On the Longest Night in Advent

OK, I’m off by a day or two…Solstice is over, and the days begin to lengthen. But on this eve of Christmas Eve, here’s one more reflection on the coming of Christ. Fittingly, it’s the longest poem I ever wrote.

Elaine Elizabeth Belz
ON THE LONGEST NIGHT IN ADVENT

There are times when I am so mindful of the life
growing inside me
that it seems to also saturate the world around:
These tiny leaves that twirl down to meet me,
kindred withered things,
that pass from their former greenness by the arrangement
of seasons, and fall
with such levity;
Damp chilled air that hovers
like a promise of ensuing warmth –
These are the portents of hope known by
the cold and lonely.

A shriveled leaf falls out of the frigid dark,
and I, who choose to hope,
must confess that I know only the weight
of believing, and wonder
if I wouldn’t rather
feel myself absorbed into the void of the empty night sky.

My tiny messenger of hope
crumbles at my touch. In the distance,
lit and unlit windows
speak in cryptic patterns,

like the few stars emerging from heaven tonight,
like the flashing beacons of radio towers,
like the questions
that spin in my mind, refusing
even to be formulated –

thoughts I wear like a thick skin
against the cold
as all pretense of contact
retracts, and the world sinks back
into the impenetrable dark. It needs
nothing from me.

The sun
is invisible now, but it burns tirelessly, fueling
even cold night.

The void
that presses against my skin,
that surrounds everything in space,
that swallows everything in time,

also relentlessly burns, but cannot consume me. My life
is buried deep inside,
embalmed in past appearances, waiting to be recollected
like a long-forgotten promise – waiting
to be born anew

into this world full of
life that is separate from me, hiding behind its own
thick skins: tree bark, brick and concrete,
headlight glare, human flesh, night sky,
the negative space that implies,
like a question,
the yet-unknown object of my belief.

The answers
will be ordinary. The prophets
will wear the faces of my neighbors, speak to me
in my own dialect, and I will understand them
through my senses: the same ordinary means
by which I interpret the universe of sense
that enwraps me, the universe of which
my body and its senses
are a part.

Immersed as I am
in routine and emptiness,
will I fail to recognize it?

Another leaf falls,
and I reach out to touch it –
a gesture that is no more faith
than desperation.

All my experience,
and all my memory,
and all my knowledge,
my collected bits of the appearances of Life
converge

As at the intersection point
between ancestry and descendants;

and the void
in which I exist
exhales its quiet chill,
becomes a sanctuary
for the hope that grows inside me:

the future drawn out of my past – a mystery
birthed in the familiar,
nursed in my own being,
destined to transcend me. It will begin
in the immediacy and subjectivity
of my own sight and touch and hearing,
and will unfold forever – boundless as the ever-growing
ever-cryptic universe.

Is it enough to believe?

The dark world reaches out with wind to brush my cheek,
and I feel its cold penetrate my skin.

"Lyrics for the Run-Off Hiss"

Just a poem for today. 
 

LYRICS FOR THE RUN-OFF HISS

The birds were singing in your letter: figments
of your drunkenness, perhaps; or else the night
had finally succumbed to morning — Morning
seems unreal in this real-life dream.


In your half-lit last rite, even I can see
that rising sun, whose sudden rays burst chaos
through your sprawling penmanship, through shaken words
that faltered, in both form and sense,

but never faltered in their lust for dawn. Now
the night you thought would never end is over.
And the sun that rises, as it always will,
cannot care what fate it brought you

as your hand—intoxicated with the dreams
an endless night could endlessly embellish —
put a period to your sleeplessness.
In the absurd light of new dawn,
 
these words you penned, but could not live, replace you.
Yes, the sun still shines; and I suppose the birds
kept singing: a mantra for unresolved sleep.
One day we will wake in your dream.



[From To Kiss the Sun and Mean It (2000)]

The Poet Among Ruins

OMEN

It’s an after-the-fact
stress test, this
building in reverse; the ceiling
drops its burden, finally relieved
of having to define “above.”


Somewhere
the blueprint probably
remains, archived on acid-free paper.
Its secrets have spurned their confinement.
As though soulless, the structure
yields to transparency: even at night
you can see through to the same blank sky
on the other side.


I don’t think I belong here
like that man clearing away rubble
to stake out tonight’s home.
I am more transient,
a scavenger
for mementos I can use
in my own abode: sizeable fragments
of textured glass; marble tiles;
the assurance I’ve found beauty
present still in fallen things,
dressed up in decay.

 

Each broken detail charms
my uninvested eyes.


My friend is a photographer.
He seeks the proof
of my assumptions, posing the question
with his camera lens.

 

A small bird’s dusty skeleton
lies, fetal, in the new dirt floor.



This poem has been slightly revised since it appeared in 2000 in To Kiss the Sun and Mean It.  It was written in 1998, after I accompanied three photographers into the Michigan Central Station. We looked around a bit; they took pictures with cameras; I took pictures in my head. There’s some fictionalization going on: I combined my photographer friends into one; and I didn’t take any marble tiles. I did take broken fragments of glass, because they could not be re-used in the station were it to ever be restored in any way. The fragments I took were just the right size to make coasters. I never finished sanding down the edges with emery stone. The roughly 1/2 inch thick glass is ridged on one side, and has octagonal chicken wire in it.


We climbed all the way up to the roof—a precarious undertaking, since the dark stairwells included steps that were broken. I recall in a hallway seeing the plaster ceiling, with a wire backing, hanging down and just about touching the floor. We came across evidence that people were living there: sleeping bags and refuse, mostly. But we also saw a man—probably “Catfish.” I did find a bird skeleton on the floor in the main waiting room, but of course the floor only appeared to be dirt. There’s a basement underneath it. It was simply so covered with debris that it gave me that wonderful poetic image. I did point it out to one of my friends; she wasn’t happy with the resulting photograph.


Thanks to the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library, I now have pdf files of the blueprints. So, yes, they do remain.

You can read more about the station in Dan Austin’s excellent article over at Historic Detroit.

Incidentally, after my visit inside the MCS, I found out my great-grandfather was one of the carpenters that worked on it back in 1912-13! That excursion also produced the photograph (of me) on the cover of my second book, When Midnight Comes Around:

Photo by Paula Styer




Here’s another poem referencing ruins, although that was not the initial impulse behind it.

HIGHLAND PARK

From our parting embrace
my dumb hands
drop to my sides. I have
no use now
for these words that pool up inside
these numbed lips.
I am skin, 
I am bone,  

I am crumbling cinderblock and shattered glass,
standing on a corner,
channeling the wind,
wearing marks of my abandonment.
I am bone.

I am skin, wearing
these precious abrasions: why
not/if only/what else
And the wind in me reverberates
the howling memory
of our often dissolving
structure and
moment
in touch
 
This one actually began in a reflection on that experience of being together with someone—perhaps at a train station or airport, or carpooling—and suddenly, having said goodbye, finding yourself alone. For me, the situation goes directly from animated conversation to very sudden silence, with no one to talk to. Still in conversation mode, the brain keeps churning, but there is no longer anyone to share your thoughts with.
 
Similarly, buildings teem with life, with human activities, until, for whatever reason, they become abandoned. Perhaps a building is condemned, due to poor maintenance over the years. Perhaps it is largely, but not completely, destroyed by fire. Or it may be trapped in an economically depressed geographic location, where buildings, and people, are so often abandoned, discarded as if they were such useless trash as the wrapper on a take-out cheeseburger.
 
Highland Park, an enclave city completely surrounded by Detroit, has suffered such abandonment for a very long time. I was living just across 6 Mile from Highland Park when I wrote this. Originally, when the poem appeared in To Kiss the Sun and Mean It, it was called “H.P.” But when I read it at the book release party, one friend commented, “Wow, I’ll never think of Hewlitt Packard the same way!” 
 
I may still revise this poem, but that goes without saying.
 
I have already shared another ruin-related poem, “There Is No Nothing,” on this blog. The theme of modern/industrial ruins has long permeated my thinking and my aesthetic tastes, and so it appears frequently in my poetry.

"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?

Two poems – “To Rule the Night” and “By Art or By Physics”

TO RULE THE NIGHT

The ground below is a black sea full of stars,
little constellations that signify nothing
but mapped isolation. I blink back.
I understand. I, too, am a dying star,

caught in the vast permanence of blackness
that endlessly receives our offerings of light.
The night sky is a shrine. Its ancient relics
foreshadow what fossils we might also become.

From my vantage point, I could be a priest
for all those little helpless ones gathered below.
But I know no incantation,
no rite, except my own
ritual of longing. I imagine I chant holy words
that I could never know, but by some dark mystery.
The little lights pour out their responsorial halos
onto the concrete below them.

They look like Christmas tree lights,
glistening and ornamental, magical,
and dim. Clustered together, they must think they are
lighting the sky.

BY ART OR BY PHYSICS

By its artificial and mysterious motion
the clock beside my bed spins the world around, and flings
another day into oblivion.

And I, by every power I can summon,
gape at the white space projected on the ceiling
from the empty diary beside my bed.

This is no canvas I could paint my dreams on.
This is a nothingness I know too well: the cold, white sum
of my disordered colors, my spoiled palette,
Memories and passions absorbed and lost
deep in my blood –

Deep,

Where by automatic and mysterious tic, the clock
inside my chest pulls up another sun.

 


Both of these are from my third book, To Kiss the Sun and Mean It. (I’ve discussed before where that title comes from.)
 
“To Rule the Night” was, as should be obvious, written on a plane. I was returning from a friend’s wedding in Atlanta, but that’s not relevant at all. It was night. I’m not sure what else I can say that the poem doesn’t say better. It’s not about anything in particular. It’s typical of my writing process, though – taking in an image and letting it resonate with a store of other images and moods and seeing what comes from the juxtaposition.
 
“By Art or By Physics” revisits the theme of white space… and if you’ve ever felt like your life is overfilled with a whole lot of nothing, you probably understand. White, of course, is—when speaking of pigments—the absence of color; when speaking of light, it’s the presence of all colors. I combined those facts, as a palette wouldn’t contain light (unless you’re on the computer, I suppose). That double meaning of white means that 1+1+1+1+1+1 (ad infinitum) can still equal zero. “The cold white sum of my disordered palette” can be a blank page. Good thing I paid attention to my color theory in school.
 
As Betty White said on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (8:15-8:40 on that clip for context), “I didn’t do anything to get to be 91, it just happened!” The clock ticks, the heart tics, and time accrues. 
 
The title refers to those two central images, one being art and the other, physics.
 
Sylvia Plath got me hooked on the word “gape.” I’m pretty sure it was among her favorite words, she uses it so much. It’s a good one, isn’t it? Mouths can gape, caverns and canyons can gape, the abyss can gape, empty spaces can gape, and so can wounds. It’s a useful word.

“There is No Nothing”

I won’t be posting every single day, but it seems like it’s not a bad idea at first, to get this thing going.

This poem comes from my third and final self-published book, To Kiss the Sun and Mean It. That book title comes from Bruce Cockburn’s song, “Dialogue With the Devil (Why Don’t We Celebrate?),” (© 1971 Golden Mountain Music Corp) which is on his True North Records album, Sunwheel Dance. If you don’t have that album, go out and buy it now. This blog post will still be here when you get back.

Great song, isn’t it?

If you know me, you know I have an irrational love for my hometown, Detroit. I have what I call a “chosen delusion” that when people hear I’m from Detroit, they’ll be jealous. Some of that creeps into this poem, and I think it’s related to Jerry Herron’s complaint regarding a LA Times article in the early ’90s:

“In what has become characteristic fashion, the reporter’s irony is founded on the still more ironic (if unself-conscious) assumption that a city so overfilled with human misery can be written about as if it were empty.” (AfterCulture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993, p. 83)


Herron argues that the city (in general, and also, specifically, Detroit) has become unintelligible in the latter half of the 20th century, because, following suburbanization during the post-war period, the city no longer orders (most) people’s lives or scripts their (consumer) desires. Furthermore, many outsiders looking at Detroit don’t recognize anything that is central to their idea of what a “city” is, so they fail to see what is actually there. In this instance, the reporter had focused on vegetation taking over and pheasants roaming the streets.

However, this poem was written before I’d read Herron’s book, so what he says didn’t influence me directly, but I think it articulates quite well some of what I was intuiting.

Still, that’s not the whole story to this poem. Frankly, I don’t know what is. If you figure it out, leave a comment below – I’d love to hear your reading of this. I don’t know who “you” is in this poem. Many of my poems have a “you” in them, and it’s generally a placeholder, as if the poem were a template that might fit over a number of different “you”s and “me”s.

Other brief notes:

Once you’ve read enough of my poems, you’ll get the sense that I’m not fond of the color white. If you’ve met me, that won’t surprise you.

There’s a bit of a reference to Kierkegaard in the second stanza. Just a bit.

I was living in Palmer Park when I wrote this, presumably in 1999.

The lack of punctuation at the end is intentional.


THERE IS NO NOTHING

Absence is presence: the white space
that colors the page, gesturing form, forging
memories from static words and images;
Your absence is all that I have now.
A whitish light seeps in,
establishing the boundaries
of this stolid afternoon.
Life is only getting longer. This loneliness,
this treasure, hangs, useless
and empty, across this pallid room.

I believe that you faded away into night,
drawn into the womb of that becoming
by the gravity of your longing: now Eternity
illuminates the scope of your being.

Out my window, there is your shadow: my alley view,
flat-lit by stagnant sun; the same mundane scene
sprawling. Urban changelessness. Undying decay.
I want to climb down to the street,
scoop up armfuls of garbage, kiss
the liquor bottle shards, caress the brokenness
of potholes, run my fingers through the weeds
that push up from the sidewalk cracks. I want

to know the sacred absence here,
even through its suffering: these rich wounds
bleed a richer promise,
a destiny of dying
to become



PS: I should note that I sought, and received, gracious permission from True North to use that Bruce Cockburn quote for my book title. In one of life’s weird coincidences, I received the permission on a Monday (or a Tuesday – I don’t remember now) in a week when I was going to see Cockburn play the Crisler Arena in Windsor that Friday. At the show, he played that song, introducing it by saying he finally understood what it was about. I’d love to know what he’d concluded – I have my own reading. But what timing, eh? He’d been on tour for a while, presumably singing that song all along. Still, I was floored to hear it live in that moment.