Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

20 MAY, 2015

Anne Sexton’s Sensual Love Poem “Song for a Lady,” in an Animation Inspired by Oliver Sacks

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“So many doors open when you are present with an angle.”

“It is through [the] invisible holes in reality that poetry makes its way,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her sublime meditation on the art of the possible. Nothing gashes through reality more invisibly yet powerfully than love and nothing fills that rapturous rip more wholly than Anne Sexton’s 1969 volume Love Poems (public library) — a remarkable collection Sexton described as “a celebration of touch… physical and emotional touch,” published two years after she received the Pulitzer Prize.

In our second collaboration following a series of visual haikus based on Denise Levertov’s poetry, I asked the multidimensionally talented and thoughtful Montreal-based artist and musician Ohara Hale to bring to life my reading of Sexton’s “Song for a Lady” — one of the most bewitching and beautiful poems in the volume, and in any volume by any poet, celebrating the sensual love between two women.

Hale’s resulting animation, for which she composed an original score, is quite like poetry in that it distills the essence of a thing through an exquisite economy of form, using only line and perspective to channel an immensity of meaning.

SONG FOR A LADY

On the day of breasts and small hips
the window pocked with bad rain,
rain coming on like a minister,
we coupled, so sane and insane.
We lay like spoons while the sinister
rain dropped like flies on our lips
and our glad eyes and our small hips.

“The room is so cold with rain,” you said
and you, feminine you, with your flower
said novenas to my ankles and elbows.
You are a national product and power.
Oh my swan, my drudge, my dear wooly rose,
even a notary would notarize our bed
as you knead me and I rise like bread.

Hale’s concept, predicated on the mesmerism of angles, was inspired by legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks and his work on how the blind see the world. It sparked in her a fascination with how they construct a kaleidoscope of angularity, which led her to imagine how a dog is perceived not as a single dog but as a million dogs, each “seen” from a different angle. Many of the angles don’t resemble a “dog” in the pictorial sense but still contribute to the understanding of what a dog is.

This way of deconstructing the world into fragments and reconstructing them into a wholeness of understanding is so different from how we see via regular vision that, as Dr. Sacks so movingly wrote in The Mind’s Eye, the newly sighted are often utterly overwhelmed by having to process information in this new way and revert to “blindness,” closing their eyes and continuing to navigate the world scanning for angles.

Hale explains how this fascinating phenomenon planted the seed for her Sexton animation:

I love the idea of an unrecognized shape being called a “dog.” It doesn’t look like a dog, but it is a dog. If you look close enough you might see more than what you assume is in front of you.

Each frame is a piece of artwork to me. My favorite frames are the ones that look nothing like the object at hand, yet it is the object.

In this animation, we are looking at each angle of a swan, slowly. Sometimes, you may not recognize it at all; sometimes, you may. The lines are true and present and simple — inviting the viewer to appreciate each frame as its very own piece of art; to sit with it.

The swan, of course, is the object of this love poem. To love something is to truly love every angle, inside and out — the attractive and the unattractive, the familiar and the unfamiliar. To love something fully is to appreciate and understand each angle.

To me, this animation is an example of love, an experience of love, a viewpoint of love. So many doors open when you are present with an angle.

Like a poet, moving from the particular to the universal, Hale zooms out into a wider perspective on how our intimacy with all angles helps us swing open the doors of perception. She adds:

Life is made of many angles. It is important to investigate as many angles as you can. Perspectives. This is true in the physical world as it in the mental and spiritual world, too — true to all angles of existence.

If we approach life with this type of eyes, we can widen our perspective and see more: The more you can understand, the more you can love, the more compassion you have, and in a world of compassion, will you find peace. Suddenly, you find in the palm of your hand the entire universe — exactly where it has always been.

See more of Hale’s multidisciplinary magic here and inhale Sexton’s Love Poems in its full twenty-five-piece splendor, then re-appreciate how Dr. Sacks’s lifetime of compassionate curiosity forever changed our understanding of the human mind.

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19 MAY, 2015

Arts of the Possible: Adrienne Rich on Writing, Capitalism, Freedom, and How Silence Fertilizes the Human Imagination

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“The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence.”

“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” John F. Kennedy proclaimed in his piercing eulogy to Robert Frost, contemplating the artist’s role in society and urging us to “never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” More than three decades later, another of humanity’s greatest poets and custodians of dignity explored this enduring relationship between art, power, and truth more closely and dimensionally than anyone before or since.

The poet was Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) and the exploration a remarkable 1997 lecture that became the title piece in Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (public library) — the same anthology that gave us the spectacular letter with which Rich became the only person to decline the National Medal of Arts in one of creative culture’s most courageous acts of political dissent.

Rich begins by considering the perilous interplay of the market and the mind in capitalist culture:

We have become a pyramidic society of the omnivorously acquisitive few, an insecure, dwindling middle class, and a multiplying number of ill-served, throwaway citizens and workers [resulting in] a kind of public breakdown, with symptoms along a spectrum from acute self-involvement to extreme anxiety to individual and group violence.

Exactly two decades after E.F. Schumacher’s ennobling case for reimagining capitalist society to prioritize people over products and creativity over consumption, Rich laments “the self-congratulatory self-promotion of capitalism” around the world and considers “the corruptions of language employed to manage our perceptions of all this” — for, lest we forget, the space between words and their true meanings is vast and filled with the fog of confusion. She writes:

In the vocabulary kidnapped from liberatory politics, no word has been so pimped as freedom.

[…]

Capitalism presents itself as obedience to a law of nature, man’s “natural” and overwhelming predisposition toward activity that is competitive, aggressive, and acquisitive. Where capitalism invokes freedom, it means the freedom of capital. Where, in any mainstream public discourse, is this self-referential monologue put to the question?

Illustration by Anne Simon from Corinne Maier's graphic biography of Karl Marx. Click image for more.

Perhaps it is the poet in Rich most riled by this propagandic corruption of language — for what is a poet if not one who remedies “the feeling that the contemporary language is not equivalent to the contemporary fact”? But the legacy of this disconnect, Rich reminds us in a sentiment tenfold more urgent today, transcends the poetic and bleeds into the practicalities of civic life:

Our past is seeded in our present and is trying to become our future.

These concerns engage me as a citizen, feeling daily in my relationships with my fellow citizens the effects of a system based in the accumulation of wealth — the value against which all other values must justify themselves. We all feel these effects, almost namelessly, as we go about our individual lives…

But these are also my concerns as a poet, as the practitioner of an ancient and severely tested art. In a society in such extreme pain, I think these are any writer’s, any artist’s, concerns: the unnamed harm to human relationships, the blockage of inquiry, the oblique contempt with which we are depicted to ourselves and to others, in prevailing image making; a malnourishment that extends from the body to the imagination itself. Capital vulgarizes and reduces complex relations to a banal iconography.

Lamenting that terms like “consumers” and “baby boomers” feed the dual demon of contempt and self-contempt — one reduces people to their acquisition of commodities and the other “infantilizes and demeans an entire generation” — Rich examines how this collapse of language into shallowness impacts the artist’s responsibility to tussle with human relationships, which she has long considered the raw material of our private truths. She writes:

Any artist faces the necessity to explore, by whatever means, human relationships — which may or may not be perceived as political. But there are also, and always, the changing questions of the medium itself, the craft and its demands.

That craft, Rich argues, is honed in the sacred space of silence. In a sentiment that calls to mind Paul Goodman’s nine types of silence, she writes:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes its way — certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice any art at its deeper levels. The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence, and the first question we might ask any poem is, What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?

Although silence externally enforced, Rich notes, is a tool of oppression and censorship, silence willfully elected is a force of growth. She writes:

Silence … can be fertilizing, it can bathe the imagination, it can, as in great open spaces — I think of those plains stretching far below the Hopi mesas in Arizona — be the nimbus of a way of life, a condition of vision. Such living silences are more and more endangered throughout the world, by commerce and appropriation.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Echoing Wendell Berry’s conception of silence as a sanctuary where “one’s inner voices become audible [and], in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives,” Rich places the extinction of such fertilizing silence in its cultural context:

Even in conversation, here in North America, we who so eagerly unpack our most private concerns before strangers dread the imaginative space that silence might open between two people or within a group. Television, obviously, abhors such silence.

I am reminded here of a wonderful 19th-century guide to the art of conversation, which asserted that “the power of preserving silence is the very first requisite to all who wish to shine, or even please in discourse.” The writer, Rich argues, is one who honors the silence while creating a space for connection and conversation:

Whatever her or his social identity, the writer is, by the nature of the act of writing, someone who strives for communication and connection, someone who searches, through language, to keep alive the conversation with what Octavio Paz has called “the lost community.” Even if what’s written feels like a note thrust into a bottle to be thrown into the sea.

But the successful transmission of the bottle requires a benevolent sea, which brings us back to the political dimension of art as a technology of freedom. Rich captures the true measure of democracy:

The survival of a great diversity of books … depends on diverse interests having the means to make such books available.

It also means a nonelite but educated audience, a population who are literate, who read and talk to each other, who may be factory workers or bakers or bank tellers or paramedicals or plumbers or computer consultants or farmworkers, whose first language may be Croatian or Tagalog or Spanish or Vietnamese but who are given to critical thinking, who care about art, an intelligentsia beyond intellectual specialists.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451.' Click image for more.

Nearly three decades after James Baldwin remarked that the whole capitalist system “is standing on the back of some black miner in South Africa,” Rich considers the prerequisite for such a nonelitist, democratic landscape of thought and imagination:

If we are writers writing first of all from our own desire and need, if this is irresistible work for us, if in writing we experience certain kinds of power and freedom that may be unavailable to us in other ways — surely it would follow that we would want to make that kind of forming, shaping, naming, telling, accessible for anyone who can use it. It would seem only natural for writers to care passionately about literacy, public education, public libraries, public opportunities in all the arts. But more: if we care about the freedom of the word, about language as a liberatory current, if we care about the imagination, we will care about economic justice.

For the pull and suck of Capital’s project tend toward reducing, not expanding, overall human intelligence, wit, expressiveness, creative rebellion.

[…]

Writing and teaching are kinds of work, and the relative creative freedom of the writer or teacher depends on the conditions of human labor overall and everywhere.

For what are we, anyway, at our best, but one small, persistent cluster in a greater ferment of human activity — still and forever turning toward, tuned for, the possible, the unrealized and irrepressible design?

Arts of the Possible is a trove of lucid idealism in its entirety. Complement it with Rich on what “truth” really means, her superb 1977 commencement address on the real value of education, and her homage to Marie Curie.

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15 MAY, 2015

Ralph Steadman’s Rare and Rapturous Illustrations for Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

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“Stuff your eyes with wonder… live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”

Something decidedly magical happens when a great visual artist interprets a literary classic, translating a beloved text into image. Take, for instance, William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost, Maurice Sendak’s etchings for Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” Delacroix’s illustrations for Goethe, R. Crumb’s twist on Kafka, and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.

Among the most rewarding such reimaginings are those by the great British cartoonist Ralph Steadman (b. May 15, 1936), who has illustrated Orwell’s Animal Farm, created one of history’s greatest visual interpretations of Alice in Wonderland, and remains best known for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson.

In 2003, Steadman turned his talent to one of the most important books ever written and illustrated a gorgeous 50th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451 (public library) — Ray Bradbury’s celebrated dystopian novel, titled after “the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns” and originally published when Bradbury was only thirty-three.

Exactly 451 copies were printed, each signed by both Steadman and Bradbury.

In his magnificent 2013 monograph, Proud Too Be Weirrd (public library), Steadman admits to having grown jaded with illustrating other people’s prose — “not much more than shameless self-indulgence” — but writes of having gladly completed the Bradbury project due to its “vitally important theme — the burning of all books.” He reflects on the significance of Bradbury’s masterwork:

As someone once said, I think it was me: There is nothing so dangerous as an idea. Particularly one whose time has come…

And who can forget the ever-timely ideas emanating from Bradbury’s glorious lines? “Stuff your eyes with wonder… live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.” Here was a rare integrated man — even in his fiction, he channeled the wholehearted truths by which he lived his life.

Hard though it may be to find, this uncommonly bewitching edition of Fahrenheit 451 is well worth the hunt. Complement it with Steadman’s illustrated biography of Leonardo, then explode with Bradbury on emotion vs. the intellect and the secret of work, life, and love.

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14 MAY, 2015

The Heart and the Bottle: A Tender Illustrated Fable of What Happens When We Deny Our Difficult Emotions

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A gentle reminder of what we stand to lose when we lock away loss.

“Children … are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth,” E.B. White famously asserted in an interview, admonishing: “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.” And yet down we write still, deaf to White’s wisdom and to Tolkien’s insistence that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and to Gaiman’s crusade against the spiritual disservice of shielding children from difficult emotions.

Nowhere is this disservice clearer than in how we address children’s experience of life’s darkest moments, as evidenced by the minuscule the pool of intelligent and imaginative books that help kids make sense of death and loss. And nowhere is there more heartening an antidote than in The Heart and the Bottle (public library) by the inimitable Oliver Jeffers.

Jeffers tells the story of a little girl, “much like any other,” whose expansive and exuberant curiosity her father fuels by reading to her all sorts of fascinating books about the sea and the stars and the wonders of our world.

We witness the duo’s blissful explorations until, one day, we realize that the father is gone — the little girl finds herself facing the empty chair.

With exquisite subtlety and economy of words, Jeffers — whose mastery of the interplay between darkness and light extends as much to the paintbrush as it does to the psyche — silently uncorks the outpour of hollowing emotions engendered by loss.

But if grief is so disorienting and crushing an emotion for adults, how are unprepared little hearts expected to handle its weight? The little girl cannot, and so she doesn’t.

Feeling unsure, the girl thought the best thing was to put her heart in a safe place.

Just for the time being.

So she put it in a bottle and hung it around her neck.

And that seemed to fix things … at first.

But as Simone Weil knew when she considered how resisting our suffering splits the psyche asunder, and as Rilke knew when he wrote that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” the little girl soon finds out that locking away the pain also locks away her capacity for love and aliveness.

Although, in truth, nothing was the same.

She forgot about the stars… and stopped taking notice of the sea.

She was no longer filled with all the curiosities of the world and didn’t take much notice of anything…

One day, while walking on the beach where she had once strolled blissfully with her father, the “girl” — now a grown woman — encounters another girl still little and still filled with the boundless and buoyant curiosity that had once been hers. Suddenly, she is reminded of all she lost when she locked away loss.

So she sets out to liberate her heart from its glassy prison — but the bottle has been fortified by years of self-protection.

The bottle couldn’t be broken. It just bounced and bounced … right down to the sea.

But there, it occurred to someone smaller and still curious about the world that she might know a way.

The heart was put back where it came from. And the chair wasn’t so empty anymore.

Although such extensions typically tend to be gimmicky at best, if not a pure travesty of storytelling, the app version of the story is excellent beyond words.

Still, an app can never measure up to the tender, tangible magic of a book — and in a great book, even a detail as subtle as the endpapers never fails to enchant. E.B. White himself knew this and cared deeply about the endpapers of Charlotte’s Web even as he acknowledged that “probably not more than 1800 people in the United States have ever heard the word ‘endpaper.’” Jeffers clearly knows this as well — the book’s endpapers are a treat in their own right. The front set celebrates the bond between a little girl and her paternal figure in its various permutations — a father, a grandfather, perhaps a kindly uncle — and the back set tickles the science-lover’s curiosity with a minimalist illustrated anatomy of the human heart.

The Heart and the Bottle is an immeasurable delight from endpaper to endpaper. Complement it with other exceptional children’s books about grief — including the Japanese pop-up masterpiece Little Tree and the Norwegian gem My Father’s Arms Are a Boat — then revisit Jeffers’s equally wonderful Once Upon an Alphabet, one of the best children’s books of 2014.

Jeffers has also explored the subject of grief with equal subtlety and genius in a grownup project celebrating the art of bearing witness.

Illustrations courtesy of Oliver Jeffers; photographs my own

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