Most of the people I knew in China had known hunger. It was such a close reality for China for all of its history that the friendly greeting wasn’t “Ni Hao?” (You good?) it was “Have you eaten?” Even in 1982 when things had improved since both the famine the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, meat was used as a spice far more often than as the central part of a meal.
The other day, driving down the highway toward my friend’s house, I saw two very tattered, very ragged, very dirty, homeless people walking along the road. Neither looked sad, so there’s that. I think often of the close call of 2020. If I had still be in California and working, I might very well have ended up homeless. It’s hard to say. I could have decided to sell the house (and prices were good) and come here, just like I did in 2014, but maybe I wouldn’t have had that chance. I don’t know. Maybe because I taught so many online classes I would have sheltered behind my laptop during the worst of the year. That Wheel of Fortune again.
We’re comparatively lucky in this country, or have been for quite a while now. We’re kind of weird and entitled. I think that’s a problem. We don’t have a “right” to half the stuff we claim to have a right to and we don’t have — some of us don’t have — respect for those things we all have a right to. Life. Even the avocet mom and dad yesterday in front of my car were fighting for that right for themselves and their chicks. I don’t know if I killed any of the chicks, and I am afraid I might have.
That whole event has made me consider my place in THAT place and awakened me to an obliviousness I was, uh, oblivious to. Somehow, in my mind, it had become a place that existed FOR me. Humans do that all the time. It is not there for me. I’m a trespasser.
He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths, Enwrought with golden and silver light, The blue and the dim and the dark cloths Of night and light and the half-light, I would spread the cloths under your feet: But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
When I was a baby, my paternal grandfather looked at me and said, “She’s been here before. A changeling child.” That’s what you get with an Irish grandfather, I guess. I never knew the man. He died when I was five. But my memories of him are all a little odd. At one point, after my family had flown from Denver to Billings on a DC 3 (my dad and I air-sick the whole way) my grandfather took my little brother (aged 3?) and me (age 5?) to Hart Albins (department store) to buy clothes. Story tells it that I led my grandparents RIGHT to the white, frothy dress I wanted, and I’d never been there before. The changeling thing came out again. “How did she know where it was?”
My life is full of strange things like that, including living here and not somewhere else. Of writing the story of my family before I even knew they were my family. Twillight Zone stuff all over the place, inexplicable except by my Irish grandfather whom I never knew. Still, I walk around with his sticking-out ears, his droopy left eye and the small divot in the chin.
A changeling is not a good thing. They’re not fully human — being fairy folk — and are always dangerous to humans. The often appear when a fairy steals a human child and replaces it with a fairy — a changeling. OH well…
Where dips the rocky highland Of Sleuth Wood in the lake, There lies a leafy island Where flapping herons wake The drowsy water rats; There we’ve hid our faery vats, Full of berrys And of reddest stolen cherries. Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Where the wave of moonlight glosses The dim gray sands with light, Far off by furthest Rosses We foot it all the night, Weaving olden dances Mingling hands and mingling glances Till the moon has taken flight; To and fro we leap And chase the frothy bubbles, While the world is full of troubles And anxious in its sleep. Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Where the wandering water gushes From the hills above Glen-Car, In pools among the rushes That scarce could bathe a star, We seek for slumbering trout And whispering in their ears Give them unquiet dreams; Leaning softly out From ferns that drop their tears Over the young streams. Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Away with us he’s going, The solemn-eyed: He’ll hear no more the lowing Of the calves on the warm hillside Or the kettle on the hob Sing peace into his breast, Or see the brown mice bob Round and round the oatmeal chest. For he comes, the human child, To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.
I could use up all the memory left in my WP plan if I posted photos to illustrate the constantly changing, wildly variegated skies of the San Luis Valley. I’ve even attempted to paint them, but the ineffability of clouds is a huge challenge. That’s OK. I don’t think it will keep me from trying. I just figure I have to be a better painter and that might happen by continuing to try.
This time of year the phenomenon of lenticular clouds appears pretty often because the air over the mountains is colder than the air in the valley.
In my painting life, I know I’m confronting a turning point but I don’t know what it is yet. Painting sky and painting weather seem to be my thing which is lucky because there is a lot of both down here. I have a painting on the easel right now and it’s not living in my mind which means I’m probably going to cover it to keep the dust off and wait for a better day. You can’t hurry love.
I was “talking” (in epistolary language) about my reaction to selling paintings with a friend and he put it in clear language. “…stai solo raccogliendo i frutti ” … “You are gathering the fruit”. I have always painted and written without much thought of that. I think that’s the best approach because what happens after I finish something and put it out there is really none of my business. The sky just does its thing.
The philosophy behind a painting or book? I guess that’s what critics and the future get all lathered about and, I’m sure that, in my case, that isn’t going to happen. For me painting and writing are more like one of the images in Yeat’s poem, “The Double Vision of Michael Robertes:”
On the grey rock of Cashel I suddenly saw A Sphinx with woman breast and lion paw, A Buddha, hand at rest, Hand lifted up that blest;
And right between these two a girl at play That, it may be, had danced her life away, For now being dead it seemed That she of dancing dreamed…
O little did they care who danced between, And little she by whom her dance was seen So she had outdanced thought. Body perfection brought..
For what but eye and ear silence the mind With the minute particulars of mankind?
A break is probably for the best. My wonderful short-term job judging independently published books for the contest is about to begin. I’m expecting boxes of books to start arriving any time.
As an undergraduate, I met William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet, in a summer class, Critical Writing, a required class for English majors. I was in summer school to expunge an F in that class I had won honorably in a joust with a fascist, sexist POS professor. In that summer class we were tasked to write five different five-page essays on ONE poem by Yeats. A long poem, which was a little helpful, but it was still a challenge. I chose “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes.”
My professor was of the school that believed in direct reading of poetry, not historical analysis, so we read the poems without reading criticism or extraneous analysis. I didn’t know (and didn’t learn, at that time) anything about the background of the poem. I just read it and wrote about it. A LOT. I ended up LOVING Yeats, so when the option appeared a few years later when I was in graduate school to take a seminar in Yeats, I signed up.
Yeats kind of lost me when, in his poetic career, he and his wife, George (Georgie) began exploring the “occult” side of life, going into trances and doing “automatic writing,” a thing where the spirits come and direct the pen of the person holding it who simply surrenders to what the spirits have written and later gets to read and decode it. Ultimately there were 4000 pages of this done by Yeats and his wife. Many of these poems are “told” or “seen” by a character, Michael Robartes — Yeats but not Yeats.
All this occult stuff led to a few books and more poems based on something that Yeats and his wife saw as a “system” that explained the rise and fall of human culture throughout history. Two gyres — dynamic spirals — spinning in opposite directions. In a general sense, one of the gyres is the culture building, the other is the culture declining.
Many of Yeats’ later poems center on this idea. It turned out the poem about which I wrote five essays (“The Double Vision of Michael Robartes”) “depends” on understanding Yeats’ vision to be completely comprehended. OH WELL.
I don’t buy that. Yeats was a good enough poet that meaning shines through many of these “visionary” poems even without knowing anything about A Vision. Probably the most famous and well-known of these poems is “The Second Coming.” The gyre appears in this immediately:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
He’s describing the decay of a world. When the gyre reaches its widest part, it vanishes. “This figure is true also of history, for the end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age, is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to that of its greatest contraction.” Michael Robartes and the Dancer
Only the work of artists and scholars remain from a world when it has reached its fullest point on the gyre and vanishes. Art and scholarship are coded messages from one age to the next.
“Once out of nature I shall never take My bodily form from any natural thing, But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make, Of hammered gold and gold enamelling To keep a drowsy emperor awake; Or set upon a golden bough to sing To lords and ladies of Byzantium Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”
I had an epiphany yesterday about my books. At the Narrow Gauge Book Co-op there is a special section for “local authors.” The sign over the shelf says, “We love local authors!” Not really. Putting them on a shelf like that isn’t “love.” It’s stigmatization.
Here’s what I mean.
None of the books I took to the Narrow Gauge in October have sold. It occurred to me that the local authors shelf is kind of a ghetto neighborhood. Local authors’ books should be interspersed with the other books in their genres. My books should be shelved with historical fiction. Why would anyone look for historical fiction about Switzerland, Mennonites or the Crusades on a shelf in an Alamosa bookstore tagged “Local Authors?” That does not mean “most desirable.” It sounds like a warning… I’m thinking of liberating them next week some time.
This has also led me to think about how much of life is disappointing. We want things. We hope things. All the time. Most of the time we don’t get whatever it was we hoped for or wanted (or is that just me?). Along the way we get wise advice, such as “Let nature take it’s course,” or “All in the fullness of time.”
When I was in Milan about a million years ago there was a young woman in the neighborhood where my friend’s sister had a store. This young woman was determined and earnest about converting me to Buddhism. I was pretty miserable in Milan a million years ago. I had a broken heart, a fairly flat wallet, few options and a desperate desire to get away, but I couldn’t. I had to deal. That the girl was so adamant, so desirous, of persuading me was, right there, an eloquent synopsis of the whole philosophical/spiritual problem of striving to overcome desire.
It’s incredible how many times that situation happens in life. You’re trapped with your emotions and all you can do is deal. Anyway, I wrote pretty beautifully about it in a book that will never be in the local author’s section or anywhere else. 😉
I wrote about being in Venice alone one afternoon, wandering around and studying the mosaics in the Basilica San Marco. While I was there, I suddenly understood Yeat’s poems, “Byzantium,” and “Sailing to Byzantium” more profoundly, differently, than I had before. They are poems about artifice and desire…
From the book…
To work for ANYTHING without WANTING to? The merely MECHANICAL, for a man to to work without desire. But a machine? No desire, yet,working, furthering the desires of its maker for earthbound immortality? Extending the purpose for which the artist was born? Good God. Yeats’ golden bird chirps into infinity. A soulless, animatronic, singing mechanism, like this Byzantine labyrinthine basilica, a curiosity for which I waited in line 48 years. Yeats himself left only the immortal idea, there is no bird, only songs, “. . . images that yet, fresh images beget” Inspiration; the animating breath. In a corner, in a dark and quiet shelter from the gold, the devout kneel, noiseless, before a painted statue of the Virgin. Her sweet face, compassionate and gentle, the child on one arm but the other open ready to succor another, offer mournful man what he needs more than God’s glory–God’s mercy; she models, inspires, love.
I look at the ceiling and for the first time notice how living stories suffuse each voluptuous arch. The fish of the sea and the birds of the air struggle to life in a segment between archangels. The sea is crowded with fish; in their midst, a dragon. A golden eagle dives from one corner; a goose, a swan, a gull, a heron, an egret, a duck and a raven fill the rest of this compressed and golden sky. “All mere complexities of mire and blood.” Nearby, Noah releases a dove. St. Mark crosses the Mediterranean and is hauled up the Adriatic. His corpse sits on the boat like a living entity; the sea is rough; three men struggle to bring in the sail while a fourth, the animate soul of St. Mark, holds the rudder steady.
I study this “monument to its own magnificence” (Basilica San Marco in Venice) as well as I can–though to do a decent job would take me YEARS; I am that ignorant. I buy postcards, step outside and wait for my eyes to adjust to the light of the pigeon tormented piazza. In Yeats I had found not just “a” key but the key.
Some of the people I met and talked with in Milan were Buddhists, Italian Buddhists. From these Italian Buddhists, I heard the argument that mastering desire is enlightenment. One handed me hand-rolled sticks of incense from Tibet as I stood in the doorway of the shop in the Naviglia. “If you do not WANT anything you are free.” This, I guess, is peace? The thin young woman who pressed the sandalwood sticks on me had an earnest not beautiful face; passionately and with consummate desire, she tried to get me to change my mind without knowing my mind. For me, God is inexpressible, unutterable. Awe. God is the force that pushes me beyond myself. I am his “golden handiwork;” his “golden bird upon a golden bough”–this earth. I WANT that song with all the burning ferocity of lust.
The tranquil slow evening, the leisurely shutting down of businesses along the street, a new bottle of Italian spring water, I stood holding my incense; that was my first night in Milan. Tomorrow will be my last. I see all of it already in my mind as a form distilled and perfected through time, emerging. I loved that fervent girl standing there, color for my yet unpainted picture. I smiled and told her that yes indeed I do know the terrible pitfalls of desire (who would know better?) that I even saw the Dahlai Lama, and when? you were six or seven I tell her. It isn’t that I did not believe that what she told me is true. That desire makes us miserable is ONLY logical, but logic isn’t sufficient. “Hey, you guys overcome desire, you can reach Nirvana; you can become divine.”
I’m Irish American. It was a long unnecessary road for me to find this out for certain, but there you have it. Yeah, there are some Swiss guys in the wood pile back there and a few Scandihoovians, but the final word from Ancestry DNA is that I’m Irish, well, Irish, Scots, Welsh and so on. The vast majority of ancestral ingrediments in this little person is Celt.
It came as no surprise. I was raised to be proud of me Irish heritage, tinking der was none better, no foiner ting. I was raised wit’ a love of poetry and god knows there’ve been far too many whiskey drinkers in me family (not me by da grace of God). I’ve been in an Irish bar, a bar in San Diego frequented pretty much exclusively by Irish ex-pats, and asked by a drunken Irishman, “Aye, Martha Kennedy is it. When were you last home?” Home being the “Ould Sod.” My date was an Irishman, former student, an expert in drinking a lot and taking cabs from bar to bar. It was an interesting night, but I could drive home.
So what? Well, in the writing of The Price I learned stuff about being Irish that I hadn’t known before. Poor Irish and prisoners of war were put on ships and sold as slaves in the colonies, most often Barbadoes and Virginia. One of these was one of my ancestors, a Scots/Irishman named Ninian Beall. Who knew? Nobody teaches us this. The more recent ones came during “the starving” and lived in Canada and northern New York. My great-grandad worked on ships on the Great Lakes. It was then he met my great-grandma, an Irish/Finnish French speaking woman from Quebec.
I don’t know what this ancestry stuff means other than it’s a lot of interesting stories and some useful information about our physical beings. Early onset hip degeneration is an Irish thing. Me brother, other Irish/American friends and I had hip replacements at a comparatively young age.
But…maybe there’s more to it. I dunna’ tink dares any poetry to compare to Irish poetry and me special favorite is William Butler Yeats.
Never give all the heart, for love Will hardly seem worth thinking of To passionate women if it seem Certain, and they never dream That it fades out from kiss to kiss; For everything that’s lovely is But a brief, dreamy, kind delight. O never give the heart outright, For they, for all smooth lips can say, Have given their hearts up to the play. And who could play it well enough If deaf and dumb and blind with love? He that made this knows all the cost, For he gave all his heart and lost.
The Song of Wandering Aengus
BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATSI went out to the hazel wood, Because a fire was in my head, And cut and peeled a hazel wand, And hooked a berry to a thread; And when white moths were on the wing, And moth-like stars were flickering out, I dropped the berry in a stream And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor I went to blow the fire a-flame, But something rustled on the floor, And someone called me by my name: It had become a glimmering girl With apple blossom in her hair Who called me by my name and ran And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering Through hollow lands and hilly lands, I will find out where she has gone, And kiss her lips and take her hands; And walk among long dappled grass, And pluck till time and times are done, The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun.
And my own favorite, and the reason to continue writing books hardly anyone reads:
The Song of the Happy Shepherd
BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATSThe woods of Arcady are dead, And over is their antique joy; Of old the world on dreaming fed; Grey Truth is now her painted toy; Yet still she turns her restless head: But O, sick children of the world, Of all the many changing things In dreary dancing past us whirled, To the cracked tune that Chronos sings, Words alone are certain good. Where are now the warring kings, Word be-mockers? — By the Rood Where are now the warring kings? An idle word is now their glory, By the stammering schoolboy said, Reading some entangled story: The kings of the old time are dead; The wandering earth herself may be Only a sudden flaming word, In clanging space a moment heard, Troubling the endless reverie.
Then nowise worship dusty deeds, Nor seek, for this is also sooth, To hunger fiercely after truth, Lest all thy toiling only breeds New dreams, new dreams; there is no truth Saving in thine own heart. Seek, then, No learning from the starry men, Who follow with the optic glass The whirling ways of stars that pass — Seek, then, for this is also sooth, No word of theirs — the cold star-bane Has cloven and rent their hearts in twain, And dead is all their human truth. Go gather by the humming sea Some twisted, echo-harbouring shell, And to its lips thy story tell, And they thy comforters will be, Rewarding in melodious guile Thy fretful words a little while, Till they shall singing fade in ruth And die a pearly brotherhood; For words alone are certain good: Sing, then, for this is also sooth.
I must be gone: there is a grave Where daffodil and lily wave, And I would please the hapless faun, Buried under the sleepy ground, With mirthful songs before the dawn. His shouting days with mirth were crowned; And still I dream he treads the lawn, Walking ghostly in the dew, Pierced by my glad singing through, My songs of old earth’s dreamy youth: But ah! she dreams not now; dream thou! For fair are poppies on the brow: Dream, dream, for this is also sooth.
I have a masters in literature and that means I can read anything and find the “hidden meaning.” I was trained for that task and for a long time I thought it was a valuable skill.
Now I don’t. A friend recently looked at my little painting of the storm coming over the mountains and pronounced it a painting of “Melancholy.” I love her, but I wanted to slap her. It’s not a painting of melancholy. It’s a painting of a storm coming over the mountains. I HATE that gratuitous reading into works of art, especially mine. I have a “thing” about letting something be what it is.
Not that I’ll ever be superficial. That ship sailed a long time ago, but I have found as I’ve grown up, read more books and seen more art that the last thing that interests me is “philosophy” or “criticism,” but damn if I’m not stuck with poetry.
Back in grad school, in a seminar on William Butler Yeats, I disgusted my classmates, pleased my boyfriend-like-thing, and impressed my professor by recognizing, from the words (an IMAGE) in a poem, that the subject of the poem was riding a horse. I no longer remember the poem, but I remember being taken to task outside by a couple of classmates for “making things up.” I wasn’t making anything up. The poem was “about” a parade and Yeats said something about a thigh passing by. No mystery there, as far as I could see.
Sorry I can’t remember the poem. I’ve searched, but no luck.
After many many many years teaching Critical Thinking which asks (relentlessly) the fundamental question, “What’s real?” I stand by the fact that the thigh of a guy on a horse, passing by on a parade, is at eye level. It’s brilliant description of actual reality, not hidden meaning.
The true poem is life.
Reality is beautiful. Sometimes it hits me with the full force of its awful power. Years ago, in Denver, I helped a blind guy get to his bus. When he got up the bus’ steps he turned and said, “See you!”
I was lacerated. He would NEVER see me. We passed on the street several times after that and he never knew.
It happened again yesterday.
Bear and I have a new friend, a little boy of 5 or 6 who lives on the corner where we pass on our walk. Bear and he shared a moment yesterday (their second). We had a little conversation about the weather then Bear was ready to go on our walk. As we turned away, the boy said, “See you tomorrow!”
Bear and I went off to evaluate the snow on the golf course and safe in the moment (where all dog’s live) I didn’t appreciate the metaphor until later in the evening.
I’m 67. The little neighbor boy’s “tomorrow” will not have me in it. There’s every possibility (and I hope for the realization of this possibility) that someday HE will be 67 and some young kid will say, “See you tomorrow!” I hope my little neighbor doesn’t end up with my training and the habit of finding metaphors.
To write this post, I went into the spare bedroom and got my big book, Poems of W.B. Yeats. I really hoped to find the poem with the thigh and the parade, but no luck. Instead, as I thumbed through the pages, I was struck by the fact that this is the birthday of a great friend — now dead — who loved Yeats, too. We hung around together, sometimes in used bookstores, where we read poetry to each other and laughed at each other. Denis had a PhD from Notre Dame so he could do the poetry interpretation thing with way more flash than I could.
Denis died at 49, two days before his 50th birthday. That’s now a pretty long time ago.
“He, too, has been changed in his turn, Transformed utterly…”
There are people in this world who, though very gifted — brilliant, even — in useful ways, still want to be poets. My dad — a gifted mathematician — wanted to be a poet. I knew this about him, but until I cleaned out the garage this past spring, I didn’t realize how MUCH he wanted to be a poet.
There was a lot of (bad) poetry. Great poetry because my dad wrote it, but… One of his treasures was a rhyming dictionary. I treasured it for years and years and years — since I was 10 and he discovered I might be a REAL poet someday. My dad sometimes lectured me on vers libre, poetry with no rhyme or rhythm (often no rhyme or reason) and he wrote poetry in this style.
I did really want to be a poet. I personally (and somewhat secretly) love poetry. Poetry can make my emotions catch their breath. Last fall I was in Taos with a friend and met Pierre DeLattre, a painter and writer. It was an intense encounter because it involved paintings (beautiful paintings!) and Yeats.
Though the study of it enhanced my ability to love it, studying literature and loving poetry are not always the same thing. In my Critical Writing class (a great class with a fine professor) as an undergraduate we were tasked to write 10 different essays about ONE poem by Yeats. I learned more about academic writing in that class than any other I took. The poem I chose was “The Double-Vision of Michael Robartes” which honestly made no sense to me at all until I began writing about it and then it became more than just a poem (“just” a poem?) It does rhyme. The rhymes are somewhat agonized at times, but it all works to a beautiful effect at the end where the final rhyme is broken; close, but not quite there.
These days rhyme often gets a bad rap ( ha ha ). In my opinion, rhyme is a pretty cool thing. It helps people remember. It creates music, something often missing from my dad’s beloved vers libre. End rhymes and rhythm are part of nature. Inside each seed is the coded destination of the flower and the fruit.
For what but eye and ear silence the mind
With the minute particulars of mankind?
“The Double Vision of Michael Robartes” William Butler Yeats
Denis (with his PhD in Literature from Notre Dame and his dissertation on Samuel Beckett and his [subtly] dyed hair) and I wandered around the campus one damp morning. I was in love with Denis. Denis was infatuated with Rebecca. Rebecca was NOT interested in Denis. By then, I had had my heart broken and was pulling away. I would fall out of love with Denis (for good) and a great friendship would grow out of the rubble. I’d fallen in love with him from liking him. The liking wouldn’t stop just because of Rebecca — whom I recognized as the Dave Matthews Band to Denis’ Beatles. It wasn’t going to happen.
That day all this had not happened yet. Denis had just said, “But Martha. I YEARN.”
Half a dozen years later Denis fell in love with me, but when he said, “I love you,” I didn’t hear anything I didn’t already know. Of course we loved each other. We were friends.
Longing. Yearning. This boy, that boy, this man, that man, this dream, that dream, ideal followed on ideal, romantic smokescreen and illusion. A shadow show.
One Sunday morning we were walking on the beach from Pacific to Mission Beach, and Denis said, “I went to a therapist for a while. He said, ‘It’s going to be difficult for you to find love, I’m afraid. It’s never easy for very intelligent people’. What do you think, Gus? You’re also a very intelligent person. It hasn’t been easy for you.” (Gus was my nickname.)
I thought about it for a little bit. It was an interesting question and one I hadn’t thought of, ever. The whole “luv” thing had never gone well for me. Was this partly WHY?
“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe we’ve just read too much poetry.”
What I meant was perhaps Denis and I were both in love with longing, the unattainable beauty in the high tower. Perhaps, to us, this poem was too beautiful, and evoked too much of what we truly wanted, whatever we told ourselves, whatever we told each other.