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4-29-07hoarfrost2

You talked but after your talking all the rest remains.
After your talking—poets, philosophers, contrivers of romances—everything else,
All the rest deduced inside the flesh
Which lives & knows not just what is permitted.
I am a woman held fast now in a great silence.
Not all creatures have your need for words.
Birds you killed, fish you tossed into your boat,
In what words will they find rest & in what heaven?
You received gifts from me; they were accepted.
But you don’t understand how to think about the dead.
The smell of winter apples, of hoarfrost, and of linen.
There are nothing but gifts on this poor, poor Earth.

—Czeslaw Milosz, from Unattainable Earth

“There are nothing but gifts on this poor, poor Earth.” That’s enough to hold me for most of the day. An unexpectedly flamboyant snowstorm yesterday has made for an MLK Day that is quiet and understated. While tomorrow offers the opportunity to taste the power of community, the collective celebration of the official start of the Obama era, it also brings those of us in this vigil one step closer into the white quiet of Bonnie’s slow but inevitable exit.

Words. They feel so needed and yet they are so disappointingly inept. I keep turning to them, then leaving. Coming back, then turning away again. It feels like a particular kind of restless homelessness, this kind of grief and loss. I don’t think I’ll ever have proficiency with this, not ever.

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I had a conversation yesterday with LP (Lisa the Poet) about speaking the truth whether it be in poetry or in the visual arts. She went to the same lecture by Jenny Saville that I have written about here (although at the time we did not yet know each other) and felt immediately at home as Saville took her audience on a visual tour of many of her haunts for inspiration—the morgue, slaughterhouses, plastic surgery medical files. LP said that Saville was showing us the world and saying in effect, look at these things, really see and accept the reality that is life.

As a non-representational painter, truth speaking takes a different form for my work. But it is still important to me—very important. It feels like this is music written for a different scale, that doesn’t translate over into a 12 tone frame. I was also painfully aware of how difficult it was for me to articulate this distinction in my conversation with LP, something that made me feel the need to pay more attention to what this is.

So I returned to my notes from Saville’s lecture. Here are a few of the jottings I took down that night that may or may not offer insights into this complex but compelling set of issues.

Some excerpts:

Saville said she used text in her earlier works out of desperation. “Writers are more precise.”

Getting out from under the “burden” of painting was important to her. When she started looking at medical images and reading about the body in that detached, scientific way, the “veils of art” were gone. She began a phase where she stopped looking at art and turned to other image making forms to get at the raw state of things.

When matter is out of place, everything changes. That is what she was seeking in her exploration of “monstrous” sized bodies that live outside the norm, or in putting pig intestines in unfamiliar contexts.

Warhol presents icons of violence in a cool and detached way. It is his endless multiplicity of an image that is the violence in his work.

She looks for the in between–a body that is too big, a hermaphrodite, siamese twins, the border between life and death.

Figuration is very problematic. “It is embarrassingly hard to create the reality of human presence.”

* * *
Although not referenced in her lecture, I also found this passage from Umberto Eco’s famous book, A Theory of Semiotics, also fitting for a meditative approach to this topic:

Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else…Thus semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all.

More is needed on this, clearly.

dial

Anterooms

Out of the snowdrift
Which covered it, this pillared
Sundial starts to lift,

Able now at last
To let its frozen hours
Melt into the past

In bright, ticking drops.
Time so often hastens by,
Time so often stops—

Still, it strains belief
How an instant can dilate,
Or long years be brief.

Dreams, which interweave
All our times and tenses, are
What we can believe:

Dark they are, yet plain,
Coming to us now as if
Through a cobwebbed pane

Where, before our eyes,
All the living and the dead
Meet without surprise.

–Richard Wilbur

This poem is for a winter’s day and for the vigil we are all holding for our dear friend Bonnie. That last stanza, “Where, before our eyes,/All the living and dead/Meet without surprise”, has come closer to capturing the ineffable for me this morning than anything else I can say. Bless you Bonnie. Bless you.

Wise beyond her years, my friend Nicole wrote these words to me today:

Loving people is impossible. We shine our weakly powered headlamps into the jungles of each other and the light never seems to penetrate to the heart as we desire. It just can not get there. I suppose that’s the wisdom of praying to be lit from within.

Lit from within. This image has been with me all morning. In the midst of a frigid January (Accuweather predicts that the “Real Feel” in Brookline tonight—which I hope to miss altogether by being safely in bed next to the warm body of my favorite squeeze—will be -26) I am also struck by what it means to be in a winter phase of one’s life. Hibernative. Internal. Slowed down. The appearance of nothing happening.

But the “appearance of nothing happening” is not the complete picture. I reread this passage from Ralph Blum’s The Book of Runes—his description for casting Isa—the rune of standstill, “that which impedes”, ice. Maybe some of his words will speak to you as well:

The winter of the spiritual life is upon you. You may find yourself entangled in a situation to whose implications you are, in effect, blind. You may be powerless to do anything except submit, surrender, even sacrifice some long-cherished desire. Be patient, for this is the period of gestation that precedes a rebirth.

Positive accomplishment is unlikely now. There is a freeze on useful activity, all your plans are on hold. You may be experiencing an unaccustomed drain on your energy and wonder why: A chill wind is reaching you over the ice floes of old outmoded habits.

Trying to hold on can result in shallowness of feeling, a sense of being out of touch with life. Seek to discover what it is you are holding onto that keeps this condition in effect, and let go. Shed, release, cleanse away the old. That will bring on the thaw.

Usually Isa requires a sacrifice of the personal, the “I”. And yet there is no reason for anxiety. Submit and be still, for what you are experiencing is not necessarily the result of your actions or habits, but of the conditions of the time against which you can do nothing. What has been full must empty; what has increased must decrease. This is the way of Heaven and Earth. To surrender is to display courage and wisdom.

At such a time, do not hope to rely on help or friendly support. In your isolation exercise caution and do not stubbornly persist in attempting to work your will. Remain mindful that the seed of the new is present in the shell of the old, the seed of unrealized potential, the seed of the good. Trust your own process, and watch for signs of spring.

isa
Isa

John Tallman’s engaging blog, Color Chunks, has been posting examples of color from every possible setting sent to him by other artists. The range is part of the fun, from an array of tarps on a rooftop to an expanse of landscape. Today he posted three images of mine—one from the Australian Outback, from my window in Brookline and from my recent trip to Florence.

John is still taking submissions, so if you have images that display color in a compelling or unexpected way that you would like to share, contact John through Color Chunks.

aus
Bark from one of Australia’s 700 types of eucalyptus trees

My friend Lisa, a poet who also speaks fluent visual, sent me a book, By Common Salt, a collection of poems by Killarney Clary. “She’s a quiet poet, but one of my favorites,” L wrote on the card inside the package.

I sat down immediately and read the entire book cover to cover. Clary is a find. These poems are written in short prose form, something that is deceptive in its simplicity and flow. These feel strobe-like in their quick capture of an unforgettable moment, impulse, emotion.

Thank you for this introduction, Lisa. Now I’m on the look out for a visual artist who I can bring to L and knock her out.

Here are two by Clary to give you a taste.

What can anything stand for if to promise is to freeze circumstances? The illusions that growth is a sacred map, the way a member of the meeting will say, “Wrap it up,” the ticket line that stretches out—each points to spending life, and the few huge drops of rain dry away in seconds. I am someone else now. Try me again.

***

Where light falls between the door and frame onto the polished floor, where I put my hand at dusk in the grass while birds tune their orchestra, louder, more players until the air is all sound…

If I don’t have time, I feel the shadow swelling and desperation in song. Come to me when I am. I am not enough.

God’s Acrostic

What if the universe is God’s acrostic?
He’s sneaking bits of proverbs into seismic variations;
Abbreviating psalms in flecks of snow.
Try to read them, says a comet,

If you dare.
Fine print. What you’ve been waiting for.

Twisted in the DNA of marmosets:
Hermetic feedback to your tight-lipped prayer.
Examine indentations left by hailstones in the grass;

Unearth their parallel soliloquies;
Note, too, the shifting patterns in the shibboleths
Initiating each communication.
Verify them. Don’t take my word.
Eavesdrop on the planets in the outer spheres; they may
Reverse the letters’ previous direction.
Silence, as you might imagine, has no bearing here.
Episodes of stillness—however brief—must be

Interpreted as unheard
Sounds,

Gaps that, with any luck, you’ll fill in later—
Or so you tell yourself, acknowledging
Delusion’s primal status in this enterprise.
Still, that’s no reason to slow down.

Abandonments are howling out around you:
Cast-off lamentations from the thwarted drops of rain
Reduced to vapor on their struggle down;
Observe, at the very least, their passing.
Sanctify them. Don’t succumb
To anything less potent than a spelled-out
Invitation to rule a not yet formulated nebula.
Calm yourself. You’ll hear it come.

–Jaqueline Osherow

I have been in an email conversation with my friend L about poets turning to visual artists for inspiration (she is, inter alia, a poet) and vice versa. In general I find poets and poetry more compatible (sympathetic? aligned?) with my experiences in the studio than I do talking with other visual artists. L thinks writers can be a bit cranky, and I think visual artists tend to be.

This issue has many sides. My sister Rebecca, a consummate musician, is compelled by composing and would like to do more. Even though she has the musical gifts, I listen to more contemporary music than she does. But that is by design and primarily a matter of self-protection: She doesn’t want to drown out her own music with overexposure to the work of others. In a similar vein, Rilke once wrote that he didn’t read the reviews of his books because he didn’t want to disturb his subconscious.

I do have visual artist friends whose minds and points of view excite, delight and inspire me. But their impact on my work feels more macro than micro. Meanwhile the straw, dirt and clay I need to build come from lots of small and random encounters, with tiny aha’s and those chords that hit the resonating board deep inside. The instantaneous and random insights come by way of poetry more frequently than almost anything else I do each day.

Thank you to 3 Quarks Daily for introducing me to Osherow’s work. I read this and immediately began searching for more that would be available to read online. Every other poem by her that I found was compelling.

Originally from Philadelphia, Osherow now teaches poetry and creative writing at the University of Utah. Small world. I spent two semesters there after I returned from a year in France, attending school there at the same time Karl Rove was beginning his pernicious career as a political operative with the Young Republicans. But there’s no reason to spend time on that peculiar and random overlap since we are just days from the official end to the worst political era in our country’s history, in which Rove played a major role. January 20 can’t come fast enough.

This poem has a cosmic swat, but I find a redemptive sense of calm when I read it. That’s something we can all use more of. I hope you get a hit of that too.

greevaye2a
Greevaye 2, mixed media on wood panel, 2008

studiowindow
View of my studio, looking north

Friend and artist Pam Farrell has invited artists to do a show and tell on her blog. Calling her project Interactive Studio Blog Post–ISBP–Pam now has nearly 10 artists who have participated. Their postings typically feature a work or body of work and an image of their studio.

Pam included some salient quotes from James Elkins about studios and workspaces:

In “What Painting Is”, James Elkins includes a chapter entitled “The Studio as a Kind of Psychosis”.

Working in a studio means leaving the clean world of normal life and moving into a shadowy domain where everything bears the marks of the singular obsession.

Elkins talks about the artists’ studio in terms of the alchemy of art making:

Alchemy is the best model for this plague of paint, for the self-imprisonment of the studio and for the allure of insanity.

For those of you interested in behind-the-scenes art making, it is definitely worth a visit. And for anyone who is a maker who would like to open their own kimono a bit, you can contact Pam directly.

P Farrell Artblog

greenaway
Still image from the film Pillow Book

Sex Without Love

How do they do it, the ones who make love
without love? Beautiful as dancers,
Gliding over each other like ice-skaters
over the ice, fingers hooked
inside each other’s bodies, faces
red as steak, wine, wet as the
children at birth, whose mothers are going to
give them away. How do they come to the
come to the come to the God come to the
still waters, and not love
the one who came there with them, light
rising slowly as steam off their joined
skin? These are the true religious,
the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
accept a false Messiah, love the
priest instead of the God. They do not
mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
they are like great runners: they know they are alone
with the road surface, the cold, the wind,
the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio
vascular health–just factors, like the partner
in the bed, and not the truth, which is the
single body alone in the universe
against its own best time.

–Sharon Olds

Olds. She nails it again. I’m in pure awe when that happens.

mermaid

The Feejee Mermaid

August, 1842. She never lived separated.
Orangutan torso and fish tail cut in half and sewn together
to make one. The crowd saw only the ghosts
of her pendulous breasts; they dried
in the terrible manner of flesh.
For long hair, a baboon head became necessary.
The singular perfection of craft rendered her stitches
invisible. After months of hype—banners depicting
one lovely girl, head thrown back, bare-chested and white, rising from the blue sea—
Do you hate me? Am I horrible to you?
Barnum was fond of quoting, “the pleasure often is as great of being cheated
as to cheat” and the monster was, after all,
exciting.

There is a renegade self-satisfaction in our collective:
it obeys unacknowledged cravings. In my lover’s bed,
there are times we can’t breathe for proximity, devotion heavy on our bodies,
weighing down the sheets, so that we kick them off to hang
unnoticed in the air. Where do we go to escape each other?
How to escape these enclosed nights for Hell’s everlasting bordello,
watch this comfortable fat sizzle from muscle and bone,
dance like a showgirl in bright, painted flames?

What have I done? I own a fraction of this body.
My head is strange, my appendages. Touching, I feel that I could be
this singular art, this negation, this vilification of my own sacred version.
I am alive, a stitched together woman,
the love you have searched for your whole life long.
Transformation comes and goes.
Not monkey, not fish: a perfect whole. For you, I broke apart the whole;
for you I suffer this heavy trunk of joy.

–Kristina Jean Kruse

My friend L at Virgin in the Volcano posted this amazing poem in response to my piece dated January 3, “Finding the Edge”. It is too good to keep hidden in the comments stack, and L was kind enough to let me post it here.

Kruse was one of L’s poetry classmates. Other than that, I have no other information about her work. But this feels unforgettable to me.

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