The Boundered Lip

My father, from his hospice bed, looked off into the distance and led a church service for an unseen congregation.  I scribbled down his words and phrases as he moved in and out of coherence.   After this,  no more words.  He died a day later. 

So son, now come on up and sing, we’ll wait.
My breathing spell is cracked.  We run the show
and not the angels, though.  I love your songs.
Did I misuse the privilege to call on you?
In disregard, in deadly disregard?

Are all the speakers working?  And the tapes?
My son will lead our dedication of this space
with such an instrument.  Just take your place
and bring the love of God because we’re wicked,
wholly wicked, wicked tongued and wicked faced.

I’d run a nail through two-by-fours
along your butts to hear you praise the Lord.
A deadly disregard I fear I’ve used
and now my breathing spell is cracked
and I do fear the blindfold.  My son will come.

God’s angel is the lip that dares to bounder
here.  To bounder, did I say?  Did I say hate?
I hate the blindfold.  Son, don’t wait, you come
on up and play the love of him who walked
embodiment.   My breathing spell is cracked.

Did I misuse the privilege to call on you?
My deadly disregard is what I fear.
You hear the spirit and the bride say come?
The boundered lip, the  breathing spell that’s cracked
breathes ‘come’, breathes “son”, breathes “last”.

Could we with ink the oceans fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry,
Nor would the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

 

Walter Isaacson on Leonardo’s “sharpness of eye”

His curiosity was aided by the sharpness of his eye, which focused
on things that the rest of us glance over.   One night he saw lightning
flash behind some buildings, and for that instant they looked smaller,
so he launched a series of experiments and controlled observations to
verify that objects look smaller when surrounded by light and look
larger in the mist or dark.”  When he looked at things with one eye
closed, he noticed that they appeared less round than when seen with
both eyes, so he went on to explore the reasons why.

Kenneth Clark referred to Leonardo’s “inhumanly sharp eye.” It’s
a nice phrase, but misleading.  Leonardo was human.  The acuteness
of his observational skill was not some superpower he possessed. In-
stead, it was a product of his own effort.  That’s important, because it
means that we can, if we wish, not just marvel at him but try to learn
from him by pushing ourselves to look at things more curiously and
intensely.

In his notebook, he described his method almost like a trick
for closely observing a scene or object: look carefully and separately at
each detail.  He compared it to looking at the page of a book, which is
meaningless when taken in as a whole and instead needs to be looked
at word by word. Deep observation must be done in steps: “If you
wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with
the details of them, and do not go on to the second step until you
have the first well Fixed in memory.”

Another gambit he recommended for “giving your eye good practice” at observations was to play this game with friends: one person draws a line on a wall, and the others stand a distance away and try to cut a blade of straw to the exact length of the line. “He who has come nearest with his measure to the length of the pattern is the winner.” 

Leonardo’s eye was especially sharp when it came to observing motion. “‘the dragonfly flies with four wings, and when those in front are raised those behind are lowered,” he found. Imagine the effort it took to watch a dragonfly carefully enough to notice this.

–    Walter Isaacson. Leonardo DaVinci. Simon and Schuster, 2017. Page 179.

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Spend a few hours trying to draw something accurately from life and Leonardo’s comments about seeing the details will ring true to you.   Sketching used to be one of the practices of a well-rounded education.  That seems a century ago; it isn’t any longer.   So when you walk by someone in the park who is sitting with a sketchbook, looking intently at a tree or a stream, your modern sensibility interprets that as an effort to render an exact likeness…your thoughts might be “oh, I could never do that, to get something on the page to look like something in life, I so admire that effort.”  Then you pass by.

But the sketcher knows that a realistic image is not the point.  (Though accuracy matters.)  The point, what is actually happening when a sketcher is working in his book, is he is trying to see.   Drawing is a mode of seeing.  You actually see more because of the need to reproduce what you see, and the experience of seeing more and more and more feels like an awakening.

“More and more and more…” – again, the modern sensibility, reading these words, interprets them as an experience of finer and finer analysis.   ‘More” means more granular, more information about smaller and smaller parts.   This is partly true (and no doubt some of what Leonardo was saying), but the experience we have while sketching is an awakening vision in multiple directions at once, not just toward the smaller detail, but also color, angles, large shapes of light and dark (“value”), and the unique gesture of the object as a whole.   And more.  It is an experience of analytical honing and of wholistic expansion, together.

All this is what I mean by:  “Drawing is a mode of seeing.”

Barbara, Christmas 2013

If you put all my joy over all our pots together,
It would not touch how I feel about this cast-iron pot.

Let all my joy from all our pots be plopped together
and it slops around, with room, inside this iron pot.

I never thought I’d find a black utensil packed together
with a lid and poke inside and thrill to feel a pot.

When old we’ll need to lift it’s weight together
or I’ll bend beneath the iron.  But today I waltz this pot.

 

Daniel

We ate our people’s roots but no-one’s meat
or wine, and hung our harps on willow wands
unplayed by winds.  I read our people’s book
and found the number there of years we must
be slaved.  From sorrow we’d forgot to look.

I turned toward the wall and would not play.
I told Yahweh it must be His to count
the years, I said “We are your portion
in the earth.  You’re poor.  We’re all you’ve got.”

The instant when our sins should slash a vein,
when lambs are hushed their crying by a blade,
the legate Gabriel enpierced my room.

A word went out.  He said.  An actual word,
resuscitating sentences, germ cells of books,
as books are matrices for nations.  Words
went out at dusk and I have fought celestial
orcs to bring them home.   Get up, get out,
go virgin to a virgin couch and and kiss a virgin
mouth, plant stories in your fields, fire
pots for wines, and sing new wedding psalms
beneath your virgin vines.   Go home.

Maundy Drinking Songs

Fragments overheard before the police came.
I jotted down what I could, then I hid in the cupboard.

Chugging song

Come now, sing now, happy tunes
and drink, drink, drink — we’re in our youth.
“Fool, fool, deliberate fool:
can you drink the cup?
Or will it drown you?
Down, down, three times down,
take the triple-bath, play the triple-tool.
Fool, fool, deliberate fool…”   (repeat)

Continue reading “Maundy Drinking Songs”

Mary Oliver: “…with your one wild and precious life.”

“…I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I don’t know how to pay attention, how to fall down
Into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
How to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
Which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

– Mary Oliver, from the poem “The Summer Day”

Mary Oliver: “When it’s over…”

When it’s over I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

– Mary Oliver, from the poem “When Death Comes”.

The Time Toggle

Work over a drawing or a poem and all sense of passing time is suspended.   The next day, watch television all evening, and you’re surprised at how fast the evening goes.   These are common observations, common enough to abstract into principle: when the senses are full but inactive,  time speeds up.  When the faculties labor, time slows down.  When we are passive consumers of information or entertainment, irrespective of the quality of what we consume, time flies.   When we are producers, time stops.    The intensity of the creative mind is inverse to the perception of passing time.   (By creating, I mean most any active production, from origami to plumbing, as opposed to passive consumption, from reading novels to sitcom bingeing.)

After each of these experiences we sense how they are opposites.  When a session of creative work is over,  we feel integrated, whole.  Consciousness is fuller.   But when we come to our senses after hours of entertainment and realize the hours we lost, it feels like a loss of something we can’t quite say.  We feel a little less whole; the field of consciousness seems to have shrunk.    We feel alienated.

So we can actually punch the time button if we want, and suspend it.  Or, toggle it the other direction and lose time.

Let’s aggregate this insight:  as a society becomes more and more filled with opportunities to passively consume content,  the sense of passing time  grows more acute, individually, and enters the general air as a pop culture mood.    There are ancillary effects.   Hoarding, for example – here’s a phenomenon that has appeared in recent decades in the affluent West, like some emergent disease.  Hoarders collect objects that have touched their lives in a desperate attempt to resist the sense that life is passing away like a flash.   The piles of junk that fill hoarders’ homes are shored-up bulwarks against the empty present.   Mounds of memory.   Fear of death.   Physical nostalgia.

So, this oddity: nostalgia and entertainment culture go together.   I’d go so far as this:  individuals who spend their time creating do not feel much nostalgia.

There are many needed distinctions at this point, but I can only list them.  Each needs longer treatment.   One:  nostalgia and respect for the past are not the same thing.   Another:   reading can be active or passive, it depends on the larger context and not on the subject matter of the book.  Reading good books is to be praised and encouraged, but can be just as passive a lifetime as one spent staring at a screen.   The reader should do something with her reading – write something, sing something, use the information somehow, or let the poem inspire her to create in her own idiom.   Good writing deserves to be responded, and the healthy reader will be UNABLE not to respond to a good book with active production of some kind.  It’s not a rule, it just happens.   Further, none of this contradicts the common and healthy advice to “read for pleasure”, which is good counsel.   Read for pleasure, and with active engagement (but these are the same thing), then do what you will.

There are ancillary insights.   For example, in the same way that time stops when we make things, God, who is pure creative act, experiences literal eternity.

Speaking of theology….in many religious anthropologies, much is made of efforts to fix some supposed heirarchy of the senses, or other.  This effort is, partly, to make any sense other than the visual the one in charge, so it can slow or organize an increasingly fast and chaotic sensorium centered, typically,  around our sight.   Ellul wrote of “the humiliation of the word”;  Postman writes of the loss of the “typographical mind”; the Desert Fathers were concerned about the cognitive “image” obscuring the theoria (or contemplation) of the adept.

The recurrent impulse to make pyramids of the sense-organs is understandable as a reaction to the panic of speeding time, and has suggestions of biblical warrant, ever since Eve preferred a vivid vision (her own picture of her own future) over a fading verbal proposition (“don’t eat from that tree”).

But this mistakes the symptom for the disease.   There are indeed pathological rebellions of one sense over the others, and each unique person will have an idiosyncratic imbalance.   Pathology has random permutations.  But there is no prescribed heirarchy of the senses, either from God, or in historical experience.  None works.

Another impulse is physical solitude.   We sometimes want to just go apart, sit by the Walden pond or in the monastic cell or walk through Yosemite – just to get away from the kaleidoscope.  Fine, if we’re just shutting out most of the world in order to concentrate on work.  But if we’re just retreating from the distractions in self-defense, solitude isn’t the necessary solution.   Work is.   Work more on your own project, and you’ll find your sense-life has suddenly grown quiet and almost contemplative, in the middle of the traffic noises.

There is no correct hierarchy of sense.  There is no redemption in place.   There is only the active man, and the passive man.  As man acts upon the world, craftsperson acting on the material, artist acting on the medium, all the senses swing into perfect harmony automatically,  pulled into their proper roles and relations by the pressure of the external task.   The glorious external task of keeping the garden, building the city.

Modern man is becoming more passive as his world fills up with things to do and watch and he gets busier and busier,  and the dis-arrangement of his senses, culminating in actual mental illness, is a symptom of this entropy — not a cause.

Time will continue to speed up as the world fills with distractions.  In the end,  alienation is experienced more like a narcotic, like a not unpleasant buzz, with occasional startles from noticing the number of the year.