Even if Linda Gregg had not written many other fine poems, “Gnostics on Trial” would assure her a place among the poets who have written seriously about our moral dilemmas. Technically, it is hard to imagine a better put-together poem, its compact form packing a terrific moral & aesthetic (which the poem argues are the same) wallop. Gregg’s poem is a faultless example of the short lyric as practiced since the mid-twentieth century. And there is not much on the horizon, I think, likely to take the place of this now venerable form, or mode, of poetry. The short lyric remains essential even as new & hybrid forms proliferate around it & it seems to be holding its own, occupying the place–the evolutionary niche–formerly occupied by the sonnet.
I wrote more lines of poetry today in two sittings that I have probably written in the last decade. A long set of “cantos” is just pouring out of me, assisted by some randomizing methods of composition. I had been tearing pages out of a first-draft notebook I use to jot down anything from grocery lists to lines of poems or to-do lists. The pages are perforated to make this easy & this notebook is not intended to be an archive–when something is no longer current or relevant, I rip it out, Some of these pages had diary-like passages that I wanted to preserve, but not where they lay in the notebook. (One of my great pleasures is starting a new notebook, which may be why I have six or seven half-finished notebooks lying around.) I tore them out & stuck them in an envelope, then I remembered those surrealist games in which poems are constructed by randomly collocating lines from different sources, which in turn reminded me of my teacher Donald Justice’s experiments with “chance procedures.” I pulled the pages out of the envelope, cut them up into more or less equal strips, then shook these up & put them in three enveloped marked A, B, C.
I next opened a blank document on my laptop & began pulling strips out of each envelope in turn, transcribing & improvising freely, wadding up the strip & throwing it in the trash when I had gotten what I wanted from it, which was mostly a jog sideways into another diction or realm of discourse. I wrote for a little over two hours pretty much non-stop. I have never written this way, though when I was younger I used to write & revise three or four poems over the course of an afternoon. When I ran out of steam I had four pages of irregular three-line stanzas with enough material yet to digest to fill another page or two. Is all this talk of quantity unseemly? Could be, but I make note of it here because my writing valves have been so restricted over the last decade–never shut off completely, but often slowed to a thin trickle. As for quality, I know when I have written well & today I wrote well.
I think what prompted this outpouring today was:
- Lots more time on my hands to read & write,
- a desperate situation.
- Last night I spent an hour making some notes on poems my friend A. had sent me for comment. A. is one of my oldest poetry friends–one of my oldest friends of any sort–and though she lives on the west coast, we had renewed our friendship a couple of years ago at a meeting in Seattle. Reading & responding to her poems put me back in our old undergraduate poetry workshop’s frame of mind: Write a lot & share fiercely. I have become much less fierce in subsequent decades, but what joy to just dig into a poem to see what you find.
- A new sense of optimism about my cancer–not a miracle cure, just some new insights on how to manage it, both mentally & physically. (More about this in a subsequent post.)
My friend Amy is making grid / dot paintings I think are exquisite, the way the painted dots glow & find a relationship to other dots & to the grid. Inspired, I’ve been making these little 4″ x 4″ drawings with colored pens–a very different feel from what Amy is doing, but united in the procedure of moving from left to right & top to bottom in drawing the dots into the grid, which is made first.
The idea is to focus just on the one dot & its surrounding cell. Let everything else fade into the background. Let the results take care of themselves (since they will in any case).
Since we moved my bed to the living room, putting it next to the big window overlooking the river, I have been able to watch the moon rise each night. Several days ago when I began observing, the moon was waxing gibbous until reaching full a couple of nights ago. (Though from my point of view it looked more full last night.) I have been staying up late, patiently waiting fifty minutes longer each night for moonrise. Tonight it rose a few minutes past ten.
In any case, during this same period the leaves on the maples out back have been budding out, obscuring more & more of the sky, though not completely blocking it. When it has first come up over the river these last few nights, the moon has been the color of cream & very close.
Sometimes I can see nearly the whole disk, but a few minutes later, screened by branches & leaves, only a bright fragment or two are apparent. If I wake very late in the night or in the early morning, I can see the moon’s whole face high in the sky, clear of the maples. But then it appears distant & silvery. Cold.
In Zen the moon is usually a symbol for realization (enlightenment) & we are warned “not to mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself,” but even here we are in the realm of symbolic discourse. Realization is seeing the real, but the only way to mark this is with symbols, metaphors & narratives, the latter giving rise to the immense & immensely tricky koan literature, a substantial portion of which features the moon.1
So I have been watching the moon, seeing it only partially as it changes constantly through the watches of the night.2 While I was writing that last sentence midnight came & went, moving me into the frame of a different day. The moon has reached the densest part of the maple canopy & I can see no glint or fragment at all. There is just Mars hanging there above the southern horizon. Let the moon stand for my realization, then. Ever-shifting & moving, sometimes bright, more often obscure & when bright, distant. But there it is, come back out of the blackness of the trees.