I always carry my bones

Image from PushBack, by Richard L. Rose

I always carry my bones by Felicia Zamora, University of Iowa Press, 2021. 

            Insistence is not confirmation. Whatever one insists that poetry is, a poet like Felicia Zamora readily disconfirms. Like Dr. Joanna Lee, another poet of the body (in Dissections, 2017), who says that “poetry/ is always barefoot, even / over broken glass,” Zamora breaks into definitions. She “breaches etiquette” meant to keep her out. Like Dr. Williams, laying out the great body of Paterson before dissecting it, she shows us her body, which is our body, which is our country: “heart of reeds, lung/ of dew, stomach of grasses, what dwells/ in land dwells in you,” a well-known country—Whitman territory, where “all are part of the procession.” But even language conspires to keep migrants out: “the oppressor’s language has been pre-configured to defeat you—a language which does not give you the right to speak—certainly not to make poems.” The Church Ladies do their good deeds with circumspection, looking for “something worthy to give/ a kid like me. Something almost broken / almost breathing.” With Blakean leaps from sharp images of weathered bones, or the chrysalis of a migrant Monarch butterfly who wears “a belt of earthly stars in ornament,” or the razors handed out “for one more go home wetback” to prophetic social criticism, Zamora insists on her own definitions. The exclusive constructs of language, the certainties of pseudoscience like craniometry, and the skeletal remains of careless research beneath the parking lots of Lee’s medical school are “wounds of bodies made inferior with labels,” whereas those very bodies proclaim how “our organs in skeletal structures connect us beyond your labels.” A personal story and a national story, told in a rushing, fragmented style with words like expose, stun, sever, and relinquish suddenly becoming nouns in the way that countless daily cuts and gestures continually bring the migrant or outsider up short, this collection is also a celebration of a different kind of body politic—and of how to grow into it. “We all grow out of something,” she says, thinking of doors slamming shut behind her; “thinking I had done something wrong to never warrant celebration,” but confident that human beings can “unlearn rules, draw a map that starts in fluid of your lungs,” and, instead of fearing all the other kinds of bodies, discover “awe in the limitlessness” of diversity. . #I always carry my bones #NetGalley

The RHS Book of Garden Verse

A REVIEW

Uncomfortable with their intimate dependence upon plants, human beings have asserted dominion over their lowly green companions. For generations, from Gilgamesh’s whacking at the holy Cedar Forest, to the expulsion from Eden, to medieval botanists collecting herbs for their signatures to healing, to Charlotte de la Tour’s explication of flower dialects, to Luther Burbank’s seed catalog, and Monsanto’s genetic insertions into corn and soybeans, humans have considered plants as cultivars and instruments, like pebble-tools, fire, querns, or rototillers.  Uncomfortable with the thought that plants might be transcendent beings with long-term strategies of their own, most humans maintain a strictly I-It relationship—except for poets. Decorous in the best sense of a well-matched counterpoint of the verbal and visual, the Royal Horticultural Society Book of Garden Verse, published by Quarto in the Frances Lincoln collection of illustrated gardening books, is a splendid addition to the long tradition of miscellanies and anthologies of horticultural verse. Happily neither comprehensive nor predictable, but concise and surprising, it is like a country walk, welcoming inquiry at every turn. The expected favorites make an appearance—Kilmer’s Trees, Herrick’s Cherry-Ripe, Housman’s Loveliest of Trees.   But all is not cowslips and golden daffodils. Here also find Sharon Olds’ lowly slug with its gelatinous trail, Sylvia Plath’s mushrooms who “shoulder through holes”, and the weedy patch that will not yield, no matter how much Housman “hoed and trenched and weeded.” The prints are as dramatic as they are apposite to the text. With no sign of desiccated, flattened specimens or botanical preciosity, the roses and marigolds float from page to page like greetings from a country walk to Colley Hill or Banstead Heath.  Like Edwin Morgan’s “strawberries/ like the ones we had/ that sultry afternoon/ sitting on the step,” these prints and poems make a sweet gift for the gardener with muddy knees and for the wintry-minded bookish naturalist who takes her greens in water-colors, in this garden of diction, you will find palms with island dialects and low plants with American vowels, mingling with the verbal cataracts of English Romantics, and the word-intoxicated intensity of Elizabethans. References to other works, like the poem, “April,” from Vita Sackville-West’s The Garden, will lead, like the “couch-grass throwing shoots at every node” into the larger company of green beings with lives and minds of their own. #TheRHSBookofGardenVerse #NetGalley

–Richard L. Rose https://frameshifts.com/

Decorations, Displays, and Forms of Resistance

December, 2020



Decorations, Displays, and Forms of Resistance

            Christmas decorations are going up along the street. Unlike other animals, who mostly seek to practice unobserved lives, humans call attention to themselves. When other animals do show themselves, their displays are fantastic and extravagant, but usually brief.  The cost to benefit comparison must be kept low. A puffed prairie cock can attract not only a mate but a bobcat. The unit of measurement for this comparison is generally taken to be progeny. Failure to replace the adults with progeny is usually considered low marks in the survival game.

             Another measuring unit, however, is benefit to habitat, with pass-through benefit to your species. Unplanned as they are, animals’ interactions with their habitat contribute to overall stability, as Darwin described in the famous study of earthworms and soil. Many other interactions have been studied, such as the microtubular communication system of trees and fungi. Even unattractive species like Emerald borers, locusts, tapeworms, bot flies, mosquitoes, and black flies in both adult and larval forms are often control elements within food webs, acting as stabilizers in different ways. Population biologists speak of the “strategies” of plants, animals, and microbes. The prairie cock’s strategy in an epideictic display is to attract mates. The fungal strategy is to take up the nutrients from the tree’s roots, but the tree’s strategy is to use the absorptive and communicative potential of fungal mycelia. The oyster’s strategy of producing thousands of eggs is to bet that a few will survive, but the cat’s strategy is to produce a litter and take care of them so well that most of them will survive. Such strategies are the evolved solutions to the problems faced in the survival game. Unless you’re a microbe, hundreds to thousands of years are required for even minor strategies to evolve. Oyster-like strategies, based on having surplus progeny, depend on a high reproductive rate. They are called “r-strategies.”

            An oak tree, producing an abundance of acorns in one year and only a few in the next, is following a different strategy.  Many plants can afford to wait to reproduce. They can survive through vegetative reproduction. Bamboo may flower only every thirty years. They can afford to wait. Meanwhile, the squirrels who preyed on the oak and grew fat in the year of abundance die off in the years of shortfall. They cannot afford to wait. The oak quietly controls the interaction, following a long-haul strategy, called the “K-strategy.” This brings me back to the contrast between decorations and displays.

            Perhaps craftsmen and animals have this in common: they do not decorate. They do display—at their own peril—both in the service of their kind and, unknowingly, in service of their habitat. When a craftsman like Toni Morrison constructs an elaborate story like Solomon’s Leap, she does not decorate. She takes a perilous risk to display something central to human survival—and to the survival of human habitat: so also with Stephen King, writing The Green Mile. These writers do not waste material; as mortise and tenon do not show joints, their writing does not explain when it can show.Whether craft is employed in making stories, furniture, or cathedrals, the strategy is to make something useful, reliable, and durable for other humans playing the survival game—which is the only game in town. The works that best follow a K-strategy are those providing reflexive ways to improve human interactions with other humans and with the habitat.

             A good example is the exponential growth curve of the current pandemic. The exponential function embodied in this curve is governed by variables that humans can affect, particularly in the early stage. When we “flatten the curve,” we are using the mathematical tool reflexively, not passively observing it. Given an ideal period of two weeks to a month of total quarantine, the virus, having nowhere to go, would die out. While this ideal is impossible to achieve, it is quite possible to approach.  Unfortunately, having a well-crafted tool to use or work of art to learn from does not guarantee that it will be appreciated. Displays of Italian masterpieces inside the vaults of Saudi princes do not touch the heart. Humans have a long history of failing to study, understand, and use the works that sustain the survival of caring, the survival of habitat, and the survival of the human project.

            Things are always flying apart—buildings, languages, beliefs, cultures. Physical and social erosion, along with occasional catastrophes, do their entropic best to demolish our efforts. The current pandemic reveals the cracks in infrastructure, institutions, and ideas. Work is needed; new structures are needed. Most of this work will not turn out masterpieces but small, incremental actions of fashioning, caring, structuring, and display. And this is the human project—our unique contribution:  the cognitive path.

            Unlike the many natural migrations and shifts of other species, such as the wanderings of monarch butterflies and wooly-bear caterpillars, the cognitive paths of humans become a grand procession of learning, errors, and countless leaps of consciousness—or frame-shifts. These frame-shifting leaps transpose us to systems with different coordinates, as in math when one goes from rectangular to polar coordinates. Such shifts include inventions, insights, and acts of moral courage. They are mostly unobserved, but like the long-haul K-strategies of forest giants, they preserve habitat, both biotic and social. Such shifts of frame and regard do not call attention to themselves or decorate the scene: they build, save, preserve, protect, and care for community, communication, communion, and the other commons—the rest of the living world.

             The frame-shifts of the human project include resistance, confrontations, and sacrifices. Understanding comes after the fact as the consequences become clear. The procession of the human project continually shifts toward more humane behavior and institutions across cultures and continually resists challenges, such as the hatred of outsiders so characteristic of our primate back-up system.

            To keep the procession going, I pray.

             Prayer is not a twist inward but a turn outward. It is sustained attention and creative engagement, both personal and collaborative, leading to a cognitive procession from fate to will, ignorance to understanding, greed to acceptance, waste to salvage, fear to hope, opportunism to compassion, exclusion to inclusion, and partial work to whole-hearted soul-work in the vocations that suit you.  To pray is to remind yourself that fate is an illusion; that ignorance, greed, and waste have mortal costs; that fear is false evidence appearing real, and that no secretive or mercenary theft can gain as much for the community as widening the circle of compassion. To pray is to engage creatively and skillfully, sometimes collaboratively, in building community.

            In this aspirational system, I defy the satisfactions of ignorance and the comforts of denial and withdrawal. I defy the reduction of humanity or the living world to any kind of bottom-line calculation. I defy the insistence on beliefs, proofs of loyalty, and decorations of status.           There is much to resist, externally and within, in order to advance the human project. Resistance takes on many forms—confrontations, poems, laws, quiet actions.

            The few square inches of cortical ensembles which have set us on a different path than our closest animal cousins have given us aspirations. Our best aspirations are easily identified in all cultures, and also corrupted in all cultures. Aligning ourselves with these aspirations is our human project. Luckily, we can usually do it unobserved, in the same way that animals go about their lives with only an occasional need to risk a display like this.

My latest form of resistance is a book of poems, PushBack. Links to PreOrders for PushBack, to be published in 2021, are on AmazonBarnes + NobleIndiebound, and Book Depository.