Why this?

The occasional poem of my own and a generous helping of work by others that I find inspiring. Site is named for a beloved book by one of my favorite writers, Italo Calvino, whose fanciful work lights--and delights--my soul.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Secret of Life

Once during the war
on a bus going to Portsmouth
a navy yard worker
told me the secret of life.

The secret of life, he said,
can never be passed down
one generation to the other.

The secret of life, he said,
is hunger. It makes an open hand.

The secret of life is money.
But only the small coins.

The secret of life, he said,
is love. You become what you lose.

The secret of life, he said,
is water. The world will end
in flood.

The secret of life, he said,
is circumstance.

If you catch the right bus
at the right time
you will sit next
to the secret teller

who will whisper it
in your ear.

--Diana Der-Hovanessian

Saturday, January 19, 2013

So I'm totally bowled over

...by this. Some of why:

Gaston Bachelard says the single most succinct and astonishing thing: We begin in admiration and we end by organizing our disappointment. The moment of admiration is the experience of something unfiltered, vital and fresh--it could also be horror--and the moment of organization is both the onset of disappointment and its dignification; the least we can do is dignify our knowingness, the loss of some vitality through familiarization, by admiring not the thing itself but how we can organize it, think about it. 

*

Eventually, in every poet's life, there must come the recognition of the possibility of unhitching. I take the word unhitching from Claude Levi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques, an anthropology book that, for better or for worse, changed the views of Western civilization in the twentieth century. Here is the passage I have in mind:

"The possibility, vital for life, of unhitching, which consists ... in grasping, during the brief intervals in which our species can bring itself to interrupt its hive-like activity, the essence of what it was and continues to be, below the threshold of thought and over and above society; in the contemplation of a mineral more beautiful than all our creations; in the scent that can be smelt at the heart of a lily and is more imbued with learning than all our books; or in the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat."

*

I want you to imagine for a moment something that is actually impossible to imagine--the unborn child in the womb perceiving through sound an outside world it has absolutely no experience of, no concept of, and no perception of except through sound. The experience of the fetal being is the experience of sound without sense; the fetal being is overhearing a secret, a true secret insofar as what it hears is not revealed as having a discernible meaning, and so is still kept, still remains a secret, all the while still being experienced, revealed, as sound, which is not hiding itself. So you might say our first "experience" of the world is of a secret. Our first experience of the world is that the world is a secret, that is, it neither hides itself nor reveals itself

*

I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, "I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say"; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.

*

The psychic energy required and used in writing a poem is also a secret. Where did it come from? How did it get here and where is it going? 

These are the questions we ask ourselves when we write, and these are the questions an astronomer asks of the stars. 

Consider the word consider, which originally meant "to observe the stars." 

Consideration leads to comprehension, which originally meant "to grasp, to seize something with the hands and hold it tight in the arms"; what the mother does with the child. To hold, to put one's arms around. 

As Jung once wittingly noted: "When the neurotic complains that the world does not understand him, he is telling us in a word that he wants his mother."

And who among us is not neurotic, and has never complained that they are not understood? Why did you come here, to this place, if not in the hope of being understood, of being in some small way comprehended by your peers, and embraced by them in a fellowship of shared secrets? 

I don't know about you, but I just want to be held.

*

Andre Gide: "Suffering consists in being unable to reveal oneself and, when one happens to succeed in doing so, in having nothing more to say." Such is the life cycle of a secret: something is repressed, then expressed, leaving a void that fills again with repressions. 

*

People, the people we really love, where did they come from? What did we do to deserve them?

*

Is there a right time to read each book? A point of developing consciousness that corresponds with perfect ripeness to a particular poet or novel? And if that is the case, how many times in our lives did we make the match? I heard someone say, at a party, that D.H. Lawrence should be read when one is in their late teens and early twenties. As I was nearing thirty at the time, I made up my mind never to read him. And I never have. Connoisseurs of reading are very silly people. But like Thomas Merton said, one day you wake up and realize religion is ridiculous and that you will stick with it anyway. What love is ever any different? 

*

"But to say what you want to say, you must create another language and nourish it for years and years with what you have loved, with what you have lost, with what you will never find again." (George Seferis)

*

I've often thought that in acting classes the students should perform scenes in which they are simply reading. And I've wondered what subtle--or remarkable--differences there might be among the outward appearances of reading different books. Early Tolstoy versus late Tolstoy might be an advanced assignment--that kind of thing. Or would they all appear the same? The outward idleness, almost slumbering, that does nothing to convey the inner activity, whether it be reverie, shock, hilarity, confusion, grief. We don't often watch people very closely when they read, though there are many famous paintings of women reading (none that I know of of men) in which a kind of quiet eroticism takes place, like that of nursing. Of course, it is we who are being nursed by the books, and then I think of the reader asleep, the open book on his or her chest. 

*

There is a world that poets cannot seem to enter. It is the world everybody else lives in. And the only thing poets seem to have in common is their yearning to enter this world.

*

"The burrow has probably protected me in more ways than I thought or dared think while I was inside it. This fancy used to have such a hold over me that sometimes I have been seized by the childish desire never to return to the burrow again, but to settle down somewhere close to the entrance, to pass my life watching the entrance, and gloat perpetually upon the reflection--and in that find my happiness--how steadfast a protection my burrow would be if I were inside it." (Kafka, "The Burrow")

*

We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love--a connection between things. This arcane bit of knowledge is respoken every day into the ears of readers of great books, and also appears to perpetually slip under a carpet, utterly forgotten. In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single life span, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and for the language which we alone created, without which the letter that slipped under the door could never have been written, or, once in a thousand lives--is that too much to ask?--retrieved, and read. Did I mention supreme joy? That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That's why I read when I was a lonely kid and that's why I read now that I'm a scared adult. It's a sincere desire, but a sincere desire always complicates things--the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived, is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe--what else is there? Margaret Mead described intellectuals as those who are bored when they don't have the chance to talk interestingly enough. Now a book will talk interestingly to you. George Steiner describes the intellectual as one who can't read without a pencil in her hand. One who wants to talk back to the book, not take notes but make them: one who might write, "The giraffe speaks!" in the margin. In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?

*

I get so very tired of having to talk about literature. I didn't begin writing because I wanted to sit in a room and talk about the construction of subjectivity in Wordsworth and Ashbery; I began writing because I had made friends with the dead: they had written to me, in their books, about life on earth and I wanted to write back and say yes, house, bridge, river, hair, no, maybe, never, forever.

*

Once, as an adolescent, I stood in a grand, turn-of-the-century, high-ceilinged foyer, with an elaborate staircase behind me, a staircase with a black iron banister in the shape of vines, and the walls were a warm yellow-gold, and I inserted my key into a little brass mailbox and out fell a brown letter, and the sight of the hand (that beautiful term we use for handwriting) caused me to physically stagger, and then swoon, sway; just to receive it, unopened, unread, just to stand there and see it and hold it in my hands! Only now, thirty years later, do I understand what a miracle that moment was, that I was its destination and it had arrived. If I die tonight, that moment is blessed and without regret; very rarely in life are prayers thus answered. That this scene repeated itself several times in my life leaves me speechless.

*

I offer my dinner guest, after dinner, the choice between regular and decaf coffee, when in fact I don't have any decaf in the house. I am so sincere in my effort to be a good host that I lie; I think this probably happens all the time in poetry.

*

"Two tasks at the beginning of your life: to narrow your orbit more and more, and ever and again to check whether you are not in hiding somewhere outside your orbit." Franz Kafka. 

*

WHY ALL OUR LITERARY PURSUITS ARE USELESS

Eighty-five percent of all existing species are beetles and various forms of insects. 

*

WHY THERE MAY BE HOPE

One of the greatest stories ever written is the story of a man who wakes to find himself transformed into a giant beetle.

*

SHORT LECTURE ON SHAKESPEARE

They say there are no known facts about Shakespeare, because if it were his pen name, as many believe, then whom that bed was willed to is a moot point. Yet there is one hard cold clear fact about him, a fact that freezes the mind that dares to contemplate it: in the beginning William Shakespeare was a baby, and knew absolutely nothing. He couldn't even speak.

*

SHORT LECTURE IN THE FORM OF A COURSE DESCRIPTION

My idea for a class is you just sit in the classroom and read aloud until everyone is smiling, and then you look around, and if someone is not smiling you ask them why, and then you keep reading--it may take many different books--until they start smiling, too.

*

SHORT LECTURE ON YOUR OWN HAPPINESS

You know how to write poetry, it is all you need to be happy, but you will not be happy, you will be miserable, thinking you need so many other things, and in years and years of misery you have only one thing, as poets, to look forward to, the day you will not want what you haven't got, the thing you have got is poetry, let nothing cheat, steal, or deflect you from it, even poetry itself. Why are you sitting there? You should have fled before I finished the first sentence.

From C.K. Williams' "On Being Old" (once again)

We come to know this thing called mind quite early on, and we also at some point much later come to realize how much our minds aren't susceptible to being what we'd like them to be. As I've aged--"matured" I suppose would be the word--I've become more and more aware of the parts of myself that don't arrive at anything like what's implied by that grand term. The older I am, the more I've become aware of how trapped I am in a mind that in its perceptions, its impulses, its emotions is very much still a child's. I've spent so much time, so much labor trying to tame this thing called mind, trying to cajole it to be more reasonable, more sensible, less absolute, less simply silly. But the task seems hopeless because my child's mind, the mind that lurks beneath all the others I like to think determine who I am, experiences the world in brute, crude, utterly unsophisticated systems of feeling and thought: it wants, it wishes, it desires--things, feelings, states of being--and when it isn't granted them to possess, or at least hope for, it becomes depressed, or flies into a tantrum. And, worse, it's not satisfied with halfway: it admits no partials, no gradations, no compromises or concessions. To it accommodations are capitulations, failures, precursors to defeat. 

Furthermore, that the world beyond me is not as my child's mind wishes it to be, imagines it can be, is passionately convinced it absolutely should be, throws it into a frenzy of frustration, exasperation, indignation, umbrage, so that I, trapped for so much of the time in this, my mind, am offended, embittered; I disapprove, I sulk, I become petulant. When I look out into that world, when I peer out between my petulance and my sulk at that world that at once lacks, and is in danger--how can it not be that I am fraught? How can my mind not be frightened--not only of the world but also of itself, this child's mind which inflicts the imperfect world on itself? 

But then, sooner or later, again and again, I ask myself how can the world's ultimate facticity, the simplicity of it, its purity, not be dimmed, diminished, thrown out of focus, distorted by a surrender to myself, by my helplessness before myself? I see the world as it is, its space, its people, its things; I see it glowing in the astonishment of pure being, yet the emotion I draw from that glow, from that blaze, is worry, concern, anguish; is anxiety, terror, then sadness, then, again, despair, that despair which seems not merely to perceive the world beyond itself, but, in its imagination, to consume it. 

And so I mostly shut up about my despair. Sometimes perhaps telling a poem, but mostly struggling to keep it to myself. 

As I will here. And return to death, which, in this context, can sometimes be, as I've said, solacing. Not to have to behold the rains stop, the deserts advance, the glaciers melt, not to experience the violence and suffering that may well ensue from such disruptions. 

And yet reality, our reality, is here: it beckons, it hasn't lost a bit of its glorious clarity, its colors, its sounds, its scents, those simple miracles which are more miraculous in the complexities that science has revealed are woven beneath them. I desire this world with the unquestioning, unconditional force of a love that forever wends a way through the interstices of disappointment, dissatisfaction, foreboding. 

And poetry. It doesn't seem absurd after all to have given one's life to poetry. To have been allowed to participate in the grandeur of its traditions, to have experienced so profoundly so many inspiring poems, so many poet-geniuses, so many glimmers of something greater than anything I could have imagined life would offer, life would be. Even unto death, poetry can go on, will go on.

Poetic Contradiction


Well, back in cold, gray Seattle after a week of tropical bliss. Gratefully/surprisingly, while away I found myself largely able to shelve various life stressors, including xyz-baby-worry and "why oh why do I seem to get so frustratingly little done these days?" Alas, shortly after returning home a couple of days ago, anxiety managed to weasel its way back in, and I found/find myself bemoaning the shortage of hours in a day. (And we haven't even had the baby yet! Oof.) 

That said, some points of recognition: focused (preparatory!) breathing is my friend; clearing room, no matter how crazy life is feeling, for hands-on creativity is important and sanity preserving; and channeling the above experience (that warmth! those rolling, lulling waves! that sand--so fine--beneath my feet!) on a regular basis is in my interest. 

Also writing. Keeping up w/ my writing is deeply important. And reading, of course, too. For how else is one to discover such poignance as--

"Really, 'realism' seems just as difficult as any disorienting fantastical stuff does to me (or more); just simply trying to honestly get at that undertow of life slipping away, of memories drifting, of you and the people you love growing up or growing old while wanting it all to slow down, constantly guessing what everyone is really thinking and how they're living, all the while rewriting what you think it is you think about them and yourself and what you're actually going to do w/ your life--that seems plenty urgent and odd enough." --Chris Ware

and--

"When you think about it, everyone is a fiction writer, because any time you imagine what a person is thinking, or how he or she lives, or whether or not he or she finds you attractive, you're writing (or drawing, if one thinks in images), though we like to file it away as if it's reliable information." --Chris Ware

and--

"...I'm sure there will indeed be more and more people reading text on their iPads and iPhones every day, but there are also hundreds of thousands of people out there who love the considered finitude of books just as I do, and as long as we're alive ... books will live too. Additionally, there's something already so weightless and ineffable about what writers and artists do that I think it almost needs the certainty of paper and print as a sort of poetic contradiction to make it work. I generally feel cheated and disappointed in any e-purchase I make for that very reason; in art school terms, the form and the content just seem too much the same." --Chris Ware

and still more--

"...a book, if taken care of, communicates so much about its time and writer, from the tiny, crinkly pages of the leather-bound miniatures of the 1880s to the crappy, wood-pulp paperbacks of the 1970s--it shows what our culture values at any given time. You also don't have to plug them in or try to find a vitamin-D-deficient computer whiz who knows some outdated compression code to read them. All you need is a working eye and a brain and you've got one of the most mysterious interactive experiences ever invented." --who else? Chris Ware

A happy discovery, that.