“I am a collection of dismantled almosts.” ~ Anne Sexton, from A Self-Portrait In Letters

Claude Monet Lilacs in the Sun 1872
“Lilacs in the Sun” (1872)
by Claude Monet

“No word in my ear, no word on the tip of my tongue.
It’s out there, I guess,
Among the flowers and wind-hung and hovering birds,
And I have forgotten it,
dry leaf on a dry creek.
Memory’s nobody’s fool, and keeps close to the ground.” ~ Charles Wright, from “Buffalo Yoga”

Friday afternoon. Cloudy with drizzle, 76 degrees.

The weather has been amazing. Yesterday was perfect—sunny and warm, with a breeze, in the 70’s. Wild weather in June. Today is the first day of summer, and it is cooler than it has been in weeks. When Corey got home, he said that it was warmer in Ohio than here. But I’m sure that in a few days it will be in the 90’s with godawful humidity.

Pyotr Konchalovsky Lilacs 1948 oil on canvas
“Lilacs” (1948, oil on canvas)
by Pyotr Konchalovsky

I had thought about having Olivia today and tonight but decided against it. Neither of us are feeling that great, so it wouldn’t be the best of visits. Can you believe my little bug is going to be a year old next month? Time moves much too quickly.

I’ve learned a new word: tendentious, which means expressing a strong, (biased) partisan point of view. I don’t know why I’ve never come upon this word before. Of course, I now cannot remember where I found this word because it’s been a few days. My brain is like a sieve. More and more I fear that the holes are overtaking the grey matter.

Truly, though, all of the migraines would have to have some effect on the brain, wouldn’t they? I cannot imagine an organ suffering such assaults and coming away completely unscathed. I tell myself that my cognitive impairment comes from the migraines. Laying the blame there keeps me from having to think too much about what is going on.

“Leave. Be like the clouds.
Be like the water. Stand for the thing
that will and will not change
for reasons we will accept and still think bad—
be like words, like vague words
belonging to the whiteout of endless work.” ~ Lawrence Revard, from “Incantations to Snow”

I had wanted to post yesterday, but I kept falling asleep, truly.

Night before last, Corey and I stayed up to watch the last half of Game of Thrones season 3, which wouldn’t have been so bad if the puppy hadn’t wanted to eat at 7 a.m. Her stomach seems to be pretty regular—7, noon, 5 p.m. She has already grown so much. I had meant to post some pictures before now, but they’re on Brett’s phone, and he hasn’t forwarded them to me yet. I suppose that by the time I finally get around to doing so, she’ll already be much bigger.

441002-23
“Still Life with Lilacs” (ca 1920s)
by Aristarkh Lentulov

Anyway, the point was that I paid the price for staying up so late because Bailey insisted that I get up on time. She’s a funny dog, and I’m finally allowing myself to enjoy having her without feeling guilty about Jake.

The night that we watched GoT, Bailey came out to the living room, sat down and whined at me. I followed her, and she wanted to go to bed, but she wanted me to go to bed with her. It’s easy to forget that puppies are just babies. At this moment, she’s having her afternoon nap on the bed. Pictures soon. Promise.

“I wanted to say one thing
so pure, so white, it puts a hole in the air
and I’d pass through . . . ~ Robin Behn, from “Over 102nd Street”

The gardenias are in a bloom, a lovely, fragrant rhapsody of white. I missed the blooming of the lilac bush this year, and the spring storms thrashed my peonies; I was able to cut only a few to bring indoors before they were gone. So I’m harvesting fresh white blossoms each day.

Mary Cassatt Lilacs in a Window oil on canvas 1880
“Lilacs in a Window” (1880, oil on canvas)
by Mary Cassatt

I remember that my Aunt Ronnie in Great Bridge used to love the scent of gardenias. My mother would buy her a cologne called Jungle Gardenia, which might have been a musk. I, too, love the heady scent. It is such full smell, one that floats on the air long after the blooms have been cut.

I associate gardenias with a green scent, which is best described as cool and fresh, not sweet. I don’t have synesthesia like Brett, but I do associate scents with colors. Rosemary and mint are green scents. Peonies are a pink scent, deeper, richer, like roses, regardless of color.

I remember wearing a Jovan musk oil called Grass when I was a teenager. I couldn’t smell it after I had applied it, but other people could. I wonder if they still make it . . . probably not.

“Beneath the rhapsodies of fire and fire,
Where the voice that is in us makes a true response,
Where the voice that is great within us rises up,
As we stand gazing at the rounded moon.” ~ Wallace Stevens, from “Evening Without Angels”

When I was a young girl, I remember the first time I found a wild honeysuckle vine. Suzanne showed me how to suck on the blossoms. So much of the neighborhood still had wild growth when we first moved here, the kind of growth that hadn’t yet been impaired by paving and building. Left unchecked, nature is an incomparable perfumer.

Isaac Levitan Spring per White Lilacs 1895
“Spring. White Lilacs” (1895)
by Isaac Levitan

My mother has a bush in her front yard called Daphne Odora (odora L. = fragrant), which produces one of the best smelling flowers of any bush I have ever come across. It blooms in late winter/early spring, and its scent carries into the street so that passersby almost always stop to ask my mother where the smell is coming from.

I have tried at least three times to root this bush, unsuccessfully to date. Called jinchoge in Japan, the blossoms are white and pink, but the fragrance that they produce feels deep red, crimson. Don’t ask me to explain my scent categories as they are completely contrived; I can only say that something feels green or pink or crimson, sometimes yellow. Honeysuckle scent is yellow.

It’s all a lot of falderal, but the idea of color reminds me of a Merwin poem which I have actually been able to find (below).

“the infinite variety of having once been,
of being, of coming to life, right there in the thin air, a debris re-
assembling, a blue transparent bit of paper flapping in also-blue air” ~ Jorie Graham, from “The Swarm”

As an interesting aside, the Ruth Stone in the Merwin poem was a poet who actually taught at ODU while I was in the department. I think that she only stayed for a year, not really being into the whole idea of committed academe; someone once referred to her as the poet vagabond because she taught at so many different colleges and universities.

Valentin Serov Open Window period Lilacs oil on canvas 1886
“Open Window. Lilacs” (1886, oil on canvas)
by Valenin Serov

I remember an older woman with wild hair whose poems were intensely personal, who integrated the natural with her poems about her family, her late husband in particular. Merwin’s poem is an homage to a woman who, though blind, was still writing poems at the age of 96.

As you can imagine, the idea of Ruth Stone the woman, the poet, appeals to me greatly. Admittedly, I did not get to know her while she was in the department, and I really regret that. The timing was bad for me—I was pregnant with Eamonn and very self-absorbed at the time. It’s my loss that I didn’t enter even the periphery of this woman’s life. I could have learned so much from her.

But I can take her example, her complete dedication to her craft until the day she died, take that and imprint it somewhere on my consciousness. Stone serves as an imprimatur of sorts for me: She endured a lifetime of hardship, and was not even widely recognized for her poetry her late 80’s, when she received the National Book award for her book The Next Galaxy. (Click here for an NPR article and some of Stone’s poems)

No, I’m not comparing myself to Stone, only saying that I hope to be even a fraction as dedicated to my craft until the day I die.

More later. Peace.

Music by The Gourds, “Steeple Full of Swallows”

                   

A Letter to Ruth Stone

Now that you have caught sight
of the other side of darkness
the invisible side
so that you can tell
it is rising
first thing in the morning
and know it is there
all through the day

another sky
clear and unseen
has begun to loom
in your words
and another light is growing
out of their shadows
you can hear it

now you will be able
to envisage beyond
any words of mine
the color of these leaves
that you never saw
awake above the still valley
in the small hours
under the moon
three nights past the full

you know there was never
a name for that color

~ W. S. Merwin

“It’s very important for me to feel like I’m going through life, not accidentally slipping around it. That’s something that can happen very easily to all of us. ” ~ Jorie Graham

Daring to Live in the Details

Jorie Graham interviewed by Timothy Cahill, The Christian Science Monitor (v.88, no.146, June 24, 1996)

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham finds her voice somewhere between the intuited and the observed Poet Jorie Graham says she is never far from a sense of herself as a “reporter” and of her writing as “a kind of news.” As a child, the 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winner for poetry grew up in the border country between the realities of journalism and the verities of art.

So while Ms. Graham remembers her father, the Rome bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, leaving home to cover wars in distant and dangerous places, she was also influenced by her artist mother, who introduced her to the frescoes of Giotto, Piero della Francesca, and other Renaissance masters that adorn the Italian capital’s basilicas.

“I understood that news was not only important, it was mortal and critical,” she says of her father’s work. Yet “the stories on the walls of the church are [also] news,” she adds, “crucial news that continues to be news.”

Born in New York City in 1950, Graham grew up entirely in Rome, where she attended the French lycee (secondary school) there. She was fluent in Italian and French when she arrived at New York University (NYU) in 1969, but spoke only “broken English.” A film student at the time, Graham had no aspirations toward poetry the day she was called to her vocation.

Raised, as she puts it, at “an intersection of secular and sacred versions of reality,” Graham’s own art presents a view that “trills or slurs” between opposing forces – public and private, observed and intuited, evanescent and eternal.

Graham won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for “The Dream of the Unified Field” (The Ecco Press, 1995), a selection of poems spanning 20 years and five previous books. The winner of a 1990 MacArthur Foundation grant, she lives with her husband and daughter in Iowa City, where she teaches at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop.

She spoke recently with Monitor contributor Timothy Cahill by phone from her home. Excerpts follow

Timothy Cahill: How did you become a poet? 

Jorie Graham I got lost one day in the corridors at NYU, and heard the words, “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me” floating out of a doorway. I was so taken that I went into the classroom for a minute and sank into a seat in the back row. It was M.L. Rosenthal reading [T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred] Prufrock.” I sat there for the whole semester.

He spent most of the time reading poems out loud. Sometimes I think I actually learned English by listening to Rosenthal read those poems, that my transition into English – into thinking in English, feeling in English – came almost entirely through Yeats and Blake and Eliot.

What was it about poetry that drew you away from film? 

I began to feel that film wasn’t giving me a context large enough to understand how I was supposed to live my life. I was turning at night to [poetry] and finding a complexity and an ambiguity in which easy decisions were not possible. It was much more satisfying. It’s very important for me to feel like I’m going through life, not accidentally slipping around it. That’s something that can happen very easily to all of us. Through poems, I’ve struggled to make sure I’m in life, as opposed to merely understanding it.

One of the problems with having a strong conceptual intellect is that one can very quickly convert experience into idea.

How does poetry keep you “in life?” 

Poetry has always seemed to me not so much a record of a life lived [than] as a way – through the act of composition – of experiencing an event I missed [by] just living it. Poetry’s a way of thinking that only enacts itself in the moment of composition. Things hurt more when I’m about to write. It’s like a lens aperture You suddenly decide you’re going to open it up and feel things at a level you didn’t feel when you were just living through them.

It’s always very important, as I’m moving through a situation, to make sure I’m using all my senses, not just my eyes.

As poets, we tend to use our eyes first. Even if the material doesn’t end up staying in the poem, I always ask myself, what did it smell like, did you report texture, did you hear anything when you were there? There’s that constant sense of “Anything else? Are you sure you’ve been in this scene deeply enough?”

It’s like being a reporter, wondering, “Did I ask all the questions?” 

It is. It’s bringing back news. When you’re in the middle of writing a poem, you have to be there all the time. In life, with that aperture more closed, you shut down in order to survive.

The biggest problem I see with young writers is that their senses are occluded, and the reason [for that] is that to survive reality in America, they’ve had to shut down and numb themselves enough to not let grief flood their [hearts] They develop an ironic distance, a certain amount of humor, in order to go through their environment. But if they’re going to write poems, they precisely have to dismantle that numbness, they have to undo that ironic stance.

How is that accomplished? 

Through practice. I start out by teaching them something simple like the haiku, in which I try to get them to practice collecting sense-data and getting it across in language for example, to write a sound in terms of a smell, a sound in terms of a color. It’s literally like calisthenics, to open up your senses so you can pick up the detail.

Thinking deeply is feeling deeply. They’re interchangeable.

And [they’re] connected to having enough resources in language to allow you access to those complex feelings that allow for complex thought. If you’ve got only two adjectives to describe a thing, you’re going to write something that’s very blurred. If all you can come up with is the color green for what you see, you’re going to get a feeling that is one-dimensional, and an idea that… is probably a platitude.

So poetry is discovery? 

Yes. Writing a poem is thrilling because you’re changed by the act of writing it. You make discoveries that will sustain you, make you a better parent, make you a better citizen. If they happen to end up as adequate discoveries on the page, that’s a blessing. But you’re definitely making discoveries that you take back into your life.

What does winning the Pulitzer Prize mean to you? 

What excited me about getting the Pulitzer, besides it being an honor, was that it’s the only award that addresses so many different uses of language dramatic, novelistic, journalistic, poetic, biographical. All of them seem to be searching for versions of what one would call “the truth.” It made me very happy that the language of my medium, poetry, is situated among these other languages.

But the piece of paper is just as blank tomorrow as it was yesterday, and what I’ve not written is still much more important to me than what I have written.

That sounds like something you should put over the door to your classroom. 

The advice I would put over the doorway is that wonderful quote from [Ezra] Pound, where he says something like, “It really matters that great poems get written, but it doesn’t matter a whit who writes them.”

“I feel scribbled-in. Something inattentive has barely written me in.” ~ Jorie Graham, from “High Tide”

Was going to post, and then, well . . . didn’t. Feeling kind of closed off. Here’s an offering instead:

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Sassy Waterstones worker, I love you,

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And well this is true:

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Sometimes I do worry about their psyche though:

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They make up cool new words;

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They’re a sassy little shit.

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And best of all, the Holden debacle;

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And one more for good luck:

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