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Elatia Harris left a comment here yesterday that is too apropos to not share. Thank you Elatia.

I do understand what you’re going through. People our age either know what it is to see their friends dying or they don’t yet know but soon will. Looking back on it all — and, alas, living with the certainty that there will be more of it — I believe it’s a real rite of passage, just not the kind one can anticipate without denial or live through without almost desperate grief. It’s better not to carry on as if it weren’t happening. If it is happening, then it’s huge, and bowing down to it is the only thing to do. As badly as you have to get back to work, you don’t have to get back to work as badly as you have to let this happen to you.

Among so many other aspects of grief in this case is the truly uncanny one — that the number of people who knew us well through all our most important earlier passages is diminishing, the witnesses to our own evolution thus falling away, never again to flourish. The past seems so much more gone, so much longer ago. As a friend — an only child — once told me when her mother died, “Now no one remembers when I was born.” It’s too selfish and unbecoming to experience loss this way, but our primal nature doesn’t know that, and it is there that we are struck and threatened in the midst grief for the beloved other.

I keep thinking of the photo of the woman in Indonesia, kneeling beside the sea after the tsunami of December, 2005, waiting for it to throw her children back to her. It’s not clear if she fully understands they have died, only that they will be cast up by the tide. Behind her and outside the camera’s range is the place where her village was. It no longer exists; small wonder that she faces away from it, away not only from the loss of her children but the loss of the people who remembered her children. And yet, there she is — trusting to Providence to bring her back something that matters.

The intensity of the last week and the death of two friends in such a short period of time have been a strong wind sailing me straight into a setting sun. I haven’t been to my studio for over a week. In spite of deadlines for upcoming shows I am allowing my hands to lie fallow, to nest the quietude of my grief. And while my sorrow has silenced my expression, I am being nested by a husband who knows how to nurture my sadness. Painting and sex are the two great revitalizers of my life, and I am at my finest when both are in flow. I’ll be back in the studio soon, but thank god for both of these life-giving gestures.

This passage from Seamus Heaney’s collection of prose, Finders Keepers, spoke deeply to me. I want to share a few passages with my poetry-loving readers from his essay, Feeling Into Words.

I intend to retrace some paths into what William Wordsworth called in the ‘The Prelude’ “the hiding places”:

The hiding-places of my power
Seem open; I approach, and then they close;
I see by glimpses now; when age comes on,
May scarcely see at all, and I would give,
While yet we may, as far as words can give,
A substance and a life to what I feel:
I would enshrine the spirit of the past
For future restoration.

Implicit in these lines is a view of poetry which I think is implicit in the few poems I have written that give me any right to speak: poetry as divination, poetry as revelation of the self to the self, as restoration of the culture to itself; poems as elements of continuity, with the aura and authenticity of archaeological finds, where the buried shard has an importance that is not diminished by the importance of the buried city; poetry as a dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants.

Digging, one of Heaney’s most famous poems was also the first poem where he believed he had been able to get his feelings into words. Or more accurately, get his “feel” into words.

This was the first place where I felt I had done more than make an arrangement of words: I felt that I had let down a shaft into real life.


Composer Olivier Messiaen

As I head to New Jersey to say goodbye to yet another dear friend who has only days to live, the soundtrack in my head is music that speaks to that dimensionality, the one where very little makes logical, rational sense.

Olivier Messiaen’s music has held me in its power for most of my life. An article in today’s New York Times about 100th-birthday tributes being held around the world, and just reading about him and his music brought me comfort.

A few excerpts:

Originality may be overrated in the arts. All creators emulate the masters and borrow from one another. Big deal! The composer and critic Virgil Thomson routinely debunked what he called the “game of influences,” which he considered “about as profitable a study as who caught cold from whom when they were standing in the same draft.”

But the French modernist master Olivier Messiaen, who died in 1992 at 83, was truly an original. No other music sounds quite like his, with its mystical allure, ecstatic energy and elusive harmonic language, grounded yet ethereal. Rhythmically his pieces slip suddenly from timeless contemplation to riotous agitation then back again, sometimes by the measure. In the introduction to his 1985 book on Messiaen the critic Paul Griffiths calls him “the first great composer whose works exist entirely after, and to a large degree apart from, the great Western tradition.”

And this one, regarding his relationship with color, was compelling:

To Messiaen certain modes had certain colors: not just aural colors but visual ones. Throughout his life he experienced powerful sensory correlations between sound and color. As Mr. Robertson explained in a talk before the performance of the “Turangalila Symphony,” when Messiaen saw a rainbow, he literally heard a celestial harmony. In speaking about this Messiaen could seem a little peculiar.

Discussing the first transposition of his Mode 2 in a series of interviews with the critic Claude Samuel, Messiaen defined it as “blue-violet rocks speckled with little gray cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold red, ruby and stars of mauve, black and white.”

“Blue-violet,” he added, “is dominant.” Naturally.

Regarding the spiritual component of his work:

But the dimension of Messiaen’s music that may most set it apart derives from his spiritual life. His faith was innocent, not intellectual. As a child he loved the plays of Shakespeare, especially their “super-fairy-tale” aspects, he said. In the stories of the Catholic faith, as he told Mr. Samuel, he found the “attraction of the marvelous” he had coveted in Shakespeare, but “multiplied a hundredfold, a thousandfold.” For him the Christian stories were not theatrical fiction but true.

Messiaen espoused a theology of glory, transcendence and eternity. Religious subjects permeate his works, though not the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus. His embrace of the wondrousness of faith is reflected in the essence of his compositions. There is a notable lack of development in his music, a denial of “normal harmonic impetus,” as Mr. Griffiths puts it in his Messiaen book. Instead his pieces seem almost spatial, like a series of musical blocks with juxtaposed panels that variously induce feelings of ecstasy, agitation, contemplation or mystery.

Finally, this personal encounter by Anthony Tommasini:

My only encounter with Messiaen came during his visit to the New England Conservatory in Boston in 1986. I will never forget the enthralling performance he and Ms. Loriod gave of “Visions de l’Amen,” an audacious, wildly joyful and technically formidable work for two pianos.

Taking questions from the audience, Messiaen was visibly moved when a young man asked, “Does a listener have to have had a spiritual experience to appreciate your music?”

“Not at all,” Messiaen answered. But, he added, “it would be the highest compliment to me as a composer if you had a spiritual experience because of hearing my music.”

Song For The Last Act

Now that I have your face by heart, I look
Less at its features than its darkening frame
Where quince and melon, yellow as young flame,
Lie with quilled dahlias and the shepherd’s crook.
Beyond, a garden, There, in insolent ease
The lead and marble figures watch the show
Of yet another summer loath to go
Although the scythes hang in the apple trees.

Now that I have your face by heart, I look.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read
In the black chords upon a dulling page
Music that is not meant for music’s cage,
Whose emblems mix with words that shake and bleed.
The staves are shuttled over with a stark
Unprinted silence. In a double dream
I must spell out the storm, the running stream.
The beat’s too swift. The notes shift in the dark.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.

Louise Bogan

This Bogan poem is posted in memory of Michael Cozzolino, friend and great soul, who passed away recently after a long illness.

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It is a strange and esoteric chemistry that moves the inner dial of our moods. Who hasn’t taken a micro-second whipsaw ride from ebullience to hopelessness? For me, some days in the studio are all flow. On others, nothing goes right. If only I could clear a pattern headed in the wrong direction as easily as the horse’s snort described in Alexander Star’s New York Times review of Daniel Lord Smail’s new book, “On Deep History and the Brain,” (cleverly titled, I Feel Good).

Here’s a sample:

Why do horses snort? Sometimes, at the approach of a stranger or the appearance of a plane high above the pasture, a horse will widen its eyes, flare its nostrils and send a stuttering column of air out into the world. On other occasions, horses have been known to snort for no reason besides their own boredom. By suddenly creating a sound, the slack-minded horse elicits an automatic “startle response” — flooding its brain with chemicals, delivering a jolt of excitement and relieving, at least for a moment, the monotony of a long day in an empty field. The horse has in effect fooled its own nervous system — and benefited from the self-deceit.

If horses can alter their own brain chemistries at will (and have good reasons to do so), what about human beings? In “On Deep History and the Brain,” Daniel Lord Smail suggests that human history can be understood as a long, unbroken sequence of snorts and sighs and other self-modifications of our mental states. We want to alter our own moods and feelings, and the rise of man from hunter-gatherer and farmer to office worker and video-game adept is the story of the ever proliferating devices — from coffee and tobacco to religious rites and romance novels — we’ve acquired to do so. Humans, Smail writes, have invented “a dizzying array of practices that stimulate the production and circulation of our own chemical messengers,” and those devices have become more plentiful with time. We make our own history, albeit with neurotransmitters not of our choosing…

Ever since the invention of agriculture, Smail claims, we have seen “an ever greater concentration of mood-altering mechanisms.” Some of these mechanisms Smail refers to as “teletropic”: they work primarily to affect the moods of others, stimulating a wash of neurochemicals at a distance. A baby cries and arouses its mother’s instinct to care; a priest intones a Mass and relieves parishioners of stress hormones. The modern era, however, belongs to what Smail calls “autotropic” devices, devices that alter our own moods. In modern Europe, coffee from the Arabian peninsula became a stimulant to “mind, body, conversation and creativity” for the rich and the mercantile. The cultivation of sugar on Caribbean slave plantations made cheap rum freely available, further inebriating the working classes. Individuals became ever more expert at changing their own chemistry, sometimes just for the pleasure of modulating one set of sensations into another. But ingesting substances was only the beginning. The same era saw the rise of novels and erotica, shopping and salons. Books are also autotropic devices, regulating attention and mood; indeed, in the 18th century, their impact was often likened to a fever, jeopardizing readers’ purchase on reality and their physical strength. In the age of Enlightenment, man overthrew kings and subjected himself to mild and intermittently pleasurable addictions.

Of course, there was more to the Enlightenment than that. It’s not clear how a neurohistorian of the future would treat attitudes and beliefs alongside cravings and moods. Nor does Smail directly address the larger implications of what has been called “the psychoactive revolution.” What happens when we learn not just how to alter our moods but also to identify the chemical and electrical constituents of our experiences while we are having them? Is there a price to pay when we make the care of the brain a pre-eminent virtue?…

Smail focuses more attention on the “pursuit of psychotropy” than on its consequences. Still, an intelligent disquiet runs through these pages. As we “grow numb to the mechanisms that stimulate our moods and feelings on a daily basis,” we ceaselessly shift from one device to another. The prospects for human foresight and self-knowledge would seem dim. In the 1860s, Walter Pater wrote that “art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” Has art become superfluous? Smail suggests we are all the choreographers of our own chemical dance, enjoying the “spikes” and “dips” as they follow one another, and simply for their own sake.

I love the Pater quote in the last paragraph–art offers “nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” So Zen, yet so long ago.

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Spring Thaw in South Hadley

Old snows locked under glass
by last night’s ice storm left
curatorial Winter, in
whose hands alone we’d hope
to find the keys,
jangling them in the trees—.

not merely in these pine
needles by the fistful
gloved in crystal, but,
from their boughs, the self-
invented digits of
icicles addressed

(in a manner reminiscent
of the insubstantial
finger of a sundial)
less to a point in space
than effectively to Time,
the frozen moment.

By noon, the ice as thin
as an eggshell veined to show
life seeping yellow,
one’s boots sink in
with a snap; the sap
underrunning everything

may be nothing but water, yet
there’s a sacramental
joy in how, converting
to its liquid state,
it’s anything but gentle.
A crash from Abbey Chapel—

who cut the string
that sent the white sheets falling?
Nothing but the long
scissors of the sun
unwraps such thunder. Even
a modest A-frame

in a muffled instant sheds
its wrinkling roofs of snow:
black butterfly below.
As if to make
one more clean break above,
the sky—seconds ago

one continent of cloud—
follows the drift of Spring,
splits and refits like Ming
porcelain. The plate
tectonics alternate:
white and blue, blue and white.

–Mary Jo Salter

This poem is a worthy paen to the power of weather systems, appropriately posted right before I head back to the warmer clime of San Francisco for a few days. I’m hungry for that sound of spring breaking through that I hear, crystalline, in this poem. The éclat of the changing from winter to warmth.

I am also moved by many of Salter’s phrases, like “curatorial Winter,” “a sacramental/joy in how, converting/to its liquid state,/it’s anything but gentle,” “Nothing but the long/scissors of the sun/unwraps such thunder.”

(Salter and her poetry resurfaced for me after reading a review of her latest volume, A Phone Call to the Future, in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday. An excerpt of that review is posted on Slow Painting.)

I’m off to New York for a few days. I want to see the Mannerist drawing show at the Morgan Library, most particularly out of respect for my daughter Kellin who is a Mannerista fanatic now that she is living in Florence. (To read an excerpt from the New York Times review of this show, see this Slow Painting post.) I am also eager to satisfy my perpetual longing for real time Stoppardian word magic, delivered up through a viewing of his latest play, Rock ‘n’ Roll.)

Here’s another memorable poem from Young Smith’s volume, In a City You Will Never Visit (for more information, see my posting on this poet earlier this week):

The Properties of Light

vii. the many worlds interpretation

A quasar,
so the musing
physicists suggest,

is a siphon
breathing light
from another

universe beyond
the distant borders
of our own.

Just as black holes
are also siphons,
breathing light

from our own stars
to burst as quasars
in other distant

realms. Therefore,
it seems, the “causa
causans” is a mind

whose fiery
thoughts unseal
the sky. Whose

desires, like its
dimensions, can
bear no human

scale or story–whose
musing only light
itself describes.

Sonnet

Caught — the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
undecided.
Freed — the broken
thermometer’s mercury
running away;
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
flying wherever
it feels like, gay!

Elizabeth Bishop

And if you are so inclined, here is a short commentary on the poem by Lloyd Schwartz, co-editor of the new Library of America volume on Bishop:

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“Sonnet,” with its unusually short lines, is a playfully bottom-heavy inversion of the traditional sonnet form. Bishop’s octave (including two images of being “freed”) follows rather than precedes the sestet, with its two images of being “caught” (thereby giving more room to being free than to being trapped). Many of the rhymes (and delicious half rhymes) come not where you’d expect them or where they’re supposed to be — that is, the rhyming pair doesn’t always appear at the end of a line: “bird” rhymes with “freed”; “rainbow” and “narrow” fall mid-line; the rhyme in “thermometer’s mercury” comes at the beginning rather than at the end of the words. Like the “moon in the bureau mirror” in her poem “Insomnia” (1951), which looks out at a world “inverted,” the newfound freedom depicted in “Sonnet” (including a liberation from traditional form) presents a topsy-turvy solution, an upside-down resolution, that doesn’t fit the usual formula.

This solution, this resolution, is death — the solution to all conflict, to all illness, to all decision-making, to all the claims and pulls that upset the balance of one’s life. The more you know about Bishop, the more directly autobiographical this poem begins to seem. She was, like the bubble in the spirit level, “a creature divided,” both accepting and nervous about her homosexuality (she said she wanted to restore the last word of the poem, “gay!,” to what she called its “original” non-sexual meaning), needing to drink yet ashamed of her self-destructive compulsion (in the version of the poem published in The New Yorker, the line “a creature divided” appears as “contrarily guided”). She loved living in Brazil, away from New York literary politics and gossip, yet it was hard for her to be separated from her native country and language, and from the recognition of her admirers. “Dear, my compass/still points North,” begins a love poem she wrote in Brazil but never published, still wavering about her true home. And she was never completely convinced that her poems had any lasting value.

The “rainbow-bird” in the last and most complex image of “Sonnet” is clearly self-referential. “Rainbow” is a key Bishop word. Her most famous poem, “The Fish,” ends with the ecstatic “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” (and with another one of her rare exclamation points), as she prepares to set free the tremendous fish she caught (another trapped creature). In “Song for the Rainy Season,” her love poem about the house she and her Brazilian companion were living in way up in the mountains outside of Rio, she calls the landscape “rainbow-ridden.”

Hidden, oh hidden
in the high fog
the house we live in,
beneath the magnetic rock,
rain-, rainbow-ridden,
where blood-black
bromelias, lichens,
owls, and the lint
of the waterfalls cling,
familiar, unbidden.

The most poignant — and frightening — image in “Sonnet” is the empty mirror. Always shy and self-conscious, Bishop hated the way she looked, hated looking at herself. She’d grown heavier from the years of cortisone she had to take for her asthma; her hair had turned gray. She felt old and bloated, though everyone else thought she looked more elegant than ever. I was visiting her the day her copy of Richard Howard’s coffee-table anthology Preferences arrived, with a beautiful full-page photograph of her by Thomas Victor. She excused herself, went into her bedroom, and tore the page with the photograph out of the book. She would have preferred to look into an empty mirror, even given the sinister implications.

Bishop had been plagued by various illnesses all her life, from persistent eczema (like a pink dog?) to the chronic, sometimes life-threatening asthma for which she was repeatedly hospitalized. In the 1970s her beloved Aunt Grace, in Nova Scotia, was showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Bishop was morbidly worried about an old age of illness after lingering illness, and was terrified of becoming senile. I think if she could have known that she would die of an aneurysm, suddenly and without warning, at sixty-eight, as she was putting on her shoes to go out to dinner, she’d have lived a happier life.

Though she had been in relatively good health at the time she wrote “Sonnet,” dying seemed increasingly on her mind. In these lines from another unpublished love poem, “Breakfast Song,” from 1974, she wrote:

Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I’ve grown accustomed to?
— Nobody wants to die;
tell me it is a lie!
But no, I know it’s true.
It’s just the common case;
there’s nothing one can do.

Here she raises the disturbing idea that someone might actually want to die. But — in love — she talks herself out of it. “Breakfast Song” reveals feelings, especially sexual feelings, that were probably too personal for Bishop to allow herself to make public. In “Sonnet,” however, she finally confronts, though with characteristic indirectness, her death wish, her desire for the freedom death brings.

To hear several different poets read “Sonnet”, go to Soundings.

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J. M. Coetzee. I am in awe of his work, even though its textures, angles and palettes are so different from my own creative matrix. In a very readable New Yorker review by James Wood of Coetzee’s new book Diary of a Bad Year, I found a few passages that are just too good to keep to myself.

***
Coetzee is interested in how we profess ideas, both in life and in novels. We tend to think of ourselves as intellectually stable, the oaken pile of principle driven reassuringly deep into the ground. All the Presidential-campaign cant about “values” testifies to this; to flip-flop is to flop. But what if our ideas are, rather, as Virginia Woolf imagined consciousness: a constant flicker of different and self-cancelling perceptions, entertained for a moment and then exchanged for other ones?

My point of view exactly. I have never understood the high value placed on unrelenting (and unenlightening) consistency.

***
Unlike the philosopher, the novelist may take an idea beyond its rational terminus, to the point where the tracks start breaking up. One name of this tendency is the religious, the realm where faith replaces wisdom.

***
In the last entry of this novel [Diary of a Bad Year], “On Dostoevsky,” Senor C writes:

“I read again last night the fifth chapter of the second part of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, the chapter in which Ivan hands back his ticket of admission to the universe God has created, and found myself sobbing uncontrollably.”

It is not the force of Ivan’s reasoning, he says, that carries him along but “the accents of the anguish, the personal anguish of a soul unable to bear the horrors of this world.” We can hear the same note of personal anguish in Coetzee’s fiction, even as that fiction insists that it is offering not a confession but only the staging of a confession. His books make all the right postmodern noises, but their energy lies in their besotted relationship to an older, Dostoyevskian tradition, in which we feel the desperate impress of the confessing author, however recessed and veiled.

Coetzee is SO Dostoyevskian, something I had not named until Wood stated it so clearly. And such a rarity for a writer at this point in our history.

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.

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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