Let me remember joy

A good companion

A good companion

Excerpts and links to some vivid poetry as a kind of consolation, thanks to The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine, and to some wonderful writers:

Alicia Ostriker’s celebration of animal exuberance in Poetry:

…Pursuing pleasure
More than obedience
They race, skid to a halt in the wet sand,
Sometimes they’ll plunge straight into
The foaming breakers…

~~

A Dog Has Died” by Pablo Neruda

…all his sweet and shaggy life,
always near me, never troubling me,
and asking nothing.

Joyful, joyful, joyful,
as only dogs know how to be happy
with only the autonomy
of their shameless spirit…

~~

Bob Hicock’s “Unmediated Experience”

She does this thing. Our seventeen-
year-old dog. Our mostly deaf dog.
Our mostly dead dog, statistically
speaking. When I crouch.
When I put my mouth to her ear
and shout her name. She walks away.
Walks toward the nothing of speech.
She even trots down the drive, ears up,
as if my voice is coming home…

~~

Mary Oliver has a recent book of dog-related poems. Critics have derided it as sentimental–but that’s part of the role dogs play for us humans. Only part, though. There’s more, I think; but at present–no intellectualizing. Emotion–feeling–is fundamental to the human physiology.

Here’s my favorite photo of her.

524860_10200306585091559_756123494_nLooking out. Living in the moment.

~~

“Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift.” ~Mary Oliver

Dogs & lions

By chance, I encountered the poem “Thorn Leaves in March” by W.S. Merwin (1956, Poetry magazine) a day ago and felt levels of resonance such as poems can evoke. The powerfully “clear expression of mixed feelings”–thank you again, W.H. Auden–converges with seasonal details in this early Merwin piece and merges, completely by happenstance, with events in my current life.

Walking out in the late March midnight
With the old blind bitch on her bedtime errand
Of ease stumbling beside me, I saw

At the hill’s edge, by the blue flooding
Of the arc lamps, and the moon’s suffused presence…

My elderly dog stumbles beside me on these late-winter nights; I do not think she will see another full-blooming spring. Resonance.

alicelamb

Rescue of an orphaned lamb.

“As a white lamb the month’s entrance had been…” Well, that has certainly been true of this year’s weather. And the lamb allusion makes me think not just of the old saying about March but about my daughter, who is spending this month’s last two weeks working among ewes on a farm in Scotland as lambing season progresses.

Merwin’s speaker refutes the aphorism; his March comes in like a lamb because it is white, and goes out in white, as well:

…as a lamb, I could see now, it would go,
Breathless, into its own ghostliness,
Taking with it more than its tepid moon.

The lion, he claims, is “The beast of gold, and sought as an answer,/Whose pure sign no solution is.” No lion in this quiet, late-winter/cusp-of-spring snowfall–the light is silvery, the budding leaves of the thorn trees translucent and cold. The speaker stands beneath the “sinking moon” and wonders, questions, listening for something he knows he will not hear.

The old dog, domestic companion (neither lion nor lamb), completes her mission; the man lets go of metaphysical thoughts; the earth inexorably turns toward summer–despite the snow.

I’ll keep this poem in mind as the next snowstorm heads my way on the equinox.

 

Roadkill

As the spring equinox approaches and creatures rouse from dormancy, the number of roadkill incidents spikes. Yesterday as I made a left turn into my driveway, I noticed a groundhog carcass lying in the middle of the street. I was stopped to retrieve my mail anyway, so I figured I should move the body off.

And then it moved–bloodied mouth opening and shutting, one heavily-clawed forepaw shuddering slightly. It wasn’t quite dead.

Poems about road kills sprang to mind. I thought immediately of Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” and that moment of swerving, replete with caesuras, in the last couplet; Billy Collins’ “Ave Atque Valealso skittered into my thoughts, that bloated woodchuck waving “hail, Caesar” to the passing vehicles.  As I pulled a plastic bag from my car, one of my own poems resonated–“Burials,” which is in my collection Water-Rites (available through this link and posted below).

I made a glove of the bag and grasped the poor beast by its tail, a precaution: it might have been lively enough to snap at me. Not the case this time. A car running over the body would have put the groundhog more quickly out of its misery, but by daylight drivers tend to avoid road kill; it gets smashed during the night hours. So I left it on the embankment to gasp out its last breath with the birds larking about above it and some damp wintry weeds under its dark body.

This sort of experience feels oddly metaphorical…obviously, not only for me but for people like Stafford and Collins. I am sure one could put together an anthology of very lovely roadkill poems.

~groundhog-day-groundhog

BURIALS

1.
Last week the neighbors’ dogs eviscerated a woodchuck,
left it, stinking, at the perimeter of our woods

which is how we found it, by the smell—
body bloated, partly hairless:

a scientific demonstration on the rapidity
and absoluteness of decay, the brief time it takes;

but today my daughter cannot bear the stray cat’s
road-killed stillness, the soft, domestic body,

the pet, which isn’t hers—she begs to bury it.
The schoolbus arrives with my promise

to give the cat some cover. Under mulberry I scrape
a shallow grave, in thin and gravelly roadside soil,

cover it with fallen leaves, an autumn prayer—
nothing more, because I know burial does not forestall

death’s swell, its stink, desiccation,
absoluteness; I do what I promised,

disguising the body’s inevitable progression
from the eyes of my grieving child.

2.
Shall I cover my gray hairs
with dry leaves, shall I layer
my wrinkled hands beneath clay,
hide my own departure—

or shall I teach my children
to understand the truth of maggots,
which consume equally
the treasured and the stray—

which arrive unasked,
fulfill their contract with the earth,
never seeking recognition
or time, more time?

~

© 2012 Ann E. Michael

 

March, march

March has been a busy month for me. Instead of composing posts on my usual topics (poetry, nature, education, philosophy), I am going to refer my readers to other sites or other writers…a treasury of riches on the web.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, I ask my readers to check out my father’s memoir of the Selma to Montgomery March, here, and to consider this heartbreaking poem by the late Jake Adam York:

~~

For Reverend James Reeb
     9 March 1965, Selma, Alabama

The ministers rise from empty plates like the steam
of chicken and greens and puff into coats, prayers,

and then the unlit streets, the night, ready
for tomorrow’s march or gathering or prayers,

and then the dark is beating Hey niggers
though only their coats are black and the night and everything

so they cannot see what’s coming, what hits them,
what clubs or pipes, what feet are kicking

at their ribs, who’s saying Now you know,
now you know what it’s like to be a real nigger.

No one can see what lands, what cracks Reeb’s skull.
No one can see the hairline fracture

or what’s nesting, what’s beating there,
what wings are gathering in his eyes.

      by Jake Adam York

from the Blackbird archives.

Biography of Reeb here.

Hawks & fragments

When I take the commuter bus into New York City and back, I prefer daytime trips because I can count hawks.

I’m not a birdwatcher; but I have noticed, over many years of traveling the route (Interstate 78 Pennsylvania through New Jersey), that the highway offers good predatory-bird landscapes. The bus has large windows and elevates the passengers above the usual traffic lanes, so even though I’m traveling 70 miles an hour, I have a panoramic view through eastern Pennsylvania and north-central New Jersey, where there are scrims of woodlots behind the noise barriers, scrubby undergrowth on medians and embankments, a few cornfields, many high-density housing communities, railroads, creeks, and small county park lands.

I seldom get a close enough look to identify a bird positively; yet from my motor-vehicle perch I can tell a buteo from a harrier or an accipter. The fairly small kestrel is difficult to note, being about pigeon-sized (and pigeons are legion in NJ &NY) but I’ve identified them by their flight pattern. The buteos are most common around here, and from a bus I can’t usually discern a broad-wing from a redtail. But I see them roosting at dusk, or perched, or soaring over the fields and the strip mall parking lots. Twice, I have even spotted a great horned owl in trees along the route.

There are important raptor flyways along this path and into the region just west of where I live: Hawk Mountain is a big birding attraction along the Appalachian Trail. I have counted as many as 18 raptors along an 80-mile stretch of road. The commute takes just under two hours; I am probably the only person on the bus who spends most of her time looking out the windows at what is, admittedly, a rather uninspiring and predictable landscape.

redtail

See below for a link to raptor id at Hawk Mountain

~

51YVrgMy9sL._.jpg

Hawks have been very much on my mind because I recently read Helen Macdonald’s quite wonderful memoir, H Is for Hawk, which I highly recommend.

~

Here are a few fragments of notes I wrote in my journal while I traveled home last Sunday.

what could be a hawk. but isn’t–

paper wasp nests     squirrel dreys (nests of food for hawks!)     leaf clumps      plastic bags[tangled in boughs]

big crows. until they fly.          traffic cameras. the particular angle of them, perched (as it were) above streetlamps.

without binoculars, and in motion. not birdwatching. I scan for raptors.

frozen swamp–The Meadowlands–

snow. out of which phragmite grasses emerge, brown, russet brown. color of redtail feathers.

cranes/high tension wires. canadian geese–also in snow, feeder creeks & streams frozen, Hudson frozen, Delaware frozen.

raptor count NJ 10, PA 4. Four in 16 miles, Pennsylvania.

And yes, I composed a couple of poems during the trip.

But only one of the poems featured hawks.

~ Link to a great page for Eastern US raptor identification

Barnacles, finches’ beaks, art

Cirripedia, the barnacles, occupied Mr. Charles Darwin for many years, even though his extensive studies of the class are not what he’s famous for (except among cirripedists). The average layperson knows Darwin as the man who came up with the theory of evolution–though that is not strictly what he did, and none of his books bear that title. After the publication of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, and the subsequent and ongoing controversies that followed, pretty much everything in the world could be–and has been–examined “under an evolutionary lens.”

The original “lens” involved finch beaks, pigeon-breeding, and early geology studies. It was fueled also by taxonomy, anatomy, and barnacles, by a member of the landed gentry who stayed at  home, more or less, for 45 years after his five-year journey on the Beagle. A scholar, an “armchair naturalist” by today’s standards; a genius.

finch beaksMany people who interpreted what evolution suggested went off the deep end one way or another, which is what happens with ground-breaking ideas. Both critics and supporters re-interpreted and often misinterpreted Darwin and the implications of his work, as well, all of which means he accomplished something truly significant. Why not, therefore, examine fundamental human traits to see whether evolutionary currents can be discerned? Certainly Darwin and a few of his contemporaries speculated that altruism might have an evolutionary basis, a concept that was taken up, debated, and temporarily dismissed in the 1960s-70s; recent neurobiological and genetic studies have brought the possibility of a biological basis for kindness back into discussion (see also Damasio).

There is also the question of art (and aesthetics, though taste seems more likely to be social than biological–but who knows?), which brings me to Denis Dutton’s delightful book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution.

Rather than summarize my responses to his thought-provoking and rather convincing arguments, I’m posting some quotes. These are ideas I find juicy to consider; perhaps other readers will feel similarly.

~

Wondrous aesthetic experiences are possible in the absence of a sense of larger community: the response of an individual to a beautiful landscape, for instance, …or to a recording of the Goldberg Variations heard in solitude. If the arts were intrinsically social in the way that social-cohesion theory claims, people…would prefer standing in a crowd to see a painting in a museum, rather than standing alone.

Because of sexual selection, the arts retain an incorrigible sense of being made by one individual person for another…the motives of art, as even Darwin knew, are ancient and complicated–directed toward a community perhaps, but also created to captivate an audience of one.

~

The artist…probes the content of human emotional life with an eye toward articulating, or making clear, a unique emotion, an individual feeling.

Can you imagine taking [a] pill to save the expense of concert tickets, or even the time spent in listening to a recording of the piece? The answer is very likely to be no, and the reason tells us something about the nature of artistic expression. It is not just the emotion as bare feeling we want from art, it is the individual artistic expression of emotion–how emotions are revealed in the art, through technique, structure, balance, and the blending of sounds….Yes, we want feeling from art, but not as an end for which the art is a means: with art, the means is the end itself.      [italics mine]

~

Extending Darwin’s original suggestion, I believe this intense interest in art as emotional expression derives from wanting to see through art into another human personality: it springs from desire for knowledge of another person….talking about art is an indirect way of talking about the inner lives of other people.

~

All of the above excerpts are from Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct, 2009.

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About art (a poem)

While trying, I fear in vain, to tidy up and organize my poetry files, I came across this poem composed before 1997. Despite its flaws, I decided that rather than revise I should post it here, because it offers a narrative about how a person–shall I specify, this particular person–might come to love the wide, multicultural, historical, spiritual, experimental, transcendent “world” of art.

Melencolia_I_(Durero)
A Life Saved by Art

The library’s card catalog led me
to shelves of art books: oversized, glossy-paged,
crabbed with tiny, inarticulate commentary
about volume, form, structure,
perspective, light and shadow,
innovation and rebelliousness
and the emotive content of the line.

What did it mean? I was eleven.
I made a hagiography based upon
the beauty of still things, life arrested,
mid-gesture, on canvas, wood, stucco,
merging all my saints and artists into
a collage of stories as naive
as Rousseau’s jungle scenes–

but I believed Rousseau, and Breughel
and the intimacies of Rembrandt’s Bathsheba
and the endless processions of amazed Magi
through the narrow streets of precarious Italian towns
and Degas’ women tying up their hair
and the rich invitingness of Gauguin’s flowers
and the stark heart of Georgia O’Keeffe–12-01-05MagiFraAngelico

I believed I would learn to comprehend my life,
put it into perspective through
Giotto’s tiny and exquisite backgrounds,
Dürer’s precise grids, believed I would discover
an understanding of the abstract.
I wanted to be transformed through art,
the sanctity and structure of the line,
and, through them, out
of the coming confines of adolescence.

I forget so much of what I learned,
but still I possess Arles, and Athens,
the buff-colored pages of
Da Vinci’s notebooks, ink and ideas:
ink which now sprawls abstract upon the page
while I consider the emotive content
of each line–and brilliant fields of color
daubed in wild and perfect order:
a moment, a childhood, a life
saved by art.black-hollyhock-blue-larkspur-georgia-okeeffe

~ © 1997 Ann E. Michael

~

There are better poems about art (even by me); but I treasure the yearning outlook this piece suggests, and its tendency toward overstatement as well.