Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Saints, Winners, and Too Many Parentheses

I have always loved the gaps, the spaces between things, as much as the things. I love staring, pondering, mulling, puttering. I love the times when someone or something is late—there’s that rich possibility of noticing more, in the meantime…Poetry calls us to pause. There is so much we overlook, while the abundance around us continues to shimmer, on its own.    -Naomi Shahib Nye

Here is a quick little post, because it is time for the dreams to begin.  

I have been visiting birds and friends in New Mexico, and spending time among the big rocks in Colorado.  Today I went for a run for the first time in almost a month and it felt so good to burn my lungs with the cold air.  I shouldn't really complain about this cold snap that refuses to leave and let spring have her turn.  It has sheltered some last-chance lolly-gagging, before the sun arrives and seduces me outdoors away from all my nerdy projects.  On the run today, I and my ill-behaving dog were caught red-handed at the dog park, inside the fence when a perfectly reasonable golden retriever came in to play.  I sprinted the length of a football field to reach the owner before my dog did.  The mannerly family waited outside while I wrangled my well-meaning but off-putting beast into his leash and ushered him out to the sidewalk, where we teeth-baring, hackles-happy types belong. Once upon a time when I lived in Asheville, North Carolina, I let my dog run free around the neighborhood.  I don't know what I was thinking.  Bears regularly visited our front lawn.  I also feel sorry for the canines in the hood who had to share their yards with my rough-talking, fur-biting pal.  I will be repaying this karmic debt forever, I think. 

Last night, whilst getting up the courage to edit some writing, I snuck over to YouTube and looked up the poet, Mark Doty, reading some of his poems.  I have heard the man read in person before (in a room with 300 other people, but still) and although I can't say I followed every word he said, he absolutely owned my attention.  He seemed to me at once so dedicated to the art of poetry--so devoted to its company--and so deliciously aware of his performance.  His presence magnetized
the room

I remember being impressed, curious about what the devil else this man wrote, and completely refreshed by his reading.  It was like stumbling into Poetry, an ex that I had never been ashamed to have once claimed, and having all my recollections confirmed.  Poetry was lookin good. 

(That might be the definition of a mixed metaphor? You get what I mean.)

Anyway, on The YouTube, I watched a sweet little video in which Doty visits a community college and talks to a room full of arms-crossed undergraduates about what it is like to be a "living" writer--as opposed to all the dead ones that schools love to read and, (my words here) obsess over.  (That is a dangling participle.  I'm aware and don't know how to fix it.  I mean, I don't know how without sounding like I sat on a ruler or an E.M. Forster book.  I happen to like E.M. Forster, btw.  I just don't need to sound like him.  Which, beautifully, is maybe part of Mark Doty's point, about living writers.

But I digress.)

One MD insight from the video clip, for your Wednesday cud (ew?)
"A poem is an invitation to daydream.  Reading a cereal box, or the instructions that come with your I-phone is not an invitation to daydream.  It asks you to focus. Reading poetry asks you to let your focus go.  And we’re just not accustomed to that—to spending time in that way." 

Please don't ask me why I change the color of quotes on this blog.  I like to. 

The other little gem I stumbled upon on The YouTube ("the" refers to my father's habit of calling it that, which I think is a joke?), which made all of last night's procrastination feel a little less errant, is this very short, remarkably nourishing definition of creativity by Naomi Shihab Nye.

And now for the gem-ish poem I dragged up last night on, looking for more words by Mark Doty.  I have started two of his memoirs and finished none; not for a lack of quality on his part.  His prose feels like a combination of thoughtful prayer, texture bazaar, and history lesson. I saturate quickly. He adores dogs, however, or seems to because he writes about them a lot.  I also like dogs, and try not to write about them a lot.  (Is this the first time I have written about the dog park, or what!  I rest my case.)

This poem is about a church and I love churches.  I recently visited the Basilica in Santa Fe and snap snap snapped away on my camera, all but disbelieving that it was a real church.  Tim and I were both struck by the church's museum-like cleanliness. This did not stop me, however, from visiting the marble baptismal bowl burbling with holy water, or staring in ardor at the astounding tub-like fountain in its wake. I pictured a party of Baptists splashing with delight in its black, glistening core. More on this--masculine/feminine religious spaces and, if you're lucky, parties of Baptists--later.

This poem is also set in Wisconsin, and I love Wisconsin.  But I think I chose this poem because I have on my mind Tim's sister, who is a poet.  She lives in Wisconsin.  She also wrote a poem about a church!  What are the odds?  Because I can't find her beautiful poem online, you can read a different one by her.  (And now, because I have mentioned this, I may never get a Christmas present from her again.  This would be terrible, as she is a great shopper and gift giver.  But I, like Mark Doty, will lie down on the tracks in the name of poetry!  Or, the name of Jim Harrison, who shares the Writer's Almanac page with my sister-in-law.  I have married into an exquisitely private family--perhaps that is why they are all gifted writers?  Then again, I have a friend who writes stories and theorizes that his friends don't care how bad he makes them sound on the page.  Everyone loves being written about, he says.  Is this true?) 

If I find a church poem of my own, I'll be sure to share it with you.  For now, Mark Doty's words will have to do. This poem is kind of long, which is a joking complaint I have about some poems. When are we gonna get there?!  I sort of start to panic. (Which is, maybe, how you feel about this blog post? 
You know what?  This post wasn't short at all.  My dreams are like, WTF?  We've been waiting for over an hour.)  

When I get to that panicky place reading a poem, I just pretend that MD in the flesh--more specifically, at the podium of a large, established poetry forum--is reading it to me.  I settle into my uncomfortable seat, try to forget about the Milk Duds in my pocket (they would make so much noise! Just forget about it! You can wait.) and let the man take half the day if he wants to, reading his big, g-d-damn, true-to-a-t poem.

Dickeyville Grotto
by Mark Doty

The priest never used blueprints, but worked all
the many designs out of his head.

Father Wilerus,
transplanted Alsatian,
built around
this plain Wisconsin

redbrick church
a coral-reef en-
the brochure says,

to glorify America
and heaven simul-
taneously. Thus:
Mary and Columbus

and the Sacred Heart
equally enthroned
in a fantasia of quartz
and seashells, broken

dishes, stalactites
and stick-shift knobs--
no separation
of nature and art

for Father Wilerus!
He's built fabulous blooms
--bristling mosaic tiles
bunched into chipped,

permanent roses---
and more glisteny
stuff than I can catalogue,
which seems to he the point:

a spectacle, saints
and Stars and Stripes
billowing in hillocks
of concrete. Stubborn

insistence on rendering
invisibles solid. What's
more frankly actual
than cement? Surfaced,

here, in pure decor:
even the railings
curlicued with rows
of identical whelks,

even the lampposts
and birdhouses,
and big encrusted urns
wagging with lunar flowers!

A little dizzy,
the world he's made,
and completely
unapologetic, high

on a hill in Dickeyville
so the wind whips
around like crazy.
A bit pigheaded,

yet full of love
for glitter qua glitter,
sheer materiality;
a bit foolhardy

and yet -- sly sparkle --
he's made matter giddy.
Exactly what he wanted,
I'd guess: the very stones

gone lacy and beaded,
an airy intricacy
of froth and glimmer.
For God? Country?

Lucky man:
his purpose pales
beside the fizzy,
weightless fact of rock.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Love of Danger

Words from the First Futurist Manifesto, printed in Le Figaro in 1909
Tonight I'm thinking about artists in the world, sewing their snippets of dreams together, everything together. I found these words in an old sketchbook, taken from The Shock of the New, by Robert Hughes. I am shocked how much I like the old drawings I started in graduate school, when I was going out of my mind with stress.

I'm thinking about constellations building in the soul, and lots and lots of color.    

Essential dignity.

The long, roundabout way of arriving. 

Wherever it is we are headed (you, me, the turtles), let us say to each other:
Keep Going!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Talkin Country

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
       love what it loves
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

It's a rainy spring/winter day here in Colorado.  I have been laid out with a case of the end-of-winter musings, eating lots of cheese and staring into space for the past week, but yesterday the spell broke.  Since then, it feels like my feet haven't hit the ground. 

I recently dove headlong into Roseanne Cash's memoir, Composed. Reading it feels like stepping into a best friend's kitchen.  Like the best of art, or the best of friends, her voice and insight strikes to the very core of my heart, and I'm not ashamed to say I teared up reading its first pages. 

I also read a book by Karen Maezen Miller during my weekend stupor (fittingly a book on engaging more deeply with your daily life...Note to self: mindfully get up off the couch).  The book was called Hand Wash Cold, and something she wrote keeps cycling through my head.  This is a paraphrase, because I already returned the book to the library.  She says it takes a mother to heal a daughter, and a daughter to heal a father.  Reading about Roseanne Cash's relationship to her father moves me not just because of a life-long obsession with Johnny Cash, with whom I share a birthday, and whom my friend Colleen and I used to call JC, jokingly usurping Christ's initials for the purposes of a different worship.  I appreciated Cash's honest reflection upon her father because reading about any earnest look at parent-child relationships really moves me.

And so, when I got to Cash's summation of country music and song-writing, I felt a shiver pass from the bottom of my spine up my back, and felt it rush out of my arms.  Cash writes: At the heart of country music lies family, lies a devotion to exploring the bonds of blood ties, both  in performance and in song-writing...Country and roots music treat family as a rich and fascinating source of material...

When people first learn that I am writing a novel, a lot of them ask what it's about.  I used to smugly answer, "A family."  It is still my sincere answer, my umbrella answer--one part goofy and one part hide-out.  Superstition rules more moments in my life than I like to admit.  "Your family?" some people ask.  "No, no," I say.  "A family."  What I mean is, Family.  I am writing a book about Family. 

When I was little, I called my mother to the television to see a country singer performing on a show.  I was pretty excited about it.  My mother made it half way across the room before covering her ears and just about running away.  Since then, I've tried to come up with explanations for why I love country music so much, because as I grew up, I recognized that our love affair--country music's and mine--is a little ironic.  Like the scene in Kissing Jessica Stein, when the two main characters are trying to define what "sexy ugly" means.  Country is sexy-ugly to me.  I know it's not Brahms.  I know it's not Radiohead, not Weezer, not Beck.  (But it is Wilco, is Dylan, is Jack White wailing on a guitar while Loretta Lynn warbles into the front mike.)  Where I come from, country is not what the cool kids are listening to, and I know this all too well. 

But lately I've given up wondering why I blast Alan Jackson through the house whenever I come home.  Or why I have not stopped playing Tammy Wynette's greatest hits for the past five days.  I make no apologies.  My downstairs housemate, who is an actor, is rehearsing for a musical. When the clock strikes noon, I know it is time to bolt from the house, because soon he will play the same two songs over and over, singing choral refrains in the laundry room, in his bedroom, in the driveway...It is both a fascinating glimpse of an artist's life and a daily reminder that creativity is a home-grown force.  In any case, for this reason, I play Stand By Your Man like a clock striking the hour, and feel no remorse.  Tit for tat.

I think I know who to blame for this passion--my friend from college.  A shy soccer player from Masachusettes, Liz introduced me to the great car songs of our college life--country musicians I had been hiding from in my leafy Connecticut perch.  I had been born into a southern heritage--my grandfather's heavy radio dialed to twangy guitars and whining lyrics while he ate banana sandwiches for lunch, peanut butter crackers with glasses of milk for a snack, in between round after round with his riding lawn mower--but when I was five, my family moved to Connecticut.  There, my mother could escape the music that had become so ludicrous to her.  She joined a choral group and sang show tunes at nursing homes and schools with a collection of sassy women.  My father could scan the Times as he rode the train into New York every morning.  We bought scarves to cover our tender ears the first winter.  We took pictures at a snowy beach on our first Thanksgiving, after we ate in a restaurant--one little clan of funny-talking children led by two sweet sweet adults.  In the spring, when daffodils came up in my grandmother's garden, we were 600 miles away.  When her tomatoes came up in the summer, we were driving the 600 miles south to eat them by the peppered slice.

People ask me where I am from, and I say to them, North Carolina.  You don't sound like you're from North Carolina, they reply.  I know.  But trust me.  I am.  My grandmother's house, her kitchen, the big ass radio and pristine white carpets--if there is any hometown left in this traveling heart, it is there.  And country music takes me back there, delivers me to my first home--to the south, the place where everything is a little bit broken, a little bit off, and sometimes, if you look too closely, a little bit something to be ashamed of...especially to an outsider's eye.  But I don't have an outsider's eye.  There is no accusation left for me--just pure adoration.

There is a yogic saying--This is perfect, that is perfect.  If the perfect be taken from the perfect, the perfect remains.  I think that's what I love about country music - the exaggerated brokenness, and the reverence for that very thing.  It is redemption, I guess you could say.  In true southern fashion, it's a straight shot of Jesus, chased with a spot of sun through the porch screen.

Last night, I heard Robert Plant and Alison Krauss's version of Your Long Journey (off of the album Raising Sand) and immediately imagined singing it with my mother.  We used to sing together before bed every night, and though we have not sung together much since, she has a voice as delicate as crystal, and as clear, and I am so grateful for the gift of song which she passed on to me.

In honor of Johnny Cash, and artists everywhere, I leave you with these words by Roseanne Cash: ...what I understand more clearly now, is that it's not just the singing you bring home with you.  It's the constant measuring of ideas and words if you are a songwriter, and the daily handling of your instrument if you are a musician, and the humming and scratching and pushing and testing of the voice, the reveling in the melodies if you are a singer.  More than that, it is the effort to straddle two worlds, and the struggle to make the transition from the creative realms to those of daily life and back with grace.  My father did all of those, as a habit of being.  He provided a template for me, of how to live with integrity as an artist day to day.

May we all give thanks to our teachers, to our roots.