At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.
— Jean Houston
Thursday, May 30, 2013
Monday, May 27, 2013
State of the BlogI was recently described as a “long-time blogger” a few days ago. The phrase took me aback: have I really been blogging that long? And how did Dave know?
A glance to the left quickly answers both questions: there is a rather long archive listing every month I've posted entries since March 2003. It's rather mindboggling to think I've been doing this for a decade.
I admit that I've been inconsistent. I don't post every day. Sometimes I don't post for months at a time (as witnessed by missing months in that archive list). Nevertheless, I have accomplished over 2,200 posts, with over almost 50,000 page views.
I've been told my blog would be more successful if I stuck to one subject. Recent evidence suggests that a blog of reviews could receive a fair number hits, for example. But my interests are too widely varied, and I'm not the most disciplined writer. Thus, “Love During Wartime” is a sort of electronic commonplace book, in which I've collected political opinions, religious wonderings, original poetry, music videos (my own & others), original photography, and a wide-ranging collection of quotations.
I began this blog about a year and a half after the U.S. Invasion of Iraq. My posts were primarily political, and displayed a great deal of anger toward President B*sh. For this reason, I gave the blog the subtitle “Chevaux de Bataille and Random Quotidian Thoughts”: “Chevaux de Bataille” roughly translates as "hobby horse"; and “Quotidian” means "daily" (i.e., "ordinary").
I eventually tired of my anger over that miss-begotten war, and realized it had essentially played itself out as a topic. That's when I started posting my poetry and photos, sometimes combined, and my religious musings. I became a member of the RevGalBlogPal list, and through that became involved with the book cum blog Ordinary Time. I was one of many writers and editors for the book.
Through that list I became aware of Project 365, an initiative encouraging bloggers to post a photograph each day for a year. I created a side-blog, Jonah 365, on which I posted an image (photographic or verbal) every day. There was some cross-posting, but most of my attention was on the 365 blog in 2007. The practice did teach me that I could post something on a daily basis, if I set my mind to it.
After that hiatus, the archive list suggests I was reasonably regular until 2011, when I got a new job. It was more demanding, but also more rewarding. Honestly, a lot of my blogging prior to 2011 was done during down times at work (my day job essentially paid for my editorial work on Ordinary Time). Now that every day of every month is busy, I find I have little energy for writing when I get home.
Since then, the blog has primarily been the repository of various quotes — “Idée d’jour” is my bad French for “Thought for the day”. Additionally, there have been a few prayers, occasional poems, and a handful of original videos. Given my time and energy, this may be the best I can hope for.
As I say, I'm not the most disciplined writer. I'm one of those relatively lazy people who “wait for inspiration”. I've wondered what would happen if I did adopt a discipline — writing at least five lines of verse occurred to me about a month after national poetry month (April).
The bottom line is that I'm going to continue maintaining this blog. Don't think I could stop writing; don't want to. Who knows? There may be another decade of blogging in me yet!
Sunday, May 26, 2013
Saturday, May 25, 2013
I've been facilitating a group at my church (St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral) in a study of Barry Lopez's book, Of Wolves and Men. We completed our study two weeks ago, and I have some final reflections.
The book is divided into four sections: The first section is a scientific study of the wolf; the second is based on interviews with Native Americans, who have closely studied the wolf in the wild. Our group used these two sections as a means to attempt a well-rounded image of the wolf. The last two sections have to do with the rationales whites have used to exterminate the wolf: section three is a detailed and disturbing history of American justifications for this slaughter; section four relates the mythic history that might underlie those justifications.
The typical Western view, from the time of Genesis and the Greeks, has been to divide the light from the darkness, to judge things and creatures as good or evil. According to Lopez, America's indigenous peoples consider creatures from a more utilitarian view, wondering whether this creature has something to teach about survival in a given environment.
The Native Americans interviewed are primarily from the tundra (Alaska) and the plains (e.g., South Dakota). Their attitude concerning the wolf depends somewhat on their environment: on the tundra there is less fear because one can see what the wolf is up to; on a grassy plain, it is more difficult to discern what the wolf is doing, so the Plains Indian is more cautious around the wolf.
In neither case is the attitude necessarily of fear; it seems more one of respect. In fact, the Pawnee so closely identified with the wolf that other tribes call them “The Wolf People”.
What would it take for us to respect the wolf? Why must we romanticize it at one extreme, or demonize it at the other?
The Indian Wars of the late 1800s were coincident with a War on Wolves. Wolves were affected by the slaughter of the buffalo, which was enacted to starve out Indian warriors. But wolves were also slaughtered. It seems both the Indian and the wolf were unfortunate impediments to our “manifest destiny.”
When I facilitate these discussions, I like to focus on the “big questions”. In this instance the questions were:
- The wolf are close kin with the dog, separated by no more than 15 generations. Why do we love the dog, yet fear the wolf?
- Does our fear of the wolf reflect a fear of our own wildness?
- If so, is it possible to reconnect with that wildness?
- What does our attitude about the wolf say about our discernment of good and evil?
That last question made the group profoundly uncomfortable. I suspect this was because it could lead to a position of moral relativism, that is, the position that humans do not have the capacity to discern good and evil. It might be fair to say we lack sufficient evidence, in most cases, to pass such judgment.
The group was approaching this question as relatively liberal Christians. Ours is a denomination with a strong respect for sacred scripture — our view is that the Bible contains everything necessary for salvation. This respect is joined by valuing tradition and personal experience.
So: we begin with Genesis, of course, where JHWH declares all of creation “good”. JHWH may make distinctions between day and night, but the whole of the created order is declared good; even the beasts that walk the earth. Even the wolf. Then let us jump to this story from the Book of Acts: Peter is asked why he baptizes the uncircumcised along with the circumcised. He replies by describing a vision in which he is offered treyf (food an observant Jew should not eat). He refuses, saying “Let nothing profane or unclean enter my lips.” The voice in the vision replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
These two passages suggest to me that humans are not qualified to judge other creatures. If God has proclaimed all creation good, and all creatures worthy, who are we to disagree?
We share much in common with the wolf: both species are primarily predators (rather than scavengers); both primarily eat meat; both are highly adaptive (wolves are native to forest, tundra, and desert). This commonality does not give humans the right to judge the wolf as good or evil. Where a human may have a complex moral compass, the wolf has a basic one: survival.
We do not walk with the wolf — we have not walked the paths of the forest or plain seeking food and shelter for generations. Lacking this experience, how can we judge the wolf?
This makes me question what right we have to judge anyone. Should we not, as the saying goes, walk in another's shoes first? Should we not practice compassion rather than condemnation, empathy rather than judgment?
Yet I am not fully a moral relativist. I believe I may judge actions, but not people. A person may commit an evil act (e.g., bombing innocents), but I am not entitled to call that person evil. As one striving to follow the Christ, I am called to reserve the harshest judgment for myself, and avoid judgment of others.
All praise be yours, through Brother Wolf,
dweller of forest, tundra, and desert.
May we be blessed with his devotion, his vision, and his endurance.
May we confront our fear.
May we come to accept the darkness in ourselves
that we project upon the wolf.
May we come to respect our brother,
learn from him,
and recognize him as a fellow traveler in your grace.
This we ask in your Holy Name.
Friday, May 24, 2013
If I knew where the good songs came from, I'd go there more often.
— Leonard Cohen
What makes a good song? The modern understanding of “song” is the combination of words & music. So, a good song is the perfect combination of words and music. Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah” is an excellent example; especially the line “It goes like this: / The fourth, the fifth/ The minor fall / The major lift” — the supporting musical chords are, indeed, the fourth, the fifth, Am, then F maj.
A good song is also a conversation, or dialogue, between the words and music. I think especially of the songs of Simon and Garfunkle — “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” for example, is possibly the greatest hymn that never mentions God. This contrast can create a sort of dissonance that adds a layer of meaning that could not be found in the words or music on their own.Dave Bonta's latest, Twelve Simple Songs, are not songs in this modern sense of the word. They don't appear to be in any formal structure that I'm aware of. Each poem is short and lyrical, filling no more than one page each. There's no obvious rhyme scheme or meter. The lines are variable in length, but typically very short.
It's fitting that these songs are one page each, because each is complemented by a photo on the verso. So, just as words and music create a conversation, so there is a conversation between each poem and picture. Indeed, Mr. Bonta describes this as “linked verses in dialogue with photographs about an intercontinental love affair.”
These are in fact love songs, which immediately remind me of Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems. Neruda's poems are also lyrical; most are no more than a page long. Both Bonta and Neruda use nature imagery as metaphor for their beloved. Consider Neruda's lines:
In you the river sings and my soul flees in them
As you desire, and you send it where you will.
(Song III, trans. W.S. Merwin)
Then consider these lines from the last song in Dave's collection:
If my words are fish,
yours are lures,
marvels of ingenuity —
a water-bound being's
dream of flight.
In this instance, the photograph on the verso is of a crevasse: moss-covered boulders with a few small plants sprouting on the left center and near the upper-right hand corner. This may be an ancient river bed, but that's not my first impression. It's clear to me this is not an attempt to illustrate the poem, as in a common high school anthology. No: the reader is free to draw his own connections. The poem has to do with communication — “We play a game / called Mouth & Ear: / one speaks, the other listens.” But it's transcontinental communication — the classic long-distance romance. The crevasse suggests to me both the separation and intimacy implicit in such a relationship.
Song Two, “My parachute knapsack,” is another example of the dialogue between photo and poem. The poem closes with the lines “That's what it was like / being alone.” The photograph is of a pair of boots on a red porch, a white wall behind them and white snow bordering the left of the porch. This is possibly the most “illustrative” pairing in the collection, yet I don't see this as cloyingly obvious. There's no self-pity on either the verso or recto: both speak of being alone, rather than being lonely. Each offer images devoid of sentimentality.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that these poems are available in multiple formats: downloadable PDF; a downloadable MP3 file; an on-line version (which includes an embedded version of the MP3); a video version; and a print edition. The first three are free downloads; the last is available at cost. As Mr. Bonta says, the poems came to him freely, so he feels obliged to share them freely. A rather Franciscan attitude, I hope he doesn't mind my saying.
A few words about that video version: it is narrated by a female voice. She reads it as if it is one long poem, rather than an interconnected series of poems. The video does not incorporate Bonta's photography, though I think it would have been interesting if those images had occasionally flashed as small touches of "zen" (to use the videographer's term). The female voice lets us imagine the other side of that intercontinental conversation; it allows us to hear the words new, with new phrasing, new emphasis, added meaning. The images are primarily from nature, with still shots randomly flashing, against a mildly industrial sound-scape.
This may seem overkill for some “simple songs”. But the simplicity is deceiving. Though the chapbook began as a birthday present for Rachel, the beloved, the fact that all are addressed to “you” allows the reader to participate, to imagine himself as the lover, to see herself as the beloved. It allows us to be part of a greater conversation, between the words and the audience.
It is a conversation well worth joining.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
Monday, May 20, 2013
Saturday, May 18, 2013
Shall I have another cup of joe?
Let my heart dance a caffeinated tarantella.
The doorway comes into slow relief with cloud-covered dawn.
We hide, but clouds always sneak between the cracks.
That's how the wind blows,
when morning is dreaming
and the dawn hustles behind the stars
Dave Bonta has done something bold in his electronic chapbook, Manual: he has created a set of instructions intended “only [for] those who have no need of it.” There is a great deal of whimsy and play in this collection; at the same time there are moments his instructions read like well-translated passages from the Tao de Ching.
I am reminded of Neil Gaiman's poem “Instructions”, collected in Fragile Things. It also balances whimsy with the imperative case. It also seems basically impractical, given that these “Instructions” are a charming how-to for surviving a fairy tale.
Bonta's poems also have to do with basic survival: how to breathe, how to sit, how to walk. These are things most of us have learned once we got past the age of two. But perhaps not with the aplomb and intention these poems call forth.
How to Mourn
Write his or her name in the snow, get a comfortable chair and watch how it melts: the letters expanding, becoming illegible and finally disappearing into the earth.Spend time—the only form of currency the dead still honor.
Find the perfect slab of polished granite and release it into its native habitat.
Every year on the anniversary of your loss, take out a small ad in your local paper. Let it remain blank—an oasis of propriety among the ads for legal services and riding mowers.
Visit caves that have lost all their bats to white-nose syndrome. Stand at the entrance and listen.
Visit mountaintop-removal sites in the Appalachians that have been terraformed to look like Wyoming.
Wear a cowboy hat and squint.
Become addicted to a tear-flavored brand of chewing tobacco.
Bleed yourself regularly with leeches to remove the black bile.
Follow a river from its mouth to its source: a spring small enough to empty with one long sip.
Plant a stump.
As you see, Dave combines form: he mixes lyricism with prose poem. He adds in the occasional surrealist touch — "Become addicted to a tear-flavored brand of chewing tobacco." — and drops in a note of political commentary — I find the mention of Appalachian strip-mining quite effective here.
This collection is only available through Dave's web-site, Via Negativa. This allows the author to take full advantage of html tools: he links to Sound Cloud recordings of his reading the text, and to avant-garde videos inspired by his poems. This enriches the multiple layers of possible interpretation already present in each poem.
I read through this brief collection in a few hours. But each poem deserves its own hour. Many of us think of poetry as some code that must be deciphered. These poems are a fine antidote to that fear: they are approachable, friendly (in their imperious way), tender, often whimsical, and sly.
I love dipping into this instruction manual at random. Give it a try: you may learn something about how to wait, how to learn, how to write a poem.