Monday, April 25, 2016

what questions can I ask you

I Believe

by Elizabeth Alexander

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry

is where we are ourselves
(though Sterling Brown said

“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I’”),
digging in the clam flats

for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

So, I missed the perfect shot of these three women. They were all three in a line and I was in the position to take their photo crossing a road. But I was in such a revery that though the composition registered, they had passed by before I fumbled my camera up to my eye. They were going my way and I followed them, hoping to capture their colourful jackets against the new spring green. It seemed a wonderful suburban spring image to me - the bright colours, the three young ones being pushed in their high-tech prams. You'll note all the grit and gravel on the roads that's yet to be picked up by the street cleaners.

Here and Now

by Peter Balakian

The day comes in strips of yellow glass over trees.
When I tell you the day is a poem
I’m only talking to you and only the sky is listening.
The sky is listening; the sky is as hopeful
as I am walking into the pomegranate seeds
of the wind that whips up the seawall.
If you want the poem to take on everything,
walk into a hackberry tree,
then walk out beyond the seawall.
I’m not far from a room where Van Gogh
was a patient — his head on a pillow hearing
the mistral careen off the seawall,
hearing the fauvist leaves pelt
the sarcophagi. Here and now
the air of the tepidarium kissed my jaw
and pigeons ghosting in the blue loved me
for a second, before the wind
broke branches and guttered into the river.
What questions can I ask you?
How will the sky answer the wind?
The dawn isn’t heartbreaking.
The world isn’t full of love.

{from What You Need to Know About Peter Balakian, the New Pulitzer-Prize Winning Poet, Washington Post}

The sky is listening...

One of the big questions I ask myself, writing this blog, is: how do we uplift each other? I'm also of course more selfishly asking, how do I uplift myself? I seem to recall someone once quoting the line you get from flight attendants during the pre-flight safety demonstration, about how you need to make sure you affix the oxygen mask on yourself before attempting to help others with theirs. Likewise, we need to become inspired, find inspiration, before we ourselves can inspire.

“Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being.”

- Albert Schweitzer

Last week I mentioned Krista Tippett's book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. (It's on the recommended shelf, above). I keep returning to page 29 where she talks about how "listening is an everyday social art" but how we often neglect this art.

"Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability - a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons one's own best self and one's own best words and questions."

She goes on to say, and I love this:

"Generous listening in fact yields better questions."

I always sort of cringe when someone says, it never hurts to ask. Though maybe it has more to do with how. Perhaps it's the 'never hurts to ask' attitude that troubles me. It doesn't come from a place of openness or generosity.

So. Krista Tippett then says, "I've learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words. Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what's needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it's hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It's hard to transcend a combative question. But it's hard to resist a generous question."

I'm not one to talk much about a project when I begin writing, and it's been too long since I've sat with my work which is an awful awful feeling, but the novel I'm writing has at its centre, the question. I'm interested in how we ask questions, how they hang in the air, how one question leads to an answer which leads to an entirely unexpected question. The space between question and answer. The beauty of the question, the danger. The mood in which a generous question might be asked. I'm interested in curiosity, and how we can cultivate it and how to create appropriate situations for it.

I could go on. But perhaps these are thoughts better written in a burnable journal.

The world is beautiful, but not sayable. That's why we need art.

-  Charles Simic

A friend shared this on Facebook, though I've lost track of who it was! So sorry! 

Really beautiful though. 

Lost in the Forest

by Pablo Neruda

Lost in the forest, I broke off a dark twig
and lifted its whisper to my thirsty lips:
maybe it was the voice of the rain crying,
a cracked bell, or a torn heart.

Something from far off it seemed
deep and secret to me, hidden by the earth,
a shout muffled by huge autumns,
by the moist half-open darkness of the leaves.

Wakening from the dreaming forest there, the hazel-sprig
sang under my tongue, its drifting fragrance
climbed up through my conscious mind

as if suddenly the roots I had left behind
cried out to me, the land I had lost with my childhood---
and I stopped, wounded by the wandering scent.


by Jean Valentine

You, poem
the string I followed blind
to leaf by thick green leaf
to your stem
poem without words
world electric with you

{from Door in the Mountain by Jena Valentine}

The images so far have been of spring in the suburbs where I live. Next: I take you back to the Kurimoto Japanese Gardens which I spoke about last week. While the workshop participants were writing and thinking and taking their own photos, I managed to take a few myself.

I'm sure I've shared this at some point before, but I always love the line about how our lives happen between those things we find memorable.

Highlights and Interstices

by Jack Gilbert

We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional
and sorrows. Marriage we remember as the children,
vacations, and emergencies. The uncommon parts.
But the best is often when nothing is happening.
The way a mother picks up the child almost without
noticing and carries her across Waller Street
while talking with the other woman. What if she
could keep all of that? Our lives happen between
the memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual
breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about
her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.

The poem above, led me to this next one, also by Gilbert, and which I find to be perfectly reasonable and perfectly touching. (I once wrote a poem about my brother coming back as a cat, and another time as a spider).


by Jack Gilbert

I never thought Michiko would come back
after she died. But if she did, I knew
it would be as a lady in a long white dress.
It is strange that she has returned
as somebody's dalmation. I meet
the man walking her on a leash
almost every week. He says good morning
and I stoop down to calm her. He said
once that she was never like that with
other people. Sometimes she is tethered
on their lawn when I go by. If nobody
is around, I sit on the grass. When she
finally quiets, she puts her head in my lap
and we watch each other's eyes as I whisper
in her soft ears. She cares nothing about
the mystery. She likes it best when
I touch her head and tell her small
things about my days and our friends.
That makes her happy the way it always did.


A slight breeze, the light, the new leaves, that brilliant blue sky.....looking up....beautifully lost:

This little bit of magic:

I have a huge thing for birch trees. I love them so.

And thus ends this week's post. But first the bits and bobs:


Watched. National Gallery by Frederick Wiseman. Beautifully slow moving and detailed. I loved the work meetings, the glimpses of the frame carvers, and all the behind the scenes stuff, interspersed with the glowing paintings from the collection. I most loved the scenes with the restorer, describing process and philosophy.  (Note: received the DVD via mail and it was zone 2, so watched it on the computer, having to change the region code, which you're only allowed to do a couple of times).

Rob's art exhibition. We're sort of all about that now. If you know of anyone in Calgary who would like to come and view the work, please share. May 7th, Wallace Galleries. We're pretending to be all calm but as usual, this is a pretty freaking nerve-wracking business.

And a lesson from Ace on how to inhabit the light:

Here he waits while I'm cooking dinner, in case anything just so happens to hit the floor.

Lastly, the two of us. At the end of our street, coming home.


  1. This, all this, is golden. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Your images are beautiful, from the earth to the sky...and I am a big lover of birch trees too. So many wonderful poems you've shared here. I'm really touched by the Jack Gilbert poem, "Alone". I lost my brother a few years ago...I wonder what he would come back as? I have a question, did you lose your brother too...and would you share your poems?

    So nice to see all that lovely spring in your neck of the woods! Best of luck with Rob's exhibition, no doubt it's a nerve wracking time leading up to the event, but I'm sure it will be amazing!

    1. The poems are in my Blue Feast book, Susan - and I don't have them on my computer any more. So long ago! I looked them up when I was writing the post and they seem more cryptic than I'd meant them to be. I love the directness of Gilbert's.

      I sometimes wonder what any of us would come back as? And once wrote a poem about coming back as a horse....along with another friend who loves horses.

      Interesting ruminations - thank you for them.

  3. "a burnable journal" -- love it. Evokes so many different ideas for me.


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