Recovering Nature

What’s in a name?

Sure, you can try to recover it, as you say, carefully filming this walk into woods, but consider the violence of a name. Nature, as in outside, as in opposite of this separate, sanitized, self-satisfied sanity. I am not fit, perhaps, to hold it on my tongue, so unrefined is my palate. Sure, this is one way to defend your dominion. No one can touch you. No one can touch the finery of such an idea whose hands are still furred with dirt.

Sea, Woman

Conversation at land’s edge.

After we dream, we will meet by the shore.

Sister, do you see me? Let us be counted among the living. 

Then we will dive. 

When they come to eat our images, they will repeat the old power play. They’ll try again, to douse our bodies in shame.

Hah! As if to punish us with a bucket of cold water! We’ll wave and smile, go back down.

But sure, we can read the signs. It won’t be long before they make their vengeance into law. It is decreed, they will say, as prelude. Then comes the next mandate about official attire.

An old story. I bet these petty tyrants could use a good dive. But they are too afraid, so they clutch their precious trinkets to their chest and pretend to avert their eyes. It matters very much to them, what we wear or do not wear.

So complete is their exile from any land, they relinquish their only birthright: the primordial cave of their mother’s body, the original canal of first passage, the ripe breasts from which they first tasted their own lives, where the membrane between worlds remained transparent, and the mountain of her form was the first ascent to some wider vista onto what might be, an impulse now degraded into mere collection of images to be held in place of first sight.

How are your eyes today, sister? Good, and look! Your skin has healed!

It is clear today, let’s get the boats, go back to that spot, remember? There was more than we could carry in our nets!

I will get the others. We will take the boat. When you see it is good, we’ll go back down.

I see you, woman.

It is good to be seen. 

Let’s get the others.

***

Inspired by the Japanese ama, as photographed by Iwase Yoshiyuki and described (with stunning images) in this article. Many of the ama lived in communities with other women, supporting themselves and their families comfortably by diving for abalone, sea urchin, and seaweeds. Many women dove well into their nineties. The business was lucrative through the 1960s, after which it suffered the effects of climate change and overfishing. Chris Lee describes some of these issues in this Zenbird article.

Look at Us

Albums in space.

We started with the basics––abstractions, really: circle, star maps, a few terms. Then the images of planets, as if to open conversation. Have you seen this, too?

Look at our moon, we are so proud. See our double helix, watch our cells divide! Behold our anatomical diagrams. Here is conception, fetal development, birth. Nursing mother, father with child; now a family. Consider continental drift, oceans, desert, shore, dunes; consider forest, leaf, mushroom, sequoia, snowflake. Insect, vertebrate, seashell. Dolphin, school of fish, tree toad, eagle, crocodile.

Yes, some notable omissions: war, poverty, disease. Idea being, best foot forward. Also omitted: visual art. Whatever would we choose, and how would we explain ourselves to our critics? It’s like that with art.

Animals at a waterhole, hunters in the bush. Craftsmen, dancers, pipe smokers. Mountain climbers, Olympic sprinters, schoolrooms, children at a globe. Harvests: cotton, grapes, fish nets, supermarkets. Shared meals, construction. Architecture, cityscapes, factory interiors. Trains, planes, radio telescopes.

Here is a page from a book. One of our astronauts: how like the floating fetus with its cord!  Now a shuttle launch, now a string quartet. We convert these images to sound, place them on a record.

Hello, can you hear us? Are you there? Do you understand?

Have you seen anything like this before? 

How about since?

What now?

***

Inspiration: Jon Lomberg’s “Pictures of Earth,” in Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, by Carl Sagan, Ed.Drake, Ann Druyan, Timothy Ferris, Jon Lomberg, and Linda Salzman Sagan.

Bird Feeder

Sights for the sore.

When the pigeons come near the bench, a white-haired lady tossing crumbs from her lap begins to laugh when a lone mallard approaches. You too? she says. Okay, okay. Then come three or four other ducks. Sure, sure, she tells the first, bring your friends. There is enough.

Down the path, a toddler turns from his red rubber ball, and now he is coming too, the others behind him. In the distance, a train sound. Uh-oh, says the boy, and then turns back to the birds. Hands open, arms out. The woman laughs again.

In Our Time

Among the living.

Sometimes, when it was hiding in our homeland, we would feel its aftermaths in succession, running our fingers along the seams of cracked earth. Means for making meaning, ever mutating, make new forms where the formers are buried. We move soil to make room for our dead. Seedlings, too––even then. 

We could not call it war until we survived it. In the meantime, it was living. It was diapers and babies, earaches and crackers and someone still had to milk the cows, walk the dogs, and soak the beans overnight. 

What did you do? They will ask us later. Possibly we will forget by then, how we folded laundry and clipped toenails. How sometimes, even then, someone would show up with a cake, and someone else would find plates. We would pass slices one at a time, among the living.

Minor Challenges

Interrogations at terminal velocity.

First, a threshold. Questions about the roots of things tend to call common sense from the jury box to the witness stand. Being may be what knowing apprehends, but answer: can you point to an essence outside knowing? Yes or no.

No further questions, Your Honor. 

Recess. Outside, cellophane angels drop into boxes. Here are the signs. We’ll attach them like armor, with the same duct tape used to silence those objecting to being objects of study. 

Bells again, wait. We were at a threshold, trying to begin––what, though? And were we calling it? I’ve lost––the engine’s speed has thrown me back again, and as for the thread I meant to follow, before the angels and the tape, where now?

Embodied Poetics

Years ago, amid a different terror, one concern was a sort of numbness. I remember what the poet said about attention to the senses. This is an act of resistance, he said. To survive the war and still do poetry, this is defiance of the death machine.

It can be done without a pen. You want to know what poetry in motion looks like? The poet asks.  A man walks to safety from an active bombardment zone. . . His two cows walk with him.

I am thinking of this as I am noticing how there comes a point of being saturated with images of shelled buildings, bodies in the street, and I observe the creep of a familiar numbness. I walk from the screen to put my nose in the fur of our cat, run fingertips across my daughter’s watercolor painting. Birds at sunset.  A mind can say live, but a body needs so many reminders, all of them in the senses: this is why, and this, and this.

When I return, it is to celebrate a mother who lost her father the day before the invasion, who drove with her husband under sirens and past tanks, making arrangements until it was time to leave with the children and the dogs. How they left the car to walk the last ten miles, how the walk was hard on the oldest dog, Pulya, who kept falling. How she carried Pulya, how he let himself be carried over her shoulder, with silent acceptance. How the husband stayed behind in a village with no water or food, using firewood to heat the home, tending for the old ones who can’t leave.

It is our love, this woman said, that gives me strength now.

***

Inspired by the wild love of those persisting in the face of horrific violence, and by poet Ilya Kaminsky’s recent observation about poetry in motion, italicized above. I first encountered the story of Alisa Teptiuk, who carried her dog to safety, in this article.

War Mothers

Open mouths, long lines.

History was the broken lines between mouths and the breasts they once held before they knew the word for danger. When was that? We couldn’t remember. It was a story vague as Genesis, but some of us carried it on the road. There was a line of thought we wanted to follow, because we knew it before we knew thoughts should get in lines and it was this: once it was good, and us with it, and then came everything after, and then a long dark and at the end of it were these mouths at our breasts.

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

Human Shield

Mothers in wartime.

Speaking of the universes inside us now, of silenced griefs, do you wonder if this new fear has come to meet our weak refusals to acknowledge its magnitude? An inherited idea: us as defenders of the first official bodies of an emerging something––and yet, we couldn’t see it, not all the way. We missed the point, didn’t we, when we called it safe.

They gave it borders and called it done. Who could blame them? Had I known better, I might have done the same with my own form when I could, but even a broken body can learn, when it comes time for offerings, to be one. 

You can hear the official mandates all around: ours, ours, no trespassing, but try claiming something from a body whose primary substance is the fluid it sends and receives, through these acres of unknowns, and eventually we challenged them to go ahead, see if they could find a place to plant their flag. This took no words; just as well when these were the first to flee.

***

Inspiration: On March 6, 2022, Krista Tippett, whose excellent On Being Project I have long followed, tweeted: “There is a universe inside each of us now of unarticulated fear and unmarked grief.” As with many of her observations, this one resonated a particular truth of this moment.

And of course, the images we all know by heart now, and in our bones, of mothers in wartime.