Moment for beauty

Bill Lantry over at Peacock Journal has been endeavoring to continue our appreciation for the beautiful. I’m pleased that the editors chose three of my poems for the journal, which is a rotating online site, well-archived, and quite lovely.

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Dirk Van Nouhuys–photo

Here are the poems:

Peacock Journal–Ann E. Michael poems

Please explore the site further. Yours, in beauty.

Museum musing

On a drizzly, quite autumnal day, I returned to one of my favorite places, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Our main purpose this trip was to visit the American Craft galleries, where wood-turner and artist David Ellsworth’s work, including some collaborations with his wife, glass-bead artist Wendy Ellsworth, currently resides for a one-year exhibit. It’s not every day that I can enter a world-class museum and say, “I am friends with the artist who created this marvelous object!” Kudos to the Ellsworths and to the museum for recognizing the importance of David’s astonishing work.

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Crafted from a dense burl of wood, precisely bandsawn, these sculptures from Ellsworth’s “Line Ascending” series range from 2 to 5 feet in height and conjure possibilities from dinosaur horns to mountains to minarets.

I had not had a chance on previous visits to walk through the Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden at the museum, so despite the drizzle, we followed the paths through the 1-acre urban park. The hardscaping is very nice, though by now a bit cliched, since it seems every city garden in the US uses New York’s (admittedly amazing) High Line as its model. The Anne d’Harnoncourt garden likewise utilizes native plants in the garden areas–a trend of which I approve. The views of Philadelphia, its fountains and the river, are nicely framed, and the park is laid out well for “rooms” to contain or display large sculpture. I am sorry to report that few of the sculptures resident at present are appealing, though. My spouse remarked that one of the Sol Lewitt pieces “looks like a barbecue grill platform.” In another setting, that might not have been so obvious (or so funny). Nonetheless, it was pleasant to wander the sculpture garden paths and muse on things aesthetic instead of thinking about the large stack of student essays awaiting my attention.

Evaluating freshman composition papers requires a different aesthetic altogether.

 

 

 

 

Doubt

The prompt of questioning, and recent reading on ethics, have led me to pose for myself a framework for poems that walk between the abstract (ideas, values, philosophies) and the more concrete, pragmatic phenomena in my life (ethics, gardens, weeds, human beings). I find myself thinking again about edges, about fringes, hedgerows, the between-spaces.

That happens to be where doubt arises, too–when we feel in-between, on the edge, and in all likelihood, uncertain.

Fanny Howe, excerpt from “Doubt”

While a whole change in discourse is a sign of conversion, the alteration of a single word only signals a kind of doubt about the value of the surrounding words.

Poets tend to hover over words in this troubled state of mind. What holds them poised in this position is the occasional eruption of happiness.

While we would all like to know if the individual person is a phenomenon either culturally or spiritually conceived and why everyone doesn’t kill everyone else, including themselves, since they can— poets act out the problem with their words.*

Acting out problems and doubts in words. Yes, that directive works for poetry as I understand it. Theater, a related art, allows an acting out of conflicts employing a method that keeps us from killing ourselves and each other. The same may be said for any art; perhaps even our development of a philosophy of aesthetics offers the possibility of acting out.

And there is always room for doubt, as doubt has a way of making room in us and among us. The alteration of a single word–from you to them, from proper to prosper, from hie to high: in student writing, these are generally spelling errors; in the work of a thoughtful poet, they may signal a change in viewpoint, a pun that twists the initial intention, a turn in the poem’s story or rhetoric, a region of ambiguity. Howe wrestles with doubt and celebrates it:

“Doubt is what allows a single gesture to have a heart.”

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Edges. The meadow’s just beyond.

Any single gesture. The prayer hands, the bow, the outstretched arm, the Mona Lisa’s smile, the inked line, the poem.

The trapeze artist who walks along a genuine edge, balanced.

Doubt may live deep in the center of everything, but it is hidden there. Along the fringe of things, where the meadow and the forest meet, doubts are much more visible and less harmful.

What we learn along the edge we can take with us into the deeps: our doubts and ambiguities go with us, a kind of enrichment we might learn to accept instead of resent, if we are poets. The troubled state of mind persists, but “the occasional eruption of happiness” keeps the balanced hovering possible.

That eruption of happiness? I am familiar with it. Sometimes, when I’m working on a poem, I feel like a kite in an inconstant wind.

~

 

*Howe, Fanny.  Gone : Poems. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 

Landscape, personal place

I’ve been enjoying Rachel Solnit’s prose lately, most recently her book As Eve Said to the Serpent, some of which derives from art criticism but which is also the kind of multidisciplinary approach to observing the relationships between things that intrigues me. What she notices about the environment, about art that engages with or alters place/landscape, and about environmentalists themselves piques my own inquisitiveness and gets me asking questions I might not otherwise have come up with. Place, particularly the personal “environment” that shelters, inspires, or calms me, is something I consider frequently.

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[one of my happy places]

Perhaps that’s because I am by nature an introvert; perhaps it has to do with being a poet. The personal aesthetics of place–a room or a landscape–exert significant effects upon my frame of mind and mode of thinking.

Why is that?

Maybe there is an evolutionary reason for the need to find a favorite spot, a hide-away, a happy place. We may still possess that ancient urge for security, the cave or treehouse we can use to hide from predators or from the weather.

And landscape itself can be a secret place, or a sacred place. A wide expanse of openness means it is easier to observe predators prowling in the distance, giving the prey animal time to flee. Or to explore, to survey, to run embracing what is far away and only imaginable.

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Neolithic stone circle, Castlerigg, Cumbria, UK

~

C.D. Wright: “What landscape is: not a closed space, not in fact capable of closure. With each survey the corners shift. Distance is the goal; groping the means.”

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.

~~

 

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.

 

 

Responses

The semester is over, and the juncos have returned to my back yard. One thing I have trouble assessing after teaching my class is whether the students have made any inroads into learning the difference between a fact and an opinion, and argument and a disagreement, an interpretation and an analysis. But a response can be any of these things.

Recently I have been entertained by Rebecca Solnit’s responses (as opinion). She’s made a bit of an earnest-minded internet buzz with her brief essay concerning Esquire magazine’s “80 Books All Men Should Read.” [As an aside, I really enjoyed her early book Wanderlust: A History of Walking.] Her opinion piece on Lithub is smart and funny, and she irked many readers; yet I do not see how anyone can argue with her final paragraph:

…that list would have you learn about women from James M. Cain and Philip Roth, who just aren’t the experts you should go to, not when the great oeuvres of Doris Lessing and Louise Erdrich and Elena Ferrante exist. I look over at my hero shelf and see Philip Levine, Rainer Maria Rilke, Virginia Woolf, Shunryu Suzuki, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, Subcomandante Marcos, Eduardo Galeano, Li Young Lee, Gary Snyder, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez. These books are, if they are instructions at all, instructions in extending our identities out into the world, human and nonhuman, in imagination as a great act of empathy that lifts you out of yourself, not locks you down into your gender.

Roth, Caine, Miller– “just aren’t the experts you should go to” if you want to understand half the human species; I love that tongue in cheek understatement. I also love her list of “heroes,” although it doesn’t hurt that she names among them many of my own heroes. She says she reads and re-reads work that she has opinions about–and admits her opinions may not align with the generally-accepted opinions. Which is fine, since she reminds us, quoting Arthur Danto, art can be dangerous, risky, uncomfortable, as long as it means something.

She does raise the point that “[y]ou read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you. Because art makes the world, because it matters, because it makes us. Or breaks us.” In this way, she reminds us that readers are people who may have perspectives that vary from one another, particularly as to the social, psychological, or artistic merit of a piece of literature. Lolita, for example. That’s one book she mentions that evoked considerable response from Lithub commenters.

Rebecca Solnit’s response to her detractors–or “volunteer instructors,” as she calls them at one point–and her willingness to walk around the Himalayas with a medical team (recounted in a recent New Yorker piece) count as reasons her work has moved to the top of my to-read pile of books. I think I will start with Men Explain Things to Me and A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

 

Poem for my dad

If you have been reading this blog for the past year, you may recall my posts concerning the 50th year celebration of the March on Montgomery and the Voting Rights Act. (Click on the links below if you want to read them). I mentioned in the first post that I was trying to write a poem about my father’s memories of the event.

January 14: Trying to write (Selma)

January 18: Guest blogger–My dad’s memoir

After much struggle and revision (and many thanks to my writing critique group), I did manage to write that poem.

And: the poem has been published! Here it is, in One – volume 7. Richard Krawiec of Jacar Press has placed the poems, one by each poet (hence the journal name) so that the readers can scroll one by one, taking their time through the pieces. There’s a feel of development in this form of editing. It reminds me a little of how a good record album–if you recall those days–worked song by song to create an album experience that differed from just hearing the tunes randomly. The result was not always thematic, but a sense of mood or tone arose. I guess it’s similar to what poetry reviewers call the “arc” of a book of poetry. An arc is not necessary, but sometimes a feeling of synthesis does enhance the poems.

“Arc” is particularly apt here, given the title of my poem–taken from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech on that day.

Arc of the Moral Universe, Bending toward Justice

~

Thanks for reading.