Monday, October 29, 2012

The Mnemosyne Weekly: Poem Thirty-Five (Millay)

Oil on Canvas, 1877

This week's poem, "First Fig," by the ever clever Edna St. Vincent Millay, is quite different from the other short poems I've memorized in that the others have had a zen sort of quiet, and a modest, internal spaciousness, whereas Millay's feels packed to bursting with wit. You may have noticed that my aesthetic leans in two very distinct lyrical directions--the short, quiet meditation that I just mentioned, and the dense, image-rich metaphorical poem. Millay's, obviously, is neither. Nor do I currently subscribe to the sentiment in Millay's poem. But with each posting I make, I learn. And there are a couple of things I want to learn from Millay this week--the brevity of cleverness built into the very sounds of words, and such perfect marriage between content and form--

Edna St. Vincent Millay 
photo by Arnold Genthe

First Fig
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Mnemosyne Weekly: Poem Thirty-Four (Rengetsu)

Image by 松岡明芳

I found this week's poem in a beautiful little book called Lotus Moon: The Poetry of the Buddhist Nun Rengetsu, translated by the Eastern philosophy professor, John Stevens. The poet, Ōtagaki Rengetsu lived from 1791 – 1875 and was known not only for her poetry, but also for excelling at pottery, painting, calligraphy, dance, sewing, and martial arts. How lovely it is to imagine her seduced from the convent walls and out onto the lawn by by a simple, unknowing maple leaf--all that blazing color in such bright contrast to her black robes. Though she was accomplished in many fields, and no doubt a sophisticated intellect, in this poem she is as lovely, simple, and innocent as a deer drawn to a berry bush.

As a Nun Gazing at the Deep Colors of Autumn
by Ōtagaki Rengetsu
Translated by John Stevens

Clad in Black Robes
I should have no attractions to
The shapes and scents of this world
But how can I keep my vows
Gazing at today's crimson maple leaves?

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Mnemosyne Weekly: Poem Thirty-Three (Nye)


I'm always a fan of that which praises something humble--in this case, the onion of Renoir's still and of Naomi Shihab Nye's beautiful poem, "The Traveling Onion." Leave it to a poet to look at a passage in a cookbook, and from it, create something so full of depth and beauty--so simultaneously simple and complex. The onion, the stew, the efforts in the kitchen--these may all be transient--but the poem is forever.

The Traveling Onion
Naomi Shihab Nye

“It is believed that the onion originally came from India. In Egypt it was an object of worship — why I haven’t been able to find out. From Egypt the onion entered Greece and on to Italy, thence into all of Europe.” — Better Living Cookbook

When I think how far the onion has traveled
just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise
all small forgotten miracles,
crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,
pearly layers in smooth agreement,
the way the knife enters onion
and onion falls apart on the chopping block,
a history revealed.

And I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,

Friday, October 12, 2012

Great Minds One (Jeffreys on Bradbury): Something Wicked (and Wondrous) This Way Comes

Dust-jacket art by Gray Foy from the first edition 
Simon & Schuster, 1962

Today I’d like to introduce you to “Great Minds,” a new blog post series on Bareback Alchemy. At inspired, irregular intervals, I’ll share guest posts in which writers, artists, and intellectuals make tributes to others who have influenced their work. Of course, the title is a play on the phrase, “Great minds think alike,” but I’m looking to bring you heart, soul, and inspiration too.

I’m honored now to present the first post, an homage by R Jeffreys for Ray Bradbury. Enjoy!

Something Wicked (and Wondrous) This Way Comes
by R Jeffreys

When Melissa Studdard first graciously asked to me to write this guest post, of course I was thrilled. However, when the topic of who has most influenced me as a writer sunk in, I hesitated with the thought that this would be a difficult piece to compose. There are so many writers who have had a profound impact on my own written works.

Being that I am a purveyor of both poetry and prose, one could well assume that I would gravitate to like-minded writers. It is true that in general those who have excelled in both poetry and prose have most influenced my work. Many of the Transcendentalist period writers fall under this category for me. Exemplary and double-duty writers like E. A. Poe (who referred to Transcendentalists as those “Frogpondians”), Henry D. Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson are obviously at the top of my list.

Subsequently, once having made this most difficult of decisions, I realized it was a more contemporary writer/poet who inspired me above all others. It was then that I told Melissa, “There is one outstanding writer who has most influenced my own writing, and that is Ray Bradbury.”  

A number of years ago, the very first essay I wrote on my blog was a homage to Bradbury. I added an accompanying video of a 2001 keynote address titled "Telling the Truth" where Ray shared stories about his life and his love of writing at The Sixth Annual Writer's Symposium by the Sea. I was profoundly affected by his lecture. Over the years I have listened to and read many other remarkable talks on writing by Ray Bradbury. Each time his words have resonated deeply in me, and then set firmly into my writer’s marrow.

Ironically, soon after my conversation with Melissa, the world lost the great Ray Bradbury, about whom Aldous Huxley once remarked, upon reading his prose, “You, sir, are a poet!”

Bradbury is one of the most endearing and influential writers of our times. His phenomenal collection of essays, with connecting passages, Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You is a must read for anyone truly committed to effective creative writing. Bradbury’s seminal works have reached every corner of the globe. They have been adapted for film (he wrote the screenplay for John Houston’s classic film, Moby Dick); further widened our perspective on the inherent evil of censorship (Fahrenheit 451); and led us onto other worlds (The Martian Chronicles). There are many more exceptional novels by him, such as The Illustrated Man and Something Wicked This Way Comes that have left an indelible mark on the world.

Bradbury’s characters are so deftly written, it is as if we have always known them, intimately. His writing flows as smoothly as a gentle rain off a copper cupola. The list of wordsmiths who have also so effectively accomplished this literary feat to me would include iconic word weavers Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Harper Lee and Edgar Allen Poe. What excellent company Ray Bradbury now joins in legend and literature!

I once had the honor of having a letter I wrote handed to Ray Bradbury, via a mutual friend, during Ray’s 90th birthday celebration at his home in Cheviot Hills, California. I could not force myself to add my return address to that letter, but was told that Ray had read it and then asked that his appreciation for my congratulatory words be conveyed to me.

Needless to say, I will never forget that day. Nor will I ever forget Ray Bradbury, our preeminent writer and poet—the man who I feel I know, intimately, through his characters—the writer who I have had the absolute pleasure to read and from whom I honed my own writing craft.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Mnemosyne Weekly: Poem Thirty-Two (Sōin)

Martin Johnson Heade
Blue Morpho Butterfly

This week's selection is a haiku from the collection Japanese Haiku by Peter Beilenson. The poem is by Nishiyama Sōin, a Japanese poet of the early Tokugawa period. Sōin lived between 1605 and 1682 and was a samurai retainer before he began to pursue poetry. As with much Asian poetry, so much is said in the silences, and we are shown how easily, simply, and gracefully on can exhibit brilliance.  

                                                                 Life? Butterfly
                                                                 On a swaying grass
                                                                 That's all ...
                                                                 But exquisite!

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Mnemosyne Weekly: Poem Thirty-One (Cisneros)

Painting: The Clown and the Tightrope Walker by Herbert Schondelmaier
Little Clown, My Heart

Tonight Sandra Cisneros is reading in Houston, and though I intended to go, it turns out I cannot make it after all. So here's my consolation to myself: I get to memorize "Little Clown, My Heart." I only discovered and read this poem a week ago, and I fell instantly in love with its rollicking stunts and jumps--with the humor, the sorrow, and the joy--the amazing imagery and energy--the eyes-closed leaps of creativity. I would have loved it no matter what, but I loved it even more due to the fact that it came to me in a serendipitous way: Just two days before I found Cisneros' book, I'd written a poem about death in which the predominant metaphors and images were circus and carnival related. So, as soon as I saw this poem, I knew I was meant to buy the book and share the poem here. I hope some of you will join me in memorizing this one. 

The Ever Beautiful Cisneros

Little Clown, My Heart

Little clown, my heart,
Spangled again and lopsided,
Handstands and Peking pirouettes,
Back flips snapping open like
A carpenter's hinged ruler,

Little gimp-footed hurray,
Paper parasol of pleasures,
Fleshy undertongue of sorrows,
Sweet potato plant of my addictions,

Acapulco cliff-diver corazón,
Fine as an obsidian dagger,
Alley-oop and here we go
Into the froth, my life,
Into the flames!

"Little Clown, My Heart" is the first 
poem in the collection Loose Woman.