Agency

It’s a bad idea to get into gardening if one happens to be someone who requires complete control of things. Nature’s behavior, it turns out, manages seldom to be controllable by human beings. One reason I enjoy gardening is the chance to keep trying a new approach, a new variety, a new method; if I cannot control the environment, I may at least find an adaptation that works for awhile.

This year, it’s a short-season, baseball-sized melon I’m experimenting with, and potatoes grown in a bag, and hard beans in addition to haricorts vert, and a different set of heirloom tomatoes. The method I developed some years ago to deal with insect-borne and moisture-spread viruses on zucchini no longer works for me, alas. Next year I will try something else–because I do love grilled zucchini.

~

IMG_1753

Bounty

There’s a difference between control and agency, and I’ve been pondering this since the illness and recent death of a long-time friend and fellow writer. Agency, as it has come to be used in psycho-social circles, means having the freedom and the ability to make decisions. It’s not quite the same as controlling–it hasn’t the same aims behind it. Also, agency implies responsibility. Controlling people are more apt to place blame, whereas a person with agency makes choices and accepts the responsibility of those choices.

That’s the sort of person Bill was: gentle, quirky, humorous, exceptionally smart, persistent, and devoted to the people he loved and the causes for which he advocated. He decided what mattered to him, chose the sort of life he wanted to live, and took responsibility for those decisions even when other people might have wanted him to do otherwise. He made, and kept alive, connections and relationships. He worked on being a better self and a better citizen of the world.

When it became clear that two weeks of hospital treatment had made no difference in his illness, he chose to go home under hospice care. I wrote to a fellow member of our writers group that I was a little bit in shock but also unsurprised at his decision. She said that yes, Bill has always believed in agency.

~

Agency is one of those terms, like mindfulness and intentionality, that can be overused by pop psychology and self-help best-sellers until it is nothing but a cliché.  The etymology tells us much, however:

agency (n.)

1650s, “active operation;” 1670s, “a mode of exerting power or producing effect,” from Medieval Latin agentia, abstract noun from Latin agentem (nominative agens) “effective, powerful,” present participle of agere “to set in motion, drive forward; to do, perform,” figuratively “incite to action; keep in movement” (from PIE root *ag- “to drive, draw out or forth, move”).  [Thanks to Etymology Online]

 

That would be my friend and critic Bill, drawing forth and setting in motion; effective, powerful, someone who could do and incite to action, and make wise and purposeful choices in his life.

Advertisements

The takeaway

ampersand

so, I did what I set out to do: I exercised the necessary discipline to draft a poem a day during National Poetry Month, and I pushed against my “comfort zone” by publicly posting those drafts as they came to me. Usually I do not share my initial drafts with anyone other than fellow writers in my writer’s group or a few poets with whom I correspond. This was an interesting experiment on the personal level, therefore, a sort of forced extroversion as well as effort in productivity. I now have 30 new drafts to reflect upon, revise, or ignore.

It has been years since I came up with that much work in four weeks’ time. For the last decade or so, my average has been closer to six or seven poems a month. And I would not have posted any of them as they “hatched.” I would have waited until I spent some time with them and figured out how best to say what they seemed to want to say.

That’s not an unwise approach in general; I see nothing wrong with letting poems stew awhile. And quite a few would have ended up in the “dead poems” folder. Nevertheless, trying something innovative tends to prove valuable. The takeaway is that I am glad I finally managed the NaPoWriMo challenge. A few of the poem drafts you may have read here stand a chance of evolving into better poems. Maybe some will end up in a collection (years down the road). That result feels good.

The takeaway is also the realization that I no longer worry about how others judge my poems, the way I did when I was starting out and discouraged about having my stuff rejected by magazines. Not because there’s less at stake–indeed, I feel as invested in my writing as I ever was. The difference comes with the kind of investment, the ambition to write something meaningful or beautiful, and not viewing the poems as results waiting to be determined as valuable by someone more authoritative.

I’m 60 years old and well-educated in poetic craft, style, purpose, analysis. I’ve been writing poetry for over four decades. At this point in my life, that’s authority enough.

~

Self in the World

Goose stands sentry in the dew-strewn meadow.
Blackbird browses dry grasses woven along embankment,
emerges, slim stems clenched in its beak.

Under the footbridge, polliwogs gather,
backing into its shade–hawk overhead,
bluejay screaming territory! the crows respond–

Sun halos the water-strider’s shadow,
making a cluster of coronas on submerged stone
where wood frogs squeak and leap into stream current

surrounded by bedstraw, henbit, dandelion,
Amur honeysuckle, garlic mustard, stiltgrass,
invaders all. Except the frogs, who found the stream–

itself new to the landscape, gouged here in the 70s.
What do I notice, then? That some of the living adapt?
What do I make of myself in this world?

~

canadian goose on grass field

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

~

Finally, to close the month of April, here is a lovely tribute to Mary Oliver by her friend and fellow poet, Lisa Starr.

Thank you for reading, and for the support of readers and poets this month.

Poetic naturalism

I have been reading poetry, as usual, and also non-fiction about various aspects that could be deemed scientific, such as Michael Pollan’s Changing Your Mind and physicist Sean Carroll‘s book The Big Picture. 

On my way to work, I posed (in my mind) an argument with Carroll about his use of the word “poetic” in his definition of poetic naturalism, which he defines thus:

Naturalism is a philosophy according to which there is only one world — the natural world, which exhibits unbroken patterns (the laws of nature), and which we can learn about through hypothesis testing and observation. In particular, there is no supernatural world — no gods, no spirits, no transcendent meanings.

I like to talk about a particular approach to naturalism, which can be thought of as Poetic. By that I mean to emphasize that, while there is only one world, there are many ways of talking about the world…

The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms” … There is more to the world than what happens; there are the ways we make sense of it by telling its story… The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. But these moral and ethical and aesthetic vocabularies can be perfectly useful ways of talking about the world … We just have to admit that judgments come from within ourselves.

Despite my doubts about his use of “poetic,”  it may be that Carroll’s term describes me; at any rate, his definition comes close to my own thinking about the world.

And hence, another draft for my poem-a-day challenge.

~

Brown leaves bouncing across Preston Lane
late afternoon, air currents swirling.

Road shoulder cradles raccoon carcass,
fur shudders, though body’s still, and sun

highlights the gray-white hairs as travelers
speed past. Chlorophyll greens local lawns

and ditches beside the creek, molecules moving,
nitrogen atoms taken up through root and rhizome.

Sudden, yellow, early–narcissus blooms near
the neighboring farmhouse–all of which

recommends itself as The World As It Is.
A reality for at least one universe,

even though there exist other possibilities
in the realm of Undiscovered.

daffodil photo Ann E. Michael

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.”

 

 

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.