Cartography

Reading Mark Monmonier’s 1995 book Drawing the Lines: Tales of Maps and Cartocontroversy got me thinking about names and boundaries.

Human beings name things so we can communicate with one another, and then we tell stories to remember the names, encoding them in the language of later generations. New occupants–and colonizers or conquerors–claim and rename to communicate to their followers.

This mountain is Mount McKinley (or is it Denali?), this one is Sagarmatha (or is it Everest?). Keep it in view to your left side and you will be progressing northward.

Big objects accrue many names. When you come to the river called Misi-Ziibi (or Yununu’a, or Báhat Sássin, or…), you must ferry across at the place just south of X. Furthermore, the big river moves, as Mark Twain* knew (see Life on the Mississippi); and as it moves it affects human-made boundary lines that we use to determine tax-base and property ownership and state borders.

Not to mention nationhood.

Monmonier rightly observes that most people assume that maps are factual representations of the physical and legal/abstract/imagined aspects of the “real” –and that assumption is incorrect. Maps can be manipulated. They can be propaganda. They can be drawn to reflect anything the people hiring the cartographer want to emphasize, or erase.

My husband has a German map from 1941. There is no Poland on it, no Austria, no Lithuania, no Ukraine…

~

When we built our house, I wanted to come up with a good name for it. Then I realized that the housing developments in our region all seemed to be named after things that weren’t there any more: Field Crest, Orchard Acres, Stony Meadows, Fox Stream…and the urge to name my house began to quiet down. Besides, all along I have recognized that the area around boundaries is more interesting to me than what is in the middle. Edges–the fringes, the spaces along and between–

And yet I’m trying to create boundaries around my garden to keep out the field voles, stands of cleome to discourage the deer, as another rainy spring keeps my shoes and gloves muddy and the weeds vigorous and tall. Paradoxes.

Reminds me that my favorite Whitman** quote when I was a teenager was: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself.” At 16, however, I never thought to include his marvelous parenthetical line “(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

(I am large, I am boundaryless).

~~

 

*Another example of name-changing that humans are so fond of.

** The 31st of this month is his bicentennial! I’m participating in a reading–see my Readings & Events page.

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Lyric, narrative

I love hearing stories. Telling stories. Inventing stories. Often I choose to create a story using the first person perspective, whether the story is my own, someone else’s, or totally invented. In poetry this gets called the lyrical narrative.

~

A Toast to the Brown Bat

We are on the porch, drinking wine
late in the long summer day, dusk hovering
the way small storms of insects do
the day after a hard rain, and we’re talking
about something not especially dear to us,
no deep discourse, past that, watching
candles glow and the first wink of fireflies
when a brown bat flutters over like
an autumn leaf and my friend asks, “what
is it like to be a bat?” And as I’m somewhat
versed in philosophy I mention Thomas
Nagel, whose essay with that title is
justly famous but who does not really answer
the question; and she responds, “it must be
alternately stifling and soaring.” I think she
means that every flight’s like Christmas—
freedom and feasting—and every day an
imprisonment in the tightly-packed dark.
“But what if colony life is cozy?” I ask, imagining
small bodies light as sparrows breathing
together softly, fur-lined and snuggled,
fingers folded over the bellies, a generous
communion of sleep. “I can’t quite get over,
though,” she says, “that they sleep upside-
down.” “It might cure your migraines,” I say,
and we devote our next toast to the bat.

~

Biodiversity & storytelling

As I have mentioned before in many previous posts, telling stories matters to humans. It’s the best way to get a person’s attention: if a writer wants to bring a fact, claim, event, person, or history to light, the best way to reach a wide audience requires spinning a good story about it. I recently finished reading a book about so-called living fossils, including bacteria and worms (not my favorite subjects), because the author’s enthusiasm for his subject was scaffolded onto a story of world-travel and time-travel. In the process of learning about coelacanths, horseshoe crabs, and echidnas, Richard Fortey also makes an impassioned plea for biodiversity–and storytelling.

“…I am not in sympathy with the idea that what matters about a species is how we humans react to it, which seems allied to a view that nature is only validated by observation from this particular hominid…We don’t reckon the worth of a species by the “damage” its extinction would do to other ecosystems. We cannot rank the products of more than 3 billion years of evolution in utilitarian lists. The richness of the biological world is the most wonderful feature of the biosphere, and every story is worth telling no matter how humble, or indeed insular, is the the organism concerned.” [my italics]

–Richard Fortey, paleontologist and expert on trilobites, in his book Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants that Time Has Left Behind. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/54786/horseshoe-crabs-and-velvet-worms-by-richard-fortey/9780307275530/

The lyric, the epic, the myth, the story written in the genome or the geology or the great vast cosmos–all of the things we know contain mysteries–intrigue us when we hear a narrative. Who knew that microbes and bacteria and alga have stories? They cannot tell their own unless “the storytelling animal” interprets them, raising their stature and importance in the eyes of “particular hominids.” In 1971, Dr. Seuss invented The Lorax for such a purpose.

It takes all kinds of people to tell good stories. Keep reading!

Feeder streams

A friend and I had a conversation about storytelling and human connectedness, relatives and family myths. We recognize that with age and relationships come references and allusions–some that operate only within the family system, others that interconnect with the wider social world. The televised funerals of some celebrated US citizens (Aretha Franklin, John McCain) offer excellent examples of how various eulogists–family, colleagues, close friends–endeavor to extend their feelings about the person to others. The best eulogies tell stories. It’s how human beings learn about one another, how we connect, bond, and cohere. The process reminds me of feeder streams that follow gravity and the earth’s geological patterns to wend their ways to join a river.

A river enlivened my childhood. Several rivers, in fact–the Hudson, the Delaware–but the one that comes to me at this moment is the Eel River in Indiana, pictured in my recent post here. By coincidence, just this week Streetlight, an online literary review, published my poem “Eel River Meditation.” In less cheerful news, someone whose presence I associate with South Whitley, IN has entered hospice care. These associations summon memories that carry me into that realm of family tales, rituals, jokes, sorrows, generational mythology.

My grandmother lived beside the Eel. A self-taught artist, she painted the bridge over the river many times, in all seasons. It must have steadied her sense of being in the world, of being in place; certainly, her paintings evoke that place, a small Indiana town, in those of us who knew and loved her.

And what could be more metaphorical than a bridge? Than a river? Than the changing seasons?

Locally, this rainy summer in my valley region, the feeder streams are full to overflowing and rushing to the Lehigh River, flooding the low-lying marshy areas, stranding the occasional cow or motorist. The fall semester has begun, and the garden’s mostly abandoned to the aforementioned weeds. My mind and heart are full, too. Maybe there will be poetry.

Eel River Bridge Edna Michael

South Whitley’s Eel River bridge, early summer. Edna Michael

 

Begun in reverie

 

wooden fishing boats

Near Aviero, Portugal; photo: David Sloan

Today, I was thinking of Portugal. Nice memories. I went through my digital photographs, found this one, and fell into reverie. It is amazing how images enhance memory or enable us to embellish it. Sometimes, that is where a poem begins.

When my physical body walked upon this sand, beside this bay, the encounter was a mix of new–a place I’d never been before–and familiar or expected: smell of brine and fish, the feel of breezes in my hair and on my skin, of damp sand underfoot. I recall my delight at seeing the vividly-painted wooden boats, though I had certainly seen paintings and photographs of similar fishing crafts, so their appearance was not surprising. That’s because I have a friend who is an expert in wooden boat-making, Simon Watts; he has been around the world examining wooden boats and had told us to watch for these along the coast of Portugal. Simon is a teller of stories, as is his sister Marjorie Watts. So many hours Simon has regaled us with tales of the writing life, the sailing life, the traveling life, the woodworking life, his forays in Portugal…

Back to Portugal. I think of a most pleasant week there, not so long ago. Mind hums with possibilities. With images. With words.

~

This post is an effort to illustrate how image, memory, sensory experience, stories, human connections, and activities bounce around the neurological synapses while a person experiences reverie.

It isn’t reverie, of course, because I am writing; true reverie seldom includes much activity. Let me suggest the paragraphs and picture are somehow analogous to the reverie process, which often leads to imagination.

~

Next stop: Imagination! train 1And perhaps even a draft for a poem.

 

First person, continued…

When a poem employs first or, in some cases, second person, readers generally assume the stance is the writer’s. (For more on this, see previous post.) I won’t deny that that is sometimes the case, a situation which has led to the contemporary idea that a poem is always a form of self expression–yet another assumption that is only true in part.

My Best Beloveds have been known to accuse me of writing a lyrical narrative incorrectly. “That isn’t how it happened,” they say–and they are right. But poets are not journalists, nor even memoirists. A poet chooses the event, image, or story that will make the poem do its best work which, dear readers, is not necessarily factual.

Even relationships may be imagined, or imagined from a different-than-expected point of view. The poem may have emerged from a prompt having nothing to do at all with the poet’s own relationships or experiences, and yet seem true.

Here is an example of how the first person (lyrical narrative) point of view may or may not reflect the writer’s actual experience. In the example below, revision, change of stance, and allusion make this “father poem” not about my father, exactly. (For a poem that is about my father, as I imagined his experience, see this post.)

I began this poem when I came across the Chuang Tzu quote. Call that my “writing prompt.” As my father had been dangerously ill at the time, the aphorism resonated. Yet the poem did not seem to head where I thought I wanted it to go…to be specifically “about” my own father. The allusion to the Chinese sage does not feel much like my own family–the image did not jive with my parents’ backgrounds. I tried the poem without the aphorism, and it became totally boring. I returned the quote as an epigraph and tried couplet stanzas then, developing the image of old slide projector screenings (pardon the pun), something I recall vividly from my childhood.

Then, my dad’s condition improved. He recovered. I put the poem away for awhile, and when I went back to consider it, I realized the poem did not need to be about him. Or about me, for that matter. It’s still a poem in progress but works better now.

Who is the “I” in this poem? Shall I let the reader decide?

~~

莊子

Familiarity

The sage Chuang Tzu says, when you step
on your parent’s foot you know
you are already forgiven.

My father’s no sage,
just an old man beginning to die.
Unable to smile at his pain

he smiles at us
at my mother holding his hand
at my sister holding her anxious thoughts;

he smiles at her fears and they seem
translucent, like slides projected
on the wall, pictures of our childhoods

hovering near, colorful but not crisp—
and instead of our rounder faces
and smaller forms fading

he is fading, sallow among the sheets, white screen,
blank wall, and he’s forgiven me in advance
for all the injuries I may do

treating me with gentleness
though I’ve trod upon his foot
again, and again, and again.

 

~

continuum

The poet’s “I”

So often, when reading a poem written using the first-person perspective, my initial reaction is to consider the poet as the narrator–even though I ought to know better!

When I revisit the poem, when I analyze or interpret it on a more abstract or intellectual level, my view may alter. Interpretation sometimes leads me to decide that the “I” in a first-person poem may be a persona, a stand-in for the poet, or a perspective not of the poet’s personal experience but imagined or constructed. The foregoing are reasons to read and interpret poems with care and not to conclude, automatically, that the poet is writing from or of her own experience.

This makes poets sound like rather slippery or manipulative characters, employing use of the personal pronoun to mislead readers into believing something that isn’t “strictly true” (whatever that means). If I am telling a story, surely it must be my story; and if it isn’t my story—shouldn’t I confess that to my open-minded, engaged, possibly gullible reader? If a poem falls into the category of lyrical, readers tend to believe that the writer and narrator are one and the same, despite a reminder in the glossary of terms that the narrator who “expresses personal feelings” may be “the poet, the poet’s persona, or another speaker.” In other words—not the poet’s own feelings, despite the apparent authenticity implied in the use of the first-person pronoun.

Readers may feel betrayed by the writer. Yes, that happens. It also happens that rather awful human beings have penned soaring, beautiful, compassionate poems, because people are complicated and flawed and society often harms us.

And perhaps writing, in some complicated way, can redeem us. I’m not entirely convinced of that; but I do know that I have written poems that basically construct an experience or type of feeling I can imagine but do not authentically know, and that the work of having written such poems has felt like an enrichment of my own experience.

I have been asking myself why and how it happens that poets sometimes—often, perhaps—end up composing texts from other points of view, masquerading as their own. There seem to be a couple of reasons, one of which is simply that we practice writing by using our own much-loved poems as models. The lyric poem has a long history, and even autodidactic students of poetry eventually find that the biographies of some of their favorite writers do not correlate perfectly with the works themselves.

The lyric narrative has been around for less time, gradually supplanting the epic by drawing upon the ballad. And it’s here that readers often get confused about who is the “I” that tells the story, especially when emotional expressions of one kind or another enter the narrative.

I have more to say about this aspect of the poetic stance, the poet’s voice, and the lyrical narrative as lived or imagined experience. And about how that sort of thing evolves during the writing and revision process—with an example or two. But that is for another post. Meanwhile, I am mulling.

Image: Monterey Bay Spice Company

Mulling Spices