“I hurt | therefore I exist” ~ Claribel Alegría, from “I am Mirror”

Poet Claribel Alegría (by Simon Hurst)

“Every time I name them
my dead are resurrected.” ~ Claribel Alegría, “Every time I name them” (Trans. Carolyn Forché)

Tuesday afternoon, foggy and cloudy, 61 degrees.

Today’s Two for Tuesday features Nicaraguan/Salvadoran poet, essayist, and journalist Claribel Alegría (May 12, 1924-January 25, 2018). Born Clara Isabel Alegría Vides in Nicaragua to physician father Daniel Alegría, her father opposed the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua in 1924; the family was subsequently forced into exile in her mother’s home country of El Salvador while Claribel was still an infant. Her obituary in The Washington Post refers to her as “a leading poet of suffering and anguish.” She was best known in the U.S. for the bilingual edition of her volume of poetry, Flores del volcán/Flowers from the Volcano (1982), which was translated by the poet Carolyn Forché.

A 1953 portrait

Algería’s work combined the personal with the political by sometimes focusing on the violence that plagued both Nicaragua and El Salvador for decades. Poet Daisy Zamora said of Algería that she had “unfailingly spoken up for justice and liberty . . . becoming a voice for the voiceless and the dispossessed.” In 2006 Algería received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature for which he had been nominated by Zamora. In her acceptance remarks upon receiving the prize Algería stated the following:

The poet celebrates humankind, the universe, and the creator of the universe. It is impossible for one to remain indifferent to the turbulence that our planet and its inhabitants suffer through: war, hunger, earthquakes, misery, racism, violence, xenophobia, deforestation, AIDS, and childhood affliction, among others. In the region from which I come, Central America, we love poetry, and at times we use it to denounce what is happening around us. There are many fine testimonial poems. The poet, especially where I’m from, cannot and should not remain in an ivory tower.

You can read more about her life and substantial oeuvre here or in her New York Times obituary here. Poet Carolyn Forché interviewed Alegria in 1984, and a PDF can be found here.

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite science fiction writers, Frank Herbert (October 8, 1920-February 11, 1986), creator of the Dune series.


Rain

As the falling rain
trickles among the stones
memories come bubbling out.
It’s as if the rain
had pierced my temples.
Streaming
streaming chaotically
come memories:
the reedy voice
of the servant
telling me tales
of ghosts.
They sat beside me
the ghosts
and the bed creaked
that purple-dark afternoon
when I learned you were leaving forever,
a gleaming pebble
from constant rubbing
becomes a comet.
Rain is falling
falling
and memories keep flooding by
they show me a senseless
world
a voracious
world—abyss
ambush
whirlwind
spur
but I keep loving it
because I do
because of my five senses
because of my amazement
because every morning,
because forever, I have loved it
without knowing why.

[This is a night of shadows]

This is a night of shadows
of sword-memories
solitude overwhelms me.
No one awaits my arrival
with a kiss
or a rum
and a thousand questions.
Solitude echoes within me.
My heart wishes
to burst with rage
but it sprouts wings.

“There are no days in life so memorable as those which vibrated to some stroke of the imagination.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

georgia-okeeffe-petunia-1925

Petunia by Georgia O’Keeffe (1925)

 

“If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything is ready, we shall never begin.” ~ Ivan Turgenev

“If I just work when the spirit moves me, the spirit will ignore me.” ~ Carolyn Forché 

georgia-okeeffe-white-rose-w-lakspur-no-2
"White Rose With Larkspur No. 2" by Georgia O'Keeffe

I went back to a post that I had begun in April and tried to finish it to post today. Big mistake. I’m one of those writers who needs to maintain my volition once I’m on a roll, or I completely lose my impetus as well as my interest.

I never really thought too much about the effect this has had on me as a writer over the years until now, but in considering my writing habits, my method, if you will, I have had an epiphany. Too often in the past when I lost momentum, I would shut down. Stop writing. And then wait until the mood hit me again. I did not realize that I couldn’t continue with what I was writing because I really didn’t like it, nor did I have the courage to admit that I didn’t like something that I was writing.

Confusing?

“The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition.” ~ Alan Alda

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"From the Lake" by Georgia O'Keeffe

In the past when I was writing a poem and I got stuck on a line, I would worry the words, move them around, try to make things fit. Granted, this is precisely what the writing process is about: reworking, retooling, finessing.

But there would be times when I would get stuck, leave the poem, and not come back at all, telling myself that I was a failure and had no business attempting to write anything in the first place. Kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now, years later and some wisdom in my soul, I realize that probably in those instances when I just stopped and couldn’t go on, I was probably working with the wrong words, the wrong subject, the wrong structure. Now, I would come at the problem in a totally different way:

Now, I look at the words and try to discern my point in writing this particular piece in the first place. If there really isn’t a point, then I was probably just exercising my brain, ambling through the woods, if you will.

Nothing wrong with a little ambling, or a lot of ambling actually. It helps to make the synapses fire, and random thought more often than not arrives at the place you intended to be in the first place. Even if you cannot use what you have written as a result of your meandering, you have still exercised your creative muscles, something that is as necessary to a writer as swimming laps is to a swimmer, or getting the earth beneath his fingernails is to a gardener. All of these things lead to something eventually, but the practice is necessary; the tilling of the soil must be done before the planting.

“Arrange whatever pieces come your way.” ~ Virginia Woolf

georgia-okeeffe-black-hollyhock-blue-larkspur-1930
"Black Hollyhock Blue Larkspur" by Georgia O'Keeffe (1930)

These days, I use a lot of different things for inspiration than I did when I was still relatively new at the game. I used to believe, as many novice poets do, that the poem had to come from my gut. It had to have its genesis deep within my soul, and its creation was a reflection of my state of mind and being. No wonder I used to hit roadblocks all of the time. All of that soul-diving takes its toll.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not disparaging soul-diving. We all need to do it once in a while. Looking within is definitely a necessary part of the creative process. But limiting yourself to inner reflection can be as creative as moving around your belly button lint with a Q-tip: It isn’t painful, might feel a little bit good, but doesn’t give you much in the end.

“There is a boundary to men’s passions when they act from feelings; but none when they are under the influence of imagination.” ~ Edmund Burke

georgia-okeeffe-calla-lily-turned-away-1923
"Calla Lily Turned Away" by Georgia O'Keeffe (1923)

To be fair to myself, which I am usually not, a lot of my need to write at one point  stemmed from my grief. I have said before that I shopped my way through my grief for Caitlin, but that is not entirely true. I wrote pages and pages of words about my pain, her pain, pain, life, death, cruelty. Everything that you would imagine someone immersed in grief might delve into.

Now, years later, I am no longer ruled by my grief. Unfortunately, it is still a part of me, and I fear that it always will be—grief for my daughter commingled by my grief for my father, mixed with grief over the changes in my life over which I have had no control. But I am more than my grief.

I sit outside in the sunshine and look at the sky, listen to the sounds, and contemplate life with an ease that always used to elude me. I sit down at these keys every day (almost), and just let the words flow. Yes, I push them about a bit, but they come with more ease than I ever enjoyed before. I write about so many things, which is why I entitled my blog “musings,” as that is exactly what these post are: musings about music, art, words, politics, love, and in particular, life.

“I have lived on a razors edge. So what if you fall off, I’d rather be doing something I really wanted to do. I’d walk it again.” ~ Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia OKeeffe White Sweet Peas 1926
"White Sweet Peas" by Georgia O'Keeffe (1926)

I remember a time before I began to take medication for my depression when I would sit and wait for the words to come, beseech my inner muse to create. I felt that if I did not create, then there was no point.

So many creative people throughout history suffered from some kind of mental illness and/or drug addiction. Van Gogh’s depression led him to create incredible, brilliant skies and flowers, but his self-portrait shows a man without mirth. I often wonder how much beauty in art and writing the world would be without if Prozac had been available 300 or 400 years ago. Not to be glib. Just a comment on how many of the artistic names with which society is familiar were/are victims of this disease.

But I’ll let you in on something that might sound absurd: Most creative people will fight prescription mood-altering drugs tooth and nail. I did. When the firs quack I went to gave me a prescription for Prozac and began to talk about his relationship with his wife, my first response to him was that I wanted to feel the pain. It made me who I was.

Fortunately, medications for depression and other mental illnesses continue to evolve, and the zombie-like affect that Prozac had on my psyche is not a necessary fact of life.

“Anyone who does anything great in art and culture is out of control. It is done by people who are possessed.” ~ Nancy Grossman

Georgia OKeeffe Jack in the Pulpit No IV
"Jack in the Pulpit No. IV" by Georgia O'Keeffe

Writer and poet Anne Sexton suffered from deep post-partum depression and horrible mood swings most of her life. She was institutionalized several times; her children were taken care of by others. She endured years of hell on earth, yet she produced some of the most profound, beautiful poems of the whole confessional movement, a genre of poetry in which she was an instrumental contributor.

Ernest Hemingway’s mood swings are the subject of countless analyses of the writer’s work. F. Scott Fitzgerald was known to be clinically depressed, as was his firs wife Zelda, who was eventually institutionalized. Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock—all artists who suffered from clinical depression. Musicians who suffered from mental illness include Mozart, Beethoven, even Curt Kobain.

Writer and publisher Virginia Woolf ultimately committed suicide when she could no longer stand existence. Poet and writer Sylvia Plath became famous for her book The Bell Jar, which is considered semi-autobiographical: The protagonist, Esther, suffers from depression and is committed. William Styron, well known author of The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice, suffered from such a debilitating bout with depression in 1985 that he wrote a memoir entitled Darkness Visible,  a moving retelling of the author’s personal battle with mental illness. Even famous cartoonist Charles Schulz, creator of “Peanuts,” suffered from depression.

“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” ~ Pablo Picasso

Georgia OKeeffe Black Place No 3
"Black Place No. 3" by Georgia O'Keeffe

Many creative people have phases in which they are driven to create—write, paint, sculpt, whatever medium—to the point that they will work until they are physically and emotionally exhausted. In some cases, yes, this is the manic phase of bipolar disorder. But not necessarily. I would contend that these phases are also part of that wiring that sets creative people apart from mainstream society, the inherent need to make something, to produce something, to the exclusion of everything else.

It’s surprisingly hard for me to elaborate on this as it’s something that you don’t really realize that you are in the midst of until you are in its midst. And it is not something that is easily explainable to those who are more left-brained (logical and ordered). That is not to say that creativity does not exist in every field. As I said in an earlier post, the geniuses who look at numbers and see beauty are as creative as those who create color-saturated canvases or tear-inducing symphonies.

On reflection, I’m glad that I did not finish the post to which I referred in the beginning. My explanation as to why I didn’t has morphed into something in which I am much more content to post, even though some would still consider it belly-button gazing. I’ll leave you with this passage by Sidney M. Jourard:

“The act of writing bears something in common with the act of love. The writer, at this most productive moment, just flows. He gives of that which is uniquely himself, he makes himself naked. Recording his nakedness in the written word. Herein lies some of the terror which frequently freezes a writer.”

More later. Peace.

A Few Things From The Vault

Two Poems and a Prose Poem From the Past

angel-statue-cllose-up

Poem #1

Remembrance of Monday Afternoon Past

for Josh

 

How can I explain to you

what it is to hold someone you love until she dies?

I cannot prepare you for that moment of separation—

it is something so unspeakably personal

that to watch it, to intrude upon it

almost cannot be forgiven.

If I try to tell you about the silences

that

enclose and isolate,

you will not understand

until you,

too, have felt them.

I cannot describe for you

the desperation

with which you will try to pass

life

from your arms to hers,

but you will come to know this,

too, as I once did.

When the moment comes,

you will not be ready,

but you will recognize it for what it is—

that last instant

in which possibilities still exist. 

 

angel-wings

Poem #2

These Are The Only Truths I Know

 

I.

The wait’s begun again,

The long wait for the angel

For that rare, random descent.

— “Black Room in Rainy Weather,” Sylvia Plath

 

After holding my breath for this long,

if I exhale now, I will die.

Have no doubts, my friend.

Diving into the wreck,

searching for the salvageable,

it never occurred to me

to take heed

of all that had happened above

and around me. My

single‑minded sense

of what is just,

what is true,

did not allow for

the company of strangers or

their own pitiable laments

about love

and life,

or, more tellingly,

about loss.

 

II.

We do not rid ourselves of these things

even when we are cured of personal silence

when for no reason one morning

we begin to hear the noise of the world again.

“City Walk-up, Winter 1969,” Carolyn Forché

 

I never noticed that woman over there,

the one who was drowning, not waving.

She, too, drifted into this miasma, then

vanished. The words of her sad entreaty

misplaced, floating in vain

too far from shore to be heard. The other one—

the one whose soul betrayed her so completely,

left her two small children playing unaware,

sought comfort in

the only philosophical certainty in life:

death (not truth).

She is now but a footnote in her husband’s poetry.

And the other, the poet against forgetting,

when she saw the broken glass

embedded in the walls of the colonel’s fortress,

did she notice the poet’s heart

hidden among the hundreds of scattered human ears?

 

III.

 . . . We did this.  Conceived

of each other, conceived each other in a darkness

which I remember as drenched in light.

I want to call this, life.

But I can’t call it life until we start to move

beyond this secret circle of fire

— “Origins and History of Consciousness,” Adrienne Rich

 

There were signs everywhere,

some true, others

misleading, taking me

across a landscape for which there was no map.

Sometimes, I could no longer see—

an impenetrable fog,

Looming, the Fata Morgana stung my eyes,

crept into my dreams,

offered only a cruel discordance,

falsehoods in the night,

where only truth should reside.

 

IV.

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

— “Late Fragment,” Raymond Carver

 

In the moments before my soul

surrendered to the sea,

I thought I heard you

speak my name as never before.

You called out:

“You are beloved.”

(It was what I had waited so long to hear)

I could have been mistaken. Perhaps,

it was only the wind and the waves,

conspiring to confuse me once again.

 

V.

but if you look long enough,

eventually

you will be able to see me

— “This is a Photograph of Me,” Margaret Atwood

 

And yet, my dearest friend,

there is no escaping the final truth—

It is here, in this unfocused picture. Look

at the ravaged smile,

a disturbing, melancholic dementia

unmasked. This snapshot

was not meant to capture

the disintegration of blood and bone—

(but it did).

In the millisecond it took

for the shutter to close,

everything faded.

This is a photograph of me you

were never supposed to see.

 

VI.

The abandoned live with an absence

that shapes them like the canyon

of a river gone dry

— “Brother-less Seven: Endless End,” Marge Piercy

 

I have put into your hands

validation: I was at peace

once. Once, I was whole.

Those who cocooned

the golden threads of my muse,

kept them beyond my grasp

for my own protection—

give them this glimpse

of my legacy. Convince them:

Behind these unfocused, sepia halftones,

lies the proof: I had finally acceded

to fate, accepted life

for all that it was

and was not.

(I was still alive,

then) They do not need to know

how uncomfortable I really felt

in my clothes. My friend,

it is a small deceit

for which you need not feel guilty,

for I have left you

with little choice.

 

VII.

The lover enters the habits of the other.  Things are smashed, revealed in new light.  This is done with nervous or tender sentences, although the heart is an organ of fire . . . echo is the soul of the voice exciting itself in hollow places

—The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje


Once, the blaze of promise stoked

the fevered, impassioned heat

deep within the hollow chambers

of my heart. Now,

even love’s most gentle kisses

cannot nourish the scorched core

of my soul. It will not be embraced

only to be abandoned.

Forewarned by the memory of ashes

from countless other burnt loves,

I can no longer embody

the destructive force

of this small, red wound

alive, inside. Nor can I sustain

the healing power

of its flickering pulse.

If I am to smother the flames

of this most tender of vessels,

and most cruel

I must dive deep below

the water’s surface, beyond redemption.

It is the path of sorrow,

it is the road of regret.

It is the loneliest of hunters.

 

VIII.

And the musky odor of pinks filled the air.

— The Awakening, Kate Chopin

 

Put out the light, and then

put out

the

light.

 

Prose Poem4theroad2

I thought that I would put out three very different styles from different periods in my oeuvre (to date, that is).  Thanks for reading. More later. Peace.

The Poems, the poets, the writers

When I was teaching at Old Dominion University, I had the good fortune to meet many different poets and writers over the years. Each year, ODU was host to the annual Literary Festival; in addition, the English Department hosted an annual visiting writing series, which has now evolved into a visiting writer in residence. There were writers and poets such as William Styron, Gerald Stern, Maxine Hong Kingston, Galway Kinnell, W. P. Kinsella, Carolyn Forche, Maxine Kumin, Tim O’Brien, Bruce Weigl, Toi Derricotte, Christopher Buckley, and many, many more.

The Literary Festival was always a predictably busy week in the department, and I could count on at least two things happening: I would get my fall cold, and I would spend lots of money on books by new authors whose readings I had attended. Christopher Buckley was not a Festival reader; he was a visiting writer who my friend and office mate Mari had invited to read, which made me exceedingly lucky. I had direct access to this wonderful writer. The two of us, Mari and I, took him to dinner before his reading, and then I had the privilege of introducing him before his reading. Introducing a poet is no small thing. You must be familiar with his background and his work if your are going to do him justice, so I did not do an off-the-cuff introduction. I prepared and made notes because I did not want to slight him and because I truly loved his poems. After his reading, I ended up buying every title that he had brought with him so that I could get all of them signed. In them, he urged me to keep writing. I am embarrassed to admit that I did not.

I have many reasons/excuses as to why I have not kept up on my writing. Some legitimate, most not. And now with Google, I can put in names of others who were in workshops with me, or who came after me, and see just how far they have come. Buckley has won a Guggenheim and deservedly so. He has written six or seven more books since I met him. I have sent nothing out to be published. Fear of failure? Fear of success?

I really don’t know. I just know that if I don’t get off my ass soon, I’ll have died without ever having reached any of my goals as far as my writing goes, and that’s only because I won’t have tried. I’ve published, but not the things I intended to publish. The purpose of this blog is to exercise my mind, to flex myself creatively. And I believe that it is working, because I’m starting to come back to the memories that matter in my creative cortex, if you will. The literary festivals, the talks with writers, Christopher Buckley, lines that I wished that I had written, working on one line over and over, creating something like “My Father’s Hands” and knowing that it was good. Knowing that feeling again.

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember–poems, essays, journal entries, long diatribes about things that make me crazy, musings about life. Words are to me what drugs are to an addict. I roll them around my tongue, taste them, hear them. I cannot live without them. I test phrases in my head constantly. Opening lines pop into my consciousness at all hours of the day and night. I wonder if this happens to other people, and then I realize that of course it does, but other people do things with it. And that’s what separates me from the ones who succeed. They actually do something past this step. They take the next step, and I am paralyzed on this one step. It’s as if I am still on my childhood porch, waiting for permission to leave, to go exploring in the neighborhood. But I know, deep in my soul, permission was granted years ago.

That first step is a killer, or it’s salvation.