New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, Land of Circles

New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, Land of Circles

After two and a half weeks in the high-altitude New Mexico desert sun, I confess my summer freckles have returned. I like to think of them as my skin’s seasonal blossoming. They’re little circular perennials, roots dug deep and hibernating all winter long, waiting for a warm week to reappear.

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Juniper in front of Abiquiú Lake

I stayed in Abiquiú, New Mexico, a rural town outside Santa Fe, in June to work as an instructional counselor for a creative writing class for gifted and talented high school students. Ghost Ranch is now a retreat center, made famous by the renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who stayed there for many summers and eventually lived there full-time.

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Instructor and friend Natalie atop the overlook at Chimney Rock

This was my first time to New Mexico even though its entire northern border is most of Colorado’s southern border. The high desert there was overrun with crooked trees and low brush—juniper, sage, chamisa.

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Trail to Chimney Rock on Ghost Ranch, Cerro Pederal in the distance

At the welcome center for Bandelier National Monument I flipped through samples of dried and pressed plants, matching them to what I’d seen on our hike around the cave dwellings, their ruins. These amazing light brown sandstone cliffs full of holes and pockmarks, made hollow by centuries of erosion.

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Cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument

Circular structures ringed with stacked stones were built and called kivas by the Pueblo Native Americans who lived there. These buildings were used in rituals, especially coming-of-age ceremonies for young men wherein the structure functioned like a sweat lodge.

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More cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier National Monument is a dormant volcano featuring an enormous caldera, basically the collapsed crater-like center of a volcano since overgrown with grasses, shrubs, and thirsty western high-altitude trees like cottonwoods and aspen.

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Bandelier plant life

As our class stopped beneath some of the less accessible cliff dwellings (reached via a series of ladders) for lunch, we wrote in response to a prompt about rituals, and it occurred to me that the caldera could be seen as a sort of first kiva—the stone circle first laid by some ancient, powerful hand. This is what it looks like when the land forms circles—a collapse, an eruption, layers of volcanic ash pressed into earth, then sandstone.

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Blooming Cholla cactus at Bandelier National Monument

The town of Taos contains the Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the longest continuously inhabited villages in North America. Here the Pueblo people built their multi-story homes out of adobe brick, which consists of clay, hay, and water.

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A typical adobe home at the Taos Pueblo site

Both the mortar and the plaster which covers the bricks are made of mud. Cedar logs were laid across each structure to help form and support their ceilings. These ceiling also functioned as the floor of the story atop it, accessed by wooden ladders.

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Red chiles as decoration at Taos Pueblo

Because of the materials of these structures, it is impossible to outfit them with modern plumbing and electricity. Our tour guide told me only five families remain as full-time residents here, though many more keep their ancestral homes while they live primarily in the town of Taos, or elsewhere on the reservation.

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A window at the Catholic church in Taos

While walking around Taos Pueblo, I saw a man setting up a table with a display of turquoise jewelry underneath a hay canopy in front of an adobe home. We chatted, and he invited me into the home he said had been the birthplace of his great-grandfather, and inhabited by his family many, many generations before that.

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The Rio Pueblo de Taos in the foreground, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background

It was a simple, surprisingly cool single room with a small fireplace in one corner. He explained to me the technique by which the Pueblo people made the chimney. They took a cedar trunk and covered it with adobe plaster. Once dried, they then set the wood on fire, which would leave them with a hollow, cylindrical adobe structure. A circle of sky, open to sky.

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One of many art galleries in Taos Pueblo

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A close-up of the bison leather dreamcatcher

One night on a silent walk to Matrimonial Mesa at Ghost Ranch, I pointed out to the students the hoofprints of a deer in the mud. In a place that receives fewer than eight inches of rain a year, it had rained that afternoon. One student had spotted a garden snake who’d been coaxed out of the shadows by the cool rain. And the small, halved circles of the imprints of hooves wandering from the dirt road to the arroyo’s cottonwoods, weaving between chamisa and juniper.

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Desert daisies and pink sunsets on Ghost Ranch

On the mesa that night we watched the scattered, sputtering circles of stars come into being. We lay there quietly, listening to the high-pitched echoes of chirping bats as they drew their own looped circles in the air above. Kivas, nightly natural rituals. Circles in space and time. Each time we return to repeat the ritual, each time we circle back, something is different. We hold constant what we can, but we treasure everything.

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Looking west from Chimney Rock at Ghost Ranch

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

[from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows]

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Sunset over Chimney Rock on Ghost Ranch

Georgia O’Keeffe painted Cerro Pedernal (Flint Mountain) over forty times. The story goes that she took any paintings with which she wasn’t satisfied, drove down the mesa, and burned their canvases right there in the desert. About Cerro Pedernal O’Keeffe said, “God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” She returned and returned. She ritualized the process.

Locals heard of her affinity for bones and brought them to her, bleached white by desert sun and preserved by desert air. She painted a series centered on a cow’s pelvis. There are circles here, too—the spaces for each leg, the ball of each femur joint, the socket space. She painted it so close up, sometimes, that you can’t tell what the curves are a part of at all, what the lighting reveals.

Circles form from gravity, from wear and falling and moving and the difficulty of moving. Everything softens over time, forgets its corners, collapses. The desert is a land of circles, the simplicity of curves, the complexity of a single eye.

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National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month, so what better time of year for a blog post about poetry?

When I was an undergraduate, one of my English professors challenged all the students in my class to think of just five living poets (published, please- not your friend who has a Tumblr). I was surprised but not shocked to see that no one could. Rather, no one even tried. Here was a room full of voracious readers, English majors- self-professed literature lovers! And even they didn’t read contemporary poetry. Despite much ado regarding the “death of poetry,” there is a whole lively world of small literary journals out there, sifting through today’s writing and churning out new issues full of thoroughly vetted beauties.

Once people learn I write poetry, one of the first questions they ask is, “So what do you read?” I always list some poets and then we go our separate ways, them in all likelihood completely forgetting all six or so names I mentioned. So here you go, world: these are a few of today’s living poets I’ve been reading and admiring, along with my recommendations for specific poems, which you should start reading now. And seriously, none of these poems are long. If you read every single one right now, it would probably take you less than 30 minutes. So read! Be inspired! And share! Or, as Mary Oliver (more about her later) says, “Pay attention./ Be astonished./ Tell about it.”

Kim Addonizio: I can’t remember when I first encountered Addonizio’s poetry, but I remember being captivated by her voice- thoroughly contemporary but practiced, mindful, and intentional. She was born in Washington D.C. in 1954, but has lived most of her life in the San Francisco Bay area. She’s published poetry and fiction, as well as several nonfiction works. Two poems you should check out are “What Do Women Want?” which was published in 2000 and is as awesome as you’d expect, and “Lucifer at the Starlight,” which is a sonnet.

Billy Collins: This guy’s Wikipedia page even has a picture of him on it, so you should probably know who he is. A former U.S. Poet Laureate, Collins was born in 1941 in New York. Having received many awards and worked on the editorial boards of various journals, in 1999 the New York Times said, “With his books selling briskly and his readings packing them in, Mr. Collins is the most popular poet in America.” Three of his most well-known poems are “Introduction to Poetry,” which was originally published in 1988, “Marginalia,” published in the February 1996 edition of the magazine Poetry, and “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July,” which has since been used in the reading comprehension portion of AP English exams.

Dorianne Laux: I know of Dorianne Laux because she directs the MFA Program at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, which is pretty much where I grew up. She was born in 1952 in Maine, and didn’t complete her undergraduate degree until she was 36 years old, after which she went on to get a master’s as well. She lives in Raleigh today. Two of her poems you should check out: “Men,” from her 2011 collection The Book of Men, and “Life Is Beautiful,” which ends up being quite different from what you’d expect, just knowing the title.

Mary Oliver: As promised. Mary Oliver was born in 1953 in Ohio. She has won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for her work, and the New York Times Book Review has referred to her as, “Far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” (It helps, I think, to have a book of poems about dogs.) She never completed a college degree, but spent much of her young adult life studying the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Mary Oliver is kind of a big deal – and yet, her poetry remains approachable, simple, and starkly beautiful. Start by reading “The Summer Day,” “Rice” (pictured below), and “The Journey.”

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From Mary Oliver’s New & Selected Poems, Vol. 1

Natasha Trethewey: Born in Gulfport, Mississippi in 1966, Trethewey’s parents were illegally married at the time, as her father is white and her mother black. When Trethewey was 19, her mother was murdered by an ex-husband, whom she had recently divorced. Trethewey was appointed the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2012, and in 2007 she won the Pulitzer Prize. Read her poems “Incident,” which is a Pantoum about seeing the KKK burn a cross in her front yard as a child, and “Theories of Time and Space.”

Ocean Vuong: Born in 1988 in Saigon, or what is now known as Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Vuong immigrated to the U.S. in 1990. Today he lives in New York. This year Vuong won a prestigious Whiting Award. I was told by attendees of this year’s AWP Conference that there was not a dry eye in the room after his reading. Check out “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” (yes, his name is in the title) published last year in The New Yorker, and “A Little Closer to the Edge,” which is from THIS MONTH’S edition of Poetry Magazine. Brand new stuff, people.

~

Are there any poets or poems you would add to this list? Let me know what I should read next in the comments!

Love to all.

Poem: A Beat Behind

A Beat Behind

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Kant says we are removed from these moments
of our lives and we only know their effect
just as our vision of stars’ light, living on after
their technicolored deaths, is distant from the star
itself, heaving gas and heat, a flame – no, a frame
of light just visible and always a beat behind.
Millennia ago they sang their swan songs.

I’m learning to let myself be in time, in this
very second. Between chimes of the ting-sha
Tolle says that past and future are both illusions;
all we have is now. Kant has said we don’t
even have that so I choose to believe in beauty
over truth, to see echoes of stars and be struck
dumb by their pinpricks through this dark
matter fabric lightyears away, years ago.

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Beauty is “of the soul”

Back when I was in college, one English professor assigned us all of Edgar Allan Poe’s collected works to read. Most people are familiar with “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” thanks to our public school system and Halloween, but I don’t think many have exposure to Poe’s essays. If I were to list the most life-changing works I’ve ever read, Poe’s essays would absolutely be among them.

Actually, here they are – since people often ask me about my favorites anyhow:

  • Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam is a collection of poetry he wrote while mourning his best friend’s sudden death. Probably the most famous excerpt is “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all.” This was one of the first books I read that I felt dealt honestly with the hardships of faith, particularly in times of great tragedy. One of my favorite sections, which I tried very hard to memorize, follows:
    I falter where I firmly trod,
    And falling with my weight of cares
    Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
    That slope thro’ darkness up to God,
    I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
    And gather dust and chaff, and call
    To what I feel is Lord of all,
    And faintly trust the larger hope.
  • Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours is also poetry though it really functions as one long poem, originally in German but many translations are now widely available. Rilke didn’t see much artistic success during his lifetime, and suffered from both health problems and severe dry spells in his writing. If I recall correctly, he wrote the entirety of Book of Hours in the span of just a couple short weeks. The poems are from the perspective of a monk, speaking directly to God. Perhaps the best indicator of the tone of these poems is the quote, “What will you do, God, when I die?” [“Was wirst du tun, Gott, wenn ich sterbe?”] There is so much beautiful, timeless imagery throughout! Below is definitely one of my favorite sections:
    I live my life in widening circles
    that reach out across the world.
    I may not complete this last one
    but I give myself to it.
    I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
    I’ve been circling for thousands of years
    and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
    a storm, or a great song?
  • Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a novel, translated into many languages from the original Czech. Similar to Updike’s novel, which I list next, the text is largely concerned with love and lust as it occurs between men and women, and how heavy these things weigh in our human lives. There are so many lovely, intensely internal passages throughout. The below is underlined in my copy:
    “The young woman smiled dreamily as she went on about the storm, and he looked at her in amazement and something akin to shame: she had experienced something beautiful, and he had failed to experience it with her. The two ways in which their memories reacted to the evening storm sharply delimit love and nonlove.”
  • John Updike’s Marry Me I mentioned above. Updike wrote so much that it’s hard to choose just one, but it helps that I haven’t read all of them! The plot consists of two married couples, neighbors, who begin affairs with one another, at first unbeknownst to one another.
    “‘Don’t be silly. We’re all depending on your sanity.’ Jerry was always saying things like that, compliments that cut like insults, thrown to trip her mind, which never failed to stop and puzzle over what was meant. For he did not invariably mean the opposite of what was said. In this instance she suspected it was true, they were all in their craziness and infatuation and self-deception depending  on her sad, defeated sanity to hold them back from disaster.”
  • To continue with the theme of interpersonal relations, particularly those which involve some derivative of love, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. This novel demonstrates that love and hate are not at all opposites, and in fact have much more in common with one another than most are willing to admit. Below is a passage where Mr. Heathcliff is discussing his love for Catherine:
    “‘…for what is not connected with her to me? and what does not recall her? I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped on the flags! In every cloud, in every tree – filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object by day, I am surrounded with her image! The most ordinary faces of men and women – my own features – mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!'”
  • Last is J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, which I must thank my friend Makaiya for forcing me to read while we were barricaded in her West Village apartment during Hurricane Sandy.  The character Zooey becomes obsessed with the meditative ideal of praying without ceasing, which she encounters in a book about a pilgrim. This obsession coincides with a breakdown of sorts. In the passage below, she is describing the concept:
    “‘Well, the starets tells him about the Jesus Prayer first of all. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” I mean that’s what it is. And he explains to him that those are the best words to use when you pray. Especially the word “mercy,” because it’s such a really enormous word and can mean so many things. I mean it doesn’t just have to mean mercy…. Anyway,’ she went on, ‘the starets tells the pilgrim that if you keep saying that prayer over and over again – you only have to just do it with your lips at first – then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while. I don’t know what, but something happens, and the words get synchronized with the person’s heartbeats, and then you’re actually praying without ceasing. Which  has a really tremendous, mystical effect on your whole outlook. I mean that’s the whole point of it, more or less. I mean you do it to purify your whole outlook and get an absolutely new conception of what everything’s about.'”

So obviously I wholeheartedly recommend the above books, that is if you’re in the market for a paradigm shift. Anyway, back to the original point of this post, which was to highlight Poe’s essays and their affect.

There is an ongoing argument among artists about the function and purpose of art, which coincides with the well-worn argument about art for the artist (e.g. Emily Dickinson) or art for the people (e.g. Diego Rivera). Poe sees the former as 1) poetry to attain truth/passion, or 2) poetry to attain beauty. He adamantly falls into the second camp:

“…the point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem…. That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect – they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of the soul – not of intellect, or of heart – upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating ‘the beautiful.’ …Now the object, Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are, although attainable, to a certain extent, in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and Passion a homeliness (the truly passionate will comprehend me) which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the excitement, or pleasurable elevation, of the soul.”

Poe then goes on to discuss how, in technical poetic particulars, he strives toward Beauty in “The Raven.” At the time, as an undergraduate, this concept blew my mind. That “aaahhh” feeling I got from reading a really excellent poem was actually my soul’s reaction to experiencing Beauty. And this is exactly why I don’t find it frivolous to both seek out and value beauty as it occurs in our daily lives. In fact, Milan Kundera has a passage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being where he admonishes the public for not recognizing ordinary moments of beauty, particularly in the occurrence of coincidences.

Let’s see, examples of ways you could seek out beauty today:

  1. Take a long walk
  2. Thank someone; express your gratitude (it will make you happier!)
  3. Read a poem (this one is a lovely example of Beauty)
  4. Make something, whether on the page, in the kitchen, between two knitting needles…
  5. Frame a few of those Facebook photographs you always find yourself going back to
  6. Pray
  7. Buy some flowers and arrange them at home

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How do you value beauty in your daily life?