Elegy in Blue

For Robert Hayden.

Your preference for the long view was balanced by an exquisite attention to the ragged, beating heart of the impossible moment. You called history a long, bloody becoming toward what might finally be, this beautiful, terrible, needful thing, still stirring.

You were moved by the idea that against failure after failure, something wars, something goes forward, something lights a match, and remembered the winged man of the laughing, longing night.

You kept your eye on the sharp sails that flayed the albatross and on a promise that it was yet possible to walk back home over Galilee’s waters to be washed of the effluvium of living death.

Your own aches bent elsewhere, you trained your eye toward life upon these shores, to study the deep immortal human wish amid a timeless yearning for the good old days that had never been good.

You studied the choreography of spirit hanging on, dancing its own shelter with an intensity bright enough to shine through the sordid and cruel deniers of hearts, of lives, of life itself.

You argued that a poem is an action unto itself, a catalyst of compassion, a weight to bend the moral arc ever slightly toward a softer hand, toward community, toward home.

You knew despair could seed a song to raise the roof and the hard loving of laughter in bed with misery and as a constant reminder you drew heart-shapes in the constant dust, as if to mark this side of heaven.

Even as you mourned the moaning empress of the bluesfour bullets in her heart, you lifted us up with ostrich feathers to feel her still shining forward, to look with you, through the transience of loss, to the way they would rise early next Sunday, even against the next fistful of snow.

What did any of us know, anyway, of love’s austere and lonely offices?

***

On this day in 1913, American poet Robert Hayden (d. 1980) was born. The title of this post is adapted from an article Frank Rashid published in the Winter 2001 issue of Callaloo, “Robert Hayden’s Detroit Blues Elegies.” This post is composed using ideas and phrases from Hayden’s work and interviews, as well as a line (italicized above) from Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body, a work that moved and influenced Hayden, particularly his historical vision. Where possible, I have linked lines above to the works from which they are adapted.

Stranger Still

Through a glass darkly.

In love with an unknown intimate briefly glimpsed, the stranger moved so steadily towards the source of longing that he became transparent with time. Suspended in its liquid, the desert salts of his waking form dissolved in her waters until he knew himself at once known in the shadow of the apocalyptic cherub.

I am surveyed, he admitted, but it was good to be untethered from the demand to be any sort of self in any of the atomic cities, to join the games with no winners, to keep company instead with a chorus of loss, its abundant ache seeded in the silence of this elsewhere when the voices that will be heard choose themselves

***

Inspired by various morning readings, including Thomas Merton by way of Richard Rohr. Italicized phrases above come from Thomas Merton’s “Day of the Stranger,” first published in The Hudson Review, summer 1967.

Out of Exile

For Vladimir Korolenko.

You knew the blind musician, leaning in to hear birdsong and river stones, the murmur of distant water, and you brought him the shepherd’s pipe. You knew that to play it well meant knowing love and sorrow. You knew the dying peasant’s dream of heaven, bad company and the children of the underground, and how to abide for the day of atonement. Above all, you knew your unknowing, ceaselessly seeking some light within darkness, to heat against the killing cold. Leaning always toward the glow of truth, all of this danced with you, joyful and alive in your open hands.

***

Inspiration: Today is the birthday of Vladimir Korolenko (1818-1868), a Ukranian-born Russian writer, humanitarian, and human rights activist devoted to serving the poor and maligned. He spent a period exiled in Siberia for his criticism of tsarism and is best known for his short novel The Blind Musician (later, he was also silenced by Stalin for his critique of Bolshevik hypocrisies). I consulted available translations as well as Natalia M. Kolb-Seletski’s article, “Elements of Light in the Fiction of Korolenko” (The Slavic and East European Journal, Summer 1972). Some of the phrases above come from the titles of Korolenko’s short stories.

A Soft Touch for Depths

For the seeker in the dark.

You weren’t always sure you were writing poetry, only that your words could mean something to the truck driver, the soldier, and the one closing the bar. You had harsh words for critics too quick in judgement to listen to what they were not expecting to hear. With both feet in soil, you celebrated the ancient of ancients, and were not too proud to honor what eluded your knowing.

Prone to embrace strangers far and wide with a gaze bent on honoring how the best of the wonders each carried was in tune with an old and ancient song, you could not stop yourself from humming as it moved through your working bones––that which stains dark and touches soft, with a flair of great loneliness, those also softly treading, searching in the dark.

***

Over coffee, I noticed that on this day in 1967, the American poet Carl Sandburg died (born 1878), and I decided to spend some time reading a journal article Sandburg published in February 1916 edition of Poetry Magazine, praising the (often misunderstood and maligned, at the time) work of Ezra Pound. I find that a person tends to reveal a great deal by the bend and texture of their admiration. I borrow some of Sandburg’s phrases (italicized) above, praising Pound, and blend these with ideas commonly attributed to Sandburg’s work.

Fear and the Living

Wicked naming conventions.

Flourishing life tends always to be irregular and unruly, thwarting efforts to tame its abundance in the name of the gods of progress and reform. Contrast the fecund jungle with the neat lawn. One of these thrives.

They called our disorder ungodly, our love a danger. We called it nothing. It was more action than word. Show me a fish with a word for water.

We were often depicted in the company of cats, those mysterious shapeshifters, notoriously hard to catch and easy to love (for the loving), famously resistant to authority.

It was an art, how we lived, but the enforcers of absolute power renamed it. Not art, but craft. Not sister, but witch. To rhyme with a popular slur. 

One way to remake what you fear is to recast it in caricature. So, they made us: black, dark, weird, dangerous. Sure, love and life were all of these and more, but they would have none of it. The dangerous alchemy of a tiny morsel of knowledge in a boundless pool of self-righteous confidence.

We loved and protected. They guarded, refused. We grew; they took. We watched, waited, listened, shared. They announced, stockpiled, amassed.

Our most transgressive act, as some saw it, was the giving of a familiar spirit to the daughter or granddaughter, along with strategies for survival.

And, that we lived. In loving community. In later caricatures, one of us will be pictured as ancient, outcast, poor, and alone. She was our great-grandmother. She raised and taught us. When they burned our village, she was in the field. She survived.

Our detractors persist. Always in the name of progress, reform, order. We know them by their obsessions with mechanized gadgets and purity; acquisition and the order of lawns. And we know them by their mistrust of music, dance, the wild and untamed arts––and cats. And by the names they call those who challenge their systems of order, and their fear of women (and numerous others) who speak against authority.

***

This morning, while looking into the work of the American scholar and artist Deborah Willis, I came across an article by another scholar of the same name who seemed (to me) to be exploring parallel lines of interest to the Willis I was looking for, albeit in different focus areas. The article is “The Witch-Family in Elizabethan and Jacobean Print Culture” (Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Winter 2013). As (the other) Willis explains, the idea of the solitary witch was preceded by a longstanding suspicion of witch families. Matriarchal and poor families were especially prone to suspicion, and mother-daughter bonds created “a special locus of anxiety.” Pamphlets warning of witchcraft tended to correspond with a growth of Protestant handbooks on the godly household, as part of a (patriarchal, colonial) effort to make “family central to a vision of absolutist rule.” I found the discovery timely on many levels.

Art Friends

In loving conversation.

Dear friend.

Caro mio.

Fellow artist.

How good it is to share this devotion.

Let me soothe your self-doubt, and you can remind me that I am not invisible.

Let us venture forth, co-conspirators in these dangerous, obsessive, sometimes gallant adventures in our separate mediums. 

Here is a womb for your thoughts.

Here is a loving gaze.

Here’s company in your distaste for certain fashions of the moment.

Let us be proudly unfashionable, together! 

Alas, confidence ebbs.

My love, let this encouragement flow.

A reminder: to nurture those odd traits most vulnerable to misunderstanding among strangers.

Also, here is a spicy retort! Now passionate disagreement! Tart reply!

Stand with me, friend, when the wasteland offends to the point of nausea.

By the way, why must you be great? Why not be more like yourself?

You know, sometimes you need to forget this pious improvement.

Remember to play. Eat!

You notice I am silent when you speak.

Because with you, dear, there is just so much to watch!

***

I don’t know why a query about hyperbolic surfaces led me to Joel Salzburg’s article, “The Rhythms of Friendship in the Life of Art: The Correspondence of Bernard Malamud and Rosemarie Beck,” but I was intrigued to read about the long friendship, lived mostly through letters, between the American novelist and the abstract expressionist painter (Salmagundi, Fall/Winter 1997). Several phrases above are adapted from the excerpts and commentary provided by Salzburg.

Between the Word and the World

For John Clare.

Some remember your madness, your poverty, your unusual grammar, your melancholic breaks, but you loved the land and had some of the wild pasture in your blood––and the blight.

An eager listener, a student of nature’s music, you let yourself be carried on the wizard noise of the wind. You were always inviting others to join, but your neighbors preferred to count the land in parcels. To no end.

For you, poetry was the means of hearing, and by it you learned to read the living land, a music unto itself.

You found the world through the word, learning to name its birds by the sounds of their wings in flight. Listen a minute, you reminded, and hush.

***

When I learned that today is the birthday of poet John Clare (1793-1864), I decided to spend some time with his work, as well as with an essay by Stephanie Kuduk Weiner, “Listening with John Clare,” which highlights the poet’s particular sensitivity to the sounds of the land he walked so well (from Studies in Romanticism, Fall 2009).

Visions

An artist elaborates.

The goal: to arrive at a truth endorsed by life.

For example, how war is often experienced not as explosion, but as tension, a concentration that feels like a rumbling in the ground. For example, the expressiveness of a death. For example, the fact of a vast cloth of undivided time between the living and the dead.

So many aspects of human life can only be faithfully represented through poetry, the inner power of the image, the fact of accounting for the participation of an audience, a listener, a viewer, as an essential aspect of any genuine effort to connect.

***

This post is the result of notes made while reading the opening chapter of Andrey Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time, which my love gifted to me in response to my newfound adoration of this artist’s work. I expect that several future posts will be inspired by this remarkable volume of the director’s own words (translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair). 

A Joyful Noise

The transformation of silence.

How to speak, that what would live may live,

even if bruised. Even if misunderstood.

Death will come anyway, with its final

silence. Why rush its hand?

If fear is here anyway, let us use it. Your

silence will not protect you. There is

love here, even in war. And company,

in the refusal to swallow a tyranny 

of silence, the refusal to comply

in becoming the next casualty.

In becoming, may we live visibly

to speak, share, spread life

creative and continuing

in growth,

to find 

the others.

***

Inspired by Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” from Sister Outsider. Italicized phrases are Lorde’s. 

Nighthawks

A tribute to Edward Hopper.

To show this felt presence, the undiscussed ghost, you let a part stand for some concrete whole, which stood in for the imagined whole we had once dreamed to approach, when the choir sang, Nearer. My God.

Consider your figure at a gas station, far from history, community, from any sense of connection to any other moment in time. There is no house, no other human being, not even a passing car in the frame. No trees live here, only this undefined scrub of the beyonds, leaning away. We can hardly see what he does.

Another, flanked by the shadows of buildings in a boomtown, far from any landscape, the hoe replaced by the rake. His action like a still, somehow the stuff of a life, but what is it?

Here is a particular American bleakness: the cold light, harsh angles, a mechanized blandness, a puritan stiffness of rigid self-containment, waxed fruit shining in a bowl, at the center of an empty room, beside the stylized body in space. We are far from her, and she is far from herself.

***

Inspired by (and with borrowed phrases from) Linda Nochlin’s description of the work of Edward Hopper in this article, “Edward Hopper and the Imagery of Alienation” (Art Journal, Summer 1981). Citing an observation by Brian O’Doherty, Nochlin highlights how “the alienation that viewers feel in Hopper’s pictures is not the simple alienation of human beings from each other, but of individuals from themselves.”

Automat. Edward Hopper, 1927