A Compost Commonplace (I)

At work on a new project, turning this blog into a book, A Compost Commonplace, wrote about it here, and after the first flush of excitement, am up against a prob. One I hope won’t turn me against the whole damn thing.

The blog was made in spontaneity. That was and is the pleasure of it – for me anyway – careful crafting for the words, most def, but writing what came to mind, when and as it did, not so much deliberacy. And then moving on, going, à la O’Hara, on yr nerve.

I thought I saw lots in common between the blog and the serial poem, moving ever forward, trusting your accidents as divine inspiration (or whatever enters the god hole after the whoosh sound is done) – and, too, between the blog and the commonplace book, those old school assemblages of finds, best loosely gathered, so the mind of the one you love and hand it to can step in to complete the act.

I wanted something else too, though, something that’d warrant durable fastening to the page. What struck me was the medieval folio, whose deployments of attention are so marvelously lateral – weirdly like our online pages, drawing the eye left, right, up, down, through this window, that door. As if the printed page we’re used to, dictating a steady advance from upper-left to lower-right, is a quincentennial interregnum not so hard to bound over. So, a technique: use the designs of old pages as shells for my new pages.

Do you wonder why, in Trump’s America, late 2018, I resonate to any reminder of the mind’s freedom? I haven’t written about it much here recently, but the news. Oh, to take just one example, three authoritarian governments are jockeying in the media for control of the narrative, and geopolitical advantage thereby, that frames the state-sponsored murder of a dissident journalist. It, and all the rest, has me so alert to incipient fascism, for I’m not sure that’s not where we are, see this editorial (NYT) on the matter, I see it even in the frame of mind page a proposes to its reader.

Here’s what, back on topic, not to do. I know, cuz I did it. The shell I took from the Lindisfarne Gospels:

Lindisfarne – Matthew incipit
“Book of Matthew,” incipit page. The Lindisfarne Gospels, folio 27r.


Under the spell of its colours and lines, I did this:

Commonplace – Now I amI went and mistook a shiny surface for – what. I dunno. But this is sad abject mimicry. There’s one in my current draft even worse I’m not gonna show.

In the spirit of trusting yr dismay (see here) I can tell you, I’m grateful for the sourness this page stirred in me. B/c it directed me towards a conundrum of this project.

Namely. The ethic here is projective, spontaneity, an increase in freedom. The blog says so. The serial poem it rhymes with says so. The commonplace book they both recall me to says so. But the formal idea I chose as harness – is a complex, chastening harness. The medieval illuminated page – really? To model after it asks a precise controlled & essentially worried attention & calls forth a part of myself I’d like to have thrown off.

All the delighted fascination I’ve felt, finicking margins, colours, guidelines, has come under suspicion. The pleasure it of it’s close to the pleasure of control.

It is, in Blake’s terms, Energy up against Reason. Mother of all traffic stops.

If I don’t find a way to marry ’em, the whole thing’s toast, and a waste.

On playing well w/ others (II)

The other live collaboration is teaching. My vis po group delights me yet with their attention and good cheer. I love spending time with them; they’re a twenty-one-person friend; I’m going to miss her him them when we’re done.

One thing happening, new for me, is what I’ve been calling co-teaching. Instead of breaking up the class period – student presents then I teach – I’ve let the presentations go long and tried to weave my teaching into their teaching. That’s made for challenges. I can’t wholly recede into the role of just-one-more-student. There are lines of inquiry I’m best positioned as teacher to introduce. If I just chill and let the conversation go wherever it wants to then I’m not really doing my job.

How to do my work then? My best work has always been done Socratically. But it’s been hard to work Socratically in this new context. Turns out there may be space for only one Socrates in the room. Is that what Athens meant by the hemlock?

Gist of my last post was, look how strong these friendships are, that they can withstand some sore tension, be hardly shaken. Here my gist is, look how strong this class is, its esprit de corps, that they can let me learn along with them, so exposedly.

No question I feel exposed – they see me fuck up half a dozen times a day – but some mix of apology teasing and good cheer keeps me persistent. The fabric feels not injured by my error.

Half a dozen times a class, I need to make a call, do I step in here, redirect our line of inquiry, and if so, by two degrees, or twenty? (How does anyone teach who’s not OMG a martial artist of the mind? What all factors are in play that moment? My sense of the presenter’s confidence level. Of her command of the material. Of the chances she was headed there anyway. Of the class’s interest and engagement. Of who does and doesn’t have the text. Of X’s irritation at not being called on five minutes ago. Mirror neuron overload. Also I need to pee.)

Let’s say I do, I step in. I want several things at once. I want to model, for the presenter, the Socratic method – how to use questioning to lead your charges down a path of inquiry. (Coupla troubles with that I see now. One’s time frame – I’m wanting to deliver in seconds a lesson that may need weeks months years to offer. Another’s ego – why should my given method be template for another?) I also want the class to taste the fruits of Socratic method in action – if we can get there that way then someone has been actively making connections. And I want maybe also to sustain the arc momentum substance of the class.

I wonder why I’m tired after a two-hour class and ravenous? Surely my brain has burned a burrito’s worth of blood sugar.

In practice, as often as not, stepping in, I knock the presenter off his game. He feels interrupted, disrupted, not I hope corrupted. And I do my Socratic thing, pursue a line of questioning, maybe get to an answer, maybe also model the process in the way I’ve meant to. Then awkwardly hand the presentation back, perhaps with apologies, and we laugh, but it’s awkward.

I often don’t know where I’m headed with a blog post when I start one. That’s what makes these worth writing – what makes them live, long I, the way poems are live. The reason I’ve spent hours on this one (yeah, believe it, hours) is that I’ve slowly come to see, in my own internalized Socratic process, that I’ve been headed for something all along. It’s this.

It’s this. Though it’s been awkward, though students have felt off-put, though I’ve felt sorely mixed about the move I’ve made, these may have been the most important moments in our time together.

I’ll say it again. It may be that exactly in these most awkward moments we’ve done our best learning and our best teaching.

One thing that happens in such a moment – I’m exposed as not in charge and not not in charge. That’s not nothing. Another thing that happens – the presenter’s been challenged without being told she’s doing it right or told she’s doing it wrong. That’s huge. (She’s doing it a perfect that’s other than right or wrong.) Another – everyone in the room has been witness to these aporias, these insoluble knots, and that’s gotta shake your head.

Any of this can only be done, sorry to go all dharma on y’all, this can only be done in a context of perfect and complete, one bright pearl. That is to say, the joy I’m feeling in this company is the joy of sangha, like minds gathered in.

Most focally, sangha means, community of fellow practitioners, meditators, followers of the eight-fold path. Most widely it means all sentient beings, and maybe some mosses too, rocks and stones, broke girders. Somewhere between those two it means hanging out with some folk who get some sides of you as they are.

I fell out of formal Buddhist practice a while ago but seem to keep stumbling into it informally and here I see’s been one way.

Have I gone on long enough? I think so! Wanted last to say though, these have been good teaching days, both classes. My intro to Brit Lit, we hung out with Billy Blakefish today, I don’t know why I call him by that. They seemed to get quite quickly that this prodding


is invite to wander out of the lockbox of the senses, enter a life of imagination, of Imagination, the world-making faculty of mind, which for Blake was undifferentiable from God. Before we were done one offered, prompted by nought but irritation & consequent inquiry, that this Proverb of Hell

Where man is not, nature is barren

(which pissed me the hell off, too, when I first read it, and it still can) made sense in that light. Nature is made to be nature by human mind. Not anthropocentrism – phenomenology in embryo.

On disjunction (II)

Disjunction often comes of suddenness—may be suddenness itself, given body, a form found.

Had my students working Tuesday on deep description. Pick one from this clump of grape leaves and describe it with sufficient devotion that another here, given this whole lot of leaves, hearing your account of yours, could pick that one out, unerringly.

They did and did and all good. The followup: Tune your antennae to beginning now and pick one phrase in your description that resonates beginningness. Write it at the top of a new page. Now tune to ending and pick one phrase that sings endingness. It goes at the bottom of that same page. Now, moving quickly, the first thought then the next first thought, write the paragraph that gets you from top to bottom. One restriction—can’t be about a leaf.

If each thing touches every thing (Indra’s Net) then disjunction is just in fun. No disruption except of our sense of disconnection. Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Not everything but every thing. Means there’s all the space to move.

Blake - MHH plate 27

The way I put it in a poem that never found a public home.

The ease with each part touches each adjacent part.
Apples in a wood crate on a foldout cardtable.

Oh god he’s quoting himself make it stop.

Thought, as they worked away, too easy to sustain a through-line here, need to shake it up. OKAY I said STOP. On whatever word, or mid-word, stop. Draw a big dash. (Drew an em-dash on the board.) Put a period after it. (On the board.)

The way it came to me in mountains once when I was struck dumb by the perfect of each altogether and entirely open stone. You have all the space you’ve ever needed and have always had. You have all the closeness you’ve ever needed and have always had.

Snagged in a language of one who regathers himself after invasions and evasions as dimly as fiercely remembered. And, the insight didn’t keep me from being a somewhat total asshole to the woman I was there with and did stick with me through it, a year more, then she didn’t any longer, so.

A period after it and now pick up in a new place. Some other new subject, whatever, anything. Just don’t go on saying what you were. Day by day make it new. Day by day? Word by word.

To start, each word, anew. Meant to get to Tender Buttons. Sounds good, for another night than this, rain flying at my windows all.

POSTSCRIPT. After a dissipated start my afternoon class spent ten minutes talking about one line break and without repeating ourselves! The line:


Blake and the vision thing

Norman’s talk this morning has me thinking about Blake and vision and metaphor. The myth he made, I want to say from scratch, but in fact through some sly composting, offers to our minds four, I want to say worlds, but really, visions. Four ways of seeing that express themselves as worlds.

Blake felt sure one lives in such a world as one makes in mind. Thus the “mind-forged manacles” of “London.” His letter to Thomas Butts (previous post) lays the four out one way. In the prophetic poems he sets them before us as Eden, Beulah, Generation, and Ulro.

I asked this morning if “birds are forms of attention” is a metaphor or literal. Maybe the answer might depend on what realm one’s in that moment.

In Eden, the sentence is an insult to birds and attention. Not untrue but vulgar to say. In Beulah it’s a literal truth. In Generation it’s a metaphor. In Ulro, hell, it’s a lie. Them’s my thinks of an evening.

Birds of attention

One thing I love at Samish Island are the birds. Great blue herons, bald eagles, barn swallows, robins; all through a day of sitting your mind is woven into and out of by robinsong. And today, on the drive back, a redtail hawk on a power line, and the sheer abundance in the eye of two goldfinches on a wire fence.

An old thought came back, birds are forms of attention, sometimes the mind twits and chitters, others it floats on thermals, others it dodges cars eating road carrion.

When I say that, birds are forms of attention, is that a metaphor. I don’t think I mean it as one. I’m thinking I mean it literally.

If any thing is also every thing, then metaphor’s no longer a lie, but maybe too it’s no longer metaphor. It’s just a different mode of literal.

Blake’s fourfold vision in the back of my mind here — probably because Norman talked about Blake, his “Fly” and his “London,” this morning. More on that soon but first to the gym.