IN PRAISE OF THE STILL UNWEIGHED: off the Record at Eighty.

…………………GRAVITY’S RAINBOW:
……………………….Sunday in the park with Sir Stanley

……………………….O rejoice in the women,
……………………….and the white perfect ducks
……………………….with their fashionable heads in the mud,
……………………….how they tether themselves down
……………………….with pegs in the ground
……………………….so they won’t float up in the air,
……………………….the feathery dry air that is brighter than gold
……………………….but stays unredeemed on the shelf.

……………………….For those ducks like the women
……………………….turn weight upside down
……………………….by the water on Sunday to stay down,
……………………….not to be better, or up nearer the sun —
……………………….like buskers, fine philharmonic
……………………….conductors, preachers, teachers,
……………………….invalids in chariots, toddlers and clowns,
……………………….all creatures with sweet little flippers that tickle the air,
……………………….as pliant as play-dough or beeswax,
……………………….useless as paperweight slippers,
……………………….ballast for butterflies, barbells for kittens —
……………………….perfect as the lead in the magician’s tight furnace
……………………….or the sticky brown muck in God’s oven.

……………………….“O the big wide basket of my body,”
……………………….the duck woman cries,
……………………….“O the piles of starched linen, the fillips,
……………………….the white cotton aprons and tea-towels
……………………….folded so nicely in my trembling arms,
……………………….down on my knees by the pool!

……………………….“Take this fine little turn-up,
……………………….for example,” she says,
……………………….“do you see how it’s paddled and done?
……………………….“The masterful curl at the end of the tail,
……………………….how the bottom turns upward as if at a ball,
……………………….the crinoline, the petticoats,
……………………….the old-fashioned drawers that kick highest of all —
……………………….and O how they flutter with each do-si-do,
……………………….and how the heart goes — can’t you feel it?
……………………….And aren’t it worth the applause?”

………………………. “Come on in then, come on in!”
……………………….the duck-caller cries,
……………………….and when she comes in on his arm
……………………….to waddle like a lover on the velvety floor
……………………….or soon to be mother,
……………………….which is very good too,
……………………….how he dips by the water for a nod or a snooze
……………………….any day in the park, old poet by the pool —
……………………….takes his nap on a folding green chair and the paper,
……………………….a moist royal nap amongst women,
……………………….head-over-heels in God’s pool.

……………………………………….from GALILEO’S SECRET: Two Decades
………………………………………………….of poems under House Arrest.
…………

AD HOC
This poem has a whole bibliography just waiting to be discovered by some ardent young academic a few years after my death. “And the guy never got published,” he may recount breathlessly to his friends over his latte at Starbucks. “So nobody’s ever done him!”

For a bit more on what’s to be done, this off-the-record discussion continues in the comments below — and needless to say, anybody is welcome to join in.

Christopher

[The discussion continues in the Comments.]

 

33 Comments

  1. November 25, 2019 at 2:55 pm

    THE POET OFF THE RECORD AT 80

    I submitted an earlier version of this poem to my favorite magazine a few years ago with such high hopes — so many of the magazine’s poems had risen off the page for me over the years, and I thought the outrageous conceit of a mystical poem called “Consider Big Women and Ducks,” its title at the time, should be right at home there.

    “A new poem I just finished today,” I wrote to the editor, “and though I’ve been writing it in Chiang Mai with the Monsoon Season just starting, in the poem I’m back in Central Park with the ducks and it’s late June in the ’80s.

    “And tastes do change — I’m more and more aware of that as I grow even older.

    “Recently I’ve been very surprised, shocked even, to realize I’m beginning to find big women so beautiful, how they’re dethroning the minimalist little media girls in my mind. I’m also astonished by my changing tastes in painting as well, discovering the extraordinary depth and subtlety of the new classically-trained, ‘Renaissance’ portraitists and hyper-realists of China today, for example — and realizing that our post-modern high-art is beginning to look disembodied by comparison. Just the schema of things, the bare bones of the intellect, the vectors without any flesh or moisture.”

    “Somebody recently called what I do “gold-leaf poetry,” and I liked that but didn’t think it went far enough. A poem like the attached is more like “gold-leaf kitsch,” isn’t it, or “gold leaf porno” even?

    “I wonder if it can get under XXXXXXXXX’s  radar yet?

    “Let me know.”

    EIGHT MONTHS LATER — a reply!!!

    “Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider your work. Much as we admire it, we regret that we are unable to carry it in the magazine. Warmest regards, the Editor.”

    With that encouragement, because that’s what I felt it to be, the phrasing and even more importantly the amount of time the verdict took (almost full-term, after all!),  I sent the poem right back with a few changes and a new title: “Consider Botero and Ducks.”

    “I love this poem,” I wrote, “and I think you did too.

    “I’ve just come up with a wholly new version that keeps all the admirable, shiny parts intact while jettisoning the single detail that made it unpublishable in a culture with so many problems about weight.

    “I hope you’ll agree it’s at last in perfect shape.”

    And I should have added that the Higgs’ Boson had finally been spotted in a tunnel deep under the Alps at Cern, but I didn’t.

    AND A FEW MONTHS AFTER THAT

    “I was very grateful to you for taking the time to read “Consider Big Women & Ducks” again in its new version, and feel it is one of the best poems I’ve ever written, the funniest, most delicious, and most rewarding for a careful reader!  So why should it be too controversial to print?”

    THE FINAL LETTER.

    “In Praise of the Still Unweighed,” the title of this 3rd submission, is also about weight, needless to say, but I don’t think it will offend women, just men who think too much about bosons.”

    THE FINAL REJECT, N0. 3.

    “We are grateful for the opportunity to read and consider your revised work. We very much regret that we are not able to carry it in the magazine. We do, however, look forward to reading more when the time comes.” Signed with the names of both the editor and her/his assistant.

    THE UPSHOT

    The poem has now moved on from Botero and Galileo to become “GRAVITY’S RAINBOW: Sunday in the park with Sir Stanley,”.

    One of the great visionary painters of the modern era, Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) lived his whole life in the small village of Cookham on the River Thames, and celebrated it by meticulously painting every brick, weed, flower and wrinkle in it, proper and improper, right up to the day of his death. Nothing was too base, common, misshapen or uproarious for him not to wonder at and rejoice in.

    I should mention as well that in my Central Park days in the ’80s I had the great good fortune to see the original version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” on Broadway with Mandy Patinkin and Roberta Peters (1985). The fact that I remember the experience vividly enough to anchor a poem like this in its magic will tell you how powerful its effect was on me.

    Finally, “GRAVITY’S RAINBOW: Sunday in the park with Sir Stanley” has become a sort of touchstone in the last section of an unpublished book of mine called GALILEO’S SECRET: Two Decades of Poems under House Arrest. The poem’s earlier title, “In Praise of the Still Unweighed,” has now been transferred to the first poem in the book.

    More anon for sure — and please do leave any thoughts you may have in the Comments.

    Christopher

  2. December 5, 2019 at 11:32 am

    Dear Friends,………………………………………….December 5th, 2019

    Here’s something else I believe: any artifact that gets truly finished and then left alone in a still place on its side, preferably in a darkened place and at a moderate temperature, coddled appropriately from time to time, of course, held up to the light by the eternally expectant vintner — that, I believe, is an important way in which a poem too can mature, as has this one.

    So back to that question: what’s to be done 2 days before my 80th birthday?

    ……..I’ve left a lot out — maybe I’ll say it better tomorrow.

    ………..

    THREE DAYS LATER: …………………………….December 8th, 2019

    Let me just add this the day after my 80th birthday, and of course it’s still off-the-record:

    I published my first real poem at the age of 52. It was 1992 and “Connemara Trousers” was plucked out of thin air by Marilyn Hacker for The Kenyon Review, of all people and places, praise God. And then my tiny mouse-hole of a door in the midnight kitchen of poetry opened for business, and over the next 15 years my poems found their way into some of the best journals in America. Right at the end of this period there was an even more important intervention: , “He Mistakes Her Kingdom for a Horse” was not only published in The Beloit Poetry Journal but nominated for a Pushcart Prize by its equally fierce, equally demanding and independent editor, Lee Sharkey. (Praise God, I say again, swept up as I am in my Cookham/birthday fever!).

    That marvelous moment was in 2010 and I was just discovering the Web, at 70! As it turned out that was a very mixed blessing for someone who had so little sense of his ‘place’ with regard to the poetry profession in America, but who knew? I had lived in Chiang Mai ever since 1994, knew no poets, had never been in a Writing Workshop, had no MFA, had never stood up at a Poetry Reading, and had never once met an Editor live since the early ’60s, or at least I probably did, somewhere. So it was in all innocence that I posted my personal accounts of the trials and tribulations of an unattached poet trying to get published in America in the early 21st century, and it was pretty terrible. Needless to say, I soon found ‘FOETRY’ which seemed to be the only on-line community aware of what I was going through, and I put in my 2 cents there with colorful results, you can imagine — and I put in a few more cents on the hottest Poetry Forums at the time as well, pw.org, poets.org, blog.harriet.org, etc.etc., can’t even remember their monikers anymore. I don’t know what happened after that as I almost never go on-line as a poet anymore but stay right here at home quietly working.

    In the end I got very seriously scolded in a very Public Place by a very well-known Critic for showing “a wilful misunderstanding of the process of editing and publishing poetry” — which I’m sure I did. And there was no doubt that the Editor of that Very Public Place thought I did too as she/he refused to publish my appropriate and well-documented reply to the Critic. And the fact is that as time goes by I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that many of the professionals in the American poetry community at the time agreed with that Head Editor’s decision because, in the 10 years ensuing, not one of my poems has ever found a place in a journal or magazine again, and my three books remain to this day unpublished. Indeed, the last poem I ever published was the one nominated for a Pushcart Prize back in 2010.

    Just a few months ago I thought my break had come at last when I was informed by the Editor of a press that Galileo’s Secret had been selected as a Finalist in one of those competitions where a small group of submissions is put aside for a Final Judge. A day later I received a second e-mail from the same Editor telling me there had been a little glitch and my name wasn’t supposed to have been on the list of Finalists at all. So sorry, our bad…

    ………………

    But still I say “Honte, honte, honte” — mainly for me for saying it at all but also for those who put me in the position where I felt I had to.

    (“Honte” means “shame” in English — which is what Brother Raymond used to say under his breath. He was a Spanish Franciscan in civies who dedicated his whole life to helping displaced Africans in a tiny, makeshift office in Paris, yet never felt he was doing enough.)

    And the same goes for me with sorries — if I owe apologies I’m sure I do, and do all the time.

    Christopher

  3. December 8, 2019 at 1:23 pm

    ON THE OTHER HAND
    …………………………………………………………….December 8th, 2015
    “The poetry of a failed artist is very similar to the art of an artist whose name is unknown because the artist has never had anyone admire what he or she does as a person. On the other hand, it is equally true of the artist who is unknown because he or she never thought to sign a name to a manuscript, canvas, or piece of handiwork. Needless to say, the latter category includes the vast majority of artists who have ever lived, including most of the greatest producing most of the world’s greatest art from Sulawesi to Lascaux, Benin, Lindisfarne, Istanbul, Cape Dorset and Alice Springs.

    “I fall into the failed category because my name is unknown, and as such my index remains blank. That’s why I can quote myself as often as I like without compromising my reputation or confusing my audience, and also why I can talk so freely about my own work. Because if you don’t have a reputation you don’t have to worry about losing it because nobody knows what you’ve written what is more where you might have left it lying about, or whether indeed it ever got finished. Because an unprinted poem remains a codex, and in time, as with so many of mine, becomes a veritable palimpsest.

    “As for example the following poem. Where does it fit into my story, or yours, or anybody else’s?”

    ………………
    ……………………WHY WE CAN’T LOVE YOU

    ……………………….Our balkaned country’s

    ……………………….not so quick as your

    ……………………….kitchen-garden kingdom.

    ……………………….The escarpments rise too

    ……………………….precipitously white

    ……………………….and difficult

    ……………………….for courtship unfamiliar

    ……………………….with the dry-stone divinations

    ……………………….cast in fields logic can’t plough

    ……………………….or lessons harvest.

    ……………………….Don’t be astonished that

    ……………………….your green hips and poppy

    ……………………….stained embankments

    ……………………….can’t distract us from our grief—

    ……………………….it’s the scent of the tight fruit

    ……………………….of old trees and lost hedgerows

    ……………………….makes us wild

    ……………………….for dark restless brides

    ……………………….with high-arched country feet.

    ……………………….If we sit down and weep

    ……………………….beside your still waters with you

    ……………………….we will never quench our

    ……………………….thirst for those lean,

    ……………………….burn and briar spun limbs

    ……………………….that leap

    ……………………….the starveling falls

    ……………………….and make the last return

    ……………………….the furious bridegroom’s best—

    ……………………….the saintly salmon’s honeymoon

    ……………………….our bliss—

    ……………………….the blood-streaked spawn,

    ……………………….the long white body’s gentle rest.

    ………………………………………………~

    My favorite landscape in the world, the most lyrical, the most melancholy, filled with the most longing, loneliness and sometimes horror. And of course the most beauty.

    “Dumfriesshire with its burns, wrecked hills, huge sky, treacherous black bogs, and heather.

    “There was a geo-survey station situated near where I lived in the hills above Eskdalemuir because it was the most remote from artificial vibrations of any place in the whole of the U.K. Then Flight 103 came down in Lockerbie — that was where my nearest shop was located, 18 miles from my house by a single-lane, unfenced road. At the time there were sheep lying all over it.

    “Of course it could also have been the Hebrides, Donegal or Connemara. Or Innishmore even.
    ………………………………………………~

    “Meanwhile, the shepherd children ‘guddled’ for salmon with their bare hands under the banks of the little stream that ran near my house, and the family ate them to be sure, ragged as were both the salmon and the children. There were 16 MacTaggarts but only 5 beds in the bothy where they slept. I saw them and I counted and held my breath.
    ………………………………………………~

    “‘Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.’ Philip Larkin”

    Christopher. ………………………………………………December 8th, 2019,

  4. December 10, 2019 at 9:06 am

    UNDER HOUSE ARREST

    I’ve been writing all this under the shadow of Hilary Mantel’s harrowing A Place of Greater Safety, harrowing because it applies as much to the French Revolution as to what’s going on in America, Britain and France at this very moment. ‘Harrowing’ is literally the breaking up of a plowed field in preparation for a fresh new planting. Any chance that anything new or fresh is ever going to emerge out of the shambles (a slaughterhouse, don’t forget) of modern liberal politics from 1789 to 2019?

    Thoughts like this are crippling me.

    Then, just as my 80th birthday was approaching, I found myself reading Brenda Maddox’s Yeat’s Ghosts, which is not so much “the Secret Life of W.B.Yeats” as a detailed exploration of how a foolishly self-centered life generated so much profound, uplifting and uniquely beautiful poetry — a master of the sleight of hand, Yeats transformed his doubt, dread and melancholia into “hammered gold and gold enamelling/To keep a drowsy Emperor awake.” Brilliant imagery, but is that the life we want to live?

    “You were silly like us,” is how W.H.Auden put it in his tender eulogy, “In Memory of W.B.Years,” even as he added the famous correction: “your gift survived it all:/ The parish of rich women, physical decay,/ Yourself…” And I look at Auden’s ashtray face and ask myself, how do any of us manage it?

    And now at 80 I’m deep into Jay Parini’s Robert Frost, and a measure of that biography’s importance is the fact that the title was still available for this umpteenth effort to write the life of a very great poet who was also a very difficult man — indeed, in my estimation Robert Frost is second only to Emily Dickinson for both greatness and difficulty among American poets, and I mean on both the level of meaning and the level of conduct.

    “I almost used the word ‘meanness’ in place of ‘conduct’ there, i.e. “on the level of meaning and the level of meanness”, but that wouldn’t have worked for Emily Dickinson who was always kind and shut herself away only because she was far too available. ‘Conduct,’ on the other hand, is fine for both Frost and Dickinson because it refers to how we lend ourselves to others, how we lead ourselves together with everybody else.

    In our very English usage, ‘conduct’ is habitually welded to the modifier ‘bad,’ and in that sense it separates us from others. But it doesn’t have to — as in “Mending Wall,” for example, which is a beautiful example of Robert Frost’s ‘difficulty’ both as person and as poet as it never stays still what is more delivers a clear position or judgement. So too in Emily Dickinson’s case, hiding behind the door can be just another way of opening it even wider, can’t it? Couldn’t it have been her special way of giving herself more deeply?

    In relation to all these conundrums I’d like to add a bit more about my own work, and specifically about how my great men and women all have feet as heavy with clay as Sir Stanley Spencer’s. One of the heroes of La Croix Ma Fille is T.E.Lawrence, for example, that larger than life linguist, archaeologist, and military hero who was so overwhelmed by his sense of personal pollution and fraudulence that he cashiered himself, and to be sure lived his last years with no bed or services and had himself regularly beaten. In La Croix Ma Fille Lawrence is placed side by side with the libidinous Prophet Samson who is described as a foolish boy-soldier of God who pulls it all down about his ears, and ends up killing more people than even before! And Emily Dickinson is there too, don’t worry, as she’s almost the definition of my “heroes like heroines” — she’s obviously proud of her own clay feet and can compete with any of them on the garden level, even Robert Frost! In the poem called “Yet Still It Moves” in Galileo’s Secret, she’s upstairs alone with a gun stitching books together that nobody will ever read — at least not yet, though the careful stitching indicates she knows they will be read eventually, a triumph of failure indeed! She even becomes Galileo’s daughter in the poem — looking through her father’s telescope she sees the earth below not as in a marginal orbit around the sun but as Heaven, and by Heaven she means the real garden just under her window, freshly dug, sensuous, breathing. And she’s rocking like a boat in the arms of her lover.

    But wait, I forgot him entirely, Galileo Galilei himself. An extravagantly public genius, he was forced very much against his will to live in private for the last 8 years of his life, a hermit in his own small garden with no telescope, court or pen to distract him. And my question is, what did Galileo do there? Because it’s inconceivable to me that a man of such extraordinary gifts and energy would not have continued his researches even with his eyes closed — and I mean specifically with his eyes tight shut like the crazy alchemist in his oven.

    ……………………“Yet still it moves!” the old beard raves,
    ……………………the moon girdling a softer quarter—
    ……………………the impossible return,
    ……………………ocean fins quickening the landlocked water.

    ……………………………………..from GALILEO’S SECRET, Two Decades of Poems
    ………………………………………………………..under House Arrest

    ………….

    AND THAT, I THINK, IS AS FAR AS I WANT TO GO IN THIS ONE.

    C.

  5. Dawn Potter said,

    December 14, 2019 at 11:23 pm

    Sending birthday wishes, Christopher! I haven’t read the Mantel book you mention, but I did read Wolf Hall and its sequel and found them harrowing as well. Re the word “conduct”: I also think of “safe conduct,” and of course all of the electricity metaphors. It’s a good word for the ambiguities of Dickinson and Frost.

  6. December 15, 2019 at 9:15 am

    Thanks for that, Dawn.

    There have been many times in this thread that I have remembered your earlier interventions, which have always lifted me up a notch. I think the very end of the “conduct” paragraph just above was probably the high point in this discussion, and you lifted it higher still.

    ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ was Hilary Mantel’s first major novel and is not nearly so well known as ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up the Bodies,’ though it deserves to be. What is so striking about ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ is how it dissects character in preparation for a deeper understanding of how the major actors involved in the 1793-4 ‘Terror’ out-shouted each other and, in the end, murdered each other down to the last man (and woman!). I felt I was watching exactly the same perverse tragedy unfold in the House Hearings last week and wouldn’t be at all surprised if the U.S. ended up with its own Napoleon. That won’t be Donald Trump, I feel sure of that, but it’s very likely to be someone who rescues us from Donald Trump in order to put our house back in order. And that’s a chilling thought if ever there was one.

    C.

  7. December 16, 2019 at 8:18 pm

    Forgive me one bit more:

    There are many loose ends in what I say above, and when I say, “That is as far as I want to go in this one,” I’m very aware of the many questions I leave unanswered. Among them is one in particular. A reader who doesn’t know my work might conclude that I don’t respect those great men and women with conspicuous feet of clay who appear in my books, whereas I love them as fiercely as Jonathan Swift loved “John, Peter, Thomas and so forth” — everybody knows that passage in the famous 1725 letter to Alexander Pope, and Jay Parini uses it beautifully in relation to Frost (p.264 in my 1999 First Edition of Robert Frost).

    Leaving Samson aside, who is a dimension and not a real person, I have no greater love and respect for any human beings than I do for Sir Stanley Spencer, W.B.Yeats, Robert Frost, T.E.Lawrence, and Emily Dickinson, in that order only because that is the order in which I have presented them. Indeed, they are my closest companions, role models, priests, comforters and guardians, and I say it is precisely the weight of their feet of clay that allows them to lift their heads so high in my personal pantheon. But it’s a death defyingly high altitude…

    Here’s what W.H. Auden says about Yeats’ silliness — I should have quoted the whole passage because even if you know it it can speak to you again still higher if you’ve got the feet for it on a particular day along with the head and the lungs. There’s not a lot of air to breathe up there and it’s slippery, and there’s even less space for forgiveness as even the very greatest rock-climber falls as has just happened, and the greatest poet’s face crumples.
    ……..

    …………….You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
    …………….The parish of rich women, physical decay,
    …………….Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
    …………….Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
    …………….For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
    …………….In the valley of its making where executives
    …………….Would never want to tamper, flows on south
    …………….From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
    …………….Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
    …………….A way of happening, a mouth.
    ……….

    Christopher

  8. December 17, 2019 at 10:39 am

    …………………………………………………………“…IT SURVIVES,
    …………………A WAY OF HAPPENING, A MOUTH.”

    …………

    …………….Sonya & Lev Tolstoy

    Sonya and Lev Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana just a year before the events of The Last Station. (Jay Parini wrote the novel even as he was working on his biography of Robert Frost. The screen play was some years later.)

    I have a very hard time deciding which of these two great souls, Sonya Andreevna or her husband Lev Tolstoy, I trust more what is more which of them I love more to distraction. Also which of them is to be held more culpable in their blunderings, both public and private, or which of them were at the time and still are more beautiful.

    On the other hand, I wouldn’t call most of the Tolstoys’ blunderings “silly” — that was W.H.Auden’s particular word for W.B.Yeats’ charades and extravagances, and lends a particular poignancy to his tribute. W.H.Auden also knew a great deal about ‘silliness’ himself, of course, and I find that very moving too. It’s an altogether extraordinary poem, among the best Auden ever wrote.

    I think wanting so badly to be a Master Hierophant as Yeats did all his life, i.e. able to do ‘true’ magic and see ‘real’ visions, is the problem — if you were a visionary quite naturally like George Herbert or Henry Vaughn, for example, or even greater ones like William Blake and Emily Dickinson, and Stanley Spenser too, the question of where it all comes from what is more if it really exists is irrelevant simply because it’s so urgently present. As far as the Yeats marriage is concerned, it’s difficult to say who faked it more in creating A Vision, the restless poet or his very gifted young bride starting right from the seances they staged together in bed at The Ashdown Forest Hotel and on through all those pregnancies.

    In many ways George was streets ahead of Willie in recognizing that it really doesn’t matter, ‘Realist’ or Idealist’ or whatever, because such things are equally true, either way, when you reach that level of utterance (…”it survives, a way of happening, a mouth.“). Although her husband may have been the little boy who was on his honor never to abandon the tooth fairy of his childhood, and though that may have stunted him in his personal development, as the great W.B.Yeats he survived and transports us still, indeed has become a modern Old World Oracle and Mage of the highest Order (one of his own tooth fairy words!). And Georgie knew that paradox, indeed she knew more about it than he did.

    Christopher

  9. December 20, 2019 at 3:18 am

    BACKING OUT OF ALL THIS NOW

    Yes, Georgie Yeats knew that about her husband, and almost certainly so did Elinor Frost about hers — there’s much less to go on with her as she didn’t have a Richard Ellmann to pass it on, and there are so few letters. I’d also say the Yankee farmer-poet probably knew more about himself than the Irish bard did, and how Frost did suffer for who he was, those endless winters of inward ice and drought — it’s with great care and compassion that Jay Parini covers the weeks and weeks Frost spent in bed with a whole litany of vague illnesses. Though it’s not easy to express that sort of inchoate suffering in poetry, it is almost always there somewhere in Robert Frost, and lies at the heart of some of his greatest poems including the simple lyric-masterpiece, “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It’s the hidden, inarticulate question mark that lies buried under the wisdom that makes Robert Frost so great and so difficult at the same time. It’s his own special element, a very particular stratum of undefined, sunless clay — and that doesn’t mean dirty top-soil for growth either, nor the usefully dirty compost of “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” It’s deeper and more base than that.

    For me there is one particular moment that reveals this most deeply, and links back to what I was trying to say about Yeats and his occult obsessions as well. It happens right at the very end of “Directive,” Frost’s deepest, saddest, most ‘difficult’ poem, the moment when the narrator says something under his breath, sotto voce, we sometimes call it — it’s in parentheses because we’re being asked to hear something not only very difficult to say but that shouldn’t be said at all, and that shouldn’t be overheard either:

    ………………..(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)

    And at that terrible moment the poet or the poem, it’s hard to say which, finds the courage and the genius to continue with the barest, most unforgiving parody of Robert Frost!

    ………………..Here are your waters and your watering place.
    ………………..Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

    Being able to write as simply and beautifully as he did could also come at great personal cost to Robert Frost, because his subtle, finely modulated tone could also express things on its own quite independent of the words. In this case it’s as if they whispered, “The maker is a failure — he has failed precisely in what he has been preaching to everybody else all his life!”

    The proof of that sort of failure lies in just two lines, and you have to read them with great sensitivity, indeed with what Frost called the “sound of sense.” In “The Road Less Travelled,” for example, the last foot in the poem has two weak syllables that function as a dactyl instead of an iamb: “And that has made all the dif-fer-ence“. The cascade of unaccented syllables falter/ fail/ fall off the edge of the poem in a collapse that changes the whole dynamic of its meaning. In the same way, the sloppy meter in the last line of “Directive” exposes the narrator’s lack of conviction. The two heavily accented (directive!) first feet, “Here” and “Drink,” slip inexorably into the metrical wreck of the final line, coming to a stand-still in the trochee with its weak extra syllable, “con-fus-ion.” Indeed, the weakness at the end deflates the master craftsman himself this time, and in so doing creates something very different from the poem one thought one was reading.

    (I have the feeling that’s how Frost knew a poem was finished, when it could talk back to him like that. That’s why so many of his poems took so long to write — some of the best took 10 or more years to say what they meant!)

    “Directive’ is brilliant as a poem but not easy for a reader to follow through to the end. One has first to pick one’s way through a whole network of complex images as if they were signposts in an ancient underground labyrinth, and then suddenly, inexplicably one is hit with an inscrutable, childish twist that’s even deeper than that. At the start the poem seemed to be a serious attempt to show us everything we need to know about where the truth lies and how to get there, almost as if it were an initiate’s blueprint for self-realization or an occultist’s playbook. And then the last word suddenly blurts out like the Wizard of Oz, “Sorry, there’s nothing here but me.”

    And what do we do about that but start all over again exactly as the poet says at the very beginning:

    ………………..Back out of all this now too much for us.

    ………………………….* * *

    ………………..
    Which is precisely what Robert Frost does with the visionary, alchemical, mythic and Romance elements in the poem, and which Yeats would never have thought to question, he was so engaged in his esoteric pose. I think what might have triggered Frost’s sudden decision to abandon “Directive” was his shock at discovering how successful he could be at writing such stuff. Not only was the poem completely different from anything he had ever tried before, it was so powerful that he was swept up in it himself, I’m sure he was. And he might have worried that his readers would think he was going a bit soft in the head, fancying himself as some sort of Druid or Oracle that could conjure up ancient Spirits, like Yeats — which in fact was just what he was doing. And then the strength of the poem itself came up with the genius idea to say that he had stolen the goblet from the children’s playhouse, not found the Grail. Why any old poet could do that, says the poem — and he had!

    I think that “Directive” is one of Frost’s poems which is actually about writing poetry — an element of Frost’s work very much emphasized by Jay Parini. On the other hand, I feel Jay Parini reads the “directives” in the poem too literally, and I find that surprising. ‘Spiritual truths’ are always hedged about with impediments, of course, and challenging ‘scripture,’ in this case lines by the great and wise poet, Robert Frost, as well as words from The Bible, is always going to be difficult. Sometimes we feel we have to honor and believe what the master says even if we don’t — which is what the poem may be about as well.

    This is hard for me too, as it is for any man or woman with a poetic conscience — and I certainly do love this poem, indeed am mesmerized by it. We also know that Robert Frost was capable of exploring deep matters as well as any visionary, and also that in his poetry he rarely pretends. And of course we also know that his verse is perfectly capable of looking after him itself — as it has here.

    The crowning irony of the poem is that the “directives” are both profundities and diddles at the same time — which is not uncommon in Frost, and one of the reasons we so enjoy reading him. We never quite know what he’s saying what is more what position he’s taking, and that leaves plenty of room for us to figure it out for ourselves.

    The famous poem is called “Mending Wall” not “Mending Walls,” for example. It’s about a wall that mends, not about mending the wall itself, and as we all know such mending can also be mendacious. The remarkable thing about Robert Frost is that even when a poem is equivocating, if we hang in there long enough, as he did, sometimes for years and years before finally finishing and then publishing it, the poem will almost always let the truth slip out however disappointing or even bitter it may be. And that’s Robert Frost’s truly extraordinary gift to us all!

    ………………..
    ………………..FINISHED AT LAST.
    ………………………………Christopher, December 28th, 2019

  10. Dawn Potter said,

    December 22, 2019 at 9:43 pm

    I do believe wholeheartedly in this quotation from Frost’s notebooks: that “poetry has a vested interest in sorrow.” And his own poems are a prime example of that truth.

  11. December 23, 2019 at 7:53 am

    And having had 80 years to pour over the notebook of life, I can tell you it too has a vested interest in sorrow, but the chthonic depths of it are also the clay from which all joy and freedom spring, and all art is moulded.

    Thank you for being there, dear friend Dawn with the beautiful name.

    Be well.

    C.

  12. December 25, 2019 at 9:47 am

    A HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT

    The following poem, which comes right after “Gravity’s Rainbow” in GALILEO’S SECRET, is dedicated to my great-hearted friend, Ed Rose, whom I sorely miss and particularly on Christmas Day 10 years after his death. 80 years old and ravaged by cancer, he still managed to ride his bicycle to my house for breakfast in Chiang Mai at least once a week — the “five full spoonfuls in” refers to how he liked his tea, and the model airplane on a string was hanging over his bed when he got home.
    ………….

    ……………….WHAT GREAT SOULS TEACH
    …………………………………………..for Ed Rose (1931-2010)

    ……………………What great souls teach, like clowns, is how
    ……………………to play between the teeth—

    ……………………curling back the lip to make our wilderness
    ……………………of canine strife a slapstick stage,

    ……………………delight in the happy snarl or stunt-man’s bite
    ……………………that doesn’t hurt or back away

    ……………………but makes us happen, open-up,
    ……………………show-and-tell, not fight —

    ……………………make friends with the tiger in our bed
    ……………………like in the comic strip,

    ……………………or in the dark forest on an endless,
    ……………………stateless night be not afraid

    ……………………to hum along with Pooh, our footsteps
    ……………………in the snow that brave and sure—

    ……………………all those buried hurts and sleights exposed
    ……………………as on a wondrous apron-stage,

    ……………………tragedies that when the lights come up
    ……………………we see as in a children’s book —
    ……………………how Hobbes is sage!
    ……….

    ……………………We’re wiser when the tiger’s grin is fun,
    ……………………readier to see our own so played,

    ……………………the silly files we keep, the scissors, white-out,
    ……………………glue and paste and all that hype,

    ……………………our cut-off sleeves rolled even further up to show
    ……………………our abs in party hats on mountain bikes—

    ……………………a whole ditzy-blitz of cartoon pens to sign
    ……………………our Private Treaties into Universal Law,

    ……………………even a Sunday Armistice that puts
    ……………………an end at last to War,

    ……………………an end to what’s untoward in us,
    ……………………what’s brute, or daft,

    ……………………even the need always to do our best
    ……………………absolved in one big laugh —

    ……………………and then the applause, some pretzels
    ……………………and the magisterial guided tour,

    ……………………a model airplane hanging on a string
    ……………………and a cup of tea with five
    ……………………full spoonfuls in.

    …………………………………………..from GALILEO’S SECRET, Two Decades of Poems
    ………………………………………………………..under House Arrest

    Ed Rose, another Dartmouth boy, came to Asia initially as a doctoral student from Stanford already proficient in Mandarin, worked on Land Reform as a non-combatant in Vietnam, and was one of the last Americans off the Saigon rooftop in April 1975. A mathematician, consummate linguist, and social facilitator, he assisted the U.S. Government in processing Vietnamese refugees in Bangkok, married his Thai teacher, Kuhn Malee, and eventually settled in Chiang Mai in 1984 to teach English at Chiang Mai University while breeding Siamese cats. In the last 10 years of his life he battled cancer dressed sometimes as a patient, sometimes as Santa Claus, sometimes in lycra as a bicycle racer, and the rest of the time as a clown. He died on August 11th, 2010 in the McKean Hospital, an old Christian leprosy mission on the banks of the Ping River, and was cremated in a Buddhist rite along with his personal belongings, his pads, pens and all consumed in the fire. Not a tear was shed, and nobody looked back – the fondest farewell in these parts ensures that nothing returns to complicate the lives of those who continue to live as if they were in it.

    He made the day of everybody he met, never gave up, and never went home.

  13. December 30, 2019 at 10:23 pm

    AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU TOO, or ALMOST.

    I had a very bad experience with a poem of mine on this site a few years ago, indeed an experience that discouraged me more as a poet than anything that had happened during the decades I had spent under house arrest. In addition the experience destroyed my relationship with two people I loved such a lot, one that I had known for over 30 years and the other, though I’d never met him or her in person, had had enough confidence in me to ask for my advice on quite a complex new writing project. I had never been asked to do something like that before as I had never lived in a community of writers what is more had experience as an editor, and you can bet how I gave it my best.

    At this point in time I’m pleased to be able to say that, after years of cold-shouldering the friend I knew personally, and I mean not even answering letters for years or even picking up the phone, we are now back to a warm and very positive friendship — praise God. The other, the one I’ve never met in person, I have reason to believe still has some regard for me too, having posted a perfect poem as a gift quite recently, possibly for me — and I praise God for that possible blessing too.

    And by the way, you ought to know that I’m not a theist but still praise God every day anyway, and I’ve never stopped searching for the Grail — a bit like Robert Frost in “Directive” and in many other poems as well, and which is also what I call in my book “Galileo’s secret.”

    If you’ve read this thread carefully you will have understood why the first poem is now called “In Praise of the Still Unweighed” — you may remember that was the title of the earlier draft of my poem, “Gravity’s Rainbow: a Sunday in the Park with Sir Stanley,” at the time when it was first sent out to a magazine so full of weight no editor could touch what is more heft it. And you may also remember that “In Praise of the Still Unweighed” has now become the title of the first poem in Galileo’s Secret: Two Decades of Poems Under House Arrest.”

    But would that be enough? Does the initial poem prepare sufficiently for the themes I’ve been exploring on this thread since November 25th, and which, of course, so overwhelmed me on my birthday that I could only leave a cursory apology two days late? And in between, just con-fus-ion: clay feet descending, silliness ascending, toys, ovens, ducks, laundry and redemption. So what could pull all that together?

    Maybe it could be this, the very first poem itself having accepted a place of greater safety this time, I hope, and more mature after such a long sojourn in the cellar. And I want to assure you that “In Praise of the Still Unweighed” has had no additions, extractions, or agitations since it was corked and finally laid down in the basement almost 5 years ago, and that its claims to quality are firmly based on its age, its patience, and of course the provenance on its label.
    .

    …………………IN PRAISE OF THE STILL UNWEIGHED

    ………………………O, how wrong you celestial bridegroom
    ………………………birds and gatecrashers have it
    ………………………stripping off the dark, secret wraps
    ………………………that lighten length and breadth
    ………………………and scenery on earth—
    ………………………the furtive root grabs downward
    ………………………only because great tentacles of hot
    ………………………rival might lift our silt-lapped
    ………………………limbs much harder still,
    ………………………like sunlight
    ………………………prying up the whole orchard’s sap.

    ………………………No, the weight of things is just
    ………………………another flight,
    ………………………like Leda’s modest thighs
    ………………………giving plain wings the chance
    ………………………to sanctify earth’s godliest yearnings.

    ………………………As the arrow by the playful string
    ………………………the heady soul is ever fired by
    ………………………the archly absent body—
    ………………………draped arabesques of trembling skin
    ………………………and shining pubis so defying gravity
    ………………………even the most upright Jove
    ………………………or holy Galileo
    ………………………bearded like our father’s angel
    ………………………tumbles to the maiden yet again,
    ………………………so hotly does the dreaming quiver
    ………………………fletched in abstract plumage
    ………………………hunger
    ………………………even for a single pomegranate kiss
    ………………………that scatters weight
    ………………………like rubies.

    …………………………………………..from GALILEO’S SECRET, Two Decades of
    ………………………………………………………..Poems under House Arrest

    ……………………
    Christopher

  14. December 31, 2019 at 10:58 am

    For my friend, my window tree.
    …….
    ………..“Nature is a Haunted House – but Art – a House
    ……………….that tries to be haunted.”

    ………………………………………Emily Dickinson, quoted by Thomas Wentworth
    ………………………………………Higginson in a letter to his wife (1870)

    …….
    My Window 450
    …………………………………..(click thrice to haunt it.)
    …….

    ……………………..That day she put our heads together,
    ……………………..Fate had her imagination about her,
    ……………………..Your head so much concerned with outer,
    ……………………..Mine with inner, weather.
    ……………………………………………Robert Frost, from Tree At My Window

    • January 15, 2020 at 11:50 pm

      A simple photograph that brings back memories of Thailand…
      While I read through your posts, Im sitting curled up with a cup of coffee, on a morning where no one can work because the temperatures outside are below -50C. And then this photograph, reminds me of the warmth of the sun in another part of the world.

      Thank you for your poetry, a wonderful way to spend this cold Canadian morning.

  15. January 2, 2020 at 6:04 am

    AND WHAT THEN NOW AGAIN?
    ……………………………………………………January 15, 2016 > January 5, 2020

    I love Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Five Flights Up,” and not because it’s such a great poem either, which it isn’t. It’s because I know it so well, as if I’d written it myself, as if it were part of my life story too as it’s so obviously part of hers. And it’s the troubled part of the poem that I so cherish, not the craft (indeed, I don’t think it’s even that well-written. It’s sort of amateurish, isn’t it, as if Robert Creeley had written it, or me?)

    My friend never wants to admit that anything she writes is part of her. She wants her poems, her images and her voices even to be anonymous, and perfect — which I’d say really good writing rarely is, I mean even the best-lived life is so messy! Really good writing always betrays the writer and, if it’s really, really good, betrays the reader as well. Indeed, it should make us blush as if Crazy Jane had written it, not the Bishop. It should make us crazy like Hamlet, or weep our eyes out, fall in love with, and then bow down before Jane Eyre. Or Robert Frost at the end of his deepest poem by far, and least successful, “Directive.”

    ………………………………………………~

    Comments like these are for me like the cracks between the thoughts I was talking about at the end of my previous post in January 2016, each breath betraying my assumptions about safety and permanence, cutting the ground from under my clumsy, irreverent feet. And then I fall or fly or flicker, and I don’t care much which, or stomp off in disgust as I did with this whole essai two days ago (it lay deleted in my 2020 trash for 48 hours). But it’s good today, shorter, less nostalgic, less self-serving. So I’ve restored it just as it has restored me.

    Thanks for listening, and thanks above all to my friend, who haunts me. Indeed to all my best friends who are still listening.

    Christopher

  16. January 6, 2020 at 5:40 am

    THE COSMOS THROUGH THE CRACK IN HER DOOR

    The next poem in Galileo’s Secret after “In Praise of the Still Unweighed” is “Leda Takes Another Lover” — many of you will already know it as it found its final form over 10 years ago. In fact the drafts go back 28 years, some of the very earliest versions of which can be found in French somewhere on this site — which should delight that graduate student drinking his latte at Starbucks on the 1st page above and getting ready to do me. It’s at the heart of my restitutions on this thread as well, so here we go!

    The title proposition, “Leda takes another lover,” is as preposterous as playing hide and seek with a very young child when all you have to do to hide yourself is just close your own eyes. And needless to say, for Galileo to have performed that sort of experiment at La Gioiella would have required no lab or compromising optical equipment. So why do you think he wouldn’t have tried that out like any other dying old man at the end of his time?

    The girl in the poem plays the same trick on her lover. Like the literal configuration of her own sex, the fact that the girl’s ‘not there’ is what makes her so fatally present and desirable. Her emptiness is what draws the lover to her as fatally as a moth is drawn to light or a poet by the ravishing scent of lavender in the darkness (is there any smell more there?). Or, as I suggested just above, Emily Dickinson with her door opened just a crack.

    When the girl raises her arms to test him she becomes Daphne too, and her body an orchard with pears the sun has been around all day — pears in this case because of their shape, the color of their flesh, their scent, sweetness and texture. Apollo hangs out with the girl all day too, of course he does, but he also circles round her like a predator around his prey — or a poet trying to find just those 3 right words. That’s why there are just 3 pears, because the girl’s so specific in this game, what she does with her arms by raising them, for example, or the precise place where they join her sides, or it could be her legs, or the flexing of her arches — and everybody knows that the number three creates what navigators call ‘a Fix,’ which is how we know we’re there at sea. Three means there for sure as opposed to two which means ‘maybe’ – and what an irony that ‘not there’ should become ‘right here’ in the poem, as if we haven’t had to deal with that sort of conundrum in our own time in the ‘poetry’ of Niels Bohr and Werner Heissenberg!

    The dialogue part in the middle of the poem is delicious like Degas at the theatre or circus, all those ungrammatically attached feminine bits and pieces poised between the arms and the legs giggling and nervous in the wings before the curtain goes up, and then, while it’s coming down, dreaming of being taken out in a carriage by a man in a top silk hat and white gloves to the Vendome for champagne, and her arms raised high above the adoring crowd: “Encore! Encore!”.

    Which is how Leda takes another lover. But it’s also how, in both Physics and Philosophy, the irresistible desire of Being is to find its place at last in Non-Being, Infinity or even Emptiness as it’s sometimes called, whether masquerading as  a Singularity, a Black Hole, a Boson or yet another Big Bang at the very edge of our already wonky enough, dactylic universe — our own cosmos just a bubble popping up like a small Russian doll inside of an infinitely large, infinitely layered Nowhere. Weight, presence, time and position, those are the sort of riddles that would have gripped a mind like Galileo’s in exile, even way back then they would have, I feel sure. And he would have connected them not only to the disconnect between the theological and the physical position of the earth but, as I put it in the poem, to “the archly absent body” that so vexes the mind of God the Father in the Christian version of History. Indeed, that’s why I gave you the text of “In Praise of the Still Unweighed” to read yet again, particularly as it’s now wrapped up in its final white linen and just lying there waiting…

    “Leda Takes Another Lover” is the second poem in the book and comes just before the celestial rapture or ‘guddling’ at the very end of the third called “By the Waters of Babylon” (there’s an explanation of ‘guddling’ at the very end of the notes following “Why We Can’t Love You,” my day-after poem above on December 8th, 2019.)

    Christopher

    NOTE ADDED: If you weren’t able to find “Leda Takes Another Lover” and want to read it, you can click HERE — it’s a bit of fluff, really, and not worth losing much sleep over. But it’s fun all the same because it’s so light and erotic, and I can still get really high on it as I have been in re-writing these little variations on its themes at 4am in Chiang Mai this morning — and indeed as it can make my day almost any day of the week!

  17. January 6, 2020 at 10:20 pm

    Dear friends, ……………………….January 27th, 2014 & January 6th, 2020

    I’m no longer bothered by what happened here in January 2014, and my goodness, there have certainly been artists that have not only been mocked as I was then but never given a chance to be heard at all, even this much. And I’m happy I’ve found a way to make it up with you too, at least maybe I have.

    But I’m still entirely unknown, and it’s very unlikely I will ever have a stranger choose one of my three books off a shelf somewhere and then read it attentively at home, cover to cover — I haven’t had that yet as none of my books have been bound so they could actually be ranged on shelves. On the other hand, I’m convinced some of my poems make as cogent an appeal to the mind in the heart as “Directive” does, for example. I wouldn’t say “Directive” was a particularly difficult poem either, not really — difficult in some of the ‘directives,’ the signposts and markers, just as mine are, but once you’ve got your feet on the path it’s pretty straightforward. I’d also agree that “Directive’s” directions are over-the-top at times, embarrassing even, as mine can certainly be, and sometimes I secretly wish Robert Frost hadn’t decided to go public with it at all, it’s so personal, raw and unguarded. On the other hand, I’ve rarely met a poem that so connects with me personally, and I’d call it one of the most revealing, frank and inwardly moving poems ever written.
    .

    I met Robert Frost at my boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire when I was 17, and he read some of my poetry in the Headmaster’s house with a select group of VIth Form students at tea. He didn’t say anything – I was the co-editor of the Horae Scholasticae at the time but a terrible poet.

    Ogden Nash read some of my poetry too at another tea party in the Headmaster’s house later the same year – he just said he thought I would have a hard time getting published.

    Which is one of the reasons I gave up writing poetry altogether at 18 and didn’t start again until I was 50 — I knew I wasn’t saying what I meant, just posing as a poet. I taught poetry for years and years at all levels but never wrote it – except when I was in love and then I gave the poems away, which meant most of the time. And I think some of them might have been quite good as poems go, who knows, but of course that isn’t what they were about.

    “Leda Takes Another Lover” is based on a poem I wrote for Natasha at 52 on the Seine, and “A Tragic Mutual Incomprehension” on another for Catherine Jean in Aubervilliers a bit later — Cathy and I also wrote the beautiful long poem, “Works and Days,” together in French and in English. I feel sure Cathy will still have the manuscript versions we wrote of the latter which is now a key poem in my most recent book, Fig Leaf Sutras — the French version of “Leda Takes Another Lover” lies buried somewhere on this site as if it were still at sea — if you look you might find it. And if either Natasha or Catherine Jean ever come upon this, how I hope they will get in touch — off the record, of course.

    C.

    …………

  18. January 9, 2020 at 11:19 am

    I just rewrote Post #16, Jan 6th, 2020, THE COSMOS THROUGH THE CRACK IN HER DOOR, and perhaps for the first time managed to frame in prose something of what I feel more comfortable about groping my way through as a blind man in my life as well as in my poetry.

    That’s a very odd sentence, I realize that, but haven’t yet found a way to say it better, and of course this is all off the record.

    It’s as if I think with my eyes tight shut even about concrete issues like distance, size, position and relationships in a world without light. And stripped of light, what does a light-year mean, after all, and how do we measure any significant extension in darkness, either infinite or infinitesimal? And what happens to my own existential position if I can’t see or be seen at all? What becomes of both my cosmology and my theology if I’m invisible, should there be any of me left there to consider it?

    Or as Yeats kept asking, that silly flake of a genius: “What then?” [If you’ve got the time and strength I really think this reference is worth considering, both Yeats’ poem and my introduction to it.]

    And what would a mind like Galileo’s have made of the position of the earth with his eyes tightly closed at the very end of his life, or for that matter, what would he have concluded had he been W.B. Yeats in the warm naked arms of his ‘muse’ even as he was dying? Questions like these are central to any human being’s sense of a coherent structure in the universe, or indeed to any conscious being’s role in it at all, human or otherwise, or indeed to consciousness itself? And at that point what would Galileo have made of anyone or anything, inside or outside or going around?

    Looking through a telescope tells you certain things about the universe but it also distorts or even covers up other aspects, some of which are even more revealing. Or as my poem visualized it earlier:
    …………..

    ……………………….The escarpments rise too

    ……………………….precipitously white

    ……………………….and difficult

    ……………………….for courtship unfamiliar

    ……………………….with the dry-stone divinations

    ……………………….cast in fields logic can’t plough

    ……………………….or lessons harvest.

    ………………………………….from “Why We Cant Love You” above — …………………………………..posted the day after my 75th birthday (2015).
    ……………..

    Do try #16 again if you have time — I just rewrote it again today, January 14th, 2020.

    C.

    P.S. The image in the quote is from Innishmore in the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland — that’s where J.M.Synge set “Riders to the Sea.” Of course it could be most anywhere ‘North of Boston’ as well.
    …………

  19. January 14, 2020 at 10:11 am

    FINDING WAYS TO SAY IT BETTER:
    An 80th birthday present from my daughter Sophia who lives in Scotland – this is how she looks walking on the island of Gigha in the Hebrides with her family’s collie, Caoimhe.

    …………………Sophia on Gigha 300

    The short excerpt below is from the book Sophia sent me for my birthday, The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. The book was entirely unknown to me until it arrived in the post for my birthday, and I’m reading it very slowly, needless to say, it’s so challenging. Nevertheless, just a few weeks later and less than half way through I want to say that I know of no piece of writing in poetry or prose that expresses better what matters to me most at this moment, some of which I have been trying to say throughout this thread, and in the last few posts in particular.

    Here’s an early excerpt that particularly struck me:
    ……………………..

    This changing of focus in the eye, moving the eye itself when looking at things that do not move, deepens one’s sense of outer reality. Then static things may be caught in the very act of becoming. By so simple a matter, too, as altering the position of one’s head, a different kind of world may be made to appear. Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at, and bend with straddled legs till you see your world upside down. How new it has become! From the close-by springs of heather to the most distant fold of the land, each detail stands erect in its own validity. In no other way have I seen of my own unaided sight that the earth is round. As I watch, it arches its back, and each layer of landscape bristles — though bristles is a word of too much commotion for it. Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture of which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has a reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself.

    ………………..from The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd (1977).

    ……………………..
    In just 5 years between 1928 and 1934, Nan Shepherd published 3 novels and a book of poetry, none of which went very far at the time. A full 10 years passed when, toward the very end of World War II, she started working on The Living Mountain but did not publish it until 30 years later, and then to very little notice. Just over 30,000 words on 108 small pages, The Living Mountain ranks for many people today as one of the greatest mountain books ever written, and most certainly among the deepest — and that means for me right up there with Petrarch’s The Ascent of Mt Ventoux and Wordsworth’s description of climbing Snowdon in The Prelude.

    Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) lived her whole life in the same house in a rural village in the Cairngorn mountains in northeast Scotland, and devoted that life to exploring her huge but very local landscape’s inner and outer lives. Her reputation has grown little by little since 1977 until it has become an avalanche, and in 2016 her portrait was celebrated on the Bank of Scotland’s £5 pound note, the first woman ever to be so honored. The band around her head on the note was a discarded roll of film she found on the photographer’s table which she wrapped around her undressed hair for the occasion, the photographer adding the badge on her forehead. It was her first and only formal portrait. And of course she looks just like Sophia, and walked out like that almost every day of her life.

    Nan Shepherd

    Nan Shepherd’s whole hidden life says to me the sort of thing I mean by Galileo’s secret, and the operative word there is “hidden.”

    Nothing else matters, or can be truly seen in any other way, or said.

    ………………………the impossible return,
    ……………………ocean fins quickening the landlocked water.

    …………..
    C.

  20. January 17, 2020 at 12:05 pm

    Ali 450

    My friend, Alexandra Marie, left a message underneath my “Window Tree” yesterday, and as a result I’ve just been able to access her website again. And yes, that’s Ali on the skateboard (my friend Ali can do anything!).

    A little background on her.

    Ali has interned a lot in the past with Homprang as a student-teacher assistant in Thai Traditional Medicine, which is how we know her. Right now she’s doing research in Alberta, Canada on how wild animals are coping with the pipeline incursions, camping out to watch them at -40C, including bears in their caves. After she’s finished with that she’s off to Japan in March where she will ride her bicycle all alone the full length of the islands from the southernmost tip to the northern extremity of Hokkaido — you may see her pass by if you’re there though she leaves no footprints and is very unlikely to be seen in a hotel or guesthouse as she sleeps rough.

    When she gets back home she will start a 5 year training program in Chinese medicine at Pacific Rim College in Victoria, B.C. She is very interested in Thai Traditional medicine as well, and Homprang would love to have her back whenever she can make it (Thai medicine has one foot in Chinese and the other in the Ayuravedic medicine of India — you can see how Ali and Homprang work together on Ali’s post, Food as Medicine.)

    So here’s the bottom-line. From Nan Shepherd to Greta Thunberg there have always been women like this, saving the modern world by being unflappable, steady, enormously strong and very private — living as hidden and as inscrutable as Emily Dickinson on the one hand and as fit and engaged as Rey Skywalker on the other. (The extraordinary photo above is Ali’s Gravatar — you can click on it again to see who she is even better).

    Here’s a letter I wrote her last year when I first read her writing:

    Dear Ali,
    Many thanks for your Bicycle Rebellion. It’s a shot in the arm, or a moon shot perhaps — or more than that even, visiting as it does an ethereal place that might possibly exist on another planet.

    I’m almost 80, which ought to be old enough to know better and not to get too excited, but I’m reading James C. Scott’s revolutionary book, The Art of NOT Being Governed, and what can I do? It was sent to me by my daughter Sophia and is changing all my assumptions about how we human beings live and, even more importantly, how we might be able to live if we didn’t take it for granted that our duty is to be good, obedient, and productive citizens of a flag-waving, higher-than-we-ever-could-be, State.

    Read James C. Scott’s title again with an open mind and you’ll start to see what I mean!

    The book is a study of the very large groups, millions in fact, of so called “Hill Tribe Peoples” who have deliberately left the shelter of the intensive wet-rice growing states in South East Asia, and chosen to live instead as what could be called modern-day ‘hunter-gatherers’ in the most inaccessible and inhospitable places — the high mountain fastnesses, the jungles, swamps, marshes and unlivable flood plains from East Tibet and Southern China down through Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam to Malaysia, Indonesia and the Phillippines. The assumption has always been that these people had been “left behind” because they were ‘undeveloped,’ ‘uncivilized’ and ‘primitive,’ and that if they would just settle down like the rest of us they could get an education, find a proper job, and become productive citizens. They might not be the brightest but at least they could make something worthwhile of their lives — that’s what we all used to say.

    James C. Scott’s book is huge in every way, daunting in size, scope, and scholarship, bringing together as it does the very best research of the top sociologists, anthropologists and historians of the area for the last 50 years — dedicated scholars who have in my view proved beyond a shadow of doubt that a great many of the so-called ‘primitive’ peoples of the region were not left behind at all, but on the contrary, chose to leave the Nation-States that wanted to count them, tax them, conscript and control them. These brave. far-seeing people decided instead to step out on their own, move on and up, way, way up, indeed quite ‘beyond the pale,’ one could even say — and in the process have given over their lives (and their genes!) not to failure and stagnation but to higher, leaner, clearer and deeper human values.

    All that’s hard to say in a few words, Ali, but watching you ride your bike out into that wildly beautiful but harsh, unforgiving Baja California landscape, seeing you there simple, true, and content by the roadside, sleeping by the verge like a migrant or a gypsy, that gives me hope — that more people than I realize are finding out how to escape the dead-end life that the modern era has created for us. Human beings have always done what you are doing, but the histories have been written by people who haven’t, people who have stayed in their jobs with their sinecures and titles and sense of accomplishment defined for them by the so-called ‘State.’

    And there you are, dear friend, leading your ‘Bicycle Rebellion’ at the very ends of the earth. And you’re taking me right along with you — which is why I’m bringing you here in my own writer’s fastness to help me!

    Christopher

  21. January 20, 2020 at 8:56 pm

    WHAT DOES A WRITER’S FASTNESS LOOK LIKE, THEN, IF NOT THE WIDE SARGASSO SEA?

    Delia Wax Head 450
    …..Sculpture by Delia Woodman, from an Installation of 70 Wax Heads at the
    …..Hackney Central Library, Dalston, London (2020).
    ……
    Maybe I stumbled into all this back then because I realized it would be my birthday still today.

    So here goes:

    A Relic in the Present Spun Out of Detritus from my Past.

    …………………………….adapted from a draft begun on December 7th, 2017
    Recently I’ve been feeling like Jean Rhys must have before she finally got noticed. “It’s too late,” she said when recognition came to her at last in 1966. She was 76, almost my age today, and had published nothing for 30 years, all her earlier work having been allowed to fall out of print.

    In fact, Jean Rhys fell out of print because people found the details of her personal life “sordid,” and didn’t want to read about failure however well-written, or deal with her foul-mouthed rants if they did. But when she recast herself as Mrs Rochester in The Wide Sargasso Sea they suddenly realized: “It’s not about the girl at all, the little West-Indian floozy. It’s about Jane Eyre!” And then all the rest of her work opened up, and there was gold-leaf everywhere.”

    Which is what I want to say about myself, that I’m a relic too, and that that’s one of the reasons why relics so often surface in my work. Because at my age they’re just there, “the detritus of hope” as I described them in the bushes at Wat Pha Lad. And of course that’s me by the river, fishing.

    The fact is that for 25 years I have been creating and recreating my poems over and over again in a process more like prayer or chanting a mantra than writing, a most un-modern, specifically un-American way of going about things. But maybe our poetry is almost ready for that, and I don’t mean for more formalism but for more solitude, concentration, visualization, and illumination (I wanted to say ‘magic’ but didn’t dare). Maybe at this time of national disintegration our poetry needs to shift away from the editorial board, the public forum and the workshop toward the restorative ‘fable,’ the goldsmith’s ‘touchstone,’ the miraculous ‘icon’ — toward something like my ‘relics,’ in other words, the simple ones illuminated in red by my Latvian friend, Julija Lebedeva, the ones that were ‘found,’ not written. (NOTE: The ravishing penumbra emanating from my daughter, Delia Woodman’s, “Wax Head” above is just the old family tea-strainer we used when she was a child — you can click on it to see better as you can on the old transom-gate below.)

    I suspect that when work like mine comes in ‘over the transom,’ readers on editorial boards probably don’t know where to look — that’s what some people were said to feel in the Victorian ‘parlor’ when they were shocked by words that shouldn’t be uttered or parts of the body that shouldn’t be thought about. And when my work comes in unsolicited — what a shock. How can you evaluate a submission when it’s from someone who knows nobody you know, has published nothing for the past 10 years, and is about body parts by someone with no training? Indeed, where would you house an old man who has delusions like that for a start, and what for? And what would he do for a living without any relevant credentials, or how would you talk to him, and in what language?

    The guy sends us drivel to read,” someone is sure to say, and I’ve heard it in person. “Look at this one, a poem called ‘Leda Takes Another Lover,’ no less, and it’s supposed to have something to do with Galileo. Ends up in three trashy little lines, if you can imagine — just plain embarrassing.
    ……
    ……………………………….He feathers her brilliantly—
    ……………………………….her armpits,
    ……………………………….her arches.

    ……

    Brie's Gate 450 ………………………..“Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.” *
    ……………………………………………..(click to enter.)
    ……

  22. January 28, 2020 at 4:17 am

    ABANDON EVERY HOPE, YE THAT ENTER! *

    …………
    …………………HOPE

    …………………“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
    …………………That perches in the soul –
    …………………And sings the tune without the words –
    …………………And never stops – at all –

    …………………And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
    …………………And sore must be the storm –
    …………………That could abash the little Bird
    …………………That kept so many warm –

    …………………I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
    …………………And on the strangest Sea –
    …………………Yet – never – in Extremity,
    …………………It asked a crumb – of me. * *

    ………………………………………………..Emily Dickinson

    * NOTE 1: “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate!” Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia, Inferno, Canto III, l. 9. Trans. John D. Sinclair (1939).

    * * NOTE 2:

    PITY LIKE A NAKED NEW BORN BABE STRIDING THE BLAST

    Goodness knows how many late-night drafts were involved in creating this simple little artifact with its gold leaf and halo, or how many generations of young children and their poetry teachers have had their lives enrichened by its gentle light, giving them a taste of the veritable nectar of the gods without having to trouble themselves with the terrible last lines.

    Or the last day in these terrible Senate hearings — soul-destroying.

    I’ve been reading “Hope” for years and teaching it too, but this morning I’m having trouble with those last lines as well, and I mean just as the dawn is coming up and I’m trying to make sense of what’s happening. I also confess I don’t feel comfortable today with that most famous line from “The Divine Comedy” anymore either, and I go back to the same 1939 edition I first read about the time I met Robert Frost at 16 above (the three volumes are still here on my shelves in Chiang Mai). La Divina Commedia — “all’s well that ends well,” they said to us, or something like that, and then they talked about sin and the hard lessons of theology, and we students in our ties and tweed jackets, we thought we understood, and I guess we must have passed the exams. But on a morning like this one, even at 80, I still bow, I hate to say it, still submit, still humbly give thanks for understanding anything which might help me to lift this horrible day.

    So I say even to myself like a teacher, “Let’s take the hand of Virgil and enter the late Middles Ages with Duccio and Dante and see what happens.” And I translate the famous words for myself, “Give up hope,”and then I write more about them here, “…as must all of us who would examine our own hidden lives hand in hand with those ageless, tireless, revolutionary seers, one of them deep underground 800 years ago in Catholic Florence, the other a young woman homeless at home, “in Extremity” as she calls it upstairs in her small Puritain bedroom in Amherst just 43 years before my mother was born in Boston. It’s 1861, the first shots are just being fired at Fort Sumter and still not silenced even today as the whole Republican party so rudely vandalizes the most precious of our American aspirations. And if I feel that way today, imagine how the Jewish citizens in Germany must have felt the morning after Kristallnacht?”

    So where’s the hope?

    And I get carried away thinking of all that today, January 31st, and remind myself we’re still all just people like ourselves, fearful yet hopeful wherever we are, isolated, ignorant, malleable, over-excited. But the light is coming up now where I am, fast, and I start to see better, and go downstairs for a cup of coffee without having to turn on the lights.

    And suddenly I’m confident it can’t go on like this, that we must buck it now,  dig our spurs into our own sides and fly on Shakespeare’s sightless couriers of the air with our own eyes wide open. And nothing can ever be coddled with “crumbs” at such a level either — it’s way beyond that now even as it was back then.

    That was the way of our almost contemporary, Emily Dickinson, with her fierce, tenacious sort of HOPE that bridled despair and then rode the wintery beast hard into the ground in her poems. Of course she didn’t use that image, she didn’t ride a horse “into the ground” like Vronsky, but she rises upon the coldest, rarest, most inhospitable stead of the air like William Blake:

    ……Blake Pity 320

    But beware, there’s no room for self-pity at such altitude, the poem makes that very clear at the end. The care which the poet bestows on the lovely little thing with feathers, which she so obviously knows and loves as she did the children below her window, all that belongs to the easier realm downstairs as does the naked, new born babe in the brave rider’s arms in the painting — what an amazing feat of child-care to cradle a baby in your finger-tips while riding a blind horse on the wind!

    Such a wonderful poem and a wonderful painting, Emily Dickinson and William Blake — and oh, I do feel so much better!

    ……..

    ……………………………………………….~

    (You see, even I can get there in the end, which is an object lesson for me and for you. If you watch here carefully you will see how my own on-line ‘process-writing’ can both discipline and instruct me — I’m exhausted at the moment but you’ll see more of my “salvation poetics” in just a few days I feel sure.)

    ……………………………………………………………..Christopher

    ……

  23. February 3, 2020 at 6:45 am

    REWRITING HOPE

    ………………………………….SALVATION POETICS

    The carpenter’s son, Jesus of Nazareth, was a miracle worker because he knew how to use prayer to move mountains, and he took the time to explain exactly how to go about that. But take note, he never said you had to go specifically to a Priest, Rabbi or Imam to learn how to do it what is more to a Sufi or a Fakir, for example, a Yogin, Shaman, Staretz, Zen Master, or even a Wise Woman or Witch who might have known more about it than any of the above. He was just talking to people.

    What he explained is that effective prayer is not about hope in the usual sense, that is hope that focusses on what you need, deserve, or have been promised. On the contrary, it’s about getting what you know you already have. And that’s precisely what he said right after the barren fig tree debacle that so upset the disciples, the moment when he blasted the poor infertile thing for being dried up and infertile, which was very upsetting as there was nothing left of her but the ashes. Hard stuff, and a teaching which obviously has nothing to do with specific beliefs in after-lives or higher worlds, just about functioning more effectively in this one. That means believing in what you’ve already got, he said, and in particular being at peace with the bumps, failures and wrinkles that are very often the source of whatever effectiveness and understanding you already have.

    So in the famous riposte in Mark 11/23, Jesus says:

    Whoever can say to the mountain, “Get on down here and throw yourself into that sea!” and does not doubt for a moment, but knows that what he has imagined has already happened, that person shall have whatsoever he or she desires, including, of course, if it’s still really needed, that MOUNTAIN on its knees!

    Which is what the poet says too, at least the old poet does, the one that, like the mountain up there, is already down on his knees. .

    …………………………………………….~

    …………………………Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)
    ……Stanley Spencer 'Pram' 350
    …………Heading out to paint early in the morning in Cookham
    …………with all his equipment in a pram. He once wrote: “I love
    …………to dwell on the thought that the artist is next in divinity
    …………to the saint. He, like the saint, performs miracles.”

    ………………………………………….~

    ……………………………….OFF THE RECORD:

    Don’t tell anyone, but if you want to please me here at the end of this thread, read the little poem that follows not to see whether it’s a good or bad piece of writing, but just because it’s by somebody also a bit crazy like the artist in your village with the baby carriage. If you can do that it will be because you know there is something of great value in a poem created by someone who has worked hard his whole life to discover something special, and then celebrated that secret in a small illuminated artifact patiently framed and burnished for decades like a precious icon on a fisherman’s altar. Lit by a single candle in a tiny white chapel by the edge of the Aegean sea, it may be smudged, lopsided, and inartistic but it looks after everyone in the cottage from the poet-mother to her fisherman-lover and her sons, and it will look after you too if you let it. And if you can read it like that you will also help a bit to look after me. ……..

    …….
    ……………….SALVATION POETICS
    ……………..(“Only this once, O God!” *)

    ……………………What poem is
    ……………………not a prayer?

    ……………………We write to get
    ……………………and not to hope
    ……………………or give,
    ……………………we write to have
    ……………………whatsoever we desire.

    ……………………Like prayer a poem
    ……………………does not ask
    ……………………but celebrates
    ……………………accomplishment—
    ……………………all unfettered from
    ……………………the need to make believe
    ……………………a poem is
    ……………………exactly what it says

    ……………………even if it means
    ……………………the most dutiful roots
    ……………………must dry up,

    ……………………that all the weight of
    ……………………rock and dizzy height
    ……………………must slide
    ……………………down into the sea
    ……………………and leave
    ……………………the mountain folk
    ……………………standing bereft
    ……………………and breathless

    ……………………on the plain.

    …………………………………. from LA CROIX MA FILLE;
    …………………………………. a Book of Poems & Relics.

    ….

    NOTE: *
    “Only this once, O God!” are the last words of the bungling Prophet Samson, and they resonate throughout La Croix Ma Fille.

    At the end of the story, Samson is strung up in the shambles like a raw bison carcass on the last frontier, jilted, mocked, and humiliated by a howling pagan mob. And what does he do, this brasen prophet-warrior who has made such a mess out of his personal life and then been blinded, scalped and, as was common not so long ago on our own frontier, castrated? He did what Jesus says everybody should do whatever side they’re on, the Texas Rangers’, the Indians’ or, in Samson’s case, his own tribe’s in Gaza — he prays for what he’s already got!

    “Suffer me that I may feel the pillars whereupon the house standeth, that I may lean upon them,” he whispers.

    Then quietly, on the breath, so to speak, as if it had so obviously already happened: “Only this once, O God!”

    And of course it did happen because it already had — as it does as well in another little icon poem decades in the making and much later in the book, but equally about hope.
    ….
    ………………………………………….~

    ……………….SAMSON ON THE BEACH
    ……………..(“Remember me, I pray thee!”)

    ……………………He bows down.

    ……………………His blindness is the
    ……………………water’s edge.

    ……………………The drowning waves
    ……………………pray to reach his
    ……………………dry retreat —
    ……………………they kneel to weep but
    ……………………only their white tears
    ……………………survive the wreck
    ……………………of all that hope
    ……………………to etch their names
    ……………………before him.

    ……………………But sand is all
    ……………………his sea says —
    ……………………so sad the hiss
    ……………………and roar
    ……………………of all that hope.

    …………………………………………….ibidem.

    …….

    With thanks to all of you for having been here with me through all this — I found it very hard, and could never have done it without you: W., I., D., E., T., C., D., A., S.(occasionally, I hope), D. & U. (ditto), L. (grateful if ever), and anybody else I love and, above all, anyone who does not just feel greedy about me as a researchable phenomenon like the guy at Starbucks who was ordering that latte. Because I’m just looking for a publisher, God damn it, not a PhD or a Pulitzer!

    ……………………………………………………………….Christopher Woodman
    …….

    P.S. I just hope you realize that all of this, including what I just said, is “off the record” because I’ve been saying things that are usually not spoken. Indeed, people are usually embarrassed to admit that not just their reputations but their understanding has taken so long to develop, like the tiny little scrap of a poem I started to work on so many years ago and have only just made my peace with.

    I’m unusually slow, I know, and indeed the ‘message’ of “Samson on the Beach” only just became clear to me this morning as I was debating whether or not to include it here at the end of this thread. I had already finished ‘REWRITING HOPE,’ and indeed had posted it, yet still the poem went on twisting my arm until I came to terms with it at last, 30 years after the event which triggered it (a broken heart on Breezy Point at the mouth of the Hudson), 26 years after the poem began to be written (on the Seine), and another 10 until it was finished (on the Ping).

    But “Message” is certainly the wrong word for what “Samson on the Beach” just did to me as it feels more like some sort of divine chiropractor’s crack or quantum dunk — the cosmic straw that breaks the camel’s back, perhaps, at least if breaking the camel’s back is what’s already broken.

    I’ve rewritten that last little paragraph over and over again in the last few days, and at last it feels o.k, small enough, true enough, yet preposterous enough. But we’ll see.
    ……………………………………………………………………..C.

    …………………………………………….~

    P.P.S. The important ‘THREE DAYS LATER,’ Birthday post of December 5th to 8th, 2019 has just been expanded.

    You see how long it takes me even now?

    ………………………………….

  24. Dawn Potter said,

    February 8, 2020 at 9:48 pm

    Whatever contest that was, it was unconscionable that you were made a victim of the organizers’ chaos. I feel very angry on your behalf.

    • February 8, 2020 at 10:45 pm

      My feeling is that if it had been a real glitch, why not just pretend it wasn’t and make sure that the judge knew the book wasn’t a real Finalist and wasn’t actually in the running. “Who else would need to know that, and why bother even to tell the poor guy?”

      The correspondence I had with the editor afterwards just didn’t make sense, and there were other coincidences too. But I hate conspiracy theories with all my heart and soul, and am appalled by the damage they’ve done to our country in the last few years. So I don’t want even to think about my suspicions, what is more to whisper my hunches.

      And hey, what would have been so awful about letting this unpublished 80 year old non-starter poet have a moment of laurels? “Why, just let him have his ‘Finalist’ pin to wear, as if anybody would even notice. I mean, he never comes to anything anyhow so he’s not on anybody’s radar.”

      Or might he start talking again somewhere else?

      Which he wouldn’t, I promise, but all the same feel sure they were still panicking at the time, and almost certainly still are. Even the thought of his name on a list is too much.

      My guess.

      And just to say that Dawn Potter is the only working poet I’ve ever known personally and, although I feel close to her, I have never met her in person. Also that we first encountered each other on ‘Foetry’ in 2008, I think, and that I stood up for her against ‘Monday Love’ as he was known at the time, a very knowledgeable yet extremely insensitive ‘Foetry’ colleague. Indeed, I remember to this day exactly what he said to Dawn as I am sure she does too.

      And perhaps this is a good moment to mention as well that I was never a ‘Foetry’ attack dog, and indeed stood up for one of its most grievous, well-documented targets arguing that the editor was just a bit naive and trying too hard, and that I was sure she/he would apologize. When they didn’t (and I corresponded with the person directly at some length) I reluctantly had to conclude that I couldn’t continue with my defense.

      Also to say that I was so lucky to meet Dawn Potter wherever as I so love her poetry. Would that I had an ounce of her ease and her natural ear, or her level-headed courage. And how much good she has done in the world with her teaching of not just young but all poets yearning to say it better of all ages!

      C.

      • February 10, 2020 at 11:22 am

        Just a bit more on Dawn Potter — and the special bond between us.

        One of the things I most admire about her, something which adds a special dimension to everything she writes, is that she is among the very few American poets who has become well-known without a leg-up from anybody or any certifying Body either. She made an early decision not to go to College but rather pursue writing as a private vocation and, almost unheard of among American poets after Robert Frost, who quit both Dartmouth and Harvard to farm and to write, Dawn has no formal training, has no letters after her name, and has never paid to enter a writing competition what is more to join an academic Creative Writing degree program.

        Dawn married a like-minded craftsman and photographer and brought up their two sons on a small farm in backwoods Maine while reading Paradise Lost. She kept a detailed journal of the experience, reading, writing, child-rearing, and farming, all at the same time, and after a long period of painstaking rewrites during which she honed her own skills to a very fine edge, she submitted an entirely unsolicited, self-edited manuscript to the Sewannee Review. Miracle of miracles, her work was immediately picked up and published as “Tracing Paradise: A Meditation on Milton, Chores, and a Private Life” (2007). And she never looked back.

        But don’t think it wasn’t hard — indeed, Dawn and I share a lot in the realm of patience as well as impatience, and are sometimes as hard on each other as we are on ourselves.

        So here’s what Dawn Potter’s own words on the topic triggered off in me today, and I post mine in response to hers as A Small Bouquet of Purple Violets for my Queen Anne’s Lace Friend just see how she writes it in clusters with all those purple moles!

        My description of her is a bit off-color, I know, and suspect it will not be flowers but another red cape as she will like my words and feel irritated by them at the same time. But then, my great un-met friend is a mass of contradictions, like she’s also the Paganini of Blue Grass fiddlers. And that is precisely her edge!

        So here goes — 1, 2, 3!

        Patience is the one-molecule-thick gold leaf which gilds impatience and makes it holy — like the hair shirt that mortifies and at the same time gilds the body.

        Whatever she thinks of my imagery, Dawn will certainly agree that the life of an unattached writer today is every bit as hard as that, and every bit as transformative. (I had just posted an old B/W photo at the end of my most recent post, “For Those Like Galileo,” which had addressed the same ‘field,’ as William Carlos Williams called it in “Queen Anne’s Lace.” That might well have set all this off.)

        Christopher

  25. February 11, 2020 at 9:51 am

    FOR THE RECORD: WE’RE ALL EXTRA-CURRICULARS IN THIS TOGETHER, THOUGH I’M ONLY A MAN.

    Ali Henneberry was a gifted gymnast throughout her school years in Toronto but found even that amount of academic discipline constraining. She dropped out of school in her teens to become a freelance acrobat, aerial artist, and gymnastics coach — but mainly a secret writer in intensive training. At 22 she embarked with her notebook on what she calls a “Bicycle Rebellion,” and rode cross-country from Canada to Mexico including the whole of the Baja California peninsula with Bruce Chatwin in her saddle bag, posting her first poems and essays in her blog, Bicycle Rebellion. I got to know her when she worked as a volunteer Intern in Traditional Medicine for 4 months with my wife Homprang in Chiang Mai — the holy mountain in the background of Ali’s Avatar is our Doi Suthep.

    Ali is now 26, and is just preparing for her next cycling trek, the whole length of the Japanese archipelago, alone.

    In an article called “Food is Medicine”, Ali describes Homprang as “This strong lady, my teacher, overflowing with wisdom, and glowing in her element, her nature” — Homprang Chaleekanha, the consummate autodidact, left school at 11, learned herbal medicine from her illiterate grandmother, Paht Chaleekanha, worked as a sapphire miner with a pick axe and shovel for 15 years, started learning her ABCs at 35 and spoke English by 37, built her own school called Baan Hom Samunphrai at 50, and now at 61 is well-known as a teacher of Traditional Medicine, Herbal Pharmacology and Midwifery all over the world, in English! She doesn’t write the language much at all, or write anything for that matter, but is a consummate linguist and healer, while Dawn Potter, a consumate writer and teacher too, writes a sonnet about “a fire shut up in my bones.” So it all ties in together, though I’m the only one with degrees in the story, of course, but also the only one with no reputation except among a handful of poetry professionals, and the less said about that the better.

    Here Homprang uses her sacred ardor to mend my badly broken bones.
    ……………….
    Homprang's Fire

    ……………….
    ………from SONNETS FOR THE ARSONIST
    ……………………………….4.
    ……………………Some say
    ……………………The word means
    ……………………The malicious setting on fire
    ……………………Of a house, a ship, a forest,
    ……………………And some say
    ……………………The word derives from
    ……………………Latin “ardere”—more at ardor,
    ……………………But God says

    ……………………The word in my heart
    ……………………Is like a fire,
    ……………………A fire shut up in my bones.
    ……………………I am weary of holding it in.
    ……………………Indeed,
    ……………………I cannot.

    …………………………..Dawn Potter in her Blog, January 18th, 2020.
    …………………………..published in The Split Rock Review (2019)……………….

    Thanks to you all, my mentors and mates (as we men say to each other),
    Christopher

    • February 25, 2020 at 10:29 am

      I’m finally having the chance to sit down and read through some of your recent posts. This does indeed put me in good company. Thank you.

      The photograph is inspiring as well. I think it captures my own words that you’ve quoted here, “This strong lady, my teacher, overflowing with wisdom, and glowing in her element, her nature.”

  26. Dawn Potter said,

    February 13, 2020 at 8:40 pm

    Thanks for your kindness here, Christopher. I’m grateful.

    • February 14, 2020 at 10:05 am

      Thanks a lot for the thanks, Dawn — mine come accompanied by Bill Monroe and his mandolin: “It’s a lonesome road to travel on/ many miles of sorrow is all I’ve gone/ but I’ve gone too far to turn back now/ on this lonesome, lonesome road.”

      I’ve been singing those words to myself in my own forced tenor ever since he visited me and my family in our little terrace house on Priory Street in Cambridge — maybe 1964, or thereabouts? His first and last visit to the U.K, or anywhere outside the U.S.A. for that matter.

      He hated the experience, it made him feel so out of place and foreign, which of course he was. On the other hand, he gave me a sort of over-riding, angel-band theme-song that has helped me to make sense out of all the strange lands where I’ve lived most of my life, an experience of precarious altitude combined with a liberation limited only by my own foreignness (I was going to say loneliness).

      ………………………………………………~

      I’ve added yet more to the February 8th Post in which I talked about why this thread was “off the record,” and then added that last twist of the knife, the ‘Finalist’ glitch — to which you responded with such outrage. And to tell you the truth, I didn’t think anybody would notice, as indeed I had hardly noticed myself, having lived with all that for so long.

      That you did meant a lot to me. As much and as over the top as this:

      (Tears. That somebody is listening. That maybe the whole thing of being alone has its rewards after all — which, of course, it does, but in the midst of it it’s hard to remember. Which is where the poetry comes in, doesn’t it? Bitterness transformed like in “For Those Like Galileo Who No Longer Read.”)

      ……
      The gutted chapel become a ruined lock, the haunted house of one’s own ruined faith become a place of worship in itself:

      …………………the huge rustling posts and pedestals
      …………………that mesmerize the undergrowth,
      …………………murmuring in the rushes where no moth
      …………………wrapped in its own juices has no robe
      …………………or swaddled Moses goes unfloated.

      And always ‘off the record’ — the heart-felt poetry of the simple hearth that one reclaims again and again however far from home.

      …………………And all the while the mist-wrapped
      …………………walker’s sheltered track,
      …………………the busy dog,
      …………………the heron’s tact.
      …………………

      Or equally if you’re just reading at home — as long as nobody’s there but the cat and the various hidden creatures that groan, titter and sigh in the walls and under the floor, the inhuman ‘familiars’ who keep us safe and warm. But also on edge, of course, because they’re our demons — time passing, irrelevance, despair, impatience worst of all — guardians of all that other hidden stuff we’re always trying to get ready to say and know we probably never will, or simply can’t — like the last one in particular, a.k.a. ‘desperation’ (what an unsayable word!).

      And how hard that faithful, tireless, endlessly forgiving creature in us keeps working the bushes over and over again, and nothing ever there but here.

      Have a closer look and see — twice over…

      …………

      Christopher

  27. February 17, 2020 at 5:17 pm

    ………………

    ……….BECAUSE TO STAY IS TO BE NOWHERE *

    ………………The sedge-green wastes roar
    ………………and bend before the stern
    ………………iron stem—
    ………………then lie partway back,
    ………………chilled by the viscous glaze
    ………………and waiting for the helmsman’s
    ………………crafting hands to warm them.

    ………………But there will be no arrangements
    ………………again this year,
    ………………for this is the long wake
    ………………of the diffident old master,
    ………………the prodigal father who always
    ………………moves on despondent
    ………………just before the spring.

    ………………How sad to be propelled
    ………………like Arctic terns
    ………………whirling the ocean waves
    ………………even in our ploughing.

    ………………And so we tear lines of longitude
    ………………in the pale earth with beaks
    ………………sharpened by the cruel compulsion
    ………………ever to love what’s lost
    ………………and then steadfastly
    ………………lose what’s left,
    ………………migrating mercilessly
    ………………from pole to mating pole until
    ………………swooning back to where it starts
    ………………we glide like wistful fish
    ………………high above the falls
    ………………and fill with what remains
    ………………of just a little lust
    ………………the same old rills again.

    ………………How sad the whole
    ………………latitudinous earth
    ………………should just become faint
    ………………coordinates for crossing it.

    ………………Yesterday we passed
    ………………the Ile Saint Germain
    ………………white with flowers
    ………………in February—
    ………………today we are over
    ………………grey industrial snow.

    ………………Look, far below us now
    ………………moves another young
    ………………family in flight—
    ………………they leave hennaed footprints
    ………………in the flinty field.

    ………………Tomorrow perhaps
    ………………the baby will stop crying
    ………………pater noster
    ………………in the wilderness

    ………………as trembling
    ………………we endure the loss
    ………………of not quite knowing
    ………………why it is we cried

    ………………ourselves, or where,
    ………………for what we prayed—
    ………………almost as if a god were there
    ………………and really meant to stay.
    ………………………………..from GALILEO’S SECRET: Two Decades
    …………………………………………..of poems under House Arrest.
    ………………

    ………………………………..Christopher Woodman

    ………………

    Note on the Title: *
    ……………………………..“…Isn’t it time our loving freed
    ………us from the one we love, and we, trembling, endured:
    ………as the arrow endures the string, and in that gathering momentum
    ………becomes more than itself. Because to stay is to be nowhere.”
    * *
    ……………………….Ranier Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, I. 50-53
    ………………………………………..trans. A. Poulin, Jr. (1975)

    Note on the Note:* * These words were also a very important influence on “In Praise of the Still Unweighed,” the first poem in Galileo’s Secret — I was much into Rilke at the time. I like this translation, “Because to stay is to be nowhere,” but am not so happy with the rest — it’s accurate but with little sense of the weight and the cadence (or is it the precision, compression, pressure?) of the German (A. Poulin, Jr. is generally much better than this with the rest of the Elegies).

    I plan to get my friend, Bill Kammann, to help me do better with them, so here are the specific lines in German — though I’m sure he’s got them on his shelves in Patzcuaro, and of course more than just these four lines need to be translated:

    …………………………………..Ist es nicht Zeit, dass wir liebend
    ………..uns vom Geliebten befrein und es bebend bestehen:
    ………..
    wie der Pfiel die Sehne besteht, um gesammelt im Absprung
    ………..mehr zu sein als er selbst. Denn Bleiben ist nirgends.
    …………………………………………………….Duino Elegies, I. ll.50-53

    ………………
    [cont.]

  28. February 21, 2020 at 1:50 pm

    SO WHAT THEN AGAIN? Another Off-the-Record Rewrite: 
    ………………………………………June 19th, 2016 —–> February 21, 2020

    Two last pictures to revisit:

    ……………………………………………….I.
    “My tall ship so perilously trapped on the rocks out there and the wind still rising and the light failing off the worst possible coast of Maine in mid-winter, where I’m from too, by the way, as much as Winslow Homer was with his extraordinary skill, passion and care. Because who would dare bring such fragile cargo ashore — indeed, is she even still breathing?

    Lifeline 450

    ……Winslow Homer, The Life Line (1884), etching printed in dark green ink, 12 13/16″
    ……x 17 3/4,”The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The much larger but much less intimate
    ……painting, (1884) 28.6″ x 44.8,” is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.(Click twice
    ……to see the full mystery in the details of the etching better.)

    “Will the rope hold, will the ‘breeches’ clear the next wave, and is she even still breathing? She’s certainly beautiful enough in his arms, and his face is conveniently hidden behind her storm-flung hair (that’s how it is in the etching!) so you don’t know how he feels or even if he’s handsome. And where do they go, those two, and why are they both out there with their designer boots dangling over the wild green northern water?” Her toe ripples the surface in tiny scratches, her finger tips brush the water, dangling off the edge of the rowboat, still warm. And more tiny scratches in the heart.

    The truth is that I love what I’m doing, yet for over two years now I’ve not come across a single editor or critic who liked my work enough to comment on it what is more to accept it…”

    The truth is that I love what I’m doing, yet for almost 10 years now I haven’t had a single response to a submission of mine. Not a word of encouragement, not a word like I used to get from, whom shall I say, hardly daring to remember: — James Laughlin (we’re even in the Houghton Library together!), the Weisses, R. as well as T, needless to day, Alice Quinn (and Paul Muldoon much later), Joseph Parisi, Marilyn Hacker, Marvin Malone, Andrei Codrescu, the FIELD crew, Lee Sharkey, John Rosenwald, Jim Barnes, Susan Terris, Dan Veach, and so many others who kept me going with pats on the back and even a leg-up now and then, and I never felt alone, never. But for 10 years now — zero.

    So four years ago (about the time of the original ‘Lifeline’ post in “Why I Wrote ‘How Bad is the Devil'”) I decided not to wait on hearing from editors anymore but just talk about what I write myself for anybody who might like to listen, including myself. And here I am at “What Then?” yet again – and that means “what then” for me personally just as it did for the great poet, William Butler Yeats.
    ………….

    ……………………………………………….II.
    Because there’s always this in me as well — the exhausted gravitas salmon spawning herself to death way up in the hills, having impossibly returned leap by leap from the Atlantic ocean-wasteland of the poem I just posted above, “Because To Stay is to be Nowhere” as well as in the earlier poem, “Why We Can’t Love You,” both of them ruby-tipped scratches etched on water.

    Salmon pool 450

    “To me all this is as clear as what I can still see in this old photo on my desk, and it’s the water that haunts me still from the fraught years I spent with the Tibetans beside it in Eskdalemuir where everything fell apart. But that’s not because of what the Tibetans taught me either…”

    — it’s because I know how the great salmon and her mate also come all the way back to such tiny wet places, still huge but now ragged with travail as if they were 80. And I can sense in myself the possibility of that arrival again and again, and always this same water, and you can see them too if you look carefully (click more!). It’s not the same water as in the Winslow Homer drama, of course, but just as sexual, just as wild and romantic as is birth in relation to making love in the first place. Indeed, one of the pictures may be too full and in your face and may make you cringe with embarrassment – the other is probably so plain and empty you turn away distracted by your conviction that in professional poetry today things have to be well-written first and foremost and then have an identifiable name and provenance, that is if they’re going to be looked at seriously what is more published.

    But that’s precisely the question that interests me in everything. I’m interested in how the thing gets to be on my plate in the first place, of course, but I’m even more interested in how in time it becomes an icon or relic on a silver plate on my altar, so to speak. In everything I explore that, all the time I do, and I’d say that that’s the only answer you can give to Plato’s ghost, singing as he does like the Sirens (that’s what Plato actually called the angels that presided over the Forms, and no wonder you shouldn’t hear them or even take a look without tying yourself to the mast!). Neither the idea nor the thing, neither the light nor the shadow behind it, but that which is squeezed in between and around the edges of everything, the cracks in the floor not the big significant joists that support everything we know under our feet. And that statement has nothing to do with theology either what is more with natural science, both of which are out of their depth in this one, and I can’t believe that Galileo wouldn’t have struggled to come to terms with that conundrum in his loneliness too.

    I can’t persuade anybody to find this interesting. I have to leave that up to life which has a habit of bringing us all to the edge in the end and then letting us slip through those cracks. I also can’t persuade anybody that any poem of mine is worthwhile either until you have gotten to the point where you can take silly little concoctions like Yeats’  “What Then?” and “Politics” seriously first, maybe even on your knees before them, perhaps even on your knees before that famous last night of his even sillier life, speaking of spawning in tatters!

    Or this, the third and one of the key poems in Galileo’s Secret:
    ………………

    ………………BY THE WATERS OF BABYLON

    ……………………….Like tears you still blink by,
    ……………………….brilliant absence—
    ……………………….your tattered salmon dress an easy touch
    ……………………….down on the grated knees of boys
    ……………………….guddling* for a female grace —
    ……………………….but grown up spiff,
    ……………………….soaped, coifed and saddled,
    ……………………….always move too far, too fast
    ……………………….just in time to spook, or muss,
    ……………………….we cannot catch you
    ……………………….so captivatingly displayed.

    ……………………….O sliver of Lady Loss —
    ……………………….these still unbroken hands cup
    ……………………….unlearnt words like take and eat
    ……………………….and this is my body
    ……………………….over your head—
    ……………………….that your gills fan us,
    ……………………….that the bright web of your fins
    ……………………….petals us like a woman’s,
    ……………………….that even holding our breaths
    ……………………….dives us down to yours.

    ……………………….The long wait out of your element,
    ……………………….our prostrations hardly rippling the present —

    ……………………….That you believe in us again!
    ……………………….O blind pool’s eye,
    ……………………….……………….O eel-sheathed Lady Bless —
    ……………………….our ragged prayers sidle up against the grain
    ……………………….to grope your hips,
    ……………………….tether your slippery heels again.

    ……………………………………from GALILEO’S SECRET: Two Decades
    …………………………………………….of Poems Under House Arrest.

    ……………………………………………………….Christopher Woodman
    ……………………….

    *Guddling (Scottish dialect). Shepherd children still ‘guddle’ for salmon with their bare hands as the great fish return to spawn in remote hill-farm ‘burns’ and streams.

    …….

    After a sleepless night worrying about it and then being offered a hand by a neighbor who was probably feeling desperate as well but still managed to cook a delicious meal — it’s DONE!

    C.


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