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To Believe in Things: Poet Joseph Pintauro’s Lost Love Poem to Life, Illustrated by the Radical Nun and Visionary Artist Sister Corita Kent

“You are not everything but everything could not be everything without you.”

To Believe in Things: Poet Joseph Pintauro’s Lost Love Poem to Life, Illustrated by the Radical Nun and Visionary Artist Sister Corita Kent

Unusual and unafraid to be so and in love with life, the priest turned poet and playwright Joseph Pintauro (November 22, 1930–May 29, 2018) was born and raised and annealed in New York, in the intellectual and creative ferment of the city, the city that never sleeps and always dreams. A late bloomer by every common measure, he published his first poetry collection in the gloaming hour of his thirties and married the love of his life — Greg, his partner of forty years — in the gloaming hour of life, at 81. But oh how splendidly, how fragrantly, how soulfully he bloomed.

Shortly after he resigned his work with the church in his mid-thirties, Pintauro commenced a series of wonder-smiting collaborations with artists, bringing his existentially enormous poems to life in small objects of shimmering delight that can best be described as children’s books for grownups. Four of them, illustrated by the graphic artist Norman Laliberté, he called “boxes” and dedicated to a particular emotional season of life — among them The Magic Box (autumn) and The Rabbit Box (spring).

But Pintauro’s most inspired collaboration, both poetically and aesthetically, was with the artist, designer, printmaker, pop art pioneer, and unstoppable force of social justice Sister Corita Kent (November 20, 1918–September 18, 1986). Entirely self-taught, she became one of the most innovative silkscreen artists of the 1960s and 1970s, suffusing her stunning prints with messages of solidarity with the civil rights and environmental movements of the era, messages of peace and harmony and love — love, as the poet Elizabeth Alexander might say, and did say half a century later, “beyond marital, filial, national, love that casts a widening pool of light.”

In 1968, the year she left the order and moved to Boston, Corita cast her widening pool of light around Pintauro’s debut poetry collection, To Believe in God, which unspooled a “trilogy of beliefs,” proceeding with To Believe in Man in 1970 and culminating with the out-of-print treasure To Believe in Things (public library) in 1971.

Corita — whose now-iconic “Rules for Students and Teachers” have inspired generations of artists, including John Cage — went, like Beyoncé, by her first name only, so that the spines of the living treasures read Pintauro / Corita.

Pintauro’s poem itself is an uncommonly beautiful, buoyant, and largehearted celebration of life — of the ecstatic improbability of it, the self-enlarging and unselfing interconnectedness of it, the luminous fulness of it across the entire spectrum of joys and sorrows.

With a feeling-tone evocative of Marie Howe’s superb “Singularity,” the poem opens the way it ends — by bridging science and the human spirit:

Millions of years ago, there
was blackness,
pure and beautiful Nothing. There
was no thing
in it, no star, no wind,
no light, no word, no broken heart.

But a time came when perfect,
restful Nothing
was to vanish forever. Something was
about to be.

Suddenly, there it was. Something,
all alone,
king of everything. Killer of ancient,
beautiful Nothing. There was
a silence.

…till Nothing screamed a death
scream and
that scream is still screaming, an
expanding ring into the universe
that will never end.

Nothing is dead…

Like any great work of art, the poem makes the personal the portal into the universal, into the beautiful bittersweet dance of life and death. Nested in the narrative sweep as wide as spacetime are a handful of poignant vignettes pinned to particular moments in time from a particular life. With exquisite subtlety, Pintauro captures his dying mother’s hopeless, hopeful cosmic bid against mortality:

My sister was told to do her typing away from the
rest of us,
where it wouldn’t disturb us.

We did our homework at the dining-room table while
our mother crocheted big white stars according to plan
on the
instruction sheet. When she finished one, she would tie
the yarn and flatten the star on the table: “Look boys,
that makes eleven.”

We looked up, as bored by the stars as our
homework. We
were too young to understand, she had
decided between
dying and making a bedspread and her stars were
all very
important.

We went to bed those nights with Julius Caesar on
our minds,
with Napoleon, Spartacus, photosynthesis, zinc,
granite,
       the
names of all the rocks of the earth and of
the constellations.
All that knowledge inside us, we fell asleep,
assured that
there are forty million mornings in unheard-of places.

While she lay awake, vaguely wishing there
were angels
who would accept the coming of a new bedspread into
the universe,
in exchange for her life.

Recently, I was going through the junk of the cellar
and I
found the bedspread. It was torn and unraveled
and stuffed
into an old pillowcase.

My sister recalls washing it once, and adding too
much bleach
to the machine. When she took it from the dryer, it
fell apart in her hands.

Radiating from these verses that celebrate the vibrant aliveness of the Earth — the minerals that form “the hills and the mountains” and are also “the substance the hills and mountains stand upon”; the “red hanging begonias” that “parachute onto twinkling grass”; the ice of February — is a reminder that these living miracles exist with us, not for us. Echoing Rachel Carson’s courageous countercultural insistence that “the real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” Pintauro issues a poetic admonition against the American hubris of proprietorship and extractivism:

Mr. Griswold owns all the property in America.
…but the trees never heard of him.
He owns the property except
the daylilies don’t understand
they are growing in
his dirt, and
the dirt doesn’t know
the difference
       between

Mr. Griswold
   and
the deer
   and
the chipmunks
   who trespass
      there.

to believe in the wind is to know

there are things we harvest which no man plants
in our sails
our hair, in sea
shells our ears,
the wind is
why there is music no man made
in our rooms
when october makes love
to the house.
The wind is why
the screen door
speaks to you now and then and why
it is true
when they are abandoned, barns will
moan and there is crying
on the fire escape
when no one is there.

long live the little greek diner
on first avenue near the 59th
street bridge

the greek there sells fresh fish
and fresh string beans, rice pudding
and homemade coffee for
ninety cents
because he’s old and his wife
is gone and he can’t sleep mornings.
he goes to the fulton fish market
to watch the sun come up, besides
the fresh fish there is cheaper
than frozen
he smells greece on the fish and
he feels
his childhood when he cleans them.

All of Pintauro’s poetry is essentially love poetry. Harmonizing the cosmic and quotidian scales of his verse-meditations is a subtle and symphonic love poem, evocative of that exquisite passage from the diaries of Albert Camus: “If those whom we begin to love could know us as we were before meeting them … they could perceive what they have made of us.” Pintauro writes:

long live our avoidance
of the quadrillion probabilities
of our non-existence

i am not who i was
i am not going to be who i was going to be
you changed all that

you are not who you were
you are not going to be who you were going to be
i changed all that

what is, is… and cannot at the same time, not be.
what was, was… and cannot,
not have been. so you see my love

we are us
we are us now and we shall never have been
not us.

who are we going to be?
we are going to be who we never would have been
without each other.

Rising above the human love poem is a grand orchestral love poem to life, improbable and temporal and transcendent life — life in which, as the great naturalist John Muir observed a century before Pintauro, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” These verses close the miraculous To Believe in Things:

LONG LIVE EVERYTHING

… but remember,
everything is not every
possible thing
everything is only all
there is here and now

somewhen,
there will be more than there is.

you are not everything
but everything
could not be
everything without
      you.

BP

The Secret Life of Trees: Stunning Sylvan Drawings by Indigenous Artists Based on Indian Mythology

Reverie and reckoning with our relationship to nature between the branches and the birds.

The Secret Life of Trees: Stunning Sylvan Drawings by Indigenous Artists Based on Indian Mythology

Ever since we climbed down from the trees, we have been looking up to them to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. “Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree,” Hermann Hesse wrote a century ago in his sublime sylvan love letter, affirming that “when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”

Centuries, millennia before Hesse — before Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Prize for her courageously enacted conviction that “a tree is a little bit of the future,” before scientists uncovered the astonishing language of trees, before Western artists saw in tree silhouettes a Rorschach test for what we are — the indigenous artists and storytellers of the Gond tribe in central India have been reverencing the secret lives of trees as portals into the inner life of nature, into the wildness of our own nature, into a supra-natural universe of myth and magic.

The Tell-Tale Tree

A decade after the Indian artisan community and independent publisher Tara Books created the astonishing handmade masterpiece The Night Life of Trees — intricate portraits of tree-spirits based on ancient Gond mythology, painted by three of the most celebrated living Gond artists and silk-screened by hand using traditional Indian dyes — these wondrous sylvan visions come ablaze anew in a set of black-and-white prints, consummately detailed and alive, silk-screened on handmade paper made of locally sourced cotton waste.

The Antler Tree
The Leaf Tree

The prints, like everything Tara Books make, support their community of artists, craftspeople, and storytellers, some of whom are illiterate, many self-taught, most women, and all devoted to the preservation and celebration of the ancient folk art traditions that have rooted numberless generations into a reverence of the natural world and our relationship with it.

The Allegory Tree
The Blackbird Tree

Leap across epochs and cultures to complement these visual venerations with Mary Oliver’s prayerful tree poem and Pablo Neruda’s prose serenade to the forest, then revisit other treasures from Tara Books: Sun and Moon, a collection of Indian celestial myths illustrated by ten of the country’s finest indigenous artists; Creation, a visual cosmogony of origin myths by one of the Gond artists behind The Night Life of Trees; Waterlife, an exquisite illustrated encyclopedia of marine creatures from Indian folklore; Beasts of India, a bestiary of indigenous animals depicted in various tribal traditions; and the boundlessly gladsome Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit.

BP

Beyond Good and Evil: Nietzsche on Love, Perseverance, and the True Mark of Greatness

“A man of genius is unbearable, unless he possess at least two things besides: gratitude and purity.”

Beyond Good and Evil: Nietzsche on Love, Perseverance, and the True Mark of Greatness

“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” John Steinbeck wrote to his best friend on New Year’s Day 1941, as the world was coming undone by its deadliest war. “It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

It is a sentiment both lucid and noble, springing from one of humanity’s most humanistic minds. It is also an incomplete sentiment, for the dichotomy is not between good and evil but within the totality of being — something James Baldwin captured two decades and myriad miniature wars later in his staggering observation that “it has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within.”

A century before Baldwin, Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) explored the complexity and nuance of this disquieting fundament of human nature in his 1886 book Beyond Good and Evil (free ebook | public library).

Friedrich Nietzsche

Composed of 296 numbered arguments, organized into nine thematic parts, and concluding with an epode, or aftersong, titled “From High Mountains,” this unyawning awakening of a book builds on the ideas Nietzsche had explored three years earlier from a more poetic angle in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, now examined with a pointed critical sensibility. It is at bottom a gauntlet to dogma, challenging the epochs-old notion of morality as the mere opposition of good and evil. The good person, Nietzsche argues as he hurls classical philosophy into discomposure and lays the groundwork for contemporary moral philosophy, behavioral economics, and social psychology, is not the opposite of the evil person; good and evil, rather, are different expressions of the same nature, which bubble to the surface by complex and nuanced currents of potentiality and choice.

In the seventy-second argument, Nietzsche — translated here by Helen Zimmern in the early twentieth century when his works were first published in English, and writing in an era when every woman was “man,” — extols the power of perseverance over the power of vehemence:

It is not the strength, but the duration of great sentiments that makes great men.

Two sentiments later, he supplements this with another necessity of greatness:

A man of genius is unbearable, unless he possess at least two things besides: gratitude and purity.

While Nietzsche places the active opposition to evil at the heart of the good, he admonishes that the preservation of this crucial purity, this hallmark of greatness, is an immense and delicate responsibility requiring constant vigilance over one’s own heart:

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.

Art by Harry Clarke for a rare 1919 edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. (Available as a print.)

In the one sentence that best distills the essence of his entire book, his entire moral cosmogony, Nietzsche offers the ultimate — the only — charm against the transfiguration of heroism into monstrosity, the one elixir of moral might that at once fuels the fight of good against evil and subsumes it:

What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.

In the same era, animated by the same conviction as he was revolutionizing art, Vincent van Gogh was exclaiming in a letter to his brother that “whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!”

Complement this fragment of Nietzsche’s abidingly insightful and, in particular times such as ours, increasingly relevant Beyond Good and Evil with Hannah Arendt’s classic inquiry into the only effective antidote to evil and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a good human being, then revisit Nietzsche on the journey of becoming who you are, why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, the true value of education, depression and the rehabilitation of hope, the power of music, the power of language, and his brilliant thought experiment about the key to existential contentment.

BP

The Gospel of James Baldwin: Musician Meshell Ndegeocello Rekindles the Fire of Truth for This Time

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”

The Gospel of James Baldwin: Musician Meshell Ndegeocello Rekindles the Fire of Truth for This Time

The history of the world is the history of telling others who and what we are — from tribal markings to national flags to family crests to pronoun-specifying email signatures. Every war that has ever been fought, political or personal, has been staked on these battlegrounds of identity and belonging. Every work of art that has ever been made has turned the battleground into a garden, where these same seeds of selfhood have come abloom in the artist’s being to touch with the pollen of some grander beauty and some larger truth other beings, clarifying and fortifying their own identity, their own presence, their own belonging in history. “An artist,” James Baldwin told the interviewer in his historic 1963 LIFE profile, “is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.”

Who and what we are is, of course, a complex mosaic with myriad tesserae, drawn from our genetic and cultural inheritance, shaped by the biological ancestors chance has dealt us and shaped equally by the spiritual ancestors we have chosen for ourselves, all of our ancestors themselves shaped by myriad confluences of chance and choice. The mosaic rests atop the most elemental stratum of our nature, for as Rachel Carson observed, “our origins are of the earth… so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.”

Musician and conceptual poet Meshell Ndegeocello reanimates Baldwin’s words from that altogether vivifying 1963 interview to weave around them a lush lyric meditation on the roots and realities of personhood in an enchanting prose-poem, part of her multimedia experience Chapter and Verse — a project she envisioned as “a twenty-first-century ritual toolkit for justice, a call for revolution, a gift during turbulent times,” inspired by Baldwin’s prophetic 1963 book The Fire Next Time, which occasioned the LIFE tribute.

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.

Complement this small fragment of Ndegeocello’s majestic Chapter and Verse with Anne Lamott’s lovely letter to children about books as an antidote to isolation and Baldwin’s great friend, champion, and fellow genius Gwendolyn Brooks’s forgotten 1969 poem about the power of books, then revisit Baldwin’s own account of how he read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon and some of his most poignant, least known words of wisdom set to music by Ndegeocello’s friends and frequent collaborators Morley and Chris Bruce.

BP

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