may 14/RUN

5.25 miles
ford loop
60 degrees

To celebrate being fully vaccinated, Scott and I ran the Ford loop together. Today marks 2 weeks since our second pfizer shots.

Things I Remember

  • The river looking blue and calm
  • Seeing a robin’s red breast as they walked down the path in front of us
  • Hearing but not seeing some rowers starting out from the rowing club dock
  • Thinking about the eagle that used to perch on the dead branch right by the lake street bridge as we walked down the steps from the bridge to the trail
  • Noticing how big some of the houses on the east river road were
  • Hearing the water at shadow falls gushing down in the ravine as we ran up the big hill towards Summit Avenue
  • Stopping at the overlook and admiring the view while talking about how having more than a billion dollars was not evidence of success but of unconscionable excess
  • STA counting the pillars on Ford–according to him there are 101. Today he only counted 98
  • As we headed down the hill back to the trail hearing geese honking
  • Waving and greeting lots of people

Seeing the robin and their red breast on the walk in front of us, reminded me of Emily Dickinson and her poem about the bird that came down the walk one day and did not know she saw, but since I already posted that one in March, I looked for another ED robin poem. I like this one:

If I shouldn’t be alive/ Emily Dickinson

If I shouldn’t be alive
When the Robins come,
Give the one in Red Cravat,
A Memorial crumb –

If I couldn’t thank you,
Being fast asleep,
You will know I’m trying
With my Granite lip!

may 12/RUN

5 miles
Franklin Hill Turn-around
58 degrees

What a wonderful morning for a run! Hardly any wind, warm, sunny, green. I wasn’t planning to run to the Franklin Hill, only the trestle, but when I reached the trestle, I just kept going. They’ve repaved the trail at this spot and replaced the crumbling steps leading down to the Winchell Trail. Nice! I’ll have to try out those steps sometime soon. As I approached the Franklin Hill, I heard some voices below on the river. Rowers! As I reached the bottom of the hill, I caught a glimpse of the shell with eight rowers illuminated by the sun. Running up the hill wasn’t too hard. I can’t remember the last time I ran up this hill–was it just before the pandemic hit last March? No, I looked it up: last October 4th. Reading the log entry, I remember the geese, but I don’t remember seeing them just this past fall. Thanks again, past Sara, for keeping a record of these runs so I can remember them!

Running south, after cresting the hill, I overheard a few people talking, one asking the other something that I’m assuming was about what they had seen. Seen what? The answer was something like, “the red stars” or the “red starts”? Was it about rowers with red shirts or migrating birds called red stars? Close–I looked it up and I’m pretty sure they were talking about the American Redstart, which is a bird that, according to Dave Zumeta’s handy list, breeds near the gorge. Very cool!

A lively warbler that hops among tree branches in search of insects, the male American Redstart is coal-black with vivid orange patches on the sides, wings, and tail. True to its Halloween-themed color scheme, the redstart seems to startle its prey out of the foliage by flashing its strikingly patterned tail and wing feathers. Females and immature males have more subdued yellow “flash patterns” on a gray background. These sweet-singing warblers nest in open woodlands across much of North America.

Reading further about them, I saw this helpful backyard tip:

In late summer, redstarts visit plants with small berries and fruits, such as serviceberry and magnolia.

Excellent! We have two big serviceberry trees right at the edge of our deck and birds often visit them in the summer.

Birdcall/ Alicia Ostriker – 1937-

    —for Elizabeth Bishop

Tuwee, calls a bird near the house,
Tuwee, cries another, downhill in the woods.
No wind, early September, beeches and pines,

Sumac aflame, tuwee, tuwee, a question and a faint
But definite response, tuwee, tuwee, as if engaged
In a conversation expected to continue all afternoon,

Where is?—I’m here?—an upward inflection in
Query and in response, a genetic libretto rehearsed
Tens of thousands of years beginning to leave its indelible trace,

Clawprint of language, ritual, dense winged seed,
Or as someone were slowly buttoning a shirt.
I am happy to lie in the grass and listen, as if at the dawn of reason,

To the clear communal command
That is flinging creaturely will into existence,
Designing itself to desire survival,

Liberty, companionship,
Then the bird near me, my bird, stops inquiring, while the other
Off in the woods continues calling faintly, but with that upward

Inflection, I’m here, I’m here,
I’m here, here, the call opens a path through boughs still clothed
By foliage, until it sounds like entreaty, like anxiety, like life

Imitating the pivotal move of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle,”
Where the lovebird’s futile song to its absent mate teaches the child
Death—which the ocean also whispers—

Death, death, death it softly whispers,
Like an old crone bending aside over a cradle, Whitman says,
Or the like the teapot in Elizabeth Bishop’s grandmother’s kitchen,

Here at one end of the chain of being,
That whistles a song of presence and departure,
Creating comfort but also calling for tears.

Reference to Elizabeth Bishop: Sestina
Reference to Walt Whitman: Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

may 11/WALK

Took Delia the dog for a walk: through the neighborhood, down the worn wooden steps, up to a spot with a warped chainlink fence and a view of the ravine and the oak savanna, but not the river—too many leaves already. Down around the ravine, up the other side to another overlook with a sliver of sparkling river, past the ancient boulder with no stacked stones, down through the tunnel of trees and beside the crumbling rocks. We crossed the river road just before the old stone steps and made our way to Seven Oaks to be with the birds. Stopped. Listened. Watched for motion. Heard lots of chirping and tweeting and trilling and rustling. Saw some branches moving. Didn’t really try to identify bird sounds, just let all the music envelop me.

Earlier heading down to the ravine, I noticed another downy woodpecker on a tree, trying to find a good spot to drum. It’s amazing how such a tiny bird can produce such a loud sound! Today, they flew away before drumming, but yesterday I was able to see a little head rapidly striking the trunk. Sometimes it’s hard to believe how much I can still see, and how much I can’t. Noticed a few bikers. It’s time to get out my bike and try it. I’m nervous, because I haven’t biked in 2 years. How difficult will it be with my vision–will it be harder? scarier?

This morning I’m revisiting an essay I read at least 2 years ago and appreciating it so much more: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Bird by Naomi Cohn. I discovered Cohn when I read her work Cell in the Feb 2019 issue of Poetry. She is legally blind and writes about her vision loss, which began in her 30s and happened over several decades. She’s local—I think she lives less than 2 miles from me–and I’ve been wanting to email her for some time now. I haven’t yet, but I should. Why not?

It’s so great to reread this piece while in the midst of my month of birds. Here are a few passages that especially resonated:

Back then I was drawn to see the rare, the out-of-place, the new to my eyes, the precious sight of feathers that could be added to my life list, a check mark in my field guide, its pages ruffled with a history of rainy wetlands. Wilderness tamed by naming.

I had no need to “collect” another red-winged blackbird, but stopped to look.

I like the statement: wilderness tamed by naming. I don’t really miss this taming—scrutinizing, staring, owning, collecting. And mostly, I’m okay with not being able to see details, sometimes mixing up or missing color. Of course, reading Cohn’s essay, I kept thinking about how much better my vision is than hers–at least, for now. I was able to see that small downy woodpecker on the tree today, after all.

The eye listens. The song of the red-winged blackbird translated to a sonogram, a shape on a page, a whistle heard in the head that has shape and volume. It triggers a mental image of yellow feet clutching a cattail, of a red quarter circle, so red against glossy black.

An ear sees. As the decay progressed, I began to learn bird song. I invested in “birding by ear” CDs, the little platters spinning endlessly in my cheap boom box. At my most tuned up, I probably knew 150 songs.

I would have kept the old way of looking at a blackbird if I could–it takes a good sized hole in your life to fill all those hours listening to bird tapes.

But there is this to looking at a bird through its song: Your eye, even a good eye, only looks at one thing at a time, only focusses on one bird at a time, but the ear listens in all directions. Paddling across a Canadian lake, red and white pines tall around the shore, the bird song comes from every direction, every compass point, every point on the whole half dome of the world above the water and shore.

Yes. I love this idea of sound coming from every direction, while sight can only come from one. As I was standing at the edge of the sink hole, I was listening in all directions. Sight encourages singularity: single ideas, single perspectives, either this or that but not both at the same time. Hearing encourages plurality: both/and, this and that, multiple perspectives at once.

To see a bird demands both perception and attention. For years I supplied the relatively subtle gaps of perception with attention. Over time, this was not enough. Motion was less my friend. I needed time to make things out, to dart my eye back and forth and up and down to try to get a glimpse of something, to see around the edges of my blind spots,  sending a set of broken, incomplete messages to my visual cortex, which on a good day, would assemble a convincing hypothesis of what I was perceiving.

This is all any of us ever do.

Yes! I think this line “This is all any of us ever do” is important. You can read it as metaphor, with blind spots representing those limitations in everyone’s understandings and perspectives. But you can also read it as literal. The more I read about how we see, the more I learn how complicated it is for everyone–good vision or bad—to make sense of images. The brain guesses a lot. Of course, those guesses are better when the brain is given more data, but even then, the brain guesses.

The title of this essay is referring to the famous poem of the same name by Wallace Stevens. I’ve read it several times; I even did an homage poem of it for a class 3 years ago. Anyway, here’s the original:

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird/ WALLACE STEVENS

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,   
The only moving thing   
Was the eye of the blackbird.   

II
I was of three minds,   
Like a tree   
In which there are three blackbirds.   

III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   
It was a small part of the pantomime.   

IV
A man and a woman   
Are one.   
A man and a woman and a blackbird   
Are one.   

V
I do not know which to prefer,   
The beauty of inflections   
Or the beauty of innuendoes,   
The blackbird whistling   
Or just after.   

VI
Icicles filled the long window   
With barbaric glass.   
The shadow of the blackbird   
Crossed it, to and fro.   
The mood   
Traced in the shadow   
An indecipherable cause.   

VII
O thin men of Haddam,   
Why do you imagine golden birds?   
Do you not see how the blackbird   
Walks around the feet   
Of the women about you?   

VIII
I know noble accents   
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;   
But I know, too,   
That the blackbird is involved   
In what I know.   

IX
When the blackbird flew out of sight,   
It marked the edge   
Of one of many circles.   

X
At the sight of blackbirds   
Flying in a green light,   
Even the bawds of euphony   
Would cry out sharply.   

XI
He rode over Connecticut   
In a glass coach.   
Once, a fear pierced him,   
In that he mistook   
The shadow of his equipage   
For blackbirds.   

XII
The river is moving.   
The blackbird must be flying.   

XIII
It was evening all afternoon.   
It was snowing   
And it was going to snow.   
The blackbird sat   
In the cedar-limbs.

may 10/RUN

3.6 miles
turkey hollow + Seven Oaks
46 degrees

Ran on the trail but barely noticed the river. Distracted by walkers, and dog collars, and a noise that I think was a bird song but could have been someone whistling in the savanna. Heard a bird song that reminded me of the feebee call but was very different. Tried to find some words to match it, but couldn’t. A long note then a few shorter ones. No turkeys in turkey hollow, no red-breasted nuthatches near Becketwood. As I ran north on edmund, I thought about the poem I posted yesterday (which I actually posted this morning) about bird names. In trying to identify birds and birdsongs am I just trying to collect them? What might it mean to resist that urge to name, to know? Then I thought about the value of names, of knowing and noticing. Both–not knowing and knowing–have value. I also thought about different ways of noticing and being with birds that don’t involve staring and studying and collecting. Feeling the shadow of a bird flying overhead, sensing their graceful and frenetic motions.

Ended my run at Seven Oaks again to be with the birds. I think stopping there will be my new thing for May. So many sounds, so much movement all around–flying and rustling. Noticed a tiny bird–some sort of warbler?–just above me. I couldn’t see any distinctive colors on its head or feather and it didn’t call out. Watched a downy woodpecker slowly climbing up a tree. Moved when I was stared down by a squirrel, then returned when I heard the quiet drumming of the black and white feathered bird. Very cool. What an amazing way to end my run!

Here are two recordings I took as I walked around the rim of the Seven Oaks’ sink hole:

May 10/ birds, 1
May 10/ birds, 2

I think I might hear a cardinal and a robin, but what else? And are those birds even there, or am I just hearing robins and cardinals everywhere?

For the Birds/ JOHN SHOPTAW

For the abundant along with the rare birds at my feeder of late
For all kinds of birds I’ve lived with here are turning rarer
For the chestnut-backed chickadee, who carries her sunflower chip to the buckthorn to dine on between her toes
For the chickadees once came to my feeder in bunches
For the big round plain brown pair of California towhees who eat in parallel from the bird-crumb table
For though they crumb it clean without a glance or a cheep, I believe this remote old couple is as entwined as any two polarized photons
For the fearsome indigo Steller’s jays, black hooded and crested, Tapper and Sly, as I call them
For Tapper taps twice on an overhanging plum branch at two clucks from my tongue so I’ll know him
For Sly hangs back and shrieks me over and only shows himself after I place on the table their morning quincunx of unsalted peanuts
For he knows Tapper will quack to announce them and then squawk indignantly when he slyly swoops in
For the vast majority
For the dark-eyed juncos, the wide-eyed titmice, the narrow-eyed redbreasted nuthatches, who feed right-side up as they see it, the other birds upside down
For Audubon’s yellow-rumped, Wilson’s and Townsend’s warblers, nobody’s birds, who feed, drink and breed as they can
For the song sparrow’s song and the sparrow who exults in singing it
For a song—how long will that phrase mean what it means
For them all I refill the feeder, even this morning, when all blown-down things crackle underfoot and the Diablo wind seems to growl diabolically and scrape from all corners at once against a sky the color of flint
For the lesser goldfinches, symbolically fierce, who part their beaks at any other kind who would peck a chip in their presence
For the pine siskins, their symbolic match, who used to expose their underwings back at them with its dreadful yellow stripe
For two years running, no siskins at the feeder
For the brown-crowned, as-yet-unkindled sparrows, wintering from Oregon or the Farallon Islands, I sing my two-note welcome, hel-low, pointless
For they won’t learn it with my face masked against wild smoke migrating from the north
For the species too little or big or otherwise unsuited for the feeder
For Anna’s hummingbirds, who love to suck on our pineapple sage
For the red-tailed hawk perched in the smoke-fogged redwood
For soon it’ll be pestered by a twister of crows cawing hawkawkawkawkaw
For a red-tailed hawk I mistook it—something larger, ruffled molten
For the golden eagle it turned out to be—weird—hunched in the chill
For another flew up out of thick air and followed it south out of eyeshot
For those two—not migrants—evacuees clasping their emotional baggage
For the birds, then, what have I to offer
For what kind of refuge is my catalog
For I can’t reckon how to make good their losses
For I meant not to make a life list I meant
For others to partake in my pleasure
For it pleases me to look after the birds

This poem makes me think of the question I was pondering while I ran about collecting bird identifications. “For I mean not to make a life list”. Here’s an explanation of a life list:

life list

A life list is a cumulative record of the bird species an individual birder successfully identifies, and keeping a list is the easiest way to track which birds you have seen. Birders often keep life lists for other reasons as well, however, such as for motivation to see a greater number of species or to garner the prestige that comes from having higher count numbers. Life lists can also be submitted to some birding organizations for recognition or for contest purposes. For most birders, however, it is just fun to keep a life list and add up how many bird species you have seen.

What Species Can Count for a Bird Life List?

The article suggests that you can create your list however you want, but if you want the “prestige” of having it officially recognized, there are rules, which you can read in the article. I am not interested in creating a life list, of cataloging the birds I’ve seen as proof that I’m a good noticer. I like how this poem offers an alternative reason for why you would compile a list–a memory of what has been lost, a celebration of delights, a catalog of unabashed gratitude (the name of a collection by Ross Gay).

The line “For a song—how long will that phrase mean what it means” reminds me of the idea of dead metaphors, like “at a glacial pace”, that no longer have meaning because of dramatic/violent shifts in ecosystems and the destruction of the environment. Does Shoptaw mean it in this way?

may 8/RUN

3 miles
austin, mn
50 degrees

Windy and cool. Ran in Austin with STA. Less than a week away from being fully vaccinated.

Vanishing/ Brittney Corrigan

Nearly one-third of the wild birds in the United States
and Canada have vanished since 1970, a staggering
loss that suggests the very fabric of North America’s
ecosystem is unraveling.
–The New York Times (September 19, 2019)

As the world’s cities teem
with children—flooding
our concrete terrains with shouts
and signs—as the younglings balance
scribbled Earths above their heads,
stand in unseasonal rain
or blistering sun,

the birds quietly lessen
themselves among the grasslands.
No longer a chorus but a lonely,
indicating trill: Eastern meadowlark,
wood thrush, indigo bunting—
their voices ghosts in the
chemical landscape of crops.

Red-winged blackbirds veer
beyond the veil. Orioles
and swallows, the horned lark
and the jay. Color drains from
our common home so gradually,
we convince ourselves
it has always been gray.

Little hollow-boned dinosaurs,
you who survived the last extinction,
whose variety has obsessed
scientific minds, whose bodies
in the air compel our own bodies
to spread and yearn—
how we have failed you.

The grackles are right to scold us,
as they feast on our garbage
and genetically-modified corn.
Our children flock into the streets
with voices raised, their anger
a grim substitute
for song.

may 7/RUN

3.25 miles
43rd ave, north/tunnel of trees/welcoming oaks/oak savanna/edmund, north/7 Oaks
49 degrees

Hooray for wonderful runs! Sunny, warm enough for shorts, clear trails, welcoming oaks, robins who sound like they’re singing “hurry up hurry up hurry up.” Ran on the trail but don’t remember looking at the river; too busy looking out for other people. After reading an article about “The Warbler Wave” at 7 Oaks, decided to end my run there and listen. According to local bird expert Dave Zumeta (I have his Birds of the Mississippi Guide pdf), mid-May is a great time to see/hear warblers as they migrate south, and 7 Oaks is the best place to do it:

Warblers are Zumeta’s favorite birds, bar none. He not only knows the subtleties of their markings, but can also recognize their songs. His favorite place to watch for warblers isn’t Costa Rica or the Greater Antilles Islands. It’s a sinkhole on 34th St. and 47th Ave. just a stone’s throw from his house. He said, “Seven Oaks Park is the reason we moved where we did. I think it’s one of the best places to bird watch anywhere – and it’s a warbler magnet.”

Wow, I love where I live! Here’s the recording I took as I stood on the edge of the sinkhole:

May 7th, birds at 7 Oaks

I have loved Marie Howe ever since I read one of her amazing poem from What the Living Do and listened to her On Being interview. Such beautiful words! Here’s one that features a bird:

From Nowhere/ Marie Howe

I think the sea is a useless teacher, pitching and falling
no matter the weather, when our lives are rather lakes

unlocking in a constant and bewildering spring. Listen,
a day comes, when you say what all winter

I’ve been meaning to ask, and a crack booms and echoes
where ice had seemed solid, scattering ducks

and scaring us half to death. In Vermont, you dreamed
from the crown of a hill and across a ravine

you saw lights so familiar they might have been ours
shining back from the future.

And waking, you walked there, to the real place,
and when you saw only trees, come back bleak

with a foreknowledge we have both come to believe in.
But this morning, a kind day has descended, from nowhere,

and making coffee in the usual way, measuring grounds
with the wooden spoon, I remembered,

this is how things happen, cup by cup, familiar gesture
after gesture, what else can we know of safety

or of fruitfulness? We walk with mincing steps within
a thaw as slow as February, wading through currents

that surprise us with their sudden warmth. Remember,
last week you woke still whistling for a bird

that had miraculously escaped its cage, and look, today,
a swallow has come to settle behind this rented rain gutter,

gripping a twig twice his size in his beak, staggering
under its weight, so delicately, so precariously it seems

from here, holding all he knows of hope in his mouth.

I love the idea of our lives as thawing lakes in a bewildering spring, and the kind day descending and things happening cup by cup, gesture by gesture, and the surprise of sudden warmth, and the delicate, staggering bird. The line about the bird reminds me of Ada Limón’s interview on VS:

Ada Limón: Yeah. I think, for me, there are a couple of new poems I’ve been working on. One of them, just recently, where I saw a beautiful kestrel that was on a really small branch. And I kept sort of loving this image of a heavier bird being held up by a small branch, right. And I kept thinking, I’ve got to do something with this, I’ve got to do something with this. And then, really, towards the end of the poem, I realized, like, I want this image to somehow tell me that as the branch, I can bear more, and I can bear a lot. And as the bird, I can balance on barely, you know, on something that’s barely there. And yet, in the poem, I recognize that it’s not telling me that, right. That that’s actually—all it is is a bird doing its thing, landing where it needs to land. And, you know, I want to look at those lessons. But I also need to pull back and think, okay, maybe it’s just a noticing, and that’s what my job was. And not always turning it into a … fable, you know. (LAUGHS) Or an idea that will somehow rescue the speaker. And in this case, you know, the speaker being me.

Franny Choi: Yeah, that helps me totally see what you mean when you say, allow the animal to be an animal alongside us as animals. Like To just like, be with them in an environment together, rather than being a colonizer like, be like, th, like, how is this tree useful for me? How is this bird useful? What can I -what can I make it for?

It’s interesting how these images of birds are opposites: Limón’s is too big for the branch, Howe’s is too small for the twig, but both are about the too-muchness of life—the world’s weight, too much for our small branched bodies, and hope’s sudden and unexpected appearance, almost too much to bear.

May 6/WALK

A break from running today. Took Delia on 2 walks instead, one just me, the other with STA and RJP. One down by the ravine, the other in the grass between the river road and Edmund.

Starlings/ Maggie Smith from Goldenrod

The starlings choose one piece of sky above the river
and pour themselves in. Like a thousand arrows
pointing in unison one way, then another. That bit of blue
doesn’t belong to them, and they don’t belong to the sky,
or to the earth. Isn’t that what you’ve been taught–nothing is ours?
Haven’t you learned to keep the loosest possible hold?
The small portion of sky boils with birds.
Near the river’s edge, one birch has a knot so much
like an eye, you think it sees you. But of course it doesn’t.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen starlings in person. I checked my bird list and they do live in the Mississippi Gorge. Maybe someday I’ll see them? Anyway, I picked this poem because it uses two interesting bits of information that I’ve wanted to use in a poem ever since I found out about them: 1. a boil of birds and 2. the tree with eyes.

a boil of birds

On March 9th, 2020, one day before I got my first of many sinus infections and just days before the pandemic became real in Minnesota, I went for a walk and noticed a big bird circling in the sky. Wondering why it circled, I looked it up and found out about thermals and boils of birds. Here’s what I wrote:

Thermals are updrafts of warm air that rise from the ground into the sky. By flying a spiraling circular path within these columns of rising air, birds are able to “ride” the air currents and climb to higher altitudes while expending very little energy in the process. Solitary birds like eagles and hawks often take advantage of thermals to extend their flight time as they search for food. Social birds that fly in large flocks also use thermals to gain altitude and extend their range during migration. The sight of dozens or hundreds of birds riding a thermal has been said to resemble the water boiling in a kettle, so the terms kettle or boil are sometimes used as a nickname for a flock of birds circling in a thermal updraft. The benefits of thermals are not limited to the animal world either as glider pilots often take advantage of them to gain altitude as well.

I want to see hundreds of birds riding a thermal and looking like water boiling in a kettle! Mostly so I can see them doing it but also so I can write about the boil of birds I just saw.

a tree with eyes

On June 18th, 2020, walking with STA and Delia the dog, we noticed a tree that looked like it had eyes. Here’s what I wrote:

Every day, in the late afternoon around 5, Scott and I take Delia the dog on a long walk between Edmund Boulevard and the River Road. This week, while stopped near the upper campus of Minnehaha Academy–the one that was recently rebuilt after the old building exploded a few years ago, Scott noticed all the eyes on an aspen tree and took a picture of it. I remember remarking, “oh, I bet there’s a name for that. I’ll have to look it up.” I finally did just now. The most popular answer? Aspen eyes. According to several sites I found, these eyes are formed through self-grooming, when aspens shed their smallest branches.

walking and listening this morning

On my walk this morning with Delia the dog, I heard black-capped chickadees, pileated woodpeckers, cardinals, and the red-breasted nuthatch I just identified yesterday. Also might have heard the plink plink of a bobolink–is that possible?Standing at the rim of the giant sinkhole that’s been turned into a city park at 7 Oaks, I heard so many other birds, including one that I hear all the time but I can’t yet identify. I manage to record it (along with other birds). \

May 6th, a one-syllable bird call at 7 Oaks

Birding by ear is difficult and overwhelming at first. Too many different sounds that I can’t distinguish. So, I’m looking for tips, like these: Six tips for birding by ear. In it, they suggest some things to listen for.

Some things to listen for:
  • is it high
  • sweet
  • does it rise or fall in pitch
  • is it in groups of 2 or 4
  • is there a space between each bout?

may 5/RUN

3.25 miles
turkey hollow
54 degrees

An overcast, cooler day. Not quite gray but not blue either. Wore my new raspberry red shoes. I have wanted red shoes for a few years now. Felt faster, stronger. Tried to listen for more birds. Heard the usual (or uje as FWA and RJP like to say) singers: black-capped chickadees, cardinals, crows, pileated woodpeckers not drumming but calling out, sounding like a loon to me. Ran the final 1/2 mile with my spotify running playlist.

I heard a bird that I thought was a crow calling out and tried to figure out what word their call sounded like but I couldn’t. It was one syllable and shrill. I looked on the birdsong charts that I posted a few days ago for one syllable calls and found the red-breasted nuthatch. Listened to its call and it sounded like what I remember. Then, I looked it up on a birds of the mississippi river gorge guide that I found a few years ago. Yes! Red-breasted nuthatches are permanent residiences here. Nice! On the birdsong chart, the word used to describe the call is “ink” but I can’t hear that when I listen to it. Googling it, I found “ank ank” which sounds more like it to me. Here’s how all about birds describes them:

An intense bundle of energy at your feeder, Red-breasted Nuthatches are tiny, active birds of north woods and western mountains. These long-billed, short-tailed songbirds travel through tree canopies with chickadees, kinglets, and woodpeckers but stick to tree trunks and branches, where they search bark furrows for hidden insects. Their excitable yank-yank calls sound like tiny tin horns being honked in the treetops.

They like to hang out with chickadees and woodpeckers? That sounds right. I remember hearing “chick a dee dee dee” a lot too. I need to look up how to record/make not of a bird sound–what information do people usually include? Here’s a page with some helpful information that I’ll check out later. For now, I’ll write:

May 5, 10:25
At the corner of 44th and West River Parkway near Becketwood
Red-breasted nuthatch call—“ank ank ank”

In the description, kinglets are mentioned too. Looked it up and we have those in the gorge as well. I’m thinking it might be helpful to look up the birds I know and then find out what other birds they hang out with. Also, when hearing bird sounds, try to listen for where they’re coming from–high up in the trees? the grass? lower branches?–then look up habitats. I feel this birding my ear will be slow work; I’ll consider it a big accomplishment if I can identify 2 or 3 more birds this month.

One last thing: I never would have guessed that the irritating, loud call I was hearing came from such a small bird. And I never would have guessed that it wasn’t a crow or a raven or a rook.

Looking through my safari reading list, I found this letter from Emily Dickinson to her cousins. I saved it a few years ago, I think. Why? Oh, past Sara what was in here that you wanted to keep? I’m not sure, but I think it’s fitting for the month of birds and birdsong. I’ll need to read her lines many more times before I feel close to understanding them, but I’m glad to have them.

TO: Louise and Frances Norcross
FROM: ED

Sisters,

I hear robins a great way off, and wagons a great way off, and rivers a great way off, and all appear to be hurrying somewhere undisclosed to me. Remoteness is the founder of sweetness; could we see all we hope, or hear the whole we fear told tranquil, like another tale, there would be madness near. Each of us gives or takes heaven in corporeal person, for each of us has the skill of life. I am pleased by your sweet acquaintance. It is not recorded of any rose that it failed of its bee, though obtained in specific instances through scarlet experience. The career of flowers differs from ours only in inaudibleness. I feel more reverence as I grow for these mute creatures whose suspense or transport may surpass my own. Pussy remembered the judgment, and remained with Vinnie. Maggie preferred her home to “Miggles” and “Oakhurst,” so with a few spring touches, nature remains unchanged.

The most triumphant bird
I ever knew or met,
Embarked upon a twig to-day, –
And till dominion set
I perish to behold
So competent a sight –
And sang for nothing scrutable
But impudent delight.
Retired and resumed
His transitive estate;
To what delicious accident
Does finest glory fit!

What to do with the contrast between the mute rose and the bird who sings for “nothing scrutable/But impudent delight”?

may 4/RUN

3.5 miles
river road trail, south/under ford bridge turn-around/river road trail, north/Winchell Trail, north
48 degrees

Yes! I ran on the trail all the way today: headed south on the upper trail, turned around just past the ford bridge, then back home on the lower trail. Heading down to the lower (Winchell) trail, I admired the sparkling river again. I wish the lower trail was longer; I really enjoy being a little closer to the river and running under the trees and on the edge of the bluff. It was mostly sunny, but occasionally the sun would hide behind a cloud and the trail and the trees would turn from lime greens and dark browns to dull gray.

Ran past the 42nd street sewer pipe and I listened to the water, I figured out some words that fit between dripping and gushing (which was my problem from yesterday’s run): falling, flowing, (a gentle) flushing. As I tried to hold onto those words so I could remember them for this entry, I heard a sharp beeping or tweeting noise. At first I thought it was a bird, then I realized it was a truck backing up. Then I thought: when we hear the beeping of the truck, do we need to put the idea that it’s a truck backing up into words, or do we have a more immediate understanding of it? How intelligible/recognizable in language do these sounds need to be for us to know and respond to them? Thinking I might forget this thought, I decided to stop at the top of the short but steep hill near Folwell and record some notes.

May 4th/ notes mid run

I was inspired to think about sound and syllables and language because of my bird poem for the day. I became aware of it after two different bird articles (or books?) that I read yesterday used a bit of it for an epitaph. I think they both used this bit:

is it o-ka-lee
or con-ka-ree, is it really jug jug,
is it cuckoo for that matter?–
much less whether a bird’s call
means anything in
particular, or at all.

Syrinx/ Amy Clampitt – 1920-1993

Like the foghorn that’s all lung,
the wind chime that’s all percussion,
like the wind itself, that’s merely air
in a terrible fret, without so much
as a finger to articulate
what ails it, the aeolian
syrinx, that reed
in the throat of a bird,
when it comes to the shaping of
what we call consonants, is
too imprecise for consensus
about what it even seems to
be saying: is it o-ka-lee
or con-ka-ree, is it really jug jug,
is it cuckoo for that matter?–
much less whether a bird’s call
means anything in
particular, or at all.

Syntax comes last, there can be
no doubt of it: came last,
can be thought of (is
thought of by some) as a
higher form of expression:
is, in extremity, first to
be jettisoned: as the diva
onstage, all soaring
pectoral breathwork,
takes off, pure vowel
breaking free of the dry,
the merely fricative
husk of the particular, rises
past saying anything, any
more than the wind in
the trees, waves breaking,
or Homer’s gibbering
Thespesiae iache:

those last-chance vestiges
above the threshold, the all-
but dispossessed of breath.

aeolian (def):
(adj) giving forth or marked by a moaning or sighing sound or musical tone produced by or as if by the wind.
(adj) borne, deposited, produced, or eroded by the wind
god of the winds (greek)
aeolian mode: natural minor scale

iache (noun): any kind of inarticulate cry; most likely it is an onomatopoeia, an imitation of human sounds that are not language; most frequently used of the shouts that accompanied Greek religious ritual
thespesiae (adj): divine, especially in the sense of mysterious or inaccessible to human understanding
terms from Homer’s Odyssey, found in this helpful study guide for the poem

Click on this image to see how the syrinx works over at one of my favorite bird sites: All About Birds

Click here to go to site to animate the syrinx

Her line about the “pure vowel/breaking free” made me think of Robert Bly and his discussion of vowels in the documentary‘ STA and I watched the other day. He read this bit from his long poem, “As If Someone Else is With Me” from Morning Poems:

So it’s a bird-like thing then, this hiding
And warming of sounds. They are the little low
Heavens in the nest; now my chest feathers
Widen, now I’m an old hen, now I am satisfied.

And here’s some helpful advice for starting to think about birding by ear:

How to “Bird by Ear”: Getting Started

To speed up the learning process, don’t just listen passively: Focus and analyze what you’re hearing. Describe the sound to yourself, draw a diagram, or write it down. If it’s a complicated song, figure out how many notes it has. Do all the notes have the same tone and vibe? Does the tune rise or fall? Can you adapt the “syllables” into words and make a mnemonic? The Barred Owl, for instance, hoots Who cooks for you, and the Common Yellowthroat sings Wichity-wichity-wichity. But you don’t have to just settle for published mnemonics; listen carefully and then invent your own. Little memory hooks like these will make birding easier the next time around. And as always, repetition helps.

Birding by Ear, Part One/ Audubon Society

may 3/RUN

4 miles
43rd ave, north/32nd, east/river road trail, south/winchell trail, north
54 degrees

What a wonderful run! Not too fast, not too hard, not too windy. Before I went out for my run, I started thinking more about birds and what I might focus on this month. More how birds sound and less how they look—their coloring, eyes, feathers, etc. Maybe some research on bird biomechanics and migration and navigation and how their feathers and bones and brains work? Too much to tackle in one month. As I wrote this last sentence, I thought about Annie Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird, which I read many years ago and have now requested from the library in audiobook form. I could focus on one bird for each day of the month? I’ll think about it.

Anyway, at the start of my run I was thinking about birdsong and some sites I found with mnemonic devices for recognizing them, like this one: Memorizing bird songs made easy with mnemonics. This site has 2 great comics to help out:

I think I should look up the most common birds in the gorge and then try to learn the mnemonic devices for their sounds. At the beginning of my run, I thought I heard a bird song that started with a tweet tweet, but I don’t think it was a yellow warbler (see comic above). Last summer I wanted to learn more bird calls, but it was too overwhelming and I became distracted with other projects. Thinking about this more, at the end of my run, I remembered an idea I had earlier about not becoming overwhelmed by trying to learn too many things or feeling that there’s always too much that you don’t know. I want to learn just enough to make it interesting–not to become obsessed with knowing every bird song, or depressed by how much others already know. And by interesting, I mean: delightful, creating wonder and astonishment, enabling me to devote attention, provoking my curiosity, connecting me further to a place.

Here are some notes I took about my run shortly after I returned:

  • the sewer pipe in the ravine on the Winchell Trail by 44th was dripping/dribbling water, while the pipe by 42nd was—not gushing or rushing or pouring, but more than dripping…what’s the word for that? and why is there more water at 42nd?
  • running through the tunnel of trees and hearing at least 3 booms–what were they? transformers blowing or construction-related or a car back-firing?
  • so many glints, sparkling like jewels, on the river as I approached the overlook at the start of the Winchell Trail!
  • so many sounds of lawn mowers and leaf blowers and bird calls–not a wall of sound, but a veil
  • the steep slope up on the Winchell trail near folwell looking insurmountable from a distance

Look!

Near the old stone steps, I heard a deep hollow drumming from a hidden woodpecker, then saw 2 older women standing at the edge of the bluff peering into the trees and trying to find the source of the sound. This reminded me of a passage from Margaret Renkl’s essay “Seeing” in Late Migrations:

One of the nicest things about the lake where I like to walk is that there is nearly always someone on the trail saying, “Look!” Thanks to that natural human urge to share something wonderful, even with a stranger, I have learned this lake’s terrain over the years and know where to look for the well-disguised secrets I would miss on an unfamiliar path. I know that a barred owl frequently perches in a dead tree near a particular bridge. I know that a great blue heron often stand as still as a photograph on a submerged log in one cove. I know the rise whee wild turkeys drag their wing feathers on the ground and blend in with the leaf litter, and I know the bank where beavers climb soundlessly out of the lake. One summer I knew where to look for a hummingbird’s nest because of a stranger with better eyes than mine.

“Seeing” from Late Migrations/ Margaret Renkl

When I read this passage a few days ago, I decided that I want to believe that the strangers on the trail that I encounter could be as generous as this, and I want to take the time to stop and to look or try to look or at least listen to their description of what they see. I want do this instead of assuming the strangers are irritating or clueless or selfish space hoggers. I want to be open to the world instead of closed to it.

Here is a bird poem I found while looking back through my safari reading list. Ted Kooser is wonderful.

A Heron/ Ted Kooser

Maybe twenty yards out from the shoreline
a great blue heron waiting, motionless,
upon a post that seemed to have no purpose
other than to stand there stained with rings
of history as the old lake, breathing sunlight,
rose and fell.

The heron was the color of the water
so that it seemed that I could see the water
through her, as if she were a creature blown
of glass, not smeared by anybody’s fingers,
still clean and delicate and waiting to be filled
with color

although I saw that she was filled already,
from the bulb of her body to the tip of her beak,
not with a color that anyone knew but with
a cloudy fluid that had been distilled
from summer light and now was being aged
and mellowed

though how much longer it might take was
anybody’s guess. But I had been imagining
too long, and she had felt it, too, that threat
of too much beauty being forced upon her,
and spread her glassy wings and lifted off
and flapped away across the water.

What a beautiful poem! I think I want to memorize it so I can have it forever.

april 29/RUN

3.35 miles
edmund loop, starting north with extra loop around Cooper
60 degrees

Another beautiful morning in shorts! The same pair of shorts I’ve been wearing for probably 6 or 7 years, almost every day in the summer and sometimes with tights in the winter. How many hundreds of times have I worn these shorts? I wish Brooks still made them. I’ve looked but can’t find a pair like them anywhere. They’ve faded a lot and lost a drawstring but they’re still working. How much longer can they last?

Things I remember from my run:

  • running in the street at least 2 or 3 times to avoid people
  • the gorgeous fragrance of the blossoms on the fence of the house with the free fruit—still can’t recall what kind of fruit it is or when it’s free
  • two oak trees lining the path that look like they’re leaning in to chat with each other, while a third oak with the hunched up limbs looks like they’re shrugging their shoulders to gesture, “I don’t know”
  • the old stone steps inviting me to take them down to the river
  • some stones stacked on the ancient boulder
  • a person sitting on the bench near the entrance to the Winchell Trail with the worn wooden steps
  • a runner in a bright red shirt slowly passing me
  • someone using a leaf blower (really?) down on the Winchell Trail to clear out the leaves that pile up against the wrought iron fence
  • the river sparkling at spots—one spot over on the other side was extra bright
  • more pale green leaves
  • several black-capped chickadee conversations
  • a bug buzzing past my face–was it a bee? a dragonfly?
  • more shshshuffling on the sandy debris
  • ending my run thinking about how I’m getting my second Pfizer shot tomorrow and wondering when I’ll feel up to running again. Hopefully on Sunday

Work/ Mary Oliver

How beautiful
this morning
was Pasture Pond.
It had lain in the dark, all night,
catching the rain
on its broad back.
All day I work
with the linen of words
and the pins of punctuation
all day I hang out
over a desk
grinding my teeth
staring.
Then I sleep.
Then I come out of the house,
even before the sun is up,
and walk back through the pinewoods
to Pasture Pond.

I like the simplicity of this poem and the broad back of the pond catching the rain and the connection between her writing work and sewing–the linen of words and the pins of punctuation. My mom was an amazing sewer. I am not. I think this might have something to do with my bad vision, but also my disposition. I don’t have the patience or the desire for precision or the interest in clothes. I’ve always wished I could sew and could make things: useful, practical things. Now I make poems which are not practical but are things I’ve created and are useful, at least to me. This year for her 15th birthday, we got RJP a sewing machine. She’s been knitting for 3 years, crocheting for 6 months, and now sewing for a few weeks. If my mom were alive, she would have loved this and would have mentored RJP. What a loss! Still, it’s exciting to see RJP’s passion for fiber arts and to witness at least one part of my mom reborn in her.

Maybe it was thinking about sewing and then the idea of seams that made me do it: I googled “Emily Dickinson sewing” and found this amazing poem through this very cool blog entry. Not only about sewing but about ED’s failing vision. Nice!

Don’t put up my Thread and Needle — / Emily Dickinson

Don’t put up my Thread and Needle —
I’ll begin to Sew [Sow]
When the Birds begin to whistle —
Better Stitches — so —

These were bent — my sight got crooked —
When my mind — is plain
I’ll do seams — a Queen’s endeavor
Would not blush to own —

Hems — too fine for Lady’s tracing
To the sightless Knot —
Tucks — of dainty interspersion —
Like a dotted Dot —

Leave my Needle in the furrow —
Where I put it down —
I can make the zigzag stitches
Straight — when I am strong —

Till then — dreaming I am sewing [sowing]
Fetch the seam I missed —
Closer — so I — at my sleeping —
Still surmise I stitch —

Now I want to think about edges and limits in terms of seams and stitches!

april 28/RUN

4 miles
river road trail, south/waban park/turkey hollow/edmund, north
50 degrees

Shorts! Sun! Spring! Yesterday’s cold rain really pushed me over the edge. I’m ready for more sun, more sitting on the deck, more spring-y weather. Today the river was calm and blue, peeking through the green that is already starting to spoil my view. Ran on the river road trail all the way to the turn-off to Wabun park, then ran up and turned right just before reaching the Ford Bridge.

Thought a lot about listening, partly inspired by a podcast I began this morning: Taylor Johnson vs. Listening:

Franny Choi: there’s something different between maybe like, looking versus listening, right? Like, I feel like there’s some, I don’t know, what is that thing.

Taylor Johnson: I think there’s a goal in mind. I think with searching, it’s like, I know I’m gonna come out, let’s say, onto the sidewalk or in the woods, and I’m gonna see a particular X, Y, and Z, you know what I mean? Whereas listening, it’s like, things kind of wash over you and happen with you, rather than you having something in your mind where it’s like, I need to see this particular thing, or I’m listening for this particular thing. It’s kind of a more open, open experience.

I listened as I started my run and I remember taking note of many different sounds, all mixing into each other, none seeming that distinctive. Birds, traffic, laughing kids on the playground, shuffling feet on debris, someone raking a yard, wind chimes, my breathing as I settled into my run, a song blasting from a car radio, the faint jingle of my house key in my running belt, a woman sneezing–or was it coughing?

I also thought about Mary Oliver and a few things I was reading this morning–poems and an article by Rose Lucas about MO: Drifting in the Weeds of Heaven: Mary Oliver and the Poetics of the Immeasurable. And thought about the idea of the self and their relationship to nature as observer and observed, as someone who stares/pays attention to the world and someone who participates in it. Then I had a thought—I remember having it just as I was crossing 42nd from the stretch of grass between 42nd and Becketwood (what STA and I call the gauntlet because it’s narrow and close to the road and difficult to avoid other people if they’re on it too) and the wide boulevard of grass separating Edmund and the River Road—about how Mary Oliver’s ethical poetics of noticing, being astonished, and telling others about it involves a lot of standing back and still, staring, stopping, taking notes, sitting at a desk and writing. Yes, becoming connected or immersed in what you are noticing does happen, but the emphasis is on observing/seeing/staring at the world at some sort of distance and when you have stopped moving or doing anything. You stop to notice, or notice then stop, observe or behold (this makes me want to revisit Ross Gay and the idea of beholding), then sit and write. What if you didn’t stop? What if you observed while moving (while running?) Took notes while moving? Wrote while moving? I wonder how far I can push at the limits of writing about the gorge while running at the gorge–not running and noticing then writing, but running while noticing while writing.

Notes from the run, April 28th

Before I went out for my run, I was thinking about a few poems.

Here are two different versions of the same general idea: being lifted out of the tyranny of your thoughts by the beauty of nature.

Enough/ Jeffrey Harrison

It’s a gift, this cloudless November morning
warm enough to walk without a jacket
along your favorite path. The rhythmic shushing
of your feet through fallen leaves should be
enough to quiet the mind, so it surprises you
when you catch yourself telling off your boss
for a decade of accumulated injustices,
all the things you’ve never said circling inside you.

The rising wind pulls you out of it,
and you look up to see a cloud of leaves
wheeling in sunlight, flickering against the blue
and lifting above the treetops, as if the whole day
were sighing, Let it go, let it go,
for this moment at least, let it all go.

Terns/ Mary Oliver

Don’t think just now of the trudging forward of thought,
but of the wing-drive of unquestioning affirmation.

It’s summer, you never saw such a blue sky,
and here they are, those white birds with quick wings,

sweeping over the waves,
chattering and plunging,

their thin beaks snapping, their hard eyes
happy as little nails.

The years to come — this is a promise —
will grant you ample time

to try the difficult steps in the empire of thought
where you seek for the shining proofs you think you must have.

But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,
than this deep affinity between your eyes and the world.

The flock thickens
over the roiling, salt brightness. Listen,

maybe such devotion, in which one holds the world
in the clasp of attention, isn’t the perfect prayer,

but it must be close, for the sorrow, whose name is doubt,
is thus subdued, and not through the weaponry of reason,

but of pure submission. Tell me, what else
could beauty be for? And now the tide

is at its very crown,
the white birds sprinkle down,

gathering up the loose silver, rising
as if weightless. It isn’t instruction, or a parable.

It isn’t for any vanity or ambition
except for the one allowed, to stay alive.

It’s only a nimble frolic
over the waves. And you find, for hours,

you cannot even remember the questions
that weigh so in your mind.

For most of my life, up until last year when, during the pandemic, I felt compelled to finally notice them, I haven’t payed attention to birds. So I wasn’t familiar with terns–that might also be because, sadly, I’ve never lived by the sea. Anyway, terns is not a term I’ve known. In fact, my first encounter with it happened just last month, while reading a New Yorker article about the marvelous methods animals have for navigating and not getting lost. Buried deep in the article is this interesting bit of trivia:

Or consider the Arctic tern, which has a taste for the poles that would put even Shackleton to shame; it lays its eggs in the Far North but winters on the Antarctic coast, yielding annual travels that can exceed fifty thousand miles. That makes the four-thousand-mile migration of the rufous hummingbird seem unimpressive by comparison, until you realize that this particular commuter weighs only around a tenth of an ounce. The astonishment isn’t just that a bird that size can complete such a voyage, trade winds and thunderstorms be damned; it’s that so minuscule a physiology can contain a sufficiently powerful G.P.S. to keep it on course.

Why Animals Don’t Get Lost/ Kathryn Schulz

Very cool. MO’s line about gathering up the loose silver reminds me of a ED poem that I read in March:

A Bird came down the Walk—/ Emily Dickinson

A Bird came down the Walk—
He did not know I saw—
He bit an Angleworm 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 around—
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.

I have many thoughts about these three poems that I can’t quite express. About the narrator and their involvement in the scene they’re describing, about the “You”—who they are, what they’re for, about being didactic, about circling, about silver and seams and when the observed becomes the observer. And, about this line from MO:

But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,
than this deep affinity between your eyes and the world.

So I’m thinking about this in relation to my quote about the difference between looking and listening at the beginning of this post, and in terms of my own desire to feel with senses other than sight, or with sight not as Sight (as an objective, unfiltered way of being in and with the world). This idea of sight not as Sight, comes out of my thinking about how I see through my damaged eyes. I can see, but not with sharp focus or precision or mastery–I don’t look and See, as in, capture/own what I see with my eyes. My seeing is softer and involves more fluid waves and forms being felt. Returning to MO’s poem, I could definitely be delighted by the terns as I watched them moving—sweeping and plunging and thickening–because you detect motion in your peripheral vision and my peripheral vision is great. But I probably couldn’t see how many terns there are or how their thin beaks snapped. And I wouldn’t be able to see their hard eyes happy as little nails. But, seriously, can anyone see bird eyes in this way, other than MO?

Thinking about how MO uses seeing as a way to pay attention reminds me of another poem of hers with one of my favorite titles:

The Real Prayers Are Not the Words, But the Attention That Comes First

The little hawk leaned sideways and, tilted,
rode the wind.  Its eye at this distance looked
like green glass; its feet were the color
of butter.  Speed, obviously, was joy.  But
then, so was the sudden, slow circle it carved
into the slightly silvery air, and the
squaring of its shoulders, and the pulling into
itself the sharp-edged wings, and the
falling into the grass where it tussled a moment,
like a bundle of brown leaves, and then, again,
lifted itself into the air, that butter-color
clenched in order to hold a small, still
body, and it flew off as my mind sang out oh
all that loose, blue rink of sky, where does
it go to, and why?

I remember reading this a few years ago and thinking how little I might have been able to see of the hawk she describes. I could see the tilting, the riding of the wind, the circling and carving, but not the color of its feet or its green eyes or that it was holding something in its claws. It’s interesting to read these poems and think about them in relation to my vision and the limits of my seeing. I especially like thinking about the ways I can still see and how they might be reflected/communicated in a poem about attention. This idea of describing how I see differently is as important to me as learning how to feel with senses other than sight.

Wow, lots of not quite focused thoughts in this post. Not sure if it makes sense but the act of writing it has been helpful for me in thinking about MO, and attention, and my project of writing while running and running while writing.

april 27/RUN

3.2 miles
trestle turn around
44 degrees

Ran to the trestle today. Was thinking about running more, but the road was closed, so I turned around. As I ran south again, I heard the rumble of a train on the trestle. Nice! Greeted Dave the Daily Walker twice! Heard a gaggle of geese below me, honking. Smelled a full porta potty being drained as I ran under the lake street bridge. Yuck. I remember looking at the river, but I don’t remember what it looked like. I bet it was a pretty, light blue. Encountered a few runners, walkers, dogs. We all kept our distance. Heard some rowers getting ready down at the rowing club. At one point, I had “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” from My Fair Lady going through my head. STA and I watched the movie last week. “All I want is a room somewhere/far away from the cold night air” Time to memorize a few more spring poems to recite in my head.

Almost done with my month with Mary and I have mixed feelings. Some beautiful words and stimulating ideas, but something’s missing. Is it the lack of connection to time? Her poems are firmly rooted in a place–Provincetown, MA–but not in specific time. She mentions seasons, and occasionally her age, but not much else. It is all now or eternity or outside of the realm of ticking clocks. Some of this I like, but some of it leaves me feeling adrift and disoriented–that, along with the repetition of the same idea about stopping to notice the world, again and again. I want to experience these moments of clarity, or the Now, or a flare of joy/delight/understanding, but I don’t want that to be all that I experience. The feeling of timelessness, and an endless circling back and repeating the same things, without any specific reference, is too much. My feelings about this right now are probably partly due to a year+ of doing nothing but running, writing, and staying home, trying to avoid people during a pandemic. Every day is the same, every week, every month, every season.

But I think my feelings are also because I’m missing the Mary–the person, that is—in her poems. In so many of them, she is trying lose herself in the world, to become the snail, the pale lily, the hunter, the hound (see “Work”):

from From the Book of Time

and will you find yourself finally wanting to forget
all enclosures, including

the enclosure of yourself?

from Riprap

I’m never sure
which part of the dream is me
and which part is the rest of the world.

from I Want to Write Something Simple

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.

I appreciate this gesture against centering herself and towards entanglement (in Upstream she writes: “Do you think there is anything not attached by its unbreakable cord to everything else?”) but I’d like more of herself in the midst of others. Of course, I do this too and am trying to find ways to be bring myself into my work and the world–that’s probably why I’m critical of it in her? What would/could/should it look like to put the person in the poem? I’m not totally sure but I feel like it requires more mention of ordinary, everyday time, grounded in specific minutes (and not moments) of life. I’m not sure if this makes much sense, but I don’t want to spend the whole day trying to figure it out, so I’ll just leave it like this.

april 24/RUN

4.35 miles
the falls and back
36 degrees

I ran to the falls for the first time in a long time. I looked it up, and unless I missed something, the last time I ran to the falls was July 10th. Wow. I read somewhere that the falls were beautiful this winter; I avoided them because of all the people. Was I too cautious? Probably, but it’s hard to run to the falls in the winter in any year. Even though the Minneapolis Parks plows the trail it’s narrow and they can never clear the double bridge.

Today, it’s cold and windy. I didn’t care. It was a great run. The river was pale blue. I heard lots of birds–especially crows. Speaking of crows, here’s a great poem I read the other day by the ornithologist, J. Drew Lanham from his collection, Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts:

No Murder Of Crows/ J. Drew Lanham

I watched a flock of crows
fly by,
counted forty-two black souls, then up to sixty-five,
maybe more.
Not sure whether fish or ‘merican
They were silent as coal,
headed to roost I assumed,
a congregation I refused to a call a murder
because profiling aint’ what I do:
besides,
they was just flyin’ by.
No cause to criminalize the corvid kind.

What else do I remember from my run? The annual Get in Gear race, which STA and I have done a few times, was happening today. Mostly virtual, I think. Low key. I haven’t run in a race since October of 2019–is that right? The falls were gushing! As I approached them I thought I was hearing a noisy truck. Nope, just the rushing water. Encountered lots of packs of runners, a small group of fast moving bikes that completely ignored the stop sign. No roller skiers or eliptagogos. No rowers or roller bladers. Enjoyed listening to my feet shuffling on the sandy grit at the edge of the road.

Here’s a MO poem I found last night. It’s very much like all the others, which used to bother me–why say the same thing over and over again?–but I see it (and her work) differently now. The repetition of the words–the habit of repeating this process of noticing, then being astonished, then telling about it–are needed. Practice is necessary because we always need to remember to remember. Maybe it’s like what they say with running: it never gets easier, you just get better at handling the hurt/pain/difficulty of the effort. And, of course, occasionally, your diligence (what the runner Des Linden describes with her mantra, “keep showing up”) can result in a moment, which is what MO describes in this poem:

Such Singing in the Wild Branches/ Mary Oliver from Owls and Other Fantasies

It was spring
and finally I heard him
among the first leaves—
then I saw him clutching the limb
in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
first, I stood still
and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness—
and that’s when it happened,
when I seemed to float,
to be myself, a wing or a tree—
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,
and the sands in the glass
stopped
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward
like rain, rising,
and in fact
became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing—
not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfectly blue sky—all, all of them
were singing.
And, of course, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn’t last
for more than a few moments.
It’s one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,
is that, once you’ve been there,
you’re there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then—open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.

april 23/WALK

Drizzling. Took a walk with Delia the dog down the worn wooden steps past the chain-link fence to the slick slats above the ravine. Listened to the water trickle out of the sewer pipe then drip down the ledge. Such calming colors: the rich browns of freshly watered tree trunks mixed with pale green leaves and light gray gravel. Today I marveled at the tree trunks. Three different trunks, coming up from the bottom of the ravine, leaning into the fence. I can’t remember much about them but how beautifully brown they were and that they were of varying degrees of thickness and that one of them curved gracefully away from the others. Thinking about these trees reminds me of an MO poem I read this morning from her collection, Evidence:

The Trees/ Mary Oliver

Do you think of them as decoration?
Think again,
Here are maples, flashing.
And here are the oaks, holding on all winter
to their dry leaves.
And here are the pines, that will never fail,
until death, the instruction to be green.
And here are the willows, the first
to pronounce a new year.
May I invite you to revise your thoughts about them?
Oh, Lord, how we are for invention and
advancement!
But I think
it would do us good if we would think about
these brothers and sisters, quietly and deeply.
The trees, the trees, just holding on
to the old, holy ways.

And here’s another poem that features trees. This one puzzles me; it seems to speak to MO’s conflicted feelings about words and the answers they offer: even as she loves words, she laments how they get in the way of just being. There’s something about her description of her grandmother’s “uneducated feet” and “faulty grammar” that bothers me and I’m not sure what to do with this poem.

Answers/ Mary Oliver

If I envy anyone it must be
My grandmother in a long ago
Green summer, who hurried
Between kitchen and orchard on small
Uneducated feet, and took easily
All shining fruits into her eager hands.
That summer I hurried too, wakened
To books and music and cicling philosophies.
I sat in the kitchen sorting through volumes of answers
That could not solve the mystery of the trees.
My grandmother stood among her kettles and ladles.
Smiling, in faulty grammar,
She praised my fortune and urged by lofty career.
So to please her I studied—but I will remember always
How she poured confusing out, how she cooled and labled
All the wild sauces of the brimming year.

Having just read through both of these poems again, I’m struck by the parallels between the “old, holy ways” of the trees and the easy, eager, uneducated habits of her grandmother. Still not quite sure how I feel about this connection, especially the description of her grandmother.

Here’s another poem that speaks to the holding on to the old, holy ways:

From The Book of Time in The Leaf and the Cloud

7.
Even now
I remember something

the way a flower
in a jar of water

remembers its life
in the perfect garden

the way a flower
in a jar of water

remembers its life
as a closed seed

the way a flower
in a joar of water

steadies itself
remembering itself

long ago
the plunging roots

the gravel the rain
the glossy stem

the wings of the leaves
the swords of the leaves

rising and clashing
for the rose of the sun

the salt of of the stars
the crown of the wind

the beds of the clouds
the blue dream

the unbreakable circle.

Reading this poem, I immediately thought of these lines from Marie Howe in “The Meadow”:

As we walk into words that have waited for us to enter them, so
the meadow, muddy with dreams, is gathering itself together

and trying, with difficulty, to remember how to make wildflowers.

I also thought of this:

I will not tell you anything today that you don’t already know, but we forget, we human people, and our elders have told us that our job is to remember to remember. And that’s where the stories come in.

Braiding Sweetgrass/ Robin Wall Kimmerer

april 22

3.2 miles
turkey hollow
54 degrees

Wow, what a beautiful morning! A bright blue sky, not much wind, warm air, few people. Ran above the river and made sure to notice it today. Pale blue, almost white or light gray in parts. Flat, no sparkle. Calm. No rowers. Heard a kid below me as I ran above the oak savanna. Heard some more kids at the Dowling school playground. Managed to take my bright orange sweatshirt off and tie it around my waist while I was running. Didn’t see any turkeys but heard a pileated woodpecker and a few black-capped chickadees.

Tried to breathe mostly through my nose while I was running but it was hard. Sometimes I could do it, other times I could breathe in through my nose, out through my mouth, but often I had to resort to all mouth breathing. Is this because of my left nostril plugging up a lot? I’m reading Breath by James Nestor right now and he’s a very big proponent of nose over mouth breathing. Is it good for running? I decided to google it and discovered that it’s not that simple; sometimes runners need to breathe through their mouths, especially during faster runs, to ensure they get enough oxygen. I’m glad I checked; now I won’t worry as much if/when I mouth breathe while running. This is a helpful resource: How To Breathe While Running

While I was running, I tried to think some more about Mary Oliver and her messy and irresolvable tensions around poetry, words, language, being human, the Self, the World, and nature. One question I kept asking myself is: why am I spending so much time on these tensions?

Before I went out for my run, I took the following notes:

Mary Oliver and the Bedeviled Human

from The Meadow/Marie Howe

Bedeviled,
human, your plight, in waking, is to choose from the words

that even now sleep on your tongue, and to know that tangled
among them and terribly new is the sentence that could change your life.

Reading MO, I’ve noticed, and have been trying to articulate, a tension in her poems between the I, the World, Nature, God, Eternity, Work. This tension seems to take many forms and MO imagines it to be endlessly intriguing and part of the process of living. Never to be resolved but to be puzzled over. One element of this tension involves the plight of the human—born to doubt and argue and question what it all means, to be both brought closer to and further away from the world by language and the power and beauty of words, which are never as powerful or beautiful as the world itself. To want a name and a useful place, to claim a life, but also to belong to the world, to be “less yourself than part of everything.”

from “Work” in The Leaf and the Cloud

3.
Would it be better to sit in silence?
To think everything, to feel everything, to say nothing?

This is the way of the orange gourd.
This is the habit of the rock in the river, over which
the water pours all night and all day.
But the nature of man is not the nature of silence.
Words are the thunders of the mind.
Words are the refinement of the flesh.
Words are the responses to the thousand curvaceous moments—
we just manage it—
sweet and electric, words flow from the brain
and out the gate of the mouth.

We make books of them, out of hesitations and grammar.
We are slow, and choosy.
This is the world.

Words can help us to remember a beloved but long dead dog:

And now she’s nothing
except for mornings when I take a handful of words
and throw them into the air
so that she dashes up again out of the darkness,

and console us in our anger and grief:

and what could be more comforting than to fold grief
like a blanket—
to fold anger like a blanket,
with neat corners—
to put them into a box of words?

Words can keep us company, offer exits out of difficult spaces, open thousands of doors, give us a place in the world. But, they can also separate us from the world, feeding our hubris:

Understand from the first this certainty. Butterflies don’t write books, entierh 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

or our constant doubts:

from “Riprap” in The Leaf and the Cloud

2.
In my mind, the arguers never stop—
the skeptic and the amazed—
the general and the particular, in their
uneasy relationship.

O what is beauty
that I should be up at
four A.M. trying to arrange this
thick song?

5.
And, anyway, what is thought
but elaborating, and organizing?
What is thought
but doubting and crying out?

From The Book of Time in The Leaf and the Cloud

5.
What is my name,
o what is my name
that I may offer it back
to the beautiful world?

from “Gravel” in The Leaf and the Cloud

6.

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,
wringing our hands,

half-mad, saying over and over:

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

april 20/RUN

2.4 miles
neighborhood + tunnel of trees + above the oak savanna +Howe
38 degrees

The jury is deliberating and it is difficult to not feel consumed by the fear and worry over what ifs, but I’m trying and running and breathing are helping. Sunny, cold, not much wind. So many birds! Lots of pileated woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees and cardinals. Just starting my run on the next block, ran past a couple meeting with a realtor (I think) about a house and heard them say, “Such a great location!” I agree.

The street cleaning trucks were out; some streets were completely leafless and debris-less, some were just wet, and others had mini mounds of muck blocking the curbs at each intersection. Where do they take these leaves?

I ran past Cooper School, Minnehaha Academy, and a fence covered (would festooned be too much here?) with intensely white blossoms that will turn into some fruit that I can’t recall–this mystery must be solved later. Crossed over to the river and ran through the tunnel of trees. Forgot to look for the river or notice how green the branches below me were. Running near the spot where the four barriers congregate—2 walls and 2 fences, I noticed how the stone wall, holding up the dirt, was crumbling or, if not crumbling, jutting out in awkward ways. I think I saw exposed roots of a tree too. Will they need to rebuild this wall soon? I hope not.

I found an excerpt at the end of a random word document, buried deep in a folder I created a few years old. It’s from Mary Oliver’s book of essays and poems, Long Life. Until I noticed it, on the last page, I hadn’t realized I’d typed it up. Good job, past Sara!

Once, years ago, I emerged from the woods and in the early morning at the end of a walk and—it was the most casual of moments—as I stepped from under the trees into the mild, pouring-down sunlight I experienced a sudden impact, a seizure of happiness. It was not the growing sort of happiness, rather the floating sort. I made no struggle towards it; it was given. Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world, and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity—the summer morning, its gentleness, the sense of the great work being done though the grass where I stood scarcely trembled. As I say, it was the most casual of moments, not mystical as the word is usually meant, for there was no vision, or anything extraordinary at all, but only a sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world: leaves, dust, thrushes and finches, men and women (34).

A few days ago, on april 15th, I posted a few passages from Upstream on getting lost. Today’s passage speaks to the other side of this: being found. Belonging to the world, feeling comfort in the containment and complexity of everything, sensing the citizenry of all things.

Before my run, I recorded myself reciting this passage. Then I listened to it once while I was walking. Throughout the run, I tried to think about it. I’m sure I had lots of thoughts, but the one I was able to hold onto is this: I started wondering how the work of writing fits into these moments of clarity—or being found, or lost, depending on your perspective. (MO refers to these moments somewhere else as now, now, now, now or eternity or extraordinary time.) I decided that we can’t find the now through the process of writing; writing is what we give back in gratitude for the now—its very existence, and our recognition of it. It is the praising, or the admiration, or the expression of astonishment, wonder, delight. Do I agree with this? Not completely because the process of creating worlds through words can do more than praise the extraordinary/eternity; it can participate in it. So, maybe like being lost or found, writing is both at the same time, or at different times. A few more of these both things I’ve worked on: attention/distraction; here/there; remember/forget

Anyway, I like how she puts it: not a growing happiness but a floating one. I like the word floating and its connections to running as floating above the path, or ghosts haunting the path, or feelings hovering, or not being grounded, feeling untethered.

But, back to the now: this moment of now reminds me of all of my interest in the runner’s high and the idea of running as getting lost (or being found). I’ve read a lot of different descriptions of these feelings, and I’m always searching for my own words to describe it.

The feeling of being beside yourself, or being part of something that is not You but Us or We, can happen anywhere, but more often happens on the edge of something (MO says this in Upstream): the edge of the woods, the rim of the gorge, while you’re outside, moving, barely able to hold onto thoughts, when you’re uncertain or confused or overwhelmed.

Here’s another description of it/about it from MO in The Leaf and the Cloud.

From the Book of Time

6.
Count the roses, red and fluttering.
Count the roses, wrinkled and salt.
Each with its yellow lint at the center.
Each with its honey pooled and ready.
Do you have a question that can’t be answered?
Do the stars frighten you by their heaviness
and their endless number?
Does it bother you, that mercy is so difficult to
understand?
For some souls it’s easy; they lie down on the sand
and are soon asleep.
For others, the mind shivers in its glacial palace,
and won’t come.
Yes, the mind takes a long time, is otherwise occupied
than by happiness, and deep breathing.
Now, in the distance, some bird is singing.
And now I have gathered six or seven deep red,
half-opened cups of petals between my hands,
and now I have put my face against them
and now I am moving my face back and forth, slowly,
against them.
The body is not much more than two feet and a tongue.
Come to me, says the blue sky, and say the word.
And finally even the mind comes running, like a wild thing,
and lies down in the sand.
Eternity is not later, or in any unfindable place.
Roses, roses, roses, roses.

april 19/RUN

3.6 miles
2 trails + tunnel of trees
35 degrees
snow flurries

Cold and windy this morning, with snow flurries. Running south at the beginning of my run, the wind was my friend, pushing me along. Running, north on the trail below, hugging the side of bluff, I hardly felt it at all. Everyday, everything is getting greener. Too soon! I heard one girl on the playground at Minnehaha Academy, laughing, some water dripping out of the sewer below 42nd, a disembodied voice down in the oak savanna. And, I heard at least 2 black-capped chickadees calling out to each other

I’ve noticed that the bird who calls out “fee Bee” first usually is more insistent, interrupting whoever is “Fee bee-ing” back to him. Today’s first caller was particularly inpatient. Is this because it’s a call of aggression, warning the other bird to stay away? Or is it because it’s an amorous male who can hardly wait to hear an answer back from a potential mate?

Anything else I remember from my run? I remember admiring the river, looking such a calm blue. I remember getting stuck behind a walker who didn’t know I was coming and having to call out “excuse me” three times–and I remember not being mad about it. I remember the extra bright yellow shirt of a runner up ahead as I started on my run, the warnings posted on poles and on signs staked near the street about the road being closed for cleaning soon, the street-cleaning truck lumbering along on the river road, blasting water near the curb, the bright orange jacket of someone climbing the old stone steps.

Today the jury begins deliberations on the Chauvin trial. I am scared, but hopeful, choosing to believe he will be found guilty. It’s a war zone here in Minneapolis, with armed National Guard members all around, and huge convoys–did I see a tank yesterday?–menacing the streets. A disgusting display of force, and a reminder of who does and does not matter.

Bobolinks!

Checking the “poem of the day” on poets.org, I found a beautiful poem about the Bobolink. When I read the line, “a black and white bird,” I remembered on April 5th (which I posted at the end of my April 6th entry), I mentioned a bird that sounded a little like a robin but was black and white. I couldn’t figure out what it was. Could it have been a bobolink? I’ve decided to believe that it was.

On March 23rd, I wrote about bobolinks when they were mentioned in the Emily Dickinson poem I was reading, 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 –

I was reminded of the bobolink (BOB a link) when I read “Flare” in MO’s The Leaf and the Cloud:

2.
You still recall, sometimes, the old barn on your great-grandfather’s
farm, a place you visited once, and went into, all alone, while the grownups
sat and talked in the house.

…..

You could have stayed there forever, a small child in a corner, on the
last raft of hay, dazzled by so much space that seemed empty, but wasn’t.

Then—you still remember—you felt the rap of hunger—it was noon—
and you turned from that twilight dream and hurried back to the house,
where the table was set, where an uncle patted you on the shoulder for
welcome, and there was your place at the table.

11.
Anyway,
there was no barn.
No child in the barn.

No uncle no table no kitchen.

Only a long lovely field full of bobolinks.

Both ED and MO see the sacred in birds like the bobolink, and in nature. ED continues her poem with 2 more stanzas:

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.

And, here is a bit from The Leaf and the Cloud that echoes that idea:

from “Work”

2.
The dreamy heads of the grass in early summer.
In midsummer: thick and heavy.
Sparrows swing on them, they bend down.
When the sparrow sings, its whole body trembles.

Later, the pollen shakes free.
Races this way and that way,
like a mist full of life, which it is.
We stand at the edge of the field, sneezing.
We praise God, or Nature, according to our determinations.

Here’s the poem that inspired these continued reflections on the bobolink:

Bobolink/ Didi Jackson

In a meadow
as wide as a wound
I thought to stop
and study the lesser stitchwort’s
white flowers lacing up
boot-level grasses
when I was scolded in song
by a black and white bird
whose wings sipped air,
swallow-like, until he landed
on the highest tip
of yellow dock,
still singing his beautiful warning,
the brown female
with him in fear.
The warning was real:
the anniversary of my husband’s suicide.
What was the matter with life? Sometimes
when wind blows,
the meadow moves like an ocean,
and on that day,
I was in its wake—
I mean the day in the meadow.
I mean the day he died.
This is not another suicide poem.
This is a poem about a bird
I wanted to know and so
I spent that evening looking
up his feathers and flight,
spent most of the night
searching for mating habits
and how to describe the yellow
nape of his neck like a bit
of gothic stained glass,
or the warm brown
females with a dark eyeline.
How could I have known
like so many species
they too are endangered?
God must be exhausted:
those who chose life;
those who chose death.
That day I braided a few
strips of timothy hay
as I waited for the pair
to move again, to lift
from the field and what,
live? The dead can take
a brother, a sister; not really.
The dead have no one.
Here in this field
I worried the mowers
like giant gorging mouths
would soon begin again
and everything would be
as it will.

My favorite part of this poem today are the lines:

This is not another suicide poem.
This is a poem about a bird
I wanted to know and so
I spent that evening looking
up his feathers and flight,
spent most of the night
searching for mating habits
and how to describe the yellow
nape of his neck like a bit
of gothic stained glass,

I like the way those first two lines ease me back from the shock of the previous lines about her late husband’s suicide with the comforting claim that this poem is about the bird, not suicide, and the pleasing, gentle rhymes of know/so and flight/night, and the beautiful image of the “nape of his neck like a bit/of gothic stained glass.”

Some bobolink sources:

God must be exhausted

At the risk of making this entry too long and too packed with poems, I’m adding three more, prompted by death, and God’s exhaustion, and the choosing of life or death (or, maybe, like MO, both life and death?), and the recent discovery that cancer has most likely returned for a loved one.

one: Radiation Prayer/ Katie Farris

I love the poetry of Katie Farris–a favorite, “What Would Root”–and I have, with sadness, followed her year+ battle with breast cancer on twitter. Every few months, she posts a new, beautiful poem about her treatment. Today’s involved a gut-wrenching decision:

I find in the mirror a woman–breastless, burned–who
in an advisory capacity,
asks, “How much do you
want to live?”

Enough.

Oh–that enough, which I initially read as enough to choose the damage to prevent the chance of more cancer, but now realize it could also be a command: Enough. Too much. Stop. I can’t take anymore.

two: The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac/ Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2012. She wrote about it in Blue Horses:

1.
Why should I have been surprised?
Hunters walk the forest
without a sound.
The hunter, strapped to his rifle,
the fox on his feet of silk,
the serpent on his empire of muscles—
all move in a stillness,
hungry, careful, intent.
Just as the cancer
entered the forest of my body,
without a sound.

2.
The question is,
what will it be like
after the last day?
Will I float
into the sky
or will I fray
within the earth or a river—
remembering nothing?
How desperate I would be
if I couldn’t remember
the sun rising, if I couldn’t
remember trees, rivers; if I couldn’t
even remember, beloved,
your beloved name.

3.
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

so why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

4.
Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat,
all the fragile blue flowers in bloom
in the shrubs in the yard next door had
tumbled from the shrubs and lay
wrinkled and fading in the grass. But
this morning the shrubs were full of
the blue flowers again. There wasn’t
a single one on the grass. How, I
wondered, did they roll back up to
the branches, that fiercely wanting,
as we all do, just a little more of
life?

The fierce wanting, the life not wasted, the darkness that gets you going, cancer’s hungry, careful intent.

three: I Never Wanted to Die/ Dorianne Laux

It’s the best part of the day, morning light sliding
down rooftops, treetops, the birds pulling themselves
up out of whatever stupor darkened their wings,
night still in their throats.

I never wanted to die. Even when those I loved
died around me, away from me, beyond me.
My life was never in question, if for no other reason
than I wanted to wake up and see what happened next.

And I continue to want to open like that, like the flowers
who lift their heavy heads as the hills outside the window
flare gold for a moment before they turn
on their sides and bare their creased backs.

Even the cut flowers in a jar of water lift
their soon to be dead heads and open
their eyes, even they want a few more sips,
to dwell here, in paradise, a few days longer.

I love a lot about this poem, especially her praising of openness, and her idea of paradise as on earth (paradise as Nature, like ED and MO?).

april 18/RUN

2.7 miles
neighborhood + Howe loop
46 degrees

Sometimes 46 feels cold, but not today. Sunny and calm with a symphony of birds calling and trilling and chirping and drumming. Ran with STA through the neighborhood. I don’t remember much of what I saw or what we talked about. Just lots of birds….oh–and bikes. We saw at least 2, maybe 3, pelotons on the parkway or the trail. Yesterday during our morning walk with Delia, we saw a group of 15 or so bikers speeding down the road, their wheels whirring and buzzing. Also yesterday we saw some rowers racing on the river! Excellent. The rowers were so loud, yelling to each other as they tried to win.

Reading more Mary Oliver and thinking about the idea of the flare–a sudden burst of light, or understanding, or ecstasy, or illumination, or lifting out and free of yourself, or experiencing eternity “now, now, now, now.” Found this poem in Dream Work:

Sunrise

You can
die for it —
an idea,
or the world. People
have done so,
brilliantly,
letting
their small bodies be bound
to the stake,
creating
an unforgettable
fury of light. But
this morning,
climbing the familiar hills
in the familiar
fabric of dawn, I thought
of China,
and India
and Europe, and I thought
how the sun
blazes
for everyone just
so joyfully
as it rises
under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many!
What is my name?
What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter
fire.

Reading through more of MO’s The Leaf and the Cloud and noticing her reference to circles, which has me thinking about her love of Emerson (who wrote, Circles), and of how her use of circles does or doesn’t fit with ED and her idea of Circumference. More reading and thinking is needed.

april 16/RUN

2.8 miles
river road trail, south/turkey hollow/Winchell Trail, north
58 degrees

Ran with STA in the afternoon. Sunny and warm! We were able to run on both the upper and lower trails. Not too crowded. I remember the river looking pale blue–such a pretty complement to the light green limbs below us. Encountered a few annoying bikers and a roller skier who refused to move over. Boo–normally, I love roller skiers. I can tell that it is going to take some time for me to love the world again–especially the people in it who don’t seem to care about the amount of space they take up or about the effects of their actions on others. But, I believe I can get there. Maybe Mary Oliver can help?

Speaking of MO, here are some useful words for enabling me to think and reflect on what work is for her:

Everything/ Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems, Vol 2

I want to make poems that say right out, plainly,
what I mean, that don’t go looking for the
laces of elaboration, puffed sleeves. I want to
keep close and use often words like
heavy, heart, joy, soon, and to cherish
the question mark and her bold sister
the dash. I want to write with quiet hands. I
want to write while crossing the fields that are
fresh with daisies and everlasting and the
ordinary grass. I want to make poems while thinking of
the bread of heaven and the
cup of astonishment; let them be
songs in which nothing is neglected,
not a hope, not a promise. I want to make poems
that look into the earth and the heavens
and see the unseeable. I want to honor
both the heart of faith, and the light of the world;
the gladness that says, without any words, everything

from Mysteries, Four of the Simple Ones

And what else can we do when the mysteries peresent themselves
but hope to pluck from the basket the brisk words
that will applaud them

What I Have Learned So Far

Meditation is old and honorable, so why sould I not sit, every
morning of my life, on the hillside, looking into the shining
world? Because, properly attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is
suggestion. Can one be passionate about the just, the ideal, the
sublime, and the holy and yet commit to no labor in its cause? I
don’t think so.
All summations have a beginning, all effect has a story, all kind-
ness begins with the sown seed. Thought buds toward radiance.
The gospel of light is the crossroads of–indolence, or action.
Be ignited, or be gone.

from Sometimes/ Red Bird

Instructions for living a life:
Pay Attention.
Be Astonished.
Tell About It.

from “Work” in The Leaf and the Cloud

3.

Would it be better to sit in silence?
To think everything, to feel everything, to say nothing?
This is the way of the orange gourd.
This is the habit of the rock in the river, over which
the water pours all night and all day.
But the nature of man is not the nature of silence.
Words are the thunders of the mind.
Words are the refinement of the flesh.
Words are the responses to the thousand curvaceous moments—
we just manage it—
sweet and electric, words flow from the brain
and out the gate of the mouth.

We make books of them, out of hesitations and grammar.
We are slow, and choosy.
This is the world.

7.

So I will write my poem, but I will leave room for the world.
I will write my poem tenderly and simply, but
I will leave room for the wind combing the grass,
for the feather falling out of the grouse’s fan-tail,
and fluttering down, like a song.

april 15/RUN

run: 3.1 miles
turkey hollow
44 degrees

I wish it was a little warmer, but it wasn’t too windy or crowded, so it was a good run. Ran on the trail right above the river. Very nice. I remember admiring the river, but I can’t recall what color it was or if any rowers were on it. I was planning to do the lower trail on the way back because no one was on it, but just before the turn around I noticed a dog and a walker entering the narrowest part of it. So, I stayed up above and ran past turkey hollow instead. No turkeys. Lots of woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees though.

Still spending time with Mary Oliver this morning, reading through the second section of The Leaf and the Cloud called “Work.” incidentally, the ending stanza of “Work” is what was displayed on a neighbor’s window that inspired me to start this April with Mary (Oliver) project. I’m thinking about what work is–for me, for others, for Mary–and whether or not it includes saving ourselves (as Limón talks about it).

Rereading the early chapters of Upstream, I found the passage I had loved so much when I came across it the first time that I posted it as a description for my How to Be project:

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

“I have made for myself out of work and love….” Sometimes, I think I combine these things, work and love–loving (as in caring, noticing, beholding) the world is the work–but I like the distinction she offers. Work is work, love love. Work as useful, ordered in “heat-retaining” efficient, proper forms. Love, as being “good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.” In “Work,” she writes about her beloved dog, Luke:

All day I have been pining for the past.
That’s when the big dog, Luke, breathed at my side.

One of the first Mary Oliver poems I memorized, back in 2017 when I got injured and memorized poems to feel better, was “Luke.”

Luke

I had a dog
who loved flowers.
Briskly she went
through the fields,

yet paused
for the honeysuckle
or the rose,
her dark head

and her wet nose
touching
the face
of every one

with its petals
of silk
with its fragrance
rising

into the air
where the bees,
their bodies
heavy with pollen

hovered—
and easily
she adored
every blossom

not in the serious
careful way
that we choose
this blossom or that blossom—

the way we praise or don’t praise—
the way we love
or don’t love—
but the way

we long to be—
that happy
in the heaven of earth—
that wild, that loving.

Love without judgment or anger or distinction. Happy, wild. I kept thinking about this distinction between work and love as I ran and, just after cresting the hill at 47th, I decided to stop and record my thoughts:

thoughts on work and love, april 15, 2021

What kind of work do we need to do on ourselves to be loving? To notice the world–to stop and stare and be open to beholding and praising the green pea as it “climbs the stake/on her sugary muscles” or how the “rosy comma of the radish/fattens in the soil”? Perhaps, having been raised in a family of “serious,” driven people who work a lot, and having spent decades of my life doing the work of thinking (too) seriously and critically, not working and just being–standing still, staring hard, loving everything with pure admiration–is harder for me than for other people? I have devoted the last few years to learning how to look, how to be simple in my joy, how to be satisfied with “tiny little things” and the slow, small moments of the birds and the trees and the gorge. To me, this has been important and necessary, and it has been work. A lot of work.

Continuing my run, I kept thinking about how messy and complicated the division between work and love is and then I wondered if that seam (here I’m thinking of ED and her idea of the seam, the Circumference) where they come together is a spot of creative possibility as you try to navigate your useful, “serious” work of managing and shaping words into forms that flare with your whimsical, overwhelmed with delight, untidy exuberance for the trees and the stones and the flowers and the bees and your beloved dog Luke that died years ago.

Of course, these ideas only flashed briefly as I ran. Now, I’m home and writing this log entry and as I read through the “Work” section again, I’m finding more help in my efforts to understand. But, as I try to form my thoughts into words, I’m struggling, so I’ll stop and think and hopefully write more about work and love tomorrow. Two more things:

One: different definitions of work

I’m thinking about the differences between work as a vocation/calling (to admire/behold/praise the world), work as set of practices (physical/mental labor of shaping words), and work as product (the forms, usually poems, made from that labor).

Two: the meaning of wild

At the end of “Luke,” MO writes, “that wild, that loving.” This got me thinking about MO’s use of “wild” and what she might mean by it. One of her most famous uses of the word (aside from in “Wild Geese”) is in:

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Here, I think of wild in relation to bewilderment and being lost and beyond the ordinary (civilized, responsible, measured by the clock and your tasks) world. And I think of the passages I just re-read in Upstream:

I walked, all one spring day, upstream, sometimes in the midst of the ripples, sometimes along the shore. My company were violets, Dutchman’s-breeches, spring beauties, trilliums, bloodroot, ferns rising so curled one could feel the upward push of the delicate hairs upon their bodies. My parents were downstream, not far away, then farther away because I was walking the wrong way, upstream instead of downstream. Finally I was advertised on the hotline of help, and yet there I was, slopping along happily in the stream’s coolness. So maybe it was the right way after all. If this was lost, let us all be lost always. The beech leaves were just slipping their copper coats: pale green and quivering they arrived into the year. My heart opened and opened again. The water pushed against my effort, then its glassy permission to step ahead touched my ankles. The sense of going toward the source.

…May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.

Upstream/ Mary Oliver

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 her interview with Krista Tippet, MO says:

Many of the poems are “I did this. I did this. I saw this.” I wanted the “I” to be the possible reader, rather than about myself. It was about an experience that happened to be mine but could well have been anybody else’s. That was my feeling about the “I.”

And in one of her poems that I posted a few days ago, I Want to Write Something So Simple, she writes:

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.

In discussing her own work as a poet, Ada Limón says that she writes her poems to save herself.

I believe that poetry can heal us and help us. But, I mean, if I’m very honest, I think they can only do that for the poet. (LAUGHS) And then they may, if we’re lucky, help someone else or move someone else or inspire someone else or get them out of a rut. But I think it begins with like, I write my own poems to save myself. You know, then if, in, you know, some series, lucky series of events, a poem becomes larger than me and reaches someone else, that’s, that’s beautiful. But I don’t always know that that’s gonna happen, right? I have to start by how is this poem recommitting me to the world?

Ada Limón VS. Epiphany

In the Krista Tippet interview, Mary Oliver says about leaving her childhood home, “I saved my own life by finding a place that was not in that house.” So, 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? Or, maybe the work is both.

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 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 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 hurried

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. 
             I 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 lived 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 the 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 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.