Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Real Work: Gary Snyder and Inheriting Experience

Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's all-time home run record on my birthday. April 8, 1974. I was two years old, possibly smashing cake all over my face. That is one of those singular moments in sports that will be remembered forever by all who were alive and following baseball, or American sports at all. Culturally memorable.

Go back about 20 years before that, to April 8, 1956. Much less culturally relevant to most, and with no fanfare, Beat Generation pioneer, future Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder began a book that would take him 40 years to finish. The book is only 152 pages long. It's not like he was going "War and Peace" on us. But that's how long it took "Mountains and Rivers Without End," as the back cover describes it, "an epic (poem) of geology, prehistory, and mythology."

Snyder is a big deal to me. So much so that the idea for my next tattoo, a sleeve on my left arm, began with the cover art for his book "Turtle Island." He is a game changer, both as a writer, for what he has written, but also as a human, for how he has lived his life. Let's see if I can explain.

If you live a life interesting enough that Jack Kerouac bases one of the characters in his novel "Dharma Bums" after you, chances are you're living a pretty fu**ing cool life. Snyder is one of those writers that has not lived his life behind a desk dreaming things up. He has experienced life. He has lived it. And that's what he writes from: experience, of the world, of the soul, of the planet, of the cosmos, of the human condition.

You can get at what I mean just by looking at a list of the jobs Snyder has held: logger, fire lookout on Desolation Peak, steam freighter crew, translator, carpenter, poet. He has degrees in literature and anthropology and has studied linguistics and Asian languages. When he wanted to dig into Zen Buddhism, he moved to Japan and spent 12 years in intense study. His experience is not limited to books, nor does it shun them. He wrote the first poems that he would published while working as a trail crew laborer for the U.S. Park Service. He was also studying classical Chinese at the time. Of course he was.

The first time I remember really thinking I would like to write for a living, I was 14. I loved and lived skateboarding, body, mind, and soul. It was something I wanted to always be a part of (14 year old me would like to know that 42 year old me still digs skating, I reckon), but I knew I wasn't good enough to be the next Tony Hawk or even a pro skater. So I thought, I'd like to write for "Thrasher" Magazine. Tell skating stories, dig into the culture and become a voice of skating.

For all the various times I've pictured myself as some sort of writer, and for all the words I've written, I've never wanted to live life at a desk. Writing is the outlet, not life itself. It is how I make sense of my life and the world around me. It is how I try to relate to things. But it is not living. I want to experience, to live an interesting life, to imbibe perspective, and then write. If you read Snyder, he gets that.

I have a friend working on a book right now. She's researching, interviewing, transcribing, compiling, writing. Of all of it, she says the writing is the hardest part. What she looks forward to the least. It is draining. It saps her, and then she needs to go recharge, by doing anything but writing. Running, photography, traveling with her husband, playing with dogs.

I function largely the same way, and I think a lot of writers would say the same. Writing is a release, it is a pouring out. It empties you. And then it is your job to go refill your soul. If you don't, what will you have to write about?

In his book, "The Real Work," Snyder posits that he:

...hold(s) the most archaic values on earth... the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe.

I need to post that on the refrigerator with artwork and photos of our daughters, so that they can read it every day as well. In Mountains and Rivers, the book started on my birthday 20-ish years before I was born, Snyder scrolls:

'The Fashioner of Things
         has no original intentions
Mountains and rivers
         are spirit, condensed.'

The work Snyder is doing, "the real work," that is the inheritance I want to earn.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Enchantment as strange as the Blue

Gary Snyder woke up blue. Blue hadn't really been sleeping, it's always awake, if not always named, always in the background of my mind, in the foreground of my soul, and my blue eyes are always scanning for their likeness. Enchantment with blue, as strange as blue, and goddesses' hair. Snyder's poem is called "The Blue Sky." I should have known it was a blue alarm clock.

If Snyder woke up blue, Maggie Nelson deep tongue kissed it. Her book "Bluets," helped me give voice to a feeling for a color as kindred spirit maybe. Bluets is the kind of book that finds me without me having to look for it. When I describe the books I like best, they don't fit neatly into a genre--poetry, aphorism, lyric essay, fragments on a theme strung together with blue thread. For Nelson, it was the ocean that pulled her in:

6. The half-circle of blinding turquoise ocean is this love's primal scene. That this blue exists makes my life a remarkable one, just to have seen it. To have see such beautiful things. To find oneself placed in their midst. Choiceless. I returned there yesterday and stood again upon the mountain.

There aren't many people who I'd wager would know in their bones my obsession with blue, but Nelson would be one. Thankfully she didn't grow up here, where the rivers, bay, and ocean shine more brackish than turquoise. I want to keep Nelson's blue kiss going. What does it feel like?

144. Then again, perhaps it does feel like a fire--the blue core of it, not the theatrical orange crackling, I have spent a lot of time staring at this core in my own "dark chamber," and I can testify that it provides an excellent example of how blue gives way to darkness--and then how, without warning, the darkness grows up into a cone of light.

The blue core of fire. That's a hell of a kiss. So now we have related blue to fire, the alchemical or elemental symbol I was born in. Hhhhmmm. Perhaps the soul, or some souls, are blue.

But Nelson doesn't take this thing too far. She puts its beauty in its place:

164. ... For blue has no mind. It is not wise, nor does it promise any wisdom. It is beautiful, and despite what the poets and philosophers and theologians have said, I think beauty neither obscures truth, nor reveals it. Likewise, it leads neither toward justice nor away from it. It is pharmakon. It radiates.

Come on people, it's just a color ;) Don't read too much into it. It is not some larger truth. It is beauty. It radiates.

Maybe I am putting too many words toward blue. They are words, they are not blue in and of itself. They can't get there, they can only hope to point a finger, or maybe a crazy straw full of blue raspberry snow cone, at blue. And that brings me to where my mind dwelled for a a good part of last week.

The frustration of words. Words express, but they don't do anything. They don't act, even if they can incite action. Words can't kiss. They can only bring on the desire for a kiss. I churn out thousands of words a day and none of them get me closer to anything. Nothing real. Just language. Just representation.

Nelson's blue began in the ocean. And it is the ocean that I was thinking of this past week. I've said it here before. It's likely that my thoughts all circle back to the same point, caught in a blue maze or a blue spiral. But my thoughts on words and what they can't do,

The ocean knows. So does Perry Farrell. Let's turn to him, his bottle and tattooed wrist holding a microphone. They are tinted blue.

I've seen the ocean
Break on the shore,
Come together with no harm done.

I want to be more like the ocean,
No talking, man
All action.

The ocean doesn't need words. It doesn't need to be described by words. It acts. And its actions are blue.

Words are strange, limited things. So are we. So is enchantment. As strange as the Blue up above.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Saturn and other Digable Planets

Sometimes reality is what you thought it was when you were a kid. Your perception then was maybe sharper than it is as you get older, as we learn to filter how we see things through books, through science, through "facts."

As a kid, who doesn't draw the planet Saturn as a circle with a ring disappearing behind it? But that's just a kid drawing, that can't be reality, right? Fast forward to about 15 years ago. We had a group of writers on a writers' retreat weekend at an Audubon sanctuary. An astronomer among us set her telescope up under the night sky and dialed it in on Saturn for all of us to check out. The telescope wasn't quite as powerful as the photo from the one above; it looked even more like what you draw as a kid. I remember looking through the lens and thinking, "Holy shit! It really does look like that!"

Nine-year-old daughter Ava has been drawing like crazy of late. I bought her artist pads of blank paper, colored pencils, crayons. She checks out books on how to draw from her school library and sets to work. She isn't finished until she has between 10 and 20 pictures drawn and colored, and then she makes a cover, and staple binds them all together into a book. Her most recent is titled, "Ava's Drawings of Halloween Costumes." It is on my coffee table.

She has also been requesting Digable Planets whenever she gets into the car. She wants to hear "Cool Like Dat" and "Nickel Bags (of Funk)." Funny aside, I was playing that same album in the car when her older sister Anna was two years old. Ava wasn't born yet. Nickel Bags was playing as we got out of the car in a parking lot in Ocean City. Two-year-old Anna got out, singing/saying, "Nic-kel bag, Nic-kel bag," like she heard in the song. Ava likes that story, which is why she digs the song. It's catchy.

I catch something new every time I listen to the Planets.

Refuting time and space in rhymes.
What would you do, if time belonged to you?
A heavy thought is,
that it DOES.
Now hip somebody else.

When you are a kid, time is more relative than it is when you grow up. Anna and Ava would both say "yesterday," and mean anything from yesterday to last year when they were younger. It all streams together. And then we start looking at watches, and we have schedules to keep, and our sense of time becomes regimented, predictable. But like drawing Saturn, what if how we think about time when we are young is a better representation than how our clocks and watches tell us to think about it now?

When I want to know about the shape and size and mystery of the Universe, I sometimes turn to Tracy Smith.

After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span
Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like
Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being--a Starman
Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.
And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure

That someone was there squinting through the dust,
Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only
To be wanted back badly enough? Would you go then,
Even for a few nights, into that other life where you
And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy?

Blind to the future once, and happy. Maybe it goes back to floating under the stars. Refuting time and space the way we did when we were kids. After all, (in the span of time) "we're just babies, man."

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Eliot in Your Bones

T.S. Eliot abides. He was the last of the big three mind blowers for me in college (the first two were William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche). Eliot was maybe the biggest of the three, because he combined some of the aesthetic/poetic vibe of Blake with the philosophical depth and inquiry of Nietzsche. My last college essay was on Eliot and the philosophy of F.H. Bradley, who Eliot wrote his PhD dissertation on at Harvard.

In the library at Washington College, I found Eliot's book of essays, "Sacred Wood," where his notion of "Tradition and the Individual Talent," reworked my thinking of the literary tradition we inherit, and how that inheritance requires work and study, it isn't just given to us. And the idea that you don't just read the dead poets to know the past, but also feel it in the here and now:

...not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence: the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that that whole of the literature of Europe from Homer...

Writing with a literature in your bones.

After college I put Eliot down for a while. He had redefined poetry, tradition, allusion, scholarship. And that wasn't the world I was inhabiting at the time. A few years later, at some bookstore or another, I found "Four Quartets." Meeting Eliot the first time was mind blowing and hard work, and deep study. Four Quartets was meeting Eliot again for the first time. This Eliot was lyrical, deep, philosophical. I could read him on my own without needing a library for back up.

This past week I was looking for a book in the garage to give to a friend. During that expedition, I unearthed Four Quartets. It was sleeping in a garage box. The next morning, I started from the beginning:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is redeemable.

Four Quartets are connected meditations on our place in the Universe, about Time, and about the Divine. Each of the poems also represents one of the elements: Burnt Norton is air, East Coker is earth, The Dry Salvages is water, Little Gidding is fire. You want depth? You want philosophy? You want poetry you can delve into a spin your head around? Four Quartets has it,

I've been dwelling in solitude a lot lately, my thoughts inhabiting the space around me. Finding Eliot again has brought back a calm, a peace that I thought I had lost; an introspection that is also a self inquisition:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the

I fu**ing hate waiting. I am not good at patience. But there is a zen to Eliot's waiting, where the stillness becomes dancing. That's the kind of stillness I need to find. Dance while you wait, please.

Eliot's notion of cyclical time, time that loops back on itself, where the end and the beginning are the same. It's what I find in coming back to Eliot. Again, for the first time. Eliot is in my bones.

     We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Alone vs. Not Alone, or is that even the question?

This is a stretch of land I have taken to taking in a fair amount lately. On this particular Saturday afternoon/evening, the wind blows leaves to the north (to the right); butterflies corkscrew emergency landings; squirrels leap invisible hurdles then turn and exit, seeming to forget what they were after. The sun inches to the west, shadows reacting with their own arc on the field.

All these things take place as I sit with two fingers of Jameson's, taking it all in, an observer trying to make sense of it all. And here's the thing: that swath of existences, this corner of the Universe and the wider Universe writ large--none of it gives a shit. I can sit there or not, it will continue about its business. I can be ecstatic, or I can be wrestling with the deep feeling of being alone, it will remain indifferent. Down to leaves and butterflies and ant hills, or up to dying stars or black holes or comets, whether I am having a good day, a bad day, or whether I am here at all makes no difference.

Let's call that a scientific fact. Now, what I do with that fact, how I react, how I create my life and my worldview given that that is true--that is what life is. That is what my life will be.

That's the first conscious thought of existential ____________ that must have been grappled with going back to ancient people who painted on the walls of cave. That blank is there so you can insert your own word: dread, freedom, trembling, ecstasy, it's all in what that sense of your place in the bigger picture evokes in you.

What I think, how I fit myself into that blank depends completely on when you ask me. I am not a Che Guevara fan by any means, but I think he was right when he wrote, "In nine months a man can think a lot of thoughts, from the height of philosophical conjecture to the most abject longing for a bowl of soup--in perfect harmony with the state of his stomach."

For the past seven months or so, I have wrestled with the question of whether we are ultimately alone or not alone in this life, on a soul deep level. If you have children or a spouse, it is easy to say not alone, you are surrounded by people you love and who love you. And that's true. Truth is what you know in your heart and soul. Or maybe that's faith. But stay with me. I watch our 12 year old wrestle with that alienated feeling, as 12 year olds will, because I watch and remember it fully, that no one else in the world understands them. And that is valid for their life experience. Nothing I can say can convince her that I went through what she is going through, and in earnest, I didn't, I am a guy, she is a girl, I was in 7th grade 30 years ago and life was different. This is her experience.

But who or what can bridge that gap that takes us from alone to not alone? It's wrapped into the same realization that the Universe doesn't need me; that life goes on regardless. Some people's perception of God crosses that void. For some it is love, probably with a "L." For some, it is our interconnectedness to creation, that we will return to the earth and our corporeal ingredients will be recycled back into the soil. For some it is art, and being able to live on in memories maybe.

I haven't figured it out. Sometimes I feel like Tony Hoagland, who wrote:

At this state in the journey

I would estimate the distance
between myself and my feelings
is roughly the same as the mileage

from Seattle to New York.

I don't have an answer. I'm not sure I will, but I am fairly sure that it doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things whether I find out or not. Here is another Hoagland-ism from the same poem, "Self-Improvement:"

Often we ask ourselves
to make absolute sense
out of what just happens,
and in this way, what we are practicing

is suffering,
which everybody practices,
but strangely few of us
grow graceful in.

To grow graceful. To rail against. To acquiesce. To rebel against. To delve. To try to understand. To make peace with. What we come up with, our own answer, is our life.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Floating Under the Stars, or Open Book in Case of Emergency

Poetry goes deep. Like a 70-yard bomb dropped perfectly into the hands of your favorite wide receiver. When I read the right stuff, it connects every time. And I have to say it is more essential to my life and mental well being than fiction or non-fiction could ever be. Here's why.

When it comes to books, and probably life in general, I am demanding but have a chronically short attention span. As I've said before, my mind is a series of tangents, followed until the next one comes along . Poetry can deliver in one re-readable, memorizable page what it takes a novel or narrative non-fiction book hundreds of pages to accomplish. And sometimes I need that quick fix, something to straighten my soul out that hits like a shot of bourbon.

At my existentially loneliest, I reach for poetry. When other books feel like a distraction, which is sometimes welcome, most of the time I know I need to sit and ponder. To wonder, to question, to try to get to the bottom and come out the other side.

Saturday I was having one of those kind of evenings, stockpiling some moments like that, when really I shouldn't have been. I had watched our daughters played field hockey, taken them and a friend to see a Spanish Galleon/tall ship in Oxford, then swimming at the Strand. It was a good, full day. The girls were napping. And those existential crisis moments come up on me unexpected.

So I reached for James Tate's "Memoir of the Hawk" and a pale ale. I sat on the deck, listened to the breeze talking to the trees; the birds chirp over the quieter wind; and I dug in. And I did the same thing Sunday, when time presented itself. I did a fair amount of underlining. Tate tapped me on the shoulder with this, looking for that perfect, private place to escape to:

has never been discovered,
is thought to be the source of all fire.
is a pigpen for the soul,
changes its shape and location
when you try to think of it.

I know that place. It recedes into the horizon before you can quite make it out. It's always just beyond my grasp. Fu**ing Tantalus, reaching for hanging fruit, just out of reach. And that doesn't help me solve anything, but it puts me in the frame of mind where, hey, this cat Tate, maybe he knows where I'm coming from. Then he goes for broke in a poem called "Scattered Reflections:"

And only myself to blame--love,
booze, stupidity, mix 'em up
and you'll find yourself babbling
to God in Arabic about a demonic cat
living in your head next to the
fiery urinal.

Good writing, for me, should make you think, should make you laugh, should connect you to the broader world. Love, booze and stupidity will leave you dumbfounded.

When I was young,
I thought respectable meant dead.

And then at some invisible point
you realize it is the same story
told over and over, and that's
when you either move on or die.

Maybe we all reach that point. Where we recognize the rut. Where wherever we go, we are stuck hearing the same cocktail party banter, sitting in the same cubicle, walking in circles. We're like a dog, spinning itself a space to lie down.

But here is where Tate lets loose the long tight spiral that lands in my hands in stride down the sideline:

I drove the whole country, examining
homes, stores, businesses, streets,
people, like a crazed inspector general,
when all I was looking for was me.
I concluded that there was no me,
just flutterings, shudderings, and shadows.
I think most people feel the same way,
and it isn't bad, floating under the stars
at night like fireflies sending signals.

Floating under the stars at night. Maybe that is what we do in this life. And we're so concerned that we're floating on the right kind of raft, or boat, or if we have on our swanky swimsuits, that we forget to look up. We forget to look at the stars.

Floating under the stars at night. And it isn't bad.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Already Read 'Em, An Experiment

This is not my bookshelf. This is not my house. This is not my to be read pile. But it could be if I let it. Bibliophiles are a dangerous lot, always pulling in new books around us. We can't wait to read the next book, before we are even finished the current book.

There is a great scene/line in the remake of the movie "Cape Fear," where Max Cady (played by Robert De Niro) is getting out of prison. When he is sent to prison, he can't read. So Nick Nolte isn't worried about Cady realizing that he let him hang, so to speak. But Cady/De Niro teaches himself to read. And he reads like crazy. And figures shit out. And along the way he develops a collection of books, which he is leaving in his prison cell as he walks to be released. So he is walking out with the guards and another guard calls out:

"Hey Cady, what about your books?"

"Already read 'em."

The ultimate utilitarian. They have served their purpose. Later, bitches. A bibliophile, Cady is not.

There is a funny thing about my bookshelves and my books. I haven't already read them all. I'm a tangential reader--I'll have books lined up to read next and some stray thought from something I am reading runs me down a mental rabbit hole, I pick up a new book and the book that was next in line gets backburnered. Rinse, repeat.

So I own some kickass books that I haven't read. And it is time to read them. Because some of them are beyond classic. And they are already here, living with me, untapped.

Here is the experiment: no new books. No new books so that I get to, and stick to, reading some of what is here. My goal is to go for a year. That would be some shit. But I will try six months, and then take the experiment's pulse. The goal is not to read all of my unread books. That would take more than a year. The goal is to spend the next six months to a year reading only books I already own. No new books.

But it hardly limits my reading. I am a slow reader. I am not saying I will get through this list, or that I won't modify it by swapping out one book for another off the shelf. But with a little thought, here is what an opening salve:


"Ulysses," James Joyce
"The Old Man and the Sea," Ernest Hemingway (haven't read since high school)
"Far Tortuga," Peter Matthiessen
"Cathedral," Raymond Carver (short stories, have read a few of them)
"The Once and Future King," T.H. White (have read part)
"V.," Thomas Pynchon
"The Sound and the Fury," William Faulkner


"The Spell of the Sensuous," David Abram
"The Poetics of Space," Gaston Bachelard
"Travels with Herodotus," Ryszard Kapuscinski
"Forests," Robert Pogue Harrison
"The Golden Bough," Sir James George Frazier

A formidable list. I am first finishing Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," and Tony Horwitz's "Confederates in the Attic," before embarking, but buying no new books begins today, Sept. 15, 2014. Vegas odds aren't good that I can complete this experiment; that I won't cave like a book junkie and have a book binge, but I am going to give it a shot.

The book selling industry may feel a slight pinch. And I guess there are at least a couple reasons behind this experiment. One would be not spending money I don't have to spend, when the riches are already here. It frees up more cash for craft beer :)

But I think the bigger point is that reading isn't always about reading the next thing or the new thing. If your mind is actively engaging what it is encountering, and adding its own thoughts and depth, then the right stuff finds it and even more mundane reading (which this list is not) can turn into big stuff. Sometimes it is the reader, not the book. Books are the stimulus, not the result. You are the result, what you do with or from or because of the stimulus/book.

And that isn't to reduce books, literature, or art to just being stimuli. But that is in effect what it is. A painting is experienced by a viewer, a book by a reader, who reacts to it. Who takes it in. Who studies it. Who feels it. Who relates it to their own experience. And in that respect, art, to the viewer, the reader, the audience, is to be experienced, to stimulate us. To make us think; to make us cry; to make us laugh; to make us create; to make us question; to make us wonder; to make us love.

We have to change ourselves. I have to change myself. The lesson, perhaps, is to look at what is around me, the things I already have, rather than continually looking for new and next. And I am excited for the books that are here.

And why not start with a literary mountain to climb? Next up, Ulysses. Let's talk, JJ.