The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni:

I think I made it clear on my first two entries on The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968-1998 that I didn’t see myself as part of her intended audience. Despite the appeal of her clean, direct lines, she seemed to spend most of her career trying to appeal to particular groups that I’m not part of. Too often she seems to have “a chip on her shoulder,” and it’s not the same chip that I have, so it’s hard to identify with them. This poem probably identifies these areas better than I ever could:

A Poem Off Center

how do poets write
so many poems
my poems get decimated
in the dishes the laundry
my sister is having another crisis
the bed has to be made
there is a blizzard on the way go to the grocery store
did you go to the cleaners
then a fuse blows
a fuse always has to blow
the women soon find themselves
talking either to babies or about them
no matter how careful we are
we end up giving tips
on the latest new improved cleaner
and the lotion that will take the smell away

if you write a political poem
you’re anti‑semitic
if you write a domestic poem
you’re foolish
if you write a happy poem
you’re unserious
if you write a love poem
you’re maudlin
of course the only real poem
to write
is the go to hell writing establishment poem
but the readers never know who
you’re talking about which brings us back
to point one

i feel i think sorry for the women
they have no place to go
it’s the same old story blacks
hear all the time
if it’s serious a white man
would do it
when it’s serious
he will
everything from writing a
to sweeping the streets
to cooking the food
as long as his family doesn’t
eat it

it’s a little off center
this life we’re leading
maybe i shouldn’t feel sorry
for myself
but the more i understand
the more i do

There’s not too much in the poem that I don’t disagree with, though I’m sure I’ve read an awful lot of “political poems” that aren’t “anti-semitic” and I suppose I’m far too ingrained in old-school poetry to identify too closely with a “go to hell writing establishment poem.” Hell, I’m probably just plain too much of what she calls the “establishment” to identify with anything in this poem.

That said, I suspect even when I disagree with much that a poet says I’m still more apt to find something that does appeal to me per hour spent reading than I am to find anything that appeals to me in the same amount of time spent watching television.

And this poem might just prove that point,


we make up our faces
for lots of reasons
to go to the movies
or some junior prom
to see ice hockey
or watch the Dodgers come home again

going to the grocery store
only requires lipstick
while a bridge game
can mean a quick trip
to the hairdresser for a touch up

i clean my make up
before going to bed
and if my mood is foul
i spray the sheets with Ultra Ban

most faces are made up
before the public is faced
whether male female or child
it’s always so appropriate
don’tcha know
to put a little mascara
around the eyes

we make up fantasies
to face life
we need to believe
we are good on the job
or at least in the bed

we make up lies
to impress people
who are making up lies
to impress us
and if either took all
the make up off
life would not be
worth living

we make up excuses
to say i’m sorry that
forgive me because
and after all didn’t i tell you

and i make up with you
because you aren’t strong
enough to reach out
to say
come home I need you

I think the last time I literally wore makeup was Halloween 1951 when I was too sick to go out trick or treating so my mom dressed me up as a housewife and let me hand out candy to trick-or-treaters who came to our door, but that doesn’t make me less able to identify with this poem. Despite believing that honesty is generally the best policy, I’ve had to play enough roles in society to understand that “makeup” is both necessary and self-defeating, and it’s important to understand the role “makeup” plays in our lives if we want to understand others, and ourself.

Gilfillan’s Rivers & Birds

Mike loaned me Rivers and Birds by Merril Gilfillan a little more than a month ago. It was a quick read; I finished it while on vacation in Santa Rosa. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to convey a sense of the book or this would have been written weeks ago. The book is a collection of 14 essays written about rivers and birds, perhaps with an emphasis on birds, so there is no common theme to all the essays. Each stands on its own.

That’s not to say they don’t also fit together; they do have common themes and the themes overlap each other. It’s just impossible to find a theme that ties the whole book together. So, I’ve chosen to focus on a theme that resonated with me and can be found in several of the essays and hopefully gives a sense of the book.

Gilfillan reveals a particular setting that is important to him while birding in one of his early essays:

Then there was another sound, and then a deerfly roared by and came around again. The high autobahn whine from the forest I slowly registered was the sound of many, many mosquitoes and their brethren. The deerflies were suddenly everywhere. I cut for the nearest edge of the woods, and there, just outside, in the shadow of young ash trees, I found a place both out of the sun and away from the insects.

It was a north‑facing edge and opened onto simple, somewhat ragged pastureland, a rolling meadow, open knee‑high grasses with a midsummer wheaten cast, here and there a patch of white asters or sweet clover, with occasional clumps of blackberry bramble and a fencerow at the far edge with elderberry bushes and sumac along it. A small herd of guernsey cattle grazed lazily; a few of them had moved into the shade of a near‑spent old apple tree. A narrow path worn by their plodding angled across and over a knoll. Another black, square woodlot hunkered a half mile to the north.

A field sparrow singing. Dusty milkweed, and the heat blanched, off‑blue sky. A landscape I had known all my life. A herdsman’s landscape, utterly different from the strict, stripped horticultural beanfield‑terra I had walked across a few minutes before. A “Constable landscape,” I suddenly called it. I was almost startled by the recognition. By both my easy, lifelong intimacy with such a scene‑my earliest solid memory is a site‑specific image of gazing, at age two, through a fence at nearby cattle (guernseys again) grazing beside a country road‑and by the remarkable antiquity of the scene, a fundamental composition going back how far? The Middle Ages?

I must have been about thirty years old at the time. I stood there a few minutes gazing, very interested, almost surprised, and almost honored by my circumstantial connection with that continuum and pastoral strain of dailiness and the daddy longlegs cleanness of its lines. The Constable association framed it, of course, gave it a genre, almost a sort of dialect. But my antecedents are all of the British Isles, so the bond is far from whimsical.

I suppose it was the first time I realized the depth, the fastness, of the landscape imprint on my own person and saw at the same time the high bucolic stratum of the cordial archetype. It was Ohio, Ohioana, but it was also a brush with a vast phylogeny, and I now assume that it explains in part my casual fondness for the Barbizon painters when I happen across them as well as my long‑standing fondness for the music of Henry Purcell.

This critical passage sent me scampering to the internet to discover what a “Constable landscape” was. When I found out I realized that though I didn’t recognize it by name I had encountered some of the pictures in both literary and art classes. Seeing the images gave me an immediate impression of what Gilfillan was talking about, though I’m still unsure what he meant by “vast phylogeny” even after looking it up. I almost began to resent the many allusions by the time I got to Barbizon and Henry Purcell, as the essay began to remind me of a T.S. Eliot Poem.

I could never imagine myself having this kind of revelation while out birding or out walking. In fact, I’ve worked hard to avoid this kind of thinking while walking, preferring to turn birding trips into forms of walking meditation, working hard to turn off the constant ramblings of my mind and focusing, instead, on what’s there.

However, this kind of setting is vital to my own appreciation of birding. I cringe a little when I read an announcement that a rare bird has been spotted at the ___ sewage plant. I have gone with birders to sewage plants to see birds but would never do so by myself. I don’t even want to pull off beside the highway to spot birds. Setting is a vital part of my birding experience, which definitely sets me off from many serious birders I know.

Gilfillan argues that this “Constable zone” is an archetype, an eternal unchanging part of who we are as human beings, but such walks also tie us to our more immediate past:

That Constable zone rides on a sempiternal level, and to sense it at all is a gift of sorts. But when I return nowadays to the eastern half of the continent it is in search of more fine-scaled connection (as the anthropologists might say) to the landscape and the affective links it holds; it is difficult enough to field and sustain relations of three and four decades ago, let alone any heat-wrinkled medieval prototypes. And for the sustenance of such fragile relations it is prudent to go back in May rather than deep summer. Temperate May with all the richness of those woodlands in flower, the month of warblers and other delicacies. “The month of understanding,” in Wallace Stevens’s words. That is the time to stroll the old streets and weigh the omnivorousness of time and the bewildering disappearance of so many good, solid things and perfectly innocent people, and that is when I go back and take to paths and trails I have known for fifty years. To batten and nourish the world as it once surely was and to keep alive familiarity with that realm, those generous broad-leaved trees and the birds of May, back there, which represent more than any other aspect the Confucian “one unchanging thing” with which to counter the ten thousand changing.

Each spring it takes a half day to acclimate, to find footing in the humid air and the intense surge and canopy of woods and brush, the humid sky with its vague clouds and many vultures, the moistness on the skin, the onslaught of bugs, the ubiquitous scent of honeysuckle. But in an hour or two the titmouse and the vireo songs take hold and restore a deep inner order and reciprocity.

Most mornings I follow a similar route through places I know the warblers will be: around the small lakes in the park just east of town, where we used to fish as boys, and along the clifftop edge of the village cemetery, where we used to swing from the high, arm-thick grapevines. Four hours of cool May morning, through trillium and cranesbill, finding the warblers always there, but the landscape is so accordingly keyed, so set within a familial magnetic field, that an entire other mentality gradually arises, images filtering in as if from the aroma of the honeysuckle, and I can be watching a blue-headed vireo and thinking simultaneously of old Hortense Jenkins in the town of forty years ago, a bent, almost hunchbacked woman with a dozen cats roaming her gray house, and her annually dreaded Christmas cookies full of short calico hairs.

For those of us old enough to remember a more rural past, wildlife — and birds are probably the form of wildlife that has best survived man’s ravages — ties us to past times but also reminds of “the omnivorousness of time and the bewildering disappearance of so many good, solid things and perfectly innocent people. Even a “city slicker” like me remembers a more rural past when Seattle was a “small city” with less than 500,000 in the city and King County had less than a million.

Gilfillan goes even further ending the next to last essay in the volume with:

Muddy creeks and ramp patches and sycamore warblers in the sycamores. Entire villages as-you-knew-them inexorably disappearing from the face of the earth. And the slightly suspect aroma of skunk cabbage down through the years.

The birds are the fine points, stabilizers, like the seas and the stars.

Like Gilfillan I see birds, particularly in wild, natural areas, as a last link with the natural world. They provide stability in a world that is changing faster than I can comprehend, taking the wilderness that I love so much with it. Perhaps that explains why I’m often more excited by an otter or deer I accidentally see while birding than I am by any of the birds I’ve seen that day. Wild animals are unfortunately much rarer than birds. (It would be totally depressing to go out in the woods on a fox hunt, since I’ve never seen one in the 40+ years I’ve hiked and backpacked.

Loose Ends

In the last few months what began as a poetry blog seems to have devolved into a photo blog, something I hope to remedy in the next few months. I have a long list of books I want to read and an even longer list of topics I feel compelled to write about.

Personally, I find reading and taking photographs much more enjoyable than writing, which probably explains why I’ve finished several works in the last few months but haven’t written anything about them.

My attitude toward writing is similar to my feelings about working out at the gym. Succinctly put, I don’t like to do either, but I feel better after I’ve done them. After I’ve missed pilates class a time or two, either because of illness or other obligations, I dread going back. I suffer through most of the class and am often sore for the rest of the day, if not longer. When I don’t go to pilates, though, I feel much worse. My back gets sore much easier, and I don’t feel nearly as strong as I do when I go to class regularly. In other words, I exercise regularly because it makes it possible for me to do things I love to do, like walk in the woods, along a beach, or hike in the mountains.

I generally procrastinate when I need to write, a sure sign of avoidance. Writing, particularly when I haven’t written for awhile, is as painful as coming back to pilates after an absence. Let’s face it, even when I think I know what I want to say, I have to go back and gather evidence to support my position. If I can’t find enough evidence to support my view, it gets even harder trying to resolve what I thought I thought with what I should think now that the evidence doesn’t support my initial assumption. Writing effectively is difficult. It’s much easier to just read what others’ have to say and accept their opinion. But if I want to own my ideas, writing almost becomes a necessity.

While reading exposes me to new ideas, I often don’t know exactly what I believe, what I think, until I’ve put it into my own words. The very process of expressing my ideas, defines those ideas, but it’s hard work even after all these years of writing. Unfortunately, I can’t imagine living my life based on second-hand ideas and beliefs.

One of the reasons I’ve continued this blog through its many manifestations is because it has made me keep thinking, and writing, just as teaching forced me to adjust my ideas to a constantly changing world. Just believing there’s someone else out there who shares my beliefs or wants to know what I think has given me the motivation to keep this blog going for eight long years, that and knowing that I might never write again if I were to abandon this blog.

The rain has settled in here in the Pacific Northwest with the first winter storm expected over the next few days. It’s a good time to get caught up on some long overdue writing, so I hope to wind up my discussion of Nikki Giovanni’s Collected Poem’s, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Merril Gilfillan’s Rivers And Birds, and various other short works, not necessarily in that order.

And if a sunny day should accidentally break up the seven days of predicted rain, I might even have a few photos.

A Fall Day at Belfair

In retrospect, it’s obvious that I squandered the only sunny day of the week yesterday when I watched the Huskies-Ducks football game. Of course, if the Huskies had won instead of being manhandled by the Ducks, I would have very different thoughts. Today was supposed to have sunshine gradually turning to rain, which is predicted to last the rest of the week. As it turned out, though, it was foggy and drizzling when we left for Belfair around 8:30.

As I’ve noted before, though, sometimes fog can work to your benefit since you can actually get closer to birds without spooking them, as we did to this Great Blue Heron that was perched on one of the bird boxes on the pond.

Heron On Birdhouse

Of course, the fog made it impossible to get shots of anything that was more than a few yards away. If you’re lucky, sometimes it actually seems to add to the shot, as in this shot of a seagull flying up the creek with trees in the background.

Gull in Fog

On the other hand, you have to depend upon closeups of the fall foliage

Fall Leaf

and birds like this Spotted Towhee

Towhee In Leaves

to provide color for your photos, that and a little Aperture and Photoshop magic to draw out what colors are there.

If you live in the Pacific Northwest you either learn to appreciate the clouds and diffused sunlight or you leave. We’re heading into several months where clouds will dominate the sky.