Thursday, April 17, 2014

won't you tell us how to live?


by Adam Zagajewski

I liked the comic rituals of young poets,
the panicked moments, the anxieties
before the reading, the slow passage
through a dark corridor toward the lighted stage,
performing poems to a drowsy
public that woke up now and then,
the great and lesser envies and the moment when
the inarguable charm of one good line,
an unexpected metaphor or image meant
that all was - temporarily - forgiven.
Sometimes someone would ask uncertainly -
but won't you tell us how to live?
- I thought it was funny then, but not now.
I liked the silence not without
its deeper meanings, the jokes, the chats
with timid readers and finally
the signing of the books with the names
that we knew, without question,
truly belonged to us.

- from Unseen Hand by Adam Zagajewski

Well, tonight is my hometown book launch, and though I can't call myself a young poet, I'm sure I have certain comic rituals, and certainly anxieties. Woke up to another day of snow falling and the forecast is for more all day. We're used to snow here, though not so much in late April, of course.

I think at poetry readings, in books of poetry, this is still what we want, for the poet to tell us how to live. I always find hints of this in Zagajewski's work. For myself, hoping for 'the inarguable charm of one good line,' uttered while the snow falls in the spring, settling on branches and on cars.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

each face in the street


By W.S. Merwin

for Wendell Berry

Each face in the street is a slice of bread
wandering on

somewhere in the light the true hunger
appears to be passing them by
they clutch

have they forgotten the pale caves
they dreamed of hiding in
their own caves
full of the waiting of their footprints
hung with the hollow marks of their groping
full of their sleep and their hiding

have they forgotten the ragged tunnels
they dreamed of following in out of the light
to hear step after step

the heart of bread
to be sustained by its dark breath
and emerge

to find themselves alone
before a wheat field
raising its radiance to the moon

One of my favourite paintings is Vermeer's The Milkmaid. (Detail of it below). Maybe because of the beauty of the bread, the dark breath of it. Maybe because of the expression on her face - which says so much, and yet holds secrets. Maybe it's the silence of the painting. Or the way I feel suddenly quiet, quieted, looking at it. 

If you'd like to spend a little time with some of Vermeer's work - the high resolution images here are pretty wonderful to zoom in and out of. 

Thinking, then, this morning, about how we sustain ourselves. About radiance. About those dreams we follow into and out of the light.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

imagine setting it all down

Camas Lilies

by Lynn Ungar

Consider the lilies of the field,
the blue banks of camas opening
into acres of sky along the road.
Would the longing to lie down
and be washed by that beauty
abate if you knew their usefulness,
how the native ground their bulbs
for flour, how the settlers' hogs
uprooted them, grunting in gleeful
oblivion as the flowers fell?

And you—what of your rushed
and useful life? Imagine setting it all down—
papers, plans, appointments, everything—
leaving only a note: "Gone
to the fields to be lovely. Be back
when I'm through blooming."

Even now, unneeded and uneaten,
the camas lilies gaze out above the grass
from their tender blue eyes.
Even in sleep your life will shine.
Make no mistake. Of course
your work will always matter.
Yet Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.

I've not seen a field of camas lilies - have you? I'm also new to the work of Lynn Ungar.

There is the echo of Mary Oliver's well known lines from the end of "The Summer Day."

Compare Ungar's:

"And you - what of your rushed
 and useful life? Imagine setting it down..."

To Oliver's:

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?"

In both poems, the field, the attention to details, to nature.

The Summer Day

Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Yesterday I had a go at photographing my mother-in-law's teacups. Very thankful for new subject matter! Outside it's rather brown and dirty and snow mouldy. No sign of buds yet. No signs of spring, unless you count the geese flying over from time to time.

So I'll leave you with the remaining photos.....and wish for you a nice long cup of tea somewhere in your day. And the opportunity to set it all down. All of it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

very clear moments

Strong in the Rain 

by Kenji Miyazawa

Strong in the rain
Strong in the wind
Strong against the summer heat and snow
He is healthy and robust
Free from desire
He never loses his temper
Nor the quiet smile on his lips
He eats four go of unpolished rice
Miso and a few vegetables a day
He does not consider himself
In whatever occurs
His understanding
Comes from observation and experience
And he never loses sight of things
He lives in a little thatched-roof hut
In a field in the shadows of a pine tree grove
If there is a sick child in the east
He goes there to nurse the child
If there’s a tired mother in the west
He goes to her and carries her sheaves
If someone is near death in the south
He goes and says, ‘Don’t be afraid’
If there are strife and lawsuits in the north
He demands that the people put an end to their pettiness
He weeps at the time of drought
He plods about at a loss during the cold summer
Everybody calls him Blockhead
No one sings his praises
Or takes him to heart

That is the sort of person
I want to be

- translation by Roger Pulvers

By now you might have seen the Thai insurance company commercial that's gone viral. If not, here it is.  The video reminded me of the poem.

The lines in the poem above struck me:

He does not consider himself
In whatever occurs
His understanding
Comes from observation and experience
And he never loses sight of things

I've been thinking a lot lately about the imperfections in our transactions with each other, in spite of best intentions, sometimes. About how easy it is to 'lose sight of things.' And also, how even though we can take part in hundreds of interactions that actually go pretty well, it's the one that didn't go quite so beautifully that sets up shop in our minds. It's the one we end up beating ourselves up over.

This somehow led me to think about how we present ourselves, especially on the internet. Those of us promoting a book at some point have to go on probably a bit too much about the book. At the same time we're attempting to convince everyone we can to buy the book, we might be filled with self-doubt and the feeling, the hope, that the next book will be better.

I don't think I'm the world's best poet, or blogger, and I know my photographs, while fine, are not always brilliant. I make mistakes every day. My house is often a mess, and the entire day could pass with toast crumbs on the kitchen table. I wish I could be kinder, and consistently think well of people. I wish for elegance. I wish to be more understanding. For compassion. I wish I could be less nervous some days, and more confident. I wish I'd said this instead of that.

The thing is, we're imperfect. I'm imperfect. Where to go with it?

“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”
 - Pema Chödrön


“Remind yourself, in whatever way is personally meaningful, that it is not in your best interest to reinforce thoughts and feelings of unworthiness. Even if you’ve already taken the bait and feel the familiar pull of self-denigration, marshal your intelligence, courage, and humor in order to turn the tide. Ask yourself: Do I want to strengthen what I’m feeling now? Do I want to cut myself off from my basic goodness? Remind yourself that your fundamental nature is unconditionally open and free.”
 - Pema Chodron

These are the thoughts I'm going to sit with today.

Leaving you with a hint of photographs to come this week. (With thanks to my mother-in-law for borrowed teacups)......

Friday, April 11, 2014

the reason I drink

Short Talk on Van Gogh

by Anne Carson

The reason I drink is to understand the
yellow sky the great yellow sky, said
Van Gogh. When he looked at the
world he saw the nails that attach
colours to things and he saw that the
nails were in pain.

I'm a little bit obsessed with yellow right now. And thinking about Van Gogh. Monet. Sunflowers.

The above photo taken at The Met last week. Not possible to get a photograph of just the painting - always people swarming around it. The guard constantly telling people not to get so close.

Here is Rob with Monet's sunflowers:

A terrible photo of me - but in front of Joan Mitchell's sunflower!

"Sunflowers are something I feel very intensively. They look so wonderful when young and they are so moving when dying. I don’t like fields of sunflowers. I like them alone or, of course, painted by Van Gogh."

- Joan Mitchell

Coincidentally, (?) Rob began painting a sunflower before we left, and is nearing the end. A couple more days work left on it, he tells me. But here is one he painted a while ago.

In other news, a recent piece I wrote titled "The Flower Can Always Be Changing," was published yesterday on the wonderful website, Numero Cinq. Take a look here.

And lastly, more author copies arrived yesterday. I was a nervous wreck, in all honesty, opening the box. You'd think I'd be all calm and cool about it - but I think I was more nervous with this one, than any of my previous books. (Maybe because I know too much, lol, I know what potentially lies ahead....). 

I'm thrilled with the book, the cover, the way it feels in my hand. And looking forward to launching it in Edmonton next week at Audreys Books next Thursday evening, the 17th at 7pm. More info here. 

If you've ordered the book, you should be getting it soon! Can't wait to hear your thoughts on it. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

I save these moments for myself

The need to defend and define poetry. When we know very well it speaks for itself, must speak for itself.

I've turned again this morning to Adam Zagajewski's Defense of Ardor. In the title essay, he asks, "But what is poetry? Anyone who looks through the catalogue of large libraries will find a fair number of variations upon the 'defense of poetry.' It's almost a separate literary genre, with its own venerable tradition....At the same time, though, it is a desperate genre, with something panic-stricken about it. The titles themselves, which struggle to convince us of poetry's 'necessity,' vitality, indispensability, sound nonetheless suspiciously close to capitulation. If you have to insist so strenuously....."

He goes on:

"Fortunately, we don't know precisely what poetry is, and we shouldn't try to figure it out analytically."

"We need poetry just as we need beauty (although I hear there are European countries in which the is last word is strictly forbidden). Beauty isn't only for aesthetes; beauty is for anyone who seeks a serious road. It is a summons, a promise, if not of happiness, as Stendhal hoped, then of a great and endless journey."

In another essay, he asks, "We are so prosaic, so ordinary. Do we even deserve poetry?" 

Maybe not, maybe not, but we do need it, we who seek a serious road. 

He quotes Maupassant in yet another essay,

"From time to time I experience strange, intense, short-lived visions of beauty, an unfamiliar, elusive, barely perceptible beauty that surfaces in certain words or landscapes, certain colourations of the world, certain moments... I'm not able to describe or communicate it, I can't express it or portray it. I save these moments for myself... I have no other reason for continuing, no other cause for keeping on...."

And this too, we need, these short-lived visions of beauty that arise unexpectedly, those moments we save for ourselves. 

Certainly we don't deserve them, but how thankful we are when they arrive.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

two things are certain

After being gone for a week, a mere week, the morning light had changed. Earlier, more honeyed. It swings in at a slightly different angle.

The day after we get back from our spring break vacation, I go to the grocery store to replenish the pantry, and I buy a basil plant and an oregano plant. Rob heads out and buys some hydrangeas because he want to photograph them, get back to work. He also buys a bunch of sunflowers, bright yellow - must be because of the Monet and Van Gogh that we saw. Anyway, who can resist flowers at this change of season where everything is brown, and mud and dirt and grit.

Before we left I'd bought a few books, and hadn't looked at any of them. One was Caribou by Charles Wright. (On the recommended shelf above). I've been reading Charles Wright for a long time. I think I've read nearly everything he's written. When I saw he had a new one out, I hesitated. (Trying not to spend so much money, right).

The first poem I turned to:

Crystal Declension

by Charles Wright

Well, two things are certain -
                                      the sun will rise and the sun will set.
Most everything else is up for grabs.
It's back on its way down now
As a mother moose and her twin calves
Step lightly, lightly
                              across the creek through the understory
And half-lit grasses,
Then disappear in a clutch of willow bushes.
                                                                        If one, anyone,
Could walk through his own life as delicately, as sure,
As she did, all wreckage, all deadfall,
Would stay sunlight, and ring like crystal among the trees.

I think the poem is book review enough.

I've been trying to walk through my life delicately, sure. That's just it, isn't it?

But most everything is up for grabs.

And in truth, I've been stumbling, getting caught up in the underbrush of things, the deadfall. Not picking my way through carefully enough, not stepping lightly, lightly.

But okay, deep breath. Let's begin again.

"The sun will rise and the sun will set."

And thank you, Charles Wright.