Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Still Life

One of the things that has happened during the several years now that I've been following various people with an interest in art on Tumblr is that I've become much more broadly aware of and attentive to still life as an artistic subgenre.

There's a tumblr blog called Still Life Quick Heart which consists entirely of still life postings. Here's one by an artist named Petra Reece that hit my dashboard today:

In any painting, abstract or representational, in doesn't matter, there are a limited number of variables to work with. You've basically got a blank space, a rectangle, and you need to put paint on it. Before or while doing so, you need to make some decisions about shapes, some decisions about color, some decisions relative proportions of light and dark, some decisions about texture and the extent to which the paint is recognizable as paint, or becomes a vehicle of some other content that so fully reaches the eye that the is essentially invisible. This painting is way over to the right on that scale. By way of contrast, this one, by Cezanne is further over to the left:

Cezanne is not trying to disguise the fact of the paint, on the contrary, he's left the brush strokes visible and rendered the whole thing in such a way that the handling of the paint is as much a part what is appealing about the picture as the three apples. 

Taking it one step further, Yuri Konstantinov puts together what at first glance looks like it might be an abstract, except that in the center the colors resolve somewhat gesturally into a tabletop, some roses, a window.

Then, way over on the left, you can find something like Nancy Gruskin's "Tablescape," which comes across mostly as a arrangement of pigment on a plane and only secondarily as a plate and a pear on a table.

I don't have a preference. I like all of 'em. But I'm intrigued by the various ways that individual artists answer the challenge of making a still life that makes us want to keep looking at it.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Flight Plan

So, yesterday. The crow thing. Goes back a ways, lot of angles. Standing at a kiosk at Tower Records in Cambridge (remember them?) one Saturday afternoon in 1993 sampling one track after another on August and Everything After, each one as good or better than the last. Further back, going out in the fields in Hillsdale at age thirteen with my .22-.410 over-and-under thinking maybe to shoot a crow. As if. First of all, they've got amazing eyesight. They have sentries posted, and they talk to one another. Raise a gun, raise your arm so it looks like it might be a gun, and they're in flight and out of range before you get a bead. Impressive. And curious, too, how they evolved the communal brain thing. Then there's the mythology angle. Familiars. Messengers. Harbingers of doom, croaking in a language no one understands. All those ravens bearing messages back and forth across Westeros.

Six years ago now—crows fly, time fliesI wrote a post about a poem: Grace Butcher's Crow is Walking, one I sometimes ask a new group of students to read and reflect upon, often as preliminary step toward Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Once I got going with Pinterest, it occurred to me to look and see if there were any pictures of crows or ravens out there. Little did I know. The thing about Pinterest? If you can conceive of it, there are people out there—probably a lot of people out there—who have boards devoted to it. So I started following some of those boards and accumulating my own little blackbird archive. Which is where the pictures from yesterday's post came from. Something different. A little exercise in juxtaposition.

What first got my attention with Counting Crows was the way their lyrics often broke free of literal sense in ways that felt both exact and exhilarating. When I think of heaven... I think of flying down into a sea of pins and feathers and all other instruments of faith and sex and God in the belly of a black winged bird. Yes. Yes. God, yes.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Counting Crows

When I think of heaven
Deliver me in a black-winged bird
I think of flying down into a sea of pins and feathers
And all other instruments of faith and sex and God
In the belly of a black-winged bird...

One for Sorrow

Two for Joy

Three for Girls

Four for Boys

Five for Silver

Six for Gold

Seven for a Secret Never to Be Told

There's a bird that nests inside you
Sleeping underneath your skin
When you open up your wings to speak
I wish you'd let me in

Lyrics from Counting Crows, August and Everything After
Pictures via Pinterest

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Collage and Composition

Having written yesterday about the Tao Te Ching and the inadequacy of linear thinking in general and words in particular in helping us to process and understand reality, I was thinking this morning again about how collage works as a medium, how the juxtaposition of apparently unrelated elements can create in-between spaces that are suggestive and generative.

By way of illustration, here's a collage I put together last night:

The elements of this collage are mostly recycled from old books. The exceptions are the stamp, the target, and the two pieces of red paper which happened to be on my desk as I was working on this. I had no idea in mind as I was putting it together. I would not say that I have an idea in mind now that it's finished, either, although there are certainly several kinds of logic at work: a logic of materials, a logic of method, a logic of composition, a logic of color. That much said, there's also a randomness about collage that I like. Max Ernst said, "Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them." I've spent hundreds of hours over the last few years both making collages and observing and archiving digitally the collages of others. I've also thought a lot about the connections between the compositional processes of collage and the compositional processes of certain kinds of writing. 

I have sometimes asked my students to do an exercise where they are asked to attempt to write a page of prose that makes no sense at all. (It's an exercise I return to frequently myself because the results are almost always interesting in unpredictable ways.) The thing is, it's a lot harder to do than you might think. Our brains are wired in a particular way, and even when we consciously attempt to undercut the literal sense of what we are writing, as for example John Ashbery often does to brilliant effect, our brains do not toss up entirely random alternatives; there always seems to be some sort of shadow logic at work. The ultimate point of an exercise like this, of course, is not to write nonsense, but rather to write in a way that offers the promise of pleasant surprises and at least the possibility of insight. It is, or ought to be, a playful, exploratory process. It is not helpful to have too clear of an idea in mind at the start. Robert Rauschenberg: "I'm opposed to the whole idea of conception-execution—of getting and idea for a picture and then carrying it out. I've always felt as though, whatever I've used and whatever I've done, the method was always closer to a collaboration with materials than to any kind of manipulation and control.

Another example. This morning, as all of this was taking shape in my mind, I sat down to write in my commonplace book as I generally do on weekend mornings, and so with the intention of having something to share here, I began writing with the intention of Not Making Sense:

If only because lasting locks one (you)
Down and what if keeps you (us) up—
rock, paper, scissors too simple a circle,
what about teapot or parrot or ocean?—
so yes an unfolding or perhaps a flight,
hands out front, tentacular antennae,
the possible check by jowl with oblivion
or worse (how foolish to expect other
wisdom), we (all) must needs from time
at least to time try to fly (unfolding)
against the grain, paste purple over green,
see what might be seen (harpoon, flower,
cube, plane) arrive again (surprised?)
where we have been but not the same.

I had come up with the first four words (if only because lasting) while I was doing my morning stretching and was trying to come up with a sequence of words that would be appropriately incoherent. The word "locks" suggested itself mostly because I was thinking of using some element of sound correspondence, in this case the L sound, to bind the words moving forward. As I continued to write, I was pleasantly aware of the dynamic tension between my own self-assigned task to avoid making sense, and the compositional imperative to make the whole hold together. Somewhere around line three several things became apparent: first, that there was in fact an unanticipated logic emerging that it might be fun to play with; second, that it had begun to feel like a sort of sonnet, which then gave me several constraints to work against: the length of the line, and the length (14 lines) of the poem; third, that there was another game that wanted to be played having to do with parenthetical interpolations of a certain sort. Alert readers may have also noticed that some of the elements of last night's collage also leaked, not entirely accidentally, into the poem, which, as it turns out, makes more compactly and perhaps more obliquely much the same case that I have been making in this post: sometimes you just need to put one thing next to another, and then another thing after that, and see what happens.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

(4) The Way

On December 31 of last year I began what I had intended to be a series of posts on the books on My Ideal Bookshelf, an idea which I borrowed from the book of that name which I was given as a Christmas present. I completed three posts in that series, shifted gears for a couple of more posts, and then dropped out of the writing life for a while. Now that I'm back, I'd like to pick up the thread with this post, number four in the series.

My mother was born a Methodist. In order to be allowed to marry my father, she was required to convert to Catholicism, and to promise to raise her children in the Catholic faith. This despite the fact that my father was in fact a non-practicing Catholic, who spent Sunday mornings at home while the family went to mass. By the time I had reached what the church referred to as the age of reason (age seven), I had been made to commit to memory the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Apostles Creed, the Salve Regina ("Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our Life, our Sweetness, and our Hope..."), and I had to recite them out loud to my mother each evening. I knew these prayers by heart before I had any real notion of what the words might mean. From third to fifth grade I attended a Catholic School administered by the Sisters of Mercy, and received further detailed instruction in the finer points of Catholic doctrine. I knew the ten commandments, I knew the difference between mortal sin and venial sin, and my imagination had been furnished with the topology of the afterlife - heaven, hell, purgatory, and limbo - and the angelic denizens thereof: on the good side the cherubim, the seraphim, the thrones, the dominations, and on the Other Side Satan and his minions. After a brief respite in a public junior high school, I spent four years in Catholic High Schools (two with the Benedictines and two with the Jesuits) and enrolled in 1965 at Fairfield University, a Jesuit college.

By the time I started college I had what I considered to be more than adequate reason to be skeptical of the teachings which had been impressed upon my brain. I remember taking a course in high school on Jewish theology, taught by a rabbi, and being impressed by the fact that there was in fact at least one alternative Vision of Truth. I also remember reading several books about Buddhism while in high school, and writing what I think now was perhaps an overly academic paper about the origins of the Mahayana and Hinayana traditions.

So it was maybe not so surprising that during my sophomore year at Fairfield, having declared myself as a philosophy major, I signed up for a course in Oriental Philosophy. The course was taught by a first-year teacher named Lik Kuen Tong. Dr. Tong turned out to be one of the most influential teachers I had at Fairfield, a brilliant mind and brilliant lecturer. Last I heard he was still teaching at Fairfield. Anyway, the course began with a survey of the core texts of oriental philosophy, which necessarily included Lao Tsu's Tao Te Ching. I do not think I can adequately convey how completely that book, in the terminology of the era, blew my mind.

Open to page one, and what do you see? The first four lines:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.

Hold on! That's it? That's the way things are? The whole idea of naming, of wrapping reality up in words, is erroneous from the start? It was like, well, pick your metaphor. A lightning bolt. Scales falling from my eyes. A whole new ball game. I had a new way of coming to grips with the existential questions: What kind of world is this? How should we live in it? In place of the view of the world I had inherited, and which I had assumed was more or less universal, there was suddenly an alternative, one that immediately resonated with me and felt closer to my intuitive sense of the ways things must actually be.

Taoism has a very simple (which is not the same as simplistic) view of the nature of the world. The Tao, or the way, is a process, a flow, a stream of karmically freighted events. One attempt either to live one's life in harmony with that flow, or to try to change its direction, an enterprise which is fraught with all sorts of dangers. One of the core concepts of Taoism is wu-wei, which can mean emptiness on the one hand or non-action on the other. Much of the Tao Te Ching is devoted to giving counsel about how it is just as important, in some situations at least, NOT to act as it is to act:

Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I do not believe it can be done.
...The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it, you will lose it... (29)


The softest thing in the universe
Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.
That without substance can enter where there is no room.
Hence I know the value of non-action.
Teaching without words and work without doing
Are understood by very few. (43)


In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
In the pursuit of the Tao, every day something is dropped.
Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering. (48)

What I've started to sketch out here is the tip of a very large iceberg indeed. The Tao Te Ching is a book I still go back to from time to time when I feel the need to reflect and center myself. The teachings of Lao Tsu had an enormous and liberating effect on my own thinking as a young man, and have helped to shape, in ways that are in some cases obvious and in others quiet subtle, both my personal philosophy and my pedagogical philosophy as I have gotten older.

(Numbers in parentheses above are references to the numbered poems in the Tao Te Ching. The translation is by Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng.)

Friday, July 26, 2013


I've been having a harder time of late, for some reason, finding things that I really want to read. In the last six months, while I've been waiting for George R.R. Martin to get around to finishing book six, I've started way more books than I've finished. So I was happy to find, about a month ago, that Colum McCann had a new novel out. From reading Let the Great World Spin I knew him to be a writer of formidable gifts, and so when I saw Transatlantic at the local B&N I snapped it up.

Transatlantic comes at you in two parts. Book One weaves together three stories based on actual public events: the first transatlantic plane flight from Newfoundland to Ireland by Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown in 1919; Frederick Douglass's extended visit to Ireland in 1845 and '46; and the 1998 peace negotiations brokered between the Irish and the British by American Senator George Mitchell in 1998. McCann imagines his way into the minds and lives of each of the public figures in ways that are informative, entertaining, and entirely convincing.

Given that the events seem to connected only by virtue of the fact that they really took place, in Ireland, the reader is led to wonder, where are we going with this? McCann raises that question in order to be able answer it in Book Two, which focuses on the decidedly non-public but very clearly connected lives of four generations of one family of Irish women, who appear as very minor and apparently unconnected figures in Book One, but whose stories, as they emerge in Book One, have every bit as much drama and weight and resonance as the lives of the more famous people who have gone down in the historical record. In this sense, the book is a work of excavation, of correction, of restitution, paying homage to the lives of ordinary people who turn out to be not so ordinary after all. It's a book that honors the dedication and bravery and capabilities of women who play out the drama of their lives with little hope or expectation of notice or acknowledgement by those in charge of keeping the historical record.

Along the way there is also pleasure to be taken in some remarkable writing. Here, for example, is a passage describing the arrival in New York City of Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who has been inspired by the visit of Frederick Douglass (in ways he had not intended and might not have wished for) to leave Ireland and seek the freedom in America that she senses she will never have at home. She's seventeen years old and has just spent eight weeks on the ocean:

New York appeared like a cough of blood. The sun was going down behind the warehouses and tall buildings. She saw men on the wharfside in the ruin of themselves. A man barked questions. Name. Age. Birthplace. Speak up, he said. Speak up, goddammit. She was sprayed with lice powder and allowed entry. Lily jostled her way along the waterfront among the stevedores, police officers, beggars. A stench rose up from the oily harbor. The brokenness. The rawness. The filth. She had met only a few Americans in her life—all of them in Webb's house in Dublin—but in New York the men were adherent to shadows. The sloping Negroes were bent and huddled. What freedom, that? Some still wore the branding marks. Scars. Crutches. Slings. She passed by. The women along the docks—white women, black women, mulattos—were rude with lip paint. Their dresses rode above their ankles. It was not at all what Lily wanted the city to be. No fancy carriages pulled by drays. No men in bow ties. No thumping speeches along the waterfront. Just the filthy Irish calling out to her in all manner of disdain. And the silent Germans. The skulking Italians. She wandered amongst them in a haze. Children in rags of unbleached cotton. Dogs on the corner. A mob of pigeons descended from the sky. She moved away from the cries of teamsters and the cadenced call of peddlers. Pulled her shawl around her shoulders. Her heart shuddered in her thin dress. She walked the streets, terrified of thieves. Her shoes were filthy with human waste. She clutched her bonnet tight. Rain fell. Her feet blistered. The streets were a fever. Brick upon brick. Voice upon voice. She passed dimly in lit lofts where women sat sewing. Men in top hats stood in doorways of dry-goods stores. Boys on their knees set cobblestones. A fat man wound a music box. A young girl made paper cutouts. She hurried on. A rat brazened past her on the pavement. She slept in a hotel on Fourth Avenue where the bedbugs concealed themselves beneath a flap of wallpaper. She woke, her first morning in America, to the scream of a horse being beaten with a truncheon outside her window. (163)

It would be a day's work to enumerate the various ways in which this language works to bring Lily and the world she has found herself in alive in our minds. But just for starters, I note the punchy, abbreviated syntax, the density and variety and authority of the imagery, and the way McCann conveys the movement of Lily's thoughts at the same time that we follow the movement of her body.

Like I said, I've been having trouble finishing books. I didn't have any trouble finishing this one.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Little Enough

Ah, Thursday. The sun shining
on the leaves of the trees outside
my door, the hum of the AC,
the splashes and shrieks of
tweener girls in the pool across
the way.  A perfect day
for writing a poem, for floating
an idea out into the void, for
figuring out first this, then what
comes next. Stand up or stay
seated? Putter or grind? Stay
or go. Never mind; no matter.
Enough to be here. Today's mantra:
I have arrived. I am home.

Process Reflection: What you see. I had a few minutes waiting for Matt to come by, and was sitting at my computer, and the thought occurred to me that if I could write something that would make three days in a row for Throughlines. Just trying to keep the ball rolling. This morning my wife sent me a press release for Thich Nhat Hanh's upcoming world tour which contained a little explanation and endorsement of mindfulness:

Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment of daily life. To be mindful is to be truly present with those around you and with what you are doing. We bring our body and mind into harmony while we wash the dishes, drive the car, take our morning cup of tea, or prepare for a retreat. 
“I have arrived. I am home” 

... It is the practice of dwelling happily in the present moment. We are no longer grasping at the future, regretting the past or being swept away by our feelings of despair or anger. We have arrived at our true home, our true self, no longer seeking to be something else.
So that's the occasion and the inspiration. No big thing. Only words.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


There was a poem in the April 29 New Yorker by Lia Purpura that I liked, clipped, pasted in my commonplace book, and subsequently committed to memory:


In the beginning
in the list of begats
one begat
got forgot:
work begets work
(one poem
bears the next).
In other words,
once there was air,
a bird could be got.
Not taken.
Not kept.
But conjured up.

It was an easy poem to memorize because it's so tightly and logically organized. First there's the context, when (in the beginning) and where (in the list of begats), then the core assertion: they left out something important (one begat got forgot): "work begets work." As, for example, in the act of writing, one word leads to the next, or, as Purpura offers, "one poems bears the next."

My guess is that in the composition process, the assertion "work begets work," is what came first. It's the kind of phrase one might hear and then begin turning over in one's mind. Taken by itself, it's a truism. An apt and perhaps useful or insightful truism, but a truism nonetheless, and certainly not one that would initially suggest itself as being the basis for a poem, except for the way the syllables move. Work begets work. All that crackling. And then there at the center, the word "begets," with its procreative denotation, its biblical associations, and its (at this point latent) metaphorical power. Given the phrase "work begets work," I can easily imagine how a writer with a playful spirit, and alertness to sounds, and some knowledge of the bible might reverse-engineer the rest of the poem's first sentence.

What interests me more is what happens in the second act. "In other words..." is an interesting move, the move that says, essentially, let me clarify my assertion. Let me come at it from another direction. Let's try an example. "In other words..." what?

"Once there was air, a bird could be got." The key word in that sentence, the loaded word, the word in need of yet further clarification, is the word "got." It's an everyday word with a long history and a lot of possible meanings. (Its definition in my copy of the American Heritage Dictionary takes up sixteen column inches of very small print.)  The syntax demands that we read it in its old-fashioned sense as a past participle; current usage would be "gotten," but the two word sequence"be got" is clearly intended to echo (and extend) the one-word "begets" and "begets" we've already seen and heard.

So what does "got" mean here? Purpura anticipates the question, and answers it. Not "taken," which would be one plausible interpretation. Not "held," which would be another. But "conjured up," which comes as a surprise, right? Suddenly, unexpectedly, we're talking about conjuration, about magic. Given the existence of air, it is within the province of the imagination to conjure up birds.

So in one sense this is a poem about how poems get written, about how writing itself works. Given something, given anything—a phrase, a sequence of sounds, the existence of air—the imagination is capable of conjuring up whatever it might be that would follow. The poem is also an endorsement of the writerly work ethic, and a demonstration of how that effort sometimes pays off. The work itself is what generates the product, and the point of "conjured up," as I take it, is that at the end of the process there is at least the possibility of a discovery, the kind of surprise that poems can (and this poem does) deliver.

Another thing: I love the way the texture of the poem shifts with "conjured up." "Conjured" comes as a relief after all those buhs and guhs and tuhs. But different as it is, it's integrative as well: the "ur" sound occurs earlier in the poem in two places: "work begets work" and in "bird," both of which are relevant: the work leads to something being conjured, and what's conjured is the bird. So there's a kind of sonic binding going on, a kind of ur-sprache, an incantation.

Purpura is having a lot of fun with sounds, it's hard not to notice that. For example, the final "P" sound brings the poem to a satisfyingly clean conclusion. Having noticed that, having been prompted by the arrangement of sounds in the poem to pay attention to sounds, it's hard not to notice that that "P"sound occurs only once before, as in initial sound in the word "poem." The Poem begins the process of conjuring which in this case ends with the word uP. Sonic binding again. A beginning and an end. The poem enacts exactly what it is talking about. It begins in the mundane and ends in magic.

In another sense, this is also a poem about evolution, even cosmogenesis. Given the space-time continuum, shall we not expect energy and matter? Given planets, shall we not anticipate planetary creatures, real or imagined? Given ocean, shall we not expect fish? Given air, shall we not expect birds? Or in their absence, be inclined to imagine them?

This poem gets a lot of work done in a very short space. It's compact and clean and makes a point about the "work" of writing with elegance and grace. I'm considering asking my students to take a look at it this fall, see what they think.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Long Time Coming

Okay, so I get it, it's been six months. No excuses. I've been elsewhere, and more or less avoiding doing any writing at all. But I'm thinking it's time to climb back into the saddle. Why now? Well, my tenure as an administrator is coming to an end. As of the start of the school year, about a month from now, I'll be back in the classroom for one semester, at the end of which I will be retiring. One of the reasons I began this blog in the first place was to have a space to be reflective about my teaching practice. But then I wasn't teaching, and what I was doing did not often lend itself to public reflection and sharing. And then I got hijacked first by Tumblr, and then by Pinterest (links in the sidebar, I'm too lazy to work them in here) and a lot of the time I would have been spending writing was going there. And the things I did feel inclined to write about all wound up being Big Ambitious Projects that I never wound up following up on. So here's the new paradigm. Shorter. More informal. More regular. Try to work my way back into shape. No shortage of things to write about, once I get going. I'll be back tomorrow. Promise.