Downsizing

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Downsizing

a double sword
this clearing out
of odds and ends

the library diminishing
book by book
so many memories
slipped between the covers
dust-bound now
yet springing so quickly
back to life

sorrowful not sweet
these multiple partings
from people I will never see again
save in my dreams

I think of book burnings
so many heroes
going up in flames
fire their beginnings
fire their ends

fire the means of forging
the Omega and Alpha
of the book world
that surrounds us

fire encircling us
death’s bone fires
consuming us
outside and in

Thursday Thoughts: Why I Write III

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Thursday’s Thoughts
Why I Write III
Intertextuality
29 March 2018

            In exile, in La Torre de Juan Abad, the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo wrote a sonnet entitled Retirado en la paz de estos desiertos / Withdrawn into the peace of these deserted lands. The first quatrain reads:

            Retirado en la paz de estos desiertos, / con pocos pero doctos libros juntos, / vivo en conversación con los difuntos, / y escucho con mis ojos a los Muertos. Reduced to an instant rough and ready English translation, this reads: ‘Withdrawn into the peace of these deserted lands, / together with a few quite learned books, / I live in conversation with dead men, / and listen to them speaking through my eyes.’

Talking to the dead by reading their live words on the page: this was my first introduction to the theory of intertextuality, written words speaking to written words across the medium of written texts. Intertextuality, then, living texts talking to living texts, be it in print, be it in digital form on the computer.

How does this relate to Why I Write? Orwell writes an article entitled Why I Write. Joan Didion reads that article, replies to it, and also writes an article entitled Why I Write, and her article is, in certain measure, an intertextual dialog with George Orwell. I read both these articles and I, in my turn, join in the conversation, responding, in my own way, first to George Orwell, and then to Joan Didier. Now I have introduced Francisco de Quevedo (Spain, 1580-1645) into this tripartite series and he too has joined the conversation linking why I write intimately to the theme of why I read. For a fuller discussion of Why I Read, consult the full version of Quevedo’s sonnet, particularly the final tercet. As you read these words, you too are drawn into this intertextual conversation, one that has gone on for much longer than we realize.

So, why do I write? In part, it is to join in and continue these conversations and thus to honor the memories of those who have gone on before, Quevedo writing to González de Salas, Joan Didion responding to George Orwell. However, I see writing not only as a conversation, a sharpening of arguments, a learning process in which speaker (writer) and spoken to (reader) exchange ideas, but also as a construction, like the well-wrought urn of Cleanth Brooks (new criticism), or the polished work of art of the phenomenologists. I see the written work of art as a construction, and I want that construction to be as polished and as well-made as I can make it. In addition, I have things I want to say, poems I want to write, stories I want to tell, and I want these things, poems, stories (constructs all) to be the best that they can be. I want to reach out to my reader (readers, if there are two or more of you) and say “Hey, stop awhile. Read this. What I have written is well-worth reading.”

Mikhail Bakhtin uses the term chronotopos, referring to ‘man’s dialog with his time and his place’. I write so that I too may dialog with my time and my place. More, I write in part to establish my time and to cement myself in my place. Time and place are both variable. Is Quevedo (Spain, 1580-1645) a part of my time (20th / 21st Century) or my place (currently Island View, New Brunswick, Canada)? The moment I draw him into the intertextual conversation, as I have done here, he shares time and place with me, and with you, as you read this. So, among other reasons, I write to establish my place not only within this time in which I live, but also within the great chain of intertextual writing that flows backwards and forwards from the earliest times. Only I can do that for myself. Nobody else can do it for me. Is it important that I do so? For me, yes, it is very important. Sometimes, in this life, we walk a long way across a very lonely shore. But we leave footprints behind us, footprints that the wind will fill with sand, footprints that the tide will wash away … we are aware of that but we still walk on, and we still leave footprints.

Reading as dialog, dialog as a means to establish ourselves, writing as a way to cement our ideas, to polish them, to craft them into the shape of that well-wrought urn, that well-wrought urn placed in public where it can be viewed, or in a private place where only close friends can see it and admire it … but something tangible, something solid, something well-wrought, something that will say, ‘yes, I have walked this way’ and ‘yes, I have left footprints’, however dainty, however small, however temporal, however fragile in light of wind and tide … but a footprint, the footprint of Man Thursday, on an otherwise deserted shore … to leave footprints …  to sketch the silver points of Lucifer, the light-bearer, the evening star, as he stands strong against the encroaching night … that is Why I Write.

Monkey Teaches Sunday School

 

 

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Monkey Teaches Sunday School on Mondays
(With apologies to Pavlov and his dogs)

Younger monkeys e-mail elder monkey
and expect an answer within two minutes.
Elder monkey drools and writes right back.

He is turned on by the bells and
whistles of his computer.
“Woof! Woof!”
His handlers hand him a biscuit.

Elder monkey has grown to appreciate
tension and abuse:
the systematic beatings,
the shit and foul words hurled at his head.

The working conditions in his temple
kennel are overcrowded.
Elder monkey is overworked.

Yet he has managed to survive,
to stay alive and fight
what he once believed was the good fight.

Now he no longer knows:
nor does he drool anymore
when bells and whistles sound
and his handlers bait him with
an occasional, half-price biscuit.

Braids

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Braids

All thumbs,
I can manage
two bunches,
one on each side.

But now,
with her mother gone,
it’s much more difficult
to part my daughter’s hair
neatly into three.

I work hard to perfect
that one thick plait
she loves down her back.

As for fish-bones
and French braiding…
she begs me to try

and I promise
that when my thumbs
turn into fingers,
I’ll give it a go.

Identity: Wednesday Workshop

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Identity
Wednesday Workshop

5 July 2017

Today’s workshop settles on the question of identity, loss of identity, and the attempt to recover any form of cultural identity that one feels one has lost. These questions are particularly important in the current age when so many differences are so easily erased. Language, culture, identity, music … they are all tied closely together.

The search for identity runs parallel to the search for the poetic voice (or the writing voice) that is so unique to each good writer. In fact, one can distinguish between good writers and lesser writers merely on the basis of voice. Lesser writers rarely establish a distinct voice while good writers usually have voices that are uniquely their own.

What to do we mean by voice? When we read Shakespeare or Miguel de Cervantes we know almost immediately whose work we are reading. The same is true of the great musicians. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, all have sequences and styles that are individual to them, as do Scarlatti, Brassens, The Beatles, Gordon Lightfoot, Gilles Vigneault, Edith Butler … their style, their voice is established. We listen to them and we know who they are.

Cultural identity is also very important. It is tied into language, childhood beliefs, fairy tales, myths, the basic culture that we receive as children. When we all listen to the same radio stations, or download the same ITunes, or watch the same TV programs with their infinity of ad nauseam advertisements, then we are socially engineered to be the same or, if not the same, remarkably similar within a series of very limited and extremely limiting patterns. When we establish our own identities, — and this is always difficult both for people who have had their culture taken from them and for immigrants, or the children of immigrants, who want to retain their culture at the same time as they blend in and fit in socially — then at the same time we develop our own voices.

When I hear the poetry of Lorca, of Antonio Machado, of Miguel de Unamuno, of Octavio Paz, of Dylan Thomas, of Gerard Manley Hopkins, of Wilfred Owen, I hear their very distinctive voices and recognize their individual styles and the cultural / poetic identities that they have established. The goal that we, as writers, are aiming for is to establish our own style, our own voice. To do this, we must listen to ourselves and discover how we think and how we feel. Then we must listen to others of our own generation. We must make comparisons and establish what we do differently, why we are different, what forms our differences … our own individual voice may come from speech rhythms, from language usage, from the establishment of a certain form of narrative, from the use of imagery or metaphor … there are so many different ways in which we are, each of us, different … or capable of being perceived as different.

When we write often enough and frequently enough, we at last begin to recognize those words, those phrases, those rhythms, those ideas, that are ours and nobody else’s. This is when we start to discover our own voices and our own personalities. It is a goal worth striving for … step by step … poco a poco … little by little … and a step forward everyday … until we grow into the type of writer or poet, fully established (or establishing), that we were always meant to be.

It is never easy to capture oneself and place oneself on the page in readable form. It’s a bit like trying to draw Picasso’s blue vase using only one blue pencil: not easy. It’s much easier to take a selfie with a flashy cell-phone.  Cell-phone selfies are easy, but verbal selfies are what we are seeking for. They take much longer to ‘produce’ and it is only when we finally achieve them, that we realize how difficult they are to actually achieve. But remember, read and re-read my earlier postings: don’t give up; don’t get off the bus!

 

Standing Stones

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Kingsbrae 21.4
21 June 2017

Standing Stones

Standing in a stone circle,
surrounded by standing stones,
listening to their voices.

The reverberation of their uprooted rock
remembers its birthplace,
recalls the sculptor’s toil,
the polishing of granite and grain.

I’ll never forget those other stones:
bluestones at Stonehenge,
the Bronze Age tomb in Wick,
the toros de Guisando,
the danzantes at Monte Alban,
Hengistbury’s double-ditch and wall,
stone circles in Singleton
the Gorsedd ring in Caer Dydd.

Nor will I forget the deep-voiced
song of stone, here at the solstice,
standing in the middle
of three powerful granite statues,
their energies released
at this afternoon’s unveiling.

When I closed my eyes
I opened my mind and heart
to the deep earth-soul song
strummed in tune with the sunshine.

I breathed it in, retained it,
then allowed it to shine out
through the lantern of my heart.