Trees & tombs

On a brisk and clear autumn day, I visited Brooklyn’s magnificent and park-like Green-Wood Cemetery. Established in 1838, the burial grounds were planned as a gently-rolling landscape of hills, winding paths, ponds, and specimen trees in what was then rural Long Island. The “History” tab of the National Historic Site’s webpage says:

By 1860, Green-Wood was attracting 500,000 visitors a year, rivaling Niagara Falls as the country’s greatest tourist attraction. Crowds flocked to Green-Wood to enjoy family outings, carriage rides and sculpture viewing in the finest of first generation American landscapes. Green-Wood’s popularity helped inspire the creation of public parks, including New York City’s Central and Prospect Parks.

These days, US citizens feel far less connected to death, and the concept of picnicking among gravesites may seem creepy. The organization devoted to keeping up the cemetery as a historic site (it is, by the way, still an active cemetery) offers tours: visitors can tour the catacombs, visit graves of famous people, take an architectural monument & mausoleum tour, and see the sculptural highlights of the cemetery.

The sculptures are largely figural pieces and tend toward the Gothic sentimentality of the late 19th century: draped urns, weeping maidens wearing Greek chitons, triumphant angels, busts and full-length portraiture, columns and more columns (Corinthian being far and away the favorite). If such monuments appeal to you, Green-Wood is decidedly worth a visit; it is also a favorite among history buffs. A Revolutionary battle was fought on those grounds, and there are some early graves from the Dutch pre-Revolutionary era, not to mention the inherent historical interest of a major city mortuary established in the 1830s.

Here’s a flickr site devoted to images of Green-Wood.

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While history and art interest me a great deal, what most arrested my attention at Green-Wood were the trees. Seldom do I get to see dozens of 170-year-old oaks, 100-year-old weeping beeches draping their boughs over paths and tombstones, large female gingko trees that drop their smelly orange fruits on the ground, old elms that survived Dutch elm disease, enormous cedars and firs of every description, majestic walnut trees (the woodlot at my house sports only some weedy black walnuts). Three tall, long-armed people embraced the circumference of one of these old oaks…

GreenwoodTree2-26Oct2013

Loving up the trees at Green-Wood.

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There are hundreds of species of trees at Green-Wood, aptly named; and in fall the colors are handsome. I can imagine the pastel colors of the flowering trees there in spring!

So I think of the place of the dead as a fantastic terrarium of living things encased in city streets, a bubble of micro-environment–470+ acres–wherein thrive trees, a wide variety of birds, ornamental grasses and flowers, shrubs (too many hydrangeas, perhaps), squirrels and, judging by the dug-up divots evident in grassy areas, skunks, opossums, and possibly raccoons.

And yes, I recognize that cemeteries have a reputation for good soil because the plants are “fertilized” by human remains–undeserved reputation in modern times due to sanitation requirements and at Green-Wood, where many of the interred are not even in the ground. Even if and when human decay complements the soil nutrients, the idea doesn’t bother me. I am enough of a scientist, and enough of a Buddhist, to appreciate the biocycle.

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Objects and stories

I’ve been occupied with many things lately that take me away from blogging and even from poetry. I have been re-reading Hard Times which seems, suddenly, relevant and appropriate to life. I deeply value my world of the imagination, which is not bi-modal, black-and-white, straight facts, simple storyline, no diversions. It is rich and complex and worthy of exploration. It is mysterious and loving and paradoxical, a puzzle and a joyful muddle and a pool of sorrows. It loves to divulge and elaborate and dwells in velvety ambiguities.

I post herein a quote not from Dickens, however, but from Edmund deWaal’s book The Hare with Amber Eyes–in hopes that it will jog my memory for a further post on this topic eventually.

“It is not just things that carry stories with them. Stories are a kind of thing, too. Stories and objects share something, a patina….perhaps patina is a process of rubbing back so that the essential is revealed, the way that a striated stone tumbled in a river feels irreducible, the way that this netsuke of a fox has become more than a memory of a nose and a tail. But it also seems additive, in the way that a piece of oak furniture gains over years and years of polishing…

You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story.”

ipomoea

Or something that is not in your pocket. Something you may see along the road, on a path in a park or forest, reflected in a window. The story, perhaps, of a story you thought you knew well–one your father told you, which his father told him, and to which there is truth but also layers and about which you may be able to weave another tale.

Art, story, story, art

Yesterday, I attended a reading by former US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan in a more intimate setting (a luncheon) than I’ve ever been privileged to hear her at in the past. An audience member asked her how she would define art. Alas that I don’t write quickly enough to have taken her words down verbatim, but she offered a lovely answer.

She said that if a person cannot really be happy without doing it, and cannot keep from needing to do it, and if it nourishes or gives back to that person in ways nothing else can–then that “it” is art, in her opinion.

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I suppose art also ought to speak to others, but I am not sure that is as necessary as art critics think it is.

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Speaking of critics, and of art, I was impressed with Hilary Mantel’s 1998 novel The Giant, O’Brien for reasons that made a few critics rather lukewarm about it. The author is best known for her amazing historical works, well-researched and full of believably human perspective. O’Brien is a departure in several respects although still historical fiction. I read this book as an ambiguous moral tale, a myth, a story about stories (and art) and a depiction of ways the Enlightenment created significant losses in the midst of its gains. So I was less bothered by the exaggeration of certain personalities or minor plot gaps. O’Brien, a storyteller of the most shamanistic/primitive sort, also possesses a modern (Enlightenment) intellect and an artist’s “intuition.” But he never achieves fame, or the goal of restoring a beloved pub–the place he learned his craft–and dies painfully and slowly, impoverished and nearly abandoned.

As O’Brien nears death, Mantel writes that there comes “a point in fatigue or pain when logic slowly crumbles from the world, where reason’s bricks sieve to crumb. Where content flits from language…and departs.” And her character, the giant–who embodies in his hugeness the epitome of mythical narrative, the kind that sustains us even in dire poverty–eventually comes to the conclusion that the poor among us lose all. Of the poor man, he muses:

Stories cannot save him. When human memory runs out, there is the memory of animals; behind that, the memory of the plants, and behind that the memory of rocks. But the wind and the sea wear the rocks away; and the cell-line runs to its limit, where meaning falls away from it, and it loses knowledge of its own nature. Unless we plead on our knees with history, we are done for, we are lost. We must step sideways, into that country where space plaits and knots, where time folds and twists: where the years pass in a day.

What within us plaits and knots and folds and twists but the brain itself? We pass along our knowledge and, more importantly, our stories. That is done from brain to brain through language and music and art, even as the individual brain comes to the end of its viability and vitality. We step sideways into another person’s brain, just as O’Brien’s listeners memorize his tales, his cadence, his figurative speech. So, in the end, O’Brien is wrong.

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I attended a funeral today at which the officiant encouraged us to keep the departed alive in our hearts and for the future by telling stories he had told or by relating stories about him to anyone who might listen. I know I have previously written about this idea in conjunction with readings and philosophers and art and literature. The more I encounter it, the truer it seems to me.

The bereaved spouse at this funeral is a person who is losing her own story through senile dementia, though she has some occasional awareness of her memory loss. Her ability to carry on her husband’s narrative is already deeply diminished or perhaps completely gone.

These are among our risks.

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These words brought to mind my long-time friends, the craft-artists David Ellsworth (turned and other wooden forms) and Wendy Ellsworth (beaded forms). This month, for the first time in their many years together, they have a joint exhibit in the gallery space at Jenkins Arboretum (Devon, PA). The photos below are snapshots Wendy took, and their individual work is best viewed in person or on their studio website. [Contact the artists for permissions, photos, information about workshops and talks.]

Wendy Ellsworth's seaforms, and a necklace

Wendy Ellsworth’s seaforms, and a necklace

Wendy's "Sunset" (with David's turned-wood frame/container)

Wendy’s “Sunset” (with David’s turned-wood frame/container)

David Ellsworth's "Emergence" series

David Ellsworth’s “Emergence” series

I have known Wendy and David for over 25 years, and I can testify that the work each of them does fits Kay Ryan’s description of art. They are artists, and their work nourishes both of them–and nourishes us, the beneficiaries, as well.

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For today, these are my stories.

www.ellworthstudios.com

Er – sur –

Mary Ruefle writes, in her book of “lectures,” Madness, Rack, & Honey: “I remember being so young I thought all artists were good, kind, loving, exceptionally interesting, and exemplary human beings.”

I was a child like that. It’s good to know there was at least one other. We grow up to know that such artists are far from common. But they do exist.

Each time I learned a “bad” thing about an artist, poet, or writer I loved, I felt a little deflated. Something was being taken away from my idea of the person who made such wonderful work.

Later, I rather empathized with Roland Barthes’ theorizing about the death of the author. Not because I was necessarily post-modern but because sometimes, I wanted the artist-as-person to be erased so that I could go back to loving the art-as-art. This was a juvenile way of thinking about both human beings and about art.

But: the lure of erasure…

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Ruefle muses about time, about art, literature, and the human being. Her assays to determine what endures among us often feel a bit cryptic or aphoristic at the first encounter. The wisdom in them, and the layeredness–and the awareness of what is “missing” in her texts–evolved in my own mind as I read her book, slowly.

She has used erasure as a means to expression and to beauty, as it happens. Examples of her erasure poems appear on The Poetry Foundation’s website here.

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The closing epigraph of Madness, Rack, & Honey (is it an epigraph if it falls at the end of the book?) is from Samuel Pepys’ Diary following the Great Fire “…an abundance of pieces of burnt papers were cast by the wind as far as Cranborne; and among others she took up one…which was a little bit of paper that had been printed, whereon there remained no more nor less than these words: “Time, it is done.”

Time.clock

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For Dave Bonta’s interpretation of erasure poems–based upon Pepys’ diary–see via negativa here.

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“Exhibit 13,” by Blue Man Group, follows an abundance of pieces of burnt papers cast by the wind, as well.

Brains on literature

Here’s a brief article that references a small study of how the human brain responds to reading poetry:

http://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/featurednews/title_324631_en.html

“Some people say it is impossible to reconcile science and art, but new brain imaging technology means we are now seeing a growing body of evidence about how the brain responds to the experience of art. This was a preliminary study, but it is all part of work that is helping us to make psychological, biological, anatomical sense of art.”

Here’s another short write-up from The New York Times on a somewhat similar topic, research into how reading literary work (specifically fiction, in this experiment) improves social skills–empathy and the ability to interpret other people’s feelings in particular.

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/i-know-how-youre-feeling-i-read-chekhov/?_r=2&

The article says that “after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.” The psychologist researchers are from my alma mater, The New School for Social Research, and their work connects intriguingly with theory of mind studies.

What makes literary fiction challenging to read is the same thing that makes it so richly rewarding to the human brain: critical thinking is required, inference, active engagement with the text, the need to recognize and validate other points of view than one’s own and, often, to speculate on motives and meanings:

In literary fiction, like Dostoyevsky, “there is no single, overarching authorial voice,” [David Comer Kidd] said. “Each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”

Interdisciplinary understanding of the importance of the arts to human consciousness, learning, and compassion: Am I surprised?

Autumn, time transfixed

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When we were initially landscaping our property, I chose to plant a particular species of zelkova known for its lovely fall foliage color. I cannot recall the variety now, although I am sure I recorded it in my garden journal 16 years ago. The leaf color is challenging to capture in a photograph. If only I were a painter, then I might manage. Of course, the color varies depending upon time of day, cloudiness, and atmospheric changes.

It is a lovely tree that announces the equinox quite articulately.

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Equinox, autumnal: a slowing of crickets, the brief visits of migratory birds, quieter dawns, fewer bats at dusk, longer shadows. Time is far from transfixed.

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I visited the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, on a warm October day to see the René Magritte exhibit. Magritte’s work is so easy to parody, so graphically amusing, that my brother–who was not all that familiar with the artist–at first said, “This reminds me of mediocre high school art.” After viewing the entire gallery, however, he had changed his mind about Magritte.

Magritte did a great deal of commercial art and, like Warhol years later, felt comfortable with the kind of graphic representation to which wide audiences respond. And then he played with that audience’s expectations, sometimes more effectively than others. One painting which certainly upends expectations and which I was glad to see again is La Durée poignardée, on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago; it was a favorite of my late friend David Dunn.

La Durée poignardée (1938)

time-transfixed-1938(1).jpg!BlogThis image of the painting appears at http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/rene-magritte#supersized-featured-211652

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Here’s some playfulness concerning the title. The French word poignarder means to stab, and the implication is to stab with something pointed, ie, a dagger, since the verb is transitive. It interests me that the accepted English translation for this painting is “Time Transfixed.” The meaning I associate with transfixed in terms of, say, holding in one place (pointedly?) is that of pinning insects to a board as in lepidoptery displays. In this painting, the “stabbing” seems to be reversed: the pointy end emerges rather menacingly from the static, domesticated mantelpiece. If this image depicts the verso side of the display, it could be time itself that has been killed, spread open, and pinned, invisible from this aspect. Or perhaps the translation should be “Time Stabbed through Its Continual Duration,” stabbed with a poniard in the shape of something almost as ongoing, the contemporary barreling locomotive engine.

As it is a genuine surrealist painting, no particular meaning can be assumed. The images are random; make of them what you will. Magritte came up with wonderful, mysterious titles for his work–his paintings and their titles have inspired quite a few poets over the years. David Dunn was among them.

No wonder, really; this artist was quoted as saying, “The function of painting is to make poetry visible.”

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Meanwhile, since I am not a painter, I will let the zelkova tree make poetry visible to me for a few days…and then get back to writing some myself.

In which I discuss the theme of death in literature

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Victor Brombert offers an octogenarian’s reflections on death, literature, and the creative process (storytelling, history-creating, poetry-inspiring) in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education. I found his musings of interest partly because I have best beloveds who are octogenarians and partly because Brombert is a dyed-in-the-wool humanities professor (professor emeritus of Romance and comparative literatures at Princeton) whose thoughts on mortality cannot help but have been shaped by his long associations with such texts, as well as by his long life and his experiences. “After Omaha Beach, where I discovered that I decidedly did not have a heroic vocation, I also discovered between the hedgerows of Normandy how repellent the smell of dead cows and dead men can be, how repulsive the sight of half-burned tank drivers finished off by machine-gun bullets, their bodies folded over the turrets, or of gunmen and mechanics who had tried in vain to crawl out of escape hatches,” Brombert recalls; then, he reminds himself that he had considerable warnings about war’s savagery–through literature–citing Montaigne and The Iliad. In fact, he says that “the theme of death stood for me in a special relation to literature.”

About death’s “special relationship with literature,” my education agrees with his. Before I ever had much experience with death in the immediate small circle of my own life, I had encountered it in the books I read voraciously. I knew death could be gruesome, sentimental, slow, quick, painful, transformative, pointless. But I was very young, and I did not, could not, fully understand with what I was engaging: the very question of being and non-being, of what comes “after” and if there is an “after,” and if those words as we know them (temporally) mean anything at all.

Brombert says: “I began to understand that all art and the love of art allow us, according to André Malraux’s famous pronouncement, ‘to negate our nothingness.'” His reading, his studies of art and humanist thinking, “elated” him. He felt drawn to Montaigne, whose essays he calls “flexible and meandering” and whose reflections on mortality seemed affirming in that death itself was “subject to laws of transition, passage, natural progression, or process.”

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Brombert recognized his job as a teacher of literature was a kind of giving voice to the dead. Here, I think of Hofstadter’s conclusion about human consciousness: that it is shared, carried on–in part–by living human beings after the bodily death. Is that troubling, or comforting? Some excerpts:

[W]riting itself was implicitly suffused with the theme of mortality, especially narratives and storytelling in general (the example of Scheherazade of One Thousand and One Nights came to mind) as ways of eluding or delaying the inevitable.

Plato set the tone in the Phaedo when he had Socrates tell his disciples, before drinking the poison hemlock, that true philosophers concern themselves with nothing but dying and death, that philosophy is in fact the study of death. This seemed to me rather excessive.

Though never losing sight of his mortal condition, Montaigne is primarily intrigued by the processes of life, the mutations from day to day, as he watches his own decline and feels, as he puts it, that he is dissolving and slipping away from himself (“Je fons et eschape a moy“). His concern is not with essence or being but rather with transition: “I do not portray being, I portray passing” (“Je peints le passage“). Throughout, his Essays affirm the need to live to the fullest. Yet, in a deep sense, his thought seems prompted by the recurrent sense of the transitory and the perishable.

Kind of dovetails with the concept of impermanence, no?

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On a closing note, and back to my favorite topic of poetry….Billy Collins has claimed that “the theme of poetry is death.” Like Brombert’s assessment of Socrates’ claim, I’m inclined to think this statement is a bit exaggerated. There’s merit to it, however. Worth thinking about.

Collins’ poem “The Dead” offers one way of thinking about death in a poem; this link will take you to a clever animated version of this poem.

And there’s a nice example of paronomasia: animating the dead!