On "Mammatus" - The Me And Not-Me of Poetry
Don't believe everything you read and everything I write is not about me. There is the "Me and Not-Me" of Poetry to consider. That capitalization is specific, as Poetry, The Muse to me, always seems to have a mind of her own. I am not in control. Whatever control I do possess as a writer of the written and spoken word is an illusion.
But as my granma always said, "Where there's a will there's a way."
I've been engaging in more exercises in my old age. (that's a joke!) That is, I've been forcing myself to write for the occasion, whatever it is, and in bursts of zen magic -- and years of practice. As the great cellist, Pablo Casals once said, "When I miss three days of practice my audience notices, when I miss two days of practice my teacher notices, and when I miss one day of practice I notice." Or something like that. For me, I have to put the Play back into the playing. Like any heart relationship I have to keep renewing the vows, blowing on the spark, inserting my key into the ignition and letting out the clutch.
How many ways are there to love?
That's how many ways there are to write it.
I was struck by the clouds. I am a lifelong cloud watcher, guilty now because I no longer watch every sunset as I did in my youth. That's the kind of love, not exactly the word "dedication", that you need in order to write Poetry. You see the one you love because you have to, because nothing else fits in the landscape of Now as much as the Beloved: whatever, whomever that may be. You listen because you love. You don't just notice, you See a face, un rostro.
I begin with what I See first: those entrails of the universe so plainly in view. Then I ask: Is there some new way to say/ See this? What is it? Rope. Twisted strands of light and dark wool, the knitting stuff of the sky. Then I brainstorm for some way to open, some voice that starts talking back to me. I do what I often suggest in workshop, a way to, what I call, "kick out the scaffolding" by collapsing the language so that it doesn't take me three whole (precious) lines to compare a leaf stalk to to the veins in my hand, for example (and as Robert Bly said in a little book every poet should have, if you can find it, Leaping Poetry. "Gut - Rope" which sounds weird so it becomes a strange new verb instead "gut-roped." This sky, so rare and intimate, seems to ask for a rare and intimate voice, so it becomes a declarative:
Gut roped in the sky
Now, I've made a commitment. A choice. Poetry is all about choice and is the dance with infinite choice. This poem, an occasional poem, was written on the occasion of a challenge to write about these clouds, this picture.
And, to do it soon. Right now. Walk this path, here. So it requires another step. And when in doubt go with love. Why not? So I do:
you and I, an anomaly
Back to the light and dark strands which sounds like "strains" to the Muse. And I already know this, that this sky is an anomaly; I was told this from the challenge, I read it as the caption to the photo: a rare occurrence. "Go with what you know" may be another way to take another step in a poem:
a rarer occurrence. (...)
Now I research. "Know the names of things" as my poetry teacher, my "Guru", Robert Hass used to say. I click the links to mammatus clouds and read up on them. I go back to strands, not wanting to loose the hint of wool (as opposed to the slaughter of the lamb) in this poem -- I want somebody to see the same wool yarn as some potential in the poem/ sky as they see the bloody entrails, too. And sometimes, you can't just come out and state it, you have to, as Machado after Socrates said: you have to build the road as you traverse the terrain. Another thing my "poetry guru" said much later in his career was that he always made sure he had "at least one and a half poetic ideas per line" and I try to do it in a way I think is the most basic in Poetry: in a way that is interesting, at least to me:
(...) You kick
the wind up to wind the threads.
I'm thinking of a spinning wheel, the kind with a pedal (treadle?) you kick to cause it to spin while you hold and ever so lightly pull the long train of yarn flowing from its spindle; also, at the same time, thinking of a baby's kick inside the mother as these clouds also look exactly like ropes of umbilical cords -- and this also becomes a poem with a gender, at least in my mind at this point: it's a poem from a woman's point of view, with a woman's entrails, there, laid bare in the sky for all to see; that intimacy. Now it begins to take a subject/ matter:
Your light, a burgeoning there
That distinction of you has a gender: male, an intimate male. Even the word choice: burgeoning (I had to look this up in my old tattered copy of Websters Dictionary after I chose it, the same dictionary I've been using to write Poetry since I was 11 years old; my Muse knows words that I don't and I've learned to trust her) suggests something swelling and male to me -- as well as that will to take over (sometimes) and it's this last parenthetical that concerns me now in this poem about a cloud. How to make it specific in order to get at those "minute particulars" of William Blake's notice? I think of my troubled best friend, the talk we had the night before, the many same talks we've been having in the past handfull of years she has been with a man who is abusive in a way that is scary. My love, my concern, my worry for her -- and my need to understand her choices, her choice. So now I have a subject:
among the dark filters.
What I don't know. What I cannot know. This is the stuff of poetry, the weave of light and dark, the known, the intimate and the unknown, the ineffable, the unknowable, that which resists knowing. This is interesting. It becomes interesting to me. Now I need to look closer, into and through those "minute particulars" -- what else can I See in this image? Clay squeezed through a fist (the known) and the unknown unknowable, how we (sometimes) make our own private hell:
Twisted fist of my making,
Now I have made another choice, to forge the intimacy I see in this picture of sky, this exact moment captured in digital detail, I have to make it from my sight, my experience, even though it is so outside of my life's experience: I take on the poetic persona, the Me and Not-Me of Poetry -- and I go with what I know, now a specific man; he has a name I will never tell you:
you, some squeezing finger,
a trigger of hair sensitive
to what is not there. (...)
Ezra Pound once wrote in the ABCs of Reading that Poetry has three ways to charge language:
phanopoeia: the presentation of experience via imagery, by taking one image then laying another on top of it so that the layering alters or extends the first
melopoeia: the presentation of experience via sound-sense
logopoeia: the presentation of experience via taking a given set of words and laying another given set of words on top of it so that it alters or extends the meaning, and, most interestingly, subverts the original meaning or otherwise startles the reader into a new way of conceiving ideas: the presentation of experience via the construction of concepts
I find this an enormously helpful way to consider one's work, particularly at the time one is writing -- and, infinitely liberating. I like this idea because it is what I had already come to as a poet and so it made perfect sense to me. And not the creation of poetic texts based upon "schools of poetry" or thought or a particular style (culture) or concern (history). Poetry, I believe often plays among all three of these ways of doing. Sometimes.
So, here, I reread what I've written. I have phanopoeia: the poem begins, comes out of the imagery. I have begun a logopoetic process, I have a subject-matter (mater) and a given set of words: "light and dark" with its various connotations as well as stereotypes (mater to subvert) and suggestions from the actual phenomena of areas of cold and hot, much as this particular man and relationship has been described. Now, I want to pluck some strings of sound: I let the sound-sense lead me to where I might want to go, the melopoeia of it, in order to create another layer of knowing. And, rhyme being easiest, I go for my "at least one and a half poetic ideas per line":
to what is not there. Where
and back to phanopoeia, like crocheting or knitting where in order to hold it all together you have to remember to catch a thread every once in a while, I refer back to the squeezed clay image and the specifics: a man choking his loved one:
are your hands in this gripping
of the neck? (...)
and repeat for melopoeia"
(...) Where (...)
Where? Where what? More brainstorming, all silent in my head rather than the page. I go with what I know: that abusive men and this man has been described as being "very charming":
(...) your charm?
Now I've got fairy tales coming into the poem. It's like chess, you have to anticipate the moves of your opponent and in this infinite spacetime of Poetry I always choose to spin as many connotations of the same word in the same poem as possible because that's what "real life" feels like to me, especially contrary (ironic) contradictory ones.
Your cauldron? Ominous in appearance,
Haha! I've just turned her boyfriend into the Wicked Witch of the West! I like this. It keeps me interested in the poem. Now more specifics to earn that pleasure:
your frown, the tornado
of your furrowed brow. (...)
Back to what I know. (logopoeia) Specifically, the tip-toeing around an angry unpredictable person one has to do in order to even begin to love him or her. I try to keep my judgment out of the poem in honor of the unknowable. "Just state the facts, mam (how do you spell that?) Here's where I have to open my own purse and see what's inside. Do I know what that's like? Unfortunately, I know. Briefly but not less traumatically. A man I once wrote some lines for in a long poem about this very subject. The main image was of the physics (thermodynamics?) of a tornado which I wrote while waiting for one to hit late one night. I finished the poem over a series of nights and the poem spanned several near-relationships at varying stages, exploring this same subject matter but more from the point of view of "How is it even possible?" And thinking, that like the science that declares a Tornado Watch, it's all voodoo anyway -- no one knows. He might hit. he might not. It might whip into a category 5 hurricane or it might whimper out into nothing more than a watering rain:
(...) I wait
and then back to phanopoeia, the primary image, tying it back to the logopoetic: the aftermath of a violent act:
for your aftermath
like an afterbirth, a thick subsiding.
Real blood clotting. Real acts that can never be revoked, just rationalized, explained in a way that is always false in light of the actual act; i.e., more science, con-science:
The sinking air, whisper of crystal—
pouchlike love, a yearning back down
to the earth. (...)
I needed to get the word "pouch" in the poem, somewhere. The classically descriptive term for this kind of sky, and phenomena, the catching of freezing air by the warm "pouches" of current; as well as back to the specifics of this kind of co-dependency:
(...) I hold you here, suspended
in rain, (...)
Now, it seems important to me to attempt to describe this rain, what kind of rain? Back to minute particulars. When in doubt, go with elements and our way of perceiving them: my brainstorming at this point covers the senses until I hit on what that rain might sound like: descending voices (advice falling on deaf ears?)
(...) the descending choir, (...)
And I also want to get in the word "anvil" as this is also the characteristic form of this massive formation:
(...) the anvil (...)
Anvil what? I don't want to just leave it hanging (pun intended) I want to extend the connotations -- also, "anvil" next to "choir" sounds like/ looks like "angel" to me: the light and dark, the angel face/ the devil. I like this, keeps me interested. Now I want to keep the melopoeia going as well as go back to my original impetus for the subject matter: "strands" and "strains" like how I imagne it is to live for many years in a relationship that's constantly straining the strands. I'm delighted to find such an appropriate rhyme for rain:
(...) And, I am lost to you
I like how this all goes on one line, like an abusive lover's excuses as they all come tumbling out at once:
in rain, the descending choir, the anvil
I like it because "anvil" suggests to me the thing that always ends up falling back down on Wiley Coyote's head, like rain, in the cartoon with the Roadrunner. Now I want something serious to counter this light, but intended, flash of image. I also want something appropriately abrupt, abrupt in the way I want my friend to end her relationship, and the line to be like the truth that is revealed in the revealing of this intimate relationship:
strain. And, I am lost to you
Back to the facts. Science. Seeking that reason to Seeing that is the pot of treasure at the poem's end -- as I am sensing that I am getting to the end truth of the poem:
on the underside, still holding
As I am nearing my end, some finish line coming into view on the horizon, I make sure I have included my original list of "what does this look like?", searching my purse for correspondences and options. The poem makes me sad: I want things to work out for my friend. She wants to nest with this man. I want to make sure, now, at the end of the poem, that my logopoeia is complete, that I have caught another thread in the telling weave -- I decide to use an abstract word, that is, a word for a condition and a chancy, sentimental word: passion. I am struck by my friend's passion, a passion, I feel, towards self-destruction:
this woven nest of warm passion
Another thing I always advise in workshop: Beginnings and endings are crucial. Like tying off the woven Navajo rug, that making sure against unraveling. Sometimes.
He leaves her hanging. She ought to leave him.
Like this sky, harmless: but a rare occurrence. This fizzling out of the tornado when all of the conditions are there for destruction.
So, all this to say: No! This is not a poem about me or my love life, or my loved one. It's a poem written entirely outside of my experience, which, like life, is an illusion anyway -- the illusion that we are ever apart in the first place.
To begin to See how all is us and we are a part of all is the first step to Poetry, becoming aware of and learning how to shape the Me and Not-Me of Poetry, that act of catching our becoming in the moment we beheld and became.