The Shadow Knows

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I look at shadows. Long ones, sharply vivid ones, shadows of ordinary things and unusual things, shadows I never saw before because I’ve never been to that location in that light. From shadows I get the same small charge of pleasure that I get from fireworks:  I look expecting to see them, but still, how wonderful to see what is both real yet only made of light and eyes.

No idea why this is, that I have a passion for shadows. Some friends might suggest it’s because I used to love working backstage at the theater, and I’m just drawn to my natural habitat. Is it a chance to pay attention to the intriguing Buddhist ambiguity of the (non)self? I do love modernist photography, that’s for sure, and those Artists were gods of form and contrast.

Sh2As a poet and reader, I love me a liquid, sparkling, misty, on-fire metaphor. A shadow is a metaphor, equivalent to a Thing but made of something else. Paradoxically, that something else reveals more of the first Thing to us.

My favorite metaphor right now is Jane Hirshfield’s opening heart as boiling artichoke in the poem “My Species”.  An “opening” heart is a metaphor itself, commonplace but fine.

I’ve been looking at a book by Teju Cole, Blind Spot, where he pairs photos with short prose pieces. A striking one (much of the Foreword also dwells beautifully on it) shows a white house behind a tall line of just-greening shrubs, and the sharp, spreading shadow of a still-bare tree that itself does not appear.

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Cole writes, “Spring…it is not only the leaves that grow. Shadows grow also. Everything grows, both what receives the light, and what is cast by it.”

Some type of image reaching out from its place of origin, existing beyond the edges of its source, visible when its creator is not. Is that a metaphor for Creativity?? I hope so! I hope It and I will grow this spring. I love shadows.

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Blind Spot by Teju Cole was published by Random House. The photos are by the blogger.

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Word Play and Fungus

 

Sometimes, another artist’s work opens up a Creative breathing space in a brimming-over world. Art can be like walking into a wooded place in a city park, or glimpsing the ocean between dunes. I recently read a memoir by poet Maxine Kumin, and one sentence just randomly became that little pool you might come across in a mountain stream, a place to dip your feet and splash. I’m not sure why this sentence, but this sentence about being the mushroom expert at a writers’ retreat:

I know enough to…never pick any mushroom with white gills—the underpart of the cap—for fear of unknowingly gathering the destroying angel…

Her descriptions of fungi and this foraging hike are wonderful, but this sentence woke up great pleasure in ordinary language, and in the complexity of language, as pictures suddenly tumbled around my mind.

Gills. Once I found a plastic bag of fish on the beach. Someone on a boat had let the day’s catch fall into the water and float away. I tore it open to keep the plastic menace away from the gulls and met six pairs of eyes hard as glass and sharp-looking fins. But the gills’ white skin looked vulnerable and helpless in the dry air. That was where death pointed itself out to me, as it did for Kumin, in the gills. Alas. Walk on, though, and let the birds laugh and feast.

Fish have gills, and so do the small fungal shelves and umbrellas on collapsing logs. They appear in the living sea and on decaying parts of the earth, these open fans of gills. It’s only in working through my draft of this post that I remember a poem by Sharon Olds, “The Winter After Your Death.” She uses the image of a closing fan to describe sunset, and a starkly bright fish in a pond to embody many things. I think my own use of “fan” pulled up this poem, the unconscious source of my word choice here. Of course, being obsessed with the 18th century, I’m likely to throw a fan image in wherever possible, so maybe that was it. I don’t know. My feet are just splashing and enjoying the stream.

The word cap turns the mushroom into a little figure wearing one to shade its eyes, and then the circle of gills becomes an old-fashioned neck ruff. It morphs into a bottle of spores with its cap on. How capital! Oh, that satisfying little pop when you decapitate a mushroom by breaking off the stalk. And the aroma of them, cooking in oil on a chilly winter night. Still playing.

If you’ve faithfully watched any British mystery series with a countryside setting, I bet you’ve seen the Murder by Destroying Angel plot. I can remember two without even putting on my thinking…cap. That basket of foraged mushrooms on the table in the inn kitchen that no one thought to guard from interference. Who would notice a couple of extra ones? Sneaky poison that, eh, Inspector?

Despite its being National Literature and Poetry Month (HUZZAH), I won’t even get into Paradise Lost, which is full of angels as violent warriors attacking and defending Heaven. The would-be Destroying Angel is seemingly destroyed, falling and falling. But later, that whole snake and apple thing.

Kumin just used the Words for Things when she had something to say about these simple lives in the woods. She was also writing about a relationship between the body/mind and nature, about Paying Attention in the world, and about harvesting, both as a forager and as an artist. I enjoyed foraging in these words of hers I came upon and hope I used the harvest well.

My copy of Maxine Kumin’s The Pawnbroker’s Daughter was published by Norton in 2015.

Tree Pose

bc trees

I’ve mentioned my grandmother before. She was an  outdoorsy young person, even though she grew up poor on the Lower East Side. Dealing with life, I think she found her comfort in Nature.  In the pictures I have of her as a young woman, she’s wearing a bathing suit with stockings, or hiking shorts and hat atop a mountain.

A story I consider central to my life is the one she often told of the friend who said to her dismissively, “You see one tree, you’ve seen them all.” And that, Gram would always finish, was the Saddest Thing she had ever heard anybody say. I have a passion  the sight of trees, in all seasons. Because I’ve just never known otherwise; I’m fortunate in that way.

So this week I was listening to the On Being interview with artist Maira Kalman. She and host Krista Tippett had this exchange:

Ms. Tippett: Here’s another line of yours I love: “We see trees. What more do we need?”

Ms. Kalman: That’s really true….And so walking and looking at trees really is one of the glories of the world, and we say, “Rejoice,” when we see these things.

Well, yeah.

But a Buddhist teacher I once read explained that we don’t actually look at a tree. We look at ourselves looking at a tree. I bristled at that statement because, hell, I knew how to Look at Trees. But when I really got that he was right, experienced that as true, and my ego died one more death, I learned a lot.

I take many pictures of trees, even though they are surely still pictures of my own Looking: my sense of, and Need for, the world’s Creativity. That is OK. Trees are patient, and waiting, and I’m taking one human step at a time with the intention to see them.

My image is from Dec 24, 2018, on Boston Common.

Nose to Wall

 

Photographer Minor White told his students, including John Daido Loori who records the instructions in The Zen of Creativity, to “Venture into the landscape without expectations. Let your subject find you.”

I was actually waiting for the bus.  Behind the stop stretches a tall brick wall coated with ivy, Van Gogh-palette-knife-thick. All summer it spread and shone, and waggled in the street wind like nodding fox heads. I enjoy photographing the same places at different times, so waiting by the wall presented an opportunity.

I kept taking pictures of the Ivy Wall. I kept deleting pictures of the Ivy Wall. I really didn’t like the Ivy Wall. First, brick orange is not my favorite color, and the ivy was mostly a shade of green I would never want with it. Sorry, 1970s, no offense. From a distance, wide swathes of an unattractive color combination. Closer, the large, reptilian leaves that often looked Monstrous later.

It became a frustrating challenge. It didn’t matter, of course: I’m not any type of photographer except for pleasure, and to remember impressions I might want to write about. I thought about White’s advice sometimes, and hoped that if I kept trying, it might happen. I was not being quite Nobly Creative, but I was being stuck there with bags of groceries.

These cold days, the ivy is gone, and still, brown veins thread and tangle along the wall. But I love the forms of things in minimal winter, and I went over. And things kept pulling my eyes closer and closer. It felt as if the photos had just been waiting underneath all summer. How wonderful to see moss in the mortar, tiny oval yellow leaves that wind had tucked behind the vines, and the weary fruit and plant bits left behind.

I like details, forms, and shadows, things that feel like “moments” of space or color. I have no real idea how to take pictures. These photos record enjoying the Looking, and experiencing that, Hey, my subject did Find me at last. That’s a Creative lesson worth considering.

What I want to say about it is best summed up by John Daido Loori:

 I headed back to the school, for an appointment I had with Minor to discuss my work…

He looked at me and said, “You had a good day, didn’t you?” I smiled, and he smiled, too.

“What would you like to talk about?” he asked.

“Honestly,” I said, “I don’t have anything to say.”

“Good,” he replied. “Then let’s just sit here together.”