In which I regress

I was a child who liked mud puddles. Well, mud, generally–but splashing through mud puddles was an especial pleasure. Barefooted in mid-summer at the beach or in the yard; booted other times of year, because I knew better than to wreck my shoes.

Water sends me back. I’m somewhere between the ages of 3 and 11. I am in one of my happy places. A puddle. A puddle in the rain, perhaps.

Of course people, as early humans existing in the marvelous and dangerous world, would infer that water is holy.

~

~

I felt water’s holiness when I was a child. Though perhaps that was a memory of the baptismal font, with me in my father’s grateful embrace.

Constricted

I am forcing myself to write despite my sense that the flow, such as it is, has narrowed. I’m keenly aware that there’s a lot of material beyond the blockage and opening the floodgates may be as unmanageable as the “dry period” is unrewarding. Funny thing about balance. Keeping the seesaw level–no easy task. And as my peers and I progress toward aging, the constriction metaphor applies all too well. Many people I know now walk around with plastic or metal tubes inserted in their interiors to keep vital organs ‘flowing.’ My mother’s brain operates through constricted blood vessels, and now she can barely produce an understandable sentence. My lower back’s accumulating calcium deposits that have narrowed the path my spinal cord takes as it does its daily, necessary work.

Sometimes the flow of anything gets constricted. In our bodies. In the earth’s rivers. In our cities and houses: clogging and backups, plumbing and traffic. We implant stents, dig culverts, widen highways, remove the blockage–once we have determined where it is. There’s the challenge. Where is the rub that keeps us from our dreams? (Hamlet couldn’t figure it out, either).

Normally, I read at least a book a week; lately, just magazine articles, or no reading at all. Very strange for me–and I wonder whether my lack of motivation for reading and my current “dry spell” hinge on sorrow. My workplace has been busy lately, lots of scheduling, many meetings and decisions, not much time for personal reflection. It becomes natural, easy, to do the work of routine and ignore the kind of creative effort that grief requires. In my case, there’s also speculative grief: I know my mother’s dying little by little. We who love her spend as much time as we can with her, lifting our own spirits whenever our visits or gifts of chocolate and flowers and dinners out make her happy. What does she love? Fresh strawberries, for example. I bring them from my garden. She savors them. My day is made.

But I come home sad.

vessels, unconstricted

~

I wrote to a friend recently:

My writing practice has suffered a bit during pandemic but feels also as though underlying changes are in process. Just not much by way of results yet.
Somewhat surprised that my father’s death has affected my practice. Or perhaps it is my mother’s aphasia, frailty, and impending death that’s at work here. Or maybe just the stress of trying to maintain my job and relationships with colleagues and students under pandemic protocols, which has not been easy.
My brain’s been stuffed with things like learning new technology and teaching practices, and that leaves less room for wandering and interconnections and daydreaming. And then I have less energy for the creative work, as well. The garden’s been good, though. I’m not discontented, just feeling the currents of interweaving changes.

~
I suppose those interweaving changes may be a bit knotted, if they are threads, or partially dammed, if they are streams. Maybe why that’s the case does not matter much. What matters more is how to proceed when it seems nothing’s forthcoming–patience, force, ritual, practice, or…change.

You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea.

Pearl S. Buck

Wry words from Ms. Buck. Meanwhile, where are those new ideas? Maybe I just don’t feel up to unblocking the flow just yet. A little apprehensive about the pain.

Memento mori

I think I am an amateur naturalist. Maybe my own poetry isn’t so much nature poetry or ecopoetry as it is naturalist poetry. By that I do not mean naturalism as literary criticism defines it–a “movement” belonging to the 19th century. Sean Carroll’s concept of poetic naturalism isn’t quite what I mean, either; Carroll’s approach is more philosophical, though it does get closer to my personal concept. I guess I just mean poetry written by a naturalist.

Such musings arise as I have been reading Bernd Heinrich’s book Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, which offers a naturalist’s low-down on what corporeal death means in terms of the Earth’s environmental cycles; he views every death as a life or as multiple lives–for, in the animal world (which is, after all, our world), a corpse hosts multitudes of new beginnings. It’s simply recycling, the work of millennia. And sometimes the work of Nicrophorus beetles and other “undertakers.” Okay, maybe not a book to every reader’s taste, but fascinating biology. After having read quite a few books on hospice care and human dying, I can now appreciate the amazing biological processes at work in “natural” deaths that work to improve soil, remove waste, feed numerous animals and plants, and regulate the cycle of life. If we want to get ourselves back to the garden, we need to make ourselves more aware of these valuable cleanup crew creatures.

Poets strain experience through words; sometimes we write from the filtered outcome, sometimes we explore the dross that gets caught in the sieve.

A Best Beloved expressed dismay as the news of a friend’s cancer diagnosis coincided with a few recent worries and bereavements: “Everyone’s getting older and falling apart!” But really, what are our options? Die young and leave a good-looking corpse? Live to 100 and die while sleeping? Probably something on the continuum between those poles. Most humans think about, or endeavor not to think about, their deaths and the deaths of those they love. Grief and death are among the Big Themes of poetry, often hovering in the background of a poem that initially appears to be about something else (i.e. Emily Dickinson Emily Dickinson Emily Dickinson 😀 …). Poets strain experience through words; sometimes we write from the filtered outcome, sometimes we explore the dross that gets caught in the sieve. All of it is life.

“Remember we must die” need not be a call to religious fervor or to pessimistic existentialism. It is merely a fact that we ignore at our peril; for if we remember death is ahead, we can attune ourselves more closely to the lives we do have–and those others with whom we are in relationships. For whether you know it or not, your body has a relationship to Earth and all of its beings. Even, perhaps, the carrion beetle, not to mention billions of microbes and your best friend’s mother.

When I write about death (and I do), I find the tone of the poem depends a great deal on which words or images I use: the clear flow, or the leavings in the sieve. Different purposes, of course. Sometimes the poem wanders in sorrow, sometimes there’s clarity or a lifting of grief. It depends on the perspective (sometimes the speaker of the poem isn’t me), and on where the poem itself decides to go, particularly as I revise. Many readers believe that poems only ever arise from the writer’s experience, but poems are works of the imagination. And they are sometimes informed, or re-formed, by experience or insight that comes later in the writing process.

My own grief? That’s private. I may not decide ever to communicate how that feels. However, having sensed sorrow in my bones and gut and in the empty places in my community of loved ones, I can write about being in the moment of bereavement and the many moments afterwards when the losses make us ache. I like to imagine that memento mori keeps me alert to life. Even when I feel sad.

Hatching day

After three cloudy, seasonable days–with no rain (we are in a drought)–the temperatures here got up to around 80° F and the cicadas emerged. I took a long walk around campus to observe the hatch.

Judging by the divots in the mulch around the trees, skunks, squirrels, raccoons, and other omnivores had a feast last night. But enough fourth-instar nymphs made it up the trees that I quickly lost count of how many exoskeletons clung abandoned to the bark of pines, maples, rowans, and assorted campus-landscape trees. There were also pale, newly-emergent cicadas–not yet imagoes–most of which were drying out their wings and bodies in the breeze. A few were still in the haemolymph stage (teneral adult stage), which is fascinating. Their wings are still furled, as they haven’t yet inflated with whatever fluid circulates through their systems, and the insects look particularly weird.

Brood X hatches mostly south of us, though this county is right on the border. Definitely seeing more of them this year than I have for many years past.

Magicicada are justly famous for their loudness. There were not many full-fledged adult bugs on campus at noon today; but when I return (on Friday or, perhaps, Tuesday), I expect the place will be buzzing. The students are not here to make the place buzz–I’ll be happy to hear the cicadas.

Teneral adult magicicada. Photo by Shannon Kirby.

I feel as though a haiku might be needed here. Can anyone supply one? I’d be grateful…

Perspective(s)

Usually when I spy the red-bellied woodpecker, what I notice is the large red stripe on its…head. Today, the bird was facing me through a nearly-empty birdfeeder, and I perceived the ragged oval of blush-colored down on its underside. I felt a keen admiration for ornithologists who notice such small details. How many times have I seen the red-bellied woodpecker and noticed only its zebra-like striations and its vivid crown? Even those of us who consider ourselves practiced observers of ____ (name your favored area of observation) find we’re not as careful as we imagine we are.

I do not own a powerful telephoto lens for my old digital camera, so I rarely take successful pictures of birds. My noticing tends toward the small and not-fast-moving: flowers, mosses, flora, lichen, fungi, landscapes. I have learned to look mostly at my feet, and occasionally at the clouds. It seems that the limits of my camera and of my vision (terribly, terribly nearsighted) have led to a particular perspective that affects my photos, my botanical interests, and my poetry.

Which is, sometimes, all to the good–but not uniformly. Perspective should be varied; we humans need to imagine that other humans (and non-humans) may witness life from other points of view. This concept is fundamental to psychological understanding and to the much-vaunted and controversial “theory of mind.” It also gives us the pathetic fallacy and anthropomorphism, which expand human ideas about consciousness and offer plangent and resonant metaphors that writers can employ.

All of this came to top of mind today when a student brought in a Philosophy paper concerning Nietzsche’s perspectivism.

Nietzsche opposes philosophers who ignore the fact that individuals have limitations on their theorizing. What makes his idea so thorny is that at the same time he suggests–goes so far as to claim–that perspective (even limited, ideological perspective) is imaginative, is one of our human freedoms. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:

“Particularly as knowers, let us not be ungrateful toward such resolute reversals of the familiar perspectives and valuations with which the spirit has raged against itself all too long… : to see differently in this way for once, to want to see differently, is no small discipline and preparation of the intellect for its future “objectivity”—the latter understood not as “disinterested contemplation” (which is a non-concept and absurdity), but rather as the capacity to have one’s Pro and Contra in one’s power, and to shift them in and out, so that one knows how to make precisely the difference in perspectives and affective interpretations useful for knowledge.” (GM III, 12)

This famous passage bluntly rejects the idea, dominant in philosophy at least since Plato, that knowledge essentially involves a form of objectivity that penetrates behind all subjective appearances to reveal the way things really are, independently of any point of view whatsoever.

Hence, we do not know and cannot know the kind of “original” knowledge that reveals how things “really are,” since each of us is possessed of a unique perspective essentially unshareable by others. And hence a conundrum for philosophers (and freshman students of Philosophy).

Wait. How did I travel from woodpeckers to perspectivism, by way of poetry? Note: Poetry has a way of doing that kind of traveling.

A quote from Joy Harjo: “It was the spirit of poetry who reached out and found me as I stood there at the doorway between panic and love.” We often stand at that door–and there are other doors–and, as we stand there, the perspective(s) we choose create decision, and purpose, and are colored by an almost journalistic observation or by an almost spiritual calling. It can be either. Both.

The woodpecker--
head and neck bright as berries--
protects its abdomen
 pink ovaries,
 soft underbelly.

Imagined discourse, new skills

Despite pandemic restrictions, or perhaps because of them, I have been blessed with poetry the past few weeks. I have attended workshops and readings remotely/virtually, and I’ve participated in a few of those as well as giving one in-real-life poetry reading. I signed up to get the Dodge Poetry Festival’s poetry packet & prompts, and those appear daily in my email. Best of all, poems have been showing up in my mind–I started quite a few drafts in April.

Up to my ears in potential manuscripts (I have at least two books I am trying to organize), I’m also waiting rather anxiously to see whether my collection The Red Queen Hypothesis will indeed be published this year as planned. The virus and resulting lockdowns have interfered with so much. The publication of another of my books matters to me, but it remains a small thing in a global perspective, so I try to be patient.

Meanwhile, I thank poet Carol Dorf of Berkeley CA, who has been kind enough to read through one of my manuscripts and offer suggestions. It’s such a necessary step, getting a reader. I recently enjoyed this essay by Alan Shapiro in TriQuarterly, in which the author reflects on his many years of poetry-exchanges (he calls it dialogues) with C.K. Williams. His words reminded me of my friend-in-poetry David Dunn, who was, for close to 20 years, my poetry sounding board, epistolary critic, and nonjudgmental pal who often recognized what I was going for in a poem better than I did. Shapiro says he feels Williams looking over his shoulder as he writes, even after Williams’ death (in 2015). In a section of the essay Shapiro has an imagined (possibly?) conversation with a post-death Williams, conjuring the remarks his friend might have made in life, or after. I have had such dialogues with David, but not recently. It may be time to try again. Or, as Williams told Shapiro before he died, “Find a younger reader.”

As if that were easy.

Anyway, I continue to learn new things, even things I did not feel particularly curious about, such as Zoom teaching [blech!] and Zoom poetry readings and remote workshops and online discourse. Hooray, new skills to practice! Here’s a taped reading in which I read a few poems from Barefoot Girls, The Red Queen Hypothesis, and a couple of newer pieces. I appear at 31:48 on this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HFfeoTOVahQ

Though I think you should also give a listen to the other poets, who are worth hearing.

Time to weed the lettuce and spinach rows, time to stoop to smell the lily-of-the-valley. And time to have imagined discourses with my Beloveds.

May brings convollaria into bloom

Wary of unity

It’s true that I appreciate a somewhat calmer political/media cycle, in part because I sense slightly lower levels of anxiety from my friends. I love my friends and feel sad when they express fear and exhaustion. The social and environmental messes we humans have made continue, however, as the pandemic stretches on (my region is still in “extremely high risk” covid territory, though most of the people I know personally have been vaccinated). Many of us continue to endure losses of all sorts. Even if the losses are small ones, cumulatively they aggregate, intensified by the spectre of climate change and virus spread and whatever local bogeymen trawl through people’s lives.

In response to the current difficulties, we keep hearing calls for “unity.” One way politicians and community advocates of all stripes and ideologies endeavor to “make nice” is through the concept of unifying people. It sounds like a good thing, to invoke our similarities and our common human bond in order to achieve…[insert goal here].

I’m wary of calls for unity. It’s not that I’m cynical (maybe a little), and I’ve certainly been idealistic in my time; but long experience and lots of stories and histories and my father’s background in how people behave in groups have led to feeling circumspect about unity. It works with people, yes, but it also leads to the worst aspects of tribalism. To the fostering of rigid ideologies. To acts against outliers, to the construct of evil Others. I’ve recently re-read Reinhold Niebuhr’s prescient and insightful Moral Man and Immoral Society, and his analysis of how humans behave individually versus in groups strikes me as relevant today as it was in 1932. My dad studied with Niebuhr during the latter’s last years at Union Theological Seminary and, reading this book, I find I’m reflecting on the ways this philosopher/theologian influenced my then-young father’s views on humanity.

My dad was an optimist, a Pollyanna, a great believer that God loved each human equally and that there exists in each person the promise of Good (because his God is Good). As my dad matured and experienced more of life and a lot of death, injury, backbiting, illness, pain, misery, in-fighting, and scapegoating–even in the Church–he examined more closely the dynamics of people in groups. Here’s where Niebuhr gets it right, as far as I can tell: people in groups suck.

No, he never says that, and perhaps I overstate. People in groups tend toward tribalism, shunning those who differ in opinion, perspective, or other ways. People in groups lean inexorably toward immoral behavior, even when the group is made up of individually moral people. Again and again, under differing social perspectives, Niebuhr demonstrates that unity thwarts diversity even when group intentions are moral. And, all too often, with immoral results.

My dad never really gave up on the idea that people could successfully deal with different perspectives and goals even in the same group, that there were approaches to group dynamics that would produce win-win outcomes or compromises without sore feelings. In this respect, he was an Enlightenment thinker like Locke. Optimistic, as I’ve said, though I suppose there were times he despaired; indeed, I know there were. Perhaps he recited the Serenity Prayer* to himself when he felt powerless to make a difference. Perhaps the way people in groups behave is one of those things we cannot change and must somehow accept.

For myself, I choose diversity. The earth manages its diversity wonderfully, even when human beings thwart it. Milkweed seeds and thistle find their ways into monoculture cornfields. Plants and insects gradually populate the rubble we make.

When circumstances keep me in a tribe-like bubble, I read books and poems that show me other perspectives, other climes, other social cultures, cities, classes, geographies–other histories than my own. I find ways to explore, in person or virtually, artwork and film work, drama, music, and dances from places I may never visit but without which I would be less attuned to the World. To its wonders, which are many. Insert here, instead of a unified goal all people “should” achieve, Whitman’s “Kosmos” or Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” with its line “All things counter, original, spare, strange;” or, more contemporary, Vievee Francis’ glorious “Another Antipastoral” that states:

Don’t you see? I am shedding my skins. I am a paper hive, a wolf spider,
the creeping ivy, the ache of a birch, a heifer, a doc.

~

The World, that great unity. That global balancing act. That paradox: Outliers and Others being necessary, and Beloved.

Happy Earth Day, a day late.

~~~

* You may be familiar with the Serenity Prayer, which Niebuhr composed.

In person

Imagine it: gathering again, with other human beings, engaged in listening, in art, in entertainment. You know–all that stuff we once took for granted, pre-pandemic and back when virtual events were mostly either experimental or TV shows.

In recent years, I have not been participating in many poetry readings; attending them still, yes–when possible, when life has not intervened too much–but not actively looking for reading venues, not the way I did in previous decades when I was learning how to present my work publicly. Lately, even when I’ve attended readings with open mics, I often choose not to sign up to read. I need to get home to grade papers or go to bed.

This situation has led to a gap in my reading-poetry practice. True, I teach; I am accustomed to speaking in front of a group of near-strangers, and that is a kind of public-speaking skill. There’s a distinct difference between being the authority and being the author, however. I found myself trying to explain this difference to a friend of mine last evening as we drove home from: MY FIRST IN-PERSON POETRY READING IN AGES!

[An aside here to express boundless thanks to Jenny Hill and Dan Waber of the Wunderbarn in East Greenville PA, who asked me to lead off their Just about an Hour and a Half Variety Hour for the 2021 season–quite an honor!]

I had some preparation, however, because local friends-in-poetry had invited me to read for a video that will stream on April 27th from the Facebook page of Bethlehem PA’s venue The Ice House. That was a new experience for me, though strange: I had to stay in one place without walking and fidgeting while reading to a very kind person behind a camera and another kind person connected to me by a microphone and earphones–in an otherwise empty performance space. O, Brave New World…

The reading at the Wunderbarn commenced the following evening, so the practice in front of the camera helped by giving me the opportunity to organize both my poems and my thoughts. I would not say that putting together a reading is exciting, but it offers some of the quiet challenges of a puzzle or word game. The act of reading in person to an audience changes those challenges to one of performance. It has been a pleasant task to expend energy thinking about poetry; I’ve been attending readings and craft talks remotely all month. And the performance space at Wunderbarn is sweetly rural. We were seated outdoors, and as dusk came on the human voices were accompanied by ducks and frogs. As so many of my poems feature the natural world, that felt fitting.

Friends in the audience, an added boon. That fact encouraged me to read two or three newer poems that I’ve not read out loud before and not to feel too awkward about possibly stumbling through my own lines. Also, though the grounds were muddy and the air rather cool, the rain held off. If I were the sort of person who believed in omens, I would say this event bodes well. Instead, I lift up my voice in gratitude.

a view toward spring–in person

Conferencing, distance

Rather at the last minute, I found out that West Chester University’s Poetry Center was hosting a virtual conference during National Poetry Month. Previous WCU poetry conferences have been in person, and often in June; I used to attend when I had the time and money, since I can drive to West Chester in about an hour. For years, my full-time job has interfered. This time, the fee was low and the panelists and readers were people whose work I enjoy. While I could not attend all of the sessions or enroll in a 3-day workshop, I could at least “zoom in” to many of the events.

I’m glad I did. But before I write about this year’s conference, a brief history of my experience at past WCU Poetry conferences.

Initially, the conference poets focused on formal poetry: writing in forms, meters, and employing rhyme at a time when the major forces in U.S. poetry leaned more toward free verse. Dana Gioia was one of the co-founders, and the conference brought in such writers as Anthony Hecht, David Mason, Rachel Hadas, Marilyn Nelson, Richard Wilbur, Molly Peacock, and Timothy Steele…to name just a few (I haven’t forgotten the others, I just cannot list them all!). If you’re not familiar with them, Google their names and locate some of their poems; their work is considered “formal.” By some. The term itself is rather fraught. I’ll skip that argument for now.

It took considerable bravery on my part to participate in the conference the first time I attended, because I was writing mostly free verse, was not an academic, and was more or less acclimated to being a not-very-ambitious stay-at-home mother. I’d started my MFA program, however, and told my advisor that I wanted to learn the things I’d missed concerning historical patterns of poetry. I loved and grew up with rhymed and metered poems but had no idea how to create them. Hence: the WCU conference, which happened to be near enough that I could get away and back for four days and not have to do too much re-scheduling to accommodate my kids, pets, garden, and spouse.

Frankly, I was intimidated. The poets were all so…accomplished. Most were college professors, many were critics, lots of them had written books–lots of books–and even many of the people attending had won prizes and had significant publications. They were keenly and frighteningly “smart” folks, well-read and well-traveled. But after awhile, I felt more at ease. Sam Gwynn, Molly Peacock, and David Mason were hilarious. Rachel Hadas demonstrated intense and generous listening, and was so kind. And I learned so much (and bought so many books…) that I attended at least four more WCU conferences. Then I got too busy.

The Poetry Center and the conference have changed directorship a few times. For awhile, the late (and wonderful) Kim Bridgford, who later established the Poetry by the Sea Conference, was at the helm; currently, the Center’s guided by Cherise Pollard, who came up with the theme that drove this year’s panels and workshops: The Healing Power of Empathy. Healing and empathy are qualities we need when times are hard and seas are rough. It’s important to remember that healing requires change. It’s a change-state verb. Sometimes those changes feel uncomfortable, painful–and empathy can help, as long as we employ it in an active way (empathy as a change-state).

I managed to draft a sonnet in 15 minutes, thanks to Molly Peacock, and heard some new-to-me voices in poetry, and listened to poets who are deeply engaged in the work and art of poetry discuss their processes, enthuse over their influences, and say what drives their curiosity. I found kindred writers who are, like me, endeavoring to put voice to people with dementia and express the grief we experience as our Best Beloveds lose personality, language, ego-consciousness.

Lesley Wheeler shared the writing prompts her panel put together on her blog, here; she and her four co-panelists (see blog) reflected on feeling across distance, another apropos topic in the current times. It seems we can and do find methods to be human together, even when we are apart. I think of all the letters I wrote when I was in college, and afterward, as I moved around the eastern USA, changed addresses, and tried to keep my friends and family informed as to who I was and what my interests were. In my attic, there are boxes of correspondence written in the days before email. Many of them are now letters from ghosts. Words I will never hear again from living mouths, but a way we kept “in touch” despite, and over, distance. And still do.