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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Bad Writing and Beauty




Bad writing commits two cardinal sins.  First, it violates our need for clear communication and for meaning in a world that is too fragmented, too ideological, too complex.  We desperately need writers who strive for clarity, who provide explanations of our world without trying to fool us into thinking they have a Theory Of Everything.  The second is that it violates our need for beauty.  Bad writing is ugly in the way an ill-made skirt or a poorly-constructed  bookshelf is ugly.  It is ugly in the way anything done carelessly, without thought for self-respect or use or craftsmanship--that quality that Bill Reid says spoke to us through the ages, regardless where it is found--is ugly.

So in the wake of my marking glut last week that ended in some of the poorest marks I've ever given (though the top 15 or so students are good thinkers and writers, so perhaps Ken Coates is right), this week I am looking for beauty.  And I'm going to be trying to make beauty and meaning.  I am working on the ekphrastic poems that are inspired by Veronica Geminder's photography.  Because so much of her work is urban, a capturing of surprising spaces, I've been reading Mark Kingwell's Concrete Reveries:  Consciousness and the City.  Here's where I had my first siting.  Explaining that New Yorkers, ever cool and purposeful walkers, never look up, he notes that one late afternoon many of them were doing so.  He got out of the ever-flowing  crowd ("I never thought death had undone so many") to look up, and this is what he saw:

"I saw the awesome central shaft of the Empire State, that blocky heavy-shouldered slab--so masculine and tough--almost brutal, compared with the slim spaceship grace and gorgeous Art Deco silver of the Chrysler Building--burnished gold in a bath of late-afternoon, early March sunshine.  It was 5:30 and the base of the building was covered in slanting shadows thrown by the surrounding buildings, and out of the dark pedestal the high tower soared and floated in a way I have never seen before, the never-used dirigible mooring at the summit sparkling and sharply limned, seeming almost punched out physically--sharply etched--against the cold blue sky.  The sun on the stone was like plasma, nearly alive, and I thought of the way the same evening glow used to cloak the neo-Gothic buildings of my university town, felt the same mix of comfort and awe" (48).

The writing that is clear, expressive, and beautiful, as are the visual image Kingwell creates.  Yet what struck me was his observation that unflappable uber-cool New Yorkers had stopped for beauty.  For some reason, I find that singularly hopeful.

I had my head down, writing, for most of the week, so the other encounters with beauty came on the weekend.  On campus I spotted a flock of surreal Bohemian Waxwings, and much to Bill's puzzlement, stopped the car and rolled down my window so I could hear their joyful chittering.  For some reason--I am no birder--spotting Bohemian Waxwings always makes me feel as if winter is coming to a close. 

This morning, I had another glimpse at beauty as I eavesdropped on a Scottish grandfather shopping with a twelve-year-old grandson, perhaps for a family party; there was a considerable stack of frozen pizzas in the bottom of the cart.  I'd had them in my ears throughout the store as the grandfather explained why he wanted to buy this rather than that or told his grandson that they had two kinds of pizza--pepperoni or Hawaiian--and asked rather formally "Which would be your preference?" and then when the boy said "Hawaiian,"  did a little soft shoe off into Hawaii 5-0 and a very Scottish "Book 'em Danno."  The grandson, who by all rights should have been singularly unimpressed with anyone over 16, was entirely charmed by this outing with his grandfather.  

Then today's Globe and Mail had a nostalgic look at Marimekko fabric, which is being featured at Toronto's Textile Museum of Canada.  Marimekko arose in the early fifties, its bright colours and graphic designs a distinct contrast to the  polite, fitted clothing of the fifties and early sixties.  Katherine Ashenburg pointed out that the early Marimekko clothes challenged the fashion aesthetic of the times:  loose and lightly structured, you popped them on over your head and forgot about them, except to be cheered by the patterns or the colours.  You didn't need to think about whether the crinoline beneath your poodle skirt was ruining your stockings or whether your bra was showing through the sweater that was too tight.  No tugging on miniskirts. You can now get Marimekko Converse sneakers, which I think is marvelous.  I might be tempted....Because aesthetic joy is always tempting.

Tonight's Government House concert was my most recent meeting with beauty.  There are two things I love about this series.  One is that the musicians themselves pick the repertoire, and they often play things I've never heard.  The second is that chamber music is so much more intimate.  Tonight they played two "viola quintets"--pieces written not for the typical string quarter--two violins, viola, and cello--but for a string quintet--two violins, two violas, cello.  There are all kinds of terrible jokes about viola players, most of them circling around the fact that the viola is seldom heard.  Yet the string quintets make clear how much body the middle-voiced viola gives to a group of strings.  They played a Mozart G minor quintet, very dark with only splashes of sunlight until the final movement, and a quintet written by Antonin Dvorak while he was on vacation in Spiilville, Iowa.  I had known he'd gone there during his time as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, but didn't realize that he had sought out its large Czech community.

What is it about chamber music that makes you so aware of the stories around you?  The intimacy somehow creates an optical illusion that makes everything seem closer.  I had the sense of being at the edges of stories:  the older woman in front of me who came with her husband and another couple but sat reading a book.  Was she desperate to get to the end of a page-turner, or trying to carve out space for herself, or even passive-aggressive?   What's the story behind a woman with a beautiful scarf that brushed my head as she fled the Ball Room after a single cough?  There certainly have to be stories about the scarves, toques, gloves, and shoes piled in the Lost and Found box.

What's the relationship between curiosity and beauty?  Does beauty provoke our curiosity in a very human way, making all kinds of suggestions about stories and asking questions about how the world is made, how it shifts and changes miraculously under our very feet?  The doorway you see at the top of the blog is in Saskatoon, in a downtown back lane.  It instantly reminded both Veronica and me of Mark Rothko's painting, though Veronica pointed out that, in contrast to my opening pronouncement that ill-made things are ugly, the door is beautiful because it's been so carelessly cobbled together.  It's one of her photographs that captures the back doors of our lives.  And like all her photographs, it provoked my curiosity as I wrote about it this week.  The poem has no title yet, and it's certainly not finished.

I
One day she decides to paint over the words
seldom seen anyway,
studying the grain of the cheap plywood
and the words no longer true
as they slide under the paint brush, the colour
chosen by last year's tenant.
As the wood takes the blue paint,
the grain raises slightly
in whorls like watered silk
until it dries to dull cheapness.

She steps back to see if the words are gone,
lights a cigarette and stands in a rare
noontime stream of sunlight between the buildings
and checks her watch.
She's taken enough photos of city streets
to know you can't erase them,
though back lanes invite censorship and oblivion.
This is not eraser and text,
not camera and photoshop.
She thinks of the city's archeology in reverse, except
not in those words.
She thinks instead
of going down to the basement with her Uncle Mike
after her father no longer knew
what his tools were for.
Down among the smell of mice and terpentine,
she found the wood she needed while
her uncle claimed the router and the drill
along with a dusty unopened can of miracle
to cover formica countertops. Fresh! Yellow!
Tools still in the truck bed, he hammered
the length of unromantic plywood
over the sidelight some one used
to tart up (or redeem) the door. Security risk in a back lane
and camera shops are targets.

II
Rothko knew how little we need to make a door—
two or three interwoven colours
infused with one another that ask
where inside and outside begin. Harmonies
and discords that make a mood
with no name but that we pour over
in silence.
An orange door frame
into a purple frame of mind with deeps of colour
infusing back into blank infinity.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

Reading Deeply and Slowly


This morning as I was driving in to the university, I couldn't decide whether I found the foggy, hoarfrosty world beautiful and congenial or not.  I couldn't see the Legislature Building from the Albert Street bridge, yet the sky seemed irradiated with light, as if the cloud were also mere fog.  Since I couldn't decide, I needed to take the longer route through the park to gather more data, so turned left at the Legislature and then drove along the lake and then through the trees.  By the time I got to the university, it still wasn't clear to me.  In fact, that was what I wanted:  clarity, but there was all this fuzzy and muzzy beauty around me.

This has been another of those frantic weeks that seem to characterize this term.  Reading like mad so I could begin to teach Gissing's Odd Women.  Grading indifferent and often weak 110 essays until my finite reserve of restraint was used up.  Katherine Arbuthnott tells me that we all have a finite bank-account of restraint, and that when we're getting to the end of it we can find ourselves really exhausted and perhaps not a little cranky.  Except when you are marking, you cannot come to the end of your restraint, no matter what.  Because the moment you express your impatience or your disbelief--how exactly did you get here?--you've lost your ability to be helpful.  And I should say that I've got a generous sprinkling of strong students whose work gives me delight.

On Thursday we celebrated the Saskatchewan Book Awards Shortlist Announcement, which was a treat.  How exciting it is to have one of my former students, Coby Stephenson, shortlisted for her book of stories, Violet Quesnel.  Unfortunately, the shortlist reception was also one of the day's round of activities that included preparing to be the substitute in Susan Johnson's survey class on Friday, having dinner at the Creek Bistro, hearing Diana Krall--and all on 5 hours of sleep.  And of course all these things were wonderful too.  The Creek Bistro never disappoints, and I always remember taking my sister Karen there while she was in Regina for our wedding and being so cocky about having such a place in our neighbourhood.  In Atlanta, Georgia nothing is in your neighbourhood and most things are a pain to drive to.  Diana Krall was remarkable.  I like her live performances better than her CDs (though I like those too) because she takes more chances.  You get the sense that she and her band are playing--being playful, that things could fall apart any minute because they are all taking so many risks, but also that things won't fall apart because they're all consummate musicians.  For this concert, she had a backdrop of archival film footage that sometimes matched and sometimes simply complemented the music:  old Tom and Jerry cartoons, cheesy shots of dancing women and butterflies or of "exotic dancers" (of the clothed variety) and their shocked audience, surreal, futuristic cityscapes, even family movies.

What this all really says--my ambivalence about a delightful round of activities and my inability to decide about the weather--is that I need the February break, perhaps more than I've ever needed it.  I need a break from the angst on campus.  I need to play with fabric and shape and bright, bright colour.  I need to sleep in, since I've again lost my ability to go to sleep when I'm supposed to.  Above all, I need to read.  Except what?  There's quite a bit of new fiction on the shelf at home (which is really a wide windowsill--hey, books are good insulation!) where I keep books before they've been read and then put in their proper place in the library, but I flipped through these last night and none of them quite suit.  It was about 2 a.m., and the cats were bemused but loyal, cuddled together on the end of my bed, Sheba waiting for me to settle down so she could curl up with me.  'Something deep and slow,' I thought to myself before settling down so Sheba could curl up on my back.  Amazing how that works:  a small cat in the small of your back forces you to relax and then you finally drift off.

I want to slow down to think about the poetry I'm writing that's inspired by Veronica's photographs.  One sleepless night, I went back to reading Mark Kingwell's Concrete Reveries:  Consciousness and the City.  I love Kingwell, and this book is dense and twisty enough to make me sleepy sooner rather than later.  But I also want to layer some ideas into (not over) these poems, and this book promises to illuminate something in Veronica's surprisingly beautiful photographs of back lanes and of complex layered reflections in glass.  So that phrase that came to me--`Something deep and slow"--is not only about what I'd like to read but about how I'd like to spend my time.  I need to think without the frustration of deadlines running around me, nipping at my heels like tribbles.  Craftsmanship, whether you are making furniture or poems, always takes time.

On that busy Thursday when I returned essays to my Literature and the Environment students and tried to sum up what we'd been reading thus far, I realized that, in the poetry and the nonfiction, the authors suggested our experience of time has a profound effect on our relationship with the world and that one of the things we need to do if we are going to experience nature in a way that makes us want to protect it is to slow down.  Brian Peyton, in his essay on the bears of the Great Bear Rainforest, talks about settling into the time of observation, settling almost into bear time.  Charlotte Gill talks about the way tree planters are obsessed with time and often compete to see who can plant the most trees in a day. This sense that time is nipping at their heels makes one of her bosses drive very carelessly and land a jeep upside down in a very icky pond and nearly drown one of his workers.  Trees have another sense of time altogether.  It takes hundreds of years to grow a tree and I doubt they worry about time.  Also, once you've clear cut a forest, it's not simply that you have to wait for the trees to grow back.  The way we log also denudes the forest of its wonderful skin of biomass--the years of falling needles and leaves, the growth and decay of fungus and lichens and smaller shrubs that live among the trees.  We've destroyed the skin that supports the very forest we are trying to replant.

Is there an ethics of time?  Is it possible that we can jam so much into our lives--even things that make us happy and that are good in themselves--that we risk losing our basic ethics?  Because being ethical takes time.  It takes time to reflect.  It takes time to do the kind of deep sustained reading that psychologists say teaches us how to be compassionate.  It takes time to study and fall in love with the beautifully, stunningly complex world around us, to understand how elements of that world--from forests to Safeway cashiers to foggy Fridays--want and need to be understood and treated. 

  


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

I'm wearing red today

This morning I turned over our Group of Seven calendar to find a Frederick Varley painting called "Sunrise at Sphinx Mountain" that looked almost abstract in its joy.  I stepped out of the house into the back yard and did what I almost always do:  stopped for a few moments to sniff and feel the air.  Yes, the sky is white (again), but the cold didn't fall down around me like a heavy cloak.  There was little wind.  Promising.

I'm wearing one of my minimalist white shirts today with my red silk shawl.  I also put on the crazy Samurai Zaubersocks that Veronica knit for me.  They are black and grey and teal and red and distinctly not symmetrical.  Veronica found exactly the right knitting pattern for the wool (there are tiny cables that go right down to my toes) and then improved it so that the pattern and the wool sing together.  They remind me to be offbeat.  They remind me of creativity and joy and craftsmanship.  They remind me that you sometimes need to see things from a new perspective.

Over the last three days, the cancer-word has woven its way into my consciousness, tying up moods and thoughts.  My dear neighbour, Angela, was diagnosed with cancer this fall, underwent the first round of chemotherapy, which seemed to be shrinking her tumors.  Her son was able to spend a month with her over Christmas.  And now things seem to be suddenly worse.  A co-worker of Veronica's was diagnosed with lung cancer.  And one of my students missed an appointment on Thursday because his father-in-law was found to have tumors on his spine.  This has put my imagination on overdrive.  I can't help trying to imagine their fear; though I know my imagination falls far short, I also know that people who live with cancer live daily with questions:  am I better today, or worse?  How long do I have?  What is happening in my body?

My imagination also visits their families, the wild roller coaster of hope, denial, and  dread.  When do they start grieving?  When will they be able to stop grieving?

How does their grief relate to mine for an institution?  Of course the first thing it does is to put my own frustration and sadness into perspective. Sometimes I think we take ourselves too seriously, as if people will stop reading if we stop urging them to read and suggesting ways into texts, suggesting that what they think of as the mysteries and secrets of poems or stories are really places for them to stand and look about them.   Or as if people will stop writing, or will limit themselves and their stories to 142 characters, believing that (as Jack Webb used to say) "The facts, ma'am, and nothing but the facts" will reveal the mazes of their minds or the even crazier complexities of the heart.  Some days I admittedly fear that Google--which I couldn't live without--has taken the place of curiosity.  Why be curious if you have Google in your pocket?  Except that Google doesn't unfold a metaphor like an origami flower.  It doesn't feel the ethical or playful cadence of a plot or the confused inwardness of character.

I have also come to feel that however relentless the round of reading and preparation and teaching this term, I am missing something, holding back something, as if I'm not fully engaged or fully alive.  Perhaps it's simply that I have an honours/graduate class this term along with a new English 110, and I'm scrambling along the surface because that's the best I can do.  Perhaps it's that my writing is almost completely on hold, so I'm frustrated and hungry.  Those are two reasonable hypotheses, but there's a third that has come into play, I suspect.  I'm waiting.  For something.  Some change or recognition or illumination.  This is not a productive way to live or to teach.  Perhaps I need to re-read Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet to remind myself to love the questions, to lean into them with as much fervour as you lean into certainty or into hope.

“Try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live with them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.”