Ode to John Keats

JohnKeats1819_hires“My imagination is a Monastery, and I am its Monk” – John Keats (1795-1821) to Percy Shelley

Even in our devastated and technologically enslaved world, the deep romanticism of autumn cannot be denied.  It is good to think about and celebrate the life of John Keats, who was born October 31 and died at age twenty-five.  Keats life was tragic. His father died when Keats was only eight.  His mother remarried disastrously, lost her fortune, abandoned her family, returned, and passed away of tuberculosis when Keats was fifteen.  Keats nursed both his mother and his brother Tom throughout the terrible illness of which Keats himself would die.  He abandoned a medical career, lived in poverty, and his work was reviled by the critics of the day.  But the mundanely tragic was transfigured and heightened by the flames of genius and romantic love into some of the greatest writing ever penned.

In nature and in art that which is fragile, delicate, complex and temporal may also be the most sublime. RoseGarden4

As I walk the streets of Portland, with its old Victorian houses, many of which are evocative of Keats (places where Keats lived, such as Wentworth Place and Hempstead Heath would not be out of place here), through the pearl-gray dawn and the rose-gold twilight, along gardens thick with purple asters, golden light streaming through red maple and oak, pine cones and acorns crushing underfoot as the last blooms of autumn glow with heightened color through the mist and rain, the warm sumptuous days growing ever more stunted, Keats and his poetry come to life, infusing the city with their presence.

10.5.13.purpleasters    DreamHouse

Selected Letters

Keats letters, though he often complained about the time it took to manage them (much as we complain about e-mail volume today), stand as a literary compendium in their own right and form a rich autobiography that is humorous, joyful and exquisitely intelligent. It is doubtful any modern e-mail correspondence could ever take their place.

“What astonishes me more than any thing is the tone, the coloring, the slate, the stone, the moss, the rock-weeds; or, if I may say so, the intellect, the countenance of such places.  The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance.  I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever, for the abstract endeavor of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand matrials, by the finest spirits, and put into ethereal existence for the relish of one’s fellows.” – page 167, Letter to Tom Keats, 25-27, June 25-27, 1818, John Keats, Selected Letters, Penguin Classics.

The artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that peaked 1800 to 1850 was in part a rebuttal to the Industrial Revolution, which one could argue was the beginning of the end for life on Earth. Today intense emotion is shunned and science is king – our emotional life is consumed by fears of terrorism, climate change, social anxiety, and fear of nature. Romanticism celebrated a love of solitude and contemplation and decried population growth, the dark side of urbanism, and industrialism. Individualists and artists were heroes and imagination was considered a freedom from critical authority. Ultimately Romanticism was eroded by Realism and the spread of nationalism.

EPromAutumn10.18.14

“As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort of which, if I am any thing, I m a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself – it has no self – it is every thing and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.  What shocks the virtuous philosoper, delights the calemion Poet.  It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation.  A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body – The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet has none; no identify – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures.”

autumn3hinckleyWhile Romantic love is deemed by modern psychology as a toxin that poisons relationships by giving rise to unhealthy attachments, it continues to permeate our world. And in fact it stands as testimony to something eternal and necessary to the human psyche. What would Keats’ life have been without Franny Brawne?  Has there ever been anything more beautiful, fragile, or romantic than their relationship?  He often said the depth of his love was killing him, but it also gave him life.

“Sweetest Fanny,

You fear, sometimes, I do not love you as much as you wish?  My dear Girl I love you ever and ever and without reserve.  The more I have known you the more have I lov’d.  In every way – even my jealousies have been agonies of Love, in the hottest fit I ever had I would have died for you.  I have vex’d you too much.  But for Love!  Can I help it?  You are always new.  The last of your kisses was ever the sweetest; the last smile the brightest; the last movement the gracefullest.  When you pass’d my window home yesterday, I was fill’d with as much admiration as if I had then seen you for the first time.  You uttered a half complaint once that I only lov’d your Beauty.  Have I nothing else then to live in you but that?  Do not I see a heart naturally furnish’d with wings imprison itself with me?  No ill prospect has been able to turn your thoughts a moment from me.” — To Franny Brawne, March, 1820

FMFall13“Upon my soul I have loved you to the extreme, I wish you could know the Tenderness with which I continually brood over your different aspects of countenance, action and dress.  I see you come down in the morning:  I see you meet me at the Window – I see the pleasant clue I live in a sort of happy misery. . .” — To Franny Brawne, June, 1820

“The persuasion that I shall see her no more will kill me.  I cannot q——- My dear Brown, I should have had her when I was in health, and I should have remained well.  I can bear to die – I cannot bear to leave her.  Oh, God! God! God!  Every thing I have in my trunks that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.  The silk lining she put in my travelling cap scalds my head.  My imagination is horribly vivid about her – I see her – I hear her.  There is nothing in the world of sufficient interest to divert me from her a moment.  This was the case when I was in England; I cannot recollect, without shuddering, the time that I was prisoner at Hunt’s, and used to keep my eyes fixed on Hampstead all day.  Then there was a good hope of seeing her again – Now! – O that I could be buried near where she lives!  I am afraid to write to her – the receive a letter from her – to see her hand writing would break my heart – even to hear of her any how, to see her name written would be more than I can bear.  My dear Brown, what am I to do?” – To Charles Brown, November 1-2, 1820

Autumn FlowersBut the Romantics weren’t all doom and gloom.  Bright Star, the astonishing film by Jane Campion about Keats and Fanny Brawne, is itself a metaphor for the Romantic Age, which, like it or not, has infiltrated Western culture. The film’s melancholia may seem morbid, but it is pierced with exquisite moments, illuminated by an essential “truth and beauty.” And that is the point.


A Thing Of Beauty (Endymion) 

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its lovliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkn’d ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid-forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

— John Keats

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The Universe in Three Lines

PinkGhostFlowers

I wrote my first haiku in Sixth Grade and have been an aficionado ever since. Haiku has been referred to as a “restrained mirror of the universe,” and its jewel-like quality – that essence of a shard that reverberates to encompass the entire world – is stunning in its highly compressed brevity. Therein lies the challenge of haiku.

English haiku has been somewhat crippled by the early attempts to mimic Japanese haiku, which included the erroneous idea that the 5:7:5 formula of five syllables, seven syllables and five syllables, needed to be employed, and that the first and third lines had to rhyme, in order to mimic the rhythms of Japanese haiku. However, Japanese use “onji” or “sound symbols,” which refer to phonetic characters that do not actually correlate with English syllables. The 5:7:5 formula is an easy template to follow, but it does not represent the true art of haiku. Great poems have been written in this manner, but they seem hobbled in comparison with the Japanese masters.

A structure of two beats/three beats/two beats, with a break after the second or fifth beat (to mimic the grammatical pause or “cutting word”/kireji found in Japan, yields a poem that is truer to the traditional haiku form. The Japanese typically use a kigo, or “season word” as well.

In “Learn From the Pine,” the master haiku artist Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), wrote, “Learn about pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo. Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old poets, seek what they sought. The basis of art is change in the universe. What’s still has changeless form. . . Make the universe your companion. . . The secret of poetry lies in treading the middle path between the reality and the vacuity of the world. . . When you are composing a verse, let there not be a hair’s breadth separating your mind from what you write. . . Poetry is a fireplace in summer or a fan in winter. . . The bones of haikai are plainness and oddness. . . Eat vegetable soup rather than duck stew.”

In a great haiku an implosion of music, image and meaning creates that state of “no mind,” the “reason of unreason,” that echoes the Zen moment of awakening. Translation is difficult. Even scholarly translations may fall far short of the original intent of the poem. I’ve read many haiku that didn’t impress me, only to find that in a different translation, the same poem blew my socks off. Oddly enough, one of the best haiku anthologies I’ve come across is a thin paperback volume published by Dover, titled The Classic Tradition of Haiku, edited by Faubion Bowers. It contains a survey of original Japanese poems, extensive footnotes, and a variety of translators (and, on occasion, different translations of the same poem.)

The writer Richard Wright discovered haiku during the last 18 months of his life, proceeding to write over 4,000 of them. For Wright, haiku were “self-developed antidotes against illness” that allowed him to further his art in spite of diminishing health and stamina. His poems suffer from the 5-7-5 curse, which makes them stilted, and at times he seems to be over-striving to mimic the Japanese masters, yet there are some amazing poems interspersed in this incredible body of work.

Here are some examples of what I consider to be “gems” of the haiku world:

Iio Sōgi (1421-1502)

mono goto ni                                 everything that was
oi wa kokoro no                     has vanished from my aged heart
ato mo nashi                                   leaving not a trace

Arakida Moritake (1472-1549)

asagao ni                                           My span of years
kyō wa miyuran                    Today appears
waga yo kana                                    A morning-glory’s hour.

Anonymous (1600’s)

tsunu mo oshi                                   I regret picking
tsumano mo oshiki                                  and not picking
sumire kana                                       violets

Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693)

tai wa hana                            Villages may lack
wa minu sato mo ari                Sea bream or flowers
kyō no tsuki                           but they all have tonight’s moon

Yamaguchi Sodō (1642-1716)

yado no haru                                In my hut this spring,
nani mo naki                                 There is nothing –
nani mo are                                   There is everything!

Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)

It’s not like anything
they compare it to –
the summer moon.

Spring!
a nameless hill
in the haze.

furuike ya                                       old pond. . .
kawaza tobikumu                        a frog leaps in
mizu no oto                                   water’s sound*

Or is this better?                                    Th’old pond – a frog jumps in. Kerplunk!

yagate shinu                                 Nothing in the voice
keshiki wa miezu                              Of the cicada intimates
semi no koe                                  How soon it must die**

natsukusa ya                                The summer grass
tsuwamonodomo ga                       Is all that’s left
yume no ato                                 Of ancient warriors’ dreams

tsuki sumu ya                              The moon is clear –
kitsune kowagaru                             I escort a lovely boy
chigo no tomo                            frightened by a fox

hamaguri no                               A clam
futami ni wakare                           separates lid
yukuaki zo                                               from flesh as autumn departs

The sea darkening –
the wild duck’s call
is faintly white

The jars of octopus
brief dreams
under the summer moon.

petal by petal
yellow mountain roses fall –
sound of the rapids

More than ever I want to see
the god’s face
in these blossoms at dawn

year after year
on the monkey’s face
a monkey’s mask

*This is quite possibly the most renowned haiku in the world. An entire book has been devoted to its variations and meanings. It exemplifies the height of satori and “eternity in tranquility.”

**I disliked the translation that went with this (“It gives no sign/that it knows its death is near/the cicada’s cry”) and recalled this translation, which made a deep impression on me when I read it during my teens, used in the J.D. Salinger story “Teddy” in the collection, Nine Stories.

Kasugi Isshō (1652-1688)

mi tsukushita                           My eyes, which had seen all, come back,
me wa shiragiku ni                 Back to the white chrysanthemums.
modori keri

Takarai Kikaku (1661-1707)

kojiki kana                                There goes a beggar
tenchi no kitaru                             Wearing heaven and earth
natsu goromo                          As summer clothes

Uejima Onitsura (1661-1738)

gaikotsu no                               Oh! flower-gazers, who have decked
ue o yosotē                               the surface of their skeletons!
hanani kana

Tachibana Hokushi (1665-1718)

kaite mitari                            I write, I look, I erase
keshitari hate wa                     And in the end
keshi no hana                       A poppy of erasure***

*** Hokushi’s death-bed poem.

Ogawa Shūskiki (1669-1725)

mishi yume no                        Even after waking
samete mo iro no                  From the dream
kakitsubata                              I’ll see the colors of irises

Kaga no Chiyo (1703-1775)****

koe nakuba                               but for their voices
sagi ushinawanui                   the herons would disappear –
kesa no yuki                             the morning’s snow

wakakusa ya                            green grass –
kinema kirema ni                  between, between the blades
mizu no iro                              the color of water

tsukubcte                                 squatting
kumo o ukagau                      the frog observes
kaeru kana                              the clouds

akebono no                             dawn’s separation
wakare wa motanu               unknown
hiina kana                                to dolls

**** Chiyo was a popular haiku poet, a married woman who later became a nun.

Yosa Buson (1716-1784)

nusabito no                            a thief
yane ni kieyuku                   vanishes over the rooftops —
yosamu kana                         night chill!

furuike no                               In an old pond a frog ages while leaves fall.
kawazu oiyuku
ochiba kana

among twenty snowy mountains
the only moving thing
was the eye of the blackbird

blow of an ax,
pine scent,
the winter woods

in the summer rain
the path
has disappeared

bats flitting here and there;
the woman across the street
glances this way

Lighting one candle
with another candle –
spring evening.

Before the white chrysanthemum
the scissors hesitate
a moment.

The lights are going out
in the doll shops –
spring rain.

Kobayashi Issa (1762-1826)*****

aki no ya ya                          autumn night. . .
tabi no otoko no                a traveling man’s
harishigoto                          needlework

utsukushiki                          gorgeous kite
tako agarikeri                     rising above
kojiki goya                           a beggar’s hut

mata mudi ni                      Once more in vain the stepchild bird opens its beak.
kuchi asku tori no
mamako kana

shi ni jitaku                         Being born the lowest of the low, I view cherries at night.
itaseitase to
sakura kana

shi ni jitaku                        Get ready, get ready to die, the cherries say.
itaseitase to
sakura kana

tsuyu no yaw a                The world of dew
tsuyu no yo nagara              is the world of dew, and yet
sari nagara                        And yet. . .

In spring rain
a pretty girl
yawning

Naked
on a naked horse
in pouring rain!

writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art

what’s said of snowmen
doesn’t last any longer
than the snowmen

let’s ride
on the duckweed flowers
to a cloud over there

the sold horse
looks back at his mother. . .
autumn rain

never forget:
we walk on hell,
gazing at flowers

the distant mountains
are reflected in the eye
of the dragonfly

*****Issa is my favorite haiku poet. His earthy, compassionate poems are the most beautiful in the world.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)

harusame ya                          spring rain
kasa sashite miru                 browsing under my umbrella
ezōshiya                                  at the picture-book store

WhiteIrisichihatsu no                          this lone iris
ichirin shirōshi                    white
haru no kune                         in spring twilight

yuki furu yo                         snow’s falling!
shōji no ana o                       I see it through a hole
mite areba                             in the shutter. . .

jōbutso ya                              Buddha-death:
yūgao nokao                         the moonflower’s face
hechima noke                       the snake gourd’s fart

Richard Wright (1908-1960)

A cathedral bell
Dimming the river water
In the autumn dusk.

In a drizzling rain,
In a flower shop’s doorway,
A girl sells herself.

Leaving the doctor,
the whole world looks different
This autumn morning.

BluePine

A night of spring stars:
Waves breaking beyond the wall
Have a dark blue sound.

The blue of this sky
Sounds so loud that it can be heard
Only with our eyes.

A freezing morning:
As sharp as an aching tooth,
A long icicle.

A spring sky so clear
That you feel you are seeing
Into tomorrow

How lonely it is:
A winter world full of rain,
Rain raining on rain.

The neighing horses
Are causing echoing neighs
In neighboring barns.

Of generations
Comes this wild red rose to me,
As I come to it.

In the summer haze:
Behind magnolias,
Faint sheets of lightning.

I had long felt that
Those sprawling black railroad tracks
Would bring down this snow.

Factory whistles
Bring flurries of fat snow
In a winter dawn.

Over spring mountains
A star ends the paragraph
Of a thunderstorm.

The sudden thunder
Startles the magnolias
To a deeper white.

The lighted toy shop
Seen through a frozen window
Is another world.

This well-thumbed novel
Was the tale she loved best –
Fields of autumn rain.

Beyond a sea wall,
An occasional wave flings
Foam at the autumn sky.

I saw the dead man
Impatiently brush away
The flies from his mouth.

Spring snow melting,
But under the dark hedges
Are patches of white.

The ocean in June:
Inhaling and exhaling,
But never speaking.

Golden afternoon:
Tree leaves are visiting me
In their yellow clothes.

With nervous pleasure,
The tulips are receiving
A spring rain at dusk.

Annie Seikonia

I have been writing my own haiku for over forty years. Even now, I find myself tinkering with haiku I wrote decades ago. Sometimes I fantasize about starting a Kickstarter campaign through which I would ask subscribers to pay $100 a year in exchange for haiku-a-day emailed to them for 365 days. Three hundred subscribers, and I could almost quit my day job.  Then I could become a full-time haiku master!  In any case, here are some of my own recent haiku:

sleeping
I would have missed
this nautilus dawn

three gray squirrels
early Sunday morning —
autumn’s trapeze

rainy Friday night
rooms festooned
with heavy wet laundry

invisible in white
blossoms: the cardinal’s
red song

blue cold gold
bee green
spring throne

a theater of blossoms
unfolds in the opera
of spring rain

white blossoms
on a cold spring night –
solitude

white blossoms
cold black sky
fugitive galaxy

rain at dusk
the dogwood trees
in blossom on the trail

finally home
a pocket of rose petals
recalls the ocean rain

after the summer rain
a crow walking
through mirrors

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Photographs by Annie Seikonia

Beautiful Ruins

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These photographs were inspired by the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi. Although I wouldn’t say they necessarily fulfill that particular ideal, they are glimpses of the beauty that surrounds us within ruin, glimpses of the ravishing processes of time that we so often fail to notice.

“Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness. Wabi-sabi is ambivalent about separating beauty from non-beauty or ugliness. The beauty of wabi-sabi is in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly. Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.”
Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers

“Wabi sabi is not a style defined by superficial appearance. It is an aesthetic ideal, a quiet and sensitive state of mind, attainable by learning to see the invisible, paring away what is unnecessary, and knowing where to stop.”
Wabi Sabi – Tim Wong, Ph.D. & Akiko Hirano, Ph.D., “Learning to See the Invisible”

January

Night Storm

bone dark                         dark lesson
vertical lesson                           tree psyche
iron anvil                                                     quilling ring
grey flock                    wet sodium
lattice ring                                    sleet flock
bee sleet                   bee sky
mattress sky                                   frozen nest
frozen dusk           spiral arcade
quilling nest                                                 bone snow
wet silhouette                   hatchet rain
stone psyche                              ice mattress
white festoon                                      vertical burial
rain tree                 anvil why
skeletal melt                               iron shadow
sodium shadow                                        grey lattice
ice hatchet                    dusk rapture
snow burial                              lamp festoon
lamp arcade              silhouette melt
spiral rapture                                         stone quiet
why quiet                         skeletal white

poem & photograph by Annie Seikonia, 2013

The Chemistry of Tears

The Canard Digérateur, or Digesting Duck, by Jacques de Vaucanson, 1739

The “Canard Digérateur,” or Digesting Duck, by Jacques de Vaucanson, 1739

I recently read Peter Carey’s latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears. What drew my attention was the automaton at the heart of the story. Automatons, puppets, magicians and dolls fascinate me, as they have the fiction writer Stephen Millhauser, who has devoted a great deal of prose to them (the movie The Illusionist is based on one of his stories). A few years ago, I read Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life by British journalist Gaby Wood. It is a cultural account of the history of robotics, from ingenious inventions to outlandish hoaxes, including observations on film and cinema and a talking doll invented by Edison. It also goes a bit off-topic in its chronicle of the Doll Family, a group of circus midgets (or living dolls) who toured in a circus and appeared in The Wizard of Oz. The popularity of the fantasy life of hobbits comes to mind as well.

The German poet Heinrich von Kleist wrote eloquently about the poignancy of artifice in his famous essay “About Marionettes”:

“ ‘ We have seen that in proportion as reflection dims and weakens in the organic world the more radiant and commanding grace emerges. As the line which intersects another will continue through infinity only to find itself back before its starting point, on the other side of the line intersected, and the concave mirror after casting an image through infinity suddenly displays it immediately before us, just so knowledge must traverse an infinity before grace reappears. And for this reason grace is greatest in those whose bodies are totally devoid of self-consciousness or where it is infinite, that is, in the mannequin or the god.’ ”

Rainer Maria Rilke was famously disquieted by dolls. (“Are we not strange creatures to let ourselves go and indeed to place our earliest affections where they remain hopeless?”) For Baudelaire, toys were pathways to imagination and art.

In Carey’s braided novel, the heroine Catherine Gehrig, an horologist at the Swinburne museum in England, is tasked with restoring a 19th century duck (which winds up becoming a swan) that was originally commissioned by a wealthy Englishman named Henry Brandling, who travels to Germany in search of an artisan who can reconstruct the original plan invented by M. Vaucanson (such a duck by such a personage actually existed). The duck is meant as a gift for his consumptive son. Brandling magically believes the project will ensure his son’s mortality. The narrative is braided between Catherine’s raging grief over the death of her long-time married lover, a fellow conservator at the museum, and colorful excerpts from Brandling’s journals. The name Brandling sumptuously evokes “candling” and “brandy,” a name perfect for a patron who sets in motion (animates) an exploration into the mysterious territories of life, love and illusion.

It is thrilling novel; sadly the descriptions of the relationship between Catherine and her recently deceased love, Matthew, a coupling that runs like an artery through the narrative, ring false, and is the novel’s greatest flaw. The 13-year tryst is meant to evoke the heights of passion, a once-in-a-lifetime, soul-mate bonding. Unfortunately, the cloying renderings of this great love sound adolescent at best. Perhaps such Edenic renderings are meant to express how love is another kind of illusion, but in this context they sound hopelessly naïve and sadly unrealistic, somewhat dulling the power of the story.

Still, the tale compelled me. There is something both sacrilegious and riveting about the animation of inanimate objects, the melding of art, science and craftsmanship reflected in clocks, puppets and automatons, not to mention computers and robots. This theme is echoed in The Chemistry of Tears, with its occasional hints of the dark side of inventive genius – the internal combustion engine, for example, which has meant liberation of one kind, destruction of another. The book is framed against the backdrop of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (“an ‘accident’ that seemed the end of history itself.’ ”). A lesser but notable exegesis can be made of the ways in which bureaucracies are infiltrated by personal emotions and agendas.

An aside, excerpted from Norbert Weiner’s Cybernetics, published in 1948: “At every stage of technique…the ability of the artificer to produce a working simulacrum of a living organism has always intrigued people. This desire to produce and study automata has always been expressed in the living technique of the age. In the days of magic, we have the bizarre and sinister concept of the Golem, that figure of clay into which the rabbi of Prague breathed life with the blasphemy of the Ineffable Name of God. In the time of Newton, the automaton becomes the clockwork music box, with the little effigies pirouetting stiffly on top. In the nineteenth century, the automaton is a glorified heat engine, burning some combustible fuel instead of the glycogen of the human muscles. Finally, the present automaton opens doors by means of photocells, (see intelligent building) or points guns to the place at which a radar beam picks up an airplane, or computes the solution of a differential equation.” Weinder is widely regarded as the originator of cybernetics:

Back to the novel. Cat’s assistant, Amanda, is brilliant, and somewhat insane (or is she?), as a result of dabbling in these confluences of science, magic and technology. “Lucifer is very beautiful,” she observes. Add an obsessive 19th century genius named Sumper and a child-prodigy named Carl (who may or may not be Karl Benz, the German engineer who invented the world’s first practical automobile), and you have a rousing tale combined with a philosophical meditation on the nature of the universe:

“I saw below me lakes and seas on the surface of which I beheld living beings which I cannot properly describe. They had systems for locomotion similar to those of the sea horse. They moved from place to place by six extremely thin membranes, which they used as wings.”

“You are wholly unable to associate what you see with what your life has taught you.”

And best of all: “Those beings who are before you now, who appear to you almost as imperfect as the lowly zoophytes, have a sphere of sensibility and intellect far superior to the inhabitants of this earth.”

“. . . there were mechanisms beyond human knowledge. . . systems we could never know, worlds we had seen and forgotten. If animals possessed senses of a different nature from our own, how would we know? Those creatures, despised by us, might have sources of information we cannot dream exist.”

Modern instruments of technology such as the Mac, the thumb drive, digital photography, MP3 files, and a “Frankenpod” are contrasted with the riveting of seven hundred pieces of metal into five chains that animate the swan. The final motto (of the commission, the restoration, and the novel itself), inscribed in Latin on the swan’s silver beak, is, fittingly, “Illud aspicis non vides: You cannot see what you see.” How does technology improve or impair us? What have we sacrificed to achieve it? It is timely to read and write of these things, especially given the recent viral obsession with the latest end-of-the-world prophesy. The truth is that the world begins and ends every day. Therein lies our tragedy, and our hope.

Automaton Writing a Letter in the Swiss Museum CIMA (Centre International de la Mécanique d'Art)

“Automaton Writing a Letter,” Swiss Museum CIMA (Centre International de la Mécanique d’Art), 

Everything Is a Mirror

Organic Fractal by Sven Geier

Organic, an original fractal by Sven Geier

Everything Is a Mirror was the title of the “Night Owl” adult workshop I attended this week at the Telling Room. Subtitled “Nonfiction and the Art of Interpretation,” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Instructor Jaed Coffin turned out to be a great teacher, full of energy and ideas. Although the workshop was targeted to memoir and nonfiction, most of the ideas were applicable to fiction as well, and since I am interested in essay writing, criticism and journalism, besides fiction and poetry, it sounded interesting. And it was.

I have been to a small slew of creative writing workshops, and a lot of them feature a published author, writing prompts, writing time, and some relatively gentle critiquing. I’ve always found them valuable for the interactions, insights and motivational aspects, but sometimes they can get repetitive. It’s hard to teach great writing — to convey where it comes from and how you do it. This workshop was a departure from the norm, in that there was a lot of discussion about narrative structure and theory. Jaed had some extremely practical advice on how to tap into the most energized synapses within a narrative. We also discussed how narrative often has an underlying theme or themes of which the writer is not even aware. Some of his ideas were a little formulaic, but they were good and useful ideas.

This workshop made me really think about how dominant the desire for linear narrative can be. Life isn’t really linear (though we often look at it that way), but chaotic. We try to impose order on reality, but we actually experience it in complex and startling ways. Reality is often synaesthetic. Every moment is a fragment of a multidimensional web of memories, thoughts, cultural references, psychology, fears, desires, etc. We are interconnected with the world in aggregates of ways. We don’t live, we collide. Why should writing or art be any different? Truly interesting writing explores those interconnections, the places where the synergy happens. In my own writing I can tell the difference between a boring, plodding passage and a lively, gripping one. That excitement needs to drive the narrative. Sure, order is useful and traditional narrative is very effective. But sometimes mixing up the process a bit can be good too. There is magic in the unexpected. New approaches are invigorating. There are patterns in the chaos.

Drawing is a Form of Writing

Drawing, like writing, is an act of communication. Setting marks on the page, attempting to capture form within line, I feel the same deep absorption when I draw as when I write. This is a series I’ve been working on for the last few days. I’ve been obsessed (enscorcelled!) by the beauty of these epitaphs of summer.

Winter Flowers 1

Winter Flowers 2

Winter Flowers 3

Winter Flowers 4

Winter Flowers 5

Winter Flowers 6