Monday, June 30, 2008

The Poetics of Space

By a forgotten, meandering path through the Web, I arrived at a quote from The Poetics of Space, by Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher. It’s strange that I no longer remember this specific passage, because I was electrified by his words. I immediately ordered a copy of the book, which has proved to be a thrilling and enlightening read. I haven’t been reading this book in sequence. Instead, I open it at random, read a page or two, then shut the book and blink in awe. I need to replay the language, the observations and brilliant insights. I am slowly letting the words quench a thirst I didn’t know I had. I seem to siphon such large, rich drafts with my small sips. Bachelard’s wisdom expands inside my mind, flooding the recesses with something effervescent. I can feel my brain, buoyant, shifting to rebalance. Then I reopen the book, almost holding my breath in anticipation of sampling more revelatory lines. I can tell that I’m almost done with the book, because it’s almost entirely filled with Post-Its.

Some of the chapter titles will give you an idea of Bachelard’s creative style of thinking: “Intimate Immensity,” “Miniature,” “House and Universe,” “The Dialectics of Outside and Inside,” and “The Phenomenology of Roundness.” I was immediately absorbed by “Miniature,” since I love all things minuscule. (In my family, we share a hereditary condition my aunt refers to as tinyitis.) In my own poetry and hybrid writing, I can find myself entering the smallest possible worlds, sometimes shrinking to observe my surroundings. To me, details open expansive worlds. They are beautiful in themselves, but that pointed focus, that scratching at the surface, provides a door into a deeper, wider place. Just like the door of the poem opens elsewhere.

In discovering Bachelard, I was quite taken by reading essays that could describe my personal writing experiences, my observations about poetry. (He values poetry so highly that it seems to validate my calling.) He says “…the minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world. The details of a thing can be the sign of a new world, which like all worlds, contains the attributes of greatness.” “Miniature is one of the refuges of greatness.” He states that the “man with the magnifying glass – quite simply – bars the every-day world. He is a fresh eye before a new object. The botanist’s magnifying glass is youth recaptured. It gives him back the enlarging gaze of a child.” (Do you remember Horton Hears a Who, by Dr. Seuss? Long ago I loved that children’s book, where a whole other complex world existed on a speck of dust.)

Today I was again wandering about in the “Miniature” chapter, when I came across Bachelard’s discussion of a “prose-poem” by Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, “The egg in the landscape.” (That title.) The excerpt from this piece felt wildly familiar to me. It describes looking through a flaw in a window, “one of these kernels that are like cysts in the glass, at times transparent little knucklebones, but more often, befogged or very vaguely translucent, and so long in shape that they make you think of the pupils of a cat’s eyes.” The “introduction of the nucleus into the landscape sufficed to make it look limp…Walls, rocks, tree-trunks, metal constructions, lost all rigidity in the area surrounding the mobile nucleus.” “The outside world in its entirety, is transformed into a milieu as malleable as could be desired, by the presence of this single, hard, piercing object, this veritable philosophical ovum which the slightest twitch of my face sets moving all through space.”

Bachelard adds to this: “every universe is concentrated in a nucleus, a spore, a dynamized center. And this center is powerful, because it is an imagined center.” “…we see the center that imagines; then we can read the landscape in the glass nucleus. We no longer look at it while looking through it. This nucleizing nucleus is a world in itself. The miniature deploys to the dimensions of a universe. Once more, large is contained in small.”

This struck me, not just because it’s a truth I also feel, but because I’ve recently been taking pictures using wavy, bubbled glass to create distorted worlds, hopefully creating an atmosphere of disorientation and surprise, and finding a little magic by peering in through those “glass nuclei.” I also like to imagine the dolls/people, looking back out, observing both their own world and the larger “real” world through those clear but warping lenses. Creating these miniature scenes, experimenting with light and reflections and atmosphere, are wonderful forms of play and discovery. It seems I always end up taking a picture of something different than what I first imagined. Led by the original inspiration, I let the idea evolve, taking its own mysterious course. (Additional meandering.) In turn, the photograph ends up telling me a new story, opening other doors, inviting poetry inside. This afternoon, energized again by reading Bachelard and the excerpts from de Mandiargues, I got out my camera and took some more photos using glass. The above picture is one of the results of the same continuing experiment.

Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) inhabited a different era, lived in a different country, and wrote in a different language. Even so, I feel a kinship bridging time and translation.

The Poetics of Space was originally published in French in 1958 by Presses Universitaires de France. The Orion Press, Inc. published the English version, translated by Maria Jolas, in 1964. Beacon Press published it in 1969, then added a foreword by John R. Stilgoe in 1994.

The above photo was taken this afternoon, 6/30/08. Click on image to enlarge. I posted two earlier watery-glass-world photos on the blog on May 7th and June 3rd, parts of which were later used on Mental Contagion, along with a few prose poems from Stirring the Mirror. You can view the previous blog posts by clicking on "Older Posts" at the bottom of the page and scrolling back in time.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


The first pod squeezed through the bedroom window, hovering directly in front of her face, dancing like a charmed snake on its stem. It surrounded her bed with hissing, bristled vines and sharp-edged leaves. In the next room, her daughter awoke to the sound of her bed creaking as it was lifted toward the ceiling by monstrous leaves. More pods were climbing the stairs. They could smell sulfurous fumes wafting from their split shells like jaundiced ghosts.

Photos taken 6/19/08. Simply click on images to enlarge. Click once to release sulfurous fumes. Click twice to release evil pods.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Evil Pod Beeped

Even after bushwhacking through pod-infested woods for countless dark days, they couldn't escape. The evil pod beeped, giving away their location. The blinding searchlight of the UFO zeroed in on the girl's startled face. The sky crackled like bacon in a skillet.

Photo taken 6/19/08. Click on image to enlarge. Eek!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tulip, Feather, Woodgrain

One line of poetry casts its shadow into the next, patterns repeat, contrasts in sound underscore meaning. Key words and images pop, leaping to the eye like glossy magenta against rough deep gray. The tendrils of each line extend into the next -- encircling, clinging, claiming -- until the poem is woven into a living whole, each word inextricable.

In this photo, I tried to capture the way repeating patterns, shapes, and shadows rippled through the tulip, feather, and woodgrain, uniting them in a still life.

Photo taken 5/13/08. Click on image to enlarge. For more about repeating patterns and contrast (and metaphor), scroll down to the 6/12/08 post.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

How Now, Mad Spirit?

How now, mad spirit?
What nightrule now about this haunted grove?

Oberon, King of Fairies
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Act 3, Scene 2, Lines 4 & 5

William Shakespeare

Nightrule -- what a great word. I looked it up in the glossary of William Shakespeare: Complete Works. (There, in the same book, it appeared as "night-rule.") The definition: "disorder by night." It wasn't in my American Heritage Dictionary, but I found it online in Sheridan's Dictionary of the English Language from1797. It was there without the hyphen and was defined as "a tumult in the night."

Haven't we all experienced that? Now, with our windows open to the warm and humid air, once "the iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve" (Theseus, act 5, scene 1, line 357), we hear more than gentle breezes in the maples. Although it's usually quiet on my hill, sometimes, depending on the wind, I can hear the not-so-distant noise of trucks and trains. Once "night's swift dragons cut the clouds full fast" (Robin, act 3, scene 2, line 380), I hear nocturnal creatures working the busy night shift. Half-dreaming, I listen to the coyotes up in the woods howl in answer to occasional sirens. I'm haunted by the owl's melancholy hoot as it circles the yard. Once in a while, I shiver at the rare, almost human scream of something being carried away in a beak. Of course the most unsettling "tumult in the night" is the noise of the mad spirits inside our own minds, the murmuring and scratching of our own unsleeping shadows.

The photograph was taken 6/11/08. Click on the image to enlarge. The miniature mask from Bhutan was a gift from my younger brother, world traveler.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Troll, Raku, Orkney Islands

Poor old troll, her skin is crackled and split from being left out in the entryway in all seasons. It gives her a fascinating texture, though, like a raku pot. Hence the photograph. There's something wonderfully satisfying about finding matching patterns in such different objects. There's a little thrill in placing them side by side, like distant cousins, and looking for a glimmer of family resemblance. When they're compared, there's both dissonance and strange harmony, which generates some interesting energy. Like a good metaphor. A little current of electricity. A surprise. Or a joke.

I have a collection of crackled raku pots, which are low-fired ceramic pots that have been removed from the kiln while still hot. I love the "crazing," or patterns of fractures in the glaze. It goes perfectly with the troll's complexion. Once inside the house, she had her eye on one of my favorite pieces, a small turquoise and ivory vase made by David Holmes, a potter from Shapinsay in the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland. She slipped into it like a hermit crab into a new shell. A perfect fit.

It's been a long-standing dream of mine to visit the Orkney Islands, but so far this little vase is as close as I've come. It's a very earthy and human piece. When it arrived in the mail, I was delighted to discover that it still smelled like smoke. The scent of my dream destination hovered like mystery and adventure in my kitchen. I still pick up the vase and sniff it from time to time, summoning standing stones, Vikings, runes, and migrating birds. I think of names like Skara Brae, Ring of Brodgar, Brough of Birsay, and Orphir. The smoky perfume has faded, but I can still detect a faint hint of the Orkney Islands.

The green raku pot (edge visible in lower photo) was made by Robert Briggs of Corvus Moon Ceramic Art Studio in Springfield, Missouri. Photos taken 6/11/08.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Woodstock Poetry Society & Festival Reading: Saturday, 6/14/08

You're invited! Bring a friend!
Woodstock Poetry Society & Festival,
as part of the Woodstock Arts Consortium,
is sponsoring a reading by Larry Carr, Editor,
and featured contributors to
Riverine: An Anthology of Hudson Valley Writers
at Woodstock Town Hall
76 Tinker Street
Woodstock, New York
this Saturday, June 14th
at 2:00 PM

Readers include Larry Carr, Phillip Levine, Roberta Allen, Bruce Weber, Abigail Robin, Christine Turczyn, Donald Lev, Teresa Costa, Pauline Uchmanowicz, Robert Milby, Allen Fischer, Christine Boyka Kluge, Lynne Digby, Nancy Willard, Brenda Conner-Bey, Marilyn Reynolds, and Judith Saunders. Woodstock area poet Phillip Levine will host.

See the 4/16/08 post for more information about pod people. Photo taken 4/16/08.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Stained Glass Iris and Oskar Kokoschka

On Thursday, my next door neighbor brought me a fantastic purple and white mottled iris. It was impossible to stop staring at this towering beauty. I admired it from every angle, both in daylight and indoors. I discovered that the weak light of a card flashlight, aimed up through the petals at varying distances, created an abstract, stained glass effect. Check out the sugared stripes, the navy blue clouds, the twisting purple shadows. I like the contrast of the furry yellow center to the satiny swirls. There's almost a topographic pattern here, yet currents seem to move through the flattened image, drawing the eye in endless loops through the stilled flower.

I'm tempted to get out my pen and India ink to translate these images into a third interpretation of an iris. These gorgeous colors are magnetic, but the shapes alone hold their own ... as do the intricate patterns and paths. And perhaps more words? Another poetic take on the flower? (See the 5/17/08 post, "Somewhere Between Lilacs and Honeysuckle," to read "Lavender Cathedral," an earlier poem based on the iris.) Possibilities radiate from this flower, captive only in a photograph, which by Saturday was no more than a sticky knuckle on a stem.

I knew this iris image reminded me of something! The name Oskar Kokoschka just fluttered into my mind. He was an Austrian painter, poet and playwright. I couldn't remember the name of the painting swirling in my memory, but after doing a search for Kokoschka, the famous piece came up immediately: Bride of the Wind , also known as The Tempest, painted in 1913. (Click on the title to view the art and read about Kokoschka.) It represents his passionate love for Alma Mahler, the widow of Gustav Mahler. Back in time, I actually bought a used copy of the movie about Alma Mahler and this relationship, also called Bride of the Wind (2001).

Photos of iris taken 6/5/08. Click on images to enlarge.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Floating Daisies

I'm not sure why it gave me such calming pleasure to float African daisies (Osteospermum) in an old white bowl covered with big turquoise polka dots. But it did. I love the variety with the unusual purple "spooned" petals. (I believe it's called "Pink Whirls.") I also discovered that the daisies cast wonderful dancing shadows, like an animated child's drawing of flowers.

Photos were taken 5/13 and 5/14/08. Click on pictures to enlarge.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Never Talk Back to the Water

The deepest water employs a more serious tone. It uses a guttural form of interrogation. As you move through its body, it questions your presence. Holding your hair in its cold hands, it examines your face. Keep your lips sealed. Although it has the magic to turn you weightless, to keep your thumping heart suspended, unburdened as a fish -- beware. Its true desire is to steal your breath, to swallow you whole. Never talk back to the water. Mind your manners, keep your thoughts to yourself. Always remember the grassy shore. Float.

Excerpt from "Never Talk Back to the Water," a prose poem from Stirring the Mirror. The photo was taken 5/7/08.