Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.

--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The argument for culture care--

© 2014 Makoto Fujimura
Mineral Pigments, Sumi ink, silver, and gold on Kumohada paper
60.25 x 45.25 x 1.25 in
Private Collection
Prints are available - click here.
Frontispiece to Culture Care.

Though I've been and am still awash in away track meets, graduation ceremonies, awards nights, prom, and other festivities that pop up toward the end of a school year, I'll leave a little sheaf of quotes from my current reading. I'll be reading some more from the book while I am hanging out at the Toyota shop later in the day--it'll be a good clash of sensibilities, or maybe a
reminder of the need for repair!

The book is Makoto Fujimura's Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life, which I am spending some time with in preparation for reading at and participating in the June Culture Care Summit, sponsored by International Arts Movement and Fujimura Institute, at Cairn University in Philadephia. Here are some quotes from the part of the book that is foundational and sets up the terms of his argument for change.
In the aftermath of two World Wars, artists began to articulate the culture's dramatic loss of humanity... artists recognized the gap left by the weakening witness of the church in culture and increasingly came to see themselves as secular prophets and priests with a call to "speak the truth" against the "establishment." They intentionally isolated themselves from society and produced work aimed at shocking people into recognizing and decrying the horrors of the age. As critic Robert Hughes has noted, "the shock of the new" became a way of life in the twentieth century modernist experiment.
Artists have been pressed--sometimes willingly and sometimes not--to speak not for their own work, vision, and principles but for (usually leftist) ideologies. The implicit and explicit cultural pressures for ideological uniformity are so high that one could say that in the culture wars artists are free to express anything other than beauty.
With the exception of ideological uses, today's art has been commoditized to such an extent that we often see commerce as the prevailing goal of art, and value the arts only as transactional tools to achieve fame and thus wealth.
Why is Culture Care needed? From the perspective of the arts, it is because today, an artist cannot simply paint; a novelist cannot simply write; a pianist cannot simply play. Utilitarian pragmatism and commercialism so thoroughly pervade culture that without some shift in worldview and expectation, what we do as artists--the activities of the arts--will be neither sustainable nor generative. We will not be able to resist their use as weapons in the culture wars. 
We need to recognize our time as a genesis moment.
Order here.

I recommend it--the book is suffused with Makoto Fujimura's bright vision of a world that is generative for artists and others, a world that flourishes and produces arts that our descendants will find worthy and beautiful. As a Christian, Mako tends toward the ideas of fruitfulness and wholeness that pervade the book. It is a book for anyone who cares about the vicissitudes of culture, and where our culture is headed after Modernism and its aftershocks.

Sunday, May 03, 2015


detail, jacket image for Maze of Blood. Art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

I'm on my second round of the second pass galleys of Maze of Blood. Meanwhile, everything else in my life seems to be hopping up and down, demanding attention. Two children are heading toward graduation (one from high school, one from The Center for Cartoon Studies), with all the frenetic events and activity that precede such life markers, and a third is returning to New York for a new job. Wild times! I'll meet you back here in a few days. If you miss me, ramble around in the blog or read one of my books! I'll meet you there too. Maybe even more so...

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Desire in a time of chaos:

To be whole and make whole art in the midst of a broken culture.

Makoto Fujimura, Golden Fire II
Mineral Pigments, Gold on Kumohada 89x132"
"Fujimura continues the theme of "Fires of destruction and sanctification" that he began with Water Flames." 

Monday, April 27, 2015

NPM6: I give you the fool

"The King and the Fool" by Mary Bullington
April, national poetry month, no. 6

The poem below is from The Book of the Red King, and was originally published here in Mezzo Cammin, along with some others from the series. The king and fool poems are very many, and some day they will be a beautiful hardcover book and a paperback and maybe something else, all with art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. We haven't quite worked out how publication will work, as most presses that publish poetry don't publish such very long books of poetry or books with a lot of art, but it will happen eventually. It is a project we have dreamed about for a long time.

It's curious, but there is already art (even a sequence of three related pictures by Kim Vanderheiden) made about these as yet uncollected poems. They seem to appeal to painters, and I look forward to seeing the various ways the figures of the Fool, the King, and their friends manifest in the world, even before they appear as parts of a book. Shown here is a piece by my old friend Mary Bullington. It now hangs on the wall in my house. Perhaps I'll get permission to show some of the others... If they keep producing pictures, I think it would be wonderful to have a king and fool show some day.

Why the king, why the fool? A poet in our world is always the fool, occasionally a king.

The Starry Fool

In a shivering of bells
The Fool comes shining, shimmering
Unseen along the moonshine way.

Little fir trees sprinkle his path
With needles, lift their limbs and point
To the bright whirligigs of stars.

And the crack in the Fool's heart is for once
Mended, as if without a seam:
He shakes his bell-branched staff at the stars.

So cold, no one plays the watchman,
But in the tower called The Spear 
The Red King rules the chiming hour.

There he will spy the moon-washed Fool
Skittling like a toy top through the city.
He will run outside to greet him,

Calling, My brother and my self, 
My mirror, the crack inside my heart!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

NPM5: I give you sphinx and snow cats--

April, national poetry month, no. 5

Here's one I may have posted before--certainly I have posted Paul Digby's video of the poem earlier. It's an iambic tetrameter poem in couplets, so it resolutely rejoices in rhythm and rhyme. I thought of this one because I read it at the Fenimore Art Museum on Monday, and somehow people always think it very funny that a poem should reprove a popular poet for removing Emily Dickinson's clothes. All those tiny buttons...

The poem appeared in TheThrone of Psyche (Mercer, 2011), available in hardcover and paperback. Both have a cover drawn from a detail of a Clive Hicks-Jenkins painting, and beautiful design by Mary-Frances Glover Burt. It was originally published in an issue of Raintown Review guest edited by Joseph Salemi.


A riposte to Billy Collins, “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” 

Don’t think because her words are wild
That Dickinson’s a sylphine child

For your undressings—don’t rend the haze
Of veils that shields you from her blaze.

Her hands are capable and know
The ways of burning—how sparks blow

When flames are jostled by a bold
Adept, her fingers tipped with cold.

And though in after-hours she threads
The dew she plucks from spiderwebs,

Or answers Who? to midnight’s owls,
Or strokes the cats, returned from prowls—

Or takes to skipping to and fro
With moonlit maidens made of snow,

She’ll freeze, inviolate and meek,
If you so much as try to speak.

Shove off—avoid those brazen wings:
She’s not for your unbuttonings.

The polished stone above her head
Declares her state among the dead:

Here waits that sphinx whose secret power
In riddles found her finest flower.


Here is Paul Digby's video of the poem. You may find seven of his videos of my poems here.

Friday, April 24, 2015

NPM4: I give you water-devil whirligigs--

April, national poetry month, no. 4

Image by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
 from the back of The Foliate Head
"I Heard Their Wings Like the Sound of Many Waters,"
The Foliate Head (hardcover from Stanza Press, 2012)

I like bigness in a poem, and this one started with a phrase that has a cosmic largeness to it. I also like mystery in a poem, and don't think all that much of a poem that exhausts all its mystery in short order, so I hope this one retains both largeness and mystery. It first appeared in the qarrtsiluni here.


"I Heard Their Wings Like the Sound of Many Waters"

In the dark, in the deeps of the night that are
Crevasses of a sea, I heard their wings.
I heard the trickling of tiny feathers
With their hairs out like milkweed parachutes
Floating idly on the summer air,
I heard the curl and splash, the thunderbolts
Of pinions, the rapids and rattle of shafts—
Heard Niagara sweep the barreled woman
And shove her under water for three days,
I heard a jar of fragrance spill its waves
As a lone figure poured out all she could,
Heard the sky’s bronze-colored raindrops scatter
On corrugated roofs and tops of wells,
I heard the water-devil whirligigs,
I heard an awesome silence when the wings
Held still, upright as flowers in a vase,
And when I turned to see why they had stilled,
Then what I saw was likenesses to star
Imprisoned in a form of marble flesh,
With a face like lightning-fires and aura
Trembling like a rainbow on the shoulders,
But all the else I saw was unlikeness
That bent me like a bow until my brow
Was pressed against the minerals of earth,
And when I gasped at air, I tasted gold.

Interior division page with art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
The Foliate Head book design by Andrew Wakelin

Thursday, April 23, 2015

NPR3: I give you the feathered snake--

Jacket art, detail from Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Design by Mary-Frances Glover Burt
April, national poetry month, 3

Here's a blank verse passage from the title poem of The Throne of Psyche (Mercer, 2011.) We've had harpies and grief for April-the-cruelest-month in the first two selections; here is Eros bedding Psyche, love and the soul forcibly entwined.

Available in hardcover and paperback. Originally published in Mezzo Cammin.


And if the palace seemed bewitching, how
Much more the bed, a marvel of the gods—
Like nothing for an earthly king and queen,
A lustrous treasure box packed up in silks,
Four-legged, each leg a tree of ebony.
As shadows slid across the windowsills,
Collecting in the corners of the room,
The trees began to send out wands and leaves,
Darkening the air with gleaming branches.
Whoever saw such freedom from the laws
Of earth? I stared, forgot to tremble in
My wonder as new tendrils wove a maze
Above a bed that glistened, beetle-black.
Unseen hands drew dusk across the portal
And windows, carried off the glowing lamp,
And strewed fresh petals on the inlaid floor.
If this was how my promised husband’s house
Received his bride, perhaps the feathered snake
—for so Apollo’s oracle foretold—
Could be more beautiful than I had dreamed,
If flying terror could be beautiful.
Shade took the room until I could not see.
A mimic springtime blossomed on each branch
As tiny stars shone out, began to crawl
And sometimes blink like phosphorescent bugs.

I fell asleep and shinned the olive tree
That waxed inside my mother’s garden walls
And heard a crinkling of the leaves that spoke
Oracular to me of love and fate,
But where was dream and where the waking world
I hardly knew, and when the feathered snake
Came wooing with eternal promises,
I let him hold me in his arms that seemed
More like a man’s than like a serpent’s grasp.
Yet fear is strange: at times he seemed all scales
That snagged against the linen of my gown,
At times he seemed as yielding as a child.
I woke to find that what I dreamed was true—
The rustle of his wings was like the leaves,
The arms that pinned me close were like a man’s,
Although no man could emanate such fire,
A darkness glowing in the chamber’s pitch.
But what did I, long sheltered in my home,
Know of the ways of monsters or of men?
A tree of nerves sprang into trembling life
Inside this body that the world desired
But never knew—the starry insects swarmed
Among the maze of limbs and multiplied
Until the dark was pricked with flecks of light
That gave no seeing to my open eyes.
The snake kept winding on the tree of me—
I flashed with nervous fire from root to leaf
And shivered as my gown was tugged aside.
A rush of wood: new saplings broke the floor
And forested the chamber, wild with growth.
The room dissolved as floor was changed to earth
And roof transformed to sky and swarming stars.
In midnight’s wilderness my lover struck
Asunder all my childhood’s innocence—
The little stars went shrieking through the wood
As jet-black trees contracted, splintered, fell.

I lay within a nest of shattered twigs.
A shape with wings was sobbing on my breast,
Some wall between us battered down to dust.
I touched the face invisible to me.
His serpent pinions beat convulsively.