(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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Edges & the middle

My spouse told me of how he once interviewed a woodworking craftsman, renowned for his “perfect” furniture finishes, and asked about his technique. The craftsman advised, “Take care of the edges, and the middle will take care of itself.”

This phrase came to mind last week when I decided I had better tackle the weeds in my strawberry patch. Still hobbled by a foot injury, I figured weeding the berries was a task I could manage sitting down. The job seemed daunting, however; I have neglected the garden and permitted all manner of invaders–perennial and annual–to colonize the strawberries’ bed and twist around and root beneath their superficial root systems. Frankly, most people would not have recognized it as a berry patch.

It’s the equinox and the weather’s wonderful so I heaved a sigh, grabbed a few tools, and started to work. A garden bed has little in common with a French-polished tabletop, but I kept the idea in mind: tend to the edges, maybe the middle would “take care of itself.” Bermuda grass and galinsoga pull out easily, but there were also deep-rooted clovers, thatchy crabgrasses, English plantains, pigweed, ladies’ thumb…too many to name, though by this time I am pretty good at identifying the weeds of eastern Pennsylvania. I worked from the inside edge southward to the corner, then westward.

So far, still a pretty nasty-looking affair. After a few sessions of working along the scrim, though, I did begin to see progress; and–yes, the middle was much easier to finish weeding after I’d taken care of the edges.

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Sometimes, I find motivation in a good analogy. I wondered whether I could transfer the French polish/strawberry patch concept to writing. Could that be one way to draft or rework a poem? What if I spent my efforts taking care of the poem’s edges–would the middle sort of take care of itself? (And what would be the edges of a poem? Its closing and opening phrases or stanzas? Its end-of-line words? Its beginning-of-line words?)

My gentle readers may recall that fringe landscapes and edges are a major inspiration for me–just type edges into this blog’s search bar, and quite a few past musings will show up. I will try working on my poems’ edges intentionally and see what happens.

Meanwhile, as the cooler weather approaches, I’ll cover up my berry patch with straw and promise to check the weeds a little more regularly next year, so I can get the results below in June of 2020:

high angle photo of strawberries in strainer

Photo by KML on Pexels.com

 

 

Cartography

Reading Mark Monmonier’s 1995 book Drawing the Lines: Tales of Maps and Cartocontroversy got me thinking about names and boundaries.

Human beings name things so we can communicate with one another, and then we tell stories to remember the names, encoding them in the language of later generations. New occupants–and colonizers or conquerors–claim and rename to communicate to their followers.

This mountain is Mount McKinley (or is it Denali?), this one is Sagarmatha (or is it Everest?). Keep it in view to your left side and you will be progressing northward.

Big objects accrue many names. When you come to the river called Misi-Ziibi (or Yununu’a, or Báhat Sássin, or…), you must ferry across at the place just south of X. Furthermore, the big river moves, as Mark Twain* knew (see Life on the Mississippi); and as it moves it affects human-made boundary lines that we use to determine tax-base and property ownership and state borders.

Not to mention nationhood.

Monmonier rightly observes that most people assume that maps are factual representations of the physical and legal/abstract/imagined aspects of the “real” –and that assumption is incorrect. Maps can be manipulated. They can be propaganda. They can be drawn to reflect anything the people hiring the cartographer want to emphasize, or erase.

My husband has a German map from 1941. There is no Poland on it, no Austria, no Lithuania, no Ukraine…

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When we built our house, I wanted to come up with a good name for it. Then I realized that the housing developments in our region all seemed to be named after things that weren’t there any more: Field Crest, Orchard Acres, Stony Meadows, Fox Stream…and the urge to name my house began to quiet down. Besides, all along I have recognized that the area around boundaries is more interesting to me than what is in the middle. Edges–the fringes, the spaces along and between–

And yet I’m trying to create boundaries around my garden to keep out the field voles, stands of cleome to discourage the deer, as another rainy spring keeps my shoes and gloves muddy and the weeds vigorous and tall. Paradoxes.

Reminds me that my favorite Whitman** quote when I was a teenager was: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself.” At 16, however, I never thought to include his marvelous parenthetical line “(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

(I am large, I am boundaryless).

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*Another example of name-changing that humans are so fond of.

** The 31st of this month is his bicentennial! I’m participating in a reading–see my Readings & Events page.

Bounds against chaos

It is easy, even comfortable, to think of the past as a linear narrative; but that is not actually how brains record and archive our experiences.

Marilyn McCabe notes: “So much of the past is only what we think we know based on what we remember, or think we remember. The past is a fun-house maze of stretchy mirrors and blind corners.”

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The brain and consciousness intertwine through so much complex, possibly fractal, and certainly inter-relational connections that chaos looms as an option all the time; human experience is an edge phenomenon. I have long considered the meadow and forest, the clearing or glade, the hedgerow, the riverbank, ditch, or roadside berm as metaphor for what keeps us curious–interested in life and its inter-relationships, its connectedness and its chaos.

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By complete coincidence, a biologist/blogger posts a poem by Robert Duncan; an excerpt here:

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,
that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.
Robert Duncan

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Yes. Often I am, myself, permitted to return to a meadow. Pretty much daily, when I’m home. And what I learn there! What the edges and the chaos (and the patterns, and the simplicity) reveal to me!

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As an aside: Dave Bonta writes poetry blog roundups here: https://www.vianegativa.us/2018/04/poet-bloggers-revival-digest-week-14/ Each of the links he posts is worthy of a read.

Dave has even posted his wedding to Rachel Rawlins–video, context, porcupine, open-sourced wedding vows, poems, & all: https://www.vianegativa.us/2018/04/mountain-wedding/

When it’s done well, lived well, marriage can be one of the bounds that hold against chaos, “a place of first permission”–even for anarchists.

Namaste! And keep reading poetry.

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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Garden breach

Summer solstice. The robins are on their second brood; mulberries are ripening, and the bluebirds have arrived for the feast.

Fifteen years ago, we set up my garden to be as impregnable as possible from incursions by deer, groundhogs, and rabbits. We accomplished this by digging a narrow trench on the perimeter, lining the trench with wire mesh fabric, and filling the trench with gravel–after setting the steel posts and putting the steel wire fencing in place. The strategy even deterred weeds for about three years.

But rain and snow and air and therefore rust, along with ground heave and the occasional bump by lawnmowers, have had their way. While deer still ignore the plot, this year, bunnies have breached the fence. It’s time to find a new way to keep them from the edges.

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I have previously written about how fringes and perimeters can be boundaries or places of activity and fluidity, so it seems I am a hypocrite for keeping my rabbits at bay. Maybe I ought to find a balance? Living with their denuding of my carrot tops?

–No, they’ve plenty to eat in my lawn and in the meadow. The balance goes both ways.

Their persistence interests me. Their movements are both awkward and graceful. Their ears are translucent in the early morning sunshine. I don’t mind having them around as long as they stay out of my vegetable patch, and they feed the owls and hawks, whom I also enjoy.

All along the edges…

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Curious information note of the day:

According to neuroscientific studies, less than 0.1% of the information carried in the optic nerve at any given moment passes through the visual attentional gateway (“bottleneck”) after the attentional gateway recognizes a cue; the cue evidently serves as a gating mechanism to regulate the flow of image data.*

What this implies (I think) is that the bunny I manage to spot under the leafy tomato plant in my garden gets processed as “bunny” once my saccadic eye movements, taking in the huge quantity of data from a day outdoors in summer, recognizes something in the shadows that signals “rabbit?” and then filters out other, distracting data from my view.

At which point, behavioral habit kicks in and, like Mr. McGregor, I dash after Peter with a hoe.

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*partial quote/paraphrase from “Dynamic Routing Strategies in Sensory, Motor and Cognitive Processing,” Van Essen, Anderson, and Olshausen 1994 MIT Press Large-Scale Neuronal Theories of the Brain, ed Koch & Davis.

 

Mixed/media

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From J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan: “Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time.”

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From W. H. Auden: “…poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.” For Auden, this communication of mixed feelings didn’t mean ambiguity; it referred to double focus–seeing or feeling or otherwise knowing two conflicting feelings simultaneously. Something that, according to Barrie, fairies could not do.

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The mixed-ness of life presents many of its irritants, but also many of its joys. Think about the amazing complexity of a human being, a consciousness, a sentience: the mish-mash of experiences filtered through a mish-mash of other experiences and through unique neurological channels. I relish the fringes and edges of things such as meadows, rivers, horizons, roads, neighborhoods, and cultures. Combinations are more interesting than homogeneity. Paradoxes are more exciting than indelible rules.

I appreciate the design of formal gardens, or swaths of tulips; but a cottage garden interests me for longer, as do bogs and wetlands and the borders of woodlands. Most of the poems I love best, those that resonate the deepest and longest, express multiple and mixed possibilities. I enjoy poetry that can be interpreted several ways, or that twists back on itself and points out a paradox or a different focus, poetry that opens up perspectives and challenges expectations and perceptions. Mixed media, mixed expression, mixed feelings, mixed perennial borders, mixed forests, mixed neighborhoods…these juicy collages of experience keep the brain lively and interested.

They also pose good challenges for meditation. One can concentrate or focus on the unity of the disparities, for example. Lose yourself in a meadow.