American Athenaeum’s Colossus is Out!

In this issue, you’ll find poetry, short fiction, nonfiction stories and essays from around the world and across time. From Li Po and Mary Wollstonecraft  to new writers taking memory, cat sanctuaries, Woodstock, aging, pacifism, connections and tensions with nature, urban life, and more as their subjects, I think there’s something in it for everyone. One reviewer of the issue has kindly and aptly referred to it as “a kaleidoscope into our own humanity.” Three of my poems are also included in the issue.

Both e-book and print versions are available, so you can have it just as you like it. I also recommend checking out our Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign page. We’d appreciate it if you donate — and you’ll receive a little something from us in return — or even if you just spread the word about us. Thanks!

Officially a Woman Writing Nature

It’s here! The Sugar Mule “Women Writing Nature” issue containing my first published poems has been made public. Download the PDF here. (My poems are located on pages 323 and 324.)

I’m thrilled and honored to be included in the (long) list of truly wonderful writers and poets published in the issue and to have found a momentary niche in a community of sensitive, intelligent, perceptive women. Together, we observe and discuss the natural world and our places in it — the bonds we human animals make with other animals and the impact of not only ourselves on the land but also the land’s impact on us. It’s a symbiotic relationship we have with the earth, for all our sins against and struggles with it. The pieces included in this issue reflect the various, idiosyncratic experiences we have in a world that is both brazen and subtle, wild and tame, wonderful and bitter(sweet), strange and common — sometimes all at once.

Check it out. I’d love to know what you think.

Animal Images and the Image as Animal: Tricia Cline’s Exiles in Lower Utopia

Exile of the Deer, Tricia Cline. Porcelain. 2008.

I recently stumbled upon Tricia Cline’s porcelain sculptures (thank you, art pinners on Pinterest!). Her work has a quality that I tend to (mostly subconsciously) seek out and appreciate in all art forms — an otherworldliness, often lovely, but a little strange, unsettling, maybe creepy, though not in any particularly obvious way. Which is, incidentally, how many of my stories have been described. I guess it’s my thing. Anyway, I went to her website and became even more fascinated by her work after reading the artist’s statement for her most recent series of sculptures, Exiles in Lower Utopia. It’s beautifully worded, so instead of paraphrasing, I’m providing it below in its entirety:

This body of work is an ode to the Animal, its ability to perceive, and our return to that perception. An animal is its very form. Its function is its form. A dog runs at full speed, a distinct scent or sound alters its direction. The legs, the nose, the ears of the dog are its function, its bliss. When an animal recognizes another animal it reads with an instinctual eye the character in the form- the essential nature in the form before it. Its text is not a concept about what it’s looking at but a full-bodied response to the shape, smell, movement, and stance of the image in front of it. The language of animals is the language of images. An image is not an idea with a defined meaning, it is itself an animal. 

This is the ode–to reconnect with our own animal perception is to clarify and heighten our perception of who and what we are in the moment… to go beyond the limited mental concepts of who we think we are… to an awareness of oneself that is infinitely more vast. The Exiles migrate between the human world and the animal world and carry this awareness on their backs. They are the silent embodiment of this Quest. They understand the language of animals and are self-appointed ambassadors from that world. They are firmly seated, in the language of animals, the language of imagery. They have succeeded by virtue of being.

The key points for me are: 1) to read something by its image is not necessarily to limit because “an image is not an idea with a defined meaning, it is itself an animal,” and 2) reconnecting with our animal selves is a task that, rather than taking us backward, moves us forward into a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. By understanding an image (that is, one’s perception of a thing) as an animal itself — something complex, evasive and in constant movement — on its own terms, rather than trying to define and redefine it through static statements that ultimately fall short, we come closer to seeing things as they truly are. In this way, Cline’s Exiles function as envoys and icons to remind us of our secret, truer selves whose virtues are merely being and seeing.

Literature has its place on this path as well, in spite of its form being limited to words (which is what makes writing so difficult — it’s the least sensual medium of all). As with other art forms, the key to creating truthful literature is to create images, and to do this, one must avoid making direct statements about things. We have to beat around the bush, to talk around a subject — not to evade, but to more clearly illustrate the ineffable. Creating literature — stories, poetry, essays, plays — is not about making some single, absolute declaration; it’s about creating, out of nothing, those image-animals that breathe on their own, that have layers of secrets and truths. It is to create something that allows others to create their own image-animals.

Flannery O’Connor said in her speech-turned-essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”: “It’s always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks” because the truth of the clerk is best communicated by literal details like his wearing list slippers than any abstract and frankly stated “grand ideas and bristling emotions”  that a writer might thrust on him. We humans are sensual creatures, just like the other animals around us, and in spite of our impressive ability to think abstractly, we still (and have always and will always) respond most strongly to that which we perceive through our senses. And so it is through complex, free and living images liberated from vain abstractions (e.g. “bad,” “ugly,” “moral,” “beautiful”) that we perceive truth. Our labor is to see things as they are — in all their complexity — and then hold our tongues, rather than whittle them down to concrete, abstract terms.

You can view more of Cline’s images on her website (linked above). And you’re welcome to share your thoughts on her work (and my words) below.

Compassion and a Stevens Poem

My husband and I recently had a discussion/debate with a friend of ours who, on the subject of legislating compassion (or, more specifically, legislating in the name of compassion), pretty much said that without all of our elevated, civilized, moral compassion, we’d be “nothing more than animals.” While I’m a big proponent of compassion, I don’t think our morals necessarily make us more compassionate, and I think that there’s often as much compassion in non-action as there is in action, which is to say that sometimes not doing something is more compassionate and beneficial than blindly forging ahead (although, really, the best route is to combine the two with careful discernment).

I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to try to be more like animals, to get in touch with our animal sides. After all, animals aren’t the ones destroying our environment and each other on a species-wide level; they aren’t the ones enslaving each other (except for the slavemaker ants, of course); they aren’t afflicted by the overwhelming greed and viciousness that plagues humanity. If animals are greedy, it’s on a limited, usually reasonable level; if they are violent, it’s for survival — not spite. Animals are the innocent ones. And, really, whether we want to admit it or not, we are animals — complex, astoundingly creative animals, but still animals. I’m not saying that humanity is the lowest of the low in terms of animal virtues, but I do think it’s pompous to assume we’re that much more morally elevated above the rest of the natural world just because we can build complex tools and think in terms of the imaginary and intangible. I think art, which is arguably a uniquely human construct (although it depends on how you define art and whether or not the female bowerbird’s appreciation of her male’s bower can be considered artistic appreciation), is great; I think technology can be great. But I also think that what makes (human) art great is that it expresses and seeks to explore our deepest animal impulses; the best art gets us in touch with our animal selves and analyzes it, rather than denying it. And technology is really just a complex result of our basic animal survival instincts.

I think compassion is the greatest and most necessary quality a person could have, but I don’t like “morals” because they’re prescribed. It’s cold legislation rather than natural compassion, which comes from an organic and personal impulse. Compassion is simple and small and daily — not some elevated, authorized virtue. In its purest form, as in the animal world, compassion is unconscious and exhibited on an animal-to-animal basis. And while not all animals are compassionate in the way we define it, they’re not uncompassionate, either. As I’ve said above, they don’t hate; they aren’t (with few possible exceptions) unnecessarily cruel.

Anyway, the discussion reminded me of a Wallace Stevens poem I love:

“Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit”

If there must be a god in the house, must be,
Saying things in the rooms and on the stair,

Let him move as the sunlight moves on the floor,
Or moonlight, silently, as Plato’s ghost

Or Aristotle’s skeleton. Let him hang out
His stars on the wall. He must dwell quietly.

He must be incapable of speaking, closed,
As those are: as light, for all its motion, is;

As color, even the closest to us, is;
As shapes, though they portend us, are.

It is the human that is the alien,
The human that has no cousin in the moon.

It is the human that demands his speech
From beasts or from the incommunicable mass.

If there must be a god in the house, let him be one
That will not hear us when we speak: a coolness,

A vermillioned nothingness, any stick of the mass
Of which we are too distantly a part.

The only thing I would add to Stevens’ argument is that we aren’t naturally alien — we’ve made ourselves so — and that we can get back to that wholeness and freedom of being as long as we’re willing to loosen the noose of our morals, let wordlessness stand in for language (not forever and always, but more so than it does) and forget our pompous attitudes about our own superiority. If we can let ourselves be smaller, more quiet and basic, we’ll be closer to and more a part of that unlimited god that Stevens describes.

But I don’t harbor any illusions about doing away with law, society and technology and living like squirrels or bears. As our friend correctly said during our conversation, “The change has happened. We can’t go back.” I just think that we’d more benefit ourselves and the rest of the world if we tried to emulate the plant and animal life around us a little more, rather than trying (in vain) to conquer nature both beyond and within ourselves. I think we’d all be better-off without legislating and politicizing compassion — that is, deciding in black-and-white terms who is deserving of understanding and compassion and who isn’t and using that to justify political action. Because if we select an object for compassion, we’re necessarily denying compassion to something else. If we bring compassion down from the moral pedestal, stopped flinging it at other people like a weapon, and considered it on a personal, daily level (asking ourselves if we’re being indiscriminately compassionate enough and how we can be more compassionate, especially to the people whom we feel least deserve it), then the world really would be a better place. It’ll build on its own, but we have to build from the bottom, beginning with ourselves.

I think I should also say that my friend, if he were to read this, might not actually disagree with me. Sometimes when the three of us (myself, my husband and our friend) sit in a car together for too long, we start to disagree for the sake of disagreement — either because we’re playing the devil’s advocate and testing each others’ convictions or because we just want to get the other’s goat — which is how the whole compassion-and-animals discussion began in the first place. But it makes for a good blog post, I think.

Feel free to leave your comments below!

The Quotable Henderson

I recently finished Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. I’d been meaning to read it for years, but haven’t had the time. So, after graduation, this was the first book I picked up. It came at a great time, as I’ve long been thinking about the relationship between the body and the soul and the need, as Henderson says, for a “shot in the arm from animal nature.” Here are some quotes that grabbed me:

“They say the air is the final home of the soul.”

“Yes, travel is advisable. And believe me, the world is a mind. Travel is mental travel.”

“Yes, yes, yes. The world of facts is real, all right, and not to be altered. The physical is all there, and it belongs to science. But then there is the noumenal department, and there we create and create and create. As we tread our overanxious ways, we think we know what is real.”

King Dahfu: “They say…that bad can easily be spectacular, has dash or bravado and impresses the mind quicker than good. Oh, that is a mistake in my opinion. Perhaps of common good it is true. Many, many nice people. Oh yes. Their will tells them to perform good, and they do. How ordinary! Mere arithmetic. ‘I have left undone the etceteras I should have done, and done the etceteras I ought not to have.’ This does not even amount to a life. Oh, how sordid it is to book-keep. My whole view is opposite or contrary, that good cannot be labor or conflict. When it is high and great, it is too superior. Oh, Mr. Henderson, it is far more spectacular. It is associated with inspiration, and not conflict, for where a man conflicts there he will fall, and if taking the sword also perishes by the sword. A dull will produces a very dull good, of no interest. Where a fellow draws a battle line there he is apt to be found, dead, a testimonial of the great strength of effort, and only effort.”

“And though I’m no expert I guess [King Dahfu is] thinking of mankind as a whole, which is tired of itself and needs a shot in the arm from animal nature.”

King Dahfu: “The career of our specie…is evidence that one imagination after another grows literal. Not dreams. Not mere dreams. I say not mere dreams because they have a way of growing actual. At school in Malindi I read all of Bulfinch. And I say not mere dream. No. Birds flew, harpies flew, angels flew, Daedalus and son flew. And see here, it is no longer dreaming and story, for literally there is flying. You flew here, into Africa. All human accomplishment has this same origin, identically. Imagination is a force of nature. Is this not enough to make a person full of ecstasy? Imagination, imagination, imagination! It converts to actual. It sustains, it alters, it redeems! …What Homo sapiens imagines, he may slowly convert himself to.”

[In a letter to his wife, Lily] “‘However, the geniuses love common life a great deal.’ …By genius I mean somebody like Plato or Einstein. Light itself was all Einstein needed. What could be more common?

“[King Dahfu] tells me I should move from the states that I myself make into the states which are of themselves.”

Thoughts? Share below.