Seeing Things and then “Seeing Things”

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“Fish” by jpbohannon, 2017

One of Seamus Heaney’s later collections of poetry was entitled Seeing Things, and indeed the Irish poet was a master of detailed observation.  His career was built on seeing and noticing things.

Seeing Things

Andrew Barker, in his on-line lecture on Heaney’s early poem “Digging,”  comments on the phrase “seeing things,” saying that we usually mean one of two things when we say it.

The first is what he is emphasizing in Heaney’s poems, the art of closely observing detail: in the case of “Digging,” the sound of a spade sliding through gravel, the squelch of the turf being sliced from the bog, the coolness of potatoes fresh from the ground.

But, Barker points out, there is also another meaning of someone “seeing things”– where it does not refer to someone with keenness of perception, but to someone who sees things that are not there. “He’s seeing things” quite often means that someone is seeing things that are not visible to others, someone who is delusional or fantasizing.

And then Barker names the poet William Butler Yeats as one who sees things that are not there.

I’ve let that percolate in my mind for a while.  And then I thought of Yeats’ poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” perhaps my favorite poem of all and one that I can recite at will.

The poem goes like this:

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread.
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
  
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name.
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
  
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Apart from the subtle rhymes (“wand” and “wood” or “moon” and “sun”) or the beautiful images of “moth like stars” and “a glimmering girl/with apple blossom in her hair,” the poem is notable because Yeats is seeing things that are not necessarily visible.

(Do I need to mention that a silver trout transforms into a human female as the speaker turns to “blow the fire a-flame.”)

And yet there is a larger truth sitting on that cottage floor and running out the door. A larger truth that has the speaker spending his lifetime chasing that vision–and believing that he will catch it.

I used the word “vision” purposefully,  for it is in that unseen vision that Yeats reveals a truth, a truth about passion, aspiration, dreams and goals. It is the dream of what one wants and the dedication of following that dream, of chasing that dream “till time and times are done.”  For it is in chasing the dream–not in catching it– that a full life resides.

Yeats saw that truth…and saw it in a way not visible to most. (Never mind, that Yeats actually spent much of his life chasing after his “glimmering girl,” Maude Gonne.  That’s beside the point!)

Certainly, we are all not going to fully realize our dreams; we will not all achieve what we set out to do. And often times not attaining what we thought we wanted may be the best thing to happens to us.  But the chase must continue –and it defines our lives.  If we are not looking forward–through “hollow lands and hilly lands”–if we have given up on that “glimmering girl,” then we are merely alive.

As I have said, this is one of my favorite poems–and it has often been put to music. If you search YouTube for “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” you will find scores of versions done by everyone from Christy Moore or The Waterboys to Dave Van Ronk and Judy Collins. Donovan did a version, as did Don MacLean on banjo.

Anyway, below is my favorite version, by Christy Moore.  Give it a listen…

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“I’m Baaaaack”: lists, reading, blogging, and Halloween

I'm Back

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

It’s been 10 months tomorrow since I last posted on this blog, though it seems much longer than that. These are trying times, indeed.

I came back to this web site partly because of a column I read in the New York Times’ Book Review last Sunday.  In it,  the writer “reviewed” the web pages of the authors whose books currently sit on the fiction best seller list.

The first, Mitch Albom’s, dealt with lists… the 15 best movies, the 10 best songs, etc. This was a bit coincidental as I was to begin teaching Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity the very next day, which is a novel founded on the idea of “best of…” lists.  Hornby’s lists are amusing and fun, from the 5 best Dustin Hoffman movies to the 5 best songs to play on a rainy Monday (depending on whether you want to lift your spirits or wallow in the gloom.)

And speaking of coincidences, one the last pieces I had posted last year was a piece on Jess Kidd’s wonderful novel Himself,  which I have just finished teaching a week earlier. (Perhaps the pile of 60-plus essays that I am carrying around to grade is really what’s driving me back to the blog. Procrastination is a great inspiration for doing things other than the tasks at hand. As one writer once said, “My house is never cleaner than when I am working on a novel.”)

Himself book cover

Himself by Jess Kidd

Anyway, let me reach out to any and all readers to find a copy of Himself. (It came out in paperback this summer.) It is a wonderful, magical, and darkly comic read.

But back to the NYT Book Review, the number two best seller’s blog tracked the number of profanities in his novels (compiled by his son) and number three’s blog focuses on houses–both real and fictional–and their architecture. The deal is that most publishers want their authors to have some on-line presence and this is what is presented.

And so I re-examined my own blog. At one time I was posting four times a week: a post on books, one on movies, one on music and one of commentary. But I can’t promise that anymore. Either, I am too disorganized or there are less hours in a day these days.  But, I am, once again, going to take working on my postings as a serious venture.

And so it is that after 10 months I decide to post again and on Halloween no less which is why I featured the frightening picture of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining.

Halloween is undoubtedly the greatest holiday in my neighborhood for both young and old. For example, last year between 5:30 p.m. and 7:15 p.m., we gave out over 800 pieces of candy. Four and five of our neighbors sit together on the sidewalk, sharing wine and

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My treat for this night of tricks and treats.

beer and catering to a constant stream of children that parade by. (I have two bottles of Witching Hour red blend and my wife has a six-pack of pumpkin beer for the occasion.)

Some of the costumes are wonderful and clever and imaginative, and some are pretty lame, but everyone is happy.

After we run out of candy—although there are still many people walking by and many people handing out treats—we head up the street to another neighbor’s who is hosting his annual Halloween party. His own costume is often the talk of the neighborhood for the next few days. (i.e. Walter White in his briefs with a pistol in the waist band, Jack Torrance himself with a full door framed around his head, a priest dressed as Elvis.)

The party—and the entire night—is festive, but more importantly it is communal.

And god knows we certainly need that these days.

Book Review: Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano

Honeymoon

Book Cover for Honeymoon by Patrick Mondiano

It is perhaps a sad testimony to how parochial my reading has become.  There was once a time where I knew almost every Nobel Prize for Literature winner–would have yearly bets with colleagues and follow the London odds makers’ short lists.  And while my knowledge was primarily eurocentric/american, I was an early reader of the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz before he won and I understood that his time was eminent and important. (My sister, after a trip to Egypt, had turned me on to him. I don’t know how, but she brought me back two uncorrected proofs of his novels.)

But again, I am increasingly ignorant of the world’s literature.

Which is why discovering Patrick Modiano is such a wonderful treat. The French Modiano is the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature winner. And until a New Yorker review of his most recent novel, I had not heard of him nor his winning. Lately, I must have my head very deeply buried in the sand.

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Patrick Modiano illustration by Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Media

Honeymoon (published in 1990 in France/1995 in the U.S.) is the novel I decided to start out on. The language is direct, bare and sparse–reminding me much of the first half of Camus’ The Stranger. But the story is intricate and convoluted, told in such an honest style that makes the intricacies and coincidences of life seem matter-of-fact.

There are two stories that braid themselves around two middle and connected ones. On the first page the narrator discovers that a woman in the hotel in Milan where he is staying has committed suicide.  He then learns that he had known her once decades when she and her husband had picked him up hitchhiking and had taken him in and cared for him for several days.

This coincidence sets the man on a quest–of sorts. After his wife and his business partner (her lover) drop him off at the airport where he is to fly to Rio de Janeiro for business, he disappears. He takes a plane back to Milan and then returns to Paris, where he goes to ground and hides in the outer arrondissements.

His purpose is to make sense of the woman’s suicide, of her life.

We find that he has been obsessed with this couple for a long time, ever since his youth, long before the knowledge of her death. He has taken numerous notes, cut out clippings, and prepared to write a memoir of the couple, and so he tells us of their hardships and trials during the Nazi occupation of France.

While we at the same time are following his exploits in the Parisian neighborhoods, aware of his wife’s comings and goings, and preparing for a new life in his rougher world.

All the plot threads, in a way, revolve around a single newspaper clipping from the 1940s searching for the woman who suddenly went missing when she was sixteen years old. (From what I have learned, the actual clipping is what sent Modiano himself to fashion his story.) She had simply stepped out of the Metro and  moved from one world–a constricting and dangerous world in Nazi occupied Paris–to another. Her abrupt relocation parallels the narrator’s who moves from his bourgeoise life as a documentary filmmaker married to a high-fashion model to an uncertain world in the boondocks of Paris, seeking for understanding of the couple who once showed him much kindness.

I said that I had started out on Patrick Modiano by selecting Honeymoon It is only a starting point. I look forward to picking up another.

 

Quote #49: “Be a good steward…” Jane Kenyon

White Daffodils
illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

“Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.”

Jane Kenyon, from A Hundred White Daffodils

words and pictures (part 2) …and the power of MUSIC

Music...Art...Literature Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Music…Art…Literature
Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the film Words and Music, a sweet romance about a battle between an Art teacher and an English teacher. The film had interesting examples about the power of words and magnificent examples of the power of “pictures.”  But what I forgot about was the part that held it together and in a way redeemed it:

The Power of Music

In the film. after the male protagonist has made a bollocks of things and the female protagonist has had enough of his destructive behavior, it is music that is the most evocative, most informative, most powerful…and most healing.

Scene after scene the male (Jack Marcus) tries to contact the female (Dina Delsanto) to apologize for the drunken mess he made of her art. Scene after scene we see her aggressively stop his attempts or stoically ignore them. Until the moment, when she opens an e-mail and there is an audio attachment.  The piece–written for the film by Paul Grabowsky—is a chamber piece for piano, cello and clarinet entitled “I am a Small Poem.”  (This is also the name of the poem that Markus steals from his son.)  It is rich and resonant and connects with Delsanto more than any words or pictures could.

It is what saves their seemingly destroyed relationship.

I wish I could embed the music that was played when Delsanto opened her e-mail. but I can’t.  It isn’t available yet.  So instead, I will give you this: an extraordiary piece by Fauvre. It is what I often listen to when I am writing:

A while back, a music teacher (Manny DelPizzo), an art teacher (Jackie White) and I got together to make plans for a large project. (The educators call this kind of thing “Project Based Learning.”)  I was going to get my Creative Writing Students to submit their best work and the art teacher and music teacher would each have their students interpret it and we would have a performance.  Our ambitions were high–this seemed like the best outlet for student creativity– but the realities of schedules and time and curricula put many roadblocks in our way and we let it fizzle out.

The “performance” that the fictional students in Words and Pictures was much like what we were hoping for, minus the music. Our music component would have made it better.

A new school term is starting in a couple of weeks. I am newly energized (though not as drunken as Jack Marcus) and am excited about trying this for real. It doesn’t have to be a battle–as it was in the film–but a really cool examination of the power of words, of art, and of music–a real exercise in Creativity

The End of April and National Poetry Month, part 3: To Keep Love Blurry by Craig Morgan Teicher

To-Keep-Love-BlurryI must say that I did not enjoy Craig Morgan Teicher’s third collection of poems.  That is not to say that they are not technically brilliant, that they are not impressively raw and honest, nor that there are not many moments that just knock you open. I admire it greatly; however, I do not like it.  Even Teicher understands the sadness and dysfunction and sourness inherent in his verses.  Here is his dedication:

To Cal and Simone–you should know that it’s a lot more fun than these poems suggest–
and

for Brenda, who knows…

Brenda is Teicher’s wife, who makes many appearances in the collection (actually throughout his work– his first collection was entitled Brenda is in the Room and other poems.)

To Keep Love Blurry is tied together by two major themes. One his mother and father, particularly after his mother’s death. And two, his marriage to Brenda, their (apparently) special-needs son, and Teicher’s sullen acceptance of love.  Indeed, for Teicher love–both familial and marital– is more of an anchor than a source of flight. Here is he about motherhood:

My wife is not my mom. My mom is not
my mom. My father is not my mom. My boss
is not my mom. She is a tooth with rot,
a flower pressed between the pages of a lost
book. My son is not my mom. She is a mare
crushing my skull beneath her hoof. She is forever
starved. I ride to the edge of the earth clutching her hair.
Get it over with. It’s never OK, not ever.
Fuck it, whatever.  If Robert Frost is my mom,
then so is Robert Lowell. She taught me to talk.
She is where I’m headed, a bomb
crater. She forgives me like a hunting hawk.
Maybe she’s my boss’s boss, my wife’s other other lover,
my son’s midnight cough. She loves me like a brother.

(“My Mom, d. 1994”)

The perfection of form–a modern Shakespearean sonnet with A-B-A-B…rhyme scheme, a regular rhythm, an unusual octet, quatrain, couplet construction–is made inconspicuous by the language, the odd identifications of motherhood, with unusually negative words: “tooth with rot,” “a mare crushing my skull,” ” a bomb crater,” “my wife’s other other lover.”  What exactly are his feelings?  “Loves me like a brother” does not cut it for me.  Perhaps the secret lies in the allusion to Robert Frost and Robert Lowell.  Teicher quotes a Lowell poem as an epigraph to his collection:

“Those blessed structures, plot and rhyme–
why are they no help to me now…”

Perhaps Teicher is saying that the “blessed structures” of poetry–with which he is extraordiaryily adept–are no longer to sufficient to buoy one in the sourness of modern life.  Here he is similarly on friendship, marriage and love:

In just the couple years since two by two
we all began to partner off,
already we’ve practically retired, passing though
apartment doors shut tighter than a cough.
There used to be long, wasted hours of talk,
nothing secret between us, not even skin;
at the conclusion of a wandering walk,
the flirtatious dark would set in.
Is marriage lonely by design,
in hopes that obeying an age-old law

of I am only hers, she is only mine
forms a brittle scab over the always-raw
wound of too much intimacy between friends
in favor of a duller aching that never ends.

(“Friendship”)

Again, the “plot and structure” to which Lowell refers are exquisite: a Shakespearean sonnet, intricately wrought and patterned. But for the speaker, the poetry is subsumed by the “duller aching” and “brittle scab.”

Mixed among the villanelles and sonnets, the rhyming couplets and the longer verse, there is a series of prose ruminations on the death of his mother and the subsequent loneliness of his father. These too are notable for their raw honesty, their unflinching introspection.

Well-wrought and linguistically daring, To Keep Love Blurry is evidence of Teicher’s impressive talent. However, I found it sullen and pouty and self-indulgent. Nevertheless, such is Teicher’s poetic cleverness and adroitness that I will surely keep my eye out for his future work.

Reading, writing, and laughing with Anne Lamott

A woman I work with is teaching a course in Creative Writing that I will be teaching in January. She has assigned a book for her students to read: bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.

And in a marvelous feat of procrastination, I decided to begin reading it as well–instead of the three other books that I need to be reading right now for the classes I am currently teaching.

And it was a good decision.  I have not yet completed it–but I have laughed through much of it.  Lamott has a voice–a way with words– that seems nurturing, real, wise and funny.

For instance: “We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so very little.”
Where in the world did those “sheep lice” come from? But better yet, look at the next to the last word–“very.”  How perfect is “very” in this instance.

She gives us a bit of her own background, her bookish parents, her father the writer, her feelings of insecurity and isolation–the gist of many a writer’s baggage. And she gives us episodes from the writing courses she teaches.  Many of her students, it seems, don’t want to write, they want to be published. They want the fame, the riches, the sense of satisfaction that they believe they will attain when they are published.  And they are so wrong.  And yet, time and again in her courses questions about agents, editors and publishers  maddeningly outnumber questions about writing.  She tells them to try to get a refund on their tuition!

There are no special formulas, secret tricks, magic keys that will get you published, she tells them. And to illustrate that she tells this story:

My son, Sam, at three and a half, had these keys to a set of plastic handcuffs, and one morning he intentionally locked himself out of the house. I was sitting on the couch reading the newspaper when I heard him stick his plastic keys into the doorknob and try to open the door. Then I heard him say, “Oh, shit.” My whole face widened, like the guy in Edvard Munch’s Scream. After a moment I got up and opened the front door.

“Honey,” I said, “what’d you just say?”

I said, ‘Oh, shit,” he said.

“But, honey, that’s a naughty word. Both of us have absolutely got to stop using it. Okay?”

He hung his head for a moment, nodded, and said, “Okay, Mom.” Then he leaned forward and said confidentially, “But i’ll tell you why I said ‘shit.’ I said Okay, and he said, “Because of the fucking keys!”

There are no “fucking keys” that will get you in, she tells her students–and some get it and some don’t.

The best advice she says she ever received about writing–and which she passes on to her students–came from  the writer Natalie Goldberg.  When asked for the best possible writing advice, Goldberg picked up a pad of paper and mimicked the act of writing, page after page after page. The best advice?  Write and write and write and write.

So I am enjoying this book immensely but not necessarily for its writerly advice. I am enjoying Lamott’s voice, the natural flow of her words, the wise humor of her thought.

In describing, a person she does not like, whom she believes even God dislikes, she repeats this observation that a priest friend of hers passed on: “…you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

How perfect.