Guy Clark Dead at 74

The NY Times obituary covers his career but fails, to my mind, to suggest the combination of verbal high wit & deep feeling evident in Clark’s best songs. When the wit failed, as it did occasionally, the songs could slip over into sentimentality, as in “The Randall Knife,” “El Coyote” & “Hemingway’s Whisky.” This happens most frequently when Clark decides to draw a moral or teach a lesson. Clark’s crowd pleaser “The Cape” should fail on these grounds, but doesn’t, saving the lesson through a self-deprecating tone & the slight distancing of a third-person point of view.

Different listeners will have their own favorites, but my nomination for Clark’s best song would be the middle-period “Dublin Blues” & the late-career “Hell Bent on a Heartache” or (from the same album, My Favorite Picture of You) “I’ll Show Me.” Finally, I’m not big on the “novelty” songs like “Homegrown Tomatoes” & “Texas Cookin’,” with the exception of “Baby Took a Limo to Memphis,” which in any case I hesitate to put in the novelty category.

Moonrise

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.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. I am only a beginning student, but I think of koan as little chunks of anti-story meant to demolish our usual narratives, like anti-matter & matter.
  2. Last night I noticed a red glint in the southern sky: Mars, another symbol.

There is No Science of Consciousness; Or, Talking Animals

What follows is either a piece of grammatical / ontological speculation, or a shaggy dog story1–probably the latter. I was reading this report of a conference on the nature of consciousness in the NY Times when it occurred to me that there can be no “science of consciousness” because science is a product of consciousness. We can & do have consciousness of science, because science is a product of consciousness–an aspect–not the other way around. Maybe it’s just a trick of grammar & cannot be generalized, but it’s a trick that reveals something important. One does not say “the science of earth” for Geology (though we might well say Earth Science, which is itself revealing); nor does one say “the science of animals” for Zoology. Should one consider nouns like geology & zoology as highly compressed forms of apposition? If so, what does that imply? And why has no one yet proposed Consciousology as a name for this new science?

Show 1 footnote

  1. Scouting around for a brief definition of the phrase shaggy dog story, I found Wikipedia straightforward but appreciated the compact irony of the Urban Dictionary: “A joke, usually long, with a silly premise, often involving talking animals.”

Afternoon Nap

A frightening sunlit lightness of the body drifting upward as slowly as a bit of milkweed fluff on currents of warm air. Then off among the light-filled clouds. My old Zen teacher once said that for a realized being there would be no difference between one breath & the next, between breath & no breath.

milkweed

 

Written on the Body?

For radiation therapy, the nurse & technician drew little targets with a pen on my abdomen & hip, then used those diagrams to write inside my body with radiation. The metaphor of writing (or, since Derrida, of inscribing) for these professional, routine physical actions feels in retrospect vitiated as well as pompous. Oh, he’s a professor—he can’t write about his treatment in plain terms. It’s not writing, then, though done with accuracy & precision. Both the pen strokes & the focusing & calibration of the photon beam.

The marker with which they drew the target left broad lines & was not cold to the touch during application. The mark, going on, felt slightly oily, not like an ordinary alcohol-based marker. Unlike the MRI, I felt nothing during the treatments themselves. (In the MRI I could actually feel warmth generated in my tissues as the magnets worked. The x-ray photons passed right through me–might as well have been neutrinos for all I could feel. But they had a noticeable effect on the tumor in the bone, shrinking it (I’m told) & thus relieving pressure & pain. My left hip is quite stiff but the back pain, especially while bending, has been reduced by ninety percent.

x-ray-production

And here is a picture of the back pain itself. I drew it while lying on my back at night with the lights out, not looking at the pen or the paper, a day or two before the radiation treatments began. Tonight, perhaps, I’ll see if I can draw a picture of how that same area of my back feels now.

 

Pain drawing
Spine & Shoulder

I’ve been doing a lot of drawing, much of it abstract, but also trying to get down the branchings of the trees I see while lying in bed & looking out the window. And just now I’m feeling my way toward the fundamental difference / similarity between drawing & writing. What I’m doing now, using a keyboard, is very obviously writing, but when I scrawl a note using a pencil (whether a line of poetry or a note when the pharmacist calls about how to take a new drug) that feels a little bit like drawing. And then of course there is drawing: I look out the window & try to capture the curve of a branch. What, then, of a drawing like the one above? Done without looking but trying to catch the phenomenon of a specific pain? And what was the nurse doing in making marks on which to line up a beam of high-energy photons? Her marks contained very precise information. Were they writing or drawing?

Finally, though we are far beyond the “picture theory” of language, even this writing done on a keyboard is a kind of drawing. I want you to see what I can barely see myself–for us to picture things together, with picture being a highly transitive & collaborative verb.

Boyhood Weather

I was nodding off just now (see previous post) when I was awakened by a low rumble of thunder. Yesterday we had sunshine & mild air in South Colton, today rain. This rainy weather puts me in mind of certain mornings from my boyhood. My family lived in Santa Cruz, California, which one ordinarily associates with sunshine & surfing, but which I recall as green & foggy, with redwoods & live oaks. My family lived six or seven miles inland, in foothills. I liked the rain, it made things quiet. Or it made the long, labored silences of my mother & father (& myself) seem natural. A crashing psychological silence muffled by the wholly natural silence of the weather. My family’s silences sometimes found voice in shouts & smashed household objects; the weather too, in winter storms, would howl & break the furniture of the woods. My bedroom was in the tower, which gave me a 300 degree panorama of the weather.

Santa Cruz house
The house where I watched the rain when I was a child.

As this sickness I have has become real to me, I have found myself recalling odd images from my boyhood. Not surprising, I suppose. The mind seeks comfort. But my boyhood was not particularly comforting, so that’s not exactly right. It’s more subtle. Even when I was very young I managed to find a way to create mitigating spots of safety. Most of these had to do with the natural–that is, the non-human–world. I was reminded of this the other day when I came across one of the few books I have managed to keep with me since childhood.

This book possesses a talismanic status for me. It must have been given to me when I was five or six years old, long before the text, elegantly written for a smart twelve-year-old, would have been fully available to me. But there was so much information folded into the paintings & charts, that I could spend hours shifting between staring out my bedroom windows & flipping through the pages of the large, satisfyingly heavy book. At a time when some of the uglier parts of the Bible were being driven into my consciousness, this Golden Treasury became an alternative sacred text.

And I could then put the book down, go downstairs & outside the big house pictured above. Walking toward the trees at the bottom of the photograph, I could go down into a ravine cut by Branceforte Creek & wander for hours, though to be truthful, the woods, raw nature, usually produced a kind of anxiety that would send me back to the house (with its own anxieties) & to my books & rock collections & (a little later) my weather instruments. My relation to these things was always more alchemical than scientific, more poetic than analytical. Poetry is always more about the weather than whatever might be happening underneath the weather.

On the cusp of retirement I had already been looking forward to returning to some of my armchair naturalist activities & with this illness I find myself drawn back to the pleasure I take in the weather, the woods & the words used to describe & evoke them. Poetry, to which I have not always been so faithful, has remained faithful to me & now I humbly return to it.