Diminishment

When a friend who grew up in Central America visited the USA for the first time, she arrived in New York City in January. She encountered the airport, security, passport service, crowds, parking lot, the traffic en route to Central Park, shivering a bit as she went in and out of heated places to the cold weather and back. But when she finally found herself walking the city streets with her host, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon amid the many noises of downtown, she stopped and stood still a moment–listening intently.

“But–where are the insects?” she asked.

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“We notice the losses,” says David Wagner, an entomologist at the University of Connecticut. “It’s the diminishment that we don’t see.”

Because insects are legion, inconspicuous and hard to meaningfully track, the fear that there might be far fewer than before was more felt than documented. People noticed it by canals or in backyards or under streetlights at night — familiar places that had become unfamiliarly empty. The feeling was so common that entomologists developed a shorthand for it, named for the way many people first began to notice that they weren’t seeing as many bugs. They called it the windshield phenomenon.

Brooke Jarvis, New York Times Magazine Nov. 27, 2018

While I do not expect to hear insects in New York in the dead of winter, the “windshield phenomenon” is something I noticed here in the USA during the 1980s. I recalled long cross-country trips in the car with my parents and the constant need to clean smashed bugs from the window and front bumpers or grilles, back when I was a child. And somehow, once I was driving, that task became less necessary. I decided that pesticides such as DDT were responsible for fewer bug-splats, but I did not consider the long-term ramifications that Jarvis describes:

Insects are the vital pollinators and recyclers of ecosystems and the base of food webs everywhere… In the United States, scientists recently found the population of monarch butterflies fell by 90 percent in the last 20 years, a loss of 900 million individuals; the rusty-patched bumblebee, which once lived in 28 states, dropped by 87 percent over the same period.

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Right. And a loss of bees leads to a loss of any plant requiring bees for pollination. A loss of beetles and dragonflies and mayflies and even the much-maligned mosquito leads to birds that starve, not to mention amphibians, reptiles, and some omnivorous or insectivorous mammals–particularly vulnerable bat and marsupial populations. The bottom of the food chain matters more than most human beings ever stop to consider.

One part of this article mentions the important, even crucial, role of people who study nature without having gotten degrees…the so-called amateur botanists, lepidopterists, and hemiptera observers. Another reason I find this article so interesting has to do with how Jarvis employs thoughtful, reflective moments in the piece, while maintaining a journalistic stance:


We’ve begun to talk about living in the Anthropocene, a world shaped by humans. But E.O. Wilson, the naturalist and prophet of environmental degradation, has suggested another name: the Eremocine, the age of loneliness.


Wilson began his career as a taxonomic entomologist, studying ants. Insects — about as far as you can get from charismatic megafauna — are not what we’re usually imagining when we talk about biodiversity. Yet they are, in Wilson’s words, “the little things that run the natural world.” He means it literally. Insects are a case study in the invisible importance of the common.

Maybe it’s my personal inclination towards the natural observation, but I find some resonance here. It’s what I tend to do when I write poems–to celebrate the common, or at any rate to notice it. I notice, too, the diminishment.

Some readers have told me my poems feel sorrowful, and maybe that sense of diminishment hunkers behind even the more celebratory poems I write. That’s an idea worth my consideration as I revise my work. Maybe Diminishment should be the title of my next collection.

Anyway–read Jarvis’ article. You will learn much. Even if you’re one of those folks who “hates bugs.”

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Keeping the minutes on violence, with Lucille Clifton

Wow. I found this post by Lesley Wheeler worth re-blogging. It hurts my heart that she found so many of her students had experienced this kind of fear and violence in their schools. But it makes me pleased to be a writer if I can be in the company of people like Lesley and her students, facing what is horrible and difficult and discussing and writing about it. And reading, too–reading poems that face the “dark” in human beings can be as liberating and enlightening as reading poems that offer “hope” or balance. The heart does need rest now and then; thoughtful reflection offers more rest than many folks realize. Thank you, Lesley, for being a teacher.

LESLEY WHEELER

For a workshop on Tuesday, Election Day, one of my undergraduates submitted a poem based on the day he hid in a closet during a middle school shooting. A different student said there had been a shooting in her school, too; another described an active shooter just last week in the high school her sister attended; a fourth said a friend had died in the Parkland massacre. Stunned, I responded with something like, “Are you telling me that four out of the fifteen of you have had a near miss with a school shooting?” Then two more raised their hands. Six.

Gun violence in the US is insanely, horrifyingly prevalent; every new mass shooting refreshes the horror and also increases the number of Americans directly affected. A good friend’s father’s retirement center was recently in lockdown because of an active shooter. And when I described the workshop discussion to a…

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Manuscripting

Something I’ve been thinking about lately: how to organize a collection of poems into a manuscript? I have done it before; after all, I have managed to get several chapbooks and a long collection into the world already.

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And yet. The difficulty never departs, so I have once again been seeking inspiration and practical advice. The interwebs disclose a bounty of information from experts. There are hundreds of articles and blogs concerning this particular challenge, a challenge that seems unique to poets, though I suppose short story writers may encounter similar concerns when choosing how to organize and what to include in a book. If you find yourself wrestling with this task, encouragement and guidance abound. Here are a few articles to check out:

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Chicago Review of Books posted this article, asking four poets how they went about the task (and by the way, all four of these books contain wonderful work–definitely worth reading).

Marilyn McCabe’s “megablog” on the process is here.

In 2011, Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press posted a lengthy how-to on the Tupelo blog.

For the more scholarly reader on this topic, a lovely in-depth article by Natasha Sajé in The Iowa Review.

Poet & publisher Diane Lockward’s book The Practicing Poet includes not only prompts and craft suggestions but chapters on manuscript organization and getting published.

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Now I need to take these generous people’s advice.

Composition

Forgive me, readers–whoever you are–this weekend I am composing poems instead of a blog post, revising the work (see this post) and creating new stuff from dribs, drabs, sketches, notes, and the windy day outside with its sky full of variable, intermittent, strangely-colored clouds.

 

 

In print

I have been lucky in print this year. Two literary journals that I’ve long admired, Bellevue Literary Review and Prairie Schooner, published my poems, and so did the newer journal Naugatuck River Review. This is “a big deal” to me, because it is always exciting to be admitted into the pages of a magazine I like and because, despite the advantages of online/cloud-based literary journals, I love print!

There’s something inexpressibly marvelous about holding a book in my hands, turning the pages, and having a physical object–paper, binding, print–to carry with me.

Online magazines, theoretically at least, have a longer reach and can capture more readers (“hits”) than print. Literature requires audience, and the interwebs offer potentially millions of visitors to the poem online; but the operating word here is potential. What’s possible isn’t what generally happens. The readers of online literature, those people who stay on the poem long enough to read it–and then read the next poem, and the next, on-site–are not as legion as we poets might wish.

Through moderate use of social media, I do publicize my own work when it appears online (see links to the right on this page!). I welcomed the appearance of literature on the internet because one of my purposes for writing is to communicate with people. Readers matter to me. Getting my words into the public domain is the only way to begin that process of communication, and though online journals seem like the most ephemeral form of ephemera, they do make it easier for me to “share” (thanks to Facebook, I am beginning to despise that word) the poems or essays I’ve crafted.

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Print journals, like books, lack the immediacy of the online publication. They are not interactive in the way some online journals can be (see my recent audiofile and poem in The Maynard as an example), although some print journals are pretty experimental and interactive in quite innovative ways, such as Ninth Letter.

I encourage anyone who reads my blog to check out other bloggers on literature and poetry, and a good place to start is with Dave Bonta’s Poet Bloggers Digest. Searching the internet will open up a world of excellent poetry in carefully edited and curated literary journals.

The internet platform permits poets to read their own work, in podcasts and on YouTube, and to launch videopoems into the world. It has been a boon for poets to find audiences of all kinds, not just people who read poetry journals.

However, my cat will never circle and then settle on an online literary journal. So there’s that…

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[I tried to snap his photo when he sat on Prairie Schooner, but he jumped up and moved on.]

 

 

 

Vocation, avocation

Somewhere recently–was it the Sunday New York Times?–I read an opinion essay about how recent surveys of US citizens indicate that we have fewer hobbies than we have had in years past. The columnist wondered whether that lack is due to a zeal to be the best at whatever we engage in–the best jogger we can be, the most avid cyclist, the best collector, knitter, paper-crafter, woodworker, violinist, what-have-you. She suggested we’ve somehow lost the joys of being hobbyists: amateurs who do or create something because it is fun or relaxing, or because trying to learn a new skill makes us feel good. A true hobby is something we don’t have to be perfect at, because that is not the point.

As my students wrestle with the tasks of college and their concerns about their futures, the concept of vocation arises often. What to do with a life? Earn enough money to live reasonably comfortably, even if the job is not a passion? What if it’s not even satisfying? Should people choose a bearable career and find enjoyment in avocations? Or persist at what they love even if society doesn’t always reward the path they’ve chosen? Or–the options are legion.

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I believe in vocation as passion, and I also practice hobbies. My career is in higher education, and I enjoy and learn from my job. My vocation is writing, particularly writing poetry; my passion lies in that direction more than any other, but poetry has not been a career path in my case.

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My hobbies have evolved over the years. For decades, gardening has kept me happily occupied out of doors–but I have no need to become a Master Gardener, and my gardens are often minor failures in one respect or another. The garden, however, soothes me, distracts me from anxieties, helps me to become a better observer, teaches me much. When learning about plants, I got interested in botany and wild flower identification, so I am a more informed hiker and nature-saunterer than I used to be.

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garden photo: pepper, sassafras leaf © 2018 by Ann E. Michael

 

Photography’s also a hobby I pursue, an interest of mine since my late teen years (back before digital). The view through the frame has always intrigued me, as well as the opportunities that different lens lengths offer the photographer as to framing and focus. I especially enjoy macro lenses. It’s fun to zoom in closely on insects, flowers, and small areas of everyday objects. Photography encourages different types of observation.

The earliest interest I can recall having is art: painting and drawing in particular. From the time I was tiny, even before I entered kindergarten, I loved to draw and paint and to look at art in books and museums. During my teen years, I studied art at Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia and headed to college thinking I would minor in the fine arts. My talent did not match my aspirations, and a thorough self-analysis at around age 20 led me to recognize I could be creative more successfully in other ways…by that time, I was writing more seriously than I was painting.

But now? I have taken up painting in acrylics. Mostly sketches of clouds. There’s no pressure on me to do well; I can paint many mediocre pictures of clouds and feel relaxed in the process, meditative, observant, a casual learner.

cloudsketch

mediocre acrylic sketch of clouds, by Ann E. Michael

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As I wrap up this post, I realize that my career and my hobbies have encouraged observation from multiple and new perspectives. And my vocation? Poetry practically relies upon the writer’s ability to switch into creative and imagined points of view, as well as to have the opportunity for closely-observed objects and experiences.

Vocation, avocation, passion, career. I count myself lucky.

Seen from above

Wislawa Szymborska’s poems are in my head today, prompted by finding a dead beetle on my porch. Novice entomologist identifies dead bug, then thinks of poems.

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Seen from Above

Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

A dead beetle lies on the path through the field.
Three pairs of legs folded neatly on its belly.
Instead of death’s confusion, tidiness and order.
The horror of this sight is moderate,
its scope is strictly local, from the wheat grass to the mint.
The grief is quarantined. The sky is blue.

To preserve our peace of mind, animals die
more shallowly: they aren’t deceased, they’re dead.
They leave behind, we’d like to think, less feeling and less world,
departing, we suppose, from a stage less tragic.
Their meek souls never haunt us in the dark,
they know their place,
they show respect.

And so the dead beetle on the path
lies unmourned and shining in the sun.
One glance at it will do for meditation —
clearly nothing much has happened to it.
Important matters are reserved for us,
for our life and our death, a death
that always claims the right of way.

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In Joanna Trzeciak‘s translation, the second stanza begins:

For our peace of mind, animals do not pass away,
but die a seemingly shallower death

…a phrasing that evokes more clearly (to me) how humans use a sort of euphemistic, possibly spiritual phrase for being dead. And in this translation, the last stanza reads:

So here it is: the dead beetle in the road
gleams unlamented at the sun.
A glance would be as good as a thought:
it seems that nothing happened here.
Important supposedly applies only to us.
Only to our life, only to our death,
a death which enjoys a forced right of way.

Both translations are lovely, but I think I prefer the Trzeciak version, though I would be hard-pressed to say why; and I certainly cannot compare either to the original, since I do not know Polish.

What I love about this poem is its perspective, as reflected in the stances of title and stanzas. Literally, the speaker is above–looking down at a beetle husk. Tidiness in an insect’s demise–as opposed to our own. Then the point of view shifts, suggesting we humans are “above” the animals, their deaths less upsetting to the cosmos. But we are the cosmos, in our egotistical narcissism; and then, at last, death reminds us how unimportant we are…no matter how we think of ourselves.

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