Signs and Symbols

A found poem introduction to the definitive introduction to literary theory.

The following is assembled from phrases found in the opening six pages of The Norton’s Anthology of Theory and Criticism, a text that some readers might find a touch dense, or perhaps conducive of a sprained wrist. I took the liberty of assembling this found poem from the text, to keep on hand for moments when something lighter is in order.

What does theory demonstrate? That there is no position free of it, 

not even common sense. The same is true of an author’s inner being, 

institutions, historical periods, and conflict.

What is interpretation? Consider dense and enigmatic 

explication, exegesis––versus intimate, casual appreciation.

In order to establish our bearings, 

along the way

we discuss.

True, there are problems 

with seemingly sensible methods

––ambiguities, paradoxes, the problem of no easy 

answers––and theorists, and well-known heuristic devices. 

The notion of mirroring necessarily contains 

distorting devices: signifiers, signified; 

the crisis of reference; the dizzying view. 

Significantly, it re-presents and refracts 

certain affinities.

The Paper Artist

Seeking insight on working with these unwieldy pages, I turn to an artist known for making sculptures of paper.

I was wondering what to do with these blank pages, the ones that need to be written to make these other ones make sense. Developing a manuscript sometimes feels like the messy middle of a construction project, with the piles of debris everywhere, and material under tarp, and the eyesore of scaffolding all you can see, one of those that inevitably leads to someone asking, what is going on here?

It seems like they haven’t been doing much.

Maybe the funding ran out. I forget what it was supposed to be.

Then I learned about the paper artist. He makes these vivid sculptures from the pages.

How does he do it?

Begin with a single fold, he says, and curiosity. The first action causes a transfer of energy. This leads to subsequent folds. I follow to understand, he says, about how the energy moves. If I knew where it would go, he says, I wouldn’t have to do this.

Where do you find it? They ask him.

Everywhere, he says. Music, architecture, Islamic tile patterns, protein misfolding. 

My favorite is this: I have this habit of misunderstanding, he says. It helps me see what is often overlooked. 

Thank you to My Modern Met for publishing the article, Paper Artist Crafts Incredible Three-Dimensional Relief Sculptures Entirely by Hand, featuring the work and words of artist Matt Shlian. I especially appreciate Shlian’s descrition of his process. Phrases from the interview are featured in this post.

To Beast and Man

It’s a good day to remember Mary Midgely, the English philosopher whose timely impulses moved counter to reductionism, and toward life.

It’s a good day to remember Mary Midgely, the English philosopher who was born on this day in 1919 (died October 2018).  Considering her legacy this morning, I am struck by an uncanny sense of the timeliness of her impulses against reductionism and toward a unifying understanding of human life as that which is intricately and intimately woven within and among all life on the planet.

I am refreshed by her unwillingness to separate humans or their institutions into types: “good” or “evil.” Rather, she saw evil as something that could easily take hold of individuals and their institutions when more virtuous impulses lapsed.  All that needs to happen for evil to flourish, as Midgeley saw it, was an absence of good. Where generosity falters, selfishness will fester. Where courage wavers, cowardice takes over. Where kindness stumbles, brutishness will reign. 

A supporter of the Gaia principle, Midgley recognized that inherent fallacy of attempting to separate the parts of our whole: land from creature, earth from its waters and air, human from nonhuman, nature from us. 

Disturbed by the trend of those who saw science as a solution to all problems, she warned against such foolhardy blanket optimism, and urged scientists not to neglect humanities.  Although she wasn’t religious, she saw no special evil in it, and noticed how the evils associated with religious institutions were akin to those that tend to emerge in any successful human institution.  She warned that doing away with it altogether seemed like a flip and rash response, and not necessarily beneficial. 

Regarding philosophy, she likened it to plumbing in that: Nobody notices it until it goes wrong. 

The greats, she said, noticed how badly things were going wrong, and offered suggestions about how to deal. 

Regarding the oppressive regime of optimism, she observed:

 “. . . Neither ecological nor social engineering will lead us to a conflict-free, simple path . . . utilitarians and others who simply advise us to be happy are unhelpful, because we almost always have to make a choice either between different kinds of happiness–different things to be happy about –or between these and other things we want, which nothing to do with happiness.” (from Midgley’s Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature2002).

Such a thoughtful, loving, and measured approach is most welcome now, in the age where the urge to grieve tends to run head-on into the urge to “Be Positive.” Hope can emerge from grief in ways that superficial “positivity” cannot do. The latter is too brittle to be of any use to the living, but the former is strengthened by recognition of the darkness of the moment, such that it may become the bright light in the dark room, a beacon to others, recognizing the darkness to be what writer Rebecca Solnit has called “a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave” (from Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities).

Here’s to you, Mary Midgley. Here’s to You.

Guide to Underwater Living

To survive in the deep with no hiding place, make yourself invisible. Where there is no refuge, develop a form that light will pass through.

Today, I am considering living underwater. Ninety percent of earth’s livable space is in the oceans. Recently, I read that many of the creatures living in it have survived by evolving talents for invisibility.

Consider this: land-dwelling creatures may camouflage themselves to blend in with surroundings. They may retreat to underground dens, high-altitude nests, or fly. 

To illustrate, one doctor cites a familiar scenario: Say a gunman enters a room. What do you do? A kindergartener can tell you: take cover. Hide. Do not come out.

But what about the deep, where there is nowhere to hide?

To survive, you adapt by making yourself invisible. Where there is no refuge from what will eat you, develop a form that light will pass through. 

The deep is full of transparent animals. You can read a book through some of them. Such forms are not without complications, of course. Risk of sunburning organs is among them. Stay low to avoid this. 

If not see-through, you can make yourself a mirror, reflecting light back. 

If not invisible, you can create your own light and shine it below you so that anyone looking up, sees nothing but light. If you do this, be careful not to let your light leak out or above you, so that you don’t become an easy target.

These transparent swimmers are everywhere, and now I can’t stop thinking about all of this invisible life, teeming beyond our ability to see what it is.

This post was inspired by this New York Times article, “A World of Creatures that Hide in the Open” from 2014. 

Mirror, mirror

Imagining thirteen ways of being looked at by a blackbird.

They’re back.

What?

These blackbirds, see? They are looking at me. I just wanted to see these mountains. Out in the––

Snow?

Right. I’ve been––

Wallace Stevens again?

Well, sure. There were only three at first.

And where did you think you were going to find snow? Have you seen the––

Now this one. Listen. There is some innuendo in his tone.

His?

C’mon, you can tell. Now they’re at my feet.

Now they’re flying out of sight.

They’ll be back. All afternoon, it’s been night coming, and you can feel weather brewing, too.

Not snow, though. Fire, maybe. Or rain.

It’s a murder, right, when they come in a group like that? 

No, that’s crows. Blackbirds are a choir. Except, I hate to tell you this.

What?

Look when they come back. Those are crows. You can tell by the beaks. Tails, too. Besides, have you been listening?

Caw, caw! 

Exactly. Did you know that they hold funerals, crows do?

What?

One dies, they all come silent and look. They stand around. Then fly away again, quiet as they came.

Huh. I thought they were mostly mischief. 

It’s the blackbirds that go from nest to nest. Crows mate for life. They don’t even kick the young out. They can stay in the nest ‘til they’re mating age, and even then, they’ll keep coming back.

The river’s moving again.

There they go.

Tell me you didn’t feel it, though. 

Feel what?

They were looking at us.

That’s why they have a reputation.

For mischief?

For being messengers.

What’s this message, then?

How should I know? I don’t speak crow. Maybe they just wanted to mess with you.

For?

Getting enamored with that voice.

What voice?

That human one you love so much. Like from the Stevens poem. Where it’s always you––

Looking?

Right.

*This morning, I woke up with Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” in my mind, alongside a sense of mischief. I couldn’t help imagining the birds flipping the script.

One Hundred Days

Celebrating the mystery of daily practice.

Today marks one hundred days of these posts, which started as “this thing I am trying” and evolved into Breadcrumbs, and which are now evolving me.

The project began from an impulse of love and a wish to connect. Someone asked: Why, where do you see yourself? I thought, Dead, eventually. Hopefully not soon, but a person never knows. It mattered not to do so while waiting for someone’s invitation to the table. 

I was working on manuscripts, which is long and lonely work. I am still working on manuscripts, some of which are new since beginning this project. I publish here and there in journals, and this is also slow-going. That’s how these things are. And meanwhile, every morning since I started this experiment, I also publish here. The idea was simple: try this thing and don’t stop.  I could evaluate after a hundred days. 

Evaluating now, I feel mostly gratitude. It never got easier, but it did become more automatic, the practice of––this thing. I don’t have to name it to learn from it. Daily practice teaches what I could not think to learn, including invitations to new questions. Friend, thank you for joining me here. 

The mind offers many reasons to stop and change course. This is what minds do, offer reasons for things. They can be acrobats of distraction. But the still part, the listening part, knows. This is the part I show up here to visit. This is where we meet, at the edge of the deep, still lake we share. Most of what is happening in it, I will never explain. This is the kind of presence I trust. The mystery is always more compelling than any of my own ideas.

Looking back at selections from the archives, I see something moving that is vastly more intelligent than I am, the logic of which I could never have planned. One hundred is a special number, and in this case, only a beginning. I mark this day with this prayer of gratitude. Friend, thank you so much for being here with me. I bow to you with a heart full of wonder. 

News of the World

Today’s briefing is culled from assorted anonymous postings.

Messages regarding the state of the world tend to vary widely depending on the source, and since variety is what I was looking for this morning, I decided to get today’s early briefing from craigslist. Among top stories, a man known only as “shameless robber” has abducted wax apples from the garden of an ailing old woman. He claims he was just drinking water, but this reporter isn’t buying it. Which is nothing compared to the tall guy who had a custom sectional made and delivered before he wiggled his way (comfortably, we assume; it seems like he’s done this before) out of paying for it.

Who says that nothing good comes free? There are free pallets in Alisa Viejo, free notary services for active military, a yard sale this Saturday, and money being raised right now to cover medical bills. There is new music, a new bike shop, personal body sculpting (who can resist?) and, above all, this urgent reminder, all caps: HANG ON. KEEP CALM.

In other news, a woman without transportation would appreciate very much if someone would bring over a case of beer. IPA preferred, and rest assured: payment will be rendered upon payday next week.

There is no need to feel alone in this city. A mobile detailing car service can come over at any hour with amazing prices and reliable service, and there is a group meeting tonight in East County for individuals seeking an avant-garde interpretation of the Bible. If you’d like to spice up your daily commute with fresh company, there is no shortage of people ready to join you.

There is a new litter on Elm Street, an avid stargazer seeking company, a cornhole fall league, and a Dungeons and Dragons campaign looking for adventurers. Also, free dental hygiene services available from students, for anyone willing to wait.

You may not be aware of this, but you are leaving money on the table the longer you wait to join this quadrillion-dollar industry. Fortunately, there is a number you can call. Act now.

We can: build a yoga community, a film noir appreciation club, a craps club, these support groups, adult baseball, a sparring group, or just meet for a beer on Spring Street. So, what are you waiting for?

There are angels and no need to stay stuck. There is a nerdy outlet, a coffee shop friend, a focus group, and a well-muscled man available for private modeling gigs. Do you play drums, have too much stuff, need to get in shape? Do you need a washer/dryer, a group of paranormal enthusiasts, some fishing equipment? You can find it. It is here. Join us. 

I continue to appreciate the depth, breadth, and scope of coverage provided by the collective reporting of anonymous individuals and will return regularly for updates and breaking news. 

The Flying Man, Revisited

Reflecting on the myths we live by.

Once upon a time, there was a man who came walking from the land of fire, and he was badly burned. He sat on a rock by a cool stream and the woman of the river watched him with his shoulders stooped and she noticed how his eyes would blur so that he was not seeing the river, really, not seeing anything at all but his own broken reflection against the broken sky.


So, the woman of the river sunk her hands deep into the ancient silt of the riverbed and she pulled from this a pair of wings, and she released these into the river’s rush, and as she released the wings, she slowed the waters of the river by inhaling a deep breath, thick and musical with time, and she pulled it inside herself sharp at the edges like freezing air or smoke. She held it within her, resisting the urge to cough against the pressure.

The wings floated beneath the gaze of the man on the rock, and he bent at the banks of the river and reached one arm and then both, and then he entered the water: one leg, then both, and then he was up to his knees and then past the tops of his legs and then to the middle of his chest as he pulled on the wings. It takes more strength than anyone would think, to pull a pair of wide wings from a current, even when the current is slow. Eventually, he pulled the wings up the banks and set them on the rock where he had earlier been sitting. Panting and soaked, he had forgotten for a moment all about the land of fire from which he had escaped, and he sat and stared at the wings: large, black, and weathered, glistening beneath the dapples of sunlight pairing through the forest canopy above him. He stared at the wings as they dried and he dried as he stared at the wings, and then he fell asleep.

When the flying man woke, he picked the wings up and he noticed that they were attached to a harness that he could fit through each of his arms like a backpack, so that the wings were attached to his torso. Then, wings attached behind each step, he walked through the forest, beyond the last tree, to the base of a great mountain, and as the woman of the river watched him, he ascended the great mountains, carrying the full weight of his new wings on his back, and he walked three days and rested three nights until he reached a cliff, and there stood before a vast green valley, and as he breathed on that cliff he looked at the river running through the valley, catching sunlight. He stood, looking, and the woman of the river stood also, watching him, and after several long breaths, various cloud bands, and several movements during which he witnessed in the valley a retelling of all that he had seen before in the land of fire, and against this, a re-dreaming of all that was to come.

The woman of the river released the breath that she had been holding, and the man above her opened his winged arms, and he felt her breath through his feathers.

He felt his feet leaving the ledge and he leaned into the current of wind now lifting him above the valley, above the river, above all that he had ever known and all he had yet to see—and he flew.

***

This story was originally published in sections, embedded in a larger story, “Twilight at Blue Plate” which appeared in the August 2019 issue of Oyster River Pages. As I woke this morning, I noticed that this piece was demanding some reflection. I have recently been coming into awareness of certain understandings that appeared to me in this fairy tale before I was ready to consciously know them. It’s been my experience that stories often do this. I will be revisiting in tomorrow’s post and considering its role and possibilities in my own. It has been my experience (and I don’t think I’m unique here) that usually my reading and writing vision is a few years ahead of my conscious understanding.

I think this is true for many people. Has it ever occurred to you what stories are shaping your life? I never would have known precisely how central this flying man story was to me, except that I was in a class where we were challenged to spend fifteen minutes on the spot writing a fairy tale, and after my initial eyeroll, thinking “I don’t write fairy tales” this came out whole, in that one brief sitting. This is because it had been in me all along, as so many myths, legends and fairy tales are. In my notes this morning, I began to uncover some layers of understanding that I hadn’t been ready to see before. To share them here would make for an over-long post, so I’ll save these for tomorrow.

Perhaps you may find value in considering what myths and fairy tales are central to your life. As Joan Didion writes in The White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Real Talk with Dead Folks: Here’s to W.G., Absurdist O.G.

My interest to learn more about him was piqued when I learned he was described with the following words, not necessarily in this order: “exiled, absurdist, brilliant, perverse, singular.”

You can’t honor the living if you don’t honor the dead, and large swaths of the current death machine work towards erasing them. One way to erase the past is to erase history. Another is to sanitize it and put our heroes on pedestals.  That’s why I like to engage in conversation and occasional correspondence with dead folks. From time to time, I will write letters to dead artists, writers, and other notable or unknown people. Sometimes, the occasion for this arises organically, from a question or reference in the air. Other times, I may discover that it is the birthday of a person of interest and be moved to strike up a conversation. This can be especially fruitful when it offers an opportunity to engage with someone previously unknown to me, as is the case with today’s entry.

Here’s something I learned this morning as I was wondering what today’s post would be about: On this day in 1904, writer Witold Gombrowicz was born in Poland.  My interest to learn more about him was piqued when I learned he was described with the following words, not necessarily in this order: “exiled, absurdist, brilliant, perverse, singular.” I decided to make him the subject of my next “Real Talk with Dead Folks,” which is one of the Breadcrumbs exercises that I find generative, especially when I am tired of my own ideas.

Dear Witold,

I’m sorry we couldn’t do this in person. Perhaps you would not have talked to me, but I think I would have enjoyed listening to you, at least for a little while. Probably I would have found you a bit too obsessed with yourself and this question of authenticity, and perhaps you would have made assumptions about me when you learned that I worked in schools, which are the places that perhaps best fueled your sense of the absurd. We’d both have our reasons, I’m sure. Fortunately, when it comes to this sort of work, liking or not liking does not need to factor into capacity for deep appreciation.

You claimed that the best lessons of school were in the breaks, when your classmates beat you. Your education, you said, was reading ––forbidden books, especially–– and loafing. You were often ill. Puzzling over your dreams, the symbolism and possibility within them, you considered a possible way out. Of what? I wondered. And you said, The whole farce! Then I knew I loved you.

It was perhaps one long project you were on, a quest to get to the “real” of you. You kept a daily public diary also, but you preferred different lenses: sometimes polemic, other times self-absorbed lens. I am skeptical of claims to authenticity, but I have a soft spot for those committed to an aesthetic with relentless dedication. For this, I can love you also.

They called you “creepy as Poe” and “absurdist as Kafka” and you relentlessly criticized their forms––all of them, calling them covers for the conventions you despised. Refusing to be tamed, you cultivated immaturity as wisdom, imperfection as an antidote to the fake. Every artist has their obsessions; your grail was authenticity. “I am a circus,” you said, “what more do you want?” Hah! I thought. That’s all I need to know.

You raged at the teachers babbling clichés and poked at the nonsense of their often-hollow aphorisms, so devoid of meaning as to be deemed universally palatable substitutions for truth for anyone who prefers the easy nicety to real thinking. “Chirp, chirp, little chickie!” your hero announced. 

Were any of your elders spared your criticism? You called out Schulz on his assent to conventions, you joked that Proust “found more in his cookie. . . than they found in years of smoking crematoria.” You called Kafka “unreadable” and lacking sex appeal. You called your diary the faithful dog of your soul.  You did have a few nice things to say about Kierkegaard.

Rejecting institutions of honor, you baptized yourself a self-made man, planned a life of exile in obscurity, and were soon after celebrated. But Europe broke your heart. You were a bumpkin among sophisticates, and you died soon after.

Relentless in your quest not to be a type of writer, but yourself, you left behind a legacy at once brilliant, hilarious, dangerous, redemptive, perverse, irreverent, heartfelt, and voluminous. Today I celebrate your defiance of easy classification, and I celebrate your love of the absurd.

Titles, for example, you did only randomly. You chose names for your books like one names a dog – “to tell one from the other,” you said. You had, after all, the one faithful dog of your soul, your daily letters, and this was after all, the singular work of a life, continuous and ongoing in all of its embedded and wondrous contradictions. 

You said, “Serious literature does not exist to make life easy but to complicate it.” You reminded, “Don’t be fooled by your own wisdom.” You honored paying attention, observing “the more profound the awareness, the more authentic the existence.”

Thanks for leaving a trail. I’m glad to meet you. I love the way you challenge people to examine contradictions, how you challenge pedestal-making with irreverence, and how you combat calcification of statues built as stand-ins for truth by dancing with the fluid and absurd. 

I hope to see more of you in years to come. 

Follow-up: It didn’t occur to me until this morning to make this a series on Breadcrumbs. Until now, I hadn’t articulated the impulse to be in conversation with dead people I never met, nor had I acknowledged that it’s something I tend to do in my notebooks and in my head fairly regularly.  I’ve done this once before on the blog, in a memo to artist Hieronymous Bosch, posted here: “Curious Sends Memo to Dead Artist of Living Work.” I look forward to more of these. 

The source I used for this exercise is Ruth Franklin’s excellent New Yorker article about the writer, “Imp of the Perverse: Witold Gombrowicz’s war against cliché.”

Against Forgetting

How do you resist the monster that would have you forget your purpose in creating?

Against forgetting, give water to the plant

and notice the light in a stranger’s eye

––and the shadows. 

Notice the work still waiting, against

what would have you close your eyes,

surrendering time, white flag waving

for a moment before it falls like a sheet

over the sleeping body, like a sheet

over the dead.

I’d lose my head, The old women would say, 

If it wasn’t attached, as if to remind us to

hold the tether to what was less securely 

attached; as if to say, you’ll lose your life

if it isn’t attached, by the substance

of a series of tiny actions like clay around

the whisper-thin thread of your otherwise

invisible dreams.

Against forgetting, say to the child unsure

how to begin, Here, and hold out a hand

and keep mealtimes. Against forgetting,

extend an invitation to the table, 

to those cast out, disposed of,

dispossessed. This includes the children

before you and the ones made invisible

and the ones you once were.

To say, I see you, Here 

we are and remember.

To notice the little bird in the low branch,

to say its name and listen for its response

to what you have not said. To walk in

the desert, in the dark, with water and

with light.

“The bottom line is this: You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. In some way, your aspirations and concern for a single man in fact do begin to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.”

-James Baldwin, from a 1979 interview published in The New York Times

This post is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, on the monster that wants us to forget.