restricted access Small Illuminations
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199 Small Illuminations Box You’re the prototype escape artist, Henry Brown, nailed shut in a box tighter than a wooden laughing barrel, lying in a fetal position dreaming of life after death, waiting for someone in Philly to pry the lid with a crowbar. How long to unfold, to stand upright, for flight to hold again the shape of the clavicle? When the storekeeper in Richmond was paid to ship you away, how many pounds of Virginia cured ham or salt peter did he list on the invoice? When a millwheel turned beneath you & every bump in the winding road was a mountain, you were a dead man in his coffin—­ three feet by two & two feet deep—­ but the whip’s crack over the horses made you remember cuts & stings on epic skin. Years later, between you & your persona, words & deeds, against a backlit panorama, 200 Box Brown would crawl into his crate to show them a free man, saying, Now you see me, & now you don’t. •  •  • Historically, the question of the artist’s role in his or her community has been an ongoing debate. How important is content? Does a system of aesthetics override all other concerns, and can such surface matters shape the true character of a work? Should the artist speak solely to his or her own vision? Is the making of art really an egotistical, bourgeois endeavor? Perhaps art wouldn’t exist if the questions didn’t exist. One only has to look at Denise Levertov’s translation of “The Artist”1 to understand how long the critique of the artist has been with us. Of course, a Toltec artist possessed a rather circumscribed position within his community, which usually was associated with utilitarian, sacred rituals. But there’s a poignant clarity in “The Artist,” in this short poem-­essay: The artist: disciple, abundant, multiple, restless. The true artist: capable, practicing, skillful; maintains dialogue with his heart, meets things with his mind. The true artist: draws out all from his heart, works with delight, makes things with calm, with sagacity, works like a true Toltec, composes his objects, works dexterously, invents; arrange materials, adorns them, makes them adjust. The carrion artist: works at random, sneers at the people, makes things opaque, brushes across the surface of the face of things, works without care, defrauds people, is a thief. •  •  • Let’s face this basic fact: each established writer was also an amateur at one time. It is difficult to guess what works are going to 201 endure, because talent and time are the final arbitrators. Ideally , a cultivated hierarchy isn’t necessarily desirable because the making of art involves a continuous process, an inquiry through observations and questions, and discovery happens in great moments of contemplation and tension. Yes, not the answer, but the question is what often drives the engine into the bloody heart of passion. The making of art changes its creator. When the artist is entangled in the process, he or she cannot have the reader or the receiver staring over his or her shoulder. However, since the poet is condemned and exulted to use language, the very tool that separates human beings from the so-­ called lower species, that which underlines our commonality, perhaps we are obligated to share meaning. Art is an action. And, of course, we are expected to be responsible for our actions. Early poetry seems to have developed as a way of glancing into mystery, of gaining a semblance of control over the unknown and the unknowable , often addressing spiritual concerns and philosophy; but I refuse to believe, however, that good poetry cannot continue to assist us in confronting that immense existential void, especially for the poet who trusts common language and imagery that surprise. Also, I think that the contemporary poet will find a home in the popular theater that embraces the importance of poetic language on the stage. Collaboration between writers and musicians, actors and dancers, singers and storytellers, all this is important in an era of programmed disconnect and technological hypnosis. •  •  • The popular song lyric cannot replace poetry. The lyric relies so heavily on musical accompaniment and timbre of the human voice for completion. But I do think that an echo of the other can be fruitful. The poet has to remain cognizant that language is our primary music, and that each poem is a composite of images that keeps us connected to the real world. Bridges are crossed in language. Why shouldn’t poetry and songs exist...


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