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Beyond the Blues: Poet Mary Ruefle’s Stunning Color Spectrum of Sadnesses

“Pink sadness… is the sadness of shame when you have done nothing wrong, pink sadness is not your fault, and though even the littlest twinge may cause it, it is the vast bushy top on the family tree of sadness, whose faraway roots resemble a colossal squid with eyes the size of soccer balls.”

Beyond the Blues: Poet Mary Ruefle’s Stunning Color Spectrum of Sadnesses

“There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy… the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul… the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos,” Paul Goodman wrote half a century ago in his taxonomy of the nine kinds of silence. Like silence, sadness too occupies a vast spectrum of hues; sadness too can be menacing — but it can also be beautiful, bountiful in its portality to other realms.

Such is the rare, rapturous awareness with which the poet Mary Ruefle paints the color spectrum of sadnesses speckling her slim, miraculous collection of prose poems, meditations, divinations, and deviations My Private Property (public library) — a title bowing to the inalienable sovereignty of the inner world, the place where we ultimately live out our entire lives, the world philosopher Martha Nussbaum exhorted the young not to despise in order to have a full and flowering life.

Goethe’s color wheel, from his 1809 theory of color and emotion.

Nearly two centuries after Goethe contemplated the psychology of color and emotion, Ruefle’s chromatic taxonomy of sadness cracks open the eggshell of our fragility to reveal within it a kaleidoscope coruscating with irrepressible aliveness. What emerges is the feeling — something beyond the reasoned understanding — that sadness is not the tip of the Atlantis-sized iceberg of our hard-wired grief for life, but the blazing fire of life itself, of the love of life, burning with the elemental fact that there is no disappointment without hope, no heartbreak without love; in the shadows that sadness casts on the cave walls of our being is the delicious delirium of the life-dream itself.

Rising from the page as a creature belonging to some liminal world — a world between ours, which she inhabits with staggering erudition, and another, lightyears beyond the imaginative reach of the rest of us — Ruefle writes:

Blue sadness is sweetest cut into strips with scissors and then into little pieces by a knife, it is the sadness of reverie and nostalgia: it may be, for example, the memory of a happiness that is now only a memory, it has receded into a niche that cannot be dusted for it is beyond your reach; distinct and dusty, blue sadness lies in your inability to dust it, it is as unreachable as the sky, it is a fact reflecting the sadness of all facts. Blue sadness is that which you wish to forget, but cannot, as when on a bus one suddenly pictures with absolute clarity a ball of dust in a closet, such an odd, unshareable thought that one blushes, a deep rose spreading over the blue fact of sadness, creating a situation that can only be compared to a temple, which exists, but to visit it one would have to travel two thousand miles on snowshoes and by dogsled, five hundred by horseback and another five hundred by boat, with a thousand by rail.

Color chart from Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours — the revolutionary 19th-century chromatic taxonomy that inspired Darwin.

In her stunning serenade to the color blue, Bluets, Maggie Nelson wrote: “I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.” The beauty may have eluded her because one ought to look beyond blue to become — to become not the servant of sadness, not even its master, but just to become. It is this vibrant and variegated becoming that Ruefle uncorks with her ecstatic spectroscopy of sadness:

Purple sadness is the sadness of classical music and eggplant, the stroke of midnight, human organs, ports cut off for part of every year, words with too many meanings, incense, insomnia, and the crescent moon. It is the sadness of play money, and icebergs seen from a canoe. It is possible to dance to purple sadness, though slowly, as slowly as it takes to dig a pit to hold a sleeping giant. Purple sadness is pervasive, and goes deeper into the interior than the world’s greatest nickel deposits, or any other sadness on earth. It is the sadness of depositories, and heels echoing down a long corridor, it is the sound of your mother closing the door at night, leaving you alone.

[…]

Gray sadness is the sadness of paper clips and rubber bands, of rain and squirrels and chewing gum, ointments and unguents and movie theaters. Gray sadness is the most common of all sadnesses, it is the sadness of sand in the desert and sand on the beach, the sadness of keys in a pocket, cans on a shelf, hair in a comb, dry-cleaning, and raisins. Gray sadness is beautiful, but not to be confused with the beauty of blue sadness, which is irreplaceable. Sad to say, gray sadness is replaceable, it can be replaced daily, it is the sadness of a melting snowman in a snowstorm.

Art by Sir Quentin Blake from Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

A century after Rilke observed that “almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension that we find paralyzing because we no longer hear our surprised feelings living,” Ruefle — a poet of Rilke’s lyrical, linguistic, and empathic powers, but one of superior subtlety — fills her chromatic classification of sadness with precisely this throbbing surprise at being alive, at the miraculousness of the mundanity of it all:

Red sadness is the secret one. Red sadness never appears sad, it appears as Nijinsky bolting across the stage in mid-air, it appears in flashes of passion, anger, fear, inspiration, and courage, in dark unsellable visions; it is an upside-down penny concealed beneath a tea cozy, the even-tempered and steady-minded are not exempt from it, and a curator once attached this tag to it: Because of the fragile nature of the pouch no attempt has been made to extract the note.

[…]

Green sadness is sadness dressed for graduation, it is the sadness of June, of shiny toasters as they come out of their boxes, the table laid before a party, the smell of new strawberries and dripping roasts about to be devoured; it is the sadness of the unperceived and therefore never felt and seldom expressed, except on occasion by polka dancers and little girls who, in imitation of their grandmothers, decide who shall have their bunny when they die. Green sadness weighs no more than an unused handkerchief, it is the funeral silence of bones beneath the green carpet of evenly cut grass upon which the bride and groom walk in joy.

Color wheel based on the classification system of the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul from Les phénomènes de la physique — a 19th-century French physics textbook about how nature works. (Available as a print.)

In consonance with her credo that “we are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love — a connection between things,” articulated in her sublime and unclassifiable earlier book, Madness, Rack and Honey, Ruefle approaches her sadness-spectrum with the same soulful insistence on this quiet, invisible interleaving as the canopy of our inner life:

Brown sadness is the simple sadness. It is the sadness of huge upright stones. That is all. It is simple. Huge, upright stones surround the other sadnesses, and protect them. A circle of huge, upright stones — who would have thought it?

What makes Ruefle’s taxonomy so powerful, so colorful, so life-giving is that it explores not the bombastic, Byronic dolors we die for, but the neglected, gnawing desolations we live with:

Pink sadness is the sadness of white anchovies. It is the sadness of deprivation, of going without, of having to swallow when your throat is no bigger than an acupuncture pin; it’s the sadness of mushrooms born with heads too big for their bodies, the sadness of having the soles come off your only pair of shoes, or your favorite pair, it makes no difference, pink sadness cannot be measured by a gameshow host, it is the sadness of shame when you have done nothing wrong, pink sadness is not your fault, and though even the littlest twinge may cause it, it is the vast bushy top on the family tree of sadness, whose faraway roots resemble a colossal squid with eyes the size of soccer balls.

Art from Cephalopod Atlas, the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea creatures. (Available as a print.)

In a passage that calls to mind Van Gogh’s orange-haunted Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, painted shortly after the fateful night when his existential anxiety erupted into self-mutilation, Ruefle writes:

Orange sadness is the sadness of anxiety and worry, it is the sadness of an orange balloon drifting over snow-capped mountains, the sadness of wild goats, the sadness of counting, as when one worries that another shipment of thoughts is about to enter the house, that a soufflé or Cessna will fall on the day set aside to be unsad, it is the orange haze of a fox in the distance, it speaks the strange antlered language of phantoms and dead batteries, it is the sadness of all things left overnight in the oven and forgotten in the morning, and as such orange sadness becomes lost among us altogether, like its motive.

Garden Supernovae by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

To me, the crowning curio of Ruefle’s spectrum is the color of The Beatles’ submarine — one of non-negligible personal significance. She writes:

Yellow sadness is the surprise sadness. It is the sadness of naps and eggs, swan’s down, sachet powder and moist towelettes. It is the citrus of sadness, and all things round and whole and dying like the sun possess this sadness, which is the sadness of the first place; it is the sadness of explosion and expansion, a blast furnace in Duluth that rises over the night skyline to fall reflected in the waters of Lake Superior, it is a superior joy and a superior sadness, that of revolving doors and turnstiles, it is the confusing sadness of the never-ending and the evanescent, it is the sadness of the jester in every pack of cards, the sadness of a poet pointing to a flower and saying what is that when what that is is a violet; yellow sadness is the ceiling fresco painted by Andrea Mantegna in the Castello di San Giorgio in Mantova, Italy, in the fifteenth century, wherein we look up to see we are being looked down upon, looked down upon in laughter and mirth, it is the sadness of that.

One of Ernst Haeckel’s otherworldly 19th-century drawings of jellyfish, named for the mourned love of his life. (Available as a print.)

And then, in a tiny, dazzling author’s note tucked into the neglected endmatter of the book for the discovery of only the most devoted and sensitive readers, Ruefle names the unnamed subversion at the heart of her color wheel of the mind:

In each of the color pieces, if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes.

Light distribution on soap bubble from Le monde physique. (Available as a print.)

Delve into Ruefle’s My Private Property for more of her chromatics of feeling, including her black and white sadnesses (or happinesses), that pepper this altogether gorgeous collection of reflections ranging from the search for language and meaning in the forest to the hungry human mythos of immortality, then revisit the most beautiful meditations on blue from the past two hundred years of great literature, spanning from Thoreau to Toni Morrison.

BP

Spring in a Pandemic: Mary Shelley on What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity

“There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others.”

Spring in a Pandemic: Mary Shelley on What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity

Half a century before Walt Whitman considered what makes life worth living when a paralytic stroke boughed him to the ground of being, Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) placed that question at the beating heart of The Last Man (free ebook | public library) — the 1826 novel she wrote in the bleakest period of her life: after the deaths of three of her children, two by widespread infectious diseases that science has since contained; after the love of her life, Percy Bysshe Shelley, drowned in a boating accident.

From that fathomless pit of sorrow, on the pages of a novel about a pandemic that begins erasing the human species one by one until a sole survivor — Shelley’s autobiographical protagonist — remains, she raised the vital question: Why live? By her answer, she raised herself from the pit to go on living, becoming the endling of her own artistic species — Mary Shelley outlived all the Romantics, composing prose of staggering poetic beauty and singlehandedly turning her then-obscure husband into the icon he now is by her tireless lifelong devotion to the posthumous editing, publishing, and glorifying of his poetry.

Shelley had set her far-seeing Frankenstein, written a decade earlier, a century into her past; she sets The Last Man a quarter millennium into her future, in the final decade of the twenty-first century, culminating in the year 2092 — the tricentennial of her beloved’s birth.

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

The novel’s narrator, Lionel Verney — an idealistic young man, more porous than most to both the deepest suffering of living and the most transcendent beauty of life — is the closest Mary Shelley, stoical and guarded, came to painting a psychological self-portrait. As the pandemic sweeps the world and vanquishes his loved ones one by one, Shelley’s protagonist returns home to seek safety “as the storm-driven bird does [to] the nest in which it may fold its wings in tranquillity.” There, in the strange stillness, stripped of the habitual busynesses and distractions of social existence, he finds himself contemplating the essence of life:

How unwise had the wanderers been, who had deserted [the nest’s] shelter, entangled themselves in the web of society, and entered on what men of the world call “life,” — that labyrinth of evil, that scheme of mutual torture. To live, according to this sense of the word, we must not only observe and learn, we must also feel; we must not be mere spectators of action, we must act; we must not describe, but be subjects of description. Deep sorrow must have been the inmate of our bosoms… sickening doubt and false hope must have chequered our days… Who that knows what “life” is, would pine for this feverish species of existence? I have lived. I have spent days and nights of festivity; I have joined in ambitious hopes…: now — shut the door on the world, and build high the wall that is to separate me from the troubled scene enacted within its precincts.

In consonance with Whitman — “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains?” the American poet would ask across space and time, then answer: “Nature remains.” — Shelley’s protagonist finds the meaning of life not in the whirlwind of the human-made world with its simulacra of living but in the simple creaturely presence with nature’s ongoing symphony of life:

Let us… seek peace… near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies. Let us leave “life,” that we may live.

First Signal by Maria Popova

At the height of the deadly pandemic, nature seems all the more quietly determined to affirm the resilience of life — spring arrives with its irrepressible bursts of beauty, untrammeled by human suffering and a supreme salve for it. It is by observing nature’s unbidden delirium in its littlest expression, by surrendering to its sweep, that Lionel regains his faith not only in survival but in the beauty, the worthiness of life.

A generation before the young Emily Dickinson delighted in the poetry of spring, Shelley writes:

Winter passed away; and spring, led by the months, awakened life in all nature. The forest was dressed in green; the young calves frisked on the new-sprung grass; the wind-winged shadows of light clouds sped over the green cornfields; the hermit cuckoo repeated his monotonous all-hail to the season; the nightingale, bird of love and minion of the evening star, filled the woods with song; while Venus lingered in the warm sunset, and the young green of the trees lay in gentle relief along the clear horizon.

From this open presence with the non-human world, Shelley’s protagonist extracts the essence of what it means to be human:

There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others.

Mary Shelley

Complement with Rebecca Elson’s stunning poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” Shelley’s contemporary Elizabeth Barrett Browning — a trailblazing poet who was dealt an inordinate share of suffering and who made of it inordinate beauty — on what makes life worth living, and the story of how young Isaac Newton’s plague quarantine fomented humanity’s greatest leap in science, then revisit the gorgeous advice on life Shelley’s mother, the trailblazing political philosopher and founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, never lived to give her daughter, having died in giving her birth.

BP

Stillness as a Form of Action: Tocqueville on Cataclysm as an Antidote to Cultural Complacency and a Catalyst for Growth

“There are periods during which human society seems to rest… This pause is, indeed, only apparent, for time does not stop its course for nations any more than for [individuals]; they are all advancing every day towards a goal with which they are unacquainted.”

Stillness as a Form of Action: Tocqueville on Cataclysm as an Antidote to Cultural Complacency and a Catalyst for Growth

Even when nothing is happening, something is happening. This is a difficult fact for the human animal to fathom — especially for us modern sapiens, who so ardently worship at the altar of productivity and so readily mistake busyness for effectiveness, for propulsion toward progress. Silence is a form of speech, Susan Sontag wrote, “and an element in a dialogue.” Stillness is a form of action and an element in advancement, in evolution, in all forward motion.

There are certain moments, as when winter cusps into spring, when nature itself reminds us of this slippery elemental fact: Buds begin to spine the skeletal silhouettes of trees, withholding leaf and blossom until it is right, until it is safe to spill new life into the chilly air; birds, whose dinosaur bodies have spent all winter preparing to mate, perch silent on the bud-spined branches, all longing and unsung song.

Waiting in the Almost by Maria Popova. Available as a print.

There are certain moments in culture, too, when we must especially remember, in order to stay sane, this slippery elemental fact.

Those moments and their neglected significance are what Alexis de Tocqueville (July 29, 1805–April 16, 1859) explores in a brief, intensely insightful passage from his 1835 classic Democracy in America (public library).

Since Tocqueville belongs to the long stretch of epochs predating Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant unsexing of the universal pronoun, I have taken the liberty (a liberty I very rarely take with historical texts, for it is often ahistorical to take it, but one that feels right in this case) of rehumanizing his men as individuals and people. He writes:

At certain periods a nation may be oppressed by such insupportable evils as to conceive the design of effecting a total change in its political constitution; at other times… the existence of society itself is endangered. Such are the times of great revolutions… But between these epochs of misery and confusion there are periods during which human society seems to rest and mankind to take breath. This pause is, indeed, only apparent, for time does not stop its course for nations any more than for [individuals]; they are all advancing every day towards a goal with which they are unacquainted.

In an analogy the physical fact of which would become the basis of Einstein’s epoch-making development of relativity many decades later, Tocqueville adds:

We imagine them to be stationary only when their progress escapes our observation, as [people] who are walking seem to be standing still to those who run.

Art by Cindy Derby from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

Because this transformative stillness is so imperceptible, Tocqueville observes, and because it appears after periods of upheaval, we are apt to mistake the stillness for an end point. Nearly two centuries before psychologist Daniel Gilbert quipped that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished” in his excellent inquiry into how our present illusions hinder our future happiness, Tocqueville admonishes against this illusion of finality, as true on the scale of individuals as it is on the scale of societies, nations, and civilizations:

There are certain epochs in which the changes that take place in the social and political constitution of nations are so slow and imperceptible that [people] imagine they have reached a final state; and the human mind, believing itself to be firmly based upon sure foundations, does not extend its researches beyond a certain horizon.

The great gift of such periods is that they invite us to question our certitudes, our givens, these seemingly sure foundations that have lulled us into complacency — for it is only by being jolted out of our complacencies, cultural or personal, that we ever reach beyond the horizon, toward new territories of truth, beauty, and flourishing.

Complement with Thoreau on the long cycles of change, Hannah Arendt on small action as the fulcrum of our humanity, and a wonderful modern meditation on the art of waiting in an impatient culture, then revisit Pico Iyer on what Leonard Cohen taught him about the art of stillness and Pablo Neruda’s timeless ode to silence.

BP

“Today, Another Universe”: Jane Hirshfield Reads Her Stunning Perspectival Poem of Consolation by Calibration

Steadying solace for those times when we “go to sleep in one world and wake in another.”

“Today, Another Universe”: Jane Hirshfield Reads Her Stunning Perspectival Poem of Consolation by Calibration

It is our biological destiny to exist — and then not. Each of us eventually returns their stardust to the universe, to be constellated into some other ephemeral emissary of spacetime. Eventually, our entire species will go the way of the dinosaurs and the dodo and the Romantics; eventually, our home star will live out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a white dwarf, taking with it everything we have ever known — Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and the guillotine and the perfect Fibonacci sequence of the pine cone.

Meanwhile, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, we busy ourselves with survival and with searching for beauty, for truth, for assurance between the bookends. The feeling of that search is what we call meaning; the people who light our torches to help us see better, who transmit our discoveries from one consciousness to another, are what we call artists. Artists are also the ones who help reconcile us to the fragility that comes with our creaturely nature and strews our search with so much suffering. Suffering — biological and psychological, in private and en masse — has always accompanied our species, as it has every species. But we alone have coped by transmuting our suffering into beauty, by making symphonies and paintings and poems out of our fragility — beauty that does not justify the suffering, but does make it more bearable, does help the sufferers next to us and after us, in space and in time, suffer less, in ways the originating consciousness can never quantify in the receiving, never estimate their reach across the sweep of centuries and sufferings.

“Perspective” by Maria Popova

Few search-artists have served as greater agents of transmutation than Jane Hirshfield — a poet of optimism and of lucidity, a champion of science and an ordained Buddhist, a poet who could write “So few grains of happiness / measured against all the dark / and still the scales balance,” a poet who can balance and steady us against those times when we “go to sleep in one world and wake in another” with her wondrous new collection Ledger (public library).

As we wake in another, searching for sense and stability, practicing the practice of life within chaos theory, I asked Jane to read for us one of the most beautiful and perspectival poems from this miraculous book — a poem of consolation by way of calibration; an invitation to broaden our perspective — scientific, temporal, and humanistic — and weigh the immediate against the eternal.

TODAY, ANOTHER UNIVERSE
by Jane Hirshfield

The arborist has determined:
senescence      beetles      canker
quickened by drought
                           but in any case
not prunable   not treatable   not to be propped.

And so.

The branch from which the sharp-shinned hawks and their mate-cries.

The trunk where the ant.

The red squirrels’ eighty-foot playground.

The bark   cambium   pine-sap   cluster of needles.

The Japanese patterns      the ink-net.

The dapple on certain fish.

Today, for some, a universe will vanish.
First noisily,
then just another silence.

The silence of after, once the theater has emptied.

Of bewilderment after the glacier,
the species, the star.

Something else, in the scale of quickening things,
will replace it,

this hole of light in the light, the puzzled birds swerving around it.

A quarter century later, the poem echoes Hirshfield’s short, stunning poem “Jasmine” from her indispensable 1997 collection The Lives of the Heart — one of the truest, most beautiful perspectives ever polished in language:

JASMINE
by Jane Hirshfield

Almost the twenty-first century” —
how quickly the thought will grow dated,
even quaint.

Our hopes, our future,
will pass like the hopes and futures of others.

And all our anxieties and terrors,
nights of sleeplessness,
griefs,
will appear then as they truly are —

Stumbling, delirious bees in the tea scent of jasmine.

Complement this fragment of Hirshfield’s altogether re-saning Ledger with other poetic masterpieces of perspective — “Singularity” by Marie Howe, “A Brave and Starling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Immortality” by Lisel Mueller, “Cold Solace” by Anna Belle Kaufman, “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver, “You Can’t Have It All” by Barbara Ras, “The Everlasting Self” by Tracy K. Smith, “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson — then revisit physicist Brian Greene on the poetry of existence and the wellspring of meaning in our ephemeral lives amid an impartial universe.

BP

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