Category Archives: Literature

Dawn, November 12 2018


On the Pulse of Morning
by Maya Angelou

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Mark the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spelling words
Armed for slaughter.
The rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A river sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.
Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more.
Come, clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I
And the tree and stone were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your brow
And when you yet knew you still knew nothing.
The river sings and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing river and the wise rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the tree.
Today, the first and last of every tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the river.
Plant yourself beside me, here beside the river.
Each of you, descendant of some passed on
Traveller, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name,
You Pawnee, Apache and Seneca,
You Cherokee Nation, who rested with me,
Then forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of other seekers- 
Desperate for gain, starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot…
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru,
Bought, sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am the tree planted by the river,
Which will not be moved.
I, the rock, I the river, I the tree
I am yours- your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me,
The rock, the river, the tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

© Maya Angelou 1993

Autumn Sunrise

Upper East Side, 10-26-18

 

By Johna Till Johnson

Twice a year I can watch the sun rise.

It happens in late fall and early winter—around early November and again in February—as the Earth tilts away from, then towards, the Sun.

The sunrise migrates Northwards and hides behind the big building on the left in December and January. It peeks out again in February on its Southward path, an early sign of Spring to come.

Sometimes a sunrise is more than a sunrise. These words from a poem by Adrienne Rich spring to mind:

Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?

Daily Post: Dormant

By Johna Till Johnson, photo by Vladimir Brezina

Today’s daily post is Dormant.

Several years ago—I am not entirely sure how many—Vlad and I decided to go to the Central Park Zoo. I can’t recall at this point where the idea came from, but when we discovered that neither of us had ever been there (despite a combined residence in Manhattan of over half a century), the decision was made.

Thanks to our trips to Florida, Vlad at that point had begun getting quite serious about photographing animals, particularly birds. But of course wildlife photography is challenging, because the animals tend to run (or fly) away when they realize they’re being observed.

So he was delighted to be in an environment where the animals had no fear of humans. He took a number of quite amazing shots (which apparently we haven’t blogged about yet! Stay tuned!). This one captures today’s theme in what I hope is a slightly different way.

For the record, “dormant” comes from the Latin word “dormire”, which means to sleep:

To sleep, perchance to dream;

I wonder what this orange bird is dreaming of?

The Power of Art

By Johna Till Johnson

Washington Square Park 1

It is so beautiful I must show you how it looks,” wrote Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother. In the margin of the letter, he scribbled a quick sketch of what was so beautiful: a streetlamp at twilight.

I’ve never considered myself much of an artist. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to say I don’t understand the artistic impulse: I don’t know where it comes from, or how artists know what to create, even though I respect and admire the life-changing power of art.

But one of my favorite explanations is from a book written in 1938: “Art is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something… in a direct, simple, passionate, and true way you try to show this beauty in things to others.”

That’s exactly what I felt walking home through Washington Square Park a few nights ago. As twilight fell, and the streetlights cast their rosy glow over the snow, the quote above popped into my head. It was so beautiful I had to share it. With Vlad’s editing assistance, I was able to capture and convey some of the magic.

Washington Square Park 2

That unexpected surge of artistic sentiment made me remember how much I loved the book, and its author. The book is If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland.

When I first read it, many years ago, I found it inspirational, but a bit cloying. I have to admit that my perception was colored by “time bias”—that sneaking suspicion that everything in the past was quainter and less sophisticated than today. I mean, 1938? They didn’t even have iPhones! What could someone from that distant era have to say that’s meaningful about art in the 21st century?

Washington Square Park 3

And I’ll also admit that I found the persona of the author a bit, well, twee: A little-old-lady writing teacher out in Minnesota. (Never mind that in 1938 she was a vibrant and passionate woman of 47—the photo on the book jacket was a spry, but wizened lady in 1983, so that’s how I imagined her.)

Really, weren’t all women in 1938 conventional, domestic, and limited? Not the sort of person who truly understood the bold, transformative, and terrifying power of art.

Boy, did I get that wrong! If anyone understood life, and art, it was Brenda Ueland. She lived in Greenwhich Village for many years, married, divorced (back when one “didn’t do that”), and moved back to Minnesota to raise her daughter. She supported them both with her writing, which included journalism and essays. As her Wikipedia entry says, “She lived by two rules: To tell the truth, and to not do anything she didn’t want to.”

She was a paragon of physical fitness: well into what people would call her old age, she was turning handstands, climbing mountains, and swimming long distances. (And as for that “out in Minnesota”—it’s not only intellectually vibrant but physically challenging. )

Ueland’s personal life was bold and unconventional as well. The Wikipedia entry politely notes: “By her own account, Ueland had many lovers.”

That doesn’t even begin to tell the half of it. The love of her life was Norwegian adventurer and Nobel laureate Fridtjof Nansen, with whom she had a passionate affair in the late 1920s.

Brenda, My DarlingThe affair came to light a few years back when Eric Utne (her grandson and the founder of the Utne Reader) published Nansen’s letters to Ueland in the form of a book called Brenda My Darling. Her letters to him have been lost, but his to her were surprisingly poetic.

Nansen writes:

“Here from my window in my tower, I see the maidenly birches in their bridal veils against the dark pine wood — there is nothing like the birch in the spring. I do not exactly know why, but it is like you, to me you have the same maidenliness – and the sun is laughing, and the fjord out there is glittering, and existence is beauty!”

And that’s not all. He also sent his maiden several tasteful, but explicit, nude photographs of himself. The photographs turned the book into a minor sensation, with some—including Utne himself—questioning the decision to publish them.  The deciding opinion, as Utne relates, was the Norwegian publisher of the book, Ole Rikard Høisæther, who wrote to him that “Norwegians insist on the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

That book thoroughly exploded any delusions I’d held. Ueland was clearly no quaint, conventional lady writer—she was a strong, powerful artist in her own right. And forget the notion that age necessarily means decrepitude—Nansen was one hot guy even in his late 60s!

Moreover, though he was known for exploration and adventure, that same sentiment enabled him to write beautifully. My takeaway from all this: Art is powerful and inspiring. Showing the beauty in things can be transformative.

And as I’ve written before, there’s a strong connection between the desire to explore and the artistic sentiment: Both have life-changing power—both for the artist/explorer, and for everyone who encounters their work.

That power is available to all of us, if we only stop and listen to that inner voice calling out: “It’s so beautiful that I must show you how it looks.”

Autumn Day

By Johna Till Johnson and Vladimir Brezina

DSC_0049 cropped small 2.

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Blame it on Rilke… Or his translators, actually.

On a recent late-fall evening, Vlad was chuckling over the varied translations of the poem “Autumn Day” by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Herbsttag

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiel den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

The translations are here.

And even if—like Johna—you don’t read German, it’s rather obvious they’re rather, ahem, divergent when it comes to cadence, connotation, and tone.  Different from each other and from the original meaning.

Johna read them over Vlad’s shoulder and burst out laughing. “‘Summer was awesome?’ We could do better than that!”  Well, maybe not better… but different. If it’s acceptable to say “summer was awesome”—well then, that opens up a whole host of possibilities!

So here you go.  “Autumn Day” loosely translated for the modern era:

Autumn Day

By Rainer Maria Rilke (sort of)

Dude, it’s time! Summer rocked, but
It’s over. Sucks.
The sun slants low now.
The autumn wind sweeps through abandoned
Bodega stalls. Across the last bruised fruit,
Fermenting fast.
At least you’ll have some awesome vino.

No place to crash? Tough.
Too late. You’re solo now.
Time to stay out long
And ride the board
Up and down darkening alleys
Where the trash swirls.

The Dry Salvages

By Vladimir Brezina

IMGP5457 cropped small

… the ragged rock in the restless waters,
Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a course by: but in the sombre season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.

T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages

The Dry Salvages is the third of T.S. Eliot‘s Four Quartets, a landmark of 20th-century English poetry. In a prefatory note, Eliot tells us that the Dry Salvages are a group of isolated rocks offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, but in the body of the poem they are never  mentioned again by name. Rather, their symbolic reach expands immediately to encompass one of the larger themes of the poem, that of water as the eternal agent of birth and death. It might seem, therefore, that the Dry Salvages are a mythical place.

But they are real, and a couple of days ago we paddled out to see them.

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Happy Birthday, Colette!

By Johna Till Johnson 

Freshly Pressed on the WordPress.com home page!

You probably knew this, but January 28th is the 140th birthday of the French writer Colette.

Colette, in costume

Colette, in costume…

Okay, you probably didn’t know that. You might not even remember who Colette is, though chances are, you’re familiar with at least one of her works.

And you’re probably wondering why you should care about her birthday, or her.

Let me take a step back. This year,  Vlad and I have adopted a new tradition: We’ve selected a pantheon of personal heroes, and heroines—people whose spirits and lives matter to us—and are making a conscious effort to celebrate their birthdays.

Colette’s is the first, but there will be plenty of others.

So why did we select her?

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