Remontancy (iris redux)

During a mild late September two years back, I discovered the botanical term remontant–it applies to an iris that graces my perennial bed. The plant reblooms–not every autumn; only when the frost is late and the air and soil stay warm.

October 14th is pretty late for irises, though, even for remontant varieties. Indeed, the weather has been warm, and the leaf color seems to be coming on very slowly and without its usual vividness. Seasons not following their usual chronology. Summer hangs on. I feel a sense of discomfort, though I should be grateful, perhaps–for a longer show of blossoms, for monarch butterflies in October, for lower heating bills and no need to don a heavy coat (or any coat at all).

autumn iris

I live in a house, work in a building, get around mostly by vehicle; much as I want to be earthbound and of earth, much as I value the environment, I inhabit it often more through longing and imagination than in fact.

One way to ponder that paradox or imbalance is through poetry. Sometimes a poem reblooms for me, remontant, in surprise and renewal…I find something in the text or mood that was heretofore unnoticed. I’m thinking now of Sandra Meek’s poem “Biogeography” (in her book by the same name). Here are the last few lines:

~

In geologic scope, what the ground we’re mesmerized to won’t

let us forget, these mountains are a single
inflorescence, a half-life not more than one
exhalation of stars. This is the ice

we skate, clarity
which brings us down; genesis
of binomials–second naming of all the transitory’s

incarnations, flora to fauna–the craving for return
to the earliest garden, as if again what was left to us
was world enough, and time.

~

 

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Equinox, different

ann e. michael poet

Autumn

Translated by Renata Gorczynski

 

Autumn is always too early.
The peonies are still blooming, bees
are still working out ideal states,
and the cold bayonets of autumn
suddenly glint in the fields and the wind
rages.

What is its origin? Why should it destroy
dreams, arbors, memories?
The alien enters the hushed woods,
anger advancing, insinuating plague;
woodsmoke, the raucous howls
of Tatars.

Autumn rips away leaves, names,
fruit, it covers the borders and paths,
extinguishes lamps and tapers; young
autumn, lips purpled, embraces
mortal creatures, stealing
their existence.

Sap flows, sacrificed blood,
wine, oil, wild rivers,
yellow rivers swollen with corpses,
the curse flowing on: mud, lava, avalanche,
gush.

Breathless autumn, racing, blue
knives glinting in her glance.
She scythes names like herbs with her keen
sickle, merciless in her blaze
and her breath. Anonymous letter, terror,
Red Army.

~~

If the autumn of 2017 seems a bit more menacing than usual to some of us, there is reason for it. In Zagajewski’s poem, the season rips, extinguishes, and is merciless, personified as a raging “she,” hoisting bayonets, who embraces creatures and steals away their very breath. The imagery in this piece hurts–that penultimate stanza–and the anonymity of the letter, terror, that closes the poem leaves me rattled and uneasy.

Just for the record, I do not usually think of Fall in this way. I like the season’s inconsistent path toward Winter, its occasional tarrying, its rain, its oddly warm days, its early-morning frosts. Into every lifetime there come little eras of discomfort and fear, however; and it has been a challenge to see this autumn in quite the diffused and orange-tinted light of certain delightful autumns past. Today, I went searching for a poem to recognize the season, perhaps to comfort myself. I found this one, and despite its harrowing tone (or perhaps because of its attitude), I felt spoken to.

Much has been claimed about the healing power of poetry. Not all poems are healing sorts, however. Sometimes what speaks to the reader is not a small miracle of personal spiritual healing but a set of words and images that embody an internal understanding of an entirely different kind–a poem that acknowledges the fears we have, or that captures our rage, or our sorrow–a poem that says to the reader: “You, too, are human, and this may be a shared feeling between us, strangers that we are.”

In my little valley, Fall 2017 has not been early in the meteorological sense; the days have been summer-hot and often humid. Even the nights have been warm. Despite the lack of cold glancing scythes, I do find myself asking questions not unlike those the poet poses in his second stanza. Why should it, or we, or one among us, destroy and scatter and spread metaphorical or actual plague?

I do not have an answer, nor does Zagajewski. But I have this poem, which touches me with its humanity, its recognition that crying children everywhere ask “why?” And I know the poem is not “about” autumn, despite the title.

~~

IMG_0127

Also for the record, this poem can be found here and also in Zagajewski’s book, Without End: New and Selected Poems. [Copyright © 2002 by Adam Zagajewski. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, http://us.macmillan.com/fsg. All rights reserved.]

Evolution of the neuron

I have just read, albeit slowly, Werner R. Loewenstein’s Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain. Having finished the book, I can attest I understand his argument even though my grasp of the physics involved is decidedly at the novice level. The last three chapters of the book were what drew me to reading it in the first place–those chapters cap the text with his model of how Evolution (he anthropomorphizes the theory) “chose to design”–in its exemplary, concise way–complex systems that led not just to life but to sentience.

Loewenstein compares neuro/biological processes with computers in terms of their being processors of information from the environments. He seems enthusiastic about computers in general, but he argues that artificial intelligence remains far away from evolving into sentience because consciousness requires many kinds of parallel processing that intersect and interact and filter out information. That complexity, he claims, will be difficult to engineer; yet over eons, the process of evolution accomplished it through a combination of physics, chemistry, and biology.braintrust-small

Loewenstein prioritizes the physics aspect: how electrical pulses in neurons parallel electrical pulses (attraction and repulsion) in atoms, how these behaviors can combine to create compounds or release energy; he uses analogies and spends several chapters on the eye, its neurons and dendrites and cones and rods, to demonstrate how a system of information reception and filtering can occur that relays information to the brain and then back to other information receptors and actors in the body of a worm, bird, or human being. Get enough relay systems going, and sight + touch + smell + hearing + taste evolve into the living animal. At some point, the multiple parallel information systems develop into consciousness (Loewenstein does not speculate where that point occurs–it is still “a mystery,” he admits).

~

Douglas Fox, writing in Aeon, quotes neuroscientist Leonid Moroz as saying, “There is more than one way to make a neuron, more than one way to make a brain.” In this fascinating article, Fox follows Moroz’s lengthy study of ctenophores, jellyfish-like creatures about which little is understood–though Moroz and his team of researchers are changing that. At the same time, their work suggests that our previous understanding of brain development is not necessarily the only model out there for how neurons and synapses can get information processed and acted upon to sustain a life. If that life is lived under very different environmental circumstances, maybe evolution might “choose” different paths of systematic information processing (ie, “thinking”).

…when he failed to find common neurotransmitters in ctenophore nerves back in 1995, it wasn’t simply that his tests weren’t working; rather, it was because the animal wasn’t using them in any way. This, says Moroz, was ‘a big surprise’.

‘We all use neurotransmitters,’ he says. ‘From jellyfish to worms, to molluscs, to humans, to sea urchins, you will see a very consistent set of signalling molecules.’ But, somehow, the ctenophore had evolved a nervous system in which these roles were filled by a different, as-yet unknown set of molecules.

Fox poses the researchers’ questions this way: “how divergent can nervous systems be? Do we truly understand how life senses its surroundings and behaves?” Science has generally, post-Darwin, followed a straight-line approach to evolution; but good scientists recognize that sometimes the road less traveled by has made all the difference.

 

Although the very idea of “sentient jellyfish” might appall many people, I wonder what sort of consciousness ctenophores would develop.  🙂

A little honey, a little sun

Today, something to soothe the collective psyche, to ward off anxiety and remind us that we cannot move through this life totally fearlessly, but we can move through this life.

Ann E. Michael honeybee

~

Take from my palm, to soothe your heart
a little honey, a little sun,
in obedience to Persephone’s bees.

You can’t untie a boat that was never moored,
nor hear a shadow in its furs,
nor move through thick life without fear.

Osip Mandelstam, tr. Clarence Brown & W.S. Merwin

There’s more to this poem–three further stanzas–and I am re-reading it today, over and over, as if to memorize its quietly unfolding lines:

For us, all that’s left is kisses
tattered as the little bees

 

The poignancy of that image nearly kills me. Yet, soon enough in the poem (and elsewhere), Mandelstam’s bees die; but they also hum in the night, in the woods, “in the mint and lungwort of the past.” They make a sun out of honey. They warm the chill of winter’s approach; like kisses, they can soothe our hearts.

~

I have read some severe criticism of translations of Mandelstam’s poetry. Brodsky’s work, Merwin’s…Russian speakers suggest no translation adheres at all closely to the original. Rose Styron and Olga Carlyle’s version is here in Paris Review. And here’s a version (tr. uncredited) in The Atlantic. A bilingual version resides here, if you happen to know Russian and can weigh in on the translation controversy (Mandelstam himself reportedly hated reading verse in translation).

But here is why I am holding this poem close to myself today:

The poem acknowledges the fear that resides in all of us.

The poem reminds us that we have much to share. That we can soothe one another’s hearts.

Namaste.

 

The color orange

bouquet

Late summer bouquet five days past its first blush…

~
The crickets are raising their “voices” each night; the darkness lasts a little longer, and the color orange emerges from the green of midsummer to remind us of all that is beautiful in the world, despite __________________________ [insert your list of unpleasant, tragic, disheartening things].

Here is my encomium to the Mexican sunflower, tithonia rotundifolia, a favorite of bees and monarch butterflies and also a favorite of my daughter’s, so it has special aesthetic-emotional appeal for me. The poem I’d like to write to the sunflower has not yet materialized, so praise in prose will have to do for now.

mexican sunflower, bee by Ann E Michael

Autumn approaches. I like autumn, though some of my dear ones do not–but one thing universally salvages the early weeks of the season, no matter how a person feels about the encroaching cooler weather: orange. Even people who don’t care for the color in clothing or decor admit that, in nature, the color orange attracts the eye, enlivens a scene, brightens the dullest corner.

Nasturtiums, zinnias, the last hurrah of daylilies, butterflyweed, and early-turning foliage such as sumac and sassafras sport the color well. There are also pumpkins and squashes warming up fields; and in some areas, there are butterflies wearing the hue: monarchs, viceroys, fritillaries.

But nothing delights in a bright red-orange so well as the Mexican sunflower, which evokes the warm climate of its designation and likely origin (I haven’t done a great deal of research on the plant. I know that tithonia diversifolia is native to the region of Central Mexico and am merely guessing that the rotundifolia variety has its roots there, too–excuse the pun).

monarch.ann e michael

It sports well with one of its showiest pollinators, the gorgeous, orange, monarch butterfly.

Tithonia likes full sun and does not mind a bit of drought–all reasons it managed well in Mexico. It’s also ridiculously happy in the American Northeast, at least in the Mid-Atlantic region where I garden. The plants grow 6-9 feet tall and are veritable fountains of pleasing, brilliant points in the late-summer garden. They attract bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and small songbirds and have few pests. Deer dislike their “hairy” leaves, and slugs and beetles seem also unimpressed with their food qualities.

Or perhaps the “pests” appreciate the blooms’ aesthetic value, as I do. [Okay, too much anthropomorphism there, I admit.] tithonia.2sm

Furthermore, as long as I get out to the garden and dead-head the plants regularly, they bloom right up until the first hard frost.

And they cut well for bouquets (see the not-excellent photo above).

When there is so much sorrow going on in the world, it may seem odd that a flowering plant can offer respite–a moment or two of awe, of joy, the discovery of a bumblebee with its legs pollen-yellow or a monarch’s slim proboscis coiled just above brilliantly golden stamens amid a red-hot orange daisy-shaped blossom…and maybe, above, an autumn-blue sky.

Not art, but nature. Both valuable to human creatures.

 

Mind & gray matter

After an interlude of fiction-reading and the start of the semester, during which there is little time for personal reading, I have returned to some of the topics of neurology, consciousness, and the evolution of the story-telling mind that have so often diverted me from–yet influenced my thinking on–poetry.

Just a brief overview of my “difficult books” of the past four or five years…I have a background in philosophy and, to a much lesser extent, theology. Both disciplines endeavored over thousands of years to explain why we think the way we do and why or how we reason, make decisions, and make clearly unreasonable decisions.

The Free Will paradox, the Mind-Body Problem, ethics, tribalism, the body politic, you name it.

My thinking tends to sway slightly Eastern in terms of intention, mindful behavior, and non-theistic compassion despite my being raised pretty much Western Protestant with Enlightenment ethics and values (also compassion, as based upon the teachings of Jesus).

Throw in a bit of psychology built upon philosophical foundations, Freud, William James, Darwin, Thoreau, and my constant searching for what makes a being conscious, and I end up with an eclectic but not unreasonable reading list.

Also poetry. But I digress.

Here’s the barest outline of my more recent forays into understanding the probably not-understandable: I read Stuart Kauffman’s book At Home in the Universe to obtain a grasp of a chemistry-and-statistically-based (Boolean) thinking concerning how consciousness may have arisen in the universe and whether we Earthly human beings may not be entirely alone as conscious beings in a huge and expanding cosmos. Frances Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis offers a biologist’s view of how we ought to go about trying to study consciousness and its evolution based upon biological science. Douglas Hofstadter’s I am a Strange Loop, a deeply engaging look at an interdisciplinary concept of consciousness, examines evolution, biology, neurology, and a bit of physics and philosophy; Dennett & Lakoff’s Philosophy in the Flesh grounds philosophy in neurological underpinnings. Just to be sure the physicists are not overlooked in my overview of consciousness, I’m now reading Werner Lowenstein’s Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain.

Referenced in almost all of these books are Patricia Churchland, the D’Amasios, Thomas Nagel, Thomas Kuhn, Charles Darwin, Descartes, and Kant.

To name a few.

brad-hammonds-flikr-books

~

What good has this reading done me, in terms of understanding what constitutes consciousness, from what it is derived, and how it evolved? Do I know any more than I did about human beings? I certainly know more about the human body, especially the brain, than I did. I know more about the cellular level of information processing and more about theories people have posited during the past centuries–and what aspects of those theories seem to have had either intuitive, reasonable influence or scientific (empirical) value.

That last paragraph appears to be question-dodging, doesn’t it?

~~

I love to read. I love human beings. I love the phenomena of the visible and experiential world. I love the urgent fuel of creativity. Can that be enough, for now?

In time, maybe I will come to accept the fraying of the consciousness, the decay of memory and the intimate Beloveds as they fade into senility or pass out of the tactile world.

 

Hunger for words, words for hunger

When I was very young, our church became involved in the War on Poverty outlined by the Johnson administration (1964). My father attended events and marches to raise awareness about the fact that many people in this wealthy nation, the USA, were struggling–even starving. It seemed, probably idealistically, that a country as prosperous as the US was in ’64 would find a way to insure that all its citizens could have enough to eat and a roof over their heads. (This was Johnson’s “Great Society”)

A memory:

My sister, my mother, and I are seated at the table in our little apartment kitchen in Yonkers, NY. My father is away on pastoral business, but the previous evening, he’d told us that we were going to fast the next day in solidarity with poor people who never had enough food to eat. The reason for fasting was to let us feel how they must feel.

My little sister thought that was unfair. She was, in her defense, only four years old.

Of course it was unfair. That was the point. Why should some people have plenty of food while others went hungry? That is unfair. (This logic she understood, though I don’t think either of us made more of the connection at that time.)

“You kids won’t fast the whole day,” my folks said–just suppertime.

Now it is suppertime. We are at the table, and the table is bare. We each have a glass of water, not milk. And we are hungry. Our mother has fasted the whole day. Isn’t she hungry? Yes, she says. She’s hungry. It isn’t a good feeling, and we whine awhile, hungry and in addition, bored.

“Okay,” she says, “you can each have a piece of bread. One piece.”

It is something, but it doesn’t fill the stomach.

bread

bread

Another memory:

I’m in my thirties, with young children of my own now, and talking with my mother about her past–a past she has kept from us, and from herself, and is slowly learning to accept. A past that included growing up during the Depression with five siblings. How her father refused, out of pride, any kind of government relief. How hard her mother worked to keep the family from going hungry.

I think, then, that my mother knows what it means to be hungry.

~~

Many decades later, the term for hunger has become, in legislature and grant proposals, “food insecurity.” The jargon, the euphemism, distances us from the facts. People without enough good nutritious food are not insecure. They hunger.

I don’t want words to operate that way, moving the reader away from understanding. I want words to bring us close, to open up the mundane and horrible real and the fervently imagined possible. Language that sears and mends, the interpretation of which also can sear and mend, words that do not act as misprision but as multi-faceted revelation. Those are the words for which I am hungry.

Something that fills the stomach: embodied, flavorful, wonderful words. That’s one of the reasons I love poetry so much, that hunger for the non-distancing. The relationship that brings us truth. The truth that is often unspeakable.

Poems can take us there:

One Kind of Hunger

The Seneca carry stories in satchels.
They are made of  pounded corn and a grandmother’s throat.

The right boy will approach the dampness of a forest with a sling, a modest twining

wreath for the bodies of  birds. A liquid eye.

When ruffed from leaves, the breath of  flight is dissolute.
What else, the moment of  weightlessness before a great plunge?
In a lost place, a stone will find the boy.
Give me your birds, she will say, and I will tell you a story.
A stone, too, admits hunger.
The boy is willing. Loses all his beaks.
What necklace will his grandmother make now.
The sun has given the stone a mouth. With it, she sings of what has been lost.
She sings and sings and sings.
The boy listens, forgets, remembers. Becomes distracted.
The necklace will be heavy, impossible to wear.
~

Lehua M. Taitano