Postcard

Elaine Elizabeth Belz
POSTCARD

I burned down the joint tonight, my dear—
a beautiful sight!—Wish you were here.


From Deciphering Scars (1997)

"The Sound" and the "Source": Thoughts on finding your voice

THE SOUND

Forty days and forty nights among the elements –
earth and water, wind,
and spirit’s fire –
After my ears have calibrated to this silence,
a polyrhythmic solitude
retrains my ear
To discern deep in the white noise of my loneliness
a holy voice,
its wild modulations crafting a new language
out of my words and its own.


This poem is from To Kiss the Sun and Mean It (2000). I thought it would make a good namesake for this blog. 

So while I’m revealing the source of my blog title, I might as well share this poem, from 1997’s Deciphering Scars:

SOURCE
 
I’m making notes by candle light.
Thoughts drip slow and hours hum,
unmoving, like this halo-glow
that barely aids my tired eyesight.
All this could change should morning light come.
Words, whose timbres sing through charged ozone
are clay that oozes sensuously
through jittery hands that cannot say
what they mean. The clay intones
this small flame’s simple melody.



So these are a couple poems about finding your voice. I’ve had to do that several times. I think anyone working in any art form can attest to the fact that you have to keep re-learning your craft from time to time, either to avoid stagnation or in response to changing circumstances. This blog so far is a place for me to re-publish my old material; in the meantime, I’ve been through that re-learning process yet again. It makes you re-assess your older material, too. This blog certainly will not contain the old material I no longer like! 

With the possible exception of this one. I still like it, but recognize that it’s not the best poem I’ve ever written. But it has a story:


PRAYER IN THE DOWN-TIME

Memories encoded in scars,
carved into this tender flesh by sharp-shooting stars;
Vision painstakingly sculpted by blind hope;
Eyes caress the boundaries that fingers grope,
and I wait for you
To call forth nothing from my masochistic ploys
   and to breathe life into my empty, fledgling voice.

 
Poetry for me had always been an art brut, sort of the equivalent of your typical teenager picking up a guitar and starting a garage band. I didn’t have a guitar or a garage, but I had pen and paper. First things first: I poured my feelings into all kinds of verse, realizing I didn’t have much to say, but that I needed to learn how to say what little there was. That would be the “clay that oozes sensuously through jittery hands that cannot say what they mean.” For a long time, my writing was driven by mood. Images and words would follow, and I would sculpt them. It was a technique that came to work for me, but it didn’t allow me to begin with an idea.
 
“Prayer in the Down-Time” precedes that particular technique, though. I hadn’t been writing for a few years, following a friend’s comment that “no one wants to listen to you whine.” Fair enough. But if I wasn’t going to “whine,” though, I had no clay to work with. 
 
One afternoon in my Lansing-area apartment, I was listening to Black Tape for a Blue Girl’s album, Ashes in the Brittle Air. For whatever reason, some words in the song, “The Scar of a Poet,” seemed to smack me upside the head and say, “The only voice you have is your own. Use it.” (The actual lyrics include the phrase I had tattooed on my arm a couple years later: “Revel in your gift”.)
 
I’d found a dollar bill in my possession that had “AABBDCC” scrawled on it. “That looks like a rhyme scheme,” I thought. So I decided to try it out. “Prayer in the Down-Time” is my response to “The Scar of the Poet,” using that dollar-bill rhyme scheme. What resulted was renewed experimentation with my poetic craft. I hope time proves that to have been a good thing.
 

What is your art form? (Even life is an art form, really.) How have you had to redefine or re-attune your voice? What are your experiences in the ongoing process of learning and re-learning your craft?

A little trilogy of poems

Tonight brings three poems from Deciphering Scars (1997). I’ve always thought of them as a sort of trilogy, even though they’re separated in the book. Maybe it’s because I wrote them around the same time (sometime between late ’95 and early ’97), or maybe it’s the sing-songy rhymes. More on that later; I don’t want to color your reading of the poems.

WARNING: May be triggering for people who wrestle with self-harm or eating disorders—especially the second poem. Proceed with care.


Here are the poems; some discussion follows.

NIGHTCAP

I’ve turned the dead-bolt and fastened the chain
to lock the night outside; but in my brain,
the night’s expanse and quiet amplify each sentiment—
then each sentiment drizzles down and freezes on the pavement,
While the moon, all secure in her impenetrable halo
keeps watch by the light of her cold, holy glow.


I’ve switched on all the lights and put on soothing music
to chase away this odd feeling. But by some trick,
the light obscures my vision, and silence shrouds the song,
which leaves me nothing in this waking sleep to move the night along.
So the moon rolls over, stretches out her silvery beams
in a shimmering yawn, and bids me pleasant dreams.

Too tired to even think of dreaming, I reply with a blank stare
and almost feel the melancholy borne in on clean night air
that urges me to yield to its Socratic care-of-soul…
But, true to habit, I deny that I could ever become whole.
Now the moon has wrapped herself again inside her light,
covered herself with a cloud, and left me to my night.


WORLDVIEW

Once back inside the quiet safety of my small apartment,
I start to pull off all the layers of today’s disguise,
trying to ignore the shadow that mocks my boorish movement,

and blinking back the day’s events into my tired eyes.

The Madonna on the wall looks coolly down on me.
She must be wondering why I don’t reach out with both my arms,

take hold of you, and commit this brutal loneliness to history—
But I revert to empty habits that only bring familiar harm.

So it might be such a self-destructive act, but all the same,
I’ve purged, and I’ve fasted, and could swallow you whole!
When I catch the slightest glimpse of you, or simply hear your name,
I want to draw the universe into my tiny soul.

But trapped inside the quiet safety of my small apartment,
I put a knife to my ambitions, and carve out mere routines,

sigh over a late dinner, wondering where the hours went,
and hope at least to spend a moment with you in my dreams.


DE PROFUNDIS

I’ve wandered off alone at night
and don’t mind that I’m hopelessly
lost, with no pay-phone in sight—


Lord, have mercy.

I’ve bruised myself inside and out
for no apparent reason.
I pray, neither from faith, nor doubt:

Kyrie eleison.

My ambitions dwindle to redundancy,
but I just can’t bring myself to care.

Christ, in your relentless mercy,
hear my prayer.


As I mentioned, these were written while I was living in the Lansing, Michigan area, sometime between late ’95 and early ’97. At the time, I was writing long lines—lines that, when hand-written, ran across a page of lined 8-1/2 x 11 paper —with a very simple rhyme scheme, for whatever reason. Maybe it had to do with what I was reading, or the music I was listening to…but I think it had to do with wanting these poems to sound a bit stilted and awkward, as they do from cramming uneven amounts of syllables into the lines and forcing a rhyme or near rhyme at the end.

The first, “Nightcap,” was written one night after I came home from work at the TV station (my shift ended at 4 a.m.). There was freezing rain, and the moon had the sort of halo it does when it’s drizzly outside. I would never go straight to bed after work; I usually went to bed when the sun started rising. So I really did turn the deadbolt, and put on music. I can’t remember whether my friend Shawna pointed it out to me, or whether it was an older joke and I pointed it out to her, but the brief mention of “Socratic care-of-soul” quickly became proof that I had used my BA in philosophy! 

I don’t remember much around writing “Worldview.” I do know that the “you” in the poem is a personification of that elusive sense of belonging and purpose in life whose absence (or, my imagining its absence) was making me quite restless at the time. That I was still undiagnosed and untreated for my bipolar illness certainly didn’t help. The Madonna on the wall was based on a college friend’s room—he was converting to Roman Catholicism, and had hung a picture of the Madonna and Child on his wall. Now, I have a whole lot of them myself—reproductions of icons, in my case. But I don’t feel the kind of gaze from her (any of her) that this poem expresses. Even if I don’t remember much about its composition, I’ve always loved this poem.

De Profundis” came from the same place, that restlessness. I was also reading a lot of Dorothy Parker at the time (both her works—poetry and stories—and a biography of her), and while this poem doesn’t sound like her style, it sounds (to me, anyway) more like her style than anything else I’ve written (that’s survived). I remember one professor in a radio or TV class (I was also a Communications major in college) recommending that in order to find your style, if you wanted to be an on-air personality, you should start by imitating someone whose work you respect. His reasoning was that since the imitation would still be coming out of you, it wouldn’t be exactly an impression, and eventually you’d find your own voice. I found that the same principle worked with poetry—writing out poems you like by other authors, in your own hand, so that you feel the lines flowing as if from your own heart as your hand is connected to your heart by your pulse, that great rhythm-maker. Anyway, I don’t remember copying Parker’s poems, but I raise this because if I feel like a piece of my own work reflects her style, others may not notice it at all. I had also started going to a truly liturgical church—Peoples Church in East Lansing, a multi-denominational church—and one of the Psalms the cantor sang was a de profundis, and the phrase stuck with me and simmered until it came out in this poem. For those who don’t know, it means “out of the depths.” The Latin titles of Psalms are generally the first line, or part of it. I don’t recall off-hand if there is more than one called De profundis. I had also just been introduced at that church to the Kyrie

Peoples Church in East Lansing had been originally founded by 4 members of different denominations cooperating to create a Protestant church for the Michigan State University community. When I was there, it was still a member of four denominations—Presbyterian USA, American Baptist, United Methodist, and UCC. (I was told at the time the church had been founded by 11 different denominations, but most of them subsequently founded their own churches in the area and pulled out. However, their website says it was always just the four denominations.) I became a member, because I didn’t know how long I’d remain in the area and I was searching for some form of belonging. I had visited many different churches in the area, and enjoyed all the visiting, but I liked the ecumenism inherent in Peoples Church. I wasn’t able to get very involved there before I did leave (other than once delivering altar flowers to three shut-ins, none of whom were home), but I have a couple fond memories of the place: First, there was a city-run recycling center (well, unattended recycling dumpsters) just behind the church, so I took my recycling with me on Sundays. It felt like a spiritual practice, going to church and then unloading my recycling! Second, and best of all, I was a voting member, and voted yes, when we decided to purchase the McDonald’s next door, raze it, and make it into a parking lot. That a church would level a McDonald’s for a parking lot just seemed like a beautiful thing.

"Social Contract"

Here’s a prose poem, from Deciphering Scars (1997). 
 

SOCIAL CONTRACT

 
Under the ethereal haze of fluorescent tube lighting fermenting in a liquid base of cigarette smoke and stagnant air that has become the shared content of all our lungs

dizzying scenes of human interaction and boredom and distraction and countless miscellaneous encoded expressions combine to form an isolating wall of Plexiglas
 
too transparent to allow me to ignore the world it separates me from
 
too blurred to let me understand
 
this random mess imposed on a framework of assumed order, these loose elements somehow unified, by noise, or by action, or perhaps by mere proximity
 
while all apparent contact terminates on surfaces of skin, of eyes, of the barriers that shape us
 
into individuals, define us by what we are not. This too we share in common, we
 
flickering bits of smoldering ash still huddling for warmth around the chaos lingering in the afterglow
 
of the Big Bang.
 
 


 
When I was in college at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, I loved shopping at the original Borders…and when they moved into the old Jacobson’s building across the street—which, it turns out, was when the Borders brothers sold the store to Kmart who made a chain out of it, but I didn’t know that at the time. In both locations, I liked to stop by their “untranslated foreign literature” section and browse the plays and novels by French existentialists. I’ve gotten over that phase, as you do. But it’s probably pretty evident in this poem, written a few years out of college. In fact, I remember writing it while sitting at xhedos in Ferndale (directly north of Detroit), most likely enjoying an Italian soda and live music and the company of my good friends. Not at all the scene in the poem, but it sets the date of this poem to 1997.
 
In Ionesco’s novel, Le solitaire (The Hermit), there’s a scene in a restaurant where the main character finds he can no longer understand the language everyone around him is speaking, and feels isolated from them. To be honest, I don’t recall whether he feels he’s behind glass, and my copy of the novel is packed away right now. That’s where the Plexiglas® image comes from. 
 
We all know what “social contract” theory is about: in really broad strokes, that human beings are atomistic individuals who relate to other human beings only through social contracts which can be broken at will. I could never figure out how one is supposed to have entered into such a contract with one’s mother (and other family members), but I’m probably ignorant of some deep intricacy in the theory. But I’m of the belief that “I am because we are.” Just in case you didn’t pick that up in the poem.
 
I suppose if we root around in this metaphor, the “shared content of all our lungs” is a clue to our basic unity as humans; breath has long represented spirit, or essential nature—from ruach in the Hebrew Scriptures to pneuma in the Christian Scriptures to spiritus in later Church tradition, the word for “spirit” is, essentially, “breath.” In an environment where humans believe they’ve created themselves and don’t need each other, that shared breath has become toxic and suffocating.
 
Metaphors are interesting, aren’t they? I suppose it’s because I’m a poet, but I’m convinced that metaphors are useful not just for expressing thoughts, but also for thinking them. Once you find a metaphor for something, by investigating the metaphor, you can often learn about the thing it stands for. For example, in a paper I wrote for a seminar on creativity last spring, I investigated the metaphor of houses, or architecture, for systems of thought. By thinking about houses (I proposed), you can discover truths about thought systems.
 
I think that’s a huge piece of the revelatory power of art. Even non-verbal art forms serve as metaphors. A few years ago I was in a class where Peter Selz, a well-known art historian and curator, now Professor Emeritus at UC-Berkeley, was asked how he decides what artworks to include in an exhibition—in other words, what makes for “good” art? He thought about it for a week, and came back with this response: “Good” art is “a visual metaphor for significant human experience.” Notice he said nothing about beauty or novelty or even technical expertise. And, of course, you can replace the word “visual” for other art forms. 
 
Isn’t that a brilliant definition?
 
So works of art take on a life of their own, beyond what the artist herself or himself even intended. A good work of art will continue to speak to its audiences/viewers; and as a metaphor, it serves as a sort of template for various human experiences. That metaphor allows us to gain insight about the human condition, precisely because it relates to our experience.
 
I don’t know whether this or any of my poems stand up to such high standards. But we can all think of works of art that do.
 
PS— Peter Selz referenced that question and his response in the biography by Paul J. Karlstrom, but he misquotes himself. Somewhere I have the paper where I (like my fellow students) immediately wrote down exactly what he said, but I committed it to memory right away. “A visual metaphor for significant human experience…” That’s the revelatory power of an experienced art historian!

"New Year’s Eve"

I’m going to try something different – start with the poem, and comment on it after. I know some people prefer that. Let me know if you have a preference!

So from my first self-published book, 1997’s Deciphering Scars:

NEW YEAR’S EVE
 
Words hang in a thick fog between us,
hiding your subtle expressions from my view.
Our gestures have slowed to meaningless ritual.
The constant falling snow
is white air, tangible enough to almost grasp.
It covers up our footprints,

just like it smoothed over the wound where the sun
burned its escape-hole in the glacial sky.
We watch the sun fade,
fade away…

While we stand here, frozen,
waiting to succumb to some new Ice Age
and leave the bones of our interactions
for future paleontologists to decipher,

committing this scenery to be preserved
under the layers of our fallout.
In playful wisps
the drifting powder whirls like chimney smoke,
or ghosts of carefree autumns, summers, springs –
The past unwinds, driven by the wind.
It melts to nothing if you try to hold it on your tongue.
 
So winter lays its numbing pall on us: even
the glimmer in your eyes is
frosted over now, and dimmed…
From behind its glassy scar tissue, the glowing sun
winks smugly, sears into my breast
a yearning to also blaze
through the icy veil, into heaven,
and set myself among the eternal stars.
 
 
And now the commentary. 
 
Yes, the book title is from Joy Division’s song, “Exercise One.” The reason I used song quotes for book titles is that I was placing copies of my books in local stores (including the Ann Arbor location of Borders, RIP) and figured if anyone recognized the quote, they just might like my work. Between titles and cover art, I’ve picked up a fair amount of music that way, just browsing in stores – and also poetry books. So I was making books that might pique my own interest, I suppose. They didn’t sell much in stores, but why would they. While a few outlets bought the books outright, I also consigned them in stores and online (amazon and Barnes & Noble… B&N took up my offer to split 50/50 if they bought it outright, but they never paid me) just so people who heard me read and wanted a book but didn’t have cash on them would be able to go get themselves a copy somehow. I made bookmarks listing where the books were available and gave them out at readings.
 
Enough of that; on to the poem at hand.
 
This one literally came out of seeing the sun buried behind snowy fog on a January afternoon. It looked precisely as I describe it in the poem. I had just arrived for my 4pm-4am shift in Master Control at WLNS-TV in Lansing, MI, and as I got out of the car, saw that sun. I went inside and wrote this. Boring story, I know. I worked at WLNS (channel 6, CBS affiliate) from October ’95 to March ’97, so I wrote this in January of either 1996 or 1997. Somewhere I have that information written down. Given that time frame—when I moved back to Metro Detroit in early ’97—I can’t believe DS was conceived, produced, and released the same year! I don’t recall what month, but it had to be late in the year. The first run was about 100 copies, I think, and the whole thing I printed on my laser printer and had professionally bound. Big mistake on several levels, but I’ll save that for another time, if anyone’s interested. For the subsequent runs of DS and WMCA, I printed the text on my printer but had the covers printed professionally.
 
One last note on the poem, though. There is a little allusion at the end to Jan Krist’s beautiful song, “Gravity” – specifically the stanza,

The stars are set up in sky
I’m asking simply why can’t I be partners
In their glory
With their sparkle in my eyes…

(For that link, you have to scroll down, or better yet, do a search on the page for the title.)


Since the commentary on that poem was a bit thin, I’ll give you another, tiny little poem from the same book. It certainly couldn’t hold its own blog post, even if it is a bit ironic given that I wrote it in my mid-20s…


COUNTDOWN

White space
clutters the page


And I grow old.


Indeed. That one would’ve been written in 1997. Well, 15 or so years on and I’m really not old yet, am I? The only comment I have about this poem is that in some of his prose I’d read, Baudelaire quoted somebody about “la page vide que sa blancheur défend,” and I was fascinated by the possible metaphors that white space or blankness could become.

Finally, as I’ve said a bit about self-publishing here: Perhaps after I’ve put some number of these old poems up, I’ll share a bit about zède publishing – including why I went that route in the first place. You’ve had a few teasers so far. I’m happy to answer questions about that, and also about any of my poems, about the writing/creative process, whatever. Thank you for reading this!