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An excerpt from Bulabula 1, a painting currently hanging in my show at Lyman-Eyer Gallery in Provincetown

A Ball Rolls on a Point

The whole ball
of who we are
presses into
the green baize
at a single tiny
spot. An aural
track of crackle
betrays our passage
through the
fibrous jungle.
It’s hot and
desperate. Insects
spring out of it.
The pressure is
intense, and the
sense that we’ve
lost proportion.
As though bringing
too much to bear
too locally were
our decision.

–Kay Ryan

I am consistently drawn to Ryan’s work. Her poems are often epigrammatic, taut, terse, slightly off kilter, smart. All qualities I admire.

David Kirby honors Ryan’s work by drawing a comparison with those towering figures in American poetry, Whitman and Dickinson:

Emily Dickinson, hands-down champ at writing poems that are as compressed as Whitman’s are sprawling…

But of course there is no real competition between the Whitman who boasted “I am large, I contain multitudes” and the Dickinson whose niece Martha reported that her aunt once pretended to lock the door to her bedroom and pocket an imaginary key, saying, “Mattie, here’s freedom.” In other words, Ryan’s are the biggest little poems going.

Rather than hunting down the world and making it cry uncle, Ryan likes to create an elastic space the world can enter and fill.


Emily Dickinson wrote, “My business is circumference.” What a wonderful image and phrase, and so Dickinsonian in its simple but powerful directness. (And what a master of the small she was. She described herself as “New Englandly”—her language pared down to essentials, her verses modest in size. As Barbara Novak points out, “Modesty and understatement are not necessarily incompatible with vastness. As Gaston Bachelard has suggested, ‘The cleverer I am at miniaturizing the world, the better I possess it.'”)

For Dickinson, being the circumference is to circumambulate around the mystery at the core of life, to be an ambient witness to what we may not understand completely. Dickinson—and many of the Transcendentalists who lived in nearby Concord—is drawn to an “urge towards empowerment through dematerialization” (Novak’s great phrase).

More from Novak’s book, Voyages of the Self:

She was, it seems to me, quote often precisely that blend of Puritan and Transcendental so frequently found in the American self. When she writes “There is no first, or last, in Forever,—It is Centre, there, all the time”—she is very close to Emerson’s soul that “circumscribes all things” and to his idea of the mind which “with each divine impulse…rends the thin rinds of the visible and infinite, and comes out into eternity.”

This tendency towards dematerialization is a common trope in Western thought, not just among Transcendentalists. It’s an old problem, that mind/body split, and it stands in high contrast to the concept of the Dark Feminine as embodied by the Black Madonna. While the Emersonian model is achieving wisdom and transformation through a lifting up and out of the body, the Dark Feminine achieves its brand of transformation by going down deep into the experience of the flesh. The Dark Feminine (in any of her many manifestations including Kali, Lilith and Crow Mother, for example) is both creative and destructive at the same time. This is not a tame or well behaved woman.

From an interview with Andrew Harvey in The Moonlit Path:

The birth in Her was simultaneously the destruction of all fantasies and an initiation into the divinity of the body, and the divine secrets that consecrated, Tantric love reveals about the body and physical life when transfigured by spiritual passion…I have experienced how She is the birthing force of authentic divine humanity. What She does to birth it is to destroy all the fantasies that block the transcendent as well as destroy all of the fears, loathing, self-hatreds, and all of the terrors of the body that block the glory of the flaming out of the body’s own most sacred truth…

If you are addicted to transcendence, you may have a certain kind of realization of divine Being, but you can never have the realization of divine becoming that belongs to the Mother and is the Mother’s supreme gift…the Black Madonna requires the most searing imaginable abandon and the most extreme imaginable plunging into the total embrace of Her conditions.

The fierce and fleshy presence of the Black Madonna is in complete opposition of our timid Belle of Amherst, trussed into her famous white frock and living in self-imposed isolation. The paradox is that I am drawn to both. Deeply. My passion for Dickinson is life long. Twenty years ago I became fascinated with the Black Madonna and made pilgrimages to her sacred sites in France, Switzerland and Spain. Once touched by that wildness, if only peripherally, you just can’t go back to living small.

The pull between these two transformative energies is something I feel constantly in the studio. From the out of body ascent upward to the deep dive into the dark contours of the flesh, paintings emerge for me by toggling back and forth between these two poles.

It is important to have a secret, a premonition of things unknown. It fills life with something impersonal, a numinosum. A man who has never experienced that has missed something important. He must sense that he lives in a world which in some respects is mysterious; that things happen and can be experienced which remain inexplicable; that not everything which happens can be anticipated. The unexpected and the incredible belong in this world. Only then is life whole. For me the world has from the beginning been infinite and ungraspable.

–Carl Jung

For the last few weeks my view of the world has been shifted significantly by reading The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Written in 2007 but recently released with updated footnotes, the book has been provoking and inspiring shifts in thinking in a variety of disciplines. It has a horizontality that reminds me of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structures of Scientific Revolutions, that landmark book that appeared in 1962 and introduced the brand new concepts of paradigms and paradigm shifts to science, history, sociology, psychology et al.

Taleb’s “Black Swan Events” theory is offered up to explain the following:

1) The disproportionate role of high-impact, hard to predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations
2) The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to their very nature of small probabilities)
3) The psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs.

It’s a great name. There are no black swans in the Northern Hemisphere so whiteness was assumed to be an essential quality of swanness. When a Dutch explorer spotted a black one on an expedition to Australia in 1697, that concept had to be restated. It is a simple but useful analogy for how fragile a system of thought actually can be. Our assumptions, whether they result from reason, logic, falsifiability and/or evidence, can be undone in a moment.

From a review of the book by Will Self:

The Black Swans of the title aren’t simply known unknowns; there are unknown unknowns – events, or inventions, or runaway successes, or indeed contingencies of any kind – for which no statistical analysis, or inductive reasoning can possibly arm us. They are events like 9/11, or Black Monday, or publishing phenomena like the Harry Potter books, or inventions such as the internet, all of which alter the human world.

And from Taleb himself:

Black Swans being unpredictable, we need to adjust to their existence (rather than naively try to predict them.) There are so many things we can do if we focus on antiknowledge, or what we do not know. Among many other benefits, you can set yourself up to collect serendipitous Black Swans (of the positive kind) by maximizing your exposure to them. Indeed, in some domains—such as scientific discovering and venture capital investments—there is a disproportionate payoff from the unknown, since you typically have little to lose and plenty to gain from a rare event…the strategy for the discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves…The strategy is, then, to tinker as much as possible and try to collect as many Black Swan opportunities as you can.

It is not surprising that a number of venture capitalists have embraced Taleb’s approach as their investment modus operandi. Taleb was a Wall Streeter at one point (don’t hold it against him although he certainly has no shortage of tonal arrogance) so his examples are primarily in the financial/economic realm. But I read this book as an artist’s manifesto, correlating with another variation on the value of tinkering that came up in the conversation between technologists Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson (and written about here.) As Kelly colloquially put it, “to create something great, you need the means to make a lot of really bad crap.” Or as Johnson phrased it, “You need error to open the door to the adjacent possible.”

So tinker away. Be willing to err, to fail, to “set yourself up to collect serendipitous Black Swans.” And Emily Dickinson’s take on the adjacent possible seems right in line with Taleb, Kelly and Johnson:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

Emily Dickinson: “The best mind to appear among Western poets in nearly four centuries”

Book alert: The coming together of two greats—Emily Dickinson and Helen Vendler. Vendler has just released a new book, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. And although there are many collections of Dickinson’s work currently available, I can’t think of anyone I would prefer walking through those poems with than Vendler. Her sensibilities have enriched the works of two of my other favorite poets, Wallace Stevens and William Butler Yeats.

From a review of Vendler’s book written by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post:

Vendler’s sheer appetite for poetry and her explicatory power are phenomenal. She is, however, a thoroughly serious, academic critic. Now, some professors are fun to read: Think of the cool Olympian clarity of Northrop Frye, the astonishing encyclopedism of Hugh Kenner, the delicious precisions of Guy Davenport, the Empsonian dash and brilliance of Christopher Ricks. Vendler’s strength, meanwhile, lies in clearly, patiently explaining what’s happening in a poem. But — and it’s a big but — you really do need to pay attention. As Vendler writes in her introduction to “Dickinson,” hers isn’t so much a book to read through as “a book to be browsed in, as the reader becomes interested in one or another of the poems commented on here.”

As Dirda points out in his review, Dickinson has been described by the legendary critic Harold Bloom as “the best mind to appear among Western poets in nearly four centuries.” And yet:

Aside from the handful of poems that appeared anonymously in local newspapers, she never published her work. Most of it survives either in manuscripts or from transcriptions in letters, mainly to her family. When first brought out in book form, her generally short, gnomic verses were often regularized. Words were altered when their meaning was deemed puzzling or sacrilegious, and Dickinson’s beloved dashes, her preferred form of punctuation, were frequently changed to commas or periods. Only in 1955 did Thomas Johnson produce a scholarly edition that printed the earliest fair copy of what Dickinson actually wrote.

Dickinson’s poetry, summarizes Vendler, is “epigrammatic, terse, abrupt, surprising, unsettling, flirtatious, savage, winsome, metaphysical, provocative, blasphemous, tragic, funny.”

Can’t wait to read this commentary.