One Thousand Words or So

Just a Little Bit Strange

Closing out the previous day’s One Thousand Words is rather satisfying. I feel as though I’m closing a book and returning it to a shelf: satisfied that I’m finished with it for now, but happy knowing it’s there when I need it. I don’t close out a one-thousand-words file until I’ve started in on the current day’s. It’s sort of like not closing the basement door when I head out back with Andi until I’ve made sure that the lock on the knob is vertical, not horizontal, so I’ll be able to get back in.

I just shut down yesterday’s words, but I still have my document for Wednesday, the 31st open. On that day, I started writing a poem, and I worked on description practice. None of it got published, but I’m hoping to return to these starts someday. I just need to make the time to create new files specifically for each. I keep thinking about doing it, just as I think about cleaning the living room and changing the towels.

Should I share what I’ve got so far for the poem? Perhaps I will. Then, if I never actually finish it, at least some of the lines (which I like) will see the light of day.

Charlie is wired and wants to know
how I spend my time. What do I tell him?

I tell him that the sky is blue,
that spiderwebs are beautiful in the morning,
after they’ve survived a dark night and
collected their portion of potion that erases
the memory of unsettled spirits wandering their way.
I look him in the eyes and mention that violets are very volatile
and he should look beyond the purple and pale for atoms that
won’t just rub membranes then go to his head but stay only
long enough to cause queasy, queer queries about the meaning of life
before departing like a will-o-the-wisp, leaving watery eyes in its wake.

In one of my commonplace books, I’ve copied down these words from Edwin Markham:

Poetry is the expression—under the light of the imagination—of the unfamiliar beauty of the world, the beauty that is the smile upon the face of truth. Poetry is the revelation of the strange in the familiar, of the eternal in the transitory. It is the impassioned cry of the heart in the presence of the wonder of life.

I honestly can’t tell you who Edwin Markham is or where I found this quote, but it doesn’t matter. I suppose what does matter is where Markham’s words lead me. First and foremost, that would be to thoughts about the nature of poetry. The first few times I read the line about beauty being the “smile on the face of truth,” I scoffed. It seemed a bit over the top. This evening, though, I stop to consider what it might actually mean. What does a smile do for us? It engages us, draws us in, makes us want to let our guard down (even just a little), entices us to look more closely. So, Markham is saying that poetry draws us into the truth by making it attractive to us. Truth, goodness, and beauty—remember?

“Poetry is the revelation of the strange in the familiar.” Now that I can easily understand and relate to. We get so used to seeing the world around us that we never stop to consider what we are really laying eyes on. We need something strange or out of place to make us slow and see. I’ve explored the concept of defamiliarization in literature (and art, to a lesser extent) quite often in the past, and it all started my senior year in college when I had to write a paper on The Great Gatsby. I have never, however, thought of this process of making the commonplace less mundane in terms of biology, specifically, ours. It is, apparently, based in our physical bodies—or maybe it’s not. Perhaps is has more to do with the somewhat nebulous entity called the mind. Either way, in An Alchemy of Mind, Diane Ackerman writes something worth noting:

Novelty excites by nudging us off balance and weakening our stranglehold on habit. An urgent need arises to improvise new skills, learn new rules and customs. This is especially true of mild novelty, when things change only enough to be noticeable. Complete novelty can seem absurd, something to ignore. But partial novelty makes sense up to a point and yet requires a bright response, so it must be taken seriously. Our lidless curiosity, as well as our passion for mystery, exploration, and adventure, springs from this basic reflex. Once an animal becomes curious it grows alert, and that arousal doesn’t quit until it explores the sensory puzzle and can assure itself that all is well, nothing much has changed, no fresh action is required. That repeated pattern of arousal, tension, fear, and suspense, followed by a feeling of safety and calm, provides a special kind of pleasure shared by animals the world over. That we enjoy such tidy escapades enough to excite or scare ourselves on purpose hints at what connoisseurs of pleasure and pain we’ve become. Rapture always begins with being rapt.

I know that I don’t want to go anywhere with the pleasure, pain, and rapture stuff, so I’ll look back to Markham’s quote again. I like the line about poetry being the “impassioned cry of the heart in the presence of the wonder of life,” for that reminds of Luigi Giussani and of Alessandro Giuliani, Mark Helprin’s protagonist in A Soldier of the Great War. Just the other day, I copied down a few lines from that beautiful book, and they seem to fit nicely here:

[Alessandro says:] “I don’t care what the Church says. This is a simple answer that comes from my own heart. I’ve seen and felt many things that I cannot believe are simply material artifacts. They so clearly transcend all that is earthly that I have no doubt that they can run rings around death.”

“What things?”

“Had you been with me, Ludovico, for the last twenty-seven years, I could have shown them to you, one by one. They exist everywhere. They’re as simple as a mother embracing a child, they’re as simple as music, or the wind. You need only to see them in the right way. Perhaps I could not have shown you. The question that comes to me is why would you need to be shown? Why haven’t you seen already?”

“What, exactly, are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about love.”

“I’m unconvinced.”

“I wasn’t attempting to convince you. I’m now sufficiently tranquil not to have to convince anyone of anything.”

That tranquility Alessandro mentions is what it’s all about. Peace of heart: I’ve long been working on getting it, and I’m happy to report that I’ve made definite progress.

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