The world’s “black dog”

Silk Screen illustration 2016 by jpbohannon.

Winston Churchill called his bouts with depression “having the black dog on his back.” This was not original  with him, but was a common saying, referring more often to moodiness than depression. One historian likened it to the phrase “getting up on the wrong side of the bed.” But nevertheless, the phrase has been attributed to Churchill and ever since been associated with depression.

God knows, the world that Churchill saw certainly could buckle the strongest man’s knees.

And so it seems to be these past few months, as well. From Paris to Brussles to Orlando to Dallas to Nice  to Turkey to everyday traffic-stops, there has just been an onslaught of horrific and discouraging news. President Obama, in his speech after the Dallas shootings, said that “this is not who we are.”

But I wonder. Not we as Americans specifically–although I do wonder about that–but we as a species.

Sure, I know the heartwarming and hopeful stories as well: from high-school kids doing serious global service to individual neighbors coming together to help another in worse shape than they, from those who put their lives on the line to those who fight against power when it seems determined to crush the weak. I know people whose every thought seems to be how to better the lives of the sick and  dispossessed, the impoverished and the abused.

And yet these past few months have been relentless.

Last week, I read two novels by Dag Solstad, Shyness and Dignity and Professor Andersen’s Night. Both deal with teachers–Norwegian literature teachers–at the end of their careers. They both (a high-school teacher and university teacher respectively) question the value of the literature they profess. (Both are teaching Ibsen.)  The struggle to make students realize the value of literature has been ongoing throughout their career–that is always the natural give and take between student and teacher, although both feel it increasingly worse– but now they feel that that value is questioned by society itself. From evolving technologies–and  the distractions they provide–to current pedagogical trends and goals that emphasize success in a future career, they feel out of place, like dinosaurs, supporting a cause that is no longer relevant in the ultra-modern world.

And it is easy to believe that.

As hundreds are gunned down, blown-up, crushed, drowned, stripped of their homes, it is hard to rationalize the need to read a 150 year old Norse play, or a 450 year British play , or a 2500 year old Greek. Novels, poetry, drama, short fiction…it all feels so powerless against men with efficient guns and deficient ideas.

And yet, never before has it been so important.

Study after study has linked reading literature with an increase in the development of EMPATHY. Even the youngest teenager, after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, understands on the simplest of levels, the importance of “walking in another man’s shoes.” Reading has always been a way of experiencing different lives, different cultures, different ideas.  And this is what it needs to continue to do. It is our insularity, our tribalism, our fear of (and intolerance to) the “other” that is that root of much of the world’s pain and horror.

I KNOW that art, music, literature, theater, dance are more than just “nice things” for entitled leisure. They are essential to us as a species.

I KNOW these things to be true. But these days I do not FEEL it.

But I must continue doing what I do, nevertheless: read and write.

However, as I read this, the “black dog” is wagging its tail frantically and banging up against the door.

 

 

 

 

Rumi on Figs

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Figs 

The Ripe Fig

Now that you live here in my chest,
anywhere we sit is a mountaintop.

And those other images,
which have enchanted people
like porcelain dolls from China,
which have made men and women weep
for centuries, even those have changed now.

What used to be pain is a lovely bench
where we can rest under the roses.

     A left hand has become a right.
A dark wall, a window.

     A cushion in a shoe heel,
the leader of the community!

    Now silence. What we say
is poison to some
and nourishing to others.

    What we say is a ripe fig,
but not every bird that flies
eats figs.”

― Rumi, The Essential Rumi

Video Poem #3: “Ca’ the Yowes” by Robert Burns

Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes
By Robert Burns

Ca’ the yowes to the knowes,
Ca’ them wha the heather grows
Ca’ them wha the burnie rows,
My bonie dearie.

Hark! the mavis’ evening sang
Sounding Cluden’s woods amang,
Then a-fauldin let us gang,
My bonie dearie.

We’ll gae down by Cluden side,
Thro’ the hazels spreading wide,
O’er the waves that sweetly glide
To the moon sae clearly.

Yonder Cluden’s silent towers,
Where at moonshine midnight hours,
O’er the dewy-bending flowers,
Fairies dance sae cheery.

Ghaist nor bogle shalt thou fear;
Thou ‘rt to love and Heaven sae dear,
Nocht of ill may come thee near,
My bonie dearie.

Fair and lovely as thou art,
Thou hast stown my very heart;
I can die—but canna part,
My bonie dearie.

I first became interested in Robert Burns’ poetry as a young man. My father—who was not a particularly “learned” man but who was an
inveterate reader—would often recite snippets of his poems when I was a child, particularly “To a Louse”  and “To a Mouse,” two of Burns’ more famous poems besides “Auld Lang Syne.”

robertburns

Robert Burns

I often have taken to heart my father’s repeated phrase “O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”  And, of course, he loved to reassure us that “The best-laid plans o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.”

My next encounter with Burns was at university, in a wonderful seminar on 18th-century British poetry. It was then that I discovered his full range, his politics and his romanticism, his life and his career, his Scots poems and his English poems.

And then he kept cropping up in a different facet of my life.  Playing in a “Celtic folk band” for several decades, I kept encountering Burns’ poems set to music and recorded by some wonderful performers such as The Corries, Dougie MacLean, and Mary Black.  (When I would perform a Burns’ song–usually “Green Grow the Rashes-o” or “Auld Lang Syne,”  I often would introduce it by stating the many parallels that existed between my life and his, although mine was not quite as “rollicking.”)

I try to teach him in my Advanced Placement course, but I don’t think my enthusiasm is as contagious. Oh well. Maybe they’ll discover him when they are ready.

And so here is my third Video Poem.  The first came from a published poem of mine, the second from a poem I have not even sent out yet, and now this by a canonical poet from the 18th century.  Enjoy

Video Poem #2: “To a woman watching Desk Set while making mushroom soup”

I saw a friend of mine whom I rarely see anymore.  We used to work closely together and were in each others’ company continually throughout the workday. I had an office next to hers, a class across the hall from her, and, at one time, a homeroom within her clay studio.

But times change, careers take different paths, and schedules get more and more hectic. And so, I rarely see her at all, maybe three or four times a quarter.

But I saw her a few weeks ago and she told me that she had spent that Sunday–a lovely, rainy fall day– making mushroom soup while the television in front of her ran the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film, Desk Set.

The  combination of the two intrigued me. And so I came up with the title “To a Woman Watching Desk Set while Making Mushroom Soup.” I loved it. I had nothing else but the title, but I loved the contrast of a fog of steam from a soup pot and the clarity of Hepburn and Tracy (in their first color film together.)

I played with the title for a while and then with the idea.  I combined soup recipes with snippets from the film and with my own take on that legendary Hollywood couple.

I had my poem where I thought I wanted, and so I decided to make a film.

So here it is, enjoy. It is a work in progress in a technique that I am completely new at. (But I am enjoying it madly.)

 

 

 

A Video Poem: “Tomak Stuffing”

Several years ago, I published a poem called “Tomak Stuffing” in an anthology called A Magical Summer. The beginnings of the poem had come from a quirky misreading. It was around Thanksgiving and someone had left me a text saying that she Nodding Thistle 2was going “tomak stuffing.” She had texted hurriedly and meant to say that she was going “to make stuffing.”

I didn’t immediately pick up the mistake and asked her what indeed was actually involved in “tomak stuffing.”

Later, I decided to run with it, to make an entire world where “tomak stuffing” was an actual and important ritual, filled with wives’ tales and traditional lore

The poem was published in 2012.

I’d been thinking of the poem recently, so this week I put together a short four-minute video with various photos/paintings, with Enya’s version of “Na Laetha Geal M’óige” in the background and with me reading the poem itself.

I think of it as a Thanksgiving poem, but it really isn’t.

So here it is Tomak Stuffing: the video for your enjoyment:

 

 

Quote 46: “…T is not too late to seek a newer world.” Tennyson

Ulysses sailing west illustration 2013 by jpbohannon

Ulysses sailing west
illustration 2013 by jpbohannon

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
from “Ulysses”