The first day of Spring has come and gone and here there is still a lot of snow on the ground. On the day itself, which also happened to be a day off from the library for me, I went out and bought flowers, an extravagant amount from Safeway, and there was light in the house. I remembered an old table Rob had in his studio, one that served as his kitchen table when he first moved out. He brought the dusty old thing up into our bedroom, which seems to be where I often photograph things these days. After weeks of insomnia, and being otherwise too busy, I've been feeling as though I've lost the thread to the creative life. Anyway, the table, the flowers, playing with my usual light source but in a new way, all these things reminded me of the mystery of light, the mystery of things and flowers, again. Which reminded me of a piece I wrote ages ago, referencing Karin, Boye, Joseph Campbell, Clarice Lispector, and James Joyce. Here it is:
I am on the side of life that embraces meager fragments. The poem by the Swedish poet Karin Boye titled ‘A Painter’s Wish,’ is one that sticks with me. I keep thinking about the poem, the wooden spoon, and relating it to all the shabby, small things I try to photograph, and all the sublimely ordinary objects we all have, waiting to be noticed. She writes:
I would like to paint a meager fragment
of the shabbiest everyday, so worn and grey,
but radiant with that fire that made
the whole world leap from the Creator’s hand.
I would like to show how what we disdain
is holy and deep and the Spirit’s attire.
I would like to paint a wooden spoon in such a way
that people had an inkling of God!
I suppose I like coming across such poems because it echoes something James Joyce said, and that Joseph Campbell expands upon. (I like seeing thinkers through time and from different places coincide). James Joyce said, “Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods.”
Joseph Cambell has spoken about taking an object and removing it from its usual setting and then just meditating on it, regarding it, watching it crack open. He says, "Take, for example, a pencil, ashtray, anything, and holding it before you in both hands, regard it for a while." This is when “its dimension of wonder opens; for the mystery of the being of that thing is identical with the mystery of the being of the universe – and of yourself.”
I have spent most of my adult life, certainly my married life, contemplating and thinking about objects. All of my books talk about still life in one way or another, and more particularly in Calm Things and Still, a self-published book of poems in which I write about an object each week for 52 weeks as a type of studio exercise. And yet I don’t think I’m quite finished with the subject.
While I have long pored over Clarice Lispector’s work, and obsessed specifically over The Stream of Life/Aqua Viva, it’s only relatively recently that her last book, A Breath of Life, was translated into English. In it there is a character, Angela, who is in conversation – beside or guided by, rather than in conversation with, a character named, Author. Author notes that Angela “apparently wants to write a book studying things and objects and their aura. But I doubt she’s up to it.” And then Angela says, “I’d really like to describe still lifes. For example, the three tall and pot-bellied bottles on the marble table: bottles as silent as if home alone. Nothing of what I see belongs to me in essence. And the only use I make of them is to look.”
What I think Clarice captures in this exchange, and in the book as a whole, is the way we have these two beings inside of us as authors or creative people. Angela has beautiful ideas but the Author doubts her ability to turn them into a book. In fact, Author says that Angela is a ‘pseudo-writer’ and will never be a real writer, which is good because it “spares her the suffering of barrenness.” Even so, Angela’s life is in the author’s hands, however distanced she feels from Angela and her study of things. “I observe her writing about objects,” says Author, but while this study is “personal” for Angela, the Author finds it too “abstract.” There is an element of risk inherent in this kind of writing, and the author can’t help but balk, back away from it. She says, “I’m scared in bedazzlement and fear in the face of her impromptu talk.”
Reading this, one can’t help thinking of the magnificent passage in her earlier book, The Stream of Life, where Lispector writes about the “sadness of flowers in order to feel more fully the order of what exists.” I’ve read the lovely, intense, and yes, personal passage hundreds of times. Each time I find it truly breathtaking – she takes us deep into the scent of each flower, their insane perfumes. In it, Lispector writes about flowers as still life objects. Her observations are intimate, wild, and heady. She begins, “I want to paint a rose.” And she does.
The struggle that Clarice writes about between Author and Angela is the struggle and the worries that we all have, those of us who are so bold as to create something from nothing. We worry if we are enough, if we are equal to this task, or even if this sort of endeavor is too “abstract.” (Certainly this would have been a criticism that she would have heard about her work). But it’s the authorial intrusion, the doubt, the inner critic, that gets in the way of this type of contemplation and also gets in the way of this sort of writing, the sort of writing that isn’t afraid to see all of the existence of a rose, or to be both personal and abstract, or to intensely regard the most insignificant things.
What I think is most beautiful in this idea of contemplating objects or things, however shabby, however bedraggled, in such a way that we arrive at the aura of a tulip or a geranium, a water pitcher or a bottle, is that: any one of us has access to the mystery, to the radiance, and to what is holy and deep within an object, and so also within ourselves.