Connections

 

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August has arrived and a few of our incoming freshmen are on campus already, as well as students on various fall sports teams who need to get a jump on the competition season. It was quite awhile ago that I was a teenage person entering my first year at college, but each year our students arrive with the same anticipation and excitement I felt. They’re ready to exercise a little responsibility, a little freedom, and to make the kinds of connections–personal, emotional, and intellectual–that will affect the rest of their lives one way or another.

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In the 1970s, science historian and television broadcaster James Burke created and hosted a show called Connections. I was a fan of the series because I loved the surprising ways discoveries, events in history, people, and accident led to innovations and the criss-crossing of continents and ideas. The interdisciplinary aspect of human culture, of science and the arts, fascinated me as a teen. Those networked ideas have shown up many times through my life.

Connections: The photo above was taken by my fellow student Steve Lohman when we were freshmen. Steve later attended Pratt School of Art.  We lost touch for a long time, and–I have forgotten how–I found his metalwork while I was looking for cover art for my book of poems The Capable Heart.

 

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Running Horse by Steve Lohman

Connections: I liked Steve’s wireworks, but I remembered him as a photographer. Granted, what a person pursues at age 17 or 18 is easily liable to change–but I was curious about how he started doing sculpture. When he mentioned he’d attended Pratt, I asked if he had ever met Toshio Odate, who taught there for years. “One of my favorite teachers!” said Steve. “I loved his class.”

Connections: My spouse took a job writing for a woodworking magazine, where he met Toshio, who wrote about Japanese tools and woodworking techniques. Meanwhile, Toshio was creating his own works of art at his home as well as mentoring many students. He’s now a long-time friend of ours. (Photo of Odate’s “Pride of New England,” below, by Laure Oleander).

toshio-pride copy

Connections: Neural networks, the embodied mind, the ways writing assists in psychological healing, the twists in a good novel’s plot, the turn in a poem, metaphor, surprise. The unexpected thrills us–unexpected connections fill us with curiosity and a kind of joy, as does the closure.

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Connections: The commercial creation Thinkhub, invented for teaching, offers yet another example of connections. A cultural thinkhub project based in Toledo, midstory.org has produced my poem “River by River” as a soundscape: click here.

The project researchers found my poem in the anthology I Have My Own Song for It: Modern Poems of Ohio. Look around, folks–connections are everywhere, and we learn from them.

 

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Curiosities & stories

Here’s James Delbourgo’s recent article in Chronicle of Higher Education (I read the Chronicle regularly, if that’s not already obvious) about collections of oddities. While the article itself is sometimes a bit maddening (what is his main idea here?), it put me in mind of Mantel’s The Giant, O’Brien and of collections my friends have accrued. Toshio Odate, for example, has some fascinating accumulations he keeps in clear acrylic boxes, and some of his art constructions feature curious things: a favorite of mine is a large frame displaying every pair of sneakers his son wore as a child.

Edmund de Waal wrote movingly about objects and collections in his book The Hare with Amber Eyes. Several months ago I promised myself I’d get back to the topic of objects and their stories, but it has taken me awhile to resume my meditations on the subject. As a child, I loved wandering slowly through the world, stopping and dawdling and picking  up acorns, buttons, marbles, leaves, whatnot. Sometimes I would arrange these found objects into tiny houses, or float them on puddles, or arrange them on my windowsill. I might imagine stories around them, drawing on Andersen’s “Thumbelina” or the song “Froggie Went A-Courting.”

"Swiss Shoot the Chutes" by Joseph Cornell

“Swiss Shoot the Chutes” by Joseph Cornell

Not too many years later, when I encountered Joseph Cornell’s work, I was enchanted. His boxes contained mysteries, stories, possibilities, and fears; and they were achingly beautiful to me. Not unsurprisingly, Cornell’s work gets a mention in Delbourgo’s piece, which is partly a review of Brian Dillon’s book Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing.

From the Chronicle essay:

Curiosity, Dillon proposes, is a way of knowing that looks askance. It draws attention to the unexplained or overlooked fragment, to invite us, if possible, to look sideways and look closely at the same time. As such, its promise of knowledge is ambiguous. Does curiosity seek to unmask the strangeness that absorbs its attention, or is it an invitation to luxuriate in that strangeness? Does it carry an inherent Baconian injunction to go further and illuminate, or does it recommend the alternative pleasures of not knowing?

I like those inquiries and feel they may inspire some poetry. Later, while considering the way some collectors, particularly wealthy or scientifically-minded ones, made detailed lists of the oddities, Delbourgo notes that

Dillon suggests that such lists also constituted “a kind of story,” but do they? The list is an open form, not a closed and completed one. Curiosity collections could absorb countless new objects precisely because they didn’t propose a coherent narrative about them. Unlike spoils that tell of conquest, curiosities don’t preach and don’t teach. What makes them curious is their oblique relation to the world in which they’re embedded. And yet, as a matter of historical fact, early-modern Europeans accumulated curiosities in no small part through trade, colonization, and war…

The 18th-2oth century ascendancy of science and the current trend of interdisciplinary art-tech-science aesthetics gets a mention in the article, too:

Curiosity and wonder—distinct terms but often used interchangeably—turned out to be interwoven with theology, civility, craftsmanship, nature’s playfulness…Curiosity thus helped dethrone the modern fact from its hegemony over the history of science.

Again a connection with de Waal, and also with the work my brother has been doing in reconsidering the skull collection of Samuel Morton (and other early modern anthropological collectors). In the case of many people who collect ‘curiosities,’ there are thorny questions of ethics vs. the ‘value’ of extending knowledge or awareness. The political, the legal, the ethical–these can conflict with curiosity in many forms it can take, from the problematic Rauschenberg  sculptural combine “Canyon” which features a stuffed bald eagle, to the superficial thrill that gets us to sit through an adventure movie even if we can guess the ending.

Curiosity is basically an exploratory response, as psychologists term it, which covers a vast arena of animal and human perceptions of the environment to orient us to potential situations and to prepare us for behavior/action. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, D.E. Berlyne studied what I call curiosity quite extensively, including some exploration into art and aesthetics though mainly concentrating on the reactive responses that make us susceptible to enjoyment or evaluation of art, humor, literature. (He published, in 1954, A Theory of Human Curiosity, which I think I must read after I read Dillon’s book).

But now I am drifting far from my topic of stories and objects. Probably that’s Delbourgo’s influence, as his essay wanders a bit, though the author cites some books I plan to add to my to-read list; for that, I am grateful, but I would prefer to look at how objects inspire stories, or make the need for stories. There’s the sun in the sky each day, and it leaves each night. We make up a story about that, or about why the leopard has spots or why there are stars in the sky.

Here’s something from my own collection of curiosities, a wooden ampersand from an antique type magazine. &&001And there’s a story I could tell about it which would be more or less ‘true,’ but there are better stories yet to be invented.

Or, tell the story of Cornell’s “Observatory Box.”

http://www.thisisnotacraft.com/

“Observatory Box,” Joseph Cornell

Mortise & tenon

In a post late last year, I examined a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem for the way the lines and images might be considered as hinges. Another metaphor for how poems work–one I have been churning in my mind for a couple of years now–is joinery of another kind: mortise and tenon. What joinery does in woodworking is allow the cabinetmaker to connect separate pieces of wood together in such a way as to allow a little movement as the wood responds to temperature and moisture changes. Good wood joinery requires experience and thoughtful attention, as there are often additional challenges such as connecting end grain to long grain. Amateurs resort to screws, nails, and glue to cobble projects together because joinery takes time to learn and requires technique and practice that the average DIY “carpenter” does not possess.

True craftspeople learn, practice, and employ conventional joinery techniques and often develop their own signature styles. The craft of woodworking parallels the craft of poetry: there are tools and techniques, strategies and conventions, patterns to follow, and inventions and innovations to create. Both crafts join together materials that seem alike (wood to wood, words to words), and yet it can be damned hard to get those connections to hang together solidly and make a coherent and stable whole.

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Odate's

Odate’s “Pride of New England” [1982] photo: Laure Olender

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My friend Toshio Odate was trained as a shoji maker and has worked as an educator, artist (sculpture), and craftsman-in-wood for most of his 82 years. Possibly his best-known book is the practical but also spiritual Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use. This text will teach you how to choose, care for, sharpen and use traditional Japanese hand tools, meanwhile illuminating the history and spirit of the woodworking craft in Japan. Toshio reveres the work of humans, the human touch, the effort of making that goes into a handmade object; and his sculptural pieces reflect his passion. The large sculpture above, Pride of New England, stands on his property under the hardwood trees and above the nearby creek. Nothing holds these huge slabs and trunks of wood together but hand-cut joints: mortise and tenon, mostly.

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I’m going to try to explain a connection between poetry and joinery through a brief examination of the poem “Whereof the Gift Is Small” by Maxine Kumin. This poem appears here, and I think you ought to check out the link to a Q & A on this poem, as it is enlightening and amusing (as Kumin so often is).

Whereof the Gift Is Small

       Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

And short the season, first rubythroat
in the fading lilacs, alyssum in bloom,
a honeybee bumbling in the bleeding heart
on my gelding’s grave while beetles swarm
him underground. Wet feet, wet cuffs,
little flecks of buttercup on my sneaker toes,
bluets, violets crowding out the tufts
of rich new grass the horses nose
and nibble like sleepwalkers held fast—
brittle beauty—might this be the last?

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This lovely small poem is framed by phrases from Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey’s sonnet “The Frailty and Hurtfulness of Beauty,” so right away we have an old poem joined to a new one; and as Kumin admits in her commentary on the piece, “Picking lines from others’ poems is hazardous and I don’t recommend it.” Woodworkers will recommend that old, seasoned wood not be joined to green wood for practical reasons. Good reasons, too. But that does not mean one should never attempt it or that it cannot be successfully done. A master like Maxine Kumin can succeed–but with caution.

How might one approach the joinery of words as apparently distant from one another in tone or image as “sneaker” and “rubythroat”? The grave of the gelding (a gap, into which something solid may be placed) gives the reader one opening. There is also the stepping-down aspect of the images, each connecting to the next. The bird appears higher in the poem, quite literally, up there with the lilacs fading on their tall stems; but the alyssum blooms much lower to the earth, as do the bleeding hearts where the bee is busy. The grave and beetles take us deeper. Then, up ever so slightly, to the low-growing buttercups and the damp cuffs of the speaker’s trousers and the noses of still-living, grazing horses…with a “brittle” reminder that this season is short (“the gift is small”). If you are familiar with Surrey’s poem, there’s a marvelous resonance here, though I feel Kumin’s tenor is a bit less cynical than Surrey’s.

dovetail joint

dovetail joint

Kumin’s poem is not a full sonnet, and some of her end-rhymes are slant. A modernity pervades her piece, yet the older poem’s language and sensibility are evoked nonetheless. How elegantly she achieves this balance. I think the first joint in the poem appears at line 4, at which point the nature imagery of the first three lines, which could incline to the romantic, solidly connects with the real fact of death. This line also introduces us to our speaker: the gelding is “my” gelding. Line 6 provides another clear connection: the speaker here exists very much in the present moment, wearing sneakers, noticing the buttercups. This line fits into the poem like a well-cut dovetail, linking the pastoral descriptions with the reflective mode the speaker turns to after observing the horses. And there, between the em dashes, we find Surrey’s “brittle beauty,” a tenon that fits the space and holds the entire brief poem together.

Good joinery is often invisible except to those who appreciate the work and take the time to look for it. Toshio solved the engineering challenge of constructing his sculpture through a process of reflection, experiment, experience, and revision. How like a poet’s work that seems to me! When I told him I feel his work is analogous to poetry, he was initially flabbergasted. Maybe the surprise stemmed from a difference in the approach to poetry across cultures, or maybe from a difference in the way a plastic artist perceives a largely abstract art like poetry. Maybe I could not explain my idea adequately to a person for whom English is not a first language. Actually, I’m not certain he believed there is as much human touch and hand-work involved in poem-making as there is in woodworking or the sort of made-by-hand sculpture Toshio does. We agreed not to fully understand one another.

About a year later, I attended a special event at his home, a celebration of the Object as Being, for which I composed a poem. That summer, he called and said, “I think maybe I understand now what you mean.”

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endnote: If you’re interested in learning more about Toshio Odate, here is a 1996 article from The New York Times and a 2009 blog post (including a short video) from Tom’s Workbench, as well as a short on making shoji screens–from Martha Stewart’s network.