Monday, January 18, 2016

Alex Colville's Seeds of Story

Often when listening to great writers talk about their process, they speak of beginning stories from a single evocative image. The story comes as the writer figures out who the person in the image is, what they're thinking, how they got there. Many of the paintings of Alex Colville read like seeds of stories, drawing us into moments where figures are absorbed in their natural environments while the entire scene is suffused with a dreamy uncanniness and subtle menace. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015


First post in two years. Perhaps the beginning of more to come. Needed the spaciousness of this holiday weekend to slough off the "business" of running an apparel brand and sink back into inspiring language and a more poetic relationship to life. This song written by Woodie Guthrie and given new life by Jeff Tweedy is, for me, the most poignant song I've ever heard.

It weaves peculiar experiences and inimitable reflections with universal tones of longing, and an almost joyful resignation to the tyranny of impermanence. It evokes the blend of pleasure and sadness that foments when immersing ourselves in wonderful memories reveals the passage of time, the transience of the experiences and people we hold most dear, and the absences that time excavates from our lives like a passing glacier.  It centers like a mantra, conjures like a spell.

Remember the Mountain Bed:

Do you still sing of the mountain bed we made of limbs and leaves:
Do you still sigh there near the sky where the holly berry bleeds:
You laughed as I covered you over with leaves, face, breast, hips and thighs.
You smiled when I said the leaves were just the color of your eyes.

Rosin smells and turpentine smells from eucalyptus and pine
Bitter tastes of twigs we chewed where tangled woodvines twine
Trees held us in on all four sides so thick we could not see
I could not see any wrong in you, and you saw none in me.

Your arm was brown against the ground, your cheeks part of the sky.
As your fingers played with grassy moss, and limber you did lie:
Your stomach moved beneath your shirt and your knees were in the air
Your feet played games with mountain roots, as you lay thinking there.

Below us the trees grew clumps of trees, raised families of trees, and they
As proud as we tossed their heads in the wind and flung good seeds away:
The sun was hot and the sun was bright down in the valley below
Where people starved and hungry for life so empty come and go.

There in the shade and hid from the sun we freed our minds and learned.
Our greatest reason for being here, our bodies moved and burned
There on our mountain bed of leaves we learned life’s reason why
The People laugh and love and dream, they fight, they hate to die.

The smell of your hair I know is still there, if most of our leaves are blown,
Our words still ring in the brush and the trees were singing seeds are sown
Your shape and form is dim, but plain, there on our mountain bed
I see my life was brightest where you laughed and laid your head…

I learned the reason why man must work and how to dream big dreams,
To conquer time and space and fight the rivers and the seas
I stand here filled with my emptiness now and look at city and land
And I know why farms and cities are built by hot, warm, nervous hands.

I crossed many states just to stand here now, my face all hot with tears,
I crossed city, and valley, desert, and stream, to bring my body here:
My history and future blaze bright in me and all my joy and pain
Go through my head on our mountain bed where I smell your hair again.

All this day long I linger here and on in through the night
My greeds, desires, my cravings, hopes, my dreams inside me fight:
My loneliness healed my emptiness filled, I walk above all pain
Back to the breast of my woman and child to scatter my seeds again.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

East coast perfection: Secret spot, Cape Cod, MA. 
1/2 mile walk through scrub pine and rose hips to a deserted beach. Wishing I had my board. The sandbars that form these glassy little slides are notoriously ephemeral. I think of the the Japanese Zen poets who developed a philosophical-aesthetic mode from the experience of fleeting perfect natural beauty. They called it Yugen; the feeling of beauty mixed with melancholy by virtue of impermanence. This aesthetic feeling corresponds to the Buddhist philosophical understanding that the joy of the recognition of truth is suffused with a joyful sorrow. Truth from a Zen Buddhist perspective is a recognition of the impermanence and flux of all phenomena, including one's own sense of self and of all the relationships between an individual and other people, objects, and ideas that constitute one's sense of self.

In this aesthetic/philosophical moment of experience there is the joy of recognition mingled with the sorrow of loss.  One looses perpetually at the very instance of finding, for there is no-thing to be found. Reality is empty of things.  Emptiness in this sense does not mean absence. Rather emptiness refers to how "things" have no self-inherent nature. What we refer to as things are a composition of co-dependently arising phenomena.

The waves at this secret spot are a perfect example. A few days prior to this morning, somewhere out at sea, a strong wind whipped across the ocean surface in a particular direction. This wind occurred at  a particular distance away from land so that the energy the wind transferred into the water separated and organized itself into coherent waves traveling at defined intervals from one another. Coastal currents, the flux of tides and the violence of winter storms colluded into the perfect mix of dune erosion and sediment deposit for the ocean floor in this spot to extend long, flat and shallow from the shore. The tide at the moment of these waves had to be just so.  The wind energy rolling through the water trips on the shallow sand bar, rises and spills into these "things" that we call waves. But where is the wave in the wave? The thing is many things, and there for it is no-thing. You can't abstract any single wave from all the phenomena that the thing we call a wave depends on. And the existence all these phenomena are in turn, dependent on infinite collusions of various other phenomena, and on an on.  All phenomena are in flux, impermanent, tenuous, precious. We like when they glint and glisten like waves in the sun, when the recognition of beauty becomes the beauty of recognition.

Friday, May 17, 2013

An Existential Aesthete at Harvard Divinity School

Last week I completed the final paper of my Master's degree at Harvard Divinity School. Two years ago I went back to school thinking I'd study Buddhism as a natural extension into a specialization from my undergraduate studies in Asian religious traditions.  I will graduate in a couple weeks  having eschewed the academic study of Buddhism, or anything else explicitly religious. The official title of my degree, Master of Theological Studies, is grossly misleading. From my first semester on, I exercised my freedom to take courses across all the schools at Harvard and quickly discovered that I  wanted nothing to do with theology. This is not an indictment of the quality of the courses at the Divinity school, but a testament to the way the program accommodates the study of material that does not traditionally fall within the bounds of religious studies. From courses in the English, film, and comparative literature departments, in concurrence with anthropology and literature courses taught in the Divinity school, I developed a focus on what art does with experiences that in other realms would appeal to explicitly religious, theological, or supernatural interpretations of  provenance and meaning. 

During my studies I discovered how art aesthetisizes experiences that can be deemed transcendent, unitive, and uncanny. I use aesthetics here in the way Freud did in the opening to his essay "The Uncanny," as having more to do with understanding qualities of feeling than with understanding  qualities of beauty. To the extent that transcendent, unitive, and uncanny experiences are rendered existentially through art without appeal to divine or supernatural explanation, they are made wholly human.  There is much to say here about the reflective and ritualistic power of artistic creation, which I will leave for later. Suffice it to say that when these moments are rendered existentially and aesthetically their poignancy is not restricted or abstracted by modes religious interpretation. They are shown to be independent of any single and fixed ontology, and their significance is broken open to new and individual interpretations, or allowed to glint with the poignancy of experience itself free of extraneous interpretation. Insofar as these moments are rendered aesthetically in their unhindered fullness of existential feeling, they are shown to belong to us all.

Depending on our willingness and ability to exert our powers of association and our sympathetic imaginations, we may both share in the experiences of the artists, as well as re-experience and more dynamically experience our own. 

The fine artist hones and refines the reader's faculties of perception. As Kant points out, when it comes to fine art, refining perception is not merely an experience of new degrees of pleasure or beauty, but most importantly, it generates new dimensions of cognition.

The following passage by David Malouf  in "The Valley of the Lagoons," is a brief example of what I'm on to here. Angus, the sixteen year old narrator, sits in the back of a truck heading out into the Australian bush for his first hunting expedition:

The sky above us was high and cloudless, as it is up here in winter. Stuart followed my gaze as if there was something up there that I had caught a glimpse of, a hawk maybe; but there was nothing. Just the huge expanse of blue that made the air so clean as it tumbled over us; as if all this - sky, forest, the warmth of the big dog between my knees- was part of the one thing, a consciousness- not simply my own- that belonged not only to the body I was in, back hard against the metal side of the truck, muscles flexed in my calved and thighs, belly empty, but also to something out there I had melted into as one melts into sleep, and was infinite.

Monday, April 22, 2013"And there is something kind of weird about people seeing you seeing."
   Sam Lipsyte, discussing the pit falls of being a writer. Namely, exposing your fixations so that others can see them.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

singing to myself

In my attic room studying spanish like crazy. Its 93 degrees out, hotter in. In this heat the work of breaking language out of its music into infinitives and subjunctive clauses, into los estructuras de la lengua, is physical. Still, at times a single word soothes with onomatopoeia. Rascacielos. I can't speak the word without a tenor of passionate menace. Rasca- cielos. Sky scraper. But the music of individual words is partial, fleeting, two serendipitous notes stumbled upon while fiddling with an instrument you don't know how to play. Notes without the the melody of ideas, the virtuosity of emotion. My attention drifts from the text book and I stare out the window into the coolness of canopy, sing the few lines of the few songs that I can sing, over and over. The current cancion is 1842 by Sam Amidon. 
I gleaned these quotes from his tumbler. The first sounds like a line from an early Ondaatje prose poem, the second sounds like what I hope my writing does a little of, and what my favorite writers do a lot of.  
“A musician, if he is a messenger, is like a child who hasn’t been handled too many times by a man, hasn’t had too many fingerprints across his brain.”
-Jimi Hendrix 
“The main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe.”
-John Coltrane

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Word Satori: The Dream of India

In India a year has two summers and two winters.

There are no adulterers there.

There is a race of people whose ears hang down to their knees.

In India there are roses everywhere- growing everywhere, for sale in the market, in wreathes around the necks of men and braided in the hair of the women. It seems they could hardly live without roses.

In India they have a class of philosophers devoted to astronomy and the prediction of future events. And I saw one among them who was three hundred years old, longevity so miraculous that wherever he went he was followed by children.

In India the wise men can produce and quell great winds. For this reason they eat in secret.

There are headless men with eyes in their stomachs.

There is a race of feathered people who can leap into trees.

There are warrior women with silver weapons for they have no iron.

And I saw far off the coast of that land a thing in the sky, huge as a cloud, but black and moving faster than the clouds. I asked what that thing could be, and they said it is the great bird Rokh. But the wind was blowing off the coast, and the Rokh went with it, and I never got a closer look.

All of the imagery and some of the language are derived from works written in the five hundred years prior to 1492. India, of course, is where Columbus thought he was going. 

I excerpted these stanzas, and arranged them slightly differently, from the essay, The Dream of India.  By Eliot Weinberger.