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.

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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.

Subversive Writing and Rambling

Subversive documents

We historic site colleagues were picking words to describe our presentation styles with the public. We like words: They’re artists and grad students who love communicating about history, and I do, too, and I’m, you know, CPT Me.

I suggested I’m “Intellectual but Funny.” They nodded agreeably, and one said, “The word we chose for you was Subversive.” Really??? Explanation: Because I had dismantled and rearranged our Revolutionary Personages talk to add in colonial poet Sarah Wentworth Morton, and to connect the subjects of the talk in my own chain of meaning.

My colleagues are young and in Master’s programs, blissfully unaware that in the Academia where I used to dwell, that’s not Subversive. That’s Required. That is called “intervening in the conversation,” and You’d Better have a new twist on things if you want to live in EnglishPhDland. Theoryguay. LitReviewistan. Jonestown.

OK, OK, a little dark humor isn’t going to leave a stain. I am proud of some of my work, deeply impressed by some scholars I know and read, and full of stuff to say about the 18th century. But I gloriously failed to be an academic many times while acting like I was trying to become one. That’s OK, though. Let’s all live our best lives.

Of course, there’s plenty of evidence that Scholarly and Creative can harmonize. But often they don’t, and I still don’t quite get it. For example, the author of an important book in my field said to me over cocktails that, although nearing retirement, she was discovering a whole new way to approach theater history. She was now attending actual rehearsals at her university for the first time in her career. Yeah. From her tone, she felt subversive. I felt a little sick. I can laugh about it now.

My Revolutionary talk at work is a good, coherent little talk, a star shape nicely squeezed out of the Play Doh Fun Factory of my Intellect. But it was prompted by real, personal interest and Creative Sisterhood with Mrs. Sarah, and those things aren’t too academic. Do I get to call the talk Creativity? I don’t know, yet oddly, I care. I hope someday to have more Intellectual/Creative harmony.

Am I subversive? I don’t write in a bare garret, rejecting everything but Art; I have an AC. I read mysteries and watch Antiques Roadshow. I like vanilla ice cream a great deal.

The writer and queer/feminist activist Michelle Tea described “Sister Spit, the all-girl performance tour that tore up the United States at the end of the last century” as, among other things, “the my-poetry-can-beat-up-your-theory menace.” I like that. That’s funny. I value poetry a lot more than academic writing. I’ve been dealing with some things and been pretty sub-versive lately (get it?), but I still see a poet in the mirror. And will even if I do finish that book about 18th-century theater history.

I don’t know if I can reach Tea’s subversive heights, but I was busy writing this today instead of writing for money. Taking an actual day off work to prioritize whatever creativity showed up. Not wearing pants. Reading literature in the current administration. You do what you can.  I could murder some ice cream right now. Chocolate? I like eating it with a fork.

 

The portrait of John Adams by J.S. Copley belongs to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I quoted from Michelle Tea’s piece “Sister Spit Feminism,” in her new book Against Memoir, published by Feminist Press. I highly recommend it. My talk and other good ones are available at King’s Chapel on the Freedom Trail, Boston.

Court/Juggler

It’s weeks like the last one that remind me why this blog’s title is one part C and two parts PT. It’s a new thing to juggle Three Jobs: as with real juggling, you get the motion and rhythm going and sustain. And one beanbag eventually makes a sad little splat on the ground. If you’re me. Those papers all graded yet? Splat. Yet I am fortunate, and thankful that I enjoy the three, all of which allow me to exert some C in different ways.

And the week’s intensity gave me extra appreciation for what I’m sharing here, color palette charts from Highly Creative Sibella Court’s book Etcetera Etc: Creating Beautiful Interiors with the Things You Love.  She’s a collector of what she finds, many natural and castoff items that she brings together, which is why she calls herself a Bower bird in another book title. We don’t always have the same tastes in decor, but she’s inspiring and a total trip.

In a week where words literally swarmed in my brain, it soothed me just looking at these pages. Lovely, mouth-filling words in a sensuous font next to favorite shades. Read from top to bottom, or bottom to top if you’re feeling that way, they roll like a revel of a nature poem.  Unconnected words together, they offer sight, sound,  images, and potential connections for later creative work. Like a printed daydream for a CPT!colors 2colors 1

I used these images in a moment of inspiration and admiration, without the permission of Sibella Court or of Murdoch Books in Sydney, Australia. I hope they will forgive it.

Yeah, I was Inspired by a Book Again

Tenant

We’ve had major “stay in with a book” weather in New England, so I just re-read Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  She impresses me more and more and that’s sad, because she only wrote two novels.  Death be not proud, suggested another writer, and I second that.

The post, though, is really about the Preface to the Second Edition. I’d like to quote some of it because I was moved by the way it echoed from the 1840s into today.

…I wished to tell the truth…But as the priceless treasure too frequently hides at the bottom of a well, it needs some courage to dive for it, especially as he that does so will be likely to incur more scorn…for the mud and water in which he has ventured to plunge, than thanks for the jewel he procures; as, in like manner, she who undertakes the cleansing of a careless bachelor’s apartment will be liable to more abuse for the dust she raises, than commendation for the clearance she effects.

“Acton Bell,” Bronte’s pen name, depicted a society of childish adults, bullies without inner resources or self-restraint. Not that you’d need those qualities back then if you were a wealthy landed gent with no natural predators. Or if you were a movie producer, or an ill-coiffed business tycoon with a red cap. Wait. Did I just mix things up? What we were talking about? Oh, a society that produced and valued this sort of thing, that criticized someone more marginalized for speaking up about it.

As the story of ‘Agnes Grey’ was accused of extravagant over-colouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from life… so, in the present work, I find myself censured…O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts—this whispering ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace—there would be less sin and misery…

That last sentence laid me out flat: With the privilege of a white-skinned/cis/nondisabled/hetero/American-born citizen, I often get to whisper “Peace” at will, both in Life and Creatively.

Some accused Bronte of indulging in the “coarse” and “brutal.”  They were probably extra-shocked that the journal of a female character records that coarse brutality. Helen Graham struggles to protect herself from oppression and abuse, but it still becomes her story because she writes it down. In Bronte’s novel, Graham and her journal survive by acting against the conventions of society. Other emptier, seemingly more powerful people disintegrate from the inside out. Creative check-mate. Food for thought.

 

(For Ali Smith and Ijeoma Oluo.)

 

A Weird One

Freaks

 

Sarah Knight’s first two books have in their Creative titles what we kids growing up in Rhode Island used to call “sweeaahs.”  The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck and Get Your Sh*t Together are two reasons I have foreseen a better life, hurt myself laughing, and gracefully (almost) created time to write this post.

Her third is You Do You. It’s about crossing the street when conventional “wisdom” appears, productive ways to break rules, and how to Do Weird with kindness to yourself and others. And knowing that’s all OK. It’s Creative Living for the Unconventional at its finest. And lots of sweeaahs.

She affirms the power of embracing your Weirdness. Weird is Creative as well as empowering, as I’m sure she’d agree. So I began to ponder the Big Three, and here are some things Creative, Weird, and OK with me:

  • That there is a shade of red paint called Baked Beans. That my cousin had her bathroom done in it, and then added a gold-painted tub. Can’t wait to soak.
  • The co-worker whose response to a busking Beatles cover band in a city square was to hold out his arms and skip-spin in a widening circle. I was humbled to think such a person liked me.
  • All that embroidered, powdered, wigged, short-trousered frippery that men wore in the 18th century? I find it…hot. A double C/W/OK for clothes and me!
  • Soy milk, frozen blueberry, peanut butter smoothies. A risk that paid off.
  • Edgar Allan Poe. My man.
  • The 1960s haute couture muumuu. It was a thing. It had Presence.
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Like I was leaving This out.
  • The Bro Hosts of Ghost Adventures on the Travel Channel. They wear night-vision glasses in haunted places even though the camera lights are on. They record ghost voices. They are where old B movie style meets yelling “Dude!” at the Dead. Love. Them.
  • Students of mine practicing Thesaurus use describe a hypothetical sky as “amaranthine-azure” and “peach-cerulean.”
  • Queens. Great Britain: Rock ALL the hats, Your Majesty. Drag: Icons of Creative and OK, and Weird if they wanna be. Ellery: Creative. Weird. OK.
  • The word “hoolet,” an archaic name for a baby owl, in a child’s rhyme quoted by author John Hanson Mitchell, who is C and OK, but may not be W. Students rapidly tiring of being addressed as My Hoolets.
  • The old-timey actual advice to “pump…chopped feathers and hot molasses into a worn tire to extend its life.” Described as “Messy in case of a blowout.” I kid you not.
  • Solving crime while never leaving your brownstone where you keep 10,000 orchids, and the whole Great Tradition of Great, Weird Detectives.

Some things that are C and W but most definitely NOT OK with me:

  • Putting pitted black olives on your fingertips.
  • Wax museums.
  • The 18th-century recipe that enthusiastically explains how to cook and serve a chicken…while it’s still alive. The sound effects are apparently to be savored. Oh, my fascinating, gorgeous, disturbingly unrestrained favorite century, I will never, Ever get over reading this.

Please feel free to fly your own freak flag in the comments. Love to know your C/W/OK or Not OK list entries!

And thanks to the staff of Boomerangs (Jamaica Plain location), the thrift store that supports AIDS Action, for letting me photograph their sign.

 

 

Bronte-Spoiling

BS

SPOILER ALERT: Jane Eyre

When an artist creates a character willing to bite someone to death, that’s not an artist I’d piss off. If I were you. Penguin Classics.

Consider yourself Called Out by a CPT.

It’s not enough the cover of your edition of three Bronte novels features those faces, all rose-blush cheeks and dewy eyes, borrowed from paintings by men. Then on the back flap, you offer a seven-line biography to cover three authors, and it says this:

Charlotte Bronte…wrote some of the most poignant romantic novels in the English language…Anne Bronte…was also a novelist and poet, whose works were chiefly influenced by issues of social injustice.

Charlotte Bronte assaulted, killed, maimed, set multiple fires, and struck things with lightning, just in that one novel. What is wrong with you? If you consider Jane Eyre a romance (no, not a Romance, which is a literary movement: you didn’t capitalize it) and not a book about “issues of social injustice,” then I suggest you switch over to Dick and Jane until you, like a newborn blind kitten, get your eyes open.

What are the CPT goals in posting this topic? Perhaps it is to defend a fellow-artist who also knew life challenges and financial struggle. But for whatever reason, I’m here to defend some honor. Not that there’s anything wrong with romances or genre writing: I’m a big mystery fan myself. It’s just that Jane Eyre isn’t a romance.

That label implies to me that she chose to write love/relationship-centered fiction. What I see is a complex work about human motivations and limitations, centered on the living of a 19th-century female life. That would include marriage (or not), and a strong sense throughout of having your selfhood and your value dictated to you by a society in which you have no voice.

The characters of all genders who represent that society in the novel do not recognize Jane Eyre’s personhood, her autonomy as an individual. If it were just they, it would be a great novel. But some of these characters do see and even love her, and still “epic fail” in this area. That’s what makes it more, makes it a vision of society, and that’s where Penguin lets her down.

Maybe artists can easily empathize with Jane Eyre over those same struggles: for economic stability, for fulfillment, for relationship, for authentic living despite the challenges. Some days I have had enough of being broke, of bad weather, and of annoying people with authority. She’s a sister in Up-against-it-ness, as was her author.

And Charlotte Bronte was as skillful as her sister Anne Bronte in viewing the world clearly from where she had to stand in it. Having limitations does not equal being limited, and they both prove it. They wrote what they saw, and it was unflattering to Power of many kinds. And it was boldly expressive of the female, the disenfranchised, the outsider.

Sure, Jane Eyre has a happy ending, albeit one slightly clouded by amputation and death. She winds up in a place where she can be herself and be in relationship, as much as actually possible. It’s relative, but still a victory. As a CPT, I like the ending: not “It will all work out just great”, but “Keep on. It will all work out reasonably ok, ok enough, considering you live against the current in the society you do.”

So Penguin Classics, you unjustly represented an artist whose representation we need. Shame on you, you know. The Brontes would write books about it.