Thursday, October 22, 2009

Poem and Mountain

One of my best friends started seminary this term. He recently emailed me (his atheist friend) the following:

Want to help me with some homework? I'm taking a class on Poetry and the Religious Imagination. This week, we're to strike up a conversation with a friend outside class about the creative moment over a poem by Wallace Stevens.

"The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain"

There it was, word for word.
The poem that took the place of a mountain.

He breathed its oxygen.
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.

It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,

How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,

For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:

The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,

Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.

So, maybe the question to ask regarding creativity or the creation of a poem is why? What does the poem, the creative act of "recomposing" and "shifting" give us? Hmm. I think of Stevens as modernist in the sense that he's looking for wholeness, but recognizes the world as fractured. He doesn't have God out there somewhere to whom he can go for reassurance. He goes to the poem, "turned in the dust of his table," to find his home. Hmmmm. What do you think?

Be well!

Here’s my response:

This is a great assignment, especially that you must get outside input. The last of the demons preventing Buddha from enlightenment was his own ego. This is among the most revealing statements ever written about spirituality. Some things just can’t be seen from ourselves.

I’ve climbed a lot of mountains. When I needed to get into a difficult issue, to solve a troubling problem, to sort out which things were important, I went climbing. Walks, while peaceful, don’t accomplish this in the same sense. Nor is it the view--driving to the top is not equivalent. Six/eight hours of tiring climbing, however, clears the mind, leaving choices and situations apparent, courses of action clear. Some of this is activity, perhaps, but long hikes aren’t the same either. Some of it is activity mandated by survival--a very effective way to focus priorities. But most of this is getting outside one’s own mind. The experiences and memories it yields are deeply meaningful, so clear I can revisit the summit at will (and do when I need this focus), something very personal that cannot be taken away but something not mine nor me, now or then. It is more than such things. As Lao Tzu observes, “Those who know do not tell; those who tell do not know.” It is beyond telling. It is a knowing that is more whole than the knowing we speak of day to day. And I immediately recognized this in Stevens’ poem.

When a Zen or Taoist painter shares his work with a friend (a work born of a moment of meditation, the painter anticipates that the friend will add a poem born of meditation on the image (this is why Chinese/Japanese painted scrolls typically have so much writing on them). Similar to what you’re doing now, the viewer gains perspectives outside his own mind (and even his own mindlessness). I see poetry this way too. A poet shares a fresh perspective, a different way of viewing our world, our experience, our nature, or even just the possibility of those other perspectives, that there indeed CAN be “thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird,” for example. This too takes us outside of our own minds, beyond our experience into views we cannot see alone. I think of an amoeba-shaped lake, its shores heavily wooded, with observers standing at various points and coves, unseen by each other, all looking at the same lake, but seeing in each case a very different lake. For a more complete view at any given moment, they will need each other’s descriptions. They simply cannot view all these perspectives at once themselves. A poet can shift through these in time.

You turn to literary theory, a tool which, though I understand it (as a musician, for example, I recognize technically everything happening in a performance), I’ve always found limiting. Yes, it can inform the context. It can also posit the arbitrary. While I notice the technical aspects, it’s not what I hear--it’s not the music, in the way that I see the world as a musician, in the way that I write like a musician, that I see “mountain” in the same sense as I see music, as who I am, yet not me nor mine. When on stage, reaching down for that difficult passage, 3000 people listening quietly, expecting perfection, counter-intuitively calming my breathing to met the challenge, pressure on, knowing it will flow of its own accord, fruits of all my years of practice and yet from a place that’s not me nor mine--this is what I hear when I listen to such a poem. It’s the “It” described in “Zen and the Art of Archery” by the Zen masters, fruits of their skill, but nothing to their credit, beyond them. Questioning the nature of language and exploring it by writing is from the inside, and yes, worthy of a theoretical examination. Seeing how the movements of our age might measure such a piece is an exercise.

The creative moment? That moment is long past. The poem itself is all past tense. When, amid all the work and angst and struggle did those difficult parts of music become “easy” for me? I missed the moment. When did complicated literature become apparent? I didn’t notice the day. These things happened far before my awareness of this--outside my mind and perception. When I did notice, they were already long established history. Why write? Why create? Reminds me of “Why climb mountains?” Modernism “in the sense of a search for wholeness” would really be wishful thinking, a preconceived “connect the fractured dots” exercise possible somehow whatever the dots, if pointless beyond fiction once connected. But that captured moment of mountain, that point in music that freezes time even as it moves through it, that meditative glimpse recorded on a Taoist painter’s scroll, that snapshot of poem--these are moments past our daily post of ego driven mind.

Ever hear of the Johari window? It’s a communications construct exploring the importance of others’ perceptions in understanding ourselves. I can see some things about myself, but not other things. You too, can see some things about me, but not other things, yielding four quadrants: things we both see, things I see that you don’t, things you see that I don’t, and things we both miss. Point is--I cannot truly understand myself by myself. I need the perspectives of others as well. No one truly understands how the world looks to you--not your family, not me, not your wife. The moments you can capture are enlightening insights, parts of creation otherwise unavailable to us. Why indeed? Those most personal moments also tend to be most universal. Capturing them for others shows them to ourselves--along with their significance. It’s a process, a journey up the mountain, not the view, the recomposed pines and shifted rocks pointing their direction during their transition, not once composed, that yields this completeness “in an unexplained completeness.” Inexact and exact merge. Even though the book lays turned it yields its oxygen. The poem is mountain.

I’m always saddened when people-of-faith lament that atheists don’t have God to turn to for reassurance. How much they are missing! How many can truly live their truth? How many know with certainty anytime, anywhere, they can reach down for that difficult music passage? How many are on that mountain every moment of every day? And why would such people need reassurance, or to label it anything, God or otherwise? As Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyers when asked whether he had faith: “I don’t need faith; I have experience.” Those who know do not tell; those who tell do not know. Mountain, music, zen painting, poem.

I see a poem as a crystal. Multiple observations and experiences are condensed, pressed tighter and tighter, until they crystallize in “the view toward which they had edged, / Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea, / Recognize his unique and solitary home.” Physics tells us we are not slaves to time and space. Such creations let us glimpse the timeless. That’s why it cannot be told--the mountain isn’t really the point, even as it’s entirely the point. It’s why I’ve never shared this with you before, and why I don’t talk to people about my understanding of music in that sense. It is beyond telling, so we create art.

The museum has a great show, “Turner to C├ęzanne,” a collection on loan until Jan. 3. I haven’t seen it yet, but I will make it a point to do so, and more than once. Why? Not simply because they are very well done paintings. Paintings like these go beyond craft. Painters like these aren’t simply about superior technique, but about capturing that element of the timeless. I’ll be going to see music, mountain, poem, the fractured pieces that already are the whole--and “a place to go in my own direction.”


Monday, May 25, 2009

A Lovely Thought?

Take a look at the metaphors people use to describe love, and why anyone does it is a wonder.

Right off you have to fall. Geez! Or you were conquered. Or engulfed, drowning in a sea of love. And you gave all your love, so you’re feeling empty. You don’t want to get burned again. But you’re mad, wild, crazy in love. Yet you crave it.

So love means defeat, injury, death, bankruptcy, addiction and insanity. How lovely.

Why the negative take on something everyone wants, everyone in fact needs, everyone deserves? What would happen if we spent as much time loving as we seem to invest in warding it off? Hell, even children know this: “That one likes you” “Ewwwww!” And sometimes adults don’t act much better. You are loved. Oh, the horror.

So we go home, alone, protected from love, and wish we had someone there to love.


Friday, April 17, 2009

A wonderful poem about keeping expectations real

[I've deliberately omitted the title, as its connotations are no longer the same as when the poem was written.]

She had thought the studio would keep itself;
no dust upon the furniture of love.
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
the panes relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
had risen at his urging.
Not that at five each separate stair would writhe
under the milkman's tramp; that morning light
so coldly would delineate the scraps
of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
that on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own---
envoy from some village in the moldings . . .
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;
while she, jeered by the minor demons,
pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
a towel to dust the table-top,
and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.
By evening she was back in love again,
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.

--Adrienne Rich

Friday, April 10, 2009

Walking in the darkness

That night when joy began
Our narrowest veins to flush,
We waited for the flash
Of morning's levelled gun.

But morning let us pass,
And day by day relief
Outgrows his nervous laugh,
Grown credulous of peace,

As mile by mile is seen
No trespasser's reproach,
And love's best glasses reach
No fields but are his own.

--W. H. Auden

May the day come when the days are so comfortable.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Just when...

It's beautiful when it truly happens. The poetic irony. The better job that appears just when despair is thinking of leasing a room. That wonderful pet adopted when it just showed up after the loss of another. The unexpected opportunity, the surprise windfall, the fortuitous, the serendipitous. The fruit falls from the tree, ripe and ready. A gift.

And there you are again. After the disappointment, the discouragement, the adjustment--she enters. Smart, artistic, funny, sexy, loves what you love, prefers what you prefer, shares your interests, and finds she is interested in you, as you are in her.

Life proceeds apace, one day at a time, and we find hope lives, even knowing what could happen, but also knowing what could finally happen. That elusive "one," that small subset of the population, grows in your land.

And so, not knowing, yet knowing, we truly live.

The Mystic Writer

Friday, April 3, 2009

Spring and All

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast--a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines--

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches--

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind--

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined-
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance--Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken

--William Carlos Williams

Friday, March 27, 2009

Memory and Desire


APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

--beginning of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland"

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of our exploring
will be to return where started
and know the place for the first time

--T. S. Eliot

Friday, March 20, 2009

And speaking of sonnets...

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year's leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year's bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide

There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, "There is no memory of him here!"
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!

--Edna St. Vincent Milly

Where's Writer Been?

Here's my video creation by way of explanation. I tried to embed it, but alas, you'll need to copy and paste the link:


Sonnet: Love Is Not All

Love is not all: It is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain,
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
and rise and sink and rise and sink again.
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
pinned down by need and moaning for release
or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It may well be. I do not think I would.

-- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Valentine’s Day Ire

You’ve heard it plenty, I’m sure—the lament that Valentine’s Day is just a holiday invented for the greedy greeting card industry, and therefore the speaker refuses to participate out of righteous resistance to such outrageous manipulation.

Is this really so horrible?

A day to remind someone you love that you care? How is this any worse than the traditions surrounding birthdays or Christmas? What’s the big deal? Participate or not, as you choose. The need to pontificate against it, though, suggests more than greeting cards are at issue.

It is a curious holiday, to be sure. After all, it’s named for a Roman priest who brought lovers to marriage in trying circumstances, and the date is the anniversary not of his birth, but of his execution. Interesting omen.

Like other modern holidays, this one falls on or between solstices and equinoxes, replacing pagan celebrations with Christian counterparts. Lupercalia, celebrated Feb. 15, featured sacrificed animals, from which the priests cut thongs for whipping all the women they encountered, to ensure fertility. A BDSM holiday.

Or perhaps you prefer the Juno Februata festival, Feb. 13 and 14, featuring boys drawing the names of girls from a hat. Valentine’s Day, in English folklore, is the day birds begin mating. So all in all, a very, um, practical, get-down-to-business kind of holiday. The courtly love tradition of the High Middle Ages whittled this down to choosing a sweetheart. So much for progress.

But detractors can still revel in a romantic priest’s martyrdom, and the massacre of seven gang members in a North side Chicago garage in a hail of seventy sub-machine gun bullets and two shotgun blasts on the morning of Feb. 14, 1929.

Just in case you don’t care for chocolate, flowers, greeting cards, fertility, erotic flogging, astronomy, romantic/sexual partners, or the mating habits of birds.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Diving into the Wreck

by Adrienne Rich

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and away into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.


I was thinking through feelings and thoughts, sorting through what I want to say, but find I can't really add much to what Rich has already so eloquently said. I keep fruitlessly working at it. Somehow it helps. The wreck and not the story of the wreck. Not sure how. It just does.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Pain and Peace by Moonlight

Yesterday, as I went skiing just after work, I came across a clearing I’ve seen hundreds of times before. A bad storm cleared this bit of forest a few years ago, leaving piles of trees like badly hacked grass. Even today, we’ve really just become accustomed to the turns around some still downed trees.

On that particular evening, though, as the sun set through the spruce behind them, several remaining dead trees stood highlighted, jagged and tall, rough sentinels to the almost forgotten storm, abrupt reminders that the “clearing,” while lighter than the surrounding forest, is not truly clear--and it never has been.

Things long since settled, almost forgotten, appear unbidden, apparitions dragging their shadowy history, rattling never attached chains in mockery. Past pain is suddenly present, and for no apparent reason, no visible trigger, and without welcome. Not as clear as it seemed. The jagged sentinels stand witness, the past not truly past, remnants of ancient storms uncleared.

Tonight, darkness beat me to Stoney Pond, but with a clear sky and a bright moon overhead, I decided to ski anyway. With slick, sleet-like conditions, the skiing was fast and not a little harried at times, especially tethered to a husky…but I’m glad I went, despite some spills. It was such a peaceful night, the forest so beautiful, a great night for a leisurely ski, just letting thoughts slowly sort themselves out, if not resolve anything.

I think about the quiet, watching the moonlit trail. I think of sharing these experiences, how nice it would be, how odd that so many people would think it strange, or place it beyond anything they’d want to do. Some paths just seem to want to be traveled alone.

Why is that, I wonder. People wonder why they can’t find love, for instance, but the truth is they don’t want it--they would rather be independent. The song “Nature Boy” is correct: “The hardest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love”--and here’s the hard part--“and be loved in return.” Or more specifically, to allow ourselves to be loved in return. Joni Mitchell is right: “And you love your loving…not like you love your freedom.”

I look at the stars again, back at the car, and strap my husky in the back seat. She’s an independent creature too--but she’s also a pack animal, one who knows without thinking she belongs with others. Humans are also social animals. Why do we fight it so?

A couple times in my past I disappeared for a while, not even close friends knowing for sure where I was or how to contact me. Just time for me and my thoughts, finding myself, sorting things out. I’m starting to feel the need to do it again.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

Our own brand of magic

Perfection Wasted
by John Updike

And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market —
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren’t the same.

– 1990

Thank you to all those who have shared and continue to share your magic with me and have allowed me to share my own with you. That subtle, easily missed perfection will never be wasted. Not on me, not on us.


Friday, January 9, 2009


When I graduated from college, I had all sorts of dreams. Among them was the urge to see the world--maybe not as big as George Bailey’s in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but strong nonetheless.

I had already seen much of the country, courtesy of my parents, who dragged their children from state to state during vacations from attraction to attraction. I’m not complaining--I saw the Badlands, the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, Carlsbad Caverns, Yellowstone, the Smokey Mountains, a bit of Mexico and Canada, and a host of other wonderful sights. I loved it--though I thought we should settle and soak in each sight, rather than cramming as many as possible into a few vacation weeks, only to enjoy the pictures later.

I wanted to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, to canoe the Mississippi, to sail the St. Lawrence, to cross the Rocky Mountains, to climb Machu Picchu. I didn’t want to do this alone, however. I shared my vision with several adventurous friends, but one by one, they all had new jobs, new girlfriends, new living situations or various other new circumstances that would stand in the way of such untrammeled endeavors. So, after a lot of conversation and investigation, my expeditions, one by one, were replaced by those closer to home.

Well, I have lived in the middle of the Green Mountains of Vermont, and now live a few hours from the Adirondack Mountains. At home, I’m surrounded by beautiful countryside, with beautiful hiking, skiing, and kayaking opportunities just minutes away. My wish to soak it in has become a life. Instead of going somewhere to see nature, I live with it. And when I desperately need a walk in the country just to clear my head, I only have to go outside.

I now have friends who want to wander, if not in the same way, at least to seek greener grass. I think about it, and I certainly appreciate all the wonderful sights to see, and all the wonderful things to potentially do in life.

But except for someone to share it with, I’m content.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What IS a "Normal Life"?

Sittin’ here just thinkin,’ taking a few moments break from work (OK, I DID get out earlier for an…interesting ski with my husky across sleet…), I’m struck by how many times I’ve heard the words over the years, in a wide variety of contexts, “Well, I need to get my life in order first.”

Just whose life IS “in order”? What does that even mean? Someone with no problems? Someone with no entanglements? Someone whose life moves everyday perfectly synched to some cosmic schedule? Who ARE these people?

Well, they don’t exist, of course. I’m all for continual self-improvement and striving for the best, but to wait for that before truly living is sad, and perhaps dysfunctional, if understandably so. We’ll all die first!

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in new relationships, and it’s rooted in pride. I’m as guilty as anyone--I do alone very well, I don’t need anyone, I’ve got other life issues to address, and so on. I certainly have my share of pride, too. But despite our individual culture--and this is not to ignore the many benefits of valuing each of us as individuals--it’s flawed at best.

Simply considering our biology dictates man was meant to live with woman, and woman with man. Sure, its more than that--which is why sex with someone loved on multiple levels and for multiple reasons is wonderful, not just a biological act. But to pretend this is apart from our nature is silly.

Perfection doesn’t come easily, if it comes at all. So here’s to imperfect relationships and abnormal lives--in all their messy, individualistic, problem-soaked and vastly interesting living-life-to-its-fullest glory.


Friday, January 2, 2009

A Hard Year’s Beginning

I’ve got to learn to stop getting into long distance relationships. Or I’d like to. Thing is, I keep meeting interesting women who don’t live next door. So I’ll probably keep doing it.

In particular, I find there’s a process:

1) complain there are no good men
2) meet good man
3) get interested
4) get serious about man
5) get very happy
6) think of every possible scenario about what could go wrong
7) sabotage relationship so that none of those things can happen
8) be sad
9) complain there are no good men

Long distance makes it impossible to go get coffee and talk, so we add hiding behind the keyboard or turning off the cell phone to further complicate the issue.

I guess I don’t understand.

I’m a “let’s take what’s good and work from there” kinda guy. Look for things wrong, and you’ll always find them (doesn’t anyone read “Young Goodman Brown” anymore?).

But, a relationship of any kind takes the decisions of two people.

Seems I’m back at square one.

I don’t like it.