What the Poem Taught

How not to lose the life of life.

It is autumn, she said. And we are going to die. And we have all this choosing to do, with great stakes. And yet, simultaneously: this beloved, ill; this new child, this sudden bird, this love. How often we keep our thinking separate from what we know. For a simple reason: simultaneous submersion within all sensibilities is unbearable.

So, how to know anything? How to keep the life of life in life? Try not knowing. Try reading below the threshold of interpretation. Try burying the head, leaving only the ear. It is possible to transcend personality and arrive. At a shared physical understanding. These songs were always here to pull us into them and we.

***

The italicized phrase comes from Jorie Graham, whose work inspires this piece.

The Making of History

With Hanne Darboven.

You could start by listing major events, key figures, compare best-of lists across the decades. But this has been done enough. What would happen if you omitted accepted distinctions between important and trivial, if you omitted the idea of progress itself?

You could try writing without an alphabet, using only numbers. These are democratic, unfettered by the weight of the ideologies of domination. With numbers, you can celebrate a belief in permutations.

Try it like this: fill room after room floor to ceiling with tiny panels: postcards, city views, tourist sites, greeting cards, illustrations from children’s books, photographs of artworks, of artists, of unnamed people. Present constellations of images instead of a neat line.

There will be no way to summarize what it is. What will matter about it will have to do with what happens between the images you present.

What happens?

Something breathes. It isn’t progress.

***

Inspired by Hanne Darboven’s “Kulturegeschichte 1880–1983” (“Cultural History 1880–1983”).

Inside Out

Placing ourselves in space.

These solemn geographies our limits, and yet. We persist in aiming to be where we are not. If the first myth was of some beyond outside, the next was that it was assembled of infinities––in defiance of the limits that confront us at each breath.

What creatures are we, to be embedded with impulses to defy our own natures and nature itself?  The first way we did this was to presume to give her a proper name, capital-N, and place her outside. 

After that, we would not recognize what breathed against the window, fogging the glass through which we meant to keep an eye on her wild beyonds, out there.

Nobody Here

First lessons in suspension.

We hardly knew it­––or ourselves––when we flooded the spaces we entered with memory so completely that to move was to be removed from our weight in invented immersion. What carried us was luminous and dense and had no word we knew. If someone were to ask us what it was, we would say Nothing, but no such questions came, because when we removed ourselves from our weight, we became no one.

Oranges

Scent of a horizon.

There can be no contradiction between paired images, only connection, and so little that is true will conform to the expectations of available language. There is a certain sadness that smells of oranges––or nectarines? and it holds a horizon inside itself, complete with sunrises and sunsets that only one at a time may witness. The challenge is how awe wants company to verify its origin, as something other than madness. Lacking any, a witness is burdened with a weight that denies its own release.

From Fire

Trying, and trying again.

Some say that it is possible to dry a spirit from the cold damp if you bring it by the flame, urging hereTake hold. Offer a warm mug, an invitation to sit awhile. 

When it comes to what it is really like, we are left with feeble words, and there are limits to what these may hold, even if you mean to build a cathedral.

Often it is no muse but frustration that spurs a body forward––trying once more, and again––to get warm.

Risk of Becoming

With Antonin Artaud.

All he wanted was a change in the human condition. They can laugh at me, he said to the mirror. When it came to the question of what a human might be, he didn’t claim to know. Over time, he grew distant from those who did, and these were many.

All he could say, when it came to describing his predicament was, it’s possible. He sought reconciliation––between matter and mind, body and soul, fact and idea. But people loved their borders, and he kept being detained at the boundaries of his body.

Then he turned on words, preferring only sound detached from the old symbolisms, and he let these run through him, imagining that their resonance, after all, might affect some inside-out change.

Really? Someone asked. 

It’s possible, he seemed to respond, and he did not say a word.

***

In honor of the birthday of French artist, poet, dramatist, and writer Antonin Artaud, I spent some time this morning in Naomi Greene’s 1967 article in Yale French Studies, “Antonin Artaud: Metaphysical Revolutionary.”

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.

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.