May 7, 2014

høle in the skY: a poetics

The word poetics describes literary or artistic styles or theories. Aristotle explored all of its aspects in his book, Poetics: plot, tragedy, diction, language, rhythm, meter.  Just like the sun, the mind works. Understanding sometimes arrives after a long night. The mind makes associations. When I first encountered Kathy McTavish’s title for her new work, høle in The SkY, I had images of eclipse, Chief Hole in the Day, and falling stars.

"Every word is either current, or strange, or metaphorical, or ornamental, or newly-coined, or lengthened, or contracted, or altered," wrote Aristotle. How curious and true, not only generally, but for each poet, even each person. 

Two eclipses occurred recently, a blood moon on April 15 and a solar eclipse on April 29. Eclipses always make people uneasy. Eclipses carry shades of the apocalypse; some Christians think the end-times are imminent. Recent scientific news of climate change seems apocalyptic. Astrologers believe eclipses are significant and portentous. Writers have also been fascinated by the phenomenon: Emily Dickinson, James Fenimore Cooper, Virginia Woolf, Annie Dillard, and Anne Carson have written about the eclipse.

Losing the sun, the center of the universe, even for a few minutes causes deep disturbance. Many events dislodge routines and expectations, and such events trigger writing and art. 

Anne Carson has written about eclipse, first in an article in Cabinet Magazine, and then in her book Decreation. One planet moves in front of another to block its light. Her wide ranging mind draws lines between the eclipse and conjugal concerns, referencing Virginia Woolf and other writers and their love triangles. She writes about eclipse and the sublime, about departures of the self, Simone Weil, and decreation.  If we remove our mind, our self, from the center of our life, what happens? She takes up the question in her exploration of the writing of mystics. It’s brilliant analysis related to eclipse. But I have yet another association.  

In Minnesota, in 1868 Chief Hole in the Day was killed. He was Chippewa, and he was a distinguished leader negotiating treaty rights.  He was described as "sophisticated diplomat and flamboyant gentlemen" on the website of the Sandy Lake Band of Mississippi Chippewa.  Sources of information indicate that he married daughters of chiefs (he had five wives, and one of them was an Irish woman he had met at his hotel in Washington DC), and thus maintained connections with several tribes. Some tribes were unhappy with his dealings with the federal government; there were disagreements and friction. He negotiated to get payments for himself as chief, for example.  
Other Native Americans felt this was inappropriate. He was wealthy, and he lived in a home with servants.  Despite his social skills, he had enemies, and there had been attempts on his life. He spoke English well, and he wore both European and Native clothing, and many people believe that if he had lived longer, he might have changed the course of Minnesota history.   

There is documentation that Chief Hole in the Day was attempting to address the crimes of white men who were embezzling funds earmarked for Indian payments. At the time, some white settlers believed he was stirring violence and unrest, although recent historical analysis reveals the opposite. He often traveled from his home to St Paul, Minnesota and Washington DC for meetings.  His house had been burned down. An white trader (trading goods for fur) who supported Chief Hole in the Day's claims had his license for trading revoked. When the chief was murdered, no one was charged, and no one was arrested. Reports were that two Pillager Indians had ambushed him, and some suspect they were paid assassins. Rumors swirled. 

Chief Hole in the Day’s original name was Puk-O-Nay-Keshig.  There are many spellings--Bugonaghezhisk, for example--
and this name has had varying translations, one of them "an opening in the sky through which the light streams down.”  It was believed that he was born during a time of a solar eclipse. Eclipse might be a good description about what happened to the Native cultures with the ongoing arrival of settlers, other tribes pushed by settlements, and the arrival of new immigrants. Because of these changes, and the violence these changes brought (in 1862, thirty-eight Dakota people were hanged in Mankato by the US government, the largest mass execution in the history of the US), Native people witnessed yet again the violence of white culture, and the disappearance of the old way of their life.

Native culture has amazing, beautiful stories, and story telling in poetry was one of Aristotle's lines of inquiry.  He examined the difference between tragedies and epics in Part XXIV. "The element of the wonderful is required in tragedy," he said. Epics must have, "Reversals of the Situation, Recognitions, and Scenes of Suffering."  Epics differ in scale; they are larger. "Accordingly, the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities." Wandering inside Aristotle's Poetics is a bit like being inside a thicket, and it's very hard to see one's way through it. In that way, perhaps poetics are like life.  No wonder so many cultures have looked to the stars for help with navigation.
Falling stars or meteors, my mind's third association. These are omens, often positive. The bright light of a meteor burning in the sky, the flash of brilliance that burns and falls to ash, the skills of somebody like Chief Hole in the Day or the minds of writers mentioned here, shine with an intense light, like meteors that fall through the stratosphere. Their writing, and our past, inflects the stories that we tell now.    

There are some of my poems in the net-art film that Kathy has made, along with reports of climate change, a live twitter feed, her own writing from her book Night Train Blue Window, a story of a character named Pullman traveling a night train back to the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914 to save the life of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, or the story is Martha's dream. Pullman is the holy fool. S/he’s on a heroic journey to do the impossible, to save the passenger pigeon from extinction. This is the poetics of the project. Like a river with various currents, the silent texts shift and flow against each other, in music.  "Every word is either current, or strange, or metaphorical, or ornamental, or newly-coined, or lengthened, or contracted, or altered," wrote Aristotle. (When I saw the word current, I considered currents of a river).

For me, images arrive, and I track them through time and place. The poetics are discovered in the process, arising out of the materials. I have to pay attention to see what pattern emerges, and then I must follow and help it to develop to the fullest, and map it. All the while, I work with uncertainty. 
As an artist, I often seek to get away from the mind. It has ruts, too-familiar routines, assumptions, and errors. Too much thinking or too much didacticism has a risk. William Carlos Williams said, “No ideas except in things.” He sought to find the image and to let it speak. 

Gertrude Stein, in her essay, “What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them,” says “talking has nothing to do with creation.”  She points out that the mind, always talking, is an impediment. Memory and identity are functions of the mind, she argues, and masterpieces have nothing to do with identity or time. They are timeless, and they are sublime, creating a threshold place. 

As an improvisational artist, Kathy is used to making art in the moment. This began in her music, and it's in her flows of text and image, the chosen and random juxtapositions, and the lucky accidents. The mind, in sessions of improv, has been shown to have cascades of neural activity unlike in any other mind states. As artists, we invite viewers or listeners to fall in to their own associational or imaginal states. We seek a confluence.  

We have to watch as the shadows cross the sun, the color drain from the world. We must be disturbed, to move away from our egocentric and ethnocentric selves, to step out from our identity and memory, from our –isms, from our usual talking. Our minds are like suns, centers in their universe, even though events dislodge us over and over.  Things nudge us from the heliocentric mind. We need the eclipse to enter a mysterious prescience, as James Fenimore Cooper said.  We have to believe in our star stories. Høle in the SkY is either shadow of darkness or opening where light streams through, or both.

Aristotle.  Poetics.  The Internet Classics Archive. Web. Retrieved 9 May 2014.

Carson, Anne. "Totality: The Color of Eclipse." Cabinet Magazine. Issue 12  The Enemy Fall/Winter 2003. Retrieved 7 May 2014. Web.

Carson, Anne. Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera. Alfred A. Knopf. New York. 2005. Print.

"Chief Hole in the Day."  Sandy Lake Ojibwe.  n.a., n.d. Web. Retrieved 2 June 2014.

Diedrich, Mark.  Chief Hole in the Day and the 1862 Chippewa Disturbance: A Reappraisal. Minnesota History Magazine. Spring 1987.  Pages 193-203.  Web. Retrieved 7 May 2014.

Stein, Gertrude. "What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them." The Best American Essays of the Century. Edited by Joyce Carol Oates. The Best American Series. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 2000. Print. 

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