Awakening

This past month, spring thus far, has been one of changes and transformations for me as I begin the transition from the classroom to the world of poetry. April, especially, has propelled me deeper into this world due to traveling around the state to attend readings, slams, and workshops. On Wednesday evening I attended my first “spoken word” workshop, given by Lizzy Fox in Burlington, Vermont, at ArtsRiot. Her workshops, she explained, tend to be place-based, and she took us on a meditation journey to the places we have been. After roaming back through all the places I lived as a child (I moved 11 times by the time I was 14) and all the states and countries I’ve traveled to, I found myself concentrating on my current place, my home. As these things go, I had just received an email from my friend Nancy about spring peepers. So it is with inspiration from Lizzy and Nancy that I drafted the following poem.

Alas, it wouldn’t be a very good “spoken word” poem, but maybe, someday, I’ll get there.

POEM:
Awakening

It is always about this time in April
when I open my window wide to sleep
and spring peepers – those tiny tree frogs
with sticky fingers – begin to call.
At first,
 a few of the love-sick amphibians
chirrup their quaint country song,
vibrating the air with their pulsating
throats. Each night that follows
those first throbbings, the chorus
increases until, perhaps a week later,
a crescendo of frenzied deafening decibels
crashes through my window, drowns
out the last of winter’s silence.
When I first moved to this place,
I couldn’t sleep for the cacophony
of a million peepers. I never thought
they were speaking to me. This spring,
I hear
 them for the first time, knowing
the serenity they have broken
was just emptiness, knowing
that some nights they sing,
other nights they pray, and tonight,
tonight they whoop with joy.

ELEMENT:
Poetry of Place

The topic of place has been forefront in my mind since March 23. This was the day I was contacted by a third cousin I never knew existed who saw some photos of our ancestors that I had posted on ancestry.com. His research confirmed mine and proved that my ancestor – my great, great, great, great, great, great – count ’em, six – grandfather settled a town in the 1700’s just a half an hour from where I currently live. This might not be such a big deal but his descendants – my ancestors – moved to the midwest in the 1800’s and here I am, almost three hundred years later, in this same place.

If this weren’t enough, I attended a workshop on Monday evening with the great Mary Jane Dickerson. In the workshop she spoke of place, of writing through exploring place, “from one to many” as we explore the individual experience and connect it to the larger world. Listen to Mary Jane here:

Then, there was Lizzy’s workshop.

What is it about place? Poet Wendell Berry said, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” Knowing where you are involves a multi-layered, multi-dimensional awareness of the past and present, of people, land, politics, ecology, and even geology, as Baron Wormser points out in his book Teaching the Art of Poetry (279). (Whenever I walk in the woods behind my house, I am in awe of the 12 feet high boulders that came to a skidding halt from a long-ago glacier and that are now neatly tucked in between maple and hemlock trees).

In his article, “The Poetry of Place: James Wright’s ‘The Secret of Light,‘ James Galvin writes, that “the poet of place situates himself in place in order to lose himself in it. Poetry of place is actually a poetry of displacement and self-annihilation. The poet replaces self with situation, turning himself, as it were, inside out, so that the center of ‘knowing who you are’ becomes the circumference of uncertainty.” I have a hard time understanding this. Perhaps, Galvin is saying the same thing as Mark Johnson in his book The Body in the Mind, and which Terry Hermsen discusses in his book, Poetry of Place. This is the point that we cannot touch ‘the real world,’ cannot step out of our bodies and minds to experience place objectively. In order to do that, we must reduce the self so that place is the essence.

I’m still not sure I buy it.

What I do buy is that in order to experience place in all its dimensions, we need to look to metaphor, which is rooted in the senses. We must look at things “in terms of another” as Frost said. Hermsen has an excellent discussion of metaphor in the beginning chapter of his book, citing Russian semiotician Roman Jakobson and his distinction between the function of transferring of information that metonymy offers and the connecting function of metaphor.

Metaphor connects the physical world with language and potentially with understanding. Communicating a point in time and space – that is, place – and all the history, emotion, mystery, and weight of that time and space, is the poet’s challenge.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
National Geographic: Spring Peepers
Russian Linguist Roman Jakobson
Metaphor, metonymy (and other tropes) – a discussion from the University of Chicago

 

Bald-faced Hornets

I went walking in the woods recently with a friend, and we came across a very large hornets nest – about two and a half feet in length and as wide as a basketball – hanging from a branch six feet above the ground. It was astoundingly beautiful. I learned that it was a bald-faced hornets nest. As you can see from the photo below, these hornets resemble Star Wars Storm Troopers.

Bald-faced Hornet.
www.fcps.edu

With the beauty of the woods that day and the chance encounter with a living work of art, I wanted to write a pastoral poem about it. But it just wasn’t happening. Instead what was happening was Todd Akin. Usually, after several days of the same news story broadcasted over and over again, I tune out, but I became fascinated with this one, mainly because I had no idea some people really believed what Akin said about rape and pregnancy. (This sort of shocking statement makes me wonder about my own ignorance, too. What do I espouse that is just totally wrong? It reminds me of my friend Nancy’s bumper sticker that reads “Don’t believe everything you think”).

In the Seattle Times, Gail Collins explains in her article “Todd Akin and the theory of the delighted womb” that Akin’s beliefs are not unique and certainly not new. She begins the article: “In colonial America, conventional wisdom held that women could not get pregnant unless they enjoyed the sex. People, who would have thought I’d have an opportunity to bring up this factoid right in the middle of a presidential race? Thank you, Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri!”

It seems as though what I intend to write about never actualizes, and every week I have to trust the winding way of discovery, reflection, and serendipity.

POEM:
Bald-Faced Hornets

The first time we came upon the hornets’ nest
back up in the woods, we were not looking
for anything. Not the nest, not peace and quiet,
not ourselves. We were just walking, relaxing,
minding our own business.

The first time we came upon the hornets’ nest
was the day the politician was not making
sense about anything. Not rape, not pregnancy,
not women. He was just talking, bumbling,
minding everyone else’s business.

Photo by Higgins

The hornets’ nest, shaped like an alien’s head,
held hundreds of bald-faced wasps that flew
in and out of the hole towards the bottom
of their home. They were not bothering
anything, yet the potential in that hive!

 

 

 

The politician’s belfry, shaped like an alien’s head,
held hundreds of the bald-faced comments that flew
in and out of the hole towards the bottom
of his face. He was not bothering
with any facts, yet the potential of those words!

Bald-faced hornets chew thin strips of wood
mix it with saliva and spit it out to build
their scalloped layers, creating a fragile
and beautiful yet functional home. Cells
inside provide each wasp its own space.

Bald-faced politicians chew thin strips of words,
mix them with saliva and spit them out to build
their scalloped layers, creating a fragile
and dangerous yet powerful following. Cells
inside their system provide each belief its own space.

The queen lays eggs and feeds them chewed up insects
after they’ve become larvae. These are only female
hornets, and they hatch to build new cells, collect food,
feed others, protect the nest. In autumn, the queen
lays more eggs – females and males hatch.

The politician lays ideas in people and feeds them chewed up facts
after they’ve become convoluted. These are about female,
or “other” targets, and they hatch, collect momentum,
feed others, protect the nest. In autumn, the politician
lays more eggs – female and males believe.

Finally the females and males mate, after which everyone
dies, even the old queen, all except the fertilized females.
These females burrow into old tree stumps or huddle
underground in winter to survive. Each builds a new nest
in spring. You can see the old ones, abandoned.

ELEMENT:
Metaphor

In the poem, “Bald-faced Hornets,” I use the beautiful hornets’ nest I found to speak of the hornets’ nest of politics. I could have continued the comparison for another stanza, or more, but I was already hitting the reader over the head with it. Despite its shortcomings, the poem does lend itself to discussing metaphor.

In a metaphor something familiar (the vehicle) is used to explain something unfamiliar (the tenor).  See the link below for famous examples – with one of my favorites by Walt Whitman, “And your very flesh shall be a great poem.”

Robert Frost is known for expressing that metaphor is saying “one thing in terms of another.”  This is only part of what he actually said, according to Jay Parini in his book, Robert Frost, a life:  “Frost believed that the ‘greatest of all attempts to say one thing in terms of another is the philosophical attempt to say matter in terms of spirit, or spirit in terms of matter’’’ (265).

Parini goes on about Frost’s use of metaphor: “In formulating this, he (consciously or not) is redeploying an aesthetic common to the German Romantics, especially Goethe, who famously wrote: ‘Whoever has truly grasped the meaning of history will realize in thousands of examples that the materialization of the spirit or the spiritualization of matter never rests, but always breaks out, among prophets, believer, poets, orators, artists, and lovers of art’” (265).

While at Stonecoast, I attended a lecture by Alicia Ostriker on metaphor. She discussed metaphor in terms of love. She said that in order to create metaphor you have to look at what you want to know (the tenor of the metaphor) carefully enough to notice, to compare, to connect, to jump, to leap, as you have to in love.  She spoke of metaphor as the erotic in language. Without it, language is chilling and cold, and we see this in the language of legal and medical documents, math and logic. Ostriker went on to say that “the pleasure we take in metaphor is consent, an agreement that the distance between the two things is less.” Metaphors allow us to discover and know something at a deeper level, and are not constructed as a game.

Which, perhaps, is how I constructed “Bald-faced Hornets.” But in doing so, I did think deeper about the world of political propaganda and the systemic workings of politicians who lull people into their camps through emotional speech and unsubstantiated “facts.”  And the last stanza in my poem above leaves the reader to interpret the metaphor for him- or herself.  This is an important piece of the poem, allowing the reader to continue the metaphor with personal knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs.

In her talk, Ostriker pointed out that in a metaphor the two things that are joined can neither be opposites nor be too similar. Comparing two things with no shared characteristics doesn’t work; there has to be enough similarity between the two so that the comparison makes sense. Comparing a woman’s hips, for example, to rain doesn’t really work (and I apologize to the song-writer who used this comparison). Hips are solid, powerful, meaty, sculped or bony. They do not share physical or other characteristics of rain, though maybe I’m missing something. Conversely, if there is too much familiarity (i.e. a teapot and a tea kettle) there is no point in comparing them.

(As a side-note, Ostriker also mentioned that language poetry – post-modern poetry – does not have metaphor which is a response to the increasing awareness of the suffering in the world. It is too painful to get so close to. She explained post-modernism as “modernism without the hope.” Scary).

While Ostriker takes on the serious side of metaphor, Tony Barnstone presents us with a fun exercise that gets to what Ostriker was referring to – getting to know the tenor through the vehicle. Barnstone was one of my mentors at Stonecoast and shared a Power Point he created on the “Controlled Surreal Image.” In it, he included an exercise of writing about shoes in a metaphorical way (see below in links). It is fun and gets to the idea of thinking of “one thing in terms of another.”

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):

Famous metaphors
Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, an amazing book by Alicia Ostriker, which was recommended by another of my mentors, Jeanne Marie Beaumont. Ostriker’s book is a must read for any poet, woman, or person interested in contemporary issues.
Barnstone Metaphor-Image Exercise