New post on Kites Without Strings
New post on Kites Without Strings
|My theme for the 2014 TPS Poet Talk grew out of a question posed to me several years ago about poetry and natural areas. My husband Richard and I had just concluded a Hamilton Association public lecture, "Landscape Photography as Art." Our presentation was illustrated primarily with photographs by others, but we included a few of our own photographs of the Dundas Valley as well.|
During the question period that followed, a young lady in the audience who was familiar with my interest in poetry, asked how poetry influences the way I see when walking in natural areas. Not previously having thought about this, I mumbled something inadequate about each influencing the other. Since then, I have often reflected on her intriguing question. This Poet Talk constitutes the background for the answer I would have liked to provide that evening.Every poet experiences a unique personal journey with poetry. My particular path has been somewhat unusual in that I responded to purely visual "poetic" aspects of the natural world long before being drawn to pursue the poetry of language and words. From a young age, certain natural places seemed to fill me with a kind of thrilling visual rhythm built of colours, textures, contrasts and inevitable harmony. A photograph of Yosemite Falls in a magazine sparked a deep response that fueled some serious romantic dreaming in my teenage years (the sheer poetry of water falling!). Two years ago, I expressed in a poem some of what had captured my heart:
|Landscape as PoetrySlender surge of joy|
dark grey cliff.
Among the world’s
highest, they say.
Among its best loved. . .
Yosemite Falls (recent photo, courtesy Internet)
|The rugged North Shore of Lake Superior, experienced frequently and "in the flesh," exerted an even stronger influence at that time:|
Lake Superior (photo courtesy Mary S. Hendrix)
|. . .|
My young heart raced, too, at the sight
of “root beer” cascades pounding down
Superior’s rocky passageways
to union with the Great Lake. A marriage
of unremitting vigour to a larger power:
to grandeur, and periods of calm.
Distracted by Yosemite, I stumbled;
fell on slippery rocks along the shore.
Tore a cavernous gouge in my leg,
bled a warm cascade that led
to noticing the wound I had not felt.
|The interplay of water and rock was central to my visceral response to each of these landscapes. Several years later, I also began to notice the beauty of individual trees. Some seemed to speak to me through their particular beauty of form, structure or shape; or perhaps their leaf colour or texture would capture my attention.|
When Richard and I moved to Ancaster, Ontario in 1976, exploration of the rich diversity of nearby natural areas became a major focus for our free time. Rapidly, my repertoire of "poetic landscapes" expanded to include the steep-sided hills, deep ravines, woodlands, meadows, marshes and streams of the Dundas Valley.
Together, these various experiences from my youth to my mid-30s have led to a lifelong love of water, rock and trees.
Soon Richard and I were irresistibly drawn to photographing the natural beauty of the Dundas Valley. Hoping to capture on film something of what we encountered on our outings, our early photographs were a disappointment, dismally failing to do justice to the beauty we saw. Moreover, we wanted our photographs to be true to our aesthetic and emotional response to the landscapes we had come to love.
These goals in mind, we undertook an intensive study of the work of numerous outstanding landscape photographers, among them Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter and Ernst Haas.
The process of learning to capture images that felt true to our aesthetic and emotional response to Valley landscapes spanned a few years. Gradually we began to notice more details, compositions and moods within a landscape, and to envision these elements at a wide range of scales, from panoramic overviews to close-up detail. At the same time, we were developing better technical and artistic photographic skills.
This became an interactive experience between ourselves and the landscapes we photographed. Selecting and framing compositions through a viewfinder allowed us to perceive more elements of beauty than previously caught our attention. In turn, the Valley seemed to show us more instances of exceptional "poetic" alignments of elements, as well as peak moments when light, shadow, atmospheric conditions, etc. conspired to lift a given landscape to an emotionally/ spiritually higher level.
In many ways, the process of photographing poetic elements in a landscape is similar to organizing words, images, sounds and thoughts into poetry. The main difference is that "poetry" within landscapes can't be imagined and manipulated by a photographer with the ease of a poet or painter, but must be discovered and then revealed.
The day came when Richard and I felt compelled to create a book celebrating the exceptional richness and variety of Dundas Valley landscapes. In 1989, we published the first of four colour photographic books, Natural Landscapes of the Dundas Valley. We each contributed photographs as well as written text for the project. I included in my sections a scattering of recently discovered poems that expressed feelings similar to what I felt about our experiences in natural areas. Two that particularly moved me were:
|The natural world is a spiritual house, where the pillars, that are alive,|
let slip at times some strangely garbled words;
Man walks there through forests of physical things that are also spiritual things,
that watch him with affectionate looks.
– Charles Baudelaire, from Intimate Associations (transl. by Robert Bly)
Wide-spread they stand, the Northland's dusky forests.
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest's mighty God,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.
– Jean Sibelius, from the notes to his last composition,Tapiola (1926)
|Having discovered the joys of writing, I determined to develop better skill and artistry in this craft, and a seminal book finally brought me to poetry as language. Selections and excerpts from masterpieces of western literature, from classical Greece to the modern era, were accompanied by brief biographies of their authors. The selected works of three English Romantic poets opened new vistas of expressive possibilities and beauty for me unlike any I had known.|
The power and evocative imagery achieved by William Blake through very simple words stunned me: Tiger, tiger, burning bright/ In the forests of the night . . .
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with vivid imagination and rich, sensitive use of language, inspired me profoundly: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ A stately pleasure-dome decree/ Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/ Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea.
And the lyrical musicality of Percy Bysshe Shelley [...evening's breath, wandering here and there/ Over the quivering surface of the stream,/ Wakes not one ripple from its summer dream] took my literary breath away.
The desire to express myself with some of these poetic qualities—imagination, rhythm, music, imagery, and deeper themes—led me to join the Tower Poetry Society in the mid-1990s. This is where the integration of landscape and photography with poetry as language finally began. It was immediately apparent that I had much to learn. Not the least of my problems was to overcome a naturally verbose style of writing that is inherently inimical to poetry.
The brilliant Canadian writer Robertson Davies has said, We must sing with the voices God gave us! Here, then, lay my challenge: to find my own voice using more spare, carefully chosen language, within the discipline and tools of poetry. Just as with photography in the 1980s, I now studied the works of great poets, and experimented with many attempts of my own. By faithfully participating in TPS poetry workshops, I learned to critique and revise my poems fearlessly. And as the native verbosity gradually attenuated, I even began to think of myself as a poet. Not surprisingly, water, rock and trees figured prominently in much of what I wrote, and continue to play an important role for me to this day, as the following examples will demonstrate.
(Canada Day, Spencer Gorge)
splayed across two boulders
at the bottom of the gorge
he lay like a fallen bird,
head oddly askew
dead to the holiday world
of revellers scrambling over rocks,
bony bare chest impossibly still . . .
above water’s tumultuous
struggle to bridge a gap:
is he all right?
he hasn’t moved for ages!
is he breathing?
the gaunt figure
from numbed depths,
weakly brushes haze and tangled
waist-length hair from glazed eyes,
slowly, painfully sits up
downcast head in hands
rising at last
to trembling feet
draws threadbare shirt
over haunted frame, then stumbles
along his rock-strewn
as this place
of ragged beauty
where, for a while
he strayed (ca. 2003)
|Such a massive oak,|
burly arms outstretched to shoulder
this leaden sky
(The Niagara Escarpment)
They told me that your face was hard
and worn. Stubborn. Old.
I thought to find it harsh, spent,
and cold; now see that this was wrong.
True, it is hard-edged. But hardly stern,
or monotone. There’s a weathered softness,
too. Vibrant life’s writ strong upon a bold
visage which still admits the new. Naked
and raw, a fresh tear bares
underlying vigour. Cheeks are tinged
with rose. Is that a tear falling from
venerable eyes who’ve seen
much come and go?
You wear your years with grace, Ancestor.
Let me set roots in your embrace,
burrow deep into enduring
strength . . . absorb
|Cradled by Rock (excerpts)We scamper along the shingle shore|
nephew by my side, my brother close behind
feet slipping/tripping our playful way
smooth clack and slide of waterborne
waterworn stones & Superior’s
healing our heavy hearts
. . . need intervenes for reflection
on the moment, the day,
our grieving and loss . . .
Nested on the shifting shingles, a large
rounded low-slung rock seems to whisper
Here. I am what you seek.
and I sit down upon that beckoning rock,
settle into its gently concave watersmooth curves
the sky perhaps blue and clear, or is it
cloud-streaked? I notice a breeze, and air
so clean and pure; the shore brimming with life
and I still numb . . .
Nestled in my waveworn, silica-flecked
bones connect with patient strength
of the ancient, rocky land that cradles this vast
fathomless ever-changing body of water . . .
Insistent, urgent power
draws me downward
into an abyss . . .
From the base of the falls
all is thunder, mist
through swirling air
Eyes drenched, I see
with rare clarity, inspire
the essence of thrust and hurl
like an aphrodisiac,
aware in her songs
of water’s variable volume,
deep, throaty outpourings
sweet dribbles of treble tremolo Saturated to the bone,
blood coursing with music
and all around,
of Icarus sparkling like fire—
my every nerve
is a falling star . . .(2006)
DANCING WITH YOU,
In the beginning, a yearning: a slight stirring
of unborn souls in far-flung corners
of the universe
Then, dreamily afloat, tiny limbs
a thousand miles and two wombs apart
start to swim a slow tempo
When at last we meet, bones breath
hearts clothed in flesh,
our words dance
like the laughing red/gold leaves
falling beside the fast-flowing Mississippi
Your darker, more intense roots
stimulate my milder Nordic sensibilities
An energetic river arousing a wind-riffled pond
We choreograph life together
and uncanny synergy
cherish our differing rhythms,
the contrasts a natural
(TANGO: . . . CARIOCA: . . .)
PAS DE DEUX:
River dance or carioca,
tango or polonaise
you are forest,
I the trees
we've danced on the graves
of broken dreams,
flown with the phoenix,
braved new pathways
And on that day
when our Earth dance is through —
we'll waltz, as one, with winds of change
to whence we came
I have come to realize that my best poems often draw upon or reflect my experiences and explorations of natural landscapes, deepened through the eye of photography. While I seldom compose a poem in response to a photograph, or take a photograph for the purpose of illustrating a poem, there is often an uncanny resonance between certain of my poems and images. It is as though each constitutes a reservoir of inspiration for the other.
The following poem for my sister Liisa, composed in the final weeks of her life, seemed to be given to me as a gift. Trees were a natural metaphor for expressing the depth of our relationship:
|The Turning of Leaves|
for Liisa, with love
I have stood in a grove of aspens
and heard trees tremble
playmates: our paper dolls
and little girl dreams
heard their leaves turn freely
cartwheels and hopscotch
on slender flattened stems,
flipping green to silver to green.
the way our roller skates careened
I’ve quickened to the silvery song
of leaves in motion, thousands
of leaves twirling loops/
circles/spins flipped sideways
down and up by a dancing wind.
Leaves turning and tumbling
Dad flying us through autumn,
in the leaf-filled wheelbarrow
but not falling. And I have heard
green/silver leaves slip into yellow,
sisters grown to womanhood,
our ups, downs and turnarounds
turning golden beneath
a southward migrating sun —
walking, running together; the laughing
greenness returned to sunshine
mellow as a languid whirl of wind.
the spiritual and the everyday
I have heard aspen leaves turning
your staggering illness, relentless
pain and slow decline
heard them turn to gold and fall,
swirl slowly toward silence . . .
your voice quieter now,
and lowWe, dear sister, are that grove of aspens, golden
leaves flipping and turning. Listen . . . we tremble
|Looking back on my respective journeys with landscape, photography and poetry, I feel able at last to offer a meaningful response to the question that was the starting point for the 2014 Tower Poetry Society PoetryTALK:|
"How has my poetry influenced the way I see when walking in natural areas?"
Poetry as language and literature has strengthened my sense of structure; of rhythm and flow, contrast and resonance; and of the paring down of elements to something that comes together as a strong, coherent whole. Poetry also asks that we look beneath the surface to discover and explore layers of meaning: to probe deeper into the essence of a thing. I would hope that these insights from poetry have made me more sensitive and aware when experiencing and responding to natural areas.
Just as many of my best poems have drawn upon and reflect my experiences and response to natural areas, I feel that my best photographs of natural landscapes reflect heightened perception and sensitivity honed by my passion for poetry. For two and a half decades, I have photographed Websters Falls in all seasons and all kinds of weather, during periods of high and low water flow, and under a wide range of light and atmospheric conditions. I submit to you my most recent photograph of this endlessly fascinating place of many faces as a visual expression of the influence of my poetry on the way I see when in natural areas:
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