The Value of Water

September 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Lisa Schubert, St. Francis Day, 2010

I’ve written so much about The Value of Water exhibition at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in my capacity as Cathedral writer-at-large, that I wonder what I can say about it that’s new, that’s all my own?

First of all, the opening was spectacular, 1500 people wandering through the bays and chapels, looking at the Kiki Smith, the William Kentridge, the April Gornik, and on and on. All the work depicted water, was about water, or used water (Nobuho Nagasawa’s magical ‘electric’ chair used the recorded sound of the Pacific ocean and her heartbeat), and you know what? Water is a very appealing subject. There’s a reason why most people prefer their art to have a bit of water in it.

The art related to the architecture and existing ornament of the cavernous Gothic cathedral the way those last sentences and paragraphs Proust scribbled on the galleys of Remembrance of Things Lost did not stand out or get lost in the clutter but rather added layers of depth and nuance, extending and perfecting the original meaning. (If you haven’t read Proust, which I hear is common, though inexplicable, substitute your favorite densely textured novel, poem, or piece of music.)

Of course, some of the art stands out, and some gets lost. But as a whole, I felt that everything was where it should be, at home, and though this was odd at first—at most art exhibits, the work is displayed boldly against a white or neutral background and challenges you mano a mano—it was quickly extraordinarily pleasing. It was as if the art had been there for ages, and I only now noticed; there was no dazzle, but a quiet “Oh.” And then, “It’s so beautiful…look, look at this one…”

Thanks is due to Fredericka Foster, for her superb curating job, and to Lisa Schubert, for doing the impossible putting it all together.

The purpose of this exhibition is to explore how water is seen by artists, and to assert that the way artists see—and the way we see when we give ourselves to art—is a great power that can and must be used in the current water and climate crisis. Imagination is denigrated in this society to the extent that even artists feel more than a little embarrassed saying that art can change the world. W. H. Auden wrote, in his elegy for W.B. Yeats,

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Yet the poem ends,

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

That’s where this exhibition wants to do, or begin to do, or make us think about doing. Before anything changes, people have to want change very badly. They have to see the desert encroaching on their rich farmland; they have to recognize the desert in the heart that prevents them (us) from taking action.

The exhibition and the symposium on Saturday made me feel very strongly the need to take more action myself; I’ll begin by focusing more of this blog on water. News? Science? Poetry? My own watery musings on rain, tears, rivers and oceans? Probably a little of each of these. As one apparently bound to her bed and laptop by invisible chains, I’m not sure the physical action I take will be noticeable to anyone. But the challenge of thinking about how imagination can be kindled in people of disparate mindsets; and the greater challenge of trusting and respecting this force not only in my work and for myself, but for the loud, crude, two-fisted world… well, I can either attempt this or give in to despair, my faithful hound.

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Maddy and Molly Got Married

September 25, 2011 § 3 Comments

Botanical Garden, Madison, Wisconsin


The area around Madison, Wisconsin is beautiful—fields of harvest gold, family farms, lakes. The corn was in, and pumpkins were on the vines—or rather on the ground, attached to their vines, like lopped off heads that managed to reconnect. That only works if you’re a vegetable.

Apple pie in one of the older college cafes was homemade and excellent; the used bookstore had, on one shelf to my right as I entered the door, every single novel I read in my 20’s, both classic and contemporary. It was a little spooky. I burrowed further in and bought by Retreat from Love by Colette, which I may or may not have read before.

It’s hard to remember my 20’s, though much easier than remembering people I met last week. I do know that I didn’t have as many bright and charming friends as M & M do—a seemingly endless supply of deliciously smart people. I didn’t meet one friend of theirs I didn’t like, which is humbling considering I’ve had so many friends in my life that I didn’t like.

But about the brides. Brides are always beautiful, they say, though I’ve seen quite a few who weren’t. These two qualified. Molly was radiant and calm, Maddy a little self-conscious and surprised—even after all the planning—that there was a real wedding going on, all these people from her and her parents’ lives, and from Molly’s and her parents’ lives gathered in one place, just for her and her beloved. Andree, mother of Bride No. 1 (alphabetical), sang a song Jay (father) composed, and the young women made their vows in the early evening sun. Molly’s twin sister and the friend who introduced the two read from John Donne and The Song of Solomon. Then drinks, dinner, toasts, dancing, in the large country house that pretended, reasonably well, to be a private residence.

It was my first gay wedding, and for various reasons that have nothing to do with the brides, I found it soothing. The four parents were happy that their daughters had found love with a kind and trustworthy person. I liked the drift of memory that wasn’t too much—either in my knowledge of the families or the trigger of ceremony. I wasn’t in the mood to be assailed by the past with its infinite regrets, and the quality of newness was just right for me. Of course marriage is always new to the wedded pair, and seeing that is what uplifts us. The shyness of intimacy made public—and acknowledging a love so deep you want to be with the person forever is very intimate—awakens tenderness in the guests, along with a little fear.

When I got married, I was under no illusion that things would be perfect or even close to that. I was making vows while living in the moment. I’m not a good poster child for life (though I’m still married). But I see it in others— an expectation, not of perfection, but of a union that never happens, or rather, that happens differently than can be imagined. I‘m not saying Maddy or Molly has this expectation; I have no idea. They are private people. But I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it in myself, and I wanted to give it to them—as if I could. I wanted the sweetness and solace of the wedding to go on and on: people of several generations, work and troubles put aside, making friends, eating cake, listening to music.

The cake was especially good.

What Was Told, That
by Jalalu’l-din Rumi
translated by Coleman Barks

What was said to the rose that made it open was said
to me here in my chest.

What was told the cypress that made it strong
and straight, what was

whispered the jasmine so it is what it is, whatever made
sugarcane sweet, whatever

was said to the inhabitants of the town of Chigil in
Turkestan that makes them

so handsome, whatever lets the pomegranate flower blush
like a human face, that is

being said to me now. I blush. Whatever put eloquence in
language, that’s happening here.

The great warehouse doors open; I fill with gratitude,
chewing a piece of sugarcane,

in love with the one to whom every that belongs!

Why I Like My Job

September 25, 2011 § 2 Comments

after party, Value of Water exhibition

I’m going to write more about this exhibition, but I love this picture, so I decided to put it up. The young men are British college students who built the Cathedral a Resource Center for the exhibition in less than a week, on the roof of a Brooklyn apartment (no elevator) out of scrounged materials. The noise level was deafening, but it was a fun interview (for Cathedral newsletter). For those interested in activities at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine go to the Cathedral website.

I’m having a chapbook of poems published in December by Red Glass Books! I don’t have a title yet.

Bat the Mousie

September 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Life is Elsewhere

I’ve been through some rough emotional waters the last week, and as a result have been avoiding people and spending more time with the cats. They’re beautiful. That helps, to see such russet, snowy leonine sleekness adorn my bed, such big golden eyes stare into mine—for minutes at a time—and the blunt pink nose poke in for a face bump. It makes my whole body loosen to stroke my black velvet bag of kitten parts (even though she’s not a kitten anymore), her once skinny body now plump with wealth as velvet bags are supposed to be—

—and in the middle of this affectionate description Fitzroy attacks Mouchette, who’s sleeping in a rumpled lump on my desk, and sends all the papers and the girl cat flying. He’s worked up because I played Bat the Mousie with him, but apparently not long enough. Or he just needs the real thing, a live smaller being to jump on and chase. She’s under the bed now and he’s lying in wait: he’s too big to fit under there comfortably. He has to squeeze in and out, and he knows how ridiculous he looks doing it. I’m always afraid he’ll get stuck there when I’m not home.

Now he playing with his mouse-on-a-string by himself, all leaps and growls, big white paws swinging wide as he twists to catch the string that’s wrapped around his own body. I love the sounds he makes. I love how eager he is to see me in the morning, running in at the first rustle of my body; when I come back in the afternoon; or whenever I’ve been working or reading then stop and speak to him. I love the way his body hitches up like an accordion when he wants me to rub his flanks.

Mouchette when she was slimmer

A man in the park whom I’ve talked to before, a jive cool guy, late 30’s, very cute, asked me today—as I walked away from him—what that instrument was that the man was playing and I said “an accordion.”

“You looked like the kind of person who knows everything,” he called after me and I wanted to stop and let him flirt me right into a new life where I would abide in the park with no work or rent, strolling slowly under leafy trees while being plied with amusing, mock-courtly compliments— the time forever a mild, golden September afternoon.

Men have been flirting with me a lot lately, though I feel like I’ve shut the sex shop for good. I’m not looking but somehow I have a sign on me: recently dumped, well kept up, references available. Flirting feels scary now. It reminds me of that period 11 years ago when I embarked on my extramarital adventures, which were many and strange, the strangest being the one that lasted. Damage was done; it’s hard to say exactly how much. Sometimes I think my heart is stronger. I certainly know a lot more about myself and other people, more about love, hate, jealousy, devotion, forgiveness, loneliness, craziness, good sex, bad sex, group sex….

I guess what’s lost is the playfulness, that happy puppy teenage five year old getting all dressed up for her Internet adventures. When I look in the mirror now, I see sorrow stamped on my features. That’s why people are always asking me what’s wrong, even when nothing in particular is. The story’s been written—everyone can see it—I don’t have to say a word.

So why are more men flirting with me? They must know something I don’t.

This Was Once a Love Poem

This was once a love poem,
before its haunches thickened, its breath grew short,
before it found itself sitting,
perplexed and a little embarrassed,
on the fender of a parked car,
while many people passed by without turning their heads.

It remembers itself dressing as if for a great engagement.
It remembers choosing these shoes,
this scarf or tie.

Once, it drank beer for breakfast,
drifted its feet
in a river side by side with the feet of another.

Once it pretended shyness, then grew truly shy,
dropping its head so the hair would fall forward,
so the eyes would not be seen.

IT spoke with passion of history, of art.
It was lovely then, this poem.
Under its chin, no fold of skin softened.
Behind the knees, no pad of yellow fat.
What it knew in the morning it still believed at nightfall.
An unconjured confidence lifted its eyebrows, its cheeks.

The longing has not diminished.
Still it understands. It is time to consider a cat,
the cultivation of African violets or flowering cactus.

Yes, it decides:
Many miniature cacti, in blue and red painted pots.
When it finds itself disquieted
by the pure and unfamiliar silence of its new life,
it will touch them—one, then another—
with a single finger outstretched like a tiny flame.

Jane Hirshfield

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