Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Hour of Lead

Browsing in a bookstore, I came across a tiny pocket-size collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, selected by poet Brenda Hillman. She chose the poems she “loved the best”…and “a few [she] learned to love in rereading Dickinson’s complete work.” Hillman also wrote the introduction, where she offered excellent advice for how to read Dickinson’s poems: “[R]ead them quickly and let them shock you. If a line stays, read it again until you feel it is yours, and let the strange capital letters and the dashes carry the poems to the place in your unconscious that won’t worry what they mean.”

Since I’ve always revered Dickinson -- whose work I return to year after year -- I bought the book to carry in my bag. As I read it, it continues to amaze me how modern Dickinson seems, how precise, yet mysterious and expansive. How intense. How deeply dark, yet strangely reassuring. Somehow I trust her to steer our ship through the fog, through the long night, prow slicing a sure path following her unfailing intuition.

Here’s a piece that Emily Dickinson wrote in 1862. It perfectly captures the numbness that encases us following loss or trauma:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes --
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs --
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round --
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought --
A Wooden way

Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone --

This is the Hour of Lead--
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow --
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go--

Emily Dickinson Poems is a Shambhala Pocket Classic, edited by Brenda Hillman. The photo was taken this evening on my hill. Click on image to enlarge.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Creepy Nature

There was a lot going on between my upstairs window and screen on July 13th. While mama spider sipped from a bee packaged like a gold and black box juice, her ivory spiderlings emerged from their translucent egg sac to stretch their many legs in the sunlight. It’s not the best photo, due to the Scotch plaid effect of the intervening screen, but you get the idea. What you can't see are the two additional sacs in the web above, outside the photo’s frame. (Actually, in another photo the screen’s wavy grid pattern is the best part, but this shot better portrays nature at work. Merely click on the image to enlarge it.) Another thing you can’t see is my looming face, squinting in fascination.

Today, eleven days later, the mother spider rests upside-down, waiting, her brindled abdomen aimed right at me. I can even see her spinnerets. (Pardon me.) No bee, no spiderlings. Directly above her, only one shadowy egg sac remains, promising as a piƱata.

The photo was taken 7/13/08. Click on image to enlarge. I looked up more facts about spiders, plus had a great tour of glossy spider photos, in The Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Katydid Visit

A couple of weeks ago, I discovered a katydid nymph perched on the venetian blinds in an upstairs window. I have no idea how it got up there – perhaps it hitchhiked on a pant leg or sleeve. I brought it a slice of Granny Smith apple, and it immediately climbed right on and began to eat. After I carried it downstairs, it was in no hurry to leave the plate, so I let it savor its gourmet dinner of fruit, then set it outside. A day or two later, when I was out on the deck, I felt a tickle on my left arm and looked down to find another miniature katydid. Hello. On closer inspection, I saw that it was tasting my skin as it wandered along my arm. That gave me the opportunity to really lean in and check it out again: the minuscule striped antennae, the partial iridescent green, the long sawtooth legs. Beautiful. Yes, I’m paying attention.

“Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.”
Nicolas Malebranche, French philosopher

The photo of the katydid nymph was taken on 7/6/08.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Stardress and the Fiery Head

As a child reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales, an unsettling feeling of both enchantment and horror would possess me. Elements of impossible beauty and thrillingly happy endings alternated with pure evil and terrifying examples of revenge and torture. Rereading some of these classic stories as an adult, I have the same lurching physical reactions: teeth and stomach clenched at the description of monstrous creatures, then the wild sigh of satisfaction at the escape of a victim or the wedding of a perfectly, magically matched couple.

Who wouldn’t love it when a poor, beautiful stepdaughter, given cruel, impossible tasks by her evil stepmother -- such as emptying a pond using a spoon with holes in it -- is visited by a benevolent old woman who not only empties the pond for her, but builds her a magic castle? In “The True Bride,” the young woman even got to wear a “stardress which sparkled at every step she took.” And that ending! “The horses hurried away to the magic castle as if the wind had been harnessed to the carriage. The illuminated windows already shone in the distance. When they drove past the lime tree, countless glow-worms were swarming about it. It shook its branches, and sent forth their fragrance. On the long steps flowers were blooming, and the rooms echoed with the song of strange birds….” I can quietly drift right into that harmonious scene, even now. I’m there among the blossoms, birdsong, and flickering phosphorescence.

By contrast, what a harsh lesson for the child reading “The Old Witch,” where a little girl, one “who was very obstinate and willful,” (uh-oh) took off on an adventure, against her parents’ wishes, to visit the old woman with “many marvelous things in her house.” You knew something incredibly ugly was about to take place. The silly girl admitted to the woman that she had peeped through the window and saw not a woman, but “a creature with a fiery head.” And yet she stayed. The witch said she had “long waited” for the girl, and “now you shall give me light.” She turned the girl into a block of wood, threw it into the fire, then sat on the hearth, warming herself. She said, “Ah, now for once it burns brightly!” Creepy. See what happens when you don’t obey?

In “The White Snake,” a king had incredible wisdom, “as if knowledge of hidden things was brought to him in the air.” Actually, he was getting it from a secret covered dish he received after every dinner, once he was alone. After a while, the curious servant who brought the king this dish finally stole a look inside, only to discover – of course! – a white snake. (I know.) The servant “could not resist the desire to taste it, and so he cut off a small piece and put it in his mouth.” Okay, that’s going a bit too far. Even if he could then hear “the sparrows talking together” about everything they’ve seen in the world. He now had the “power to understand the speech of animals.” From that point on, the tale goes wild, filled with ravens, an ant-king, and an apple from the tree of life.

Some of the stories were surreal, seemingly just odd lists of bizarre happenings. For instance, in “The Ditmarsch Tale of Wonders,” the narrator saw “two roasted fowls flying” with “their breasts turned to Heaven and their backs to Hell.” “An anvil and a mill-stone swam across the Rhine prettily, slowly and gently.” And, naturally, “in that country the flies are as big as the goats are here.” You had to love the sense of play, the carnival mirror worlds of experimentation.

When my children were small, I used to make up stories to tell them, evolving tales of fantasy created on the spot. I remember being surprised – and secretly thrilled – when my older daughter began to state her unvarying request for the type of story she wanted told: “Make it sad or bad or mean.” Still a toddler, she knew what elements guaranteed interest. (No, no, I didn’t tell them Grimm-like tales of violence and gore.)

Looking at Grimm’s Fairy Tales as an adult, I’m surprised by how frightening and grotesque some of the stories are. (It’s like the shock of watching the old Disney film version of “Snow White” with your children. That witch!) Maybe I was somewhat traumatized by Grimm’s Fairy Tales in my childhood, but the works were unforgettable; they widened my imagination. I certainly gathered vivid images and a love for the magical, for wild fantasy. It was scary and wonderful reading. Even just the story titles in the collection had such strange, dark allure: “The Devil’s Sooty Brother,” “The Devil’s Three Gold Hairs,” “The Glass Coffin,” “The Three Snake-Leaves,” “The Flail from Heaven,” “The Poor Boy in the Grave,” and “The Spirit in the Bottle.” What child could resist? What adult can resist? Just lift the lid of that secret, gleaming, covered dish….

The photograph was taken in my living room on 7/6/08. The mask was a gift from my younger brother.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Wine Berries

Ripening wine berries, my hill, this summer evening.

Even these long days
are not nearly long enough
for the skylark's song.

The haiku is by Matsuo Basho, translated by Sam Hamill, from Narrow Road to the Interior. Hamill says that Basho "wrote from within the body; his poems are full of breath and sound as well as images and allusions." That's why these poems still seem so alive -- quivering -- even though Basho lived from 1644-1694.

Photo taken at 5:23 PM, 7/14/08.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Vibrating Light, Stained Glass, and Cathedrals

Literally ten minutes ago, I randomly picked up a book I had bought on a whim back in time, Color: A Natural History of the Palette, by Victoria Finlay. Strange how ideas in different books can serendipitously align and correspond, because I almost immediately found myself rereading a passage about -- what else? -- vibrating light and color. (See van Gogh's reference to vibrating light in the previous post.) I'll type a short excerpt from Finlay's thoughts here:

I saw what I understand to be transitional color only once, on a journey to Thailand to undertake a ten-day fast. I was feeling good..., and on day nine I was walking through a garden when suddenly I stopped in amazement. In front of me was a bougainvillea bush covered in pink flowers. Only they were not pink, they were shimmering -- almost as if a heartbeat had been transformed into something visible. I suddenly understood with my eyes and not just my mind how the phenomenon of color is about vibrations and the emission of energy. I must have stood there for five minutes, before I was distracted by a sound. When I looked back the bougainvillea had returned to being flowers, and nature had turned itself the right way round once more....

On the first page of the book, Finlay begins her travelogue of the history of color with an anecdote describing how she was transfixed by light coming through a cathedral window:

It was a sunny afternoon that still sparkled after earlier rain when I first entered Chartres cathedral. I don't remember the architecture, I don't even have a fixed idea of the space I was in that day, but what I do remember is the sense of blue and red lights dancing on white stones. And I remember my father taking me by the hand and telling me that the stained glass had been created nearly eight hundred years ago, "and today we don't know how to make that blue." I was eight years old, and his words knocked my explanation of the world into a tailspin. Up until then I had always believed that the world was getting better and better and more and more clever.

This pulls me sideways over to van Gogh again, because there was a quote of his about cathedrals that I wanted to write down. I'm going to get the volume and type it here. Van Gogh wrote this in a letter to his brother Theo on December 19, 1885:

But I prefer painting people's eyes to cathedrals, for there is something in the eyes that is not in the cathedral, however solemn and imposing the latter may be -- a human soul, be it that of a poor beggar or of a streetwalker, is more interesting to me.

In a September 17, 1888 letter to Theo from Arles, van Gogh describes an "impressionist house" that he read about in a literary supplement to Figaro. This building was obviously not on the grand scale of a cathedral, but one feels the same reverence for color and light:

This house was built with bricks -- as it were like the bottoms of bottles -- of convex glass, violet glass. With the sunshine reflected in it, and the yellow refractions, the effect was incredible. To support these walls of glass bricks, shaped like violet-colored eggs, they had invented a support of black and gilt iron representing the weird branches of Virginia creeper and other climbing plants. This violet house was right in the middle of a garden where all the paths were of bright yellow sand. The ornamental flower borders were of course most unusual in coloring. The house is, if I remember correctly, in Auteuil.

It's a vivid description, a beautiful description. I'm enchanted by the picture in my mind of those "violet-colored eggs," of the vine-like iron supports. I'd love to visit this wild, artistic house, stand there in the late afternoon light, watching it glow. I want to live in it. Of course there is no accompanying photograph or painting in front of me, only van Gogh's words. Then I realize that he was creating the picture in his mind from only the article in the supplement. The description has traveled through the original Figaro author, through van Gogh's eyes, through his penned reaction to Theo, then down through time to the collection of letters, to my meandering reading, and to my mind's welcoming eye, always hungry for color, both real and imagined.

The first excerpt from Color is found on page 6, the second on page 1. The van Gogh quotes are from The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, the first from Volume 2, page 462, the second from Volume 3, page 37. See previous post for more information. The photo was taken 5/11/08 at the NY Botanical Garden.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

"A Certain Vibrating Light": Vincent van Gogh

In an 1886 letter to the English artist Levens, Vincent van Gogh wrote the following passage (in English, without alterations) from Paris:

...I have lacked money for paying models else I had entirely given myself to figure painting. But I have made a series of color studies in painting, simply flowers, red poppies, blue corn flowers and myosotys, white and rose roses, yellow chrysanthemums -- seeking oppositions of blue with orange, red and green, yellow and violet seeking
les tons rompus et neutres to harmonise brutal extremes. Trying to render intense colour and not a grey harmony.

Now after these gymnastics I lately did two heads which I dare say are better in light and colour than those I did before.

So as we said at the time: in colour seeking life the true drawing is modelling with colour.

I did a dozen landscapes too, frankly green frankly blue.

And so I am struggling for life and progress in art.

In a letter to his brother Theo written from Antwerp, also in 1886, van Gogh's passion for color is again evident in his discussion of painting flesh:

When I compare a study of mine with those of the other fellows, it is curious to see that they have almost nothing in common. Theirs have about the same color as the flesh, so, seen up close, they are very correct -- but if one stands back a little, they appear painfully flat -- all that pink and delicate yellow, etc., etc., soft in itself, produces a harsh effect. The way I do it, from near by it is greenish-red, yellowish-gray, white-black and many neutral tints and most of them colors one cannot define. But when one stands back a little it emerges from the paint, and there is airiness around it, and a certain vibrating light falls on it. At the same time, the least little touch of color which one may use as high light is effective in it.

I just have to repeat that phrase: "a certain vibrating light falls on it." Magical. I can picture the contrasting, complementary colors mentioned in the first quoted letter setting up that thrilling vibration in the eye. I can imagine van Gogh bent over the canvas, toying with the thick colors of paint, stepping back to see how his experimentation is working, then eagerly leaning back in with his brush and sculpting the bold colors. I can see his total, intense absorption in the canvas, in his art.

Reading his passionate, poetic, and heartbreaking letters, I am repeatedly overwhelmed, both with excitement and sadness. His extreme joy in creating art, the delight he took in color, texture, and experimentation, and his love of nature and people, contrast with his vast loneliness, poverty, mental illness, repeated rejection, and increasing desperation. Despite his trials, the writing is beautiful, vivid and moving. I love the detailed way he describes the various landscapes and people. There is such energy to his language. Here is one last color-filled excerpt from a letter to Theo, giving his impressions of Antwerp, written on a Saturday evening in late 1885 or early 1886:

As to the general view of the harbor or a dock -- at one moment it is more tangled and fantastic than a thorn hedge, so confused that one finds no rest for the eye, and gets giddy, is forced by the whirling of colors and lines to look first here, then there, without being able, even by looking for a long time at one point, to distinguish one thing from another. But when one stands on a spot where one has a vague plot as foreground, then one sees the most beautiful quiet lines, and the effects which Mols, for instance, often paints.

Now one sees a girl who is splendidly healthy, and who looks or seems to look loyal, simple and jolly; then again, a face so sly and false that it makes one afraid, like a hyena's. Not to forget the faces damaged by smallpox, having the color of boiled shrimps, with pale gray eyes, without eyebrows, and sparse sleek thin hair, the color of real pigs' bristles or somewhat yellower....

That could be a prose poem.

All of these passages are included in a three volume set of The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, a Bulfinch Press Book from Little Brown and Company. The first quote was found on page 513 of Volume II, the second was from page 478 of Volume II, and the last was from page 452 of Volume II.

The photograph of the poppy was taken on Mother's Day, 5/11/08, at the NY Botanical Garden in Bronx, NY. Note the complementary colors: red and green...vibrating light....

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Glass Skin

The glass casts a watery, dappled shadow, laced with sunlight. It looks down into the flickering pond at its feet, trying to tell where its body stops and its shadow begins, afraid it might drown in its own silhouette.

More fun playing with glass. Photograph taken 6/30/08.