Restless flight of the mind

Starting the day with some Wallace Stevens. The joy of life as life is actually lived, the pleasure of sensation, the immersion in the real. But this too:

“there was about the earth, a terrifying and awesome sublimity, capable of crushing us in an instant.”


I did  an online course course once  on writing poetry and the writer giving a workshop  told us we needed to ‘turn our souls around’ in order  to make place for the creative. I believe that with all my heart: if I don’t open a book of poems, don’t go for a walk in the autumn light,  don’t talk often enough with other writers, don’t tell people I love how much they matter to me, don’t write even a line or two of fiction or a phrase of a possible poem each morning, don’t listen carefully enough to music  or go out of my way to find art, something withers away within the soul.


Early this morning, I counted perhaps 42 white cattle egrets walking about on the  playing field across the road.


Yesterday, someone came around and helped me put all my heavy pots back onto the small verandah. I gave away some smaller pots and I still need to empty out and re-pot some succulents and pelargoniums. But the plants look green and  luscious against the freshly painted walls and dark-grey waterproof flooring. Then we trimmed back an old lavender bush and tugged out beastly invasive Lantana from the depths of a old mauve and white salvia. I went inside and wrote a line or two of poetry about surrendering oneself to loss in a green world, letting nature die down and resurrect herself over the years.


My poems take forever to complete — a friend in Montana asked in her email about a snake poem I have been working on for almost three years. I first  had an image of the serpent wound around a burning tower in a tarot deck of Lenormand cards, named after the  19th-century French fortune teller Anne Marie Lenormand. Then I began a narrative in quatrains about the time I was in Limpopo province and nearly bitten by an angry cobra. And then I thought about the mixed awe and terror I feel for dangerous snakes encountered out in the bushveld. And about  the sangoma traditions to do with oracular serpents, the thrill I feel when I find a discarded snakeskin, ghostly and diamond-patterned, shrugged off on some  dirt path on a mountainside. And I took out some lines and couldn’t find a word. I changed the enjambement in two places. Then I had a dream about a snake with glittering eyes and that went into the poem as well.


One of these days I might realise it is complete, as far as I can get with this poem at this time. And then I will hesitate for another year or two before sending it off to be published or rejected. And by then I will be working on another kind of poem and  the snake poem will sound as if written by someone else.


The storm at the back of the mind, the music’s lift and fall, the sublime magical and terrifying as sheet lightning.

A fiery dawn

Across the road on the sports fields, there is a large white marquee put up for Celebrate Africa Day festival. In the darkness before dawn it looks like some ghostly floating church full of disembodied Baptists, faint shadows against luminous half-transparent walls, the saved in their heavenly fold pining for the unsaved.


But then the sun comes up raging and orange, blackening the mountains and dwarfing the playing field with its little white marquee. The housemate has already travelled over the mountains to take care of hospice patients, the village is still fast asleep on a wintry Sunday morning. I’m having coffee and waiting for the cacophony of birds to start. Later there will be church bells, tractors going up and down the road, drumming from the marquee, dog walkers, children running back and forth trampling dew on the field. But for now it is  so quiet you could hear the proverbial pin drop and the sun is roaring and blazing away in a dark sky lightening to blue.


The exteriors of the house are painted — now decisions have to be made on sanding wooden floors and bathroom renovations. I’m having one of those weeks when I wish I could just throw out everything in the house and start again, spartan and minimal. But I would miss my books, the sturdy enamel Le Creuset pots and  the handthrown ceramics, mismatched crockery and old threadbare but glowing woven rugs. I am not a hoarder and  certainly not a shopper — no consumerist debts in my adult life —  but somehow shelves fill up and there are gifts of pottery, paintings, lamps, fringed mohair throws, dog blankets, books, books, and more books. The beloved housemate would resist attempts to  get rid of  old unwearable  sweaters or pyjama pants, chewed dog baskets, her mother’s chipped salad bowl, photographs of school friends  whose names have been temporarily mislaid. We all have our attachments, the teapot used every day for three decades, a soup ladle so ugly but still serviceable. And yet one of these days all our cherished belongings and stuff will be dispersed, unwanted, unremarked, scattered into other homes or secondhand shops, garbage heaps, dusty garages or loft spaces. Does it matter?


Books, music, flowers. I think sometimes of these interiors, the quiet sunlit rooms as porous, semi-permeable membranes through which experiences,  ideas and  images flow back and forth. The laughter of friends, barking playful dogs past and present, intimate suppers, the writing, the making of art, the thrill of Bach Variations. The garden, the olive trees and pools of shade, heavy old terracotta planters, trimmed herbs, birdsong. The fields, the mountains, the wide cloudless skies, all flowing in and out of consciousness.


Louise Glück , from Aboriginal Landscape:


Now I spoke as to an old friend:
What of  you, I said, since he was free to leave,
have you no wish to go home,
to see the city again?
This is my home, he said.
The city — the city is where I disappear.


Life, this weird fugue

Unexpected travel assignment, a private commission and straightforward enough though I am keeping details away from public spaces. To catch flights in the warm African dusk and land in strange cities at dawn.


The house painters arrived with a gift of clementines, our naartjies, bought at cost price from a local farmer. I make soups — lentil soup, chicken and vegetable soup, tomato and barley soup — and hand out mugs of soup and toast at lunch. The dogs are now used to having house painters around and wag their tails but show no further interest.


As always in winter, rereading the Greek classics in translation and beginning a cycle of Henry James. Leon Edel’s biography of the Master written in a more circumspect time but  excellent on the history of New York: the theatres, vaudeville performances and funfairs, the sedate Washington Square, the private schools that a small Henry attended. Immense pleasure of sitting up in bed reading about the witty, eccentric James family while drinking English Breakfast tea and  munching on fingers of avocado toast. This is the season for ripe avocados, fresh dates and oranges.  And elsewhere it is the season of a new silver-white English lavender, green hedgerows and pastures, dusty sweet blackberries. Carrying the trickster Odysseus with me through airports and on trains.


In August 1913, Freud took a summer walk through the Dolomites with two friends, one of them being perhaps Rilke. In the idyll, Freud and the poet discuss how flowers and nature are prone to destruction and decay and possess an ill-fated beauty. And yet, in contrast to the poet’s pessimistic view, Freud sees value, and therefore a heightened beauty, in transience, arguing that scarcity and limitation only augment worth. He explains that what spoils an enjoyment of transient beauty was an antipathy to mourning.


So there is flight, stasis, transience. The constancy of writing, noting what Henry James is able to suggest in long sensuous paragraphs, sentences that unfold and enfold with stacking and qualifying parentheses, interpollated clauses, full stops deferred. The flight of the mind, swooping and  soaring and gliding into untested distances, blue Otherness. What is transparent; what is impenetrable.


H and his girlfriend come around to see how the painting is coming along. She does equestrian training, works on a local stud farm with imported stallions, racing breeds, show horses.  He farms fruit and plans ahead for the uncertain future of any farmer in Africa dealing with foreign-owned consortiums and no state subsidies in drought years. She is worried about a horse with a bruised leg. He is worried about his grandfather’s dementia and intractable behaviour. The house painters are happy to have spectators and show us  how good the gutters and drain pipes look now in their glistening dark coats of navy-blue and grey. The couple talk about going to Venice on honeymoon before the city with its brilliant cupolas and domes sinks into the Adriatic. We talk about global warming, transience,  adaptability. The price of apples and pears, the expense of horse feed. The terrors of international travel with an Egyptian passenger plane blown out of a clear sky. The rise of the far right in Europe’s politics. How good the fresh paint looks on the old cottage, how solid the loft steps are to have survived so many winter storms.

The bliss of having visitors leave, the bliss of coming home again, being able to close the door and sink into a necessary solitude.


Those who lived as if transient and ephemeral in themselves and their fleeting lives,  but who have endured. Adrienne Rich on Emily Dickinson, the delicate shy flower of  poetic  mythology:


I have come to imagine her as somehow too strong for her environment, a figure of powerful will, not at all frail or breathless, someone whose personal dimensions would be felt in a household. She was her father’s favorite daughter though she professed being afraid of him. Her sister dedicated herself to the everyday domestic labors which would free Dickinson to write. (Dickinson herself baked the bread, made jellies and gingerbread, nursed her mother through a long illness, was a skilled horticulturalist who grew pomegranates, calla-lilies, and other exotica in her New England greenhouse.)