Welcome to our Poetry Slow Down, KRXA 504AM, Think for Yourself Radio, produced by Sara Hughes, I’m your host Professor Barbara Mossberg, all because of the life of Senator William Fulbright: How is it that in going away, from all we know, we learn what we really do know; how experiencing ourselves as strange and foreign, learning that we who are know it alls–that’s why we got to go, after all–, don’t know it all, at all, and become both worldly in our newfound humbling experience of awkwardness, of being alive, and new to ourselves, in Tennyson’s words, open to the world as a bringer of new things? The Fulbright program’s purpose is to give scholars and leaders the opportunity to go to another country and be ourselves there; in the process, of sharing our being, what we know and do, we change, we transform, or rather, perhaps, we become our truer selves, in Eliot’s words, returning home to know the place for the first time. When the familiar suddenly is unfamiliar, that is when we see what It is the transforming magic of going away, of being fish out of water—they say if you want to know about water don’t ask a fish, yet who better to ask—than the creature who lives its life, feeds and needs and breeds in water—but the fish doesn’t even know water exists, waterty, waterness, until we take it out of water, THEN, then, it can tell us all about water and what it means to be a fish, so we, in going away, experiencing ourselves as other, learning about one’s strange and perhaps more interesting self, humbler certainly, unsettled, out of water, our
complacent assumptions about how things are, return from being away a changed person, aspects of ourselves revealed, and we have a new vision. What did Eliot say? In Four Quartets, we return only to know the place for the first time. It is our eyes that have changed, not the place. Now the purpose of the Fulbright program, in Senator Fulbright’s vision, had lofty and pragmatic goals: that for the cost of one third of one wing of one bomber, we could deploy foibled but well-meaning professors around the world in educational exchanges that would lead to a world peace that would eliminate the need for bombers in the first place. Well, for me, the chance to go abroad and be in Helsinki, Finland, for one year, and then ten years later, for another Fulbright, was momentous: it was a changed life, poetry terrain (Rilke: you must change your life)–poetry about Fulbright experiences, literally like Maya Angelou or metaphorically, such as T.S. Eliot—and yes this is his time of year, April, the cruelest month, why it’s National Poetry Month, and Thoreau, Gertrude Stein, and Robert Frost, the whole canon of American literature surely, and British literature, and we can think of Fulbright-type exchanges of e.e. cummings and Mark Twain and Einstein—yes, he is a poet, e=mc2, his elegant metaphor of the oneness of all things, besides, he spent more time advocating for poetry than physics—and Charles Wright, and fellow Finland Fulbrighter Robert Creeley, and Linda Gregg, Wendell Berry, and Emerson, and of course Emily Dickinson, but Dr. B—with all respect—duly noted—thank you—but Emily did not leave her room, right, she secluded herself in that upstairs bedroom, ah, yes, Poetry Slow Down, of course you are right, but did not she say,
I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.
Now how could this be? Her poetry actually expresses insights about life that come from going away and seeing our world—through her books, her dictionaries, her atlases—that light up her world, illuminate it, as when she called their Main Street domestic scene, Vesuvius at home, Vesuvius erupting, so we’ll hear from her, and Emerson, and in fact, let’s start with him, because he said, traveling is a fool’s paradise, and so maybe he means if we travel we’re fools, although maybe if we’re fools, and we travel, we’ll get to paradise, although maybe we don’t know we’re fools, yet, until we travel, and then we discover we are fools, in paradise, that’s who gets there, those who travel in some way, and that is the theme that will get us off and away today, I will share with you my own experience, a journey that has taken me to you today—how good is that? And so perfect for APRIL FOOLS!!!!
It was as a Fulbrighter in Finland that out of the blue I had a vision of John Muir in a Finnish sauna at the summer lake home of the Director of the Fulbright program, and a poem came to me, in Muir’s words that I did not even remember reading, I didn’t even know until that point that I was interested in or knew about John Muir—my experience in Finland served him up to me, naked and steaming—him, well, me too—both of us; I know, it’s shocking, Dr. B!—it IS a pretty racy poem, and it’s the reason I’m here today in our wavy community, our buoyancy of minds across time and space, but you know it was all on the up and up, Muir would not look twice at me unless I was covered with bark, well. . . I’ll read it to you—
John Muir Takes a Sauna with the Finnish Ladies of Kuopio
Who has lain on Finland’s boulders doubts that rocks are breasts,
Have hearts beating within?
The pink warm glossy boulders on Finland, its luxuriant flesh,
Pink largess glorious speckled
Pink flesh glistening
Oh God of largeness, moose or granite, in Finland you know it.
White wispy steam rises from the lakes, from the cloudberry bogs,
From the ladies, from the fire, from boulder shoulders,
This is prehistoric, dinosaurs are going to appear any minute.
Knees up, treed, on a ledge in the dark log cabin, flesh all about,
The wiry lean Scot is huge with ecstasy,
He is tickled pink, he is a deep deep pink.
Flesh all about, fresh flesh smoking, steaming, quivering, baking,
Sighing and heaving like an earth amaking.
At first he’s making mental notes to build a sauna himself
For his place off the Ahwahnee meadow by the Merced,
A glacial place where the dinosaurs also rubbed their backs and left glistening scales.
Then he is distracted, thinking of creation and glory.
The large ladies surround him, and he is heating up.
His blood will burst.
Now, to the lake, a pink parade, they leap.
Not heart-stopping cold as the Merced, but as gold, gold under the surface.
And then the silver light of the storm coming up over the trees fiercely,
The purple prose of the thunder as he climbs white now out of black water,
Following the ladies he thinks of the expression, to be moved,
Of the expression, it was a moving experience,
He thinks of how trees do it, not just the limbs and the leaves,
Which anyone can see, and which he knows because he visits trees
And stays overnight, too overcome to leave,
But the trunks, he knows they step carefully and magically as elephants.
He is naked, wet and streaming, the wind is fresh with him,
Trembling, he enters the dark steaming hut smell of birch and smoke,
And in the half light, the pink flesh, the pink shoulders of giants
Steam and stream and glisten and run,
Volcano, glacial run-off, he remembers how the earth was made, all molten, melting,
How he would cling to these rocks, nest in their ledges, cling, cling,
Oh pink listening earth inside, oh tremendous, tremendous,
Now for the first time he sits thinking of himself without bark.
He is born by the pink goddess ladies of Kuopio who carry him,
Lay him on the dock, he thinks he is clinging to a rock,
He thinks it is alive, he lets go and is flying,
Trees dance and rocks breathe, space is alive
As any river, he thinks he is a pink rock warmed by sun,
He has lost track of who is alive and what moves and what isn’t alive
And what doesn’t move what has bark and what has limbs and what has heart
But he knows that nothing is always there
So that must mean everything moves, something must move it,
He thinks of what or who moves us.
He is so little, but he is so ecstatic, his vision of glory is huge as El Capitan.
Floating and cascading through the air, heart fall.
He throws himself over the edge, onto the pink rocks rolling and grasping
The soft moss, sweet lichens in the cracks,
Murmuring and rolling his eyes.
The ladies of Kuopio look on and approve.
This man has gotten it right.
c Barbara Mossberg 1991
Muir coming to me like that, like some angel, was invoked by being in Finland, lecturing and thinking about American experience through the lens of the Finnish people and landscape, leading to my realizing I had to be a scholar of John Muir and the way he expressed something core in my being that emerged, whole and live and steaming, an understanding and commitment to the ecological cultural history and the role of poetry in preserving and restoring a nation’s soul; my Fulbright experience led to ways to serve education from a passionate perch, including as president of Goddard College in Vermont and on stage at City College of New York with Kofi Annan and Jonathan Schell, both my heroes, on what kind of education the world needs now, and I was speaking on “this is what is required, the case for poetry and science in one glorious fusion,” which led to the John Muir International conference imagining his words saving the Hetch Hetchy Valley and the defense of trees and wilderness, which in turn led to being professor at California State University Monterey Bay and directing and teaching in a program that integrates the disciplines and I saw John Muir as an exemplar of someone who fuses poetry and botany and geology and politics, and one of our students, Shannon Foster Sullivan, told another professor, Dr. Armando Arias, about my work on behalf of conscience and wilderness and I was asked to be on the KRXA show Tomorrow Matters with Deborah Lindsay, and in the course of the interview I was asked if I had a poem on John Muir, and I said yes I do, and I read this poem and when I came out of the studio the KRXA 540AM team, Hal Ginsberg and Larry Wrathall, said, we have to have poetry on our station, and in those moments, our Poetry Slow Down, a weekly hour program of “the news we need—‘without which men die miserably every day’”—quoting William Carlos Williams ending of To Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, was born! That was four years ago! And that is all because Senator Fulbright was born and of the Fulbright program: it was being in another country, another geography and climate 7000 miles away, another language, another culture, another way of seeing, that invoked in my own geology some bedrock knowledge—what the poet Tom Healy, who, coincidentally, is president of the Fulbright Board of Scholars, calls in one poem, “what the right hand knows.” So I ask again:
How is it that in going away, from all we know, we learn what we really do know; how experiencing ourselves as strange and foreign, learning that we who are know it alls–that’s why we got to go, after all–, don’t know it all, at all, and become both worldly in our newfound humbling experience of awkwardness, of being alive, and new to ourselves, in Tennyson’s words, open to the world as a bringer of new things? The Fulbright program’s purpose is to give scholars and leaders the opportunity to go to another country and be ourselves there; in the process, of sharing our being, what we know and do, we change, we transform, or rather, perhaps, we become our truer selves, in Eliot’s words, returning home to know the place for the first time. It is the transforming magic of going away, of being fish out of water—they say if you want to know about water don’t ask a fish, yet who better to ask—than the creature who lives its life, feeds and needs and breeds in water—but the fish doesn’t even know water exists, waterty, waterness, until we take it out of water, THEN, then, it can tell us all about water and what it means to be a fish, so we, in going away, experiencing ourselves as other, learning about one’s strange and perhaps more interesting self, humbler certainly, unsettled, out of water, our complacent assumptions about how things are, return from being away a changed person, aspects of ourselves revealed, and we have a new vision.
What did Eliot say again? In Four Quartets: We return only to know the place for the first time. It is our eyes that have changed, not the place. Now the purpose of the Fulbright program, in Senator Fulbright’s vision, had lofty and pragmatic goals: that for the cost of one third of one wing of one bomber, we could deploy foibled but well-meaning professors around the world in educational exchanges that would lead to a world peace that would eliminate the need for bombers in the first place. In fact he said that if President Johnson had had a Fulbright he never would have carried out the Vietnam War. The theory is that he would have known the people of Bangkok—in other words, a compassion out of that metaphoric ability to see another as oneself, the Mayan saying, “you are my other me.” Poetry is a way of saving the world and perhaps lives and let’s have at it. Poetry is a way of travel, of Possibility, of imagination, and sometimes but perhaps always a mindset of defeat, when one seeks words to define an experience. But there’s peace with that.
THE PHYSICS OF PURPLE
“Kiss the joy as it flies, and you will live in eternity’s sunrise”—Joyce Cary, The Horse’s Mouth, Gulley Jimson paraphrasing William Blake
I. The Physics of Purple
In Finnish, there is no word for purple.
You say blue-and-red and if you want to be specific
You say sinipunaninen.
Dark blue-and-red or light blue-and-red.
What does this mean? No word, no word for purple?
No one is so poor.
What kind of life does not need purple?
I try to imagine purple as unnecessary to say.
Is this blue-and-red business the sloppiness of despair,
The renunciation of what is withheld,
The shyness of the dazzled,
The terrible respect of indirection?
A discipline so severe I am chastened.
I contemplate a self-enforced deprivation,
A self-denial, sacrifice for economy,
A frugality, an efficiency.
I behold a premium on the value of words,
Such a respect for primacy,
To forego the luxury of a word for every color.
Words are hoarded,
Each one has a weighty job, is built for insulation, defense,
There are no slackers, no idlers,
No princess and the pea frailty to be indulged.
Each word can sleep on rocks, and each can carry water,
Shoulder tree trunks, lift and pour the earth.
The plain strong colors for sky and blood,
Sea and tulip are enough, now, aren’t they?
Up here words do not come easily.
Conserve scarce resources, make them last,
Make them shine in use, season after season,
And why waste energy on a superfluous word
When two old ones will do?
Perhaps blue-and-red is a doubling up against the hostile elements,
Voice against ice, the chill of silence in between the syllables.
Should there be a word for purple? Are there visions that need no name?
When I was cold in California my mother would say don’t say it’s cold,
Put on a sweater. Why not see a color and say, put on a sweater?
So you don’t use up heat.
The motherly logic of no word for purple.
But there are fifty words for light, the extravagance of nuance,
Or the precision necessary for survival in a land where false steps, false words
Across the icy expanses are fatal? Light must matter.
Kimallella. The translation is not glitter but glitter-and-glitter,
Perhaps in the same way that blue-and-red infers the physics of purple,
The doubleness of it, the sequentialness of perception,
The depth of interplay,
The warrantlessness of moment.
Maybe it’s the and,
–How a thing moves in time.
If two move fast enough together their motion becomes a color all its own.
Color as episode: blue-and-red isn’t purple:
It’s the truth about purple.
Purple is a process, something alive;
In blue-and-red purple exists in amber,
As it was. We see it over time,
We mouth a mating.
To say blue-and-red is to look at cake and see flour and eggs.
Blue-and-red is x-ray vision,
It sees through purple to what it is,
Our smiling skeleton beneath our cheeks.
Take a blue crayon and a red crayon,
And wave them around. Purple is blur.
Finnish slows it down, freezes it mid-air,
Purple in its raw form, the yolk and white
Before they’re cracked and scrambled,
The embryo still live, its two colors intact.
II. The Silverness of Things Not Silver
All I know is that in the sunlight,
Everything transcends itself,
Mundane things sparkle,
The seedy blue-and-red jam
Is a blinding shine.
The water glass becomes foil,
Perfectly ordinary things pulsate,
Glitter and glitter.
The silverness of things not silver:
Or is it that in the sunlight
Everything is what it really is,
Precious metal compounds?
I stare at the sea below, light’s tile floor.
Dropped, it bounces. Light’s kitchen,
Glitter chopped for salad on the blue counter,
Silver sliced for seasonings
Still quivering after the cut
Like the eel severed pieces hopping,
Light still alive twitching on the blue
Here, here, and here.
III. The Exegesis of Surface
I don’t know. Am I boring
Going on and on about this light,
Trying to get it right?
But always using the same words?
And yet what I see,
The glittering, the glistening, the gleaming,
The shimmering, the shining, the glowing,
It keeps going on, the ing words
The gloss and glaze keep applying
From one moment to the next.
It isn’t a steady beam.
It is a beaming, again,
Now, still, a steady twinkling,
A silver silver silver against blue and black.
I keep seeing it, the glitter and glitter.
And you can write it down,
You can say “glitter” or “glitter and glitter”
But even after you have said it
It still is glittering,
It still is breaking up in your heart
Like water breaking on rocks all spray
And you haven’t captured it at all.
IV. Confessions of a Magpie
Not that I want the shine to stop,
Captured here in a line.
It’s the on-offness,
The scatter of it.
More like the magpie stalking shine,
Swooping it off for my nest.
It’s not theft of the picnicker’s spoon,
It’s not taking what isn’t mine,
What I see in the edges of clouds, tips of seas,
Centers of puddles, angles of glass,
Rims of plates, hollows of rocks and streets–
–It’s grasping shine again again
Over and over because
Even as I look it’s still there, and I still want it
In these lines. I still want the shine, the glitter
The glitter and glitter in these lines.
I look at the blinding Helsinki sea backlit black and white:
Finland’s puddles hold suns whole.
Sudden spoon—this is Magpie terrain.
Magpie, rapturous with capture,
Trying to make off with the horizon
And everything in between–
Words of light carried away,
Dropped from my mouth
Like bird drops prey too heavy to carry.
Not that this spoon’s too heavy,
Abandoned by giant or god—No—I–
I wrestle something too light to capture.
The sun has nestled in my hair,
Sun is dive-bombing my skull.
But it bounces off my mind.
Once again, defeated by the Finnish landscape
When I try to describe it in words,
The words for light and what it does,
How it goes on being its self: they don’t reflect back the light,
They aren’t spoons, a stroke of luck catching the light like so much soup
Of sixty-one stars bounded by rocks, chopped bread
Sliced by glacier knives buttered slick with rain crust of pebbles,
Moss and ferns, and in the cracks
Tiny color strokes of grass a stalk at a time . . .
VI. The Poet As Big Game Hunter
Once again the razzle dazzle light works, the sea and light crinkling foil
–I want it here in these lines like fireflies in the hand.
Camped out, resolute by my tent in Africa,
I sit here staring: a river of light, a current, a riffle,
Ridges, wrinkles, none of these metaphors work,
None capture light alive, it cannot live in words.
So I give up, stop squinting to concentrate,
Freeze-dry the energy of glitter and glitter.
I have failed my instruction in light.
VII. Purple Prose
In English we say purple prose.
By that we mean words that gush, squishy with superfluousness,
Pudgy with passion, overwrought, carrying on,
Going on and on, the adjectives loaded up,
Heavy, heavy lines, sagging in the middle, overcome.
As opposed to—poetry? Distinguished from prose,
A focus on each word, a forest with the leaf in focus—
Simplicity— striking features—the bold touch:
Is there such a thing as purple poetry?
Or is that an oxymoron?
Can purple poetry fairly reflect a non-purple approach to language
And experience, the blue-and-red mindset?
Ah, magpie—pirate of light—how this landscape undoes you,
The ecstasy and madness caused by a terrain which glitters and glitters—
What does it mean to scan a landscape of spoons for fifty dozen picnickers,
More spoons than you ever can hoist—do you just keep flying,
Or do you sustain that irresistible urge to swoop shine?
Never, never mind. I’ll go into the surface myself,
Break it apart,scatter it into pieces—Oh, I know I will freeze!
But with the broken water shine, glisten, shake with light
Like salmon scales flashing, I will be the magpie’s foil,
The shine waylaying the helplessly drawn magpie.
I will be silverware and these lines will drop from my mouth
Like the squirming fish hoisted in flight.
Like light falling from millions of miles away
But still alive,
These shards of star’s flames,
Words, heart breaks.
Not these shattered pieces of light
I thought I caught,
Could swoop and gulp,
Words not of light
But of wanting light,
All words after all are,
The heart pounding heartbreaking flight,
To catch and hold what flies or glows,
To keep it alive,
The shine intact:
The make the glitter glitter and glitter.
The very number of words for light—
Their very number tells us all,
The hopelessness of it,
How one, fifty, none
Each is a trap
Set out for light,
To keep it in reserve.
Glitter and purple,
two ways of seeing what can’t be expressed.
These words, then, are of the words
Of struggle and defeat.
They become what you capture,
Cannot be captured,
And you are left forlorn and foolish,
With on the empty trap you set
And your need,
Your wish to take it home and
Have it forever,
Your belief that this is what can make your nest.
So I leave,
With the wish intact,
And these words,
Empty traps, because –
I have let it go, alive,
Whatever I could say about earth’s light,
And thus always to be there for me,
Outside and beyond these lines,
Outside the range of voice.
But the irony is that it is in feeling like a stranger in a strange land that we become, in Thoreau’s sense of the word, awake, alive, noticing things, like when we’re lost, how we look at everything, but as soon as we know where we’re going we forget to look—being lost is the way to discover what’s there, and when we are struggling to understand—in Eliot’s eyes, and he took himself on his own Fulbright, going from Missouri and Boston to England, along with Ezra Pound and Robert Frost and so many others, “we had the experience but missed the meaning.” So one takes to a pen to try to express it, the meaning of the experience . . . it’s when the familiar becomes unfamiliar, that poetry lights the way . . . and we become not accidental tourists, as Ann Tyler wrote—but as Thoreau wrote, I went to the woods to live deliberately—Walden was his Fulbright! And is not Kabir the perfect voice of the meaning of the Fulbright program, inducing humility and conviction when we shed our assumptions and invite the Guest in and discover the Guest to be ourselves, and to share . . . . When we get away from our known world, we begin to live deliberately, and we seek our knowledge in poetry. When we come back after our break, we’ll hear poetry that expresses the Fulbright experience, we’re celebrating Senator Fulbright’s birthday this week, April 9, and we’re travelling fools, on the Poetry Slow Down, KRXA 540AM, I’m Professor Barbara Mossberg, and we’ll return, only to know the place for the first time . . .thank you for listening . . . and being part of this worldly community, this cognoscenti of poetry that you are, dwelling in Possibility.
© Barbara Mossberg 2013