Focus

On what do I focus when I write a poem?

This question has occurred to me before, usually under the guise of someone asking the ever-vague “What inspires you to write?” Focus differs from inspiration. For me, focus seems to derive from observation and is a process of discovering meaning.

Focus helps me understand what it is I’m experiencing and to decide how to express it. I focus when I need to make decisions; in the case of writing a poem, the decision might be one of craft approach or of imagery, or a realization that the poem needs a turn to create tension or resolution. What is the hub of the poem, the real kernel at its core? To make a poem “work,” I have to have a sense of what that might be.

This type of emphasis is a form of concentration. I think we learn from focusing; it teaches the value of close study, a skill needed for analysis. It can also be a reminder of what is outside the area of attention. Focus needs context, or it ends up as navel-gazing.

For a visual example, consider Andy Goldsworthy‘s “Rain Shadows,” which are among the most transitory of his ephemeral works.

The opposite of making a snow angel, in these conceptual art pieces–and he would object to me calling them by that term–the artist lies on a sidewalk and waits until a light rain falls just enough to leave his figure on the ground. Of course, in no time, the rain fills in the figure, so he documents the “shadow” with a photograph.

Goldsworthy talks about the process, in a recent interview with Terry Gross (see link below).

I just concentrate on the rain. I’ve learned so much about rain — the different kinds of rains, the rhythms of rains. And people will say, “Oh, why don’t you just use a hose pipe?” That would be totally pointless. The point is not just to make the shadow, it’s to understand the rain that falls and the relationship with rain and the different rhythms of different rainfalls.

The “art” in Goldsworthy’s rain shadows–he also does this with snowfall–consists in a focus, a learning, a process that the viewer cannot participate in. Which is kind of weird. Unless, of course, seeing his rain shadows prompts other people to try making them, during which they will learn about rain’s rhythms and varieties.

In this way, Goldsworthy encourages focus and close attention to the world in which we live. I think I will file that under “inspiration.”

 

 

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Reverberations

Elegant words–and urgent ones. Lee Upton’s book of essays Swallowing the Sea offers the following passages, which are resonating with me today:

“How can we live in the midst of a reality that outpaces our ability to comprehend it? How can the ancient springs of poetry–rhythmic language shaped to be remembered, language that often assumes nature as an inspiration–survive in circumstances that disintegrate memory and nature…?

“Poetry demands that we…actively attend to both the shapes of mayhem and the shapes of controlled order as they are enacted in language. That is, in poetry more than in any other verbal genre, readers bring an expectation that not only do all elements matter down to the comma and the white space at the end of a line and between or within stanzas, but that each of these elements, no matter how widely arrayed, may tug at other elements and condition the whole. The poem is an echo chamber where we listen to the reverberations that otherwise dissolve into the white noise of anxiety.”

~

James Fenton has said, “The writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation.”

~

 

waterfall

Spring cycle

This morning, five deer grazed languidly at the farthest edge of the meadow near the treeline. Some minutes after the small herd moved away, a lone doe hopped into view.

She was familiar to me. I have posted about her before–the doe with the missing leg, whose home base is located in our area. The University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology website says odocoileus virginianus (the white-tail) lives an average of two years in the wild, but our semi-suburban region lacks large predators (other than cars) and offers quite a bit of protection. Maximum lifespan in the wild is 10 years, and I know that this particular doe is at least eight years old by now. She seems as spry as ever; very likely she is gestating another fawn.

The deer are pests in many ways–gardeners despair of deer depredations of ornamentals and native plants alike, and we also worry about their role as hosts of Lyme disease. Nevertheless, the deer and I co-exist peacefully, and their appearance at the fringe of the grassy field has signaled spring this year as they emerge from having “yarded up” in their camouflaged territory during the deep, snowy winter. They reestablish their familiar trails through the vines, thorn bushes, and grasses.

And there is something soothing about the cyclicality of the roving deer, the reappearance of their well-worn paths…even about my annoyance at finding the crocus leaves cropped and the branches of the pear trees nibbled.

Also, do forgive the pun–but what could be more endearing than this sight from May of 2011?

ann e michael

When foraging, females leave their offspring in dense vegetation for about four hours at a time. While waiting for the female to return, fawns lay flat on the ground with their necks outstretched, well camouflaged against the forest floor. Fawns withhold their feces and urine until the mother arrives, at which point she ingests whatever the fawn voids to deny predators any sign of the fawn.
When foraging, females leave their offspring in dense vegetation for about four hours at a time. While waiting for the female to return, fawns lay flat on the ground with their necks outstretched, well camouflaged against the forest floor. Fawns withhold their feces and urine until the mother arrives, at which point she ingests whatever the fawn voids to deny predators any sign of the fawn.
When foraging, females leave their offspring in dense vegetation for about four hours at a time. While waiting for the female to return, fawns lay flat on the ground with their necks outstretched, well camouflaged against the forest floor. Fawns withhold their feces and urine until the mother arrives, at which point she ingests whatever the fawn voids to deny predators any sign of the fawn.

 

The wildest moment

This morning we were visited by thousands of starlings, whirring in a murmuration of wings and twittering enough to raise quite a din. I was wrapped in a warm robe and standing on the back porch because my vegetable garden patch is finally free of snow, and I just wanted to remind myself that the earth lies waiting (and spring will indeed arrive). I heard the flocks arriving, not an uncommon occurrence this time of year, but had never observed such a huge group in my yard and treeline before. And they came so close! Spinning past me at eye level, five feet away.

I felt almost as if I were among them, and for the first time could see how individual birds suddenly reverse themselves–pivoting on a pinion-tip–followed by some in the group while others swooped away on a different arc. There seemed to be flocks within the general flock, each with its own pattern of loop or zig-zag, rushing level or stopping briefly on the muddy grass, some settling, some leaping, their flight paths intersecting…others taking a second or two to hover in the air as if deciding which invisible line to pursue.

The noise floored me. I felt my whole body respond, eyes wide, heart racing: awe, or elation, not fear. I noticed the neighbors’ cat, who often spends hours on my sunny back porch, had backed himself into a corner and was sitting alert but a bit cowed by the loud, wild activity of the birds.

Here’s a short article from Wired that includes a video and some links to research on the physics and dynamics of starling flocks, including the delightful theory of “critical transitions” which smacks of metaphorical possibilities I think I must explore in a poem someday soon.

I’ve looked for videos of starling murmurations, and there are many–but most of them show the flocks from a distance and leave off the noise of the birds, substituting new age music (see below). For me, part of the experience is aural. Too bad I did not have the means to capture today’s wildest moment; that must be left to the imagination.

Trees & tombs

On a brisk and clear autumn day, I visited Brooklyn’s magnificent and park-like Green-Wood Cemetery. Established in 1838, the burial grounds were planned as a gently-rolling landscape of hills, winding paths, ponds, and specimen trees in what was then rural Long Island. The “History” tab of the National Historic Site’s webpage says:

By 1860, Green-Wood was attracting 500,000 visitors a year, rivaling Niagara Falls as the country’s greatest tourist attraction. Crowds flocked to Green-Wood to enjoy family outings, carriage rides and sculpture viewing in the finest of first generation American landscapes. Green-Wood’s popularity helped inspire the creation of public parks, including New York City’s Central and Prospect Parks.

These days, US citizens feel far less connected to death, and the concept of picnicking among gravesites may seem creepy. The organization devoted to keeping up the cemetery as a historic site (it is, by the way, still an active cemetery) offers tours: visitors can tour the catacombs, visit graves of famous people, take an architectural monument & mausoleum tour, and see the sculptural highlights of the cemetery.

The sculptures are largely figural pieces and tend toward the Gothic sentimentality of the late 19th century: draped urns, weeping maidens wearing Greek chitons, triumphant angels, busts and full-length portraiture, columns and more columns (Corinthian being far and away the favorite). If such monuments appeal to you, Green-Wood is decidedly worth a visit; it is also a favorite among history buffs. A Revolutionary battle was fought on those grounds, and there are some early graves from the Dutch pre-Revolutionary era, not to mention the inherent historical interest of a major city mortuary established in the 1830s.

Here’s a flickr site devoted to images of Green-Wood.

~

While history and art interest me a great deal, what most arrested my attention at Green-Wood were the trees. Seldom do I get to see dozens of 170-year-old oaks, 100-year-old weeping beeches draping their boughs over paths and tombstones, large female gingko trees that drop their smelly orange fruits on the ground, old elms that survived Dutch elm disease, enormous cedars and firs of every description, majestic walnut trees (the woodlot at my house sports only some weedy black walnuts). Three tall, long-armed people embraced the circumference of one of these old oaks…

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Loving up the trees at Green-Wood.

~

There are hundreds of species of trees at Green-Wood, aptly named; and in fall the colors are handsome. I can imagine the pastel colors of the flowering trees there in spring!

So I think of the place of the dead as a fantastic terrarium of living things encased in city streets, a bubble of micro-environment–470+ acres–wherein thrive trees, a wide variety of birds, ornamental grasses and flowers, shrubs (too many hydrangeas, perhaps), squirrels and, judging by the dug-up divots evident in grassy areas, skunks, opossums, and possibly raccoons.

And yes, I recognize that cemeteries have a reputation for good soil because the plants are “fertilized” by human remains–undeserved reputation in modern times due to sanitation requirements and at Green-Wood, where many of the interred are not even in the ground. Even if and when human decay complements the soil nutrients, the idea doesn’t bother me. I am enough of a scientist, and enough of a Buddhist, to appreciate the biocycle.

Endemophilia

This poem is sort of my version of endemophilia, describing (as Albrecht defines it) “the particular love of the locally and regionally distinctive in the people of that place. It is similar to what Relph … called “existential insideness” or the deep, satisfying feeling of being truly at home with one’s place and culture.” You might want to check out Glenn Albrecht’s site for more detailed definitions and philosophical/psychological reasons for inventing names for such concepts.

My long-poem in Water-Rites, “The Valley, the Whitetail: A History,” probably fits the term endemophilia more closely than the poem I’ve posted below–which may one day appear in print if I can find a publisher for my next manuscript. But the long-poem is a little too long for a blog post.

[I have an idea: buy a copy of Water-Rites from Brick Road Poetry Press, and read it there!]

~

Suburban Georgic

A mild day in February. Good chance
there’ll be more snow or ice. Walk slowly,

note the footprint of a hosta, dormant, or
the arrow-shaped deer hoof in hardened soil.

Look more closely for the ravages and burrows
of rodentia—woodchucks, voles and mice.

You may discover where squirrels have
hidden seeds or laid waste to crocus corms—

try to restrain your wrath. Decide
how best to counter such yearly looting;

strategy keeps the mind sharp. Grubs,
for instance, in your lawn—a different tack,

and this year you may succeed, and keep
the skunks from rooting through the grass.

Weigh, in your mind and pocketbook,
the relative costs of pesticide and herbicide.

It might be the year to go organic,
though there’s even odds the dandelions will thrive.

Ease your troubled breast from lawn woes.
Raise your eyes to forsythia, to witch-hazel,

observe critically the shrubs’ bare bones,
decide what needs the kindest cut,

find your saw and pruners, time to oil
and sharpen—your fingers itch—

but it’s a little soon. To assuage your
yearning, cut back the redtwig osier

so its new growth will flush crimson.
Consider forcing blooms indoors—

aren’t there soft, small swellings on
the slim wands of pussywillow?

When the next storm hits, dream of columbine
and narcissus. Get out your Horace, and wait.

ann e michael

quince blossoms

~

© 2008 Ann E. Michael

~

Waiting, in the place I call home, for spring.

Lost trees

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Herewith, some photos of neighboring tree damage. There is an environmental aspect to huge devastating storms…some of my neighbors’ houses have been standing for over 150 years. Some of the trees are 50-90 years old.

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Not old by, say, Asian or European standards. But pretty mature and historic for the USA.

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New Jersey and Staten and Long Islands were hit much worse, as they also got sea-water surges and flooding. Here, we mostly had tree-down damages. Wires snapped, pulling out transformers and knocking down utility poles and wires.

It was a different type of storm from the ones we experienced last year at around this time (see my post from 2011).

Things are gradually returning to normal. I wish to thank, whole-heartedly, the men (and a few women) who work on the utility and tree crews and who came from all over the USA to help out. Convoys of utility trucks have been greeted with joy by all of us in the mid-Atlantic states. May we never have to return the favor–may you and your loved ones remain safe, sound, and connected! But if you do need help at any time, I hope we can return the favor.