Saturday, December 18, 2010
In the world of travel agenting, every place has a code. AVL. CDG. FCO. All the romantic and troubled places in the world are summed up in three letters: BEY, JRS, NBO. My first travel agent job was at the top of the BB&T Building, Asheville's steel and glass skyscraper. The office of Wilcox World Travel and Tours occupied the entire floor with cubicles for individual travel and group travel. I worked in Groups. In our section of the office, the floor was covered with airline-blue carpet. In winter a walk from a desk to the photocopier would generated static electricity. I'd get shocked everytime I touched the machine. I anticipated it. It was a mild form of torture built into the every-day necessities of work.
Between trips to the copier, I organized people's adventures. I had three-ring binders for each tour I was organizing. One group was The Beverly Hill Baptist Church Choir's European Tour. The address was Rodeo Drive in the 90210 zip code. Its leader was Nick Stimple, who wrote the songs for Air Supply. When I'd call him to go over details, I fought the urge to talk about those songs. I'd hear them playing in my head: I'm all out of love. I'm so lost without you. When you're booking travel for thirty-plus people, you know not all of them will enjoy the journey. People wrote letters complaining once the trip was done. From the Beverly Hills group, I received letters griping that wine had been served on a train in Italy, that there was no air-conditioning in the castle in Poland.
Travel to the Holy Land comprised a large portion of the company's business. "Journeys with Paul" was a favorite. One passenger, one of the countless pastor's wives who gave their names as their husband's with a mere "Mrs."placed in front, explained to me on the phone that she thought "Paul was the best-looking of all the apostles." I booked lunches at "St. Peter's Fish" and arranged boat-rides on the Sea of Galilee. One client requested an add-on tour of the "hopscotch court Jesus drew under the city of Jerusalem for the children." A woman called the day of one tour's departure asking to join because "Jesus told me in a dream I have to go to His hometown." (I pulled it off.)
For every tour I'd key in the passengers' names and place these people I did not know in hotel rooms together. I'd organize their meals from my desk, their transfers from the hotel. Every little detail: I organized it. But I knew every time a departure date appeared on my calendar, there was so much more that these people would experience that I could only have the smallest hand in. And nothing I could rescue them from, from my desk a few feet from the copying machine that zapped me.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
On my drive out of and back into the city today (because I had to retrieve clean clothes for my daughter's school performance since she'd become a mud-swamp during recess), I listened to Christmas carols. Shepherds watching in fields. Holy infant. Christ is born in Bethlehem. Years ago, before I started researching alchemy, these songs told a story of the birth of Jesus. And they were beautiful. I remember hearing Julie Andrews singing them at the Royal Albert Hall in London when I was four years old. So beautiful. And they're still beautiful. With another level added.
In the alchemical metaphor, matter is worked through a series of alternatively soothing and mortifying steps. At the end, it is "killed," then it is left in a "tomb" to putrefy. Then it is brought back to life: resurrected. These "biblical" terms aren't mine. They are the terms that have been used for ages. Ages. And it sounds like I ought to be writing about Easter, since that is the rebirth. But there's something about the language of rebirth that drew my attention in a jaw-dropping way. When the matter is made gold, in the metaphor (for it is no more just about matter than it is about the matter of our selves), it is referred to as "the King," "the son of God" (as opposed to the son of man) and even "King of the Jews." "Our newborn king" in the carol is an alchemical reference to a successful alchemical process.
The shepherds watching in fields are the alchemists, watching and waiting. The star is the spark of life that the alchemist hopes she has stirred into the process through passion and love and hard work. Ages. It all goes back ages.
Most of the hymns in the hymnals used in churches were written (I observed this while I taught at an Episcopal boarding school for nearly a decade: I attended at least three chapel services a week, creating a lot of time to let my eyes trail down to the bottom of the page to see when the songs were written) during the 18th and 19th century, a time when alchemy was coming under fire of a cold rationality even Sir Isaac Newton would have shied away from. The teachings, I suppose, had to be conveyed somehow. People weren't reading fairy tales anymore or legends of the Round Table, former vessels for alchemical wisdom. So, hymns became the cups for hidden meaning. Christmas carols speak to the final step of the magnum opus, the moment when base matter has risen to a new state.
"The son" is the term given that matter when it is beginning the process. When that matter has turned to gold, it is called "the king." So, we ask, how is it the king is born in the manger (another term for crucible)? Because in alchemy the lowest is the highest and vice versa. The king has to be born in meager circumstance, because only in humility can we find greatness.
This is the message of Christmas.
And there is the other level.
Just as were I Jewish I would find the Kabbalistic meaning in all rites and rituals, and were I Muslim, I would seek the Sufi perspective, as an Episcopalian I find the mystical meaning in the same. And love it. And celebrate it with my whole heart. Because I know that I, too, am on my way to becoming "gold," to rising to new states of being, to being born surrounded by cows and goats and mice and oxen, hay and cold air. Alchemy makes Christmas at once personal and universal. Not just a story, a story that has been used to oppress and confuse and conquer. It is a timeless story of becoming new. I am at once the watching shepherd and the newborn baby and still the amazed four-year old hearing these songs about this moment in awe. And in me are the wise men guffawing when I screw up. And three kings bearing gifts for the mother who is also me, and I am the weary, worried father. And a bright star, leading me toward myself through the dark desert night. I am my own Bethlehem. In the liturgical calendar, I am about to begin.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
To increase the license for such figurative speech, he makes his narrator an art writer, Daniel, who, as the Independent notices, functions much as Nick Carraway does in The Great Gatsby. Daniel is the witness who, like Carraway, steps over the line once or twice but for the most part provides a line, if only by doing so. Both men remind us there is a line.
When we think of the main characters of Great Gatsby we think of Gatsby and Daisy. Similarly, the focal point in The Object of Beauty appears to be Lacey Yeager. But in both works, the narrator is the one controlling the information. Seemingly innocuous and apparent instruments of narrative, the narrators in both works bring their own baggage with them to the story. In a novel about objectifying beauty, the Daniel undergoes a similar transformation as Lacey, learning the value of slow time in love, breaking below the surface distractions of desire, thereby embodying the narrator in the narrative and making him the embodiment of novel's theme.
Similarities between this book and Gatsby reach beyond narrative strategy and figuration. Martin indulges his own Fitzgeraldian bifocals to witness both the elegance and the grotesqueness of the New York scenes. In the sympathetic character of Patrice, we see the genuine lover of art. One of his many counterparts, Mr. Alberg, comments "Collector is too kind a word for me. I'm a shopper." Then the latter tells, and tells again, a tale about a Joseph Beuys' "felt suit," the reader feels much the same as when reading of cruel Tom Buchanan's mistress' blood dripping over a fashion magazine in the hot, second chapter hotel room. Martin's eye roams the aesthetic spectrum, counterpointing artworld stimulus (much of it beautiful) with artworld behavior (much of it not).
Lacey embodies Daisy and James Gatz both. As he showed us with Shopgirl, Martin studies psychology and personality. Lacey is a narcissist to the nth degree, as Daniel shows us. But of course could Daniel be missing a part of the story, leaving it for the reader to tell? This is where Martin's ability to create and captivate really comes into play. We all know girls like Lacey, have been destroyed by them. ("She's the kind of person who will always be okay," says a character undone.) We also make excuses for them, which is something that Daniel does not do. Daniel witnesses and wants but does not judge her, except in the way he subtly compares her to money, shimmering, fleeting.
She is compared to money much in the same way that Daisy is. Daniel doesn't comment on any of Lacey's inner life because, like money, she has none. But both Daisy and Lacey have stories shaping them from within. The absence of Lacey's story makes the reader as susceptible as the book's other characters to the too-quick evaluation of "an object of beauty."
The Great Gatsby would not have its thrust and balance without the fireworks-less pairing of Nick and Jordan. Martin builds a similar figure into Object of Beauty. "We could talk for months," says Daniel of his relationship (details witheld). He describes his love interest as being the only person with a normal upbringing, which renders her impervious to Lacey's "full courtship press" of the art world at the moment when it really matters. This slow-and-steady approach to love mirrors the low-key attention of the true collector, rather than the minute-makers who create fame out of novelty.
The "series of successful gestures" which Nick Carraway sees in Gatsby's life is also evident in Lacey's. And in both stories, there comes a point at which things fly out of our control, regardless of the perfection of our gestures. Had it not been for the hit-and-run in Gatsby or the sub-prime loan crisis on Wall Street, our narrators would have different stories to tell, stories of unhindered rises from reality into dreamworlds. The setting of Martin's book makes the reading strangely less intimate than that of Gatsby.
If Fitzgerald's novel was prophetic, Martin's is deeply reflective, exploring the great WTF all economies still feel the effects of, and even going so far as to stitch a narrative, however at once literary and economic, into a chaos. What redeems Gatsby is the truth: that it was never as beautiful as he thought it was. But in Object of Beauty, even in a world fallen to pieces in so many ways, beauty is indeed a redemptive constant, and while the word itself might get dropped from our vocabularies in service to some fashions, Martin asserts it does and always will exist. We just have to be broken from time to time in order to recognize it and allow it all the way in, if only in order to find again a line within ourselves we don't allow ourselves to cross, ever again.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
I'm sipping morning coffee, seeing the snow that covers my garden and the neighboring field. The hush of snow, its thick insulation. It bursts my heart with memories of every other snow I weave through in my mind, back to my childhood in Toronto where an enormous blue spruce, though thirty feet high caught it all and became a part of the white. I have an enormous green spruce now, just as tall, outside my living-room window. It, too, catches and holds the weight of it all. I think of the year I lived alone in a cabin in Sequim, Washington, and the week I was snowed in with just my soup and coffee and the poems there were to write then. So many poems. So much solitude I had to hold in my mind, so much it felt I might break under its weight. But then once the week was over, I wanted it to begin again, so comfortable had I become with the world's silences.
Sometimes a heron walked the stony shore in front of my cabin, its gray a part of the sky's gray. Its slow steps on fragile legs were a reflection of my own internal steps around the details of my rocky life so far. I sat at a small table, the kind they had in diners in the fifties, with the stainless steel rim around a formica-like top and stared at the bay. Bald eagles sometimes stood in the trees, appearing tall as men. I stood inside my self, looking over my story, sometimes diving down to seize some memory and re-invent it on a page. I listened to Bach's Cello solos again and again. Yo-Yo Ma's stroke of the bow across the strings was the perfect soundtrack to the snow, and to my aloneness in the poems where I brought figures from my life back to me, tracing their outlines in words that slowly moved into metaphors that surprised me for what they revealed. I wrote virtually non-stop. I had nothing else to do, no one to talk to. The world of poems were a wonderland that opened wider every time I thought some life into the alphabet and followed it. I learned that love has so many sides to it that it was possible to write more than twenty or thirty poems about one person and with each one come to know them and what they meant to me better. I learned that when writing, I become a part of a things in ways I'd missed out on when they were surrounding me. I name them. I give them the attention they deserved. There, alone in my small cabin (barely the size of my bedroom now but still having everything I needed) I sat surrounded by the ghosts that live inside the snow, the memories of a life only yet partly lived, discovering it was enough to write about forever.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
I'll be talking, out loud this time, about Sir Isaac Newton soon at the Creative Technology and Arts Center salon series on December 2 at 6 pm at the Odyssey School at 90 Zillicoa Street. If you dig back a bit on this blog (a while neglected, since summer!) you'll see I went through a time when all I wrote about was alchemy. It is still very much what I muse about when I'm musing, and much of what I muse about are the connections between contemporary scientific discovery and alchemy. Both maintain that at the most subtle levels, matter behaves quite differently from its molecular, concrete nature. At the smallest level, all things are rising, attracting, sympathizing, communing. I don't mean that spiritually, though it certainly sounds it. These are the times in which we live: when science and spirituality are the same.
This is what John Maynard Keynes, the father of economics, wrote of Newton. It is part of a speech he was going to give regarding the scientist to the Royal Society, but he died a few days prior and his brother delivered the talk. I'll use this document as well as a letter Newton wrote to the Royal Society in 1645 as the anchors of the talk. What lies between these two documents is rich, deep and offers a worldview that includes all faiths and finds in sacred text a symbolic language of science.
In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason. I do not see him in this light. I do not think that any one who has pored over the contents of that box which he packed up when he finally left Cambridge in 1696 and which, though partly dispersed, have come down to us, can see him like that. Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonderchild to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
I was one of Steve's students at Warren Wilson MFA Program. It was my second semester, after my semester with Joan Aleshire, before my semester with Tony Hoagland. The genius of the program had something to do with that: I was "shaped" by a exactly who I needed at the time. When it was time to work with Steve, I was ready to fall apart, as Ellen Bryant Voigt had told a friend of mine when my friend was falling apart, I was doing right on time. During my semester with Steve, I went from working for an import/export company and being in a relationship to living alone in a very small cabin on the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and teaching half-days at a basic education lab 30 minutes away in Port Angeles. (It was by the way, the most magnificent drive to work: past Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Forest, the Dungeness Spit, a herd of elk.) This was before I had email. The only person I called was my mother. And the only person I got letters from was Steve when he responded to the packets of poems and annotations I'd sent to him.
I wasn't doing any drugs, but I was very much experimenting with my mind. I felt that at the end of my 20s I ought to face what needs to be faced and write what needs to be written. Alone. In the Woods. My mind, I discovered, was a very tricky place. If I hadn't been teaching mostly people from the reservations and reading about their cultures and worldview, I might have just turned myself in at mental institution. Instead, I just stayed with it and, in order to maintain a sort of balance, I wrote Sonnets.
They were horrible sonnets. And Steven said so, except for one in which I placed Daphne in the modern-day world. The others were pure drama and rhapsody. Fortunately, my goal wasn't to write good poems during this time. I was learning rhythm, form and toying with that impossible paradox that constraint lends itself to freedom. This is the stuff Steve and I wrote about in our letters. The heavy heavy. But the way Steve wrote about the heavy heavy was so graceful, as though he were discussing a movie he liked. The mind was familiar territory to him, and he could follow me just about anywhere and enjoy the journey with a soft smile. The things that terrified me had already terrified him and he had come to terms with coming to terms with terror. He let me feel that the mind was something we can get used to. I remember one particularly searching letter in which he meditated on various "equalizers" in our lives, among them: death, and some of the letter were smeared. In the p.s. he explained he had "schnoodled" just as he was putting the letter together and apologized for the snot. Like this, the profound and the bodied co-dwelled in the six months we corresponded. I stopped with the sonnets after a bit and discovered I could write very long poems. I'd never explored that before, and I think it had everything to do with having Steve as a teacher and living with my solitude. I had space.
From the constraints of sonnet work I burst into the field of the long narrative poem, using the form to write my story, to find the poetry in the real things of my adolescence. I was deep-sea diving into my past and retrieving some stuff. It wasn't yet poetry, though. Strangely, when the faculty at the basic ed lab went to a conference at Western Washington University, I went for a walk and found an antique store which had a train set like the one my father had set up for us in the basement of our house in Canada. The smell of the smoke-making oil shot through me. I sat down next to it and wrote a poem. After, I wandered into a bookshop nextdoor and in the poetry section found a book by Steve, Permission to Speak. It was, it said on the back, his first book. In my next packet to Steve, I only sent the poem about the trainset and told him I'd found his book. He made some suggestions on the poem and wrote that he didn't think anyone had that book. He also spent more time writing about the poem I'd sent, drawing my attention to why it actually worked as a poem, why it was, in essence, the first successful thing I'd written, the thing that could stand alone in the world.
Steve knew, as I wish all teacher knew, that poetry is a process that take place only in a very small part on the page. He was my teacher at the very moment that I was becoming a poet, when I was letting go of so many parts of myself, the very way I had been shaped to think and perceive. Because he had already let go of these things and found a poet's path through the world, he was comfortable with my wild journey. I remember signing off a letter, "I'll go for a walk now to burn off some of this restlnessness. Maybe I'll get eaten by a panther." I thought it might have been too much. But he never judged, never restrained and, most importantly, he never, ever once pontificated or otherwise used my vulnerability to his advantage. He never crossed any of the invisible lines.
I consider myself among the luckiest of poets because I had the gift of working with Steve Orlen. I think of all his other students and know they also experienced his vastness, his ability to hold space for students without owning them, over-stepping or ever molding them in his likeness. He was an expansive man. And as much as one recalls Ben Jonson's words following Shakespeare's death, "a light has gone from the world," in seeing the words of Steve's colleagues and friends all over the Facebook world and how we, his students, are contacting each other, planning suppers in his memory, I don't think a light has gone from the world. I think it is just beginning to shine.
Wednesday, July 07, 2010
Sunday, June 27, 2010
Saturday, June 26, 2010
Sunday, May 30, 2010
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
It's Tuesday afternoon. The two labradors, Chloe (black and small) and Sir Isaac Newton (white and enormous) are napping next to the rabbit's cage (Brownie) while a storm brews outside. Wordfest is over as of 2 weeks ago and last night I read my writings about architecture for the first time in public, while Mike Oppenheim's amazing photographs of Asheville's architecture shone on the screen behind me. I shouldn't have read, I realized. I know it well enough to talk extemporaneously and there's some other kind of energy that comes from me when I do. It's because I've fallen in love with architecture. Hearing someone talk about what/whom they love is always better than hearing some read something from a page.
Saturday, May 01, 2010
Elevate me, O God, into what is highest within me.
Bring me to the sky where loose clouds loosen more
and show me what I cannot touch with my skin.
Loosen me so I break open like the sky above a thirsty earth.
Elevate me. O God, loosely, like clouds in their skin.
Touch what I cannot thirst after on this earth. Loosen me
until I cannot break and show me what is highest in me,
bringing within what is more, what breaks ceaselessly open.
Elevate me, O God, to the loosened earth where sky is a show
of what I cannot touch and clouds break open against my skin.
Break me open with thirst. Like the sky above the earth,
bring me what is highest, loose and within.
Elevate me, O God, within, where loose clouds show me
how I break open like a thirsty earth. Into what is highest
in me, bring your touch. Loosen me more, your cloud, this
skin. What is highest, open within this earth.
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Monday, March 08, 2010
Wednesday, February 03, 2010
First of all: thank you Adam McLean for use of Barchusen's above version of The Crowning of Nature (http://www.levity.com/).
Coagula et Solve. One of the basic tenets of alchemy and of life. But geezh we don't hear about it. It basically means that human life is constantly moving between two states--one of being firm and structured and another of being all hell broke loose. Once we max out on the former, circumstance moves us back toward the latter. We coagulate--come together. We dissolve--solve.
Solve is a state of destabilization--a change is moving through life so we have to loose our preconceptions of what must be. That is, if we are going to survive it.
Some people live in a seemingly constant state of solve. Too fluid, too changeable, not enough structure and form. Some people in a seemingly constant state of coagula. Too rigid. Disdainful of change. Resistant to the effects and lessons of life.
Any paradigm shift is a movement from coagula (a fixed set of ideas) through a solve and back to a coagula.
Today, I have been in solve. Sometimes solve just happpens. It doesn't always take a massive surface change in life. On the contrary, change begins always deep below the perceptible surface, but we can feel it coming. And we respond by, whether we like it or not, loosening our hold on things.
It's hard to be in a state of solve. When I'm in it, I want to change things, nail things down, name the thing that's happening. But I never know what's changing, only that change is coming. At such times, I know, it's best to avoid major purchases or drastic alterations to my appearance. Today I found myself looking at office space on the fourth floor of an office building. The view was incredibly--way high over the mountains to the North. But you know? All life is a metaphor. I don't know if I'll get it or not, and that's not the point. The point is I was moving to higher ground. Something is afoot, so I felt instinctively the need to grow wings.
Sunday, January 31, 2010
It is a "work against Nature" because "nature" means physical nature. The opus contra natura draws our attention toward spiritual nature, the deeper truth of things.
In working with individuals who are just starting to write "again" the opus contra natura is a riot in the heart. The words just start flowing and, in some, they bring with them deep sorrow and joy which must be moved through.
I have been, of late, made aware (through being dumped by one such person and realizing my life is full of them) of personality disorders and their onset at either age 7 or in the adult years. Such disorders--borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder and the like--occur because a child is not given the safety and expression children require. So, that child ceases developing past a certain point psychologically while the body continues its journey into maturation. The result: an incredible number of very tall 5 year olds, men and women, walking around and often running various shows.
I think of the opus contra natura and how it can be used to retrieve those inner 5 year olds, tend them, move them back into the forefront and listening to them. Doing the hard work necessary to become whole.
Is it possible that the sacred texts and their writers were writing about people who have left themselves entirely behind? And the fluidity of Life comes when we have gone back and dislodged those parts of us once frozen in time. . .
(picture courtesy of Adam McLean's website www.levity.com : Geber's Works woodcuts, c. 1678.)
Friday, January 29, 2010
For me, the images of the old stuff deeply spoke almost as soon as I'd opened Lyndy Abrahams' Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery. Granted I was going through absolute hell at the time and had reached out into alchemy since I'd heard it was the source of the deep healing (called politely "depth psychology" professionally, but I call it something quite different). I started to see the symbols dance with each other, and they became increasily illuminated--even playful. There is a joy in working with alchemy and its artwork. Its elements and writings look dark and frightening--as does the Book of Revelations, but inwardly, elucidated by the dictionary and the work of McLean (who is acknowledged in the dictionary), all of it is about reaching a deeper place in ourselves, a place so dark it glows.