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My friend Kathryn walks her road in the fields of Cumbria

I do not believe in creation, but in discovery, and I don’t believe in the seated artist but in the one who is walking the road. The imagination is a spiritual apparatus, a luminous explorer of the world it discovers. The imagination fixes and gives clear life to the fragments of the invisible reality where man is stirring.

—Frederico Garcia Lorca

Walking the road. In all of its many manifestations.

And for now, I am walking the road on the left coast for a week. I’ll be back online May 5.

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This is Part 2 of a highlighted version of J. K. Rowling’s Commencement Address delivered at Harvard on June 5, 2008.

In this section Rowling focuses on the importance of imagination and takes a different approach than I would have expected. She correlates imagination with empathy, placing its power in that larger context of the community of all humankind. This is not the traditional endorsement of the individualistic creativity of the artist working as a soloist; it is a challenge to move imagination into the domain of changing the world by changing yourself.

Though I will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared…

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.
I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.
One of the many things I learned…was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing…

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

Seeing Mark Morris dance the part of Dido and her alter ego The Sorceress at the Boston premiere of “Dido and Aeneas” in 1989 was one of those nights at the theatre I’ve never forgotten. What a fortuitous combination of Purcell’s music, exquisitely ordered but emotionally fraught, with Morris’ infectiously seductive, inventive and extremely contemporary choreography. But the “over the top” energy came from seeing Morris in his element, embodying the de-gendering of dance that he began at the beginning of his career. He was utterly arresting as Queen Dido. I never wanted the performance to come to an end.

On Wednesday we went to see the production again. In the 19 years between these performances, Morris has continued to go both horizontal and vertical in his choreographic explorations. His sensibilities about how movement and music come together have made him a legend throughout the world. This time he did not dance the part of the Queen but conducted the musicians and singers of Emmanuel Music.

Having the part of Dido and the Sorceress danced by a woman, Amber Darragh (who was stunning in both roles), shifted the theatrical experience of the piece. Much the way you can see 10 different productions of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and find yourself enchanted by each one, I was spellbound by this version as well. I agree with Thea Singer’s comments about how the casting change shifted the performance, offering up yet another moving envisioning of this story of heartbreak. (Singer’s review appeared in the Boston Globe and has been included at the bottom of this post.)

Ever since seeing the production on Wednesday night I have been thinking about artists who can build on an existing classical form–be it poetry, music or art–and crack open new and exciting territory. The ones that work are not simply revisions or retellings–new wine in old bottles–but an elixir with the fragrance of the familiar as well as something you can’t quite identify. The foundational respect for the original work is there but in perfect balance with what has been melded in. Morris climbs into Purcell’s music and alchemizes it with contemporary movement. It is a kind of evocation.

I asked similar questions about Richard Meier’s controversial museum in Rome, the Ara Pacis. It’s a worthy topic for further exploration, so more to come on these issues.

***
In the beginning – 1989, when it premiered – Mark Morris’s magnificent opera-cum-dance “Dido and Aeneas” was Mark Morris. The then-34-year-old not only choreographed its exquisitely interlocking gestures and stomps and bold architectonic traffic to Purcell’s 1689 opera, he also played two lead characters: Dido, the noble queen of Carthage, and the Sorceress, who’s bent on Dido’s undoing because the former is so much like herself.

He stopped dancing in the piece in 2000. No one, I thought, could take the place of Morris – big-boned and master of the shimmy, curly locks flying – in the dual role. But Wednesday night’s performance, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, proved that maybe no one has to.

Mark Morris is larger than life. With him at its core, “Dido and Aeneas” was, yes, the tragic love-and-loss story Purcell had derived from Virgil’s “Aeneid,” but it was also about him: Morris’s sexuality, Morris’s daring, Morris’s preoccupation with divining the two sides of a single coin: “one noble, one ignoble, version of the same truth,” as Joan Acocella put it in her 1993 biography of him.

Yet this rendition of “Dido” – with Amber Darragh in the dual role of Queen/Sorceress on Wednesday night – may suit Morris’s stylized, ritualistic choreography even better than the original. Darragh, too, is big boned, with curls asunder (though far more refined, on both counts, than Morris). She is regal as the Queen and deliciously naughty as the Sorceress. But in this production, both female leads have shrunk; they now fit neatly into the frame of the work as a whole. Morris has, as if casting a bas-relief in reverse, brought the chorus – 10 members of the Mark Morris Dance Group – to the fore.

Even though Morris has disappeared from the stage, he is still intrinsic to the performance. Here he takes over the role of conductor of the musicians, chorus, and vocal soloists of Emmanuel Music – all of them sunk in the orchestra pit while the dancers take center stage. At the start of the evening, both the dance and the music struck me as a bit tinny, lighter than I remembered them from the Morris-centric original. But as the work proceeded, either they gathered heft or I readjusted, absorbing Morris’s new vision.

With a libretto by Nahum Tate, Purcell’s opera follows Aeneas as he joins and then leaves Dido, with whom he’s smitten following the fall of Troy, when his ships wash ashore in Carthage. The Sorceress intervenes, sending a spirit to deliver a message purportedly from Jupiter hastening Aeneas on his way to Italy to found the Roman Empire. The message comes at a particularly inopportune moment: The pair have just made love (“one night enjoy’d,” chastely in the text; a single spasm in the dance), which Dido has taken as a vow of marriage. To her, even Aeneas’s thought of leaving is an ultimate betrayal. She dies from grief.

Morris’s “Dido and Aeneas” takes the tragedy and sculpts it – with angular friezes and two-dimensional posturing, hieroglyph arms and symbolic gesturing, some grafted from American Sign Language – into an emotionally gripping structure of fateful proportions. Its movements ache: Dido, her hands plastered vertically, fingertips to wrist, on her chest, shoots her legs open into a diamond. Often, among many players, a hand pushes up a torso, then exits, fingers splayed, as if spewed from the mouth. The movement, set in five scenes, is played out almost line for line to Purcell’s score. Even the 10 dancers in the chorus – be they courtiers, witches, spirits, or sailors – have distinct roles that correspond to the soprano, tenor, alto, or bass parts of the music.

It is that chorus, along with Dido’s sister, Belinda (the delicate Maile Okamura), that – even more than Dido – are the Everywoman of the “Dido” myth. They, taken together, are Everywoman betrayed, Everywoman abandoned by love. They are fate realized, with arms outstretched, wrists cocked, fingers archly splayed.

At the end of the drama, in a movement phrase that made me cry, Dido plucks at her palm, as if pulling an attenuated thread through cloth, then arcs backward. She delivers the echoing message: “Remember me! But ah! Forget my fate.” But it is the chorus, as its members exit somberly two by two through the slit in Robert Bordo’s beautiful blue Aegean Sea of a backdrop, who drive that message home: “With drooping wings ye Cupids come/And scatter roses on her tomb/Soft and gentle as her heart; Keep here your watch, and never part.”

Thea Singer
The Boston Globe

I fell into an exquisite indentation—no, a cavern—in the landscape of the blogosphere this morning. These anomolies are scattered everywhere in this limitless expanse we call cyberspace, but each time I slide unexpectedly into one of these subrealities (or hyper-realities?) I feel like a lottery winner—random-driven lucky. I’m feeling that way now.

My latest adventure down a particularly spectacular rabbit hole is Fractalontology. The work of “cognition engineers” Taylor Adkins and Joseph Weissman, this site is full of riffs on Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, one of my favorite books of all time. (I’ve posted about this previously.) Experts in this complexity, Adkins and Weissman have not made the site the exclusive domain of like-minded scholars. Instead their approach ranges from philosophical dialogue to poetic excursions to visual representation.

Here is a sampling of Adkins’ comments about the relationship between the rhizome and the tree:

In their first plateau, Deleuze and Guattari focus on the concept of the rhizome. In establishing a difference between the arborescent image of thought and the rhizomatic, Deleuze and Guattari claim that the rhizome is an anti-genealogy while at the same time arguing that it is the tree which imposes its genealogy: “A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance.” Filiation proceeds through binary logic around a centralized point (the despot, the philosopher-king, the father), while the alliance extends lines which are not stratified or gridded on root pivot/focal-points. In particular, the fascination with trees and filiation stems from a symptom of our specifically European disease of transcendence. What is difficult to remember is that the tree and the rhizome are not necessarily opposed to one another; the first acts like a transcendent tracing and model while the second draws a map through an immanent process that overturns the model. But the smooth space of the rhizome is always under constant threat of hierarchization and stratification while the tree can proliferate into a-centered systems given changes in local conditions, thresholds of intensity, coefficients of transversality, etc…Yet it is precisely their relation to these two sides which simultaneously indicates the mode of their processes of crossing between the actual and the virtual. Although the two authors do not speak of these two registers, this “dualism” seems completely necessary in order to confront all the principles which they stipulate for understanding the rhizome—in effect, its connectivity, heterogeneity, multiplicity, cartography and decalcomania.

By contrast, this is an extract from a lyrical posting by Joseph Weissman entitled The Voice of Silence:

Stand.

Worship with reverence, pray in silence. Close your eyes. Begin to dream. Let the fever slip over you. A million words, a million feelings. Thoughts, ideas, dreams, fantasies, desires. Dreams. Dreams. Cancellations. Waking. Time. Lost. Again. Feel the frames, the darkness sliding over you. Your face: the world. The broken are broken, the lost. The lost.

Open your eyes. Awake to your dreams…

It is worth a visit if any of these ideas are compelling to you.

The Unbeliever

He sleeps on the top of a mast. – Bunyan

He sleeps on the top of a mast
with his eyes fast closed.
The sails fall away below him
like the sheets of his bed,
leaving out in the air of the night the sleeper’s head.

Asleep he was transported there,
asleep he curled
in a gilded ball on the mast’s top,
or climbed inside
a gilded bird, or blindly seated himself astride.

“I am founded on marble pillars,”
said a cloud. “I never move.
See the pillars there in the sea?”
Secure in introspection
he peers at the watery pillars of his reflection.

A gull had wings under his
and remarked that the air
was “like marble.” He said: “Up here
I tower through the sky
for the marble wings on my tower-top fly.”

But he sleeps on the top of his mast
with his eyes closed tight.
The gull inquired into his dream,
which was, “I must not fall.
The spangled sea below wants me to fall.
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.”

Elizabeth Bishop

“He sleeps on the top of a mast.” Like so many of Bishop’s images, this one takes on a life of its own. What is it to sleep on the top of the mast? What gives the image such power?

Common interpretations reference Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress where the Pilgrim Christian comes upon three men fast asleep, with fetters on their heels.

They are Simple, Sloth and Presumption. Christian then seeing them lie in this case went to them, if peradventure he might awake them. And cried, “You are like them that sleep on the top of a mast, for the Dead Sea is under you, a gulf that hath no bottom; awake therefore, and come away; be willing also, and I will help you off with your irons.” He also told them, “If he that goeth about like a roaring lion come by, you will certainly become prey to his teeth.” With that they looked upon him, and began to reply in this sort: Simple said, “I see no danger”; Sloth said, “Yet a little more sleep”; and Presumption said, “Every fat [vessel] must stand upon his own bottom, what is the answer else that I should give thee?” And so they lay down to sleep again, and Christian went on his way. (From James Fenton in the Times Literary Supplement)

Another interpretation draws a parallel to the personal domain of Bishop’s life and her battle with alcoholism.

And it has been noted that the reference to sleeping on the mast of the ship has its origin in the Book of Proverbs…which reads in the original (as the Authorized Version has it): “When shall I awake? I shall seek it again”. The “it” that the sleeper on the mast intends to seek again is wine, and the passage that it belongs to is a warning against drink (Proverbs 23: 29–35). Here it is as given in the Geneva Bible (which Bunyan used, in addition to the Authorized Version):

31 Looke not thou upon the wine, when it is red, and when it sheweth his colour in the cuppe, or goeth down pleasantly. 32 In the ende thereof it will bite like a serpent, and hurt like a cockatrise. 33 Thine eyes shall looke upon strange women, and thine heart shall speake lewde things. 34 And thou shalt bee as one that sleepeth in the middes of the sea, and as he that sleepeth in the top of the mast. 35 They have stricken me, shalt thou say, but I was not sicke: they have beaten me, but I knew not, when I awoke: therefore will I seeke it yet still.

This vivid evocation of habitual drunkenness gives us a sense of the biblical meaning of “sleeping at the top of the mast”; it is one of two parallel impossibilities – the drunkard is like one who sleeps in the middle of the sea, or who sleeps above the sea. (The Geneva Bible explains the first part of verse 34 as implying “In such great danger shalt thou be”.) Sleeping at the top of the mast would be both precarious and giddy-making; nevertheless the drunkard prefers sleep to waking, and so, if he does wake up, he will drink himself back into a stupor. As the Geneva note puts it, “Though drunkenness make them more insensible then beasts yet they can not refraine”. (Fenton)

Secular interpretations also abound. Harold Bloom claims this as one of his favorite poems. “I walk around, certain days, chanting ‘The Unbeliever’ to myself, it being one of those rare poems you never evade again, once you know it (and it knows you)”

The five stanzas of “The Unbeliever”, says Bloom, are essentially variations on the Bunyan epigraph. “Bunyan’s trope concerns the condition of unbelief; Bishop’s does not.” Quite how he could be so sure he does not say, but he continues: “Think of the personae of Bishop’s poem as exemplifying three rhetorical stances, and so as being three kinds of poet, or even three poets: cloud, gull, unbeliever. The cloud is Wordsworth or Stevens. The gull is Shelley or Hart Crane. The unbeliever is Dickinson or Bishop”. No doubt generations of diligent students have been recycling this taxonomy of poets ever since. (Fenton)

While intellectually informative and provocative, these variations cannot capture the essence of the image in a clear and encompassing manner. For me, this image is dream-like, with a prophetic warning about staying close to the earth. What takes us out, to sleep on the top of the mast so to speak, is a highly personal question.

Bishop’s gift is a mysterious ability to empower the most commonplace into something extraordinary, repeatedly transforming images and bringing them into another dimension and realm.

“I am very object-struck…. I simply try to see things afresh,” Bishop said about herself in an interview. “I have a great interest and respect…for what people call ordinary things. I am very visually minded and mooses and filling stations aren’t necessarily commonplace to me.”

Silence and solitude, as great teachers have always advised, open us up to new layers of consciousness. This week the layer I have been in features a cast of animals, each bringing its own meaning and significance.

A few days ago I opened the door of my studio and was overwhelmed by the smell of skunk. Being trespassed upon without warning can feel like its own small violation, but I felt more respect than discomfort. For a four legged, not necessarily at home in the industrial landscape that is South Boston, to find its way into my studio… Well that’s just plain heroic.

The next day at dusk my husband David and I sat on an isolated bench in the sanctuary near my home. As soon as the light faded, three or four raccoons appeared. We stayed and watched their self-absorbed scavenging beneath the bushes along the pond’s edge. Our presence there was effortlessly disregarded. We were, after all, the interlopers into their ‘hood who could be overlooked as long as we sat still.

This week I read through my dream journal, and it was full of images of animals–sometimes with starring roles and sometimes just lurking under foot. But as I reconnected with these dream sequences, the power of these animal presences brought me deeper into four legged respect.

I am acutely aware these days of how much we shove down, choose to ignore, refuse to see or feel. Being pragmatic, committed to putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, requires a specialized version of selective neglect. Meanwhile so much is going on, in us as well as around us, that we simply chose not to pay attention to. I need and want more receptivity, more sensitivity, not less.

The legendary symbolism of skunks and raccoons, Native American and otherwise, brought another layer of meaning to my encounters this week. This account rang true for me:

Of course a chunk of animal symbolism of the skunk deals with the pungent odor of its spray let off when it’s threatened.

Just think what a remarkable defense mechanism: Nonviolent, passive, effective. The skunk sends a message to would-be predators: “Nothing personal, just back off and nobody gets hurt.”

This unique method of self-protection and the way a skunk handles its predators is symbolic of:
· Defense
· Prudence
· Protection
· Confidence
· Awareness
· Pacification
· Effectiveness
· Good judgement

We would all do well to take this animal symbolism from the skunk: Do no harm. Indeed, as a totem animal, the skunk asks us to defend ourselves effectively, without causing further conflict.

Interestingly, the skunk would prefer to be even less assertive. You see, it takes over a week to reproduce its stinky juices after using them (their glands are only good for about 4 sprays). Ergo, the skunk is 100% sure it must spray before doing so as this defense tool is a commodity in the wild – not to be wasted on false alarms.

In recognizing this, we see the skunk is the ultimate pacifist, and by adopting its peace-loving ways we may obtain the carefree lifestyle this creature enjoys.

Carefree indeed, the skunk has very few predators because most of the animal kingdom recognize its tell-tale markings and know from wildlife scuttlebutt the skunk is not to be fooled with. As such, the skunk goes about its business with aplomb, and has an innocent quality that few wild creatures have the luxury of exhibiting.

Other animal symbolism of the skunk include:
· Introspection
· Innocence
· Assurance
· Patience
· Silence
· Peace

Those with the skunk as their animal totem are naturally buoyant. They go through life with a calm assurance, and exude a peaceful energy that is extremely attractive to others.

Call upon the spirit of the skunk when you need quality judgment in a situation – particularly if you’re in a stressful state, or someone is pushing your buttons. The skunk will ease you out of the situation with deft and diplomacy.

The skunk can also help calm jangled nerves, and help to center ourselves into a quiet, peaceful state.

Claims to portentious meaning are not quite as generous for the raccoon as they are for the skunk. A number of traditions refer to the symbolism of disguise, to misleading appearances and the masking of truth. On a more positive note, reference is also made to the raccoon’s legendary ability to thrive in a variety of environments and situations.

I feel schooled by the four leggeds, and grateful for it.

I’ve been in my studio all week, doing very little in the way of art making. In my vigil of just sitting, I have pondered this question: How is it that a juicy, lush stream of creative expression can dry up and disappear overnight? What is the fragile chemistry of the brain or the body (or both) that is unkiltered by grief and suffering?

Sometimes sorrow can bring on an outpouring of expression. The number of exquisite poems birthed from the fractured shards of a broken heart is not insignificant. At the same time, I know of artists and writers who have gone lights out for years because of a deep loss.

The question feels more rhetorical than answerable. But thinking about it so much has led to research, and the exploration of its rational/scientific manifestation is a kind of palliative distraction.

Here’s an interesting extract I found in the Harvard Gazette. The work of Alice Flaherty, a neurologist at Harvard and the author of The Midnight Disease, is featured in this piece:

The notion of muse as a “divine voice” or an inspiration from some ethereal source intrigues Flaherty. But for her, writing, and not being able to write when you want to, come from interactions between and changes in specific areas of the brain. The muse, in other words, is merely a matter of making the right brain connections.

The limbic system, a ring-shaped cluster of cells deep in the brain, provides the emotion push. Many nerve fibers connect it to the temporal lobes, areas behind the ears that understand words and give rise to ideas. Finally, the frontal lobe, behind your forehead, serves as a critical organizer and editor, penciling out bad phrases and ideas.

“It’s likely that writing and other creative work involve a push-pull interaction between the frontal and temporal lobes,” Flaherty speculates. If the temporal lobe activity holds sway, an aspiring scribe may turn out 600 logorrheic pages. If the temporal lobes are restrained by frontal lobe changes, the result might be pinched and timid.

Most academics regard the study of creativity as what Flaherty calls “intellectually unhygienic…”

In planning are more cerebral tests that would rely on brain scans to show actual differences in brain activity when the muse is rampant and when it hits a wall. If Flaherty’s theory is correct, brain cells in the temporal and frontal lobes should crackle with different patterns of activity.

Another technique that may influence as well as map the paths of creative activity involves passing a magnetic wand over the heads of people. Called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), it has increased creativity when applied to the frontal lobes in preliminary studies at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

“Such testing should give us information, never available before, about what goes on in the brain during creativity, and what doesn’t go on when it’s blocked.” Flaherty notes…

What about people who believe they have something to say but can’t get it out? Traditional remedies like alcohol, or sticking to the task even when nothing is flowing are not going to break the block. “Repeatedly failing at the same attempt is probably a frontal lobe malfunction that makes it hard for someone to give up a faulty strategy,” Flaherty says. “This condition is best treated by taking a break.” John Keats, the English poet, treated his writer’s block by stopping and getting dressed in his best clothes.

I quite like that phrase, “intellectually unhygienic”. But I’ll take my chances.

And as for Keats’ solution, maybe I’ll give the haberdashery cure a try…

An unforgettable exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Photos of Silicon Valley by Milan-based architect and photographer Gabriele Basilico.

Having grown up in the Bay Area, I remember well when the Valley was mostly apricot orchards and vegetable farms. But Basilico’s images do not sentimentalize the past or assault the viewer with a harsh, urban, edgy vision. These photographs are quiet–almost apocalyptically silent–and most of them capture a people-free version of a region that has become notoriously overpopulated, overtraffiked and drenched in a smug layer of “we’re just a little smarter (and richer) than everyone else” self satisfaction.

That isn’t what captures Basilico’s eye however. Instead he discovers what urban theorist Manuel Castells calls the “space of flows.” As described by Jeff Byles in Modern Painters magazine:

That’s what you see beyond the galvanized steel guardrails. That is the informational city, a land of virtual networks ever more severed from their social context…Check out Basilico’s view of US Highway 101 gashing through the flat valley in ominous shades of black and white, a vast parking lot to the left, an empty field to the right. Transmission wires arc low across the sky and trail into the distance. This is the space of flows. On the horizon sit carceral towers, the seeming prison houses of software engineers and product managers. Latent in the image are layers of spatial data: vestigial scraps of nature; the low, defining hills; cars streaking along the highway, their own vectors in the landscape.

Byles goes on to draw specifically from the writings of Castells:

This is where the social meaning of place evaporates… “There is no tangible oppression,” Castells wrote of the informational city, “no identifiable enemy, no center of power that can be held responsible for specific social issues.” There are just flows. Input, output: service stations and taco stands.

Basilico’s photographs capture a centerless, ambient foreboding that something here isn’t right. How he does this is beguiling and mysterious. And he achieves it without resorting to manipulative gestures or a need to patronize the viewer. These images feel fresh. Raw, yes, but starkly fresh.

Perhaps it is his method of work: “To slow down vision,” Basilico wrote, “was for me a small revolution in the way of seeing.” In Byles’ view, the emptiest photographs are the most powerful. “Basilico is the de Chrico of sprawl.” Well put.

To view the Basilico images in the SFMOMA show, click here.

She Considers the Dimensions of Her Soul

(Mrs. Morninghouse, after a Sermon Entitled,
“What the Spirit Teaches Us through Grief”)

The shape of her soul is a square.
She knows this to be the case
because she sometimes feels its corners
pressing sharp against the bone
just under her shoulder blades
and across the wings of her hips.
At one time, when she was younger,
she had hoped that it might be a cube,
but the years have worked to dispel
this illusion of space. So that now
she understands: it is a simple plane:
a shape with surface, but no volume—
a window without a building, an eye
without a mind.
Of course, this square
does not appear on x-rays, and often,
weeks may pass when she forgets
that it exists. When she does think
to consider its purpose in her life,
she can say only that it aches with
a single mystery for whose answer
she has long ago given up the search—
since that question is a name which can
never quite be asked. This yearning,
she has concluded, is the only function
of the square, repeated again and again
in each of its four matching angles,
until, with time, she is persuaded anew
to accept that what it frames has no
interest in ever making her happy.

Young Smith

The poet Young Smith is new to me. This poem, featured recently on Poetry Daily, captures an elusive but familiar state of mind. Some of these lines haunt: “a shape with surface, but no volume—/a window without a building, an eye/without a mind.”

This poem is included in Smith’s volume, In a City You Will Never Visit. Below are a few other poets’ responses to the book.

image001.jpg

Young Smith has composed a subtle, intelligent, spare book with the cleanliness of good prose. “In a City You Will Never Visit” threads two long sequences (a suicide story, and a metaphysical meditation on light) among individual poems of tantalizing variety. With their moral syllogisms and gnomic tone, they might have come from Eastern Europe—an Eastern Europe we will never visit, a city of the mind.
—Rosanna Warren

Somewhere between the merciless ironies of Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge and the aching metaphysical comedy of Zbigniew Herbert resides Young Smith, a student of the elusive nature of the real. “In a City You Will Never Visit” is an unexpected fusion of pleasures: a sequence of poems that accumulate with the weight of a novel, a lyric meditation on the behavior of light, and a study of the forms of longing—all of which Smith braids together into a fresh and striking debut.
—Mark Doty

There is an arrestingly ethereal quality to Young Smith’s poems as they navigate their numinous territory, where things that once seemed most familiar are revealed to be least controllable and comprehensible. Smith’s voices are troubled by tricks of light playing on objects that turn out to be merely the manifestations of our own witness, ‘made of notion’s fabric.’ I find myself drawn to these poems and their strategy of radiant patience in confronting what seems always to be almost just this side of unfathomable.
—J. Allyn Rosser

How refreshing to find an art “feel good” counter story in the New York Times, especially one that offers pre-coverage of the ever contentious, rhetoric-infested, “I can’t wait to hate it” Whitney Biennial. This piece made me feel hope, like someone opened a window in a stale, stuffy room with tired furniture and too many people talking loud.

The values in this article mirror many of my own. And since this point of view typically doesn’t get much air time, I am savoring this rare expression of authenticity and stand alone integrity. It also draws a sharp contrast to Terry Teachout’s recent piece in The Wall Street Journal about artists who lose their gifts when they get caught up in self-importance. (An excerpt of Teachout’s piece can be read on Slow Painting.)

I’d like to think that this point of view is the bellwether for a new and more meaningful set of art signifiers.

haeg.jpg
Fritz Haeg (courtesy of New York Times)

Fritz Haeg is not the best-known artist in the Whitney Biennial, opening next month. He has not had a breakout solo show at the Zach Feuer Gallery. He is not being wooed by Larry Gagosian. His prices at auction are nonexistent.

“I don’t even sell work,” he said with a laugh.

But in an art world growing jaded with such signifiers, Mr. Haeg, an architect by training and a landscaper by nature, may end up the surprise star of the Whitney show. Among the “homes” he designed for 12 “clients” are a beaver lodge and pond for the sculpture court, an eagle’s nest over the entry and other cribs around the museum for a mud turtle, mason bees, a flying squirrel, a bobcat and other critters that once lived on the Upper East Side.

Given that Madison Avenue is one of the world’s fanciest shopping streets, you would think Mr. Haeg is casting stones. In 2005, for his first nature-ruption series, “Edible Estates,” he replanted front lawns in places from Salina, Kan., to London, with vegetable gardens.

But his work is more than simple eco-commentary. From his Los Angeles home (a vintage geodesic dome), Mr. Haeg has carved out an intriguing niche within modern architecture, performance art and eco-activism.

This is clear even with his new “Animal Estates,” as the Whitney installation is called. The beaver lodge, for one, will be stained black. “It’s going to look as if Marcel Breuer had designed a beaver lodge,” he said.

Mr. Haeg grew up northwest of Minneapolis, near St. John’s University, with its buildings that, like the Whitney, Breuer designed in the 1960s. St. John’s, a Roman Catholic university run by Benedictine monks, made an impact on the young Mr. Haeg, whose father graduated from the school. “The Abbey Church there is burned into my subconscious,” he said.

Today, even as Mr. Haeg is putting his beloved geodome on the market and deaccessioning unnecessary objects, there is one thing he is hanging onto. That is a teapot made in the late 1990s by Richard Bresnahan, who since 1980 has run the St. John’s pottery program, working only with local materials, from clays and glazes to wood for the kiln.

“It’s one of the only things I’m keeping,” he said. He bought the pot, a traditional Japanese double-gourd shape, a few years ago on a return visit with his father to the campus. “The first time I visited Bresnahan’s studio, I was blown away,” he said. “This is a part of the art world that’s really been marginalized: handcrafts and the stories of how things are made. I don’t think many artists think about where their materials come from.”

The teapot meshes not only with his ideals equating art’s ends and means, but with his retro ’60s aesthetic, a blend of pop-kitsch and eco-sincere. “It reminds me of my geodesic dome a bit, the way it’s this sphere up on three feet,” he said. “And the glaze — it’s very hippie, like it’s still forming itself. And there’s a nice conversation between the light, handmade cane handle and this big orb that’s solid and made of clay.”

And despite the exalted pedigree of the piece, he uses it all the time. “I drink a lot of tea,” he said.

Though Mr. Haeg calls himself a lapsed Catholic, the teapot reminds him of his admiration for the integrated way of life observed by the Benedictines at St. John’s: praying, teaching, farming, hiring high-modern architects.

“They really believe that everything matters,” he said. “There’s something so simple and primitive in the best possible way of what the life at St. John’s is and what the clay pot represents. It’s sort of a reminder that design isn’t just about physical acquisitiveness. It can be a means to a more fulfilled life.”

If it doesn’t make you embrace the Benedictine creed, it at least makes you think about switching to tea.

David Colman
New York Times