Connections: Geology and Gems

When I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking earlier this summer, I was particularly struck by a passage where Didion writes about finding meaning in geology:

“As a child I thought a great deal about meaninglessness, which seemed at the time the most prominent negative feature on the horizon. After a few years of failing to find meaning in the more commonly recommended venues I learned that I could find it in geology, so I did. This in turn enabled me to find meaning in the Episcopal litany, most acutely in the words as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, which I interpreted as a literal description of the constant changing of the earth, the unending erosion of the shores and mountains, the inexorable shifting of the geological structures that could throw up mountaintas and islands and could just as reliably take them away. I found earthquakes, even when I was in them, deeply satisfying, abruptly revealed evidence of the scheme in action.”

Later, she quotes a passage from one of her own novels, in which a character talks about viewing the landscape around her through the lens of geology, so that “A hill is a transitional accommodation to stress…A waterfall…a self-correcting maladjustment of stream to structure.”

I never thought about the world in this way before.

Right now I’m reading a novel called Russian Winter, by Daphne Kalotry, that’s slated for release in September. I’m only a few chapters into it, but the book revolves around jewelry which the young ballerina Nina Revskaya brought with her when she escaped Stalinist Russia for the United States. Years later, in present day Boston, she has decided to auction off her jewels to benefit the ballet company she danced with during her career.

The associate director of the auction house she has chosen is writing the background matter for the auction, and she thinks about one of the pieces, an amber necklace, in a way that remembered me of Didion. She “consciously viewed the pendent as a jewel with its very own private and organic past. A gemological creation of the natural world, nothing to do with human travails.”

I know this passage is tiny compared with the quotation I took from Didion’s book, but the two interest me in relation to one another because they demonstrate the diverse origins of meaning, or meaningfulness, and the way that things change when we interpret them differently.

I don’t know whether it’s more that we see meaning in the things that speak to us, the way geology speaks to Didion and gems speak to Drew, or that we read meaning through whichever lenses suit us best. I guess the question I’m getting at here is “where does the meaning originate?” In the fault lines or the amber itself, or in our interpretation of these natural occurrences as meaningful?

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What I’m Reading: John Clare, Emily Dickinson

John Clare was a 19th-century English poet, whose work I discovered in a used bookstore several years ago. He didn’t come up in either of my British Literature survey courses in college, but I think he’s an excellent poet. The son of a farm laborer, Clare never made enough money from his writing to support his family (he had many children) and late in his life he became severely mentally ill and was committed to an asylum. He wrote this poem, “I Am!,” while he was at the Northhamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum, a few years before his death in 1864. I wonder if Emily Dickinson knew his work; they were contemporaries, and I know Dickinson read a great deal, from Shakespeare and both the Brownings to Keats and even the Brontës. It’s possible a copy of some of Clare’s work could have come her way.

“I Am!” reminds me very much of Dickinson’s famous poem which begins, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?/ Are you – nobody – too?”


I Am!


I am! yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest—that I loved the best—
Are strange—nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.


~ John Clare

Something I wonder about in this poem is the meaning of the exclamation point which follows every instance of “I am!”. There’s something simultaneously defiant and elegiac about this poem. Its tone is both subtle and complex which strengthens the relationship I feel between this poem and Dickinson’s, which is so often quoted and so well known in part because of the apparent coyness and simplicity of this poem’s structure compared with her more elliptical works.

Dickinson’s poem also has the exclamation point (not unusual, as Dickinson had a well-known fondness for expressive punctuation), which makes me wonder about the relationship between Clare’s “I am!” and Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody!”. Dickinson seems to be celebrating Nobody-ness, while Clare is lamenting being a somebody that nobody knows, and maybe lamenting being in general. I love his description of being tossed “Into the living sea of waking dreams, / Where there is neither sense of life nor joys, / But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems.” The phrase “the living sea of waking dreams” is particularly powerful, a desperate image of emotional chaos, a poignant rendering of existence on the borderline between sanity and insanity. Dickinson, I think, knew something of this mental extremity as well. Much of her poetry deals with madness, from “Much Madness is Divinest Sense” to  the final stanza of her famous poem “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain:”

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down – 
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

It’s just in this re-reading of Dickinson’s poem that I’ve realized her use of the phrase “Plank in Reason” suggests an image of rationality as constructed, a reality built of wood, on which we walk either ignorant or purposefully oblivious of what lies beneath our feet. I’ve always felt the poem’s The poem’s speaker drops through worlds and worlds, none necessarily any less real than the one from which she has fallen. Indeed, the final line of the poem suggests these worlds may become successively more Real, as she finishes her plunge, “knowing – then.”

Clare’s poem envisions death as peace, accompanied perhaps by a return to innocence; he hopes for the sweet slumber of childhood, to the comfort of being with God in heaven. He looks for ascension from the “living sea of waking dreams” to a place “above the vaulted sky.” For Dickinson, however, may offer peace, or at least stasis  (an end to the free-fall) but it also offers “knowing,” and biblically “knowledge” is the antithesis of innocence. And Dickinson’s “I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain” delves, rather then ascends.

Dickinson isn’t writing directly about death in “I’m Nobody! Who are you?,” the way Clare is in “I Am!,” but it’s interesting how much more celebratory Dickinson’s declaration of being “Nobody” is to Clare’s  being Somebody. Clare’s poem is about the desolation of the solitary subject, and  maybe being Nobody is expansive in a way that being a miserable Somebody is limiting.

In this month’s issue of Bookslut, Elizabeth Bachner (a writer I adore) writes about Janna Levin’s book, How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in Finite Space. being finite is actually more terrifying than being infinite. The finite, this little period of being alive, seems almost infinitely desolate the way Clare renders it. He wants out. Dickinson seems to want in, to want more, to want everything, and to have it all in a way that only a Nobody can.

Connections: “Lady Power” and “The Black Prince.”

This morning, while enjoying my cereal, blueberries and a dose of the virtual New York Times, I read an article in the Opinionater section “The Stone,” which features writing by contemporary philosophers on issues both “timely and timeless.” The article, by Nancy Bauer (associate professor of philosophy at Tufts) is called “Lady Power,” and its subject, ostensibly, is a feminist-philosophical analysis of the pop star Lady Gaga, which attempts to determine whether she should be viewed and understood as a powerful feminist figure and a liberator of women and the Queer community, or rather as a yet another example of the ways in which most powerful women (particularly those occupying a place in pop culture) exercise their power along patriarchally pre-determined lines, thus actually reinforcing the very stereotypes and unjust hierarchies they “appear” to be calling into question.

Lady Gaga in Berlin. Credit: SpreePiX-Berlin

Lady Gaga performing in Vancouver. Credit: A Hermida

(The point of this post not being to respond to this article—there are plenty of comments on the NY Times website, if you’re interested in debating all things feminist and GaGa—I’ll only say I think it’s incredible how often those who work to create art or to fashion identities which bring attention to and challenge oppressive power structures are construed by their critics as “participating” in the very hierarchy they are attempting to bring attention to and destabilize is uncanny. It seems some people might want the world to think that to be an artist and to challenge norms was itself a norm-reinforcing activity. Oh the power of the reframe. But I ramble.)

Lady Gaga in Las Vegas. Credit: Domain Barnyard

Anyways: back on task now. Towards the end of her article, Bauer brings up Hegel, Sartre, and de Beauvoir (remember, she is a philosophy professor!) and discusses the notions of “being-in-itself” and “being-for-itself,” or more simply put (I hope), the idea of self as “object” and self as “subject,” and the resulting amalgamation that posits a self that is some combination of the two.  Of Sartre, Bauer writes that he believed

“that what moves human beings to do things that don’t quite square with one another is that we are metaphysical amalgams…we’re bodily, we can’t control what happens around us, and we are constantly the objects of other people’s judgements…but at the same time we’re subjects…we make choices about what we do with our bodies and appetites, experience ourselves as the center of our worlds and judge the passing show and other people’s roles in it.”

For Sartre, Bauer writes, “at any given moment, a person is either an object or a subject:” never the two at once. This reminded me forcefully of a passage from Iris Murdoch’s novel The Black Prince, which I read last spring. Towards the end of the book, Murdoch’s protagonist, reflecting upon the major events at the end of the novel, presents his own theory selfhood, writing that

There is thus an eternal discrepancy between the self-knowledge which we gain by observing ourselves objectively and the self-awareness which we have of ourselves subjectively: a discrepancy which probably makes it impossible for us ever to arrive at the truth.”

For Murdoch’s narrator—as perhaps, for Sartre—“being-in-itself” and “being-for-itself” can never be reconciled into a single, coherent entity; and as a consequence of this, it is “probably…impossible” for us fractured beings to “ever…arrive at the truth.” Here it is not (necessarily) that truth does not exist, but simply that we, as constantly disparate object or subject, cannot perceive it.

Bauer doesn’t follow Hegel’s, Sartre’s or Murdoch’s thoughts about the “being-in-itself” and the “being-for-itself” to these truth-destroying conclusions (though perhaps she should). Instead, she turns to de Beauvoir, who “believed in the possibility of human beings encountering each other simultaneously as subjects and as objects.” Bauer’s phrasing of de Beauvoir’s argument that human beings can “encounter each other simultaneously as subjects and as objects” makes me wonder if this simultaneous subject-objecthood can be achieved without the encounter? Or at least, without an encounter that requires another person. Can we be both subject and object on our own, and in our own singular, isolated experience of ourselves?

Bauer goes on to say that de Beauvoir believed the work of an artist, a writer, or a philosopher, to be the re-description of “how things are in a way that competes with the status quo story and leaves us craving social justice and the truly wide berth for self-expression that only it can provide.” Bauer seems to be supporting this idea in her critique of Gaga, arguing essentially that Lady Gaga’s re-description of the world is ultimately not forwarding “social justice” in any admirable, enviable sense of the term. I guess my problem comes with wondering what exactly “social justice” means, and wondering, as Murdoch’s narrator wonders about truth, if it’s something we’re actually capable of creating, attaining, or even recognizing when we see it? It’s not that I think social justice isn’t worth pursuing. It’s just that reading this article confused me further about how to know you’re going in the right direction to begin with, and who it’s best to follow if you don’t want to go it alone.

Connections: Color and Ducks

It’s not always books that remind me of one another. Sometimes random, non-reading related things remind me of things I’ve read, like this bright yellow umbrella from ModCloth, called the “Duck, Duck Umbrella,” which reminded me of the Sylvia Plath poem, “Child,” which begins “Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing. / I want to fill it with color and ducks.”

Photo: hz536n

One of several Plath poems I know by heart, “Child” has always impressed me with the earnest simplicity of its phrasing and the love that seems to fill the poem, especially since so many of Plath’s other works are filled with anger, pain and death. “Child” certainly isn’t an untroubled poem…even the first two lines hint at a world that is desperate, a world with only “one absolutely beautiful thing”, and that thing itself in danger of being lost forever, one way or another.

In college I had a waterproof plastic color-changing ducky named Claude.

Ducks on a dashboard. Two of Claude's mates.

The ducks came from Target in sets of two, and I gave a lot of them out as gifts and kept several for myself, but Claude was always my favorite, even after his battery started to fail and he had to make regular trips to the “Ducky Hospital” to be revitalized.

When I’m feeling lost, unsettled or depressed, I always find Claude inexplicably comforting. Plath is right to wish for color and ducks.

Connections: Divers

When I asked my friend Rebecca-Ellen to pick a poem for National Poetry Month, she picked a poem by Mary Oliver, and I remembered that earlier in the year she’d recommended another of Oliver’s books to me, a collection of lyrical essays titled Blue Pastures. (Incidentally, in relation to my forthcoming posts on literary awards and prizes, the cover of Blue Pastures notes that Oliver is a winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.)

In one of the final essays, “The Poet’s Voice,” Oliver writes poetry is written from a “dark and lustrous place,” a place that is neither “casual” nor “ordinary,” a place that Jung refers to as the collective unconscious. Oliver writes that the poet is like a diver, who “must wear a mask to live” and that “in such a mask, the writer goes down, into the ocean, under its luminous tonnage, and through, and out from the levels of the person life.”

If the writer is like a diver, then “whatever the diver takes with him—and the diver without equipment is soon a drowned diver–is of immeasurable importance.” The writer, like the diver, has tools, and not only tools essential to their trade, but essential to life—as essential to life as oxygen.

This metaphor of writer as diver reminded me of a collection of poems by another awarding-winning (and more famously, award-refusing) woman poet Adrienne Rich titled Diving into the Wreck. The title poem begins

First having read the book of myths,
and loader the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
Rich’s poem is also a metaphor for poetry–for the act of writing poetry, and the experience of being a poetry. Interesting, that two of the greatest contemporary  American female poets both chose this metaphor to express their understanding of their art, and both expressed it with such similar language, albeit one in poetry and one in prose. Rich describes “the book of myths,” the camera, the knife, the diving suit, flippers, and the “grave and awkward mask,” and Oliver writes of the writer’s tools: “a modest attitude, technical adroitness, language skills altogether,” and most importantly, “an abiding and previously thought-out sense of what a poem is, of what its purpose is.”
Rich, again:
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.