Death & beauty

I may be misquoting Edvard Munch; but I think I once read a translation of his letters in which he said, “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”azurea

There’s a famous line in Wallace Stevens’ poem “Sunday Morning” that reads, “Death is the mother of beauty.”

Simone Weil wrote, “The destruction of Troy. The fall of the petals from fruit trees in blossom. To know that what is most precious is not rooted in existence – that is beautiful.”

Many human cultures have, from all appearances, created beautiful rituals, art, cultural objects, music, literature in commemoration of the dead, or have believed that death is a necessary part of a cycle that would lead, again, to living beauty. What is it about human beings that inclines to such an impulse? Is it just fear? Or a desire to be remembered, or to remember the beloved?

Poe claimed that there was no subject more suitable for poetry than the death of a beautiful woman; but he was full of crap about that or, at any rate, too swayed by the culture in which he resided in his awkward and outsider way. Nonetheless, he puts forth the assertion that from death can come something that is itself beautiful: a work of art, a lyric, a poem. I do not disagree with him on that point.

Certainly many poets end up writing about, with, or against death; raging or praising; querying, challenging, wondering, fearing, fighting, sometimes embracing or accepting. Do I hear Emily Dickinson in that chorus? Dylan Thomas? Walt Whitman? Marie Howe? Mark Doty? Ilyse Kusnetz?

In a previous post, I alluded to the death of a beautiful woman (a friend), and asked about the value(s) we humans place on beauty–and the way(s) we define, describe, and name it.

Because death’s one of The Big Mysteries–and writers tend to gnaw around the edges of things that are not easily put into words, and mortal is what we are–poets poke at death, encounter it, question it, and question the religious, biological, and social accretions that surround it. Can we find beauty in death, from it, surrounding it? Recently, I attended a philosophy lecture concerning death and the soul from a Catholic (Thomist) perspective, and the talk briefly moved into inquiry concerning the intersection of death and beauty. I did not ask, what sort of beauty–aesthetics, or awe?

But I am asking now.

 

Garden painting

The image on the right is from a book in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Asian Art, available through its new digital collection of Japanese illustrated books. It is written in Chinese, however: Jieziyuan huazhuan; Kaishien gaden 芥子園畫傳 and is catalogued as The Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual (3rd Chinese edition): [volume 3]. I do not read Chinese, but I think the drawing must be of quince in flower. My photo of pink quince blooms focuses on a particularly floriferous branch; in fact, the quince in my back yard is thorny, broken off in places, and often a bit scarce as to blooms–more like the drawing.

The book itself is interesting. It demonstrates and describes how to paint these shrubs. The sketches show the stems as the initial composition, with gaps where the blossoms are later to be painted. Then the blossoms get painted in, and then ragged lines of twigs and thorns to complete the painting. Since I cannot read the text, I interpret the stages from the drawings.

It occurs to me that this approach–one of guessing the stages–feels familiar. It resembles literary criticism; and it resembles the process of reading and re-reading a poem to try to determine its making, which is usually hidden since it takes place in the mind of the poet as she revises.

canvas3

note the gaps…

An analogy here: when I first write down the phrases, images, “inspiration” (if you will) for a poem, there are gaps. These lacunae appear in several forms, sometimes as spaces or blank spots in a sentence, sometimes as an unsatisfactory placeholder word, sometimes as a dash or ellipsis. These marks, or lack thereof, act as reminders to revise, rethink, resolve missing links or relationships in the poem’s developing ovum.

~

Winter makes for gaps. Skeletalizes the trees. Snowfall temporarily erases the known. Clouds cover sun and moon. Even the songs of birds, mostly absent.

As David Dunn, my long-dead friend (another emptiness), would sigh during moments that conversation became too intense or too difficult: “Anyway…”

In a temperate climate, we do need winter. The birds will return.

color birds-blooms1

~

when sap runs red
forcing budding trees into blossom
mating time

~

Apology

Speaking of February, here’s a poem trying to make amends for my dislike of the briefest month. This apology appeared in Prairie Wolf Press Review*, and I may include it in my next collection (whenever that may be).

~

Apology

For years I have held February
answerable to many sorrows
as though the month itself
were responsible for its appearance:
the dour days too short, long nights
steeped in frosty bitterness.
Resigned to hibernation,
February made me sleepy.
Dulled my skin, sucked dream
into a cold vacuum
like a vacant acre of outer space,
a stone of ice upon my chest.

But today, I watch a small herd
of yearling deer file gingerly along
the hedgerow over crusted snow
and sense thaw within.
The days, brief, are nonetheless
beginning their shadowy
stretch into spring. It is the month
owls urge themselves
toward mating, their querying calls
strung along night’s bare branches;
the month buzzards return
from foraging the more southerly dead.

Skunks break dormancy amid
tussocks of snowdrops;
sometimes, the hellebore blooms.
I have been observing February
from all the wrong angles.
No, this is not the wild greening of April
nor the fragrant abundance of June,
but it is something that deserves better
than repudiation or scorn.
To February, which has given me much
besides unhappiness, I offer my apology.

~

~~~

*Prairie Wolf Press seems to have folded, alas.

 

29 days

 

I am trying really hard to learn to like February.

I already yearn for these blooms, which often open this month:

flowers plant spring macro

snowdrops photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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Indeed, the snowdrops are emerging slightly; I see hints of white amid the tufts of deep-green leaves. The winterhazel buds haven’t really swelled just yet, though. Some years, we have hellebore and dwarf irises in February–it isn’t entirely drab, grey, chilly, and wet for 29 days. Reminding myself of that helps a little. Why, we had one warm and sunny day earlier in the week! The flies and stinkbugs buzzed about drowsily, and the birds made a little more noise than usual.

But part of me says–oh, wait a bit. There could be plenty of snow in March.

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March, 2018

How to allay the anticipation-stress that sits heavily on me, body and soul, this month?

J. P. Seaton’s translation of Han Shan (I own a copy of this book):

There is a man who makes a meal of rosy clouds:
where he dwells the crowds don’t ramble.
Any season is just fine with him,
the summer just like the fall.
In a dark ravine a tiny rill drips, keeping time,
and up in the pines the wind’s always sighing.
Sit there in meditation, half a day,
a hundred autumns’ grief will drop away.

~

I am not much for sitting in meditation, but Han Shan suggests it might do me some good–so that the griefs fall away, so that any season is “just fine” with me.

Worth a try…

       –anyway, it’s a short month.