Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Sappho Poems & a little bit of Ramble

I've started writing a series of poems I've titled "The Sappho Poems" which as you might guess have to do with Sappho's fragments. Recently I got a translation by the poet Anne Carson. I am drawn to the fragments out of a sense of mystery, very little remains of her work. Only one poem in full. Tonight I read this poem (posted below) and before I read it I tried to explain to a small group of poetry lovers why I like to write poetry this time of year. It has to do with the barren landscape, the gray muddled sky, and the sensation of stark emptiness. The landscape of winter asks the poet to speak: to create the beauty of loss. I don't want to say, the poet writes herself into the landscape because there is this whole thing about projecting the self onto the world that can be in a way dangerous and ugly. But it is about having conversations with the landscape, about speaking and listening to the woods around me, the mountains in the distance.

The other day we were driving down Route 7 and the mountain looked so much like a sleeping animal dusted with snow. I could not get over my want to run my hand over its thick coat of fur. I knew that I would feel the warmth of its body as the snow melted in my hands. I dreamed a tiny dream of lying down beside the sleeping beast and listening to the mammoth heart beat of the mountain. This was the day after the shooting.

My heart was raw and wide open with this thought: this is what we have chosen, this is how we as Americans have chosen to live. We voted fair and square, majority wins. It is foolish to be surprised. But of course we are, how could we not be? How can we not reel with agony and terror? I did not start out to write about this. But here it is--as it seems to be everywhere, ever-present as we bake our holiday treats and wrap our gifts. I realize I have many things I want to say about the shooting, but my heart doesn't have the patience to endure composition.

Francesca Woodman

I will say this. Last night in class we discussed the Holocost; I realized my students didn't know the definition of democracy--like, I said, what is the definition of democracy? silcence; the Nazis were very ordinary people; if we paint evil as Other than, we fail to see the truth of human nature; the word "evil" is not the right word because it creates the binary that tricks us into believing that the shooter was different somehow--he was "Not Me"; Hannah Arendt wrote that lonliness could lead to treacherous behavior because it cuts the self off from common sense...thus, it cuts the self off from the truth of the world and the real consequences of one's actions; really, I just want to walk out on the frozen lake and smell the ice and listen to the whale sounds of it cracking...that is, I want to lie down and listen to the heart beat of the mountain.

Here is the poem.

Kitchen Song



] we live


] the opposite






In the kitchen, the wolves       

curl down between us

                                                among the wooden legs of chairs

            where the baby crawls

picking table scraps,   

starved for something more than milk—


a crust of moon at the windowsill   

                                    a sparrow on the porcelain edge, the faucet’s drip—


the white tails of deer bounding,

    the rabbit’s twitch and tender, a spray of grouse

                                                     & the baby, scooped up into your arms—


through the bramble of wild thorns, the garden untended

the old growth and new

through the mess of it all,

this life—

I want to say, I’m sorry I can’t give enough, I’m sorry it will come to an end,

sudden and ugly even if we last, especially if we last, until the body curls inward with age—


all one wants to say

all that hope

a million nights like this one will never be enough

but we don’t know it yet—


Tonight I hear you singing the White Album as you rock the sick baby down and I know you know

I love you, as I know you love me, and we love him—but still, still


                        In the kitchen the wolves curl down, restless, teeming,

the baby is fisting wet toast, cold egg, dust balls of hair, the doe grazes at your feet—

                                    we live

                             the opposite  


what do you see?

there, through the copse of birch 

through the thicket and bramble,

wild thorn, red berry


in the forest 

of our love

   what do you see that keeps you so close

to joy—like breath

on a winter’s window—

            I want to see it too.                               


Monday, December 10, 2012

Francesca Woodman's Photographs

Francesca Woodman
I have been staying up late. Unable to sleep. Anxious about this and that--the holidays? Maybe the collective energy of buying is driving me crazy. I'm writing this blog per my commitment stated in a previous post on rejection. Via hours of Xmas searching on Amazon I came across the book Francesca Woodman's Notebook and then looked up her photographs. She apparently committed suicide due to her failure as an artist (at a young age). I don't ever believe these sorts of reasons for suicide, but I find this one particularly annoying. I like the name Francesca. You see where I'm going with all this? Yes, no where, but this is an acceptable place I'll have you know.

Francesca Woodman
What is this all about? Tuning into the wall... the body of a young girl, most likely the artist. You can tell a woman's age by her belly. Class went well tonight. I adore Moses....is motherhood some sort of disease of the heart? I feel like there is a fable or tale or myth of mothers eating their babies and I get this...this want to eat him up.

On a different note, there is darkness in my outer family right now...the outer rim, really, of my beloveds. I am trying to shut it out I think. I shouldn't be writing about this after midnight when the mind begins to flood from over-use. But I'm thinking of it and, I think, I'm thinking of it....
I am grateful that I have survived the things I have and that I have my sweet Moses and my darling honey pie husband. But the darkness has a feeling that I don't want to feel, so I dream of other things like skating and the sound of skates on the lake and so on...

I always have winter fantacies that involve a cabin in the woods with a wood stove, cross country skiing, a skating pond, and lots of snow...so much that you have to walk through a tunnel to get to the pretend barn which I just might have read about in Little House on the Prairie--I can't even begin to explain how deeply those books impacted my childhood. Night night.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Speaking of Color on the Eve of the Solstice

Orchard in Winter

I think about color in the weeks leading up to the winter solstice. The days wane, darkness creeps up on the afternoon. The sky is colorless; a pallid, dull intrusion. The baby climbs up on my belly and we sleep in until 11:30. Through the back door and the clothes on the line in the enclosed porch, I watch the sky for the shadow of clouds, the clustering of color into plum, vermilion, cerulean blue. The baby at my hip.

His hair is a strawberry blond that shines like silk in the sun. I hear my husband call him “princess.” At ten months, the baby crawls back and forth across the apartment.  I watch him picking cheerios off the floor, then taking down books from the little shelf in his room. I call his name and when he does not turn I crawl down beside him, kiss his sticky cheek.

We go out walking in the dull gray of early December. He throws his head back and watches the sky. What do you see? I ask him. But he only smiles, knowingly. The trees are webbing at the sky. Their full architecture revealed in their nakedness. We walk towards the lake near dusk; I search the sky for December crows. The un-nested flock in neighborhood trees, their caws a phantom opera enough to drive some mad.

And madness homes itself in these dark days. I sense it. Someone flees by bus in the night; someone else winds up in jail. My husband is on the phone with the credit card company—can we pay part of our bill with our other credit card, no. I let my class out forty minutes early unable to go on talking about the loss of the American Dream (one student doggedly orating on its persistence like a true patriot, like one close in generation to arrival on these shores, and maybe he is right. I notice his skin as white as milk against chestnut hair).

Color exists most for me in home and nature (or, are these the two places where I exist most? where I most reflect/project myself?). The colors of my home create patterns of memory, of joy or sorrow or ease, of sacred and un-sacred enclosure. My husband finds this tick of mine exhausting, but I say this is the true spirit of homemaking--a longing for grace and beauty to envelop.

If I look closely at the color of a pear, holding it in the market, feeling its papery skin, I can imagine the same color in paint or fabric. Why do I love this?  

I think the wheat-hue of the field before snow, a gem contrast against the shadow of the mountain or the gray of the forest. I remember the red of a stuffed dog I cuddled as a child, the peaches and cream of my grandmother’s bathroom where in the cabinet she stacked fluffy towels all in the same shade of shell-pink (I want to be this woman, Honey, she was called—but such fluffy, well stocked towels are a full time job).

I think of pine trees in winter, thick with snow and of apple trees on a hill in the near distance, their curled finger boughs, their craggieness—the knotted mess of their limbs.

In this season—the season between fall and winter, as the light wanes—the scarcity of color makes me covet and seek out its rare displays. Along the street where we walk to town, I find wet red berries growing on a piny hedge. They seem to quiver. Somewhere in my childhood, the same berries, but where, I will never recover. I am reminded of a sidewalk in Summersville, West Virginia, leading up to the tiny duplex where we lived for three years. I suspect the same wet red berries quivered there. But I will never know.

In this same way my son will recall the objects of our apartment.  Not just in color. The smell of his father’s shaving cream (should he someday change it) or the scent of a shampoo, will conjure the space of this home—a watery, misshapen memory. Fleeting as a dream, never devisable.  A certain hairspray (I have not found in years) evokes Honey’s pink bathroom, and now I am remembering how I climbed up on the sink and found a Styrofoam cup of grandpa’s teeth hidden on top of the vanity.  I inspected them as I did the cherry red nail polishes and petal pink tubes of lipstick behind the vanity mirrors.

Last year at this time, two months before the birth of our son, we drove into the Vermont countryside. I kept my eyes on the wheat colored fields, thinking of my young sisters’ flaxen hair and how I braided it before church on Sundays. I was proud of the braids, though hair often escaped the grasp of the weave and the braids got loose. I was efficient as a child. Tidy and want for praise. Puberty changed me, but a love of order and applause remains. 

So the fields, and the plum hued mountains that reminded me of smoke from a fire, and the fog that sometimes cut through the middle of the mountain, last year as we drove, brought me joy though at the time I fretted over the birth of my son. I worried over his wrong positioning. At the time we were driving to Middlebury to see a doctor about delivering him breech. Now, that is another lifetime ago, as long away as my grandfather’s teeth, but I touch this memory easily through the colors of the cold lake, the sky pushing near, off in the distance the Adirondack Mountains I’ve never visited. I touch the memory in the contrasting colors, their scarcity in the ashen wash of the in-between season, so close to the turn of the solstice (in the café they are counting down to the apocalypse of 2012 to occur on the solstice, the end of the Mayan calendar: 16 days).

At home in the apartment I dream of Minnesota (where we will go for Christmas) at night. A long dream of a funeral of someone very wealthy, a hockey game and pictures of women hockey players wearing revealing knit underpants—why, I ask, and a woman tells me they wore them for pregnancy, they’ll expand around the belly. I say, they played hockey pregnant? Yes, yes, of course they did.

I dream of the sauna beside the frozen lake and the hardened yellow sand of the shore because there won’t be snow for long. I dream of skiing out across the lake towards grandpa and grandma’s old home, towards Miracle Bible Camp which we attended as girls, my four sisters and I. I dream of the sun angling over the wet ice, and my skate scraping and making a click, click sound as I try to plié or leap, as I tumble down. At Christmas, should we all still be here, the light will begin to wax and we will go out walking along the road, my sister and I with our babies. Our noses and cheeks will pink and we’ll wrap blankets around the babies. The sky will grow blue. Clouds will drift there above the tree line. At mother and father’s we will eat cookies with red and green sprinkles and wrap gifts in colored paper and boil water for tea poured in robin’s egg blue cups. The bowl on the table is always filled with dark chocolates--dark enough to make your mouth water a little with the bitterness before the sweet.

I sense these dreams live here with me in the present, making certain hours more tolerable, giving life its ardor and that color is a door into the netherworld of now and then and what will come. I am thinking once again of the crows tick, tick, ticking across the sky—they scatter, retreat and then bind together again. As in memory, as in dreams, we are drawn in and pushed out—we too wax and wane—black specs against the white sky, twirling, twirling.

Happy Stick Season.