Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Summer 2012: The Unquenchable Light

In August 1996, on the morning after my family buried my younger brother, Brendan, I drove, sick with grief, the eight hours from my parents’ New Jersey home, to the Fine Arts Work Center in Cape Cod to work for a week with the poet Yusef Komunyakaa. Only months earlier, in February of that year, after a long, anxious wait to hear whether or not I had been selected (on the basis of 10 poems) to be one of the fifteen poets chosen for Komunyakaa’s workshop, I had finally received the happy news. Now, having lived through the shocking prognosis and dizzyingly swift death of my sweet and funny brother, the workshop seemed insignificant to me.  It was only because of the loving insistence of my mother, brothers and sisters who printed out driving directions, packed my bag and quite literally pushed me out the door (“Brendan would want you to go”) that I found myself heading northeast that morning.
Larkspur, Joni's Yard, 2012
Most of that long drive through upstate New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts is a complete blank to me:  I don’t remember if it was sunny or rainy, whether the traffic was moving or bumper-to-bumper, or whether I ever stopped for lunch or a bathroom break during my journey. And how I followed the driving directions and map is a mystery to me. I assume I was in shock, navigating on autopilot.  When I think back on it now, I am grateful to whatever spirit guided me that day and helped me find my way, without injuring myself or someone else on those highways. Besotted with grief, my mind was erased for hours, until I finally began the drive up U.S. Route 6, the highway that wends its way up Cape Cod, ending in Provincetown—the furthest point east in the United States—and my destination. 
What penetrated the fog of my grief, as I “woke up” on that highway, was the brilliant, corporeal essence of light. It poured through my windshield and glittered on the banks of white sands along the road’s shoulder. It was a quality of light I’d never registered before, active as an echo, reverberating through the air in heightened, “louder” repetitions. As I progressed toward Truro, it cascaded off the dunes that banked the road. Maybe it was my state of grief, but it seemed a tactile presence, otherworldly. Sunlight as a living, breathing body. The dunes quivered with it, shimmering like hills of crushed, illuminated stars. Everything was hyper-clarified and outlined—more than itself--dune grass, car hood, my white hand on the steering wheel. It was a light that held you steady in its gaze. And I followed it like an answer to a long-held question, up to Provincetown. I thought of Edward Hopper’s painting, “Cape Cod Morning,” and how that early morning light in his work gilded everything it draped. There was something ineffable and lonely in that light, as there was on this highway. For the woman in Hopper’s painting, light was playing a Siren song. She stretches herself out the window toward its embrace, slightly dazed, but ready to face the mystery of the day.  I have never forgotten the substance of that Cape Cod light. It intertwines now in my remembrance of my brother, illuminates his memories within me.
Kitchen, Summer 2012
This summer, 2012, as sunlight pummels the parched yards of Pittsburgh, and leaves us walking in a stupor through the 90+ degree days, I find myself thinking a lot about light: how it’s affecting my newly dug gardens, how it overwhelms my apartment, which still lacks blinds and curtains, and how it shapes and colors all that I see. Coincidentally, I find myself reading many poems, mostly poems by women poets, which juggle the whole spectrum of shade and blaze. 
Inside my new apartment, still sparsely furnished, the light takes on a range of characteristics, as morning turns to early afternoon to late afternoon to dusk. Each afternoon, around 5:30 PM, the light pours in through elm branches, through screen and through my rotating fan, and projects a film, an exquisite geometric pattern of shadow and sun, which captures kinetic life unfolding. It’s a sort of documentary short. If I am home at the time, I often stop whatever I’m doing and sit for a few minutes in the 90-degree living room to watch it flickering on the far white wall.  It is mesmerizing, and sometimes leads me into meditation (or sometimes a nap because of the heat!) Breathing deep, my hair stuck to my damp neck, I watch the interplay of silhouettes on the wall: the leaves sway and dip behind the oscillating roundness of the fan. And overlaid on this, the screen’s orderly scrim of tiny squares. The light acts as white space in this dance of moveable shadows. And lately it’s inspired me to read and re-read poems about the light by Mary Oliver, Jane Hirschfield, and Susan Hutton. I want to share two of the poems here, now.
Coneflower, New Garden 2012
In Susan Hutton’s exquisite 10-line poem “Wujakari, Yartijumurra, Arawunga, Tokwampari” from her book On The Vanishing of Large Creatures (2007, Carnegie Mellon University Press), she talks of an incalculable loss, something that disappears from our world with little fanfare or grief:
            Before a language dies we record the last speaker
            to capture the sounds of the words. When he dies
            we go on living, and the world is not different. 

Hutton’s poetry may not be filled with images of a literal light, because her subjects are not nature-focused nor about paintings (though both may get referenced.) But there is something in the illuminating intelligence of the poems, which is echoed in the clean block typography of some of the poems (perched elegantly in a sea of white space) that fills her whole book with light for me. Unlike Mary Oliver, whose poetry plumbs the natural world of the Provincetown coastline where she’s lived most of her adult life, Hutton’s mix of beautiful, quirky facts and lyrical observations lights up the complicated world of our inner lives.
And in this poem, Hutton shows us the poignancy of what “the children of Bathurst Island,” the next generation, stand to lose when their culture’s original language dies out. Choosing the words of the title as an example, Hutton translates that they will lose both the idea of and the descriptions of light, in all its nuances and subtle changes. Here are the remaining 7 lines of the poem:

         There is always rain, whether it falls on the grass, on the roof,
            or far out to sea. There is wind, though it sounds bigger
            when it rattles the windows, whips the trees.     
            But the children of Bathurst Island, who now sleep inside,
            can no longer say when it is first light before sunrise
            or when it is the darkness before daylight, when it is
            early morning before dawn or early morning when birds sing.
David's Rooftop, 2012

In our ever-glutted world of new product, cheaper product, faster product, technology replacing itself at warp speed and trying to sell us the newly updated I-Pad, cell phone, whatever, this loss of language may seem trivial.  But, as I often tell my high school students, to lose language, to choose to only use the words we knew in third to seventh grade and refuse all new vocabulary, is to choose to narrow your ideas, and thus, to narrow your understanding of your world.  The beauty of this lost language of Bathurst Island becomes clear, because in naming the subtle differences “early light before dawn,” vs. “early morning when the birds sing” demonstrate such an act of attention to the natural world of the island that the original people settled. They knew the sky, the sun, the water, the whole of their environment so intimately that they put in language each shift and particularity.  And with this loss, it might be suggested, comes a loss of that intimacy and awareness of the natural world.

The light in Mary Oliver’s poem “The Terns” (House of Light) is a literal, witnessed light. Here, she describes the daily ritual of sea birds diving into the Atlantic searching for food:

                        The birds shrug off
                              the slant air,
                     they plunge into the sea
                              and vanish
                        under the glassy edges
                              of the water,
                        and then come back,
                        flying out of the waves,
                              as white as snow,
                           shaking themselves,
                      shaking the little silver fish,
                               crying out
                          in their own language,
                       voices like rough bells—

The light is everywhere in this poem: the air is “slant” with it, as the rays slice through and land in the sea beside the terns. The water has “glassy edges,” and the birds are transformed and illuminated by their journey and “come back…as white as snow.”  The hapless fish, taken from their lives and soon to be a quick meal forgotten, are caught in the sunlight’s net, also glimmering “silver” in their final moments.  There is something airy and elegant, slim and bejeweled in this scene, punctuated only by the cries of the successful scavengers, their “voices like rough bells,” another image that peals metallic and silver, Cape Cod’s amplified light playing a surface to corona.
Monumental, Painting by William DeBernardi, G-Square Gallery, Ligonier

The surprise in Oliver’s lit images is that it leads her, initially, to this observation:
                        This is a poem
                           about death,
                     about the heart blanching
                        in its fold of shadows
                              because it knows
                             someday it will be
                         the fish and the wave
                        and no longer itself—

She has introduced us to the rich darkness, the concept of “duende,” of which the Spanish poet, Gabriel Garcia Lorca wrote.  Oliver’s lines are duende in action, the shading that balances the stark light, adding dimension and depth to the scene. Here, the heart loses all color, and like the birds lifting from the waves, it becomes “blanched,” or bleached white “in its fold of shadows.” The fish is eaten. And by implication, Oliver is reminded that “someday” every living thing in the scene will be gone and “no longer” themselves. She might have stopped there with her textured “painting” of light and shadow interplay, but Oliver turns again, illuminating our own day with this finish:

This is a poem about loving
                       this world and everything in it:
                        the self, the perpetual muscle,
                        the passage in and out, the bristling
                                    swing of the sea.

And in her words, she has captured the mysterious nature of light. Like all ephemera, it is meant to be savored in the moment and loved for its palpable presence in our days. Light clarifies everything we gaze upon, coloring it, shaping the substance of our time indoors and out. And Oliver urges us to also love our “self, the perpetual muscle,” as we hopefully make our own days something lit and meaningful (though, at other times, something shadowed) as we navigate the “bristling/swing of the sea.”  We are out in it now, past wading, deep and shimmering, and trying our hardest to be the light we see.
Backyard Stoop, Garden, 2012

                                                                                                July 9, 2012

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