Archive for June, 2011

I recently finished a collection of haibun, called Wild Birdsong, which will soon be in print – so I was delighted to open American Poet: The Journal of the Academy of American Poets (Spring 2011)  to read Aimee Nezhukumatahil‘s essay, “More Than the Birds, Bees and Trees: A Closer Look at Writing Haibun.”

Her essay is poetry in prose. I love her refrains: “Hello honeybee and peacock. Hello whale shark and moon jelly. King snake and pinkletink.” (A pinkletink, in case you don’t know, is a spring peeper — a tiny tree frog. I mention this because I didn’t know, and the word isn’t in the dictionary  — but of course, Google knows everything.)  I also love the way she mentions her children … and the way she speaks of using haibun as a daily journal to write about her travels, nature, and daily events …  or to re-imagine fairytales and examine personae. She writes:

“Now that my husband and I are juggling an infant and a three-year-old, keeping a haibun journal is a refreshing way to get some “day pages” written first thing or last thing at night. Even on the days I feel too zombified from late-night feedings, I can always manage at least a draft of a haibun. I’m amazed when what at first blush can seem like an ordinary week (even if I never leave my house or garden!) becomes wholly new and surprising” (5).

Her reference to day pages reminded me of the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. (Everyone who does any kind of artistic work should read this soul-healing book.)  Julia advocates writing out by hand every day whatever is in the soul, right away, first thing in the morning as part of a path to freedom from the inner critics that keep us from expressing ourselves creatively.

Aimee places her insights in the wider context of the transformative potential of the haibun genre. Here are three thoughts quoted by Aimee worth remembering:

1) Bruce Ross: ” If a haiku is an insight into a moment of experience, a haibun is the story or narrative of how one came to have that experience.”

2) Jeannine Hall Gailey: “You met the dragon in the garden. Sometimes he flies in circles outside your window. This morning he appeared as a young boy. He shows you a vision of your parents, lying in a barn. With his face so close you smell hay. He bleeds from the wounds of paper birds, from a swallowed curse. Can your healing rice cake keep him from death?” (from  “Rescuing Seiryu, the Blue Dragon”)

3) Basho:

Lead the horse sideways

across the meadows — I hear

a nightingale.

Thank you, Aimee, for as you say, “a poet can use haibun to construct the proverbial birds, bees, and trees into something more complex …  a sense of having journeyed in having come home at last” (5).

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Poema 18

Aquí te amo.
En los oscuros pinos se desenreda el viento.
Fosforece la luna sobre las aguas errantes.
Andan días iguales persiguiéndose.

Se desciñe la niebla en danzantes figuras.
Una gaviota de plata se descuelga del ocaso.
A veces una vela. Altas, altas, estrellas.

O la cruz negra de un barco.
A veces amanezco, y hasta mi alma está húmeda.
Suena, resuena el mar lejano.
Este es un puerto.
Aquí te amo.

Aquí te amo y en vano te oculta el horizonte.
Te estoy amando aun entra estas frías cosas.
A veces van mis besos en esos barcos graves,
que corren por el mar hacia donde no llegan.

Ya me veo olvidado como estas viejas anclas.
Son más tristes los muelles cuando atraca la tarde.
Se fatiga mi vida inútilmente hambrienta.
Amo lo que no tengo. Estás tú tan distante.

Mi hastío forcejea con los lentos crepúsculos.
Pero la noche llena y comienza a cantarme.
La luna hace girar su rodaje de sueño.

Me miran con tus ojos las estrellas más grandes.
Y como yo te amo, los pinos en el viento,
quieren cantar tu nombre con sus hojas de alambre.

Pablo Neruda

Here I Love You

Here I love you.
In the dark pines the wind disentangles itself.
The moon glows like phosphorous on the vagrant waters.
Days, all one kind, go chasing each other.

The snow unfurls in dancing figures.
A silver gull slips down from the west.
Sometimes a sail. High, high stars.
Oh the black cross of a ship.

Sometimes I get up early and even my soul is wet.
Far away the sea sounds and resounds.
This is a port.

Here I love you.
Here I love you and the horizon hides you in vain.
I love you still among these cold things.
Sometimes my kisses go on those heavy vessels
that cross the sea towards no arrival.
I see myself forgotten like those old anchors.

The piers sadden when the afternoon moors there.
My life grows tired, hungry to no purpose.
I love what I do not have. You are so far.
My loathing wrestles with the slow twilights.
But night comes and starts to sing to me.

The moon turns its clockwork dream.
The biggest stars look at me with your eyes.
And as I love you, the pines in the wind
want to sing your name with their leaves of wire.

Pablo Neruda
trans. W.S. Merwin

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Sweet Peace, where dost thou dwell? I humbly crave,
Let me once know.
I sought thee in a secret cave,
And ask’d, if Peace were there,
A hollow wind did seem to answer, No:
Go seek elsewhere.

I did; and going did a rainbow note:
Surely, thought I,
This is the lace of Peace’s coat:
I will search out the matter.
But while I looked the clouds immediately
Did break and scatter.

Then went I to a garden and did spy
A gallant flower,
The crown-imperial: Sure, said I,
Peace at the root must dwell.
But when I digged, I saw a worm devour
What showed so well.

At length I met a rev’rend good old man;
Whom when for Peace

I did demand, he thus began:
There was a Prince of old
At Salem dwelt, who lived with good increase
Of flock and fold.

He sweetly lived; yet sweetness did not save
His life from foes.
But after death out of his grave
There sprang twelve stalks of wheat;
Which many wond’ring at, got some of those
To plant and set.

It prospered strangely, and did soon disperse
Through all the earth:
For they that taste it do rehearse
That virtue lies therein;
A secret virtue, bringing peace and mirth
By flight of sin.

Take of this grain, which in my garden grows,
And grows for you;
Make bread of it: and that repose
And peace, which ev’ry where
With so much earnestness you do pursue,
Is only there.

George Herbert
The Temple (1633)


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The flower stem leans sideways as it fades.
The curling leaves are brownish, burnt by time,
but here and there a color, olive-grey or lime,
shines out: a pane, a memory of green.

Across the antique paper, lately saved
from fire or dustbin when the engraver closed
his now outmoded studio: two creases
scored by a century, then year and number.

So paper has a memory, like flowers.
So too the artist, who still keeps his iris
dark by the sunlit window that he painted
over and over many months ago. And see,

Not just the picture but his sketches, trace
both two ghost-flowers he didn’t draw, and left
beside the one he did: magenta, orange, mauve.
Trace of the artist’s hand. And then the date.

Emily Grosholz
in honor of the painting of Farhad Ostovani
American Arts Quarterly 
Spring 2011

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Just the other day, I read Joshua Calhoun’s essay, “The Word Made Flax: Cheap Bibles, Textual Corruption, and the Poetics of Paper” in the PMLA 126:2 (March 2011). It is an essay squarely in the tradition of codicology — the study of bookmaking — and discusses how paper was made from flax, a living plant, in the Renaissance. Other things might be embedded in the paper from the paper-making process: discolored water, flecks of organic matter, plant fibers, human hair, large husky pieces of the stalk of the flax plant, known as shives, bits of cloth, even bookworms — which were not metaphors for avid readers, but actual worms that ate through the paper!

In order to make the Bible widely available in English, Renaissance printers often used affordable paper — cheap paper made from rough flax. The living Word was printed on paper visibly made from the living world. Henry Vaughn, an early modern poet, wrote about this in his poem, “The Book.”

Eternal God! Maker of all
That have lived here since the man’s fall;
The Rock of Ages! in whose shade
They live unseen, when here they fade;

Thou knew’st this paper when it was
Mere seed, and after that but grass;
Before ’twas dressed or spun, and when
Made linen, who did wear it then:
What were their lives, their thoughts, and deeds,
Whether good corn or fruitless weeds.

Thou knew’st this tree when a green shade
Covered it, since a cover made,
And where it flourished, grew, and spread,
As if it never should be dead.

Thou knew’st this harmless beast when he
Did live and feed by Thy decree
On each green thing; then slept (well fed)
Clothed with this skin which now lies spread
A covering o’er this aged book;
Which makes me wisely weep, and look
On my own dust; mere dust it is,
But not so dry and clean as this.
Thou knew’st and saw’st them all, and though
Now scattered thus, dost know them so.

O knowing, glorious Spirit! when
Thou shalt restore trees, beasts, and men,
When Thou shalt make all new again,
Destroying only death and pain,
Give him amongst Thy works a place
Who in them loved and sought Thy face!

Henry Vaughn (1655)

The first line in this poem strikingly alludes to the beginning of the Nicene Creed, which could be incorporated in the Anglican church services. The first stanza invokes the fall of man, as recorded in Genesis 3, while the second goes on to meditate on God’s providential foresight into the future — his ability to know the very paper on which the story of Genesis would be printed in the Renaissance and its origins in seed, in grass,  before it was ever dressed, spun or made into linen. The last two lines of the  second stanza turn the natural origins of paper toward metaphor: toward an acknowledgment that the lives and deeds and thoughts of people who wore the linen could be either “good corn” or ” fruitless weeds.”

The poet notes the tree that was used to make the wooden cover of his book, and that allusion to the “Tree”  is rich with implications and for connections to the tree of Genesis —  the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — and the tree, the Cross, that Christ was crucified upon to redeem sinners and save them.

In the third stanza, the poet remembers the “harmless beast,” one of God’s innocent creatures, that gave up its skin to make leather to cover the wooden cover of the book. In that very remembering, the poet alludes to the animal sacrifice that God made in the garden of Eden in order to make skins to cover Adam and Eve when they were ashamed of their nakedness. The death of a creature, and the memory of how sin entered Eden, causes the poet to meditate on his own dust and to weep for the reality that death is part of our experience of the world. At the same time, the poet knows that God knows and sees everything.

This leads him in the final stanza to exalt in the realization that God will restore “trees, beasts and men” when he shall “make all new again.” He looks forward to a place in heaven, after God has destroyed death and pain, for all those who love God and seek his face. These thoughts come from an incredible inspiration for the poem is an observant response to the paper on which Henry Vaughn’s book was printed.

In 2011, the 4ooth anniversary of the 1611 printing of the King James Bible, it is worth remembering the extraordinary ways that the Bible came to people in the Renaissance and continues to reach people all over the world to this very day.

King James Bible – 1613

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It must be somewhere, the original harmony,

somewhere in great nature, hidden.

Is it in the furious infinite,

in distant stars’ orbit,

is it in the sun’s scorn,

in a tiny flower, in treegossip,

in heartmusic’s mothersong

or in tears?

It must be somewhere, immortality,

somewhere the original harmony must be found:

how else could it infuse

the human soul,

that music?

Juhan Liiv

trans. by H.L. Hix & Jüri Talvet

in Poetry (June 2011)

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When I was a little girl, my mother read to me all the time. One of the books she read to me was about Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. Brer Rabbit was always outsmarting Brer Fox —  and I was constantly entertained. One of their stories, involving de wonderful tar baby,  turned out to be a story I chose to read aloud  in my sixth grade public speaking class.  I read with all the vim, vigor and personality I could muster! My audience of fellow eleven year olds was thoroughly amused … they laughed out loud! … and I thought: who knew this was that funny?

Recently I was reminded that Brer Fox has his wily ways as well. The tradition of stories about the Fox Reynard,  which comes down to us from the Middle Ages, is alive and well. But then again, so are stories about magical rabbits …

In his book, The Illuminated Dreamer,  my friend Oz Hardwick celebrates both creatures. One of my favorite poems in his collection is called:

The Midnight Hare

Gold-foot, loping, leaping to light,
twisting to the smile on the silent field,
flying to the drum of the full Moon dance,
hops the hedge, legs spread loose,
lank, then taut, tight, sprightly
Springs, flips to perform, then:
Spellbound, sleek, almost
invisible, low on dark ground,
inscrutable hieroglyph of being, seeing
secrets deep behind honey eyes,
old as time, cold as stone,
alone with night, a million stars,
Up again, snatched from dreams,
darting to the mewse, the old ways,
pitched like a soft stone, silhouetted
on rising silver, high over water,
low across the Earth, drawn to the down,
the husk hushed, then wild, moonstruck,
shadow-boxing things unseen.

Another poem of his, that celebrates the fox, is worth contemplating, too: “Wood Fox.”  But to read that, I suggest you read the book.  You can pick up a beautiful copy of The Illuminated Dreamer from Oversteps Books.


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