Friday, December 25, 2009

Paintings by JANET SNELL -- a calendar




This deluxe 2010 calendar should be on the walls of art-loving people. It's remarkable. The 12 images of Janet's paintings make you forget all about dates, even time. They make you stop. Time is staggered. Weird calendar!

I'm not going to talk in detail about each painting. Rather, these images stretch my mind...to find a general space in which to set them, in which to gain a tenuous perspective.

They all have heads, suspended in ambiguous space or set amid indefinite objects...slippery forms. Each work pulsates with intense primary colors. These hues are made brilliant by their contrast to murkier, darker shades lurking here and there. The play of form and color produces an almost hypnogogic effect, or maybe hallucinatory: you begin to force known things onto these shifting background shapes...the colors come at you like memories you've forgotten.

And the heads!

Human-looking, for the most part. But before I get to the heads, I want to offer something about style and genre. I tend to look for representational things in these paintings. I want to make sense of them. If there is a human head or a background object that seems familiar, I want to force a narrative. Piece them together. But I don't think that is what Janet's style is about. I think these paintings are expressionistic and too abstract for my compulsive attempt at interpretation. I don't think these works are meant to be interpreted. They are to be experienced. They are affective, not textual.

These paintings are poised halfway between the abstract and the concrete. And, damn!...that's what makes them so compelling. The days on the calendar become irritatingly ordinary. You want nothing to do with time for a while (yes, that's paradoxical). You enjoy being held in marvelous suspense.

But back to those heads. It could be the case that those human heads are floating in a paradoxical space: yes, obviously human (and all that that signals to us) but also pure moments of form. Cephalic shapes to circumscribe color-vacuums, lending force to the other “objects.”

Another impression jumps into my own head, beyond what I said above about...well, whatever it was I said. For me, I feel like I'm looking at a negative-image of consciousness. The subconscious? Maybe. And what's weird and cool is that those heads, drained of color and feature detail, seem to express more human soulfulness and depth than even a portrait by Rembrandt!

“Hyperbole,” you shout!

Well, buy the calendar and see if I'm exaggerating.



Scattered Light -- Facebook page

Scattered Light Publications website



Wednesday, December 16, 2009

ranting on William Blake's AMERICA: A PROPHECY

Death Depicted as the Grim Reaper on Top of the World from The Raven
Gustave Doré



Orc is the red-eyed, hairy spirit of rebellion and freedom. He is the inflaming passion that encourages the American colonists to break the chains of oppression – both royal and clerical. As a universalist, Blake envisions America as a vast land of utopian, egalitarian promise. He applauds the formula “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Desire and joy, which animate much of his poetry, are free energies that should range unchecked. Repression will eventually explode in a bloody unshackling. Britain is defeated, and a new nation born. It is born, as Blake would have it, from the raging, lustful union of Orc with the female principle of potentiality – “the shadowy daughter of Urthona.”

I wish Blake had lived a couple centuries more, long enough to write a sequel. What would he have thought about that new nation emerging over decades?...built on the enslaved misery of black men and women, expanded via the obliteration of native peoples, frothed into psychoses of revivalism, normalized into patriarchal suppression of females? The spirit of freedom – the passion of Orc – was very short-lived. In fact, Orc suffered a very premature death and peremptory burial.

Seventy years after a final rebuke of Britain, after a putative New World order was gaining momentum, a quiet demonic birth took place in the shadows behind a Supreme Court bench: corporate personhood was unleashed on the world. The Earth would now begin to tremble before a dark spirit more insidious than the East India Company and more powerful than Orc. Blake's mad, shaggy god is a poetic abstraction. “Corp,” by contrast, is a real-life legal entity. It is very mean. And it is very hungry. It is much worse than the madness of King George III.

Blake was a universalist. His soul was boundless, thus he resented borders, whether geographical or spiritual. Well, the new beast Corp is also sort of a universalist – it burst the bounds of the USA and now tramps heavily across the globe as an international, bloodthirsty pirate. He is greedy, rapacious. With an iron boot, he snaps the neck of any recalcitrant country. He wields the sword of armies to puncture the heart of decency and peace. And he loves to gamble with extremely loaded dice.

We can easily examine Corp's footprint left last year on this country – on Blake's America. Hundreds of billions of bail-out dollars flushed into the Wall Street cesspool, especially Goldman Sachs. And thanks to the corporate lackeys who make up all aspects of the federal government, there is no oversight, no accountability. As the economy remains staggered, with unemployment rising...as personal and small-business loans remain elusive...Goldman Sachs and other corporate vultures pay themselves vertiginous bonuses. As misery continues apace among the People (real people), as more children go hungry, Wall Street enjoys record profits. Republicans (and many Democrats) are enemies of the People, are best friends of the arch-demon Corp, who inflicts his fiscal poisons on this country and the world.

The Armed Services are a subsidiary of Corp. They go where he commands. They are not reserved or deployed to protect the citizenry. They are available to protect and enhance the far-flung interests of Corp. Many people join the military branches out of a noble sense of duty, but they are being duped. Not one American soldier or Marine should have been killed in Iraq. Not one. And Afghanistan? A cluster of rat-brained zealots scampering around the Pakistan border logically required an international police effort to ferret them out. A huge military invasion by us? Absurd...until one realizes that a standing army needs an excuse to justify itself, to keep munitions and war-techno corporations going strong.

I have always suspected such a thing – the military as corporate bodyguard and advance legion – but the health care debate in Congress really confirms something basic and essential.

The Defense Department is annually swollen with unquestioning hundreds of billions of dollars. More money than the next several countries combined. And this is done ostensibly to protect the citizenry. You know, Colonel Jack Nicholson's “We're on the wall so you don't have to be.” The truth is that Republicans wish to stamp American power into the world. So Corp will thrive globally. Mealy-mouthed Democrats go along with this malignant nonsense. Very twisted people. Republicans and Democrats don't hesitate to glut the military with gold. And call that glutting "protection of the citizenry."

Bullshit.

If protecting the citizenry from harm was truly an essential tax-dollar investment, then protecting the citizenry from the catastrophic effects of disease would be a no-brainer. Congress does not give a damn about protecting you. Your representatives and senators are in place to protect their jobs by protecting Corp., ensuring his profit. This is a logical, algorithmic extrapolation of what happened in 1886 – when corporate personhood was given the green light by the Supreme Court.

Prior to that date, corporations were subservient to the People. Since then, the People are here to serve Corp. Earlier, strict behavioral controls kept corporations subdued: they must be grounded to the licensing state; they must not have holdings in other corporations, they must be punished severely if they operate against the Commonweal. All that changed when they became “people,” when they gained access to our Bill of Rights, when they became Corp.

So, what more logical result could be expected than this: your biological life as a market strategy for medicine and insurance? You are nothing but slabs of Solyent Green to be run through the financial digestive system of Corp. And the harder you work (work until your expendable self drops) and the less you make (stop whining about that untreated broken leg), the wider the toothy smile of Corp.

The ravages of illness are a more insidious threat than the Talibanis, the Iranians, and the North Koreans. But Corp is making too much money off your misery. Health Care Reform: what a silly mirage. Congress is only a puppet show.

William Blake's prophetic voice sang the new Folk Song, lifting the deeds of free, fiery men into mythic verse. America, with its fires of freedom and higher justice, was, in his mind's eye, an example to the world, soon to spread its inspiring flames to France. But that voice, that Folk Song has been forgotten and drowned out in the cacophonous shriek of Corp's greed. Let us remember at least one stanza of that Folk Song and lift it against the cold iron soul of Wall Street:

But all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire.
The red fires rag'd! The plagues recoil'd! then
rolld they back with fury.


Oh...and Joe Lieberman...well, he can investigate my sphincter with a headlamp and hiking boots.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

"And I nearly lost my mind."

Billions of years of atomic and chemical processes, leading eventually to life and to its most exuberant expression:


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Brown Eyed Girl

June, 1967. Me, 15 years old. Summer job -- painting the house exterior.
White oil paint. Gets gooey in summer heat. Gets on your arm hair and
dries tight. I watch Lou Ann walk down the road. I reach down and crank up the volume on the RCA radio. I think she smiled as this song got louder.


journal entry by an unproductive citizen


Normality is the oddest thing. Everydayness is disconcerting. Does the madman clawing Bedlam's wall know something important? Maybe he knows that being blithely located and snugly wrapped in human events is insanely sane? How to account for the bizarre psychological buffer that keeps astonishment repressed? Lulling people into a conception that existence and being aware of one's existence is in any way normal, a thing to be taken for granted? Where is the friend of my soul? The one who knows that normality and the “sane” absorptions of human beings are extremely creepy? Where is the hobo-soul to walk with me on the outskirts of society, on the astonished periphery?

country rant

Country music on the CMT video channel is gawdawful. It is much worse than Hip-Hop, Rap, and Soul (nearly all of which are intolerable). At least those other genres provide pockets of creativity and real expression...even if what is created and expressed is shallow and numbskull. Another contrast: Nashville (or whatever it is) makes the old Tin Pan Alley seem like a bastion of radical artistic inspiration.

Country music on CMT is devoid of anything genuine. It is lifeless. And the more revved-up it gets -- incorporating pop and rock -- the more lifeless it becomes. Sure, I could just ignore it, but I like ranting about it. I like knowing that it represents everything I detest.

Let's set aside what is being sung about (gawd...cliches as thick as Washington lobbyists). Although the lyrical asininity is worthy of scorn and ridicule, it is not the worst aspect. What is so deplorable has to do with how it is being said -- the musical structure. It is formulaic, cynically crafted, machine-like in its soullessness.

Country music used to be listenable -- Hank Williams, George Jones, Lefty Frizzell...Loretta, Merle, Buck, and Johnny. What the hell happened? I do believe this country is undergoing a cultural collapse into final banality.

The Great Adagio

No...not Samuel Barber's movement lifted from his string quartet and orchestrated to accompany Willem Defoe's death scene in Platoon. I'm talking about the third movement of Anton Bruckner's (1824 - 1896) Symphony No. 8.

Bruckner was a devout Protestant, with his face turned perpetually toward the radiance of his God. His middle and late symphonies, with their organ-like sonorities and vast surgings, do give off a cosmic, spiritual resonance. I wish to isolate the third movement Adagio and share a few thoughts about it.

There are many theories of reality. Some contradict others. Some are ridiculous. It may seem odd to speak of a piece of music as a “theory of reality,” but that is how the great adagio strikes me. But is Bruckner only “theorizing”? Only asserting a religious answer to transcendent yearning? Are we, as listeners, only empathizing with his sentiments? Or given the mystery of consciousness, are we, through this composer, gaining access to a real spiritual beyond? Preposterous, right?

For me, this movement as a whole (and especially those measures at the 2:25 mark in the first Youtube below) is an example of objective knowledge. Bruckner, aside from his religious beliefs, is a musical conduit, a channel through which mystical experience flows into me. I am not a believer, and I'm not an atheist. I'm not even an agnostic (postponing his opinion of reality until God drops by for whiskey and cigarettes and surprising revelations). I am a paradoxicalist, who thinks that reality is groundless and absyssal. What comes into me from this music, therefore, is not a delusion or a jacked-up hope. This is not about about Unamuno's tragic desire for afterlife, for that desire's strength forcing a solution. This is not about a requirement that yearning be satisfied, else life would be too absurd. No, this movement expresses something other than human need or religious sign.

Bruckner's Adagio is an expression of deep reality caught candidly and unconsciously. The power of music has, here, mediated worlds. And I catch a strong hint about what has been paradoxically crafted inside the Abyss, a meaning that has generated itself through absurd processes. That hint is in this music: love will enfold all creation, and everyone who has loved or who has been loved will be magically redeemed by Love, beyond the red of roses and beyond the nightingale's song.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Sunday, December 6, 2009

trio

The dark pines are weeping
as coming winter's early shrouding
swallows up the day. And night hovers
over the hour of music.

Brahms would be fitting,
in fitful agitation:
plaint of violin
and horn's resignation
bring a melancholy tone
to pianoed questions.

Maybe ice and bourbon
to blunt nostalgia's tang,
unsharpen pikes of memory
where sagging regrets hang.

Music speaks so wordlessly,
yet eloquent as ice,
and moves through utter stillness,
grave as love's delight.

I know not why I'm weeping.
It's just a mood of being.

thoughts on two Cesare Pavese poems

from Hard Labor: Poems by Cesare Pavese
trans. William Arrowsmith, The Ecco Press, New York, 1979


Morning

The window, half open, holds a face
over the meadow of the sea. The hair sways
with the gentle rhythm of the sea, moving.

There are no memories on this face.
Only a passing shadow, like the shadow of a cloud.
In the half-light the shadow is moist and sweet
like the sand of a hollow cove, untouched.
There are no memories. Only a murmur
which is the sound of the sea made memory.

In the half-light the soft water of dawn
is saturated with light and illumines the face.
When the sun is high, each day is a miracle.
It has no time. A salt light suffuses it,
and a smell of living things from the salt sea.

No memory lives on this face.
No word could hold it, no word
connect it to vanished things. Yesterday
it vanished from the little window as it will
always vanish, instantly, no sadness,
no human words, over the field of the sea.


I adore this kind of poem. For me, it achieves the highest goal that poetry has latent in its power: numinous art. Here, there is no complaining ego, no myriad foibles of fractured psychology or wounded heart. No “I” or “me” protrudes; self is only implied...as observer. Here, we have a moment of transcendent beauty, sublime Being. Here, the human being takes his proper place amid mysteries and then salutes them quietly, without hubris. The image of that strange face must

always vanish, instantly, no sadness,
no human words, over the field of the sea.




Landscape VIII


Memories begin at evening,
with a breath of wind, to lift their head
and listen to the river running. In the darkness
the water flows as it did in the dead years.

In the still darkness a rustling rises,
old voices, old laughter go flowing by,
and with them goes a flurry of empty color,
color of sunlight, and beaches, and bright looks.
A summer of sounds. Each face keeps,
like ripe fruit, a savor of something gone.

Each look, returning, keeps a taste
of grass and things suffused with late light
along a beach. It keeps a breath of the sea.
It's like the sea at night, this drifting blur
of old longings and tremblings, touched by the sky,
which every evening brings again. The dead
sounds are like that sea, breaking.


Again, personality is subsumed into Being...by what swirls and mixes into our experience. Memories, yes. But their status as prior events has been subtly altered: they are now bonded to something bigger, abstracted into color, sound, light, movement. Transmuted to higher, more complex emotional forms. To something that has a nocturnal taste of dream about it. Or at least that odd in-between space where nature and spirit sometimes mingle.


[Cesare Pavese, 1908 - 1950]

a literary moment

Come away with me. To 1920. To California. To Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat:


It was purple dusk, that sweet time when the day's sleeping is over, and the evening of pleasure and conversation has not begun. The pine trees were very black against the sky, and all objects on the ground were obscured with dark; but the sky was as mournfully bright as memory. The gulls flew lazily home to the sea rocks after a day's visit to the fish canneries of Monterey.

Pilon was a lover of beauty and a mystic. He raised his face into the sky and his soul arose out of him into the sun's afterglow. That not too perfect Pilon, who plotted and fought, who drank and cursed, trudged slowly on; but a wistful and shining Pilon went up to the sea gulls where they bathed on sensitive wings in the evening. That Pilon was beautiful, and his thoughts were unstained with selfishness and lust. And his thoughts are good to know.

a certain blue

Nature offers us many instances of beauty. Some of these encounters impress themselves deeply into memory. Sometimes, nature becomes mixed up with something else, and memory is not only impressed; it is sacralized.

When I was nine or ten years old, the family was on a short vacation trip from El Dorado, Arkansas to Lake Greeson (near Murfreesboro in southwest Arkansas). I had fallen asleep in the backseat of our Olds 98 and was roused from slumber by Daddy's announcement: “There's the lake.”

I raised up and peered out the window. The road was about a hundred feet up from the lake, with tall dark pines plunging steeply down to the water and forming a forested screen. The tree canopy was such that the lake's extent was blocked; only what appeared between those trunks was visible. Censorship always breeds fascination. Yes, between those trunks, I spied that water. I fell into its strange color. I have never seen that shade of blue since then. It was not a bright, pale turquoise, but that's the closest approximation I can offer. It was strikingly different from any bright, pale turquoise one might associate with Key West or the Caribbean or Bermuda...or some South Sea atoll. It was unique.

I'm not convinced it was a purely natural color. I had just awakened from dreams (surely I had...I always dream when asleep), and I was disoriented. I didn't know how we had gotten to the lake, didn't know where it was in relation to my hometown, didn't even know why we had come to the lake – at a certain age or with a certain daydreaming character, family events just materialize and one gets swept up in the unexplained, unprocessed momentum.

Reflecting now on that memory, I do believe something else was mixed into that strangely beautiful lake water glimpsed through pine trees. In those few seconds before the road curved away from the lake, some residual dreamstuff blended into that sun-dazzled water color. It seemed an unearthly hue. Maybe a mystic-plasma-blue, showing itself only once in that magic space between nature and uncertain consciousness.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

WORDS IN EDGEWISE: STORIES by Cheryl Snell

While offline for several weeks, I did quite a bit of reading. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Here's some of my impressions:

“Bad Blood” is delightful. An American woman, married to a relocated Indian, must suffer the cultural condescension of his visiting relatives. Subtle psychological combat between our protagonist and her antagonist, Jaya, moves us humorously to the story's end. And that ending sounds an unexpected, wistful note.

Of course, the exotic (to me) element adds flavor and interest, but I couldn't resist thinking that a similar friction among relatives could just have easily occurred between two Americans. What we have, basically, is a main character who is self-conscious and self-possessed. Those others, whether in person or as revealed in letters, lack those characteristics. For them, tradition and egoism have displaced the functions of a self-critical faculty.

It would be silly of me or others to read too broadly into this phenomenon. Though India still clings to many worn-out behavioral modes, I know some Indians whose minds belong to themselves. Having said that, I do think this story should be pitched to a TV exec. It would make a wonderful, sophisticated sit-com in the right hands.

* * *

With “Prickly Heat,” Cheryl proves herself an exceptional prose stylist. There is something of Keats's “negative capability” revealed in this poignant story: it is a mystery to me how a female author can so perfectly inhabit the hurting corners of a middle-aged man's soul. And her striking turns of phrase bring delight to the reader, even as he squirms and winces in sympathy with Roger.

* * *

“Closure.” This tale is superbly rendered. Again, those fresh, stunning turns of phrase. The first time I read this, the tearful harmonica player Hank struck me as marvelously absurd, inexplicably sentimental. After a second reading, the truth came clear (I almost regret the truth, preferring non sequitur as a form of high art). The forlorn character Lily is brought vividly to life. And her moments of eventual determination are delivered to us with a palpable presence.

* * *

Read “Healing Louise” and take from it what you will. For me, the details recede. In the foreground, a general conception emerges: human beings are, each one of us, very strange creatures. Six billion brains. Six billion different psychological universes. That we communicate at all sometimes hits me with a force of incredulity. A nurse, an astronaut, a rodeo clown? What shall you choose to be to stay distracted from the crushing Absurd?

* * *

“Boomerang Avenue.” Another general conception: it is a form of magic how a writer can populate your brain with living characters and furnish it with objects that teem with verisimilitude. Setting that consideration aside, I'm not as pleased with this story as I am with the previous ones. Cathy's attitude reversal at the end – from a resentful belligerence to a sudden softening – strikes me a bathetic, a bit facile.

* * *

“Novocaine.”

Dentists are a bit odd, wouldn't you say? They've always struck me that way. And I think I've read that, among professionals, dentists have the highest suicide rate. Hygienists and dental assistants also freak me out. They are preternaturally chipper. It's no act. To their cores, they are well-pleased to be existentially rooted in the vicinity of root canals. Like blithe gondoliers rowing the canals of Venice. Chipper people disconcert me. Happy people make me nervous.

OK, to the story. I don't know what to make of it. Is Zoe a programmed zombie, an idiot-savant? She is very odd, as are the others in her orbit. Is the man as strange as he seems, or has the Novocaine numbed Zoe's brain? Maybe he's not really even there! Read this yourself and see if you can gain traction on the fascinating, slippery surface.

* * *

“Safe House.”

Like “Bad Blood,” our main character is observant, self-possessed, put upon, and constrained by socials mores. The cleaning entrepreneur Karen is, like Jaya from the first story, just the opposite – she is expressionistic rather than impressionistic. In other words, crass and boorish. But as “Safe House” moves along, we begin to sympathize with her pathos (Jaya never stirred sympathy in me).

Cheryl is adroit in her ability to blend social absurdity with personal alienation. The protagonist's husband is, apparently, the bread-winning jerk. Karen's world is a sad, seedy, fractal kaleidoscope. Those societal topographies form the background. In the foreground is a perplexed woman inhabiting her own mind.

But sheesh! Who hires people to clean? Get real. Clean up your own freaking mess.

* * *

What I liked most about reading “Whet” is that it made me glad I'm not like those characters. I'm glad that artsy discotheques and empty sex hold no attraction for me. I'm glad I don't have to associate with somersaulting libertines. But maybe I'm being callous, uncharitable. Maybe the crises of a rejection and a weight problem create a tension and an isolation that naturally expresses itself in superficial activity. And the need to be accepted, to be acknowledged, to be known can, I think, send the human spirit on very basic, urgent missions. Aside from all that, Cheryl has given us another vivid, provocative slice of life.

* * *

“Wisdom” is a very well-crafted story about time and love's erosion...about the contradictions inherent in monogamy.

And of course for me – basically a hobo masquerading as a normal person – it's always interesting to read about the upper crust, about people who have real nice houses and who attend social events. Who wear silk smoking jackets and sapphire necklaces. Who are more interested in novel bed mates than Russian novels. Who are obsessed with illicit carnality, instead of chastely dreaming about an ideal soul-mate.

* * *

In conclusion, this book is aces! If you enjoy falling into strange, expertly realized worlds, you will love this little volume.

* * *

The book's cover painting is by Cheryl's sister Janet. She also contributes a painting for each of the nine stories. These images are not descriptive, do not illustrate the stories. Rather, they are expressionistic, formally loose gesturings. From them, a mood is evoked that carries over into each story. They are ambiguous, and that is their power.


Here's the link to their Facebook page Scattered Light Productions.

a general impression of W.G. Sebald's THE EMIGRANTS

I recently read this novel for the third time. I have read masterpieces. This is a masterpiece. My first reading left me impressed. My second reading affected me even more. This last reading bowled me over – I realized that Sebald deserves a rare seat among the company of literary geniuses.

The narrator who is and is not Sebald probes the repressed biographies of four displaced Jews – emigrants. His subtle tracing of the emotional scars of these main characters is complemented by the shadings of other wounded souls who drift into the narrative...into the memories of those main characters.

Anti-Semitism (who can explain to me that psychosis?) at the end of the 19th century and then during the madness of the Holocaust forms the harsh background for these penetrating glimpses into human desolation. Not exactly light reading. But very necessary reading.

Sebald approaches his theme obliquely and with understatement, which are the methods of a master. The impact of his overall story gains force through a paradoxical subtlety. Poignancy and hard truth leak into the narrative imperceptibly. And we are swept along unawares on currents the strength of which we little suspect.

Until tears pronounce our unspoken verdict on what has been wrought in us.

The Internal Beyonds of Yves Tanguy

All art contains an element of mysticism. Reality remains unexplained, hence, all creative acts inside it push against the boundary of being, probe the possibilities of transcendence. Most art prior to the emergence of Impressionism was, consciously or unconsciously, a form of religious expression. Even portraiture had a religious dimension: those subjects depicted on canvas were emblematic of the human intersection with the divine, ego as implied vessel of eternal spirit.

Then, Impressionism. The religious receded (Darwinism was gaining traction), but the mystical survived. Nature's moods and energies, though “scientifically” rendered, still impacted human consciousness according to sublime criteria. The essence of things – their concealed but felt actuality – stimulated a spiritual nerve in the souls of artists, even if an unacknowledged Pantheistic one.

Then, Expressionism (and variants of Modernist art). As the pathology of industrialization increased, leading to industrial slaughter during the First World War, forms of artistic consciousness erupted to stake out territory in which a semblance of metaphysical meaning might be preserved. Oddly (or perhaps understandably), these preserves of wounded spirit were paradoxical spaces. The immemorial desire for transcendence lived on, but with God gone, meaning was sought in the irrational. Transcendence became an obsessive move away from bourgeois normality and scientific hubris. Paradoxical because meaning was derived from the meaningless. As nature was subsumed into system and humanity became more dangerous and repugnant, actuality – Being, as such – pressed in more mysteriously, insinuating itself as the ambiguous theme for artists, composers, and writers.

Sartre experienced Being as nausea. The Modern artist transformed it into the fantastic, distorted it into the grotesque or the uncanny. The mystical, or spiritual, had taken on a more urgent aspect than what had hovered blithely in the Impressionist background. Wittgenstein's dictum – “Whereof one can not speak, thereof one must remain silent” – is profound. It established the parameters for what would become analytic philosophy. Language that strayed beyond the truly sayable was illicit and absurd. But there are other kinds of language, other ways of saying. Heidegger pointed to the poetry of Hölderlin. Music is another mode of intelligibility beyond the analyzable. Still another kind of transcendental semantics takes place through form and color on the canvas.

Yves Tanguy (1900 – 1955) was a Surrealist. He is my favorite artist from the Modernist era. When the term “Surrealism” is mentioned, most people think of wild juxtapositions of familiar objects, whether animate or inanimate. Tanguy is subtler, much more enigmatic. His canvases teem with objects, but those things have only a passing similarity to known forms. Those equivocal thingy forms are more like reified mental or spiritual intuition. And the “landscapes” in which they are placed are less like space-time milieus than volumes of void, theaters of dream.

* * *

Owing to intellectual property rights, I'm unable to reproduce Tanguy images here. So, below are links to two of his paintings. Beneath each link, I provide my impression of the images. See if you don't agree that the mystical, the spiritual, and the transcendent pulse as ambiguous energies in these works.


A blue-cream journey. Upright creaturing into cartilaginous form. Inexplicable paraphenalias. Conceptlessness symbolized. Hopefulness elementalizing itself into a blue-cream quest.

Stasis. Rootedness. Under the bouillon of an alchemical sky. Emptiness becoming a heavy tangibility. The miracle of number, yet the torture of separation.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

thoughts on poetry (especially Connie Stadler's & William B. Burkholder's)


[Notice: This also appears as a Facebook Note, and my preference is that general comments be made there. I would like to reserve this "dripping brain" post for what I call Contact High -- where comments are more about encounter, impact, what any of these poems do for you or how they might fail to move you, and maybe to register your thoughts about execution -- what strikes you as commendable and effective or deficient and puzzling. I would like others to go with me into these poems...kick the tires, honk the horns, take em for a spin.]



The last few years, my mind has been fractious. I don't know when this began or what event might have set it off. I used to sit through a 90-minute Bruckner symphony with no sweat. I used to get lost in poetry, no sweat. Now, I'm fidgety. Maybe it's just my way of tumbling into older age. I must sense the Reaper's mossy breath on the back of my neck, with dread and restlessness kicking in.

So lately – the last few years – letting myself fall into a poem is no longer a natural act. In fact, poetry is sometimes irritating to me. All this confession. All this energy of craft. All this probing of reality and personality. I prefer just drinking a bunch of beer, as I try to calm myself down...shift into a chronic low gear.

I didn't come to or “get” poetry until I was around 28. My friend Robert Andrews seduced me with Ezra Pound. Then it all clicked. Some of Shakespeare's sonnets went deep into my crazy head. Then the Romantics – Blake, Wordsworth, Keats (especially Keats). On to Emily Dickinson and Dylan Thomas. Many others.

But Pound! Oh, my goodness gracious. Who gives a shit what his single poems and Cantos are about? Not me. I simply could not get enough of being swallowed up by those lines of absolute pitch-perfection. The rhythm never to be equaled. The images so remarkable as to leave my consciousness stunned and strangely palpitating.

But it had become an effort to even pull a book of poetry from the shelf these last couple years.

Then, I came to Facebook and fell into and among a circle of writer friends. Against inertia, I find myself compelled to read the poems these folks write. Not as an obligation. Rather, the stuff is just so damn good, it won't allow me to be my lazy, mind-wallowing self. None of them are alike. Reading them, it's like entering different worlds. Actually, it's more like stepping into distinct art forms. Though they share the medium's formal structure of having line-breaks, these bodies of work are more like constellations in the ether of untouching universes.

Among those poets are William B. Burkholder and Connie Stadler. Two of Williams's and three of Connie's are reproduced below.

Everyone has their own way of appreciating a poem. After each one, I'll comment on what I get from it.



William B. Burkholder


Cicada

Cicada’s chorus,
High among sycamore’s green tendrils,
Crescendos of summer,
Cacophony of 7 year sleep,
Memory seeps in and out.
Lapping waves of recollection.

Exo-skeletal molted shells,
The remnants of prior lives,
Cacophony of song,
Celebrating new things,

Higher possibility
Among branches of summer’s throng.

Peeling back the browns and yellows
Of Old man’s changing wig,
To look within
And glean the mystery
Of summer messages remembered by me.



A melancholy yet hopeful spirit animates this poem. I like how “Higher possibility,” keyed to the aural setting, bumps the poem into a new octave. An almost mystical, pantheistic quality arrives and sets up the shift into denouement. And it seems to me that the conclusion turns the entire piece into an extended, Westernized haiku.




Shadow Dancer


Lamp lit luster, shadow figure moves,
Behind the curtains to fusionists’ grooves.

Blue bonnets singing sonnets
Of yesterdays arousals,

A carousel of secret cares.
Full circle, round and round,

Calliope’s muted tones.
Passions rise among the mess,
Of flesh, and blood, and bones.

Dim light pale,
Yellow moon serenade,

Shadow dancer moving,
Soothing,
This is how she plies her trade.


And the dollar men,
Blue collar men,
Gather under sill,

To witness
And gather fantasies
To experience the thrill,

Of the Woman
Decorating windows
To the rhythm and the time…

You see,
She works nights,
At the Local Five and Dime.



Well...I didn't expect that ending. Not sure what I was expecting. This poem is a Calliope, a musical dance through words. For an instant, I became this woman, swirling to what I perceived to be an inner rhythm of life-felt, half-sighed romance, a mood in which the frowning thoughts of philosophers have no purchase:

A carousel of secret cares.
Full circle, round and round




[William B. Burkholder is the content editor for Troubadour21.com, and they constantly accept submissions from poets, writers and artists. He holds the copyrights for the above two poems.]



* * * * * * * * * * * * *



Connie Stadler


Uncle Edgar


Ever
Baltimore’s
Own

Gutter
Splayed

Marinade

Torrential excreta
&
Booze-sopped
Rot.

‘Arrogant, reprobate
Godforsaken
Beggarly’
Execration
Of
‘Hideous
Mortification’

How could I know?
In my Catholic Pleated
Adulation

That the Throbbing
Derangement
Of
Amaranthine Palpation

That the Ebon
Plumaged
Accusation
Quaffing
Sanity/Soul
Brew

That Detested
Fortunato
Ever
Questing
Amontillado

That all
That
All

Were You.

In the Sepulchre
Miasma
Of
The Resounding
Sounding
Seas

Where Mediocrity
& Genius

Bob and Weave
Bob and Weave

We Dissever
Evermore
Beyond the
Compass

Cleaved.

But at
Eventide
I lay down my pride

Gobbling
Kaleidoscopic
Ampoules
Savoring
Swallow
&
Glide.

Staving Unhallowed
Dominion
As
Mephistophelean
Bride.

Seizing
Hound of Usher
By the Throat
To
Engrave
&
Inscribe.

Yes,
Your
Ever-lasting
Torment
Is Kindred
Close
Betide.

And the Angels Sob
As Vermin Fangs
In Human Gore,
Imbued.


Eternal Travelers
Of Valley Shadow
Where Demons Pillage
& Denude

Where Horror rakes the Dawn
And Soundless Screams are Born
Where Joy is ‘ere Foresworn
And Adamantine Breath, Be

Mourned.

Two Ravaged Lives
Bestrewn.

Prophetic sounds…arise forever
From Us, and from

all Ruin



Copyright 2009 by Connie Stadler


The first time I read this, I went a little overboard, leaving in my comment this phrase: “morbid holiness.” I think I was simply carried away with the thought that I had found another who was keying into something peculiar to me: a sense of deep entropy behind life's energetic flailing. The kind of quality I discern in De Quincey and W.G Sebald. Who knows if those writers, including Poe, were implying what I thought they did about reality? I'm peculiar and sense what I sense.

On second reading, I began to doubt my interpretation.

Today, this thing scares the shit out of me.

You decide how it affects you.





Bed & Breakfast

Victorian bouquets:
Petals of oiseaux, jaquemar,
Eau de nil
Dapple antique eiderdown
In assaultive
mackling
On cockcrow myopia.

Grecian valence frames
Perfectly positioned scenic wonder
awash in London Grey gust
of modernity’s befoulment.

…nary a footnote
in brochured fineprint...

Of Indian Summer
Saturday Getaway.

Varnished and burnished
Undulations of walnut balustrade
Await grandeur frenzied
morning hoard
Inhalations.

Innkeeper’s lacquer and clatter.
Fresh bun salver/lilac doilies
Lalique saucered cups
Brim and steam
Rendering hasty departures
From sunrise
Jacuzzi delectations.

Post matinal satiation
Hedgerow impeccability
invites
Vaporous meanderings
Of routinized reflection.

In the distance…

Beyond the boundaries
Of propriety
An ancient evergreen
Impales manicured
Perfection
Shattering scansion
Of manicured lawn
And architectural immaculata.

Losing myself…

I digress
Trailing
soft earth path
‘Neath the belly
Of ancient
forgotten
Pine.

In approach
The delusion of assembled
Natural happenstance
Shapeshifts into upright slabs
Of fragmented bleached alabaster
Cambered and cruciform stelae
Cracked Cornish crosses
Adrift in weedy integument.

…in memento mori…

Aged bas-relief proclamations
Crying out for notice:

I lived
I was


Duly noted, save
this moment
this day
By industrious puff-tufted
Woodpecker
And ever shadowy
Aeolian kiss.

In a wilderness
Of catacombed questions
effusing from
Tintype/colllodian
phantasmic Swirling
Synaptic trails
To
Imagistic impress…

…Parlor portraiture of customary
Impassiveness.
Seated mother in
Organdy peplum finery
The
Tonsorially flawless chignon
Cradling preoccupied
Baptismal babe

A
Sailor suited shaver
Stolidly at the bulwark
Of kith and kin flank
Dundreary whiskered
Pater Familias…

The thirst of ripened life long quenched.

No more the verdant sommersault of innocent abandon.
No more begging for the baffled coin, the clink of pride.
No more copulations of old, deluded seeking.
No more straying through funereal gravel of the labyrinth.
Just complete silence.
Empurpled drippings of unfulfilled resurrection
?

I am deeply moved.

Turbidly
Arising from
Ruminant crouch
Dandelions graze
Solitary wayfarer
Of insanable expanse
Ever receding
By the quickening footfall
Into
Immemorial mist…
Ever more
Striding the shallows
Of mortal coil thought.
Vitalizing
Eternal erasure
Of even faintest lamentation.

In the distance…

Polychrome Queen Anne gables
Pierce
Sudden sunless sky.
As
Whispers of fresh brown bread
And pumpkin soup
Impel needful cantered pace.


The loping affirmation
Of human
Typicality.


Copyright 2008 by Connie Stadler



It is good that we can puncture time and space, normality and circumstance. It is necessary that the souls of things occasionally invade us...fumes of hot fairy dances scald us in the accidental flower-circle. Such refreshes the mind, spurs new tangents into the neural maze.

“In the distance...” That is where we long to be. Like pent-up demons, coiled and knotted into everydayness, we desire exorcism...to go hollering with abandon into more supple space and more equivocal time. Into natural anarchy.

This poet loves words, and she presents us with a master chef's banquet. Where do these words come from? What peculiar quality of sentience controls their flow? Both of those questions have no answer, of course. We are in the presence of art's mystery.





Welsh-Flecked
‘Romance’


In the laughing house
strewn in the plum dappled
peach tricking meadow,
A thicket of blackberried
hummingbirds steal my form.
That I may gaze through the
fawn breast light
at the glimmers of hyacinth hair
and the ripple of your farm hued
body sawing and bailing, in
briny brilliantine hallow.

Till ash evening
falls and I return to the
dragonfly blight in
the onyx ribboned hills
that fill me with the
quarry of your absence
tracing unkissed lips, pale
in the time skewered dusk.


Copyright 2008 by Connie Stadler


I can only relish and marvel. What is your reaction? What are your thoughts?


Monday, August 10, 2009

Hey Lord...Don't Ask Me Questions

Heat Treatment...I wanna burn, baby

discovery of a lifetime

I now, officially, declare and reveal the existence of my very first guru...sensei...mentor. He doesn't know this fact, and I didn't ask permission. This is more like a stalker thing. I have made him my own, like those nutty psychos who pin hundreds of crush-object photos on their basement bulletin boards.

I've been unconsciously searching for this person my whole life. Now that I've found him, I ain't letting go. He might end up having to take out a restraining order against me. I already know that I will violate any such instruments of control.

Kris Saknussemm, an author whose current novel is titled Private Midnight, is a friend of mine on Facebook. I have become addicted like a junkie to some things he posts there, and I would be his flunky if he asked me. These short word effusions, usually delivered in the witching hour, are like extra hyped-up verbal meth: the effect is immediate and direct. My brain is set instantly abuzz, and it vibrates long after reading.

I get the uncanny, stalker-y sense that these single paragraphs have been dispensed on the zany winds just for me. I'm beginning to suspect that no one else can even see them there as a Facebook post. Or if they see anything, all the letters are magically rearranged: they're just reading something ordinary and ho-hum...only am I wearing the special invisible 4-D glasses that unscrambles the code...only can I see these oracular marvels!

These three-or-four-sentence wonders are koans that make me smile and make my brain stop thinking. But they are extra-special koans: I'm brought into alignment with the porcupine stars of an unknown galaxy in an unsuspected dimension. Kris is (he must be) channeling the voice and mind of God's loony half-brother who is in charge of that hypnagogic world.

Or maybe these are dream fragments, pieces of a super-reality digested through his mind and oozed out to us as revelations.

Kris has produced what I think is the finest sentence in the English language. It describes a childhood moment of inspiration, after watching an episode of that old TV series The Time Tunnel...you know...the show with the slowly turning, black-and-white corridor, through which intrepid (and physics-shrugging-off) adventurers jogged down and into goofy times:

I remember wrapping myself up in a sheet and hurling myself down the stairs thinking I might get back to Gettysburg.

......I will speak softly now and let that sentence hover in mid-air, let it have a few holy moments to seep into your consciousness.

And below is a recent post, an example of those compressed exotic adventures leaving my soul stunned. It makes me as giddy as a monkey walking through space untethered to the banana-shaped mothership:

Watching the old men betting on a cricket fight in Guangzhou. Two female students I knew float by in an enormous tea cup, the kind with the dragons on it that change color when you pour in the hot water. It looks strangely innocent in the sludge of the Pearl River amongst the barges and industrial boats.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Poetry by Rumi

I dreamed the other night...

...that I was standing in the middle of the gravel road in front of my house out here in cotton field hell. I was holding a Winchester rifle for no good reason. A weasel jumped out of a bush in my yard and pounced on a lethal snake. The snake's head swelled up like that Dali guy's Sebelius-looking head in the 1937 painting Sleep. Then it turned into a half-cow , half-anaconda -- a scrunched-up, rubbery-looking creature that went scampering down the road on prissy legs and hooves. Also had an embarrassed demeanor on its glancing-back-at-me face.

As that horrible prodigy moved on, from the same direction comes a man-eating black panther (leopard?...hell, I can't remember, and this was a dream anyway, so who cares). It approached me with deadly intent. And I remembered why I was holding that ridiculous Winchester. Beast came within a few feet of me, golden eyes menacing and aflame. It even cocked its head to mock me, as it bared its teeth. I cocked the lever-action rifle and stuck the end of the barrel against its head. "Click." No shot. Damn thing was out of bullets.

So as the panther circled me, I turned and kept poking it in the head and in the side with my gun barrel. Just trying to keep it at bay. I woke up.

the chosen one




Every seven generations,
one child is chosen
from the pool of seed
floating on the surface of
Secret Lotus Lake.
She comes to keep the bond
intact and ever blooming
between what is possible
and what withdraws in Brahman.

She grows among the people,
and love becomes her chakra.
Quiet spells come on her after
raucous laughter, playing.
The gleaming moon ascends.
She dreams the dream of ancients
in which no time can be,
seeing into archetypes
and soaking up the symbols.

Her later life is laden,
for in her lives another,
moving half into our time,
Lakshmi is her burden,
bringing grace and beauty.
Beauty glows within the chosen,
like a light reaching others,
but she will not find a soul-mate,
for no one is godly.

Tears like droplets on the lotus
in an evening's condensation
weep inside where Lakshmi drinks them,
turning tears into visions,
into brightness and the cobra.
White to let her know that Brahman
is aware of her heartache,
Shiva into hooded form
to tell her she is not alone.

And her dreams at night come pouring,
dreams Ganesha weaves profusely,
He who pines for absent Lakshmi --
speaks to Her beneath our forms,
speaks of realms and deeds beyond.
Languid, dreaming through the woman,
Lakshmi weeps for the chosen,
for her life as secret holder
of the chain of Love.


*************

Dawn breaking.
Birds singing.
Leaves dripping.
Breeze sighing.

And in the crystal pool,
the woman wades up to her waist,
reaching out entranced to gather
lotus blooms of lustrous pink.

Then inhaling subtle fragrance
deep into her lungs and Lakshmi,
she ensures the future's blooming
for all lovers, though not her.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

some of my father's memories

[Excerpts from my father's "Memoirs," which I persuaded him to write a few years before he died in 2007.]



During my nine years at Wesson, Arkansas, I was involved in several romantic experiences, including those with Helen Johnson when I was in the first grade and later with Melfa Telford at the age of ten. I was so in love with Helen that I got into a fight over her during recess on my first day in school. It was with "Stinky" Davis, a third grader, and he proceeded to knock me down a few times and, in the process, knocked my glasses off. When school was out that afternoon, I followed his little brother, who was my age and size, home from school and attacked him in the middle of the road in front of his house. This time I was victorious, and his mother had to pull me off of him.


When we moved from Wesson to Urbana, Arkansas in 1932, I was quite saddened because I was leaving my girl friend Melfa Telford. After we had completed our move, I received a letter from Melfa with a piece of double-bubble gum inside. So, I knew that she was really missing me.


My daddy was a very special person. He had a sense of empathy with black people and always treated them with respect. I can remember walking on the sidewalks in El Dorado and seeing Daddy step off the sidewalk to greet and shake hands with black people, whom were not allowed on the sidewalks. Shaking hands with a black person was unheard of back then. I also remember many times that he gave black people money, when I knew we were barely getting by. This was during the days of segregated schools and churches, and Daddy spoke many times at black high school graduations and spoke quite often at black churches. When he became Sheriff of Union County in the early fifties, he hired a black deputy which made him very unpopular and was probably the reason that he only served one term as Sheriff. I was quite touched during his funeral service at Second Baptist Church, to see many black people in attendance. This fact alone tells you a lot about my daddy's character, because black people did not attend white people's funerals back then.


………….


In recalling my early teenage years at El Dorado, I remember my association with Lefty Frizzell, who in the '50s became a superstar country singer and song writer. I was about 15 years of age when Lefty and his family moved to El Dorado, renting a shack near where Dale Gray [Dad's best friend – Tim] lived on South Jackson Street. Lefty was quite young then, perhaps 10 or 11, and accompanied by his many younger brothers and sisters, he followed Dale and me everywhere we went on the South side of El Dorado. Their daddy worked in the oilfields but apparently made little money because the children were dressed very poorly. The South side of El Dorado was a tough area to grow up in, and fighting was the main pastime. Lefty seemed to love fighting, particularly when he and his siblings were made fun of. He was also very good at it and used his left like a windmill. As I recall, Dale and I named him Lefty, and this nickname stuck with him the rest of his life. He later fought in the ring as a professional.


Lefty loved country music – especially Jimmie Rodger's songs – during the time that Dale and I knew him. He talked his mother into trading their milk cow to Dale's mother for an old wind up record played and several Jimmie Rodgers records. This was the beginning of Lefty's music career as he spent many hours playing Jimmie's records and trying to emulate him.


After about two years of living in El Dorado, Lefty's family moved to the Texas oilfields, and he later started singing in night clubs in Texas and boxing. I lost touch with him until after I came back to El Dorado after college and heard some of his music and songs on the radio. I still love his songs and play them often. My son Mike wrote a song titled "Daddy Knew Lefty" in April 1992 and recorded it on cassette tape. I am very proud of this tape, and it tells the true story of my time with Lefty.


a sign in the sky -- good augury

I just went for a little five-mile drive out in the country. Needed to get out this morning and shake the nonsense out of my head...at least temporarily. The morning sky was oddly bright, considering the almost complete blanketing of clouds.

Up yonder to my right...up in the sky...a sparrow was chasing a full-fledged HAWK! It was trailing the raptor about 15 yards behind. It looked like an ME-109 fighter closing in for the kill on a B-17 bomber.

But this is what it really looked like to me:

the Little Guy finally about to give some holy hell to the Political-Military-Industrial-Media Quadplex...an avian St. George on a sword of air coming to slay the four-headed Dragon.


When I got home, I sat down on my haunches in the gravel driveway, sipping coffee from my plastic travel cup and polishing off a smoke. My nutty dog ran fast, absurd circles round and round me. As if weaving an invisible web of agreement that omens are not always bad.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

One Arrow, One Life





[The following essay was written by my daughter Sarah four years ago, as a college sophomore. It was a book review assignment in her Asian Philosophy & Religion class. I thought she did a good job, and I found the topic to be interesting. Maybe you will, too.]


The arrow of experience–a fluid succession of “nows”–should be notched on the bow of discipline and aimed at the target of one’s own heart and mind. Such is a distillation of the themes expressed in Kenneth Kushner’s book One Arrow, One Life: Zen, Archery, Enlightenment. Kushner, holding a PhD in clinical psychology, is a member of the educational staff of the Institute of Zen Studies in Honolulu. His book describes various experiences he had in Hawaii and in Japan while studying kyundo–the art of Zen archery. In addition to merely educating the reader about technical aspects of oriental archery that differ from the Western form, Kushner’s project is to impart the profound spiritual value that lies at the heart of this practice that might affect our daily lives.

My first reaction to the early chapters was a slightly negative one: there seemed to be something almost neurotic about this psychologist’s obsession with martial arts in general and kyundo in particular. That is until I reached page 40, which contained a photo of master Suhara Koun Osho drawing his bow. Master Osho’s poised image communicates something visceral yet calm, overriding my tendency to search for cosmic meaning. It seems that any activity done with deep seriousness will layer in a new, positive dimension to how we experience reality. Having finished reading Kushner’s book, the tables have decisively turned: his search for Zen truth in archery no longer seems neurotic, and my own interest in television and movies now appears to be darkened by the shadow of something more solid and real.

One Arrow, One Life, part biography and part explication, deals mainly with Kushner’s time spent at the kyundo training center Chozen-Ji (Hawaii). His encounters with the resident master, Tanouye Roshi, enriches his dry description of training principles with personal anecdote. As readers, we accompany the author while he learns to mesh the technical aspects of archery with the subtler spiritual aspects of Zen. The early chapters expose us to the ritual (“sharei”) of shooting an arrow, as well as how the individual mechanical steps are infused with psychological and physiological energies. Special emphasis on proper breathing, posture, and thoughtless concentration (this triad is referred to as “mushin”) combine to differentiate kyundo from ordinary Western archery. The middle chapters move from an explicit focus on archery to the more general aspects of Zen spirituality, such as breathing control and maintaining awareness against delusions, and how they might inform day-to-day existence. Finally, the book delves into finding and maintaining oneself in the universal “creases” of nature, entering the flow of deep energy that puts us into harmony with all of life.

“One arrow, one life” is a phrase the author chose to emphasize that each action in life should be done as if that active moment encompasses the extent of one’s life. “The saying conjures the image of the last act of a dying man” (42). This approach of seriousness carries over into the art of Zen archery and is embodied in the formalized procedure called “hassetsu,” the ritual eight steps of kyundo. Here, various postures and bow manipulations come together with breathing control to allow for the released arrow to follow its Zen trajectory. The most difficult part of the process has to do with the art of the release. Having properly channeled one’s breathing from the “hara” center below the navel, as well as completed the body-cross of opposing left and right arms, the moment of proper Zen release occurs on its own when breath and tension reach their peak. The arrow releases itself, rather than the hand letting go.

The author struggled to achieve such a state or ability, and it appears that this involves tapping into the hidden energies and “will” of being. To me, this idea conjures up the idea and importance of intuition and gut instinct–calming the mind and body in order to become receptive to the universal “now.” Another interesting kyundo principle is “zanshin,” which “means that the state of mind and body used in executing an action is not dissipated by it, but is carried over into the next activity” (73). This notion of combined equipoise and carryover allows one to accept an outcome and move ahead into the next opportunity. It also is a principle of concentration, wherein one is enabled, whether in archery or in conversation with another person, remain awake and focused with seriousness from one flowing moment to another.

A striking aspect of this book is the cultural dislocation the author experiences when confronting the Japanese psyche, as manifested by various Zen instructors. It’s like an alien encounter, an otherworldly contact with beings whose mental fibers are rooted to apparently deeper and richer spiritual soil. In Chapter 5–“The Naturally Correct Way”–Kushner describes the day he and others were at work on the grounds at Chozen-Ji clearing boulders to make space for future construction. The author struggled to relocate some large boulders by rolling them until Tanouye Roshi explained to him, “You have to learn to push the rock where it wants to go” (62). One must follow the natural grain or crease in any endeavor. By discovering the natural planes on a boulder’s surface, one might roll the rock in agreement with them. In archery, one learns to align the grain of one’s being with the universal orientation of nature. One must conform the “ji”–technique–with the “ri”–underlying universal principles. “Ri is formless and unchanging. Ri is ineffable” (15).

As the reader moves into and through these interesting anecdotes and information, there is also a downside: Kushner’s prose is, for the most part, stiff and dry. A certain monotony sets in, with too little variation in sentence structure. A bit more eloquence would have made for a richer reading experience and been more fitting for the exotic subject matter (a better editing job to catch typos would also have benefitted the book). Despite this drawback and whether or not one might be interested in kyundo, this book has its strong points. As mentioned earlier, the photo of Suhara Koun Osho drawing his bow (reproduced below) provides a visual confrontation with spiritual depth.

For the most part, we Westerners stumble through our psychic lives, jostled by one association after another. Rarely in daily living do our physical or mental movements glide according to the deep rhythms of nature. Master Osho’s serene, celestial countenance, on the other hand, suggests there might be another “do.” As Kushner remarks, “Do is an important word in Zen. It is the Japanese translation of the Chinese word, ‘Tao.’ ‘Do’ is usually translated as ‘Way’” (5). One begins to wonder if an absorption with television shows and movies might be the wrong kind of “do”.

One Arrow, One Life not only introduces the kyundo aspirant to basic methods and principles, it offers the general reader an alternative lens through which to view reality. Even if one chooses not to become a Zen archer, one takes away from the book a subconscious enrichment: when caught up in life’s stresses, there will now be the sense that a saner version of living is possible. Coming to this book with no interest in archery, I was prepared to be a bit bored and unaffected. Now having realized certain undercurrents moving below the overt theme, I acknowledge their importance and recommend this book to other Westerners needing a breath of fresh Zen air.


.......................................
One Arrow, One Life: Zen, Archery, Enlightenment
Kenneth Kushner, Tuttle Publishing, 2000, North Clarendon, Vt.

“Who made God, Daddy? Who made God, Mommy?”

I will not strain your credulity by trying to write something sophisticated. On the flip-side of that token, I hope you will set aside any knee-jerk religious conviction or fuzzy-skulled mysticism while reading this.

The child's question is everything. We gather around us a lifetime of buffering nonsense to keep her question from touching us in the deep places. It is too disconcerting to really address it and think into it. Or we've become so mature, that such a query is met with condescension.

Well, Meister Eckhardt drove his mind all the way into it. And came up with an “answer” that some would find the raving of an imbecile. God requires a foundational Godhead...then the Godhead requires something beyond even it...something finally ineffable.

The question is everything. It is a serious matter. The child is waiting.

…..............................

I used to be, and still sometimes am, over-stimulated when reading or hearing about the death of a child or young person. Someone cut off, cheated out of years and experience. There's a scene in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, in which Hans Castorp overhears the tragic wailing and rebellion of a tubercular girl on the eve of death. That really stuck to me.

I used to think that old people dying was not such a tragedy. They've lived a long life. They had their share of experience. Now, I'm not so sure. I'm beginning to think that a life spent wrapped up with religion or some mysticism...or as an above-it-all atheist...or in some other “mature” kind of buffer zone...well, I suspect that the Reaper's close breath just might be more horrible on their faces than on the cheated child.

Here's why: the child or young person is closer to the vacuum of non-being; the elder is much farther removed. If there is a God – something that explains Being – then the child has more lately flown from that mysterious Weaver; the awesome, sublime dew of life's morning still beads on her fair soul. The old are too far flung in time, thus tragically forgetful...grown too solid to be bothered with such ephemeral questions as “Who made God?”

On the deathbeds of ancients, I suspect the trauma is tenfold that of the young. Now...Now...Now...the question looms as agony instead of curiosity. But what does it matter you might ask, if there is no answer? Well, I further suspect that a life, short or long, spent in conscious awareness of, in constant tension about the question of who made God would be a life that is less anguished over pending extinction. Less shocked and surprised to discover that there actually is a Mystery.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

the hot dog joint

[Here's another dream, from 30 years ago. I occasionally remember it and wonder about it. ]



I was driving between Little Rock and El Dorado, Arkansas, with my first wife. Somewhere near Fordyce, I spotted a food joint way off the road on the right -- out in the middle of nowhere. It was kind of like a forlorn Dairy Queen. We were hungry, so I took the sloping gravel path. And down to where the little building was surrounded by trees and picnic tables. As I got out of the car and walked up to the order window, my first wife conveniently disappeared.

I gave my order for hot dogs (hot dogs were all they offered). I felt a large presence standing behind me. It was a large presence: a man wearing black-rimmed glasses and with a crew-cut above his 400 pounds. He ordered his own hot dogs. While we stood there waiting, we began to casually chat. Moments later, two overweight black ladies sashayed past us. I'd say they each weighed about 271 or 273...in that spectrum. My new friend lowered his head toward me, gently elbowing me in the ribs, and whispered in a mocking tone, "Get a load of them."

We got our hot dogs and walked together toward one of the picnic tables. The only one close that was available still had some trash and uneaten portions on it from previous guests. And actual dogs. With hind legs on the benches and front legs on the table top, two mangy dogs were scruffling down the leftovers. They were fairly large, like a cross between German shepherds and coyotes. This pissed me off.

I rushed to the table and "shoo'd" them as persuasively as I could...with uncharacteristic authority and determination. This pissed them off. One especially. As I came up to him (I assume), he glanced up at me side-wise, snarling, and baring his teeth, which were still buried in hot dog remnants. I "shoo'd" him again, louder. He continued eying me with contempt and from the periphery. Then -- and I kid you not -- he said in low, broken tones: "You. Son. Of. A. Bitch."

For a few moments, things were in state of high uncertainty. Then, he and his mangy buddy reluctantly withdrew from the table, heading off to god knows where. After that bit of excitement, things got vague. Probably a thousand other events transpired, but I can't remember.

The Art of Conversation

[The following essay was first published in the online language journal The Vocabula Review, edited by Robert Hartwell Fiske. Then in 2004, my essay was included in the anthology Vocabula Bound: Outbursts, Insights, Explanations, and Oddities, published by Marion Street Press (re-published 2008, as a Kindle edition). Reading my essay recently, I realize the ideal, unreal quality of it. I especially realize how far short I fall in living up to my own standards, regarding thoughtful conversation (witness the unbridled goofiness and nonsense in my words to others on Facebook). I suppose, then, this little manifesto is intended, as I mention below, to be only a candle that glows "softly in the back of the mind."]


I speak, therefore I am, even when my words echo silently in the cavern of consciousness. But when you speak, do I grant you the equal measure of existence? Our relations to one another are necessarily strung on the filament of language. I wonder: do we realize how fragile this thread of communal existence is? How a lack of conscious maintenance causes that cord to continually fray? This essay is about our speaking and about our listening. It is about the art of conversation.


There are various ways of defining conversation. For my purpose, I will approach it from five directions: idle talk, casual speech, verbal tyranny, data exchange, genuine dialogue.


Idle talk functions to fill up the vacuum-pockets of boredom, and in this respect, it usually flows freely, undisciplined by conscious rules of engagement. Actually, "flows" is an inaccurate term to describe this movement of words; "ricochets" is better. The initial utterance of an idle topic is like a bullet sent thoughtlessly toward a vague target, sparking random associations among the speakers until momentum fails and the topic falls impotently to a ground of indifference. Such banal "conversations" preclude a meeting of minds. We become babblers, with no one really listening to anyone else. Although the din of speech may swell to a cacophony of reportage, we are left unenriched by the experience. Worse, gossip is prone to occur in this dead-zone of unbridled chitchat. If it is only human to extemporize on the foolishness or misfortune of others, it is still a human failing that should be struggled against. Idle talk is a waste of consciousness and a waste of time. It makes of life something shallow and trivial, instead of deep and significant. It is not real conversation. It is, rather, the withering of the flower of humanness, which is language.


Casual speech is a less offensive sibling of idle talk; therefore, we may be more lenient in our appraisal. It bears the family resemblance of informality but differs from idle talk in one important respect: it is not the venting of stale fumes from unreflecting minds; rather, it represents an act of surreptitious appreciation. The themes of casual speech may, like idle talk, remain on a trivial, even coarse, plane, but these themes are substantially irrelevant to the nonverbal reason for the conversation — the oblique probing of another psyche. Indeed, this casual give-and-take is a process of valuation. Ezra Pound's "Tame Cat"1 is illustrative of this:


"It rests me to be among beautiful women.
Why should one always lie about such matters?
I repeat:
It rests me to converse with beautiful women
Even though we talk nothing but nonsense,

The purring of the invisible antennae
Is both stimulating and delightful."


Verbal tyranny is a pronounced form of anti-conversation. Here, genuine dialogue is not simply the victim of entropy and deflation, effected passively by idle chatter. No, here the ramparts are stormed in a zealous crusading for a singular point of view and a consequent seizure of available time for the righteous campaign. A definite topic will be brought up, but it will not be brokered in the idea market of free and equal discourse. It is here to make a point: that the topic holder must be heard and heard exhaustively. This person is not interested in hearing another point of view. His is the only worthy one. And this is verbal tyranny. Verbal oppression. The rules of respectful engagement have been dispensed with in a fury of monomaniacal theme-staking and point-making. Verbal tyranny is most on exhibit when the discussion is about religion, politics, or some topic equally incendiary. As the tyrant conquers more and more conversational territory, the other, far from being persuaded, is likely to formulate a plan of escape from the insatiable Torquemada or intransigent Stalin. It is incumbent on those with strong convictions (not a sin, in itself) to restrain a militant certitude so that understanding becomes possible. If you are overwhelmed with enthusiasm for your belief or opinion, take a moment to reflect on how psychologically suspect and statistically capricious it is that you, and not the other, are privileged with unshakable truth.


Interruption is a particularly noxious gas in the arsenal of verbal tyranny. How many times have you attempted to proffer a topic of supposed interest, only to have it asphyxiated as soon as it begins to leave your lips? You've certainly had no time to complete your thought, and you stand there dumbfounded and helpless as your subject expires in the ego-charged air.


Data exchange is a necessary but unremarkable type of conversation. It's a neutral category, consisting in the mere relay of information. The routines of the workplace function through its operation, and this exchange of messages is about getting things done, not about conversing. There is little to praise or vilify about data exchange, other than to lament its use as a substitute when there is opportunity for more meaningful conversation. Its incursion into home life may become habitual and unconscious to the point that the family milieu comes to resemble the operation of a computer. Merely processing "bits," a computer does not reflect on their quality. Yes, there is practical messaging to be done and news to share, but like idle talk, data exchange can lead to a dulling of the ear, where no datum has more significance than another. We are then liable to pass one another by on this word-stream of colloquial mediocrity. Vigilance is required for maintaining — through heightened and deepened speech acts — the realness, the rooted-in-presentness of each family member.


Genuine dialogue is a living, moving complex of matter and energy. Words are the cells that build the tissue of our talking, while awareness is the catalytic spark. As in a potent alchemy, our conversations should be crucibles for making something. They should be conspiratorial efforts to make time real — to mutually re-cognize (bring afresh to mind) the uncanniness of existence. Thus, it is crucial that our syntax be supple, our vocabulary conditioned for acts of creation. How wearisome and irksome it is listening to opinions expressed without flair or wit (a sign of awareness). Presence of mind amid the clamor of external stimuli is how I would describe awareness, but achieving and maintaining it are not easy assignments. We lack the mystical talent and control of an Indian rishi, so we must look for a shortcut. I submit a counterintuitive course: humility. Turning away from self and toward the other, the humble person might paradoxically become a vessel for a special type of awareness in which a real conversation may catalyze.


John Keats spoke of "negative capability" — an imaginative sympathy — and it gave him a profound insight into the nature of his subject. With the semantic tension quivering between the two poles, "negative" and "capability," I will borrow Keats's phrase and blend it into my suggestion for dialogical humility. The concept can then be understood as a becoming aware of oneself through verbal transaction with another. Through the "force" of humility, attention will be directed outward and focused on the one who is speaking. Such a focus will empower an identification, therefore a mirroring back onto self-consciousness. With awareness comes a "deceleration" of time, allowing unusual moments of shared presence.


A viable colloquy grows out of respectfulness and fair play, two elements in the practice of humility. To converse in this manner means that you acknowledge in principle your interlocutor as being on an equal ideational footing. If you cannot abstractly submit to this condition, and at least play along, then you should not join the conversation. Otherwise, your contribution will actually be usurpation, which is the manner of a tyrant.


If our purpose is to consider conversations as artworks, it would be proper to have a working definition of art. Broadly construed, it is the organized expression of inspired thoughts and feelings. The art of conversation, therefore, involves an organum for structuring an aroused theme. What would be the main precept of such an organum? To paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge, our words should encompass and retrieve the whole of our thought, instead of proceeding verbatim from their spontaneous, haphazard mental occurrence (but this whole-of-our-thought must reach an appropriate terminus: Coleridge was prolix in his own conversing, apparently something of a verbal tyrant). Our sentences should be holistic, not pointillistic, and with practice, a talent for this kind of speaking will emerge, resulting in natural expressions endowed with composure. Of course, the creation of such verbal art will require the devotion of more than one to the project. In genuine discourse, reciprocal dynamics generate a feedback loop of existential grounding and edification. This collaborative effort, like an improvised performance of music, moves rhythmically toward a coda and then fades into the province of memory.


Some other principles of engagement that go into the making of a good conversationalist are as follows:


1. Be relatively certain that the topic you wish to broach is one that the other person would be interested in.


2. Listen closely, calmly, and thoughtfully to what the other person has to say before responding. You might consider briefly restating the other person's idea in your own words to show that you have really understood what was said before attacking or embellishing.


3. Be alert to the fair-play requirement that the discussion time must be equally divided. Flooding the sound-space with an excess of one's own opinions and interests is to be crass and boorish.


4. Keep the original topic in mind. This suggestion is important for respecting the person who began the conversation, but it is a flexible one. After all, a stimulating conversation is one in which a leavening takes place — a lifting into higher levels of consideration, an infusion of vivifying subthemes.


5. Avoid the stultifying effect of clichés. They rob your speech of vigor and authenticity. Let these threadbare hand-me-downs decompose completely from your closet of phrases. The best method for invigorating one's vocabulary and broadening one's conversational range is to read books (preferably, well-written, provocative ones).


6. If you are unable to abide by principles 1 through 5, then please resist the urge to speak. Use this new quiet time to try and understand why you are so conversationally challenged and uncharitable.


Although these principles are important, they are not intended as rigid procedures. Imagine the folly of trying to converse while constantly accessing a mental list of rules. Speech would be a halting, disjointed affair. Rather, these criteria are offered as candles to glow softly in the back of the mind.


With the foregoing in place, the question may then occur: what is the substance of an edifying conversation? What should we talk about? I have dealt harshly with idle talk, equivocally with casual speech, proscriptively with verbal tyranny, and indifferently with data exchange. Is the subject matter that arises from these usual categories necessarily inferior? Must all real conversations be about deep things like art, literature, philosophy, and science? I don't think so. Whether the topic is sports, shopping, entertainment, or even the weather, the manner of conversing will, I propose, "consecrate" the subject of a dialogue, leading to the possibility of communion and a heightening of a sense of actuality.


In conclusion, the art of conversation is the art of being human. It is the art of valuing and verbally embracing another. Language is haunted with a fragrance of transcendence. We can speak (therefore think) the infinite and the eternal. Our words are acts of spirituality that sprinkle a residue of mystery on a seemingly mundane earth. Converse with genuineness in the attempt to uncover something sacred not only in your correspondent but in yourself.



..............

Note:


1. Ezra Pound, Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, A New Directions Paperbook (New York, 1957), p. 37.



Vocabula Review




looking at a painting by Corot

They are dancing in the pale sunlight,

having arisen from black dreams of the fatherland,

dreams too dark for spirits.

They dance in the dawn fog as

great trees hover like providence,

watchful, rooted, spreading.

They dance a wild waltz of morning as

dew drips like wanton tears

from the grave grass.

They dance to a rhythm sprung

fresh in springtime, turning, spinning,

gliding in cool sunlight,

forgetting...


cold concrete walls and hard faces

near a sepulchral door, where

the shocked air chills as they pass;

soon the gas in the horror in the black

makes of them a floor of corpses,

a soft spread of death...


but now they are dancing

in the purgatory of a painting

that I might, in cosmic grief,

tear my garments

and cover my head with ashes

and gnash my teeth

for these, my lost nymphs.


melodrama (a dream)

I know how the marsh rat feels,
reeling below the hunting owl...
after last night under helicopters'
hard blades.

The round moon fixed me as a point
of eye-glint on the war field, where
red lights blinked overhead.

Then heavy missiles came,
came tilting like heads of archangels,
came silent through the doomed night,
came hard by the round moon.

But morning came sooner,
bringing with it a deeper dread: sunlight,
normality.


"I awake, but my soul is in dreams." -- William Blake