Autumn’s Deep Tone . . .

guy with guitar

Two weeks ago I took a group of poetry students aboard a river boat for a morning’s excursion.  I had brought my guitar along, just on the off chance that it might prove useful.  About half-way through the trip one of my students picked it up and gave us an impromptu concert, mostly playing the folk songs of Gregory Alan Isakov.  As we sat looking at the high river bluffs sliding past us in the thinning light of September, the plaintive blend of guitar and voice seemed to infuse the valley with significance.  Now, my formerly Modern self would be quick to call that a projection of a human feeling onto a blank universe; but these days I question that kind of knee-jerk dualism.  The song, singing wistfully (as most modern folk songs do) of the provocations and limits of desire, awakened my awareness of time and loss and the preciousness of the moment, a feeling inseparable from the swift passage of the river through the rugged scars of its own corrosive past, and from the green canopy of life, perennially knitting those wounds into a home.

This experience reminded me of a moment some years back, when I attended the Great Dakota Gathering, an event held in our river town every year.  It is a time when indigenous people who originally inhabited the land are invited to return for a weekend of traditional dancing, drumming and prayer.  The drum circle, with its attendant singers, is my favorite part of the weekend.  The sound of Dakota voices bouncing off the bluffs opens a gulf in the day, revealing a vertiginous view of the deep past.  We can read about Indian removal policies, but to hear the echo of a nearly-lost language amplified by limestone cliffs is to connect viscerally with what came before, and what remains.  The Dakota experience was and is shaped by this Mississippi valley, and the valley was shaped by the Dakota–who farmed it, burned it, hunted it.  The return of the Dakota sound brings me that reality.

Loss is real and continual, as is growth and adaptation, erosion and alluvial deposition.  To feel something about a landscape is to acknowledge it as a source of consciousness–giver of metaphors and plots, provider of the coordinates and the subject of our narratives.  Landscape is both agent and stage.  Antagonist and dramaturge.  Framework and substance.  To feel this is not to “project.”  Moods, as I have been saying, contain information.

There is an odd little poem by William Stafford I’d like to insert here.  At first glance it seems hopelessly naive, and the reader may understandably resist the “Assurance” the title promises.  But, as usual with Stafford, the poem gets a bit more pithy as you read it over again.

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To be non-Modern is to reject the false divide between human and world.  This does not mean that you’ll be okay.   Stafford’s poem says you are in the middle of a storm.  You are like Lear, with the whole world pouring down on you.  You are “aimed since birth” which implies there will be no rest until you quiver in the bull’s eye (and thus end your mortal career, to quote Thoreau).  But you are not alone.  Especially if you can hear the deep sound of the landscape.  This is the only earth you get; you can’t escape it because at bottom you are it.  It is intrinsic to your dreams, it is the shape of your intentions.

The Sound of a Painting . . .


gaugin shoes

This quote is from Paul Gauguin–I wrote it down while visiting the “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist” exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.  The exhibit displayed aspects of Gauguin which you usually don’t see–his work as a wood carver, print-maker and potter.  Beside many of his more famous paintings were objects he had chiseled from wood or sculpted from clay.  I was struck by the pair of shoes he had made for himself during his time in Brittany–and I was intrigued by the idea that a sound could  guide a painter.  As I reflected on it, I realized that it explains a lot about Gauguin’s work.  He wanted his paintings to be heard, not seen.

I have always been a fan of Gauguin–when I was a young man I kept a print of his painting  Merahi metua no Tehamana on the wall of whatever apartment I was renting.  I was happy to see the original of that painting  in the Chicago exhibit, and it was as I remembered: a brooding young woman in a blue-and-white striped “mother Hubbard” dress, a red gardenia behind her ear, stares at the viewer.  Behind her are mythical figures and mysterious glyphs.


What is remarkable about Gauguin is his use of flattened perspective and bold, simple colors: he turned his back on the meticulous realism of the French Academy, much as the Impressionists had done before him.  But his paintings are not just “impressionistic.”  The Impressionists were keen to give a full account of light–adding time and motion to painting, emphasizing the ephemeral effects of light,  privileging color and texture over outline.  They wanted to find a way out of the static realism which Western art seemed trapped in.  But their solution still assumed the Modern notion of objectivity–they just developed a more fluid kind of objectivity, one that reflected a sophisticated understanding of how human perception grasped the world.  Gauguin’s interests were different: he was looking for a way to express the intensity with which the world grasped human perception.  He was interested in the world’s agency.  He was interested in myth.

The difference between seeing the world and hearing the world is profound.  Sight is directive: you look at something.  Sight encourages the notion that the world is secondary to your intelligence and your will.  Hearing reverses that dynamic: you listen to something.  You are a recipient of sound.  In fact, you often hear a sound before you know what its source is.  This is why a sound can frighten us–sound is omni-directional but sight is only in one direction.  Sound is also penetrative, corporeal.  Light waves are invisible, but sound waves are palpable–there is no separation between a sound and your hearing of it.  You can pretend to be a disembodied viewer, but you can’t be a disembodied hearer.  Sounds are profoundly wedded to their environment, as they are shaped by the space around them.  While every sound has a distinct source, sound waves can be immersive, engulfing: can echo and reverberate.  When a sound reaches you it not only bears information about its source but also about the space it has traversed.

We always acknowledge that images–real as they seem–are on some level merely a trick. They are made of reflected light.  The source of a color or a shape is ultimately the sun–which makes vision oddly spectral.  It is imaginary–from the Latin “imago,” meaning “image or likeness.”  The world is appearance, and appearances deceive.  But sound is always genuine.  It begins with its source.  We can mistakenly identify a sound, but we don’t feel that it is an illusion.  Even when it is a recording, it is still a sound, not the image of a sound.

Part of that is because sound is already an abstraction–it lacks the comprehensiveness of sight.  It carries less information–which is why it’s easier to store music on your computer than it is to store movies.  But it is also less likely to be confused for something bigger than what it is, which means (in systems theory terms), it can point away from itself to the larger, ever-unknowable world.  To say that something speaks implies it has to be interpreted.  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but that means that a picture can dominate the conversation and silence the viewer.

Gauguin simplified his paintings, reduced them from elaborate imitations of the “real” to more abstract designs; his colors and lines speak more directly, the way sounds do.  But like sounds, his designs are not complete worlds.  His paintings point, not to themselves, but to the mysterious world that is their origin, the way sounds turn us toward an environment and ask to be interpreted.  A photograph of a Tahitian woman may resemble her quite accurately, but it doesn’t doesn’t sound like anything.  It is silent in the sense that there is nothing more for the viewer to say.

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One of my justifications for this blog is to express a central claim: our technology has fooled us into believing we can accurately depict, and therefore control, the world.  But the meaning of the Anthropocene–and its looming global blowback–is that the world has always been opaque to us.  If we now live in the age of “unforeseen consequences,” then we have never seen clearly enough.  There is more truth in a sketch than in a photo, therefore: the sketch contains the trace of the actor, and exposes the incompleteness of the action.  A painting may say more than a photo because it says so much less.  What it does say, you might be able to hear.


The Blue Guitar

I was just at the La Crosse Folk Festival in Wisconsin where my daughter and I participated in a song writing contest (we came in fourth, in case you are wondering).  I was reflecting, as I listened to a variety of compositions played on a sunny afternoon in a big circus tent, on the power of the guitar to communicate human emotions.  This guy, for example, was way down inside himself and wanted us to go there with him, through the medium of his instruments.

Folk Singer

The guitar has only recently become the prime instrument for the extroversion of feeling.  Guitars have always been around, but became popular at the turn of the 20th century (surpassing fiddles, for example) primarily because they were fairly easy to manufacture and make available inexpensively through mail-order catalogues.  Guitars could  reach out-of-the-way communities at a reasonable price: poor Appalachian whites, or southern blacks, for example, took up the instrument with enthusiasm.  And it turns out a guitar is an excellent portable accompaniment to the human voice.  As one online commentator put it, “It’s chordal like a piano, though not as strongly so. It’s expressive and vocal like a sax, though again not as strongly. It covers a pretty broad range of notes across what people ordinarily sing in. You can get many sounds ranging from legato almost violin tones to percussion.”  A guitar is the human instrument par excellence, which has led to its current status as the most popular instrument in the world.

This reminded me of a thumbnail sketch I made of a John Singer Sargent painting this summer.  The work was El Jaleo, a Spanish tavern scene.  It was a study in chiaroscuro, depicting a Flamenca dancer at the climax of her performance, but sitting against the wall in the background is the line of guitarists and a singer, all of whom  drive the dance to its emotional crescendo.  I sketched one of the guitarists, because he seemed to perfectly represent the use of the guitar as a kind of emotional prosthesis: I also sketched the singer, whose head is thrown back, eyes closed, throat vibrating with the intensity of the moment.

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You can view the painting if you google it, but here is Sargent’s own preliminary sketch for the painting (in keeping with this blog’s sketchy aesthetic):

el Jaleo sketch

Of course we are left to imagine the music, but we have all been similarly effected by such a moment–when the human voice, accompanied by the voice-like guitar, seems to put us in a heightened state.

This took me in turn to the poet Wallace Stevens, and his poem “The Blue Guitar.”  It’s a long and complicated poem, but here’s the bit people tend to remember:


The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are 
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."

If you are a Modern, you believe that “things exactly as they are” must mean their material substantiality: that is, things are real insofar as they are exterior to the mind and measurable.  Stevens’ poem takes issue with this.  Moderns are obsessed with epistemology, and this makes them poor empiricists sometimes.  They are quick to divide the real from the unreal, based on a prejudice for hard objects.  Well, a Modern might say, we might measure your heart rate, the presence of certain chemicals in the blood. . . the frequency of the sounds you are hearing. . . but the song itself isn’t “real”–it is an epiphenomenon, a mere by-product of physical processes.   But is the moment of union we feel when the guitar seems to pluck our very heartstrings unreal?  That would imply that it could not be a cause, it could not make things happen.  And yet–to get back to the song-writing contest– here was a tent full of people, brought together by a mutual interest in–not the guitars themselves, which are undoubtedly “real,” but not interesting as simply wooden boxes, and not sounds alone, which are also “real” but not uniformly interesting (as we wouldn’t be gathering to hear five-year-olds bang on guitars)–but rather in particular patterns of sound that make particular affects arise in human beings.  Patterns make a difference and difference is, well, information.  A song is as much information as an equation is, and its results are even reproducible, which explains record sales.

But what kind of information?  Oddly enough, the emotional affects stimulated by the guitar seem to increase one’s sense of reality.  Song is pregnant with meaning–that feeling of congruence between the inner and outer world.  Usually that congruence is not a proposition or claim so much as a quality, a tone, a value.  Grief, or melancholia, or nostalgia, for example.  Joy, sympathy, affirmation.  Such feelings, once evoked, speak to our existential condition: our limits, our agency, and the conflict between agency and limitation.  It’s interesting that Stevens claims the guitarist is a “shearsman of sorts”–meaning, he is at first reducing something, clipping it.  That is of course essential to art: first there must be a frame, a boundary, into which the composition can fit.  Without the limits of art–the musical scale, the six strings, the finite number of frets, the enclosed volume of air in the guitar’s body–there can be no coherent pattern.  Once there is a pattern, the relations within the pattern–harmonies and dissonances, tonal dynamics, etc.–can create meaning.  And when musical patterns are combined with the separate patterns of human language, as happens in song-writing, we have a doubling of meaning.  On the one hand, music points beyond language, to those existential conflicts that arise from our being  individual organisms embedded in a larger tissue of life; on the other, language, with its capacity for narrative and for propositional statements, connects the more abstract, universal feeling tones to particular characters.  The lyric “I” of the singer reconnects the abstraction of music with the human particular.

I spent some part of my summer reading Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism.  Wolfe is trying to explain the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann, another one of those prominent European thinkers we never hear about.  Wolfe summarizes systems theory with the provocative statement that “systems increase their contacts with their environments paradoxically by virtualizing them.”  To put this in human terms, we create little virtual models of the world in our heads in order to understand the boundlessly complex world outside of our head–these virtual models are how we contact the world.  But they can never be the world–the world won’t fit in your head.  So far, that’s pretty much philosophy since Kant.  But Luhmann is big on process: he claims “Meaning is the unity of actualization and virtualization, or re-actualization and re-virtualization, as a self-propelling process.”  We are constantly readjusting our models because they are never enough.  Fated to mistake our virtual worlds for the real world, we nevertheless hunger for something beyond.  For more reality, that is.  For systems that come at the world through meaning (like human beings), Luhmann says that “Meaning becomes for them the form of the world, and consequently overlaps the difference between system and environment.”  In other words,

And they said then, “But play, you must,

A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar

Of things exactly as they are.”




Re-Used Tombs

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Two curators in the cafe of the Gardiner Museum in Boston.  They are listening to a consulting conservator “mansplain” the process of preserving a Roman sarcophagus, part of the permanent collection of the museum.  The Gardener Museum is the former private residence of Isabella Stewart Gardener and it features a spectacular open courtyard in which a variety of classical bits and pieces disport themselves among the hosta and ferns.  One of these is a Roman tomb with elaborate carvings.  Here is a sketch by a better artist:

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Apparently the skylight above the courtyard developed a leak and the sarcophagus has been stained by rainwater: hence the need for a protracted lunch with a conservator on a hot day in July.

Why worry about the up-keep on a stone coffin two thousand years old?  Primarily for its beauty.  The twining figures, so vivid and sensual, bear baskets brimmed with grapes as they dance in attitudes of ecstasy around what once was a corpse, but now is only an expressive absence.  How much work went into this erotic celebration of physical life, all for the purpose of commemorating someone now out of it.  Perhaps it is that contradiction that adds to the power of the sculpted figures.  They express our central dilemma as human animals: we have the imagination to understand our mortality, but we can’t change it.  We can envision eternity, but not experience it.  We can sculpt beautiful works that seem to transcend time and decay, but we ourselves vanish from the midst of them.

Which gets me to a favorite Rilke poem, from his Sonnets to Orpheus.  In Sonnet 10 he is remembering sarcophagi he saw both in Rome and in the fields outside of Arles:



You, who have never left my feelings,

I greet you, antique sarcophagi

that the cheerful water of Roman days

flowed through like a wandering song —


or those others so open, like the eye

of an early awakening shepherd

full of silence and bee balm,

around which charmed butterflies whirl.


All that’s been seized from doubt,

I greet you: re-opened mouths

that knew what silence was.


Do we know it, friends? Or not?

Both answers build the hesitating hour

in the human face.


The tombs have been re-purposed as aqueducts and flowerbeds; once final and sealed, they are now open and fluent.  But they also retain their old meaning.  The final image of the human face shaped by its vacillation between knowing and not knowing is a powerful statement about what makes us human: our double consciousness, flitting (like butterflies) between death and life, between past and present, between being and becoming.  We, too, are re-purposed tombs: we carry the form of our ancestors, through whose mouths we speak our living moment; after which we will return to the rich silence that is our earth.


We Don’t Believe Darwin, Yet

The rough sketch below is of one of the totem poles in Great Hall of the Field Museum of Chicago.  It is considered an example of totemism, the belief that humans have kinship with the natural world.  As James Frazer put it, a totem “is an intimate relation which is supposed to exist between a group of kindred people on the one side and a species of natural or artificial objects on the other side, which objects are called the totems of the human group.” The word derives from an Ojibwe root, “ote,” meaning “uterine kin.”  A totem is literally descended from one’s mother, and is therefore subject to rules of family relationship.  Totemism is part of the animist, pre-agricultural  world-view that we humans have held for 98% of our existence.  Hunting and gathering peoples, which all of us were until about 9,000 years ago, acknowledged kinship with the animals and plants around them; this is reflected in many current Native American beliefs, summed up in the frequently-used Lakota slogan, “We are all relatives” (though for a more nuanced look at this, see  It is only when humans develop intensive monocultures that we propose the fiction of separateness, a fiction which grows in relation to the our perceived mastery over the biological world.  Which is all to say, Darwin’s theory of evolution would have astounded no-one from the pre-agricultural world: it was obvious that we are related to other species.  That this idea was–and still is–such an affront to the dignity of “civilized” Westerners is a testament to the rigidity of agricultural (and pastoral) ideology.

totem pole

One of the consequences of seeing humans as separate and distinct from animals and plants is loneliness.  The person who carved this totem pole was completely enmeshed in a web of relations.  His life was restricted by taboos and obligations–but he was never isolated.

The fiction of separateness arises in the 17th century, with the triumph of reductive rationalism and neo-Lucretian atomism.  In the Cartesian age, only the human mind was important–animals were no better than automatons, and the world was like a great clock–active but dead.  This mindset enabled endless expansion: it cleared the world of agency.  All the intricate relations that once were posited–even for Medieval westerners–were swept away, giving Moderns a free field of action.  If we were not kin to the plants and animals we were exploiting for profit, there was no sense of taboo in our action, no  check to our expansion (and nothing to save us from collapse, as it turns out).  We cling to this self-glorifying separatism, and that is why Darwin is scandalous–not just for religious fundamentalists, but Moderns who embrace a special human destiny.  Many people pay lip service to evolution, but they actually interpret it as teleology: inevitable progress, leading up to (surprise!) humans.  The actual theory does not posit that: it simply says that we must take life as a whole to be a vast machine for generating adaptive responses to the corrosive winds of chance and entropic decay.  I always recall one crucial sentence in The Origin of the Species:  “Let it also be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life; and consequently what infinitely varied diversities of structure might be of use to each being under changing conditions of life.”

Our main competition is not each other: it is Death.  No being on the planet can exist alone.  We are locked in webs of competition and mutuality.  Every decade we find new evidence of the inter-relatedness of all beings.  Yet our ideology, born of agricultural dominance, continues to drive us to act as if we alone mattered.

Relic and Epithalamium

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The empty shell of a rock crab, found on the blazing sand of the Cape Cod National Seashore on a hot day in August.  The carapace of an intention: all that’s left is the armor.  He (she?) dates back to the Jurassic, and is built of “highly mineralized chiton.”  What are you built of?  What wave dumped you here?  What will you leave, on the lone shore?

thin earth 6

This couple was discussing marriage while staring out at the Atlantic.  We place all sorts of cultural festoons on the “institution” of marriage, but fundamentally this is a biological act, one we share with most creatures on our thin earth.  Both crab and human seek first to stay alive, and then to perpetuate themselves; they reproduce  sexually in order to encourage genetic diversity, which generates a robust array of responses to combat the entropic winds that constantly tear at all living things.  These humans met through complex courtship rituals which served (hopefully) to establish compatibility; the crab (above) had a similar romantic experience–in crab courtship, the female releases a hormone into the water.  What happens next, according to The Uncommon Guide to Common Life on Narragansett Bay, is “The male crab will encircle the female with his claws, protecting her during molting. Mating can only occur during molting, with the male providing protection while the female is soft-shelled and defenseless. Once the female’s shell has hardened, in two or three days, the male releases her.”

When courtship goes awry in human mating attempts, one result can be poetry.

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Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem, “‘If waker care, if sudden pale colour”, written after he had been spurned by Anne Boleyn and had instead become attracted to Elizabeth Darell.  (Egerton Ms. 2711, f.66v)

Thin Earth, Thick Life

At the end of the Modern Age, your freedom is checked by the earth’s agency. The sky is too near the earth. You are too close to every being. Compressed in a thin layer of increasingly troubled air, you become pupil (and victim) of Newton’s Third Law.  Reduced to living in a narrow patina of life on the surface of a spinning stone, you may find different allegiances, and claim a different fate.