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The light in Canada

Politics and art have been combined and comingled in the past, producing work that is powerful and provocative. Goya. Guernica. Beckmann.

But that isn’t the case for me and my way of working. In fact mixing the two is a toxic brew. Over the last week I have had to conscientiously firewall my studio from the acidic cloud emanating from Washington and polluting the summer skies in every direction.

So thank you Whiskey River for posts that helped me look out beyond my bunker. Maybe the water level rises a drop at a time.

I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses – that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

— Pablo Neruda

Burlap Sack

A person is full of sorrow
the way a burlap sack is full of stones or sand.
We say, “Hand me the sack,”
but we get the weight.
Heavier if left out in the rain.
To think that the stones or sand are the self is an error.
To think that grief is the self is an error.
Self carries grief as a pack mule carries the side bags,
being careful between the trees to leave extra room.
The mule is not the load of ropes and nails and axes.
The self is not the miner nor builder nor driver.
What would it be to take the bride
and leave behind the heavy dowry?
To let the thick ribbed mule browse in tall grasses,
its long ears waggling like the tails of two happy dogs?

–Jane Hirshfield


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.

Markings on wood, from the African art collection at the Brooklyn Museum: Beautifully ambiguous

Poems, poets and poetry provide a parallel universe that sometimes helps make a little more sense of my own huddled world of paintings, painters and art. A good example is this excerpt from an essay by Joel Brouwer that appeared on Poetry Foundation, In Praise of Promiscuous Thinking: On Charles Bernstein’s Attack of the Difficult Poems and David Orr’s Beautiful and Pointless:

I understand the impulse to talk about poems. Poems are objects in the world. They appear on bus kiosks, in magazines, on makeshift stages in coffee shops, at weddings, in classrooms. They exist, like raccoons. We see or hear them. It’s natural to want to talk about our impressions of them, and what they’re up to. “This poem is confusing me.” “That’s one big damn raccoon.”

It’s harder to talk about poetry. Poetry is a subject, not an object. You can’t see poetry; you can only see poems. Poems are poetry like raccoons are nature. It isn’t nature that’s made a nest in your attic and given birth to four more mewling natures, batting their little black claws at the air. Poems, not poetry, have baffled you, or made you laugh, or reminded you that, in the words of Holderlin, “The flock of swallows that circles the steeple / Flies there each day through the same blue air / That carries their cries from me to you.” I have over time developed some methods for talking about what a poem is doing. I have no idea what poetry is doing.

Subject and object. Racoons and nature. This is really good.

Brouwer continues in a direction that continues to speak to me:

I don’t need Bernstein’s or Orr’s critical positions to be correct or incorrect—–I don’t need them at all—–but I want them to be…oh, let’s say “lovable.” (I choose the term in part because it’s embarrassing, vague, and dorky; criticism marked by cool, clear confidence is exactly what I’m trying to discredit.) By a lovable criticism, I mean a criticism that allows space for its readers’ imaginations without compromising its own convictions; which ventures its ideas rather than asserting them; which would rather start a conversation than end one; which not only speaks but also listens; which admits and embraces uncertainties. A lovable criticism is a criticism willing to make itself vulnerable, willing even to embarrass itself.

And are these books by Bernstein and Orr lovable? They are. Each ends with passages I find strange, ambiguous, and open to interpretation, and so, to my mind, lovable. Indeed, the extent to which each book’s closing contradictions can be engaged but not resolved is precisely the extent to which each is lovable.

What is “strange, ambiguous and open to interpretation”—that’s a credo I can live with. And by.


What am I doing inside this old man’s body?
I feel like I’m the insides of a lobster,
All thought, and all digestion, and pornographic
Inquiry, and getting about, and bewilderment,
And fear, avoidance of trouble, belief in what,
God knows, vague memories of friends, and what
They said last night, and seeing, outside of myself,
From here inside myself, my waving claws
Inconsequential, waving, and my feelers
Preternatural, trembling, with their amazing
Troubling sensitivity to threat.
And I’m aware of and embarrassed by my ways
Of getting around, and my protective shell.
Where is it that she I loved has gone, as this
Sea water’s washing over my shelly back?

David Ferry, local luminary and recent winner of the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement, brings me face-against-the-glass with the experience of aging in this wonderful short poem. The sensations he describes start to appear while we are still mid-lifed and vital, but slowly they become steady features. The metaphor of the waving claw, inconsequential, is haunting. That is a sense I know something about already—motioning, maddeningly, to no avail.

Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, featured in the film MANA: Beyond Belief, is a Buddhist pilgrimage site in Burma. Tradition claims that the boulder was placed on the cliff 2500 years ago by Burmese spirits. A gilded boulder sits on top and is believed to contain a hair of the Buddha.

This is a Wonderful Poem

Come at it carefully, don’t trust it, that isn’t its right name,
It’s wearing stolen rags, it’s never been washed, its breath
Would look moss-green if it were really breathing,
It won’t get out of the way, it stares at you
Out of eyes burnt gray as the sidewalk,
Its skin is overcast with colorless dirt,
It has no distinguishing marks, no I.D. cards,
It wants something of yours but hasn’t decided
Whether to ask for it or just take it,
There are no policemen, no friendly neighbors,
No peacekeeping busybodies to yell for, only this
Thing standing between you and the place you were headed,
You have about thirty seconds to get past it, around it,
Or simply to back away and try to forget it,
It won’t take no for an answer: try hitting it first
And you’ll learn what’s trembling in its torn pocket.
Now, what do you want to do about it?

–David Wagoner

I am a long time fan of Wagoner’s work, but this morning this poem spoke directly to the tussling I am in with pieces still emerging in the studio. Things we make take on thingness, like the quickening of a babe in the womb. But as a painting claims its thingness, complexities come along as well. Like sweet infants that become rabidly difficult teenagers, I don’t always like where something is headed. Then what?

I recently viewed a film from a few years ago called MANA: Beyond Belief. Mana is a Polynesian word for the power that resides in things. Filmmakers Peter Friedman and Roger Manley have cobbled together a visually stunning collage of images and experiences from all over the world that speaks to the concept of power objects. They describe it as a film about “what makes matter matter”:

All over the world, in every society, there are objects that have special power over people. People climb mountains or make pilgrimages just to see or touch them. They prostrate themselves or engage in rituals in their presence, caress them in the hopes of absorbing some of their magic, they enshrine them in temples or pass them on to descendants; wear them or store them in treasure houses or sometimes burn them. An individual object might hold power over only one group or even just one person, but the phenomenon of “power objects” is universal.

From the breathtaking Kyaiktiyo Pagoda in Burma to the Japanese tradition of O-Hanami (cherry blossom veneration), the film unfolds with almost no dialogue, similar to the hauntingly mesmerizing Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio. One of the most memorable segments for me was watching the meticulously accurate replication of a life sized Mercedes Benz, assembled out of paper and balsam wood. This Malaysian variation on the commonly encountered funereal tradition of making sure the dead has everything he or she will need ends with the entire structure going up in flames.

So yes, there are times when the thought of setting fire to certain pieces of my work feels like the right way to go. A pyre in the streets of South Boston? Not without its appeal at times.

We live in an age where pluralism and inclusiveness are the norm (Tea Party excluded), but disenfranchising divisions are still occurring. Music, visual art, poetry, prose, architecture—all the artistic métiers have within their creative borders a whole slew of tribes that speak their own patois. Look at the language barrier that exists between two people who might have gone to art school together—a gifted landscape painter and an installation artist with a political agenda, for example. They share almost none of the same concerns, intentions or audience. And certainly music is also splintered. Many classical musicians I know have no interest in studying jazz or other new musical forms. Creative gated communities get built and then thrive in their own microecosystems.

In addition, there is the added issue of audience division. How many times have I heard an self-professed lover of art talk about feeling disenfranchised by contemporary art conventions, or a long time symphony fan who feels alienated from modern musical forms? Many.

In an interview in Guernica magazine, poet Ted Kooser talks about the continental drift he has seen in the domain of poetry as well:

Ted Kooser: Every poet gets to choose what kind of community he or she serves with the poems, and it’s true that there is a community for very difficult, challenging poetry. It’s a community that’s established itself over the last 80 years, that was originally, in effect, really started by Eliot and Pound. They believed that poetry ought to contain learning, that it ought to rise upon all the learning that went before. But there’s always been the other strain; there’s always been what I would call the William Carlos Williams strain, in which poems of simplicity and clarity are valued by a different community. I was talking to Galway Kinnell one day, and he said that there was an audience for poetry up until about 1920 and then, from that point on, the poets and the critics drifted.

Guernica: Do you have a sense that in some ways, maybe these two different strains of poetry—if you want to think about it in that way—will be reconciled?

Ted Kooser: I don’t really know that they need to be reconciled. There are going to be poets in the middle ground—and, frankly, I’ve written some poems that are in the middle ground—who are in between very challenging and abundantly clear, but there’s a tremendous investment in the challenging poem, and it’s been going on so long that the whole infrastructure supporting it, a lot of critics and theorists and so on are deeply invested in maintaining that status.

Kooser’s point is well taken and applies to more than the world of poetry. Reconciliation between splintered artistic factions is not reasonable given the investments already made to keep those exclusive enclaves enfranchised. The middle ground approach he references might also be a position in itself, a way of navigating between disparate neighborhoods while not taking up residence in any of them. Which is another strategy to consider.

Atesse, from a recent series of paintings

One aspect of having online access into every nook and cranny of the world (as well as the latest thoughts of millions of bloggers) is being able to see into the extraordinary range of human passions. I’m not referring to the largest engine of human cyber passion, pornography, but the myriad of quirky unexpected subgroups. Now every person whose is just crazy about 12th century Scottish coins or training small dogs to knit scarves while pushing a baby carriage can find each other and convene.

It does cause me to pause and wonder just what it is about a particular activity or field of study that captures the passion of a person. There are the large rivers that carry lots of us, like being a sports fan. Then there are the smaller streams that we might have believed were just rivulets only to discover lots of other people floating along that same waterway. I know a guy whose many eccentricities have included a life long passion for airlines. It didn’t stop at hanging around airports and tracking the serial numbers of American Airlines jets: he would force his wife and family to spend their vacations near the bone yards of retired jets so he could keep track of his favorite planes. One of the first things I discovered when the web became ubiquitous was that plane spotting is a huge passion all over the world and not as peculiar a passion as I would have supposed.

My passions are more familiar but they run deep. I have been painting since I was 17. I have never grown tired of making or looking. It is the first thing on my mind when I wake up and has been for most of my life. There’s just no logical explanation for how deep a passion can run.

I thought of the nature of passions reading David Kirby’s review of David Orr’s new book about poetry, Beautiful and Pointless. From the review:

In the end, poetry matters to the people it matters to for the same reason that anything appeals to anyone, which is that they love it. Orr uses the title of the poet Edward Hirsch’s book “How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry” to suggest that people who fall for poetry fall hard. In a book filled with excellent quotations, he surprisingly doesn’t cite James Dickey’s line — “What you have to realize when you write poetry, or if you love poetry, is that poetry is just naturally the greatest god damn thing that ever was in the whole universe” — but essentially his book says just that.

This will come as no surprise to many. But what makes “Beautiful and Pointless” different from thousands of other defenses of poetry is that, according to its author, poetry differs from music and stamp collecting in that people’s love for poetry is measurably greater than their love for any other activity. Poetry fans don’t just love poetry a little; they really love it.

Which brings to mind a few lines from one of Mary Oliver’s most popular (but still memorable) poems.

From “Wild Geese”:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Boston-based actor Paula Plum read this poem at a memorial service recently for Talbot Waterman—Yale professor, biologist extraordinaire, music lover, traveler and friend. This was her tribute to Talbot’s 60+ year relationship with his partner Joe Gifford. “I usually read this poem at weddings,” Paula prefaced her reading, “but it can be a way of looking backwards as well.”

Her reading was a moving paen to Talbot, but it also spoke to me. Deep into my own ivy crown journey of 30 years, I am still being surprised by what cotraveling with another brings and means. Commitment. Joy. Will. Pain. Surprise. Tears. Struggle. Change. Wonder. It’s the full ride.

William Carlos Williams wrote this in 1950.

The Ivy Crown

The whole process is a lie,
crowned by excess,
It break forcefully,
one way or another,
from its confinement—
or find a deeper well.
Antony and Cleopatra
were right;
they have shown
the way. I love you
or I do not live
at all.

Daffodil time
is past. This is
summer, summer!
the heart says,
and not even the full of it.
No doubts
are permitted—
though they will come
and may
before our time
overwhelm us.
We are only mortal
but being mortal
can defy our fate.
We may
by an outside chance
even win! We do not
look to see
jonquils and violets
come again
but there are,
the roses!

Romance has no part in it.
The business of love is
cruelty which,
by our wills,
we transform
to live together.
It has its seasons,
for and against,
whatever the heart
fumbles in the dark
to assert
toward the end of May.
Just as the nature of briars
is to tear flesh,
I have proceeded
through them.
the briars out,
they say.
You cannot live
and keep free of

Children pick flowers.
Let them.
Though having them
in hand
they have no further use for them
but leave them crumpled
at the curb’s edge.

At our age the imagination
across the sorry facts
lifts us
to make roses
stand before thorns.
love is cruel
and selfish
and totally obtuse—
at least, blinded by the light,
young love is.
But we are older,
I to love
and you to be loved,
we have,
no matter how,
by our wills survived
to keep
the jeweled prize
at our finger tips.
We will it so
and so it is
past all accident.

Nee Nej 2, from a new series of paintings I worked on this winter

I’ve posted this poem here already, several years ago. It resurfaced in me this morning and it feels like a perfect fit for the mood of my mind and spirit, heavy with the events of the last week. But that undeniable connection happens frequently for me with William Stafford’s words since my love of his work runs deep. I hope it speaks to you too.

A Ritual To Read To Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

–William Stafford

Wolgang Laib and Milkstone

The Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art is like the pocket-sized Shinto shrines that can be found all over Tokyo—an oasis of calm in a complicated and complexifying urban landscape. I have been a member since it opened in 2004 and spend time there on almost every trip to New York.

The current exhibit, Grain of Emptiness, features contemporary artists who have been impacted by concepts that we equate with Buddhism such as the void, the fleeting nature of life, the power of ritual. The works by these artists—Sanford Biggers, Theaster Gates, Atta Kim, Wolfgang Laib, and Charmion von Wiegand—are quiet, navigating that space between maker and viewer with dignity and mutual respect. The work ranges from installation to video to painting. An accompanying lecture series that happened over the fall and winter was reason to make me wish I lived in New York City again. The speakers included several from my list of favorites—Bill Viola, Wolgang Laib, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, Patsy Rodenburg, Charles Renfro, among others.

Laib’s work has been one I have followed for a long time, and his installations of plates of rice and marble stones that are topped off with milk always move me to some place still in me. The images by Atta Kim are extraordinary as well.

Is it possible to describe what these works have in common or are trying to achieve? Hard to do. Apropos to the exhibit is a passage from the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra (The Heart Sutra):

Form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form:
emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness;
whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form.

And from the catalog preface by Martin Brauen:

Although, or just because, emptiness is such a central idea in Buddhism, approaching this Buddhist principle is hard for several reasons: first, because emptiness evades definition, it resists description or analysis. Emptiness is beyond conceptuality. It is nonconceptuality par excellence. Second, in the West emptiness tends to be equated with nothingness, a way of interpretation that can scarcely stand up to more precise examination but is nevertheless widespread. And third, even within Buddhism emptiness is a concept that is discussed and described in a variety of ways, which makes clarification more difficult.

One of my favorite phrases is from Wolgang Laib: “The ephemeral is eternal.”

So in the spirit of that ekphrastic urge to use poetry to describe art, here’s Alice Fulton’s contribution to the mystery.

Mahamudra Elegy

Then emptiness grew more empty,
the scent of scentlessness.
How could it be?
When emptiness is that which can’t be

emptied any more, neither malicious nor
a state that welcomes us
with munificent alohas.
I fingered it like an incision, fondled it

like a rosary of thorns, thinking
if every instant holds
the maximum abridged, tranquillity must be
somewhere in the mix. So concentrate.

A live volcano is the recommended site
for certain meditations. Think time
exists because a dropped glass
breaks and here we are existing,

witnessing the ornaments,
decorative yet dear. Mundanities
that dazzling seem extruded by a star.
Stellifactions. Mahamudra.

Words to conjure with. The great
seal, great gesture, the mahamudra
holds snowflakes to their certitudes of lace.
While fire thinks fire

is what everything aspires to, time thinks
through its helpless locks: its ambergris
flocked with a sailor’s buttons, its mud wasp
buzzing like a mini vac. Every solid is a clock.

–Alice Fulton

This poem appeared in the Atlantic and came to me by way of Carl Belz.