Bittersweet

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These berry-laden vines are called oriental bittersweet–aptly named for this aggressive plant. Sweet because indeed, they are beautiful; but their introduction to the Americas has nearly wiped out American bittersweet and threatens trees because the vines are adept girdlers. They squeeze trunks as trees grow, sometimes killing the tree.

I should remove them from my hedgerows, but I haven’t the energy. Look at this link for the challenges involved. My lack of intervention probably falls under the category of deferred maintenance, and has led to a sense of plaintiveness, perhaps, and to these drafts of tanka poems on this late November day.

~

the leafless hedgerow
studded with red berries
each wintry morning
my walk’s accompanied
by bittersweet

~
how dull gold husks
open to red fruit
how such slender vines
grow to strangle trees
–bittersweet

~

an old cliché
take the bitter with the sweet
older now myself
I try balancing
life’s flavors

 

Storms

This week, I’m reflecting on Kyna Leski‘s marvelous little book The Storm of Creativity. How to describe this text? It’s written by someone who teaches architecture as well as designs spaces, and who reads across disciplines and thinks both deeply and widely. It is not a how-to book; more of a how-it-works book. I learned of this book through Deborah Barlow (in 2015!) and finally have gotten around to reading it.

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Leski uses the analogy of a storm system, from moisture in the ground or bodies of water through the gathering of the storm organizing itself into, say, a hurricane, and takes the process all the way through to dissipation (a kind of “death”) and restarting the cycle, when what we have is new again–and will not be exactly the same next time.

Rob Harle, reviewing the book, says:

“Leski’s approach is far better and much more practical than those found in books that delve deeply into neurophysiology, neuro-transmitters in the brain and so on when trying to understand what happens when creative people work. The neurological approach may be useful as far as it goes, and for specialized reasons. However, knowing that a certain neurotransmitter fires up a certain part of the brain doesn’t help us understand, or more importantly, deal with, for example, writer’s block. Leski’s storm metaphor and analysis does!”

Her vimeo video offers an animated visual of the storm process.

Here’s the thing: she captures the process as I myself experience it. I keep re-reading sections of this book and nodding in recognition. I am not the sort of person who spends much time analyzing creativity; I prefer to read how other people analyze the process and decide whether their reflections or analyses dovetail with my own. In this case, yes. For me, anyway, the creative process organizes like a storm.

The gathering part of the work coincides with that aspect of writing that I call observing. Gathering is a good word for it (Leski uses denotations and etymology as she defines her process, so that appeals to me, too). There’s a phrase my relatives used referring to someone daydreaming or loafing reflectively: “woolgathering.” Despite this interesting inquiry into the appropriateness of the phrase to mean loafing or daydreaming, in our family it meant daydreaming. I used to think the phrase referred to watching clouds–one of my favorite activities as a child–because clouds often look like wool. At any rate, woolgathering’s essential to my writing practice.

And sometimes, those clouds collect together, and create a storm.

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Msr. Coulon & memorization

This post responds to Cleveland Wall, a poet for whom recitation is part of presentation and who reminded me of an old poem of mine I had written in response to a visual image on a postcard. The image and the poem are below, but what strikes me about recalling the work is that it is one of the few poems I have managed to memorize.

Ms. Wall memorizes much of her work and has presented at performances such as slam poetry events and No River Twice shows [Facebook video link below–you can catch a glimpse of me reading here, too.]

 

Alas, I have ever and always been terrible at memorization. In Sunday school, my younger sibling earned points for Bible verse memorizing at probably twice my pace. I enjoyed theater but never learned lines well enough to manage more than walk-on roles. Song lyrics came more easily, probably because the music helped cue me to the phrases.

You would think a poet–a versifier!–could commit her own work to memory. But no. Add that to my numerous failings.

~~

I bought the Louis Coulon postcard in 1980 at a New York City stationer’s. What I did not know then (hey, no interwebs) was that Coulon sat for a number of portraits and was a relatively famous postcard subject at the fin de siecle.

Here’s the poem, first published by the estimable Harry Humes in the now-defunct Yarrow: A Journal of Poetry in 1982.

 

La Barbe

Monsieur Coulon, my grandfather, wore large mustaches and a beard three meters long. He tied it to the bedposts by night to avoid strangulation in his sleep; as it was, he died of fever in 1904, and the beard grew two centimeters more the day after his death. For years I had nightmares, Grandfather silently choking me in the posterbed I’d inherited from his estate. I bobbed my hair before the style became fashionable; Mama said it was scandalous, but the dreams ceased. I left Nievre for Paris and America, to avoid strangulation.

In 1942, I visited Savannah, Georgia, where trees resemble men, their great beards choking ocean breeze. I dream of trees opening gray coffins into a humid night–

                           I am an old woman, now, and waiting–

         ah, listen:

the wind is speaking French, Grandfather, it takes my precious breath away!

~

Louis Coulon, beard

~

P.S.–I have updated my P&W directory entry. Check out https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/ann_e_michael

 

 

Bro-ken

In the northwest sky this morning, mackerel-sky and mares’ tail clouds like fins, wispy and broken up against the blue, brought to mind the book I’m reading: Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. In this book, essays on place and environment interweave with “word hoards” or mini-dictionaries, a rich lexicon of regional terms that describe specific observations concerning weather, geographical formations, topology, the sea, plants, moorlands, mountains, and mines. He uses the word adit! (See my post here.)

 

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mares’ tail clouds

 

Macfarlane’s word hoard draws mostly from the British Isles, but his essays–in this collection, many are based on books he has loved–assert that naming is noticing, noticing is loving, and loving means preserving or saving. “Language deficit leads to attention deficit,” he says. He’s not incorrect. My own experience concurs; for the past few years, I have had less time and energy to walk my meadow and take the two-mile amble along the back roads of our neighborhood, and as a result, my written expression feels both a bit contracted and less precise. I need to get back to the land.

Meanwhile, more broken things, from which (see this post) we may encounter or derive good words. The most recent break happens to have been the nose of a Best Beloved. I think it is time the broken things spell gave us a break.

In that vein, here’s a 1932 poem by Carl Sandburg, “Broken Sonnet”:

May the weather next week be good to us.
The strong fighting birds, so often ugly,
Jab the songsters and bleed them
And send them away; the wranglers rule,
The fast breeders, the winter sparrows,
The crows.  The weeds, the quack grass,
The tough wire-grass, they have it all
Their way.  May the weather next week
Be good to us.

~

 

Thesaurus obscurus

When I moved into my work office many years ago, I inherited a bookshelf with a few books on it. There was a battered paperback Volume I of The Oxford Anthology of English Literature; A Manual of Style, 12th edition (1969) from University of Chicago Press; The New American Bible for Catholics; a Catechism; a Bartlett’s; several old volumes of The Writing Center Journal; and Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus from 1976. There was a dictionary as well.

Of these older reference works, the one that most entertains me is the thesaurus. The editors employed the alphabetical-style organization, reasoning that a “main entry of a concise statement of the segment of denotation in which a group of words can be construed as synonyms, a strictly alphabetical organization, and the entry at its own alphabetical place of each word that appears as a synonym at a main entry” would “minimize the consultant’s need to grope and guess.” *

But what puzzles me is the choice of entry words in this 1976 text. What college student, ever, would be searching for a synonym for entrammel? Or phthisis? Or incondite? [By the way, WordPress’s spelling checker does not recognize any of these words, although they are all acceptable English terms.] Exanimate may be an interesting replacement for “dead,” but why make it a main entry in the thesaurus? I was a college student in 1976, and I cannot imagine consulting this book in order to find a suitable synonym for drossy. “Worthless” or “pointless” would have sufficed in most cases–and why make the choice of inutile? Wouldn’t that impede the reader’s understanding? Or maybe not–the reader for university writing would have been a scholar, I suppose. brad-hammonds-flikr-books

I find myself wondering whether these choices reflect an era on some sociological level, and on what level that might be. My freshman reading list was longer and “more difficult” than the reading with which my current students are tasked, but those assignments were based on the assumption that we had read considerable canon literature in high school. Nonetheless, in the 70s, we were not scrambling to find synonyms for fainéant unless we were trying to paraphrase a source.

Maybe the answer lies in how long it used to take to get a reference text produced. Surely the research for the collegiate thesaurus would have taken ten years or more; and the text would have been edited by many persons and proofread, typeset, proofed again and again before getting to the printing press, being bound, and finally reaching bookshelves in college bookstores. Were college students in the late 1950s more likely to write using the word culmen or adit?

Honestly, I’m thinking: No.

~

These days, there are many online thesauruses; but they tend to give short shrift to English’s wide range of approximate synonyms, each with their connotations. My students’ papers often suffer from vague and random use of online thesaurus “suggestions.” The electronic thesaurus, like the dictionaries and encyclopedias online, fail in another important way: it turns out that groping around for a word or a meaning can lead to stumbling upon new words, new connotations, and interesting forays into the depths that our language has to offer.

Anyway, I appreciate an out-of-date reference text for historical and linguistic reasons and because–you never know–sometimes those archaic words inspire, influence, or appear in one of my poem drafts. Groping and guessing may impel a Parnassian to chivy exceptional words through the adit of English and wraxel with new expressions.

~~

* Seriously. Try to unpack that series of dependent modifying phrases. I even edited down the sentence!

 

 

Acedia

While sorting through my work, I found a poem titled “Acedia,” and I have been musing on the concept again. The poem (below) referred, when I wrote it, to a kind of numb depressive state. In contemporary English, the term means boredom, ennui, apathy–with connotations of a spiritual aspect to the torpor. PsyWeb says, “Acedia refers to a failure of will to control one’s longings or reactions to daily life, while depression is considered a medical condition or a failure of the body.”

Doing a bit of research into the etymology and history of the word took me to the Desert Fathers, Christian hermits in the early centuries of the faith. Acedia referred very specifically to a kind of spiritual laziness. Here’s a little tour of the history by Kelsey Kennedy on Atlas Obscura:

Evagrius was a member of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, a group of devout Christian monks and hermits who lived in the Egyptian desert beginning in the third century. By the time Evagrius joined their ranks in the late 300s, there were several thousand monks living in organized communities. They spent their days fasting, working, and worshiping, often in isolation. When the sun and the heat peaked, life could be quite uncomfortable. So it makes sense that Evagrius dubbed acedia the “demon of noontide,” a reference to Psalm 91. Siegfried Wenzel, in his book The Sin of Sloth: Acedia in Medieval Thought and Literature, wrote that “in the end acedia causes the monk to either give in to physical sleep, which proves unrefreshing or actually dangerous because it opens the door to many other temptations, or to leave his cell and eventually the religious life altogether.” Acedia could be resisted, but only through endurance, prayer, and sometimes even crying.

John Cassian, a student of Evagrius’s…helped spread the concept of the cardinal sins beyond the Desert Fathers. But as soon as acedia left the desert, the demon of noontide started to become a whole different animal.

What it became was the cardinal sin of Sloth. But Despair continued to be viewed as dangerously heretical, because it led to suicidal thinking (and suicide was until recently classed as one of the mortal sins).

Thomas Merton, in his book Thoughts in Solitude, supports (without quite saying so) the Roman Catholic view that despair is a sin; but, as is usual for Merton, he frames the depression experience with compassion and offers a gentler perception of the experience. He suggests that when a person believes of him or herself “I am nothing,” there is another way of being with that thought: “I am not who I wish to be.”

This concept strikes me as so perfectly sane. When I have felt deeply depressed, the ingrained mind-numbing idea that surfaces is that I am worthless or that I am nothing. And really, what I feel is that I am not who I wish to be.

Why does the latter sentence feel less like despair? Anyway, it feels that way to me. Thank you, Thomas Merton.

Now here’s the poem in its revised-draft form, though I’m not sure it’s really finished yet.

~~

Acedia

It is what looked up at you
from the eyes of the wounded doe
what the clock said to itself
when the mainspring gave way.

It is the last few shudders
your father’s body made
when his heart wrote hopeless
on the hospital bed

the long sigh of a black dog
and your beloved’s parched skin
when she could make no more tears
and told you go now.

It is the dead nut
in the infertile basalt cave
it is all the days I tell you I can’t
but you are right

there is desire.
The numb body’s in-taken breath
yearning to stay alive:
remind me that it is desire.

~

 

Two reams

As regards my recent long weekend assessing and organizing my work, the most startling revelation has been its sheer volume. I keep my printed poem drafts in an old-fashioned cardboard letterhead/correspondence box which holds two reams of paper–1,000 pages–and the box was full. Among poets who experience writer’s block this abundance may seem a problem worth having, but keep in mind two things:

1) This output represents over 15 years of uncompleted, unrevised drafts and

2) Most of the poems are crappy, or mediocre at best.

Apparently I have taken to heart William Stafford‘s advice that if one has trouble with writing, “perhaps you should lower your standards.” *

Abundance is a fine thing, but anyone who has ever cleaned a barn stall or an attic knows that sheer volume does not count for much. And one cannot spin bad drafts into gold without considerable help from supernatural guides or wily trolls, neither of which accompanied me to the cabin.

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Thus, I had to toil on my own, critique my poems, evaluate which ones have most “promise,” and try to keep myself from throwing absolutely everything into the woodstove. The work required solitude, discernment, frequent breaks for walks, tea, exercise, reading work other than my own, and (eventually) wine.

Also the occasional nap. My brain gets sleepy after awhile.

The outcome? I winnowed, though possibly not enough.  I have begun the disciplined, for now, revision process of the “active” stack of work. It is entirely possible that there’s a collection or two in there, though I will not know that for some time.

It will not be gold, but it will be a vast improvement over the accumulated dross..


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Part of the process…

*In an interview with Bill Moyers, and widely quoted elsewhere