Minor snow

We had a mild autumn that seemed to stretch longer than usual. Today, a dusting of snow and temperatures not much above freezing, gray sky, a meadow in beige-brown hues and the trees mostly leafless. According to the Chinese lunisolar calendar, the next few weeks are 小雪 xiǎoxuě, or “minor snow;” it is already winter. The jiéqì seasons follow the agriculture of northern China’s plains, and it’s striking to me how closely they resemble the agricultural seasons here in eastern Pennsylvania.

Lately, I feel the seasonal transitions physically. My body responds to the changing weather–not always a good thing, but not necessarily a bad thing, either. It connects me with the environment, reminds me of my necessary relationship with the world and its many beings and aspects: seasons, weather, water, plants, insects, bacteria, trees, other humans…

More than ever, I recognize the value in those relationships and treasure how varied they are. And I am just another part of the things I love and experience.

I also recognize my humanness as being “part of the problem” here. I use energy systems, I drive a gas-powered car, my house pumps water from the aquifer, I cleanse my house with disinfectants, my trash goes to a landfill, my income’s derived from an elite system of higher-education institutions. All that stuff that has materially altered the Earth for the worse and been unequally distributed among people? Responsible for my part in it. Trying to make changes.

I went out, wearing my robe and slippers, to the porch this morning to appreciate the barely-frosted landscape and breathe in the scent of minor snow. Sparrows and finches flitted through the bare shrubs, alive with activity. Tonight is the dark of the moon and soon the solstice will arrive. Times of transition. What will they bring?

Moment(s)

Very small pear.

~

It was delicious.

After last year’s complete dearth of pears, this year both trees were laden with fruit so that the boughs drooped, making things easier for the deer, who love to eat them. We were happy to share, as I haven’t got time these days to make pear butter or prep fruit for canning. We gave pears to friends, made pear cobbler, ate pears for breakfast, and enjoyed them immensely. And we liked watching a doe and her twin fawns nibbling around and under the trees at dawn and towards dusk.

The summer heat broke at last after the “remnants” of hurricane Ida crashed over us. If those were just remnants, I have deep respect for the people of Louisiana, who felt the initial force. We got 7″ of rain in less than a day, and the flash floods affected many of our friends. My basement office on campus is drying out during the 3-day weekend–our building’s drainage system was not quite up to the task of directing water away from our doors. Now, the brown crickets are noisier than the katydids, the grasshoppers have grown large, the days are shorter. Tomato harvest has slowed, and gardening consists mostly of pulling up weeds and dead plants. It is as though the downpour swept away summer, despite my knowing that the hot days will return. (September can be steamy here in my valley.)

I’m reading A.E. Stallings‘ collection Like and relishing her new takes on traditional poetry forms as well as her facility with establishing a sense of place in the poems. I appreciate her images and thought-provoking ideas, too. Her work does the things that I think poems are supposed to do.

Finally, I have been drafting a few poems, or at least hoping these drafts will turn into poems. I’ve also begun examining some older work for revision and, maybe, collection into another book. But that’s looking perhaps too far ahead. After a challenging couple of years, maybe just living in the moment serves me better.

The taste of fresh pears. The sticky sweetness of fresh local peaches. The smell of basil.

Cycles & theories

The Chinese lunisolar calendar puts us between 立秋 lìqiū, or start of autumn, and 處暑 chùshǔ, or limit of heat. Certainly the heat here lately has felt limiting, but the term more likely refers to the end of the hottest days of the year. My backyard world fills with haiku imagery for waning summer and impending autumn: katydid and annual cicada calls, birds starting to flock, morning glory and goldenrod, ripe pears, apples beginning to redden, hosts of butterflies. I watch as a hummingbird visits sunflowers, cannas, buddleia, corn tassels, and zinnias. Ripe tomatoes and zucchini weigh heavily on their vines.

Yesterday, a doe nibbled pears while her late-born twin fawns wove between her legs and the Queen Anne’s lace beneath the tree. The air hangs so humid, even the monarch butterfly’s wings seem to droop. A sense of waiting.

And I prepare for the fall semester. Cycles continue: that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

~

Therefore, to engage my intellect when my expressive ability with words seems sparse, I’m reading about theory. Specifically, the theory of the lyric in Western poetics, which turns out to be abstract and scholarly (no surprise, really–theory tends to be scholarly). My guide for this outing is Jonathan Culler’s book Theory of the Lyric. This text manages to be relatively readable despite its terminology; and as the terminology for the lyrical poem encompasses a long history of definitions, rhetoric, explanations, subgenres, and antiquated jargon, the going occasionally gets tough. I’m learning a great deal, however, about poetic experimentation over the centuries.

I now recognize that I have subsumed the idea of lyricism as it came down to American writers through Romanticism (see Hegel). It’s just that the concept of subjectivity in the lyric, and inward-turning emotion and the poet as speaker, has been so pervasive in Western poetics and pedagogy that it seemed a basic premise. Yet it was not always thus, and certainly other cultures employ lyricism differently and view it differently. It’s never an easy task to view from outside what is inherent in one’s own culture, but that’s where books like this one enlighten and challenge.

Besides the theory and historicity of poetry and the task of poetics, however esoteric and abstract, theory texts often elicit from me the urge to move to something more concrete, more creative.

I can only hope.

Fallow me

Blogger/poet/bookmaker Ren Powell recently suggested going fallow for awhile “to see what comes of it.” I tend to go through fallow periods quite accidentally. Used to call them writer’s block, but I don’t view them like that anymore. Fallow strikes me as a more accurate term for a number of reasons, some of them etymological. In current agriculture, a fallow field remains uncultivated purposely, to rest and improve the soil’s fertility. That seems more accurate to my current state of mind than “dry” or “blocked.”

Consider the field left fallow: plenty goes on there. Weed seeds germinate and sprout, annelids and arthropods, insects, and beetles, in their various life stages, multiply and move about. Voles, mice, toads go a-hunting. Bacteria do their thing. It’s not a lifeless place, the fallow plot.

But I haven’t been writing.

The publisher of my next book (The Red Queen Hypothesis) says yes, it’s still on her docket and will see the light of day–and print–next year, but that heartening news has not kicked me into gear on the writing front. And yet, by the time that collection comes out, the newest poem in it will be 6 years old. Some of the poems are almost 20 years old; it will not feel like a “new book” to me! Where, then, to put the newer work? What to do with the two half-completed, partially-revised collections of newer compositions that lie next to my desk and languish on my computer’s hard drive? Where is the motivation to finish the work or to start fresh?

I don’t know the answer to that just yet. But here’s an off-the-cuff haiku I dreamed up this morning that reminds me a bit of Issa’s poems.

~

fallow field
even a bird's dropping 
contains a seed 
painting by Jack FIsher

Naming names

A friend sent me the link to this NY Times article and asked my response as a gardener and as a writer who teaches writing. She wondered whether the flower-name Mexican hat (a type of coneflower) is racist, and if a flower resembled a beret and were called French hat, would that be racist?

“This Moth’s Name Is a Slur. Scientists Won’t Use It Anymore.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/09/science/gypsy-moth-romani-entomological-society.html?referringSource=articleShare

She has given me much to think about. I suppose people ought to use the botanical name to identify such things, but most people aren’t going to refer to gypsy moths as Lymantria dispar. Though if you look at the botanical names, those too bear some consideration as Eurocentric or white supremacist, given their inherent background: so many plants are named for their (colonizing) European “discoverers” or have names that mean “ugly” or “stinky” or, in the case of Lymantria dispar, “ill-suited and unlike.”

The reason Mexican hat (or French hat, for that matter) might be considered racist is that they are inherently stereotypes. Mexico is a huge and diverse place, and not everyone there wears a sombrero any more than all French people wear berets. I suppose we could call them sombrero flowers. That would be naming them by what they resemble. And we could call Dutchman’s Breeches pantaloons flowers. That’s a whole lotta name-changing going on, and the likelihood that everyone will take to the new names? That, only time will tell.

As to gypsy moths, the name was dubbed in a derogatory way–as in, “We don’t want those traveling gypsies around (and that’s what these moths are like).” So, it is a slur. A verbal aggression against Romani people who were already tagged with a name someone else gave them (the etymology of the name is here: gypsy).

Hypothetically, we could continue to call the moths gypsy moths; but when we use the term, we can tell our children (for example) it used to be considered a bad thing to be a gypsy, but the Romani people aren’t bad and neither are the moths–the moths are just being moths and doing what moths do. It’s people who brought them to a place the moths could end up being so destructive that we now have to kill them or discourage them from breeding here. [BTW, it was the white European people who colonized the American continent who brought the moths here.]

Yes, that’s complicated. Most people don’t want to go to the bother of subtle explanations. So sometimes a name change is actually simpler. People complain about “politically-correct language” and changing English into something it shouldn’t be…it can be difficult to keep track of.

But because English is a living language, I expect and generally accept changes to the language as there are changes in our living culture. Am I always happy about “verbing a noun” or use of the words “impactful” and “relatable” or mixing up “lie” and “lay”? Um, no. Does the speed of change make my job more difficult? Why, YES! But if a person makes me aware of sensitivity in language, such as stereotyping, I respect that. It makes me reflect on language and culture.

The beauty of the world in which we reside. Here’s Ratiba columnifer (the flower formerly known as Mexican hat).

https://www.highcountrygardens.com

Reading not writing

But the next best thing to writing is reading. Or maybe it’s the other way around; if I had not loved reading, I would never have started writing.

Stacked beside the bed:

A Book of Psalms (Stephen Mitchell)

The Book of Joy (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dalai Lama XIV, Douglas Abrams)

The Book (Keith Houston)

The Darker Fall (Rick Barot)

Theory of the Lyric (Jonathan Culler)

Shifting the Silence (Etel Adnan)

Noise (Kahneman, Sibony, & Sunstein)

Haiku 2021 anthology from Moonstone Arts Center

I love how the first three books all have BOOK in their titles. The Adnan and the Mitchell are re-reads that settle my soul while keeping my mind active and inquisitive. The Book of Joy has been surprisingly helpful to me so far (I am reading it a bit at a time while other things are going on).

Anyway, I can garden. We have had plentiful rain and now I have plentiful beans, basil, zucchini, carrots; numerous tomatoes cluster under leaves, so whenever they ripen we’ll have more splendid organic tasty produce. I will continue to pull out the crabgrass, wild mustard, pigweed, smartweed, etc. Culling, cultivating, collecting sunlight through my vegetables and through my skin (yes, I wear sunscreen–and a hat)…there are worse things in life than an inability to compose poems. And I can read, thank heaven. Reading poetry, and reading about poetry, provides plenty of joy.

One of the practices of joy mentioned in the Dalai Lama’s & Desmond Tutu’s book is gratitude. Fortunately, that practice has never been difficult for me.

under clouds /heat rises from soil /beans grow plump


The berries

It is my custom to pick blackberries in the heat of the day. Perhaps I relish discomfort: the heat, the muggy late-June or early July weather, the thorny canes interspersed with other thorny canes and exuberant vines, poison ivy among these. I always end up scratched, sweaty, sunburned, and itchy; but I end up with blackberries.

Picking at midday means I encounter fewer mosquitoes, for one thing. And in midday I am likely to be the only berry-gatherer in the thickets. Everyone seems to love blackberries and mulberries—which ripen about a week earlier, so these berry seasons overlap. Everyone! Birds, squirrels, deer, foxes, groundhogs, raccoons, possums, bears…

Blackberry fruiting gives way to blueberries, and blueberries to wineberries and elderberries, so that bellies get filled and seeds get dispersed all over the place. I hear rustlings in the hedgerows and at the edge of the woods at night, so yes, I would rather loot my fruit when only “mad dogs and Englishmen” are outside.

Tonight, we’ll have berry cobbler.

I’m still not writing very much new work, but blackberry picking brought to mind this poem from quite some time ago. The poem’s speaker is hiking, not berrying, but I thought of it just the same.

~

Bear & Cloudburst


Blue Ridge, 4200 feet:
we start our ascent, sweet
cicely going fast to seed

trailside goldenrod in bloom.
Bees hover and hum,
we walk one by one by one by one

summer-heat left behind
smothered in pipe vine.
Track and blaze. Trail climbs

through laurel—twisted, dry
from two years’ drought, sky
overcast, color of thin whey

but the ranger doubts rain,
has hoped too long, in vain.
As we file by, he waves.

Further up. Dense shrubs
thickets of berries slubbed
like raw silk, leaves daubed

with stippled insect eggs
or lichen, fungus, swags
of spider webbing, sacs and bags

and butterflies, brute gnats
undeterred by repellent. We swat
stobs, are scratched. The scat

along trailside I recognize as bear
but say nothing, though a fear
threads my ribs tightly where

instinct thumps. Our feet tramp
soil, each step sounds the tamp
of soles ascending; camp’s

four hundred meters’ altitude
below. Skeletal crane-fly skewed
dry in a web. We walk through                       

woods, a clearing up ahead
when a pungency attests
to recent presence, and Alice says

“There’s a funny smell.”
Her voice seems oddly small.
We summon our collective will,

engage in loud conversation.
Bears aren’t known for discussion,
are likely to flee in disgust. Then,

thunder. Air, though thin,
grows humid. Under the din
the tree-line begins

to go, our path exposed
as a blade of lightning explodes
ahead, just to the north.

Pick up the pace. Slouch
back to the undergrowth, the touch
of brambles like a scutch

on skin. We scuff the leaves
in the musky, bracing odor, pleased
to be off-summit, our speed

faster than before and louder
as we plunge downhill and wonder
where the bear has wandered

and if it’s found shelter.
We’ve half a mile to weather
in the rain. I slip. I’d rather

climb into some outcropped sweep
hidden beneath a sweetgum tree,
nuzzle the berry-breathed bear, and sleep.




			

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.