Manuscripts

A draft, inspired by the book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts and related to a series of poems titled “Self Portrait as…”

Self Portrait as Illuminated Manuscript

This one exhibits some damage:
a missing folio, signs of mildew
and rodent chewing—calfskin a protein
and rats inevitably hungry.

It lacks signs of eminence (even books
have breeding), meant for use
and not for show. No burnished gold
for the initial letters, no sign of patronage

or dedication, though the illustrator
had a talent for small birds and
winsome sheep. The marginalia’s
interesting for what it doesn’t record–

genealogy absent, no list of relics
or property. The uncial style, workman-
like and unremarkable; the parchment
rough, irregularly cut; the binding,

late 18th century, carelessly done.
Yet any medieval manuscript is rare,
expensive in its era, product of cutting,
scraping, grinding, sewing, economies

of the book. Scribe correcting his copying
error, following his exemplar. Illuminator
in his carrel, sketching foliage and dove,
flair of alphabet and the glory of god.

If somewhat the worse for wear after
six or seven centuries, anonymous,
modest, pedestrian, this manuscript’s
survived. That is one of its merits.

 

Honestly, I originally wrote the last line as “That is its only merit.” But I felt that was disingenuous, particularly given the title and the series of poems I’ve composed on this semi-ekphrastic self-portrait theme. Probably I possess other merits. As would any surviving medieval book.    🙂

 

 

 

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Edges & outcomes

One outcome of participating in a “blog tour” is the opportunity to listen in on what writers younger than I–or newer to the act of being-a-poet–experience in the literary environment of the 21st century. In some ways that has become quite a changed adventure from the early 1980s when the alternatives to major presses and established print journals were little fly-by-night xerox-zines, copied and stapled in runs of under 100. But perhaps not so different from free blogs with just a few dedicated followers; those miniature publications gave me my first print credentials as a poet. Today, I read Lissa Clouser writing of “all the things I’m not” and recalled my own early and uncertain forays at the edges of the literary world.

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xerox-zines, ca. 1982-ish

I now enjoy being outside, observing the edges. It’s more interesting than I realized when I was in my 20s–when edginess was cool, but one might wish to belong with the edgy newcomers. [The paradox of being in the tribe of outsiders.]

Also, I found the garden and the woods and meadows intriguing, and also child-raising, teaching, neuroscience, philosophy. I became a nominal member of many tribes. Including, more recently, the tribe of the aging person and the tribe of the chronically ill–communities that range widely, encompass much, and are fraught with delicious and difficult complexity.

It took me 20 years to get to Arthur W. Frank’s book The Wounded Storyteller, and I might not have found it so useful and illuminating if I’d read it twenty years ago. Now, however, the book’s insights are relevant to my life and to the current moment. Frank powerfully reminds us that as members of the human collective, we need to listen to people; that in time, all of us become wounded storytellers; and, therefore, each of us benefits by learning how to bear human living with a kind of “intransitive hope.” By intransitive hope, Frank means finding a way to be with our suffering in life, recognize that suffering happens, but also to recognize that there are ways to be human that do not end in miraculous cures–that may (and will, eventually) end in death.

And that’s okay. He suggests that healing is a project, not an outcome.

Kind of like writing, you know?

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“As far as I’m concerned, poetry is the best thing that exists in the universe.”             –-Kaveh Akbar

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Poetry on chilly days

The region in which I live has been experiencing a lengthy spate of below-freezing weather, many a chilly day. When I do not feel like concentrating too much, I browse seed catalogues. But I am also reading poetry.

Today, I’ve begun reading a 2011 collection of poems by Rachel Hadas, The Golden Road, poems that are dense and beautiful and often elegiac in tone. I took a workshop with Hadas quite a few years ago and had enjoyed her work since long before the class; it was a pleasure to have her as a reader/instructor. And it is, so far, an excellent book. I’ve been keeping her poem “The Study” in my mind for hours now.

Good news, though–I have commenced the year with new poems of my own. I have three drafts as of January 7, which is a good start.

But for today–yet another chilly day–I’m posting this little verse by William Carlos Williams.

Winter Trees

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.
                              –William Carlos Williams
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Biodiversity, biodestruction

As the poems in my first collection, More Than Shelter, convey, I experienced mixed emotions about building a house and residing as human animals on a field that was in the process of reverting to wildness. It is a terrific privilege to “own” several acres of property and to dwell and raise food and children here. We have, after nearly 20 years, settled many of our challenges with the environment and its flora and fauna; and often, our lesson has been to let the environment be itself.MTS002

That means our “lawn” has largely reverted to clover and to grasses that can compete with weed seeds. That means we have meadows fore and aft and shrubby, scrubby hedgerows of mixed brush along a thin row of trees and rocks. It means we cannot entirely rid the area of invasive, non-native plants or the insects that come with them. And if a season passes without regular, careful maintenance–the environment will creep in on our living spaces very quickly.

On the other hand, a commitment to use no chemicals–or as few as possible (some exterior house maintenance requires paints and finishes that just are not environmentally-neutral) has meant that the property has good biodiversity for its size. So many kinds of avian life: scrub-loving little brown jobs, woods-dwelling owls and thrushes, turkeys, four varieties of woodpeckers, brightly-plumaged orioles, cardinals, jays, bluebirds, tree swallows, and goldfinches. Also the transient hawks, buzzards, and herons, and the grass-dwellers such as killdeer–to name a few. We are host to winterberry, serviceberry, dogwood, elderberry, nannyberry, mulberry, cherry, and wild grapes, so the wild fruit-eaters adore the place. Foxes, deer, groundhogs, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, opossums, even coyotes and possibly a black bear graze here.

They do not always stick to the margins and the flora. Sometimes they get into the trash cans or the compost heap (I once disturbed a deliriously happy raccoon sucking on a mango pit). Owls and foxes feasted on the guinea hens that refused to go back into the chicken run at night.

This description has not even gotten as far as the insect life, which is lively indeed–nor to the little bats, nor the oak trees’ flying squirrels.

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For the last decade, we have been among several neighbors who worked to slow the development of about 60 acres that lies immediately east of us and extends up the last low rise of the Appalachian foothills (Blue Mountain/Great Valley section). We have had some success in limiting the development: there are now 40 acres of preserved land on the north side of the slope, and the “estates” will consist of 13 township-approved house lots instead of the initially-proposed 52.brunner

But the site preparation process has begun in earnest this summer, and each morning–an hour or so after the birds start their chorus–the bulldozers and front-end loaders rev up and begin the crash-&-bang, the delivery of large culverts made of concrete, the dump trucks with their loads of gravel, the engineered changing of swale and drainage.

We were guilty of such disruption ourselves 20 years ago, when we installed the house we love on the land we think of as our own. I try not to mourn the loss of the field next door; it was never ours to begin with, and in so many ways, neither is the property on which our house sits.

The land belongs to no one. It is earth’s. If it belongs to anything it is to the generations of dragonflies, lightning bugs, red-tail hawks, barred owls, and rotund skunks, all of which preceded our appearance here by centuries.

 

The 4 Cs

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Sometimes, when I am in reading-after-a-hard-day-at-work mode, I feel mentally unprepared to tackle difficult books. On such days it is better to settle on the sofa with a glass of chardonnay and a text that entertains as well as informs. I confess that Ruth Whippman’s America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks had me snorting my wine a few times; her wry British cynicism kept me giggling even when her observations strongly critique some serious aspects of the culture and nation to which I belong.

In her book, Whippman finds understandable fault with the commodification of happiness, but she also threatens an American sacred cow: the concept of individual happiness that arises from our foundation document concerning our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Implied in her critique of the American “happiness industry” (including positive psychology, attachment parenting, yoga, mindfulness, Facebook…) is that maybe our nativist stance of rugged individualism and the freedom to make money on anything we can capitalize upon, thus pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, does not result in “happiness.” (Maybe Jefferson meant something else by that term. We cannot really know.) One reviewer mentioned that it is just Whippman’s “outsider” status as a person not raised in the USA that makes her book so useful. Changing one’s usual perspective, as I constantly reiterate to my freshman students, can hardly fail to be a valuable exercise in critical thinking and broadening one’s outlook.

Here is an observation of Whippman’s with which I heartily agree: “If happiness is community, then a psychologically healthy society takes collective responsibility for the well-being of its most vulnerable members.” I agree, however, because Whippman’s conclusion happens to coincide with my culture, upbringing, or perspective. Like her, I am willing to accept contentment–with occasional bouts of joy–rather than run relentlessly after happiness; and like her I find most contentment among human beings, though I may want them to shut up and just hang out quietly in the same room with me for awhile! Furthermore, it increases my happiness when I know that in my community (or nation), other people are cared for, not just me. In my point of view, happiness–including personal happiness–arises when I know that all human beings have their needs met.

But I recognize that not everyone will agree with Whippman’s, or my, conclusion that community is happiness; indeed, there is a good argument to be made for Sartre’s “Hell is other people,” too.

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Recent discussions on diversity among fellow people employed in academia (what it appears to mean, what it might include) and reflections on mortality, consciousness, the notion of the self–and spirituality and religion–not to mention science writing on evolution, have pushed me into a deeply introspective mode. Yet I find I want to converse with other people about these ideas, not hole up in my own head; I seek, and have been happy to participate in, discourse with others.

In another word: community.

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Here’s a paragraph from Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell that I want to share with my students:

If you can approach the world’s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things. Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready to hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person. [italics Dennett’s]

Complexity, community, curiosity, contentment. The four Cs?

Oh, let’s add chardonnay. Make it five.  🙂

Painfully conscious

I’ve just finished reading Melanie Thernstrom’s 2011 book The Pain Chronicles, a journalist’s inquiry into the concepts that “define” pain and the medical discoveries concerning chronic pain, in addition to a bit of memoir as a narrative device. Although I have experience with chronic pain myself, the part of the text that most interested me comes in her concluding chapters, in which she gathers the variously-disciplined evidence of her enterprise to suggest that pain is the ultimate test of the mind-body problem (thank you, René Descartes). The experts Thernstrom interviews disagree on how much we do know or can know about the human brain and how it processes anything, let alone such a complicated psycho-physiological event as pain. Some of them believe human beings will make enormous technological discoveries to unlock our brains’ workings, but the majority seem to have learned from research that each “a-ha!” leads only to further complications. Discussing the outlook for future fMRI scanning in brain research, Dr. John Keltner tells the author:

[N]obody has come up with a rich and complicated enough model to analyze the complexity of the distributed patterns of neural  networks and deduce anything like underlying rules…We’re literally grappling with the fundamental aspects of human beings. We naively believed that pain is simple–it hurts or it doesn’t hurt–so there should be a single brain state we could see every time someone is in pain. But what we’ve stumbled into is the discovery that there’s a relative universe of hurt–that hurting is an immense, rich, and varied human experience associated with an unknown number of possible brain states.

I find some of these analogies, and some of this language, appealing–I can think of poems that express “a universe of hurt.” I embrace the idea that hurting is immense, rich, varied, and human–we are aware (conscious) that we hurt, that others hurt, that hurt can be painful even when it is not caused by a toothache but through loss of a friend or lover…the beloved other, the pain in ourselves. Isn’t compassion born of this awareness? Does art have a place here, too? I wonder.

Thernstrom concludes with the agreement of several expert researchers: “pain and suffering are properties of the mind” [my italics]. That means pain is, at least in part, a property of that elusive thing we generally call consciousness. Scott Fishman of UC Davis explains that “[t]he mind is like a virtual organ–it doesn’t  have a physical address that we know of.” Consciousness, these researchers imply, is not merely the sum of firing neurons, a process that can be considered on some level mechanical. Thernstrom asks, “Do we need to understand consciousness itself in order to understand pain?”

If so, that is a tall order, one the author posits is analogous to understanding aesthetics (what is beauty?). But though the task appears daunting, the discoveries en route make the trek valuable.

Even if we never understand the answer.

neural matrix fiber topography, Johns Hopkins University

neural matrix fiber topography, Johns Hopkins University

Diversity. Not.

I must admit, it is challenging to read Elizabeth Kolbert‘s book The Sixth Extinction without feeling a bit of dread.

Nonetheless, the book is informative and fascinating–even funny at times–and well worth reading if you are the type who can get beyond your anthropocentric leanings and attempt to view the long-range picture from a scientific, if not exactly neutral, viewpoint. Her main argument is that we are, indeed, in the midst of a 6th mass extinction era and that human beings are “the weed” that most likely is the cause of these numerous extinctions–and not just since the industrial revolution, but eons before that. Humans travel more effectively than almost any life form, and that leads gradually to a loss of diversity. Read the book to find out how that works.

I find interesting parallels with socio-cultural trends in the ecological struggle for and against diversity. Niche-dwelling creatures or societies adapt to some challenging environment and develop or evolve ways to deal with adversity–cold temperatures, constant rain, saline soils, whatever. Nomadism, for example, is a way to adapt to seasonal weather challenges.

When an ‘alien’ enters a niche area, it usually dies off; but if it can adapt, there is hybridism or conquering. Tolerance, it turns out–living peacefully in tandem using the same resources–is not a common evolutionary strategy, though there are examples of symbiotic ecological relationships and, of course, parasitism of the sort that does not quickly kill off the host. Conquering generally means lost diversity.

When a niche organism ventures, accidentally or otherwise (forcibly, sometimes) into a new region as ‘alien,’ the special characteristics of the creature cause it to die or, in some cases, to have to adapt to a different set of circumstances…and diversity gets lost pretty quickly that way. In my region, for example, wetlands have experienced overruns of phragmites.

Does this sound like emigration? War? Forced removal of peoples? Indigenous populations killed off by measles or smallpox? Young people leaving remote areas to try to find work in cities? I see a metaphor here!

While human beings may try to celebrate diversity (which is better than using diversity to identify and exclude or punish “the other”), we probably cannot keep ourselves from becoming, over the centuries, less and less various. A homogeneous world seems, to me, to be a place impoverished through lack of niches and creative adaptation–but that’s what happens when mass extinctions take place: a depletion of kinds in the fossil record.

You might want to read Robert Sullivan’s New York Magazine article for even more recent scientific evidence if you’re not up to reading a whole book, though Kolbert is an engaging writer and I found her book to be a quick read. And below, some graphic illustrations from LiveScience. Fascinating stuff.

Here in the USA, alas, we seem to be helping the extinction of our own kind along by viewing diversity among people as dangerous. Compound this with a society that permits the ownership, hoarding, and use of deadly weapons on others and which cultivates a cultural tone of fear, anxiety, and entitlement, and there is strong evidence that the human weed will continue the slow but decided progress of the Holocene extinction.

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Chart of extinction events that wiped out most life on Earth.

Source:LiveScience