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July 2014

Tangles and threads

Machiko Agano

From Eudora Welty's On Writing:

"Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists.

Machiko Agano

“Both reading and writing are experiences -- lifelong -- in the course of which we who encounter words used in certain ways are persuaded by them to be brought mind and heart within the presence, the power, of the imagination."

Machiko Agano

Machiko Agano

"We do need to bring to our writing, over and over again, all the abundance we possess. To be able, to be ready, to enter into the minds and hearts of our own people, all of them, to comprehend them (us) and then to make characters and plots in stories that in honesty and with honesty reveal them (ourselves) to us, in whatever situation we live through in our own times: this is the continuing job, and it's no harder now than it ever was, I suppose. Every writer, like everybody else, thinks he's living through the crisis of the ages. To write honestly and with all our powers is the least we can do, and the most."



The images here are by the Japanese installation artist Machiko Agano. Born in Kobe and trained as a weaver at the Kyoto City University of Arts, she hand weaves her site-specific sculptures using a wide range of materials, including silk, bamboo, and fishing wire.

"I am attracted by the mysterious shapes of nature," she says, "patterns made by the wind on desert sands; shapes of eroded rocks on coastal shores; clouds driven scross the autumn sky. This is my art: the exploration and expression of the fundamentals of nature."

Machiko Agano

The spaces we create with words

Tilly beneath the old oak

"A kind of writing solely meant for a public forum," said Harold Brodkey, "is often less interesting than writing where the writer has invented the public space inside the text, in the tone of address, in the tone of the language -- where the address is new and as if in private. Public language is never new. But in good writing there is something absolutely new in the tone. There’s a very complicated idea that lies behind the notion of the public space in which the narrator addresses the reader. It’s an idea that has to do with language being actual, being temporal and spatial, to be Kantian about it. In a piece of writing the language runs along on the page and in the mind of a reader; in that language is no actual physical space, but it should carry the implication of a physical-social location.

Limbs and leaves

"If you’ve been to a large Edwardian house," Brodkey continues, "you may have seen a small room with a fireplace and a couch, and perhaps two chairs -- not a formal, large room where you can carry on, but one where you can sit and talk. It’s where you gossip. Henry James has a tone of address as if he’s arrived at such a large house, not his own, and he is seated by the fire; an invisible interlocutor or audience listens closely. Walt Whitman speaks outdoors it seems to me. The space Whitman suggests is complex and American and I think beautiful and a completely new invention. One thing that is unique about it is that there’s no tinge of social class in it whatsoever.

"Jane Austen’s writing suggests a drawing room sort of space; Hemingway’s, on a bar stool or in a club car -- it changes, he’s complicated. Emily Dickinson creates a marvelous public space, too, and one of the marvelous things about it is that it is so clearly an invention since it isn’t based on being public; it is without a sense of the public. D. H. Lawrence is an absolutely amazing writer, with a fantastic sense of the language, but his sense of public space wavers, and sometimes a whole book or long story of his will collapse when he shifts the public space thing too drastically and is churchly-fascistic, or starts yelling as if in a corral, then muttering in a hallway . . . No order in it at all."

Tilly, notebooks, oak

I want to create a public space in my writing that looks something like this: sun-dappled grass beneath a fairy tale oak...with a flash of modern steel running behind it.

Or else one consisting of mis-matched chairs gathered 'round the kitchen table in an old country house, the pearly light of dawn streaming in, coffee freshly poured, and a black dog dozing by the hearth.

Notebooks in the grass

What would you like the public space created by your writing or art to look like...?


What places make of us

Tilly and the oak elder

After finishing Olivia Laing's To the River, in which the author walks the River Ouse from its source to the sea, my next re-reading project is to revisit two of my favorite books about walking -- Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit and The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane -- before moving on to another first-time read: A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.

What better time of year could there be for walkers' tales of holloways, hedgerows, green roads, ghost roads, pilgrim ways and nights under the stars? Every time I ramble through the woods with Tilly my feet want to carry me on and further on, the flag of her tail waving jauntily ahead...until I catch myself succumbing to the "rapture of the pathway," stop, give a whistle, and turn for home; work must be done and life attended to, as the clocks tick tock, and the telephone rings, and nevermind how sweetly the sun filters through the trees, nevermind, nevermind. Come along, dear girl. We must away.

Woodland path

But in my imagination, we don't turn back, we keep on climbing through ash, old oak, thickets of holly, tall stands of pine, while the little woodland grows large around us, becoming a proper forest now, and the trail and the tale wind on and the tree tops shiver and the story begins:

Once upon a time....

Woodland path

"I have long been fascinated," writes Robert Macfarlane, "by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place, and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thoughts, but actively produce it. Landscape, to borrow George Eliot's phrase, can 'enlarge the imagined range for self to move in.'

"As I envisage it, landscape projects into us not like a jetty or peninsula, finite and bounded by its volume and reach, but instead as a kind of sunlight, flickeringly unmappable in its plays yet often quickening and illuminating. We are adept, if occasionally embarrassed, at saying what we make of places -- but we are far less good at saying what places make of us.

"For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? and then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?"

Old oak

Yes, those are, indeed, the right questions....but I'm troubled by Macfarlane's use of the word "vainly." What precisely can he mean by this? That the question is a narcissistic one, with its assumption that the land gives a toss about us? Or that it's a question asked in vain, to which we will never have an answer? 

It's my belief that the second question can be answered, for it is possible to have a conversation with the landscape and to hear (at least to the degree we are capable of hearing) what the land around us has to say. Art is one time-honored way to facilitate such a dialogue; another, used by animist cultures around the globe, is through sacred rituals specifically designed to mediate between the human and nonuman worlds. The conversation requires a relationship with the landscape...and patience, time, the ability to truly listen, and a certain humility...but there's nothing extraordinary or supernatural about it. Young children talk to the land instinctively. It's only as adults that we forget.

"Tell me the landscape in which you live," said the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset,  "and I'll tell you who you are."

His quote is written in gold on my studio wall, for it sums up everything I write and paint.

Hiding in plain sight

Tunes for a Monday Morning

With so much conflict and sorrow in the world right now, I'm going to start the week with the heart-centred music of Mali, which has a very long tradition of using songs and musical rhythms in support of physical, spiritual, and cultural healing.

Above: "kakKar," peformed by the great Boubacar Traoré, from Kayes in western Mali. His songwriting is rooted in the traditional music of the Mande cultural region mixed with influences ranging from Arab music to American blues.

Below: "Wassiye," performed by Habib Koité (and his band, Bamada), who comes from a long line of Khassonké griots in western Mali. He grew up listening to his paternal grandfather play the kamele n’goni, a traditional four-stringed instrument, and developed his distinctive guitar style (tuned to a pentatonic scale and played on open strings, like the kamale n'goni) while accompanying his griot mother.

Above, "Tinki Hiiri" performed by Afel Bocoum (and his band, Alkibar), who comes from Niafunké, on the Niger River in central Mali.  Bocoum, of the Sonrai people, grew up with the se galarare style of traditional music, which he learn from his father, a performer of the njarka and njurkel (single and double stringed instruments). At only 13, Bocoum went on tour with his uncle, the legendary Ali Farka Toure, playing in his uncle's band for ten years before striking out on his own. Bocoum sings primarily in Sonrai, his native language, but also in Tamasheq (the language of the Tuareg) and in Fulfulde (the language of the Fula people).

Below: a gorgeous song in which 40 musicians from different parts of Mali, and different ethnic cultures, join together in a call for peace. The musicians involved include Amadou & Mariam, Oumou Sangare, Bassekou Kouyate, Vieux Farka Toure, Djelimady Tounkara, Toumani Diabate, Khaira Arby, Kasse Mady Diabate, Baba Salah,  Tiken Jah, Amkoullel, Habib Koité, and Afel Bocoum. The project was created by Fatoumata Diawara, a singer/songwriter who blends the Wassalou traditions of southern Mali with jazz, soul, and other international influences. Diawara was born in Ivory Coast, spent her youth in Bamako (Mali's capital city), and now lives in France.

Go here to read about griots in modern Mali, and here to read about the threat to this tradition in Islamist areas where music has been banned.

And last: East meets west in "Chamber Music" by Malian kora player Ballaké Sissoko and French cellist Vincent Ségal (of Bumcello). Sissoko is the son of  the great kora player Djelimady Sissoko, and, like most musicians from the griot caste, began playing and performing at a very young age.  He comes from Bamako in western Mali. Vincent Ségal comes from Reims.


In addition to the musicians mentioned above I also recommend Yaya Diallo, Toumani & Sidiki Diabaté (father & son kora players), Bassekou Kouyate, Kokanka Sata, and the Tuareg music of Tinariwen and Tartit -- though there's so much good music coming out of Mali that it's  impossible to list it all.

She's five years old today....


Birthday Portrait 2

"Dogs are minor angels, and I don't mean that facetiously. They love unconditionally, forgive immediately, are the truest of friends, willing to do anything that makes us happy, etcetera. If we attributed some of those qualities to a person we would say they are special. If they had all of them, we would call them angelic. But because it's 'only' a dog, we dismiss them as sweet or funny but little more. However when you think about it, what are the things that we most like in another human being? Many times those qualities are seen in our dogs every single day -- we're just so used to them that we pay no attention."   - Jonathan Carroll

Happy birthday to our minor angel.