Archive for February 2010

Matrimony: Chrome, Utility, and Vision

February 26, 2010

“Matrimony” can be read on p. 117 of heart speech this (Atropos Press, 2009, ISBN 9 780982 530948)

He photographed his wife’s hand splayed across the hubcap of a tire, his wife the painter’s hand spread to cover the core of an object rather than to reveal the shape and movement of exposure. The deliberate layering and tension of light on the black gloss of the car, on the chrome between and beyond fingers, on the back of the hand that seems to be its own source of light—Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz are not necessary, yet the photo would not exist without their interplay and intention.

I was in Dubuque, Iowa, helping install an art exhibit, “Moved by the Machine,” curated by my dear and extraordinarily talented cousin Josephine Shea. Two Steiglitz photos were on display, accompanied by art devoted to the American (and in some cases, European) fascination with the automobile. There had been a cross-country road trip in which I picked up and delivered Shannon Goff’s cardboard “Dashboard”, six feet of cardboard sculpted into a larger than life, yes, dashboard, from Boston to Detroit, then collected the curator and more art and drove through Chicago to Dubuque to the museum. Two days later, I was helping to finish the installation and write labels and vinyl text while I soaked in the interplay of sculpture, painting, photography, video, and bird calls. And O’Keeffe’s hand in Stieglitz’s image hummed in me.

What did he do, drag her by the wrist from her easel and canvas out to place her hand on the car? She must not have been painting: nothing is caught in her knuckles; nothing clings to her cuticles. Yet what impatience must she have breathed to be pulled into his work when so much of her own remained to be done!

Yes, projection, projection, projection. And yet, imagine the push and pull so often written about, these two visual artists with such different creative compulsions, generational assumptions, married in spite of their individuality, partnered in spite of each wanting to lead. And so, “Matrimony”: competing arts, visions, and perceptions of the hand. For one an object to portray as an image, for the other, a tool to create images. And for both, this tension of relation between man and woman, man/woman and machine, the viewer and the viewed. The placement of the represented to be presented. What we look at tells us so much about who we are.

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Diana–The Ambiguity of Desire

February 12, 2010

The Diana series, “Fleet Desire,” can be read on pp. 19-31 of heart speech this (Atropos Press, 2009, ISBN 9 780982 530948)

She is the goddess of the crescent moon long before she is the virgin twin sister of Apollo and protector of the forests and wild places of the blood and heart. Diana, woman as untouchable, as utterly desired and utterly apart. Woman as possibility and enigma. The darkness and light muting and radiating into the unattained.

There are seven series of poems in heart, speech, this, each exploring particular moments of myth for a Greek goddess, demi-goddess, or mortal woman. Each woman is at a point of emotional and physical transformation expressed through the ambiguities of her relationship to commitment and desire.

It’s one of the wonderful things about myth, that there is no absolute one version that obviates all others although certainly there are favorites and those considered to be more “legitimate” than others. With Diana, who appears in so much of central Asia, northern Africa, and southern Europe, the myths chosen say much about approaches to desire as the habitations of culture and geography as they do about the need for archetypal figures to express what seems to extend and exceed the understanding of the self.

The Diana of heart, speech, this is the wild, athletic goddess who delights in her body and the challenges of living within and against her nature. She is complete within herself, and she has no desire outside of herself. Thus she becomes cruel because the desire of others is a nuisance, not an invitation or countering strength. “Fleet Desire” titles this series just as Diana is known for her speed and the men who want her for the desire that kills them at the moment they realize the impossibility of their hunger.

Mars and Venus may show that justice is irrelevant when love and war are combined; doesn’t Diana force us to recognize that the fairness of desire is simply in the destructiveness of unequal expression?

Diana runs through these poems, sensuous without being sensual, unaware of what it would mean to be in relationship with another. An other. She is only in herself. And hunters, so many hunters, Orion and Actaeon among them, see her and are caught just as her hair is caught by the vines and branches hanging from the trees that frame her speed.

There is a tendency in heterosexual love to make a distinction between lover and loved, to make an object of the desired, to make the wanted one a solution to the question raised by need. Diana violates this difference. She refuses to be objectified. Seen as a home (how often are women equated with homes, places of refuge and generation?), as music and prayer, as prey to be hunted, caught, and devoured, Diana is not seen as herself. And her own sight is no clearer (“her gaze, un-silvered,/ splashed upon him, blur-/ring”) as she is incapable of reflecting what she sees. Don’t we use others as our mirrors? Diana is incapable of reflecting although she raises reflections in others. And this failure destroys those who want to see themselves in her. In trying to possess what is not a possession, these men become dispossessed and unhomed.

Book, Title, City

February 3, 2010

Why title a poem for a city about to be fractured by war? Why title a book not for the war but for something both more general and more individual? “Baghdad” is an inexplicable poem that insisted on its becoming.

“Baghdad” can be read on pp. 139-140 of heart speech this (Atropos Press, 2009, ISBN 9 780982 530948)

Before and After

The inspiration: it was March 2003, shortly before the invasion of Iraq. A former student of mine was living in Riyadh; we were communicating about the transitions in our lives. My heart hurt for him and the other Arabian students whose lives and assumptions had been already torn apart by September 11; I was deeply concerned for their well-being as the war became closer and closer to its violent and uncontrollable being.

I wrote this student to apologize and express my concern for his and his family’s safety. I assumed that this war, as the previous had, would expand far beyond the borders of the targeted country and that cities and citizens with little connection to the protagonists would be destroyed.

He responded with a phrase that comes from learning to speak one’s own tongue in a second, giving meanings a language might not have known it was capable of expressing. “It hearts me,” he wrote, “to speak of this.” And his heart/hurt became the voice wanting response, the voice pushing me to make a poem out of his fragmentation and mine, out of the shattering that had been part of the world I’d always known and that was now surfacing more urgently again.

The poem was revised to its present form in the spring of 2006 shortly after the death of my fiancé, who had suffered a stroke and struggled through six months of coma before waking and fighting to recover his voice and strength. He was unable to survive a heart attack on April 2, 2006.

The pattern: it’s an ecstatic poem, a pantoum broken across the page. Images repeated and broken, wounded in their reappearance, bearing traces of coherence like scars. Pantoums in English are simplified from a Malaysian verse form: it’s repetition that works like a braid, with the second and fourth lines of each stanza’s becoming the first and third of the next grouping of lines (four lines grouped together make a quatrain). The poem curls back on itself by bringing by the first and third lines, in reverse order, as the last set of even lines. And the end, like the snake swallowing its tail, is in the beginning.

The images: The Splintered, Howling Self

“It hearts me, he writes, to speak of this.” In a written statement about a written statement, the writer is not named. The “this” is not made explicit. The poem opens with statements that call themselves into question, following not the response to what is written but the response to a word used out of expectation, a word that calls the self as reader into question.

The next line pushes the participants further from each other, further from the line. “We furl back from these notes, you and I.” The he and the you disappear until only the 1st person is left. The reader of the poem is now face to face with the speaker. The he in profile and the you that were addressed can no longer be seen.

There is a recoil here (“coiling like a knife-stroked ribbon”), a forced shape and a flexibility that enact a physical transformation to the cutting off and artificial containment of something formerly living and connected to a larger organism. The lily’s stem, once cut and left to stand in water rather than soil, splits itself and begins to spiral toward the surface where exposure will drain its sustaining fluid and speed its decay.

The lily’s stem is named here but not the lily. One sees the flower without seeing the flower. It is the stem as support and self-destruction that is described, the evidence of action in a setting of inertia.

As the stem becomes cord, the body itself becomes a line, stretching across the poem as a tension between the retreat of the plural first person and the resistant stasis of the lily, now seen un-stemmed. The body is strung: it is intentional, constructed, segmented and fluidly connected.

Again, it is a poem of identity destined and created, self destroyed and reconstructed.

The question of shape appears: “Like beads in the form of melons.” The artificial represents the natural, the round/oval represents wholeness and maturity, the ripeness ready to be harvested and consumed. Is that the aim of developing the self? To ripen to the point of consumption?

There are multiple ways of seeing refracted here. In this poem, seeing is challenged to reconcile and balance opposites not as opposites but as options. There is an impossible depth to sight suggested by “in the eyes behind my eyes.”

Then the I asserts itself by falling, another falling back or retreat from the stability and centrality associated with identity. The I not only falls but startles (“clatters”) and disintegrates (“splinters”). The lost balance is broken control. The fall is liberation, release from intentionality into accident and happenstance.

Fallen, the I is “fierce to stretch beyond myself and run.” This is no beaten victim on the floor, no shattered identity unable to gather itself. There is more power and desire in the scattered self than in what was contained, delimited, and erect. This is the first mention of desire and the first constructive extension beyond limitations. The self desires to be more than itself, more than self, to overcome in an explosion of movement.

“For time has never been my problem.” Why has time never been the self’s problem? Either it is not a question or it is not a factor. Perhaps for this self there is no conception or ripening toward a goal. Perhaps there is no temporality. No mortality.

And yet, within the self the heart is as contained as the lily, as oval and ready to splinter as the beads shaped like melons. The heart is wounded and trapped. It “howls.” The heart is the self’s voice, the self who has addressed the you but not itself as self until now.

“I am smeared with dreams, bloody and chaste.” Unlike Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose self is “smeared, bleared with toil,” the I here is blurred with the unconscious self, an unconscious that is itself ambivalent, innocence and implication confused like fingerpaints slurred across paper and skin.

The unconscious, confusion, and clairvoyance leave the I literate and dumb: “I read my future in leaves fresh-plucked from branches,/my past lost to my tongue.” The future is visible the immediacy of the present. New growth is plucked like petals, like the lily whose stem is echoed in these branches. The past, however, is lost as the branch is lost to the leaves and the roots are lost to the stem. What cannot be held cannot be spoken. Broken connection=not only silence but an inability to break silence. The tongue cannot find what would make its identity coherent. The self de-stabilizes through the plucking, coiling, and reading. Is presence the silencing of the past?

The search for another present, a different spatio-temporal consciousness, persists. “Still, I twist, seeking somewhere else to wake.” Perhaps the self is the root here and has confused its self-consciousness with its extension and appearance in a world where the unconscious has been self-presentation rather than an intentional, woven identity, the knife-stroked ribbon sought at the return, an image in which both ends are also beginnings, and the fabric of the I can be re-formed both externally and internally to reach for “heart, speech, this.”

The resolution: A Knife-Stroked Ribbon

The chain set in motion by the pantoum coils back on itself in the repetition of lines and images. The chain, like beads, like melons, splinters in the self’s turning away from an external relationship with a familiar other into self-examination as an internal relationship with an estranged, scattered self. The form reflects the content; the broken self that cannot retain its past is itself the source of its own movement and cohesion. Repetition and return indicate a self capable of relation and continuity. It is resiliency in the spiral followed down the page and through the ribbon, the stem, the unstrung beads, the self that twists toward futures, spaces, somewhere else to breathe. In the act of respiration and inspiration, the speaker recovers the loss of identity, expression, and place.