A Cranky Reader: What I Crave When I Read Poetry

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Reading CzakoAdolf-2I was invited to write a guest blog post about poetry on Luanne Castle’s Writer Site. The following was first published on her site in a slightly different version.

I’ve been thinking a lot about poetry lately, how some speaks to me and some not at all. While reading recent issues of prestigious literary journals, I was surprised to find that not one poem—not one—moved me. Amazing!

Most seemed like intellectual exercises or obtuse offerings of random thoughts and images. None engaged me intellectually, or stimulated my sensibilities, or even challenged me—let alone invited me—to a second reading. Instead they were studies in disappointment. I left them unfulfilled, still hungry and, admittedly, cranky.

Is it me? Is it them? (Sigh).

Just what is it I crave from poetry?

Wallace Stevens once famously said: “You can’t get the news from poems, but men die every day for lack of what is found there.”

That’s what I want: The thing we die from lack of. That’s why I read poetry. What I look for in other works of art too—in prose and painting and music that rise to the level of poetry.

I want what Emily Dickinson referred to when she says, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Something that tickles the hintermost parts of my brain, where I feel the synapses stretch and snap, reaching toward something just past my grasp.

I want what T.S. Elliot meant to when he writes that “poetry is a raid on the inarticulate.” Something dark and dormant, lying just below consciousness, rising into the light: a curved fin, a humped back, gliding momentarily along the surface of thought before dipping below again.

We have all felt that, I’m sure. Something deep and delicious, once known and now forgotten, woken momentarily. Something within us re-ignited, flashing briefly before dissolving into darkness again.

In “Ars Poetica,” Archibald MacLeish says: “A poem should be palpable and mute / As a globed fruit.”

He says: “A poem should be wordless / As the flight of birds.”

He says:

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

Reading his poem, I’m with him. I’m saying: Yes!

But then he almost ruins it with the last two lines:

A poem should not mean
But be.

Pointing to something static. Not in motion. Art for art’s sake. An artifact showcased in a museum.

Gwendolyn Brooks writes:

Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages–
And it is easier to stay at home,
The nice beer ready.

If it doesn’t make us squirm, if it doesn’t hurt, if it doesn’t urge voyages, is it art? Is it poetry?

Stevens calls modern poetry “the poem of the mind.” It’s “the act of finding what will suffice.”

He says:

It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one.

A poem must construct something that it inhabits, that speaks to the reader, in the “delicatest ear of the mind,” “exactly, that which it wants to hear,” what the reader, that invisible audience, wants to hear—which is not the play, not the poem, but “itself.” Itself “expressed / In an emotion as of two people, as of two emotions becoming one.”

It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

Stevens is saying that a poem can no more “be” than “mean.” Rather, it must act. It must unite poet and reader in the act of finding what will suffice.

It is not static: It is “a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman combing.” It is always moving. It moves us to capture it in its passing. It moves us beyond ourselves, where the top of our head lifts away and there we go unbounded, grasping for a brief moment what lies always, already, just beyond our grasp.

That which suffices. That which the lack thereof we die of every day. That’s what I’m looking for when I read poetry.

I want to feel my synapses snapping.

O Holy Night – The Sacred and Sublime in Art & Images

deborahbrasket:

I hope you enjoy this. Wishing you all a Holy Night full of light and love.

Originally posted on Deborah J. Brasket, Writer:

Wikipedia Commons A_Rose_Made_of_Galaxies_Highlights_Hubble's_21st_Anniversary_jpgI’ve gathered some images, sacred and sublime, to scroll through as you listen to Charlotte Church sing “O Holy Night“, one of my favorite Christmas carols.

I love this song, not only for the haunting melody and beautiful  lyrics, but also because night has always seemed holy to me.

When I walk out beneath the stars on a cold or balmy night, I’m awestruck by such beauty and mystery and magnificence. I feel humbled and incredibly grateful, as if witnessing the hand of the divine writ large across the sky.

The images below are my gift to you. They reflect what this season is all about for me, a sense of the sacred and sublime–scenes of the birth of Christ and families celebrating Christmas.

Photos of spectacular sunsets and winter wonderlands–nature in all her glory.

And finally, images of an infinite universe stretching out and wrapping about the earth as…

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Sweet Whispery Sounds for a Wintry Afternoon – The Moon Song

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IMG_3148 (2)I don’t know what it is I love about this song by Karen O, which debuted in Her, the acclaimed film by Spike Jonze. I think it touches something sweet and innocent, safe and warm inside me, and hints at some similar presence out there in the universe, in some “quiet, starry place,” as the lyrics suggest, “a million miles away.”

It probably also has to do with the film itself, which, for all its simplicity, and even silliness, spoke to something deep and complex about life and love and its potential. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

You can listen to the song here.

When you are done, listen to “The Moon Song” by Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden from their album Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories). It’s not the same song as above, only shares the same name. But it tells a story too, without lyrics, as Metheny’s work always does. And if you are watching the rain or snow fall outside your window, this will warm you.

Here are the lyrics from Karen O’s “The Moon Song”

I’m lying on the moon
My dear, I’ll be there soon
It’s a quiet, starry place
Times were swallowed up
In space we’re here a million miles away

There’s things I wish I knew
There’s no thing I’d keep from you
It’s a dark and shiny place
But with you my dear
I’m safe and we’re a million miles away

We’re lying on the moon
It’s a perfect afternoon
Your shadow follows me all day
Making sure that I’m okay and
We’re a million miles away

Read more: Karen O – The Moon Song Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Happiness Like Holiness

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Poppies by The Yes Man under Creative Commons Licence

Poppies by The Yes Man under Creative Commons Licence

I’ve been ill–nothing serious–but lying in bed day after day, even surrounded by good books, tends toward melancholy. Reading Mary Oliver’s poetry this morning is the perfect cure. This one especially speaks to me.

Poppies
by Mary Oliver

The poppies send up their
orange flares; swaying
in the wind, their congregations
are a levitation

of bright dust, of thin
and lacy leaves.
There isn’t a place
in this world that doesn’t

sooner or later drown
in the indigos of darkness,
but now, for a while,
the roughage

shines like a miracle
as it floats above everything
with its yellow hair.
Of course nothing stops the cold,

black, curved blade
from hooking forward—
of course
loss is the great lesson.

But I also say this: that light
is an invitation
to happiness,
and that happiness,

when it’s done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive.
Inside the bright fields,

touched by their rough and spongy gold,
I am washed and washed
in the river
of earthly delight—

and what are you going to do—
what can you do
about it—
deep, blue night?

Turning Anger into Action, in Ferguson and Elsewhere

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justiceI am so angry at the outcome in Ferguson, that there was no indictment to allow a court of law to settle the matter of guilt or innocence in the killing of an unarmed young Black man. It seems this tragedy was bungled from day one in every way imaginable. At the very least a special prosecutor should have been brought in rather than allowing a district attorney that the community did not trust lead the investigation.

I do not know, now does anyone, whether Officer Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown. If he was truly so in fear of his life that he shot an unarmed man who in self-defense–a man who some witnesses say was surrendering and that others say was charging him. No one will know now, because the case will not go to trial to determine that guilt. It was a small thing for a grieving family to ask for–a trial. How could such a simple thing be denied?

I feel for the family of Michael Brown, for a community that lives in fear of the police, who seek justice for their dead sons. I can’t imagine what that would be like–to raise a black son knowing that any kind of brush with police could end in his arrest or shooting or death. And that it was far more likely for my son than for the son of my white neighbor, or the son of a police officer, or the son of a mayor.

When I look at how angry this injustice makes me–when I am so removed from the situation–I can fully understand how the anger of those who are intimately affected could turn into a rage that would upturn police cars and set them on fire. I can understand, without condoning, because anger, unchanneled, is wild and destructive.

My prayers now are that this justified anger is channeled into action, into changing an unjust system of law that allows community oversight of police departments, that requires body cameras for police officers, that ensures members of law enforcement represent demographically the community they serve. And that channels that anger into political action that unseats mayors and governors who are as tone-deaf as these in Ferguson, Missouri, were.

Today I am trying to channel my anger into action by writing this blog post. I know that not all my readers may feel the same as I do about the outcome of that Grand Jury, but I hope that all can sympathize with the mothers of Black sons the way that I do. And pray for the day when all our sons and daughters, whatever their skin color or economic status, will be treated equally in the eyes of the law, with justice and restraint and compassion.

The Light-Craving Stories of George Saunders

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800px-Near-Death-Experience_Illustration public domainWhat is it that I love about the wildly weird, dark and dorky stories of George Saunders?

Ever since reading his collection “The Tenth of December,” I’ve been trying to figure this out.

His stories are not easy reading. People are tortured, puppies drowned, nefarious things are happening behind a guise of bureaucratic goodness. Often the stories start in confusing, abrupt ways, and are written so lean it’s hard to see what’s holding them together.

His characters are usually bizarre or just plain sad: pathetic morons, smug hypocrites, nerdy adolescents, clueless housewives, loser dads, lame do-gooders.

At first you think Saunders is making fun of them, judging them, exposing their hypocrisy, their meanness, their arrogance, their stupidity. You think: this satire. It’s ironic. It’s absurdist.

Much of what he writes has a hard comic edge. Some of it is laugh-out-loud hilarious.

But then you realize he’s not laughing at these characters. He’s not laughing with them either. Most are too naïve, too serious, too un-self-aware to have the capacity to laugh at themselves. They have no idea how comical they are, although they may be painfully aware of how they are made the butt of others’ jokes.

The stories aren’t about the characters at all. They are about us—the readers. How he moves us from A to Z.

“I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters,” Saunders wrote in an essay on Vonnegut (and quoted in a NY Times interview).

“He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’ — he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit. . . . The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.”

Saunders is taking us on a hilarious, diabolical, fun-house tour, and at the end, we realize how all these crazy, ridiculous, pathetic losers we meet along the way are us in disguise. Me, in a different life—my son, my daughter, my mother, my poor dear deranged grandpa. Beneath the pathetic veneer is someone we love, or someone worth loving.

In the same interview, Saunders talks about how his family has influenced his writing:

“My life with them has been everything to me. And loving them the way I do—I think that was a very major development in my artistic life. Suddenly everything mattered. What helped them was good, what hurt them was bad. And then that feeling got writ large. I became aware . . . of the fact that cruelty or even just mere thoughtlessness had an object: someone was getting bruised. And someone must have (or should have) loved that bruised party as much as I love my family. So the world became morally charged. . . . People were precious and not just my people.”

But these kinds of revelations in his stories do not come easily, without struggle. Or without a cost. They come like The Misfit in Flannery O’Conner’s short story. He stands over the silly and self-absorbed Grandmother with a gun held to her head. And then, just before he kills her, he holds up her heart, the heart she never knew she had until that very moment.

They come with regret, with a deep, gut-wrenching sadness. And sometimes, at the very end, with a heart-searing and heart-soaring softness.

The first story in Saunders collection, “Victory Lap”, opens with a young teenage girl floating down a marble staircase imaging all her secret admirers below. It’s written in a 3rd person stream-of-consciousness point of view, in the vernacular of the blissfully naïve and hopelessly romantic. She gushes about how lovely everyone is, all the girls at school, all the boys:

“Actually, she loved her whole town. That adorable grocer, spraying his lettuce! Pastor Carol with her large comfortable butt! The chubby postman, gesticulating with his padded envelope! It had once been a mill town. Wasn’t that crazy? What does that even mean?

There is so much she doesn’t know. Like how to change the oil. Or even check the oil. How to open the hood. How to bake brownies. That was embarrassing, actually, being a girl and all. And what about a mortgage? Did it come with the house? When you breast-feed, did you have to like push the milk out?”

When she’s happy like this, she tells us, as she pirouettes around the house practicing ballet, she imagines a conversation with a baby deer trembling in the woods. She admonishes the hunter who slays the deer’s mother.

“Her guts were completely splayed. Jeez, that was nice! Don’t you have anything better to do, dank hunter, than kill this baby’s mom? You seem like a nice enough guy.”

She believes in niceness. “In a straw poll at school, she had voted for people being good and life being fun.”

While she’s practicing ballet, alone in the house, a meter-man who’s not a meter-man knocks at her back door. “Something told her to step back in, slam the door. But that seemed rude.” So she smiled and asked, “How may I help you?”

Next we meet Allison’s nerdy teenage neighbor, Kyle, who she calls a “poor goof.”

He’s just come home from school to see a note his father leaves him about placing their new expensive geode out on the back deck.

“Gar, Dad, do you honestly feel it fair that I should have to slave in the yard until dark after a rigorous cross-country practice . . . ?

Shoes off, mister.

Yoinks, too late. He was already at the TV. And had left an incriminating trail of microclods. Way verboten. Could the microclods be hand-plucked? Although: problem. If he went back to hand-pluck the microclods, he’d leave an incriminating new trail of microclods”

He has imaginary conversations with his Dad, who calls him Scout, and his mother who calls him Beloved Only. He imagines them watching his every move with disapproval, and him explaining away his failures at meeting their strict standards, even though they both send “weekly braggy emails to both sets of grandparents” about him.

While he’s out on the back deck ready to set the geode he sees Allison with the meter-man who is dragging her toward his van. When she resists, he punches her in the stomach. The man sees Kyle and warns him to stay away: “Move a muscle and I’ll knife her in the heart. Swear to God. Got it?”

“Kyle’s mouth was so spotless all he could do was make his mouth do the shape it normally did when saying Yes.

He was just a kid. There was nothing he could do.”

He imagines going inside, pretending he never saw anything. Imagines how he’ll look and what he’ll say when eventually he learns that Allison was raped and murdered while he was innocently sitting inside playing with his railroad cars. He imagines how pleased his parents will be that he hadn’t put himself in harm’s way. “Super job, Scout.” “We are well please, Beloved Only.”

Then he was running.

“Oh God! What was he doing, what was he doing? Jesus, shit, the directives he was violating! Running in the yard (bad for the sod); transporting a geode without its protective wrapping: hopping the fence, which stressed the fence, which had cost a pretty penny; leaving the yard; leaving the yard barefoot.”

He throws the geode at the head of the man who falls, his head a bloody mess. Allison crab-crawls into the house and calls 911.

The story could have ended here. It would have been a good story. But Saunders takes it further. He pushes the narrative into something beyond a would-be rape gone bad, a skinny scared kid saving the beautiful princess next door. He pushes the story past mere good into sublime. He takes the reader to that state of grace, where we feel that heart-searing, heart-soaring softness.

Allison watches from the window while Kyle does a wild, crazy “Who’s the man!” dance on the hood of the car.

“You still moving, freak? Got a plan, stroke-dick? Want a skull gash on top of your existing skull gash, big man? You think I won’t?”

He lifts the geode again. Ready to bring it down on the injured man’s head once more.

“Kyle, don’t,” she whispers.

She has nightmares about that day, about Kyle murdering the man. About his bloody head dissolving. And Kyle looking at her with that look: My life is ruined. I’m a murderer. Until her parents remind her, over and over again. It didn’t happen like that. You stopped him. You saved Kyle.

“You did so good, Mom said.

Did beautiful, Dad said.”

The final story in the collection does the same thing. Pushes the story to a satisfying conclusion, and then takes it further, into the sublime.

In Saunders’ title story, “The Tenth of December,”(which you can read online) a boy with “unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerism” walks with his pellet gun out into the snowy woods. Here he will confront the wily “Netherworlders” who live under rocks, and today seem intent on capturing the new girl from Montreal in his homeroom class.

“He just loved the way she talked. So apparently did the Nethers, who planned to use her to repopulate their depleted numbers and bake various things they did not know how to bake.”

In the middle of this fantasy, he sees a coat left lying on the snow, and off in the distance a half-naked man leaning against a tree.

“What kind of person leaves his coat behind on a day like this? The mental kind, that was who. This guy looked sort of mental. Like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa.”

Despite fears and misgivings, he sets racing off across the frozen duck pond with the coat to rescue the old man, for “had not Jesus said, Blessed are those who help those who cannot help themselves but are too mental, doddering, or have a disability?”

The old man, who is dying, and who wants to spare himself and his family the indignity of a slow, painful, humiliating death, has come out here to end his life. He has just sat down to wait peacefully for what he hopes will be a quick and relatively painless death, when:

“Oh, for shitsake.

On for crying out loud.

Some kid was on the pond.

Chubby kid in white. With a gun. Carrying Eber’s coat.

You little fart, put that coat down, get your ass home, mind your own—

Damn. Damn it.”

The boy falls through the ice and the dying man must try to gather enough strength to get up, get down the hill and save him. Painstakingly, cursing the whole way, he does. He manages to pull him out, get him dried off the best he can, and then forces the boy to get up and moving, so he can run home before he freezes to death. Then Eber sits back to finish what he had started.

The story could have finished here, but it doesn’t. He sits there, thinking about what he’s doing. Two weeks before Christmas. Before Molly’s favorite holiday. He’s “offing” himself. Too late, he has second thoughts.

“He tried to send some last thoughts to Molly. Sweetie, forgive me. Biggest fuckup ever. Forget this part. Forget I ended thisly. You know me. You know I didn’t mean this.”

I won’t tell you how the story ends—you really need to read this. My little summary here doesn’t do it justice. But I will share what Eber comes to realize, which is at the heart of nearly every Saunders story I’ve read so far. That moment of grace.

“He saw it now, was starting to see it—if some guy at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting? Why should the shit not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, he now saw that there could still be many—many drops of goodness, is how it came to him—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—-had never been—-his to withheld. Withhold”

This last shows his dying brain misfiring.

At the end of another story called “ComCom,” not found in this collection, the narrator and a man called Giff are murdered. Afterward, they rise together above the world:

“Snow passes through us, gulls pass through us. Tens of towns, hundreds of towns stream by below and we hear their prayer, grievances, their million signals of loss . . . . All this time we grow in size, in love, the distinction between Giff and me diminishing, and my last thought before we join something I can only describe as Nothing-Is-Excluded is, Giff, Giff, please explain, what made you come back for me?”

He learns:

“This is why I came back. I was wrong in life, limited, shrank everything down to my size, and yet, in the end, there was something light-craving within me, which sent me back, and saved me.”

That’s what I love about his stories. He shows us that in the end, when all the superficialities and fears and meanness are flayed from us, beneath that, we are light-craving creatures: people who are starving for the want of goodness, the want of grace in our lives. And like Eber, we realize those “drops of goodness” that we experience at each other’s hands, though few and far between, are worth all the other absurd humilities and indignities that life may heap upon us.

One drop of grace is all it takes to save us from each other and ourselves.

“The Mountain of My Love” – Poem by Hayden Carruth

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Lovers William_Powell_Frith_The_lovers

The Lovers by William Powell Frith, Public Domain

In the graduation speech that went viral last year, George Saunders wrote:

“Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was ‘mostly Love, now.'”

For a long time I could not find the poem he mentioned. But a reader who heard about my search found the poem and kindly shared it with me. Now I share it with you, a deeply moving testament to love and marriage, as our lives wind down.

Testament

by Hayden Carruth

So often it has been displayed to us, the hourglass
with its grains of sand drifting down,
not as an object in our world
but as a sign, a symbol, our lives
drifting down grain by grain,
sifting away — I’m sure everyone must
see this emblem somewhere in the mind.
Yet not only our lives drift down. The stuff
of ego with which we began, the mass
in the upper chamber, filters away
as love accumulates below. Now
I am almost entirely love. I have been
to the banker, the broker, those strange
people, to talk about unit trusts,
annuities, CDs, IRAs, trying
to leave you whatever I can after
I die. I’ve made my will, written
you a long letter of instructions.
I think about this continually.
What will you do? How
will you live? You can’t go back
to cocktail waitressing in the casino.
And your poetry? It will bring you
at best a pittance in our civilization,
a widow’s mite, as mine has
for forty-five years. Which is why
I leave you so little. Brokers?
Unit trusts? I’m no financier doing
the world’s great business. And the sands
in the upper glass grow few. Can I leave
you the vale of ten thousand trilliums
where we buried our good cat Pokey
across the lane to the quarry?
Maybe the tulips I planted under
the lilac tree? Or our red-bellied
woodpeckers who have given us so
much pleasure, and the rabbits
and the deer? And kisses? And
love-makings? All our embracings?
I know millions of these will be still
unspent when the last grain of sand
falls with its whisper, its inconsequence,
on the mountain of my love below.

 

Growing Up in a Haunted House

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photalia moonLast October I posted a series of true life tales about the hauntings, ghosts, and demons I experienced growing up, and later when I had children of my own. The first is printed below with links to the others.  Happy Halloween!

While ”intellectually” I don’t believe in ghosts, demons, and the like, I have experienced such. And I cannot deny that the phenomena which I and others–indeed, all known cultures and societies–have laid claim to, are “real.” The reality they seem to have is unexplained, often unverifiable, and usually fleeting and ephemeral. And yet they persist in haunting humanity.

Throughout history, people whom we usually credit with intelligence and integrity have reported ghostly experiences, among them the psychologist Carl Jung, President Theodore Roosevelt, and Sir Winston Churchill, as well as a host of current well-known celebrities, such as Matthew McConaughey, Kate Hudson, and Halle Berry.

I can neither explain, verify, nor dismiss the reality of the experiences that I relate here. I can only state that these things occurred as I remember them, or as others I trust related them to me. And most were witnessed by more than one person.

Our House on a Haunted Hill

House on Haunted Hill largeWhen I was a kid “House on Haunted Hill” was my favorite spooky movie. I first saw it a few years after my own family had escaped, just barely, from a haunted house experience. While living there I was not aware of all the horrors that house contained, and only learned the full account when my mother felt I was old enough to learn the truth.

I was eight years old when my parents rented a home set on a hillside in an older, respectable neighborhood in Omaha, Nebraska. The attic had been converted into two rooms, a tiny room overlooking the back yard and garage; and a huge room overlooking the front yard. This larger room had been recently renovated and then abruptly abandoned, it appeared. The high pitched ceiling and walls were covered in a richly varnished, knotty pine paneling. Finely crafted drawers and book cases had been built beneath the eaves. But the floor, made of rough, unvarnished planks of wood, had been left unfinished. And a large reddish-brown stain that looked like a puddle of blood had soaked into the wood.

Nancy_Drew_-_Ghost_of_Thornton_Hall_Cover_ArtThis was my bedroom and I loved it. Being an avid fan of Nancy Drew mysteries, the giant blood stain only added to the allure of the room–that and the trap door on the floor of the walk-in closet. While the door had been nailed shut, I could still probe the cracks with a ruler, detecting steps that led downward—to where, no one knew. My discovery sent chills of delight down my back.

In fact, I was thrilled to have the whole second story all to myself. Even though the second smaller room could have easily accommodated my little brother, my mother made him sleep down below in the tiny room at the bottom of the stairs. She claimed the small room upstairs was “too cold” and used it as a storage room instead. She filled it with unpacked boxes and unused furniture, forbidding me to play there—which, of course, made the room seem even more desirable.

I remember entering the room often to play by myself and looking out the dusty window toward the mysterious barn-like structure that faced the alley. The structure, which could easily have accommodated several cars, sat empty nearly the whole time we lived there, and my brother and I were forbidden to play here as well. It too was considered “too cold” for human habitation. The one time I did enter, my eyes were drawn upward to the high rafters where, through the rotting roof, splinters of light filled with ghostly dust motes fell to the floor. I did not enter again. When some teenage boys wanted to use the garage to rebuild a car, they moved out after a couple of nights, never to return—even though they had paid rent for a full month.

I thought it strange when my mother kept wanting to move me out of my lovely upstairs “apartment” to a room below and I refused to be moved. She kept asking if I was afraid up there all by myself, and I insisted I wasn’t . This was true. I knew what needed to be done to stay safe, although I never shared this with my mother. It was a ritual that I religiously followed. Every night after my mother heard my prayers and tucked me into bed, I would pull the covers tight over my head and stay there until I fell asleep. I knew somehow that no harm would come to me if I followed this ritual. And no harm ever did come to me.

I might well have been very afraid if I had heard what my parents heard at night as they slept in the room below mine.

Athenodorus_-_The_Greek_Stoic_Philosopher_Athenodorus_Rents_a_Haunted_HouseOften my mother was woken by the sound of heavy, dragging footsteps lumbering across room over her bed, and she would wake my father and make him go upstairs to investigate. At first he did so wearily, thinking she was imagining it. But once he woke early enough to hear it himself and went dashing up the stairs—but nothing was there and I was sound asleep in my bed.

We moved shortly thereafter. That’s when the neighbors told us about the horrible tragedy that had taken place in the house before we moved in. They hadn’t wanted to tell us earlier and scare us away. Apparently the previous owner of the house had murdered his wife in my bedroom and then hung himself afterwards from the rafters in the garage.

If some other tragic event took place in the small room next to mine upstairs—the coldest room in the house–we never learned. Whatever haunted that room did more than drag its feet across the floor or blow cold air down our spines. During our final days in that home, my mother, to her terror, found this out–with no one but my three-year-old brother at home to save her.

More about this in my next post.

You can read the full series of ghost stories at the links below.

 

Downward into Darkness on Extended Wings

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Birds flying by Angelo DeSantis Nine_birds_flying_over_the_waves_(7681834848)_(2)

Wallace Stevens’ poem “Sunday Morning” ends with these lines:

We live in an old chaos of the sun,

Or old dependency of day and night,

Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,

Of that wide water, inescapable.

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail

Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;

Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;

And, in the isolation of the sky,

At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make

Ambiguous undulations as they sink,

Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

I love the final image—that graceful downward swoop into darkness, held aloft by the lightness of wings fully extended. That final juxtaposition of dark and light, I find deeply moving.

Steven’s poetry has been a huge influence on me. I see traces of it everywhere in my writing.

The final lines of this poem introduce a short story I wrote, Tamara in Her Garden, where a woman who has been deeply traumatized by life finds healing in her garden–not just in the beauty she find there, but in the natural decay and death that comes with it. She tells us:

Sometimes when I kneel in the grass at the edge of my flowerbed, leaning out over the border of sweet alyssum that is heaped like snow, leaning so close that my face feathers the fragrant petals, and then breathe–breathe deeply, I sense that with each breath I am gathering up a huge lungful of myriad, microscopic creatures that course through my nose and mouth and throat in a rhythmic pattern of respiration perhaps eons longer than the life-spans of such tiny beings. And I feel lightheaded, what with the deep breathing, the heady fragrance, the thought that so much life and so much death passes with such pleasure through me. I sway when I rise. My bare knees and tops of feet bear a moist imprint–a fine cross-hatching of grasses.

While some think she’s hiding more than healing in her garden, she sees it differently—and here’s where Steven’s influence is clearly seen:

I see my garden as highly invigorating and precarious, teeming with raw necessity, a microcosm of all the life and beauty, decay and death, that ever was. Sometimes I stand in my round garden as if standing upon the edge of a precipice, poised for flight. Not to fly away as I once had supposed, but to delve ever more deeply.

That “delving ever more deeply” is what interests me, the fact that we have to explore the dark places in life in order to grow, for that’s the only way to bring in the light. We’re not sustained by beauty and lightness alone, but by seeing the beauty and lightness in the dark places, in the brokenness that lies all around us, seeing it in the very places where it doesn’t seem to exist. And seeing how the beauty and lightness is nurtured in the dark places of our own lives.

These are old ideas, of course–how the transience of beauty intensifies its pleasure. How the brighter the light, the deeper the shadows, how both together help us to see the object and its roundness more clearly. It’s a theme that is played over and over in poetry and literature and art. We never tire of it because it’s so rich in associations and, at the same time, still so veiled and mysterious. We sense the deepness there, some truth not fully plumbed. We walk around it and around it, but never fully grasp it. Perhaps that’s why we return to it so often in our art, not to touch it, but to be touched by it.

Sometimes that touch is healing, as in the garden I wrote about. Sometimes it is transforming. It tears us to pieces in order to create us anew.

I wrote about this in my poem “Walking Among Flowers.” Here’s an excerpt from a blog post that tells how this came about:

Walking through the village on Nuka Hiva down narrow, winding roads, past pastel-colored houses surrounded by gardens overflowing with flowers and dense tropical foliage, melting in the heat and humidity and the perfumed air . . . . . I felt physically and mentally assaulted, overcome by the intensity of the colors and the abundance of the beauty that surrounded me.

Colors exploding all around me, shattering the senses—sight, smell, and sound washing together. Undulating waves of color, wrapping around me, streaming through me, carrying me away.

Sometimes it was a soft, sensual immersion. Sometimes a harsh, brutal slaying. It knocked me off my feet and broke me open. I swallowed it whole.

In the poem I tried to capture how the brutal beauty of the experience tore me apart, leaving me bloody and trampled. Yet out of this seeming “death” rose something new, ethereal, like light, and powerful. Here’s where we see Steven’s influence, in the final downward swoop:

 I lay like a light on the garden wall

then swooping, swallow, flowers and all.

The same “beauty and brutality” that tore me apart, transforms me, and allows me to partake of its wholeness, to become one with the wholeness, and holiness, of life.

It’s odd though. I don’t think of the beauty and brutality in equal terms. In this life, as we normally experience it, the brutality, the darkness, is the shadow side of something that is “real” in a way that the shadow itself is not. We still experience it, it still gives depth to the wholeness of our experience. It still shapes us, even as it torments us or tears us apart. It’s very “real” in those harsh, experiential ways. It’s perhaps part of the birthing process, but it’s not the birth itself, or the thing we’re giving birth to.

But what it is, is not something we can easily put our finger on.  So we write poetry about it instead. And we feel it, as we too swoop “downward into darkness on extended wings.”

Making Space

deborahbrasket:

Wise and lovely words to lean into: “My friend now calls herself Grandmother. She is learning to wear the robes of a big archetype. She is learning to walk gracefully into a different season of her life, walking in a different body. One with a slower pace and a wider lap, more spacious, deeply rooted in her own story”

Originally posted on Writings from Wild Soul:

NASA photo NASA photo

My writing group started up again this week. A lovely circle of women who have been writing together for years now allowing me to guide them. A friend had shared with me that in the moon of October we are under an auspicious time for manifesting what we most desire. So I asked the group to ponder this question: what do you most desire now? The responses were rich and varied. One woman wrote a lovely poem about The Sudden Rose, that experience of something sweet and surprising arriving unbidden, how she wants more of those. Ah, yes, indeed.

This month my husband had surgery for one of those things that beset men in their elder years. All is well. In the process we talked about aging and ways we can embrace the lessening of capacity when that comes, how to live into this new phase of our lives…

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