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Poems (Layer) Garden (Layer) Woman

“Heaven’s Virginia when the year’s at its Spring,” Anne Spencer wrote in her poem on Browning. Reading the recent post, “Spring and All” (http://prufrocksdilemma.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/spring-and-all/) in Prufrock’s Dilemma, I thought about Spencer. Spring and gardens and flowers always bring her poems to mind, like the evocative phrase in “Lines to a Nasturtium”:

“Day-torch, Flame-flower, cool-hot Beauty . . .”

I thought about Spencer, reading Susan Scheid’s post, because Susan provides thoughts and images about spring. She also features photography of Valerie Belin: “piled-up negatives made people’s faces into gardens.” And that took me right into Anne Spencer, through, and out the other side.

We know that she was many things – woman, wife, mother, poet, gardener, teacher and librarian, more. She wrote in a cottage built for her by her husband, where she could work in quiet, surrounded by her garden. I always thought of her like that, surrounded by the garden she planted. But contemplating the images created by Belin, and Susan’s description of them, has added dimension to my understanding of Spencer. My imagining had kept her, with her poetry, next to the many facets of her life. Now I have learned a deeper way of seeing her – she was a stack of transparencies: poems(layer)garden(layer)woman. She was no more separate from her garden than Belin’s women are separate from the flowers overlaid on them. So I can drink in a much better reading of this famous poem:

[Earth, I thank you]
Earth, I thank you
for the pleasure of your language
You’ve had a hard time
bringing it to me
from the ground
to grunt thru the noun
To all the way
Feeling seeing smelling touching
—awareness
I am here!

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Meditating With Agnes Martin

Over on Prufrock’s Dilemma’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/?sk=welcome#!/pages/Prufrocks-Dilemma/292303424216900), Susan Scheid shares this link:

“Junior Fellow Grace Ambrose invited 50 current and ex-Philadelphians to write about an object of their choice from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Taking shape as an edition of 50 postcards, the writings will comprise an alternate history and guide to the museum’s holdings, seen through the eyes of the artists, writers, musicians, and friends who live alongside them.”

As an enthusiastic follower of her blog, I have hopes that Susan will write her own response to the invitation. And, after mulling over the subject for a while, it has occurred to me that I might even try my own. Having considered the museum’s vast collection, and a small selection of personal favorites, I decided to begin from the other end and work my way back. This is a practice begun with a fellow student while in high school. We disagreed about a certain artist whose paintings she admired but I thought worthless. I appreciated her intellect and wit and decided to challenge her to write a short essay criticizing his work; I would oppose her and write his praises. She seemed doubtful at first but accepted the duel, and it turned out to be a lot of fun.

Returning to PMA, I thought I would try the old approach and begin with art that decidedly did not appeal to me. And that took me to minimalist Agnes Martin’s painting “The Rose.” This is supposed to fit on a postcard, so I’ll try to write small.

First, there is an outside. Then there is an inside. From the outside, especially from sitting at a distance, the painting is apparently just a soft pink canvas. Anyone could paint it; it is pointless. You have to walk up to it, view it intimately, let your mind climb inside of it, and then go sit down again. Now you have learned that this is one of Martin’s grid paintings, a graphite grid echoed by a rose-colored grid. Viewing close up, you see the delicate lines; but start pulling back a little, and the grids begin to float. By the time you have seated yourself again to gaze from a distance, you see the pink glow of the whole six-foot square painting, and now you realize that you, yourself, have been drawn into it. When we see a rose, we automatically lean to inhale its fragrance. The scent distracts us from even the most beautiful vision of rose. Martin’s painting is the essential journey into the rose, on the molecular level where the rose, and you, begin losing your edges and become one. You’ll want a chair or a cushion, because this is meditation.

Perfectly enhancing this experience, for me, is Yo Yo Ma’s performance of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. One is fully absorbed, immediately, into the music, as mesmerizing as a chant, and sustained in the space of it long after the musician has put down his bow:

I invite anyone who reads this to add your own response to Grace Ambrose’s invitation, and post it on my Facebook page(https://www.facebook.com/?sk=welcome#!/elizabeth.newleaf?fref=ts). Can’t visit the Museum on the physical plane? They have a big website!


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Rumi’s Wolf

Last summer, when an unexpected event devastated my life, I woke suddenly into a world, much of which had little or nothing to do with me. Things to handle, sort through, get rid of. I knew I had to reduce chaos and clutter to a quiet level and make the world I would continue in simple, peaceful.

A friend from the other end of the country began a series of calls wanting to come spend time with me, asking how she could help me, offering to help in whatever ways I needed. We have known each other all our lives, and her voice and words bolstered me. I knew just the kind of help I needed from her, a kind she was just the right sort of person, maybe the best person, to give me. I also knew that timing is everything, and that I had to be prepared emotionally and otherwise for that type of help. Finally, she forced the issue, stating that her calendar would be too full if she didn’t come during the time least busy for her – which meant soon. I accepted gratefully, but nervously. But she reassured me that she would come and take over and handle all the overwhelming details. And I felt taken care of.

And so she arrived, with a round-trip ticket that could not be altered: the timing was fixed. And what began as the flight’s effect of jetlag and scratchy throat soon turned into full blown illness. My friend was sick, sleep all night and most of the day sick, medicine sick. I accepted early on that she was not there to take care of me, after all: I was supposed to take care of her. So I did. Nothing on my to-do list could be done. We visited when we could, remembered old days and nearly forgotten people. She could eat, so I cooked. She asked for a hair trimming, and I trimmed. And all the while, I reminded myself continuously of Rumi’s words:

“Quit acting like a wolf, and feel the shepherd’s love filling you.”

I don’t know what fate brought my friend here to get so sick that, despite the best intentions, she could not stay awake long enough to help me the way she wanted to. I just know that this was the gift I was given: I got the chance to stop wishing, expecting, taking; I got the chance to act for a little while like a shepherd. I know that I was blessed.

Thinking about this experience, the image of sunflowers kept coming to me. They survive even untended, faces turned to the sun, absorbing the light and available rain. The art corner of my brain searched for a painting to join my words, and I thought of Van Gogh. But his sunflowers are such a fanfare. And then I remembered Mrs. Delany and her paper mosaic art. She has a single sunflower that stands alone and dutiful as a flag, looking just-plucked, asking nothing, sharing itself, readying seeds that feed the birds and prepare for next year’s crop.


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Goldfish for Red Reed

At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts recently, Dale Chihuly installed “Red Reeds” – tall lengths of red glass exhibited in a shallow outdoor pond.

Under the umbrella of night, an exchange was made. A red reed was broken and removed from the installation. At about the same time, goldfish appeared in the pond. No one knows how many persons were involved in the removal of reed, nor can count the number of donated fish.

And the reason for it all is anyone’s guess – some old form of barter? A mere serendipity? Or was it a karmic balancing, an instinctive addressing of a situation too much in favor on one side: you owe me a red reed, I owe you fish?

As in Japanese flower arrangement, there is a way that transcends the heavy plane of weights and measures and finds a balance which the eye recognizes and the spirit perceives. The persons unknown swam off into the night, the fish slipped away in the water, and all quietly re-emerged in a heightened state of art.