Lustratio*

Another day, another draft!

This challenge has not gotten easier yet. Sometimes, disciplined practice leads to a certain ease or confidence–that’s always the hope, anyway, that I might find amid the drafts something wonderful. My model here would be someone like William Stafford, who sat down every morning to draft at least one poem (and sometimes they were wonderful). The Poetry Foundation’s site says:

Stafford reports that he sits alone in the early morning and writes down whatever occurs to him, following his impulses. “It is like fishing,” he says, and he must be receptive and “willing to fail. If I am to keep writing, I cannot bother to insist on high standards…. I am following a process that leads so wildly and originally into new territory that no judgment can at the moment be made about values, significance, and so on…. I am headlong to discover.”

At the end of this National Poetry Month, I will give myself a reckoning as to whether the NaPoWriMo process has been at all helpful to me as a poet. It may be it proves beneficial in some other way…

~

Lustratio

Her friends died young when she herself
was young and unbaptized in the realm of dying

Yet you would think her better prepared–for there were
car crashes, suicides, fires, the blood plague taking
its long and steady toll

There were the risk-takers certain of their immortality
who drowned or fell from cliffs or grace
through the needle or the drug or drink and those
whose hearts took upon themselves
a need to hurry beyond the body’s balance and
whose breastbones could not contain them

You would think her ready for the news that someone
loved or once loved or otherwise connected
(Milgram’s six degrees of separation theory)
had died however people do when they are young–
embolism, cancer, accident, murder

Slow or sudden–it’s not as if the difference
though there is one, matters
because you’d think, by now, when she is no longer young
the facts of gone and after and remembering
the evidence of dying and grief’s enormous cosmos
would have carved for her a familiar space

A kind of purifying trauma–as if the bulla and procession
could protect her or her community from harm
when harm is what the world offers now and then
and we must bid it enter even if we are young

Even when it is unwelcome.

~

NOTE:

* Lustratio was an ancient Greek purification and protection ritual for children or for cities, farms, and other precious items; in the case of a male child, sometimes it was a naming ceremony at which the baby would receive a small, gold bulla (charm in the shape of a bull’s head) as a blessing or for protection. Ancient historians describe it in several ways, but most frequently mention a procession and animal sacrifice.

Come let us sing

I have been reading Hayden Carruth’s poems, admiring the breadth of his experiments in styles from sonnets to jazzy free verse to prose poems and extremely short poems–even haiku. One thing becomes clear after awhile: his appreciation of song, of the poem as song, of the need to create song as an expression of life and against the things one wishes to resist, even when (especially when) it is impossible to resist.

His poem “Mother” says all of the things I wanted to write about my mother-in-law’s death, and more. It is achingly honest and achingly sad and deeply loving.

After reading it, I thought to myself, “You do not need to write those poems; Carruth has achieved what you are trying to accomplish.” But we compose poems under individual circumstances and for personal reasons, and I suspect that reading “Mother” will help me to revise my own poems in probing ways.

This is why we read other poets’ work. One reason why, anyway.

I am in mourning at present, shocked by the death of a Beloved Friend’s adult son. I thought of a poem I had recently read in Carruth’s Contra Mortem.  I searched through the book to locate it–it is, in fact, (appropriately) the last poem in the collection. Here is Carruth in a spiritual and almost elegiac mode, as the singer he always is in his work, exhorting us to give to one another our small songs, no matter how they fail, for whatever they are worth. I love the line “the was the is the willbe out of nothing” for the way the simplest verbs, forcibly combined, guide the reader to face a fundamental truth: “and thus we are.”

~

The Wheel of Being II

Such figures if they succeed are beautiful
because for a moment we brighten in a blaze of rhymes
and yet they always fail and must fail
and give way to other poems
in the endless approximations of what we feel
Hopeless it is hopeless       Only the wheel
endures      It spins and spins winding
the was the is the willbe out of nothing
and thus we are      Thus on the wheel we touch
each to each a part
of the great determining reality    How much
we give to one another        Perhaps our art
succeeds after all our small song done in the faith
of lovers who endlessly change heart for heart
as the gift of being    Come let us sing against death.

~Hayden Carruth

~~

 

Seen from above

Wislawa Szymborska’s poems are in my head today, prompted by finding a dead beetle on my porch. Novice entomologist identifies dead bug, then thinks of poems.

~

Seen from Above

Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

A dead beetle lies on the path through the field.
Three pairs of legs folded neatly on its belly.
Instead of death’s confusion, tidiness and order.
The horror of this sight is moderate,
its scope is strictly local, from the wheat grass to the mint.
The grief is quarantined. The sky is blue.

To preserve our peace of mind, animals die
more shallowly: they aren’t deceased, they’re dead.
They leave behind, we’d like to think, less feeling and less world,
departing, we suppose, from a stage less tragic.
Their meek souls never haunt us in the dark,
they know their place,
they show respect.

And so the dead beetle on the path
lies unmourned and shining in the sun.
One glance at it will do for meditation —
clearly nothing much has happened to it.
Important matters are reserved for us,
for our life and our death, a death
that always claims the right of way.

~

In Joanna Trzeciak‘s translation, the second stanza begins:

For our peace of mind, animals do not pass away,
but die a seemingly shallower death

…a phrasing that evokes more clearly (to me) how humans use a sort of euphemistic, possibly spiritual phrase for being dead. And in this translation, the last stanza reads:

So here it is: the dead beetle in the road
gleams unlamented at the sun.
A glance would be as good as a thought:
it seems that nothing happened here.
Important supposedly applies only to us.
Only to our life, only to our death,
a death which enjoys a forced right of way.

Both translations are lovely, but I think I prefer the Trzeciak version, though I would be hard-pressed to say why; and I certainly cannot compare either to the original, since I do not know Polish.

What I love about this poem is its perspective, as reflected in the stances of title and stanzas. Literally, the speaker is above–looking down at a beetle husk. Tidiness in an insect’s demise–as opposed to our own. Then the point of view shifts, suggesting we humans are “above” the animals, their deaths less upsetting to the cosmos. But we are the cosmos, in our egotistical narcissism; and then, at last, death reminds us how unimportant we are…no matter how we think of ourselves.

20775536-dead-colorado-potato-beetle-belly-up

…Some rain must fall

Longfellow wrote that “Into each life some rain must fall” (“The Rainy Day“). The poem is an extended metaphor; here in my valley, the rain has been actual, physical, moist, sopping, wringing, drizzly, humid, soaking, and all the rest.

The metaphorical hasn’t been absent, either.

So this week, my post consists of other writers’ posts. Explore, please. All of these links offer much to enlighten the reader.

https://www.daletrumbore.com/unthinkable

https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2018/09/03/now-hold-on-there-or-slowing-the-revision-process/

On first looking into Shenandoah’s submissions

https://www.vianegativa.us/2018/09/barberous/

http://www.writerintheworld.com/2018/09/03/cathedrals-and-yurts-a-reprint/

Conditioning

In regards to my last post: I’ve conferred with some people who knew Jack Fisher, and I may have mis-remembered parts of the story. Although those who knew him agree it sounds like something he would do, no one else can place the painting that I recall. His daughter says it’s possible I saw a sketch or preliminary painting that Jack never completed. (She definitely recalls how much he abhorred the water tower!) If so, perhaps his talking about the possibilities of the composition made an impact on me, even if the work itself was a watercolor sketch that never made it to canvas. Entirely possible.

The point of my post remains the same, however–that “ugly” things can be understood in ways that may offer new perspectives on what we consider beautiful.

I guess what I am trying to get to qualifies as a kind of conditioning. That’s now a therapeutic approach to teaching people how to overcome, say, a phobia of airplanes or elevators. You put your toe in the water, so to speak, or learn about the thing that causes fear. And knowledge can overcome fear. Not always, but often.

Inadvertently, I discovered conditioning on my own, when I was about twelve. I decided to study some things I was afraid of–spiders, bees, darkness–and managed to unlearn the fear. It does not work with everything: I’m still acrophobic.

famous photo construction workers

‘Lunchtime Atop A Skyscraper’ Charles Ebbets, 1932

My biggest fear was one most human beings acknowledge–the fear of death. From the time I was quite small, I worried and feared and had trouble getting to sleep because my mind raced around the Big Unknown of what it would be like to die. Many years into my adult life, I decided to explore that fear through my usual method: self-education. I read novels and medical texts and philosophy and religious works in the process. Finally, after visiting an ICU many times during the serious illness of a best-beloved, I decided to sign up as a hospice volunteer.

It’s one way to face death–one sees a great deal of it in hospice care. But the education I received from other caregivers, from the program instructors, and from the patients and their families, has proven immensely valuable to me. Am I afraid of death? Well, sure; but fear of death (thanatophobia) no longer keeps me up nights. I possess a set of skills that helps me recognize how individual each death is–just as each life is. More important still? I treasure and value the small stuff more and am less anxious about the Big Unknown. It’s going to happen, so why agonize over it? This is conditioning. For me, anyway.

Conditioning does not have the same meaning as habituation, because conditioning requires learning and is more “mindful” than habituation. Habituation occurs when we just get accustomed to something and carry on; perhaps we repress our emotions or our values in order to do that carrying on. People can habituate to war, poverty, all kinds of pain, and can make not caring into a habit. We are amazing in our capacity to carry on, but it isn’t necessarily healthy. Getting into the habit of warfare, hatred, ignorance, hiding our feelings, or other hurtful behaviors is often easier than getting into more helpful habits like daily walks. I do not know why that is.

I am, however, endeavoring to condition myself to stay awake to new perspectives, to stay inquisitive, to plumb the world to find, if not beauty, at least understanding and compassion and gratitude. Maybe one day I will even manage to get that perspective from somewhere very, very high up…    [yikes!]

 

Weight of words

Words are making the news again–this time, the list of seven words that the Centers for Disease Control has been told may make the Center’s research proposals less likely to be approved by the government’s budgeting agencies and which should be avoided in reports to Congress.

Futurism and The Washington Post reported on the purported ban, and a CDC official responded to clarify that the words’ negative connotations were discussed as “part of a suggestion to use words and phrases that ‘might be more likely to win support for the CDC’s budget in the current Congress.’ The idea is that favorable word choice could help ease the budget’s passage through Congress.” Watch your words, scientists!

Words matter. Anyone who has ever written a grant proposal has first of all to learn the appropriate jargon and phrases that the funders expect. Job applicants need to suss out the keywords that a potential employer has submitted to its application software.

~

Then there are euphemisms–a pernicious variety of jargon that obscures, elides, or otherwise weakens meaning--misleading, mostly, euphemisms take the punch out of a sentence. I heard just this morning the term “fatals” in the description of a train accident: “There were three fatals and numerous injuries we haven’t yet accounted for,” said a safety official. Fatals used in this way is a “functional shift” (see Oxford blog). The adjective has become a noun, and the noun has become a euphemism for “deaths.”

Officials may rationalize that language used this way softens the blow somehow. I see it as another method of obfuscating fact and in particular, minimizing or hiding death. Deaths are too real, too weighty; the fact of death is a thing we would rather deny. Just as we might deny that there are vulnerable populations in our citizenry. Or that the scientific method requires evidence.

For some poetry that responds to the use of words, check the cdcpoems blog here.  And Paul E. Nelson’s poem in Rattle, here.

 

Lament

Today, another draft of another poem, also recent. Next, I think I’ll move to older work…material that I haven’t submitted for publication (or that I have submitted but has not been accepted). For now, though–this recent, perhaps too-fresh, lament.

~ ~ ~

The Work of the Body as It Ceases

Before we know ourselves
the body exerts itself, pulses,
lungs open into breath
blood sings with that air.

Unless there is ache
or ecstasy, the body labors
unnoticed while we tend
to other forms of work.

Look, now, at the last days
when the reliable diligence
of heart, lungs, kidneys halts
under strain the body can’t abide.

The throat cannot do its job
though body needs sustenance
and consciousness yearns
to say something unconveyable.

There is work always.
The long labor of maintenance
which, being humble, produces
no outcome except living.

The body’s nothing if not persistent
even as it dies, as vision narrows
and breathing weakens.
Those lively nerves? They settle.

Slowing is also work, as is
decay: work of a new sort
to which the workhorse body
can adapt in the quiet room

where those who loved the body
during its years of industry
do the work of mourning
which does not ever cease.

~

sunset1