This last day of September was a windy one, and more of fall’s fledgling foliage made its meandering way to the sidewalks, streets, and grassy margins of Arlington. I was walking to a cafe to do some grading and found myself picking up leaves from the ground. I’d been thinking about a project from my childhood in which fall leaves were pressed between sheets of wax paper with an iron and then hung in the window. In fact, I’d thought of it several times in the last week and assumed it would probably stay just a thought since there’s grading and dishes and a dozen other more sensible things to do than iron leaves and wax paper. But . . .
Call it the kid in me, or the one-time art major who collected found objects from dumpster detritus, or the poet who rebels against the hegemony of analysis that is grading–some me in me heard the call of a yellow spade-shaped leaf and answered. One leaf in hand, it was easy to keep going. In fact, it was hard to stop, though ardently ignoring every passer-by seemed an important part of leaf picking along 10th street. After all, this is no Amherst, Mass, no Taos, New Mexico, no Portland, Oregon. This is D.C.–a place for getting things done and being somebody. What frivolity–this staring at the ground, this tarrying on the way to work, this collecting colors–colors!
Back at home a few hours later, the ironing did not go so well. I could only get one composition to stick. The internet only helped me surmise that the project had never been quite what I remembered.
Then I went for a run down to the Netherlands Carillon. I sat on the base of the tower and looked out at the Lincoln and Washington Memorials blazing white against the blue sky. And then a bald eagle flew overhead and circled and bobbed and seemed to be surfing the wind, and I thought, so someone else is enjoying some frivolity today. Then I second-guessed myself. Maybe the eagle had been struggling with the wind. Maybe it had been knocked of course. But then, doesn’t frivolity look just like that?
Recent events remind me of a text/image research project I did a million years ago: The Local Confederate Monument on the Battle Field of the Public Sphere. This was for the American Studies website at the University of Virginia, where I was a grad student. If it looks like it was created when the internet was new and I didn’t yet know how to edit, that’s because it was.
Rocket finned, red moon petaled and many mouthed,
bursts bursting bursts, begonia, your hearts and spades
and chicken feet flying saucer me. Your artichoke blood
bake sugar sprinkled tender leather paper lantern me,
pink lip and baby finger tip me, begonia.
“But these descriptions pull upon the other definition of what it is to describe a thing, i.e., to mark out or draw.”
I’m so grateful for the insights of master interdisciplinarian Carolyn Ogburn. Check out Carolyn’s review of Reading Girl on her website along with her fantastic interviews, essays, poems, and articles.
Thank goodness for deadlines, or this post wouldn’t have happened. At the same time, thank goodness for time and space. Freedom and limitations both help me be creative. As this busy time of the academic year reaches its peak, I look forward to the counterpoint of summer. After a weekend of grading final projects, I make erasures from the projects’ first pages, and balance is restored.
in this condition
we want to find an all-purpose
abundant of methods
not a review of categories
a clear understanding
in the field
qualified level staff
confronted a big human
in the cloud
in the cloud
at nanometer scale
it wildly applies
it randomly interferes
Patterns seem inherently meaningful. A pattern is like a language with its particular grammar, variations, and exceptions, a stylized combination of symbols. Fallen pine needles on a forest floor, the rhythm of a dripping faucet, the white lines and red crest of a pileated woodpecker, the striped leaves of a Dracaena are not so different from the brushstrokes of a Van Gogh painting, the knots in a rug, the chords in a song. All around are signs of syntax, rules, parameters, and principles—it’s a veritable atmosphere of intelligence. That buildings do not fly apart, that cars climb hills, that traffic lights go green yellow red through the years—are these not everyday miracles of order, stability, and silent, invisible laws in operation? Two and two will always be four and the rain will always make city streets shine and the headlights blur romantic and in certain climates conjure an earthy smell, and the humans will predictably pull out their umbrellas, those circles of segments impossible not to twirl.
Today being February 13, my teaching partner and I decided to warm up our classes of graduate international students by asking them to write questions about love. They left their names off their papers, passed their questions to us, and we read them out loud to the class. Then they got in pairs to talk about a question of their choice. We enjoyed how real and how universal these questions were. I also love the poetry of the questions’ grammatical innocence.
What is the most important thing when we love someone? What can we do our best for someone we love?
How to love a person for a long time? In other words, how to keep passion to that person for a life?
How long can love exist?
Can one fall in love with two person at the same time?
How to love a family member you really hate?
Are family love and romantic love equal?
How the family do some special things make people feel love?
Do animals feel about love like human do?
How do a person who experienced love explain what love is to a person who never have love?
If a girl love a boy first, the girl should wait for the boy fall in love with her, or tell the boy she love him directly?
How can we be sure that we really love someone?
How do you know he or she loves you?
What is love called in this world?
At the end of the activity, one of our students asked us teachers about our Valentine’s Day plans. We both admitted we would be working tomorrow night, and I found myself saying that it was really as a kid that I most enjoyed Valentine’s Day because of getting to make cards with red and pink construction paper and fancy doilies. Here’s one for everyone.
My husband was once detained at an airport—not taken into custody, but kept back from boarding. We were leaving Kyrgyzstan after a three week visit with family, returning home to the U.S. The staff at Manas Airport said something was wrong with Stas’s passport or visa—I don’t remember now—and wouldn’t let him board the plane. He had a green card at the time and a Kyrgyz passport. The airport staff insisted that I move ahead to the waiting area while they held Stas back at security. I couldn’t see Stas from where they made me sit, and I had no idea what was going on. Kyrgyzstan is a place where the police sometimes pull people over for bribes, and I didn’t know if the security staff saw a legitimate problem with the documents or just a couple of Americans.
When I got up to try to see the security area I was told to sit back down. Meanwhile, the plane was boarding. I tried to think about how to think about whether to fly or not if Stas wasn’t allowed through. How many days of work might I miss if I didn’t get on the plane? How much money would we lose on the ticket? How serious was the problem with Stas’s documents? The questions mounted while the line at the gate diminished and I began to panic. But soon Stas was allowed through—his documents had checked out after all (and without a bribe).
We flew home as planned, but this incident really shook me up. I couldn’t believe how easy it was for someone to control me and separate me from my husband. It was shocking that anyone could have that right. Not being able to explain my situation or argue a position in a local language had made me feel totally helpless while the atmosphere at Manas—at once rigid and unpredictable—had made it difficult to breathe. Encapsulated in this incident were many of the things I found challenging about being in Kyrgyzstan, from the stony authoritarianism to my language limitations. As the final episode in an at-times challenging three-week visit, this incident came to represent the trip as a whole and left me feeling awful about a place I loved.
When it came time to return to Kyrgyzstan a year later, I had to have a serious talk with myself. I couldn’t control other people—the taxi drivers who took risks I wouldn’t, the vendors in the bazaar who raised their prices for the American, the store clerks who got impatient with my Russian. And I couldn’t really stand up for myself. With my intermediate Russian language and zero Kyrgyz language, I had little ability to navigate difficult situations. The only thing I could do was take things as easily as possible and look for things to appreciate. So I tried this. Not only did I feel happier and safer, but the encounters I had with others—drivers, vendors, and clerks—were better.
I’m not suggesting this as some kind of object lesson. I’m just telling what happened to me. And none of this has anything to do with the image above except that over this cold gray weekend I was remembering Manas and drawing yellow tulips.
All month I’ve been hearing from family and friends of the arrival of Reading Girl, from California to the Carolinas. And just in time for the holidays. I’m so grateful to everyone who ordered a copy—or in some cases many copies—during the pre-sales period. You made this book possible. I’m also grateful to Finishing Line Press for making my manuscript into a beautiful book.
If you’ve read my previous post about the book cover, you know that I’d hoped to use the Matisse painting “Reading Girl” on which the title poem is based. As it turns out, I think the book got the cover it needed. A few weeks ago I took several copies to the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has the largest Matisse collection in the world. The museum shop’s book buyer was enthusiastic and quickly agreed to purchase six copies. When I asked her how she decided to take the book, she said the cover was the main factor.
Ironically, I don’t think Matisse’s painting would have been as suitable a book cover or as referential to Matisse. And while I’ve gotten some nice comments on the poems, I’ve gotten more comments on the cover. Reading Girl got the right one in spite of my plans, and I love that–a sign that this book has a life of its own.