“Be critical, and sing”

pompeiian woman-writer

The poet C. D. Wright died in January of this year. She was an American original. She was a critical thinker of the first order, an experimenter.

For no apparent reason, I thought of her when I saw this fresco painting (unearthed in Pompeii) of a woman with a stylus and book. Something in the thoughtful musing look in this portrait suggested a critical eye, analysis, consideration–a keen and penetrating intelligence. She will reflect before she writes, but she has opinions she  is not afraid to share.

A collection of Wright’s pronouncements, which she combined and arranged in a sort of extended prose poem, was published as “69 Hidebound Opinions.” The hidebound is both tongue-in-cheek and earnest; typical, really, of Wright’s work. I’ll post the link and also share a few that I find intriguing.

“69 Hidebound Opinions” by C. D. Wright.

Here’s #22:

“To opt to be a poet, is to have some resolve. It leaves you free–to sing as you will, with the lungs god gave you–even if no one but god might hear. It leaves you that naked and obligated to sing your best. Suzuki teaches that ‘in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.’ Beginner’s mind then, is not only where you start, but where you must remain. It is what will keep you–long after you have children, job, house, dog, too many keys on your ring–free.”

Number 27:

“An atmosphere of depression will arouse artists’ attention over an atmosphere of prosperity nearly every time. Because it derives from consciousness, art is critical. Also true, ruins are beautiful to us; the Blues make us feel good; it is through the wound that we perceive the body whole.”

Yet, #42 says, “It is left to the poets to point out the shining particulars in our blunted lives like the strands of blue lights Cotter, Arkansas, draped every haunting Christmas from one empty storefront to the empty storefront across the street for eight unoccupied blocks.”

Number 41 resonates deeply: “It is poetry that remarks on the barely perceptible disappearances from our world such as that of the sleeping porch or the root cellar. And poetry that notes the barely perceptible appearances.”

An aside: [I want to write about the sleeping porch, which I loved in my early childhood and which hardly exists anymore. I’d like to sleep on one again, build a house that has a sleeping porch. Also, my joy at discovering my former neighbor had–and used–a root cellar; his joy at discovering the young person new to the neighborhood was fervent about her truck patch.]

“53

Poetry is the language of intensity. Because we are going to die, an expression of intensity is a necessity.

Extended awareness, isn’t that central to the art?”

No. 67–

“Gradually one comes to fathom exactly what it is one has chosen–what is poetry. Poetry avails itself of the listener, the watcher. Whether called upon to emancipate, comfort or forecast, poetry responds. The possibility that the poem you were born to write, will not join you on the porch this summer or the next, looms taller than the sunflowers and the hollyhocks. It could have taken the fork to the river or ended up at the slaughterhouse. It could have died as quietly as the moth on the screen. Or just borne itself up on the breeze. Who can say. This is the poet’s choice: to attend a presence no one else was aware of, to spend the better part of a lifetime preparing for an arrival, that could not occur but for her attention, that would not in fact otherwise make its blaze on this world.”

waterpaper

 

I close with #51: “Now that I am beyond the initial paralysis of calling one’s first teachings into question, I am left with: be critical and sing.”

 

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How to start

My students often get confused at the beginning of their essays; a common complaint is “I don’t know how to start!”

I feel for them. Beginnings are difficult. Recently I was wondering why that is so.

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Driving home during a blizzard–concentrating on seeing the road, staying off the shoulder, anticipating the curves, watching for oncoming vehicles. Tense, I’m trying not to clutch the steering wheel. Eight miles home seems long when the visibility is nearly zero and the back roads have not been plowed. And then a blur of activity to my right, a thunk against the passenger side window, and a sweeping shape looms in front of me, veers; a fan, dark stripes, pale breast-feathers, strikingly yellow claws. I’ve nearly hit a broad-winged hawk. And that thunk was a smaller bird that had been harrying it through the snow.

Broad-winged Hawk Flying

A startling incident, that experience heightened my awareness of where I am (in the world), in which environments (natural and human-made), and when (now!).

Sometimes, happenstances such as this evolve into, or figure in, poems that I will eventually write. The image, the occurrence, offers a way in.

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Returning to my question about how to start: the blockade many people make for themselves is that they think they have to know what they want to say before they write anything. “What is it I am trying to say?” the writer asks. We have been instructed to keep in mind our aims when we write.

I suggest it may be a mistake, though, to figure out what one wants to say before trying to write. When my student writers are truly stuck at the start, I ask them to write what they notice, what they experience, what they hear. Just write it down, describe it: the soft thud of the sparrow (if it was a sparrow–allow for speculation), the sound of wind against the car body, the clearly-visible buteo in the windshield where before there had been near-whiteout. What is it I want to say about the drive, the shock, the tension, the world of natural things? I don’t yet know, but I am writing.

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Thanks to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and Raptor Preserve, Kempton PA.

The morbid book group

[FYI, readers, I have a poem in this anthology, which relates to this post.]

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A little over a year ago, I was invited to participate in a book discussion group that  focuses on texts that offer varying perspectives concerning health, surviving cancer, different cultural views of aging, and dying; books on “dying well,” hospice and palliative care, and on hope and healing; books on chronic pain and on neurology and the medical establishment, on birth traditions, on the history of medicine. We have also read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, Still Here by Ram Dass, and discussed books that have topics such as placebo effects, psychology, alternative medicines, the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals, the training and practice of doctors, and the death & dying ‘industries,’ including works by authors with personal and moral perspectives on how to live (and how to die). The people involved have included a pediatric palliative care expert, a NICU nurse, a hospice team spiritual counselor, a minister, a former nurse and massage therapist who’s a tai chi instructor, and others–most of us “of a certain age,” by which euphemism I mean we have been living through the experience of having parents in extreme old age and of having long-time friends who now contend with chronic or potentially fatal illnesses. At least one of us has survived cancer.

For a perspective on how most Americans view a serious study of such topics, I offer my husband’s assessment. He calls this “the morbid book group.”

In fact whenever I mention that I participate in a book group (a popular American activity), people ask me if the group has a theme; I tell them, “The theme is medicine, and wellness, and how we die.” And there’s inevitably a pause, and usually my friend asks, “Isn’t that kind of depressing?”

No. It has not been depressing, in fact. I have gained more than I can say from these books and from our small group discussions: information, perspective, philosophy, insight, dare I say wisdom? Not to mention freedom to talk about those things we tend to evade in polite conversation, the space in which to say “This really sucks” or “This saddens me deeply” or to ask, “What can we do?” The book selections have led to great discussions–and have helped me to forge some new friendships as well as to confront and accept different points of view on controversial issues surrounding health care. And death, yes (hello morbid books!), and grief, and–most of all–compassion.

Difficult books? Challenging reading? Have I ever shied from it? I relish exploring this kind of non-fiction-fact-science-ethics-cultural criticism. Participating in this book group is one of the highlights of my current life experience; it’s up there with my long-running poetry critique group and my MFA years in terms of transformational engagement and exchange of ideas.

Below, a list of some of the books we have read and talked about. Just in case any of my readers wish to begin a morbid book group of their own.

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Radical Remissions, Kelly A. Turner

Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Katy Butler

Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson

Death’s Door, Sandra Gilbert

Living with a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich

Still Here, Ram Dass

Being Mortal, Atul Gawande

The Anatomy of Hope, Jerome Groopman

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche

Birth, Tina Cassidy

The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison

Counterclockwise, Ellen Langer

The Pain Chronicles, Melanie Thernstrom

Choosing Civility, P.M. Forni

Healing Spaces, Esther M. Sternberg

Die Wise, Stephen Jenkinson

…& more ahead, as we plumb consciousness, placebos, the medical hierarchy, and compassionate ways of living in the world. By the way, readers–suggestions for further readings are welcome!

 

 

Jisei

I have been re-reading a lovely anthology called Japanese Death Poems, edited by Yoel Hoffman. I purchased this book years ago when I was immersed in the study of haiku, haibun, and the early Chinese poetry forms and approaches that influenced many Japanese poets. Hoffman’s book offers excellent examples of jisei (poems composed near the moment of death) and his informational text places the poems in the context of various cultural, economic, power, and belief structures.

For a person raised in a contemporary western culture, the concept of death as a constant partner in our consciousness seems–while perhaps obvious–rather uncomfortable. We are not likely to approach our deaths with a sense of acceptance, let alone friendly understanding: “This is how it is.” But the death poems, as I read them, suggest that while death is universal, each person’s awareness of it is unique, even among people in the same culture who may hold similar beliefs.

Jisei intrigue curious folk, because death is A Big Thing to Be Curious About. Digital photographer Hank Frentz, a young artist who’s been inspired by Hoffman’s collection of jisei, has posted a series of mysterious and beautiful photos paired with the death poems, a sample of which can be viewed here. Please follow the link, as his photographs seem to me to be aesthetically and “spiritually” close to the poems he chooses, creating a kind of haiga (俳画) effect.

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I have also been revisiting Earl Miner’s translation of Shiki’s brief verse diary, “The Verse Record of My Peonies.” Written in 1899, when Shiki was suffering agonizing pain from spinal tuberculosis (he died in 1902 at the age of 35), the haiku and the prose of the diary recommend the reader to an understanding of physical pain, uncertainty–will I live, or die?–and humor, friendship, grieving. The diary is as layered as a peony blossom; each time I read it, I find something new to contemplate in its few pages: joy, aesthetics, nature, the human body, the solace of friendship and the isolation of illness, the nearness of death, the challenge of uncertainty, the many ways poetry can supply a place or grounding for a person struggling with ambiguities.

Two flakes fall
and the shape of the peonies
is wholly changed.

[tr. Earl Miner]

 

Composer Libby Larson has used Shiki’s verse diary as a text basis for a 7-minute composition for voice available here.

 

 

The skill of grieving

In a recent post, Sigrun of the blog sub rosa pointed me to Poetry Society of America’s page on Natalie Diaz; I’m even going to post the same paragraph she does, in which Diaz states:

When I write, I bring all of my truths, even the Judas-truths that make me feel like the betrayer whose dirty hands are resting on the table for everyone to see, including God. For me, writing is less a declaration of those truths than it is my interrogation of them. Uncovering the darkness in me that led to some of the poems about my brother also lights up the hard, bright way in which I love him and the small wars I wage to win him back…the truths that have built in me a strength and compassion that help me to survive this world. Truth is that little animal we chase and chase until we suddenly glance over our shoulder and realize it has been chasing us all along.

This passage about “uncovering the darkness” and the hard ways in which we sometimes love–maybe with some people, there is no other way to love–interestingly coincides with my recent reading of Stephen Jenkinson’s Die Wise, a manifesto on how we die and how we might die better (wiser) if we carried our darkness better, as Diaz suggests in the passage above. While I am reading Jenkinson for specific reasons around end-of-life concerns, there’s no doubt that there is often poetry in his philosophy that we need to learn the skill of how to grieve and to learn all that such a skill contains, including its “Judas-truths” and its unflinching confrontation with the ways in which death is a gift to us collectively and individually.

Most of us do not see death as any kind of gift, and Jenkinson admits it can be a challenging perspective; he endeavors to persuade the mostly-American or European reader that each of us and each of our societies or cultures would benefit by reclaiming death as a natural sequence in our being in the world.

Claiming or reclaiming death (you might read here: darkness), says Jenkinson, requires us to face the fact that we have no language for dying, not really. He says “we are taught almost nothing about what language to use or why when we are trained for the job [of tending to the dying].” The Dying, he writes, are “them,” meaning they are “not us.” Which makes them outsiders and invisible and yet all of us die; we are all of us dying–and we work so hard to distance ourselves from the fact.

Poetry is a language that, I think, sometimes guides us toward the hard truths, when poetry is well-made and conflicting and sundered with surprise. Poetry isn’t the language that gets us to dying, exactly; but it can do some of the hard work of teaching us how to grieve.

This is not to say that poets or artists are any better at dying than the rest of us. Sometimes the darkness uncovered in the fiction or poem or painting is true and authentic and deep, but the artist does the grief-working well in art and not so well in life’s physical dying process. Artists who choose suicide may be people who suffer pain and can express it artistically without actually learning the work of grief, which differs from suffering. If we learn that anything that does not last forever is meaningless (an idea drummed into many of us through the concept of “eternal life”), we are apt to feel bereft at every loss and may embrace a kind of horrible existentialism. Sometimes our artists strive to overcome the meaningless through lasting works of art, but their personal desire to be somehow immortal may bog them down as death nears.

We admire this artistic striving, but it is a kind of working against our darkness rather than confronting it with the love Diaz mentions. Jenkinson writes: “Dying isn’t the end of true things…It is one of the true things, that is all.” [My italics.]

However, I do believe that art–particularly the storytelling arts–can offer much in the way of teaching us the physical, on-the-level, hard work of grieving. Really good novels and plays can help teach us if no one in our “real lives” does. Even if we weep at the end of the book and wish the author had chosen a different way of ending it. Good poetry that leaves us excited and confused by complexity or blasted with gut-level sorrowing might be teaching us the ways of grief we aren’t learning from our culture.

When a loved one dies, we often get lost, pushed away from grief through the signing of papers and the bland condolences of marginal friends and the plea to move on with our lives. Good poems can keep us dangling in the now of real grief and force us to figure our way through the losses we incur–losses which do not exclude even our selves. Because “death waters the living.” And so does poetry.

http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/82820.html

Rain [La Pluie] Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Thanks to the Philadephia Museum of Art