Sunday, May 6, 2012

Are You There When You’re There?

Damselfly with shadow. Photo by Jean LeBlanc

Thoughts on poetry, on photography, on presence.
“Stand in the place where you live.” –R.E.M.

As my Facebook friends know, Miss O' does what I guess you'd call word portraits of my adopted city of New York—its people, scenes on the subway, sights around the various “cities,” for as I did this, I learned that there was more than one New York. It’s not only differences among boroughs (five of them). Architecture and attitude shift in startling ways, separated sometimes only by a cross street. Sometimes you don’t even realize a new city has happened: You are no longer on the Lower East Side, but in the (artificially named) East Village; did it happen crossing Delancey Street, or coming on Second Avenue and East 4th Street?

The other thing about New York is that one day, unexpectedly, you realize the city is your Big House, that the Laundromat is another room in it, the green produce market like the pantry, the pizza place your fridge. What’s more, people here do all manner of private grooming chores publicly, in transit, from flossing to shaving to putting on makeup to clipping nails. It’s never “okay,” really, which is the relief, because we most of us still have standards, dammit; but then because we have to make exceptions for ourselves, we look a little sideways about others. For example, yesterday morning Miss O’ got an offer to see a show for FREE at 2 PM, and so had to do laundry to have anything to wear (not just something to wear), which meant loading the laundry, returning home to shower, and returning to the Laundromat with wet hair (her mother, Lynne, still scolds, “Only tramps go out with wet hair,” and is she wrong?) because, well, I want to have it all! At times like this, I just put on personal credo blinders and focus, focus, focus on the task at hand, as if moving not down my public street but my private hallway in Queens.

In moments like the laundry episode, I don’t exactly want to be present, if you see what I mean. I am placing myself into a special slot of “nonexistent” and therefore try not to notice the kids playing handball and the two women with gorgeous coats chatting on the corner and the mother saying in a thick Asian accent to her tiny daughter, “If you have six dollars and I take away five dollars, how many are left?” because I'm out here with WET HAIR that ONLY TRAMPS would wear in public and oh my god, but there it is.

Since discovering the work of Patsy Rodenburg (see a couple of posts back) and reading her book, The Second Circle, I have been thinking about what it means to be present. I’ve thought about this for years, actually: In college I studied the work of Joseph Chaikin and The Open Theater, where one of the challenges for a show I worked on was to “live in the present” all day. It’s just about impossible, and for a reason, but it was marvelous to talk about. (Try it sometime. It changes you. I say this as if it’s automatically a good thing, so maybe I should say, “It grows you.”) In my first two years in New York, I worked with Polina Klimovitskaya and her theater company, Terra Incognita, and Polina’s directive at the start of each rehearsal was to lie on the floor and remain fully present, move when there is a natural impulse to do that. Amazing to watch—what it means to have a natural impulse, to act on it, and to see that happen. It’s the very definition of honest.


Photo by Jean LeBlanc, Bread Loaf, 1994

What does it mean to experience a moment, to experience our lives, fully in the present? It’s one thing to be jarred by the guy on the subway platform who places a hand to close one nostril while blowing snot out onto the ground from the other. (It’s really quite unbelievable the first time you see it. And every bit as gross ever after, and oh, yes, there will be many, many afters); or a yelling match on the subway precipitated when a black woman sits next to a (racist) white woman who leaps up and shouts racial epithets until she’s red and purple in the face for as long as it takes for her to make the sudden departure at the next stop; or to turn a corner into eight dusty, black plastic garbage bags piled atop a wheeled contraption and pushed by a man buried under layers and layers of grimy coats—in other words, to be jarred into recognition of a moment by the unusual.

But what about, you know, just living? To discuss this, I asked my dear friend Jean LeBlanc if I might borrow her poetry and photos. So today, Jeannie is my special guest star. Allow me to introduce her.

Poet Jean LeBlanc with husband George Lightcap
(the guy in photos with Miss O' here) at a poetry reading, in a photo by, I think, Miss O'

Jean LeBlanc has published four volumes of poetry and has a website, which I urge you to visit:
She writes poetry in many forms and is what I think must be a master of the Japanese forms of haiku (3-line poems, typically (but not exclusively, in English, anyway) 5-7-5 syllables/line that focus on image) and the tanka, (a 5-line poem, 5-7-5-7-7 syllable structure, though not necessary to be followed strictly, in English anyway), which focuses on an image in the first three lines, and allows the “ego” to return in the last two lines, as for commentary. I learned about these forms in a workshop she gave in Sussex County, New Jersey. She's a brilliant teacher of her art.

In her book of poems, The Stream Singing Your Name, I found a tanka that I think captures perfectly a moment in the present:

  one more day
  of morning snow,
  afternoon rain —
  the hemlock decides

—Jean LeBlanc, The Stream Singing Your Name, Modern English Tanka Press, 2009 (p. 69)

When I read this, I hear the crash of snow, see the branches bounce, a relief, like a shrug of weight thrown from the back. I am aware that this results from a continuing morning of snow and rain, so even here, a little of the past is present, too, but in the final two lines, I am fully made present by the hemlock, by the personified decision to drop the snow. Now, the hemlock could also be falling over in a suicidal collapse. Either way, this moment of surrender has me firmly in the present experience. (There is metaphor here, too, should you want to go there: There is only so much anyone can take before she breaks. I think the image heightens this.)


Photo by Jean LeBlanc, New Jersey Appalachian Trail, 2011

Being present does not mean denying a future. In fact, what I learned in that “be present all day” exercise in college is that in order to function in a human world of commitments and obligations to yourself and others, you have to anticipate, which is to say we live a good part of our days in the (unknowable) future. We anticipate going to class or to work, meeting friends later, performing in a show, things like that. We have to prepare. We go to the store for the ingredients of a meal, for example. And while we may have a present tense experience shopping for ingredients, we are also thinking about future meals.

Here is a tanka that anticipates the future:

  what will set apart
  this day—
  the storm approaches
  tossing little sticks
  ahead of itself

—Jean LeBlanc, The Stream Singing Your Name, Modern English Tanka Press, 2009 (p. 65)

The speaker sees a day in motion, and sees (in the present) an approaching storm, and knows the day will not be the same; destruction, in fact, is already suggested in the windblown sticks. (Metaphorically, I imagine a confrontation with forces beyond our control, a fight with another person, a battle.) The present moment is about anticipation of the future event.

The author's great-grandparents in the 
Council Bluffs Nonpareil, ca. 1947

"I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past." –Virginia Woolf

Another difficulty of living in the present, of course, is that our past is not only in us, too, but is a guide for us; we call it up. We learn from it. Fortunately for us, our learning from past experiences often becomes so integral that we don’t really have to think about it. At other times, it torments us. Some of us drink to it, or because of it (cheers!), and healthy people like Jean write poems about it.

From a tanka sequence called knowing this world, this last poem in the sequence captures the hold that past can have on us, how it informs who we are, and how we gain a knowledge of ourselves in the present by seeing clearly, in a past moment, who we were.

  humble, direct
  a backdoor family —
  at the heart of our house
  a grand staircase
  no one ever used

—Jean LeBlanc, The Stream Singing Your Name, Modern English Tanka Press, 2009 (p. 43)

(Metaphorically, I think of personal genius buried by habit, by custom, as well as humility.)

General time, infinite time

Jeannie also writes in a Korean form called the sijo. The sijo consists of three lines, approximately (in English) 16 syllables per line. It’s an epic, really, in a small space. In this sijo, the speaker reflects on something out of specific time, outside of even specific experience. It’s a universal, in the best sense of that term, and a wondering.

  Always two as one, two as one, that’s how lovers are described.
  No one sings about a solitary woman in a garden,
  the sun reddening her shoulders, her hair full of bees.

—Jean LeBlanc, The Stream Singing Your Name, Modern English Tanka Press, 2009 (p. 65)

As a woman who lives a solitary life, I am emotionally connected to this poem; but more than that, I remember a professor I had at Oxford who did a lecture called, “Reader, I Married Him, or, Can a Novelist Be a Feminist?” in which she pointed out that Jane Austen wrote romances, but never her own story, for example. Can a solitary woman ever write that novel, and if she does write it, would anyone read it, or want to? (I am determined to write and perform that play, am writing it, and my dream is to make people line up to see it.) (Dammit.)

Take a Picture

Lyle Lovett’s song “Family Reserve” captures a question I hold:

And we're all gonna be here forever
So Mama don't you make such a stir
Now put down that camera
And come on and join up
The last of the family reserve

Is it possible to be present to life while taking a picture? Is being present with a camera being present to life? Let's look at that opening photo again: 

Photo by Jean LeBlanc (damselfly with shadow)

One might just as well ask if, in the doing of any task, we are capable of being ever-present to everything all around us. I think that if we are fully present in the doing of any task, then we can later have the joy of being present to what the task accomplished. Does that make sense? Last weekend, for example, I took the mound of stuff in the corner of my living room and turned it, somehow, into an office. Was I aware of the world spinning, the sunshine outside, the temperature of the air? Sometimes. Mostly I focused on making the damned office area, putting things into canvas crates (thanks to Martha Stewart, Home Depot, and the good workers of China), tossing old papers, and arranging the shit out of it all. The next day, I could stare and marvel at the new space, the completed task; I also thought of the future, of what there was room for now. I wept.

I think taking a photograph can be like this experience. I tend not to take pictures. I like to (try to) live every, every moment I am with people, out in the world, and I take in as much sensation as I can. A camera has only ever been an extension of that at finite times of my life: when I was in middle school and got a Kodak instamatic camera for my 13th birthday; when I got a job at The Virginia Farmer writing articles and photographing dairymen; and the summer I studied Virginia Woolf at Oxford. A camera came along with me at other times of my life, too, but my heart, my art, wasn’t in it. It’s not my form, though I wish so often it were.

I cannot be “present” to where I am when I have a camera. In fact, only two people I know can engage fully with the place, the people, the companions, and the moment while also taking pictures—my friend JC in rural Virginia, and my cousin Kerry in California. The camera is a natural extension of their brains, hearts, arms: I never feel excluded from the scene, and they both take great pictures, but snap for the sake of holding memories rather than to exhibit.

People who are out taking pictures for the sake of art, however, focus entirely on the art, are present to the art. In addition to being a poet, Jeannie is also a photographer. When I asked Jean to share a haiku and a photo about this subject of photographs and presence, Jeannie emailed me, “The haiku I chose shows how I can write haiku about the things I can't capture with a photo.”

   all morning, the curve
   of the swan's neck,
   the snow-bowed reeds
—Jean LeBlanc

It’s time passing, in perpetuity, these shapes, these mirrors, the morning. A photo can’t do such a moment justice, this experience. To be present to it is to write it, then read it, when one can’t be there.

[Saturday, May 12: I reread Jean's haiku for the 80th time, and had the sudden sensation of grading papers, how I used to sit at a desk, my back bowed over a desk all Sunday morning for many, many years--not that I felt that elegant, but that buried by the snow of the papers.]

I Am a Camera

I awoke this morning remembering the day in the summer of 1991 when I was sent to a farm in Central Virginia (we capitalize regions in Virginia, announcing our distinctions that way, because we all understand that “Northern” Virginians barely “count” as Virginian (that's me), and that Tidewater people do not speak the same language as their Southwestern (Appalachian) counterparts (and that “lachia” is a short a, which people not from ’round chere wouldn’t understand); that once one crosses the Rappahannock River where Stafford County becomes Spotsylvania County, one is in Vajenya. But I digress) to photograph a dairy farmer for the agricultural publication The Virginia Farmer. And how badly I did it.

But what I was really thinking about is how much I regret not photographing Carter Martin, because the photograph I didn’t take is so clear to me, and I’d like you to see it.

In my mind’s eye, I took Carter Martin’s picture in early spring of 1991 when I was walking along Rt. 644 and his road, too (735, I think), teaching myself to photograph on a Pentax K1000 SE, using various F-stops and adjusting the aperture—snapping his tobacco barn, which rested in impossibly green grass, the weathered brown facade framed out by redbud trees, all against a wildly shifting grey sky. I’d write down what each setting was, do several variations, noting the frame number and what I’d done. While standing along the road after one picture, Carter had pulled up in his white pickup truck, seeing me with my camera; I’d walked over to talk to him to say hey. In his seventies, he had the reddest face I’d ever seen on a human—years of exposed farmer’s skin—and the merriest blue eyes, receding white hair, a curve to the lips when he smiled that is like a parenthesis on its back, a Southern mouth, which pushed his cheeks into sagged but still round apples. You see, I have to tell you all this because I didn’t think to take his picture, and I must have known to memorize his face there in his truck window, because inside of two weeks he was dead of a heart attack and stroke.

And that's why we take pictures. One way or another.

There are people who photograph nature, who photograph architecture, and people who photograph people. I’ve tried my eye at all of these subjects, but whatever is that impulse to capture an image that way, I don’t have it. (I memorize the details and put them into words even as I have the experience, as I did with ol’ Carter back there, bless his soul.)


In Emily Webb’s Act III speech to her (unhearing) family, in Thornton Wilder’s marvelous play, Our Town (really a play for older folks like me, though we have teenagers perform it), during her ghostly visitation to her home on her 12th birthday, she begs the attention of her mother, who is bustling around of a morning making breakfast, too busy to see her—and it is in the visitation that Emily is overwhelmed in an understanding of the power of the present:

EMILY: Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama!

Later, when she leaves to return to the graveyard, she asks:

EMILY: Does anybody realize what life is while they're living it - every, every minute?

STAGE MANAGER: No. Saints and poets, maybe. They do some.

It’s unbearable to Emily, this return to Earth, the rush of this realization, all that we miss in the moments as we live them.  Can a camera help us? Can poems? I think yes. Poets and photographers, playwrights and filmmakers, composers and players, choreographers and painters…and all honest laborers hold us in the present, keep us from flying off the earth.

Coda, in case you'd like to explore the idea of Presence more on your own...

Wim Wenders did a film about the late choreographer Pina Bausch, a marvel of the present, whom I’ve mentioned before in blogs past:  Here is the movie site:  Go to the Trailer tab:  If you can see the film in 3-D, it shows you what 3-D can BE.

And this is a wonderful site for photography of New York City. You can “friend” him on Facebook: Humans of New York:

I'd also like to recommend Leo Tolstoy's short story, "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" which is available online, about the cost of focusing too much on the future, too much on acquisition, on amassing things over having experiences:

I leave you with some words from the astounding Pina Bausch:

“Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost!"

...and a photo of a really fine quote...

   Photo by Lisa DiPetto, NYC

1 comment:

  1. I love this post as well. I am reading a book called Life Lessons by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. They include a chapter on Time that covers the issue of being aware of the present. Sometimes we are so caught up on the future and caught up in the past that we do not fully experience the now.