feb 17/BIKERUN

bike: 22 minutes
run: 3.1 miles
basement
2 degrees / feels like -10

Very cold and icy outside. It looks warm, with the bright sun, but it’s not. Finished another episode of Dickinson. On the advice of Higginson, Emily reads Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and has some wild fantasy about meeting him in New York City at a hospital, where he’s a nurse. Louisa May Alcott’s there too. As she pretends to be a dying soldier’s sister, and then gets drunk at a bar with Whitman, Emily reflects on the need for connecting with the world in order to write about it. These experiences are seductive but also excessive (and reckless?), suggesting that living life fully (feeling all its pain, all of its pleasure — Billy Eichner as Walt Whitman says) has its problems too. When I finished that episode, I started the next. So far, this one includes: Lavinia taking a vow of silence in solidarity with all the dead soldiers; the whole family, except for Austin, attending a local quilt show (with “Quilted” by Shiloh Rafe playing in the background), with Emily’s mom donating then demanding back her mother’s (or grandmother’s?) quilt; Emily receiving an affirming letter from Higginson reassuring her that her poetry was not dead, but alive; and the beginnings of a plan for celebrating Edward’s birthday: an old-fashioned family sing-a-long. I wonder what will happen next?

Listened to a playlist (Lizzo, Harry Styles, Ke$ha, Justin Timberlake) a I ran on the treadmill. I can’t remember exactly what I thought about, just that I was happy. About 10 or so minutes in, I glanced down to my right, and noticed something hanging off the bar of the treadmill. A spider? It looked like a spider to me but, with my vision, and the low light, and the fact that I was moving, I couldn’t tell. I didn’t stop to check. Instead, I tried keep an eye on it and stick closer to the other side of the treadmill. I had some irrational fear that it might jump on me. I tried to convince myself that this was a friendly spider that was joining me on my run. And I thought I should find a spider poem to post on here once I finished my run. When I stopped, I checked. No spider; a small bit of fuzz and a hairball dangling down from the bar. Of course.

When I thought about posting a spider poem, I thought about 2 things: first, a Virginia Woolf (very) short story I had read for a class a few years ago that I thought was about a spider — it wasn’t; it’s about a moth, The Death of the Moth. And, second, a poem by Robert Frost. I’m almost positive that this was the first poem I ever memorized and recited in an english class (actually, one of the only that I ever recited in a class). I can’t remember if it was in elementary or middle school.

Design/ Robert Frost

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.

The line that made me certain that this was the poem I had memorized was the one with the heal-all in it. I remember the awkwardness of that word and not knowing what a heal-all was. Pretty sure I didn’t look it up. I did today: (from wikipedia) “Prunella vulgaris, the common self-healheal-all, woundwort, heart-of-the-earthcarpenter’s herbbrownwort or blue curls, is a herbaceous plant in the mint family Lamiaceae.” It’s invasive, and very hard to get out of your backyard once it takes root. Of course, “looking it up” back in 1986 or so wouldn’t have involved google or wikipedia but the library and a librarian.

I can’t imagine I understood this poem at all as I memorized and then recited it. I have a vague memory that I picked it because it was the shortest option. Did my teacher tell me anything about the poem? Now I can tell it’s a sonnet with a classic sonnet rhyme scheme in the first 8 lines (ABBAABBA), then a variation in the last 6 (ACAACC). Supposedly it’s in iambic pentameter — I say supposedly because I always struggle to hear meter. Here’s a recording of the poem.

feb 13/BIKERUN

bike: 25 minutes
run: 1.3 miles
basement
4 degrees / feels like -5

Finished one episode, started another of Dickinson while I biked. Some celebrity appearances: Sojourner Truth and Walt Whitman (played by Billie Eichner!), plus the introduction of one of Dickinson’s key mentors: Thomas Wentworth Higginson, when he reads the letter Emily sends to him about her poetry. After I finished biking, I listened to a playlist while I did a short run to reach my weekly goal of 20 miles. Excellent.

Last night, Scott, RJP, and I went to Gustavus for FWA’s home concert. Amazing. I never would have guessed how much it would mean to me to have FWA attend Gustavus — to see him thriving, and to reconnect with the place where my life began.

I continue to work on my mannequin poem. It’s getting closer, now just down to picking a few new words to make it better. This part is a lot of fun, much less stressful than the part with the blank page. I listened to a recording of myself reading my latest draft as I cooled down on the treadmill. Thought about changing some words to fit better with my new name for the mannequins, not Queens but Crones. When they were queens, I described them as surveying the kingdom, as Crones, should they survey the forest? Also, queens are adorned in hats, what is the best word for how Crones are dressed?

Thinking about Crones and old women and wondering what poems have been written about them. Here’s one I especially liked:

Old Woman in a Housecoat/ GEORGIANA COHEN

An old woman in
a floor-length housecoat
had become sunset
to me, west-facing.
Turquoise, sage, or rose,
she leans out of her
second floor window,
chin slumped in her palm,
and gazes at the
fenced property line
between us, the cars
beached in the driveway,
the creeping slide of
light across shingles.
When the window shuts,
dusk becomes blush and
bruises, projected
on vinyl siding.
Housecoats breathe across
the sky like frail clouds.

feb 11/BIKERUN

bike: 25 minutes
run: 1.3 miles
21 degrees
wind + ice + snow

Watched most of the next episode of Dickinson. Emily is trying to help everyone, yet is failing to help anyone. She’s torn between Sue and her mother and sister, Austin and her father. She wants to lock herself in her room and write, believing that her poems are the only/best way to help others — her family and the nation, both divided, and the dying soldiers. A key question comes up a few times: what can poetry do? (and, is poetry ever more than just words?) I haven’t quite finished the episode, but this answer seems to be the most compelling, offered by the local seamstress, an African American woman named Betty:

Emily: So what if I can’t fix all the messy relationships in my family? The best thing I can do for the world, is to lock myself in my room and write my poetry.

Betty: But what good are your poems going to be if you do that? If you can’t handle the mess of the world, why should anyone need to hear what you have to say? Writing that shuts real life out is as good as dead.

Right before I started running, I listened to a recording of myself reading my mannequin poem. I have too many details, but I like the direction it’s going. Lots of editing needed. Here’s the beginning:

At the far edge of the fair
behind Merchandise Mart
in a red brick building
squeezed into an enormous glass case
are the mannequins.
Surrounded by
a glorious mess
of mismatched
textures textiles techniques
and adorned in handmade
hats and sweaters and coats
these legless armless women
preside over
a celebration
of an art form
both timeless and timed out.

Listening to the recording before I ran didn’t help me solve any of my poetry problems. Instead, I focused on my playlist as I ran.

It’s windy and white, with ice and snow covering the sidewalks. A blah day. February in its dreariest. Speaking of which, a poetry person posted this awesome news segment about February:

The idea about the trees revealing the truth, telling it like it is, seems like another version of, “What you see is what you get.” It’s funny because I have the opposite reaction to bare branches; I love the view they offer, and the gnarled truths they reveal. This could be another “WYSIWYG” poem.

feb 10/RUN

4.4 miles
minnehaha falls and back
18 degrees / feels like 8
less than 5% snow-covered!

Over the past couple of years, I’ve listened to several running podcasts. On one of them, the host ends the show by asking the guest to give listeners one reason to go out for a run today. More than half of the time, the answer they give is: because you’ll feel better and never regret it. For me, this is true. I’m better after every run and I’m glad I made it outside (or to the basement). Today included. It was colder than I expected, and I felt more sluggish than I’d like, but running for 40 minutes above the gorge and around the falls was an excellent way to occupy the late morning.

10 Things I Noticed

  1. the drumming of a woodpecker on a tree just above the oak savanna
  2. the river, white and flat and quiet
  3. 2 or 3 park vehicles in turkey hollow — are they trimming some trees, or what?
  4. the falls, frozen and still
  5. clearest view of the river: between folwell and 38th, beside a split rail fence
  6. best view of the falls: on the opposite end, near Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” etched on top of a low stone wall. I stopped and stood on some packed down snow — a clear, straight shot of the falls, the creek, and the bluffs around it
  7. the paths were almost completely clear except for a few spots where ice spread across one side (the result of snow that melted in the warm temps on Monday refroze)
  8. kids yelling and laughing at the playground at Minnehaha Academy
  9. a car pulling into one of the parking lots at the falls, then looping around quickly and leaving
  10. About 10 people at the falls, walking above, admiring the view

I’m still working on thinking about “what you see is what you get” and the state fair mannequins, but I’m struggling. Is it possible for me to write about them in a meaningful way? Not sure. This morning, I was thinking more about form. I thought about how I imagine my poem as one of praise for the mannequins, and the improbability that they continue to exist. Then I thought about hymns and how Emily Dickinson wrote in common meter/hymn form. Quatrains: 8/6/8/6, mostly iambic tetrameter/iambic trimeter ABAB rhyme scheme (with lots of slant rhymes) (Common Questions on Emily Dickinson). This sounds exciting and promising, but do I have words to fit this form? Unsure. I also thought about one structure Mary Oliver uses in her poems of praise: First, a detailed description of the delightful thing; then a display of wonder/astonishment, possibly the posing of a question; and, finally, a revelation. I want to try these different approaches with some sort of praise poems, but I’m not sure they work for the mannequins.

One approach to the poem could be to provide more detail and development of the “as-is” mannequins’ location in the creative activities building at the Minnesota State Fair: encased in glass, jammed with sweaters and ponchos, dresses, hats, mittens, aprons. Close to the quilts, the rugs, the weavings. Across from the jars of jellies and jams and pickled beans, pickled peppers, pickled cucumbers. Cookies, breads, cakes, honey. And, for a few years, melted crayon art. The domestic arts. The enemy of convenience, the ready-made, the instant, the quick. Homemade, not store-bought, requiring slow, patient effort, “traditional” techniques. The point of this effort is not to sell (or buy) more of anything, but to pass on these practices, different forms of knowledge (and to win a ribbon). Things in this building are not typically recognized as artistic or possessing Beauty (as a form), but as functional, useful, necessary for survival. Women’s work. How much of this to put in this poem? And, how do I connect that with another important aspect of the mannequins: my kinship with them as strange not quite human aliens who almost look real — almost — but lack that extra something, like the spark in the eye, the direct eye contact. Not sure how (or if) I’ll do this yet.

Here are 2 praise poem that offer some good inspiration as I continue to push through how to write my poem:

Praise the Rain/ JOY HARJO

Praise the rain; the seagull dive
The curl of plant, the raven talk—
Praise the hurt, the house slack
The stand of trees, the dignity—
Praise the dark, the moon cradle
The sky fall, the bear sleep—
Praise the mist, the warrior name
The earth eclipse, the fired leap—
Praise the backwards, upward sky
The baby cry, the spirit food—
Praise canoe, the fish rush
The hole for frog, the upside-down—
Praise the day, the cloud cup
The mind flat, forget it all—

Praise crazy. Praise sad.
Praise the path on which we’re led.
Praise the roads on earth and water.
Praise the eater and the eaten.
Praise beginnings; praise the end.
Praise the song and praise the singer.

Praise the rain; it brings more rain.
Praise the rain; it brings more rain.

I especially like the repetition and the detail of this poem.

This next one, offers a much pithier approach:

All Praises / Lucille Clifton

Praise impossible things
Praise to hot ice
Praise flying fish
Whole numbers
Praise impossible things. 
Praise all creation
Praise the presence among us
of the unfenced is.

Wow. Talk about effective condensing! I love the repetition in this one as well. And, that unfenced is? the best!

feb 9/BIKERUN

bike: 22 minutes
run: 1.45 miles

32 degrees, feels like 22, with 22 mph wind gusts. Puddled paths that are part slushy water, part ice. With these conditions, and since I ran outside yesterday, I decided to stay inside. Watched another episode of Dickinson. Sue is in labor, Emily’s mom (also named Emily) is her self-appointed midwife. Austin is drunk and hosting a maple sugaring party. And Emily is meeting up with Austin’s college friend who is about to leave for the war and who Emily believe will die (and become the “nobody” ghost that haunted her in season 2). He tells her that she is the only person who is willing to tell the truth about the horrors of the war, to “call it like it is,” to look straight into the darkness. Could this be another definition of “what you see is what you get”? A straight shooter, truth-teller who calls it like it is? While I ran, I listened to a playlist and tried to think some more about out-of-date mannequins and the “as is.” And, maybe I did, but now, about 30 minutes after I finished my run, all I can remember is connecting my love for the unloved, dismissed mannequins with the aging body and a fear of death.


feb 4/BIKERUN

bike: 25 minutes
bike stand
run: 2.2 miles
treadmill
7 degrees / feels like -8

Finished the final episode of season 2 of Dickinson and started the first episode of season 3 while I biked. This first episode of season 3 is titled, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” I memorized that poem last March. Didn’t think about it that much while I was finishing up my bike, but it, particularly the idea of hope, returned to me on my run.

I started my run feeling out of sorts, thinking about the possibility of a job I could apply for that sounds like a good/fun opportunity, but might require more vision than I have. As often is the case, I wondered: am I not pushing myself enough, using my vision loss as an excuse, or is this job just something too far beyond my abilities — too demanding, too much, too impractical for someone who can’t see fast enough? It took listening to several songs before I forgot these worries.

As I ran, I stared ahead at the blank tv screen, noticing how that empty black screen filled most of my central vision, while all around it, on the edge and outside of the frame were images — the light above, the wall to the wide, parts of the treadmill and the floor below. All the things I can see in my periphery. Even when my central vision is all gone, if/when that happens, I don’t think I will see the world like this, with a black space surrounded by slightly fuzzy, but identifiable shapes. Everything in the center will be more like a smudge, or a fogged up window.

Thinking about my periphery and what I can see with it, I’m reminded of watching ice skating on the olympics last night. I can tell my vision is worse; it is very difficult to follow, or to see the skater — well, I could see the skater, but mostly just flashes of their movement, not as a whole, complete object. To actually see the skater, I tried looking off to my right so I could see them through my periphery. Much better. Not completely clear, but they became a discrete, stable object on the ice.

So, I was thinking all morning about my theme for the month, what you see is what you get. I discovered that it was the catch phrase of Flip Wilson, used by his character, Geraldine. One source I found suggested it meant: this is me, accept me for who (and what and how) I am. I also was reminded that this phrase turns into a computer acronym: WYSIWIG. I mostly use the WYSIWIG editor on wordpress. I forgot it was called that because now they refer to it as the visual editor (as opposed to the code editor). I kept thinking about how this idea that what you see on the screen is what appears on the printed page is an illusion, concealing all the code that is required to make it appear as you want it. About a decade ago, I started learning some of that code (html, css). I don’t know much, just enough to understand that everything about how words or images look online involves a ton of behind-the-scenes brackets and semi-colons and classes and ids (and more). I find a lot of value in understanding, or at least being familiar with, how this works. And, I find a lot of danger in believing that all of what appears on a screen just is the way it is, almost by magic. I’m not suggesting that everyone should learn to code — wasn’t that a trendy slogan a few years ago? — but that they should be aware of how it works, and that it exists.

This ignoring of the process, and the naive belief that “things just happen,” reminds me of how many (most?) people believe vision works: you see what’s there with your eyes. They don’t think about the complex processes of vision, from cornea to retina to visual cortex, and how the brain, to make things easier and/or efficient, or because it has limited data, distorts or alters or guesses. When we see, we are not seeing the world as it is, but how our brains have figured it out.

Human perception is patently imperfect, so even a normal brain must fabricate a fair amount of data to provide a complete sense of our surroundings. We humans are lucky that we have these fancy brains to chew up the fibrous chunks of reality and regurgitate it into a nice, mushy paste which our conscious minds can digest. But whenever one of us notices something that doesn’t exist, or fails to notice something that does exist, our personal version of the world is nudged a little bit further from reality. It makes one wonder how much of reality we all have in common, and how much is all in our minds.

Chuck Bonnet and the Hallucinations/ Alan Bellows

As I was running, I thought again about E Dickinson and her feathered hope, and then the idea of hope and faith, and why we need it, how we envision it. Then, I pulled out my phone and recorded myself, mid-run:

What you see is what you get is an illusion, a type of empty hope, false faith, that some need to survive.

Is this fair? I’m not sure, but it’s something to think about some more, the idea that people invest an uncritical faith (I’m resisting the impulse to write “blind faith” here) and superficial hope in the belief that what we see is what is there, and that what we see is what is real. This belief provides comfort, makes it easier, enables them to not have to question or challenge, just accept.

Also on my run, as I listened to the excellent-for-running song, TNT by AC/DC, I thought about alt-text, and alt-text poetry, and how I might use it for a poem that pushes against the idea that what you see is what you get. Maybe vivid text descriptions of some things I see in my strange, slightly off ways, paired with straight, clear/basic description of those same things? I really like this idea; I’ll keep going with it to see if it could work.

To remember:

“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.

“Faith” is a fine invention / Emily Dickinson

“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!

jan 28/BIKERUN

bike: 15 minutes
bike stand
run: 2.2 miles
treadmill

Watched the rest of the Dickinson episode about fame, which includes ED in a carriage with Death (Wiz Khalifa) and recently deceased, Edgar Allen Poe (Nick Kroll), who tells her how unsatisfying fame is, to which she utters: “Fame is a bee.” Nice. I wish they would have had the bee in the carriage too.

Fame is a bee./ Emily Dickinson

Fame is a bee.
It has a song—
It has a sting—
Ah, too, it has a wing.

Ran to my new playlist. Again, didn’t think about much, or if I did think about anything, I don’t remember what it was. Returning to Dickinson, here’s a poem that includes doors (I mentioned a twitter thread a few days ago about doors in poetry) and ghosts!

One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted —/ Emily Dickinson

One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted —
One need not be a House —
The Brain has Corridors — surpassing
Material Place —

Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting —
That Cooler Host.

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a’chase —
Than Unarmed, one’s a’self encounter —
In lonesome Place —

Ourself behind ourself, concealed —
Should startle most —
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror’s least.

The Body — borrows a Revolver —
He bolts the Door —
O’erlooking a superior spectre —
Or More —

And, here’s another poem that includes both doors and ghosts that I’ve posted before:

Doors/ Carl Sandburg

An open door says, “Come in.” 
A shut door says, “Who are you?” 
Shadows and ghosts go through shut doors. 
If a door is shut and you want it shut,
why open it? 
If a door is open and you want it open,
why shut it? 
Doors forget but only doors know what it is
doors forget.

jan 26/BIKERUN

bike: 16 minutes
bike stand
run: 3.25 miles
treadmill
0 / feels like -8

Cold. Reviewing the temp now, maybe I could have run outside. Hopefully, tomorrow. Watched more of the Dickinson episode that I started yesterday while I biked. On the same day that her poem is published in the paper, Emily wakes up invisible and is confronted with the limits of fame, and the freedom that not being noticed can bring. Fame is a common theme in ED’s work. From what I’ve read, scholars/lovers of ED don’t always agree (surprise surprise) on how much fame did or didn’t matter to her. Did she crave fame? Did she keep her poems private because she was happy to be anonymous? Was she shunned? I need to revisit my notes, to remember more of the thoughts. In the beginning of this episode, fame is presented as empty and fickle. According to the “Nobody” ghost that haunts her in this episode (it’s been too long since I watched this show, but I know this dude appeared in earlier episode. I’ll have to check if I mentioned him before), being invisible is better, while being noticed is overrated. I agree. More on this soon, I think.

Listened to a new playlist while I ran, with some good songs for my pace: Wannabe/ Spice Girls, Work It/ Missy Elliot, Poker Face/ Lady Gaga. One song that didn’t work as well, but that I really like anyway: Get Ur Freak On/ Missy Elliot. A little too fast. Didn’t think about much while I ran. One thought: it’s harder to run longer in the basement. Very little to distract you, or maybe engage/delight you. More time to think about how many miles/minutes are left.

In between biking and running, I listened to a draft of my 3 new haunt poems: 1. Before there was girl, there was ghost; 2. Before there was ghost, there was girl; and 3. Before there was ghost or girl, there was gorge. I’m happy with them. I can’t decide whether to put them altogether, as one poem — they’re about 13 5 syllable lines each — or, to sprinkle them between my other haunts poems. Which will work better?

Here’s the poem-a-day from poets.org for Jan 26th:

Inspiration Point/ Jennifer Jean

We’d stare at horses at Will Rogers Park, then hike
the Loop Trail to Inspiration Point, &
I’d lag back 
to be a kid. Alone. & under that aloofness—hid
vengeance. A rusty burr or two 
in my left sneaker. & under that—anxiety. The salt 
dripping through chaparral 
brows, into my brown lashes. &
under that—rage. A perfectly purple 
shell some kid favored & lost.
& under that—hope. The pounded 
ground. & under that—a vast
clearing on the cosmos, also called Inspiration
Point. A gorgeous, inner hilltop

with a curious figure 
taking in the Pacific view. 
Breathing chicory & chamise. Naming 
every wind-boarder near Catalina 
Island. That high-noon, far-sighted figure—seemed
a bit burnt, but warm. A bit divine. 
But—sometimes—I didn’t find that figure 
wow-ing at a thing 
no one had ever seen—at a new bird 
better than a phoenix. (There’s something better than 
a phoenix!) Sometimes, my hand 
stretched towards some nether new
creation & I was the figure 
who named it.

I like the repetition of, & under, and how the poets uses it to peel back layers of her emotions as a kid. I also like the description of rage as a perfectly purple shell. I don’t remember experiencing rage as a kid. Is it because my memory’s bad? or, maybe because my intense emotions would usually manifest themselves in overflowing exuberance (or obnoxiousness)? From what I do remember, I always had trouble hanging onto anger; by the time, I would yell, the anger was gone.

more awesome poetry people

Here’s a thread about meter in poetry that I’d like to spend more time with. I struggle with meter; it’s hard for me to hear. But, I know it’s important, and I’d like to become more familiar with it (in a way that sticks).

jan 25/BIKERUN

bike: 20 minutes
bike stand, basement
run: 1.5 miles
treadmill

Started watching Dickinson again while I biked. Finished the episode where they’re at the “spa,” and started the one in which her poem is published and she’s invisible. Listened to a new running playlist while I ran. Stopped to record myself running to check my gait, but it didn’t quite work. I’ll have to try again. My left thigh/hip was sore by the end.

I checked out Paige Lewis’s Space Struck from the library — on the libby app — and I marked a few to remember, including yesterday’s Saccadic Masking. Here’s another for today. I think I wanted to keep it for the question about being the sound or the stillness.

Chapel of the Green Lord/ Paige Lewis

This spring, the smog is so thick
I can’t see the stars, which means
there aren’t any stars left. It’s pointless
to argue against this, to say,
no they’re on vacation, no
they’ll come back with new summer
hats and an answer
to my question: If this world
is a plucked violin string, am I part
of its sound or its stillness?
Once, I woke and believed myself full
of the old heaven. I wanted to trap it,
make it stay. I swallowed
a hive’s worth of honey, and—
and still, no stars. This smog
is thick enough to turn my lungs gummy.
I stay inside, line my bed
with spider plants and succulents,
christen it Chapel of the Green Lord,
and go to sleep with the sheets pulled up
over my sticky mouth.

poetry people for the win!

A great thread on twitter this morning. I’m always looking for poems about exits, entrances, openings, closings: doors!

may 24/RUN!

3 miles
river road trail, south/winchell trail, north/river road trail, north
71 degrees/ 90% humidity
dew point: 69

For the past few weeks, my left knee + left quad has been sore. After my run on the 17th, when my knee hurt enough to make it difficult to walk, I decided to take more of a break. Today is my first day back since then. Sunny, still (at least it seemed still), humid. Wow–90% humidity. Summer running. Ran at 8:30, which is not my favorite time to run. Too warm already + too many cars on the road, making crosswalks difficult and drowning out bird sounds with their whooshing wheels.

I felt a little stiff and over-heated, but it was a good run. Very happy to be back out by the gorge, admiring the river and assessing the progress of the leaves and the wildflowers. No mosquitos…yet…or sex-crazed gnats. I remember hearing a loud cardinal in some tree on the edge of trail, rapidly trilling and calling out, “what cheer what cheer.”

Things I Remember

  • almost slipping on the muddy, wet leaves at the edge of the concrete steps leading down to the Winchell Trail
  • not hearing the sewer pipe near 44th and my favorite retaining wall curve, but hearing it gushing at 42nd
  • feeling the glow of the water below out of the corner of eye as I ran on the part of the winchell trail without railing that seems too close to the edge of the steep bluff–I turned briefly to glance down at the bright water
  • noticing more bikers than runners and walkers on the trail
  • wondering when the bugs and the cottonwood fuzz will be arriving
  • breathing in through my nose for 3 beats, out through my mouth for 2
  • feeling a little anxious about my knee and my left IT band, hoping that I took enough time off

Here’s my bird poem for the day:

Of Being is a Bird/ Emily Dickinson

Of Being is a Bird
The likest to the Down
An Easy Breeze do put afloat
The General Heavens — upon —

It soars — and shifts — and whirls —
And measures with the Clouds
In easy — even — dazzling pace —
No different the Birds —

Except a Wake of Music
Accompany their feet —
As did the Down emit a Tune —
For Ecstasy — of it

It’s helpful for me to read through The Prowling Bees’s analysis of this poem (linked in poem title), although I still don’t totally understand ED’s words. I’m struck by her use of easy twice. Ever since I encountered Mary Oliver’s use of easy in her poems (first mentioned on April 14, 2021), I’ve been thinking about the differences between easy and difficult and about how easy is dismissed as immoral or not noble and not nearly as good as difficult. If it’s too easy, you’re not working hard enough, or you’re taking the easy way out, or you’re lazy. I’ve been thinking about it even more after reading Richard Siken’s “The Language of Birds”–see below–and his line about it being easy to ask how, much harder to ask why:

Why paint a bird? Why do anything at all? Not how, because hows are easy—series or sequence, one foot after the other—but existentially why bother, what does it solve?

Why does everything have to hard to be good? Can easy ever be better? Can we fetishize the difficult–making things more difficult for ourselves than we should?

may 18/STIFF RIGHT KNEE, HARD TO WALK

Yesterday, after taking 2 days off from running, I ran again. Not too long after I finished, my left knee felt stiff and sore. Not a good sign, but, surprisingly, I’m chill about it. Just need to take more of a break I guess. Maybe the whole week? If my knee feels a little better tomorrow, and I can walk without limping or tensing up, I’ll try out my bike. After 2 years in the basement, it’s time bring it outside to test it out. Will I be able to see? Eventually, I’m sure, my brain will adjust enough.

Spending a lot of time sitting today. Started early-ish (7:30) this morning by sitting cross-legged on a cushion on the deck, trying to not move much. I was inspired by the wonderful essay I read about “just sitting” yesterday: Private Practice: Toward a Philosophy of Just Sitting/ Antonia Pont

Then I sat at a chair and listened to the daycare kids next door playing outside. I’m not sure how long they were outside, but I took notes about their interactions with the unprepared, harried daycare worker. A lot of fun (not for the daycare worker) and a great exercise in paying attention and taking notes about it. At one point, they played “Ring Around the Rosie.” I wrote in my notes: plague rhyme. I wondered, what other cautionary, plague-related rhymes do children still chant? Googled it and became increasingly skeptical about any nursery rhymes that claim to be about plagues. Then I found this very helpful source–Ring Around the Rosie: Metafolklore, Rhyme and Reason from the Library of Congress. Lots of interesting information about why it’s doubtful that the ring around the rosie is about the plague.

Refreshed my memory of a poem I memorized last summer–Love Song of the Square Root of Negative One by Richard Siken. Love this poem and love Siken. Found another great poem in the same collection (War of the Foxes): The Language of the Birds

The Language of the Birds/ Richard Siken

1

A man saw a bird and found him beautiful. The bird had a song inside him, and feathers. Sometimes the man felt like the bird and sometimes the man felt like a stone—solid, inevitable—but mostly he felt like a bird, or that there was a bird inside him, or that something inside him was like a bird fluttering. This went on for a long time.


2

A man saw a bird and wanted to paint it. The problem, if there was one, was simply a problem with the question. Why paint a bird? Why do anything at all? Not how, because hows are easy—series or sequence, one foot after the other—but existentially why bother, what does it solve?

And just because you want to paint a bird, do actually paint a bird, it doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished anything. Who gets to measure the distance between experience and its representation? Who controls the lines of inquiry? We do. Anyone can.

Blackbird, he says. So be it, indexed and normative. But it isn’t a bird, it’s a man in a bird suit, blue shoulders instead of feathers, because he isn’t looking at a bird, real bird, as he paints, he is looking at his heart, which is impossible.

Unless his heart is a metaphor for his heart, as everything is a metaphor for itself, so that looking at the paint is like looking at a bird that isn’t there, with a song in its throat that you don’t want to hear but you paint anyway.

The hand is a voice that can sing what the voice will not, and the hand wants to do something useful. Sometimes, at night, in bed, before I fall asleep, I think about a poem I might write, someday, about my heart, says the heart.


3

They looked at the animals. They looked at the walls of the cave. This is earlier, these are different men. They painted in torchlight: red mostly, sometimes black—mammoth, lion, horse, bear—things on a wall, in profile or superimposed, dynamic and alert.

They weren’t animals but they looked like animals, enough like animals to make it confusing, meant something but the meaning was slippery: it wasn’t there but it remained, looked like the thing but wasn’t the thing—was a second thing, following a second set of rules—and it was too late: their power over it was no longer absolute.

What is alive and what isn’t and what should we do about it? Theories: about the nature of the thing. And of the soul. Because people die. The fear: that nothing survives. The greater fear: that something does.

The night sky is vast and wide.

They huddled closer, shoulder to shoulder, painted themselves in herds, all together and apart from the rest. They looked at the sky, and at the mud, and at their hands in the mud, and their dead friends in the mud. This went on for a long time.


4

To be a bird, or a flock of birds doing something together, one or many, starling or murmuration. To be a man on a hill, or all the men on all the hills, or half a man shivering in the flock of himself. These are some choices.

The night sky is vast and wide.

A man had two birds in his head—not in his throat, not in his chest—and the birds would sing all day never stopping. The man thought to himself, One of these birds is not my bird. The birds agreed.

may 20/ABLE TO WALK, CLICKING KNEECAP

Feeling much better today. I can walk almost normally, even if I have to remind myself how to do it when I start: bend the knee! I was planning to get out my bike and try it on the trail, but it’s raining, so maybe I’ll bike inside and watch another Dickinson? I want to take a break from running until next Monday, I think, just to be safe. Hopefully that is enough time to recover from whatever happened to my knee. Sitting in the front room, with the windows wide open, I’m enjoying listening to the rain hitting the pavement. It’s a soft, steady, gentle rain. I also hear a siren a few streets over.

Returning to this post, a few hours after I wrote the previous paragraph: Took Delia for a walk around the block and did 30 minutes on the bike in the basement while watching the ITU Yokohama Men’s Triathlon. Most memorable moment: It was a tough, hot race–30 degrees celsius (86 F)–and racers were exhausted at the finishing line. As the commentary continued, I could hear several racers puking in the background. No mention of it by the commentators. Gross, yet a good reminder of how ridiculously hard these races are and how much these racers have learned to push their bodies. I’m troubled by and in awe of that ability.

Thinking about Richard Siken’s “The Language of the Birds”:

1.
A man saw a bird and found him beautiful. The bird had a song inside him, and feathers. Sometimes the man felt like the bird and sometimes the man felt like a stone—solid, inevitable—but mostly he felt like a bird, or that there was a bird inside him, or that something inside him was like a bird fluttering. This went on for a long time.

I love this first stanza. Thinking about ED and “Hope” is thing with feathers. Also thinking about MO and some great lines from The Leaf and the Cloud, which, when I found them again, I realized were even more fitting with this poem or at least my reading of it right now:

from “Gravel” in The Leaf and the Cloud/ Mary Oliver

6.
It is the nature of stone
to be satisfied.
It is the nature of water
to want to be somewhere else.

Everywhere we look: the sweet guttural swill of the water
tumbling.
Everywhere we look:
the stone, basking in the sun,

or offering itself
to the golden lichen.

It is our nature not only to see
that the world is beautiful

but to stand in the dark, under the stars,
or at noon, in the rainfall of light,

frenzied,
writing our hands,

half-mad, saying over and over:

what does it mean, that the world is beautiful–
what does it mean?

What is alive and what isn’t and what should we do about it? Theories: about the nature of the thing. And of the soul. Because people die. The fear: that nothing survives. The greater fear: that something does.

Siken’s poem isn’t really about a bird; it’s about metaphor and representation and the work of doing something useful (meaningful?) with the noticing of a beautiful bird. And it’s about the doubt an artist/writer feels when they try to create something in response to that bird, and about what language does to the artist’s connection to the bird, the distance it creates between “experience and representation.” And, it’s about asking the question: why do anything at all? “existentially why bother, what does it solve?”

And maybe it’s also about not answering this question, not trying to find ultimate meaning, not trying to solve “it”–where it = the problem of death/that everyone dies, or it = the overwhelming “vast and wide” night sky,” or it = our inability to capture/own a bird in our representation (painting, poem) of them.

Yesterday, when I looked up “The Language of the Birds” I discovered this: The Mantiq al-tair(Language of the Birds) of 1487. I had discovered this Sufi poem earlier in the month when I looked up conference of birds, which is it’s more known title. Very cool. Here’s some more information:

Attar (ca. 1142–1220), the author of the Mantiq al-tair, is one of the most celebrated poets of Sufi literature and inspired the work of many later mystical poets. The story is as follows: The birds assemble to select a king so that they can live more harmoniously. Among them, the hoopoe, who was the ambassador sent by Sulaiman to the Queen of Sheba, considers the Simurgh, or a Persian mythical bird, which lives behind Mount Qaf, to be the most worthy of this title. When the other birds make excuses to avoid making a decision, the hoopoe answers each bird satisfactorily by telling anecdotes, and when they complain about the severity and harshness of the journey to Mount Qaf, the hoopoe tries to persuade them. Finally, the hoopoe succeeds in convincing the birds to undertake the journey to meet the Simurgh. The birds strive to traverse seven valleys: quest, love, gnosis, contentment, unity, wonder, and poverty. Finally, only thirty birds reach the abode of the Simurgh, and there each one sees his/her reflection in the celestial bird. Thus, thirty birds see the Simurgh as none other than themselves. In this way, they finally achieve self-annihilation. This story is an allegorical work illustrating the quest of Sufism; the birds are a metaphor for men who pursue the Sufi path of God, the hoopoe for the pir (Sufi master), the Simurgh for the Divine, and the birds’ journey the Sufi path.

One of the valleys the birds have to travel through is the valley of wonder/astonishment/bewilderment. This makes me think of the Sufi poet Rumi and their focus on bewilderment, which I discovered through Fanny Howe. Here’s “Bewilderment” by Rumi:

Bewilderment/ Rumi

There are many guises for intelligence.
One part of you is gliding in a high windstream,
while your more ordinary notionstake little steps and peck at the ground.

Conventional knowledge is death to our souls,
and it is not really ours. It is laid on.
Yet we keep saying we find “rest” in these “beliefs.”

We must become ignorant of what we have been taught
and be instead bewildered.

Run from what is profitable and comfortable.
Distrust anyone who praises you.
Give your investment money, and the interest
on the capital, to those who are actually destitute.

Forget safety. Live where you fear to live.
Destroy your reputation. Be notorious.
I have tried prudent planning long enough.
From now on, I’ll be mad.

Since I keep wanting to put these bird poems in conversation with Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson, I’ll add that Mary Oliver loved the poetry of Rumi. In her interview with Krista Tippett, she describes how she reads a different Rumi poem each day. And, the last line of “Bewildernment” reminds me of this ED poem:

Much Madness is divinest Sense – (620)/ EMILY DICKINSON

Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –

may 21/WALKED 2 BLOCK ON A SLIGHTLY STIFF KNEE

My left knee continues to improve. The kneecap still shifts and clicks, but I can bend and move my knee without pain. I continue to remind my knee how to walk. Rain on and off all day. Showers then sun then showers with sun. Will it ever end? Pumped up the tires in my bike. It’s still in the basement, but soon I’ll bring it upstairs. Heard so many birds this morning: cardinals and woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees and robins. Heard a metallic 2 note song in a neighbor’s tree as I walked around the block with Delia the dog. Was that robin too? Also heard a rapid trilling that sounded like a car alarm. I’m pretty sure it’s a cardinal.

Finishing up a great book, Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl. Here’s one of her essays? prose poems? that uses one of my favorite words: still, which can be used as an adjective (not moving, calm), a verb (to calm down, to quiet), a noun (a period of calm or silence), and an adverb (up to a time, to an even greater degree, nevertheless).

Still/ Margaret Renkl

I pause to check the milkweed, and a caterpillar halts midbite, its face still lowered to the leaf.

I walk down my driveway at dusk, and the cottontail under the pine tree freezes, not a single twitch of ear or nose.

On the roadside, the doe stands immobile, as still as the trees that rise above her. My car passes; her soft nose doesn’t quiver. Her soft flanks don’t rise or fall. A current of air stirs only the hairs at the very tip of her tail.

I peek between the branches of the holly bush, and the redbird nestling looks straight at me, motionless, unblinking.

Every day the world is teaching me what I need to know to be in the world.

In the stir of too much motion:
Hold still.
Be quiet.
Listen.