The spider—why the spider?, or, a defense of recurring images

Ten spiders, showing much variation in shape and colour. Gou Wellcome V0043845

(art from Wikimedia)

A few days ago on Twitter, a poet tweeted about searching through her poems to make sure she hadn’t already used the image she wanted to use in a new poem. Another poet responded that she often does the same.

My response: I will fight you.

I mean: I haven’t slept since.

Well, okay, I have, but only restlessly.

Let it be said that these are poets whose work I admire deeply. And yet… And yet… My response: horror.

Horror, because what if Bonnard had only painted Marthe in the bath once?

What if Diebenkorn had worried about repeating himself, and only painted a handful of Ocean Parks, rather than painting 150 (correction: according to this source it was 145) Ocean Parks over the course of eighteen years?

What if Ruth Asawa had thought more than just a few of her sinuous and shapely wire sculptures would be repetitive?

What if Louise Bourgeois abandoned her obsession with spiders, which began appearing in her work in the 1940s, and which she was still using in her art early in the next century (i.e., this century)?

Reader, I would not want to live in that world.

Nor in a world without Charles Wright’s spiders. Nor without Ted Hughes’s crows, nor Larry Levis’s horses and wrens, nor Whitman’s body-as-land / land-as-body imagery, nor Emily Dickinson’s birds.

What if Mahmoud Darwish had stopped writing about his homeland, and Terrence Hayes had only written one American sonnet for his past and future assassin?

I mean—and now I’m getting really serious—what if Jack Gilbert had stopped writing about Gianna and Linda and Michiko and Pittsburgh for fear of being repetitive?

No thank you, my friends, no thank you.

There are images (and, I would add, subjects, and even colors, and probably other things, too) that belong to certain poets. They use, and reuse, and use again these images across and throughout the body of their work. Why? Because obsessions fuel art. Because images do more than simply describe or represent something in a novel way—they also haul up to the surface a particular emotional resonance. An image is a portal into a poet’s mind and interior world, and hopefully, into our own as well. And troubling a particular image over time, over time, over time, and more time—this is one of the things I love about reading and writing poetry.

Look: now Wright’s spider is “recit[ing] his one sin.” Now he’s “still there, invisible, short of breath, mending his net.”

Now Marthe is in the tub, practically Ophelia. Now she’s in the tub again. Now she’s—you guessed it—in the tub again. (I could go on).

So, no, we don’t want to close ourselves off to using new images. And we don’t want to read or write an image in the exact same wording and in the exact same situation every time across a body of work (although now that I think of it, I may not be entirely opposed to that either—I mean: think of the guts that would take). We don’t want to be lazy or unthinking. But yes, please, for all time to the obsessive return of a writer or artist to his/her/their foundational  images.

Especially because the best images, returned to, reveal more of themselves to us each time we read or write.

Especially because we change and (we hope) grow and (we hope) become more capacious and complex beings—so that a spider to us in 1987 will be very different to us than a spider in 2021.

Even the same spider.

Here are some of the images I return and return to in my own writing: the roof, the fence, the rib, the stone. The birches. The hillside and its forever-willow. The ditch, the meadow, the snow. The wood thrush; the indigo bunting, it’s song about fire. The dune. The doorway and the window. Abandoning them would be like giving up my own, well, rib.

Here is Bourgeois: “The spider—why the spider? Because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.”

Why the rib? Because mine aches in times of grief or sorrow. Why the ditch, the hillside (which is also where the meadow was, ftr) and her willow? They were my best friends—places to see from without being seen. Good for watching storms blow in. Dappled, quiet, buggy, blown. Useful as a ditch / hillside / willow.

all this happened, more or less

ReadMorePoetry

Exhortation from the restroom of the Hungarian Pastry Shop. Who’s in?

(That title is from Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five; it may be off-tone to use a title from Slaughterhouse Five for a blog post. But.)

Hi.

I haven’t been here in so long I wasn’t sure of my password. Now the semester’s over and all this happened, more or less:

Over the last few years, I sent every poem in both of my (as yet unplaced) manuscripts‚—that’s seventy-four poems— to FIELD, a journal I’ve long loved. FIELD rejected all of them except three from the very last batch I sent, which are in the current issue. I’m really happy to see some poems from the new ms. finding homes in the world, and happy to be in good company at FIELD.

Over the last month, I’ve been to New York City and back to attend the Poetry Society of America awards ceremony. One-hundred years ago, I lived in Morningside Heights while I earned my first Master’s degree. During my visit, I stayed way, way uptown so I could bum around in the old neighborhood. I visited what I think of as my first coffee shop (where I grew up and where I went to college, there was no such thing)—i.e., the first place I ever went with my writing notebook to write: the Hungarian Pastry Shop. They still have the smallest tables and the best apple strudel ever.

HungarianPastryShop

at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, Amsterdam between 110th and 111th

I visited the MoMA, where I saw my favorite Jackson Pollock, Full Fathom Five. I saw my favorite Franz Kline: Painting Number 2.

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 10.03.37 AM

Franz Kline, Painting Number 2, 1954

I saw the water lilies… my favorite part of which is the right-most territory of the painting, where the beauty trails off into murk.

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 10.01.47 AM

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1914-1926

And I saw my all-time favorite Matisse, “View of Notre Dame,” which I love for its abstraction and its unfinishedness. Especially for its unfinishedness.

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 9.55.22 AM

Henri Matisse, View of Notre Dame, 1914.

I saw my dear, dear friend, one of four crucial Lauras in my life. Late in the last century, we found each other being highly introverted on the edges of a room at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. These many years later we shared loves and losses and BLT’s at a diner at 103rd and Broadway. A gift.  Alas, we were too busy enjoying each other to take a photo.

Then, later, I took a cab way, way downtown and met, in person, poets whose poetry I’d admired from a distance for years. I dressed up and wore the bling-y-est earrings I’ve worn since the last century. I shared some Real Talk with other poet-moms about motherhood, and poethood, and mother-poethood. I talked with another Laura Jensen fan about Laura Jensen (another of the four crucial Lauras in my life). I listened to these poets read their poems. You should read them, too:

Victoria Chang, winner of the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, read one of her obit poems, which have been appearing here and there in journals recently. Here is the one she read at the awards ceremony.

Kevin Prufer read his poem, “The Newspapers,” winner of the PSA Lyric Poetry Award. Every time I read it, I lose my breath at the end and need a minute.

Jennifer Chang won the William Carlos Williams Award for her book, Some Say the Lark (Alice James). I adore this book, and have been waiting for it since I read Chang’s poem, “Dorothy Wordsworth,” years ago. Happily she read this poem at the ceremony, along with another of my favorites from the book, “We Found the Body of a Young Deer Once.” This one’s a poem about friendship, a subject I believe doesn’t get enough attention in contemporary poetry.

annie-spratt-525818-unsplash

Daffodil

Elizabeth Knapp, winner of the Robert H. Winner Memorial Award, read her very timely poem, “Fourth of July.”

I listened to Billy Collins award the PSA Frost Medal to Ron Padgett, whose acceptance speech was mainly a list poem comprised of the names of all those who have been a part of his poetry life. It was a reminder that we are all standing on each other’s shoulders.

 

And I read my own poem, “Interior with a Woman Peeling Oranges, Snapping Beans.”

MS-PSAAward

Me, reading.

That seems like at least a year ago now. It seems like it all happened to someone living in another body, not the one I inhabit. But the photos and the memories are proof.

I missed my kids (and they might’ve missed me?). I missed my cat and she definitely missed me. And I am glad I went, even though it’s always easier (at least for me) to stay home with one’s nose to the grindstone. Shout-out to my mom who made it all possible by coming down to stay with the kids and keep the wheels turning en la casa del poeta.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been doing all the mom stuff, applying for jobs, helping my students with their final essay of the semester, snuggling with my cat, looking side-eye at the news, reading Jorie Graham, looking side-eye at the laundry, reading Jenny Molberg, getting shook by an earthquake (wha–?), writing a panel proposal for AWP19, looking side-eye at The Winter That Will Not Loose Its Grip on the Midwest, reading Ghassan Zaqtan, Driving People Places (this always deserves its own category), soaking in the tub, looking side-eye at the (generally empty) refrigerator, reading more Jorie Graham (“I think I am in love with silence, that other world.”), editing book reviews, grading, grading, grading, grading, and grading. Submitting final grades. Collapsing.

Also, it was 84 the other day, so, BYE, winter.

All this happened, more or less, and I am tired, and a little dazed, and a lot grateful.

friday roundup: you do not need to leave your room edition

img_8251

Here is what the walls of my study look like these days. Thank you, critical thesis.

Dear Reader, I keep starting blog posts like this: I had not intended to be away quite so long. It is still true. I’m just trying to keep all the balls up in the air: my thesis work, my editorial work, motherhood, keeping people (reasonably) well-fed and the bathrooms (reasonably) clean. Laundry (insert deer-in-the-headlights look here). And lest we forget: the poems.

[Confession: I am really good about not forgetting the poems. They are always my first priority, and I work on them every day before doing anything else. This may be a character flaw, but it’s the character flaw that has saved my life.]

At any rate, I’m here to share a few things this cold, snowy Friday.

“to let the words write the words”  One thing I want to share is this amazing essay, “Bewilderment,” by Fanny Howe. I’d printed it off a few weeks ago and finally sat down to read it. First a little background: up until several months ago, my process for writing  a poem was to free-write whatever came into my head, often something off a line by another poet, and often, amidst writing, returning to that line, and then to shave the free-write down or  mix it up or do whatever I needed to do to it to make it a poem. Lately, though, my process has undergone a big (and often, for me, bewildering) shift: Words and lines arrive from I know not where. I write them down. More words and lines arrive. I write them down. And so on until (sometimes) a poem is made. I’ve been thinking of it as the LISTEN & DICTATE process of writing poetry, a phrase which I came across in this interview.

But in this essay, Howe writes a description of her writing process which better describes my own. I never would have been able to articulate it—which is why we need the rock star poets of the world: so they can tell us what we’re doing—but it is exactly how my poems have been arriving and making themselves. Howe writes:

First I receive the impression of a time period as an experience of pure language, glimpses of actions, emotions and weathers. I jot down whatever comes through—in a rush of words. Then I begin to see what is being said and to see it as it unfolds, as if from afar and sometimes I actually stand at a distance from the words that are there. Spotting word-associations and what their sounds suggest and prove about the “point” of this emergent poem forces me to remove my body from the action; to let the words write the words. Letting the lines cohere on their own volition is crucial. Literally it is like watching someone else take form in the dark and I am weirdly disassociated from the action, an observer, a voyeur, though all the objects in the room, and the body, are familiar, are even “mine.”

An experience of pure language. To let the words write the words. Yes, please.

the poem wanders away from the demonstration  Since the election, there have been many calls to many different kinds of action. On social media, in articles, and elsewhere, I’ve read several outright imperatives and a few gentle suggestions that our poems must now be political. That poetry that does not engage in the public sphere and advocate for change is a useless endeavor.

I disagree. I think the act of making art is, itself, political. Roethke: “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.” Lyn Hejinian: the poet must “undertake the preservation of otherness.”

I also think that poems are the very opposite of tools. Which is not to say that a poem can’t be political and can’t become a rallying cry for a movement—we know poems can do this—but it is the poems themselves that decide what they will be. It is the poem’s will, not our own.

This essay at Lithub by Matthew Zapruder expresses and explores these ideas better than I have here. In it Zapruder argues that poems are an unreliable vehicle for advocacy; that:

The poem is by its nature and design easily distracted. It wanders away from the demonstration, the committee meeting, the courtroom, toward the lake or that intriguing, mysterious light over there. What is that light? It looks like something, I’m not sure what, I’m sorry to leave this very important conversation but I have to know.

He also argues:

The role of poetry in our time of crisis is the same as always: to preserve our minds and language, so we may be strong for whatever is to come. And also, to preserve the possibility of mutual understanding, not by arguing for it, but by demonstrating it.

I guess what I’m saying here, to myself as much as to any of you, is: keep writing your poems. If they are political, so be it. If they are about a pair of socks a friend knit for you, so be it. If they are about the moss growing on the garden bench despite the snow, so be it.

and in a departure from our usual Friday programming  I am not going to share a poem today. Not because there aren’t one thousand poems I could share, but because these words from Franz Kafka seem to belong with the other words I’ve written here today. And because, in a way, they are a little poem in and of themselves:

You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

I’m planning to try a little something new here moving forward. Which is: smaller, more frequent posts. We’ll see how that goes. Meanwhile, I’m wishing you warmth, comfort, and poems, yours and others’.

friday not-a-roundup: becalmed edition with the word brush

 

Paint_brushes_and_fruits

becalm v. [with obj.]  leave (a sailing vessel) unable to move through lack of wind. From be- a word-forming element with a wide range of meanings, and calm from Latin cauma “heat of the mid-day sun” from Greek kauma “heat” (especially of the sun), from kaiein “to burn.”

It’s not hot, but I’m feeling becalmed. Between meeting a deadline just now, and the loss of three singular artists this week, and it being Friday in general and no food in the house, and not even having peeked at the laundry that I’m sure has piled up while I’ve worked on my deadline, I’m just sitting here, my sails flagging, wondering what to do first, next or otherwise.

So here is a small thing that many of you may have already seen circulating on social media, but which I’m holding onto as a rallying cry for making art fiercely and always, becalming be damned. From C.D. Wright’s “Cooling Time”:

“I believe in a hardheaded art, an unremitting, unrepentant practice of one’s own faith in the word in one’s own obstinate terms. I believe the word was made good from the start; it remains so to this second. I believe words are golden as goodness is golden. Even the humble word brush gives off a scratch of light.”

brush n. an implement with a handle, consisting of bristles, hair, or wire set into a block; a slight and fleeting touch. From Old French from Old French broisse (Modern French brosse) “a brush” (13c.), perhaps from Vulgar Latin *bruscia “a bunch of new shoots.”

Happy Friday and thanks for reading.

friday (mini)roundup: ‘was she fierce?’ edition

Herself at Alta Lodge, Utah

Herself at Alta Lodge, Utah

Happy Friday, Reader. Today’s roundup will be brief-ish (I am not so very good at brief, but brief-ish I can sometimes manage), for there is Another Half-Day of school.

Last week (the week before last?) I posted a photo of a book I was reading, Cartas Aspasionadas: The letters of Friday Kahlo. It is a cool little book whose package (and contents) holds evidence of past worlds; look:

IMG_4785

The stamped due dates make me wildly happy.

Anyway, about Frida, a reader asked in the comments: was she fierce?

And I wanted to say, Yes, yes she was! But her letters reveal the art to be fiercer than the woman. Or like all of us perhaps, that she was fierce sometimes, not others.

She doubted the worth of her art, even while it was being acquired by the Louvre. And it seemed that a lot of her feelings of self-worth were dependent upon the status of her stormy relationship with Diego.

Of her painting, she wrote: “I think at least a few people are interested in it. It’s not revolutionary. Why keep wishing for it to be belligerent? I can’t.”

Of Diego: “I love you more than my own skin, and … even though you don’t love me as much, you love me a little anyway—don’t you? If this is not true, I’ll always be hopeful that it could be, and that’s enough for me… .”

And of the intersection of the two: “I’ve lost my best years being supported by a man, and doing nothing else but what I thought would benefit him.” (In fairness to Frida, she also supported Diego once or twice, bailing him out financially by selling her art).

Well, we are all flawed. And women were, for many generations, raised to find their worth in a man and/or a family, and not in their own work. I think that’s starting to change.

So, was she fierce? I think her art is fierce. I think she was fierce sometimes and not others. I think we should all be as fierce as possible in our art, our life’s work, and in our love for others and ourselves. I think we should be fierce about not letting any one of these elements of life devour any of the others.

What she was, though, that I did not know, was a poet. Here is a little poem she wrote in the guise of a letter:

*

Letter to a Girlfriend in France (probably Jaqueline Breton) by Frida Kahlo

Since you wrote me on that clear and distant day, I have been wanting to explain to you that I cannot leave those days behind or return timely to the other time. I haven’t forgotten you—the nights are long and difficult.

The water. The ship, the dock, and the departure that made you so small to my eyes, imprisoned in that round window, that you were looking at in order to keep me in your heart.

Everything is intact. Later, there came the days, new of you. Today, I would like my sun to touch you. I tell you that your daughter is my daughter, the puppets, set up in their large glass room, they belong to both of us.

The huipil with purple ribbons is yours. Mine are those old plazas of your Paris.

*

If that’s not a poem, I don’t know what is.

Here is what a huipil is.

All this thinking about fierceness reminds me of a quote from Isadora Duncan:

You were once wild here. Don’t let them tame you.

Let us all be fierce, wild, untamed, artists, lovers.

friday roundup: walking the plank, how to end a poem, and when in doubt, art

by Howard Pyle, wikimedia

by Howard Pyle, wikimedia

Dear Reader,

Are you still there? I am still here. I am still juggling, dancing, dashing and dodging, but alas, never balancing. I am still reporting to my desk in its four-foot stretch of wall space with regularity — “as if it were a given property of the mind / that certain bounds hold against chaos… .” And they do. Intermittently. As one of my first teachers of poetry (and a mother of four) used to say: “Life is very lifelike.”

Anyway, onto poetic thoughts and musings….

walking the plank  I am still reading A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line (Wow — just noticed the price on that baby. Hunt around. I found it for much cheaper). I am still finding gems page by page, sometimes a whole essay of treasure. After figurative language, line is probably my very favorite element of poetry — both in reading and writing. I like it best when reading or writing a line of poetry is like walking the plank. Here is Catherine Barnett (who I quoted a few weeks back as saying poetry is “a ruin of prose”) on this march-toward-death quality of the line:

“Poetry gives me endless options, and where and how to end the line is, for me, one of the most energizing possibilities, uncertainties, because it holds within it the possibility of beginning again at the next line, and that little vertical fall is fuel, libido, a little vertigo — and because it holds within it the possibility that the line won’t end, not / this / time. Preserving your options is only a poor man’s strategy for forestalling death. A line-break is the same. Mortality confronts you at every line. Is this it? Is this it? Is / this / it?

Let us give thanks for smart poets who write essays and books on craft so that we can read them. Amen.

how to end a poem  (insert maniacal laughter here). And lo, it is said, “Endings are hard, man. Like drawing hands.” Yes they are. But I gave a little craft talk on endings at my poetry group a couple of weeks ago, and the outcome was a list of strategies for ending a poem. I could kick myself for not making this list ten years ago. Here is the list:

  • Bold claim
  • Shift to the imperative voice
  • Direct address (“Greetings, Earthlings.”)
  • Apostrophe
  • Dialogue / something spoken
  • Make a list
  • Ask (a) question(s) (Personal favorite: Lucille Clifton, “quilting,” “how does this poem end? …”
  • (needless to say) Strong image
  • Explicit entry (or re-entry) of the speaker
  • Big swerve (e.g., description, description, description, statement that seems to have nothing to do with the description but obviously does because it’s in the same poem)
  • Change in perspective (a widening or narrowing of the lens, so to speak)
  • Return to or break from pattern used previously in the poem (formal, syntactical, metrical, etc.)

These strategies are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They are not offered as The List, just a list. One that I plan to keep adding to as I study poems and their endings. It will not make endings easy, but now you have a list of things to try when you don’t know how to end a poem (or maybe you already had this list and I am late to the party).

when in doubt, art  Sometimes the world feels heavy and incomprehensible (most times?). Then it feels like whatever tiny lines we can write on a blank page don’t matter. Because tsunami. Because QSIS. Because the plane. Because the girls. Because school shootings. Because starving children. Because midterm elections. Because “surgical strikes.” And the list goes on. When the world feels too heavy to write about, I often turn to art and write an ekphrastic poem. Art, I feel, is reliable. It always has more to give — more beauty, more comfort, more hope, more humanity. And of course, art is of this world, too — so then I feel better about the world in a roundabout way.

Anyway, I read a stellar ekphrastic poem in Blackbird this week, and I’ll leave you with it. It is “An Early Nude by Rothko” by Lindsay Bernal.

Happy weekend!

friday roundup: to recapitulate, understatement, and ‘failures like rented rooms’

Hopper's "Sun in an Empty Room"

Hopper’s “Sun in an Empty Room”

I won’t bother with a “since the last roundup” list. Even I don’t want to know.

Oh, but wait — there was a kid-free trip up to The City (as peninsula-dwellers call San Francisco).

And two critical response papers finished and sent off.

And as much po-time as I could squeeze out of two weeks of half-days of school.

And now:

to recapitulate  I’m always interested in the concept of truth in poetry. I know of some who vehemently feel that anything that is not actually (factually) true does not belong in a poem. I know of others who believe that the facts are only important insofar as they support a truth. Truth as concept, I mean — not necessarily what happened but the universal truth of the experience of what happened (if that makes sense).

I place my feet firmly inside the second camp.

Real-time digression: This makes me think of Beth Ann Fennelly‘s poem “Mother Sends My Poem to Her Sister with Post-its.” The poem is a series of short passages that read like what’s written on the post-its. Here’s one:

“She got this wrong / it was me not her father / who sang her ‘Irish Rosie’ / she was so sick with measles”

Real-time digression: I also love, love, love Fennelly’s poem “Poem Not To Be Read at Your Wedding.” Here’s a link (scroll down) and an excerpt:

“Well, Carmen, I would rather / give you your third set of steak knives / than tell you what I know.”

Ahem. But I digress. What I was planning to share was this quote from Louise Glück, the X-acto Knife of Poets:

“To recapitulate: the source of art is experience, the end product truth, and the artist, surveying the actual, constantly intervenes and manages, lies and deletes, all in the service of truth.” (from Proofs and Theories, Ecco Press, 1994).

Amen.

understatement One of the things I wrote about in one of my papers due this week was ambiguity. I’m interested in how a certain quality of ambiguity invites the reader to engage more deeply in the poem, and to continue the work of the poem through that engagement. I won’t bore you with the criteria I propose create that quality of ambiguity, but I will share a couple of quotes from the section on understatement and the withheld image in the old work-horse Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry:

“Never tell a reader what will leap to the mind without your telling.”

and

“Mature writers prefer to understate, to say less than they might rather than more, so that the meaning can explode within the reader.”

Yes — that explosion of meaning — that’s one of the things I love about reading poetry. How you can read the poem at 5:30 a.m. (or whatever time you read in your neck of the woods) and then two Tuesdays later, while you’re wiping the counters at 9:00 p.m. it hits you, a possible meaning for that poem/line/image. Yes.

failures like rented rooms Short poems. I adore them. I read them. I study them. I cannot seem to write them. I aspire.

Here is a short poem by a poet I’ve only just discovered, thanks to another poet who wrote about her work on Facebook (I pause to admit mixed emotions and eternal gratitude for the tribe-building function of Facebook). The poet is Deborah Digges. As with my recent discovery (thanks to another poet — though not on Facebook) of Jack Gilbert, I cannot conceive of how I’ve lived 42 years on the face of this earth and never read Deborah Digges’ poems until now.

*

Custody by Deborah Digges

The first warm evening in April
I unpack my summer clothes, dresses
in which you knew me, hanging
from the lights and mirrors and windows.
Once our idea of heaven meant
all the dead relatives waiting
on the kept lawn of the many mansions
as if, suddenly sinless, they had nothing
to do. Now I’ve come to see our failures
like rented rooms to which the boarder
returns and falls asleep fully clothed,
only to wake at a cat’s cry
or a child’s, locked away in
one of the neighboring houses.

*

I love how that “like rented rooms” can be read both literally and figuratively. And how she brings sound in at the end to keep the poem ringing in our ears.

And that’s a wrap. Have a good weekend. Thanks for reading.