Sculpted in Smoke

[Video: Google Doodle celebrating choreographer Martha Graham’s 117th birthday on May 20, 2011. For information about the Doodle’s construction, see the Google Doodles blog post here. (I also came across a single large (2MB), frame-by-frame image of the animation, from start to finish; find a copy here.) The video’s uploader cleverly quotes for the “soundtrack” a brief phrase from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring — which Graham choreographed.]

From whiskey river:

Do You Have Any Advice for Those of Us Just Starting Out?

Give up sitting dutifully at your desk. Leave
your house or apartment. Go out into the world.

It’s all right to carry a notebook but a cheap
one is best, with pages the color of weak tea
and on the front a kitten or a space ship.

Avoid any enclosed space where more than
three people are wearing turtlenecks. Beware
any snow-covered chalet with deer tracks
across the muffled tennis courts.

Not surprisingly, libraries are a good place to write.
And the perfect place in a library is near an aisle
where a child a year or two old is playing as his
mother browses the ranks of the dead.

Often he will pull books from the bottom shelf.
The title, the author’s name, the brooding photo
on the flap mean nothing. Red book on black, gray
book on brown, he builds a tower. And the higher
it gets, the wider he grins.

You who asked for advice, listen: When the tower
falls, be like that child. Laugh so loud everybody
in the world frowns and says, “Shhhh.”

Then start again.

(Ron Koertge [source])

From whiskey river’s commonplace book:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

(Martha Graham [source])

Not from whiskey river (or its commonplace book):

It’s hard for me to put into words, but qualities like “quiveriness” and “vulnerability” come to mind when I think of creativity. Maybe another image is something like the doping used in the manufacture of semiconductors. Introducing small bits of something that doesn’t belong there can dramatically change the structure of a large-scale array. It’s not really randomness that is the vital element in creativity, but rather the slight tint of the subtle truths that creativity finds that changes the random from white to pink. Michelangelo, standing before the marble that was to become David, had in his mind the image of a young man, but also allowed himself to be invaded by the block of marble, the whole universe itself. Creativity requires a sense of smell, a palate to taste the scents that make brilliance…

A puff of smoke is sort of like a cousin of ours. Little eddies, the loosely coupled systems, shear and spin, and we can observe the gentle drift of the whole ensemble. Bubbling streams have this quality, as do breaking ocean waves. The boiling and roiling, the little pieces, each with his own life, each wavelet connected, interacting, and yet participating in the whole.

(Randy Read, quoted by Douglas Hofstadter [source])


Suburban Pastoral

Twilight folds over houses on our street;
its hazy gold is gilding our front lawns,
delineating asphalt and concrete
driveways with shadows. Evening is coming on,
quietly, like a second drink, the beers
men hold while rising from their plastic chairs
to stand above their sprinklers, and approve.

Soon the fireflies will rise in lucent droves—
for now, however, everything seems content
to settle into archetypal grooves:
the toddler’s portraits chalked out on cement,
mothers in windows, finishing the dishes.
Chuck Connelly’s cigarette has burned to ashes;
he talks politics to Roger in the drive.

“It’s all someone can do just to survive,”
he says, and nods—both nod—and pops another
beer from the cooler. “No rain. Would you believe—”
says Chuck, checking the paper for the weather.
At least a man can keep his yard in shape.
Somewhere beyond this plotted cityscape
their sons drive back and forth in borrowed cars:

how small their city seems now, and how far
away they feel from last year, when they rode
their bikes to other neighborhoods, to score
a smoke or cop a feel in some girl’s bed.
They tune the radio to this summer’s song
and cruise into the yet-to-exhale lung
of August night. Nothing to do but this.

These are the times they’d never dream they’ll miss—
the hour spent chasing a party long burned out,
graphic imagined intercourse with Denise.
This is all they can even think about,
and thankfully, since what good would it do
to choke on madeleines of temps perdu
when so much time is set aside for that?

Not that their fathers weaken with regret
as nighttime settles in—no, their wives
are on the phone, the cooler has Labatt
to spare; at nine the Giants play the Braves.
There may be something to romanticize
about their own first cars, the truths and lies
they told their friends about some summer fling,

but what good is it now, when anything
recalled is two parts true and one part false?
When no one can remember just who sang
that song that everybody loved? What else?
It doesn’t come to mind. The sprinkler spits
in metronome; they’re out of cigarettes.
Roger folds up his chair, calls it a day.

The stars come out in cosmic disarray,
and windows flash with television blues.
The husbands come to bed, nothing to say
but ‘night. Two hours late—with some excuse—
their sons come home, too full of songs and girls
to notice dew perfect its muted pearls
or countless crickets singing for a mate.

(Dave Lucas [source])


Note: If you visit the RAMH post I linked to in the video caption, about Appalachian Spring, you can listen to the complete suite, about thirty-six minutes long. The portion quoted in the Google Doodle video starts at about 3:16, waking the opening up just like the sun coming over an autumn horizon. (As I mention in an aside there, the “spring” of the title is actually a little bit of running water, a stream or pool bubbling up out of the ground — not the season, although the latter is how most people interpret it.)

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  1. So timely for me, John. I think I’d best heed Koertge’s advice, and head to the town library for work. Though, in my case, a cubicle without a view would be more advisable– sitting near a toddler may not be too productive. Certainly entertaining! And then, well, what I might glean from this toddler… hmm… (Perhaps I should reconsider the seating arrangement.) ;)

    Read Suburban Pastoral by Lucas some years ago. It resonated. And Graham–her voice, her movements, are always an inspiration. The illustration construction/sequence for the Google doodle is fascinating. I must remember to show it to Max. I’ve been nudging him toward a Saturday morning animation class at RISD. (Come on Kid, time to make the high school transcript sparkle!) Though, these days, sleeping in is a bit more enticing to him.

    • There was a good chunk of my adolescence when I could sleep for 12+ hours at a go. (Saturday mornings often went on, and on, and on, and on…) Now, even though it kinda feels like I’m tired all the time, I can’t sleep for more than about eight hours. Maybe I was storing up sleepnuts all that time, like a squirrel with acorns in the autumn. Maybe that’s Max’s situation, too. :)

  2. I cannot think of Martha Graham without thinking of my grandmother, who was a dancer when she was young and loved Baryshnikov and Nijinsky. And every time I see someone fascinating and talented named Martha, I wish her name was Marta instead. But that’s probably very wrong of me.

    There a few people I am going to share the Ron Koertge poem with.

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