad waist, a web of communication, the chanting wordless word of consolation.  It’s there, for those who listen, and I’ll be listening keenly as the seasons shift.

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Strange Rerun: the American Vacation

The unexpected rarely rears its head in a life ordered by Zoom.   Spontaneity has become collateral damage.  

Usually I get my share of happenstance while traveling.  But traveling is so reduced this summer; possibilities for goofing off and going off the map have been clipped.  What we already know predicts where we can go, and what we do. So I’ve gone deep into reruns of American summers of childhood, memories of family, ponds, fireflies, deep woods, deep Americana.  Repeat, recycle, revisit.

But, being a Europhile and  self-declared “citizen of the world,” I realize I don’t know well our own country’s breadth and surface.  I know enough to know I was always leaving, and often returning.  I am always looking to other horizons, that restless draw to other horizons excites me, though maybe it’s just a need, a thing.

I found myself leaning into Maine. Austere, ranging from cool to cold, someone else’s nostagia.  What did I know of its thick and grassy salt ponds or broken peninsulas, the coast like the decay of a thousand organ notes or autumn branches oozing notes? Its stacks of lobster cages in the yards, its birches, beeches and beaches?  Coves with hard stones that the steady inundation of waves and tides has not crushed.   

It was a release from the everyday order, a time for chance and an outside world I didn’t know to break in. I got to renew the language of fish and fishermen that I use in languages I barely speak – international fishmonger lingo.  All those crusty lobstermen, dipping their catch in salt to make bait for the lobster catch.  Tiny islands that look like the heads of seals as they appear and disappear.  At land’s end, in the easternmost part of the US, the light was equally teasing – there, barely there, so thin and transparent it made everything within its reach slightly magical.  Light itself is invisible, though we tried to capture the zinc gleam on the mudflats at dusk, the streaky pink glimmer of oyster shell in the sky at sunset.  

The Zoom I prefer: going so far out of yourself you become part of that thin, invisible light before you settle back into a slightly different self. 

Cervantes wrote, “Where one door closes, another opens.”  The LED signage on the white clapboard Baptist Church in Damariscotta, glowing under a dark starry night, read, “Change is inevitable, but growth is up to you.”  Voilà!

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What Augurs, August?

I always feel trapped by August, its thick cluster of vowels.  Clotted.  Lugubrious, made for a lazy tongue.  Made for  limbs given up to the sun.  If it were a kitchen sauce, it would need to be thinned.  If there is a gust in August’s nature, we don’t feel it until the second half.  

Just what augur lurks in August?  Something is hiding in plain sight of its sun.  Its heaviness portends.  The gods know what hangs in the balance, but who can read the signs?  In the long wash of hazy beach sunset, reams of moody air rolled out, I can’t find a pattern.  The gulls are dropping mussel shells on rocks.  Sandpipers perform their own nutcracker suite in the just-washed shoreline.  Their pattern is their business. 

As for august leader, august occasion or company, hmmm, another conundrum.  Augustus’ shrewd power, respect and veneration — another shield which conceals while purporting to reveal. Weighty, in our days, droplets of moisture pasted to air molecules, weightly as in 90 percent humidity.  Do you feel the hanging of fate, one day swaying this way, one day that?    

Welcome August, to you I tip my hat, sticky old friend.  Let’s go hand in hand. 

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covid-19, summer-20

—after Inger Christensen

Covid exists.  Covid-19 exists, summer-20 exists.  High noon exists.  Heat exists.  Water in rivers, in seas, in showers, from fire hydrants exists.  Coves exist.  Hidden lanes of purple hydrangea exist.  Overturned bones of kayaks.  Smoothness of stones, stones, pebbles irreducible pebbles exist.  Marsh grasses like glissando on a piano.  Poison ivy exists.  Bodies in hospitals exist.  Grief exists.  Shadows and data and systems, bindweed and drifting boats, errors and interpretation.  Brutality exists. Bridges, from a distance, from other islands. A breeze laying traces of a fishnet on the waves.  Wildness, wilderness, wildness exists.   Light that has never been the same since the beginning of time exists. A swimmer’s ecstasy exists.  A swimmer exists as she swims through that moment’s infinity.  Festivity exists only because of the possibility that it might not exist.

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Of Oysters, the 4th and the Surreality of it all

Prompt: Tie together the Fourth of July, garbage day and a sense of the possibility of renewal.  

Make it spontaneous, so it doesn’t seem that the images preceded the prompt.  Don’t dwell too deeply on recent observations that  came while practicing poet’s observation, though you might want to show off that you’ve been able to look again.  (The fluff of airborne dust drifts, stops and starts, halting, as an indie band, as a shiny bubble that a child has blown through a plastic hoop, until you realize the fluff has a moth’s indelible wings and is flying freely, for fun).

Independence Day (or Interdependence Day, as I’ve heard it called): The country has been thrust back on me.   I’d left it countless times, then straddled between two countries, then made a life of motion.  But circumstances being what they are, I am simply facing it, America…  

posthumous, finished, junked, done — or part of the process of rising and passing that covid-19 has made us so aware of?   A “Finale for America” as clever wits have referred to rogue fireworks that have been exploding nightly?  In recent weeks and months I have agreed.  But the 4th gave me — what — freedom of stuckness.  I looked kindly on things; it wasn’t forced, it just happened.  

I thought about the Declaration of Independence and read, along with many, Frederick Douglass’ bracing famous 4th of July address: “You may rejoice.  I must mourn.”  The polyvocalism of these declarations of values – that we are living in the polyvocalism – unstuck me from singularity.  The truth and reconciliation process we’ve so long needed might be here.  I listened to the very best of American song — the sinuous pairing of elegant contrast, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald duets.  In a flight from nihilism, there are ways to combine the large and small. 

Look how beautiful the day after – peony petals against a pile of oyster shells. They are dissociated from their meaning — yet in this time of appreciating passage, the wisdom songs of covid as well as garbage day, here they are.  The flowers had been flush and full, the oysters a marvel. The energy of passage keeps us from getting stuck.  The poet Alice Oswald talks about this in her new Oxford lecture, “An Interview with Water.” Poetry, dance, rhythm and water all keep us moving. Then there’s the leaping between odd things – country, trash and renewal – that keeps the mind buzzing.

To listen to Oswald’s lecture, go to the home page, english.ox.ac.uk

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Flowers and Monsters

“In recent months I have been intent on seizing happiness.”  So wrote C.D. Wright, my guiding star right now.  If you’re naturally happy, you don’t make declarations to be happy.  You throw out an idea, a wild proposition and follow it passionately to see where it goes. If your arm is strong, you toss that net far and wide to pull in both flowers and monsters. 

I’m sitting at Wright’s feet now to gauge those monsters and flowers, but also to hear how, in her poetry, she navigated extremes. She wrote that she was pulled by extremes, as am I, and her selves swing wildly, as do mine.  Mine has a kind of “pessimistic optimism” or “optimistic pessimism” or “radical realism.” I feel that I’m carrying battling twins around on these humid summer days.  Where can I put them except on a page in form that doesn’t have to be resolved? Their form and spirit overseen by kindred spirits that I’ve pulled from my shelves? How lucky I am to have a way that keeps me human.

Returning to Wright, what follows her opening line in the poem”Crescent” about intending happiness is “to this end I applied various shades of blue.”  She then hauls in all kinds of fierce and ironic material examples. She works up into a fierce lather that seems to reflect a sexual fury, a restless rage.  No one lives in a world of our making.  Yet fury at the “system” is freighted with an unabated wonder.  Her material world crackles with straight-ahead fierce wonder at what is.  As she moves through her world, she softens or careens to a kind of balance that places her outside herself, into selfless love and community.  In her final great phrase, she delivers a profoundly earned mantra of illumination, for the road has been exhausting and exhilarating: “draw nearer my dear: never fear: the world spins nightly towards its brightness and we are on it”

“Crescent,” from Steal Away, Selected and New  Poems (Copper Canyon Press)

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The Protests: Sprung from Moral Uncertainty

What could be more dispiriting than a biological enemy, an invisible enemy, an enemy that has turned the morality schema upside down?   Yesterday’s bad guys — alienation and isolation  — are today’s heros of good health.  Those heros of isolation are also conditions for autoritarianism, which makes them still count as bad guys.  No wonder we’ve felt so lost and confused.

No wonder the police murder of George Floyd has changed the moral landscape.  In its horror and shame, in its immorality, it prompted the massive outpouring of public grief and collective protest.  It has a clear-cut narrative, with victims and perpetrators.  The unequivocal police brutality has no moral ambiguity. It liberated us from our own cells. Our listless selves had been told that this narrow narcissistic world was heroic – perhaps with limited horizons, we didn’t trust it. 

Walking on a summer afternoon to the RI State House, I refound my “we.” We were some 10,000. To hear the roar of thousands who respond in unity to the call of a leader – to feel the vibration in our bones, as my daughter said – began to restore a self in relation to others.  Collective, actively scooping up a sense of purpose. Rebellious. Called to look into our selves where moral ambiguities will most obviously arise. That has to be part of the pact. We can still do that while dissenting injustice, abuse of cops and our homegrown tyrant crossing new red lines at every turn.   This is not bad news wrapped in a protein. 

Coronavirus in still a threat, as we’ll always remark when we look at photos, in the future, of protesters in masks in photos.  As a young friend said, “History looks back at the past.  We’re in the middle of history.  But we don’t know what it looks like — we’re living it.”  He wasn’t comfortable with not knowing.  He shrugged: he knows he doesn’t have a choice.

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Vertigo, How Real You Are

copyright Andy Warhol

I saw the clarity 
of my eyesight 
turn to soft waves.

You know the cliche about writers being sensitive flowers, taking into their bodies whatever is “in the air”?  How the external world becomes translated in various ways into their nervous systems?  Inscribed on their internal bodies?  Melancholy, hysteria have led the way.  

With each imprint of the computer keys as I’m telling it, I’m getting more and more wavery.  Almost inducing Vertigo, the condition I myself was riffing about in a blog only a few slender months ago.  It was mostly metaphoric.  It was my attempt to name, in fondness and in dread, the sensation of spinning, whether or not we consciously felt it, as the ground beneath our feet was exceedingly delicate.  Back then, it was exacerbated by post-modernity.  We existed mostly in the attempts to negotiate balance. The off-balance had become our norm, and our “grounding” ritual was the attempt to negotiate some peace — while on the everpresent tightrope or in moments when essential values like love, beauty and the spirit reassured us. 

Some sensibilities even courted this, reveled in its radical challenge.  The rollicking fragmentation and disorientation was a reality of the world around, like it or not. Immerse, get drunk it in! If it sounds like it has a nouveau Baudelairean quality, I agree.  I paraphrase the preface of “Les Fleurs du Mal”: hypocritical reader, my lookalike, my kin!

As corona virus hit, the metaphor began to cut through thicket, getting more and more personal.  In the world, borders were being invaded, irreality becoming a part of reality, up becoming down.  In my body, the metaphor invaded my very cell structure with a nasty case of real vertigo.  My head is wobbly, the ground is shifting from time to time.  It comes in spurts: I have to negotiate steps on that tightrope from one point to another, delicately, with feet that are tender and with an appreciation for the emptiness below.  It used to be so easy! In the reclaiming of essential values that float to the surface, asserting themselves as essential, I’m putting “tender” and “care.”  The tender tending of things which may or may not affect you. Or be you.

All the work I’d done to prepare myself for shaky ungrounded reality not enough. Maybe words and images have led me to a point: into the real. 

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