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John Donne

diamond years

 

FOR LACK OF DIAMOND YEARS

BY CAROLINE BEASLEY-BAKER

ISBN 978-1938349096

NOVEMBER 2013

PELEKINESIS 

diamond years

As a literary person who became an art critic, the nexus of visual art and poetry has always been of interest to me. I have known Caroline Beasley-Baker as a painter; now I know her also as a poet. 

In Beasley-Baker’s visual art—in all of its diverse forms—I always saw a perceptually acute link between the visual and myth. In his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Ernst Cassirer describes how visual feints and impressions, physiognomies (seeing faces in things), fears, animation of the inanimate, and conceptual reversals begin; how nervous ticks comprise the human fight-flight physiology.  He describes how epiphanies were experienced and then clarified over time  as the presence of a god (or “temporary gods”) emerged, places subsequently becoming sacred as shrines.

In secular life, such huhs? are often the result of mishearing something, of making a sudden new connection between two odd things, or having a little insightful eureka. Recent neuroscience has found support for Cassirer’s linking of  sight and myth to the study of how humans figure out the world; to how–from purkinjee trees inside the eye to how we see during reverie to how early dysmetropsic misunderstanding of the world is processed through the eyes of a child–forms the basis of all later perception of the world.

In one statement about her poetry, Beasley-Baker said that in her youth she saw the world as a whole laid out below her, that when when she blinked she thought the world changed. These are classic ur-dysmetropsic events, which, if held onto and cultivated, lead to a distinctly personal culture and mythology which seeks to give voice to that seen reality. A poet like Pound, so responsive to Japanese calligraphy, to the haiku, and to other short forms of poetry, sought out poetry to put a visual sensation into something other than conventional words. He sought to give voice to the passing visual sensation of the world in the form of a kind of nervous gestalt beneath or before words. This line of poetry is grounded in sensation. As a result, it paradoxically, harbors an alexithymic suspicion that once you put a label on something you have gone too far and crushed the moment in its delicate passing (as so much lyrical and more confessional poetry, in my view, does). Indeed, much of such poetry has been written precisely in response to visual moments or visual art with the express purpose of not using denotative or even connotative words…but some other kind of word. 

Beasley-Baker was the only artist I knew who dealt with both the macro and micro dimensions of mythic perception (or, as Cassirer called it, “mythic thought”). Later, the titles of her works of art developed into little poems, and she began to put captions or titles into her meanders of lines too, right there in the painting. Her current poetry digs even deeper; it strikes me as what art historians are now calling sfogo (Italian for “steam”)… the little musings to oneself that accompany the making of a work of art; a kind of nonstop texting-below-texting that the mind in metacognitive itch continues on with as it will. Not the lecturey talkback run-on that keeps one from getting to sleep, but the dream-phrasings that incant over walks in the cold or in the dark—or being in the flow of making art. Beasley-Baker seeks to capture these odd, errant “what-made-me-think-of-that?” thoughts at a very micro level. I have called this voice of nature “nomos”, and find that it often takes form in visual art in words that rise out of the very surfaces of the facture of painting or as broken fragments of words: fractured, surgically transposing adjective, adverb, verb, noun moments into other figures of speech; making use of punctuation as if in a musical score, thus leaving behind a finely etched and lean transcript of a visual-mental response, given overvoice or underbreathvoice by the mind. A mental world of phenomenological ghosts (Husserl’s term) and a world made of metaphor, this is not a nexus that positivist categorical American art and American poetry have had much time for. But in John Donne, in Emily Dickinson, in folk song, and in the late work of the Beatles, even, the hesitant, immediately retracting, spelling it out, taking it all back (it all adding up, after such an emotional outburst, to precisely nothing) has sometimes taken shape.

You can see this worked out perfectly in Beasley-Baker’s For Lack of Diamond Years poems. When she puts a slash in, she is pulling up short, telling herself, maybe, to stop; when she hyphens words into supercompounds, that’s an emotional compression, a sudden transposition, a freezing, a making noun of verb, adjectives into an entity. Then an image will come and immediately bump up against another, then something else will block it, or counter it: all of this mental byplay between talking to oneself and telling oneself to stop doing that, to be silent, is there. Beasley-Baker, as a painter, knows that the best moments are the most fleeting and mythic; in her poetry, she seeks to enlist words against themselves to capture moments prior to words, so fleeting as to almost be an enunciated form of silence. Consider her description of a clock stopping after her father dies: “I found meaning and comfort in that ceasing moment, in that…..what? the breath between living and my imagining”.  There it is, right there. The title of her poems refers to “diamond” years, a reference to age, but also to precision, facets, carats, if you will. Her visual art has always had, in addition to larger scale meanders, and an overall almost maximalist quality, countless dispersals of micro moments too, many of them faceted by gems or things that shine or sparkle. It’s really very rare  for a visual artist to so completely translate or, more precisely, transcribe her visual sense into words. For this reason, for me, Beasley-Baker’s poems are a significant achievement.

I don’t usually have an idea in mind when I begin to write. Today, a student looked at me and said: “you haven’t been writing lately, have you?” She was right; at least I have not written poetry. It made me angry that she was right, then oddly comforted because the jig was up and I realized that I didn’t feel much like writing. I felt like watching people catch fish on a winter pier while I wore a long camel’s hair coat and kept my hands in my pockets. I always thought that one of the few reasons I wanted to be tall was because tall people look better in camel’s hair coats. I wanted to look attractively gaunt. Seagulls hovered over head as fisherman threw their remaining bait to them. This desire to be on a fishing pier in winter first came to me as I watched a couple of herring gulls up here in Binghamton, swooping and gulling forth above the Barnes and Noble parking lot. The day was that sort of neutral gray when, if it were ten degrees colder, snow might fall. It made me lonely for the ocean. It made me want to wear a camel’s hair jacket, and dig my hands deep into my pockets, and watch gulls slash and dive for torn pieces of air born clam. How do you explain something like that. As Pessoa said, the personal is not the human. We must make a bridge.

But I don’t want to make a bridge. I don’t want a greater ontology to standing in a Barnes and Noble parking lot watching herring gulls when, if it was ten degrees colder, it might snow. I once had a camel’s hair coat, and I left it on a school visit during one of those days when the weather couldn’t make up its mind. It was cold. It was hot. In the tradition of schools, they put the heat on full blast as it warmed. I was teaching fifth graders to write poems, to play the guitar, to live large. We were making progress. I forgot my coat. I forgot my gloves. I was home getting ready for bed before I remembered that I’d left my prized coat seventy miles south on the New jersey Park way. I never went back to retrieve it. I kept thinking perhaps someone my size might find it, and start wearing it. He might take better care of it cherish it not as an idea, but as a coat. Since then, this imaginary short man haunts my consciousness. He walks out of the sea late at night, his coat perfectly dry. He has a beautiful zippo lighter and roams through the universe, lighting the cigarettes of willowy femme fatales. He speaks both French and Norwegian. He’s the complete package.

This is how my mind works. It needs to drift in order to write. It needs aimlessness, the sort of frittering away of time most people associate with sloth. Improvisation is vital to structure. Without it, structure is too “received.” Even in the purposely “received” structure of fixed forms (sonnet, sestina, that sort of thing) the thought must seem fluid, unforced. To have an “idea” for a poem is already to “receive” a structure that might make the actual poem impossible to write. So, when people tell me they have no ideas for a poem, I never believe them. They are lying. They have plenty of ideas. That’s the trouble. The idea for a poem competes with the poem. or worse, the idea of writing a poem competes with the poem. They stand frozen before the prospect of writing a poem. It stuns them into being blocked.

Sometimes better structures come to us while we are screwing around.

For example, in the fall of 2008, the stock market crashed. I was not much concerned since I have never had enough money to invest in stock. I felt terrible that venerable businesses went under. I felt worse that other firms were going to plunder what was left, get a bail out from the government, then loan the bail out money back to that same government at three percent interest. It seemed like a crime synidcate scam. I thought of a woman I once saw denied welfare because she had five dollars in a savings account. I just figured Kenneth Burke was right: in terrible times, a man ought to write decent sentences.

So I was sitting around in my bed room, looking out the window, thinking about how my mother used to take my hands and make them do patty cake. I thought of how the nun made us clap out the accents of syllables in second grade. For some reason, they were enthusiastic about the accentual qualities of English. I wrote “clap out love’s syllables. Then I wrote: Stock markets fall.” I did not know what the hell the two had to do with each other, but it was in iambic pentameter (thanks to the nuns) so I continued:

Clap out love’s syllables. Stock markets fall.
The gravity of apples and of gold
has nothing on the way our bodies sprawl
and touch the accent of what we two now hold
both tensed and tendered. Touching, we disdain
all commerce, and all wantonness seems blessed.

So I got this far, and I relaized I was going to write a love sonnet using terms from finance, old and new. “tendered” for example. I continued:

We grope and cop at leisure. We remain
stable in our instability.

To remain stable in instability seemed something devoutly to be wished for at the time, and I liked that I got nine syllables into such a short line, an acatalectic line to make up for the extra syllable of line four. It took place at the volta, the turn, so I thought things were going well. But what was I going to do next? The sentences moved against the lines, muting the rhymes somewhat. I was happy that gold and hold were a noun and verb because I heard the ghost of John Crowe Ransom telling me it is always good if one of the rhyme words is a noun and the other is a verb. I was feeling so good about it that I wrote:

And this is good, and this is good. We kiss
all nipple and thigh pleasured, we descend
to where no share, no bonding gone amiss
can cheat us of a happy dividend.

So I was having fun with the word bonding, and the word dividend. I was using banker’s language in a love poem without implying prostitution. I was being playful, but now I had to write the concluding couplet, and I always hated that part of sonnets– too much like an essay. I’m not good at sewing things up. I’d prefer for them to just scab over, but my knowledge of sonnet form told me I had to recapitulate the pertinent ideas. The main point seemed to be that things fell, but it did not interfere with the love making of the couple who, because they have “fallen” can not fall. So I went with the obvious:

Stocks fall, leaves, fall, we fall, yet, falling, praise
the fields of lust on which our bodies graze.

I should have said the “banks” of lust, but I kept changing my mind, and I’m lazy, so I left fields. I wanted lust to be a good thing. I wanted to redeem the lust for life and love from the lust that made stock markets fall. By drifting, I had stumbled upon a sonnet in which I used the words of commerce and banking to speak of love. I was happy. I later thought I chose “fields” for its relation to fall and falling– the f sounds.I looked it over and say instability at the turn did not rhyme with remain. It was accidental genius. I was in full sonnet mode and I would have rhymed, but John Donne’s ghost of oxymoron was upon me, and I said: good. It’s good that the rhyme does not pay of here.

So this is how I wrote a sonnet–by accident, but also by having read hundreds of sonnets, and by knowing the traditions of courtly word play, and by having had nuns who made us clap out syllables obsessively.

A student must learn to let his mind leap among disparate things in order to get at structure, for structure is nothing less than pattern recognition– not the grooves you pre-ordain when you have an idea, but the grooves you discover as you move through the drift of your own mind’s tendencies and trust that, if you let mind drift, then pause a bit, you’ll start to see a pattern emerge.

So I drifted at the beginning of this essay. I trusted that my loneliness for the sea, and fantasy about a camel’s hair coat would produce some sort of structure or metaphor I could hang A post on. And now I leave, pretending I am Fran Sinatra with that jacket draped over my back. A final suggestion: spend the week just jotting down random thoughts. Don’t be a control freak. All thoughts are silly, and unoriginal–including Plato’s. It’s how they are used and structured afterwards. Write them down and don’t get in their way. Then take whatever you know, and recognize patterns in the drift. Make some poems out of that.