Among Ancients

Old growth wisdom.

The Pando, a trembling giant, is the oldest living organism on earth––also the largest and most dense, its name means I spread, which it does over one-hundred and six acres.

How old? I wondered. Some date this clonal colony back 80,000 years, a moment that roughly corresponds to the first known human burial. This seems significant.

There is a woman who travels the earth photographing the old trees. Time is the trunk, she says. Notice the split, she says, pointing to one of the ancients. To accommodate the storm.

She looks and looks. In each careful frame, she watches the old souls, how they shape the light. Making a record, she says. Lest people forget who they were, in the event of further collapse.

In their presence, she finds a reminder. There is still grace. There is still beauty. There is something and it’s made of grief but also beyond it, and it is still here.

***

Inspired by this article on photographer Beth Moon’s quest to photograph ancient trees, and also by this articleabout the world’s oldest clonal colony of aspen. I learned about the earliest known human burial here.

Rituals

From one palm to another.

What grows here is an open hand. It catches shade from remaining trees like falling rain. Cup the view, wrap a fragile forever in time, hold. An old ritual: pull back the sun. It can’t be helped, the impulse to pry a closed fist into an open palm, for heat or to signal an invitation. Like, Stay.

***

Inspired by the sculptures of Lorenzo Quinn. And everything else.

Song

Across an ocean in wartime.

As tanks burn near his hometown, the young artist watches, preparing for the stage again. 

A sensation, he will sing Don Carlos soon, against the blinding light. 

The fatal hour has sounded

His grandmother is ill, his mother stays. We can hear the shelling, she told him, days before. 

A future full of tenderness. Our days spent beneath blue skies!

He texts her his prayer again, and it is Mama.

***

Inspired by an article I saw this morning in the New York Times, about Vladyslav Buialskyi performing at the Metropolitan Opera while he waits anxiously for updates about his family. The young artist is from Berdyansk, which was among the first towns besieged by the Russian invasion. Italicized lines above are from this English translation of Verdi’s Don Carlos

Piercing the Veil

A poet’s manifesto.

“We do not fly, we ascend only such towers as we ourselves are able to build.”

Osip Mandelshtam

When it comes to discussions of art, let’s balance our excitement with restraint. A worldview is a hammer, but not the end. Use it to shape the art. The only pride, for an artist, is existence.

In a poem, the reality is the word, and yet. Consider how signs and symbols so often fulfill their purpose without words. Let’s have the word no longer creeping on all fours, hulking accepted logic on its back. Let it rise, instead, to enter a new age.

The architect must be a good stay-at-home, having genuine piety before the three dimensions of space. To build means to hypnotize space against the dreaded emptiness. Consider the anger of the bell tower, as if to stab heaven.

To love the existence of something more than itself­­––including your own––here is the highest commandment. A poet’s greatest virtue is the ability to feel surprised. If logic is the kingdom of amazement, let us dance to the music of proof.

***

The war in Ukraine has drawn me more deeply into the poetry of one of my favorite living poets, Ilya Kaminsky. I’ve been following his regular updates about the needs and concerns of his family, friends, and fellow poets in Ukraine. At his recommendation, I have been reading Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem, composed during Stalin’s Great Terror. Akhmatova was part of the Acmeist movement,  and this morning, while reading Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa, I came to “Musica Humana” (an elegy for Osip Mandelshtam, a leader among the Acmeists) and realized I wanted to know more about Mandelshtam, and found a translation of his Acmeist Manifesto. This morning’s post collects ideas and found phrases from this text, as translated by Clarence Brown. 

Holding

Our pieces.

The babies are at the window 

of the train, watching the smoke 

rise, and here’s another reminder 

that words are only shards of 

of our shattering selves, collected 

in each aftermath, in pockets, and

in the corners of silence, to be

glued into the mosaics we are 

always making with the bits, and

to give some shape to the next

cry when it comes, whenever

it comes, faces pressing this 

window of whatever that is at

the border of a full breath. 

Chorus

Against the dread.

Where terror shattered our speech, there came some who showed us how to make a song with the silences between our words. We listened, and the poets taught us how to meet what was coming. Look, they said. When the enemy explodes the bridge between the beginning and the end of a thought, only the form changes. What was concrete is now a fibrous web, and all of us in it. What was solid is now porous, and like other porous substances, we now absorb what may come. While the enemy creeps its silent convoy, we are here, and as we listen, one among us begins to sing. Soon, our bodies are saturated with song. The fullness is almost too much, but here we are, holding.

***

Inspired by stories like this of people singing while sheltering from attack. And by poets across time and nations, united against war. With love and prayers for the persecuted people of Ukraine in this hour. May you continue to hear one another, and hold.

Guidelines for Composition

For the floating worlds.

The idea is to liberate an artist’s power by saying, here are some patterns to work with. Here are some methods, and these can be learned. Sure, you can copy the old masters if you want, but this can be demoralizing, especially early on. Consider instead the play and placement of contrast, and the pictures of the floating world: eagle above dragon, forest among Atlantic cumulus. See them. Over time, an artist will better arrange lines and masses and it may become clear why the term “composition” is too limited. You can spend years studying the science of perspective, anatomy, history––and still manage to miss the essential element, Beauty. As in music, begin with simple exercises. Group a few lines harmoniously. Proceed step by step. This is how an artist’s power grows.

***

Inspired by (and using phrases from) Arthur Wesley Dow’s Composition (1905), as featured on Public Domain Review. 

Truth and Mystery

Creativity and dark ecology.

The other day I found some much-needed encouragement from one of my favorite living philosophers, Timothy Morton, in All Art is EcologicalWith characteristic wit and verve, Morton observes that while the bend of the authoritarian machine is toward capital-T truth, the bend of an ecological society (of the sort that must begin to emerge if we are to survive) is toward a much more sublime, surreal, and shapeshifting state, of “truthiness” which necessarily elevates that which cannot be grasped. They have not said this (yet, anyway), but the strong suggestion through this reader’s lens is that pretensions toward capital-R real, like capital-T truth and capital-A authority, are necessarily lies. Someone whose every attempt at telling an honest story completely evades clean lines, take heart. As Lorca observed, “Only mystery allows us to live, only mystery.”

Winter Gestalt

Whispering landscapes.

Story of ages, these quiet ruins now submit to the embrace of twisted oak limbs. What solitude erupts through the ghosts of former sermonizers when somber winds replace old battle hymns. From twilight to light on this reticulated branch, snows drumming winter suddenly stop. What music now?

***

Loosely inspired by the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), whose work has been credited with capturing “the tragedy of landscape.” He is said to have inspired painters such as Dali, Rothko, and Munch. His Moonrise Over the Sea is reported to have inspired Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

Seeding Awe

What ephemeral forms may expose.

Along the shores of a great lake, often without witness, a northern wind shapes and erases forms in ice and sand. There is a moment when they hold. To bear witness is to be reminded of the pairing of reverence and suddenness, of beauty unexpected because it is so rarely seen, and this because it just as quickly goes, swallowed by the same hand that lifted the veil. Is this a force of time and weather, or their temporary pause? ––as if to call into question all descriptors, all limits, to fit the beholder with a set of melting wings.

***

Inspired by the photography of Joshua Nowicki.