Writing the Land
For the past year I’ve been working with WritingtheLand.org to create three poems poetry The Monadnock Conservancy about their Calhoun Family Forest Preserve. As I edited and re-edited the words made clear weren’t three poems but a single poem in three parts. Here is a video made for The Monadnock Concervancy and Lis McLoughlin’s NatureCulture. I’ll follow the link with the written words. The video is too large to upload here.
This year, poet Linda Warren and myself have signed on with the Downeast Salmon Association in Maine to produce a series of poems on their Pleasant River Community Forest Preserve.
Calhoun Family Forest: Gilsum, N.H.
Abandon pavement and parking of Route 10,
after marveling at the great vault
of the arched, granite bridge lording
century-and-a-half over the roaring Ashuelot,
slide onto the squish of March mud ruts,
frosting on a frozen base hard as granite,
and walk upward alongside White Brook
yet to infuse itself with the tannins of this land.
Always upward, follow a nuthatch’s arcing flight,
its hungry call, upward to a hard-crafted stone stairway
and its green rock cap where children and grandchildren
rushed for their midnight summers’ dreamings.
Upward to Porcupine Falls, spring melt spurting
through a thin split in the rock. Sit awhile, think
on the child you once were, the person you have lost.
Let that child frolic a bit in the glen, and then,
rested, walk with your memory all the way down.
II—almost a sonnet
After the line of late day squalls, a close,
blue breeze skits between crust lichen and moss-
covered limbs. It echoes dappled sunlight
afoot on duff untouched for generations.
Elsewhere too, the sanctity of lost song
tugs at the eaves of crowned oak and maple.
And what of the feldspar, garnet, beryl,
and smoky quartz? Crystals withdrawn on sites
which beget lanes and highways to transport them
to skylines, those grand, monumental shots
to nothingness. Let the mica remain,
let it glitter among the tourmaline—
faceted testimonials to what
we’re not—predating all we’ve ever known.
III: The Legends
A fecund, lunar vapor stirs the nostrils
as the trail winds its way to Skull Rock:
Keeper of Stones,
Guardian of Granite Outcroppings.
He marks each traveler
approaching iridescent broomfork,
“Is this one worthy?”
And for each who passes,
the story door opens.
An azalea sphinx flutters across stone steps
to the bridge. It alights on the other side,
contemplates the flame of the sun.
Is this the innocent heal-all?
A swift courses acrobatically through timbers,
locked in its search for sustenance.
Each sudden twist a possibility,
each a future somewhere else.
In this dank hollow beneath the ledges,
generations of quills wait
for the boy hiding from his seekers.
Little brother earns his name.
A man with his hiking stick returns
after wintering with his daughter
on the tidal flats of Virginia. Each day
finds him walking with memory of her mother.
One warbling vireo gabs gossip
with a black-throated green warbler—
cousins in tenacity and woodland chatter
carried from before the Abenakis.
A road led to Sullivan in the age when travelers
did not concern themselves with comfort, a track
children skied from hilltop to base not concerned
with anyone or thing coming the other way.
Such a road could lead to Switzerland’s
solstice moon setting an alpine meadow aglow,
where the blue shadow of an angel
suggests the perfect spruce for Christmas.
Parked aside a logging trail in the older growth,
a green jeep waits on a forester and small boy
learning to mark trees. Instead. the boy learns
an independent compass and true north.
Above the falls, behind the ledge, five islands
among the wood stubbled rivulets become stardust
for five children. Each island, a tiny spiral galaxy.
Each galaxy, a stepping stone to an expanding universe.
Rodger Martin, 2021
Yesterday, arrives an e-mail from Worcestershire, England, by a violinist I did not know. He sent his gift of a poem and a video.
Peter Campbell-Kelly’s ten-minute film of his solo playing Heinrich Biber’s “Passacaglioa,” a piece written almost four centuries ago, still resonates profoundly contemporary just as it did when I first heard it over two decades ago. It’s a reminder technology, when used well, can be hauntingly beautiful.
If you will make time, I urge you set aside ten minutes in your day, let yourself roam the mysteries of Peter Campbell-Kelly’s violin and ponder where you have been, where you are, and where you might go to Heinrich Biber’s music inside a candle-lit church in Worcestershire, England.
Poem by Peter Campbell-Kelly
Curlew etching by Samuel Howitt, 1823
In tribute to
John D. Hofmeister
“As Chair of the National Urban League Board of Trustees from 2006 to 2014, John was a transformative leader who oversaw the League’s Centennial ‘I Am Empowered’ digital initiative and guided the league into a new era of 21st Century civil rights and advocacy leadership,” Marc Morial, President and CEO, National Urban League.
Full statement at:
National Urban League Mourns Passing of “Transformative” Former Chair John D. Hofmeister | National Urban League (nul.org)
If anything, the word “transformative” is an understatement to this former president of Shell Oil U.S. John Hofmeister and I grew up in the amish country of Pennsylvania, our idea of delinquency was sit on the front porch of Main Street in the sultry summer afternoons, purchase all we could of penny bubblegum, load up our mouths and then chuck a squishy wad onto the hot pavement and see if we could get a car or truck tire to run it over and stretch it out like silky elastic until it snapped.
John willingly went off for a career in seminary. I willingly went off for a career in war. I returned a few years later, anti-war, he returned unable to work as a priest. I went into teaching and poetry. He went into business, became Director of Human Resources for General Electric and when he could not convince the CEO of GE that “shared sacrifice” meant that executives should also accept the same pay cuts as regular employees, he resigned. He then moved to direct human resources for Royal Dutch Shell and rose to become president of U.S. Shell Oil—a premier energy executive.
But nature has strange methods for keeping connections. I served as volunteer editor for The Worcester Review published by the Worcester County Poetry Association whose brilliant treasurer left Shrewsbury, Mass. and moved to Texas where she took a position as personal administrator for John Hofmeister at Shell. And thanks to the metaphorical reach of poetry (and the growth of the internet, childhood and young adult friends who’d lost two for two decades, were connected again.
This was just before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and it was during that period, I watched John practice what he preached. He immediately made Shell Oil’s fleet of helicopters for its off-shore wells available for flood disaster search and rescue, and when the federal government requested they not do that (Bod photo op for FEMA?) he quietly had his fleet pivot to rescuing animals. Ask the New Orleans Zoo where its animals would be without those rescues. It was silently understood, should a pilot see an animal with two-legs in need of rescue, they would save those as well. He also made sure his employees in the stricken lower Mississippi Delta parishes understood they needed to stay home, do the work in their communities which needed doing and their paychecks would still be there. For John, the bottom line always included the human capital.
We talked of death and decided if we had any choice in the matter, we would die with our boots on. John was granted that wish.
After retirement, he and Karen started Citizens for Affordable Energy because they understood even at the end of the Twentieth Century, that if we as a nation were to move beyond fossil fuels without sacrificing the well-being of all but the wealthiest of us, it had to be through long-term planning. One hurdle to that in John’s view was government in the U.S. runs in two-year, four-year, and six-year cycles which did not work well with energy planning which runs in twenty, thirty and fifty-year time frames. But they and other organizations kept at it and I sense the electorate has come ‘round to their view.
They continued their work in the non-profit world supporting the efforts of organizations like The Urban League, whose notice which began this post, or writers like myself, and the acquisition of what they hoped would become an organic, sustainable Lime Valley Farm along Pequa Creek in Pennsylvania.
John also went into teaching and wrote books. At one summer editing session on the porch at his Lime Valley Farm, I mentioned he writes like a business man. Just as quickly he noted, “You run your writing business like a poet.” We were both right. Sixty years later we still plugged our mouths with wads of bubble gum.
Still, two things keep me optimistic in my dotage. Knowing there are still people like John Hofmeister holding positions of leadership and knowing every year I see new, young John Hofmeisters graduate at the college where I still teach.
Sunset at The Covid Corral
Ro and I go way back to the days when she was Rory, a ninety-pound American bulldog putting out litters behnd the newspaper’s office and I was putting out fires from people who never asked themselves the question, “What could possibly go wrong.” The first time I saw her–well, her name began with R-o and my name began with R-o. It was love at first spelling. She could out-eat and out-drink any wordslinger we ever met. Now everyone knows us as Ro-Ro.
One day we said to hell with litters and fires and took off for the freedom of the Wapack Trail. At night we’d sit on the edge of a mountain meadow, campfire blazing, looking over the twinkling lights of the little towns below and I’d pluck my bouzouki, sing a mournful tune. Ro, she’d join in, and we’d soon have the heavens trembling.
In the morning, I’d buckle up my journalism belt loaded with a reporter’s six-pack in each holster. Ro she’d strap on her six guns, hung low and slow over her hips. Why her pistols jingle-jangled against her dew claws as she John Wayned herself beside me along the trails into town.
Over the years, the trails got real cold in winter, so we decided I’d take up teaching at a college and Ro, she’d take up napping at home.
Then came Covid.
And every week I had to get tested. Ro was fine with that, of course, because she’d come to enjoy sleeping late in the mornings. Each week I got a different colored wristband with a new number and so long as it claimed I was clean, I could come to work (sporting a mask of course). Every week I tested and every week I got a clean bill.
It was a good life because I got to train students how to put out fires and then write stories about those who didn’t ask the question, “What could possibly go wrong.”
One afternoon came an e-mail telling me I didn’t get tested. I huffed and puffed and told then I had been tested. Ro woke from her nap, eyed me and went back to sleep. But then came a second e-mail stating I was banned from campus until I got a clean bill of health. It’s one thing to be officious and right. It’s another thing to be officious and wrong. As I said before, “What could possibly go wrong.”
The huffing had evolved into language that used to get edited out of a story. Ro (That’s her.) woke up and said, “Ro, (That’s me.) what is up?” Ro (That’s me) said to Ro (That’s her.), “Look at these e-mails.” Ro (That’s her.) read them, bristled, roused herself on all fours, and said, “Ro (That’s me.), No one messes with my man. You are going in to town now, right to that testing place, and I’m going with you.”
It was like out on the trail again, and we were loaded for bear.
When we drove into the gymnasium parking lot and stepped out. Campus safety officers took one look at the two of us and begun ushering young people and faculty back into their classrooms. Appian Way was deserted as the two us sauntered John Wayne style, my journalism notebook in my holster and Ro giving the evil eye to every hombre who wanted a piece of her man.
The long lines at the gym sign-in stations disappeared as if the Clanton Gang were riding into Keene. I had my choice of a dozen empty sign-in seats with a dozen shaking clerks. We chose Number Six.
The woman behind the table shivered and stammered trying to explain someone had mistyped my address and that I had two ID numbers, not one.
Ro (That’s her.) growled, “Step aside” and the woman quickly stepped aside and ran off. Ro plumped herself into that seat, next sat on the keyboard until it squealed, and then looked everyone in the gymnasium down saying, “Any Objections?”
Finally a group of EMTs rushed to my side pleading, “May we please help you to the testing station. There another EMT, trembling so much he couldn’t get the nasal swab from its package.
Ro again growled, “Step aside.”
He dropped the swab packet and stepped aside.
Ro (That’s her.) put one paw on the package to hold it down and with her teeth, ripped the paper off, then offered the swab to Ro (That’s me.) But before I could take it, she shook her head no, stuck the swab into her mouth, rolled it for five seconds, then spit it into the glass vial with my name on it. She scanned the gymnasium carefully, “Any questions?”
Ro (That’s her.) gently picked up the glass vial just as she’d picked up her litters of pups and carried the vial over to the sign-out table where she expertly dropped it into its proper place in the carrier.
Then she whipped herself around, eyed every being in the gym, “Now, is my man going to get his test results on time? Or do I have to pay a second visit?” She followed that with a low growl that vibrated the rafters.
Every Jack-a-muffin in that space nodded, stuttered and smiled weakly. The Number Six clerk who had run off said, “No, no, I mean yes, yes, he’ll be fine. We just love him to come and get tested. Tests will be in his folder in 24 hours. Good doggie, please, may we pet you?”
Ro snapped her jaws and rolled her head around her massive neck then harrumphed, “Good.”
Next she leapt straight into the air, wheeled 180-degrees to land, tail high, facing the exit. Ro ruffled her fur, she looked back at Ro (That’s me), nodded toward the door and said, “Let’s go.”
As the evening sun settled over the Connecticut River, Ro-Ro sauntered slowly, Marion Morrison style, out the back, their holsters jangling against his jeans and her dew claws.
Forty-eight years ago this month, I was just returned from Vietnam, shoulders heavy with war and on my way from a home in the Pennsylvania Amish country to a new posting at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. I drove late into the night until the cold and fatigue caught me as I crossed the Connecticut/Massachusetts border on I-84 and found a rest area on the Mass Pike likely near Sturbridge. I pulled in, and as all good soldiers know how to do, went right to sleep in my car.
At dawn I opened my eyes and spread before me was the entire Central Massachusetts landscape: the Connecticut River valley on the left, Quabbin Reservoir to the center, a distant Boston far to the right. Presiding over it all was a tree-lined, snow-capped mountain with a granite peak—Monadnock: He Who Stands Alone.
I did not know then of Monadnock and Emerson, Monadnock and Thoreau, Monadnock and Older, or Monadnock and Kinnell. It was the vision I recognized and experienced at that moment. Upon this great rock I would anchor the rest of my life. Only much later did it become clear how it has anchored so many others of this culture and those before that, the ones who gave the rock its name.
The mountain is a mystic, magically transforming its few thousand feet of altitude into a height recognized around the planet. Even the dictionary finds its attempt at clarity undermined by its connotations: “monadnock – In geology, a single remnant of a former highland.” Monadnock, the last man standing.
The mountain befuddles most photographers and painters—revealing its power to mesmerize only to those who can see beyond their craft.
I recall a mid-winter in early 1990s when Chinese poet and translator Zhang Ziqing visited to see for himself this place of Thoreau and Emerson. Snow piled to the eaves of houses as we drove out to good vantage beyond Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and stopped.
Zhang pulled out an Instamatic camera to take a photograph and because I had tried and failed many times to use an Instamatic to photograph the mountain, I knew it would miss the magic. It was like photographing a ghost in a mirror. I said, “No, no, the picture won’t come out.”
Something got lost in the translation because he put away his Instamatic, but when he returned to Nanjing University, he wrote an essay about how Monadnock is so sacred that one is not permitted to photograph it, and so, out of a cultural misunderstanding, was born the Monadnock Pastoral Poets and their sacred mountain.
As the decades have passed and I have witnessed its effect again and again on others, it has occurred to me that Zhang was right. The mysticism of He Who Stands Alone had taken possession, and I did not know it. According to the 2014 Fairpoint phonebook, Monadnock has possessed at least 117 other businesses as well: Monadnock schools, Monadnock banks, Monadnock dairies, Monadnock dentists, Monadnock septic tank cleaners, Monadnock Music and Monadnock Writers’ Group, Monadnock Family Services, and Monadnock Fence. The list—like the mountain—goes on and on.
We are as spiritually under the influence of this gray whale of a rock today as were Henry David Thoreau, painter William Preston Phelps, and Mark Twain, who wrote in his autobiography about its magic during his summers in Dublin, New Hampshire. How does a mountain just a hair over three thousand feet high do it? It’s a mystery.
One can drive south to New Salem, Massachusetts, and look north to see Monadnock stun the Quabbin Reservoir with its image. One can drive just as far north to Pitcher Mountain and look south and there is Monadnock again lording over the horizon. Go west to Vermont and drive east from Brattleboro on Route 9 or Putney from Route 12 toward Keene and one comes around a hilltop curve expecting to see more of the traditional Appalachian ridges. Instead one gets this thing that looks like another hill except it just keeps on growing, morphing into a tree line and the gray granite visage of a mountain that should be out West. Go east to the coast and drive west. At each rise from Portsmouth or Boston, there is the dark profile of Monadnock on the horizon—its image almost Biblical–speaking in the tongue of the mind: “Come ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
First published in New England Memories, Spring 2018.
The Zoom Affect
When one is socially distancing at home with Zoom and all types of time and tech programs, one begins to see what else can be done with this or that. Here is a video created in the last few days of the same poem posted in March. The music is composed and played by my sister, Sheila Brownell. Years ago we had planned to do a live performance of her music and my poetry at Del Rossis Trattoria in Dublin, NH. Alas that never happened, but this is what some of it might have looked and sounded like.
A SMALL OFFERING
I trust Gabriel Garcia Marquez will forgive me for repurposing the title of one of his novels with this poem in our time of isolation.
Love in the Time of Corona.
Through the glass, in the cold March breeze,
a neighbor’s worn flag flaps. Distance,
like the bare branches of white pine against blue sky,
marks this corona, this silver ring with dark heart. Loneliness is such
I have learned to look into the lens—that eye of defamation
in the time before space made me miss the warm breath of another.
Somewhere a dog sighs on a couch. She has known all her days
this day would come. Sit with her. She is ready, willing
to rest her head on your lap and speak with you in silence.
LINES HAVE LIMITS, POETRY IS BOUNDLESS
Zi Chuan, Profile & Interview
By Rodney Obien, Exhibit Curator ABSTRACT AND CONCRETE,
Atelier Laforest (Dennysville, Maine)
The poet Zi Chuan stands in the middle of a gallery surrounded by forty onlookers who watch intently while the master calligrapher paints bold, elegant characters on a white sheet of paper as the sun sets in the windows of the gallery.
Six hours before, Zi Chuan travelled with three Chinese poets from New Hampshire to Dennysville, Maine, to attend the opening of ABSTRACT AND CONCRETE, an exhibit by the Atelier Laforest featuring calligraphy, poetry, and the art of pop artist Robert Munford.
Zi Chuan’s warm smile masks his exhaustion. He and the poets had just attended Poetry Bridging Continents, a week-long international symposium held at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, and the AMC Highland Center in Bretton Woods. The symposium brought together poets and scholars from New England and China to explore ways to bridge the two cultures.
With an interpreter, Zi Chuan addresses the audience in Mandarin. His speech is smooth and fluid like his brush strokes. Effortlessly, he communicates his mastery of calligraphy with each character he draws.
When not at home writing poetry in Nanjing, Zi Chuan directs the Shaaxi Academy, a school for Chinese calligraphy and classical arts located in the city of Taicang near Shanghai.
“In ancient China, almost all intellectuals could write poetry,” said Yihai Chen, poet and professor at the School of Chinese Language and Literature, Yancheng Teachers University, China. “If a person could not write poetry, he could not be called as an intellectual. In the history, all famous calligraphers were poets, and almost all poets were calligraphers.
“Zi Chuan is one of the few contemporary Chinese poets who can both write poetry and demonstrate calligraphy,” according to Chen. “He can combine poetry, calligraphy and Chinese painting in a body, which used to be a tradition in ancient China but now very few poets can do.”
Zi Chuan’s poetry and writings have been translated into English, French, German, Japanese, and Korean. He is the recipient of the Excellent Editor Award of Jiangsu Province, the Purple Mountain Prize, and the Third Chinese Poetry Biennial Award. He is currently the director of the Poetry Work Committee of Jiangsu Writers Association.
“I think of his poems as quiet images that burrow deep into the reader’s imagination and create a reverie of how the past informs the future,” commented Dr. Maura McNeil, a professor of English at New England College and the organizer of the poetry symposium. “And of his calligraphy, there is an elegance in his work that is quite stunning. There is an intentionality of movement that is quite wonderful to watch when he composes his calligraphy, and that elegance is also translated into the composition of his poems—how his images are placed on the page.”
Rodger Martin, poet and editor emeritus of The Worcester Review, offered his impressions of Zi Chuan: “Zi Chuan in his poetry and by extension his calligraphy represents a new pastoral tradition in China. He infuses this growing sense in China of the value of the land as a place for the pastoral tradition in the modern day.”
Martin, who travelled with the poets, continued, “Zi Chuan’s poems draw from nostalgia, places he knew, lands and lakes, people, and his youth imprinted by the events of the Cultural Revolution. Zi Chuan writes about the pastoral, this new sense and value of rural land. You can sense it when he sings his poetry in the classical way. You can sense it in the Chinese characters he so carefully draws.”
The demonstration ends and Zi Chuan mingles with the visitors. They discuss his calligraphy and poetry with the works of Robert Munford. Poems by Bu Lan Chen, one of the three poets, are also on display paired with works by Munford.
The idea to invite Zi Chuan to exhibit at the atelier came after a visit to China in 2018. Zi Chuan’s marvelous poetry and calligraphy attracted my attention in my role as exhibition curator of the atelier. China has a long tradition and deep respect for poetry, calligraphy, and painting or the Three Perfections as they’re known. How intriguing would it be to see Zi Chuan’s response to Bob Munford’s art – setting the stage for a true East-meets-West conversation.
“How cannot I not be impressed,” said Melinda Munford Jaques, wife of Bob Munford and gallery director. “Zi Chuan brought Bob’s art to life with his poetry and stunning calligraphy. It’s like bringing the world to Dennysville. Bob had a very international approach to his art, and we continue this tradition by opening the Atelier Laforest to artists and poets from around the world. This kind of cultural exchange is very enriching and important as it fosters understanding into other cultures, giving us a new perspective to see our own human experience in a different way.”
The early darkness of November readied Zi Chuan and the three Chinese poets to leave. They needed to find a place for dinner before a poetry reading at the Hansom House, a nearby tavern. The gallery is still full of visitors, all thanked Zi Chuan and his colleagues for making the long journey to Maine.
Joining the group for dinner, something came to mind from an interview I did with Zi Chuan. “There is an idiom in Chinese,” he said, “‘text transmits the Way.’ Personal conduct and writing itself are inseparable. Poetry, calligraphy, and painting, as the fundamental elements of the Chinese literari tradition, are actually the content of life itself.”
In an interview in the summer of 2019, Zi Chuan provided background information for his exhibition ABSTRACT AND CONCRETE. He commented in depth about his thoughts on Chinese calligraphy, poetry, and painting, and his impressions of the artwork of Robert Munford. Mr. Liang Dao-ben provided the English translation of the interview.
Rodney Obien: Can you describe your personal philosophy and approach to calligraphy, poetry, and painting?
Zi Chuan: In the context of the Chinese language, and within the bounds of Chinese culture, although poetry, calligraphy, and painting are three different artistic modes, they actually have a very close relationship to one another, often mutually influencing one another. Individual Chinese characters are the basic elements of Chinese poetry, and are also the contents of calligraphic work; the brushwork and line techniques of calligraphy, on the other hand, are the fundamental necessities of Chinese painting.
Poetry, calligraphy, and painting belong to China’s literati tradition. Historically speaking, many poets are also calligraphers and painters, such as Su Dongpo and Huang Tingjian of the Song Dynasty, or Tang Bohu and Wen Zhengming of the Ming Dynasty.
When I was young, I was educated at home in the old literati style. My father was a poet, calligrapher, painter, and chess player, and taught me at a very young age the fundamental lyrical rules of Classical poetry, as well as the fundaments of calligraphy and chess. Back in 1964 I was the Yangzhou Sectional Youth Chess Champion; in 1979 I won the Jiangsu Province International Chess Championship, and in 2008 won the Jiangsu Provence News and Art Go Championships. My artworks have appeared in more than ten different art shows, notably the China, Japan, and Korea Literati Art Exhibition.
There is an idiom in Chinese that goes, “text transmits the Way.” Personal conduct and writing itself are inseparable. Poetry, calligraphy, and painting, as the fundamental elements of the Chinese literati tradition, are actually the content of life itself. Connecting and intertwining personality, human nature, and individual life with literary, calligraphic, and artistic production is truly the artistic accomplishment of a Chinese literatus.
Certainly, the poetic, calligraphic, or artistic creations of a flesh and blood human will inevitably display their thoughts, feelings, and morals. In all artwork, human nature is connected, and a certain essence resonates.
R.O.: Can you describe how your calligraphy, poetry, and painting reflect the Three Perfections tradition (san-chueh)?
Z.C.: In the context of Chinese culture, there are common phrases such as “Poetic feeling and painted meaning,” “Poetry and calligraphy come from the same house,” “Calligraphy and painting have the same origin,” all of which are an attempt to explain that the three arts are fundamentally connected in expressiveness and in technicality.
My creation process of the three arts (san jue) is often like this: calligraph my own Chinese poetry, and at the same time, create a visual representation based on the poetic nature of the work. Or perhaps, I will first paint, and then based on the painting create a poem, and finally calligraph it upon the painted work.
R.O.: What are your impressions of the art of Robert Munford?
Z.C.: In my limited experience with Robert Munford’s work (which includes both the Munford Lithographs and my own poetry in response to Munford’s art), I believe him to be an abstract and supernatural artist.
Munford used many different expressive techniques, with inks, watercolors, pencils, and it is very difficult to define what is created–it is a free and unrestrained work of art. Just like the poem I wrote to accompany it: “as if to be inverted, those letters and numbers/and incomprehensible symbols,” “Red and black, a blue-to-green caught mid-shift/two kinds of stained bodies, X and Y,” numbers, symbols, colors, gradations, and all manner of elements come together in Munford’s art to create a vast world. And, in this seemingly unrestrained effusion, in this abstract and chaotic arrangement of lines, a personal life philosophy and the brilliance of human nature seeps through: “a person’s face, unclear/as if not just one face/facing different directions.” Lines have a limit, yet imagination is boundless, just as poetics and philosophy are endless; behind the work lies a vast universe worth uncovering, exploring, feeling, and experiencing.
Appreciating Munford’s work is like rushing directly into the plot of a story, but this story is fantastical, ridiculous, dramatic, exaggerated, and fundamentally exceeds what we are able to appreciate with our senses–you must use your soul to go and feel it. I can feel the passion and virility beneath his brush, like a burning sun, like an unrestrained and beautiful horse that has broken free from its bridle, wherein the paper is the battleground he roams through. I can also feel the heavy calm in his heart, for only a heart as still and calm as this could think up this kind of exquisite complexity, one wherein philosophy and thought meld together in artistic form. In other words, his artwork is calm thought and passionate feeling mixed together, a true blend of ice and fire!
R.O.: What was your approach to creating calligraphy and poetry for the artworks of Robert Munford?
Z.C.: As I said before, painting and visual art is inseparably related to poetry and calligraphy. Though different kinds of artistic modes have their own individual expressive methods, but they are essentially communicable. It is similar to how the poetry of different languages is actually expressing the same human voice. Mr. Robert Munford used lines and colors in a “structured” way to express his work, and my re-creation of his work uses “words” and “calligraphy.”
There is an idiomatic expression in Chinese that goes, “emotion produced upon encountering scenery.” When I observe Mr. Robert Munford’s works, I feel overpowered and nearly attacked by the life force and creative force therein, and the poetic creation process flows quite naturally from this. This process is wholly uncontrollable, just like the way we wish to open ourselves and embrace nature while standing in front of Walden Pond. Of course, the creation process itself requires careful consideration. Especially in reference to Munford’s more abstract works, I need to carefully analyze what depths are hidden in the conglomeration of lines and colors, which is something that needs a more rationally based process of thinking and determination.
Of course, our fundamental internal thinking is common (common between arts, commonalities of art and life), one could even say that certain emotions in our road of life will resonate with one another.
R.O.: What are your thoughts on abstract painting as “soundless poems”?
Z.C.: Poetry appears in all forms of art, and one could even say that life is essentially a poetic existence. If one admits that painting is a soundless poem that has physical shape, then music is therefore a sonic yet intangible form of poetry, and more strictly speaking, the essential necessity of all forms of art contain, to some extent, poetry.
Abstract art is a condensation of human brilliance. It uses a special creation process to take numbers, symbols, colors, and all manner of elements to construct its poetic world.
Lines have a limit, yet poetry is boundless, and philosophy too is boundless. A great abstract work of art guides viewers into a labyrinth, into a drama, and produces feelings of impulse and confusion that are much like those felt when decoding poetry. The resonations of thought and feeling in and of themselves are a kind of poetics. Poetry can be read out loud, naturally having a tangible sound to it, yet lines and colorations are soundless – they give viewers a kind of feeling that is not dissimilar to poetry.
Poetry Bridging Continents IV: A Summary
“Rivers were made … in heaven.” Robert Frost
October 27-November 2, 2019
In a 2019 a poetry exchange that has now spanned four years, seven poets and scholars from China visited New England as part of the fourth Poetry Bridging Continents symposium. This is a brief summary of that event.
Day 1, October 26:
After an overnight stay with hosts Carl & Lynda Mabbs-Zeno in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and the New Pastoral Poetry House in Hancock, the group participated in a joint ekphratic exhibit/reading at the Jaffrey Civic Center, Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Artists Susan Wadsworth and poets Susan Roney-O’Brien, Chen Yihai and Zi Chuan who read with poets Kim Peavy, Denni Dickler and Eric Poor as they read their poems in response to Wadsworth art, many in both in English and Mandarin—a fortuitous exchange since Kim Peavy then invited the poets to visit her organic farm and draft horses later in the week.
l-r: poet Si Nan, poet Yu Qui, poet Chen Yihai, poet/calligrapher Zi Chuan, scholar Wang Gugin, poet Rodger Martin, poet Benjamin Landuaer, poet Denni Dickler, poet Maura MacNeil, poet Kim Peavy, poet Bu Lan Chen, poet Eric Poor, husband of Kim Peavy, artist Susan Wadsworth, Jaffrey Civic Center, Oct 27, 2019
Day 2: New England College, Henniker, New Hampshire
The motorized cavalcade then followed the Contoocook River north to New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, where the symposium itself began Monday morning, October 28, with an American renga creation. The American renga is an evolution of Massachusetts poet Steven Ratiner’s renga creation using written language in place of calligraphy. The American renga adds three-brush stroke glyphs to a mathematical call-and-response progression among a group of poets.
l-r: Berwick Academy student, poet Si Nan, Berwick Academy student, Maggie Martin, Claire Golding, Berwick Academy student with their renga, New England College, October 28, 2019
One of the eight finished rengas created that morning.
Following the renga ceremony, held in a tent outside The Simon Center, came the official opening pf the symposium with a welcome by New England College President Michele Perkins and an exchange of gifts, one of which is shown below.
A gift to New England College President Michele Perkins (r) of an original poem, calligraphy and art by noted poet and calligrapher Zi Chuan.
The afternoon was composed of sessions in both languages including a session on Chinese poetry and a Worcester Review panel on how American poets re-purposed the pastoral tradition which permitted them to move into the 20th Century with a strong environmental theme whose impact laid the framework for the 21st Century poets of the Anthropocene such as Gary Snyder.
Poet and Scholar Chen Yihai of Yancheng Teachers University speaks of the pastoral tradition in China.
Day 3: New England College, Henniker, New Hampshire and tours of organic farms in western Cheshire County, New Hampshire
Zi Chuan began October 29 with a panel on archiving poetry in both nations and a morning workshop on calligraphy. This was followed by a visit to Keene State College, sit of the 2017 symposium) and a dedication of a calligraphy in Hale House. The afternoon was a all home-grown lunch at Mark Long’s West Chesterfield followed by a tour of New Dawn Organic Farm and the organic farm of Kim Peavy in Westmoreland where the farming is done the old-fashioned way with draft horses.
The Worcester Review Panel on New Pastoral and Anthropocene poetry. l-r: Poet Susan Roney-O’Brien, poet Claire Golding, Worcester Review editor Kate McIntyre, translator Benjamin Landauer, poet Maura MacNeil, poet Rodger Martin, scholar Mark Long
The poets from China spent their evenings at The Henniker House B&B with a meal at Daniels, both on the banks of the north-flowing Contoocook River where indeed, as Frost put it, the “rivers flow free.”
Day 4: Keene High School, New England College, Franconia, and Crawford Notch, New Hampshire.
This day of transitions as the conference goers spilt into two groups, Zi Chuan and Chen Yihai visited two high school classes at Keene High School; while the others drive north to the White Mountains and The Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire, where they visited Robert Frost’s farm and walked the poetry trial about the grounds before heading over to the Mountain View Grand Hotel and an evening poetry reading at Appalachian Mountain Clubs Highland Center in Crawford Notch. This reading proved eventful because a Halloween severe storm caused us to close the reading just after it had begun because of wind damage in the region. The poets carefully drove back to their hotel dodging downed trees.
Day 5: November 1, Crawford Notch, New Hampshire
The White Mountain portion of Poetry Bridging Continents closed with a morning session by Inez McDermott on visual art in The White Mountains. In the evening, the poets provided a second dual-language reading to a full house of hikers, and visitors. This time the weather cooperated.
Day 6: November 2, Dennysville, Maine
The poets left the Mountain View Grand Hotel in two cars and headed straight east on a five-hour journey through the forested interior of Maine, including a forced stop while deer crossed the highway somewhere in the vast hinterlands of Western Maine. The destination was a tiny hamlet in Down East, Maine called Dennysville where the group participated in a reading/music/calligraphy event at the Atelier LaForest run by Melinda Jaques. Dennysville has a total population of about 350 and it seemed most of the town had participated. This was followed by an evening reading in a most remarkable lounge in the Benjamin Lincoln (George Washington’s second-in-command) House a short distance away from the gallery.
Zi Chuan creates calligraphy for Melinda Jaques (l) at Atelier LaForest, Dennysville, Maine
Day 7: November 3, Zaijian (Goodbyes)
Goodbyes at the harbor edge in Lubec, Maine. Canada’s Campobello Island is across the inlet. L-r: Bu Lan-chen, Rodger Martin, Zi Chuan, Rodney Obien, Yu Qui. Taking the photo is Si Non.
The Opposites’ Game
During an evening shrouded by the recent polar vortex this week, poet friend John Hodgen and I pondered, while the fireplace chugged its warmth through the living room, whether Hamlet’s welcome offer to his friend Horatio’s return, “We’ll teach you to drink deep ‘ere you depart,” was perhaps also the proper advice to give to an old returning friend in this current world where flat screens have made two-dimensions the pretend replacement of the three-dimensional world and where fake national emergencies are nothing new: Consider the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 which ended up extinguishing the lives of many millions, or four decades later the fake weapons of mass destruction in Iraq which extinguished hundreds of thousands more lives. One might be forgiven for wondering in the current state of public affairs in these United States if our national bird might be better represented with a cuckoo than an eagle.
When the unintended consequences of these thoughts became too depressing a subject we migrated to whether the Islay Bunnahabhain single malt had some Viking blood in its ancestry or whether Macallen has lost some of its Highland cachet. Eventually we could not hide from the current state of affairs and what the young must think.
We came to no conclusions but the thoughts did lead us to poetry as a possible antidote. Hodgen spoke about using Emily Dickinson from Brendan Constantine’s “The Opposites Game” as a writing prompt for young people:
1. Brendan Constantine’s “The Opposites Game,” also included in Scribner’s Best, makes a classroom poetry lesson into a pretty effective poem in and of itself. Start by selecting an actual famous line of poetry (he uses Dickinson’s “My life had stood – a loaded gun”) and write your own choices for the opposite of each word, thusly:
Had Stood Will sit
According to Hodgen, here’s where the fun started. “The class apparently virtually went to war over what word would be the opposite of “gun,” with suggestions and the classroom board filling with possibilities, including: flower, book, pillow, hug, song, prayer, promise, wedding ring, baby, midwife, whisper, star, teddy bear, sword, saying I love you into your hand and then touching someone’s ear, and concluding ultimately with the word poem. (What a class that must have been.)”
And as we kept pondering these words, another line from Emily lit up the room:
“As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind . . .
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind─”
“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (#1129) Emily Dickinson
And so it took Emily Dickinson and a gaggle of students to make us understand why sales of poetry books increased 12 percent again last year, why hundreds of thousands of high school students flock to Poetry Out Loud each year and hundreds of thousands of others to the spoken word venues that have sprung everywhere in the nation.
They’ve felt in their bones what I needed a hammer to bang into my skull:
Indeed, the opposite of gun is POEM.
edited for spacing 2-28-19