Saturday, September 27, 2008

Be Properly Scared

Be properly scared and go on doing what you have to do.
-- Flannery O'Connor

Silly picture, dead serious quote. Flannery O'Connor wrote this line in a letter toward the very end of her short life. I admire her bravery, her darkness, her acceptance of the strange and grotesque in human nature. Her characters are disturbing, colorful, riveting. I just reread her short story, "The Heart of the Park," and still feel an odd combination of uneasy and thrilled. Read this partial paragraph from the second page of the story and see if you can resist the need to find the book to see what happens:

The park was the heart of the city. He had come to the city -- with a knowing in his blood -- he had established himself at the heart of it. Every day he looked at the heart of it; every day; and he was so stunned and awed and overwhelmed that just to think about it made him sweat. There was something, in the center of the park, that he had discovered. It was a mystery, although it was right there in a glass case for everybody to see and there was a typewritten card telling all about it right there. But there was something the card couldn't say and what it couldn't say was inside him, a terrible knowledge like a big nerve growing inside him.

Wow. I love that: "...a terrible knowledge like a big nerve growing inside him." I picture that mysterious knowledge spreading wildly, branching, racing to the periphery of his body, filling him with white hot electricity.

The main character in this story is Enoch Emery, a creepy and manipulative young man who has "wise blood like his daddy." What a name. O'Connor's characters all seem to have fascinating names like Sally Poker Sash, Hazel Motes, Buford Munson, Tom T. Shiftlet, and Lucynell.

What's in the glass case? Be "properly scared"....

"The Heart of the Park" was first published in Partisan Review in 1949. It later became part of Wise Blood. It also appears in Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories, which is where I reread it.

The photograph was taken in my yard on 8/27/08.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Fall Falling

Mesmerized, I watched this leaf pirouette earthward, slowly, magically. It descended so dreamily that it seemed to levitate. As I got closer, I noticed that it was still tethered to its tree by a strand of spider silk. It swayed back and forth like a tiny camouflage-print kite at the whim of the wind.

Today: autumn.

Photo taken 9/17/08 at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, Cross River, NY. Click on image to enlarge.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Pac-Man Puffball

This Pac-Man-esque puffball lives in the moss in my backyard. It's surrounded by fellow fungi in various stages of splitting to release spores. Charmingly known as "pigskin poison puffball" or "common earthball," this scaly ochre beauty is scleroderma citrinum. (Not edible!)

The photo was taken 9/15/08. Click on image to enlarge.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Butterfly Tasting

I had no idea that monarch butterflies have “no more flavor than dried toast.” So Dr. Urquhart, an entomologist, learned while eating a number of monarchs in the field. Since monarchs feed on milkweed, which contains “heart poisons similar to digitalis,” birds that feed on the monarchs get ill. In the past, it was assumed that monarchs would taste bitter due to the acrid milkweed. But, no, apparently to the human tongue they taste more like bland breakfast food. (I don’t dare imagine the texture … a parchment-like crunch?)

And speaking of taste, did you know that butterflies taste with their feet?

These facts are nestled in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (pp. 244-245 in Three by Annie Dillard, a collection of some of her works.)

I believe that the monarch pictured on a thistle (above) is female, because she doesn’t have the two dots or tiny thickening of black lines on the lower wings that the males have. The photograph was taken late yesterday afternoon at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation in Cross River, New York. The milkweed, beautifully going to seed, is from the same park, same day. Click on images to enlarge.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Lost in Looking

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I love the way Annie Dillard describes “stalking” and observing a muskrat: “But he never knew I was there.” “I never knew I was there, either. For that forty minutes last night I was as purely sensitive and mute as a photographic plate; I received impressions, but I did not print out captions. My own self-awareness had disappeared; it seems now almost as though, had I been wired with electrodes, my EEG would have been flat.” …. “I have noticed that even a few minutes of this self-forgetfulness is tremendously invigorating. I wonder if we do not waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves. Martin Buber quotes an old Hasid master who said, ‘When you walk across the fields with your mind pure and holy, then from all the stones, and all growing things, and all animals, the sparks of their soul come out and cling to you, and then they are purified and become a holy fire in you.’”

Later in the same chapter Dillard says that “…at the creek I slow down, center down, empty. I am not excited; my breathing is slow and regular. In my brain I am not saying, Muskrat! Muskrat! There! I am saying nothing.” …. “Instead of going rigid, I go calm. I center down wherever I am; I find a balance and repose. I retreat – not inside myself, but outside myself, so that I am a tissue of senses. Whatever I see is plenty, abundance. I am the skin of water the wind plays over; I am petal, feather, stone.”

I was so excited when I read that last line. I felt a beautiful jolt of recognition, a sweet shock of related language and spirit. Here’s an older poem of mine that voices a similar experience:


Here I witness my own silent slipping
out of skin into pewter water.
At last, this quiet,
this weightless place up the hill from my house:
moss-softened sound, low frog whistle,
slow ripples on the pond.
A breeze combs my hair to seaweed,
soothes my thoughts petal-smooth.
The gold rib of the moon floats by,
swirling gold along my liquid spine.
At last, all alone, at home
among the tongueless stones.
I am the cold current
riding their glistening backs.

The pond up the road from my house really is a “weightless place,” a peaceful place to shed one's human skin, to become only a still eye witnessing the world, lost in Dillard’s “abundance.” Somehow we feel most alive and engaged when we forget ourselves.

“Alone” was first published in Defined Providence many years ago, then became part of my first book, Teaching Bones to Fly. The photograph of the pond / vernal pool at the top of my road was taken 5/7/08. Last I looked, about a week ago, it was gone. It will return…

Monday, September 1, 2008

Duende: Words Both Winged and Quilled

There are dark jewels embedded in certain prized poems, the ones you must return to, to read again and again. These jewels glitter – mesmerizing, faceted, sharp – and a little dangerous. As you walk barefoot through the lines, flickering match held aloft, they invite you closer to their edges and points. Sometimes they pierce the sole of your unwary foot or curious fingertip. Sometimes they work inside that tender flesh to become a part of you. You have discovered either a kindred soul or a soul so different, so full, astonishing and troubling, that you fall in love with the black words, the spiky images, the intoxicating shadows and bottomless caverns of the poem. Your wounds are suddenly beautiful and shared. They heal over their dark treasures, holding them close.

These deep and passionate poems have duende. In The Demon and the Angel, Edward Hirsch defines Federico Garcia Lorca’s use of the word as “a term for the obscure power and penetrating inspiration of art.” For Lorca, duende,“which could never be entirely pinned down or rationalized away, was associated with the spirit of earth, with visible anguish, irrational desire, demonic enthusiasm, and a fascination with death. It is an erotic form of dark inspiration.” “It is both a troublesome spirit and a passionate visitation. It seems to suggest both contact with the depths and access to our higher selves.” (p.10)

At the end of the book, Hirsch writes his own striking, poetic description of duende:

The duende is a wind that breathes through the empty arches over the heads of the dead; it is the wing of a wounded hawk that floats through the crushed grass and flares out of the swollen sidewalks; it is a dream that mocks the bloody mockingbird and flees through the empty subway tunnels and soars out of the broken chest of bridges; it is a joy that burns and a suffering that scalds, like hot ice; it is a cry that rises out of the human body and annunciates ‘the constant baptism of newly created things’ (Lorca, Deep Song).” (The Demon and the Angel, p.230)

Years ago, I wrote a prose poem called “All of Its Words, Both Winged and Quilled.” It defines the type of poetry that pulls me to its chest, poetry that exudes an irresistible dark and shimmering force. It, too, describes the mysterious power of duende:

All of Its Words, Both Winged and Quilled

The best poems have a steady wind blowing through them, a low, haunting howl you can almost hear. The wind threatens to lift the surface world like a rock, releasing the scent of damp soil, exposing the scurrying, chewing things beneath. When I start to read a great poem, I'm at the edge of a dark opening, letting my eyes adjust, curious. Cold air rushes up through my hair. Water from stalactites plinks into a distant underground stream. I'm suddenly alert, skin prickled and shivery.

Entering its cave, I expect to find a pile of gnawed bones, or feel a moist palm on the back of my neck. Musk announces the presence of something alive inside its passages, something stronger and wilder than narrow words can restrain--a leathery, immortal creature, a giant draped in the humid rags of a subterranean realm. What lurks inside the poem, singing to me, is so rare, that, at first, my face lifts with wonderment. I recognize the voice of the beast that dwells there, precious last of its kind.

But on the cusp of delighted laughter, my features twist, puzzled. I sense something clinging to my arm in the dark--affectionate, intimate--but with glistening teeth. I'm poised to bolt, but the spell of its throaty new language is on my own tongue like an elixir. Enchanted, I want it to whisper its life's story in my ear. I long to savor all of its words, both winged and quilled. Trustingly, gently, I run my fingers up and down the black pearls of its spine. Its amber eyes are the only dim lights. I stare into the dilated pupils, unafraid, willing to place my head in its jaws.

“All of Its Words, Both Winged and Quilled” was first published in No Boundaries: Prose Poems by 24 American Poets (Edited by Ray Gonzalez, Tupelo Press, 2003), then in LUNA, then in Stirring the Mirror (Bitter Oleander Press, 2007).

Thrillingly, I read with Edward Hirsch, John Amen, and George Wallace in April, as part of The Pedestal Magazine event, the first Writer's Voice poetry event held in the new Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side YMCA in NYC. Click on "The Pedestal Magazine event" to read about the evening and see a photo of the participants.

The photograph above was taken 8/31/08, withered shadows courtesy of a plant I neglected. Simply click on the image to enlarge it.