Fishing in the Mind

Winslow Homer, “Boy Fishing”


Can art be so vivid that it supersedes actual experience? Billy Collins makes such a claim in “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July,” where he conjures up images that may resonate with those who fish, even though Collins isn’t among them. His own experience, he freely admits, comes from museum paintings.

Art precedes life, I imagine Collins arguing. A brown hare he sees in a painting seems much more real than any actual hare.

If Collins enhances our own fishing expeditions or nature walks, however, perhaps actual experience doesn’t really matter. As Hamlet reflects upon an actor pouring out the Queen of Troy’s grief, “What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba?” Perhaps artists don’t so much see as channel.

Or as Shakespeare puts it elsewhere,

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy.
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

Fishing on the Susquehanna in July

By Billy Collins

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.

Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure — if it is a pleasure —
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one —
a painting of a woman on the wall,

a bowl of tangerines on the table —
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,

rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia,

when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend

under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandana

sitting in a small, green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.

That is something I am unlikely
ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,

even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.

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Blake on Trump’s Breast-Feeding Attack

Mary Cassatt, “Louise Nursing Her Child”


I turned to William Blake when the Trump administration enacted its deliberately cruel strategy of separating children from their parents as a way to deter them crossing the border. I turn to the poet again following the administration’s attempts to sabotage international efforts to encourage breast-feeding. When one adds to these its attempts to cut food stamp allocations and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), one can only conclude that it is conducting a war on poor children.

The New York Times reports on it breast-feeding stance. After the World Health Organization was prepared to sponsor a resolution advocating the practice,

the United States delegation, embracing the interests of infant formula manufacturers, upended the deliberations.

American officials sought to water down the resolution by removing language that called on governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding” and another passage that called on policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products that many experts say can have deleterious effects on young children.

When these preliminary efforts didn’t pay off, America started playing hardball:

When that failed, they turned to threats, according to diplomats and government officials who took part in the discussions. Ecuador, which had planned to introduce the measure, was the first to find itself in the cross hairs.

The Americans were blunt: If Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid. The Ecuadorean government quickly acquiesced.

Johns Hopkins pediatrician Frank Oski has one of the most powerful statements on the benefits of breast-feeding:

Imagine that the world had created a new ‘dream product’ to feed and immunize everyone born on earth. Imagine also that it was available everywhere, required no storage or delivery, and helped mothers plan their families and reduce the risk of cancer. Then imagine that the world refused to use it.

By contrast, baby formula not only costs money, but in poorer countries mothers may use polluted water, increasing infant mortality. Not that the Trump administration cares as it goes out of its way to create Blake’s “dangerous world”:

My mother groaned! my father wept. 
Into the dangerous world I leapt: 
Helpless, naked, piping loud; 
Like a fiend hid in a cloud. 

Struggling in my father’s hands: 
Striving against my swaddling bands: 
Bound and weary I thought best 
To sulk upon my mother’s breast.

“Sulk” in an interesting word. The child, who should be an angel entering joyfully into the world, finds himself instead a defensive fiend and sulkily retreats. Only now there are forces actively working against even this final place of retreat. Blake himself may not have seen that one coming.

Further thought: So as not to end today’s post on an entirely bleak note, here’s a Carl Sandburg poem on the importance of mother nurturing (from “Poems on a Late Night Car”):

Here is a thing my heart wishes the world had more of:
I heard it in the air of one night when I listened
To a mother singing softly to a child restless and angry in the darkness.

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Sleeping Outdoors

Istvan Csok, “Hay-making”


Ben Shattuck of Literary Hub has written a nice essay about “the unexpected poetry of sleeping outside.” Shattuck finds wilderness napping so attractive that he wonders why Robert Frost didn’t take a nap when he stopped by the woods on a snowy evening.

Check out the essay to get the full flavor of the experience. I want to emphasize here how Shattuck’s familiarity with poetry enhances the experience. Sleeping outdoors wouldn’t be half as meaningful if Shattuck didn’t have poetic frameworks within which to process it.

Shattuck finds a couple of poems which mention sleeping out aside. One of them, not surprisingly, is Whitman’s Song of the Open Road:

Now I see the secret of making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

There is also Mary Oliver’s “Sleeping in the Forest”:

I thought the earth remembered me,
She took me back so tenderly
Arranging her skirts
Her pockets full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before
A stone on the riverbed,
Nothing between me and the white fire of the stars,
But my thoughts.
And they floated light as moths
Among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
Breathing around me.
The insects and the birds
Who do their work in darkness.
All night I rose and fell,
As if water, grappling with luminous doom.

Oliver has a number of poems where she imagines merging with the landscape (and sometimes the sea as in “The Fish”) in a numinous experience. In “Sleeping in the Forest,” the joining of stars, sky, and ocean may owe something to Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse”:

And in the trembling blue-green of the sky   
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell   
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell   
About the stars and broke in days and years.

Shattuck observes,

I’m sure the landscape affects us in ways likely more powerful than we realize—because it is a magnetism easily felt on the edge of consciousness, I’ve found. 

He also takes the experience of sleeping beside a poet’s grave to revisit his poetry, even though the poems don’t specifically mention outdoor napping. This does not matter, however, as the point of the exercise is opening up the subconscious mind, and John O’Donohue definitely has something to say about that:

The week before arriving in Wales I woke beside Irish poet John O’Donohue’s grave, way out in the west, where it’s all wind and sky and the sound of wild sea. “To live in a valley is to enjoy a private sky,” O’Donohue wrote of his home. Two old men were standing over me when I opened my eyes. “Oh!” one of them had gasped, holding up his hands. “I thought we’d found a body. Just practicing, are you?” O’Donohue, who described death as “a presence who walks the road of life with you,” would have liked the man’s phrasing, I think. To practice in and with death. “On your own,” O’Donohue wrote in his book on Celtic spirituality, Anam Cara, “or with others, it is always there with you. When you were born, it came out of the womb with you; with the excitement at your arrival, nobody noticed it. Though his presence surrounds you, you may still be blind to its companionship. The name of this presence is death.”

This joining of sleep and death brought to mind another Robert Frost poem, which has an image that my wife and I turned to the night that her father died. It’s from “After Apple Picking”:

But I am done with apple-picking now. 
Essence of winter sleep is on the night, 
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. 
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight 
I got from looking through a pane of glass 
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough 
And held against the world of hoary grass. 
It melted, and I let it fall and break. 
But I was well 
Upon my way to sleep before it fell… 

At the end of the poem, Frost wonders about the nature of this sleep:

One can see what will trouble 
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. 
Were he not gone, 
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his 
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, 
Or just some human sleep. 

Since he’s in Wales, Shattuck takes occasion to reflect upon Dylan Thomas, especially the snow scenes in Child’s Christmas in Wales. That poem has little to do with sleeping outdoors, however, and I’m surprised that Shattuck didn’t tap into the wondrous sleep images in “Poem in October,” where the poet describes awaking to a luminous landscape, or “Fern Hill,” where he imagines riding with the owls as he falls asleep:

     And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
     Flying with the ricks, and the horses
          Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
     Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
          The sky gathered again
     And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
     Out of the whinnying green stable
          On to the fields of praise.

The essay ends on a lovely note. By sleeping outdoors, Shadduck says, he more fully absorbs the landscape:

I woke in Wales. The land had filled with snow, the sky cleared of it. A singer of old American ballads once told me that after you learn a song you must sleep at least once before you perform it. To really know it, you have to let your dreams take hold of it, he said. Let it seep into your subconscious. Walking away from the ledge, I was thankful for the tiredness that had come—it did feel like I learned the landscape’s song a little better.

Without poetry, sleep—whether indoors or outside—is just sleep.

Posted in Frost (Robert), O'Donohue (John), Oliver (Mary), Thomas (Dylan), Whitman (Walt), Yeats (William Butler) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How To Cross Trump’s Swamp


Donald Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” while wallowing in swampish corruption himself pretty much sums up his major political tactic: whatever you are guilty of, accuse the other side of it. If you do this constantly enough and confidently enough, maybe you can at least confuse enough people to get away with it.

Given that public pressure succeeded last week in forcing the resignation of one of Trump’s swampiest cabinet members (EPA head Scott Pruitt), we all deserve a good swamp poem, so here’s one by Mary Oliver. “Crossing the Swamp” describes a depressed state, making it appropriate for how many of us are feeling these days. Miraculously, however, the speaker manages to hold on to a glimmer of hope.

As you read the poem, note how it feels like wading through a swamp, with each four lines representing a step. In the process, the poet loses her bearings:

Crossing the Swamp

By Mary Oliver

Here is the endless
   wet thick
      cosmos, the enter
         of everything—the nugget
of dense sap, branching
   vines, the dark burred
      faintly belching
         bogs. Here
is swamp, here
   is struggle,
         pathless, seamless,
peerless mud. My bones
   knock together at the pale
      joints, trying
         for foothold, fingerhold,
mindhold over
   such slick crossings, deep
      hipholes, hummocks
         that sink silently
into the black, slack
   earthsoup I feel
      not wet so much as
         painted and glittered
with the fat grassy
   mires, the rich
      and succulent marrows
         of earth—a poor
dry stick given
   one more chance by the whims
      of swamp water—a bough
         that still after all these years,
could take root,
   sprout, branch out, bud–
      make of its life a breathing
         palace of leaves.

Many of us, wading through Trump’s swamp, feel as though we are losing “foothold, fingerhold, mindhold” with a “black, slack earthsoup” pulling us under. To be sure, Oliver’s swamp is more positive than Trump’s in that it is nourishing (“rich and succulent marrows of earth”).  But in the poet’s drama, she feels like a dead stick and the swamp is a darkness that threatens to overwhelm her.

Only, miraculously, it doesn’t as, against all odds, she finds herself revitalized. If you are looking for hope, imagine that resistance to Trump is reinvigorating the American experiment. The founding fathers and mothers knew that freedom had to be fought for, and many are awaking to the fact that our liberty cannot be taken for granted.

We’re slogging through a dismal swamp. Pray that we come back and make of this country a breathing palace of leaves.

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Milton: Sex as a Holy Sacrament

Gustave Doré, “Adam and Eve”

Spiritual Sunday

 My wife has been researching her Moravian past prior to a heritage trip to the Czech Republic and other important Moravian way stations in the trek to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where Julia’s ancestors landed. Some of these ancestors were missionaries who made their way to Grace Hill, Iowa, where Julia grew up.

Julia reported a fascinating tidbit recounted in Aaron Spencer Fogleman’s Jesus is Female: Moravians and Radical Religion in Early America. One of them got me thinking that, when it comes to sex, John Milton sounds more Moravian than Puritan in Paradise Lost.

A little background is useful. The Moravians were followers of Jan Huss, who was burned at the stake for translating the Bible into Czech. The Moravians went underground but eventually found sanctuary on the estate of one Count Zinzendorf. Zinzendorf sent Moravians all over the world to share a vision that was fairly progressive, especially in its views of women and sexuality—views that threatened denominations that were more patriarchal and more repressed. As Zinzendorf saw it, sexual intercourse was a sacramental act:

[The Moravians] resacralized marriage and declared that sex between husband and wife was holy, a service to God, and a part of their liturgy. This was in part a consequence of their view of marriage between men and women as an image of the mystical marriage between the church and Christ the bridegroom that was common in Christian belief, but the Moravians went well beyond this. Zinzendorf taught that the husband acted as a proxy or procurator for Christ, and the wife should regard him as acting in the name of the Creator (Christ). Husband and wife became partners in the struggle to do the Lord’s work on earth…


[S]ex among married couples also became an important spiritual event in the church, as man and wife received a blessing from the Savior during intercourse, and Moravian hymns portrayed the glory of sexual organs. By emphasizing the gendered, sexual character of the deity the Moravians took away the shame and sin of sex…As Zinzendorf explained in the forward to their hymnal, if the Creator had a male organ (mannliches Glied), and if the female organ (weibliches Glied) was honored for all eternity in the person of the holy mother, then why should they be ashamed of their sexual parts. Thus the genitalia of men and women were venerated, not hidden, and the act of procreation became not a necessary evil or impure act, but rather a majestic one that should not be kept secret but sung publicly in hymns like the following:

O bring us, our marriage friend
thy blood speckled member,
which is needed for the union
with our innocence once again. (Hymn 2121)

When I can eat him,
so it is best for me,
and when my dear husband
lets his oil sizzle in me;
since this grace is a sacrament

that one cannot always have
my body is turned toward (him). (Hymn 2085)

Julia notes that these hymns were not still in circulation when she was growing up.

Some readers criticized Milton’s depiction of Adam and Eve having sex in the Garden of Eden. As he figured it, however, sex was needed to produce the children that would help with pruning and other tasks. After showing them making love, Milton immediately attacks those who see sex as dirty. Like the Moravians, for Milton sex is a gift from God.

It all happens in a wonderful passage. First, in Book IV Adam and Eve make their way to their “blissful bower” that is overgrown with beautiful flowers:

Thus talking, hand in hand along they passed 
On to their blissful bower. It was a place
Chosen by the sovran Planter, when he framed 
All things to Man’s delightful use. The roof 
Of thickest covert was inwoven shade, 
Laurel and myrtle, and what higher grew 
Of firm and fragrant leaf; on either side            
Acanthus, and each odorous bushy shrub, 
Fenced up the verdant wall; each beauteous flower, 
Iris all hues, roses, and gessamin, 
Reared high their flourished heads between, and wrought 
Mosaic; under foot the violet,            
Crocus, and hyacinth, with rich inlay 
Broidered the ground, more coloured than with stone 
Of costliest emblem.

After spontaneously thanking God for His goodness, they then proceed to business:

[I]nto their inmost bower 
Handed they went, and, eased the putting-off 
These troublesome disguises which we wear,            
Straight side by side were laid; nor turned, I ween, 
Adam from his fair spouse, nor Eve the rites 
Mysterious of connubial love refused…

Milton can’t quite say that Adam and Eve have intercourse–he’s saying that they don’t turn away from it–and his subsequent attack on hypocrites indicates that he’s not pleased at having been forced into this defensive position. When it comes to married couples, he says that only Satan sees sexual abstinence as positive:

Whatever hypocrites austerely talk 
Of purity, and place, and innocence,            
Defaming as impure what God declares 
Pure, and commands to some, leaves free to all. 
Our Maker bids increase; who bids abstain 
But our destroyer, foe to God and Man? 
Hail, wedded Love, mysterious law, true source            
Of human offspring, sole propriety 
In Paradise of all things common else! 

Like the Moravians, Milton does distinguish between innocent sex and lustful sex. The first is “founded in reason, loyal, just, and pure” and is a “perpetual fountain of domestic sweets.” The latter is bound up in “the bought smile of harlots, loveless, joyless, unendeared” and in “court amours, mixed dance, or wanton mask, or midnight ball.” We see innocent sex give way to lust when Adam and Eve have sex after the fall, when it becomes associated with transgression.

Stereotyping Milton as a prudish Puritan doesn’t do him justice. He used his epic to explore foundational issues, including male-female sexuality, and arrived at unexpected conclusions. Paradise Lost is often more radical than it is given credit for.

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Howl’s Empowerment Drama

Miyazaki, “Howl’s Moving Castle”


Last semester, Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle was one of the hits in my British Fantasy class. (I like Fire and Hemlock better but needed a shorter novel.) The women students felt empowered by how Moving Castle challenges some of the traditional fairy tale structures.

While fantasy, as Bruno Bettelheim points out, can provide powerful imaginative spaces for children to explore fundamental dramas, it can also stunt growth. Jones signals the latter danger right off the bat:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

In Jones’s fantasy, however, the eldest gets to be the hero although, because she is in the grip of traditional narrative, she unfortunately can’t acknowledge her special powers. The novel tracks her shaking free of her preconceptions.

After her father dies, Sophie Hatter dutifully continues on with her father’s hat stop, believing that it is her sisters—especially her youngest sister—who are destined for greater things. Not believing that she deserves more, she pushes under her dissatisfaction. She breaks free of her boring life only after a wicked witch turns her into an old lady.

Since Sophie doesn’t think much of herself anyway, becoming old isn’t as traumatic as one would think. In fact, as my student Valerie Innocenti argued, the transformation frees Sophie from gender expectations. She can be more combative and can, in the end, acknowledge that she has all the powers of a witch if she chooses to use them. She doesn’t need to hide her light under a bushel.

Student Lil Hanson noted that Sophie essentially sabotages herself; because she feels old and unattractive, she curses herself and literally becomes old and unattractive. Only when she gets out of her own way can she claim her powers, at which point she frees those around her who have been cursed by the wicked witch. Valerie, writing on the novel’s gender issues, noted that many women have difficulty believing in themselves. It can be difficult breaking free of the narratives that control our lives.

Valerie noted that the wizard Howl has his own problem with confining narratives. Because so much is expected of men, he finds ways to dodge responsibility. In the end, neither Sophie nor Howl conforms to traditional gender stereotypes but become confident by working together.

Writing at a time when fantasy was almost the exclusive domain of men (especially of Tolkien and Lewis, who were Jones’s teachers), Jones managed to create fantasies that allowed women room to grow. My students instinctively recognized a fantasy that helped them claim their own powers.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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