Word Medicine

Writing and Healing: exploring the art of healing and the healing of art

The Moon, Not the Finger May 4, 2016

Every so often a book lands in your hands just when you need it.

I happened upon The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye, by Donald Revell, the other day. I had started it at some point because it was underlined for several pages, but in the daily onslaught I had somehow lost track of it. But here it was and I had the time to read it, so I started again.

But before I get to what I found so sustaining in this little book, a bit of backstory: I have had a horrible winter/spring, and have found the desire to write anything has simply evaporated. My chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia flared, and I tumbled down the rabbit hole of pain and panic again. It isn’t my first rodeo, so I should know how to handle these flare-ups, but there have been too many too close together for too long. I’ve lost my equilibrium.

Feeling unmoored in all ways, I’ve felt more so in my writing. What is this drivel? I think, looking at pathetic lines on the page. More importantly, why the effort when everything takes so much effort?  I have joined a lovely group of poets that meet monthly, and suddenly I am aware of what good poems are. And I want to write them. But the more I try, the more stilted my efforts. It is as if I’ve lost my innocence, my native language. What is a poem, anyway?

A poem, according to Revell, “is a plain record of one’s entire presence….the poetry of attention is acceptance….the poetry of attention proposes a heroic unoriginality whose entire faith rests in the tireless originality of the real.”  Something in me accedes—yes! I like in particular the word “plain” in contrast to “entire presence.” Plain is serviceable, every day, yet entire presence is all that we have, it is everything.

I think of some of my favorite poets, and notice the plainness of their language. Here is an excerpt of Denise Levertov’s poem, “In California: Morning, Evening, Late January”.

Pale, then enkindled,




summits of palm and pine,


the dew


scripture of



Soon the roar

of mowers

cropping the already short

grass of lawns…..


miner’s lettuce,

tender, untasted,

and other grass, unmown,


no green more brilliant.


Fragile paradise.


At day’s end the whole sky,

vast, unstinting, flooded with transparent


tint of wisteria,


over the malls, the industrial parks,

the homes with the lights going on,

the homeless arranging their bundles.

. . .

Who can utter

the poignance of all that is constantly

threatened, invaded, expended


and constantly


persists in beauty,


tranquil as this young moon

just risen and slowly

drinking light

from the vanished sun.


Who can utter

the praise of such generosity

or the shame?

“In California” By Denise Levertov, from A Door in the Hive

This is plain language, unversifying verse. Notice how she transforms a normal ordinary day, seeing in it both tragedy and exquisite beauty. “As you see, so at length shall you say,” Revell says, and here the eye takes in with absolute accuracy what it sees, what it finds. The poem, Revell tells us, is found material, “The key to the poetry of attention is acceptance.”  Levertov’s eye takes in all, the humble, the homeless, the mauve light. All that she sees cumulates in the final section, with the first and final stanzas’s beginning with the line “Who can utter….?” This line, repeated, indicates the poet’s recognition of her own limitations, the limitations of words to convey the magnitude of what the eye takes in. This humility, this kenosis, Revell says, is also imperative in the poetry of attention. It allows the poet to empty herself, to accept a limited role. This paradoxically frees her.

Which reminds me of the Buddhist story of the finger pointing to the moon:

“Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”

Writers don’t have to be the moon, or create it. We just have to point to it.   Fugai-Hotei-Pointing-to-the-Moon2




Made Things May 11, 2013

Filed under: Craft,creativity,Process — saratbaker @ 7:41 pm
Tags: , , ,

I was wandering today in the J & J Flea Market, “The Biggest in Georgia,” with a young friend.  I love flea markets, because you can get a sense of other people’s lives, both past and present.  We passed an old man with a wizened face and a patchy faded blonde beard playing guitar with a young girl sporting a nose ring.  She set to those strings with flying fingers singing an old country song I wish I knew.  We saw little Hispanic boys clutching a small fuzzy dog, and passed through a market that smelled like Mexico.  We saw chickens and game cocks and a duck in a cage.  We passed a table with cast iron pans and I told my friend how you can’t beat cast iron for cooking.  There were white country folk selling plants, and a large black man covered in tattoos and gold chains and cowboy boots with a sweet expression on his face.  There were cheap Chinese designer bags, and tons of books.  We found a great booth with ridiculously inexpensive rings and pendants made with Botswana agate, amethysts, garnets and chalcedony sourced from all over the world. My friend was talking about making art and how it will be so cool when you won’t even need anything, you’ll just imagine it and the computer in your brain will make it.  Hmm, I said, I don’t know how cool that will be.  Why not, she asked?  Well, I said, one of the things about art is that the medium, the material, often resists you, and that is why the image in your mind is often different than what comes out on canvas or paper.  You have that momentary inspiration, and then in attempting to make the thing—poem or painting, garden—you have to deal with the medium, which is balky and not always easy to work with.  Take watercolors, for instance.  How many great results happen by accident?  You just have to go with it sometimes.  Or a plant volunteers in your garden that you didn’t intend, but you find that it works for you.  Or you plant something and it just doesn’t want to be there.  Or language—part of the fun of writing is that it is a discovery, you don’t always know where a poem will take you. Still, she said, I think it will be cool.  Well, there you have it, I thought. Kids today—they’ve grown up with computers, and it is all so natural to them.  Then I wondered if our next stage of evolution will be human/robots.  Which no doubt she would think is cool. We walked by a booth and I spied a piece of quilt.  When I opened it, I saw a beautiful pattern of golds, olives and purples.  It was distinctive—the maker had a fine aesthetic sensibility. It was small, a lap robe. I asked the man where he had gotten it.  An estate sale, he said, an old black woman in Alabama had made it and he had once had hundreds.  I asked him how much, and he said 5 whole dollars.  I bought it.  Maybe some of her spirit is in the quilt, I said to him; it needs to be appreciated.  I looked at it more closely.  The stitches were all by hand and as fine as anything I’d ever seen.  The cloth was wool.  I know that in the Depression old coats were cut up to make quilts; I have an Amish quilt made almost entirely of dark coat fabric.  The fabrics were in fine shape, but clearly old. I imagined the woman putting together the quilt from things she had on hand, making do.  I imagine her on her hands and knees, laying out the pattern.  I imagine her taking the time to make those tiny stitches, maybe after a day of picking cotton.  I imagine her satisfaction at the results, after the patience and effort. I looked around the booths, at junky plastic toys and jewelry made in sweatshops and hand carved walking sticks.  Most of it wasn’t art, or even craft, but I had a pang of nostalgia for all the humble made things.  I am not anxious for a future where we think things into being.  I want a world where serendipity can happen, where the medium has to be wrestled into form. I put my quilt in my study, over the back of the futon. I think it is very happy there.


Keep Moving:Thoughts on Journaling and Process February 6, 2013

They say there is nothing worse than a Sunday painter.  I stand accused.


I’m a rank amateur, and that would be OK if I knew nothing about good art.  But the problem is, I do, so I can see how wanting my efforts are.  I want to be Matisse and just skip over all the hours it takes to get there. In Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers,  he talks about the importance of practice in any art form.  I know I will never be Matisse, but I also know that I need to keep at it, that my failures are as important as my successes.  In this last painting, for example, I can see that it isn’t resolved, that there is something lacking, and I have an inkling of what it might be, a way to go forward.  So I’m determined to make a move, to keep going with it, even if I ruin it.  I’m interested in the problem the painting represents, and in seeing where it might go.

Make a move.  This might be my mantra.  All my life I’ve been plagued by timidity.  I default to freezing when confronted with something I want or need to do.  Often, when I make a start, I am so overcome with fear that it is not good enough that I abandon the project, whatever it might be.

One way I overcome this with writing is to keep a journal, or morning pages or a seed book, what ever you might want to call it.  People talk a lot about journaling, but it seems to me that there is no one thing that is journaling.  There is no entry for it in most dictionaries.  At its most basic it might be simply writing in a notebook on a consistent basis.  For some, it may be to record dreams, and for others, daily impressions. Some may pour out their hearts and others keep ideas for stories and poems gleaned from the news.  I use my journal for all of these, trying to fill three pages every morning, as suggested in The Artist’s Way.  I give myself complete freedom to be dumb, inarticulate, maudlin or silly.  I give vent to my most immature, neurotic thoughts.  I rant.  I remember. Sometimes I stumble upon a whole trove of memories that seem to have been just waiting for this particular moment to flag me down.  But because I have no expectations, I feel free.  I have no ambition to be like anyone else. That freedom from expectation often leads to surprising things.

For many years, I didn’t look back at my journals.  I put them in a closet and shut the door, often with relief, as if I had corralled a host of ungainly monsters and put them out of sight.  Had I dared think that?  Was that really how I felt?  What if my family found out?  No, better to just leave those monsters be.

But lately, I’ve started reading my journals, and using them as seedbeds for other writings.  Folks have been doing this for years, but I think it is worth mentioning how different reading the journals and writing them are.  When we journal, it is much like dreaming.  We have to let ourselves go into the dream state, which is often irrational.  Journal entries can be disjointed, as are dreams.  Entries don’t stick to one subject, developing it, but free associate.  When we write in our journals, our feelings are often raw, unedited.  We are not judging what we are writing, nor looking for patterns.  But what I’ve found is that in rereading my journals, there are usually patterns of preoccupation, of themes, that stand out.  There are also those quickly dashed off impressions, often visual descriptions, that capture the immediacy of a moment that would have otherwise been lost.  There are both observations of the world, and observations of my inner world, all thrown in there together.  Often these become the basis of a story or poem.

While the story or poem is crafted with conscious intention, the impetus comes from a place that is less conscious, and often provides the energy needed to make the piece live.  Yet I need all the consciously practiced skills in my craft box to honor the initial spark, and to develop it into a piece that will be complex and satisfying.  And so to that end, I practice particular skills, the way a musician might practice scales.  At the moment, I am working through Poetry as Spiritual Practice, by Robert McDowell.  I just came across this:  “No writer of poetry escapes feeling discouragement many times….in any pursuit, it’s natural to feel, at times, a personal futility….Anyone who has ever played baseball marvels at the effortlessness in the performance of even the most marginal major leaguer, but that grace is a product of commitment and endless repetition, endless learning….”   And here is another quote, along the same lines: “The splashing of the ink around the brush comes by instinct, while the manipulation of the ink by the brush depends on spiritual energy.  Without cultivation, the ink-splashing will not be instinctive, and without experiencing life, the brush cannot possess spiritual energy.”  The Wilderness Colors of Tao-chi, quoted by Marilyn Fu and Wen Fong. From Tao-chi’s treatise.  Cited in Beat Not the Poor Desk.

I look at my painting.  I could abandon it here, or I could dip my brush into the yellow paint.


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