First Sight

Notes of a witness.

For a lover, pure and simple, beguiled every step, it may be a long journey. Bloom time in the lowlands, there were weeks and months uncounted, sun-drenched in lark song before the painted hills. Progress slow, I wandered enchanted.

Then came the peaks, massive light forms suggesting the walls of a celestial city. Crystal rocks and aspen glow, the irised spray of waterfalls; all that may perish is vanishing quickly. Listen, ancient glaciers now sing river song, and at temple of the valley floor, a congregation of glowing rock faces to welcome the storm like the lambs. 

In the distance, I heard the thunder of the fall, and before me the whale-back masses of granite crowning and rising, alone and in snug groups. Breaking tranquility, I followed the plunging river down. This wild scene I tell you was never safe, my fate hinged on an idle wind.

Nerves shaken, drenched, bathed in moonlit spray, I hoped. All were in bloom.

The air was shining. I counted, noticing the noon-gray clouds.

I slept and woke, and the winds sung too, in throbbing chorus with the fall, and it was a song I tell you, pleading notice.

Do you think there is a choice now? I saw none but this cry, and I did.

***

In honor of the birthday of Scottish-American naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir (1838-1914) (also known as John of the Mountains), today’s post is composed of found words and phrases from an 1890 essay he published in The Century Magazine, “The Treasures of the Yosemite.”

Speaking of Which

Question mark.

The word Mystery is just as fraught as Nature and harder for me to resist. I’ve never been able to point to Nature, but with Mystery, at least, I can gesture jazz hands in the direction of the space over or around a moment, object, person, collection––to highlight the apparent lack of concrete explanation for its impact. Still, this raises certain questions about various assumptions I’ve been making about the readily available explanations of some other phenomena.

Notes on Form

Old tools in a fallow field.

There is an exuberant history of forms to be found in these fields, compelling a witness to show how surfaces of knowing can be tilled with the tool of some adopted custom or cadence which, once discovered, can be carried solidly as a birthright through corridors of memory still in blueprint.

The challenge is measure, balance––and the joyous enterprise pains with enthusiasm, the center of any nascent art.

***

Inspired by and using borrowed phrases from the introduction to The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland.

Something with Feathers

Smiles from the threshold.

After the body, winking branches point to cloud faces and birdsong heralds their parade. Here is a frame for the living, and in it, more seeds than there are numbers.

Far from immaterial, this breathes syllables of flesh and leaf, spore and wing; limbs and their memory, and without these containers it would be everything all at once like water to a fish, synonymous with life’s self, but we are creatures bent on naming. 

We make nests of words to offer as a frame for warming the babies, so that when the known perimeter breaks­­––by degrees and then completely, they might recognize in our heat, the beginning of something, and stay.

Exile

Remembering home.

It’s hard to imagine now but try. It was fields of gold. There was nothing like it. It was a paradise, the flyers announced, with soil rich as chocolate. There would be peace in the valley, we sang, and believed, and we had the wheat to win the war. Then came the suitcase farmers, to make a killing. They didn’t come to live, just to buy the land and the machines to work it. 

They bled it dry. What followed looked like vengeance, except that the killers had already fled. What was left was those of us still working by foot and horse, to get by. We’d sing on Sundays, still, and our spirit shall sorrow no more. By and by, we gave up trying to keep dirt off the children’s faces during the week. They’d spit and it would look like they’d been chewing tobacco.

Suddenly, the sky cleared up. Hallelujah, we said, to witness blue again. We washed the children’s faces, went to church, even packed a picnic. But then, in the afternoon, it got suddenly cool. You could see a cloud in the distance, dark and low, rolling in on itself. The birds took off. When it rolled over us, I looked for my own hand. I brought it up and even when it touched my nose, I still couldn’t see it.

After that, people stopped asking each other, where’s your home? It wasn’t polite. The answer was scattered all over, and it wasn’t the one that any of us wanted to give.

***

On this day in 1935, the Black Sunday Dust Storm swept across the panhandle region of Oklahoma, Texas, and surrounding regions in the U.S. Sources: Remembering Black SundaySmithsonian Magazine, and the photographs of Dorothea Lange and In the Sweet by and by Hymn Lyrics and history.

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.

Composure

Stage notes.

Sure, we are torn, but hold. Affix time around space, anchor it with the choreography of story. Knot the fabric so that a dancer’s shadow will cohere to the face of a witness. This is a movement, repeat. 

Couple the lines of these bodies. You’ll need a strong adhesive. Consider music over time. Notice the architecture. Unless a body dances with the contours of a space, it cannot speak to a room. This means working with the furniture, the squeaking floorboards, the windows. Observe textures. How solid are any of these parts, and what are the sources of light? What are the colors in this space, and how does each sound? 

How do you bind a sense of intimacy to one of staggering separation? When you learn this, you will be falling into each ascent, and then you will know you are dancing.

***

Inspired by the opening chapter of The Viewpoints Book by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau.

Liquid Cats

What happens on a page.

When it comes to inking a cat, there’s no telling what will happen. 

The long brushstroke of a tail; paint bleeds a fluid form, feathered fur.

Sometimes, the shape of a body can only be defined by where it isn’t.

***

Inspired by this article about Endre Penovác’s watercolor cats.

Thoughts on a Train

Over vanishing worlds.

The cynic will call your nostalgia an ailment, but consider the lost elegance of oaks, the grey slush of salted roads at the end of a snow day; purple ink of handwritten liner notes inside the plastic shell of a favorite mix tape, the pealing chorus of children screaming in chase, hiss of the downtown bus breaking, someone on the blue shag carpet of a den hooting about a bad call over a plate of cheese and crackers, beer, full ashtrays on coffee tables, end tables; world maps covering dents in the kitchen walls, and the way the aunts with their lipstick would be laughing over the salad spinner, at the last attempt of someone’s last date, to do what must have seemed appropriate at the time and a harmony of, I can’t even––over shuffle of silverware and children up and down the stairs like a herd of elephants.  

If you hear that again, you’ll know that there will soon be a pillow at the back of your head and not this sideways neck, and no, it won’t sound anything like this dream when it’s over, but you won’t be sick with it either, just slightly jarred the way a body always is to find itself moving at high speeds over steel rails on land almost familiar, with a sense that it is always slipping out of reach before the witness finds the words, and maybe this is the tension the children were playing with, screaming at chase, whenever the it got too close.

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.