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

Memento mori

I think I am an amateur naturalist. Maybe my own poetry isn’t so much nature poetry or ecopoetry as it is naturalist poetry. By that I do not mean naturalism as literary criticism defines it–a “movement” belonging to the 19th century. Sean Carroll’s concept of poetic naturalism isn’t quite what I mean, either; Carroll’s approach is more philosophical, though it does get closer to my personal concept. I guess I just mean poetry written by a naturalist.

Such musings arise as I have been reading Bernd Heinrich’s book Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, which offers a naturalist’s low-down on what corporeal death means in terms of the Earth’s environmental cycles; he views every death as a life or as multiple lives–for, in the animal world (which is, after all, our world), a corpse hosts multitudes of new beginnings. It’s simply recycling, the work of millennia. And sometimes the work of Nicrophorus beetles and other “undertakers.” Okay, maybe not a book to every reader’s taste, but fascinating biology. After having read quite a few books on hospice care and human dying, I can now appreciate the amazing biological processes at work in “natural” deaths that work to improve soil, remove waste, feed numerous animals and plants, and regulate the cycle of life. If we want to get ourselves back to the garden, we need to make ourselves more aware of these valuable cleanup crew creatures.

Poets strain experience through words; sometimes we write from the filtered outcome, sometimes we explore the dross that gets caught in the sieve.

A Best Beloved expressed dismay as the news of a friend’s cancer diagnosis coincided with a few recent worries and bereavements: “Everyone’s getting older and falling apart!” But really, what are our options? Die young and leave a good-looking corpse? Live to 100 and die while sleeping? Probably something on the continuum between those poles. Most humans think about, or endeavor not to think about, their deaths and the deaths of those they love. Grief and death are among the Big Themes of poetry, often hovering in the background of a poem that initially appears to be about something else (i.e. Emily Dickinson Emily Dickinson Emily Dickinson 😀 …). Poets strain experience through words; sometimes we write from the filtered outcome, sometimes we explore the dross that gets caught in the sieve. All of it is life.

“Remember we must die” need not be a call to religious fervor or to pessimistic existentialism. It is merely a fact that we ignore at our peril; for if we remember death is ahead, we can attune ourselves more closely to the lives we do have–and those others with whom we are in relationships. For whether you know it or not, your body has a relationship to Earth and all of its beings. Even, perhaps, the carrion beetle, not to mention billions of microbes and your best friend’s mother.

When I write about death (and I do), I find the tone of the poem depends a great deal on which words or images I use: the clear flow, or the leavings in the sieve. Different purposes, of course. Sometimes the poem wanders in sorrow, sometimes there’s clarity or a lifting of grief. It depends on the perspective (sometimes the speaker of the poem isn’t me), and on where the poem itself decides to go, particularly as I revise. Many readers believe that poems only ever arise from the writer’s experience, but poems are works of the imagination. And they are sometimes informed, or re-formed, by experience or insight that comes later in the writing process.

My own grief? That’s private. I may not decide ever to communicate how that feels. However, having sensed sorrow in my bones and gut and in the empty places in my community of loved ones, I can write about being in the moment of bereavement and the many moments afterwards when the losses make us ache. I like to imagine that memento mori keeps me alert to life. Even when I feel sad.

Until…

We are at the end of an arbitrary, chronological year but still in the midst of a pandemic that will not be going away miraculously when the new calendar begins.

To what must we devote ourselves? I think, for now, just getting by and living through; we can learn much from solving the everyday puzzles life pitches at us. A friend counsels that having a project to do can help–something a bit thorny that offers a challenge but that is not a priority. For now, I am cutting vines–the ones that threaten to strangle the remaining trees in the windbreaks on either side of our narrow property.

Trees that have been weakened by too little and then too much rain, by warmer temperatures and crown die-back that encourage lichen, by insects and the viruses they carry, and by a lack of native undergrowth. The ash trees that ringed the meadow are all dead now, victims of fungus and stress-related illnesses caused by infestations of emerald ash borers.

It’s an ongoing effort for which there won’t be much reward, but it feels a bit like tending something in the dead of winter.

I will cease tending this blog for awhile. My deeper concerns lie elsewhere at the moment. If my next collection is indeed published this year as originally intended (covid protocols have affected almost every endeavor, even publishing, and certainly book launches), then I will likely resume a more noticeable social media presence! Maybe I will have resupplied my energy reserves that have been depleted during the past few months.

Until we meet again, and hoping that we can meet in person down the road…

photo by David Sloan

Flurries

Every 20 years or so, my region gets a truly late freeze.

This is one of those years. It seems strange when snow flurries alight upon dogwood blossoms, but this period has been strange in many respects. What’s one more weirdness? We can adapt. It just requires employing strategies we haven’t used before.

Which brings me, today, to Marilyn McCabe’s chapbook Being Many Seeds, just released by Grayson Books…like my own chapbook, a publication somewhat muted by the coronavirus. Make note, though, that you and I can still purchase books online. It just may take a little longer to receive the text. And isn’t anticipation fun?

Her chapbook has a lovely cover. [Readers may know I’m a fan of milkweed.] And the poems fascinate as they unravel–almost literally–on the page, in a form of erasure poetry followed by brief prose that is not so much interpretation as deepening. McCabe tries strategies with her poems as words and also as meanings. If that makes any sense. Want to know more? McCabe posted about the evolution of this collection on her own blog (which I suggest you follow) here.

beingmanyseeds-graysonsite_orig

~

I walked out into the meadow and scouted the broken stems and perennials emerging, on the lookout for seed-silk. I found several varieties, mostly dandelion, milkweed, coltsfoot, and eupatorium. Translucent puffs that evolved to disperse lightweight seeds through the use of breeze. Or breath.

Effective, and also quite beautiful. When the seed is stripped from the silk, the puff drifts away. The seed, however, now has the opportunity to sprout and grow. Even when the air is full of flurries.

 

~

Delights

May begins with its usual pleasures of redbud, dogwood, cherry blossoms, camassia, mayflower, lily-of-the-valley, jack-in-the-pulpit…spinach in the garden, peas starting to send out tendrils, swallows and orioles returning, bees and other insects waking to the work of pollination and feeding the birds.

And yes, a time of anxious confusion and maybe a little more rain in April than necessary and adapting to working conditions that aren’t entirely satisfactory due to a situation beyond our control–though human beings like to pretend we have control. It’s a belief that keeps us from despair, probably.

In a time of pandemic, I sustain my sanity the usual ways. Garden. Poetry. Walks. Family. Reading. Tai chi. Going, most of all, for balance and observation. On the lookout for the things that delight me, though those things may seem “small” or easily overlooked.

Which brings me to the book I’ve been savoring, Ross Gay‘s The Book of Delights. 41ZEJWNt9CL._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_Nicole Rudick, in The New York Review of Books, has already composed a wonderful write-up about The Book of Delights–so I don’t need to. (Do read it: here). But, back to last month’s posts about responses to poetry collections, Gay’s latest–not-poetry, mini-prose, essayettes–evoked from me the response I suppose the author sought from his readers: delight. Delights, plural. Gay’s close observations and slightly goofy sense of what is funny (fallible, silly, skewed but not skewered) feel kin to my own, though my perspective differs from his due to how we are differently embodied and differently socialized, or non-conformist as to said socialization. For any human being, perspective’s inherently lodged in the body; and other people’s perspectives about us, or assumptions about us, are socially based upon the bodies in which we dwell.

Which is to say that he is a Black man in his 40s and I am a White woman in her 60s; yet Ross Gay and I have overlapping backgrounds and interests. Hoosierism and Philadelphia-dwelling, for a time. Poetry. Students, whom we love. Gardening. Passion for figs, awareness of pawpaw fruit and hickory trees. Observers, the sort of people who want to learn more about animal scat and bee species. “Jenky” gardeners. [My term is jury-rigged, but it means about the same thing, without the urban/ghetto connotations: adapting to one’s immediate need without overmuch consumerism…which is to say, making do with a crappy substitute. I learned that from my folks, too.]

And the urge to recognize, and celebrate, delights.

 

Reading, eagerly

Another of the books I got from Alice James is the 2018 collection pray me stay eager by Ellen Doré Watson. 9781938584688_FCMy initial responses to the poems herein vacillated between the intellectual and the…ear? Sound? I guess what I am trying to say is that a significant part of Doré Watson’s poetic craft employs sonic crushes of alliteration and internal near-rhyme, storms of assonant wordplay and sudden stops in syntax; just when the lyrical narrative seems almost to narrate a story, other pressures intervene. The feeling reminds me of times I cannot concentrate, when I’m full of either ideas and intentions, or fears and concerns.

So I felt, “These are hard to read.” Because it can be uncomfortable to stay, purposely, in such ambiguous moments. I found the poems puzzling for awhile until I stuck with the reading and settled into the poet’s sound and methods. And then, response, reward: ideas and experiences that struck chords, places evoked, sentences that capture the way human beings think and process their circumstances. Revelations, even.

Maybe I was just in the wrong mood for reading when I started this book…there are times when I want an “easy read,” a comforting novel with a happy ending for example. Such texts, though, seldom teach me or show me anything new, whereas pray me stay eager has made me think about the mechanics of a line of poetry as well as sound, and touched me deeply as the poet writes of her aged father and the deaths of friends and her keen appreciation of the world and the word.

 

New to me

Just prior to various stay-at-home mandates, I learned that the long-running, wonderful poetry press collective Alice James Books was having a 40% off, free shipping sale. How could I resist? Thus, I am happy to report, I received four poetry collections in my mailbox two days before we were given the full lock-down in my county.

In this edition of my blog (where, to celebrate National Poetry Month, I am responding to poetry collections), I post about Adrian Matejka‘s debut collection from 2003, The Devil’s Garden. I had read Matejka’s poems here and there, in Poetry magazine and online; and I know he has published three books since this one. I had never really sat down and read through one of his collections before, however.

GardenThe language here is clear and fine, frequently musical–a trait I like very much. Matejka’s newer work engages with the ideas society and individuals have about tribes, groups, races, mixing, and this early collection establishes those themes. The voice here strikes me as youthful, newly-minted. But sure in its control of the rhythm and sound of a poem.

Oh, the cruelty of people who see others as dangerous outsiders. That’s my feeling, disheartened; yet the speaker in the poems here strikes me as compassionate to participants and observers. No blame. Despite the hardships, no victim. The poems suggest a person who has become fascinated by complexity: complexity in language, in social background and race, in families, in physics, in music (jazz, particularly), in visual art and the movies and what’s going on next door.

While reading Matejka, I remembered my friend David Dunn, who died in 1999 but who would have liked this book, I think. So the book has done me some good, rousing my interest, giving lyricism room to gallop, reminding me to listen to Coltrane and Al Green a little more often, offering me recollection of a person dear to me, and thematically linking with so many other terrific books and ideas (Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard and Thrall, my brother John S. Michael’s research on scholarly Enlightenment anti-racists–yes, there were a few–and even the BBC historic soap-opera I’ve been watching, season 5 of Poldark).

But also, these are lively, readable, inventive poems. A good reason to spend time with a poetry book.

More reading, more poems

Here’s my second post on what new or new-ish or new-to-me books of poetry I am reading during 2020 National Poetry Month. This time, newly-released from Tinderbox Editions, Lesley Wheeler‘s collection The State She’s In.

wheeler-state

First, a little background about Wheeler, a poet, novelist, and educator who has been extremely supportive of contemporary poets and poetry in her classes at Washington & Lee University, in her administrative positions and presentations at AWP, and on her blog and other social media platforms. The state she’s in is metaphorical, but it is also Virginia, with its fraught history, and it’s also the body: female, white, mid-life.

What I want to write are responses to, not reviews of, the books I have been enjoying. And there is much here to enjoy! Each of the book’s sections carries the same title: “Ambitions;” and after I read these poems (almost in one go, the way I’d read a novel), I returned to the table of contents and considered how each set of poems made a list of ambitions, and also, what it means to have ambitions. Particularly for a woman in a 21st-c Western capitalist society, sometimes ambitions read like anger. Are met with anger. Require rage to confront, even though rage alone will not solve the problem. (Appropriate to insert here how I love her poem “Spring Rage”? Yes, appropriate.)

Wheeler’s use of haibun forms to explore state’s-rights racism or workplace harassment is something I found startling. I keep returning to these and other poems to appreciate, on each subsequent reading, the surprises in the craft as well as the barely-contained frenzy expressed, and also the keen observations of the world that act to calm the speaker down. A tough balance, that.

On the whole, The State She’s In feels like a fierce call to pay attention, not just to the reader but to the speaker in these poems–she’s finding her route toward sagacity but kicking away at what we take for granted, not wanting to find personal equanimity if it means hiding what she knows to be true. These poems oppose ignorance in all its forms, including the privilege of choosing not to learn (or not to act, or not to act fairly and justly) that gets practiced at the highest levels of the academy, the government, and in any form of society. Wow!

If enough of us could get together and recite Lesley Wheeler’s “All-Purpose Spell for Banishment” (p. 57), maybe we could make “The Nasties” vanish.

Reading poems

In the midst of a pandemic, we have poetry. Pragmatists ought to be listened to, and scientists as well; and poets? Let us not ignore them. It is April, National Poetry Month, and poets offer readers much in the way of reflection, consolation, compassion, entertainment, satire, humor, joy, grief, and the shared experience of being human. All things that are of use at any time, but especially when times are uncertain.

 

Last April, I challenged myself to write a poem a day and posted the drafts on this blog. That turned out to be a useful experience, but I feel no need to repeat it. This year, I want to post about some new(ish) books of poetry. Not critiques or book reviews, just what the poems evoke for this particular reader.

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First up– Lynn Levin‘s The Minor Virtues, 2020, Ragged Sky Press. The cover’s appropriate to the month: a lovely image of dogwood blossoms. And I have to admit that what drew me into the book is the charming mundanity of the first few poem titles, in which the speaker is tying shoelaces or buying marked-down produce. Most of the poems in the first section begin with a gerund phrase and place the reader in a present-progressive act of doing something. The poems here feel so grounded in reality (quite a few are sonnets), often humorous–grabbing the wrong wineglass at a banquet, trying to think about nothing–that I immediately settled in to the pages.levin_tmv_cover

The topics, or the reflective closures, move toward seriousness at times; her poem “Dilaudid” shook me awake and left me in admiration for a number of reasons (some of them personal resonance–but). Levin’s humor tends to be intellectual–wordplay, allusions, wry asides–and I revel in that sort of thing. Her approach to craft also works for me, because she’s usually subtle going about form or rhyme schemes, so I enjoy the poem for what it says and means and then enjoy it again for how it’s structured and inventive.

I mean, that’s one way I read poems. There are other ways. Some books carry me pell mell through word-urgency or the writer’s rage or passion and some build lyrical intertwining networks of imagery and some make their own rules and some stagger me with their innovation. And I may have to be in the right mood to read a collection.

I was in the right mood to read Levin’s book. It was a good way to begin National Poetry Month in the midst of stay-at-home mandates, taking me gently through a “normal life” and reminding me of all that is surprising there, the riddles and the unexpected, the minor virtues and the actions we take as we practice them. Whether or not we think of them as virtues.