Archive

Tag Archives: emily dickinson

I wrote, by actual word count, two-and-a-half million words during my 25-year career at The Arizona Republic. I retired in 2012 and couldn’t stop. Since then, I have written another million words for this blog. As I have said before, a writer never really retires, he just stops getting paid for it. 

There is also a collection of five years worth of monthly essays written for The Spirit of the Senses web journal, which averages out to something like another hundred thousand words. The monthly essay gives me a deadline, something I miss terribly since leaving the newspaper. 

I loved my work. My editors will tell you, that even when I went on vacation, I came back with a packet of travel stories. I worked even when I wasn’t working. I don’t know if it is a blessing or a curse, but I am saddled with that stupid Protestant work ethic — even though I haven’t been a Protestant since childhood. It feels wrong, morally delinquent, if I am not producing something to justify my continued existence on this planet. 

And I wasn’t just a writer. I also made photographs, artwork, and sometimes even typography for the stories I wrote. And for the continuing blog, I continue to fill it with my own images. Before I was a writer, I was a photographer: I have had gallery shows and self-published books. I remind myself of William Blake’s mythical figure of Los, whose job in the cosmos is to create a chain of links forever; he cannot help himself — indeed his very definition is his production. 

In my case, it is to invent a project and then work on it. And whenever I feel I have sat on my duff too long, I work up another. And this covid “vacation” has left me too inactive, too dulled out. And so, yesterday, I set off with my camera. 

It is November and the sun is lower in the sky, and that “certain slant of light” creates long shadows and teases out any textures to be had. Bark on trees becomes rougher, pebbles on gravel roads become sharper, the scribble-lines of leafless trees in the woods, cross each other like Jackson Pollock paint drips. The sunlight is less bright, but more incisive. Late afternoon becomes a drama. 

And so, my project for yesterday was to drive the back roads of Buncombe County, North Carolina and see if I could capture some of that feeling. (Today’s project is to write this and post the pictures). 

U.S. 70 runs east-west through the mountains east of Asheville, and a series of back roads parallel the highway, with many spurs heading back into the coves nested between the hills. I drove up each one for miles until the pavement ran out, stopping to make photographs whenever I saw something that caught my eye and I didn’t have to block traffic to snap the shutter. 

The trip alone was restorative. The pandemic keeps too many of us holed up in our houses. We watch way too much Netflix. Sit too much. Eat too much. Getting out in the nippy air seemed healthier even than a workout at the gym. 

Asheville sits in a broad, flat-ish valley. Mountains are all around, including the tallest in the East. U.S. 70 runs along the Swannanoa Mountains and south of the Black Mountains and the back roads snooker up into the crenelations between peaks, always coming to an end at the foot of some steep incline. 

Waterfalls wash under culverts and lines of mailboxes sit by the road where a dirt drive heads up into the trees. It is late fall, not yet winter. The trees have not lost all their leaves, but many of them are bare skeletons, or have a shag of hangers-on, dry as cellophane. 

I drove for about four hours, until the sun was so low, whole mountainsides were darkened on eastern side and their shadows drowned out by grayness. In all, I wound up with about 70 images, of which about half were decent enough to edit into a set. I usually think of my photographs in sets, rather than as individual images, the way a novel is not simply discreet chapters. In the past, I would print them out as “books” and show them that way. 

Now I no longer have a darkroom, nor an art-grade digital printer. My publication preference is the blog. I have posted quite a few sets of photographs over these past eight years. 

In this posting are a sampling of the photos I’m calling “A Certain Slant of Light,” after the poem by Emily Dickenson. I am 72 years old and nearing the end of my own day. My own shadows are bringing out the texture of my selfness. Things like the lowering sun speak to me ever more than they did when I was young and had no meaningful idea of an end. 

And so, perhaps these images have more emotional import for me than for my viewers (or readers). I cannot help that. After all, I began writing this blog not for its potential readers (although I always hope what I write is worth the time it takes to read them), but for myself. I write because I have to. I make photographs because I have to. I breathe because I have to. 

The landscape listens — shadows — hold their breath. 

Click any image to enlarge

fellini-3I was watching Fellini’s 8½ the other night and found myself weeping uncontrollably at the end. The last 20 minutes of the film make little or no literal sense, and works on purely emotional level — I wanted to say symbolic, but it isn’t really symbol that works here; rather it is a dreamlike series of images that cannot be rationally explicated. They simply add up. One can see the final dance as a riposte to the end of Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, where there is a line of dancers following death silhouetted on the hillside; in Fellini, it is rather a circus dance of life, to the rhythm of Nino Rota’s music, which somehow manages to mix sadness with ebullience. In Bergman, the queue is linear and headed to oblivion; in Fellini, it is circular and continuous.

fellini-5

But what was important wasn’t meaning but effect. There I was with hot wet cheeks and full heart, profoundly moved, although I could not explain exactly why. In some ways, the finale of the movie is silly, even childish. Somehow, though, it hit some resonant note. I was a wet rag, drained and filled at the same time.

I bring it up because so often our response to art is too little; we are trained — especially if we are professional critics, as I was — to make notes, consider intellectual points, compare and contrast, bring context and place the experience in a historical moment. Yet, if I were to say truly, none of that really matters; what matters is whether I am moved. Art, whether literature, movie, music, architecture or painting, needs to do more than divert us, to entertain or tickle our pleasure centers. It should change our lives. This is not easy; this is rare.

emily-dickinson-daguerreotypeI remember reading a quote by Emily Dickinson, in a letter she wrote to her patron Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

When I was younger, this struck me as schoolgirl hyperbole. Now I am an old man, and I am poorly satisfied with anything that doesn’t take the top of my head off. Through a lifetime of concerts, theater and galleries, I must report that very little displayed therein reaches that bar. Most of the time, art gives us pleasure enough — we enjoy the tunes or the colors — but it does not rip us up, tear us apart and reassemble us in new ways. To justify art in terms of its prettiness diminishes the importance it plays in life and in culture. We must consider it in terms of how it changes us, leaves us weeping and hollowed out.

I have attended hundreds, perhaps thousands of concerts in my life. I have enjoyed most of them, and even in those that have been disastrous, there is almost always some moment of pleasure. (I remember a concert of amateurs attempting to play some Dvorak; they were godawful, out of tune, out of rhythm, unbalanced, a horrendous squawk — but they played with such obvious gusto and enthusiasm, and were enjoying themselves so much, I found I considered myself truly lucky to have heard them). But I can also count a few score times in seven decades, the number of times I was actually transported by a performance. Yet, those few times bring me back over and over in hopes of once again entering that heaven to hear those angels.

I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch blow the hell out of Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, with a chorus of eight horns sounding the great heroic horn call. There was a physicality to that blast that cannot be captured in a recording. I felt the music through the seat of my pants as much as through my ears. It made me believe.

Early in my career, in 1964, I heard Emil Gilels at the Brooklyn Academy of Music play the Liszt B-minor sonata. I can still remember it, even to the seat where I was sitting and the angle I viewed the pianist from.

Twice, I have heard Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach Unaccompanied Suites for cello, and twice I have visited Elysium. He has recorded those suites three times in the course of his career, and none of them captures the lightning of the live performance. Not even close.

apollo-1It isn’t just music, though. I can read and reread Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode and every time, I break down and weep. I have stood beneath the north rose window at Chartres and each time I have done so, I have been transfixed, even transfigured. It is the most beautiful manmade thing I have ever seen — a lens to focus a vision of paradise directly into my hypothalamus. I had a similar reaction the first time (and each time) I saw George Balanchine’s Apollo. It is pure sorcery, magic, unalloyed beauty. Not beauty so much as reason-to-live.

I could go on, making a list. But that would be futile, and also misleading. Because the fact I was transported to some ring of heaven beyond the seventh by the Cezannes at the National Gallery in Washington DC, that does nothing to guarantee you will have the same experience. Making a list of the “great works of art” is pointless, because what matters is not the “objective” quality of a piece of art, but rather its resonance in the psyche and like any physical object, we resonate at different frequencies. What opens the floodgates in one set of eyes can leave the next pair unmoved. Chaucer’s short poem, Trouthe, has been a touchstone for me. For others, it may be a jumble of archaic vocabulary. You may melt to a puddle at Musetta’s waltz from La Boheme, and I might think it a catchy tune. De gustibus.

king-learWhat matters, however, is that we find in whatever art that moves us, some special shattering of the veil of everydayness, a bursting out into the glory, the recognition that the night sky is infinite, that there is some web, some complex knot of emotional string that ties us together as human beings. It may be Michelangelo’s Pieta, Picasso’s Guernica, Brahms’ German Requiem, that moment at the end of King Lear when he carries the dead Cordelia back on stage and we realize his splintered ignorance and madness is our own —  it gives lie to all the feel-good rah-rah about “the arts,” and the chamber-of-commerce support for cultural institutions. It isn’t that the arts are some charming little ornament to our civic lives, but that when that spark ignites in the rare cases it happens, our entire beings are set on fire. There is nothing “nice” about it. It is disruptive, challenging, destructive in the way destruction can lead to new birth. I never want to be subjected to pleasant art. I want to be battered by it (pace John Donne).

What makes it all more frustrating, however, is that it can never be just the piece of art. If I was profoundly moved by Balanchine’s Prodigal Son the first time I saw it, that is no guarantee that I will have the same experience the next time, and not because of a variability in performance, but because the art can seep in and work its power on us only when we are receptive. I may have had a overcooked pork chop before heading to the concert hall, or a disturbing letter in the mail, and cannot receive the gift of the performance. I may just not be in the mood for Sam Beckett that night; or the memory of one conductor’s Beethoven may deafen me to the new one being offered. A thousand distractions block the missive from the gods.

There is also our age: What moves us at 20 may not at 65. We find new depths in things we were once blind to, and outgrow early enthusiasms. This is natural and if it didn’t happen, something would be wrong.

So, we should be all the more grateful when we can open our chests to the lash of what is being gifted us.

weeds lede photoI love gardens. My three most recent gallery shows have been of photographs taken in gardens. I photograph the gardens of most of my friends to make “books,” or series of images. Flowers are about growth, change, diversity, fecundity — and beauty. choke cherry 2

Yet, there is something in what I love about growing plants that is found in even more condensed form in the rankness of weeds. Gardens are wonderful, but weeds satisfy something philosophical deep in my soul. My own gardens have always been unkempt, and I tend not to weed out those plants that others fear will suffocate their more prized plantings. Weeds have a strength, if not a refinement, that I find almost heartbreaking. Right now, beside the roses and gladiolas that my wife planted, there is a great purple stalk of pokeweed, its berries still green against the fuschia of its stems. I prize it above the more formal and familiar plantings. weeds 09

Nothing lifts my heart up more than a clump of goldenrod beside the road, a spray of chickory, the tall swaying stalks of Joe Pye weed. It doesn’t even take the flowers: Even before they bloom, I like the sprawling weediness of their greens. chickory

And now is weed season. Yes, they grow year round, but the end of summer and the incipient autumn are when the weeds glory. Driving down the country roads of the Blue Ridge, you pass oceans of them, all colors and sizes, all rank and fertile.

I’m calling them weeds because their other name — wildflowers — makes them sound too pretty, and makes them sound like something you look up in a Peterson guide. Not all of the weeds I respond to even have the color dots you would call flowers. Sometimes their flowers are tiny and unnoticed; sometimes they stink instead of filling the nostrils with perfumes. grass in driveway

It isn’t just their appearance that moves me, although I revel in their varied shapes and forms, their repetitions of leaflets and their snaky tendrils; it is the very idea of weeds — the sense that life will force its way into the least cracks of concrete, will fill any emptiness and break through any barrier. I love to see some abandoned factory with vines covering its brick facade, and through its windows you may see ailanthus cracking up the interior floors. Others may rue the kudzu spreading over the trees, but I love the new forms we have, almost as if the trees were pulling sheets over their heads to play ghost. weeds 08

My love came early: When I was a boy, there was an empty farm field next to our house in northern New Jersey. In a few years, plant succession had covered it with stickers and grasses, later, saplings, and even before I moved away to college, there was such a dense thicket of young trees, it looked like a magnified view of the hairs on the back of a dog; you could hardly walk through the density. I have gone back to see the forest that it became; it has since been cleared and now someone is building tract housing there. Sometime in the future, it will be taken back by the vegetative maw that eventually devours everything. weeds 07

Some of my favorite places in a city are those that are forgotten, mostly, places that simply don’t have a use, being either too small, or not geometric enough to easily create deeds of title — spaces between properties left ambiguous of ownership, or little triangles next to on-ramps or beside old railroad sidings.composite Here the intention of humankind plays no part and weeds are left to themselves. There you find the yarrow and the cow itch, the Duchesnia indica and the knotweed. There what you find, and which I find so precious, is profusion. When humans become involved, you too often find monoculture, organization, rows and aisles, sameness, monotony and worse — usefulness.

The problem with usefulness is that it causes us to value something for how it might benefit us, turning it into a single descriptor, a one-dimensional entity, rather than a rich, multiple, various thing. An it rather than a thou. It ceases to be a part of the physical world and becomes instead a word — a concept instead of a living thing. Fie!weeds 04

There are things that are pretty — and some weeds count, too — but what I find beautiful, a concept so much larger than prettiness, as the universe is larger than the solar system, is profusion, fertility, irrepressibility — life.

Variety is not so much the spice of life, as life itself. Nature tries everything. It has no plan, motive or goal; it simply keeps putting stuff out there, like Blake’s mythical creative deity, Los.

“Exuberance is beauty.”weeds 10

This carries over into other areas of life. I enjoy all art, but I love the confusions of the Baroque, the exudations of the Romantic 19th century. If you compare Racine or Dryden with Shakespeare, you see the difference. Those 18th century unities are boring, while the uncontrolled profusion of metaphors in the Bard, and his shaggy plots and contradictory personae are the very stuff of life. The one rich and luscious, the other dry and didactic.

Victorian literature shares that didacticism, but even among the tidy moral lessons of Whittier and Longfellow, you have the weedy, rank profusion of language and thought and feeling that is Walt Whitman. How those of propriety hated the Good Gray Poet. Certainly, lots of Whitman is awful, repetitive and oracular, but then there is “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Emily Dickinson wrote some of the worst gobbledy-gook every published, but among her profusion of cryptic word-knots,  fruited with a million hyphens or dashes — certainly one of my favorite punctuations — there are such perfections that you are grateful for the weeds that give us such bounty. weeds 03

Simplicity is the enemy of life. When I hear a politician propound a dogmatic solution to an intractable problem, I sigh. When anyone has a simple answer, applied liberally (or conservatively), I know he is either a charlatan or a dunce. Probably both.

Such politics posits a final stasis, when all problems are solved by the simple prescription of an unchanging mantra: reduce taxes, reduce regulation, shrink government and Eden will be rebuilt. The political left is just as guilty, although we hear about it rather less. Communism equally anticipated an “end of history.” Problem solved.

Both sides fail to recognize that politics is ever shifting and cannot be otherwise. Interests contend, compromises are reached, grow out of date and so new compromises are found, no more permanent than the last. It is all weeds. We should value those weeds.

PCA-logo-text-date-FINAL

I hate “the arts.”

Don’t get me wrong: I love art. In whatever form. I could not live without music, dance, theater, architecture, literature, cinema, painting or sculpture.

But when grouped together and made plural, so that I have to bracket them in quotes as “the arts,” they become a value that is paid lip-service by politicians, administrators and businessmen and they become a category in the public agenda, much like potholes or redistricting. We hear over and over a justification of the arts that argues how much — how many dollars — “the arts” contribute to the economy. As if this were their raison d’etre.agee-famous-men

While it is certainly true the arts have some civic utility, frontlighting that is like saying that the invention of writing is important to civilization because newspapers are so useful to wrap fish in. It misses the point entirely.

When pluralized, the arts are neutralized: turned safe enough for school children and wives. They become a civic virtue, and ring as hollow as the platitudes of a politician running for office: not much more than a flag lapel pin.

And so, I hate “the arts.”

As James Agee once wrote in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, “Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding.”allegory of the arts

Art — not “the arts” — is about that salvation. About becoming more fully human, more aware of the world and our place in it. It saves us from isolation, from ignorance, from emptiness. These are the big issues we face, in contrast, mutable public issues are trivial: When we come to the end of our lives, what remains of the fustian of our existence has little to do with annual income or who got elected; it is how much we have loved and been loved, whether we have become larger in our hearts, or shrunken and dried up.

Art engorges our hearts and makes our neck veins throb. We feel alive; we become more alive. Art teaches us to love and be loved. It gives us the images that train our hearts to the potentials. Without the images, without the metaphors, all there is are words, no more meaningful that an alphabet we cannot read.

Anyone fully listening to Isolde’s death song, or reading Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode, or paging carefully through Goya’s Disasters of War can be reduced to weeping — and the kind of profound weeping that makes the rest of the world disappear and our insides open up to become a sea as large as the planet.

There was a time when I was young that I thought art was merely “cool,” and that I wanted to be — or could be — in control of art instead of art being in control of me. I didn’t believe Emily Dickinson when she wrote, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

I write this listening to Strauss’s Four Last Songs (this is my own translation):

4. In the Red of Evening

Through good times and bad,

Anger and joy,

We have walked hand in hand;

And now we take a moment’s rest

With the world all before us.

All around us, the valleys dim away,

And the details gray out.

You can begin to see the lights below.

And overhead, two larks fly alone,

half-dreaming into the velveting air.

Come closer to me,

And let them fly over us;

Soon it is time for sleep.

And we must not let the darkness

Separate us from each other.

The peace is wide and still,

Deep in the redness of the western sky.

How tired we are of this need to keep moving.

Is that what death is?