Saturday, April 27, 2013

Almost-Flowers, Celestial Aspirations and This Morning’s Descent into Poe: The Color of Lightning

The art that excites me the most has always had both a railing and wild river in it... Timothy Donnelly, March/April APR, 2012
Back in January when Elizabeth sent me her half of The Color of Lightning (see our latest recording here—the first we had to do remotely, not side by side in her yard or my woods) the prospector in her poem crying “Eureka,” inspired some general rummaging before I wrote my half. I discovered Asteroid 5621 (co-orbital with Mars) bears the name. And came across something of Edgar Allan Poe’s I’d never read titled, Eureka, A Prose Poem, which it turns out, is anything but a poem. But how clever of Poe to dodge scientific critique by calling his treatise on gravity a poem. I also like his dedication, which reads in part, “…to those who feel rather than to those who think -- to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities…”
Out of the blue (without knowing I was writing about Poe), my brother visited several weeks later with a copy of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination under his arm, which he left as a gift for me. The illustrations are Harry Clarke’s (scroll down to the eleventh image here on 50 Watts to view the image I'll be discussing below; thanks to Maria Popova of Brain Pickings for the reference).
I love Clarke’s illustration for Descent into the Maelstrom which confronts us with a funnel of delicately layered Morse Code reminiscent lines mixed with repeating blurred comet tails and long dashes and dots of white in tightening rings. But even as the rings choke inward, the amount of black space the artist employs between rings grows. You immediately assign the location to the sea because of the vessel circling midway down the vortex, deck nearly parallel to the opposite side of the funnel. You (viewer) find no rim of sky; you are placed at the outer rings of the gyre looking at a slight angle down at the funnel whose tip you are not allowed to see (thus the secret fathoming of its genesis or end made worse, left to root in the imagination’s darker surmisings).
Once you stop thinking about that boat on its side spinning towards oblivion, you notice odd fragments of flotsam, wood, torn trees, or are they limbs of trees? Or worse? Then you realize one of those random bits forms a barrel, and to that barrel clings a survivor. Which ends up feeling more ominous than the image of the boat (though…check out the boat again…as you peer more closely it seems to house a human foot...and the back part of the deck appears fringed with human teeth, lower portion of a jaw, the boat the shape of a mouth opening in protest).
Flipping through the rest of the illustrations, I find the combination of ornate almost-flowers and detailed pattern that really otherwise should add up to ornament coupled with the sometimes gruesomely extending limbs and body proportions effectively betray the warp of psychological states Poe puts his readers through time after time. Clarke’s drawings match Poe’s methodical haunting, the way Poe rings you with words and portions of argument that should add up to reason but tilt towards madness.  The words chosen to describe Descent into the Maelstrom’s illustration reads: “The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic…upon the interior surface of a funnel…”
Initially the image felt familiar—I first identified as the boat trying to maintain position…boat of motherhood, boat of personhood, boat of poet trying to stay afloat. But once I saw the person clinging to the barrel, the lonely boat felt far less romantic in the light of this second image with its graver degree of depravity and desperation.
Weighing the emotion rings of each image (empty boat vs. barrel clinging survivor), I turned to a back issue of APR I found unpacking this weekend (in a stack of other reading material I was supposed to return to Elizabeth before we moved). In a conversation in APR’s March April 2012 Issue, Why Write If Not to Align Yourself with Time and Space with Mathew Zapruder, Ange Mlinko, Timothy Donnelly, Steve Almond, and Hannah Gamble, a couple of paragraphs by Timothy Donnelly moved me. In speaking of the sublime, the experience of it, how the relative safety of the observer (reader) figures, he left me with another useful visual:   “…The difference is that between terror and horror. It’s leaning over the railing at Niagara Falls versus actually falling in… The art that excites me the most has always had both a railing and wild river in it…” You need to read the whole conversation to appreciate all the nuances (I hope you will). Donnelly follows this by rooting for taking risks in writing, going the distance.
Been a long time since I felt that excited about writing poetry again, about reaching for the curve past the curve. I am thinking of the opposite vortex of terror Descent into the Maelstrom implies—is it possible for our generation of poets to write poems that spiral with equal height celestially, hope-driven, not sappy, not trite, not “angel-fied”, but where body meets potential of spirit.
Likely these poems already exist, so tell me your favorite. I’m feeling restless with my own tired orbit, spiraling on the updraft of others with brighter vision, thrilled for example with the birdsong and the rainbow hammock behind Elizabeth, the cheerful lilt of her voice in this week's recording. I’ll be recording my next half of poem outside near the birds of paradise, hoping too to catch the trills of the yellow warblers I hear right now and every morning when I wake.
End Notes:
Email Elizabeth if you want to join in her collaborative prose poetry blog, Perhaps, Maybe. You can send her a Perhaps or write a Maybe to one of her Perhaps stanzas. It will grow on you…I promise…
For images reminiscent of Clarke’s, but definitely aligned with a sweeter strain of music (enchanting, an antidote for me to the darker Clarke depictions) check out Kay Nielsen’s work. See Maria Popova’s Kay Nielsen’s Stunning 1914 Scandinavian Fairytale Illustrations.
 Photograph is cover of Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe with Illustrations by Harry Clarke; published by Calla Editions in 2008 (unabridged republication of an edition originally published by Tudor Publishing Co., New York, 1933). Twenty-nine tales, with illustrations (Eureka, A Prose Poem does not appear in the collection).

Friday, April 12, 2013

Marriage’s Lineage of Imagery and The Poetry of Motherhood

I wrote this post last year, but due to the surreal anguish and ongoing questions (would we be ok? would we be reunited?) I waited. In synchronous harmony, I am preparing to teach Poetry of Motherhood again, but this time, selecting poems from the sun-filled home I inhabit with my husband.

When my husband-to-be flew out to Iowa City to woo me thirteen years ago with all the muscled vigor of a grown man—certainly no longer looking anything like the freckled kid I remembered from sixth grade—and asked me to marry him, his eye was caught by an image on my shelf of Guinevere knighting Lancelot (artwork by Edmund Blair Leighton). That, he proclaimed, should be our theme. 

So we hired a dress-maker; she skillfully replicated the long draping sleeves of Guinevere’s gown, sketched out and sewed to red pigskin the black griffin-like bird of Lancelot’s heraldry to my husband’s tunic. I remember sort of glossing over the metaphor of the entangled love triangle between Guinevere and Lancelot and Arthur, choosing to focus on the parallel spiritual solace Guin and Lance may have found in the later years of their acquaintance.

Our wedding guests arrived adorned in period costume. We hired a harpist who by chance could also fulfill my husband’s request for closing processional by bagpipe; under the canopy of redwoods, we married in a stone amphitheater to the low sweet trill of a hermit thrush. We filled our years with children and jobs and the stresses of our economic times, which lead to my husband taking a second job in a city a flight’s distance from us.

 After two years of the inevitable strain our situation placed on our marriage we found ourselves facing a crisis of trust. I feared irreparable damage. Wriggling under the clarifying purification pain provides, I farmed out my three children and stayed with my aunt in an attempt to gain perspective. Simultaneously, I happened to be on the hunt for poems to use in my Poetry of Motherhood class, grateful for the distraction work lent from the psychic sorting obsessing both heart and head. Tea in hand, from across the room, I spotted the pale green spine of a book titled, “Ireland in Poetry.”

When I slid the book free, I found two familiar figures gracing the cover. In slightly different costume (her dress, blue--not white, his head, covered in chain mail--not bared), but so close to the image we’d used on our wedding invitation, I felt as if the figures were speaking directly to me: All is not lost. But you are, for now, turned away from one another. What relief—I could acceptance our distance. And take comfort in the image of gripped dress sleeve linking the forlorn lovers. Later that night, a poet friend of mine said: Why don’t you advise your husband to forgive himself, and you, do the same: forgive yourself. She was hinting at two equally important halves of forgiveness: forgiving the other person matters little if self-blame runs riot in the background of one's inner monologue.

While my husband and I still had hours of emotional thicket to clear, both the image and the suggestions from my friend (which I voiced to my husband) seemed solid reminders of possible redemption. Another friend chimed in with: The only way through perceived betrayal is through…through the physical grip on the body, through the triggered childhood griefs that attach likes boxcars to the engine of one’s particular train. At least the caboose, vibrant red, has room for two to stand viewing side by side the ground crossed to get here, retreating, retreating.

Notes and further reading:

Book cover: Ireland in Poetry, Edited by Charles Sullivan. Cover image, "The Meeting on the Turret Stairs," by Sir Frederick Burton, 1864. Watercolor on paper. The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.
A beautiful collection of poems; for Poetry of Motherhood, I chose for my students, the poem Cliona, by Catherine Twomey, a mother daughter poem graced by the opening lines , "You are letting her go / from you slowly / so gently she hardly / knows."

A plea for compassion for new fathers: Notecard to a Nursing Mother: Let The Husband Be Where He Is (a follow-up to Postcard to a Nursing Mother: Be Where You Are) at Mother Writer Mentor, where I'll be teaching Poetry of Motherhood.

Hope you'll join me for Poetry of Motherhood (April 22). Check out this video I made last year with my daughter's help out on our back deck in the redwoods, "Introduction to Poetry of Motherhood" for a better idea of our class. Also know we aren't strictly in the business of writing poetry. We write to prompts and while poetry is welcome, it isn't required. We had a great time last year.

For a look at the quandaries and intricacies of blogging about the personal and traversing the public/private line, see an interview Edith O'Nuallain (yes, of Ireland) conducted with me earlier this month (posted in two installments): On the Art and Craft of Transformative Blogging and Part 2.