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J Cage: Music is permanent; only listening is intermittent

Friday, June 28, 2013


Wonder stings me more/ than the Bee – who did/ never sting me – but/ made gay music with/ his might wherever/ I may should did go
            —Emily Dickinson (Second “Master Letter”)

True imagination makes nothing up; it is a way of seeing the world.
—Guy Davenport (The Geography of the Imagination)

The first summer we lived in North Carolina, K and I found wild honeybees had built a huge hive in the wall of Brown’s dilapidated old barn up the holler behind the farmhouse we were staying in with her Aunt Emilie. Remembering the activity of those bees with poems I wrote that summer taped up on the wall of our bedroom now, at the beginning of another summer (three summers removed) while we are expecting our first (a son), I find myself returning to R Blaser’s assertion that “The bees/ disturb     the stillness    seeking  sweetness” (“Image-Nation 5 (erasure”).

I love the lush quiescence of green Appalachian summers—storm ravaged blackberry blossoms drifting through barred shadows in the murky rain-swollen creek below our windows. It’s easy to feel intervals of time slip into a resonant harmony that looms in the wet black paint of the woods up the embankment and the layered foggy echoes of ridges unaccounted for. This melt of presence into ecstasy is rare refreshment at the end of another season full of urgency, hard work and upheavals. It also sharpens perspective to clarify the importance of stressors and disturbance that contributes to growth and change.

Breaking the stillness (rest) restores it to activity (and it makes more) just as it’s a dog’s grace to scatter the reflection of trees. It’s joyful to watch the leaves dance while he crashes around in the water and it’s joyful to watch them settle while he stands chewing tall grass in the sun.   When I think of our quiet routine moving through the house in the morning, reading Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth, watching my partner, Kirsten, dress for the summer school class she is teaching, I like to think of our son crashing around… Will he remember any of the books we’ve read to him (still in the womb) or any of our other music? What will he like to do with his mornings? It’s impossible to imagine another life. (Like Emerson says in Experience, “Every man is an impossibility until he is born.”) It’s impossible to know the extent to which our lives and routines will be changed by his arrival.

Preparations for this harbinger involve operating with the requisite negative capability and honing our capacity to improvise with mindfulness and flexibility. I want to nurture disturbances with tenderness that acknowledges the resonances (“sweetness”) they free up. Disturbances expose the prismatic edges of the occasions we cleave to—constellations of being that are restful and dear to us. Revelations of our temporalities remind us of the extent we are allied to process, pollination and growth. Time is wed to eternity.

Bees burrow into their respective flowers (clover, dandelion, goldenrod, milkweed, various fruit trees, etc.) for nectar to be coated by pollen and are, in turn, incorporated into much wider range of activity, e.g. pollination. Watching bees gathering nectar in his Journal, HD Thoreau wonders “how to extract…honey from the flower of the world” and simply looks out to the bustling scene before his eyes:

The scenery when it is truly seen reacts on the life of the seer.  How to live… How to extract its honey from the flower of the world.  This is my everyday business.  I am as busy as a bee about it.  I ramble over all fields on that errand and am never so happy as when I feel myself heavy with honey & wax.  I am like a bee searching the livelong day for the sweets of nature.  Do I not impregnate & intermix the flowers produce rare & finer varieties by transferring my eyes from one to another?  I do as naturally & joyfully with my own humming music—seek honey all the day.  (A Year in Thoreau’s Journal)

Travelling through space from flower to flower gathering sweetness like the bees, Thoreau’s eyes cross-pollinate the flowers to participate in the continuity of their process.  Attention reverberates with the activity of the field before him.

JW Goethe’s Theory of Colours tells us that the spatial linkages that Thoreau makes by looking from flower to flower, occasion to occasion, happen on a literal level because our brains link the separate images we see into saccades. Goethe’s exploration of saccades also gives way to his belief that our eyes move material traces of the objects we encounter as we transfer them from one thing to the next: “In going from one object to another; the succession of images appears to us distinct; we are not aware that some portion of the impression derived from the object first contemplated passes to that which is next looked at.” These linkages are physically transformative because they “intermix” and change the colors: “If, when the eye is impressed with visionary images that last for awhile, we look on coloured surfaces, an intermixture also takes place; the spectrum is determined to a new colour which is composed of the two” (A Year, Theory of Colours). Providing the linkage between a yellow flower and a blue flower, Thoreau’s eyes might help conjure a green one. 

R Johnson’s Ark reminds us that sight is always a becoming because it involves pitching our eyes into the visual stream, come what will: “eyeyeye” (“Beam 5: The Voices”). A saccade is a chain of being—an addition of the occasions that flash before us as they do; it’s also a record of change that evidences the eye behind it (because each image is the fossil of its moment), the “I” mapping itself well behind the eye. At week 24 of our pregnancy, my son has already grown his eyes. They already stammer, practicing REM sleep movements, though he cannot yet open them… G Davenport: “The self is by nature turned outward to connect with the harmony of things.  The eyes cannot see themselves, but something other” (The Geography of the Imagination).

There is the slow emergence of self-awareness from the harmony of Nature/ God and the occasional melt into ecstasy that prepares its inevitable return. Much farther along in the process than my son, I know this life to be full of joyful noise and dissonance that’s born of attachments we suffer to people, places and patterns we love to see. Doing yoga in storm-light with our dog Franklin snoring sprawled out across his blanket nearby, I hope the baby will make plenty of commotion. I love the music of our family enough to make way for change. Where do I remember reading that story about R Duncan shattering his best mug? “Shattering his mug, he keeps it.” The rest (capture) we often associate with enclosures is all surface; disturbance restores us to contact and exposure. Who knows what new patterns are being prepared for days to come. How we’ll come to them. How long they’ll last. The loss, relief and gratitude we’ll feel to find routines we cleave to suddenly and inexplicably altered or realize that they’ve imperceptibly tilted just enough to ferry us to the next place.

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