“. . . When that which drew from out the boundless deep . . .” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

Sunrise at Port Orford, July 15, 2011

Sunrise at Port Orford, July 15, 2011

My first lessons in literature came from playing the card game, “Authors” as a child. I grew up knowing the names Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Mark Twain, and more.

In about 7th grade I decided to read something by each of them. Little Women, Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island—wonderful! But some of them I could not wade through. I didn’t understand anything by Sir Walter Scott. His language was, simply put, incomprehensible.

Harp of the North! that mouldering long hast hung
On the witch-elm that shades Saint Fillan’s spring
And down the fitful breeze thy numbers flung,
Till envious ivy did around thee cling,
Muffling with verdant ringlet every string,—
O Minstrel Harp, still must thine accents sleep?
(The Lady of the Lake.)

Show me a 7th-grader who can understand that, and I’ll show you one weird little boy. Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, on the other hand, seemed like a Saturday-morning Roy Rogers movie at the Bluff Theater.

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them . . .

When I was in 10th grade, I made a great literary discovery.

I had my first permanent paying church organist gig at Trinity Baptist Church in South Omaha. They didn’t use the American Baptist hymnal I was used to, but one of lesser quality, according to my dad and the organist at the First Baptist Church whom I was able, out of my organ-playing income, to pay for lessons (for which I am most grateful). The Service Hymnal, 1960—here on my shelf, embossed “Trinity Baptist Church, South Omaha, Nebraska.”

At number 468 I discovered one of the poems from “Authors” — “Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). The music is by Sir Joseph Barnby (1838-1896), the through-composed rather than strophic tune composed specifically for this poem—words and music a marriage made in Victorian heaven.

I tried to get Trinity’s Pastor Weigel to schedule it for singing in the Sunday service, but he said since it didn’t mention God, the Holy Spirit, or Jesus, it was not appropriate. I tried to argue that the “Pilot” in the last stanza means Jesus to no avail.

“Crossing the bar” is one of the few poems I memorized as a kid that remains even partly in my memory. Others include such gems as, “I think that I shall never see/ a poem lovely as a tree.” We were not into Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams in Western Nebraska. I remember the Tennyson poem because I was mesmerized by that tune. My taste in both poetry and music has (perhaps) matured over the years.

Yesterday I was looking through pics on an external hard drive. Ocean scenes from Port Orford, Oregon, my favorite hideaway. I’ve written about Port Orford more than once and posted pics of the place here (in my previous post, for example).

Going through the hard drive led me to look up some of that writing about Port Orford. I recognize a subtle but unmistakable change in my thinking since 2011 when I took the photos.

I must have 100 shots of sunsets and sunrises taken from the beaches at Port Orford. I remember taking the pictures because I was fascinated by differences in the appearance of the morning sky and of the evening sky. A couple of years before that in 2009 I wrote a piece about being on those same beaches.

[I] felt the hardened molecules under my feet and the molecules of and suspended in water. And out to the horizon, shrouded in fog. I knew the same molecules were pulsating together to make the waves, and the waves were conjoined with every other undulation of H2O, Ca, Mg, Na on the earth in one unbroken moving, life-filled, mass that seemed to my mind to be an enormity, but is in reality a speck in the eye of the universe. All one, including . . . my own body, and my mind somehow made up of the elemental universe undulating as far as I could see. And I was the focal point of the entire experience and at the same time unconditionally insignificant standing as an elemental part of the reality of the one water covering the face of the deep. . . I weep . . . for the joy I knew then and in the sorrow to know that one day I will simply be a part of the reality—not with a consciousness to love it and be sustained by it, but part only of the elemental structure.

A tad overblown, but in that writing six years ago, I found it necessary to nod in the direction of a belief that “God” or some other creative force was in charge of all of this. I was willing—no, anxious—to allow for the “hope to see my Pilot face to face” when I cross the bar (“a long ridge of sand . . . at the mouth of a river . . . an obstruction to navigation”).

Wonder wher the guy is--the only other person on the beach--who took my pic?

Wonder where the guy is–the only other person on the beach–who took my pic?

The subtle but unmistakable change in my thinking since 2011 is that I no longer need to comfort myself thinking I will see the Pilot face to face when I cross the bar (I love the metaphor of death as “crossing” –and I don’t mean it as the nonsensical popular “transitioning”).

I am agnostic about whether or not my life will continue in some form after I die. I think not, most days. But I’m beginning to understand it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because, perhaps—and I don’t want to sound like a preacher or a guru or other sort of spiritual (or any other kind of) authority, sheesh!—figuring out in the few years I have left how to live simply as “a part of the reality” (to quote myself) is enough.

That’s all I’ve ever wanted.

“Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

The musical setting by Joseph Barnby.

Sunset, July 12, 2011. Paradise Point, Oregon.

Sunset, July 12, 2011. Paradise Point, Oregon.

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“No one else is around to drink with you from the watery fog. . .” (Edward Hirsch)

"Now you’re walking down to the shore. . ."

“Now you’re walking down to the shore. . .”

These days there’s a lot of prattle by the talking heads on TV from FOX to MSNBC about President Obama’s “legacy.” Usually the topic is what the President is doing to shape (or reshape or create or change or . . .) his legacy.

The other day Diane Rehm’s guest on her NPR interview show was the British actor David Thomson. I didn’t hear the entire program, but I heard a few moments of his speaking to the idea that all of us are to a certain extent acting—acting out the role in which we want others to see us.

Don’t jump to conclusions. He was not saying we’re all phonies. Far from it. His point was that we all decide (maybe several times in our lives) how we want the world to see us—what our role is in the drama of our lives. I think that’s a powerful idea.

I’ve been thinking lately about that concept. My legacy. That, of course, is a luxury. For anyone who is simply and constantly trying to keep warm or figure where the next meal is coming from, a legacy is the last thing they have to worry about. And that’s—what?—90% of the world’s population. That I have the time, the awareness that anyone might think of me when I am gone—the luxury of knowing who the “leader” of my nation is—places me in the tiniest minority of the people now living or who have ever lived.

I heard only a few minutes of David Thomson’s discussion with Diane Rehm, and I have not read his book. I can hardly claim to understand his ideas. No matter. My legacy. My acting. My acting as if.

We’re all “method actors,” I’d say. We feel the feelings, we immerse ourselves in our experience, in our real and perceived worlds, and then “act” accordingly. Somewhere along the line my experience, both real and perceived, took me down several conflicting paths. I suppose that’s universally true. I don’t need to rehearse mine—it’s pretty much in evidence throughout this blog.

Yesterday I saw my new talk-therapist for the second time, and I began revealing as best I could why I was there. First, I was having a minor version of what I have heard described as a “panic attack.” It’s just the way I live—and my guess is everyone else does, too. I didn’t want to be there. I suddenly was aware of my heart (I don’t know if it was racing or pounding or what—I was simply aware of it). I could not sit still. I seldom can except when I’m at my computer keyboard or working a Sudoku puzzle. I was acutely aware that I did not want to be there.

". . .but the sea and the sky were also yours. . ."

“. . .but the sea and the sky were also yours. . .”

So we talked. I talked a little about me. He talked a lot about anxiety. My skin crawled and I had to rub my head, and I wanted to scream. He sat calmly in his chair wearing his tie with his handsome gray beard immaculately trimmed and prattling on, and I slumped in the easy chair in my t-shirt with my hair and beard that have not been groomed for two weeks. At one point he was talking about the experience of the victims of the Holocaust (he’s not Jewish—his father was a famous Methodist theologian) and the numbers tattooed on their arms, “Not like the impressive ones you have.” I wore a long-sleeved shirt the first time we talked, so he hadn’t seen them before. At one point I saw the skinny young intern—did I say skinny?—(my therapist teaches at UTSouthwestern Medical School—I see six doctors there, lucky me) staring at my tattoos, and I knew they were both curious about them. Why does a retired church musician/college professor have all those tattoos? I think—although I may be projecting or hoping—that was the unasked question of the hour.

So then he asked me something—I forget what—that the answer was logically to tell him about tutoring college athletes. Specifically about the one last semester that I bonded with in a way the NCAA says we’re not supposed to, but which—I am pretty sure (because he told me so)—has helped keep him in school in the midst of a situation I would not have been able to handle when I was 19 years old. And then the one this week who told me the story of his (for me, literally, unbelievable) growing up, and his violent high school years, and his landing in college with almost no preparation and no skill for staying there. And the words of the director of the program as I left at the end of the day were, “Have you gotten through to another one of the boys?”

So President Obama and I are worried about our legacies. I wonder what the most important thing is that he’s ever done. Bet it has nothing to do with being President. I’ll bet it has to do with his making a connection somewhere sometime with someone—someONE—who could barely connect with anyone. And it makes the fact that he has not written the great American novel or been a concert organist or published books and books of poetry or any of those other things he MIGHT have done pretty much irrelevant.

And in those days in 2031 when he’s 70 and looking back on his life and alone—of course, he’ll never be alone, but he’ll be lonely—it’s that minute when some kid who’s had a rough, even violent, life said to him, “But I’m going to do this,” and admitted he could use his help along the way, that will make him weep in a way no actor on stage has ever done.

“What the Last Evening Will Be Like,” by Edward Hirsch (b. 1950)
You’re sitting at a small bay window
in an empty café by the sea.
It’s nightfall, and the owner is locking up,
though you’re still hunched over the radiator,
which is slowly losing warmth.

Now you’re walking down to the shore
to watch the last blues fading on the waves.
You’ve lived in small houses, tight spaces—
the walls around you kept closing in—
but the sea and the sky were also yours.

No one else is around to drink with you
from the watery fog, shadowy depths.
You’re alone with the whirling cosmos.
Goodbye, love, far away, in a warm place.
Night is endless here, silence infinite.

(About Edward Hirsch.)

"No one else is around to drink with you from the watery fog, shadowy depths."

“No one else is around to drink with you
from the watery fog, shadowy depths.”

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“. . . What hand plucks With what bird’s quill. . .” (Luis Cernuda)

The First Baptist Church of Kearney, Nebraska

The First Baptist Church of Kearney, Nebraska

Yesterday, Valentine’s Day, I began writing. I was distracted by another line of research. I forget what. Now I’m back to yesterday’s thoughts.

My, oh my, as Grandmother Peck used to say. I had a Valentine’s Day e-card from a friend in Paris. He lives there three months of the year. Some old queen left him a time-share condo in his will, or something like that. I don’t remember.  When one gets too old to make memories (I didn’t say too old to do new things—but they don’t become “memories”—there isn’t time left for that), one is ambushed by memories from ages ago for no apparent reason.

Why should a Valentine’s Day e-card bring up memories of the First Baptist Church of Kearney, Nebraska? A card that says only “One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving.” Paulo Coellio, The Alchemist. No pictures, no music, nothing more.

Suddenly I was thinking about the monumental stained glass windows in the old First Baptist Church building of Kearney, Nebraska. I wonder if the building still stands. It was (is) a red sandstone Richardson-Romantic style building. How it came to be built in Kearney, Nebraska, I don’t know.

The building has much significance for my family. My father was pastor of the church, 1950-1952. My sister was born in Kearney. When she was about two years old, just getting teeth, she fell on the concrete steps of the church, breaking her two front teeth—and was without those teeth until her adult teeth grew in several years later. People (who?) tormented her for years singing, “All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth.”

He hardly needed to be "out"

He hardly needed to be “out”

I remember standing in the balcony in the rear of that church sanctuary and touching the glass of the rose window. I remember being down in the front of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning, sitting on the floor with the other children as my dad preached a “children’s sermon.” Perhaps someday I’ll write about it—one of those lessons that we could never be good enough. Baptist preachers, even my gentlemanly father, are prone to preach those sermons. No “No reason is needed for loving” there.

Robert Lowry (1826-1899) was responsible for about 500 of the most popular and musically most pedestrian hymntunes in the American church repertory, tunes using basically only tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant chords.

I learned his hymn (both words and music) “Low in the Grave He Lay” at the First Baptist Church of Kearney. One might well ask how I can be sure because I learned so many hymns as a child in so many different churches. I can be close to certain because I have the picture, the sound, even the feel of standing on a pew leaning against my mother in that sanctuary singing that hymn.

It’s a perfectly mundane, shall I say “silly?” tune. But it’s fun to sing. As a university music student years later I learned academeze for the melody that rises through the tonic chord at the beginning of the refrain. It’s a “Mannheim Rocket.” I had more than a passing interest in the tune. I was fascinated even then by the raised tone (f-sharp) at the end of the verse, the leading tone of the secondary dominant (G major) preparing the “chorus.”

For reasons I cannot fathom I was, yesterday morning, thinking about that Richardson-style buildings and music of the blandest style—both as a result of opening an e-card for Valentine’s Day.

Born in Seville in 1902, the poet Luis Cernuda left Spain in 1938 for permanent exile. With Federico Garcia Lorca and others, he is one of the Generation of 1927, the important avant garde Spanish poets influenced by surrealism.

Cernuda was an openly gay poet in the day when no one was openly gay. I have written about him before—his poem “Musical Instrument.”

“Musical Instrument,” by Luis Cernuda
If the Arab musician
Plucks the lute strings
With an eagle quill
To awaken the notes,

What hand plucks
With what bird’s quill
The wound in you
That awakens the word?

What hand plucks with what bird’s quill the wound in me that awakens the word? I am not a poet or even much of a writer, but I have words.

Those stained-glass windows. That maudlin tune. That e-card valentine. And now the Arab musician plucking his lute’s strings.

What hand is it that plucks the wounds that awaken my words?

My writing plan yesterday (and again today) was to explore poetry by contemporary Arab and Arab-American poets. Obviously, opening the folder “Arab poets” on my desktop turned up the Cernuda poem. Not an Arab poet, but writing about an Arab musician—in a country with an undeniable Arab past.

But that was before I opened the e-Valentine.

My, oh my, as Grandmother Peck would have said.

The point! The point?

“The poet is also a tragic figure because of his conflict with society; his connection with the daemonic power [beauty] gives him the status of a prophet, an interpreter of the divine law,” writes Dereck Harris (1) and quotes Cernuda saying

Su destino todos lo conocemos: enfermedad, pobreza, inforunio. Pero no nos lamentemos de ello ahora: sería farisáico. A nuestro lado puede repetinse en alguien más aquel destino ya cumplido en otros; no nos importaría. Mientras la sociedad esté organizada de la manera que lo estuvo entonces y lo está hoy, el infortunio de Bécquer es y será possible (2).

What else can be the fate of the poet who is concerned “with the relationship between the temporally circumscribed existence of the individual and the eternal spirit of life itself. . . the poet’s aim is to halt the flux of time. . .” (Harris).

The misfortune of Bécquer (and Cernuda, and the Arab poets I’m trying to study) is to write the “relationship between the temporally circumscribed existence of the individual and the eternal spirit of life itself.”

My temporally circumscribed existence, 1950 to 2015, I know. However, the relationship. . .
__________
(1) Harris, Dereck. Luis Cernuda-a Study of the Poetry. London: Tamesis Books, 1975 (page 98).
(2) My translation—I hope it captures at least the gist of the passage: We all know his [the poet’s] destiny: illness, poverty, misfortune. But we should not lament him now: that would be Pharasaic. On the one hand one can repent and, on the other, destiny has made us complicit; it does not matter to us. While society is organized as it has been then and is today, the misfortune of Bécquer is and will be possible.
[The poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, considered the founder of modern Spanish poetry, died of tuberculosis before most of his work was published.]

"Arab Musician," by al-Brazyly

“Arab Musician,” by al-Brazyly

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“. . . a pulse of thought, To memory of Him . . .” (Walt Whitman)

058

Abraham Lincoln, born February 12, 1809
“The proponents of states’ rights may have arguments, but they have lost their force, in courts as well as in the popular mind” (Garry Wills).

The Declaration of Independence was only the “proposition” that all men are created equal, not a statement of the reality of the time.

The 13th Amendment making slavery illegal was passed in Congress January 31, 1865, under President Lincoln and ratified December 6, 1865. The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing equal protection under the law by which Brown v. Board of Education and all of the cases declaring same-sex marriage un-Constitutional –and many other draconian laws–was ratified July 9, 1868. These two Amendments are Abraham Lincoln’s chief legacy, making real the possibility that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish.” Today is the day we should commemorate, not some arbitrary weekend designed for the moneyed interests in the United States to hold “President’s Day Sales.”

I quote Garry Wills at some length:

Lincoln did not argue law or history, as Daniel Webster had. He made history. He came not to 060present a theory but to impose a symbol, one tested in experience and appealing to national values, expressing emotional urgency in calm abstractions. He came to change the world, to effect an intellectual revolution. No other words could have done it. The miracle is that these words did. In his brief time before the crowd at Gettysburg he wove a spell that has not yet been broken—he called up a new nation out of the blood and trauma.

[Lincoln] not only presented the Declaration of Independence in a new light, as a matter of founding law, but put its central proposition, equality, in a newly favored position as a principle of the Constitution … What had been mere theory. . . —that the nation preceded the states, in time and importance—now became a lived reality of the American tradition. The results of this were seen almost at once. Up to the Civil War “the United States” was invariably a plural noun: “The United States are a free country.” After Gettysburg it became a singular: “The United States is a free country.” This was a result of the whole mode of thinking that Lincoln expressed in his acts as well as his words, making union not a mystical hope but a constitutional reality. When, at the end of the address, he referred to government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” he was not . . . just praising popular government . . . he was saying that America was a people accepting as its great assignment what was addressed in the Declaration. This people was “conceived” in 1776, was “brought forth” as an entity whose birth was datable (“four score and seven years” before) and placeable (“on this continent”), and was capable of receiving a “new birth of freedom.”

Thus Abraham Lincoln changed the way people thought about the Constitution …

The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit—as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as he did to correct the Constitution without overthrowing it … By accepting the Gettysburg Address, and its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America.

(This passage is from The Atlantic, November 23, 2011. It is abbreviated from pages 145-147 of Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. I discovered this book four years ago when I was teaching my seminar based on the rhetoric of three Presidential speeches. “The Gettysburg Address,” Roosevelt’s “A Date Which Will Live in Infamy,” and Ronald Reagan’s “Challenger” speech. The book is an extended discussion of Lincoln’s “rhetoric” at Gettysburg.)
gettysburgIn a rare image of President Lincoln at Gettysburg, he is shown hatless at the center of a crowd on the orators’ platform. (Library of Congress)

One of Walt Whitman’s five Lincoln poems:
“ABRAHAM LINCOLN (BORN FEB. 12, 1809).”
To-day from each and all, a breath of prayer, a
pulse of thought,
To memory of Him—to birth of Him.

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“. . . and everyone else falls on top.” (Humberto Ak’Abal)

Indigenous Guatemalan poet, Humberto Ak’Abal

Indigenous Guatemalan poet, Humberto Ak’Abal

I detest ideas showing up in my mind that seem improbably judgmental either of myself or of others. Especially of others. I grew up in a household and a community where lip-service at the very least was given to John 8:8, ““Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

This is a story from the Bible in which Jesus was hanging out in Jerusalem preaching and teaching when some people brought him a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They wanted to stone her to death (did that practice in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other places Americans like to judge so harshly come directly from the Bible?). Jesus said it would be OK, provided that the first stone was thrown by someone who had never sinned. The would-be executioners sneaked away with their tails egos between their legs.

I most often reserve my judgmentalism for people who are doing bad things or thinking evil thoughts as the result of being stupid (at a given moment, not inherently). Like anyone who voted for Ted Cruz, or anyone who thinks the 2nd Amendment is license to kill. Or anyone who thinks school vouchers and charter schools are anything other than means to destroy equal-opportunity education.

I would never judge anyone for a simple little human foible like committing adultery. I’ve done it myself. I think Jesus had it about right when he said, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28, NRSV). He probably would have said “looking at a man with lust,” too, if any of the gay men in his audience had been “out.” Obviously, from the story I began with, he would have meant it for women looking at men, too.

My stuff, waiting to go to the Goodwill.

My stuff, waiting to go to the Goodwill.

I’m having a terrible time getting my ass in gear (as we said in the 60s) to clean out the stuff in my apartment. Hardly anyone I know would be able to live in this mess. It’s not that I’m one of those troubled “hoarders” on TV. I don’t have litter on my floors. I have clean sheets on my bed, a clean kitchen, and a living room area that is neat and tidy. It’s just all these books and DVDs and CDs and pictures and clothes and . . . like most people’s I suppose.

The problem is, I don’t know how to sort. I don’t know how to put things away. I don’t know how to tidy up. There’s always something more important to do than fold the clean sheets and put them away (if I can remember where I decided at some point they should live).

My lawyer friend tells me that more files are always better than fewer files. Little does he know.

So I wonder how much time in a week the normal, middle-class, neat, organized American spends sorting and folding laundry, washing dishes and putting them away, emptying waste baskets, vacuuming, washing the bathroom mirror, shopping for groceries and putting them away. . .

It’s the putting way that is the problem, as I said. I wonder if anyone has ever kept track of the time they spend in a week putting stuff away. A place for everything and everything in its place.

There are other ways of thinking about stuff.

“The bread that is in your box belongs to the hungry; the coat in your closet belongs to the naked; the shoes you do not wear belong to the barefoot; the money in your vault belongs to the destitute” (St. Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea, c. A.D. 370).

The coat in my closet belongs to the naked. I have three sport coats in a clothes hamper waiting to go to the dry cleaners. They’ve been there for about three months. Do I need them? Obviously not. I know, I know, normal people don’t live quite this way. You there, yes you, dear reader, you would take your sport coat to the cleaner the morning after you realized it needed it. You certainly would not have three of them that needed cleaning at once.

Now, someone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but when someone fails to clothe the naked, while he is able to do this, is such a man deserving of any other appellation? . . . the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear moldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. (From St. Basil the Great, Homily on the saying of the Gospel According to Luke, “I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones,” and on greed, §7 (PG 31, 276B – 277A).

I don’t know where I’m going with this, but it seems to me the Church Fathers—at least on this point—have it about right. If I’ve got so many clothes that I can leave three sport coats in the clothes hamper for three months, isn’t that too many clothes? I’m not rich and I see this dilemma. I don’t have much of anything compared to lots of people I know—and especially to a few people I don’t know.

But I’m looking for help to sort and divest myself of the stuff I don’t need. The question is, where is the line? How much stuff is enough? How much is too much? I am, by any measurement, pretty low on the totem pole as far as wealth and owning stuff is concerned.

But there are those three sport coats I don’t need.

Let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone.

“The Dance,” by Humberto Ak’Abal
All of us dance
on a cent’s edge.

The poor—because they are poor—
lose their step,
and fall

and everyone else
falls on top.

I think we’re a people of too much stuff. And we’re falling on top of the poor.

Titian, The Woman Taken in Adultery

Titian, The Woman Taken in Adultery

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“. . . unraveled dry whirlpool enameled Gongorism . . .” (Adriano Spatola)

young-peasant-in-blue-1882
On February 2 I started writing about Jean Jacques Rousseau’s “Social Contract” and Punxsutawney Phil. It was an interesting piece I couldn’t finish because it was turning into a whiny confessional about my inability to see the world as others see it (literally) and my inner railing against civilization.

The painter Georges Seurat (1859-1897) died of a throat infection when he was only 39 years old. He was one of the first artists to dabble (pun intended) in a pointillist style of painting, one of those painters you know about if you took an undergraduate course in Art History or a graduate course in the History of Musical Style.

If you were in those classes as long ago as I was, what you remember about Seurat is a pointillist picture of dots not connected well. Recently I went with a friend to the Kimbell Art Gallery (Ft. Worth) to see the exhibit “Faces of Impressionism: Portraits from the Musée d’Orsay”—an (overwhelming) number of portraits by painters not thought of primarily of portraitists, Monet, Van Gough, and their ilk.

Georges Seurat’s portrait, “Peasant Boy in Blue (The Jockey),” 1882 was in the exhibit. When I heard the recorded commentary about pointillism, I was reminded of the style as I learned about it in that History of Musical Styles class. I know about pointillist music (it’s not one of those definite eras or “movements” in music history like “The Baroque”). Webern comes to mind.

Quite by accident I stumbled upon Adriano Spatola’s poem “The abolition of Reality [George Seurat]” the other day. I remembered the Kimbell exhibit, and pointillist music, and other curiously related subjects. I did a little research and found Aaron Copland’s “Piano Variations” (1930). Copland composed it before “Appalachian Spring” (1944) and his other well-known works—those works we musical elite consider too “popular.” We learned in music history class that Copland used his considerable talent as a composer to become rich and famous rather than writing obscure music the masses don’t like. (Copland is scathingly denounced for selling out to Hollywood in a letter from the composer David Diamond to Leonard Bernstein which I read at the Library of Congress a couple of years ago.)

There. I’ve gone into flights of memory and gobbledy-gook that comes out of God-knows-where and into my brain when I’m not careful.

Might be a Gongorism.

Copland’s “Piano Variations” is to music what Georges Seurat’s “Peasant Boy in Blue (The Jockey)” is to painting, or something like that. And the connection came to me from a glance at the Seurat at the Kimbell and accidentally coming across a poem with Seurat’s name in the title on the Internet.

And in this writing, all of that is preceded by Punxsutawney Phil and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Yesterday I was asked to write my impression of the possibility of ADHD in the thinking of a student I am tutoring. Poor kid can’t keep his mind going in one direction for anything. But I’ve learned to go along for the ride and listen to the bizarre and improbable connections he makes as he reads.

I use the words “bizarre” and “improbable” to indicate not that his thinking is in any way “wrong” or “untenable,” but most people would have difficulty following the connections he makes; they would be seen as tenuous at best.

Tenuous, adj.
1590s, “thin, unsubstantial,” irregularly formed from Latin tenuis “thin, drawn out, meager, slim, slender,” figuratively “trifling, insignificant, poor, low in rank,” from PIE root *ten- “to stretch” (cognates: Sanskrit tanuh “thin,” literally “stretched out”) . . . The figurative sense of “having slight importance, not substantial” is found from 1817 in English. . .

I quote the Online Etymology Dictionary for “tenuous” because I need to describe my own sense that I have “thin” and “unsubstantial” connections with—with almost everything—if I think about my connectedness. That’s probably true of everyone. No one I know talks about it, however.

I’m going to make short work of this for two reasons. 1) I fear anyone who might read this will think I’m merely trying to be special. 2) I fear.

Last night I was first to arrive at a meeting because I had the key and was scheduled to open the building. The building has an alarm system which I had to disarm and arm when we left. Disarming was no problem—open the door and punch in the code.
No one else arrived, so I left. My instructions were to put in the code and punch the “away” key. I could not see the “away” key, so I punched in the first two numbers and walked away to turn on the lights. Then I punched in the number again and punched the “away” key and left. I don’t think I turned off the lights.

I don’t know.

Most of the time I don’t know. Does going to the bank to deposit a check happen, or is it an event in my mind, whatever my mind is. I know the pain in my hip is real because the event of my not being able to walk is real. Or is it? I’m not trying to be funny or weird.

Is “Peasant Boy in Blue (The Jockey)” real. Are “Piano Variations (1930)” real? Is this writing real? I’m caught up in questions like this every day. I know driving a car is not real. Or paying my rent. Or vacuuming my living room. My connections seem to be more tenuous day by day.

Gongorism, n.
an affected literary style characterized by intricate language and obscurity . . . ornamental, ostentatious vocabulary and a message that is complicated by a sea of metaphors and complex syntactical order. The name . . . was coined by its opponents to present it as a heresy of “true” poetry. This movement seems to use as many words as possible to convey little meaning or to conceal meaning.

I don’t know.

“. . . Ah my shadow, my dear shadow. I should write a long letter to the shadow I lost. . . “ (André Breton)

Not crystal but real

Not crystal but real

I will posit without any reservations that I’m something of a surrealist. I’m not sure what the word means, but I’m pretty sure I am one.

This is the first, the only time I will talk about “movements in art” or such things. I hope anyone who can’t see the tongue-in-my-cheek will read to the punchline and not get caught up in art criticism or worry about my (misguided) attempt at serious scholarship (or worry about anything else, either).

Dadaism I don’t understand. I wouldn’t know a Dadaist if Theo Van Doesburg bit me on the keister. However, if the Dadaists,

believed [the social, political, and cultural ideas of that time] to be a byproduct of bourgeois society, a society so apathetic it would rather fight a war against itself than challenge the status quo. (Introduction: “Everybody can Dada,” National Gallery of Art),

then I suppose I’m something of a Dadaist, too. We are obviously fighting wars against ourselves—in Afghanistan and Iraq and Yemen and Gaza and Pakistan and the United States Congress, wars against ourselves.

Fred S. Kleiner (Professor of Art History at Boston University—I looked him because I found this quote) says Dada was a “reaction to what many of these artists saw as nothing more than an insane spectacle of collective homicide.”

An insane spectacle of collective suicide.

On the other hand, the Surrealists were not interested in the social, political, and cultural ideas of any time. They were (are) interested in anything having to do with

pure psychic automatism, by which an attempt is made to express—either verbally, in writing or in any other manner— the true functioning of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason, excluding any aesthetic or moral preoccupation (Breton, Surrealist Manifesto, 1924).

The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason. My thoughts almost always happen in the absence of the control of reason.

My thoughts uncontrolled by reason began this morning because I stumbled upon the poem at the end of this post by André Breton. I remembered reading somewhere a long time ago that he was a surrealist and trying (unsuccessfully) to make the connection in my mind between his poetry and Salvador Dali’s paintings (the only surrealism most of us know).
daliSurrealism, as I understood it in that art history class I took a long time ago has more to do with the mind than with ideas. What’s going on in one’s mind, not how one is sorting out what’s going on and making logical connections.

The operative clause above is “as I understood it.” The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason.

elbow concert blue sad friend movie difficult sheets driving laundry hip sad appointment desk friend complicated sunshine cat cat cat hard-boiled eggs typos neurologist blue plastic sad cry why Prokofiev cat sad teeming etymology and so from a young Tongan man to Moana to the Plow that Broke the Plains and Virgil Thomson to blue plastic laundry and back to getting old and wishing I knew

My thoughts, in the absence of all control by reason, excluding any aesthetic or moral preoccupation, but sometimes, thank goodness, larger thoughts—about war and peace and love and hate and loss and grief. Those things. I’m no different from anyone else. But only André Breton can make poetry out of that jumbled mess in the brain.

Or not. I wrote a poem a couple of days ago before I stumbled upon André Breton. It may not be good poetry, but it’s a good picture of the way my mind moved from meeting a young Tongan man with his fresh tribal tattoo to the films of Robert Flaherty, Moana especially, to needing to do laundry to the constant new nagging in the back of mind if I am really able to take care of myself and when the time will come, as it certainly will, when I am not able—a perfectly futile thought (as I said, “nagging,” not helpful). And so two days ago I called a friend who loves to refinish furniture and offered him my huge old mahogany roll-top desk that I couldn’t possibly move to a new apartment asking as payment only help with a couple of business details I can’t wrap my brain around because absence of all control by reason not only pervades my writing, my poetizing, and music-making, but also the way I exist in this world of car registrations, insurance policies, retirement funds and returning library books which I have never been able to navigate.

And after I called my friend, I wrote the first draft of this poem. The first time in years I’ve let anyone see one of my feeble attempts.

“Blue plastic and silent films,” by Harold Knight.

The goblet not Orrefors, I know, but from Sweden,
on my kitchen counter blue plastic with dollar and quarter-dollar coins
for the old man’s laundry piled on the floor at the foot of the bed

waiting for the hand that steadied the plow that broke the plains
I am not yet the old man but I am old enough and I wonder
how long can I stay here taking care of myself

I take care always when I go down staircases
take care of myself before they make me—that plow,
Louisiana Story, the music, I hear the music both,
but Moana has no music only the boy and his tattoo

the tattoo means something, something family, something
Virgil T might have composed a score for but Robert F
made it two years before the talkies—before they make me

move to a place where we need one person in charge of another
and there we have one person in charge of another
for our memories of the silence, the silence of the films
and the silence of our memories when another person asks

how do you know stuff like that

And here’s that real surrealist poem.

“The Forest in the Axe,” by André Breton (1896-1966)
Someone just died but I’m still alive and yet I don’t have a soul anymore. All I have left is a transparent body inside of which transparent doves hurl themselves on a transparent dagger held by a transparent hand. I see struggle in all its beauty, real struggle which nothing can measure, just before the last star comes out. The rented body I live in like a hut detests the soul I had which floats in the distance. It’s time to put an end to that famous dualism for which I’ve been so much reproached. Gone are the days when eyes without light and rings drew sediment from pools of color. There’s neither red nor blue anymore. Unanimous red-blue fades away in turn like a robin redbreast in the hedges of inattention. Someone just died,—not you or I or they exactly, but all of us, except me who survives by a variety of means: I’m still cold for example. That’s enough. A match! A match! Or how about some rocks so I can split them, or some birds so I can follow them, or some corsets so I can tighten them around dead women’s waists, so they’ll come back to life and love me, with their exhausting hair, their disheveled glances! A match, so no one dies for brandied plums, a match so the Italian straw hat can be more than a play! Hey, lawn! Hey, rain! I’m the unreal breath of this garden. The black crown resting on my head is a cry of migrating crows because up till now there have only been those who were buried alive, and only a few of them, and here I am the first aerated dead man. But I have a body so I can stop doing myself in, so I can force reptiles to admire me. Bloody hands, mistletoe eyes, a mouth of dried leaves and glass (the dried leaves move under the glass; they’re not as red as one would think, when indifference exposes its voracious methods), hands to gather you, miniscule thyme of my dreams, rosemary of my extreme pallor. I don’t have a shadow anymore, either. Ah my shadow, my dear shadow. I should write a long letter to the shadow I lost. I’d begin it My Dear Shadow. Shadow, my darling. You see. There’s no more sun. There’s only one tropic left out of two. There’s only one man left in a thousand. There’s only one woman left in the absence of thought that characterizes in pure black this cursed era. That woman holds a bouquet of everlastings shaped like my blood.

From Andre Breton: Selections, edited by Mark Polizzoti. Copyright © 2003. Reprinted by permission of University of California Press. “The Forest in the Axe” translated by Zack Rogow and Bill Zavatsky.

Tribal but not surreal

Tribal but not surreal

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