Department of Unmagical Thinking

Image: '1688 miracle,' by nebojsamladjenovic on Flickr.com

[Image: “1688 miracle,” by nebojsa mladjenovic on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license; thank you!) For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

A certain man… once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish—but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.

(Vladimir Nabokov [source])

and:

Making a Fist

We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.
—Jorge Luis Borges

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”

Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.

(Naomi Shihab Nye [source])

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Doing What You Can’t Not Do

Image: '12$,' by Catherine Roy on Flickr

[Image: “12$,” by Catherine Roy. (Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!) The photographer seems to like taking photos which show objects (and people) of little or no consequence; although she hasn’t organized them into an official “album” as such, she has tagged (as of now) fifty-four photos with the phrase, “feeding my compulsion.” Many of these photos (although not this one, obviously) simply show toilets.]

From whiskey river:

2. Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.

Cold or warm.

Tired or well-rested.

Despised or honored.

Dying… or busy with other assignments. Because dying, too, is one of our assignments in life. There as well: “To do what needs doing.”

3. Look inward. Don’t let the true nature or value of anything elude you.

7. …Only there, delight and stillness

11. When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstances, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep going back to it.

(Marcus Aurelius [source (various pages)]

and:

What Gorgeous Thing

I do not know what gorgeous thing
the bluebird keeps saying,
his voice easing out of his throat,
beak, body into the pink air
of the early morning. I like it
whatever it is. Sometimes
it seems the only thing in the world
that is without dark thoughts.
Sometimes it seems the only thing
in the world that is without
questions that can’t and probably
never will be answered, the
only thing that is entirely content
with the pink, then clear white
morning and, gratefully, says so.

(Mary Oliver [source])

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Give the Kaleidoscope Its Due

'Quiet Nature | Game of light,' by Vasile Hurghis on Flickr

[Image: “Quiet Nature | Game of light,” by Vasile Hurghis. (Found on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!) The scene is a Romanian landscape. I don’t know about you, but my own eyes resist seeing the tower on the right as what it is… especially when looking at anything else in the photo. I keep seeing it as a doorway to a world of colors which don’t exist in the foreground world. And honestly, I guess there’s no reason it can’t be that, is there — no reason it can’t be both that, and a simple rustic silo?]

From whiskey river (including the first paragraph, found elsewhere):

At 19, I read a sentence that re-terraformed my head: “The level of matter in the universe has been constant since the Big Bang.”

In all the aeons we have lost nothing, we have gained nothing — not a speck, not a grain, not a breath. The universe is simply a sealed, twisting kaleidoscope that has reordered itself a trillion trillion trillion times over.

Each baby, then, is a unique collision — a cocktail, a remix — of all that has come before: made from molecules of Napoleon and stardust and comets and whale tooth; colloidal mercury and Cleopatra’s breath: and with the same darkness that is between the stars between, and inside, our own atoms.

When you know this, you suddenly see the crowded top deck of the bus, in the rain, as a miracle: this collection of people is by way of a starburst constellation. Families are bright, irregular-shaped nebulae. Finding a person you love is like galaxies colliding. We are all peculiar, unrepeatable, perambulating micro-universes — we have never been before and we will never be again. Oh God, the sheer exuberant, unlikely face of our existences. The honour of being alive. They will never be able to make you again. Don’t you dare waste a second of it thinking something better will happen when it ends. Don’t you dare.

(Caitlin Moran [source: well, the quote is everywhere, dating back to at least 2014, but I don’t know the original])

and:

A Child is Something Else Again

A child is something else again. Wakes up
in the afternoon and in an instant he’s full of words,
in an instant he’s humming, in an instant warm,
instant light, instant darkness.

A child is Job. They’ve already placed their bets on him
but he doesn’t know it. He scratches his body
for pleasure. Nothing hurts yet.
They’re training him to be a polite Job,
to say “Thank you” when the Lord has given,
to say “You’re welcome” when the Lord has taken away.

A child is vengeance.
A child is a missile into the coming generations.
I launched him: I’m still trembling.

A child is something else again: on a rainy spring day
glimpsing the Garden of Eden through the fence,
kissing him in his sleep,
hearing footsteps in the wet pine needles.
A child delivers you from death.
Child, Garden, Rain, Fate.

(Yehuda Amichai, translated by Chana Bloch [source])

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The Unbearable Lightness of Metaphor

'Light - Day Two,' by Lucy Maude Ellis on Flickr

[Image: “light – day two,” by Lucy Maude Ellis. (Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!) I came across this image while searching for images having to do with weightlessness and such; the photographer’s Flickr photostream seems to exhibit a particular fondness for “levitation pictures.” In such pictures, the human subject is posed in such a way that s/he appears to be floating in air — the photographer then edits the photo to remove all traces of whatever device(s) are used to support the model. This image, though, “felt” better to me as accompaniment to today’s theme.]

From whiskey river:

The Mountain

My students look at me expectantly.
I explain to them that the life of art is a life
of endless labor. Their expressions
hardly change; they need to know
a little more about endless labor.
So I tell them the story of Sisyphus,
how he was doomed to push
a rock up a mountain, knowing nothing
would come of this effort
but that he would repeat it
indefinitely. I tell them
there is joy in this, in the artist’s life,
that one eludes
judgment, and as I speak
I am secretly pushing a rock myself,
slyly pushing it up the steep
face of a mountain. Why do I lie
to these children? They aren’t listening,
they aren’t deceived, their fingers
tapping at the wooden desks—
So I retract
the myth; I tell them it occurs
in hell, and that the artist lies
because he is obsessed with attainment,
that he perceives the summit
as that place where he will live forever,
a place about to be
transformed by his burden: with every breath,
I am standing at the top of the mountain.
Both my hands are free. And the rock has added
height to the mountain.

(Louise Glück [source])

and:

What Light Does

Today, I did nothing.
Light went on as usual,

throwing leaves against the white wall,
as if no one were watching, as if

there’s no meaning in the trembling
of the leaves. Later, light moves

the leaves onto the tile floor,
and once I might have thought them

dancing, or that the shadow
of a thing is more beautiful

than the thing itself, but it’s not,
it’s just ordinary light, going about

its ordinary business. Now, evening is here,
and I’ve made it through another day

of shadows. This is not metaphor, or poetry,
it’s how the unbearable is

a blade that gleams and remains
visible, long after light has gone.

(Patty Paine, Blackbird [source])

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Wordfeel

[Video: “Bluebird,” by Charles Bukowski. The poem is read by a pseudonymous “Tom O’Bedlam,” about whom you can read a few things here (and its links) and here. For information on the real “Tom o’Bedlam,” an anonymous 17th-century poem, see its Wikipedia page.]

Not from whiskey river:

There Is No Word

There isn’t a word for walking out of the grocery store
with a gallon jug of milk in a plastic sack
that should have been bagged in double layers

—so that before you are even out the door
you feel the weight of the jug dragging
the bag down, stretching the thin

plastic handles longer and longer
and you know it’s only a matter of time until
the strap breaks or the bottom suddenly splits
and spills its contents to the ground.

There is no single, unimpeachably precise word
for that vague sensation of something
moving away from you
as it exceeds its elastic capacity

which is too bad because that is the word
I would like to use to describe
standing on the street and chatting with a friend,

as the awareness gradually dawns on me that he
is no longer a friend,
but only an acquaintance

—until this moment as we say good-bye,
when I think we share a feeling of relief,
an unspoken recognition

that we have reached the end of a pretense
—though to tell the truth,
what I already am thinking

is that language deserves the credit—
how it will stretch just so much and no further;
how there are some holes it will not cover up;

how it will move, if not inside, then
around the circumference
of almost anything—

how, over the years, it has given me back
all the hours and days, all the
plodding love and faith, all the

misunderstandings and secrets and mistakes
I have willingly poured into it.

(Tony Hoagland [source])

…and:

Something about [Shakespeare’s] brain was gloriously different.

Familiar enough to illuminate the human condition in recognizable, entertaining, and profound ways, but different enough to do it in ways and words no one else could achieve. Something about the radar net of his senses. Something about his ability to combine seemingly unrelated things in a metaphor’s alchemy was different. His ability to juggle many swords of insight at the same time was different. In truth, the people of his era had a very small vocabulary; ours is exponentially larger. But his gift didn’t require more words, because words, being human made, can’t begin to capture the experience of being alive or the complex predicaments even simple people get into. Words are small shapes in the chaos of the world. They’re unwieldy, sloppy, even at their most precise. Nothing is simply blue. No one just walks. Words fail us when we need them most. They fall into the crevasses between feelings. If we make them overlap, then we can cover some of those spaces, and that’s traditionally what writers, especially poets, do. A metaphor is hypergolic, like nitroglycerin. It takes two otherwise harmless things, smacks them together, and creates something more explosive. Instead of needing a vocabulary word for every single thing and experience, we use the words we have in new ways. How clever of the brain to find such an enchanting solution.

(Diane Ackerman [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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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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Believing in What Cannot Be Believed

Image: from 'Elecktroschutz 132,' an album on Flickr by Bre Pettis

[Image: one of 30 Ways to Shock Yourself, a Flickr album by Bre Pettis (used here under a Creative Commons license). The images in this album apparently come from an old (1931) German book, Elecktroschutz in 132 Bildern; this was an illustrated guide to the hazards of electricity in everyday life. The illustrations all feature these curvy red lines and arrows, indicating the path the electricity takes and the dangerous points of contact which make the path possible. The caption on this one — one of the more fanciful images — might be, “Do not milk a cow with its tail wrapped around a light pole, especially if you may end up sitting in the milk you spill.” This does seem like sound advice.]

From whiskey river:

Credo

What good is poetry
if it doesn’t stand up
against the lies of government,
if it doesn’t rescue us
from the liars that mislead us?
What good is it
if it doesn’t speak out, denounce what’s going on?
It’s nothing
but harmless wordplay
to titillate and distract—
the government knows it,
and can always get rid of us if we step out of line.

That I believed in poetry,
even when I betrayed it,
that I came back to its central meaning
—to save the world—
this and only this
has been my salvation.

after C. Milosz

(Edward Field [source])

and:

Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is—what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is—what will a madman do with a dull world? In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos.

(G. K. Chesterton [source])

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Season of Marvels

'Le Petit Prince,' by Xava du on Flickr.com

[Image: “Le Petit Prince,” by user Xava du on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license.) The Spanish caption provided by the photographer: Cuando el misterio es demasiado impresionante, es imposible desobedecer; the English translation of this passage (originally in French) from Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince is usually rendered as When a mystery is too overpowering, one dare not disobey.]

From whiskey river:

All Hallows’ Eve

In the great silence of my favorite month,
October (the red of maples, the bronze of oaks,
A clear-yellow leaf here and there on birches),
I celebrated the standstill of time.

The vast country of the dead had its beginning everywhere:
At the turn of a tree-lined alley, across park lawns.
But I did not have to enter, I was not called yet.

Motorboats pulled up on the river bank, paths in pine needles.
It was getting dark early, no lights on the other side.

I was going to attend the ball of ghosts and witches.
A delegation would appear there in masks and wigs,
And dance, unrecognized, in the chorus of the living.

(Czesaw Milosz [source])

and:

Rain

As the falling rain
trickles among the stones
memories come bubbling out.
It’s as if the rain
had pierced my temples.
Streaming
streaming chaotically
come memories:
the reedy voice
of the servant
telling me tales
of ghosts.
They sat beside me
the ghosts
and the bed creaked
that purple-dark afternoon
when I learned you were leaving forever,
a gleaming pebble
from constant rubbing
becomes a comet.
Rain is falling
falling
and memories keep flooding by
they show me a senseless
world
a voracious
world—abyss
ambush
whirlwind
spur
but I keep loving it
because I do
because of my five senses
because of my amazement
because every morning,
because forever, I have loved it
without knowing why.

(Claribel Alegría, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden [source])

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Say Not Falling, But Released

'gotta match?,' by Laszlo Ilyes on Flicker

[Image: “gotta match?,” by Laszlo Ilyes; found on Flickr, and used here via a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river:

It was one of those sumptuous days when the world is full of autumn muskiness and tangy, crisp perfection: vivid blue sky, deep green fields, leaves in a thousand luminous hues. It is a truly astounding sight when every tree in a landscape becomes individual, when each winding back highway and plump hillside is suddenly and infinitely splashed with every sharp shade that nature can bestow — flaming scarlet, lustrous gold, throbbing vermilion, fiery orange.

(Bill Bryson [source])

and:

Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. So shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon and finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on, just as the wind in the orchard picks up the leaves from the ground as if there were no other pleasure in the world but brown leaves, as if it would deck, clothe, flesh itself in flourishes of dusty brown apple leaves, and then drops them all in a heap at the side of the house and goes on.

(Marilynne Robinson [source])

and (italicized lines):

Fall
(excerpt)

And every year there is a brief, startling moment
When we pause in the middle of a long walk home and
Suddenly feel something invisible and weightless
Touching our shoulders, sweeping down from the air:
It is the autumn wind pressing against our bodies;
It is the changing light of fall falling on us.

(Edward Hirsch [source])

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