Practical Magic

Image: 'A Hedgehog (Erinaceus roumanicus),' by Hans Hoffmann

[Image: “A Hedgehog (Erinaceus roumanicus),” by Hans Hoffmann (German, 16th century). Painting in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; for more about the painting, see the museum’s description of it. As for its relevance here, well, read on.]

From whiskey river:

Perhaps everything lies in knowing what words to speak, what actions to perform, and in what order and rhythm; or else someone’s gaze, answer, gesture is enough; it is enough for someone to do something for the sheer pleasure of doing it, and for his pleasure to become the pleasure of others: at that moment, all spaces change, all heights, distances; the city is transfigured, becomes crystalline, transparent as a dragonfly.

(Italo Calvino [source])

and:

Off A Side Road Near Staunton

Some nothing afternoon, no one anywhere,
an early autumn stillness in the air,
the kind of empty day you fill by taking in
the full size of the valley and its layers leading
slowly to the Blue Ridge, the quality of country,
if you stand here long enough, you could stay
for, step into, the way a landscape, even on a wall,
pulls you in, one field at a time, pasture and fall
meadow, high above the harvest, perfect
to the tree line, then spirit clouds and intermittent
sunlit smoky rain riding the tops of the mountains,
though you could walk until it’s dark and not reach those rains—
you could walk the rest of the day into the picture
and not know why, at any given moment, you’re there.

(Stanley Plumly [source])

and:

Fairy-Tale Logic

Fairy tales are full of impossible tasks:
Gather the chin hairs of a man-eating goat,
Or cross the sulphuric lake in a leaky boat,
Select the prince from a row of identical masks,
Tiptoe up to a dragon where it basks
And snatch its bone; count dust specks, mote by mote,
Or learn the phone directory by rote.
Always it’s impossible when someone asks—

You have to fight magic with magic. You have to believe
That you have something impossible up your sleeve—
The language of snakes, perhaps, an invisible cloak,
An army of ants at your beck, or a lethal joke,
The will to do whatever must be done:
Marry a monster. Hand over your firstborn son.

(A. E. Stallings [source])

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Senses of Self

Image: 'The Tragedy of 'Dona Ajada' - I - The Headdress,' by José de Almada Negreiros

[Image: “The Tragedy of ‘Dona Ajada’ – I – The Headdress,” by José de Almada Negreiros. This is the first of six lantern slides produced by Almada for a 1929 collaborative multi-media theater piece, with music by Salvador Bacarisse and poems by Manuel Abril. This work was performed only once, on November 29 of that year; according to a recent monograph accompanying an exhibit of Almada’s work at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Portugal, Dona Ajada was a “free adaptation of Lope de Vega’s poem La Gatomaquia (1634), the satire of a classic epic whose principal characters were cats… it seems that Abril and Almada had replaced [the feline female protagonist] for a witch, Dona Ajada, while slightly altering the 17th century plot.” All six slides can be viewed, needless to say, at Flickr as well as other locations around the Web.]

From whiskey river:

We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others.
An interpreted world is not a home.
Part of the terror is to take back our own listening.
To use our own voice.
To see our own light.

(Hildegard of Bingen [source])

and:

…if we watch ourselves we are many people. All day long our field of consciousness is entered by autonomous complexes. If you can recognize them as such, you can steer them, either to keep them out of your system, or by going along with it and knowingly putting it aside again. But if you are possessed, so to speak, it means the complexes enter you involuntary and you act them out involuntary.

(Marie-Louise von Franz [source: see below])

and:

I’ve Been Known

to spread it on thick to shoot off my mouth to get it off my chest
to tell him where
to get off
to stay put to face the music to cut a shine to go under to sell
myself short to play
myself down
to paint the town to fork over to shell out to shoot up to pull a
fast one to go haywire
to take a shine to
to be stuck on to glam it up to vamp it up to get her one better to
eat a little higher
on the hog
to win out to get away with to go to the spot to make a stake to
make a stand to
stand for something to stand up for
to snow under to slip up to go for it to take a stab at it to try out
to go places to play
up to get back at
to size up to stand off to slop over to be solid with to lose my
shirt to get myself off
to get myself off the hook

(Denise Duhamel [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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At the Edge of Whole and Part

'Subsume,' by user Squid ProQuo on Flickr

[Image: “Subsume,” by user Squid ProQuo on Flickr.com. (Used here under a Creative Commons license; thank you!) The photographer includes almost no information about the photo or its subject, other than that it was taken in Japan in 2009. I haven’t seen any more information about this sculpture elsewhere, but I’ll keep looking.]

From whiskey river:

There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses. We can extend our senses with the help of microscope, stethoscope, robot, satellite, hearing aid, and such, but what is beyond our senses we cannot know. Our senses define the edge of consciousness, and because we are born explorers and questors after the unknown, we spend a lot of our lives pacing that windswept perimeter: We take drugs; we go to circuses; we tramp through jungles; we listen to loud music; we purchase exotic fragrances; we pay hugely for culinary novelties, and are even willing to risk our lives to sample a new taste. In Japan, chefs offer the flesh of the puffer fish, or fugu, which is highly poisonous unless prepared with exquisite care. The most distinguished chefs leave just enough of the poison in the flesh to make the diners’ lips tingle, so that they know how close they are coming to their mortality. Sometimes, of course, a diner comes too close, and each year a certain number of fugu-lovers die in midmeal…

Deep down, we know our devotion to reality is just a marriage of convenience, and we leave it to the seers, the shamans, the ascetics, the religious teachers, the artists among us to reach a higher state of awareness, from which they transcend our rigorous but routinely analyzing senses and become closer to the raw experience of nature that pours into the unconscious, the world of dreams, the source of myth… Our several senses, which feel so personal and impromptu, and seem at times to divorce us from other people, reach far beyond us. They’re an extension of the genetic chain that connects us to everyone who has ever lived; they bind us to other people and to animals, across time and country and happenstance. They bridge the personal and the impersonal, the one private soul with its many relatives, the individual with the universe, all of life on Earth. In REM sleep, our brain waves range between eight and thirteen hertz, a frequency at which flickering light can trigger epileptic seizures. The tremulous earth quivers gently at around ten hertz. So, in our deepest sleep, we enter synchrony with the trembling of the earth. Dreaming, we become the Earth’s dream.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

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Forever Beginning

'Âmes entrelacés par la lumière,' by user viewminder on Flickr.com

[Image: “Âmes entrelacés par la lumière,” by user Viewminder on Flickr.com. (Used here under a Creative Commons license.) Translation, per Google Translate: Souls intertwined by light.]

From whiskey river:

I wish that I could put up yesterday’s evening sky for all posterity, could preserve a night of love, the sound of a mountain stream, a realization as it sets my mind afire, a dance, a day of harmony, ten thousand glorious days of clouds that will instead vanish and never be seen again, line them up in jars where they might be admired in the interim and tasted again as needed.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

and (italicized portion*):

We like to think that we are finely evolved creatures, in suit-and-tie or pantyhose-and-chemise, who live many millennia and mental detours away from the cave, but that’s not something our bodies are convinced of. We may have the luxury of being at the top of the food chain, but our adrenaline still rushes when we encounter real or imaginary predators. We even restage that primal fright by going to monster movies. We still stake out or mark our territories, though sometimes now it is with the sound of radios. We still jockey for position and power. We still create works of art to enhance our senses and add even more sensations to the brimming world, so that we can utterly luxuriate in the spectacles of life. We still ache fiercely with love, lust, loyalty, and passion. And we still perceive the world, in all its gushing beauty and terror, right on our pulses. There is no other way.  To begin to understand the gorgeous fever that is consciousness, we must try to understand the senses — how they evolved, how they can be extended, what their limits are, to which ones we have attached taboos, and what they can teach us about the ravishing world we have the privilege to inhabit.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

and:

Begin

Begin again to the summoning birds
to the sight of the light at the window,
begin to the roar of morning traffic
all along Pembroke Road.
Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in dark
determination and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.
Begin to the pageant of queuing girls
the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal
bridges linking the past and future
old friends passing though with us still.
Begin to the loneliness that cannot end
since it perhaps is what makes us begin,
begin to wonder at unknown faces
at crying birds in the sudden rain
at branches stark in the willing sunlight
at seagulls foraging for bread
at couples sharing a sunny secret
alone together while making good.
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.

(Brendan Kennelly [source])

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Groping at (but Never Grasping) Mystery

[Video: “Who Done It?” by Harry Nilsson (on 1977’s Knnillssonn album). The string opening is reportedly the only so-called “Nilsson” recording not actually written by Nilsson himself; it’s the Allegro movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 12 in E Flat, Opus 127. (The Adagio movement is referenced in Jan Zwicky’s poem, below.)]

From whiskey river:

Nirvana is this moment seen directly. There is no where else than here. The only gate is now. The only doorway is your own body and mind. There’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing else to be. There’s no destination. It’s not something to aim for in the afterlife. It’s simply the quality of this moment.

(Jane Hirshfield [quoted many places around the Web, apparently sourced from a PBS documentary on the Buddha])

…and:

There is the moment when the silence of the countryside gathers in the ear and breaks into a myriad of sounds: a croaking and squeaking, a swift rustle in the grass, a plop in the water, a pattering on earth and pebbles, and high above all, the call of the cicada. The sounds follow one another, and the ear eventually discerns more and more of them—just as fingers unwinding a ball of wool feel each fiber interwoven with progressively thinner and less palpable threads, The frogs continue croaking in the background without changing the flow of sounds, just as light does not vary from the continuous winking of stars. But at every rise or fall of the wind every sound changes and is renewed. All that remains in the inner recess of the ear is a vague murmur: the sea.

(Italo Calvino [source])

…and:

Beethoven: Op 127, Adagio

1.

Here at the end of summer
the heart talks to itself,
a thin stream braiding
over a lip of rock.

To go through a wall, then another—
galleries of silent, stone-ground light.
To go through, to that third room on the other side,
to empty the forest of your thoughts, the forest of your lungs,
this is where the heart goes in late summer,
the empty forest. Even the sunlight is alone.

In the third room, the heart sits on the floor
talking to itself. A little stream,
braiding over a lip of rock.
It is saying what it has said
from the beginning, no doors, no windows,
if anyone could hear.

(Jan Zwicky [source])

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The Gravity of the Unknown

'Remarkable things, passing,' by user PhotoGraham on Flickr

[Image: “Remarkable things, passing,” by user PhotoGraham on Flickr.com. (Used under a Creative Commons license.) See the note at the foot of this post for more information.]

From whiskey river:

Think of how little has been salvaged from the compost of time, of the hundreds of billions of dreams dreamt since the language to describe them emerged, how few names, how few wishes, how few languages even, how we don’t know what tongues the people who erected the standing stones of Britain and Ireland spoke or what the stones meant, don’t know much of the language of the Gabrielanos of Los Angeles or the Miwoks of Marin, don’t know how or why they drew the giant pictures on the desert floor in Nazca, Peru, don’t know much even about Shakespeare or Li Po. It is as though we make the exception the rule, believe that we should have rather than that we will generally lose. We should be able to find our way back again by the objects we dropped, like Hansel and Gretel in the forest, the objects reeling us back in time, undoing each loss, a road back from lost eyeglasses to lost toys and baby teeth. Instead, most of the objects form the secret constellations of our irrecoverable past, returning only in dreams where nothing but the dreamer is lost. They must still exist somewhere: pocket knives and plastic horses don’t exactly compost, but who knows where they go in the great drifts of objects sifting through our world?

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

and:

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a very interesting rabbi and mystic, said he didn’t pray for faith; he prayed for wonder.

That is also my prayer. Wonder is the heaviest element on the periodic table; a tiny fleck of it stops time. My periodic table of the heart also has many other elements, still unidentified by science. One of them is unattainium. That’s the one that continues to drive us forward whether or not we expect to succeed.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

and:

Balance

I watched the arctic landscape from above
and thought of nothing, lovely nothing.
I observed white canopies of clouds, vast
expanses where no wolf tracks could be found.

I thought about you and about the emptiness
that can promise one thing only: plenitude —
and that a certain sort of snowy wasteland
bursts from a surfeit of happiness.

As we drew closer to our landing,
the vulnerable earth emerged among the clouds,
comic gardens forgotten by their owners,
pale grass plagued by winter and the wind.

I put my book down and for an instant felt
a perfect balance between waking and dreams.
But when the plane touched concrete, then
assiduously circled the airport’s labyrinth,

I once again knew nothing. The darkness
of daily wanderings resumed, the day’s sweet darkness,
the darkness of the voice that counts and measures,
remembers and forgets.

(Adam Zagajewski [source])

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I Used to Think… But Now…

'On second thoughts...,' by Tim Norris on Flickr (used under a Creative Commons license)

[Image: “On second thoughts…,” by Tim Norris on Flickr. (Click to enlarge.) Used under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river:

Insight roams the sea of the unconscious like the Loch Ness monster, a rumor whose wake occasionally becomes visible, but even then it’s mystifying and scarcely believed.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

and:

Words are substance strange. Speak one and the air ripples into another’s ears. Write one and the eye laps it up. But the sense transmutes, and the spoken word winds through the ear’s labyrinth into a sense that is no longer the nerve’s realm. The written word unfolds behind the eye into the world, world’s image, and the imagination sees as the eye cannot see — thoughtfully.

(Dan Beachy-Quick [source unknown])

and:

Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners — and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”

(Wislawa Szymborska [source])

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The Uncertain Sum of Definite Parts

'I dreamed about a human being,' by Fran Simó (original on Flickr; used under Creative Commons license)

[Image: “I dreamed about a human being,” by Fran Simó (original on Flickr; used under Creative Commons license. For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

The Life of a Day

Like people or dogs, each day is unique and has its own personality quirks which can easily be seen if you look closely. But there are so few days as compared to people, not to mention dogs, that it would be surprising if a day were not a hundred times more interesting than most people. But usually they just pass, mostly unnoticed, unless they are wildly nice, like autumn ones full of red maple trees and hazy sunlight, or if they are grimly awful ones in a winter blizzard that kills the lost traveler and bunches of cattle. For some reason we like to see days pass, even though most of us claim we don’t want to reach our last one for a long time. We examine each day before us with barely a glance and say, no, this isn’t one I’ve been looking for, and wait in a bored sort of way for the next, when, we are convinced, our lives will start for real. Meanwhile, this day is going by perfectly well-adjusted, as some days are, with the right amounts of sunlight and shade, and a light breeze scented with a perfume made from the mixture of fallen apples, corn stubble, dry oak leaves, and the faint odor of last night’s meandering skunk.

(Tom Hennen [source])

and (italicized portion):

The brain’s dynamo runs millions of jobs, by mixing chemicals, oscillations, synchronized rhythms, and who knows what else. It is like looking at a mosaic or a pointillist painting in motion. Study the whole and the parts disappear; study the parts and the whole disappears. Maybe stronger brains will solve that problem in future days. I believe consciousness is brazenly physical, a raucous mirage the brain creates to help us survive. But I also sense the universe is magical, greater than the sum of its parts, which I don’t attribute to a governing god, but simply to the surprising, ecstatic, frightening everyday reality we all know. Ultimately, I find consciousness a fascinating predicament for matter to get into.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

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The Surface, Transcended

[Video: “Surface Tension,” an improvisation by pianist Eve Egoyan with artist David Rokeby. For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river (from which I could have quoted everything this week):

We inhabit a deeply imagined world that exists alongside the real physical world. Even the crudest utterance, or the simplest, contains the fundamental poetry by which we live. This mind fabric, woven of images and illusions, shields us. In a sense, or rather, in all senses, it’s a shock absorber. As harsh as life seems to us now, it would feel even worse — hopelessly, irredeemably harsh — if we didn’t veil it, order it, relate familiar things, create mental cushions. One of the most surprising facts about human beings is that we seem to require a poetic version of life. It’s not just that some of us enjoy reading or writing poetically, or that many people wax poetic in emotional situations, but that all human beings of all ages in all cultures all over the world automatically tell their story in a poetic way, using the elemental poetry concealed in everyday language to solve problems, communicate desires and needs, even talk to themselves. When people invent new words, they do so playfully, metaphorically — computers have viruses, one can surf the internet, a naive person is clueless. In time, people forget the etymology or choose to disregard it. We dine at chic restaurants from porcelain dinner plates without realizing that when the smooth, glistening porcelain was invented in France a long time ago, someone with a sense of humor thought it looked as smooth as the vulva of a pig, which is indeed what porcelain means. When we stand by our scruples, we don’t think of our feet, but the word comes from the Latin scrupulus, a tiny stone that was the smallest unit of weight. Thus a scrupulous person is so sensitive he’s irritated by the smallest stone in his shoe. For the most part, we are all unwitting poets.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

and (italicized portion):

The Greatest Grandeur
(excerpt)

But it is the dark emptiness contained
in every next moment that seems to me
the most singularly glorious gift,
that void which one is free to fill
with processions of men bearing burning
cedar knots or with parades of blue horses,
belled and ribboned and stepping sideways,
with tumbling white-faced mimes or companies
of black-robed choristers; to fill simply
with hammered silver teapots or kiln-dried
crockery, tangerine and almond custards,
polonaises, polkas, whittling sticks, wailing
walls; that space large enough to hold all
invented blasphemies and pieties, 10,000
definitions of god and more, never fully
filled, never.

(Pattiann Rogers [source])

and:

And so it happened again, the daily miracle whereby interiority opens out and brings to bloom the million-petalled flower of being here, in the world, with other people.

(Zadie Smith [source])

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