Spirals, inspirations

I’m returning to a beloved book this week, Paula Meehan’s Painting Rain (2009), for a class on place, borders, and migration in contemporary poetry. Meehan’s collection inspired a lot of my thinking about place in verse. I suddenly remembered, as I wandered among the poems again, that Meehan has inspired some rockin’ visual art, too. Here’s a meditation I wrote last April-ish about Meehan and painter David Harrison–originally for another source, but since it was never granted residency, I’m giving it asylum here.

david-harrisonFor the “Poem in a Landscape” feature of Ecotone 19, I contributed an essay on place, time, and loss inspired by Paula Meehan’s “Death of a Field.” It turns out I’m not the only artist galvanized by Meehan’s incantatory poem. David Harrison’s recent exhibition “Flowers of Evil” at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery featured an oil painting responding to her verses. A book containing the painting’s image found its way to me this winter—from London via Dublin to Virginia.

I love the way Harrison reimagines Meehan’s pocket universe. The poet powerfully conjures a literary afterlife for a field about to be lost to development, but the painter’s translation of the field possesses its own strong magic. Further, Harrison is, like Meehan, preoccupied with the porous borders between worlds.

In the Flowers of Evil book, Harrison tells interviewer Peter Doig that the exhibition as a whole was inspired by a childhood copy of Cicely Barker’s 1923 book Flower Fairies. Nowadays, he observes, the toxic flowers that preoccupy him are “called weeds—vilified. I thought of doing a modern version of flower fairies, using flowers that are ultra poisonous but also beneficial to mankind. People talk about the spread of these plants as if they are a threat, well, I thought I’d juxtapose them with the spread of these horrific modern housing estates and executive developments that are destroying the world.”

Meehan’s poem in particular influenced a painting called “Death of a Field (Belladonna Fairy).” It features a central stalk of blooming nightshade—a plant not even mentioned among Meehan’s lists of wild herbs. The upper left part of the painting shows a field under a bit of blue sky, but that peacefulness quickly leads down, past a gate, to a sign declaring some developer’s construction plans. From there, things get hallucinogenic. A dizzy spiral emanates from the belladonna plant, and an entity with gauzy pink wings presides over the painting’s right half. Multiple perspectives jostle for dominance.

Harrison walks an interesting line between realism and abstraction. His flower fairy—a mediating spirit—has a realistic head but an abstracted torso, her circular breasts overwritten by five-pointed stars. While some botanical detail, too, is naturalistic, Harrison has painted in an allegorical cartoon of the wrong kind of progress: a businessman’s silhouette rushes past a spider-web towards a death’s head skull.

Harrison also draws our attention to the medium itself. Every creation, he hints, is built over its own dark underworld. “Death of a Field (Belladonna Fairy)” is painted in oil on cardboard, with some of the surface torn away, leaving a crimson seam. “It’s a nod to Dada,” Harrison says. “I love the idea of cheap, throwaway objects and materials…I love the fact that underneath there’s a rib cage, almost. It’s like you’re working with a living material.” It’s not that the ribbed cardboard world is more real than the surface fantasy conjured in brilliant oils. Instead, they coexist, interdependent, enriching each other.

For me, the spiral in the painting’s center just keeps radiating out with new associations, the way Meehan’s original poem does. I think of the triple spiral from prehistoric Irish art, such as in the Newgrange tomb not far from Dublin. The spiral is a natural shape associated with curling ferns and other signs of vitality. Yet it’s also the painting’s most cartoonish element, reminiscent of those squiggles Mort Walker christened “spurls”—comic-strip shorthand for intoxication or disorientation. The fairy’s head and eyes repeat in the arms of the spiral, as if consciousness is dispersed through the plant’s hallucinogenic action. Where am I? the painting asks. Is there a more important question? ∞

Where you are now, by the way, is a redesigned “Taking Poetry Personally.” The header photograph is a retaining wall in my Virginian backyard, to represent my current obsession with boundaries and borders. More on that soon, closer to winter’s finish line and the cool edge of a North American spring.  

Flashing through spacetime

In theory, in two days, all this year’s schoolwork will be in recycling bins on the curb, I’ll be the parent of a rising high schooler and a rising first-year college student, and we’ll all be flying towards an English city full of ancient Roman ruins where my spouse is already teaching a fiction-writing class involving contemporary, historical, and speculative short stories. In addition to cars, planes, and trains, this will require yelling at teenagers in a perpetual loop to clean their rooms and pack already, AND repeatedly running after Poe the prophet-cat who detects suitcases and is trying to beat his own escape before we do. Oh, for a TARDIS so we could just land in Bath without the hassle of the process!

If you’re in the UK, you can see what I’ll be up to poetically on my events page. I plan to spend lots of time as a happy tourist, absorbing new-old stuff while writing a little and reading a lot, but you know how it is–all the proofs arrive in your inbox as soon as you’re en route and can no longer print them out to read properly.

The books that have been virtually transporting me lately include Liz Berry’s strong poetry collection Black Country; Stephen King’s Finders Keepers, which runs into some unfortunate bramble-patches but is an interesting mystery very much about reading; and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, which as a good fantasy novel is in most ways nothing like VanderMeer’s recent eco-horror trilogy, and yet made me think about how many speculative books I’m reading concern nature fighting back against human despoilers and polluters. Hmm. The monsters are shifting on us again.

Next up, in honor of Bath, is Northanger Abbey, followed by McDermid’s rewrite. I’ll be looking for the British books on the Forward poetry short list, which looks promising. I also have the new 10th anniversary issue of Ecotone for the plane, in which I’m honored to appear–an essay from my in-progress Taking Poetry Personally project is this issue’s “Poem in a Landscape” feature. It’s called “Spacetime: Walking Around in Paula Meehan’s ‘Death of a Field'” and you can read the beginning of it here. It braids together criticism and memoir, including material about my trip to Ireland a couple of years ago, right after my father died. Note that Ecotone‘s excellent editorial team hyphenated spacetime, but I don’t–I like how collapsing the words gestures towards the inseparability of those two dimensions.

I’ll write again, with pictures I hope, from our flat in the Nunes House. And in the meantime, tonight is Cameron’s graduation from middle school. We all missed Madeleine’s eight-grade ceremony because we were in New Zealand. I can’t believe that’s four years ago now. It terrifies my daughter when I tell her again and again that in most ways I feel just the same as I did at her age, and I’m only pretending to be the Competent Parent in Charge, because that’s what this moment seems to require of me. After a flare of panic, she squints back at me skeptically, knowing I’m really an alien. Our internal organs–and most definitely our feelings–are NOT in the same places. I’ll close with a link to her recent guest blog about Joss Whedon: more evidence of how spacetime flies.

Credo/ for the new year

Forest view: ranks of slender trunks shoot up vertically in a bid to catch a bit of direct light. The rare anomaly, the difficult-to-spot wolf tree, spreads its limbs horizontally, luxuriously, because it occupied the meadow before all the others grew up around it. I learned the term reading Paula Meehan’s poem “The Wolf Tree” in Painting Rain, where it becomes an emblem for how the past survives in the present—all times coexist always, if you know how to look. Her instructions for finding wolf trees remind me of practicing art or meditation: scanning for a wolf tree involves a counterintuitive process of relaxing one’s focus, becoming fully present, and waiting “until the moment when your attention snags—”

Paula Meehan’s poetry is a wolf tree for me in the woods of contemporary verse. I know it’s better than much of what’s out there, but I’m not jumping to claim that it’s the best and the strongest and should crowd other poetry out of my attention. I just know that when I stare at it, it spreads out branches. It helps me see the forest in a new way, in psychedelic layers.

Meehan came across the idea of the wolf tree while reading “Slashes” in Adrienne Rich’s The School Among the Ruins. Adrienne Rich’s poetry is enormously important to Meehan and to me, but I read it most intensely in the eighties and early nineties, and my attention never snagged on this 2004 collection. I barely understand “Slashes,” really, although I can reason my way through it with the help of Rich’s notes. The title connotation of violence haunts the poem, but she directs our attention first to the slash as punctuation mark used in dates. Various images of connection and division throughout the poem suggest the strange duality of the slash: it can mean “or” (refusing to choose, setting up equivalence) and “and” (forging a joint between terms). From the middle of the poem (WordPress keeps erasing the spacing, but the words come through, at least):

Slash across lives   memory pursues its errands
a lent linen shirt pulled unabashedly over her naked shoulders
cardamom seed bitten in her teeth
watching him chop onions
words in the air   segregation/partition/apartheid
vodka/cigarette smoke   a time
vertigo on subway stairs
Years pass   she pressing the time into a box
not to be opened   a box
quelling pleasure and pain

You could describe something like this
in gossip   write a novel   get it wrong

   In wolf tree, see the former field

For Rich, in this poem at least, the past can be evoked but not told, witnessed but not explained.  I appreciate the ethics of that position but the poem doesn’t help me live. Rather than being beautifully warned against misrepresenting experience, I’d rather have a clumsy explanation of how to get it right.

I talked to Paula Meehan in Dublin last August but ran out of time to look for wolf trees on the grounds of Malahide Castle, where she first spotted one. A week or so later found myself in Coole Park, Yeats territory, trying for a quiet moment in the woods as my kids smashed their noisy way towards the lake. I never got my timeless interval of blissful communion, but some quality of the light snagged my attention and I snapped one picture of the lit-up greenery. Long after we downloaded the photos and arrived home, I scrolled through, chose this one for desktop wallpaper, blew it up on my screen, and finally saw it: a wolf tree, right in the middle of the shot.Coole park wolf tree

 

Maybe some uncanny force guided my eye and hand; maybe I liked the angle because I unconsciously perceived the break in symmetry; maybe the whole thing’s a coincidence. Barring a personalized revelation courtesy of some God/ fairy spirit, I’m choosing “and” over “or,” horizontal over vertical. I believe not in a higher power, but in other powers: not in kneeling and praying, but in watching and listening. Light is still/always everywhere.

Poetic navigation

The kids, you’ll be shocked to hear, haven’t been especially receptive to the Yeats I’ve been reading aloud over dinner. Madeleine thinks the Maud Gonne poems consign Yeats to creepy stalker territory and isn’t nearly as impressed as I am by the beauty of it all—and I was moving chronologically, so I didn’t even get to the infuriating “A Prayer for My Daughter.” I think when you know a place through art, really visiting is an experience full of layers and facets that make the grass much more brilliantly green. They’re skeptics, although maybe I can console myself that they’ll be better Yeatsians one day after having seen Thoor Ballylee. Since our Pacific adventures, after all, they love recognizing New Zealand and Hawai’ian landscapes in films and they’re much more fervent about Flight of the Conchords.

I’m obsessed with the difference it makes to visit literature’s sacred sites. I’m not sure if I’m a better critic or teacher of Emily Dickinson since touring her house in Amherst, Massachusetts, but I have a different feel for her poetry, what those garden references and domestic metaphors mean. An early pilgrimage to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania—H.D.’s home turf—bore fruit for Chris, leading to an article on her handling of missionary and Lenape history in The Gift. Visiting Aotearoa New Zealand was my biggest conversion experience. That trip had a massive payoff in my understanding of and commitment to poetry from that part of the world. I’m no expert but at least I know what I don’t know, and nearly all of it had been invisible to me for most of my career, poetry full of birds and foods and expressions and geological formations I wouldn’t have been able to recognize, much less pronounce. Now teaching poems from places I have no first-hand experience makes me wonder: what incredibly basic, important scraps of context am I missing?

Hence, in a few days, our first trip to Ireland. I have a long-term commitment to the place. My maternal grandfather’s people, the Cains, were Irish exiles in Liverpool, so my mother grew up listening to fairy stories and her father’s Irish tenor (he died when she was a teenager). She never visited the country, though, and associates it, I think, with shame and anger as well as music and storytelling; to be Irish in Liverpool was to be brutally, unromantically poor. I grew up in New Jersey, attending Catholic schools where Irish connections are fetishized, so I was delighted to find out, one St. Patrick’s Day, that I had a proper claim on those green bagels. Although there was little Irish poetry beyond Yeats in my own education, working through it with students is now part of my job description.

The British & Irish Poetry course is scheduled for this winter and I know I’ll teach it better once I’ve listened to the Irish birds. I have a more particular mission, though: to track down some of the places Paula Meehan writes about in Painting Rain. I suspect that locating any poem is basically impossible but wonder what I’ll learn by trying.

Meehan has a suite of poems about St. Stephen’s Green, which even a confused American should be able to find. What about all the lost and damaged sites, though, like the meadow beneath the housing development she laments in “Death of a Field”? In what sense can you even get there from here? Placing poems fully would involve time-travel and other spectacular feats, since poets may layer into a single poem impressions gathered over years, or things they’ve simply imagined. What about, too, where a poet does the writing, revising, first public reading?

This year I wrested possession of our study from Chris (actually, he gave it to me, and my verb reflects a guilty sense of triumph). The tall maple outside the window and House Mountain in the distance kept entering my poems—while I wrote a poem a day during April, the tree went from stark branches through first-green-is-gold to full leaf, and the mountain’s face fluctuated from sharp purple to utterly veiled by cloud and smoke. Both became poetry triggers even when I was writing about very different situations. Then a massive June storm tore the tree in half. Its former canopy, though, persists in the poems’ virtual space; I recreate some version of that maple’s shade whenever I reenter, revise them. That’s part of why I wrote them, right, to preserve what I didn’t know I was about to lose?

Universal Reboot

I’ve been packing and unpacking houses and offices for weeks. And poem drafts, book ideas, changed relationships, grocery bags—I even dream about trying to stuff vacation clothes into duffels in time to make the plane. The other night, instead of half-empty tubes of sunscreen, my nightmare double had to gather up every toy our kids had ever owned, all of which were somehow crammed into a hotel room. Fisher-Price farmers, time to collect your human-sized chickens and close up the barn! (My daughter starts high school next month.)

I figured that since my life is in total disarray, I might as well redesign the blog too. I’ve added that third term, “conversation,” to the subtitle, as previously threatened. Given the hemispheric shift, too—it feels like passing through a mirror to me, Aotearoa to Virginia, winter to summer, sabbatical to real life—I flipped the color scheme from dark to light. I was worried that the old format was a bit hard to read. If you have trouble with this one, please let me know.

I’m also scouting for poems and essays that somehow address the notions of poetry as conversation, poems in conversation, and conversation in poems—suggestions and alternative prepositions welcome. I’ve been circling around these ideas like the buzzards over Washington and Lee’s law school and it’s time to swoop, although I don’t like where this simile is going.

For starters, although poets are thinner on the ground here, these are some of the poetic conversations I’m in, starting with the local: I just finished poet Margo Solod’s vivid memoir, Cuttyhunk: Life on the Rock, so I’m hearing her voice in my head; I hope it’s not mutual. I met Mattie Quesenberry Smith in Lexington Coffee on Friday to sip iced tea, perspire profusely, and strategize about how to generate a stronger sense of community among town and university writers—what reading venues and authors might attract both audiences, how to schedule and advertise. Rod Smith and I are emailing across the few hot blocks separating our new work spaces and I’m browsing the next issue of Shenandoah, on the verge of its launch. Walking into work today I chatted with Suzanne Keen about writing amid boxes and with Christopher Matthews about negotiating change in the poetry weather. He feels inspired to finish, arrange, and send. Right now all I want to do is draft, hopping from stanza to stanza without looking back. And I’m reading Deborah Miranda’s Facebook posts, since she’s in Cuttyhunk with Margo, and envying her evident immersion.

Ireland and Texas were waiting on my desk when I returned, in the form of an interview with Paula Meehan in the final print Shenandoah and Meta DuEwa Jones’s brand new poetry study, The Muse is Music: Jazz Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to Spoken Word. My attention, however, is also floating above the Pacific: I’m listening to Hinemoana Baker’s gorgeous CDs and deciding what to send her by way of recompense, finishing an email interview with Bill Manhire, preparing to revise and polish the essays I wrote in New Zealand. First, though, I’m thinking these broad new windowsills need a paua shell brought back from Makara Beach and some succulent desert plant, a kind that’s never heard of the ocean.