Origins of “Sludge” in Lady Mary Wroth and Life, Essay 13 of #52essays2017

Almost exactly ten years ago, I had an unfortunate lapse in judgement of the sexual variety, which had at least one terrible consequence and one pretty good one: The terrible shall remain my secret, but the good I happily claim, namely, a song called Sludge, destined for my band gutter & spine. At that time, playing drums and singing in a punkity-rockity band represented a distraction and fun outlet from writing my dissertation and teaching. It is no coincidence that most of my other lyrics for gutter & spine songs (d’Orca, Ode to a Mofo) also have their origins in early modern literature. It may even have been that I was teaching Renaissance Poetry that semester, which is why, the morning after, feeling gross and hungover, I wrote the lyrics to Sludge with almost no revision–something that basically never happened before or since.

Portrait of Mary Sidney Herbert, circa 1590. Wikimedia.
Mary Herbert

I can’t remember if I had Wroth’s sonnet “When night’s black mantle could most darkness prove” open before I started, but I believe I turned to it while I wrote. The lyrics give voice to a time when bad life choices were so intermixed with good, that sludge seemed an apt existential state of being.

Lady Mary Wroth (1587-1651/3) was born into a noble
and literary family. She was the niece of the famous Elizabethan poet and courtier Philip Sidney, and of Mary Herbert (Née Sidney), a poet in her own right and a great patron of the arts who encouraged and inspired the young Wroth in her literary endeavors. and although she enjoyed accolades from the great male authors in her lifetime, such as Ben Jonson, her poems (unlike that of her male counterparts) fell into obscurity. As the Longman textbook with which I used to warp young minds tells me:

The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania title page, 1621. Wikimedia.
Urania title page

“Appreciated by the finest poets of her time, her writing was neglected for the next 300 years, she has only recently been rediscovered as one of the most compelling women writers of her age. Her Pamphilia to Amphilanthus the first Petrarchan sonnet sequence in English by a woman, was first printed in 1621 but was not reprinted until 1977.”

Pamphilia to Amphilanthus provided me the fodder for Sludge in its first scorching sonnet:

When night’s black mantle could most darkness prove,

And sleep, death’s image, did my senses hire

From knowledge of myself, then thoughts did move

Swifter than those most swiftness need require:

 

In sleep, a chariot drawn by winged desire

I saw, where sat bright Venus, Queen of love,

And at her feet her son, still adding fire

To burning hearts, which she did hold above.

 

But one heart flaming more than all the rest

The goddess held, and put it to my breast.

”Dear son, now shoot,” said she, ”thus must we win.”

He her obeyed, and martyred my poor heart.

I, waking hoped as dreams it would depart;

Yet since, O me, a lover I have been.

[From Mary Wroth’s Poetry: An Electronic Edition, La Trobe University]

Portrait of Lady Mary Wroth, circa 1620, holding a theorbo. Wikimedia.
Mary Wroth

Although I stole a few key phrases, for instance the martyring of the heart, unlike Wroth, I address the song to the love-object (bastard), while Wroth is unconcerned with him, at least in this poem. However, we know that there is one, since the cycle is called Pamphilia (the all loving one) to Amphilanthus (the dual lover). In other words, the female speaker in the lyric loves completely one man while her lover is divided in his affections. Infidelity and jealousy preoccupy the speaker in the lyrics, as well as the women in Urania, the romance to which the sonnet cycle is appended. And yet, in this first poem, the lover is nowhere to be seen. Only love, the daughter and son team, shoot the already burning heart with more desire–eternal desire perhaps, and enclose it in the poor speaker’s breast.

In this first sonnet, the speaker hasn’t any obvious gender, however Wroth sets up the Petrarchan love sonnet cycle with a difference by having the woman (Pamphilia) write to the man (Amphilanthus). Typical Renaissance love poetry, written mostly by men following Petrarch’s model, presented the love object as the unattainable, idealized and silent lady.” But as the first essay in Re-Reading Mary Wroth suggests, Wroth reverses the roles by giving the silent lady a voice and goes even further than her male counterparts by paying little attention to their presence:

“She silences the male beloved even more completely than is usually the case with the Petrarchan lady, omitting many of the usual Petrarchan topics: there are no praises of his overpowering physical beauty or charms, no narratives of kisses or other favors received or denied, no reports of his words or actions, no blazons praising each of his parts, no promises to eternalize him, no palinodes or renunciations of love.”

Facsimile of Sonnet 1 "When night's dark mantle..." from La Trobe.
Sonnet one

Pamphilia does not bother to extol the virtues of Amphilanthus, because, for one thing he does not turn out to be virtuous, but rather inconstant–no surprise considering his name. It is also that, as in so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the interest lies within the psyche of the speaker/poet and not with the beloved. The beloved is but an impetus for shaping strong passions into poetry.

Perhaps that is where the speaker of Sludge offers the most affinity with her Renaissance counterpart. Although she takes some little time to denegrate the bastard that is her love object by indulging in a death-metalesque blazon of the unworthy scoundrel, she is more interested in her own feelings of shame that is the consequence of being dragged into the mire by an unworthy lover:

Up from the depths of the murky sludge,

You rise and stand in your glory, all thumbs

And metal, you look like some badass jesus

And you’ve come to martyr my poor heart today…

*This is essay 13 of #52essays2017. You can read #12 “Drinking Monarch Nectar” here*

 

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To Stravinsky, a poem in memory of my guide dog Igor

November 13 is the birthday of Igor, my last guide dog. It is a day to celebrate his short life as well as the diligent and loving lives of guide dogs everywhere. Please consider a donation to the fund I set up at the Animal Medical Center in honor of him and my first guide dog, Millennium.

This week Stravinsky, Igor's plant spirit, found himself front and center in the Godin's World Fair, amongst colored lights and origami braille cranes.

To Stravinsky

I write to you, Stravinsky,

Because he, for whom you are named,

Is nowhere to be found.

You sit on my desk next to keepsakes

From his short life

And are easy to take care of,

Therefore easy to love.

 

Let me tell you how you came to occupy

This tiny exalted place…

 

Three days after I lost him

I cleaned mindlessly,

Brought out the vacuum and went to work.

Being blind helps forgetfulness:

Out of sight out of

 

BAM CLATTER

 

I hit the aluminum dog bowls

And probably shrieked.

I picked up the two bowls

As if they might bite or squirm

And dropped them into recycling.

Then I went and cried in human arms.

 

In those arms,

Deep within my sobs,

I conceived a ritual from nowhere,

A rite of spring.

 

I want to go buy a plant tonight,

I will name it Stravinsky,

Spirit of Igor.

 

I picked out and washed the water bowl,

Set it on my desk,

Another empty vessel.

 

At the florist I asked for a plant

That was easy to take care of.

The woman named one

And I asked if it was viney.

She said No,

That one stood straight up like a tree,

A popular plant,

Recommended by some celebrity doctor

For its air purification properties.

 

I was not interested in pure air.

I wanted prehistoric leafy tendrils

Of encroaching flourishing

With minimal fuss.

 

Like all dark relationships,

Ours, Stravinsky, is complicated.

 

I might have hated plant life

Since green grass tempted him

And led him to swallow the neon vine

 

That stuck in his stomach

That led to the surgery

That sliced the tiny incision

That led to the microscopic sepsis

That led to the systemic failure

That led to the pneumonia

That gave final cause for his

Being nowhere to be found.

 

But I do not believe in fate

Or in the culpability of nature

Any more than I believe you to be

A fit substitute receptacle

For my I love yous.

 

Even so,

I love you Stravinsky.

In his bowl I keep you

Healthy and happy.

It is easy to water

You every ten days,

Gratifying to have your reachy growth

On this simple expanse of desk.

Still, if you do not outlive me,

I doubt I will cry at all.

*This poem was first published at Quail Bell Magazine*

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Dying Into Being: Goethe and the corpse Flower

[This Distill My Heart about the infamous corpse flower and its unsavory pollinators is a little bit stinky creepy crawly, a little bit anthroposophical sweetness, and was first published at Quail Bell Magazine.]

 

Most people know Goethe as the author of Faust and other literary works. But Goethe was also a keen amateur botanist who was very proud of his scientific writings, despite the fact that they fell flat in his own time–both because he was not a member of the scientific community and because they seemed outlandish to his contemporaries. “Stick to poetry,” was the general consensus. His 1790 Metamorphosis of Plants was not fully appreciated until after Darwin’s theory of evolution established itself.

 

In their chapter on Goethe, the authors of The Secret Life of Plants (1973) present the poet-scientist against the backdrop of the cataloguing and classifying mania of the 18th and 19th centuries, and lament how that mania deprived the study of botany its vivacity:

 

“How many universities even now draw the parallel between the hermaphroditic nature of plants, which bear both penis and vagina in the same body, with the “ancient wisdom” which relates that man is descended from an androgynous predecessor? The ingenuity of some plants in avoiding self-fertilization is uncanny. Some kinds of palm trees even bear staminate flowers one year and pistillate the next. Whereas in grasses and cereals cross-fertilization is insured by the action of the wind, most other plants are cross-fertilized by birds and insects. Like animals and women, flowers exude a powerful and seductive odor when ready for mating. This causes a multitude of bees, birds, and butterflies to join in a Saturnalian rite of fecundation.”

Enter the corpse flower, the titan arum, whose Latin binomial, Amorphophallus titanum, refers to its giant (titanum), misshapen (amorpho), phallus-like spadix, which some say resembles more a French baguette.

 

In the past few weeks, the corpse flower has received a lot of attention as it has bloomed in the botanical gardens of three US cities: New York, Washington DC and Denver. My personal favorite, based on name alone, is Charlotte, the darling of the U.S. Botanic Garden.

 

In The Corpse Flower is Ready for its (Smelly) Close-up, published on August 2, the Washington Post warns:

 

“She took her own sweet time to unfurl the maroon cape that surrounds the central spike of the world’s largest unbranched flower. But that may be the only thing about Charlotte that is sweet. She opened at around 4 a.m. and by late morning was greeting visitors with odors that ranged from rotting cabbage to stinky trash and worse. Over the next few hours, and particularly Tuesday evening, her horticultural minders anticipate the flower to unleash the rotten flesh stink that gives it its common name.”

 

Amorphophallus titanum is a member of the angiosperm (flowering/fruiting) phylum, which is by far the most successful plant phylum with over 250,000 species. In terms of diversity, angiosperms are second only to the insect phylum, with whom they have flourished. In the push for genetic diversity, insects and angiosperms have been very cleverly doing the genetic mutation dance in tandem for about a hundred million years–remember that fun video of a bee humping an orchid?

 

As OpenStax Biology puts it, “Most flowers have a mutualistic pollinator, with the distinctive features of flowers reflecting the nature of the pollination agent. The relationship between pollinator and flower characteristics is one of the great examples of coevolution.”

 

This brings us to the corpse flower’s pollinators…

 

Sure, you can attract sweet-toothed bees and butterflies with nectar, but why compete with all those girly flowers? Corner the market on the smell of death, and the night’s creepy-crawlies are yours! The corpse flower bothers not with the masses but has rather made a name for itself in the niche-market that caters to flesh eating flies and beetles who come out at night for a snack and to lay their eggs in carcasses.

 

Instead of a slab o’ meat, these fellows find themselves trotting atop a giant flower, which, in addition to exuding convincing odor, generates heat in its Oscar-worthy portrayal of rotting flesh. Dazed and confused, the beetle or fly departs in search of the real thing and is (hopefully) foiled by another corpse flower, thereby delivering new genetic material for a new generation.

 

The corpse flower must open, attract pollinators and be pollinated all within a day or so, if it is not to have gone through all its work in vain. Allow me to reiterate the strangeness of plants, which, unlike most of us, possess both male and female organs. In other words, flowers can self-pollinate, though many, like the corpse flower open or activate their male and female sex organs in succession rather than concurrently in order to avoid this. The point is that flowering plants have developed ingenious ways of spreading their seed, and a marvelous diversity, foul and fair, has sprung from that evolutionary impulse.

 

The corpse flower is a member of the family araceae, which also includes the calla lily (Calla palustris). This is lucky for me, since I have never seen a corpse flower but have a very vivid visual memory of the sexy calla lily from my childhood backyard in San Francisco. I see quite clearly in my mind’s eye the large and elegant white spathe–what I would have called a petal–with its yellow finger-like thing sticking up out of it–I now know this to be called the spadix on which the actual flowers hang out. This is a good memory to have since all I have to do is enlarge the whole thing by several feet, color it burgundy and, ta-dah! Behold the titan arum. Please don’t pop my bubble if I’m wrong. I’m blind. Give me a break. Anyway, who gives a dam what the thing looks like? People don’t stand in long lines for the look of the thing. No. They flock to city botanical gardens in order to smell the stink!

 

But because the Titan arum reaches ripeness of stench in the middle of the night, visitors to botanical gardens featured in YouTube videos seem disappointed by the underwhelming gross-out quotient. Personally, living in New York City, where summer stinks abound, I felt not the least need to witness this smelltacular.

 

According to Titan arum’s Wikipedia page:

 

“Analyses of chemicals released by the spadix show the “stench” includes: dimethyl trisulfide (like limburger cheese), dimethyl disulfide, trimethylamine (rotting fish), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks), benzyl alcohol (sweet floral scent), phenol (like Chloraseptic), and indole (like human feces).”

 

Interestingly, I’ve run into this last before. Indole, despite its resemblance to poop, is a chemical constituent in some of the most beautiful-smelling flowers such as jasmine (Jasminum grandiflorum, J sambac, etc.) ( and ylang-ylang(Cananga odorata), which are both used in perfumery and aromatherapy for their calming, alluring and even aphrodisiac qualities. As Perfumes: The A-Z Guide puts it:

 

“One of the many difficulties that nature has strewn in the path of perfumers is the vexed problem of indole. Indole is a small molecule made up of a hexagonal ring and a pentagonal ring fused together and containing nitrogen. It and its kissing cousin skatole are breakdown products of the digestion of food and are therefore found in feces. They are also found in large amounts in white flowers such as jasmine, ylang, etc., possibly to attend to the eclectic tastes of pollinating insects. In the textbooks, their odor is described as “fecal, floral in dilution,” which is nonsense: they smell like shit when in shit, and like flowers when in flowers. By itself indole smells like ink and mothballs; skatole smells like bad teeth and that wonderful tripe sausage called andouillette. What, you ask, is the problem? If you measure the amount of indole in, say, jasmine oil and make up a synthetic mix with the same amount of the pure stuff, it will smell of mothballs whereas the natural one doesn’t. Why? Nobody knows. But that is the main reason why white-flower reconstitutions seldom have the back-of-the-throat rasp of the real thing. Perfumers put in as much indole as they dare, but usually stop short of the full dose.”

 

I think nature touches upon the uncanny with this not-quite-rightness of an ostensibly monolithic good or bad scent. Disgusting scents have a little flower sweetness (benzyl alcohol) to make them especially awful, while beautiful ones need a little nasty indole to keep them from being cloying.

 

As mentioned above, besides producing um, fragrance, the corpse flower is thermogenic (heat-producing)–stink + heat = convincing carrion!

 

Other colorfully/odoriferously named thermogenic members of the araceae family are: eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus ), elephant foot yam (Amorphophallus paeoniifolius ), vvoodoo lily (Sauromatum venosum ), and dead horse arum lily (Helicodiceros muscivorus )–also stinky to attract flesh-loving flies.

 

The heat production takes a lot out of the plant, which is one reason why their bloom is so short. The corpse flower resembles a corpse more than a flower for much of its lifecycle.

 

After the corpse flower blooms and dies, a gigantic leaf–the size of a small tree–will rise from the corm. A corm is an underground modified stem used for energy storage that resembles a bulb or rhizome–the corm of the corpse flower is as outrageous as the rest of the plant, typically weighing over a hundred pounds. The leaf will work to store food-energy, then wither and fall off, leaving the giant corm to lie underground dormant for approximately four months, then the process will begin again.

 

The corpse flower’s contraction into the corm is a perfect segue back to Goethe, as his understanding of the lifecycle of a plant takes place in a series of expansions and contractions, each seeming entirely different from one another and yet all containing within them the potentiality of the whole plant.

 

So as we wave goodbye to the corpse flower bloom, I leave you with an anthroposophical flourish, found in Ernst Lehrs’ book Man or Matter; introduction to a spiritual understanding of nature on the basis of Goethe’s method of training observation and thought (1958):

“Compared with the leaf, the flower is a dying organ. This dying, however, is of a kind we may aptly call a ‘dying into being.’ Life in its mere vegetative form is here seen withdrawing in order that a higher manifestation of the spirit may take place.”

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INWARD VISIONS: Helen Keller Defends her Sense of Beauty

[These thoughts on aesthetics, understanding, poetry, beauty and the senses come from Keller’s 1908 book The World I Live In. “Inward Visions” is Chapter 9. You can read Chapter 6 on Smell HERE. The text has been hyperlinked, gently edited for apparent scanning errors and the odd British spellings Americanized.]

Publicity still from the 1919 film Deliverance about Keller's childhood. The fictional Helen is at far left of the group and her three playmates are gathered behind her. They look on as Helen holds a kitten; several other kittens can be seen amid a pile of straw at left.

ACCORDING to all art, all nature, all coherent human thought, we know that order, proportion, form, are essential elements of beauty. Now order, proportion, and form, are palpable to the touch. But beauty and rhythm are deeper than sense. They are like love and faith. They spring out of a spiritual process only slightly dependent upon sensations. Order, proportion, form, cannot generate in the mind the abstract idea of beauty, unless there is already a soul intelligence to breathe life into the elements. Many persons, having perfect eyes, are blind in their perceptions. Many persons, having perfect ears, are emotionally deaf. Yet these are the very ones who dare to set limits to the vision of those who, lacking a sense or two, have will, soul, passion, imagination. Faith is a mockery if it teaches us not that we may construct a world unspeakably more complete and beautiful than the material world. And I, too, may construct my better world, for I am a child of God, an inheritor of a fragment of the Mind that created all worlds.

 

There is a consonance of all things, a blending of all that we know about the material world and the spiritual. It consists for me of all the impressions, vibrations, heat, cold, taste, smell, and the sensations which these convey to the mind, infinitely combined, interwoven with associated ideas and acquired knowledge. No thoughtful person will believe that what I said about the meaning of footsteps is strictly true of mere jolts and jars. It is an array of the spiritual in certain natural elements, tactual beats, and an acquired knowledge of physical habits and moral traits of highly organized human beings. What would odors signify if they were not associated with the time of the year, the place I live in, and the people I know?

 

The result of such a blending is sometimes a discordant trying of strings far removed from a melody, very far from a symphony. (For the benefit of those who must be reassured, I will say that I have felt a musician tuning his violin, that I have read about a symphony, and so have a fair intellectual perception of my metaphor.) But with training and experience the faculties gather up the stray notes and combine them into a full, harmonious whole. If the person who accomplishes this task is peculiarly gifted, we call him a poet. The blind and the deaf are not great poets, it is true. Yet now and again you find one deaf and blind who has attained to his royal kingdom of beauty.

 

I have a little volume of poems by a deaf-blind lady, Madame Bertha Galeron. Her poetry has versatility of thought. Now it is tender and sweet, now full of tragic passion and the sternness of destiny. Victor Hugo called her “La Grande Voyante.” She has written several plays, two of which have been acted in Paris. The French Academy has crowned her work. The infinite wonders of the universe are revealed to us in exact measure as we are capable of receiving them. The keenness of our vision depends not on how much we can see, but on how much we feel. Nor yet does mere knowledge create beauty. Nature sings her most exquisite songs to those who love her. She does not unfold her secrets to those who come only to gratify their desire of analysis, to gather facts, but to those who see in her manifold phenomena suggestions of lofty, delicate sentiments.

 

 

 

Am I to be denied the use of such adjectives as “freshness” and “sparkle,” “dark” and “gloomy”? I have walked in the fields at early morning. I have felt a rose-bush laden with dew and fragrance. I have felt the curves and graces of my kitten at play. I have known the sweet, shy ways of little children. I have known the sad opposites of all these, a ghastly touch picture. Remember, I have sometimes travelled over a dusty road as far as my feet could go. At a sudden turn I have stepped upon starved, ignoble weeds, and reaching out my hands, I have touched a fair tree out of which a parasite had taken the life like a vampire. I have touched a pretty bird whose soft wings hung limp, whose little heart beat no more. I have wept over the feebleness and deformity of a child, lame, or born blind, or, worse still, mindless. If I had the genius of Thomson, I, too, could depict a “City of Dreadful Night” from mere touch sensations. From contrasts so irreconcilable can we fail to form an idea of beauty and know surely when we meet with loveliness?

 

Here is a sonnet eloquent of a blind man’s power of vision:

 

 

THE MOUNTAIN TO THE PINE

 

Thou tall, majestic monarch of the wood,

That standest where no wild vines dare to creep,

Men call thee old, and say that thou hast stood

A century upon my rugged steep;

Yet unto me thy life is but a day,

When I recall the things that I have seen,–

The forest monarchs that have passed away

Upon the spot where first I saw thy green;

For I am older than the age of man,

Or all the living things that crawl or creep,

Or birds of air, or creatures of the deep;

I was the first dim outline of God’s plan:

Only the waters of the restless sea

And the infinite stars in heaven are old to me.

 

I am glad my friend Mr. Stedman knew that poem while he was making his Anthology, for knowing it, so fine a poet and critic could not fail to give it a place in his treasure-house of American poetry. The poet, Mr. Clarence Hawkes, has been blind since childhood; yet he finds in nature hints of combinations for his mental pictures. Out of the knowledge and impressions that come to him he constructs a masterpiece which hangs upon the walls of his thought. And into the poet’s house come all the true spirits of the world.

 

It was a rare poet who thought of the mountain as “the first dim outline of God’s plan.” That is the real wonder of the poem, and not that a blind man should speak so confidently of sky and sea. Our ideas of the sky are an accumulation of touch-glimpses, literary allusions, and the observations of others, with an emotional blending of all. My face feels only a tiny portion of the atmosphere; but I go through continuous space and feel the air at every point, every instant. I have been told about the distances from our earth to the sun, to the other planets, and to the fixed stars. I multiply a thousand times the utmost height and width that my touch compasses, and thus I gain a deep sense of the sky’s immensity.

 

Move me along constantly over water, water, nothing but water, and you give me the solitude, the vastness of ocean which fills the eye. I have been in a little sail-boat on the sea, when the rising tide swept it toward the shore. May I not understand the poet’s figure: “The green of spring overflows the earth like a tide”? I have felt the flame of a candle blow and flutter in the breeze. May I not, then, say: “Myriads of fireflies flit hither and thither in the dew-wet grass like little fluttering tapers”?

 

Combine the endless space of air, the sun’s warmth, the clouds that are described to my understanding spirit, the frequent breaking through the soil of a brook or the expanse of the wind-ruffled lake, the tactual undulation of the hills, which I recall when I am far away from them, the towering trees upon trees as I walk by them, the bearings that I try to keep while others tell me the directions of the various points of the scenery, and you will begin to feel surer of my mental landscape. The utmost bound to which my thought will go with clearness is the horizon of my mind. From this horizon I imagine the one which the eye marks.

 

Touch cannot bridge distance,–it is fit only for the contact of surfaces,–but thought leaps the chasm. For this reason I am able to use words descriptive of objects distant from my senses. I have felt the rondure of the infant’s tender form. I can apply this perception to the landscape and to the far-off hills.

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Resonating With the Visible, genesis of a Poem

I was sewing–I hand-sew, as you can read about in Sewing Blind–and listening to the series of interviews Bill Moyers had with Joseph Campbell in the last year of his life (1987), collectively called The Power of Myth, when I heard Moyers preface his next question with this:

“We talked about the effect of the hunting plain on mythology, this space clearly bounded by a circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above. But what about the people who lived in the dense foliage of the jungle? There’s no dome of the sky, no horizon, no sense of perspective–just trees, trees, trees.”

I paused the interview and continued stitching. Occasionally sewing becomes a kind of active meditation for me. I thought about that phrase “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above.” It resonated. I allowed the associations to ripple gently on the lake of consciousness. I’m not sure how long before the rings of “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above” met those of a visual memory of a desert sunrise , but when they did the opening lines of “Never Be Sorry” emerged.

The memory began in the predawn desert of Joshua Tree National Park. My UC Santa Cruz roommates and I had driven down the day before and arrived at night to the campground. I awoke before dawn to a cold so cold that I still compare all colds to that one. Surely it was not actually as cold as some recent winters in NYC, but sleeping on the ground in a flimsy down sleeping bag my feet and hands were painfully frozen, almost burning so that tears started to my eyes. My companions were somehow still sleeping while I stared at the millions of sharp cold stars. Perhaps I could have forgotten my pain if I had been able to pick out constellations, but having lost my central vision when I was in high school, I had never been able to make them out–I could see the stars just as I could see inked letters on a printed page, but without the detail rendered by the fovea, the words and pictures refused me their intelligibility.

So I stared at those frozen chips of light and thought they might enter my heart and freeze my soul, like what happened to the little boy in The Snow Queen. The sleep breathing of my companions assured me I was not alone, but sometimes that is not enough–one yearns in this lonely universe for conscious companions to witness the pain and creeping fear.

The hours or only minutes passed. Perhaps I closed my eyes for a moment. When they reopened, I found a new scene, one that so took my breath away that the cold seemed almost to disappear.

Rolling my eyes around that great expanse of sky–that exalted dome–I saw a pale silver lightening rising up from the horizon, silhouetting the sharp rocks, which appeared heaped into crazy formations as if by an abstract-expressionist deity.

And finally, just above the silver ring of impending sunrise, hung a sliver-moon risen, it seemed, just to complicate the transition from night to day, and create the illusion of a metamorphosis arrested, the dome of night suspended forever in the bowl of rising day.

My poem of sight and blindness would be about the beauty and more than beauty–sublimity–of the visible world. I wanted to celebrate the visible, celebrate my participation in the appreciation of that world from a perspective of one who no longer participates physically in that appreciation, but who, in her mind’s eye via memory and art, still attempts to participate in the glorious materiality of sight.

The poem would resonate with the visible, with ambiguous regret–how can I regret having seen such beauty? How can I not regret, when the having-seen causes a painful desire for more?

The fleeting quality of the visible world had no better analogy than a sight once seen of butterflies falling from the skies in coupling torrents, falling into our hands and into our hair and all around, a frenzy of mating butterflies in an improbable grove of eucalyptus trees. It had been a memory ripe for art picking for many years.

According to the Natural Bridges State Beach website, ” From late fall into winter, the Monarchs form a ‘city in the trees.’ The area’s mild seaside climate and eucalyptus grove provide a safe place for monarchs to roost until spring.”

In my time at UC Santa Cruz, I often brought visiting friends and family to see the monarchs, but never had I seen it like that. Most times I went the weather was not warm enough for them to fly much and they clustered in the trees, wings folded, so that I, with my poor vision, would never have recognized them as butterflies if they’d not been pointed out to me.

The day the butterflies fell from the sky in copulating pairs is so crystalline a memory that I sometimes fear it was a dream. A dream of nature that, as a child, I often experienced as an extension of my waking life–a dream set in a specific and quotidian event or outing–a field trip that really did take place in a verifiable way–but so improbable as to force the memory into the taxonomical mental space of a dream, but nonetheless differing not at all from the memories of autobiographical reality.

As I am writing, I grow more fearful that my mating butterflies memory is not real. For the first time I am trying to situate it in a day, trying to give context–who was I with, for example? We, laughing and stunned, opened our hands to catch them as they fell, but the other hasn’t an identity , just a presence, a guy but not a lover. Sounds rather fishily like a dream, no? And yet I’m positive it happened. And yet I’m disturbed.

I wonder, for the first time, if essaying the story of a poem can destroy its reality? Can a poem even be destroyed in such a way?

Unsure of my answers to the above, I rush on to present my real point: I loved seeing and yet I think being in love with seeing is a danger all seeing mortals face. That to see constantly without a lens, aesthetic or philosophical, or from the perspective of impending blindness, or recovered sight, or religious ecstasy, or even scientific curiosity, is to see without anything but one’s eyes, and thus to render oneself a mere gawker or dumb tourist.

As Campbell puts it in the opening lines of The Power of Myth:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive .”

And so with this idea of resonance in mind, I will not be disturbed by the possible unreality of the mating butterflies falling from the sky. If it is but a dream vision, its purity as memory speaks to the power of imagination to endow sad inert brown clusters of cold insects hanging from eucalyptus trees in a Santa Cruz grove, with the flight and life-frenzy of mating monarchs in all their sun dappled orange and black magic.

If I held one of these coupling double-creatures in my hand only in my dreams, is it not enough?

Never Be Sorry

 

 

I Will Never Be Sorry

To have seen that jagged desert,

Encircled by horizon,

Topped with that great dome

Of exalted blue heavens above,

Or that lovely cool sliver of a moon.

 

And I will never be sorry

To have seen that ragged face

(that great last love

That blazed so quick)

Or to have loved it

With spit and fire.

 

And I will never be sorry

To have Seen these fucking butterflies–

Literally, fucking butterflies–

Falling from the sky

(It’s hard to fly   when you’re fucking)

So they drop

Into the hand of one

Who will never be sorry she sees them

Drop dancing into the palm of her

And dance till they rocket apart.

 

Up and away

Into that close slab of sky,

Chipped away by these eucalyptuses–

These Eucalypti?

Whatever they are called,

THEY DO NOT BELONG HERE:

Australian trees on a Santa Cruz

Draw the monarchs from

God only knows where.

 

This is an impossible grove

With its accessible walks

And its stupid visitors hut–

Winds might yet blow it all away.

 

And on that ocean

Sit those natural bridges,

Carved out by a thousand years of pounding,

Had I like them

Energy enough   and time

I would never, never,

Never be sorry.

 

*This revised version of “Never Be Sorry” was published at Quail Bell Magazine. Here also is the original version, with photographic visionscape by Todd Jackson…

 

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Nietzsche and His Pain Named Dog, #52essays2017

I have given a name to my pain and call it “dog.” It is just as faithful, just as obtrusive and shameless, just as entertaining, just as clever as any other dog–and I can scold it and vent my bad mood on it, as others do with their dogs, servants, and wives. –Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

I first heard this Nietzsche quote while I was sewing–yes, I like to sew and listen to philosophy books as well as novels! It was a quote that caused me to stop my electronic reader and sew quietly for a while. Then I read it and reread it with more and more attention and finally, a poem popped out! Although it needed another month or two of embellishments and revisions, it felt complete, like it was destined to be a thing, from the very beginning.

The poem “A Pain Named Dog” is one of the few I’ve written that I keep coming back to and it seems to keep resonating. I usually tell people that I stole the central conceit from Nietzsche, and I hope that sometimes It gets people to read The Gay Science, but who knows? It’s just a book of aphorisms, so spending time with one of the aphorisms is perhaps as good as flipping through them all.

I presented it last summer at the School for Poetic Computation as a part of my lecture I called “Nietzsche in a nutshell,” and it resonated with the students who were reading works on writing disability, including Nussbaum’s great book Frontiers of Justice, which I write about more in Exploding Stigma.

In The Gay Science, written after a period of illness, Nietzsche illustrates what Nussbaum has to say about the generality of humans entering into and out of disability/dependence throughout their lives. Nietzsche makes embodiedness a central tenet of his philosophy, and pain a necessary component of that embodiedness. His relationship to pain, namely treating his pain as if it were a dog to be trained and disciplined, turns pain from a thing that he submits to into a thing that submits to him.

Perhaps then it makes sense that “A Pain Named Dog” turned out to be the first poem I read out loud in public since I’d lost the ability to read normal print around the age of twelve. For decades I was ashamed of my inability to read with my eyes, and embarrassed that I could no longer read out loud. I was really good when I was a kid.

Finally I hit upon using my little electronic reader’s earbud as a Cyrano, whispering my own words into my ear. That tiny fix made it possible for me to enter fully into a writerly life, and it was not new technology but a kind of paradigm shift in my mind about what reading was. Though I’d been listening to electronic books for decades, I somehow did not make the leap of understanding it to make possible my own presentation of words.

 

A Pain Named Dog

I have given a name to my pain

And call it Dog.

I can tell it to sit, lay down,

Roll over, play dead.

I scold it and shame it

And pretend it’s my bitch

And though it worries my carcass

And growls and shits,

It gives me a leg up. On profundity.

 

I have given a name to my beauty

And call it Snake.

I observe it wind my hand

Delicate as flowers ferocious as fangs

I tell it, PULSE DANGER.

            SWALLOW BLIND MICE.

And though its little murders do not ripple

The still-water universe

It’s all about ego. Feeling groovy.

 

I have given a name to my anger

And call it Cockroach

I fatten it with booze and candy

It waxes petty and cruel

I chase it to squash it

Curse its very existence

But because it incites war

In the bowels of men

It does me some good. Keeps them in check.

 

I have given a name to my disease

And call it Devil

Sad Devil. Mean-spirited

Jealous and cruel.

I know the Fiend called Devil

Is the Blindness called Life

Still I shout HUZZAH

With the rest.

It appeases. Why not?

 

I have given a name to my sadness

And call it God

I tell it YOU ARE DEAD.

Long live you?

I command SIT STAY ROLL OVER

            At least fucking PLAY DEAD

And though it is just as obtrusive and entertaining

Shameless as any other god,

There are others. I pray.

*First published at The Kitchen Poet and reprinted at Eunoia Review*

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