The Observer in the Observed

'Message From the Unseen World,' by Roger Marks on Flickr

[Image: “Message From the Unseen World,” by Roger Marks; found on Flickr and used here under a Creative Commons license (thank you!). Click photo to enlarge. The photographer explains: “…this permanent installation is a collaboration between United Visual Artists and poet Nick Drake.  Alan Turing is one of Paddington’s most famous sons. This artwork, Message From the Unseen World, celebrates his groundbreaking work on artificial intelligence. Its outer shell comprises aluminium panels, punctuated with holes. LED lights shine through the holes, forming the words to Drake’s poem. A Turing-inspired algorithm shuffles through the poem, creating new interpretations of the verse.” An excerpt from the poem appears below, as the last entry in today’s post; the entirety can be viewed at the Flickr page.]

From whiskey river:

We’re only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention. In some ways, this is getting far afield. I mean, we are—as far as we know —the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious. We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself. I don’t know that, but we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of, or that floats around in space. But we’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.

(Mark Strand [source])

and:

There is no less holiness at this time—as you are reading this—than there was on the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of god. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree at the end of your street than there was under the Buddha’s bo tree… In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree.

(Annie Dillard [source])

…and (from whiskey river’s commonplace book):

Why do I write?

To satisfy a basic, fundamental need. I think all people have this need. It’s why children like to draw pictures of houses, animals, and Mom; it’s an affirmation of their presence in the corporeal world. You come into life, and life gives you everything your senses can bear: broad currents of animal feeling running alongside the particularity of thought. Sunlight, stars, colors, smells, sounds. Tender things, sweet, temperate things, harsh, freezing, hot, salty things. All the different expressions on people’s faces and in their voices. For years, everything just pours into you, and all you can do is gurgle or scream until finally one day you can sit up and hold your crayon and draw your picture and thus shout back, Yes! I hear! I see! I feel! This is what it’s like! It’s dynamic creation and pure, delighted receptivity happening on the same field, a great call and response.

(Mary Gaitskill [source])

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Spirit Within Reach — Overlooked, Unrecognized, Disregarded

'Dryad's Saddle - Untouched Macro,' by user LasyDragonFlyCC on Flickr

[Image: “Dryad’s Saddle – Untouched Macro,” by “LadyDragonflyCC.” (Found on Flickr, and used here under a Creative Commons license: thank you!) Dryad’s saddle is a mushroom, scientific name Cerioporus squamosus; the photographer’s note on this photo says: “The mushroom’s shape and lateral stem make it look suitable for woodland spirits, the dryads of Greek mythology, to ride. I’ve found plenty of dryad’s saddle in the woods, but I’m still looking for the nymph!”]

From whiskey river:

You never hear people put it this way, and I don’t intend to start a trend, but when we consider the ever-evolving process of a person’s thinking, the way a person imagines and organizes the world, it could almost seem appropriate to ask each other from time to time, How’s your religion coming along? How’s it going? Born again, or the same old, same old? Did you successfully distinguish darkness from light in the course of your day? Is there a fever in your mind that won’t go away? Mind if I prescribe a poem?

(David Dark [source])

and:

I Have News for You

There are people who do not see a broken playground swing
as a symbol of ruined childhood

and there are people who don’t interpret the behavior
of a fly in a motel room as a mocking representation of their thought process.

There are people who don’t walk past an empty swimming pool
and think about past pleasures unrecoverable

and then stand there blocking the sidewalk for other pedestrians.
I have read about a town somewhere in California where human beings

do not send their sinuous feeder roots
deep into the potting soil of others’ emotional lives

as if they were greedy six-year-olds
sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through a noisy straw;

and other persons in the Midwest who can kiss without
debating the imperialist baggage of heterosexuality.

Do you see that creamy, lemon-yellow moon?
There are some people, unlike me and you,

who do not yearn after fame or love or quantities of money as
unattainable as that moon;
thus, they do not later
have to waste more time
defaming the object of their former ardor.

Or consequently run and crucify themselves
in some solitary midnight Starbucks Golgotha.

I have news for you—
there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room

and open a window to let the sweet breeze in
and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies.

(Tony Hoagland [source])

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At the Corner of Imagined and Real

'Time Traveler (Chuck),' by user PINKÉ on Flickr

[Image: “Time Traveler,” by user PINKÉ on Flickr.com. (Used here under a Creative Commons license (thank you).) The photographer’s caption: “Chuck used his time machine to travel back in time. He was shocked to discover there wasn’t any air conditioning. He was glad to get back. July 2013.” Chuck seems to have had many adventures in geography, although as far as I can tell this has been his only one in time.]

From whiskey river (italicized lines):

On Velvet Turf

I dash outdoors so I will know
a little more about the day—
I stride forth filled with the whiff.
What’s to know is always a little to the left,
deep in the vine-covered hole of a hedgehog down
by the mossy stump. If something is impaled down there
I want to know. I don’t mind throwing myself
into the cistern of the Middle Ages.
Who knows, here once the embattled farmers stood,
their gallant foreheads broadly glistening.
I’ve read whole books standing up naked.
I’ve bragged all my life of the glories
I had in common with the rest of the world,
glories that fled through the windfields
and raked rivers, through the sere leaves
of the trees—
now that the broken gravy boat will sail no more
and the electric fence electrify no one,
now that the crepitating rain has come
and the winter lilt departed, it is time
to come out of my hole—
though the stars take me back
more than I am willing to admit.

(Mary Ruefle [source])

and:

Art alone makes life possible—this is how radically I should like to formulate it. I would say that without art man is inconceivable in physiological terms. There is a certain materialist doctrine which claims that we can dispense with mind and with art because man is just a more or less highly developed mechanism governed by chemical processes. I would say man does not consist only of chemical processes, but also of metaphysical occurrences. The provocateur of the chemical processes is located outside the world. Man is only truly alive when he realizes he is a creative, artistic being.

(Joseph Beuys [source])

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Dark Skies, Stark Uncertainties

'Dark Clouds,' by user Never Edit on Flickr

[Image: “Dark Clouds,” by “Never Edit.” (Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license.) No details about this photo are provided by the pseudonymous street photographer (other than the data captured by the automatic camera). Her profile says, “Never Edit — no real name given because I don’t want my nosey neighbours checking on me — means I like the street as it is and don’t want to turn my photos into digital paintings. Therefore I hardly crop or edit the photos in any way.”]

From whiskey river:

Genesis

Oh, I said, this is going to be.
And it was.
Oh, I said, this will never happen.
But it did.
And a purple fog descended upon the land.
The roots of trees curled up.
The world was divided into two countries.
Every photograph taken in the first was of people.
Every photograph taken in the second showed none.
All of the girl children were named And.
All of the boy children named Then.

(Mary Ruefle [source])

and:

Below Zero

We are at a feast which doesn’t love us. At last the feast sheds its mask and shows itself for what it really is: a switchyard, cold colossi sit on rails in the mist. A piece of chalk has scribbled on the freight car doors.

It mustn’t be said, but there is much suppressed violence here. That’s why the features are so heavy. And why it’s so hard to see that other thing which also exists: a mirrored glare of sun which moves across the house wall and glides through the unknowing forest of flickering faces, a Bible text never written down: “Come to me, for I am laden with contradictions like you yourself.”

Tomorrow I’m working in another city. I whizz there through the morning hour which is a blue-black cylinder. Orion hovers above the frozen ground. Children stand in a silent crowd, waiting for the school bus, children for whom no one prays. The light grows slowly like our hair.

(Tomas Tranströmer [source])

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Consolations of the Moment… But Which One?

'Southwest Reservoir Bridge,' by Bascove

[Image: “Southwest Reservoir Bridge,” by Bascove. (The artist also produced — selected and illustrated — the anthology in which I found Muriel Rukeyser’s poem, below.)]

From whiskey river:

A Journal of the Year of the Ox
(excerpt)

I find myself in my own image, and am neither and both.
I come and go in myself
as though from room to room,
As though the smooth incarnation of some medieval spirit
Escaping my own mouth and reswallowed at leisure,
Dissembling and at my ease.

(Charles Wright [source])

…and (italicized portion):

…if I go to sleep after lunch in the room where I work, sometimes I wake up with a feeling of childish amazement—why am I myself? What astonishes me, just as it astonishes a child when he becomes aware of his own identity, is the fact of finding myself here, and at this moment, deep in this life and not in any other. What stroke of chance has brought this about?

(Simone de Beauvoir [source])

…and:

Poem White Page
White Page Poem

Poem white page white page poem
something is streaming out of a body in waves
something is beginning from the fingertips
they are starting to declare for my whole life
all the despair and the making music
something like wave after wave
that breaks on a beach
something like bringing the entire life
to this moment
the small waves bringing themselves to white paper
something like light stands up and is alive

(Muriel Rukeyser [source])

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How Comes the Dawn

'The Blue Hour,' by Dave Toussaint on Flickr.com

[Image: “The Blue Hour,” by Dave Toussaint. (Found on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license.) Toussaint reports that this shot of Yosemite Falls was taken roughly 45 minutes before sunrise. If you’re viewing this on a sufficiently large screen, click on the image to see it in the photographer’s preferred original size of 1140 x 754.]

From whiskey river:

Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again. Did our birth fall in some fit of indigence and frugality in nature, that she was so sparing of her fire and so liberal of her earth, that it appears to us that we lack the affirmative principle, and though we have health and reason, yet we have no superfluity of spirit for new creation? We have enough to live and bring the year about, but not an ounce to impart or to invest. Ah that our Genius were a little more of a genius!

(Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: Second Series [source])

and:

To the New Year

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

(W. S. Merwin [source])

and:

The Tongue Says Loneliness

The tongue says loneliness, anger, grief,
but does not feel them.

As Monday cannot feel Tuesday,
nor Thursday
reach back to Wednesday
as a mother reaches out for her found child.

As this life is not a gate, but the horse plunging through it.

Not a bell,
but the sound of the bell in the bell-shape,
lashing full strength with the first blow from inside the iron.

(Jane Hirshfield [source])

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Name Time

'La Otra Navidad (The Other Christmas),' by Oiluj Samall Zeid on Flickr

[Image: “La Otra Navidad (The Other Christmas),” by Oiluj Samall Zeid; found on Flickr and used here under a Creative Commons license. The site is a mausoleum in León, Spain, commemorating Republicans killed in the Spanish Civil War. Each nameplate represents one victim.]

From whiskey river (italicized portion):

[Interviewer Terry] Gross: I’d like you to read another poem from your book “Book of Longing.” And this is called “Titles.” Would you tell us when you wrote this?

[Leonard] Cohen: I’ve been writing it for a while. But I finished it last winter in Montreal. It’s a poem called “Titles.”

(Reading) I had the title Poet. And maybe I was one for a while. Also, the title Singer was kindly accorded me even though I could barely carry a tune. For many years, I was known as a Monk. I shaved my head and wore robes and got up very early. I hated everyone. But I acted generously. And no one found me out. My reputation as a Ladies’ Man was a joke. It caused me to laugh bitterly through the 10,000 nights I spent alone. From a third-story window above the Parc du Portugal, I’ve watched the snow come down all day.

As usual, there’s no one here. There never is. Mercifully, the inner conversation is canceled by the white noise of winter. I am neither the mind, the intellect nor the silent voice within. That’s also canceled. And now, gentle reader, in what name — in whose name — do you come to idle with me in this luxurious and dwindling realms of aimless privacy?

(Leonard Cohen [source])

and:

The secrets to living are these:
First, the past cannot be improved upon.
Acknowledge what was and move on.
Next, the future cannot be molded.
Then, why bother?
Last, nothing can ultimately be controlled;
Not the past, nor the future, nor the present.
Accept this moment as it is.
Honoring these three,
One lives without shackles.

(Wu Hsin [source])

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To Be in the World, Yes — Just Not Quite of It

'Here and Now,' by Dako Huang on Flickr

[Image: “Here and Now,” by Dako Huang. Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river (italicized passage):

I for one am resolved to mind or not mind only to the degree where my point of view is no larger than myself. I can thus have a great number of points of view, like fingers, and which I can treat as I treat the fingers of my hand, to hold my cup, to tap the table for me and fold themselves away when I do not wish to think. If I fold them away now, then I am sitting here, not because I am thinking. It is all indeed, I admit, rather horrible. But if I remain a person instead of becoming a point of view, I become a force and am brought into direct contact with horror, another force. As well set one plague of cats loose upon another and expect peace of it. As a force I have power, as a person virtue. All forces eventually commit suicide with their power, while virtue in a person merely gives him a small though constant pain from being continuously touched, looked at, mentally handled; a pain by which he learns to recognize himself. Poems, being more like persons, probably only squirm every time they are read and wrap themselves around more tightly. Pictures and pieces of music, being more like forces, are soon worn out by the power that holds themselves together. To me pictures and music are always like stories told backwards: or like this I read in the newspaper: ‘Up to the last she retained all her faculties and was able to sign cheques.’

(Laura Riding [source])

and:

A Path In The Woods from A New Name

I don’t trust the truth of memories
because what leaves us
departs forever
There’s only one current of this sacred river
but I still want to remain faithful
to my first astonishments
to recognize as wisdom the child’s wonder
and to carry in myself until the end a path
in the woods of my childhood
dappled with patches of sunlight
to search for it everywhere
in museums in the shade of churches
this path on which I ran unaware
a six-year old
toward my primary mysterious aloneness

(Anna Kamienska [source])

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An Appetite for Meaning (Seasoned with Words)

'Mowing Word,' by user grob831 on Flickr

[Image: “Mowing Word,” by user grob831 on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license.) For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

Land of the Living
(excerpt)

Earlier tonight, a young monk, laughing,
splashed my face
with holy water. Then, just as unexpectedly,
he flew down a banister, and
for one millisecond
was an angel—robed,
without feet—
all irrepressible joy
and good news.

(Kathleen Norris [source])

…and:

If one day you become sick of words, as happens to us all, and you grow tired of hearing them, of saying them; if whichever you choose seems worn out, dull, disabled; if you feel nauseated when you hear “horrible” or “divine” for some everyday occurrence—you’ll not be cured, obviously, by alphabet soup.

You must do the following: cook a plate of al dente spaghetti dressed with the simplest seasoning—garlic, oil and chili. Over the pasta tossed in this mixture, grate a layer of Parmesan cheese. To the right of the deep plate full of the spaghetti thus prepared, place an open book. To the left, place an open book. In front of it a full glass of dry red wine. Any other company is not recommended. Turn the pages of each book at random, but they must both be poetry. Only good poets cure us of an overindulgence in words. Only simple essential food cures us of gluttony.

(Héctor Abad [source])

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The Stream, a River, a Torrent, This Puddle, the Sea

'Jimmy's Fairy Tale,' by Woodford Yang on Flickr

[Image: “Jimmy’s Fairy Tale,” by Woodford Yang. Found it on Flickr (used here under a Creative Commons license). The artist/photographer — the user who posted it, anyhow — offers absolutely no context for it: where it was taken, what it depicts, who “Jimmy” might be/have been… nothing at all. (The user profile indicates that he is based in Taipei, and I found numerous references to that exact name around the Web; but I really have no details to offer.) Whatever it “means,” I like that the train’s label — referring to van Gogh’s painting, presumably, or to the Don McLean song about it — echoes (or is echoed in) those softly glowing overhead lights.]

From whiskey river (italicized portion):

Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up…

A critic not long ago said in praise of a very serious fairy tale that the author’s tongue “never once got into his cheek.” But why on earth should it?—unless he had been eating a seed-cake. Nothing seems to me more fatal, for this art, than an idea that whatever we share with children is, in the privative sense, “childish” and that whatever is childish is somehow comic. We must meet children as equals in that area of our nature where we are their equals. Our superiority consists partly in commanding other areas, and partly (which is more relevant) in the fact that we are better at telling stories than they are. The child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man. But the worst attitude of all would be the professional attitude which regards children in the lump as a sort of raw material which we have to handle.

(C. S. Lewis [source])

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