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.

Insomnia

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Kingsbrae 18.2
18 June 2017

Insomnia

When the gate-keeper sleeps,
who will open the gate?
Dreamland lies before us
but the gate is closed.
Where now is the gate-keeper?

How many sheep must we count
before the gate-keeper comes?
What will we do if he doesn’t arrive?
Must we just stand here and wait?

The sheep grow weary before our eyes.
They age and become frail.
Who now will count the motionless flock?
Where is the gate-keeper? Who will open
the gate that leads to the land of dreams?
Who will open the gate?

Sandman 3

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Kingsbrae 18.1
18 June 2017

Sandman 3

The sandman brings sand
to put in the sandwiches
we have packed for the beach.
It’s as coarse and fierce as salt
flowing through an hourglass,
or red sand in an egg-timer,
not clockwork and wound,
but the sort you turn upside
down. Sand: it counts each
minute of each day, turns
minutes into hours, hours
into days, sands the stone
block of our lives, like a sculptor,
into smaller, more manageable
shapes and chunks. Sand sticks
to our clothes, makes us wash
our hands and brush ourselves
thoroughly before we sit down
to eat the sand that has sneaked
into the lunch-time sandwiches
we brought to nibble on the sands.

Sand in the sandwiches:
grit in the machine.
Sand in the sand glass:
measuring our lives.
Sand on a childhood beach:
timeless.

Comment: My thanks to Dwight Roth, a fellow poet, for sowing the seed that grew into that last stanza. It’s funny how art can grow. A suggestion from a friend, a chance encounter, a moment of madness. As artists, we must keep our minds open for these moments when the small universe of the poem turns and changes, pivoting sometimes on a single thought or a seemingly careless word. A careless word: that is sometimes how and why the greatest books are written: “En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme …”

Pinot & Palette

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Kingsbrae 16.5
16 June 2017

Pinot & Paint

“Slap it on,” says the instructor,
“the sky first, various shades of blue,
darker at the top, lighter down below,
by the horizon line you dribble
across the bottom third of the page.
Add some white to lighten the blue
and maybe a little touch of yellow.
Now the landline, on the horizon,
brown first for the rocky shore,
a rub of green for foliage and trees.
Now, for the sea, take blues,
light and dark, mix them with a touch,
yellow, green and lighten them
a little with a touch of white.
Next come the cedar weir poles,
dark down below where the high tide
soaks them, lighter on top, use red
and yellow and a touch of orange.
Remember the shadows, and don’t
forget the way the poles are reflected
in the water, use broken lines for that,
matching colors. When you’re done,
just sign your name in the corner.
Finish your wine and cheese, now,
tell me: wasn’t that so much fun?”

Comment: We, the resident artists of KIRA, went to Geoff Slater’s workshop / studio to join in his Friday afternoon Pinot & Palette painting session. This was a two hour extravaganza with two glasses of wine, a cheese plate with bread and pickles, an empty canvas that we were obliged to fill, and a palette of acrylic paints with which to fill it. Geoff, the artistic director at Kingsbrae Gardens, led us step by step (as sequenced above) through ‘how to paint a picture’. The subject he chose for us was a fishing weir from Passamaquoddy Bay. He began by giving us a history of the weirs (click here for the appropriate poem) and their uses by the Passamaquoddy peoples and then he led us step by step through the painting process. At the end of the afternoon, the participants saw their paintings held up for all to see. They were mounted in a standard frame that highlighted the art as art. At the session’s end we parted with a great gift: our paintings, done by ourselves, and a deeper understanding of the history of the local region, the workings of the fishing weirs, and a deeper knowledge of how to paint. All in all it was a wonderful experience.

Icarus

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Kingsbrae 13.4
13 June 2017

Icarus

Such a miracle,
those first steps
of the sea-bird’s flight,
lurching his launch
over troubled water.

That first step heavy,
the second lighter,
and the third
scarcely
a paint brush
pocking the waves.

Deep within me,
I sense the need
to fly, to soar, to rise
high in the sky
and seek the sun.

I don’t care
if the sun’s heat
melts the wax
that binds my wings
and sends me
tumbling down,
a shooting star
falling
from the firmament.

A second sun,
I’ll be,
stunning in my sunset,
burning a glorious
path to death in my decline.

Chronotopos

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Kingsbrae 13.1
13  June 2017

Chronotopos

plant a plant
deep its roots
rooted in fine soil
potting soil in a pot
firm the fingers
the spot well-chosen
in a flower bed
in a pattern
in an empty space
in a growing garden
within a larger garden
in an old estate
in a small town by the sea

Russian doll puzzle
garden after garden

(one a secret
with its birds and voices
lost in the hedgerow
and the echoes
of secret meetings
watched only by the guardian
the robin that watches)

planted and replanted
unfolding flowers
in a sunshine world
in a state of grace
hope and handicraft
hand in hand
with faith and belief
and everything planned
to take advantage
of this time and this space

these words so simple
these thoughts so complex

Comment: I began this poem on  10 March 2017. It formed part of my initial poetry sequence with Kingsbrae unseen, save for videos and photos of the gardens and their history, viewed on the Kingsbrae website. As I have grown into the KIRA experience, or perhaps I should write ‘as the Kingsbrae experience has blossomed within me’, so I have found these words prophetic, yet strangely inadequate, in the way all words are inadequate when tides flow, days flourish, and ideas blossom, sometimes in that formless world between sleep and dream where reality is something for which the writer reaches out but finds it is beyond the fingertips and just out of reach. As my Judo instructor told me, a long time ago:

“The more you strive,
you cannot reach it.
The hand cannot grasp it,
nor the mind exceed it.
When you no longer seek it,
it is with you.”

Le Pont Mirabeau

Kingsbrae 8.4
8 June 2017

Le Pont Mirabeau
(click for French original)

The Seine flows down beneath Mirabeau Bridge
and so does our love
must I be reminded yet again
that happiness always follows pain

Let night descend let the hours sound
the days go by but I’m still around

Hand in hand let us stay here face to face
while beneath the bridge of our arms
our gazes interlock
like river waves flowing

Let night descend let the hours sound
the days go by but I’m still around

Love flows away like these flowing waves
love flows away
how slowly life passes
and hope is so brutal

Let night descend let the hours sound
the days go by but I’m still around

Days flow by and weeks flow by
nor times past nor former loves
come back again
under Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine

Let night descend let the hours sound
the days go by but I’m still around

Comment: I spent the school year in Paris in 1962-1963 and I have always wanted to translate Le Pont Mirabeau from French into English. Today, I found both the time and energy to do so. It’s not a great translation, but it is mine. Click on one of the links above to get the French original.