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March 2019

Spinning straw into gold, pain into art

Morning on Nattadon Hill

As a writer, and as a woman with health problems, I have a particular interest in a genre of books sometimes referred to (affectionately or condescendingly) as "sick lit": reflections on living life with a serious illness or disability. I seek out such books not only to discover how other writers think about these issues, but also how they've managed the alchemical work of turning hard experience into art -- for this is something I strive to do myself, and fail at more often than I succeed.

Upper bench, Nattadon Hill

Disability literature is plenty, and increasing. The dog-earred volumes on my own shelves include The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde, Illnesss as Metaphor by Susan Sontag, essay collections by Nancy Mairs and Floyd Skloot, The Anatomy of Illness by Kat Duff, Elegy for a Disease by Anne Finger, Eating the Underworld by Doris Brett, A Match to the Heart by Gretel Ehrlich, One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, The Still Point of a Turning World by Emily Rapp, An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison, Hillbilly Gothic by Adrienne Martini, Tristomania by Jay Griffiths, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison,  It's Just Nerves by Kelly Davio, Kissed by a Fox by Priscilla Stuckey, and The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey.

Each of these is well worth a read, but one volume I've only recently discovered is in a league of its own: Pain Woman Takes Your Keys & Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber. It's simply the best account that I've yet read of living a writer's life in a body that does not function properly, told in language so exquisitely crafted that it took my breath away.

Painwoman Takes Your Keys by Sonya Huber

The collection begins with "What Pain Wants," a short piece in the interstice between poetry and prose, in which Huber personifies pain as an implacable yet poignant figure with "the inscrutable eyes and thin beak of an egret." Trapped in "a body that is ill-fitting for its unfolded shape," Pain communicates in symbols and signs -- then, faced with human incomprehension, puts its "beaked head in its long-fingered wing hands in frustration and loneliness." Huber's image of pain as tormentor and tormented, a Hib Sabin Trickster god come to life, has the ring of mythic truth about it, and is one I won't soon forget.

Dartmoor ponies 2

Dartmoor ponies 3

She then goes on to explore the physical, emotional, political, sexual, and practical aspects of living, working, and raising a child while dealing with disability and navigating the maddening medical world. There is sorrow, frustration, and anger in these essays, of course, but also comedy, wisdom, and sharp, bright joy -- lifted from reportage to art by the poetic precision of Huber's writing.

Dartmoor ponies 7

"Welcome to the Kingdom of the Sick," for example, begins like this:

"When I am ill, only the kingdom of the ill is a comfort. The image of laughing, limber-limbed bodies with shining hair is not bitter because I long for it. It is bitter because it does not have anything to teach me and because it makes me forget the solidity of my own ground. I cannot aim for that bright country of the well anymore. It is barred to me, and as I hold it in my mind's eye, there is no room for crushing nostalgia. The taste is bitter because it is the taste denied.

"What I learn is that the kingdom of the ill is a vast bedrock. We appear weak and reclined, yet we cannot be invaded or defeated. Look at us: We are unbreakable in our brokeness. We cannot be cured and are therefore invincible. We have dropped down the well. We reel in a slow-motion dance, treading where others fear to tread, continuing to breathe in the postnormal existence. We are the zombies, the undead. We are the good and bad witches, double-sighted.

"The kingdom of the ill is mighty and legion, and it is the borderland all bodies must pass through. And we have set up tents, encampments, and homes. We wave at you from beyond the gates.

"When you have arrived, you have arrived. Welcome and blessings."

Dartmoor ponies 4

Some of the essays in the volume are straight-foward in construction; others stray from linear narrative in order to conjure the experience of pain, describing the indescribable. I admit I'm often wary of experimental modes of writing, for in unskilled hands such forms can be affectations rather than necessary to the text. But here, the breaking of convention works. It is purposeful, controlled, sparingly applied, and thus powerfully effective.

Dartmoor ponies 5

Dartmoor ponies 6

I found myself reading Pain Woman slowly...doling it out...savouring each essay, reluctant for the book to end. I turned the last page on a bright winter's day on the hill behind my studio -- exhilarated by Huber's prose, and sad that there was to be no more of it.

Shaking myself from under its spell, I looked up and found a herd of Dartmoor ponies drifting toward my bench.  They'd climbed up from the fields below, heading over the hill and out to the moor. Soon they surrounded me and Tilly, their breath steaming lightly in the cold air. The end of a book is a super-charged moment, particularly if the book has been good, and the presence of ponies felt like a benediction on the surge of emotions Pain Woman had raised.

Dartmoor ponies

Pony

The hound and I watched quietly as the herd slowly drifted away again, disappearing over the crest of the hill. Then I packed up my things, whistled for Tilly, and headed back down to the studio. In that moment, I knew I would write this post: on language and ponies and life in a body that fails me, then heals again, time after time. I knew I needed to recommend Huber's book, both to those who know the sly/shy Trickster god of pain, and those who don't, at least not yet.

It's a searing, honest, beautiful read...

Dartmoor ponies 8

...and now blessed by wild ponies too.

Dartmoor ponies 9

Dartmoor ponies 10

The passage above is from Pain Woman Takes Your Keys & Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber (The University of Nebraska Press, 2017). The poem in the picture captions is from New Ohio Review (Spring, 2011). All rights reserved by the authors.


In memorium

Merwin's palm forest

I was so sorry to learn of the death of poet, playwright, and translator W.S. Merwin, who work has meant a good deal to me over years. At 91 years old, he had a long, good life, but the world will be a lesser place without him.

Born the son of a minister in 1927, Merwin was raised (like me) in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He then studied at Princeton on a scholarship, travelled through Europe developing his remarkable facility for languages, and lived on the island of Majorca where he tutored Robert Graves' son. In subsequent years, Merwin lived in Boston, New York, London, and rural France before finally settling down in Haiku, Hawaii with his beloved wife, Paula. It was there that he began his other life's work: the slow restoration of a palm forest on nineteen acres of Hawaiian coastline.

William Stanley Merwin

In a lovely essay for The Kenyon Review, Merwin wrote about the first sight of his land, despoiled by years of sugar cane production:

"It was not hard to see that the soil was poor. If I had known to look for them, I would have been able to see the up-and-down corduroy ridges in the dry, waving grass across the valley, a testament of the most recent land abuse. But the condition of the soil did not, in itself, daunt me. I had long dreamed of having a chance, one day, to try to restore a bit of the earth’s surface that had been abused by human 'improvement.' I loved the wind-swept ridge, empty of the sounds of machines, just as it was, with its tawny, dry grass waving in the wind of late summer. The rough road behind me, and the one along the top of the ridge on the other side of the valley, led down to end at the sea cliff a quarter of a mile away. I had not yet seen that the road on which I had come ended on a headland, overlooking a large bay, with a shore of boulders and a hill behind that on which the second-largest heiau (Hawaiian temple platform and compound) in the islands, wholly unexcavated, was hidden under mango trees.

Bird of Paradise in Merwin's palm forest

"I was captivated by the sense of distance along the coast. From in front of the cabin there was only one other building to be seen: a barn-red house halfway down the opposite slope. Out beyond the sea cliffs the ocean extended without a break all the way to Alaska. That was the destination, every spring, of the migrating plovers that flashed above me far ahead of their call-notes. From the cabin on that first day, I followed the ghost of a path down through the waist-high grass. It curved to the left and then swung to lead down under the mango trees. When I stepped into their shade, I seemed at once to be in another world. The sound of the wind was suddenly muted and far away. The air was cooler, and from somewhere I could not see among the trees I was startled to hear the voice of a thrush singing, at that hour of the day. It was the omao, known as the 'Hawaiian thrush,' though, in fact, it was a foreigner, just as I was. It was also called, more accurately, the Chinese thrush, and also the Laughing thrush. There are few members of the thrush family, whatever their species, that are not great singers (the American robin is a notable exception) and the omao, like the nightingale, never repeats itself but sings variations from an inexhaustible source.

"I stood still and listened, looking along the valley in the shade of the mango trees as the thrush went on singing, and then I stepped down the slope and walked over to the rocky stream bed itself. I stood there hearing the thrush and wanting to stay."

Omao (Hawaiian thrush)

The video above is a trailer for the film Even Though the World is Burning, about Merwin's life, poetry, and work on the land. It's a beautiful film, and I highly recommend it.

(You can purchase a copy through The Merwin Conservancy here. )

W.S. Merwin

Merwin's palm forest


Citizens of the land

Path to the Commons

"As a descendant of slaves and freeman, native inhabitants, and colonizers from Europe," writes Lauret Savoy, "I struggle to understand what it means for me -- or anyone -- to be an American and a human being. Frames of bondage, segregation, forced removal, and an ancient connection to homeland shaped how my ancestors experienced the world and who they knew themselves to be in that world. The legacies of those frames shape us still, their presence malignant to the degree they have been ignored, forgotten, or silenced and then repeated in institutions, and in people's attitudes and lives.

Hound on the path

Ponies on the Commons

"There may be many things about ourselves that my countrymen and -women do not wish to know, but ignorance of human diversity and human contradition only nourishes social injustice and ecological denial. Ideals of freedom, democracy, and independence ring hollow -- and false -- if they remain accessible to a privileged few, the rest of us meant to be kept silent, invisible....We fail ourselves and our children to live with less than the largest possible sense of community, and we fool ourselves to live as if the past is no longer part of us.

Ponies 2

Ponies 3

"Musn't citizens of this or any nation go beyond myth, face hypocrisy and contradiction, terror as well as beauty, to understand the complex dynamics that have shaped the land and ourselves as people? Only then, I believe, can a larger sense of who we are and where we are as interconnected ecological, cultural, and historical beings begin to develop. If, as Aldo Leopold wrote, the health of a land is its capacity for self-renewal, then perhaps the health of the human family may be an intergenerational capacity for locating ourselves within many inheritances as citizens of the land, of nations, and of Earth, and thus within ever-widening communities."

Ponies 4

"We have been carrying on two parallel conversations," Scott Russell Sanders concurs, "one about respecting human diversity, the other about preserving natural diversity. Unless we merge those conversations, both will be futile. Our efforts to honor human differences cannot succeed apart from our effort to honor the buzzing, blooming, bewildering variety of life of earth. All life rises from the same source, and so does all fellow feeling, whether the fellow moves on two legs or four, on scaly bellies or feathered wings. If we care only for human needs, we betray the land; if we care only for the earth and its wild offspring, we betray our own kind. The profusion of creatures and cultures is the most remarkable fact about our planet, and the study and stewardship of that profusion seems to me our fundamental task."

I couldn't agree more.

Ponies 5

For a deeper dive into natural and cultural history by writers of diverse backgrounds, I recommend The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity and the Natural Word, edited by Lauret Savoy and Alison Deming, along with Savoy's book Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape.

And perhaps you'll join me in supporting The Willowherb Review, a new journal dedicated to diversity in nature writing, publishing emerging and established writers of colour with a focus on place, environment, and nature.

Ponies 6

Pathway home

Trace by Lauret Savoy

Words: The passages above are from "Possibility Begins Here" by Lauret Savoy, published in A Voice for the Earth: American Writers Respond to the Earth Charter (University of Georgia Press, 2008), and "Voyageurs" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in Writing from the Center (Indiana University Press, 1997). The poem in the picture captions is from The River of History by Gloria Bird, of the Spokane Tribe of Washington State (Trask House Press, 1998). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Dartmoor ponies on the village Commons in the pause between winter and spring.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Vanessa Bell rose

Today, art for hard times. We can be the healing.

Above: "The Flower" by American musician and activist Michael Franti, with his band Spearhead and Victoria Canal. The song is from Franti's film project Stay Human, and appears on the album Stay Human, Volume 2 (2019).

Below: Michael Franti performing "Nobody Cries Alone" at Paste Studio in New York City earlier this year. He's accompanied by Victoria Canal on keyboard and Carl Young on bass.

Above: "Tus Pies" by Nahko Bear, a musician and activist of Apache/Mowhawk/Puerto Rican/Filipino heritage, performed at Paste Studio in New York City. The song is from Hoka, Nahko's third album with the "Medicine for the People" collective (2016).

Below: "You Build a Wall" by English folk musician and activist Grace Petrie. It's from her first album, Heart First Aid Kit (2017). Her latest, Queer as Folk, is very good too.

Above: "Manara" by Alsarah and the Nubatones. Alsarah was born in Sudan, raised in Yemen, and is now based in Brooklyn, New York. This song was performed in New York as part of the Amnesty International concert series in support of refugees, Give a Home (2017).

Below: "Seven Notes" by English folk musician Nancy Kerr, a song about colonialism, migration, and race relations written for the Sweet Liberties project. It appeared on the Sweet Liberties album, and on Kerr's solo album Instar (2016).

The William Morris roseAbove: "Everlasting Arms," an American gospel song performed by musicians around the world. The video is part of the Playing for Change project, whose mission is "to connect the world through music, born from the shared belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people."

Below: "Love Train" by Turnaround Arts, a program that brings professional artists into struggling schools across America. The video features Turnaround students performing alongside the artists who have taught and mentored them. It was filmed with support from the Kennedy Center in DC, and the Playing for Change foundation.

The Beatrix Potter rose

Photographs: rose varieties named after artists Vanessa Bell, William Morris, and Beatrix Potter.


Waking up to sorrow

Hound and daffodils

On another day of terrible news, this time from Christchurch, New Zealand, I send deep love to Muslim friends, neighbours, publishing colleagues, and the worldwide Muslim community. "Thoughts and prayers" are not enough, of course. I stand beside you, working for change.

"I am so tired of waiting, aren’t you, for the world to become good and beautiful and kind?" - Langston Hughes

Wild daffodils and hound

Picking wild daffs

The poem in the picture captions, from The Essential Rumi , was translated by Coleman Banks (Harpers, 2004); all rights reserved.