Adaptable

The squirrels have begun an assault on my vegetable garden, drawn by a stunning and unplanned stand of sunflowers starting to go to seed. I can’t say I blame them, and I don’t mind that they eat the sunflowers–the birds can grab plenty. It’s the intelligence of squirrels that rallies the assault: they find a food source, tell their friends, and then explore further into the garden. That’s where I get annoyed with them. In this dry, hot weather they seek out the juicy tomato fruits and, while there, sample everything else they can find.

But their appearance is due to human circumstance and intervention. The development of a suburban cul de sac next door instead of the cornfield of past years, for example, and the pressure that has led to fewer predators in our little environment. More deer in smaller acreage, and deer eat oak saplings, so we have fewer oak trees maturing along the woodlot. With less mast available, why not turn to sunflower seeds, tomatoes, pears, even squash? Squirrels will take advantage of those changes. Very adaptable creatures.

Adaptability is admirable, and required if beings are to stay alive, let alone evolve. When I visit my beloved, aphasic, widowed mother, I marvel that she can nevertheless, under enormous changes, navigate the world. Granted–she has assistance. But not all human beings with assistance manage to maintain a benign and compassionate sense of self as their bodies fall apart with age.

Which brings me to Lost and Found, a Memoir, by Kathryn Schulz. My book group read this one recently, and I started reading it without doing any research about the book or the author–too busy with other things, and sometimes I like to be surprised by a text. By page 60, I was teary-eyed, because the story Schulz tells resonates with me. This month marks the second anniversary of my dad’s death, and the book begins with the death of Schulz’s beloved, curious, intellectual, chatty father.

This is the “Lost” of Lost and Found. Schulz writes beautifully, and writes beautifully of how complex and fraught the impending death of a loved one can be–the decisions, the fears, memories, even the forms that must be filled out and submitted so that the insurance and medical bills get properly taken care of. Meanwhile, we grieve and remember and numbly try to keep on in our suddenly bereaved “normal lives.” Schulz describes the environment of grief accurately and poignantly.

The “Found” section of the book describes love: new love, romantic love, the thumping of the heart and surprise at finding a person who’s the person. Here, Schulz’s experience differs considerably from mine, yet her writing took me back to days of feeling the heady excitement of getting to know someone deeply, intimately. The memoir, though it begins in sorrow, ends with the vulnerable opening into the shared territory of long-term relationships, whether those are among families, friends, or spouses.

As wretched as the world often is, we–and the rodents, insects, plants, etc.–find ways to adapt for far longer than seems likely. In the face of war and climate catastrophe and the loss of what we love, some of us manage to change and stay resilient, teaching new skills to those who come after us. We do so through art, literature, dance, music, community, love. It isn’t easy and it isn’t certain. But it’s all we’ve got.

Revision revisited

National Poetry Month comes to a close this week, as does my experiment with revising someone else’s poem. It was a fascinating practice, because it involved a kind of interpretation and re-imagining, taking–in this case–a poem written in Portuguese in 1928, and seeing whether through revising, I might make it mine (if not make it new). In slightly less than a month, I reworked the poem ten times. That’s a pace much quicker than I generally revise my own work. Which also made for an interesting process.

No judgment on the outcome, such as it is. The purpose of the prompt was to keep me writing and to remind me to get revising my poems, and it did have the intended effect. When emotional, physical, job or life obstacles clutter the writer’s terrain, attending to a writing project–however arbitrary–can have a salubrious effect. Or at least grease the wheels a bit.

The initial piece: I randomly chose the following poem by Pessoa in the heteronym of Ricardo Reis, in Honig & Brown’s translation:

"Whatever stops is death, and is our death"

Ricardo Reis (Pessoa)

Whatever stops is death, and is our death
If it stops for us. That very shrub now
    Withering, takes with it
    Part of my present life.
In everything I saw, part of me remained.
With all I saw that that moves I too move.
    Nor does memory distinguish
    What I saw from what I was.
~~

That was my ground zero. Perhaps I chose it because it reminds me a bit of Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death.” I will not reproduce all ten ‘versions’ I drafted, though that might interest someone (who exactly, I don’t know…). Here, however, is the tenth version, which sounds much more like me:

Revision
            after a poem by Ricardo Reis {Fernando Pessoa}
                        “Whatever stops is death…”

Hurrying to wait,
I contemplate
the final cessation
which
like the intersection
of Lanark Road and Rt. 309
lies up ahead:
red light, stop sign.
 
At a less determinable
distance, death does its duty—
part of me goes dying daily
each fallen leaf
dry stalk and road-killed
grey squirrel
pulls me closer
to my own departure
the way
a mother grasps her
child’s hand while running
to catch a crosstown bus—
hurrying.
 
I imagine memories
will dissipate, and freeze—
slowness and blur
will burgeon
until I can’t discern
the glistening new cicada
from its static husk
or morning’s gleam from dusk’s
cluttered, cloudy smog
or red lights from yellow
 
change will be stopped
at that intersection because
I will no longer know who
or what it is I was.
 

~~

One of the things I take away from this effort is that I do have a recognizable voice in my work. That was something I fretted over for many years, the concept of possessing a poetic voice. I have written in so many styles and taken different approaches to work and, for awhile, topic, that younger me worried that I had not developed a voice. Apparently someone long ago convinced me of the importance of having a recognizable voice; now, I barely recall why lacking it would feel like such a terrible thing. But reading my revision of Pessoa’s original, I sense his idea but hear my voice and my interpretation of his idea.

I’m not sure this is the final draft–whether this poem is finished or not, or whether it ever will be. I thank Pessoa for providing the starting point for the experiment and for making me stop and consider whether memory distinguishes who I am from who I was.

~

Finally, a recent brief poem in One Art Poetry Journal: https://oneartpoetry.com/2022/04/21/passover-by-ann-e-michael/

In which my dad appears

When does bereavement permit the writer to get back to the writing process? I have had quite a few conversations about this topic in the past few decades, and the answer’s pretty obviously “It depends.” I think of Donald Hall writing during Jane Kenyon’s illness and death and afterward–the stunning poems of Without. When my friend David Dunn died, I wrote immediately and often, sorrow emerging through elegies and remembrance. But I was younger then, and less experienced in the arena of bereavement.

During my mother-in-law’s two-year decline toward dying, I found myself writing about the challenges we faced–physical, emotional, communicational (that’s not a word, but I’m leaving it here all the same). Afterward, I could not/did not write. What interferes?

Why my thoughts turn this way: because, lately, my dad keeps turning up in my poem drafts.

I did not write much last year and did not submit any work.* For some reason, though I blogged and wrote long emails to friends and read many inspiring books, I did not feel particularly creative. But I wouldn’t have associated that semi-arid year with my father’s death; I figured my creative void was more about covid and an increase in chronic fatigue symptoms.

To jump start myself this year, I signed up for an online workshop (see this post). It has helped–I’ve drafted more poems in five weeks than I wrote in five months last year. But there’s been a peculiar outcome to these poems: despite widely differing prompts, source poems, and initial processes, my dad or something I connect with him appears in almost a third of the new drafts. I wonder what my subconscious is doing behind my day to day routine. Is this a response to bereavement, or a sign that I’ve accepted his death, or a reminder to self of what a huge loss it has been to me?

Not that I have a definitive answer to any of those questions. I do feel grateful for his appearance, though. He had a good sense of humor and loved to sing–nice things to have in a poem.

~

Thanks, Dad.

~

*Well, almost no work. Thanks to Marilyn Hazelton, editor of red lights tanka journal, I did submit tanka poems in 2021; and she accepted a few for this season’s edition (print only).

Memento mori

I think I am an amateur naturalist. Maybe my own poetry isn’t so much nature poetry or ecopoetry as it is naturalist poetry. By that I do not mean naturalism as literary criticism defines it–a “movement” belonging to the 19th century. Sean Carroll’s concept of poetic naturalism isn’t quite what I mean, either; Carroll’s approach is more philosophical, though it does get closer to my personal concept. I guess I just mean poetry written by a naturalist.

Such musings arise as I have been reading Bernd Heinrich’s book Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, which offers a naturalist’s low-down on what corporeal death means in terms of the Earth’s environmental cycles; he views every death as a life or as multiple lives–for, in the animal world (which is, after all, our world), a corpse hosts multitudes of new beginnings. It’s simply recycling, the work of millennia. And sometimes the work of Nicrophorus beetles and other “undertakers.” Okay, maybe not a book to every reader’s taste, but fascinating biology. After having read quite a few books on hospice care and human dying, I can now appreciate the amazing biological processes at work in “natural” deaths that work to improve soil, remove waste, feed numerous animals and plants, and regulate the cycle of life. If we want to get ourselves back to the garden, we need to make ourselves more aware of these valuable cleanup crew creatures.

Poets strain experience through words; sometimes we write from the filtered outcome, sometimes we explore the dross that gets caught in the sieve.

A Best Beloved expressed dismay as the news of a friend’s cancer diagnosis coincided with a few recent worries and bereavements: “Everyone’s getting older and falling apart!” But really, what are our options? Die young and leave a good-looking corpse? Live to 100 and die while sleeping? Probably something on the continuum between those poles. Most humans think about, or endeavor not to think about, their deaths and the deaths of those they love. Grief and death are among the Big Themes of poetry, often hovering in the background of a poem that initially appears to be about something else (i.e. Emily Dickinson Emily Dickinson Emily Dickinson 😀 …). Poets strain experience through words; sometimes we write from the filtered outcome, sometimes we explore the dross that gets caught in the sieve. All of it is life.

“Remember we must die” need not be a call to religious fervor or to pessimistic existentialism. It is merely a fact that we ignore at our peril; for if we remember death is ahead, we can attune ourselves more closely to the lives we do have–and those others with whom we are in relationships. For whether you know it or not, your body has a relationship to Earth and all of its beings. Even, perhaps, the carrion beetle, not to mention billions of microbes and your best friend’s mother.

When I write about death (and I do), I find the tone of the poem depends a great deal on which words or images I use: the clear flow, or the leavings in the sieve. Different purposes, of course. Sometimes the poem wanders in sorrow, sometimes there’s clarity or a lifting of grief. It depends on the perspective (sometimes the speaker of the poem isn’t me), and on where the poem itself decides to go, particularly as I revise. Many readers believe that poems only ever arise from the writer’s experience, but poems are works of the imagination. And they are sometimes informed, or re-formed, by experience or insight that comes later in the writing process.

My own grief? That’s private. I may not decide ever to communicate how that feels. However, having sensed sorrow in my bones and gut and in the empty places in my community of loved ones, I can write about being in the moment of bereavement and the many moments afterwards when the losses make us ache. I like to imagine that memento mori keeps me alert to life. Even when I feel sad.

Emergent

emergent (adj.) late 14c., “rising from what surrounds it, coming into view,” from Latin emergentem (nominative emergens), present participle of emergere “to rise out or up” (see emerge).

etymologyonline: etymonline.com

~

Spring equinox.

Very soon–perhaps days from now–the vernal ephemerals will appear. The vernal ephemerals are early spring flowers that thrive low to earth before the trees leaf out: spring beauties, dogtooth violet, squirrel corn, bloodroot, hepatica, and others that look delicate but are, in fact, tough little survivors who have found their ecological niche in the cool days and weak sunlight just post-equinox. We could consider their resilience an inspiration.

Vernal ephemerals sounds to me like a term for sprites, will o’ the wisps, or angels, but it’s a scientific term. I learned it from Tom Wessels (here’s one of his videos on coevolution https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCAvBmY7ZgA),* but I have been fascinated by these plants for decades. I have always been the sort of person who walked around with my head either facing the clouds or scanning the earth beneath my feet. Hence, a reason so much of my poetry uses images from nature even when I am not writing about the garden, the meadow, the woods, the sea. My clumsiness a byproduct of my peculiar need to observe the natural environment.

Anyway, hepatica is about as close to a sprite as any blossom I know of.

They aren’t common where I now live. Here, the vernal ephemerals I see most often are trout lily, bloodroot, spring beauty, violets, coltsfoot, trillium. Probably a few others that I’m forgetting because the ephemerals haven’t popped up yet. Still far too cold and a bit dry after a month of snow cover. The emergent greens in my gardens consist mainly of winter weeds, and I’m happy even to see those. Because: green.

“Just a little green like the color when the spring is born” says a line in Joni Mitchell’s song. The green things rise up or out of what surrounds them, coming into view.

I have been keeping under the standing snow, leaf litter, and dross for three months, processing (as the jargon terms it) my father’s death and a new manuscript and a backlog of poem drafts and covid-19 with its attendant disruptions, limitations, and opportunities. But the snow has subsided from all but a few gullies on the north sides of hills; iris reticulata and snowdrops are in bloom, along with the winter-blooming witch hazel. There’s work to do in the garden. Poems to revise. National Poetry Month ahead (April!). It’s the 25th year for this literary celebration.

Time for me, like the skunks and the skunk cabbage and the little ephemerals, to rise out of my surroundings. And take up this blog again? It’s a start. A little green shoot emerging in the chilly sunlight. Hello.

* Thanks to Dave Bonta for the video recommendation

How can it be

Another book about how to die, or how to think about dying: Roshi Joan Halifax’s Being with Dying–the subtitle includes compassion and fearlessness, two qualities Halifax explores using Buddhist approaches, such as meditations. While I like to read about meditations, meditation itself eludes me; I am “bad” at practicing, but authors like Halifax and Kabat-Zinn give me hope that even poor attempts at meditation can be useful in dealing with grief, stress, and anxiety. Death is the most normal thing in the world. How odd that we must teach ourselves how to “be with” it. How to keep from worrying ourselves to death about the most normal thing in the world. Worrying accomplishes so little.

When I was a college freshman, I interviewed my great-grandmother (born in 1884) for a cultural anthropology project. She talked about living on a small farm, nursing her 12-year-old son through the Spanish flu, baking and slaughtering and canning and drawing water–life before rural electrification. She said:

Times was hard, but times is always hard, and our lives were no harder than anybody else’s.

Orpha Ann Parrish Smith

Good to keep that in mind at present.

My temperament has always tended more melancholic than anxious; but in these days of covid, flu, and concerns about my bereaved and elderly mother, worried thoughts arrive, especially in the wee hours, especially as cases climb upward in my region and my mother’s assisted living center starts yet another lockdown. I try to imagine the changes the extreme elderly experience…I imagine her being ‘assisted’ by caring, gentle people she does not really know and with whom she can barely communicate due to anomia and aphasia, which makes her grief for my father truly inexpressible.

“I can’t say anymore what I say,” she tells me by phone. “On the wall, it says, what is it? Now?”

“The calendar? It’s Tuesday, Mom.”

“No, the other. The…weather. Season.”

“Oh. October. It’s October.”

“How is it? And I am trying…when was it? That he died?”

“August, Mom. August 25th.”

“Has it been since August? Was it August? Already? So many now. Many…pills. No, ice. Ices gone by. I don’t mean that. I said–“

“Many days, I know. Can it really be October already? And he’s been gone since the end of August. Summer.”

“25. 25 days, August, October. How can it be?” she asks; and I can tell, over the phone, that she is shaking her head slowly the way she does, wondering, surprised, how can it be…

There are times she says exactly the right thing.

How can it be? Something I might want to meditate upon.

Turn, turn, turn

As a child, I loved the Pete Seeger song “Turn, Turn, Turn” as sung by The Byrds. My father told me the words came from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (KJV). Ecclesiastes offers some lovely poems, and Seeger’s interpretation is simple and wise:

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late

~

Given the time of coronavirus and covid-19, “a time to refrain from embracing” seems apt, and a little painful to contemplate. For me and my beloveds, a time has come in which to mourn and weep, and to embrace, because everything (and every one among us) must reach a time to die. The sweet-natured, intelligent man who took us to a Pete Seeger concert when we were children and told us where to find the lyrics in Ecclesiastes, among many other things, has moved from physical existence to existence in our consciousness–the strange loop of human “being” that none of us understands.

He would have called it soul.

autumn rainbow

Death & beauty

I may be misquoting Edvard Munch; but I think I once read a translation of his letters in which he said, “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”azurea

There’s a famous line in Wallace Stevens’ poem “Sunday Morning” that reads, “Death is the mother of beauty.”

Simone Weil wrote, “The destruction of Troy. The fall of the petals from fruit trees in blossom. To know that what is most precious is not rooted in existence – that is beautiful.”

Many human cultures have, from all appearances, created beautiful rituals, art, cultural objects, music, literature in commemoration of the dead, or have believed that death is a necessary part of a cycle that would lead, again, to living beauty. What is it about human beings that inclines to such an impulse? Is it just fear? Or a desire to be remembered, or to remember the beloved?

Poe claimed that there was no subject more suitable for poetry than the death of a beautiful woman; but he was full of crap about that or, at any rate, too swayed by the culture in which he resided in his awkward and outsider way. Nonetheless, he puts forth the assertion that from death can come something that is itself beautiful: a work of art, a lyric, a poem. I do not disagree with him on that point.

virginia poe

Edgar Allan Poe’s sketch of his young wife Virginia

Certainly many poets end up writing about, with, or against death; raging or praising; querying, challenging, wondering, fearing, fighting, sometimes embracing or accepting. Do I hear Emily Dickinson in that chorus? Dylan Thomas? Walt Whitman? Marie Howe? Mark Doty? Ilyse Kusnetz?

In a previous post, I alluded to the death of a beautiful woman (a friend), and asked about the value(s) we humans place on beauty–and the way(s) we define, describe, and name it.

Because death’s one of The Big Mysteries–and writers tend to gnaw around the edges of things that are not easily put into words, and mortal is what we are–poets poke at death, encounter it, question it, and question the religious, biological, and social accretions that surround it. Can we find beauty in death, from it, surrounding it? Recently, I attended a philosophy lecture concerning death and the soul from a Catholic (Thomist) perspective,* and the talk briefly moved into inquiry concerning the intersection of death and beauty. I did not ask, what sort of beauty–aesthetics, or awe?

But I am asking now.

~~

 

*Dr. Marco Stango, DeSales University

Observation, memory, & art

Simon Watts has died. Probably you have not heard of him. His father, Arthur Watts, was a talented illustrator for the British magazine Punch, among other publications. My readers are unlikely to be familiar with him, either. His sister, Marjorie-Ann Watts, is an illustrator, novelist, and memoir-writer in the UK. Her books are not readily available in the USA, so my readers probably do not know of her, alas. Simon’s maternal grandmother was Amy Dawson-Scott, aka “Sappho,” poet, novelist, and British literary hostess who founded English PEN. If you have not heard of her, you may have heard of PEN International, a major writers’ organization.

Oh, such interesting relations and associations!

Simon, who turned 90 a week ago, needs an elegy–but I cannot write one, at least not yet. We have been friends for 35 years; and even though he hasn’t lived nearby, we will miss his presence in our lives because he corresponded well. He sent letters, and emails with memoir documents attached, and photos. He kept up with our children even into their adulthood. He called us. We visited. He told the best stories–always mirthful and full of twists. He wrote articles on sailing, boatbuilding, furniture-making, and sent little essay-type memories to his friends and family.

He hailed from England, emigrated to the US in the 50s, and loved Nova Scotia, San Francisco, and Portugal. He has family in the US, Britain, and Australia.

~~

I was scouting about the internet looking at his work and his family’s stories and came upon his father’s article on drawing in black and white, written in 1934 about a year before Arthur’s early death (he died in an airplane accident). This section struck me as so relevant to my own understanding about both sketching and writing–good writing, poetry, journalism–is also, foremost, about observation and memory.

Speaking of memory and observation, how much I wish that I had trained mine more. How I wish I had employed that excellent method of looking at an object, going into another room to draw it, returning to refresh my memory, and so on, until that drawing was completed without it and the object ever having met, as it were. What a training for an artist interested primarily in character, who sees for a minute a face which, if he cannot draw from memory, he will never draw at all!

I believe I am right in saying that, ages before such a thing as photography was even guessed at, this was the method by which Chinese artists were taught … So developed did their powers of observation and memory become by this training that by shutting their eyes, opening them for the fraction of a second, and shutting them again, they could keep in their minds the visual image of what they saw long enough to be able to transfer that visual image to paper. It was in this manner that they were enabled to draw insects and birds in flight, and it is an indubitable fact that, when the camera was invented and ‘instantaneous’ pictures were produced, it was proved by comparison that these artists’ memorisations were perfectly accurate.

Stacks Image 61

I tried that method myself, but, having no stern master to goad me on and, alas that I should have to say it, being constitutionally lazy, dropped it; for it is the most exhausting form of study that I know.

~~

Simon Watts, the son of this artist (a man he barely remembers), inherited somehow–though expressed in an entirely different way–the recognition that we ought to note carefully and recall the world around us, revel in our memories, and share our knowledge and wonder in whatever ways we can.

He saved historic wooden sailboats by carefully measuring them, building his own versions, and reproducing his designs for others to build.

In the photo below, my daughter, at age 14, happily sails the Atlantic off the coast of Nova Scotia in the boat that graces the cover of his plans for Building the Norwegian Pram.

 

alice-pram 2004

Such memories fall into the category of immeasurably valuable. Right now, this photograph takes the place of any elegy I could compose. Sail on in peace, Simon!

 

Lustratio*

Another day, another draft!

This challenge has not gotten easier yet. Sometimes, disciplined practice leads to a certain ease or confidence–that’s always the hope, anyway, that I might find amid the drafts something wonderful. My model here would be someone like William Stafford, who sat down every morning to draft at least one poem (and sometimes they were wonderful). The Poetry Foundation’s site says:

Stafford reports that he sits alone in the early morning and writes down whatever occurs to him, following his impulses. “It is like fishing,” he says, and he must be receptive and “willing to fail. If I am to keep writing, I cannot bother to insist on high standards…. I am following a process that leads so wildly and originally into new territory that no judgment can at the moment be made about values, significance, and so on…. I am headlong to discover.”

At the end of this National Poetry Month, I will give myself a reckoning as to whether the NaPoWriMo process has been at all helpful to me as a poet. It may be it proves beneficial in some other way…

~

Lustratio

Her friends died young when she herself
was young and unbaptized in the realm of dying

Yet you would think her better prepared–for there were
car crashes, suicides, fires, the blood plague taking
its long and steady toll

There were the risk-takers certain of their immortality
who drowned or fell from cliffs or grace
through the needle or the drug or drink and those
whose hearts took upon themselves
a need to hurry beyond the body’s balance and
whose breastbones could not contain them

You would think her ready for the news that someone
loved or once loved or otherwise connected
(Milgram’s six degrees of separation theory)
had died however people do when they are young–
embolism, cancer, accident, murder

Slow or sudden–it’s not as if the difference
though there is one, matters
because you’d think, by now, when she is no longer young
the facts of gone and after and remembering
the evidence of dying and grief’s enormous cosmos
would have carved for her a familiar space

A kind of purifying trauma–as if the bulla and procession
could protect her or her community from harm
when harm is what the world offers now and then
and we must bid it enter even if we are young

Even when it is unwelcome.

~

NOTE:

* Lustratio was an ancient Greek purification and protection ritual for children or for cities, farms, and other precious items; in the case of a male child, sometimes it was a naming ceremony at which the baby would receive a small, gold bulla (charm in the shape of a bull’s head) as a blessing or for protection. Ancient historians describe it in several ways, but most frequently mention a procession and animal sacrifice.