Observation, memory, & art

Simon Watts has died. Probably you have not heard of him. His father, Arthur Watts, was a talented illustrator for the British magazine Punch, among other publications. My readers are unlikely to be familiar with him, either. His sister, Marjorie-Ann Watts, is an illustrator, novelist, and memoir-writer in the UK. Her books are not readily available in the USA, so my readers probably do not know of her, alas. Simon’s maternal grandmother was Amy Dawson-Scott, aka “Sappho,” poet, novelist, and British literary hostess who founded English PEN. If you have not heard of her, you may have heard of PEN International, a major writers’ organization.

Oh, such interesting relations and associations!

Simon, who turned 90 a week ago, needs an elegy–but I cannot write one, at least not yet. We have been friends for 35 years; and even though he hasn’t lived nearby, we will miss his presence in our lives because he corresponded well. He sent letters, and emails with memoir documents attached, and photos. He kept up with our children even into their adulthood. He called us. We visited. He told the best stories–always mirthful and full of twists. He wrote articles on sailing, boatbuilding, furniture-making, and sent little essay-type memories to his friends and family.

He hailed from England, emigrated to the US in the 50s, and loved Nova Scotia, San Francisco, and Portugal. He has family in the US, Britain, and Australia.

~~

I was scouting about the internet looking at his work and his family’s stories and came upon his father’s article on drawing in black and white, written in 1934 about a year before Arthur’s early death (he died in an airplane accident). This section struck me as so relevant to my own understanding about both sketching and writing–good writing, poetry, journalism–is also, foremost, about observation and memory.

Speaking of memory and observation, how much I wish that I had trained mine more. How I wish I had employed that excellent method of looking at an object, going into another room to draw it, returning to refresh my memory, and so on, until that drawing was completed without it and the object ever having met, as it were. What a training for an artist interested primarily in character, who sees for a minute a face which, if he cannot draw from memory, he will never draw at all!

I believe I am right in saying that, ages before such a thing as photography was even guessed at, this was the method by which Chinese artists were taught … So developed did their powers of observation and memory become by this training that by shutting their eyes, opening them for the fraction of a second, and shutting them again, they could keep in their minds the visual image of what they saw long enough to be able to transfer that visual image to paper. It was in this manner that they were enabled to draw insects and birds in flight, and it is an indubitable fact that, when the camera was invented and ‘instantaneous’ pictures were produced, it was proved by comparison that these artists’ memorisations were perfectly accurate.

Stacks Image 61

I tried that method myself, but, having no stern master to goad me on and, alas that I should have to say it, being constitutionally lazy, dropped it; for it is the most exhausting form of study that I know.

~~

Simon Watts, the son of this artist (a man he barely remembers), inherited somehow–though expressed in an entirely different way–the recognition that we ought to note carefully and recall the world around us, revel in our memories, and share our knowledge and wonder in whatever ways we can.

He saved historic wooden sailboats by carefully measuring them, building his own versions, and reproducing his designs for others to build.

In the photo below, my daughter, at age 14, happily sails the Atlantic off the coast of Nova Scotia in the boat that graces the cover of his plans for Building the Norwegian Pram.

 

alice-pram 2004

Such memories fall into the category of immeasurably valuable. Right now, this photograph takes the place of any elegy I could compose. Sail on in peace, Simon!

 

Msr. Coulon & memorization

This post responds to Cleveland Wall, a poet for whom recitation is part of presentation and who reminded me of an old poem of mine I had written in response to a visual image on a postcard. The image and the poem are below, but what strikes me about recalling the work is that it is one of the few poems I have managed to memorize.

Ms. Wall memorizes much of her work and has presented at performances such as slam poetry events and No River Twice shows [Facebook video link below–you can catch a glimpse of me reading here, too.]

 

Alas, I have ever and always been terrible at memorization. In Sunday school, my younger sibling earned points for Bible verse memorizing at probably twice my pace. I enjoyed theater but never learned lines well enough to manage more than walk-on roles. Song lyrics came more easily, probably because the music helped cue me to the phrases.

You would think a poet–a versifier!–could commit her own work to memory. But no. Add that to my numerous failings.

~~

I bought the Louis Coulon postcard in 1980 at a New York City stationer’s. What I did not know then (hey, no interwebs) was that Coulon sat for a number of portraits and was a relatively famous postcard subject at the fin de siecle.

Here’s the poem, first published by the estimable Harry Humes in the now-defunct Yarrow: A Journal of Poetry in 1982.

 

La Barbe

Monsieur Coulon, my grandfather, wore large mustaches and a beard three meters long. He tied it to the bedposts by night to avoid strangulation in his sleep; as it was, he died of fever in 1904, and the beard grew two centimeters more the day after his death. For years I had nightmares, Grandfather silently choking me in the posterbed I’d inherited from his estate. I bobbed my hair before the style became fashionable; Mama said it was scandalous, but the dreams ceased. I left Nievre for Paris and America, to avoid strangulation.

In 1942, I visited Savannah, Georgia, where trees resemble men, their great beards choking ocean breeze. I dream of trees opening gray coffins into a humid night–

                           I am an old woman, now, and waiting–

         ah, listen:

the wind is speaking French, Grandfather, it takes my precious breath away!

~

Louis Coulon, beard

~

P.S.–I have updated my P&W directory entry. Check out https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/ann_e_michael

 

 

Repetition

Repetitive tasks often lead directly to boredom, then to daydream, and then–if forced to continue said task–to numbness. The sheer effort involved in repetitive operation makes for drudgery; if the labor is also dangerous, hot, physically difficult, and unrelieved, the human mind gets sapped of joy and creativity. For much of human history, our time on earth has consisted largely of this sort of work, constant toiling, just to survive.

My thoughts dwell on that fact when I spend a day or two as a re-enactor and when I harvest beans and other produce that won’t keep and need immediate attention, else the food will go to waste. I think of all the people now and in the past who have to cut firewood and stack it, keep it dry, then keep fires burning in stoves or hearths and watch the food so it doesn’t burn. And do the same, day in day out.

I think of my grandmother who, when she was still in her 50s and 60s, kept a large truck patch from which she fed her extended family. All the canning and processing and freezing she did…the jars of peaches, jellies, tomatoes, beans…meant hours of often-tedious, not to mention exceedingly hot, work.

green peas on white ceramic bowl

Photo by R Khalil on Pexels.com

I cannot recall ever assisting her with canning; but from the time I was a very small child, I would sit beside her on a wooden bench or chair and “help” her shell peas or snap the ends from green beans. I suppose I prattled to her, because I recall her distracted “Mmmm Hmmm” responses. After awhile, however, I’d get quiet and daydreamy just opening the green pods and slipping the fresh, round peas out with my finger over and over, listening to the plunk as they dropped into the bowl in my lap. It was soothing.

~

I remembered that long-ago activity today as I shelled black beans from their dry, tan husks: two or three pounds of them! My shelling created a crackly noise that intrigued our kitten, who has otherwise been drowsy from the heat. I’ve been freezing green beans, cooking tomato sauce, and harvesting pears and black beans for days in the humid August heat–but not non-stop (I have a day job, and the students have returned to campus!).

black beans in a bowl

So for me, the potential boredom of the repetitive task gets replaced by a rather Zen attitude. Be here now, shelling the beans, stirring the pear butter. Appreciate bounty and what the earth has given us. Remember childhood. Daydream awhile. Think about poems.

~

In this case, repetition means abundance. New poems as autumn arrives.

Altered perspectives

One of the arguments Arthur W. Frank makes in his book The Wounded Storyteller–and in his subsequent books about “illness narrative”–is that there’s a compelling ethics for medical diagnosticians and caregivers involved in just listening to the other person’s story. The difficulty emerges when the storyteller cannot put his or her story into words or lacks enough objective distance from the illness to narrate the kind of story that others are expecting.

When people’s circumstances push into the chaos realm, they’re in the midst, overwhelmed; few of them can construct a cogent and concise narrative. In their pain, in their grief, everything seems equal–no beginning, no end, all middle.

The listener expects: a beginning. a middle. an end.

The listener expects: chronology. a goal. a desired outcome.

If the listener’s job means determining a course of healing, the listener requires history, onset, comparisons. Truly good diagnosticians therefore need more than sleuthing skills, experience, and education. They need to listen well in the midst of the storyteller’s chaos; Frank calls this listening with.

That often means taking a deep breath and endeavoring to change perspective.

~

[Which, by the way, is excellent practice for poets.]

Tibet-Mountains-Everest-Kailas-Tibet-tours-Tibet-travel-Tibet-trekking-Tibet-hiking-3-of-8-1024x676

Himalayas: view from a high lake plateau (Snow Lion tours)

natural_fractals_tibet

Himalayas from satellite: a fractal view

~
We cannot climb into an airplane and get an overview of a human being’s situation. Nor can we get into another person’s thought processes to determine what’s going on. Listening without rushing the person, without offering advice, without finishing the sentences with what we expect to hear–that’s a hard task.

In a previous post, I tried to replicate what it was I could hear when someone I cared for experienced cognitive damage.

It was very, very difficult to listen. For me, heart-breaking because of my previous understanding of who the person was. It was only in her final days that I started to realize I’d needed to change in my relationship with her in order to get some idea of what she wanted to say. And it was too late, really.

~

As another Best Beloved is now experiencing significant cognitive changes, I want to do better. I need to acknowledge the chaos narrative, the interruptions, the lacunae in the person’s story. It’s important that I develop a new perspective on what a conversation entails, too; my expectations surrounding a conversation no longer hold, and both of us will get frustrated if we stick to former habits.

If sometimes a visit feels a bit like the Mad Hatter’s tea party, so be it. There’s a story in that, after all, thanks to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.

mad hatter tea party tenniel

Tenniel’s sketch for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

And, just as an aerial view of the Himalayas alters the perspective of what the mountains are and how they appear, an altered perspective of a loved one keeps the person, as a human being still in the world (no matter how changed), in view. True, perhaps with changed patterns and unexpected gaps that we who love them may grieve the loss of. The conversations may be interrupted and chaotic, or full of long pauses and grasping for words and concepts. It is just a different kind of human communication.

Not what I expect, but what I am given. I’m trying to listen with, before it is too late.

Repetition

Repetition, the foundation of rote teaching and memorization, is a style of learning at which I have never been particularly successful.

Nonetheless, repetition has been useful in my learning process. Close observation reveals small differences in repeated events and refrains of all kinds; what I learn through repeated experience is that each time I see or do “the same thing,” I notice something new. Repetition permits me to analyze, and that is how I learn best.

Here’s an example.

~

Plants, particularly flowering plants, fascinate me. Every year, I find myself heading out to the yard, my camera in hand, to take photographs as the flowers unfold and the insects arrive to pollinate them. Every year. Yet a closeup of a bumblebee in a redbud blossom from 2005 looks pretty much the same as a bumblebee in a redbud blossom in 2019. Or a monarch on a tithonia–one year similar to the next. Why bother? What urges me out when the dogwoods bloom to record yet another photograph of flowering dogwood? How redundant. How unnecessary.

Yet I have learned much, gleaned much, from the process of noticing the buds and blossoms and insects as the days lengthen and then shorten again; the cycle of life a repetition. Each routine event of spring seems new to me after the winter’s rest.

~

The only types of poems I have managed to have some recall for are poems with refrains, and some song lyrics (also with refrains). The ones I have memorized are the ones I have heard and sung along with most often, such as the calls and responses of church rituals and hymns, the record albums I listened to over and over when I was a teenager. Each time I listened, I felt something new happen inside me. It’s the same with my walks in the garden and the woods and hedgerows and the meadow: each year the same, each year new. That kind of teaching, while repetitive, is far removed from rote.

 

 

 

 

Idea or memory

Revising a draft, for me, means returning to the poem from several perspectives. I might change the speaker from first person to second or third person, or change the poem so that there is not a clear speaker at all–no longer “lyric.” I may alter specifics, such as place names or seasonal references. Or fictionalize with invented crises, persons, time periods, or events. Take on a persona, for example. Add or delete dialogue. These are interpretive and point-of-view considerations: How can I broaden the poem’s reach?

I might then revise for stanza patterns. Or find a vague meter going on in the piece which I will decide is worth pursuing, if it will enhance the poem; sometimes it does not work that way.  If an image intrigues me, or puzzles or frustrates me, I’ll devote some revision effort to that. Play with alliteration or assonance, rhyme or off-rhyme, line lengths. Those are craft considerations, mostly.

When I work on a draft, my approach is that craft should hone perspective, and should be a silent partner in the poem. Early drafts, if promising, possess something inherently interesting. Otherwise, there’s nothing to work on or work with–the poem never really happens. Maybe all it manages to be is an idea, or a memory.

~

Sarasota

During the recession
laid off and without
even an old car
I lived in Sarasota
red tide gulf waters
slew of small fishes
dead on the beaches
where I went shell
hunting for lack of
other purpose.

Lizards on my walls
everything that mattered
blotted in moist air
novels and notebooks
drew mildew my hair
haywire the boy I loved
brown eyes & panic
sea at sunset gulls
and palmettos.

Once weekly I’d bike
to Unemployment
and wait in line to prove
I couldn’t get a job
but that I’d tried
& after my humbling
before government
agencies I’d stop at a
coffee shop on Fruitville
Road and order two
eggs over easy home fries
brown toast coffee &
blueberry pie.

There was something
so filling about that
meal I still think of it
silky blueberries in my
mouth the tip I left
the blond waitress who
kept my coffee cup full
and always called me
Darlin’.

~

blueberry-pie-horiz-a-180011

More on influences

During my adolescence, many of my friends came, if not from “broken homes” (the term we used in the 1970s), at least from emotionally-difficult family situations. Why that is, I don’t know–but it seems the town I lived in had quite a few struggling families in it. The era was a difficult one, rife with drug use, protests, political upheaval; and people were wrestling over attitudes concerning sex and feminism and birth control, dealing with a recession, and uncomfortable with the nation’s changing demographics.

I loved my friends, most of whom were female and, in one way or another, outsiders among our peers. I loved the nerdy bookworms who appreciated my goofy, bookish sense of humor. I loved the slightly wild risk-takers who encouraged me to do the kinds of things I might otherwise avoid; I loved that they accepted me even when I decided to decline participation in their antics. I learned my boundaries and learned to be accepted for having boundaries, knowledge that is vital for anyone to discover–especially for a young woman.

My friends liked me because I listened to them. One of them referred to me as her psychologist. Through these young women, I learned about love, lust, yearning, sex, educational aspirations, the behaviors of men, family stresses, jobs, career hopes, personal values, fears, thrills, recreational drugs, alcohol, birth control, popular music, dancing, concert-going, lies, mistakes, and heartbreak. The only thing I can think of that has taught me as much is the reading of books, particularly poems, novels, and memoirs.


1974, New Jersey, USA

Years later, I asked my parents whether they ever felt concerned about my choice of friends. Did they ever worry that these young people were somehow bad influences on me? My dad paused a moment, thoughtful, and answered, “I don’t think we ever worried about your friends being bad influences on you. I kind of thought you were maybe a good influence on them.” I’m not sure that’s accurate; but looking back, perhaps my parents, or my family, presented a positive “model” for my friends who endured much more challenging home lives and had less support for education, career, and independent futures. And most of them have grown up to have successful lives–but that’s not because of me.

Four or five years ago I found myself reminiscing through writing poems; it was quite accidental on my part, and initially just a response to a Bruce Springsteen song. Influences: popular song, teen friends, the suburban environment of my youth. I ended up with at least 40 poems, of which there may be enough good ones to make up a chapbook collection someday. [In 2014, I blogged a bit about the project here.] I call them my Barefoot Girls poems. They provide, I suppose, one aspect to answering the question posed in my last blog. My friends’ experiences, flowing through me.