Monumental

Historical record is a palimpsest, erased in whole or in parts and reinterpreted, rewritten, revised, rebuilt, restructured, reconsidered, and–often–reviled. In the USA, we are once again evaluating our statuary monuments. Columbus. Juan de Oñate. Mayor Frank Rizzo. General Robert E. Lee. 

What a society considers beautiful, or of aesthetic value, usually differs little from what it considers to be of cultural value. Such judgment seems natural; but it frequently provides societal blinders because citizens want to avoid what’s ugly, brutal, and complicated. If it’s good, it must be beautiful; if it is beautiful, and has been around a long time, it must be a good symbol for our society.

One thing about a symbol is its simplicity–we think we know exactly what it stands for, and we can admire our own reflections about that shared idea. Except that human perspectives are annoyingly unique, and it turns out we cannot even agree about what a symbol represents, let alone what it means, and whether or not it should be interpreted in the context of the society that created the symbol or in light of the point of view of the person who now perceives it.

Monuments, though we think of them as commemorations or reminders, are intentionally raised up to become symbols or icons in a way at variance with the more common, individual headstones or grave markers. They are not art but society’s major markers. I learned about the difference a decade or so ago on a visit to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum). A tour group was walking through the Ancient Egyptian galleries, and one of the visitors asked the docent about how and when the artistic styles of the large sculptures changed.

“Anthropologists seldom refer to these objects as art, actually,” replied the docent. She went on to add that while they are beautiful and most people think of them as art, the monuments really were indicators of society–status, leadership, importance in the world of the time. While they seem lasting to us, because they’re large or carved of stone, they were created by craftsmen, not artists. No one cared who made them; they were there to tell the people living in the cities, towns, and countryside who was in power, whom to worship, and what the governing powers valued. Many statues were destroyed or vandalized once a nobleman was out of power. It didn’t matter that they were made of stone, or whether they were aesthetically beautiful or made by a renowned craftsman–the figurehead kings or gods were no longer important. They could safely be demolished.

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Granite sphinx of Ramses II, Penn Museum

Or re-used. Speaking of palimpsests, read about this sphinx at the Penn Museum’s gallery. The cartouches show definite signs of having been repurposed from a previous pharaoh. “The previous king’s name is entirely eradicated.”

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If you suspect I am making an analogy to current events, you suspect correctly. It is human nature to want things to stay as one remembers them, and we tend to feel confused when change occurs rapidly. But renaming, erasure, and destruction of socially-sanctioned monuments has been going on for a long, long time. We should not be as surprised as news media seems to want us to be when monuments become controversial.

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The Online Etymology Dictionary says this about the word monument:

late 13c., “a sepulchre,” from Old French monument “grave, tomb, monument,” and directly from Latin monumentum “a monument, memorial structure, statue; votive offering; tomb; memorial record,” literally “something that reminds,” a derivative of monere “to remind, bring to (one’s) recollection, tell (of),” from PIE *moneie- “to make think of, remind,” suffixed (causative) form of root *men- (1) “to think.” Meaning “any enduring evidence or example” is from 1520s; sense of “structure or edifice to commemorate a notable person, action, period, or event” is attested from c. 1600.

Monuments relate to thinking, to memory. We want our thoughts to endure–our society, our “own way of life”–to last forever, because we know we will not last forever.

Monuments have the disturbing quality of often belonging to only one group in a culture, however. The victors, or those who wish they had been victors. The victims, mourned. The powerful, because they have the means to build monuments. Monuments can fade from significance; the culture can change its point of view, making the old statues controversial or useless; new leaders can appear.

I am rethinking what I consider to be cultural and social monuments.

Here’s something I love to hear when my head and heart get too full of complicated histories and emotions: Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” sung by Otis Redding. *

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* [FYI from Wikipedia: “In 2007, the song was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress, with the National Recording Registry deeming the song “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”[2]]

(Dis)order & (dis)comfort

The university takes a long weekend in October; I thought it a propitious time to snare some solitude for writing and revising and thus betook myself and a mountain of my work to a semi-secluded cabin. Designed and largely built by Jack Fisher, the place offers light, comfort, memories, art, nature and spaciousness of environment. While I had no particular plan in mind–in retrospect, possibly a mistake–I imagined these days would act as a mini-writing retreat.

I love the cabin, the memories, the aesthetics of the house and generally I love solitude as long as it does not extend for too many days. The circumstance I discovered once I opened up my pile of poetry drafts, however, led me to one conclusion: I was going to have to organize, read, evaluate, consider, and cull before even getting to the “fun” part of revising. This level of work tends to discomfit me, feels tedious and draining and sometimes fruitless–which is why I have pretty much put it off since…oh…graduate school. Almost two decades.

But I made myself time to be alone and undisturbed, so let my work disturb me as it must. If a writer never allows herself to experience discomfort, she is unlikely to move her work forward in any meaningful or craft-related way.

I do not mind a little disorder in life, but the state of my drafts long ago sailed past disorder and into chaos and redundancy. It helps me to make an analogy to the garden: time to weed, time to save seeds (and label them!) and make notes on what thrived under which conditions and to note where the voles and rabbits are breaching the fence. A realtor might substitute the analogy of “deferred maintenance.” [Yikes!]

If this long weekend turned out to be less full of new work, or of fruitful revisiting of poems to make them stronger–if it has tested my comfort level with my own writing and forced me to face the mediocrity of most of it–that’s fine. The edges are where the interest lies, at the tension between the expected and the challenging. Sometimes we need a little less comfort and order to test the mettle of our creative acts and of ourselves. The days at the cabin were peaceful and full of solitude. I believe they will have yielded, for me, a clearer view of where my work–and I–are headed.

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Hinges, Hopkins, “Buckle! AND…”

Thinking about poetry again, at long last. A colleague directed me to a lovely little online post in which poet Catherine Barnett describes her attempts to create a physical analogy of poetry as hinge: here on the University of Arizona site.

Barnett writes:

As a poet, what interests me about a hinge is its two defining qualities: a hinge—like other devices—connects objects; it serves as a point of connection, a joining, a joint. But so is glue, a screw, a nail, a hasp, a clasp, a knot, a lock. What distinguishes a hinge from most other forms of connecting is the fact that it allows relative movement between two (or more) solid objects that share an axis.

In a poem, a hinge word or moment or gesture allows you to have both continuity and gap; unity and difference; such “hinges” keep the parts of the poem in some working relationship to one another and at the same time allow the poem to retain some of what Aristotle calls the unities of time and place.

How radically or loosely you want the hinge to open is a matter of temperament.

I love that idea of temperament juxtaposed with relative movement, continuity and gap. I’ve long mulled over the concept of joinery as a metaphor for some of the things that happen in poetry (even if “poetry makes nothing happen,” I do wish people would remember Auden’s next phrase that “it survives/In the valley of its making”). The hinge offers another analogy that Barnett hints at though doesn’t fully develop in her brief piece. I felt inspired to explore a poem that I think demonstrates the concept of the hinge.

The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Aside from the fabulous alliterative sound-joy and astonishing rhythms of this poem, it offers powerful, realistic description of a bird that manages to operate symbolically if the reader chooses to interpret it that way (as Hopkins surely meant his readers to do). I propose that there are several hinges in this poem, most spectacularly the center line in the center stanza, exclamation and capitalization marking the spot. It is at this point in the poet’s observation that pride, plume, brute beauty suddenly buckle: the falcon wings fold, plunge, AND…the bird breaks into the dangerous shine that makes the viewer’s heart leap at the sight.

Perhaps there is a moment when the bird’s shape resembles a cross in the sky. Perhaps the sun behind the gleaming feathers sends out shimmers like flames, the glory of God illuminated. Or it’s just a falcon, handsome and gliding on the big wind, but that hinge in the poem’s line serves to alert us to the gap (the hinge-like action of wings an unintended simile) and the continuity of the poet’s observation.

There are other hinges that work in the piece, such as the hyphen in its odd place at the end of the first line, promising “king” but leading instead to the string of D sounds that drum through the second line; the closed hinge of “Stirred for a bird” opening wide into the surprising exclamation that hangs of the axis of a long dash “–the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!”

I’m not sure I’m going to attempt Barnett’s original idea of making a poem physically into a hinge (though I have some tantalizing thoughts about ways one could accomplish that); I hope eventually to write about the joinery analogy. Meanwhile, however, I’m spending the evening with Hopkins’ “Windhover” in my mind. A pleasant way to open, or to close, a mild day late in autumn.

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