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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One (of Everything) at a Time

'Nowhere Man,' by user 'cayusa' on Flickr

[Image: “Nowhere Man,” by user cayusa on Flickr.com. Used here under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river:

One Way In

This is how I hold my place in the world:
one line at a time, counting beats until
they come out right, chasing the sound of words
the way a dog chases cars to get her fill.

And this is how I fill my days: I slip
the ink across the page — a second skin —
and leave behind the color that my lips
print on the glass, a way of coming in.

This is how I stay in view: I take down
everything exactly how I see it,
I say it one way then turn it around
to see if there’s another way it fits.

I hollow out a page to make a nest,
I stretch the pen out like a branch and rest.

(Joyce Sutphen [source])

and:

Sending These Messages

Over these writings I bent my head.
Now you are considering them. If you
turn away I will look up: a bridge
that was there will be gone.
For the rest of your life I will stand here,
reaching across.
If these writings can bring a turn
or an echo that touches you — maybe
a face, a slant, a tune — you will stop
too and bend over them. When you
look up, your thought will reach
wherever I am.
I know it is strange. and there is no measure
for this. The only connection we make
is like a twinge when sometimes they change
the beat in music, and we sprawl with it
and hear another world for a minute
that is almost there.

(William Stafford [source])

and:

The original, shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all. Instead we live out of all the other selves, which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather.

(Frederick Buechner [source])

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In the Land of What’sToCome

[Video: The Hello Strangers, last seen at RAMH in October 2014, released this video cover of Doris Day’s 1956 classic earlier this year — not coincidentally, on Day’s 91st birthday. Also not coincidentally, their grandfather Ronald Chace, had both sung with Doris Day and played second trombone in Les Brown’s Big Band during Day’s tenure with Brown in the 1940s. The Strangers recorded this song in Chace’s memory.]

From whiskey river:

After Thanksgiving

Lord, as Rilke says, the year bears down toward winter, past
the purification of the trees, the darkened brook.
Only 4:45, and the sky’s sheer black
clasps two clear planets and a skinny moon
as we drive quietly home from the airport,
the last kid gone.

The time of preparation’s over, the time of
harvesting the seed, the husk, the kernel, saving
what can be saved—weaves of sun like
rags of old flannel, provident peach stones,
pies, pickles, berry wines to
hold the sweetness for a few more months.

Now the mountains will settle into their old
cold habits, now the white
birch bones will rise
like all those thoughts we’ve tried to repress:
madness of the solstice, phosphorescent
logic that rules the fifteen-hour night!

Our children, gorged, encouraged, have taken off
in tiny shuddering planes. Plump with stuffing,
we too hurry away, holding hands, holding on.
Soon it’ll be January, soon snow will
shuffle down, cold feathers, swathing us in
inches of white silence—

and the ways of the ice
will be narrow, delicate.

(Sandra M. Gilbert [source])

and:

Language is the element of definition, the defining and descriptive incantation. It puts the coin between our teeth. It whistles the boat up. It shows us the city of light across the water. Without language there is no poetry, without poetry there’s just talk. Talk is cheap and proves nothing. Poetry is dear and difficult to come by. But it poles us across the river and puts a music in our ears. It moves us to contemplation. And what we contemplate, what we sing our hymns to and offer our prayers to, is what will reincarnate us in the natural world, and what will be our one hope for salvation in the What’sToCome.

(Charles Wright [source])

and:

How To Listen

Tilt your head slightly to one side and lift
your eyebrows expectantly. Ask questions.

Delve into the subject at hand or let
things come randomly. Don’t expect answers.

Forget everything you’ve ever done.
Make no comparisons. Simply listen.

Listen with your eyes, as if the story
you are hearing is happening right now.

Listen without blinking, as if a move
might frighten the truth away forever.

Don’t attempt to copy anything down.
Don’t bring a camera or a recorder.

This is your chance to listen carefully.
Your whole life might depend on what you hear.

(Joyce Sutphen [source — click on the ‘Two Poems’ link])

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A Sufficiency in the Moment

'King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid,' by Edward Burne-Jones

[Image: “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid,” by Edward Burne-Jones (1884, oil on panel). For more information about the painting, including a video, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river’s commonplace book:

Praise Song

Praise the light of late November,
the thin sunlight that goes deep in the bones.
Praise the crows chattering in the oak trees;
though they are clothed in night, they do not
despair. Praise what little there’s left:
the small boats of milkweed pods, husks, hulls,
shells, the architecture of trees. Praise the meadow
of dried weeds: yarrow, goldenrod, chicory,
the remains of summer. Praise the blue sky
that hasn’t cracked yet. Praise the sun slipping down
behind the beechnuts, praise the quilt of leaves
that covers the grass: Scarlet Oak, Sweet Gum,
Sugar Maple. Though darkness gathers, praise our crazy
fallen world; it’s all we have, and it’s never enough.

(Barbara Crooker [source])

…and (from whiskey river itself):

The Book of Hours

There was that one hour sometime
in the middle of the last century.
It was autumn, and I was in my father’s
woods building a house out of branches
and the leaves that were falling like
thousands of letters from the sky.

And there was that hour in Central Park
in the middle of the seventies.
We were sitting on a blanket, listening
to Pete Seeger singing “This land is
your land, this land is my land,” and
the Vietnam War was finally over.

I would definitely include an hour
spent in one of the galleries of the
Tate Britain, looking up at the
painting of King Cophetua and
the Beggar Maid, and, afterwards
the walk along the Thames, and

I would also include one of those
hours when I woke in the night and
couldn’t get back to sleep thinking
about how nothing I thought was going
to happen happened the way I expected,
and things I never expected to happen did—

just like that hour today, when we saw
the dog running along the busy road,
and we stopped and held on to her
until her owner came along and brought
her home—that was an hour well
spent. Yes, that was a keeper.

(Joyce Sutphen [source])

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One Small Heart

[Video: “One Small Heart,” by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Lyrics here.]

From whiskey river:

Heart
(excerpt)

You watch a dream pause
over a pool in a forest
under a breeze rippling its
surface reflections of inverted
branches & a patch of sky where
one bird flies by, upside-down.
Let it slow down.
Down.

[…]

Gone. Wing-flap. Birdsong, tree-song, floated, tilted,
moving away on its own scrap of independent energy
where everything lives, however briefly,
beating its one small heart…

(Maurice Scully [source])

and:

There’s actually no such thing as an adult. That word is a placeholder. We never grow up. We’re not supposed to. We’re born and that’s it. We get bigger. We live through great storms. We get soaked to the bone. We realize we’re waterproof. We strive for calm. We discover what makes us feel good. We do those things over and over. We learn what doesn’t feel good. We avoid those things at all cost. Sometimes we come together: huge groups in agreement. Sometimes we clap and dance. Sometimes we look like a migration of birds. We need to remind ourselves — each other – that we’re mere breaths. But, and this is important, sometimes we can be magnificent, to one person, even for a short time, like the perfect touch — the first time you see the ocean from the middle. Like every time you see the low, full moon. We keep on eating: chewing, pretending we know what’s going on. The secret is that we don’t. We don’t, and don’t, and don’t. Each day we’re infants: plucking flower petals, full of wonder.

(Micah Ling, hobart pulp)

and:

The Heart Remembers Everything It Loved

Everything remembers something. The rock, its fiery bed,
cooling and fissuring into cracked pieces, the rub
of watery fingers along its edge.

The cloud remembers being elephant, camel, giraffe,
remembers being a veil over the face of the sun,
gathering itself together for the fall.

The turtle remembers the sea, sliding over and under
its belly, remembers legs like wings, escaping down
the sand under the beaks of savage birds.

The tree remembers the story of each ring, the years
of drought, the floods, the way things came
walking slowly towards it long ago.

And the skin remembers its scars, and the bone aches
where it was broken. The feet remember the dance,
and the arms remember lifting up the child.

The heart remembers everything it loved and gave away,
everything it lost and found again, and everyone
it loved, the heart cannot forget.

(Joyce Sutphen)

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Things to Keep

'Gripped,' by user s2ublack (Stewart Black) on Flickr

[Image: “Gripped,” by user s2ublack (Stewart Black) on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river:

Necessities

1

A map of the world. Not the one in the atlas,
but the one in our heads, the one we keep coloring in.
With the blue thread of the river by which we grew up.
The green smear of the woods we first made love in.
The yellow city we thought was our future.
The red highways not traveled, the green ones
with their missed exits, the black side roads
which took us where we had not meant to go.
The high peaks, recorded by relatives,
though we prefer certain unmarked elevations,
the private alps no one knows we have climbed.
The careful boundaries we draw and erase.
And always, around the edges,
the opaque wash of blue, concealing
the drop-off they have stepped into before us,
singly, mapless, not looking back.

2

The illusion of progress. Imagine our lives without it:
tape measures rolled back, yardsticks chopped off.
Wheels turning but going nowhere.
Paintings flat, with no vanishing point.
The plots of all novels circular;
page numbers reversing themselves past the middle.
The mountaintop no longer a goal,
merely the point between ascent and descent.
All streets looping back on themselves;
life as a beckoning road an absurd idea.
Our children refusing to grow out of their childhoods;
the years refusing to drag themselves
toward the new century.
And hope, the puppy that bounds ahead,
no longer a household animal.

3

Answers to questions, an endless supply.
New ones that startle, old ones that reassure us.
All of them wrong perhaps, but for the moment
solutions, like kisses or surgery.
Rising inflections countered by level voices,
words beginning with w hushed
by declarative sentences. The small, bold sphere
of the period chasing after the hook,
the doubter that walks on water
and treads air and refuses to go away.

4

Evidence that we matter. The crash of the plane
which, at the last moment, we did not take.
The involuntary turn of the head,
which caused the bullet to miss us.
The obscene caller who wakes us at midnight
to the smell of gas. The moon’s
full blessing when we fell in love,
its black mood when it was all over.
Confirm us, we say to the world,
with your weather, your gifts, your warnings,
your ringing telephones, your long, bleak silences.

5

Even now, the old things first things,
which taught us language. Things of day and of night.
Irrational lightning, fickle clouds, the incorruptible moon.
Fire as revolution, grass as the heir
to all revolutions. Snow
as the alphabet of the dead, subtle, undeciphered.
The river as what we wish it to be.
Trees in their humanness, animals in their otherness.
Summits. Chasms. Clearings.
And stars, which gave us the word distance,
so we could name our deepest sadness.

(Lisel Mueller [source])

and:

The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.

(Milan Kundera [source])

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Bedeviled

[Video: Trailer from Demon in My View, allegedly an “Edgar Allen Poe BioPic” from the apparently fictional (or at least moribund) Singularity Pictures. I could not find any reference to this film (vs. a student film by the same name) other than on YouTube — and of course, on sites (now like this one) which link to it. The title comes from Poe’s poem (not often quoted), “Alone” (q.v., here). That is — and perhaps I should add allegedly — Vincent Price in the voiceover.]

From whiskey river:

I’ll tell you another secret, this one for your own good. You may think the past has something to tell you. You may think that you should listen, should strain to make out its whispers, should bend over backward, stoop down low to hear its voice breathed up from the ground, from the dead places. You may think there’s something in it for you, something to understand or make sense of.

But I know the truth: I know from the nights of Coldness. I know the past will drag you backward and down, have you snatching at whispers of wind and the gibberish of trees rubbing together, trying to decipher some code, trying to piece together what was broken. It’s hopeless. The past is nothing but a weight. It will build inside of you like a stone.

Take it from me: If you hear the past speaking to you, feel it tugging at your back and running its fingers up your spine, the best thing to do — the only thing — is run.

(Lauren Oliver [source])

and:

The Exam

It is mid-October. The trees are in
their autumnal glory (red, yellow-green,

orange) outside the classroom where students
take the mid-term, sniffling softly as if

identifying lines from Blake or Keats
was such sweet sorrow, summoned up in words

they never saw before. I am thinking
of my parents, of the six decades they’ve

been together, of the thirty thousand
meals they’ve eaten in the kitchen, of the

more than twenty thousand nights they’ve slept
under the same roof. I am wondering

who could have fashioned the test that would have
predicted this success? Who could have known?

(Joyce Sutphen [source])

and:

The catalogue of the Musée Guimet of Paris describes a Mandara, in which the highest Buddha in the center of the group is surrounded by a number of his incarnations of various degrees and dignities. These are the Bodhisattvas, prophets and sages of the world, who have either taught mankind or set them good examples by their virtuous lives. On the right we see a group of personified abstracts, piety, charity, science, religion, the aspiration for progress. On the left is a third class, consisting of the ugly figures of demons, whose appearance is destined to frighten people away from sensuality, egotism, and evil desires.

The devils of Buddhism, accordingly, are not the enemies of Buddha, and not even his antagonists, but his ministers and co-workers. They partake of Buddha’s nature, for they, too, are teachers. They are the rods of punishment, representing the curse of sin, and as such have also been fitly conceived as incarnations of the Bodhi. In this interpretation, the Buddhist devils cease to be torturers and become instruments of education who contribute their share to the general system of working out the final salvation of man.

(Paul Carus [source])

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To Emerge

[Video: Grinder & Coola Come Out of Hibernation. The two grizzlies were adopted in 2001 by Grouse Mountain Wildlife Refuge in Vancouver; the video was shot in 2011, on their tenth anniversary there.]

From whiskey river:

From Out the Cave

When you have been
at war with yourself
for so many years that
you have forgotten why,
when you have been driving
for hours and only
gradually begin to realize
that you have lost the way,
when you have cut
hastily into the fabric,
when you have signed
papers in distraction,
when it has been centuries
since you watched the sun set
or the rain fall, and the clouds,
drifting overhead, pass as flat
as anything on a postcard;
when, in the midst of these
everyday nightmares, you
understand that you could
wake up,
you could turn
and go back
to the last thing you
remember doing
with your whole heart:
that passionate kiss,
the brilliant drop of love
rolling along the tongue of a green leaf,
then you wake,
you stumble from your cave,
blinking in the sun,
naming every shadow
as it slips.

(Joyce Sutphen [source])

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The Unmaking

Demolition of Youth Study Center, Philadelphia, by werdsnave on Flickr

[Image: interior walls of the former Youth Study Center juvenile-detention facility in Philadelphia during its demolition in 2009. (Click to enlarge.) I believe the blue floors — perhaps like the one behind the upper doors here? — were for boys, and pink for girls. Photo by Andrew Evans (user werdsnave) on Flickr. As of 2012, the site is now the new location of the Barnes Foundation art museum.]

From whiskey river:

The very mind that wants to control things is the mind that’s caught up to begin with. When you’re caught up, you have fewer possibilities. Your mind can manifest in more ways if you keep it from taking form. Do you understand what it means to not let your mind take form? When you allow the mind to harden itself into a shape, a feeling, an intensity, technique, or strategies rather than allowing that clear, mirror like perception to arise, that is allowing the mind to take form.

If you let your mind take form, it becomes localized. When you feel that happen, return to a formless state. The more that you can do that, the more you’ll be your own person. The less you can do that, the more circumstances will dictate to you who you are at every moment.

(Takuan Soho [source unknown, although it’s quoted many places online])

and:

Crossroads

The second half of my life will be black
to the white rind of the old and fading moon.
The second half of my life will be water
over the cracked floor of these desert years.
I will land on my feet this time,
knowing at least two languages and who
my friends are. I will dress for the
occasion, and my hair shall be
whatever color I please.
Everyone will go on celebrating the old
birthday, counting the years as usual,
but I will count myself new from this
inception, this imprint of my own desire.

The second half of my life will be swift,
past leaning fenceposts, a gravel shoulder,
asphalt tickets, the beckon of open road.
The second half of my life will be wide-eyed,
fingers shifting through fine sands,
arms loose at my sides, wandering feet.
There will be new dreams every night,
and the drapes will never be closed.
I will toss my string of keys into a deep
well and old letters into the grate.

The second half of my life will be ice
breaking up on the river, rain
soaking the fields, a hand
held out, a fire,
and smoke going
upward, always up.

(Joyce Sutphen [source])

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When Words Would Just Get in the Way

[Video: a little about the Silbo Gomero whistled language of the Canary Islands *.]

From whiskey river (somewhat continuing last week’s theme):

When you stop talking to yourself and you are simply aware of what is — that is to say, of what you feel and what you sense — even that is saying too much. You suddenly find that the past and the future have completely disappeared. So also has disappeared the so-called differentiation between the knower and the known, the subject and the object, the feeler and the feeling, the thinker and the thought. They just aren’t there because you have to talk to yourself to maintain those things. They are purely conceptual. They are ideas, phantoms, and ghosts. So, when you allow thinking to stop, all that goes away, and you find you’re in an eternal here and now. There is no way you are supposed to be, and there is nothing you are supposed to do. There is no where you are supposed to go, because in order to think that you’re supposed to do something you have to think.

It is incredibly important to un-think at least once a day for the very preservation of the intellectual life, because if you do nothing but think, as you’re advised by IBM and by most of the academic teachers and gurus, you have nothing to think about except thoughts. You become like a university library that grows by itself through a process that in biology is called mitosis. Mitosis is the progressive division of cells into sub-cells, into sub-cells; so a great university library is very often a place where people bury themselves and write books about the books that are in there. They write books about books about books and the library swells, and it is like an enormous mass of yeast rising and rising, and that is all that is going on. It is a very amusing game. I love to bury my nose in ancient Oriental texts — it is fun, like playing poker or chess or doing pure mathematics. The trouble is that it gets increasingly unrelated to life, because the thinking is all words about words.

(Alan Watts [source])

and:

Naming the Stars

This present tragedy will eventually
turn into myth, and in the mist
of that later telling the bell tolling
now will be a symbol, or, at least,
a sign of something long since lost.

This will be another one of those
loose changes, the rearrangement of
hearts, just parts of old lives
patched together, gathered into
a dim constellation, small consolation.

Look, we will say, you can almost see
the outline there: her fingertips
touching his, the faint fusion
of two bodies breaking into light.

(Joyce Sutphen [source])

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