Backstory, continued

What brought the idea of backstory to mind was a poem of mine that recently appeared in Peacock Journal’s  print anthology. The poem appeared last year in the journal’s online site. (See: “Imagined Painting of Mary Magdalene Bathing.”)

A friend read the piece and responded to the poem by saying, “This is a beautiful poem. It’s so visual–also, different the second time you read it. And I know how interested you’ve always been in saints and iconography and art, but where did you come up with the idea of imagined paintings? What’s that about?”

This is the best kind of question, as far as I’m concerned. It is a question about ideas, not inspiration or meaning or even craft–though I love questions about craft. It does beg the writer to reveal, however, a bit of the story-behind-the-story/poem/narrative, etc.

“Backstory” may seem self-explanatory. It’s a term used more frequently in drama, particularly screenwriting. Poetry critics are less inclined to employ the concept because–see last post–it is too easy to fall into explaining the poem, which is generally considered a no-no. My friend, however, is a reader and not a poetry critic. I felt free, therefore, to address the question on a personal level.

As my good friend knows, I have been intrigued since adolescence by the art and iconography, the symbolism and the stories of the saints, despite my Protestant upbringing. I love art, aesthetics, and the divinely natural (empirical, phenomenal) World and feel an ambiguous but compelling relationship with myth, religion, history and a culture I cannot escape. And I have imagination.

I began writing about a saints in less-than saintly pursuits. The idea interested me. Surely the saints could be imagined as real human beings, not only as intercessionaries between the human realm and Heaven. I wrote about St. Sebastian purchasing a tunic, Saint Agnes braiding her mother’s hair, and St. Anthony fetching a pail of water. Saints as human beings (rather than as symbols, icons, and religious items) led me to the depictions of saints in art as other-worldly, pure, suffering, or in all ways saintly; and I entertained thoughts of paintings I had never seen but would like to see–theoretically-possible paintings. In the case of St. Mary Magdalene bathing–would Da Vinci have painted it? Rubens? I can only imagine. The poems are a kind of ekphrasis.

I wanted to be a painter when I was a child. This imagining may be as close as I ever get to realizing my youthful ideals.

~

There is not much more backstory than that. None of it leads to meaning or interpretation, although the story above may cement some allusion or confirm referents in the reader’s mind. I hope, however, that the backstory here might interest one or two readers enough that they pick up a book on Renaissance or medieval art, on hagiography or history. Or perhaps someone will go to Amazon.com and purchase the anthology at the link above.

Thank you, friends in literature and imagination.

 

 

 

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Beautiful brain

While waiting for the snow to evaporate and melt, the gardener experiences agitation; the days are longer–it must be time to plant seeds…but the soil is too wet and too cold.

Fortunately, there are always books! I have read Daniel Dennett on religion, George Lakoff on the embodied basis for philosophy, and am plowing rapidly through Ruth Whippman’s (acerbic and very funny) America the Anxious.  Also I am slowly savoring an anthology of Jewish women’s poems, The Dybbuk of Delight, that I randomly discovered in the library.

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But here’s a book I want to own, when I can justify more book purchases: Beautiful Brain: the Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, because Art! because Neuroscience! because Beauty! The blog Hyperallergic says the drawings are going to be touring museums (see The Dynamic Brain Drawings of the Father of Neuroscience), which might also become a must-do for me when the exhibit travels to New York City next January.

What Cajal was doing back at the turn of the last century still inspires artists, not just medical scientists, today (see my post on Greg Dunn’s neuro-artworks). These compellingly beautiful and quite accurate drawings may also inspire poets and armchair philosophers who have lately spent a great deal of time pondering the resilience of the brain and the challenges that rupture a sense of self when cognition is interrupted.

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~

Credit goes to Abrams Books for these graphics and for the decision to publish this beautiful text.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Negative space

A recent visit from a poet friend has me thinking I need to change my perspective again–always an important thing for an writer to do. If we don’t shuffle things up once in awhile, we get mired in swamps of the too-familiar and keep resuscitating what we have done before.

Sometimes, that is what needs to be done. But sometimes we need to move on.

~

Years ago. when I took visual art classes, my instructors taught me about how to see negative space as a method of considering the subject not as my brain wanted to see it but as it existed in relation to other objects in the visual plane. Those gaps between what we see as objects we automatically assume are “empty” spaces; but once we learn to perceive them, we recognize how vital they are to the composition. I learned that an arrangement–say, a still life–might contain more interesting negative spaces than positive ones. One moment of noticing, and the idea of what I could “see” would be transformed.

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Most people learn about negative space through the Gestalt concept of figure-ground organization principle. I found out about it through teachers who had me draw the spaces between subjects.

What does this have to do with writing or poetry? Here’s a spot I could easily allude to Keats’ famous coinage of the phrase negative capability. But that’s not what I mean.

~

Change the viewpoint: new images arise; the shadows differ; the light’s at a different angle. What was ground becomes, perhaps, foregrounded.

Writers need to make these shifts, too. I have spent considerable time learning forms and meters, experimenting with styles and stanzas, working with phrasing and syntax, pushing at fears and feelings, playing with images. That has been all to the good, but maybe I ought to approach the task and process of poetry-writing with an eye to what’s been in the background. Some of it hidden in plain sight, like those negative spaces, some of it skirting behind the plane of the subject, genuinely hidden until the perspective shift occurs.

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~

Maybe what I need is, simply, space.

 

“Be critical, and sing”

pompeiian woman-writer

The poet C. D. Wright died in January of this year. She was an American original. She was a critical thinker of the first order, an experimenter.

For no apparent reason, I thought of her when I saw this fresco painting (unearthed in Pompeii) of a woman with a stylus and book. Something in the thoughtful musing look in this portrait suggested a critical eye, analysis, consideration–a keen and penetrating intelligence. She will reflect before she writes, but she has opinions she  is not afraid to share.

A collection of Wright’s pronouncements, which she combined and arranged in a sort of extended prose poem, was published as “69 Hidebound Opinions.” The hidebound is both tongue-in-cheek and earnest; typical, really, of Wright’s work. I’ll post the link and also share a few that I find intriguing.

“69 Hidebound Opinions” by C. D. Wright.

Here’s #22:

“To opt to be a poet, is to have some resolve. It leaves you free–to sing as you will, with the lungs god gave you–even if no one but god might hear. It leaves you that naked and obligated to sing your best. Suzuki teaches that ‘in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.’ Beginner’s mind then, is not only where you start, but where you must remain. It is what will keep you–long after you have children, job, house, dog, too many keys on your ring–free.”

Number 27:

“An atmosphere of depression will arouse artists’ attention over an atmosphere of prosperity nearly every time. Because it derives from consciousness, art is critical. Also true, ruins are beautiful to us; the Blues make us feel good; it is through the wound that we perceive the body whole.”

Yet, #42 says, “It is left to the poets to point out the shining particulars in our blunted lives like the strands of blue lights Cotter, Arkansas, draped every haunting Christmas from one empty storefront to the empty storefront across the street for eight unoccupied blocks.”

Number 41 resonates deeply: “It is poetry that remarks on the barely perceptible disappearances from our world such as that of the sleeping porch or the root cellar. And poetry that notes the barely perceptible appearances.”

An aside: [I want to write about the sleeping porch, which I loved in my early childhood and which hardly exists anymore. I’d like to sleep on one again, build a house that has a sleeping porch. Also, my joy at discovering my former neighbor had–and used–a root cellar; his joy at discovering the young person new to the neighborhood was fervent about her truck patch.]

“53

Poetry is the language of intensity. Because we are going to die, an expression of intensity is a necessity.

Extended awareness, isn’t that central to the art?”

No. 67–

“Gradually one comes to fathom exactly what it is one has chosen–what is poetry. Poetry avails itself of the listener, the watcher. Whether called upon to emancipate, comfort or forecast, poetry responds. The possibility that the poem you were born to write, will not join you on the porch this summer or the next, looms taller than the sunflowers and the hollyhocks. It could have taken the fork to the river or ended up at the slaughterhouse. It could have died as quietly as the moth on the screen. Or just borne itself up on the breeze. Who can say. This is the poet’s choice: to attend a presence no one else was aware of, to spend the better part of a lifetime preparing for an arrival, that could not occur but for her attention, that would not in fact otherwise make its blaze on this world.”

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I close with #51: “Now that I am beyond the initial paralysis of calling one’s first teachings into question, I am left with: be critical and sing.”

 

In memoriam

Ariel Dawson, 1959-2013

I recently learned that a friend who was hugely significant in my life once, but with whom I had lost touch for 15 years, no longer walks the same earth that I do; in fact, Ariel Dawson died in 2013, unbeknownst to  me.

Ariel Verlaine Dawson

Ariel Verlaine Dawson

It is hard to lose friends, but losing the friends of one’s youth–those intense, passionate friendships that teach human beings how to navigate the world of human relationships–that loss cuts in a different way. For Ariel is perhaps the reason I am a writer. No–I would have become a writer. She is the reason I decided it was possible to be a poet. She amazed me with her vocabulary, her insights, her evaluative reading, her positively voracious and precocious reading, her charm, her gentle goofiness, her forthrightness, her neurosis; she seemed to fear nothing (but that wasn’t true); she had published poetry in real journals before she was 17 years old; she read Rilke and Yeats; had affairs with well-known poets; spent years fathoming Jung. In 1994, she wrote an opinion piece for what is now AWP’s Writer’s Chronicle responding indignantly to Dana Gioia’s article “Can Poetry Matter?”–a piece that started quite a dust-up among defenders of what has been termed “new formalism.”

Ariel had always been the sort of person who chose to disappear and then to reappear, to my joy, months or years later to take up the friendship without pause–and often without explanation for her absence. She had her reasons, and I respected that; but I missed her.

Ariel, 1977 or 78

Ariel, 1977 or 78

~

In the early 1980s, my (also late) friend David Dunn and I were publishing chapbooks under the small-press name LiMbo bar&grill Books. We approached Ariel for our second-ever chapbook: Poems for the Kazan Astrologer. She was, at the time, teaching creative writing at Old Dominion University. We were very happy with the outcome, but we had no good method of distributing the books. I may still have a box of 25 or so of these books somewhere in my attic.

Then Ariel became more intensely interested in Jungian psychology, though it had long been a passion of hers.

In subsequent years, she wrote less and less poetry and stopped submitting her work for publication. The response to her Writer’s Chronicle opinion was, I think, a bit shocking to her, though I know she stood by her opinion. She just decided, perhaps, that she felt more at home in the world of Jung and his followers.

During the past decade I have often tried tracking her down, imagining the internet would find her. My job at the college has made me a rather adept online researcher, but all that ever showed up was a listing for her psychotherapy practice in New York City. The number was incorrect.

Then, my father became very ill and other issues crowded my mind. Searching for a friend who clearly wanted to remain anonymous in an electronic era was not a priority.

Besides, I always assumed that Ariel would suddenly re-emerge, call me–my phone number remains the same as it was last time I saw her–and mention she was going to be in the area, and could she stop by? That’s how it had been before. And I’d be thrilled to see her, and we’d talk about poetry and art, and politics and pets, cheese, philosophy, psychology, parents, wine…

I assumed incorrectly. That’s what happens with assumptions. Just this past week, when I finally found myself with some spare time, I tried an internet search again. And found her “electronic obit” online, and the fact that she’d died in February of 2013.

~

I have no words to express how this information feels to me.

And also–

~

Arthur Cadieux, 1943-2015

Arthur Cadieux in 1978, a photo taken by Jim Terkeurst.

Arthur Cadieux in 1978, a photo taken by Jim Terkeurst.

 

 

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Arthur 2011, Eastport, Main

Arthur in 2015. Photo Elizabeth Ostrander.

Arthur in 2015. Photo Elizabeth Ostrander.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~

Arthur Cadieux was my art teacher at Thomas Jefferson College in the late 1970s. He and his wife, Helene, were exceptionally kind to young adults who had an interest in art and in observing the world around them. We had dinner at their house in Michigan and at their loft apartment in New York City. Years later, after Helene’s tragically early death, and after Arthur had moved back to Maine, he let me stay at their cottage on Leighton Point (he lived in a smaller house in town) so that I could have a personal “writing retreat.” He deeply understood the creative person’s need for reflection, evaluation, thought, imagination, boredom, and occasional moments of lively talk.  The universe needs people like Arthur Cadieux, talented and generous, who are constantly pushing their own boundaries. Many of us who benefited from his friendship will miss him. Arthur’s paintings can be found at his website, arthurcadieux.org.

~

May they be free from suffering and causes of suffering.
May they never be separated from the happiness that is free from suffering.

To endure

I have been contemplating the word endure, particularly in relation to my continuing curiosity about consciousness and in relation to physical enduring when the body is in pain.

Reading an excerpt from Husserl (the first proponent of transcendental phenomenology) that–admittedly, taken out of context–places consciousness in relation to time, I realize endure implies the concept of time itself even though time doesn’t make an appearance in its etymology (see below). Husserl writes:

Every temporal object has a duration…but in the type that is duration we have a distinction between the expanding, flowing duration and the momentary durations.

He suggests that there are “filling-in” types of duration, or time-phases, that arise to create “a continuous consciousness of unity whose correlate is an unbroken unity,” giving us the impression of sensuous unity in time. I wonder if our sensations of  physical pain operate in the synapses of the brain in somewhat the same way: momentary (acute), and filling in over time or flowing (chronic).

When we suffer, we call upon endurance to sustain ourselves. The verb form connotes the negative more commonly, such as to endure oppression, abuse, harassment, pain, humiliation. It is an active verb.

etymology: late 14c., “to undergo or suffer” (especially without breaking); also “to continue in existence,” from Old French endurer (12c.) “make hard, harden; bear, tolerate; keep up, maintain,” from Latin indurare “make hard,” in Late Latin “harden (the heart) against,” from in- (see in- (2)) + durare “to harden,” from durus “hard,” from PIE *dru-ro-, from root *deru- “be firm, solid, steadfast”

Nonetheless, strength is also implied, a resilient firmness that people tend to value. What is the current perspective on being steadfast? Is it to harden (become stubborn and inflexible) or to be solid? Don’t we admire the person who has endured much and yet, one way or another, lived life as it presented itself however hard the circumstances? And are those positive or negative traits, as our culture views them? Customs endure. Prejudices endure. When we call someone a “hard person,” it is seldom a compliment. Yet being steadfast is generally considered a virtue.

It’s interesting to note that the adjective form of endure has a more positive connotation–

enduring (adj.) Look up enduring at Dictionary.com

“lasting,” 1530s, present participle adjective from endure.

An enduring work of art; an enduring love. Something that defies time by lasting through those temporary durations and through the fillings-in. We human beings wonder whether our consciousness, what many have called our souls, are enduring in the sense of expanding over time and past the demise of our corporeal selves. But great literature, great music, great art suggests there are many ways to endure.

In the New Year, my hope is to become attentive to what endures; to extend compassion and love more widely and more deeply; to read good books and take in good works of art; to be good at what I do reasonably well, tending to myself and to others with as much grace as I can muster. Some years challenge us more than other years. Let us choose to endure.

Love is all you need