Empty

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Empty

Empty now the house, clean the floors where she
spattered food and scattered her toys, polished

the tables, grubby no more, where small hands
clattered fork and spoon, her breakfast not wanted.

Empty the bathroom, the tub where she bathed.
Dry the towels, full the toothpaste tubes she

emptied in ecstasy. Where now her foot
-prints, her laughter and tears, the secret

language she spoke that we never understood?
Empty too my heart where, a wild bird, she

nested for the briefest time, then flew, yet
I possess her still, within my empty hands.

Commentary: The lead painting is the one Finley painted for me. I received it as a Christmas present, a couple of years back when she was 3 or 4. When asked if she wanted to add some more to the painting as the canvas wasn’t full, she replied: “No, it’s finished. That’s just how I want it.” Picasso once said that he spent the first half of his life learning to paint and the second half learning to see again as children see. Sometimes we complicate our art so much that we kill our inspiration and our vision. Some poets necessitate a dictionary in order for a reader to understand their words, yet when the meaning emerges, we find that the poem is convoluted, stilted, almost meaningless and even emptier than it was before.

Question: why do we try to gild the lily? Why do we lead to the slaughter the gift of the goose who lays the golden eggs? Are we writers or assassins? Are we not capable of putting meaning on paper with the directness and simplicity of a child? Good questions all. Sometimes I think that poets are like the existentialists of Albert Camus’s novels: they are the assassins of language and the murderers of direct and clear writing. And who are the victims? The words, images, metaphors, feelings that are strangled in the cradle or forced into captivity behind prison bars of jumbled lines and scattered thought.

Original ideas? No, not at all. This is the basic argument that Francisco de Quevedo (conceptismo) had with Luis de Góngora (culteranismo) in the Spanish literary salons of Madrid between 1613and 1627. The literary insults they wrote to each other are still a scandalous joy to read. These two seemingly separate styles of writing, which are actually very similar on many levels, eventually blended together and led to a total renewal of the Spanish literary language.  This in turn was bastardized by second-class imitators who did not have the skills of the original ‘super’ artists. And thus the pendulum swings: innovation > standardization > parody and satire of a worn out language > fresh inspiration and innovation.

As for me: how I would love to regain the clarity of vision and the joy of words that I experienced when I was a child. Back then, the world was a magic place, the pen and pencil were magic wands, and the empty page was a blank canvas to be filled with wonder. Alas: then I was sent to school. Rules were set. Bars were installed. Blinkers were inserted. Doors and windows were locked. Creativity ended. I will say no more.

KIRA Creative Quarantine

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KIRA Creative Quarantine

The Kingsbrae International Residencies for Artists (KIRA) requested its alumni to consider creating a ten minute video of themselves offering an instructional lesson based  on themselves working in their specialist areas. You can click on the above link to see all the creative videos currently available. Note that two more are added each week. Here is a link to my own video on Writing a Poem. It is designed for people of any age and I hope that anyone who sees the video will enjoy it and be inspired to start putting together their own poems.

The photo above was taken by Geoff Slater, the Artistic Director at KIRA. He placed a selection of my books on the beach at Holt’s Point and Bingo: instant art from a master artist. My book Fundy Lines now sunbathes on a beach that has ready access to the beautiful Bay of Fundy.

Downsizing

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Downsizing
Francisco de Quevedo

I chose each book, held it in my hands for
one last time, then placed it peacefully in
its cardboard coffin. Old friends, they were
but I broke that friendship and set them
free to fulfill their promised after-me-life
on another person’s shelves. I used to love
to listen to their lilting speech, to hear sage
thoughts with open eyes and mind. I replied
to their wisdom: words penned on each page.

Mind to mind, though they had lived five
hundred years ago, I strove to engage them
in a lively conversation, Bakhtinian dialogues
within our shared time and space, and
that space my basement library with its books.

One day, a man from the university drove up
in a hearse and bore them all away. Released
to a wider world beyond my walls, they will
nourish younger minds than mine. I hope their
new owners will bless them, welcome them,
cherish them, as I have done throughout my life.
Blind now, with tears, my eyes that devoured
their words. Deaf now, these ears of mine that
heard dead men’s words, for I can listen no more.

Comment: “Escucho con mis ojos a los Muertos / I listen with my eyes to the words of the dead.” Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645). It was a hard thing to do, that disemboweling of my library, but it had to be done. I am grateful to the Harriet Irving Library at the University of New Brunswick for taking pity on my plight and redeeming my books. Hopefully they will have all gone on to a better life. It was sad to walk past them, to watch them slowly gathering dust, like a book on a shelf, as Elvis used to sing. It was even sadder to know that I would ever be able to peruse them all again, let alone read them from from cover to cover, certainly not in this life time.

And is that my own fate, to be reduced to words on a page, to become a dusty book lying forgotten on a shelf? Pobre poetas de hoy,  wrote my friend and fellow academic poet, José María Valverde, destinados a ser polvo seco de tesis doctoral / Poor poets of today, destined to become the dry dust of doctoral theses. So: my thought for today … rise up and resist. Take an old friend off the shelf. Dust him or her off. Open the pages. Settle down for a moment or two. Breathe deep. Begin your conversation with your long lost friend. We may not be close in the flesh, distanced as we are by lock downs and separation, but we can become closer in our minds. Pick up one of my books. Dust me down. Read me. Begin that conversation. Now. Before we too are gone, swept down stream by time’s river and lost in the mists that curtain the sea.

And, just in case you thought that last line was very good and very unique and original, here’s the conversation it came from: Nuestras vidas son los ríos / que van a dar en la mar, /  que es el morir / our lives are the rivers that will flow down to the sea, which is death (Jorge Manrique, 1440-1479). I had that conversation with Jorge Manrique in Santander in the summer of 1963. His Coplas was on the pre-university reading list at Bristol University, placed there, I believe by Salvador Bacarisse who was related to a long line of Spanish musicians and poets. If memory serves me well, our first essay, in our first week, in our first year of Spanish, entailed writing a commentary on the Coplas and how to read and understand them.

Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait / If youth knew how, if old age was able to (Voltaire). I wish I knew then what I know now. And I wish I could do now, some of the things I could do back then. Meanwhile, do not despair: pick up one of my books or browse my blog for a poem, and have a short and hopefully profitable conversation with me as you listen to my failing voice with your younger eyes.

Word without end

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Word Without End
Antonio Machado

Tree: rowan, mountain ash, larch, tamarack,
hackmatack, spruce, birch, maple, passerines
flying from branch to branch. Birds: more words,

woodpeckers, downy, hairy, pileated, cardinals,
finches, purple, house, golden, rain-rusted robins,
crows, aerial magicians, wondrous in flight.

Spring: fresh branch tips, tiny fox gloves, leaf buds,
folded fiddleheads soon to open their spring magic.
Open: hearts worn on sleeves, open to the world,

wounds, eyes, everything open to beauteous
sun-warmth, snow’s slow disappearance, rising river,
freshet flow freshening this Renaissance,

every day a rebirth, a new beginning,
fresh starts, the world reborn beneath a rising sun,
its yellow disc growing, the new day glowing.

The word as it was in the beginning, head in hands,
heart in mouth, words without meaning, words whirling
golden autumn leaves, words caught in a whirligig,
words all powerful in a word-world without end.

Comment: “La palabra: una palptiación honda del espíritu / The word: a deep palpitation of the spirit.” Antonio Machado (1875-1939). In The Meaning of Meaning, Bertrand Russell discusses what words mean and how they construct, with their endless associative fields, a net of emotions that take us beyond logic into new realms of meaning. As poets and creative artists, we are conscious of the emotions we attach to each word we use. If the poetry is good, then that network of emotional associations reaches out to a wider audience and draws them into our own world view. If we are less skillful, then the emotions are trapped in our own claustrophobic words and fail to reach out, to lift up from the page, to achieve take-off. As we develop as poets and writers, we become more and more aware of the ways in which the microcosm, our own world in miniature, reaches out to the macrocosm, that wider world outside. When we achieve a blend between those two worlds, even if it be in nothing more than a metaphor, nothing more than a felicitous phrase or a delicately timed rhyme, then we reach a new level, a level that we strive to retain and attain anew every time we create.

For me, many of the secrets of poetry can be found hidden in the rhythm of words, the music of their joining, the harmonies they create when they play off each other, old and older meanings reflecting off the newer meanings we give them as we shuffle them anew and put them through their paces.

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Yesterday, my beloved placed seeds on the back porch, and a chipmunk, her pet chipmunk, came and sat on her foot as he chomped the seeds. Today, this first chipmunk was followed by a second chipmunk. Patience my friends. Keep writing. Keep striving. Keep experimenting. Keep your faith and your creed. Your words will one day reach out, like seeds to chipmunks, and will sow themselves in the mind’s of your readers. And those readers will beget other readers, much as one chipmunk plus one chipmunk will eventually equal many more than two chipmunks. Oh the joy of words, the loving search for le mot juste and the meaning of meaning. In the words of the immortal Cervantes: Paciencia, y barajar / patience, and shuffle your words. The results will creep upon you one morning, unaware and, like the chipmunks, they will catch you by surprise.

Duende

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Duende
Federico García Lorca

It starts in the soles of your feet, moves up
to your stomach, sends butterflies stamping
through your guts. Heart trapped by chattering teeth,
you stand there, silent, wondering … can I?
will I?what if I can’t? … then a voice breaks
the silence, but it’s no longer your voice.

The Duende holds you in its grip as you
hold the room, eyes wide, possessed,
taken over like you by earth’s dark powers
volcanic within you, spewing forth their
lava of living words. The room is alive
with soul magic, with this dark, glorious
spark that devours the audience, heart
by heart. Magic ends. The maelstrom calms.

Abandoned, you stand empty, a hollow shell.
The Duende has left you. God is dead, deep
your soul’s black starless night. Exhausted,
you sink to deepest depths searching for that
one last drop at the bottom of the bottle to save
your soul and permit you a temporary peace.

Comment: “Todo lo que tiene sonidos oscuros tiene duende / All that has dark sounds has duende.” Federico García Lorca (1898-1936). García Lorca, an inspired and inspirational vocal performer, well understood those dark artistic powers that rise from a combination of earth, air, and fire to possess artists as they weave their magic, be it musical or verbal or a combination of both. Those who possess it know that they never really possess it, for it comes and goes with a will of its own and possesses them, body and soul, taking them over. Deus est in nobisit is the god within us, wrote the Romans with their understanding of the power of performance. And they are right. Those who possess it are changed by it, no longer know themselves, turn into something other than what they are and becoming something special. “Ah would some power the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as others see us” (Robert Burns). But what happens to us when the wondrous gift is taken away, when drab reality takes over from the glory of the stage, the spotlight, the performance of the play? That indeed is the question. And the answer varies with each of us.  I look with dismay on the comedians who, for one reason or another, when deprived of their audiences, have chosen the darkest of exits. The hollow shells of the performers who have given their all are sad things to behold. The existential emptiness that is left when the powers drain away is difficult to live with. That is why so many, faced with this darkness, akin to St. John of the Cross’ Noche Oscura del Alma / Dark Night of the Soul, chose not to live. That is not a choice that I will ever make. And I encourage all my friends to wait, to wait in patience and hope for the light, the glorious light and fire of the Duende, the Spirit that will return, will pluck us from the depths, and will raise us to the heights again.

White Wolf

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White Wolf
Rhodri Mawr

Winter’s white wolf
shakes ice from her coat,
makes snowflakes fly,
blanches our world.

Nose pointed skywards,
she howls a North wind
straight down from the Pole
as we shiver indoors.

Snow gathers in the air,
thick as winged moths,
then drops to the ground,
plays dead in deep drifts.

Snow banks climb higher,
blotting out light.
Soon, Arctic cold will wrap us
in its endless night.

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White Wolf  in Island View

 

Comment: Y blaidd gwen yn y gaeaf / The white wolf in winter, translated from the original Welsh of an anonymous Gŵyr poet, circa 1613. Oh I do love messing about with images and words. I don’t have a photo of a white wolf, so instead I have posted a photo of my lapdog, Tigger, who weighs in at 115 lb. Tigger, of course / wrth gwrs, is a delicate champagne color rather than white. When he sheds hair in the summer known in the doggy trade as ‘blowing his coat’, it is like a snow storm coming off the back porch. The nesting birds and the chipmunks and squirrels can be seen carrying chunks of his fur back to their nests. They will keep wonderfully warm, wrapped in the raggle-taggle gypsies torn from coat. There are several jokes and pieces of misinformation or weird humor, woven into my poem. I wonder how many you can spot? Each of my poems is a puzzle, in one way or another, so have fun solving the riddles!

The Origin of the World

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The Origin of the World
Gustave Courbet:
L’Origine du monde

The origin of the world and where I came from,
her deep, moist cave that cast me from dark to light.
She loved me, she said, depriving me of her warmth,
leaving me to go back to her lover, loving him more.

Was it guilt that drove her to drinking whisky?
A forty-ouncer a day at the end, sometimes more.
She would wake in the night, wander the house,
banging against chairs, tables, walls, and doors.

She ran up bills in local shops, and the keepers
would dun me for the money she owed. She also
borrowed cash and some days her fingers were bare.
She left pawn shop IOUs on the table and I drove

 into town to redeem her rings. Once, in a drunken
frenzy, she cursed her only child. A mother’s curse is a
terrible thing. A living albatross, it claws lungs and heart.
Its weight drove me to the bottle. I too sought oblivion.

Reborn each day, mornings cast me back from dark to light.
Joy came when blackness descended, the albatross flew,
amniotic waters rocked me in warmth and comfort,
and my body’s boat floated once again on an endless sea.

Comment: The photos show light shining through bottles in The Bottle House on Prince Edward Island. There is something very special about sunlight shining through stained and colored glass. Color distorts, speckles hands and face with a pointillistic magic, and the circular framework becomes a sun in its own right. As for Courbet’s painting, it still has the power to shock the viewer as it sets the eternal conundrum of the power relationship between the viewer (male) and the viewed (female). And remember: El ojo que ves no es ojo porque lo ves, es ojo porque te ve  / the eye you see is not an eye because you see it, it is an eye because it sees you, as Antonio Machado tells us. As for the poem, it stands or falls on its own, as does the painting. Visual shock or verbal shock: take your pick, but I hope you do not walk away unmoved.

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