21 December 2009

St. Lucy's Day

Portrait of John Donne, artist unknown, 1595

A nocturnall upon St. Lucies day, Being the shortest day

Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,
Lucies, who scarce seaven houres herself unmaskes ;
    The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks
    Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes ;
            The worlds whole sap is sunke:
The generall balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunke,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar'd with me, who am their Epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers bee
At the next world, that is, at the next Spring:
   For I am every dead thing,
   In whom love wrought new Alchemie.
            For his art did expresse
A quintessence even from nothingnesse,
From dull privations, and leane emptiness:
He ruin'd mee, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soule, forme, spirit, whence they beeing have;
    I, by Love's limbecke, am the grave
    Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
            Have wee two wept, and so
Drownd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two Chaosses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our soules, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing, the Elixir grown;
    Were I a man, that I were one
    I needs must know; I should preferre,
            If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, 'a light, and body must be here.

But I am None; nor will my Sunne renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser Sunne
    At this time to the Goat is runne
    To fetch new lust, and give it you,
            Enjoy your summer all,
Since shee enjoys her long night's festivall,
Let mee prepare towards her, and let mee call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the yeares and the dayes deep midnight is.

—John Donne
From the Complete Poetry of John Donne, John T. Shawcross, editor

05 December 2009

Varieties of Disturbance

Reading Lydia Davis for the first time this morning, and drinking coffee on a grey Saturday as the first snow of the season falls. In this book, aptly titled Varieties of Disturbance, she displays a fine sensitivity for the aquifers of fleeting emotions, subtle evaluations and minute perceptions and sensations that constitute the unexamined dimensions of internal life. These streams can unconsciously determine moment-to-moment decisions, or influence larger ones as they rise, coalesce, and break into consciousness. In the stories I have read so far, the sensations, as advertised, are irritating. “The Caterpillar” relates finding a tiny caterpillar in the house, which the protagonist charitably decides to remove to the garden, but instead loses in transport on a dusty stairwell. Now more likely to step on it than save it, the nagging urge to find the caterpillar surfaces, hour after hour, spurred by incidental circumstances, and is followed by a faint ethical malaise that persists beyond any hope of rescue.

“Southward Bound, Reads Worstward Ho,” goes even further by irritating the reader directly, rather than irritating a character with whom one may or may not empathize. The brief narrative describes reading the ineffable late Beckett work on a bus trip, and is rendered in clipped, willfully efficient prose that echoes without mimicking Beckett’s own challenging words, which are themselves embedded directly into the story as little enigmas. Appended to this is a series of footnotes at the bottom of each page, where the tale is told more fully and comfortably. The footnotes contain maybe three times as many words as the narrative they amplify. This exploits the subtle and meddlesome dynamic one experiences when reading a book with footnotes: when does one interrupt the flow of one’s apprehension to get perhaps vital (perhaps useless, it can’t be known yet) information about what one is reading? The tension is sharpened once one realizes that the footnotes have more flow, and provide fuller information with less labor. Which was the narrative and which was the gloss? As I read, there were pinpoint peaks of discomfort that accompanied my decisions (was I really deciding?), as I switched back and forth between the spartan narrative and flowing footnotes, at times seeking the path of least resistance below, and other times pursuing a more hard-won satisfaction above. This in turn caused me to ask what reading is. To what degree was I goal seeking, and to what degree does was I truly following the writing, letting it lead to new territory? How were these dynamics playing out within the time-based activity of reading, and, in this case, what was I to do with the subliminal fabric exposed?

This is thoughtfully crafted, innovative and conceptually ambitious writing.

01 December 2009

In Broken Images

I can't think of anything better than this poem to share with you today. It has been on my mind a lot in recently. It was sent to me several years ago by my good friend Glen Davis. He thought it might resonate with my sense of what it meant to be an artist. My response was to memorize it immediately. Perhaps you will, too.
In Broken Images
He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images.

Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact;
Questioning their relevance, I question their fact.

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
when the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.
— Robert Graves