For his wonderful collection of short, imaginative poems from world literature, called The Sea and the Honeycomb, Robert Bly rewrote Frances Desmore’s translation of a Chippewa poem. And I think that it’s crucial to notice, in these days of promoting esteem for a misconceived and egotistical “self,” that the poem’s last line does not read “I am flying”:
Sometimes I walk about pitying myself,
and all the time
I am being carried on great winds across the sky.
Photographers, or artists of any kind, are probably more aware than most people are of fortuitous coincidings, of happy or regrettable appearances and disappearances: “I could kick myself for not having shot that scene the first time I saw it, and now it’s gone!” Or: “I sure am glad I photographed that building with the graffiti last month, because they’ve knocked the whole thing down!” And, especially around Halloween, both great and popular artworks engage us with unseen forces, unexplained happenings, intimations of malevolent or benevolent magics.
Earlier this year, a bit of such elvish fortune occurred (as it does from time to time) in my photographic life. Certain friends of mine who know my work would not be surprised that it would happen, as it did, around evening, in the woods. (Evidence for such a view might be taken, for instance, from my website’s “To See in the Dark” portfolio.)
In late winter, the ground was beginning to thaw. I was walking near twilight in a small wood near my home, when I happened on an abandoned livingroom couch. It lay at the edge of a dirt path, flat on a wooden pallet. I snapped a few pictures, as notes, thinking that perhaps I could have made something from it if at least I’d had a couple of flashes with me. Even so, I thought it somehow fell short.
But walking back that way a month later, I found that someone or someones had, whatever their intention, arranged a gift for me. The couch had been dragged about twenty feet from where it had been, onto sloping ground near the base of a tree. Its bottom raised up more, the bulky couch tilted at an angle had now struck a livelier pose. The biggest surprise, though, was my discovery that neighborhood spooks, vandals, or photography sprites had painted in big black letters on the fabric skirt below the seat this single word: “FLYing.” Had I missed it the first time? What did its author intend? No way to know, but it was certainly good fortune for me.
I hurried home and returned with three Speedlites and a couple of light stands. Dark woods, digital darkroom, and here it is:
The felicity continued. I wanted to submit the photograph for an exhibition, and the A Smith Gallery in Texas was soliciting entries for a juried “Habitat” show. What could be more homey than a livingroom couch? (Although, of course, mine was not in a comfy frontroom.) Almost without thinking about it, just recognizing that I needed a good title and didn’t want something as obvious as “Couch in the Woods” or “Flying,” it popped up as if from behind a tree: “At Home in the Secret.” (I hope that you like it, too.)
A little twilit magic in it all — which continued when the “Habitat” juror, Julie Blackmon, chose the photo for the exhibition, and the Gallery’s owner, Amanda Smith, gave it a Director’s Honorable Mention.
My friends and fiends, in case you don’t hear from me again before Halloween, I’ll wish you happy hauntings now and hope that you like my darkling photograph. And I won’t warn you not to walk in the woods at nightfall.
Shadows or darkness, fog or cloud, curving shapes, blurred or fantastical objects. Why should photographs with elements like these help to bring on that state of deep calm and heightened sensitivity that makes the Muse more inclined to visit?
I think it’s partly because they mirror conditions and circumstances outside the artwork that bring us to the border of our deliberating, daylight minds: walking through the streets at night or through woods in deep shadow, letting our sight and hearing absorb whatever comes in our solitary quiet; or lying drowsy in our darkened bedroom, drifting into daydreams or sleep. Art is one way that we can see what lies beyond the flashlight’s beam, reach into that invisible or half-visible place where so much is born and so much is decided.
Research has shown that people who make an effort to remember their dreams right after waking, especially if they try to write them down, will remember their dreams more often, and will remember more of what happened in them. But we don’t need scientists to prove to us that doing a thing repeatedly makes us able to do it more readily or easily; that muscles and memory — and, I believe, intuition and imagination — grow stronger the more they’re used.
I believe that this is also true for repeatedly visiting, experiencing, giving yourself to the kinds of art that carry us into those mysteries of the unconscious or whatever we might better call it. In Norse mythology, the king of the gods, Odin, who had the gifts of vision and poetry, rode a magic eight-legged horse. That steed, Sleipnir, could carry him across the borders between the various realms, of gods and frost giants and fire demons and the dead. As with anything else, the more we ride that border-crossing horse, the better we ride it, and the more swiftly and farther it’s likely to take us.
And why do I care so much, why should you care about riding across those borders? Because that place across the shadowy bridge is where we can discover our greater selves, our greater lives. After all, what do we think those gifts and treasures in the folk tales are all about? Over there, in the forest of intuition, in the scenes of paintings, in our dreams, is the place where the mythical creatures live and act out our battles with each other and with monsters and tyrants. If we see the vampire or the Cyclops clearly “over there,” we may recognize them in our “daily life” (we’ve all met them) and may be more likely to escape the temptations and dangers that they bring. In that place (though, of course, it isn’t exactly a place) is the soil in which our most powerful fears and desires, our most glorious insights and revelations are rooted. It’s the universe, the universe that stretches out from where we stand, from the little place of our planning and striving.
(If you click on the image below, you may even be able to see the plane’s noselight a little.)
At the end of my last post, I promised you testimony to a particular power of art. The photo of mine above has a title relevant to my purpose: “The Power That Builds in Solitude.” Though I’ll talk about writing poetry, what I want to show you is the creative power that certain photographs can help to bring us, in writing poems, and, I believe, in other parts of our lives.
Good poets know that inspiration has to be courted patiently, has to come to the conscious mind from beyond it. So poets have developed strategies for diverting the willful mind, in the hope that it will open more readily to the gifts of the poetic genie, or, as we call her, the Muse.
One of the challenges in writing good poetry, and the need for methods to meet that challenge, comes from the fact that parts of our conscious minds, especially our egos, work against us in creative endeavors. The suspicious watchdogs and fearful censors in our mental life try to keep things “under control,” walling out the pesky or potent spirits that live in the dark beyond conscious awareness. We dismiss the inexplicable; we want to ignore, to protect ourselves, from what we seem unable to comprehend or command. As a result, we need ways to distract the guards at the bridge, so that the contraband of the imagination can be smuggled across the border.
Gertrude Stein would park at a crowded Paris intersection when she wanted to write. The noise of traffic and passersby would drown out more chatty, deliberate thoughts. Hart Crane wrote by candlelight, drinking wine, listening to jazz. An early teacher of mine, the poet W.D. Snodgrass, said that he continued to write rhyming poems because the task of searching for rhymes tied up his more calculating mind, giving inspiration the chance to slip the unexpected under his door.
And I developed my own kind of ritual for letting in the moonlight.
“Mushrooms & Trees 5” by Van Chu
Post 1 of 2: The Photograph,
From time to time in these posts, I’ll write about an image that has caught me in its spell. No, my present subject isn’t the sorcerous tree above, which is mine. My flimsy excuse for putting it here (not that I need one — hey, it’s my blog) is that it led me to discover the superb artwork below – “Mushrooms & Trees 5” by Van Chu, a young Vietnamese-American photographer — because both were included in the recent “Seeing Seeing” exhibition at the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, Connecticut. (The obviously-discerning juror was Felice Frankel, a celebrated science photographer.)
A little .jpeg, especially one that’s sized to fit the confines of this column, and especially if it’s a long panoramic, can hardly do justice to its original . The framed dimensions of Van Chu’s exhibited photo were 24 x 74″. So I’ve also provided a larger .jpeg of the image, which you’ll see if you click on the one below.
The first thing that happens to me when I immerse myself in this image is that I feel its spatial depth, its large apparent scale, which results from its atmospheric perspective, from the way its clouds seem to thin out as they retreat toward a distant horizon, from the backward tilt of the body of liquid at the bottom of the frame, from the difference in sizes among the smaller shapes rising at its center and the enveloping cover of cloud above them. And then, looking more closely at the work’s details, I enter into the rhythms of floating and curling and wavering shapes, of darkening or brightening spaces, of shifting areas of turbulence or calm.
Then we home in on the points of sharpest focus, especially the three vertical “trees” at the bottom center of the frame, which seem to grow upward from a relatively calm expanse of liquid. They draw our attention not only because they’re centrally placed and comparatively solid, but because they’re backlit by the brightest area in the photo. Yet even those three more definite shapes are calligraphic, somewhat unstable and insubstantial, as though they’re not just growing from some kind of ground, but still in the process of coming into being. The suggestive title increases this impression (and yes, I do appreciate titles that actually do something): “Mushrooms & Trees 5.”
Our first reaction when we compare the title to what we see is likely to be “Wait a minute, there aren’t any real mushrooms or trees in this photo.” Our next thought may be “Well, I guess you could say that those shapes are the beginnings or the ghosts of mushrooms or trees,” leading us to think that what we’re witnessing is a stage in the spectral creation of living things. We think of mushrooms as growing in the dark, and certainly this image is pervaded by a dark, mysterious, brooding atmosphere that brings to my mind the words “and darkness was upon the face of the deep . . . and God divided the light from the darkness.”
But our view is also affected by our presence in this year 2011 A.D. (the photograph was made in 2010). Which of us can see this image and not think at least briefly of, say, the natural disasters we’ve seen this year, the roiling clouds from which tornados grow, or the “mushroom clouds” of nuclear explosions. Or we might see oil in those viscous black shapes, the oil of devastating spills, or the enormous billows of smoke from burning wells in post-invasion Kuwait or Iraq.
At the same time, the image remains a dance of drifting, curling, flowing shapes, of delicious gradations of black and white, of implied motion as in a Jackson Pollock “drip” or “action” painting. But Pollock’s rhythm is more likely to resemble that of boxing, with flurries of punches, jabs, hooks; Van Chu’s rhythm is more like the rhythms of Tai Chi, flowing and curving like the motions of water in a trance.
If we’re open and attentive to our experience, we can see that the whole of it or any part of it may play its role in any moment. A vivid dream or nightmare can color our feelings for hours after waking. A stray piece of scrap metal seen on the beach may bring to mind war or societal waste. A song may flood us with emotions that we felt during the year in our childhood when we first heard it. Van Chu’s photograph, as good art does, opens us to a concentrated vividness and variety of associations, to a greater-than-usual wholeness in the moment.
But the qualities of Van Chu’s imagery don’t summon up only a host of contemporary and personal evocations; they also recall and revive the artistic and spiritual tradition that inspired Van Chu: of the Chinese Taoist and Buddhist painters of inkbrush calligraphy and landscapes, a tradition that blossomed late in the First Milllennium, in the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties of China. I hope that you’ll follow me into the realm of Quo Xi, Ni Zan, Ma Yuan, and their descendant Van Chu, in Post 2 of “A Story of Creation.”