Back to the garden

June brought much-needed rain, a little late for the peas, which were sparse and small this year, but in time to nourish the later-bearing vegetables. Zucchini and beans abound. It is still too early for the zinnias, sunflowers, and cosmos to bloom; but the butterflies have arrived to check out the buddleia. I recognize that buddleia has become an aggressive invader and is overused in US landscaping–and may not even be a good host for certain varieties of lepidoptera–yet I confess I love the huge purple blooms that draw so many winged creatures to sport where I can watch them from my kitchen window.

~

Speaking of winged garden creatures, I have encountered a new one. New to me, that is. While sitting on my porch, I watched with fascination as a large wasp, carrying a blade of straw in its legs, poked at a hole in the wooden post. The wasp pushed the straw into the hole, then crawled in after it, stayed a few seconds, then flew out. Some minutes later, it returned with a piece of grass and proceeded to repeat the process.

nest of the wasp

nest of the wasp

Isodontia, apparently: the appropriately-named grass-carrying wasp. I imagine this insect will eventually crawl its way into a future poem.

Here’s a video of grass-carrying wasps at work from Dick Walton’s Natural History Services site (a terrific resource, by the way). And thank you, Google. It’s this sort of thing that I can celebrate about the internet…my library for all things weird and natural, paradoxical as that sometimes seems.

~

My walkway garden

My walkway garden

~

Meanwhile, my perennial beds flourish (with a few too many weeds, ferns, and hostas–but oh well!!). I plan to make pilgrimages to a few gardens further afield later in July. We shall see if the planets align.

And a nod to Joni Mitchell; when I hear the words “back to the garden,” I can’t help but think of her song “Woodstock.”

~

Advertisements

What does a woman want?

In the medieval poem “The Marriage of Sir Gawain,” the knight gallantly agrees to marry a hag-like witch who has helped King Arthur by giving him the answer to his enemy’s riddle, which is “What does a woman want?” One of several ballad-like story poems of the Arthurian legend, this one appears in Eleven Romances of Sir Gawain (an online scholarly edition is here).

For contemporary intellectual types, however, the person who famously posed that question is Sigmund Freud. He spent many years refining the theory we now refer to as “penis envy” and arguing the displacement theory was at work subconsciously. Far too many casual references to Freud have simplified this idea as suggesting that women want to be anatomically arranged like men.

Um, not exactly…nope.

But back to Sir Gawain, agreeing to marry the hag in order to free his king from the evil baron’s grip. According to the poem, Arthur gives Gawain the secret he has learned from the witch herself. Depending upon the version or translation, the answer is: what a woman wants is her way (or her will, or to have her own way). She wants to be free to decide things that affect her and to make her own choices. Because Gawain is not only gallant and loyal and noble but also no dummy, he remembers Arthur’s secret. When the witch reveals herself as a gorgeous woman and asks him whether he’d prefer to see her lovely by day (when others can see her) or lovely by night (when her husband is abed with her), he defers to her. He says she should choose.

Delighted, she chooses to be lovely all the time (she now knows he will never forget that she has a will of her own).

So, if the medieval hag is correct, Freud was right, at least symbolically. Freud dwelt in a culture where men had authority, power, and self-agency, probably also true of medieval European culture, though I’d argue the Victorians were even more constrained. Anyway, women want those things, too–if possessing a penis as part of one’s anatomy could get you those things, one can understand envying the man, if not the organ itself. Indeed, Freud uses a bunch of lengthy theorizing to offer intellectual ballast to what he initially mentioned was an issue of power. Penis=power, in a male-dominated culture. It is almost too simple an idea, and almost too obvious, so he probably felt he had to pack it with a lot of other ideas. Transference and displacement theory have proven useful in other ways, but penis envy just suggests that females too often lack power to make personal choices within a social milieu.

As a feminist who yearns for balance and equality among human beings, I think it is crucial to point out that, despite the stories with which I’ve framed this post, wanting one’s way is not just what women want. It is also what men want.

People, no matter the gender, want to be able to say “No” and to be listened to and heeded. People want to direct their own lives, make their own decisions–and their own mistakes. I work with college students who are 17-22 years old, and I can assure you that they desperately want to make their own choices. Though they often also desperately want to blame someone else for the unfortunate consequences of certain ill-considered choices, they mature once they realize that sort of behavior limits them to the role of the naughty child–a dependent–not a responsible, independent person. If you want to be respected as an adult, I tell my students, you have to be willing to own up to your own poor decisions. And that’s just for starters.

Each young person I teach, tutor, or counsel wants some control over his or her life. Some try to get it by seeking to control other people, others by trying to control their environment, others by endeavoring to control the social situation they find themselves in…the list goes on. Human beings cannot really control as much as we think we can. But we can exert our will and speak up for our way. We can offer respect and seek respect. We ought to be able to make our own decisions as long as we are mature enough to deal with the results for good or ill. That goes for people of any sex.

Yet when a woman asserts that she wants her way, our society tends to judge her as a whiner or a bitch, a ball-breaker or a manipulator. Even now, many years into politically-correct language and Title IX and women as Supreme Court justices, I hear this sort of language bandied about, often “in jest.” Sure, it can be jesting; but it’s also pretty close to jousting–with words. Be a little more careful, my friends. Or as the terminology goes these days, more mindful. Perhaps, given the freedom to exercise our will, more of us will choose to be lovely all the time.

About art (a poem)

While trying, I fear in vain, to tidy up and organize my poetry files, I came across this poem composed before 1997. Despite its flaws, I decided that rather than revise I should post it here, because it offers a narrative about how a person–shall I specify, this particular person–might come to love the wide, multicultural, historical, spiritual, experimental, transcendent “world” of art.

Melencolia_I_(Durero)
A Life Saved by Art

The library’s card catalog led me
to shelves of art books: oversized, glossy-paged,
crabbed with tiny, inarticulate commentary
about volume, form, structure,
perspective, light and shadow,
innovation and rebelliousness
and the emotive content of the line.

What did it mean? I was eleven.
I made a hagiography based upon
the beauty of still things, life arrested,
mid-gesture, on canvas, wood, stucco,
merging all my saints and artists into
a collage of stories as naive
as Rousseau’s jungle scenes–

but I believed Rousseau, and Breughel
and the intimacies of Rembrandt’s Bathsheba
and the endless processions of amazed Magi
through the narrow streets of precarious Italian towns
and Degas’ women tying up their hair
and the rich invitingness of Gauguin’s flowers
and the stark heart of Georgia O’Keeffe–12-01-05MagiFraAngelico

I believed I would learn to comprehend my life,
put it into perspective through
Giotto’s tiny and exquisite backgrounds,
Dürer’s precise grids, believed I would discover
an understanding of the abstract.
I wanted to be transformed through art,
the sanctity and structure of the line,
and, through them, out
of the coming confines of adolescence.

I forget so much of what I learned,
but still I possess Arles, and Athens,
the buff-colored pages of
Da Vinci’s notebooks, ink and ideas:
ink which now sprawls abstract upon the page
while I consider the emotive content
of each line–and brilliant fields of color
daubed in wild and perfect order:
a moment, a childhood, a life
saved by art.black-hollyhock-blue-larkspur-georgia-okeeffe

~ © 1997 Ann E. Michael

~

There are better poems about art (even by me); but I treasure the yearning outlook this piece suggests, and its tendency toward overstatement as well.

Gestation

Without committing to any resolution to do so, I spent some time recently with my own poetry: the unfinished drafts, the partially-revised pieces, the fragments and the poems I had put aside for the time being. “For the time being” was, in some cases, over a decade.

This putting-aside led me to wonder what process–other than forgetfulness–leads me to abandon a poem for such a long time. I am aware that artists in other media experience this sort of pause in the working of making; sometimes, the years on a project are full of revision and detailing (Rodin’s doors “The Gates of Hell,” for example) but often, the composition just lies about for a perhaps-indefinite number of years. I believe the poet Donald Hall refers to this as a poem’s necessary gestation.

In a 2008 interview (by Wendy Andrews), Galway Kinnell said, “When I can take a poem of mine that I think is finished and put it aside for a month and pick it up and read it and find it interesting, and if I encounter no place where I think it should be changed, and if at the end it surprises me, even though I wrote it, I think it might be done.”

That’s what I have been endeavoring to accomplish for the past two weeks or so: a reading of my own drafts to discover whether any of the poems are capable of surprising me, or if any of them might be revised into achieving that state. It is a lengthy project and a quiet one that requires considerable internal analysis and an objective stance. And maybe that is one benefit to letting the work sit around for so long…by the time I peruse the draft again, I have forgotten the initial inspiration, so the poem has to operate on its own merits as a composition rather than through any residual inclination or emotional attachment I may have once had for it.

If my own work manages nevertheless to impress me in some way, I tend to harbor the hope that it may be salvageable. If not, I can keep revising, or put the drafts into my “dead poems” file and consider it incapable of resuscitation.

The parallels to pregnancy and gestation may be inevitable–parents harbor hopes that their children will be good people who are successful in the world, just as poets want their poems to be “good” –but that sort of gestation analogy only goes so far. We cannot revise or rework our human offspring, and an objective analysis of their strengths and weaknesses is unlikely to lead to betterment of either party. But a work of the imagination can be re-envisioned, reconsidered, and made new.

That’s the work of the next many weeks. I am curious indeed as to where the work, after its long gestation, will lead me.

chick-hatching

Some endings

On a bleak wet day: thinking about revising my poems. The pile of “needs work” drafts appears daunting; I have put off for too long the required work of rethinking, the hard, conscientious effort–and unstructured time–necessary to the craft. I have always enjoyed the task of revision because it offers a chance to revisit the initial urges of the poem and to refine and reconsider my ideas, but lately my motivation has abandoned me.

I notice, above, all of the words that begin with “re.”

Latin: “in the matter of” or, (res), “thing.” But as a prefix: “again,” likewise, to indicate a backwards or repetitive motion.

revise   §    require      §      revisit     §    refine   §

    rethink    §     reconsider

Maybe I am eager to move forward instead of always going back. Nevertheless, one method of moving on is to complete what one is working on so as to create a sense of closure. Sometimes, all a poem needs is a better ending.

When I think of revision under that perspective, as a means of completing an unfinished job in order to prepare for the next, new task, the pile seems slightly less unmanageable.

And by way of re-envisioning the endings…Molly Spencer’s blog The Stanza offers a good list of closure options here.

sunset1~The ending of a day~

 

Pro+crastination

procrastination (n.) Look up procrastination at Dictionary.com
1540s, from Middle French procrastination and directly from Latin procrastinationem (nominative procrastinatio) “a putting off from day to day,” noun of action from past participle stem of procrastinare “put off till tomorrow, defer, delay,” from pro- “forward” (see pro-) + crastinus “belonging to tomorrow,” from cras “tomorrow,” of unknown origin.

This, thanks to OE, the Online Etymology dictionary, a favorite site of mine. What I was hoping to find is some aspect of “pro” as in Latin’s for, ie, the positive side of putting things off until tomorrow. Surely there are times when a bit of delay works toward the desired goals. The more leisurely approach to accomplishing a large task allows a person time to think things through and avoid some of the risks that the jumping-into-the-lake-all-at-once method contains.

At least, that’s my rationalization for putting off the next set of tasks I have set for myself regarding my writing.

~

Delay can be fruitful, if it’s the right sort of delay. Procrastination that arises from distraction, however, tends to be of the less productive sort. When putting things off because of distraction ends up being somehow beneficial, it’s usually just a lucky strike.

~

~

distraction (n.) Look up distraction at Dictionary.com
mid-15c., “the drawing away of the mind,” from Latin distractionem (nominative distractio) “a pulling apart, separating,” noun of action from past participle stem of distrahere (see distract). Meaning “mental disturbance” (in driven to distraction, etc.) is c.1600. Meaning “a thing or fact that distracts” is from 1610s.

The drawing away of the mind. What a perfect description. Just how it feels.

~
 
But the mind can be drawn into the tasks at hand, a Zen-like or Taoist middle-way approach. The steps to the goal neither hard nor easy. The delay can be a time of focus and serendipity, a way to establish equilibrium before proceeding on what appears, initially, to be a daunting project. What belongs to tomorrow is not here now–live the day.
 
My three-month project is to send out two manuscripts, revise and organize my current work, submit new poems for publication, compose an essay and a couple of reviews. But it turns out there are a number of other tasks I had to accomplish before heading into the larger project. It’s all part of the process, during which I have discovered some poetry drafts I had forgotten about and revised older work and found a cache of images and ideas I had filed away “for later.” And I realized I had not finished transferring my poem files into new digital folders… It all needs to be done, but it follows the same general path.
 
Not distracting, exactly. A different form of–positive– “mental disturbance.” The pro aspect of procrastination.
 
 
 
 

Love. Poem.

A beloved member of my family will be marrying in June, and I was asked to find a poem apropos to the celebrants and the occasion. I have written two epithalamiums (or epithalamia) and can testify to the difficulty of composing a good poem that is also a marriage poem. Anyway, in this instance, I wanted to find a suitable long-term-love-commitment poem by someone other than myself. Talk about abundance of choice!

Knowing the celebrants’ interests and tastes narrowed things down a bit, and the poem had to be “short & sweet.” The ceremony will be out of doors on a trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which made me inclined to look for natural imagery in the poem–but nothing so dense as to distract from the place itself.

What a splendid task! I allowed myself the luxury of looking at poetry books randomly, paging slowly through anthologies, browsing handouts I’ve collected for and from classes over the years. Just flitting from poem to poem over the course of weeks, occasionally marking something that seemed particularly likely…no pressure…

When I came across the poem “Tree Heart/True Heart” by Kay Ryan, I was startled into admiration.

It doesn’t start off like a love poem. It offers little in the opening imagery to suggest romance, or life attachment, or promise.

It is breathtakingly brief, revolves around wordplay and connotations, sounds lovely when read aloud.

The last two lines clinch the “commitment” in the poem; and the three lines preceding that final, spare, achingly-sweet sentence made me gasp when I re-read the poem, trying to figure out how Ryan managed all this in 16 lines, not one of which contains more than five words.

Love is all you needOkay, now you want to read the poem, right?

It was published in The New Yorker on September 26, 2011 (p. 116), and I am certain that I will be violating some sort of copyright if I reproduce it on this blog.

I hope Ms. Ryan forgives me, though if The New Yorker or her publishers find out, I may have to take this post down. It seems likely to me that The New Yorker has bigger fish to try to catch, however, so here goes. And I am putting in a plug for Kay Ryan’s books. Go buy them, preferably not second-hand, because poets make hardly any money from book sales and no money whatsoever from second-hand sales.

 

Tree Heart/True Heart

by Kay Ryan

The hearts of trees
are serially displaced
pressed annually
outward to a ring.
They aren’t really
what we mean
by hearts, they so
easily acquiesce,
willing to thin and
stretch around some
upstart green. A
real heart does not
give way to spring.
A heart is true.
I say no more springs
without you.

~

My beloveds–who are an ocean apart at present and miserable about it, and who aim to make sure that each has “no more springs/without you” –agreed that this poem suited their intentions, their personalities, and the leafy stretches of the hiking trail.

Thank you, Kay Ryan. Thank you, human beings, whoever it was who invented the arts, and poetry.