april 14/RUN

3.5 miles
trestle turn-around!
43 degrees

Woke up this morning to a dusting of snow on the deck. It melted in a few hours. Worked on Mary Oliver in the morning, then ran in the early afternoon. Started in the neighborhood then decided to keep going north on the trail all the way to the trestle. Hooray! Ran right above the river and the rowing club. What a view! No snow, hardly any other people, only a little wind. Lots of drumming woodpeckers and cardinals and a few black-capped chickadees. This spring, I need to add another bird sound to my collection. Felt relaxed and strong until the last mile when I still felt strong but also sore in my back and heavy in my legs. Can’t remember what I was thinking about. All thoughts gone, soundless words scattered over the tops of the trees. Scheduled second pfizer shot for April 30th. Almost there! Later today, I’ll sign up for open swim. This year, you can swim at Nokomis and Cedar. Awesome.

My Morning’s Work

Started by reading Dreamwork which is one of MO’s more painful (and personal?) books in which she addresses her childhood with an abusive father. The first poem is “Dogfish.” Intense. When I looked for it online, one of the first results that came up was Mary Oliver reading for a celebration of Emily Dickinson posted on the Dickinson Electronic Archive. Here’s the description of the event:

A marvelous centennial tribute in South Orange, New Jersey thate featured contemporary women poets reading hour after hour, from morning until night “to commemorate the centenary of the death of Emily Dickinson,” which occurred on May 15, 1886. Adrienne RichRuth Stone, Amy Clampitt, Katha Pollitt, Sharon Olds, Marilyn Hacker, Carolyn Kizer, Toi Derricotte, Maxine Kumin, Mary Oliver, Joyce Carol OatesSandra GilbertAlicia OstrikerGwendolyn Brooks, Denise Levertov were all there– “Poetry-in-the-Round” it was called, an apt descriptor not only because of the shape of the theater in which the readings took place, but because of the taking turns, the offerings making their way around a range of our contemporary poets who have at least two things in common with Emily Dickinson–they are each and all women, and poets. 

Dickinson Electronic Archives

For her part, MO read several of ED’s poems, then several of her own. The site has a transcript and a recording, with music strangely playing in the background?

ED poems read by MO:

  • What is Paradise
  • There came a mind like a Bugle
  • Under the light, yet under
  • Because I could not stop for Death

MO poems read by MO:

  • Morning Poem
  • Blossom
  • Dogfish
  • Acid
  • Stanley Kunitz
  • Blackwater Words
  • Humpbacks

Very cool to have found this, partly for the MO and ED connection, but also for the other poets. I might want to read Maxine Kumin in May or June–I love her swimming poems. Anyway, back to Dogfish. I’ve never heard of dogfish, so I looked them up. They’re little sharks that don’t eat humans but travel in big packs and are aggressive and relentless in hunting their prey–squid, herring, sea cucumber, shrimp, jellyfish. They are also known as spiny dogfish because they have a sharp spine: “Using sharp, venomous spines in the front of each dorsal fin, the spiny dogfish is a small but mighty predator that isn’t afraid to take a jab at passing fish.”

Dogfish/ Mary Oliver (from Dreams)

Some kind of relaxed and beautiful thing
kept flickering in with the tide
and looking around.
Black as a fisherman’s boot,
with a white belly.

If you asked for a picture I would have to draw a smile
under the perfectly round eyes and above the chin,
which was rough
as a thousand sharpened nails.

And you know
what a smile means,
don’t you?

*

I wanted
the past to go away, I wanted
to leave it, like another country; I wanted
my life to close and open
like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of a song where it falls
down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery; I wanted
to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know,
whoever I was, I was

alive
for a little while.

*

It was evening, and no longer summer.
Three small fish, I don’t know what they were
huddled in the highest ripples
as it came swimming in again, effortless, the whole body
one gesture, one black sleeve
that could fit easily around
the bodies of three small fish.

*

Also I wanted
to be able to love. And we all know
how that one goes,
don’t we?

Slowly

*

the dogfish tore open the soft basins of water.

*

You don’t want to hear the story
of my life, and anyway
I don’t want to tell it, I want to listen

to the enormous waterfalls of the sun.
And anyway it’s the same old story-
a few people just trying,
one way or another,
to survive.

Mostly, I want to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
or mean,
for a simple reason.

And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
this world.

*

And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better wake up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that is bulging toward them

*

And probably,
if they don’t waste time
looking for an easier world,

they can do it.

Wow. Favorite bit of this poem for today:

I wanted
my life to close, and open
like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song
where it falls
down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery

I’m thinking of door hinges and poems as opening a thousand doors and the wings of the seven white butterflies and “how they bang the pages/or their wings as they fly/to the fields of mustard and yellow/and orange and plain/gold all eternity” (Seven White Butterflies/ from West Wind). And I’m thinking of the explosion, the discovery, as a flare, a burst of light, of intense emotion, which is the name of the first section of MO’s book-length poem, The Leaf and the Cloud. Last week, I decided that doing a close, sustained reading of this book would be part of my April with Mary (Oliver) exercise. But, before getting to that, here’s how my thoughts about Mary progressed as I read through “Dogfish” and then some of the other poems in Dreamwork:

A few poems later is Trilliums. I think it’s interesting to put these together, connecting them through the idea of an easy life, which is referenced and rejected in both poems–actually in Dogfish, Trilliums, and the one I just mentioned, Seven White Butterflies, which ends with the question: “who/would have thought it could be so easy?”

Trilliums

Every spring
among
the ambiguities
of childhood
the hillsides grew white
with the wild trilliums.
I believed in the world,
Oh, I wanted
to be easy
in the peopled kingdoms,
to take my place there,
but there was none
that I could find
shaped like me.
So I entered
through the tender buds,
I crossed the cold creek,
my backbone
and my thin white shoulders
unfolding and stretching.
From the time of snow-melt,
when the creek roared
and the mud slid
and the seeds cracked,
I listened to the earth-talk,
the root-wrangle,
the arguments of energy,
the dreams lying
just under the surface,
then rising,
becoming
at the last moment
flaring and luminous —
the patient parable
of every spring and hillside
year after difficult year.

Trilliums, along with Dogfish, really got me thinking about “Flare” in The Leaf and the Cloud, which I had already read through at least twice, and then I felt a bit overwhelmed, then stuck, about what to post (or what not to post because I wanted to add more and more of MO’s lines) for this entry. Having listened to an On Being Podcast with Mary Oliver and read Upstream, I knew about MO’s hard childhood. I wondered how much of this dogfish was her dad, and did she imagine herself as one of the three unnamed fish? So I read through “Flare” again and was blown away, both by how she writes about her parents, and by how it connects so much with “Dogfish” and “Trilliums.” So I decided to stop trying to add it all into this entry and to make notes in the margins of the book and to not worry about saying smart, complete things in this post. So, I did. And, I enjoyed writing in the margins of my book, something I did a lot of in grad school. And, I had lots of thoughts about lightness and darkness and flares and fathers and the color green and hinges as not just connected to doors but to edges and seams. And, I could keep writing about this for a long time, but I’ll conclude this post with 2 thoughts.

thought one: the real work is saving ourselves

Mary Oliver writes a lot, in her essays and poems, about the work she is meant to do, or that she wants to do. She often describes this work as the work of noticing. Could this work also be the work of saving the I in the poem–which she often identifies as herself but also suggests that it could be any readers who recognizes themselves in the poem? In discussing her work as a poet, Ada Limón says that she writes her poems to save herself. In an interview for On Being, Mary Oliver says about leaving her childhood home, “I saved my own life by finding a place that was not in that house.” Could the work of writing, of creating worlds through words, be how she does it? What if that, and not the act of noticing for noticing’s sake, is the primary work?

thought two: the nourishing dark

The final 2 lines of “Flare” are:

This is the dark bread of the poem.
This is the dark and nourishing bread of the poem.

Thinking about the dark as nourishing, I’m reminded of ED and the value of the Dark in, “We grow accustomed to the Dark”:

 That unknown mental and spiritual domain is a “larger – Darkness.” That is where our great poets and philosophical explorers venture while the rest of us pursue our hobbies or just relax. Dickinson spends time in this darkness and most of her most evocative, ambiguous, and challenging poetry comes from there.

the Prowling Bee

And then, MO’s discussion of the edge in Upstream:

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind, It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts. or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.

Upstream/ Mary Oliver

Whew! That was a lot of thinking today. Time to stop.

april 13/RUN

3.4 miles
edmund, heading north loop
35 degrees/ 15 mph wind
snow flurries

O, cruel April with your warm sun, blooming flowers, then snow flurries and mornings where it feels like 25 degrees. Even so, it was a good run. Bundled up, with the pink hood of my jacket up and my gloves on, I didn’t feel the wind. A benefit of colder, windier weather: no one on the trail! I ran through the tunnel of trees and was able to attend to its slow and gradual greening. The trees are coming into leaf/like something almost being said/the recent buds relax and spread/their greenness is a kind of grief (Phillip Larkin). I memorized that poem last year in May and it has stuck.

Ran past the ancient boulder with a few stones stacked on top, past the welcoming oaks, above the ravine and the oak savanna and the muddy trail that climbs up near the tree stump with chain link limbs. Looked down at the Winchell Trail and thought about taking it, but I didn’t. At 42nd, I heard a bird that almost sounded like a black-capped chickadee, but not quite. 3 notes instead of 2, and no rising up or down the scale. What was it? Also heard the drumming and calling of some woodpeckers.

Even though this is not a Mary Oliver poem, I had to post it–because I’d like it and because it gave me an opportunity to reflect more on my vision loss:

Pastoral/ Forest Gander

Together,
you
standing
before me before
the picture
window, my arms
around you, our
eyes pitched
beyond our
reflections into—

(“into,” I’d
written, as
though there
swung at the end
of a tunnel,
a passage dotted
with endless
points of
arrival, as
though our gaze
started just outside
our faces and
corkscrewed its way
toward the horizon,
processual,
as if looking
took time to happen
and weren’t
instantaneous,
offered whole in
one gesture
before we
ask, before our
will, as if the far
Sonoma mountains
weren’t equally ready
to be beheld as
the dead
fly on the sill)—

the distance, a
broad hill of
bright mustard flowers
the morning light
coaxes open.

I really like this poem and Gander’s reading of it. I was struck by his explanation of it, especially the idea that we see all instantly, that seeing, as a process, happens without effort, is immediate, and whole/complete. Occasionally seeing is not like this for many people–they experience visual errors, their brains receive conflicting data from their photoreceptor cells and generates confusing, ambiguous images. More frequently, seeing is like this for me. It is work, and sometimes, I can almost feel my brain trying to make sense of an image or a landscape. I witness them changing shape until they settle into what my brain decides they are. But, unlike Gander suggests in his recorded explanation of the poem, I can’t just “look once and find the near and far equally accessible” and the world doesn’t just present itself to me.

I like how Naomi Cohn describes it in her essay, “In Light of a White Cane.”

What I remember of better eyesight is how the world assembled all at once, an effortless gestalt—the light, the distance, the dappled detail of shade, exact crinkles of a facial expression through a car windshield, the lift of a single finger from a steering wheel, sunlight bouncing off a waxed hood.

Naomi Cohn

more mary oliver

So far, I’ve read through Devotions and Swan. Now I’m reading Evidence and Dream Work and then New and Selected Poems, Volumes I and II. I’ve read her collection of essays, Upstream too. And, I’m planning an extended study of her book length poem, The Leaf and the Cloud. I’m reading through it several times, along with the article, “‘An Attitude of Noticing’: Mary Oliver’s Ecological Ethic” by Kirstin Hotelling Zona. It sounds like a lot, but I’m not doing a close reading of every poem in every book. Just reading through, letting the words wash over me, and picking out a few things I want to remember.

more Evidence

Deep Summer

The mockingbird
opens his throat
among the thorns
for his own reasons
but doesn’t mind
if we pause
to listen
and learn something
for ourselves;
he doesn’t stop,
he nods
his gray head
with the frightfully bright eyes,
he flirts
his supple tail,
he says:
listen, if you would listen.
There’s no end
to good talk,
to passion songs,
to the melodies
that say
this branch,
this tree is mine,
to the wholesome
happiness
of being alive
on a patch
of this green earth
in the deep
pleasures of summer.
What a bird!
Your clocks, he says plainly,
which are always ticking,
do not have to be listened to.
The spirit of his every word.

I Want to Write Something So Simple

“And this is good for us.”
I want to write something
so simply
about love
or about pain
that even
as you are reading
you feel it
and as you read
you keep feeling it
and though it be my story
it will be common,
thought it be singular
it will be known to you
so that by the end
you will think—
no, you will realize—
that it was all the while
yourself arranging the words,
that it was all the time
words that you yourself,
out of your own heart
had been saying.

april 12/BIKERUN

Another young black man killed by the police today in a twin cities suburb. Apparently, the cop meant to reach for their taser, but pulled their gun instead and then shot Daunte Wright. Fucked up. This is not simply an unfortunate, “heart breaking” accident. This is not a matter of bad apples or a few incompetent or overly anxious cops. This is a fucked up system that doesn’t value human life, that almost always prioritizes certain (white) lives over others, and that is murdering black people. Abolish the police.

bike: 35 minutes
run: 1.5 miles
basement
outside: rain, wind

Biked in the basement because of the wind and rain. Watched another episode of Emily Dickinson. This one focused on ED’s conflicted feelings about having her poem published and whether or not she wants fame and to be known and seen by others. It features the poem, Split the Lark:

Split the Lark/ Emily Dickinson

Split the Lark – and You’ll find the Music –
Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled –
Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning
Saved for your Ear, when Lutes be old –

Loose the Flood – you shall find it patent –
Gush after Gush, reserved for you –
Scarlet Experiment! Skeptic Thomas!
Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?

It was helpful to read the words after watching the show; I didn’t get the meaning of them when I heard them sung by Sue:

Wow. That is some intense, violent imagery. “Gush after gush” and “Scarlet experiment.” It makes me think of the article I read about ED and “I’m Nobody! Who are You?” earlier this month, when the author writes about doing Emily Dickinson Madlibs and asking students to fill in the blank for “Grief is a ___”.

Students go ahead and put in the blanks what is expected: Grief is a pain, Grief is a bitch. The ones who want to take imaginative leaps deliver up: Grief is a thunderstorm, Grief is a tidal wave. But I can pretty much guarantee that no matter how many budding poets you have in a class, nobody who hasn’t already read Dickinson’s poem would ever write the phrase the way she wrote it.

The answer: “Grief is a mouse”
This poem about splitting the lark also seems very original and imaginative and very ED.

A turkey interruption!

Just as I was writing the above paragraph, I looked out the window and saw…a big turkey walking in my front yard. Nice. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen that. That’s definitely the delight of the day. When I first saw it, I yelled out to STA, “Come here, quick. There’s a turkey in the front yard” and he posted about it on instagram.

After I biked, I ran on the treadmill for about 14 minutes. Our treadmill works, but strangely, these days. The speed is off, always too fast. Listened to my playlist.

Right after I got up this morning, I wrote about Mary Oliver and her collection, Evidence:

Yellow from Evidence/ Mary Oliver

There is the heaven we enter
through institutional grace
and there are the yellow finches bathing and singing
in the lowly puddle.

I’d like to put this one beside Emily Dickinson’s Some Keep the Sabbath going to Church (236):

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

In my March 26th log entry, I wrote a bit about yellow and how I’ve grown to like the color. It’s funny that I like yellow now because I can’t see it very well, especially on the page and especially when it’s used to highlight text. Sometimes I use my yellow colored pencil in my Plague Notebook, like today, for the title to MO’s poem.

from the Plague Notebooks, Volume 7

When viewed straight on, through my central vision, the yellow disappears. When seen from the side or with my eyes lowered, looking down, the yellow is bright–of course, viewed this way, through my peripheral vision, the words are a blur. Isn’t it strange how that works? Other colors aren’t as bad, like green or blue (although in other situations, those colors disappear too). But, how does this work? I know the retina has 3 types of cone cells: blue/short (B/S), green/medium (G/M), red/long (R/L) and that we have a lot more red (64%) than green (32%) or blue (2%). And that “the color yellow is perceived when the L cones are stimulated slightly more than the M cones (cone cells/wikipedia). But what does that mean about my vision and cone cell loss? How many red versus green versus blue do I have left? Is there a way to test that? And, is it worth testing? I might ask my eye doctor when I’m fully vaccinated and finally have a check-up in the next few months.

I’m looking through MO’s collection, Evidence today, which I was able to immediately check-out from my libby app (very awesome). Something I’ve noticed: the structure/form (I’ve forgotten the difference between these two) is often, first a very detailed and lush description of something or someone (an animal, stone, tree, flower, etc), then a question or a moment of wonder about it/them, then a revelation.

Like, in Swans from Evidence: A long and beautiful description of swans flying overhead and hurrying on to “wherever it is/that swans go.” A moments of curiosity/praise/wonder and a question: “How could I help but wish/that one of them might drop/a white feather/that I should have/soemthing in my hand/to tell me/that they were real?” Finally, a revelation (or a reminder of something always already known but forgotten): “What we love, shapely and pure,/is not to be held,/but to be believed in.” Love that last line. It’s a nice little prayer and seems to work without the details and the moment of praise, but I wonder what happens to its power when it loses those details? Does it become just a easily spreadable soundbite? I’m not sure, and I guess my doubt about this practice of picking out favorite lines, won’t stop me from doing it now:

from Thinking of Swirler

In a week he would be dead,
arrowed down by a young man I like,
though with some difficulty.

I was planning to pick one part of this poem, but I love the whole thing and I think I might need to memorize some or all of it:

Then Bluebird Sang

Bluebird
slipped a little tremble
out of the triangle
of his mouth
and it hung in the air
until it reached my ear
like a froth or a frill
that Schumann
might have written in a dream.
Dear morning
you come
with so many angels of mercy
so wondrously disguised
in feathers, in leaves,
in the tongues of stones,
in the restless waters,
in the creep and the click
and the rustle
that greet me wherever I go
with their joyful cry: I’m still here, alive!

I could also see part of this poem serving as a writing prompt, or an opportunity to create your own moment of wonder/prayer: “Dear morning/you come/with so many angels of mercy/that greet me wherever I go/with their joyful cry: I’m still here, alive!” Prompt: what greets you in the morning? Make a list, then pick one and describe it as much detail as you can. Moment of Wonder: When you’re outside, running beside the gorge, create a chant or greeting to offer back to the welcoming oaks or the floodplain forest or the old stone steps or whatever else you want, letting them know you’re still here too, alive.

Okay, just one more for today:

The Poet Always Carries a Notebook

What is he scribbling on the page?
Is there snow in it, or fire?
Is it the beginning of a poem?
Is it a love note?

This poem makes me think about MO’s discussions of carrying a notebook around with her while she’s walking in the woods, which also makes me think about the different methods writers/thinkers use to remember words when they’re outside, away from their desk: Jonathan Edwards would pin notes to his clothes we traveled on horseback, the writer Jaime Quatro would scratch them into her arm with a stick when, out on a run, she had nothing else to use, I speak a note in my voice memo app or, turn the thought/idea into a chant and repeat it until I return from my run.

april 11/RUN

2.5 miles
neighborhood
47 degrees

Ran with Scott this almost afternoon. Windy and bright. I remember hearing some calling–not drumming–woodpeckers and a couple of cardinals, maybe a robin, a few warblers. Noticed some dogwood blossoms, a lot of green grass. Ran by turkey hollow. No turkeys. Didn’t see the river or many other runners. Did see a surrey over on the bike path as we ran up edmund just past turkey hollow. It must be spring. Anything else? Ran on the grass between Becketwood and 42nd in the soft, muddy dirt straight into the wind.

I’m really enjoying my time with Mary Oliver. Yesterday I checked out her collection West Wind from the libby app for my library. Such convenience!

Stars from West Wind/ Mary Oliver

Here in my head, language
keeps making its tiny noises.
How can I hope to be friends
with the hard white stars
whose flaring and hissing are not speech
but pure radiance?
How can I hope to be friends
with the yawning spaces between them
where nothing, ever is spoken?
Tonight, at the edge of the field,
I stood very still, and looked up,
and tried to be empty of words.
What joy was it, that almost found me?
What amiable peace?…
Once, deep in the woods,
I found the white skull of a bear
and it was utterly silent-
and once a river otter, in a steel trap,
and it too was utterly silent.
What can we do
but keep on breathing in and out,
modest and willing, and in our places?
Listen, listen, I’m forever saying.
Listen to the river, to the hawk, to the hoof,
to the mockingbird, to the jack-in-the-pulpit-

then I come up with a few words, like a gift.
Even as now
Even as the darkness has remained the pure, deep darkness.
Even as the stars have twirled a little, while I stood here,
looking up,
one hot sentence after another.

What can we do
but keep on breathing in and out,
modest and willing, and in our places?

I like this idea of the breathing in and out, and of the humility, the openness, the recognition of having our place (in the family of things?–Wild Geese).

an excerpt I like from The Osprey/ West Wind:

I came back
and stood on the shore, thinking—
and if you think
thinking is a mild exercise,
beware!
I mean, I was swimming for my life—

another, from Fox/ West Wind:

I was hot I was cold I was almost
dead of delight. Of course the mind keeps
cool in its hidden palace—yes, the mind takes
a long time, is otherwise occupied than by
happiness, and deep breathing. Still,
at last, it comes too, running
like a wild thing, to be taken
with its twin sister, breath. So I stood
on the pale, peach-colored sand, watching the fox
as it opened like a flower, and I began
softly, to pick among the vast assortment of words
that it should run again and again across the page
that you again and again should shiver with praise.

april 10/RUN

2.65 miles
2 schools loop (cooper and howe)
46 degrees

Windy this afternoon! Everything green, budding. Spring-like. Ran around Cooper School then down to Edmund. Up to 47th and over to Howe. A soccer team was practicing on the field. Didn’t stare to see if they were wearing masks. I wonder how youth sports is doing these days in Minnesota; the uptick in cases with the UK variant started in some suburban youth sports games. Anything else I remember from the run? Encountered some walkers. Did I see any other runners? I can’t remember. Ran by a neighbor’s fruit trees or vines on 32nd–I can’t remember what they are, I just remember that last year they had a sign encouraging you to take all the fruit you’d like. Apples? Anyway, the trees/vines right by their fence were blooming pale pink flowers. Beautiful.

I didn’t run yesterday because we drove up to Duluth and got our first doses of the Pfizer vaccine–well, me, FWA, and STA got our first doses, RJP is a year too young. Such a bummer for her. Anyway, I still haven’t processed it all, how remarkable and amazing and relieving it is to be getting this vaccine and to be fully vaccinated before Mother’s Day! Wow.

Even though I didn’t run, I still read some Mary Oliver. I’m finding it difficult to stick with just one poem. I like reading several and letting the repetition of her words about attention wash over me and soak in slowly. Yesterday and today, I read through her collection, Swan, and noticed, among other things, that she did a lot of: 1. inviting the reader (you) to be curious, to enter the field, to notice things, 2. admonishing the reader for not noticing and calling it a life, and 3. commanding the reader to notice things, to leave the desk and enter the world. I have started making a list and adding lines from her poems to each of these categories. So far, my list includes the poems in Swan and a few others that I found in her compilation, Devotions.

Invitation

  • Inside the river there is an unfinishable story/and you are somewhere in it/and it will never end until all ends (What Can I Say/Swan)
  • How many kinds of love/might there be in the world,/and how many formations might they make/and who am I ever/to imagine I could know/such a marvelous business? (On the Beaach/Swan)
  • Did you see it, drifting, all night in the black river?/Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air?/And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?/And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?/And have you changed your life? (Swan/Swan)
  • With what words can I convince you of the/casualness with which the white swans fly? Do you give a thought now and again to the/essential sparrow, the necessary toad? Have you ever seen a squirrel swim? Is it not incredible, than in the acorn something/has hidden an entire tree? (More Evidence/Swan)
  • Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches/of other lives? (Have you ever tried to enter/ West Wind)

Admonishment

  • It is a negligence of the mind/not to notice how at dusk/heron comes to the pond (How Heron Comes/Swan)
  • We are all good people/except for when we are not (Four Sonnets/Swan)
  • Who can open the door who does not reach for the latch?
  • Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?
  • For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters,/caution and prudence?/Fall in! Fall in! (Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches/West Wind)

Command

  • If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,/don’t hesitate. Give in to it. (Don’t Hesitate/Swan)
  • Sing, if you can sing, and if not still be/musical inside yourself (More Evidence/Swan)
  • Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then/keep going (At the River Clarion/Evidence)
  • Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk! (Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches/ West Wind)

In addition to categorizing her lines, here are a few other things I noticed/liked/want to remember:

1

She likes the word “meanwhile,” which I first encountered and enjoyed in her wonderful poem, “Wild Geese”: “Meanwhile, the world goes on./ Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain…/Meanwhile, the wild geese…” I like this idea of meanwhile as another word for beside/s, and to mean: there are other things beside you happening in the world AND you are not alone in your suffering/sorrow/joy AND life/the world contains more than we can imagine or reconcile, all happening at the same time. I like thinking about meanwhile as a way to connect different stories/lives/creatures without collapsing them into each other as one story or way of living/being–if that makes sense?

2

Okay, I confess to wanting to make a literature of praise.

4 Sonnets/ Swan

I like this idea of a literature of praise. In Long Life she talks about her words as little alleluias on the page. Can we think of this as spiritual, as about admiring and finding joy in things, without linking it to God or organized religion? Yes, I think.

3

I want to step out into some/fresh morning and look around and hear myself/crying out: “The house of money is falling! The house of money is falling! The weeds are rising! The weeds are rising!”

Evidence/ Evidence

That sounds like fun and something I can’t imagine myself ever having the nerve to do. But I think it quite a lot when I’m out near the gorge and witness the sumac vines wrapping themselves around the fenceposts.

One more thing: Here’s a Mary Oliver poem that I’ve been rereading a lot over the past few days:

HAVE YOU EVER TRIED TO ENTER THE LONG BLACK BRANCHES/ Mary Oliver

Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives —
tried to imagine what the crisp fringes, full of honey, hanging
from the branches of the young locust trees, in early morning, feel like?

Do you think this world was only an entertainment for you?

Never to enter the sea and notice how the water divides
with perfect courtesy, to let you in!
Never to lie down on the grass, as though you were the grass!
Never to leap to the air as you open your wings over the dark acorn of your heart!

No wonder we hear, in your mournful voice, the complaint
that something is missing from your life!

Who can open the door who does not reach for the latch?
Who can travel the miles who does not put one foot
in front of the other, all attentive to what presents itself
continually?
Who will behold the inner chamber who has not observed
with admiration, even with rapture, the outer stone?

Well, there is time left —
fields everywhere invite you into them.

And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away
from wherever you are, to look for your soul?

Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk!

To put one’s foot into the door of the grass, which is
the mystery, which is death as well as life, and
not be afraid!

To set one’s foot in the door of death, and be overcome
with amazement!

To sit down in front of the weeds, and imagine
god the ten-fingered, sailing out of his house of straw,
nodding this way and that way, to the flowers of the
present hour,

to the song falling out of the mockingbird’s pink mouth,

to the tippets of the honeysuckle, that have opened

in the night

To sit down, like a weed among weeds, and rustle in the wind!

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

While the soul, after all, is only a window,
and the opening of the window no more difficult
than the wakening from a little sleep.

Only last week I went out among the thorns and said
to the wild roses:
deny me not,
but suffer my devotion.
Then, all afternoon, I sat among them. Maybe

I even heard a curl or two of music, damp and rouge red,
hurrying from their stubby buds, from their delicate watery bodies.

For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters,
caution and prudence?

Fall in! Fall in!

A woman standing in the weeds.
A small boat flounders in the deep waves, and what’s coming next
is coming with its own heave and grace.

Meanwhile, once in a while, I have chanced, among the quick things,
upon the immutable.
What more could one ask?

And I would touch the faces of the daises,
and I would bow down
to think about it.

That was then, which hasn’t ended yet.

Now the sun begins to swing down. Under the peach-light,
I cross the fields and the dunes, I follow the ocean’s edge.

I climb, I backtrack.
I float.
I ramble my way home.

april 8/RUN

3.25 miles
43rd ave, north/seabury, north/seabury, south/41st ave, south
63 degrees

Rained in the morning, so STA and I ran in the afternoon. We thought the rain was done, but 2 or 3 times during the run it started up again. A soft, steady, colder than expected rain. A good distraction from the effort of our striking feet and swinging arms. Heard lots of black capped chickadees and cardinals. Avoided many sidewalk puddles. I don’t like how the puddles soak my socks but I do like how they reveal the dips and cracks and holes in the sidewalk that I normally can’t see.

As I dig deeper into the work of Mary Oliver, I’m conflicted. I find myself saying, “Yes!” then “yes?” then “Yes. But…” Her words are seductive and entrancing. Easy to read and understand and share–so many pleasing lines. And easy to consume quickly–to skim once and imagine you fully understand them. But, is that all they are? In reference to a tweet I posted about yesterday, are they candy instead of kale? (And, is that a bad thing?) Well, even as I find myself skimming through her poems quickly, or as quickly as I can with my bad vision, they are still making me think, suggesting associations, raising interesting open-ended questions, inviting me into deeper understandings of my own project and the idea of attention as an ethical/moral/political practice. This last bit is key to me: through her words, Mary Oliver is offering a “door–a thousand opening doors!” (Upstream) into new worlds.

Here are 2 poems from Swan that get me thinking more about the limits and possibilities of naming and language and knowing.

Wind in the Pines

It is true that the wind
streaming especially in fall
through the pines is saying nothing, nothing at all,
or is it just that I don’t kow the language?

Bird in the Pepper Tree

Don’t mind my inexplicable delight
in knowing your name,
little Wilson’s Warbler
yellow as a lemon, with a smooth, black cap.

Just do what you do and don’t worry, dipping
branch by branch down to the fountain
to sip neatly, then flutter away.

A name
is not a leash.

I’d like to put these poems beside:

Sometimes, what I try to get people to do is to disconnect for a moment from that absolute need to list and name, and just see the bird. Just see that bird. And you begin to absorb it, in a way, in a part of your brain that I don’t know the name of, but I think it’s a part of your brain that’s also got some heart in it. And then, guess what? The name, when you do learn it, it sticks in a different way.

On Being episode with Drew Lanham

and

Goldenrod/ Maggie Smith

I’m no botanist. If you’re the color of sulfur
and growing at the roadside, you’re goldenrod. 

You don’t care what I call you, whatever
you were born as. You don’t know your own name. 

But driving near Peoria, the sky pink-orange,
the sun bobbing at the horizon, I see everything

is what it is, exactly, in spite of the words I use:
black cows, barns falling in on themselves, you.

Dear flowers born with a highway view, 
forgive me if I’ve mistaken you. Goldenrod, 

whatever your name is, you are with your own kind. 
Look–the meadow is a mirror, full of you,

your reflection repeating. Whatever you are,
I see you, wild yellow, and I would let you name me.

april 7/RUN

2.3 miles
43rd ave, north/32nd st, east/river road trail, south/edmund, north
67 degrees

Managed to make it out for a run right before the steady rain started. Was able to run through the tunnel of trees, above the river. Noticed the beginning of green on the brown branches. It’s coming—the leaves, the veil, the obscured view, the warmer mornings, the deck, falling asleep in the red chair in the backyard, spring, summer, vaccines. Saw a stack of stones on the taller boulder at the edge of the trail, near the oak with the long reach. Turned around at 38th and headed north on Edmund. There, it was sunny; where I had just been, near 34th, it was gloomy and darkish blue, ominous. Such a strange, cool sight.

Did a lot of thinking and reading this morning. Here’s a sampling of what I encountered this morning:

And, I’m thinking about words like: inefficient, clockwork, pace (as in, “keep up the” or running pace or the hectic pace of modern life), mechanization, industrialization, useless, instrumental, accessible, smooth, easy, fast, relevant, order, discipline, attention economy, rest, restlessness, sleep, internal clocks, spending time vs. passing it, paying or giving attention, eyeballs on the page, obscure, unnoticed, unnoticing.

Lots of words and thoughts swirling in my head about work, labor, productivity. And about why Mary Oliver’s poems are so popular–how/why does she speak to so many, especially those who don’t normally “like” poetry? As I skimmed through her collection, Devotions, I started thinking about how so many of the poems talk directly to the reader, inviting them to attend to the beauty of the world, to notice the long black branches, or to chastise them, nudging them to do and be better:

Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches/of other lives?
Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

Can you Imagine? Oh, do you have time? Come with me into the fields of sunflowers. What if a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks flew in circles around your head? Surely you can’t imagine they just stand there looking the way they look when we’re looking?

Mary Oliver’s invitations, and even her admonishments, are seductive. Yes, I will notice! Yes, I will look and imagine and take the time! Her words inspire, making it seem attainable to be better, to change your life, to do more than merely breathe. Even as I have loved and admired her work since the first poem I read–was it “Invitation”?–I have also been wary of it. She makes it sound so simple–just change your life! Stop, take a break, notice those goldfinches!

I was bothered enough by this idea to write a poem about her poem “Invitation”, and then a chapbook about the phrase, “change your life” that features my poem which I titled, “You Must Change Your Life.” In my only workshop experience, for a great Advanced Poetry class at the Loft, the rest of my class didn’t seem to like “You Must Change Your Life”. Too wordy, too full of explanation, too much Oliver, not enough Rilke. So I put it away. But, reading it again now, I like it. It needs some cleaning up, but I’m proud of it and the questions I’m posing about will and attention, how we hear the call to notice things and change our lives, how we sustain that call.

Back then in 2018, I focused a lot on how change happens whether we want it or not and I explored different meanings and causes of change. Now, I’m interested in how we might choose to act on her invitation, how it becomes possible for us to “enter the long brown branches of other lives.” First, the easy answer: say yes, take up her invitation, decide to stop and smell the roses, watch those goldfinches and their musical battle, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk! But, don’t do this just once. Do it repeatedly–every month or week or morning. Make it a habit. Of course, making this into a habit isn’t necessarily easy; it requires effort and discipline and commitment, but it’s possible to believe, on any fresh day, that we can make this choice and change ourselves. This Yes! answer is the one that I imagine gets many readers excited about MO’s work and is why she’s so popular and important.

But, there’s another answer to the question of how we take up her invitation that is harder and more hidden, and that involves the difficult, messy work of saying no to many things in order to say Yes! to the goldfinches. And, this saying no is not simply choosing to not do this or that busy, important thing in order to notice the goldfinches. It is to refuse some of the fundamental (and toxic) values that shape who we are and what we should be doing in 21st century, late capitalism: work, always work, that is productive, useful, efficient, busy, fast, that makes lots of money for someone else, that yields status and success, that creates more things, that doesn’t waste time, that generates quantitative (not qualitative) results. Refusing these values is difficult and requires breaking habits we have been disciplined into following and practicing since elementary school. I describe this work of refusal as undisciplining yourself. And I’ve been working very hard at it for the last decade.

As far as I can tell, Mary Oliver rarely mentions this work, but it’s there, haunting every page. Each Yes! is tinged with the effort of the no that made it possible. (is this last sentence too much? maybe I’m getting carried away.) Anyway, I happened to remember one poem in which MO briefly describes her own undisciplining process:

Just as the Calendar Began to Say Summer/ Mary Oliver

I went out of the schoolhouse fast
and through the gardens and to the woods,
and spent all summer forgetting what I’d been taught—

two times two, and diligence, and so forth,
how to be modest and useful, and how to succeed and so forth,
machines and oil and plastic and money and so forth.

By fall I had healed somewhat, but was summoned back
to the chalky rooms and the desks, to sit and remember

the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,
the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn’t a penny in the
bank,
the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.

april 6/RUN

3.3 miles
turkey hollow
51 degrees

Wow! Another magnificent morning in Minneapolis. Thunderstorms last night, sunshine today, thunderstorms tonight. Ran on the trail, above the river. At one of my favorite spots, just past the oak savanna, I marveled at the burning white light of the sun reflecting on the water, through the bare branches. A mile later, I thought some more about this light and remembered ED’s phrase, “white heat”–it’s part of a poem—-“Dare you see a Soul at the “White Heat”?/Then crouch within the door”—, and the name of the Darmouth blog tracking ED’s most intensely creative year: 1862.

I was able to greet Dave, the Daily Walker! I’m so happy to see that this terrible year hasn’t stopped him from doing his regular walks. When I said “Good morning Dave!” he said” “Good morning Sara! So great to see you out here again!”

Heard woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees and—I almost forgot, geese, or was it a goose? Honking as they flew over the gorge. The geese have returned for spring! This reminded me of an MO poem I read yesterday titled “Two Kinds of Deliverance.” The geese are the first kind:

1.

Last night the geese came back,
slanting fast
from the blossom of the rising moon down
to the black pond. A muskrat
swimming in the twilight saw them and hurred

to the secret lodges to tell everyone
spring had come.

And so it had.
By morning when I went out
the last of the ice had disappeared, blackbirds
sang on the shores. Every year
the geese, returning,
do this, I don’t
know how.

2.

The curtains opened and there was 
an old man in a headdress of feathers,
leather leggings and a vest made
from the skin of some animal. He danced

in a kind of surly rapture, and the trees
in the fields far away
began to mutter and suck up their long roots.
Slowly they advanced until they stood
pressed to the schoolhouse windows.

3.

I don’t know
lots of things but I know this: next year
when spring
flows over the starting point I’ll think I’m going to
drown in the shimmering miles of it and then
one or two birds will fly me over
the threshold.
                           As for the pain
of others, of course it tries to be
abstract, but then

there flares up out of a vanished wilderness, like fire, 
still blistering: the wrinkled face
of an old Chippewa
smiling, hating us, 
dancing for his life.

Reading through this a first time, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of her description of the “old Chippewa,” but then I googled it, and found a helpful article: The Native American Presence in Mary Oliver’s Poetry. Here’s what the author has to say about this poem:

This discussion of the third type of deliverance–the joy of future springs combined with memory of the pain of others–makes me think of another bit of a MO poem I just read. It’s from “One of Two Things” in Dream Work:

5.

One or two things are all you need
to travel over the blue pond, over the deep
roughage of the trees and the through the stiff
flowers of lightening—some deep
memory of pleasure, some cutting
knowledge of pain.

I often think about how the land I run on, when I’m running by the gorge, was once the sacred home of Dakota and Ojibwe people. But I don’t think about it enough, and I have barely started doing the important (ongoing) work of putting that pain (which is not in the past, but still present) beside my deep love for the gorge. Maybe MO’s poems can offer a way into this work?

april 5/WALK

After 5 days of running in a row, today a break. Amazing weather! STA and I took Delia on a long (3+ mile) walk. So calm and quiet and warm! We heard a bird that sounded like a robin to me–a tin-whistle type of call–but Scott said it had black feathers with white tips, which is not how a robin dresses. Spent some time trying to find what kind of bird it was, but couldn’t. Also saw some turkeys hiding in the tall grass between Becketwood and the lower campus of Minnehaha Academy. Ah, spring!

Continuing to read Mary Oliver’s Upstream. I read some of it several years ago, and it had a big impact on me, especially her line at the end of the first chapter, “Upstream”:

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

So much so, that I wrote a sonnet about it for a poetry and form class:

Attention/ Sara Lynne Puotinen

is the beginning of devotion
devotion the beginning of prayer
prayer undertaken while in motion
gliding in and through the outside air
air offered from trees entering lungs  
lungs releasing air and praying with feet
feet absorbing ground self coming undone
slowly shaking loose to a steady beat
beat river gorge rhythms almost in sync
sync stride breath oak wind sky path water time 
time slowing not stopping just on the brink
of not being noticed, closely aligned
with the sweat on the surface of my skin
see hear taste smell touch acts of attention

I didn’t make it much farther past that point in the book. Why not? I don’t think I was ready. Now, reading it again, I’m finding all sorts of wonderful inspiring exciting passages that I want to use, maybe in the same way that MO hears/reads some helpful words and “quickly slips the phrase from the air and puts it into [her] pocket.” This one is going straight into my pocket:

And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe–that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.

Upstream/ Mary Oliver

This quote seems like a great Walt Whitman-esque declaration: Having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life. Yes! This claiming of a life and making out of it something wonderful–generous, beautiful, sturdy, useful–is a great way to describe what I’m trying to do over on my undisciplined site with my how to be project. Because I’m so young (only almost 47), I’d say I’m making not made this life.

Here’s my MO poem for April 5th:

Softest of Mornings from Long Life/ Mary Oliver

Softest of mornings, hello.
And what will you do today, I wonder,
to my heart?
And how much honey can the heart stand, I wonder,
before it must break?

This is trivial, or nothing: a snail
climbing a trellis of leaves
and the blue trumpets of flowers.

No doubt clocks are ticking loudly
all over the world.
I don’t hear them. The snail’s pale horns
extend and wave this way and that
as her fingers-body shuffles forward, leaving behind
the silvery path of her slime.

Oh, softest of mornings, how shall I break this?
How shall I move away from the snail, and the flowers?
How shall I go on, with my introspective and ambitious life?

I love the opening question; I think I might try asking it to the morning after I greet it on some spring and summer days: “Softest of mornings, hello./And what will you do today, I wonder,/to my heart?”

Reading about the snail in the second stanza immediately reminded me of the wonderful Ars Poetica by Aracelis Girmay:

May the poems be
the little snail’s trail.

Everywhere I go,
every inch: quiet record

of the foot’s silver prayer.
             I lived once.
             Thank you. 
             It was here.

I decided to look up “snail 19th century poetry” and found 2 more snail poems to ponder:

To a Snail/ Marianne Moore

If “compression is the first grace of style,”
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;
“a knowledge of principles,”
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.

Found this poem on the UK Guardian along with a helpful analysis (and I needed it!), including this fun bit about the ending:

The line ends with a colon, and the list begins with “the absence of feet”. Critics have read this as a witty allusion to free-verse structure. Such a reading may be complicated by the fact that the snail does, indeed, possess a single foot. This is a fundamental demonstration of compression!

I think Moore is saying that “in the absence of feet” there is “a method of conclusions” (walking a line?) and that “a knowledge of principles” is exhibited “in the curious phenomenon” of the snail’s “occipital horn”. Eye-tips on the ends of tentacles are as essential for stylish poets as for cannily evolved snails. The principles invoked are acuity of vision, keenness of all kinds of judgment.

This post also links to an interesting article about snails and the eyes on their tentacles. I’m trying to read it, but it makes my brain hurt–not the ideas but the size and compression of the font. Not very accessible.

This is a very different poem from Oliver’s. Was MO thinking about this poem at all when she mentions her small snail? I don’t know. I imagine she might have been thinking a little about this final poem, by the famous Japanese poet Issa:

O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
but slowly, slowly

In addition to the snail, I’m thinking about the clocks and a passage I just read earlier today in Upstream about the ordinary world, the attentive, social self (as opposed to the child-self and the artist-self), and the clock!

The clock! That twelve-figured moon skull, that white spider belly! How serenely the hands move with their filigree pointers, and how steadily! Twelve hours, and twelve hours, and begin again! Eat, speak, sleep, cross a street, wash a dish! The clock is still ticking. All its vistas are just so broad–are regular. (Notice that word.) Every day, twelve little bins in which to order disorderly life, and even more disorderly thought. The town’s clock cries out, and the face on every wrist hums or shines; the world keeps pace with itself. Another day is passing, a regular and ordinary day. (Notice that word also.)

april 4/RUN

4.6 miles
franklin loop
64 degrees

Mostly ran, with a little bit of walking, the franklin loop with STA. Sunny and over-dressed in shorts and a long-sleeved shirt. Who cares when it feels this wonderful outside! Usually I lament the leaving of winter, but not this year. I’m ready for summer and vaccines and less time inside. We talked for almost the entire time, but I can’t remember what we discussed. Noticed the river, looking calm and blue, glittering in a few spots. No rowers today. Easter, I guess. Heard some pileated woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, cardinals. Still no geese. Also heard one runner’s deep, booming voice cutting through everything else. So loud, creeping up behind us. We slowed way down, almost to a walk, so he could pass faster, but it still took forever. Someday I’ll be able to block out these irritations–or, will I?

Sitting on the deck an hour after the run, I thought about some differences between Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson. Here’s one: MO focuses on the moment when we are able to find meaning or understanding or joy or delight or something worthwhile, despite the mess of the world. Yesterday I described it this way: “MO is interested in that moment, albeit fleeting, of clarity that opens you up, or opens to you, inviting you in.” So, MO wants to find a way in. Maybe Emily Dickinson does too, but, with her emphasis on Circumference–the edges, seams, periphery, the perimeter, she also urgently wants to find a way out, an exit.

Mary Oliver is a big fan of Walt Whitman (she has a brief essay in Upstream titled, “My Friend Walt Whitman”). Could this be point where her differences with ED are visible? Here’s what Joyce Carol Oates says about the differences between ED and WW in her introduction to Essential Emily Dickinson:

Between them, our great visionary poets of the American nineteenth centry, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, have come to represent the extreme, idiosyncratic poles of the American psyche: the intensely inward, private, elliptical and “mystical (Dickinson); and the robustly outward-looking, public, rhapsodic and “mystical” (Whitman). One declared: “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” The other declared: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos…”

Here, ED’s understanding of in is being outside the world, and WW’s out is being fully inside it (at the center?). I think this in/out, private/public, introvert/extrovert is too reductive. Still, it is helpful as a way to start thinking about the differences. In her essay on her friend, Whitman, MO writes this about why she values him:

Whitman’s poems stood before me like a model of delivery when I began to write poems myself: I mean the oceanic power and rumble that travels through a Whitman poem–the incantatory syntax, the boldness affirmation. In those years, truth was elusive–as way my own faith that I could recognize and contain it. Whitman kept me from the swamps of a worse uncertainty, and I loved many hours within the lit circle of his certainty, and his bravado. “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” And their was the passion which he invested in the poems. The metaphysical curiosity! The oracular tenderness with which he viewed the world–its roughness, its differences, the stars, the spider–nothing was outside the range of his interest. I reveled in the specificity of his words. And his faith–that kept my spirit buoyant surely, though his faith was without a name that I ever heard of. “Do you guess I have some intricate purpose? Well I have…for the April rain has, and hte mica on the side of a rock has.”

Upstream/ Mary Oliver

Such bold, confident, excessive declarations! I wonder if Susan Howe has anything to say about this in My Emily Dickinson when she writes about ED’s new grammar grounded in humility and hesitation? Lots to digest here. Now I want to read more about ED’s faith and her understanding of Circumference and how it’s positioned in relation to inside and outside.

Here are 2 MO poems, originally from Swan, that I found in Devotions:

I Worried/ Mary Oliver

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

Don’t Hesitate/ Mary Oliver

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

april 3/RUN

2.15 miles
2 school loop: Cooper and Howe
60! degrees

Spring! 60 degrees and sunny just before noon. No snow or ice, all melted. Shorts and one long-sleeved shirt (bright yellow). Nice. Did a short run today because it’s Saturday and I’ve already run 3 days in a row. Listened to my playlist–“Leave the Door Open,” “I Feel for You,” “Levitate,” and “I Forgot that You Existed.” As I listened to the last one, I imagine that the You in the song was all of my worries–about pandemics and sinus infections and headaches and kids getting together with their friends and white supremacy and racial injustice and climate crisis and and and…. It worked (I guess until I listed them here). Ran on the sidewalk through the neighborhood, nowhere near the river. I figured it was too crowded.

I have “officially” decided that April is a month for Mary (Mary Oliver). I will read her poems, some interviews, her memoir Upstream, and whatever else I might find and be moved to read/hear/watch. Today’s poem: April

April/ Mary Oliver

I wanted to speak at length about
The happiness of my body and the
Delight of my mind for it was
April, a night, a full moon and-

But something in myself for maybe
From somewhere other said: not too
Many words, please, in the muddy shallows the

Frogs are singing.

Many thoughts about this poem. I love the idea of putting aside words, or not needing words, to experience joy and delight. This makes me think of MO’s poem, The Real Prayers are Not the Words, But the Attention that Comes First. I’m also thinking of a passage I read in MO’s Upstream about the humility of the leaf-world:

Understand from the first this certainty. Butterflies don’t write books, neither do lilies or violets. Which doesn’t mean they don’t know, in their own way, what they are. That they don’t know they are alive–that they don’t feel, that action upon which all consciousness sits, lightly or heavily. Humility is the prize of the leaf-world. Vainglory is the bane of us, the humans.

Upstream/ Mary Oliver

Wanting to express joy and delight in words is not always motivated by hubris, and not using words doesn’t always signal its lack. Often I search for better words to connect (with others, with ideas) and I appreciate suspending words because too many words hurts the weakening cone cells in my eyes. But, I do find that often the people who won’t shut up (with their voices or their long-winded writing) could use some humility; they should listen to the frogs more.

Speaking of frogs, I’m reminded of ED’s strange poem, “I’m Nobody! Who are You?” In it, there’s a frog: “How public — like a Frog!/To tell one’s name — the livelong June — /To an admiring Bog!” ED’s frog seems very different, very public, very Somebody. But, is that right? I looked up “Emily Dickinson frog” and found an amazing article: The Poems (We Think) We Know: Emily Dickinson. I am so delighted to have uncovered this essay–to learn more about this poem, about frogs, about ED, about poetry and its purposes. This article makes me want to read Mary Oliver beside Emily Dickinson–and I think I will all this month. What interesting conversations they might have had!

Anyway, back to frogs. According to the author of the ED article, Alexandria Socarides, frogs were a favorite for 19th century writers, including Poe, Twain, and Thoreau. Here’s how Socarides links Thoreau and Dickinson:

If Dickinson was listening to frog-sound with the same attention as Thoreau, which I think she was, then what is it that she learned from them? What do these old, lazy creatures have to say? Part of the point of the second stanza of “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” is, as with Thoreau’s passage above, that frogs say the same thing over and over again, that there is no sense to be made of their guttural noises, that there is no meaning in the same name said on a loop. But what lurks in both acts of listening is the awareness that there is a kind of beauty to nonsense sounds, a beauty that only the bog itself (and maybe the poet in the bog) can recognize. 

The Poems (We Think) We Know: Emily Dickinson

Returning to Oliver, I’m thinking about one purpose of the frog in her poem. When I searched “Mary Oliver frog” I found a helpful essay, Mary Oliver’s Nature and this poem by MO: What We Want

In a poem
people want
something fancy

but even more

they want
something inexplicable
made plain,
easy to swallow

The frog’s singing as plain but inexplicable, and easy to listen to? I like the idea of something inexplicable made plain, but I’m not sure about the “easy to swallow” part. My inclination is to not like it because I don’t like things to be easy to swallow, and I don’t think poetry is about giving us “easy to swallow” things. But, there’s something deeper about faith, belief, a refusal to be skeptical, and a turn to a different understanding of mystery/ineffability that doesn’t demand confusion and discomfort and utter disorientation that I appreciate about MO’s poem. I want to think about this idea more, and push myself to take it seriously. Is this understanding of what to do with the inexplicable–MO seems to want to make it plain and accessible, while ED seems to want it to unravel you (she writes about poetry as that which makes the top of your head come off–a fundamental difference between the two poets? I’d like to explore it more.

note: just after posting this entry, I looked up MO’s poem “What We Want” and found the rest of it, which I think is helpful for pushing at the ideas more:

not unlike a suddenly
harmonic passage

in an otherwise
difficult and sometimes dissonant
symphony—

even if it is only
for the moment
of hearing it.

MO is interested in that moment, albeit fleeting, of clarity that open you up, or opens to you, inviting you in. Much more I’d like to say about this, but I’ll leave it that for now. I have a whole month to explore it!

One more frog mention: I’m not sure it’s possible to post about poetry and frogs without including Basho’s most famous haiku:

Old pond — frogs jumped in — sound of water.
Translated by Lafcadio Hearn

Mastuo Basho’s Frog Haiku (30 translations)

april 2/RUN

3.2 miles
neighborhood + Howe loop
42 degrees
wind: 15 mph with gusts 33 mph

The wind has returned, trying to slow me down for half of the run, speed me up for the other half. It didn’t bother me too much and, because of it, I got to hear lots of cool wind chimes. Ran on the sidewalk, the street, the trail, the grass. Past 2 elementary schools, one high school, a daycare at a church. Above the river, beside the boulevard, through the tunnel of trees. Saw the Daily Walker just leaving the trail, heading home. Thought about calling out, but decided that might be a little strange since I was behind him and not that close. I remember starting to think about my Emily Dickinson exercise for March. Did I come up with any ideas? I don’t think so. If I did, only the wind knows, I guess. Noticed the shadow of a bird moving very fast. Heard the “feebee” call of the black-capped chickadee. Don’t remember hearing any geese or pileated woodpeckers or cardinals or warblers or mourning doves. When I reached Howe school, I turned on a playlist for the last few minutes.

Gross runner moment: Watched as a drop of sweat below my nose suddenly flew off my face and far off into the air when the wind picked up. Even though I don’t have covid, I’m very glad no one was around. Gross and scary, witnessing how far sweat can fly.

It’s April 2nd, and I’m thinking about how to build off of my March with Emily Dickinson. Maybe focus on circumference? Not sure. After encountering this discussion of ED’s use of bees, and then randomly finding a bee poem by Mary Oliver, I’m thinking about bees. Yes, I like the idea of focusing on bees, flies, and beetles. I can think of many poems from ED, this one from Mary Oliver, at least one from Maggie Smith, and one about flies, When I come home they rush to me, the flies by Aracelis Girmay.

Dickinson used the bee, a favorite symbol of Isaac Watts’s, as a defiant counter-emblem to his hymns. Her bees are irresponsible (138, 1343), enjoy la dolce vita (1627), and are pictured as seducers, traitors, buccaneers (81, 128, 134, 206, etc.).

Here’s the Mary Oliver bee poem I found:

hum/ mary oliver

What is this dark hum among the roses?
The bees have gone simple, sipping,
that’s all. What did you expect? Sophistication?
They’re small creatures and they are
filling their bodies with sweetness, how could they not
moan in happiness? The little
worker bee lives, I have read, about three weeks.
Is that long? Long enough, I suppose, to understand
that life is a blessing. I have found them-haven’t you?—
stopped in the very cups of the flowers, their wings
a little tattered-so much flying about, to the hive,
then out into the world, then back, and perhaps dancing,
should the task be to be a scout-sweet, dancing bee.
I think there isn’t anything in this world I don’t
admire. If there is, I don’t know what it is. I
haven’t met it yet. Nor expect to. The bee is small,
and since I wear glasses, so I can see the traffic and
read books, I have to
take them off and bend close to study and
understand what is happening. It’s not hard, it’s in fact
as instructive as anything I have ever studied. Plus, too,
it’s love almost too fierce to endure, the bee
nuzzling like that into the blouse
of the rose. And the fragrance, and the honey, and of course
the sun, the purely pure sun, shining, all the while, over
all of us.

I love the line: “the bees have gone simple, sipping.”

Mary Oliver has been criticized for being too simple or R/romantic, not poetic enough, too accessible. And, in the years before her death, she was often not taken seriously. I love Mary Oliver and when I read this poem I don’t think of it as an “easy” romantic poem just about how great bees are. This poem is the declaration of someone who has done and is still doing the very difficult work of learning how to notice and love the world–every bit of it, no matter how small or how broken (here I’m thinking of her line in “Invitation”–“believe us, they say,/ it is a serious thing/just to be alive/on this fresh morning/in this broken world”). She writes:

I think there isn’t anything in this world I don’t
admire. If there is, I don’t know what it is. I
haven’t met it yet. Nor expect to.

That’s impressive and something I aspire to. For several years now, I’ve been working to find delight in these small moments, to recognize them as enough, more than enough, to make life fulfilling, to ensure flourishing. I’m getting closer, but I’m not there yet. There are things I don’t admire and, too often lately, I’ve thought about them more than the things I do admire. Maybe I should spend a month with Mary Oliver instead of with insects? Or maybe I should save the insects for a month that’s filled with them–May or June? Yes, I have decided. April is for Mary (Oliver)! I think yesterday’s poetry sighting was the nudge I needed:

Seen in the neighborhood on a house that likes to put poetry on their front windows.

april 1/RUN

3.25 miles
turkey hollow
31 degrees

Much less wind today–5 mph instead of 12-15. So bright, cool, not too crowded. Encountered a few people on the trail but was able to keep at least 6 ft of distance. Is 6 ft still the recommended distance? I know it is probably very low risk to run past another person, only being close to them for a second, but I’m still uneasy when I encounter someone. During the run, I think it was near Becketwood, I imagined how relieved I’ll be when I finally get the vaccine. I will run on the trails with much less anxiety, still keeping a distance (I’ve always done that, even in the before times), but not worrying that every person I met is a loaded gun (loaded with a deadly virus). That day may be coming soon–vaccines are open to everyone as of March 30th. After I write the entry, I’m putting us on all the waiting lists.

Heard lots of birds as I ran, especially cardinals and black-capped chickadees. After reaching turkey hollow and heading up the hill on 47th, I was welcomed with a symphony of bird sounds. Not sure what all the chirps and trills and tweets were, but I loved having their motivating and distracting soundtrack as I climbed. Other things I remember hearing: the sharp, brittle crack of a branch as I ran on it, the shuffling of my feet on the gritty sand, and dog collars clanging below me on the Winchell trail and off to the right, in the grass between the river road and edmund.

I ran on the trail, above the oak savanna, the Winchell trail, and the river. It was sunny so the river was sparkling. Today I remember it looking brown. Is that right? Shouldn’t it be blue? Pretty sure I remember it as brown with a shimmer of light. Also noticed several of the benches, perched on the edge of the bluff, staring out through the bare branches to the other side. And, I took note of shadows, not mine, but the shadows of birds flying over my head. Quick flashes of dark moving past me. I can’t remember if they were big shadows or small shadows; they were just bird shadows.

I’m thinking of spending another month with Emily Dickinson, or at least partially with ED. I want to focus on the peripheral–peripheral vision, ED’s circumference, other ideas about slant/sideways/beside as they are used and expressed in poetry (and maybe lyric essays too?).

Here’s a poem not directly related to that topic, but that I found in The New Yorker and wanted to remember:

Privacy/ Ada Limón

On the black wet branches of the linden,
still clinging to umber leaves of late fall,
two crows land. They say, “Stop,” and still I want
to make them into something they are not.
Odin’s ravens, the bruja’s eyes. What news
are they bringing of our world to the world
of the gods? It can’t be good. More suffering
all around, more stinging nettles and toxic
blades shoved into the scarred parts of us,
the minor ones underneath the trees. Rain
comes while I’m still standing, a trickle of water
from whatever we believe is beyond the sky.
The crows seem enormous but only because
I am watching them too closely. They do not
care to be seen as symbols. A shake of a wing,
and both of them are gone. There was no message
given, no message I was asked to give, only
their great absence and my sad privacy
returning like the bracing, empty wind
on the black wet branches of the linden.

This reminds me of Ada Limón’s intereview on VS. podcast, where she talks about trying to let birds be birds, and that birds aren’t going to save her (or us) or serve as metaphors she thinks she needs. I love her use of the words still and stand/ing in proximity to each other. It reminds me of my favorite October poem (October/ May Swenson) when she writes: “Stand still, stare hard.” When Limón writes, “I’m still standing,” of course I first thought of Elton John’s song (ha ha), but then I read those words, maybe for the first time, not as “I’m continuing to stand” but as “I’m a still-stander or someone who is engaged in the practice of standing without moving, standing still.” Very cool. I like the idea of being a still-stander. Speaking of the word still, I like how she uses it three times. I imagine it as a hidden message: be still, as in calm, quiet, not expecting or worrying about anything, just being where you are, not moving or doing.

march 31/RUN

2.1 miles
neighborhood
33 degrees
wind: 13 mph with gusts, 21 mph

Quick run in the wind and the cold after returning home. A visit with 2 fully vaccinated grandparents! Hopefully soon, we will be too. First time away from Minneapolis since October. Not too far into my run, I heard a pileated woodpecker. Not drumming, but singing. Also heard a black-capped chickadee and their fee-bee song. Can’t remember any other bird calls. Guess the wind was singing louder. Speaking of the wind, heard lots of wind chimes, especially at the house at the corner of 43rd and 32nd. Such a cacophony! Ran down towards the river but stayed on edmund. When I crested the hill, I glanced down but couldn’t see any sparkling river through the trees.

note for me to remember: On the 29th, I memorized ED’s “I felt a cleaving in my Mind–.” That night, I got a headache that came in waves, not feeling like my brain had split but like I wished it would, so I could take the top of it off to relieve the pain and pressure. Ugh! I am a wimp with headaches because I rarely get them. And because I rarely get them, they make me worry more: I never get headaches? Why now? What’s the cause? Is this the start of something worse? I’ve had a few more since then, not quite as bad. I think (am hoping) that they’re caffeine headaches. The grandparents make much weaker coffee (1 scoop of coffee for 6 cups of water), while I make really strong coffee (I scoop of coffee for 1 cup of water).

Here are the final 2 poems in my March with Emily Dickinson. They’re connected to “I felt a cleaving in my Mind–” with the ball and the seam, which speak to ED’s interest in circumference.

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind–
As if my Brain had split–
I tried to match it–Seam for Seam–
But could not make them fit.

The thought behind I strove to bind
Unto the thought before–
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound–
Like Balls upon a floor.

Emily Dickinson Poems: March 30th and 31st

I saw no Way — The Heavens were stitched — (1863)

I saw no Way — The Heavens were stitched —
I felt the Columns close —
The Earth reversed her Hemispheres —
I touched the Universe —

And back it slid — and I alone —
A Speck upon a Ball —
Went out upon Circumference —
Beyond the Dip of Bell —

As I just discovered, the Balls in “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind–” could be balls of yarn. The ball in this poem is the Earth. Another connection: instead of seams, we have stitches. ED likes the word and idea of Circumference. Lots of entries in the Emily Dickinson lexicon, which is a super handy resource: periphery, circuit, edge, skull, perspective, view, vista.

I might have a lot of fun with this idea of circumference, especially in relation to a new vision project I’d like to start: on peripheral vision. Very cool.

I found another version of this poem on the amazing blog project, White Heat. It’s in their week of posts about Circumference. It follows ED’s original manuscript and its line breaks.

I saw no Way – The
Heavens were stitched – 
I felt the Columns close – 
The Earth reversed her
Hemispheres – 
I touched the Universe – 

And back it slid —
And I alone —
A Speck opon a Ball
Went out opon Cirum —
ference —
Beyond the Dip of Bell.

Without this — there is nought — (1862)

Without this — there is nought —
All other Riches be
As is the Twitter of a Bird —
Heard opposite the Sea —

I could not care — to gain
A lesser than the Whole —
For did not this include themself —
As Seams — include the Ball?

I wished a way might be
My Heart to subdivide —
‘Twould magnify — the Gratitude —
And not reduce — the Gold —

Here’s something interesting PB has to say about this poem and curcumference and seams and balls:

The second stanza advances our understanding a little, for we learn that the poet wants the “Whole” rather than some lesser quantity or quality that would be subsumed by the whole. Dickinson uses a ball as an example. Made by stitching leather or fabric together, the ball might be considered interior to the seams encompassing it. I am reminded of Dickinson’s poetic project of circumference. She announces this project in a letter to her chosen “Preceptor”, T.W.Higginson:

“Perhaps you smile at me. I could not stop for that – My Business is Circumference –…” (L268, July 1862).

In a later poem she calls “Circumference” the “Bride of Awe.” At least part of Dickinson’s poetic quest is to trace the seams, to see the whole.

the Prowling Bee

Here’s a source I’d like to track down and read about ED and circumference in “I Saw no way — The Heavens were Stitched–“:

Gribbin, Laura. “Emily Dickinson’s Circumference: Figuring a Blind Spot in the Romantic Tradition.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 2. 1 (Spring 1993): 1-21; 3-4.

March 29/RUN

2.65 miles
austin, mn
56 degrees
wind: 24 mph, 35 (gusts)

In Austin (mn) for the kids’ birthday—RJP is 15, FWA is 18! Ran with Scott through the neighborhood. So windy and warm. For the first mile, my legs felt like inflexible stumps. They didn’t hurt, just seemed stiff. Scott agreed. I wonder, is the pavement harder here in Austin? Do they use a different material than in Minneapolis? We talked as we ran but I can’t remember the conversation. Maybe something about the start of the Chauvin trial? I can’t wait until it’s over; I hope it ends with justice.

Nearing the end of my Emily Dickinson month. I am deeply grateful that I decided, almost on a whim, to spend a month with her words and her life. Today’s poem comes from “the Essential Emily Dickinson,” selected and with an introduction by Joyce Carol Oates:

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind—/ Emily Dickinson

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind—
As if my Brain had Split—
I tried to match it—Seam by Seam—
But could not make them fit.

The thought behind I strove to bind
Unto the thought before—
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls—upon a Floor.

Wow, this poem. Her descriptions of coming undone, physically and mentally, are incredibly powerful. I want to memorize this one.

note from march 31st: I found a brief analysis of this poem and they suggested that the balls in the last line are balls of yarn. Very helpful. Why didn’t I think of that? Not sure, but it totally works with the ravelled of the previous line. Ravelled can mean frayed or unraveled or pulled apart/undone.

march 27/RUN

2.4 miles
edmund loop, heading north
43 degrees


A short run to test out the knees and the back. Not too bad. Inspired by a video of my niece singing “Dr. Horrible” this morning, I listened to it while I ran. It made me smile. I find listening to music often makes it easier to get a first or second layer runner’s high (as opposed to Jaime Quatro’s third layer of running as prayer). Listening to music, I didn’t hear anything else. No birds or conversations or beeping trucks or clicking bike wheels. No shshshushing of my feet on the sandy grit. No in and out of my breath.

The morns are meeker than they were—/ Emily Dickinson

The morns are meeker than they were—
The nuts are getting brown—
The berry’s cheek is plumper—
The Rose is out of town.

The Maple wears a gayer scarf—
The field a scarlet gown—
Lest I should be old fashioned
I’ll put a trinket on. 

I think I’ll add this poem to my collection of fall poems to recite as I walk and run by the gorge in October. I love the line, “The Rose is out of town.” And I enjoy PB’s analysis of the poem:

…it’s a wonderfully female world. I like that for while Spring is usually linked to feminine procreation and blossoming, I tend to think of Autumn as male. It is a brooding time; harvest always leaves behind empty vines. It is “mankind” who harvests Mother Nature’s bounty, and this provides a rather masculine stance. But Dickinson goes all in for Autumn femaleness here. The only male presence are the brown nuts , and they are neatly paired with the plumping berries. Who knows – the Rose might have retired herself more out of propriety than dislike of the cold. Since she is gone the rest of the girls can have some fun. Maple and Field are getting dressed up and now so is the poet.

the Prowling Bee (PB)

And here’s another poem I discovered yesterday on the poet Maggie Smith’s instagram feed.

Meditations in an Emergency/ Cameron Awkward-Rich

I wake up & it breaks my heart. I draw the blinds &
the thrill of rain breaks my heart. I go outside. I
ride the train, walk among the buildings, men in
Monday suits. The flight of doves, the city of tents
beneath the underpass, the huddled mass, old
women hawking roses, & children all of them,
break my heart. There’s a dream I have in which I
love the world. I run from end to end like fingers
through her hair. There are no borders, only wind.
Like you, I was born. Like you, I was raised in the
institution of dreaming. Hand on my heart. Hand
on my stupid heart.

Love this. Thinking about this idea of “break my heart” like Mary Oliver’s use of it in her poem, Lead:

I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

And, one more poem, or part of a poem. When I looked up “Meditations in an Emergency,” Frank O’Hara’s poem came up first. Here’s a part I especially liked:

 However, I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life. It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass. Do they know what they’re missing? Uh huh.

march 26/WALK

1.5 miles
mississippi river gorge
31 degrees

I wanted to run this morning, but my body and I decided that we should take another day off from it. For the last year, I’ve been running more frequently, almost every day. Mostly my body feels okay, but my back is a little sore and so are my knees. Instead of the run, I took Delia on a walk. For the first time this year, we left the paved path and descended the set of worn wooden steps that I wrote about in one of my haibuns:

6. Above the Ravine

Even now with the green glut gone, the bare bones of forest exposed, the ravine is hidden. Leave the paved path near the road and descend a set of worn wooden steps. Follow the remnants of a chainlink fence deeper to a grated walkway not quite above a seep of water slicking the metal slats. Stand still, listen up. Hear the water dribble out of the sewer pipe, over the limestone ledge, down to the river. Imagine that the painted keys, fastened with wire rings to the wrought iron fence in the summer of 2017, are still there, offering a way in.

Sometimes when you want
to enter, all that’s needed
is a key that fits.

Very cool. The steps were even more worn but the dirt was dry and so were the metal slats. I could hear the water trickling down to the forest floor. It was overcast, so no blue, only brown everywhere. As we ascended on the other side, I could hear the clickity-clacking of a roller skier! My first sighting this year. These skiers don’t waste any time switching from wood to wheels. I wonder, which they miss most: sliding on the snow when it’s summer, or rolling on the asphalt when it’s winter? I would imagine the snow, but who knows?

Emily Dickinson: Yellow

For as long as I can remember, green has been my favorite color and yellow my least. But lately–as in the last 3 or 4 years–I’ve grown to appreciate yellow. I keep intending to buy some yellow shoes or a yellow shirt or a yellow something. Maybe this spring I finally will? What does that have to do with Emily Dickinson and yellow? My poem for yesterday was “A lane of Yellow and the eye” and, after reading it and thinking about my new fondness for yellow, I decided to search for yellow poems over at the Prowling Bee. Here are 3 (“A lane…” and 2 more I found) that interested me:

One: Yellow as highlighter, calling attention

A lane of Yellow led the eye (1650)/ Emily Dickinson –

A lane of Yellow led the eye
Unto a Purple Wood
Whose soft inhabitants to be
Surpasses solitude
If Bird the silence contradict
Or flower presume to show
In that low summer of the West
Impossible to know –

I love this first line and how she describes the early evening (would you call this the gloaming or twilight?)–the purple woods, the quiet, the soft inhabitants, the sun setting as “the low summer of the West.” The “soft inhabitants” makes me think of how in dimmer light everything looks softer, fuzzier. I enjoy this in the winter, walking outside right before the sun sets, noticing how soft the tree branches look. Of course, because of my cone dystrophy, I have this dim view much more frequently than a normally sighted person. Often, all I see are soft inhabitants. Mostly, I don’t mind. I like this phrase–soft inhabitants. I think I’ll try to use it in my writing sometime instead of fuzzy forms.

I also like this image of someone at the edge of a wood (either standing at the edge, or peering into the wood from a window which is what I imagine ED might be doing) and wondering what’s in it, but not being able to tell. Here, the “impossible to know” is not a lament of someone on the outside, unable to enter, but an invitation to imagine what might be in there, a sense of delight in the mystery and possibility of it. I like running on the edge of the gorge, looking down into the thick trees, seeing a winding path, and wondering what/who could be in there that I can’t see. So many delightful, scary, interesting things!

ED writes frequently about circumference in her letters and poems. Is this an example of it?

Two: Yellow as excess (too bright, too cheerful, too much)

I dreaded that first Robin, so,/ Emily Dickinson (1862)

I dreaded that first Robin, so,
But He is mastered, now,
I’m accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though—

I thought If I could only live
Till that first Shout got by—
Not all Pianos in the Woods
Had power to mangle me—

I dared not meet the Daffodils—
For fear their Yellow Gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own—

I wished the Grass would hurry—
So when ’twas time to see—
He’d be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch to look at me—

I could not bear the Bees should come,
I wished they’d stay away
In those dim countries where they go,
What word had they, for me?

They’re here, though; not a creature failed—
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me—
The Queen of Calvary—

Each one salutes me, as he goes,
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment
Of their unthinking Drums –

In her discussion of it, the Prowling Bee understands the coming of spring as a metaphor for the passing of time and that ED is depressed by the inevitability of death, creeping closer with each new singing robin or bright daffodil or buzzing bee. This makes sense, especially with the last verse–the childish Plumes, bereaved acknowledgment, their unthinking Drums. What if we also thought of it literally? Maybe ED can’t bear the robin because their Shout hurts her head or the Yellow of the Daffodil is too bright for her eyes or the droning of the Bees is too relentless for her ears? Maybe she’s having a migraine or is overwhelmed by the too-muchness of spring? In the comments, someone wrote: “I think of this poem whenever my springtime allergies kick in. :)” Yes, I love how ED captures the feeling of being physically overwhelmed by the senses. As I work to find better words to describe my physical feelings, I appreciate ED’s ability to do it so well.

Three: Yellow as light, all-powerful Sun

To interrupt His Yellow Plan/ Emily Dickinson (1863)

To interrupt His Yellow Plan
The Sun does not allow
Caprices of the Atmosphere —
And even when the Snow

Heaves Balls of Specks, like Vicious Boy
Directly in His Eye —
Does not so much as turn His Head
Busy with Majesty —

‘Tis His to stimulate the Earth —
And magnetize the Sea —
And bind Astronomy, in place,
Yet Any passing by

Would deem Ourselves — the busier
As the minutest Bee
That rides — emits a Thunder —
A Bomb — to justify —

I really appreciate PB’s (prowling bee) analysis here (and the comments by others too. Click on the poem to read all of it). Very helpful. I especially like her last bit about the Bee and her suggestion that ED is poking fun at Isaac Watt’s “Little Busy Bee”:

Now, as to Watts’ poem about the “Little Busy Bee”. The first two stanzas praise the bee who is industrious, skilful, and neat. Such attributes “Improve each shining hour”. The last two stanzas find the poet wanting to emulate the bee for two reasons: to lead a good life and to stay busy so that the Devil can’t make use of his ‘idle hands’.
        I imagine Dickinson reading this poem and finding it deeply ironic. Most of her countrymen were exposed to this poem. Many of them spent their childhoods “In books, or work, or healthful play” and later strove to be busy in ‘works of labor or of skill’. And yet rather than a society like the humming hive, they found no way out of their deep divisions except by busily building and employing the engines of war.

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower! 

How skilfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes. 

In works of labor or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do. 

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.
                                     Isaac Watts, 1715

Yes! Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the bullshit of busy work, which seems to be a lot of what work is these days. While Watts champions the busy work of bees, constantly contributing to the health of the hive, I wonder about the value of work now (which has made busy-ness and distraction an end in itself and that often doesn’t contribute to the greater health of the community)? What, in the 21st century in the midst of a global climate crisis and a pandemic that necessitates we do less, is work for? What is our work doing–to the world? to us? And, what work are we valuing most? Least?

Thinking about work in relation to religion and as a counter to Watt’s “idle hands do the devil’s work,” I’m reminded of David Naimon’s “Between the Covers” interview with Ross Gay:

DN: “What parts of my day, in relationship to the Earth, aren’t extractive on a species level versus relational and giving back?” It feels 99 to 1….I wonder about spiritual technologies that we used to use, like in its best form, the Sabbath where you’re not supposed to do anything that moves you forward in the world, you don’t exchange money, you don’t get in a car, you spend time with people you love, you attend to the moment with no sense of the future. It’s supposed to be this recreation of the Garden of Eden once a week but also, along with that, in the Bible, you were supposed to let the land rest every seven years….

David Naimon

Do we offer any meaningful space for rest now? (I don’t think so.) Why not?

Not sure if that totally makes sense, but I’m thinking about the limits and dangers of our understandings of work–who benefits from it, who is exploited by it, what does it produce/cause/contribute/harm? And, as we (in the US) live through this terrible time–ecological devastation, over half a million deaths from COVID-19, a divided nation, an unchecked/barely checked white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (see bell hooks for definition), suffering, extreme poverty, no safety net or support for the most vulnerable citizens–what has all our work achieved? I think this might come across as a little preachier and darker than I am intending. I am not trying to preach. Instead, I am struggling to make sense of my relationship to work and to contend with my extreme disappointment over how much we have been taught/encouraged/required to believe work = success and achievement, and how little that has prepared us to respond to our current crises in ways that are meaningful, caring, and reparative.

march 24/RUN

2.7 miles
43rd ave, north/32nd st, east/edmund, south/river road trail, south/edmund, north
41 degrees
light rain

Sometimes dripping, sometimes drizzly, always windy. The rain wasn’t supposed to stop until 3 or 4, but when it looked like it was letting up a little, I decided to go for a run. A few other walkers, one runner with 2 dogs. Spent a lot of time dodging puddles on the sidewalk. Success. No wet socks. Ran through the tunnel of trees and, unlike yesterday when I felt as if I was buried in brown, today I noticed a slender slash of blue river. Why didn’t I see it yesterday? Must have been the light and the color of the river. Both yesterday and today I ran through the Welcoming Oaks; yesterday I remembered to greet them, today I forgot. I stopped at the split rail fence above the ravine and listened to the water rushing down the limestone and concrete ledges. I glanced down at the oak savanna as I ran above it, noticing the muddy trail at the bottom. Was planning to pay attention to one of my favorite spots, where the mesa slopes down to meet the Winchell trail and the river is revealed, but I was distracted by an approaching pedestrian. Stopped at the bench near Folwell–the one on the rutted dirt path that links two parts of the Winchell trail and that I wrote about in a haibun that didn’t make it into my Mississippi Gorge haibuns–and stared at the river, framed by a few bare branches. Crossed over the river road and the grassy boulevard and headed home, north on Edmund, running straight into the wind. As I neared the parking lot by the oak savanna, I saw some lights that looked like they were coming from somewhere on the bluff. I recalled how the road curves here, around a ravine, and that those lights were the headlights of cars on the river road. A strange, delightful sight.

I chanted a bit from the Emily Dickinson poem I’m reading today, ‘Tis so much joy! ‘Tis so much joy!:

Life is but Life! And Death, but Death!
Bliss is, but Bliss, and Breath but Breath!

‘Tis so much joy! ‘Tis so much joy!/ Emily Dickinson

‘Tis so much joy! ‘Tis so much joy!
If I should fail, what poverty!
And yet, as poor as I,
Have ventured all upon a throw!
Have gained! Yes! Hesitated so –
This side the Victory!

Life is but Life! And Death, but Death!
Bliss is, but Bliss, and Breath but Breath!
And if indeed I fail,
At least, to know the worst, is sweet!
Defeat means nothing but Defeat,
No drearier, can befall!

And if I gain! Oh Gun at Sea!
Oh Bells, that in the steeples be!
At first, repeat it slow!
For Heaven is a different thing,
Conjectured, and waked sudden in –
And might extinguish me!

I like the Prowling Bee’s introduction to her analysis of this poem:

Something big has happened and the reader is not given much of a clue as to the nature of the big thing. The poet has gambled everything – “ventured all upon a throw!” – and is in a state of ecstatic waiting. There are sixteen exclamation marks in eighteen lines and that is a lot of excitement.

Yes, that is a lot of excitement. For the rest of her analysis, the Prowling Bee (PB) speculates on what ED has done to cause such excitement. PB decides it has to do with love and cites the 3 mysterious letters ED wrote to “Master.” These letters come up in the book I’m listening to right now, Lives like Loaded Guns, and more obliquely in the show, Dickinson (I’m not sure because I haven’t watched these episodes yet, but I think that the show is suggesting that the newspaper editor Samuel Bowles is “Master”–will these letters be cited in any of the episodes? I’ll have to keep watching to find out.). Googling it, I found this great article from The Rumpus:

There is no evidence that the letters—written between 1858 and 1862 and discovered shortly after Dickinson’s death in 1886—were ever sent, although they may have been drafts of versions that were posted. No one knows to whom they were intended. Perhaps the Reverend Charles Wadsworth (they had a correspondence, none of which survives), or Samuel Bowles, the editor of a newspaper in Springfield and a family friend, or a professor named William Smith Clarke. Or perhaps they are not to a person at all, but to God. Or the Devil. For nearly twenty years I’ve taught Dickinson and the Master Letters in my early American literature course, always hoping to come closer to the source of the mystery. Instead, just the opposite has happened. The mystery has deepened. The more I study them, the more we hash them out in class, the longer the shadows grow and deepen over their meaning.

The Dark Mystery of Emily Dickinson’s “Master” Letters

I like that scholars, even after decades of scrutiny, can’t quite figure ED out. Nice work ED! While I can appreciate being curious about this “dark mystery,” right now I don’t really care what she’s talking about here. I like the little chant about life and death, bliss and breath, and I might try to lean on it when I’m struggling during a run, or attempting to block out worrisome thoughts so I can fall asleep, or feeling panic over yet another sinus infection.

march 23/RUN

3.2 miles
edmund loop, heading north
45 degrees

Both of my knees were feeling strange yesterday, not quite like the kneecap was slipping out but unstable and sore, so I didn’t run. I biked and watched another episode of Dickinson instead. Today, even though it was drizzling when I started, I ran. I started in the neighborhood but when I reached Edmund, about a mile in, I decided to cross over to the river. I was able to run on my favorite part, through the tunnel of trees, just above the floodplain forest. Wow! It was all a rich brown: bare branches and bare earth, hardly any sky, no river. In a few months, this same spot will be nothing but green. Both ways, it’s disorienting: now, with the brown, it almost feels like you’re buried in the earth; later, in the green, like you’re underwater in a green sea. I think I heard some birds, mostly cardinals. What I remember hearing most was the light rain hitting the brim of my baseball cap. For the last mile, I listened to my playlist.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – (236)/ EMILY DICKINSON

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

I appreciate ED’s connection between the sacred and nature here. My first chapbook was all about the sacred rituals of being upright and outside by the Mississippi River Gorge. (I’m not alone; many runners refer to their long runs on Sundays as the “church of the long run”). My exploration of this theme was as a non-church going ex-religion major with a master’s in theological ethics who finds tremendous value in the sacred, but not in organized religion and church services.

Right now, I just finished listening to a section in the ED biography, Lives as Loaded Guns, about the religious revival in Amherst in the mid 1800s and the pressure ED experienced to publicly declare her faith in Christ and become a full member of her church. She refused, even as all of her family and friends professed their faith. According to the author, Lyndall Gordon, ED’s friends, including Jane Humphrey (who plays a prominent, if slightly different, role in the show Dickinson), are enlisted as spies to “report back” on what ED was thinking and doing and to try to persuade her to change her mind. I thought of this religious revival in the town and what an impact it had on Amherst as I watched an episode of Dickinson today and noticed that there were a surprisingly large number of ministers at the party/salon everyone (or, anyone who is anyone) was attending at Sue and Austin’s house. Several of these clergy were the dates/suitors of the popular girls. I’m fascinated and delighted by how the show brings in details like this without explicitly addressing them.

ED’s faith and her expressions/practices of and struggles with it are more complicated than this charming poem might suggest. I think I should read one of the classic biographies on ED, Roger Lundin’s Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief.

Speaking of ED’s complicated relationship to religion and God and the church, I’ve been thinking about her poetic form and how she often used hymn form. Here’s some information from Common Questions on Emily Dickinson:

What kind of meter did Dickinson write in, and why did she use it?

  • Common Meter or Hymn Meter
  1. Definition: A closed poetic quatrain, rhyming A B A B, in which iambic tetrameter alternate with iambic trimeter. Common meter is distinguished from ballad meter by its rhyme scheme: the rhyme scheme of ballad meter is X A X A.
  2. Derivation: This meter derives from English hymnology and uses predominantly iambic or trochaic feet (sometimes dactylic).
  3. Types
  • Common meter: alternately 8 and 6 syllables to the line: 8/6/8/6
  • Long meter: 8 syllables to the line 8/8/8/8 (this tends to get monotonous)
  • Short meter: two lines of 6 syllables, followed by one of 8, then one of 6: 6/6/8/6
  • Sevens and sixes: 7/6/7/6
  • Common particular meter: 8/8/6/8/8/6
  • Short particular meter: 6/6/8/6/6/8

Source: Isaac Watts’s Christian Psalmody, or, The Psalms. Watts always names the meter, and introductions set forth what effects may be achieved by each type.

Dickinson’s Use of Hymns

  1. According to Martha England, her hymns differed from Watts’s in these ways:
  • greater use of enjambment
  • greater metrical freedom
  • use of more images with no scriptural source
  1. Dickinson used the bee, a favorite symbol of Watts’s, as a defiant counter-emblem to his hymns. Her bees are irresponsible (138, 1343), enjoy la dolce vita (1627), and are pictured as seducers, traitors, buccaneers (81, 128, 134, 206, etc.).
  2. Every poem composed before 1861 is fashioned in one of the hymn meters above.
  • Largest proportion in common meter.
  • Second largest proportion in common particular meter.

Note: If I’m counting and reciting correctly, this poem doesn’t fit the hymn form. Is that because it’s from 1861 and not before? I always need help hearing the meter in poetry. Here’s another source I might want to check out: Listening to Dickinson

bobolinks and surplices

Bobolinks are small songbirds with large, somewhat flat heads, short necks, and short tails. They are related to blackbirds and orioles, and they have a similar shaped, sharply pointed bill.

All About Birds

They are present in Minnesota but have been in serious decline for some time now. Why? Loss of habitat, pesticides on food supply suppressing appetite and causing them to not eat enough, and too many people and buildings to run into. After listening to the call and the song, I’m not sure if I heard one before. I’d probably remember because they kind of sound like R2D2. They like hanging out in grasslands, meadows, and prairies, and traveling in big flocks.

A surplice is “a loose white linen vestment varying from hip-length to calf-length, worn over a cassock by clergy, acolytes, and choristers at Christian church services.” As a Lutheran pastor, did my dad wear this? Not quite, I think. Maybe I’m just confused by how he would always wear a stole too? I’ve seen lots of these surplices on the British murder mystery shows I watch.

Here’s another, non-ED poem that I discovered yesterday. I love Maggie Smith and I love this poem, especially how she plays with and challenges the importance of naming and classifying things.

Goldenrod/ Maggie Smith

I’m no botanist. If you’re the color of sulfur
and growing at the roadside, you’re goldenrod.

You don’t care what I call you, whatever
you were born as. You don’t know your own name.

But driving near Peoria, the sky pink-orange,
the sun bobbing at the horizon, I see everything

is what it is, exactly, in spite of the words I use:
black cows, barns falling in on themselves, you.

Dear flowers born with a highway view,
forgive me if I’ve mistaken you. Goldenrod,

whatever your name is, you are with your own kind.
Look–the meadow is a mirror, full of you,

your reflection repeating. Whatever you are,
I see you, wild yellow, and I would let you name me.

a moment of sound

So many birds! Spring is here!

march 22, 2021

march 21/RUN

4.7 miles
franklin loop
43 degrees

Scott and I ran the franklin loop this morning. First, we talked about The Dukes of Hazard and how Uncle Jessie was related to Beau and Luke, if at all, and how Daisy fit into it (Scott brought it up). Then we talked about realism and truth and postmodernism and academic street fights and the scientific method (my topic). A lot of fun. Not sure how much I remember about the run. Sometimes it’s nice to be completely distracted. I remember noticing the big lion sculptures on the front stoop of a big house by the river. A few trees leaning towards the road. The boat dock over at the rowing club. The row of gloves and one hat perched on the fence posts at the Town and Country club. Running through a lot of sandy grit and potholes on the edge of the river road. Smelling cigarette smoke. Feeling warm and overdressed. Hearing the bells at St. Thomas.

There is no Frigate like a Book (1286)/ EMILY DICKINSON

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –

I think this would be a fun poem to memorize and always have at the ready when thinking about why I love reading. I remember when I first encountered the word frigate. It was from one of my son’s friends. I think they were both 11 or 12 at the time. He mentioned how fascinated he was by old warships, including frigates. Then he gave me a lecture on the different types of frigates. Strange.

So, reading this, I knew frigate, but I was unfamiliar with courser. According to the OED, it’s a swift horse. Something interesting: a frigate is “a light and swift vessel, originally built for rowing, afterwards for sailing,” which is what I think ED intends here, but it is also a war vessel, which is what FWA’s friend meant. A courser is a swift racing horse, but it is also “a powerful horse, ridden in battle.” Was ED thinking at all about the frigate or courser as images of war? That wouldn’t seem to fit with the overall meaning of the poem, but I just found it interesting that both of these figures have that double meaning. Oh–and the chariot too–that’s a “vehicle used in ancient warfare.”

I agree with ED’s sentiment here: reading is wonderful in its ability to transport us to other worlds, to learn about other places and people, to be moved by others’ stories. Reading does has its limits too, however. Yesterday morning I read a twitter thread about the problems with suggesting that white supremacy can be solved by just reading more widely about non-white experiences, that is, through reading, we can gain empathy and understanding, or reading = empathy = no more racism. As Lisa Ko (the thread starter) suggests, empathy is not enough to counter or correct state violence. I’m not bringing this up to challenge ED’s championing of reading and books; I just wanted to place another idea about reading beside it.

Speaking of reading, I just started Braiding Sweetgrass. Wow! Love it. Only a few pages in, and I already found this great bit about the Original Instructions:

These are not “instructions” like commandments, though, or rules; rather, they are like a compass: they provide an orientation but not a map. The work of living is creating that map for yourself.

march 19/RUN

3.3 miles
edmund loop, starting north
42 degrees

Feeling more and more like spring. All the snow is gone, the sun is warm, the birds are singing even louder and longer. What I remember most about my run are the black-capped chickadees and their “fee-bee” song. Running on Edmund, between 32nd and 34th, I heard at least 2 of them calling out, not in a call and response, with one singing 2 ascending notes, the other 2 descending ones, but with both of them ascending, calling out to some other bird that wasn’t responding. Sometimes they were in sync, but sometimes they weren’t–a strange cacophony of fees and bees. About a mile later, I heard another chickadee calling out. No response.

When I reached 42nd st, I turned on my spotify playlist–“Ain’t Nobody,” “I feel for you,” and “Leave the Door Open”–and ran on the grass. It was tricky avoiding holes and not sinking into the soft, mushy grass. I love Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s “Leave the Door Open”–how it sounds, their voices, the playful lyrics, the message of consent and hope, the invitation to be open. Wonderful.

Oh–I can’t believe I almost forgot–the river! Just past the top of the hill on Edmund between 33rd and 34th, you can glimpse the river through the trees. Today it was on fire, glowing with a bright white light. Wow. Definitely dazzling. Seeing this bright light, I thought about the Emily Dickinson poem I’m studying and that I memorized before running: “We grow accustomed to the Dark.” The poem is about how we adjust to the dark when “light is put away,” both literally and metaphorically. For many, I’m sure, this poem suggests that the loss of light and the coming of the darkness is always unwelcome and tragic. But not necessarily for ED, and not for me. I had to stop at the top of the hill and record a thought into my phone: “sometimes the problem with light is not its loss, but its abundance.” Too much light is too dazzling, making it too difficult to see or understand what you’re seeing. I have difficulty when there’s a lack of light, but often just as much when there’s too much light. So, sometimes a lack of light is welcome, wanted, offering some rest for tired and overwhelmed eyes.

We grow accustomed to the Dark

After spending so much time yesterday reading other people’s words about ED’s “We grow accustomed to the dark,” I decided I wanted to spend some time today with her words. I started by memorizing the poem. Memorizing a poem always helps me to listen better to the words. Now (I started this section before I ran and am continuing it after I’m done), I’m typing up each stanza (from memory) and typing up my thoughts, most of which don’t offer insight but a way for me to work through my efforts to understand her words. I’m noticing how this effort sometimes involves forcing myself to move past what I think the words should mean or how they should sound and listen to what she is actually writing and doing with her words.

We grow accustomed to the Dark –
When light is put away –
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp –
To witness her Goodbye.

I like the word accustomed. From the OED:

  • Verb: “To make (a person or thing) familiar with or used to something; to familiarize, habituate.”
    Adjective: “In the habit of doing something; used to something.”

Yes! This reminds me of one of my preferred understandings of knowing–to become acquainted with. Not to Know or even to fully understand, but to adjust to, get used to. I like the connecting of this with habit and habitual practice.

I also like how she describes this: “When Light is put away.” Who is putting the light away? I don’t think she means God here. I like thinking about something/someone putting it away–a much different feel than if she had written: “when light has gone away.”

added later: Could she mean that she, ED, puts the light away? The Prowling Bee thinks so. Analyzing the stanza about the larger Darkness, she writes:

 That unknown mental and spiritual domain is a “larger – Darkness.” That is where our great poets and philosophical explorers venture while the rest of us pursue our hobbies or just relax. Dickinson spends time in this darkness and most of her most evocative, ambiguous, and challenging poetry comes from there.

the Prowling Bee

I keep wanting to make the final line, “To witness our Goodbye” instead of her goodbye, but I finally get that the Lamp is witnessing her goodbye to us, as we leave.

I love the idea of the Lamp/Light witnessing the Goodbye. A great image. And interesting to think about how in the second line the light is leaving us, but in the 4th line, we are leaving the light. Is that intended as an echo of the final stanza of the poem–either the darkness alters or something in the sight adjusts itself to midnight? Who is acting and who is acted upon? Yes (returning to this analysis later, after publishing this post), the idea of both the light leaving us and us leaving the light fits with my mention of the prowling bee and the idea of ED choosing to leave light and enter the darkness in order to explore deeper, more troubling, difficult and unknown ideas and themes.

A Moment – We uncertain step
For newness of the night –
Then – fit our Vision to the Dark –
And meet to Road – erect –

The idea of a moment is great–a moment of panic and uncertainty before we’re able to see. As my central vision declines, I have a lot more of these moments: when I enter an unfamiliar building (or sometimes even a familiar one) and not much makes sense. I can’t read the signs or tell where to go. Or when I’m looking at an object but I can’t tell what it is–is it a dead squirrel or a clump of leaves or furry mittens? Most of the time, my brain eventually adjusts and I can see what I’m trying to look at and continue on with more certainty. I’m trying to work on not fearing that uncertain step, letting the moment just be a moment that I will move past, knowing that I will adjust or figure it out (or ask someone for help). And it’s working. I am getting better.

I find “We uncertain step” to be awkward, but I like how its awkwardness seems to effectively create uncertainty and discomfort in the reader–at least this reader, me.

Love the alliteration of newness of night and her descriptions of adjusting as fitting our Vision to the Dark and becoming more certain as meeting the road erect.

As I work through this poem, I’m realizing something (or, being reminded of something I know, but keep forgetting or straying from): It is very interesting to learn about ED’s life and the historical context of her work, and it’s helpful to see patterns and themes across the poems. Yet, what matters most to me are the actual poems and how effectively her words describe vision loss and resonate with my own experiences of it. Her words are opening a door, offering a way into understanding (and expressing that understanding) how vision loss and living with less vision feels.

And so of larger – Darkness –
Those Evenings of the Brain –
When not a Moon disclose a sign –
Or Star – come out – within –

I like how she shifts to a metaphorical understanding of Darkness and then describes it as “those Evenings of the Brain.” I’m imagining she could mean depression (possibly hers, some suggest there’s evidence she was mildly bipolar or her mother’s) or hopelessness or sadness or turmoil or illness or uncertain/lack of understanding. She might even mean those times when she could not write, which fits well with the next lines about no signs being disclosed or stars coming out. And returning to the comments I’m just adding, this also means those darker, deeper, uncomfortable, troubling ideas/thoughts/themes that writers are willing to explore.

one more thing to add: I’m thinking about how most of my academic work and a big part of my current ethical project involves bewilderment and trouble and uncertainty and the value of dwelling in these uncomfortable spaces for us and learning how to be/to flourish. Because I’ve spent so much time thinking about these things, maybe it’s helped me to navigate my vision loss more effectively?

When I was reciting this poem from memory, I kept forgetting disclose. All I could think of was “display.” I knew it was wrong, but I just couldn’t remember disclose. Is it because “not a Moon disclose a sign” sounds awkward–“not a Moon disclosed a sign” sounds better to my ear, even if that changes the tense. Anyway, disclose is a much stronger, more precise, verb than display, so I’m hoping I can remember it now.

The bravest – grope a little –
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead –
But as they learn to see –

I like grope even as I don’t. It fits well with the idea of struggling to find meaning in the dark, but it also conjures up creepy guys and their grabby hands.

Sometimes, when I’m running, I hit a tree. Not directly in my forehead, but with my elbow or hip. I like the funny image of people literally running into trees, especially hitting them directly in the Forehead, and I also like the metaphorical meaning of being stunned as they struggle to make sense of/adjust to (overcome?) the darkness.

I don’t like poems that try too hard to rhyme (which this doesn’t), and I like when lines rhyme or echo (which this does). Tree and see work well; it’s pleasing to the ear and helps keep the large idea/image of adjusting to darkness moving forward.

Either the Darkness alters –
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight –
And Life steps almost straight.

It often feels, when you can finally make out shapes in a dark room, that the darkness has changed, become less dim, but it’s really your vision adjusting, with the help of your rod photoreceptor cells, your pupils widening to take in more light, and your brain, to that darkness.

Love this ending line about life stepping almost straight, especially the almost part.

Whew. I’m ready for a break now. What a joy to spend so much time with ED’s words! Yesterday, I felt frustrated, reading so much about the poem (when it was written, what it was in response to, how it fit into a larger understanding of ED as a poet) without actually reading the poem or thinking about the meaning of the poem.

a moment of sound

Sat on the deck with my daughter and Delia the dog, soaking in the warm sun. Very quiet. I can hear my daughter briefly sniffing like a dog and some kid at the end of the street calling out and a crow. Of course, after I turned off the recording, a cardinal started trilling–at least 10 times–repeatedly.

march 19, 2021

march 18/RUN

5k
turkey hollow
38 degrees

Almost all of the snow is gone. A few small mounds scattered across the grass, none on the sidewalk or the street. Spring snows are never that bad; you always know it will melt quickly. Overdressed today. I stopped near turkey hollow and awkwardly took off my pink jacket and tried to figure out the best way to wrap it around my waist–under or outside of my vest? Tried both. Inside was best. As always, heard lots of birds. Also, a few conversations–not the words, but the sound of people talking. The best part of the run was the river glittering in the sun. Big and bold flashes of light, blindingly bright, almost throbbing or pulsing, not the short sparkles that dance and flicker. Was this pulsing the result of more intense light or the wind? Probably the wind, even though I didn’t notice it that much, but felt the hot sun all the time. Normally this intense light would be too much for my eyes, but today I enjoyed it. As I headed back north during my last mile, I ran on the grassy boulevard. A little muddy, soft, rutted. Harder to move. My legs felt heavy and stuck.

Getting close to 3 weeks into my Emily Dickinson March project and I’m enjoying all that I’m learning about her and her work. At first, I only spent a few minutes reading and rereading the poem for the day, but slowly I’ve been spending more time with her words and words about her work. I want to make sure that most of my time is with her words, but it’s helpful to learn how other people understand her. I seem to struggle with understanding and interpreting imagery and metaphors and I can use the help. Will it ever get easier? Maybe. Today’s poem got me thinking about a lot of things:

We grow accustomed to the Dark –/ Emily Dickinson

We grow accustomed to the Dark –
When light is put away –
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye –

A Moment – We uncertain step
For newness of the night –
Then – fit our Vision to the Dark –
And meet the Road – erect –

And so of larger – Darkness –
Those Evenings of the Brain –
When not a Moon disclose a sign –
Or Star – come out – within –

The Bravest – grope a little –
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead –
But as they learn to see –

Either the Darkness alters –
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight –
And Life steps almost straight.

I can’t help but read this in poem in relation to ED’s vision loss, and my own. The idea of growing accustomed to a loss of light, or a loss of sight, and then figuring out how to see/live again but differently, where “Life steps almost straight,” but not quite–slant for ED, sideways for me.

note: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this poem today, and I’m a bit stuck. Too much to say. In the process of struggling to find words and formulate ideas, I found this excellent site and post about ED’s temporary vision loss in 1862. Very cool:

may 28-june 3, 1862: Poems on Illness

In this post about illness and her sudden and temporary vision loss, they group and discuss the following poems:

  • My first well day since many ill
  • Before I got my eye put out
  • The Soul has Bandaged moments
  • The first day’s night had come
  • We grow accustomed to the dark
  • Renunciation is a piercing virtue

I want to return to their analysis and think more about ED and vision loss.

One more thing I found as I thought about ED and her complicated take on light and darkness–sometimes she praises/loves light, sometimes it’s dangerous and oppressive: Lunacy of Light: Emily Dickinson and the Experience of Metaphor

Barker argues that since light was a masculine tradition, it had come to represent male power, energy, sexuality–not only to Dickinson but to other women writing during the era. To these writers the inversion of the light/darkness metaphor became a countertradition used as a means to express their energies in a society that was hostile to their intelligence. Dickinson, who read avidly, could not have been insensitive to this usage of light as a masculine symbol of her Calvinist God, of her father, of all that was male?and of darkness as a feminine symbol….

Emily Dickinson thought in a richly symbolic manner. Her most frequently used metaphor is one of light in contrast to darkness, employing single-word references to light more than one thousand times in her 1,775 poems.

Wendy Barker’s Lunacy of Light: Emily Dickinson and the Experience of Metaphor

Here’s a wonderful animated reading of the poem:

Via Brain Pickings

a moment of sound

Sitting on my deck, enjoying the warm sun, I heard the bells chiming from across the river in St. Paul at St. Thomas University. I looked at my watch and it was only 10:59. They were a minute early.

march 18, 2021

march 17/RUN

3.4 miles
43rd ave, north/31st st, east/edmund, south/42nd st, east/river road trail, north
34 degrees

Woke up to several inches of snow on Tuesday. Decided to skip the running and shovel and bike instead. Woke up again this morning to another dusting but noticed the sidewalks and roads were bare so I went for a run. What a run! Not too cold, but not too warm. Not much wind. Not too bright. No one else out. Did I see any other runners or walkers? Only one or two. I wasn’t planning to run on the river road trail but I remembered that a few days ago I had wondered what the river would look like after the snow, and when I saw that no one was on the trail, I decided to check it out. When I reached the river, I stopped to record my moment of sound. I stood closer to the river and admired the grayish-blue water with the white banks.

march 17, 2021

Listen to those birds! I also like the sound of the cars as they rush by–you can hear the water on the wheels, everything damp, slick.

Before heading north for the last mile, I put in a Spotify playlist and listened to 2 songs I recently added, both by Chaka Khan: “Ain’t Nobody” and “I Feel for You” Yes! So much fun to run right above the river with no one else there to avoid, just me and Chaka Khan and Melle Mel (he raps at the beginning and end of the song–I had to look that up.) Discovered that he was part of Grandmaster Flash and had rapped on “White Lines” the year before. Very cool.

Yesterday I spent a lot of time with Emily Dickinson. First, I finished an episode of Dickinson–in this one, Emily has writer’s block and is trying to decide whether or not publishing her poems is a good idea. Then, I read my ED poem for the day: My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun. After finding a podcast discussing it, and then reading a few articles about it, I decided this poem, considered to be the most complicated and richly layered of her poems, deserved 2 days. Well, it deserves much more than 2 days, but that’s what I’m giving it for this month with Emily Dickinson. Here are my thoughts from yesterday and today:

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun (764)/ EMILY DICKINSON

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –

And now We roam in Sovreign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply –

And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through –

And when at Night – Our good Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head –
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow – to have shared –

To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –

Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without – the power to die –

This poem has taken me down a rabbit hole of fascinating things about Emily Dickinson. The poem itself provides a lot to wonder about but I barely made it that far. I imagine I’ll want to reread this poem many times. My rabbit hole concerns ED’s process of gathering and preserving her poems and the importance of this poem for poet/scholar/historian Susan Howe. Here’s a few things I’ve discovered.

This poem is in a fascicle.

“Fascicle” is the name that Emily Dickinson’s early editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, gave to the homemade manuscript books into which Dickinson copied hundreds of poems, probably beginning in the late 1850s and continuing through the late 1860s. Dickinson constructed the fascicles by writing poems onto sheets of standard stationery already folded in two to create two leaves (four pages). She then stacked several such sheets on top of each other, stabbed two holes in the left margin through the stack, and threaded string through the holes and tied the sheets together. Occasionally she varied this basic pattern by binding half-sheets (cut along the fold) into the stack of folded sheets. “Set” is a term first used by editor R.W. Franklin to describe groups of unbound sheets of similar paper and size that were never bound by the poet. There are 40 fascicles, and 15 sets.

Dickinson herself did not number or label the fascicles. They were taken apart by the first editors of Dickinson’s poetry, and so have had to be reconstructed by various scholars. Within this site, we use the order established by R.W. Franklin, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1998). Not all Dickinson scholars agree with his reconstruction.

About Emily Dickinson Archive

It’s in fascicle 34. According to Susan Howe (in this speech that I was just listening to on the upenn site), there’s some discussion/debate over how ED gathered her poems into the fascicles. Were they chronological? Grouped by theme? And, if by theme, how closely connected were they? Howe seems to think that the connection is a loose one.

Howe makes this poem a primary focus of her book, My Emily Dickinson

I checked this book out from the library 3 or 4 years ago and tried to read it but it was too difficult for me then. I hadn’t read much of Dickinson’s poetry and had not yet studied poetry. Would it make more sense now? Here’s an excerpt I found online.

a new grammar grounded in humility and hesitation

Emily Dickinson took the scraps from the separate “higher” female education many bright women of her time were increasingly resenting, combined them with voracious and “unladylike” outside reading, and used the combination. She built a new poetic form from her fractured sense of being eternally on inteIlectual borders, where confident masculine voices buzzed an alluring and inaccessible discourse, backward through history into aboriginal anagogy. Pulling pieces of geometry, geology, alchemy, philosophy, politics, biography, biology, mythology, and philology from alien territory, a “sheltered” woman audaciously invented a new grammar grounded in humility and hesitation. HESITATE from the Latin, meaning to stick. Stammer. To hold back in doubt, have difficulty speaking. “He may pause but he must not hesitate”-Ruskin. Hesitation circled back and surrounded everyone in that confident age of aggressive industrial expansion and brutal Empire building. Hesitation and Separation. The Civil War had split American in two. He might pause, She hesitated. Sexual, racial, and geographical separation are at the heart of Definition.

My Emily Dickinson

I really like this idea of hesitation and humility and aboriginal anagogy as a sharp contrast to progress, aggression, confidence/hubris, and time as always moving forwards (teleology). I tried to find a source that could explain exactly what Howe means by aboriginal anagogy but I couldn’t. I discovered that anagogy means mystical or a deeper religious sense and so, when I connect it to aboriginal, I’m thinking that she means that ED imbues pre-Industrial times (pre Progress!, where progress means trains and machines and cities and Empires and factories and plantations and the enslavement of groups of people and the increased mechanization of time and bodies and meaning and, importantly, grammar) with the sacred. Is that right? Is it clear what I’m saying? I think I need to buy Howe’s book and attempt a close reading. Yes, it’s available as an ebook!

More to read: see Adrienne Rich’s wonderful essay Vesuvius at Home.

The Loaded Gun is not a gun but ED’s dog Carlo?!

In On ED’s 754/764, Susan Stewart discusses how difficult this poem (known in the Thomas Johnson edition of Dickin- son’s work as number 754, and in the Ralph Franklin edition as number 764) is for critics/readers to understand. She suggests that none of the readings are ever complete or fully hang together. Then she adds her own unusual interpretation: the loaded gun is a dog, ED’s dog, Carlo.

What kind of being waits in corners to be carried away to a field where, released, his/her/its power is enacted? One answer is: a domesticated hunting dog.

Now Dickinson had a dog, Carlo, named after the pointer owned by the character St. John Rivers in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Dickinson’s Carlo was also a hunting dog—an enormous Newfoundland hound.

Of course, Stewart’s argument is more involved than simply, it’s about her dog. You can read the article for a deeper discussion. I’m fascinated with this suggestion–Carlo was her walking buddy, he was a hunter, he had a yellow eye, he slept at the foot of her bed and protected her. Rereading the poem, it’s hard not to imagine a dog now.

I’ll leave my exploration of the poem at that, for now. I enjoyed wading into some deeper waters with ED scholarship, and I learned a lot that I didn’t know. I am not interested in going too deep, though. I could (and used to regularly as an academic) get lost in tracking down more articles, more interpretations, analyzing every word and it’s symbolic, political, historical significance. That is too much of a distraction, a derailment. Too connected to my discipline days. I like learning a little and letting that enhance my wonder. Having said that, I am planning to buy My Emily Dickinson and dig into Howe’s dense analysis of ED’s new grammar. The goal: to not seek answers, but more connections and questions and evidence of how poetry moves and bewilders and astonishes me.

As an aside: For some time, I have been very interested in the US in the mid to late 1800s, pre and post Civil War. No serious study, mostly through fiction, some through my investigation of my great grandparent coming to the UP from Finland in the 1880s. I like having the chance to read/learn more about this time.

yesterday’s moment of sound

Walking with Delia yesterday afternoon was wonderful. Everything melting and dripping, so many birds singing. In the middle of this recording, the bird I was trying to identifying a week or so ago called out–the one that I thought sounded like the loon call they play at twins’ games. What is this bird? Maybe if I play it for Scott, he can identify it.

march 16, 2021

march 15/RUN

3.3 miles
turkey hollow
30 degrees
drizzling rain/sleet/ice mix

As I left the house, I could tell it was starting to rain or sleet or something but because I was bundled up–a shirt + hooded jacket + vest–I couldn’t feel it, so I decided to go for a run anyway. A benefit of running in this weather: no one else is out there. I was able to run above the river on the trail all the way to the ford bridge. My first time in 3 or 4 months running on the narrow pedestrian bridge and the steep walking trail that dips below the road then quickly climbs up. It almost felt like normal. When I reached the ford bridge, I crossed the road and ran through the grass at turkey hollow. The ground was soft and a little squishy. No turkeys today.

I know I glanced down at the river but I don’t remember what it looked like. I remember seeing the oak savanna and the white information sign at the bottom. I remember seeing the bench perched on the gorge, providing a wide open view of the other side. I remember the part of the Winchell trail between 42nd and 44th, steeply winding down below me. But I do not remember what the river looked like. It was probably gray–or was it brown? We’re supposed to get up to 5 inches of snow today. Will the river be white tomorrow?

It was windy today. I recall hearing a chickadee chick-a-dee-dee-deeing but not much else other than the howling wind. Most of the cars had their headlights on. No bikers. Only one or two solitary walkers. Heard the kids at recess, laughing and yelling at the school playground. Also heard the shshsh as my feet struck some sandy grit. And the gentle tapping of icy pellets (graupels) on my black vest. I only rarely felt the sting of one on my face. For a small stretch, I pulled the brim of my hat as far down as I could to shield my face. The last time I ran in these conditions was in October or November. I didn’t have a brim to protect my face and the graupels felt like little knives stabbing my cheeks.

a moment of sound

march 15, 2021

Super windy today but I managed to shield the phone microphone with my hand for most of it. I recorded this at the end of my run as I walked home. I can hear my feet shuffling on the grit on the sidewalk and then some wind chimes. I decided to cross the street to get closer. I love wind chimes. These chimes are hanging close to a giant fir tree. I can hear them chiming as the wind rushes through the tree.

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – (591)/ EMILY DICKINSON

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

A few years ago, I found some articles discussing ED’s temporary vision loss in her 30s. I’m fascinated by how she references her temporary blindness in her poetry. In Emily Dickinson’s mystifying in-sight, the authors reflect on “I heard a fly buzz” and suggest that her words here, and in several other of her poems referencing the Eye and the dying Eye, provide remarkable insight into the physiological process of vision loss as one is dying.

Throughout her poetry chronicling the ophthalmic deterioration that occurs in death, Dickinson notes the changes that occur in the dying cornea and lens: glaze, dimness, fog, mists, film, cloudier. Her observations reflect what medical science currently understands as the alterations that occur within the eye during the process of death. We know that shortly after death the cornea and lens become edematous (swollen with fluid) and begin to lose their transparency.

As death approaches, gradually less oxygen-carrying blood is pumped by the failing heart, causing functional loss of the bodily organs.  Seeing while dying should be possible until the retina and/or the occipital cortex of the brain, the final mediator of vision, becomes deprived of oxygen and loses its capability.  The most metabolically active of all our tissues, the retina, for its operation, surpasses every other organ in relative blood flow and oxygen requirement. The loss of vision while dying should be sequential, greying occurring first as cones (the retinal mediators of color and probably more metabolically active than rods, the agents of black, white, and grey) lose function. Greys, therefore, persist through the retinal rods after loss of color perception occurs. Finally the rods, too, fail, and we are blind.

and

In the last cycle, eyesight fades to a blue, the retinal cones still working, but predominated by the buzz, uncertain, stumbling, as hearing also begins to fade.  But, still, the hum is loud enough to go beyond and between her light as vision fades away faster than hearing. And then, as the retinal rods fail, sight exhausts itself and so “light” must fail to appear; we are left instead with “the Windows failed – ” as the bright sunlight at the window is eclipsed, and finally, all of seeing ends, concluding with an absolute and total black, rendered powerfully in the last line by the three “eyes”:  “I…see…see.”

Vision disappears, as if one “I…see…see” is lost, then the other, and finally the last “I…see…see,” the very idea of sight is gone: “I could not see to see;” now the very understanding, the intellect of seeing on a cerebral level is gone; the cessation of blood flow to the brain has deprived it of oxygen. The brain can no longer function; it is dead, and the dying is over.

The Prowling Bee has nothing to say about ED’s vision loss or how her descriptions of dying accurately convey what happens to your vision as you die. I don’t what to reduce this poem to a discussion of vision and vision loss, but I find this idea that she is offering a medically accurate description of it to be very cool. I haven’t had much luck in finding many other articles about this, but I thought about it a lot. Last summer I memorized her “Before I got my eye put out” and spent some time reflecting on her vision as I ran.

Almost forgot to add this in: This morning I saw one of the more remarkable sunrises I’ve ever seen. The entire sky was lit up bright orange. It only lasted a minute or two. It made me wonder how many sunrises I’ve missed by getting up too late.

march 14/RUN

2 miles
neighborhood
47 degrees

A quick run through the neighborhood on a windy afternoon. Ran around Cooper school and noticed the mounds of snow and wondered when they would melt away. Earlier in the week there was a chance we might get a few inches of snow tomorrow, but now it looks less likely. Good. I’m ready for spring this year and I’ve been enjoying the bare sidewalks and open grass. Listened to a playlist while I ran. First up was a song I’ve been randomly singing during this COVID year, not sure why: Freak-a-Zoid. Very nice. And long. It lasted for 3/4 of a mile at least. Anything else? Lots of people out, most of them walking dogs, a few kids biking.

a moment of sound

So windy! The neighbor’s scare rods are really spinning. I wonder how irritating they will be this summer?

march 14, 2021

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, (340)/ EMILY DICKINSON

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

This is another one of ED’s most known poems. Some people think it’s an accurate description of a migraine, others a mental breakdown. A few people in the comments over at the prowling bee, suggested it was a transcendent, religious experience, another wondered if it had anything to do with the epilepsy that she might have had. I’m not sure. Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem pleasant but torturous. Rereading the comments, I’m fascinated by their discussion of the bell as a tool or practice within Buddhism to stop thinking and meditate on the sound of the bell. This focus enables one to pass through the planks/levels of reason and the rational Self. And, I love the lines about all the heavens as a Bell with being but an Ear. Very cool.

march 13/RUN

3 miles
Hiawatha and Howe loops
44 degrees

A wonderful morning. Sunny and mostly calm. Not too crowded. Started on the river road trail but as I encountered more people, I moved over to Edmund. I heard the black-capped chickadees singing their feebee song. Don’t remember much else. When I reached Hiawatha, I put in my headphones and listened to a spotify playlist. Experienced a slight runner’s high as I picked up the pace, the kind that makes me feel my smile all the way down to my toes. Sprinted the last block. I bet I looked strange.

Yesterday, I listened to a great podcast with the poet Paige Lewis. So much good stuff. I especially liked this:

And that’s what I kind of care about putting into poems. I want to learn things and I want to learn little snippets of facts and then I want to be able to share those facts with people. Or, if I see something, I want someone around so I can be like look at that thing that’s happening right now. It’s still happening, you have to look. Look what that fish is doing. Look what that flower is doing. I just want to be pointing. Like I just want to be, look at this thing. Look at this thing. Look at this thing. Which is why I’m really bad at writing essays because I’m just like look at what this guy is doing. And then look at this. And they’re like, why does it matter? I’m like, I don’t know, but look at it.

Just like look at these beautiful tiny things and what we can take from them is maybe sometimes just enjoyment and I don’t know that I have anything more intelligent to say about that thing and what it’s doing and what it reflects about anything about us as humans. But like just look at it.

Paige Lewis in Paige Lewis Vs. Tiny Things

I agree with Lewis that the enjoyment of noticing and sharing these beautiful tiny things is enough, but I also think that this practice, when repeated and turned into a habit, has an additional importance: it encourages us to care about and care for the world, to be invested in its continued flourishing and also our own. I was thinking about this earlier today as I worked on my “How to Be” project and gathered ideas for the knowledge section. What is knowing facts for? More than demonstrating how smart we are, knowing facts can connect us and astonish us and encourage us to care about more than ourselves and our individual survival.

random thought I remember: At some point during the run, I noticed the shadow of a bird on the sidewalk in front of me. I love seeing these shadows and knowing a bird is flying overhead without looking up to see it. This shadow is too vague and fuzzy to indicate what kind of bird it is; it’s just a bird. It reminded me of how sometimes when I’m sitting at my desk, which has a glass top (a top I recycled from an old IKEA coffee table), I see the reflection of a bird flying outside the window. It’s a quick flash of motion that I could miss if I wasn’t paying attention and if my peripheral vision had become heightened because of my central vision loss. Such a cool thing to see.

Have you got a Brook in your little heart/Emily Dickinson

Have you got a Brook in your little heart,
Where bashful flowers blow,
And blushing birds go down to drink,
And shadows tremble so—

And nobody knows, so still it flows,
That any brook is there,
And yet your little draught of life
Is daily drunken there—

Why – look out for the little brook in March,
When the rivers overflow,
And the snows come hurrying from the hills,
And the bridges often go—

And later, in August it may be,
When the meadows parching lie,
Beware, lest this little brook of life,
Some burning noon go dry!

The Prowling Bee doesn’t like this poem with it’s “lazy” rhymes (flipping the sentence order to create the rhyme, ex: “so still it flows”) and the idea of such a “little” brook, as opposed to some more robust form of water like a river. I’m not sure how I feel about it. I think I like the quiet brook that doesn’t announce itself to the world, it’s just there doing it’s thing–helping the flowers and the birds and the shadows. What if it were a stream instead? Decided to google it. Favorite answer was by a naturalist, responding to the question, what’s the difference between a stream, a creek, and a river?:

So, we enter into the somewhat nebulus topic of stream classification.

Consulting a few sources, the common term for all downhill flowing ribbons of water is stream.  They’re all streams. Streams are classified, not by width, depth or length, but by a system known as stream ordering.  The common terms are quite subjective depending on region and local history.

First order streams: the smallest streams that have no tributaries. We could call these brooks or rivulets.  Little streams that you can hop across and not get wet. (GPD example: Pebble Brook in The West Woods)

Second order streams: result from the merging of two first order streams. Often designated as creeks, these small streams require a bridge, stepping stones or wading to cross. (GPD examples: Big Creek, Swine Creek, Silver Creek)

Third order streams: larger streams formed from the merger of two second order streams or creeks if you will. Streams that would have to be bridged, waded or even swam across. Referred to as branches in the headwater regions of watersheds. (Geauga examples:  East Branch and Aurora Branches of the Chagrin River, East and West Branches of the Cuyahoga River)

Fourth order: streams formed by the merging of two third order streams. These streams would qualify as rivers, requiring big bridges, boats or swimming to cross.

Geauga Park District in Ohio, also see River, Streams, and Creeks

I find brooks interesting as a first order stream because they have no connection to other sources of water, no tributaries. They also don’t cause much of a fuss–you don’t need a bridge for them and you should be able to hop across them without getting wet. How do these first order streams come to be? Where does the water come from?

Another interesting thing about brooks: as a verb, the word means to use, tolerate, find agreeable. I don’t like the word tolerate or this understanding of a body of water disconnected from everything else, so I guess I don’t want to have a little brook in my heart. It doesn’t sound as a pretty, but I think I’d prefer a creek–but not a crick!

a moment of sound

After my run, I sat on the deck and enjoyed the sun and the quiet. Here’s how that sounded:

march 13, 2021

march 12/RUN

4 miles
river road trail, north/sout*
32 degrees

*With a little bit of meandering. Before reaching the river road, I ran up 43rd ave then over to 31st st, then lake street, then the river road trail

Great weather for a run! Sunny, not too much wind, not too warm or too cold. I was able to run beside the river and above the rowing club. I don’t remember what the river looked like, but I remember it felt open and vast and wonderful. Heard lots of birds and a woman cheering a runner on as he made his way down the hill below the lake street bridge, the two of them laughing together. Did they know each other, or was she just friendly? Saw lots of lovely lonely benches with enticing views to the other side–I thought about stopping once, but didn’t. Noticed that the white bike hanging from the trestle, put there to remember the biker who has hit and killed at the intersection many years ago, was missing a front wheel. Has this always been the case? Heard a siren that sounded like the drumming of a woodpecker at first. Encountered a few groups of walkers, at least one group of runners, no bikers or roller skiers.

Surfaces I Ran on:

  • sidewalk
  • street
  • uneven grass
  • dead leaves
  • packed down dirt
  • gritty edges of the boulevard

As I ran, I recited my Emily Dickinson poem of the day: “Hope” is the thing with feathers” One of her most famous. Delightful and fun to recite as I ran.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers/ Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all –

And sweetest — in the gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird —
That kept so many warm —

I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest sea —
Yet, never in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.

Favorite word today: abash. When I was first memorizing it, I thought it was strongest not strangest sea. Can’t decide which I like better. When I finished running, I recited it into my phone. I got it mostly right, but missed several small words– so instead of and, but instead of yet.

“Hope” is a thing with feathers

a moment of sound

Forgot, for the first time, to record my moment of sound yesterday. I think it was because it was windy and I didn’t want to record more wind–I have lots of that. Anyway, I recorded this moment right after I finished my 4 mile run. As the birds chatter away, you can hear a few of my heavy breaths as I try to recover.

March 12, 2021

march 10/RUN

2.8 miles
river road trail, south/Winchell trail, south/edmund, north
44 degrees
drizzle

Decided to go out for a quick run before the rain started. I made it out the door when it was dry but by mile 2 it was raining. Starting in the rain can be miserable, but if you’re already running, it’s difficult to feel the rain. Because of the weather, I was able to run on the trail without encountering too many people. Oh, the river, looking beautifully pale blue in the gloom. When I reached 42nd st, I took the trail down to a spot right above the ravine and recorded the water rushing down the rocks as my moment of sound.

march 10, 2021

Very cool. Instead of heading back up to the road, I decided to keep running on the Winchell trail. At this point, close to the southern start of the trail, it’s steep and uneven and right on the edge. What an unanticipated delight to be this much closer to the river–nothing but air and the bluff between us. (Sitting here, writing this entry in the front room, I just heard a long, loud boom–thunder!)

Anything else I remember from the run? I noticed a lot of headlights, bright and cutting through the gray sky. Another runner also cutting through the gloom, wearing a bright yellow shirt. Saw some people walking their dogs–one guy called out a greeting to me. I think he said “Go Twins!” because I was wearing a Twins baseball cap, but I’m not sure. Heard a young kid and an adult below me in the oak savanna. Noticed all the snow collected on the trail at the foot of the mesa. Heard some kids on the playground at the lower campus of Minnehaha Academy. For the last mile of my run, I put in my headphones and listened to a playlist.

It was great to be out by the gorge in-between rain showers, hearing the rushing water and how it sometimes drips, sometimes gushes down the bluff to the river. I spent the morning working on my “How to Sink” poem and thinking about water and what it does as it travels through the soil and layers of sediment, powered by gravity. Writing this, I suddenly thought about gravity and weight and how it forces water through cracks and then I thought about the homonym for weight, wait, and patience, and how my preferred form of sinking is a slow, gradual sliding down that takes a long time. And also how the weight of gravity forces water down through the layers, but so does the persistence of time. Cool–I’d like to add that in somehow. Here’s a new draft of my poem. Still not there, but getting closer, I hope.

Try to recall when your son young
and upset turns to jelly
and oozes off
the sofa
in

surrender he’s not giving in
but giving up control a
puddle of parts
pooled at your
feet

learn to retreat like this let your
bones dissolve legs liquefy
gravity win
seep deep be-
neath

layers of loam sandstone limestone
shale drop lower and lower
and lower
fall

between cracks fit through fissures carve
out a door take it so far
in that out is
another
idea.*

Begin with 20 seconds from
a song that is not happy
birthday sing while
you scour
the

surface of your dread scrub off each
layer watch as they drip down
the drain on their
way to the
gorge.

*idea is one extra syllable, which is irritating to me, but so far, I can’t figure out a way around it.

Maybe I could add the weight/wait bit in after the line about falling? Also, I like having the washing your hands at the end of the poem, as the start of this need to sink/retreat/shelter inside (because of the pandemic), but I think I might need a little more transition to it. Is it too jarring, coming right after the bit about out being another idea?

Today’s Emily Dickinson poem:

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act (1010)/ EMILY DICKINSON

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays —

‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust —

Ruin is formal — Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crashe’s law —

I really like this poem–it fits well with all of my thinking today about erosion and water dripping down. Gradual decay, a slow repeated slipping. I love the rhyme of a cuticle of Dust with an elemental Rust. A Borer in the Axis is strange to me. A mechanical (metal?) axis combined with a worm that bores into wood? I like bore as a verb–it might fit in my poem.

march 9/RUN

3.25 miles
turkey hollow!
54 degrees

Today I was able to run in shorts and above the gorge and on the snow-less walking trail and all the way down to turkey hollow. Hooray! It was windy and there were people all around, but I kept my distance and believed that if I was running directly into the wind on the way there, it would help me along on the way back. It did. Lots of birds singing. I recall hearing several robins but no black capped-chickadees. No woodpeckers. I know I glanced down at the river and I remember hoping I’d see some rowers, but I don’t remember what the river looked like. Was it blue or gray or brown? The river road was filled with a steady stream of cars.

I recited the first two stanzas of the Emily Dickinson poem I’m studying for today. I’m not memorizing every poem I read, but I decided these two stanzas would be fun to chant as I ran. They were.

A Bird, came down the Walk (359)/ Emily Dickinson

A Bird, came down the Walk –
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then, he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –

He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad –
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,
He stirred his Velvet Head. – 

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers, 
And rowed him softer Home –

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon, 
Leap, plashless as they swim. 

A delightful poem. I enjoyed reading the prowling Bee’s analysis and thinking about the imagery, especially the bird flying through the sky as water:

The watching poet then offers him a bit of bread but this is too much. The bird flies away. Except that this isn’t the end of the poem as Dickinson sees it. In one of those reversals of sky and sea (for example, “This—is the land—the sunset washes” – F297), the bird “unrolled his feathers” as if he were changing from an earthbound thing to a heavenly creature, and then “rowed” himself more softly “Home” than the act of rowing on the ocean. The oars’ action, like the bird’s wing, are so small and “silver” in the expanse of water and sky, that they don’t even leave a “seam” behind to show they once moved through that space.

I love the idea of sky as water and imagine it often as I look up at the sky by the river or the lake. As I was chanting this poem mid-run, and enjoying being with the little bird, the worm, and the beetle, I thought about how wonderful poetry is. You can enjoy it many different levels: how it sounds, the worlds it conjures up, the meanings behind its images. You can spend time closely scrutinizing what the beetle or the worm means, how ED might be inserting herself in the poem, and what she’s suggesting about her world, but you don’t have to to find meaning and delight. Much more accessible than other forms of writing. One more thing: I discovered that plashless is a word and that it basically means without a splash or splash-less. Maybe I’ll use it on Scott and when he tries to correct me I can smugly say, “No, I mean plashless. It’s word too.”

How to Sink

Earlier this morning, I worked some more on revising my poem. I’ve decided to use a modified cinquain form. In my “how to float” poem I used Adelaide Crapsey’s 2-4-6-8-2 pattern to evoke floating and lifting. In “how to sink,” I’ll use almost the same number of total syllables for each cinquain (23 instead of 22), but switch them around to mimic falling and narrowing, sinking: 8-7-4-3-1. Here’s what I have so far:

Begin with 20 seconds from
a song that is not happy
birthday sing while
you scour
the

surface of your dread scrub off each
layer watch as they drip down
the drain on their
way to the
gorge.

Recall when your son young upset
turned to jelly and oozed off
the sofa in
surrender
a

puddle of body parts pooled at
your feet learn to retreat like
this feel your bones
dissolve your
legs

liquefy gravity win reach
ground seep deep through layers of
loam sandstone shale
drop

lower and lower and lower
fall between cracks carve out ways
in follow them
so far in
out

is another idea

How to Float has 10 cinquains. I want to mirror that in this poem. So far, I am just starting the 7th. Lots of meaning of sink: 1. sink as a place to wash your hands and an early symbol of the pandemic, 2. as a place where water collects (puddle of body parts), 3. as drain, sewer pipe (the dread dripping down to the gorge), 4. being swallowed up, lost (seeping deep), 5. falling down. Time to look up more definitions.

a moment of sound

8 am from the deck: the persistent hum of the city and the birds chatter

march 9, 2021

march 8/RUN

3.25 miles
edmund loop, starting north
47 degrees
wind: 1 mph

Wow, what a morning! Sun, barely any wind, a chorus of birds, clear streets, uncrowded sidewalks. I could only identify a few of the bird calls–black-capped chickadees, cardinals, crows, robins, woodpeckers–but I didn’t care. I thought about how naming the birds didn’t matter, only being among them did. As I ran up Edmund, I heard a song that sounded like a metal whistle and I thought about stopping to record it. I didn’t and as I neared it, it stopped.

When I turned around at Edmund, I decided to run back in the grass between the river road and the boulevard. Only a few squishy spots. It was nice to run on the softer ground, closer to the gorge. I couldn’t see the river, but I admired the other side. What a view, with all the branches bare.

Yesterday it was 60 degrees. Today, at 11, it’s already 51. Spring! It definitely sounded like it in my moment of sound:

march 8, 2021

Today’s Emily Dickinson poem:

Because I could not stop for Death/ Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

As always, I enjoyed The Prowling Bee’s discussion of this poem. In particular, I liked her mention in the comments of ED’s 3 images of life: the children playing = life; the gazing grain = the seasons; setting sun = the day. Very powerful and inspiring. I want to keep working on finding images that conjure even a little of what ED’s do. Prowling Bee also discusses how wonderful the phrase, “the fields of gazing grains.” Yes–fun to say and to think about the different meanings it suggests. And, at the end of her analysis, she describes how some think this is a perfect poem. The version of this poem I read on Poetry Foundation (see link in title) has audio too. Very helpful for me as I try to hear the poem without making it too metered.

sink, more thoughts

I’m revisiting my poem, “How to Sink” and trying to strengthen it, especially the imagery. I want to make it a companion to “How to Float.” Just looked up sink in the online OED and found some great definitions of it as a noun:

  • place where waste collects
  • pool or pit in the ground
  • conduit, drain, pipe
  • a basin used for washing
  • an amount that a sink would hold–a sink full of dishes
  • a low-lying area where flowing water occurs
  • a place where things are swallowed up or lost (absorbed?)
  • a lead weight used in fishing
  • depression or hollow
  • loss of altitude, especially in gliding flight
  • phrase: the sink of the body: organs of digestion

This poem was written during the earliest stages of the pandemic and is, at least partly, about the need to shelter-in-place and retreat, to hole up, to hide and be safe. During that time, there was a lot of talk about washing hands as a primary way to stay safe–could I bring in sink in this way? I’d like to.