What Catches Your Ear, Your Eye?

A fellow poet and long-time student of mine gifted me the use of her family’s cottage on Cape Cod. Through screen-windows and from chairs perched on the edge of a hill, I’ve passed the last week watching the tide come in an out, and the ocean beyond that. The sounds and scents of sand, pine, sea roses and rain have replaced the sounds of village life for now.

There’s a passage in the prose poem, “On Looking at the Sea,” by Thomas A. Clark that goes “As bladder wrack will float a stone, contemplation of the horizon brings a perceptible lifting of the center of gravity.”

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I feel that. As quiet as my at-home life actually is, the pace of looking and perception, the sustained consideration that’s possible while away from regular life, makes possible a very different experience of the world, and of my self.

I’ve spent some time looking at paintings by Agnes Martin this week, too, after a reader suggested that the poems in my book, Pilgrim, called to mind a similar quality of quiet and stillness. See some of Martin’s work here.

“We have been very strenuously conditioned against solitude. To be alone is considered to be a grievous and dangerous condition.” Agnes Martin

 

IMG_5095I think that’s true for a lot of people, though not for me, probably because I grew up in the woods and spent a great deal of my youth alone, looking at the world from up high in climbing trees, or playing in meadows and in streams, if not alone, then with other kids who didn’t have televisions or electronic toys, and who were sent outside to explore and to be with ourselves.

I’ve also reread Anne Truitt’s Daybook: Journal of an Artist, written between the years 1973-1979, in which she documents her process and about sculpture. I was a small child during the years she said the following, about the difference between herself and her student’s sensitivity to sound:

“I wonder if my student’s senses are not actually different from mine. I overload so much faster than they do. Could it be that my baseline of stimulation at birth in 1921 in a small country town renders me incapable of adjusting easily to a range of visual and aural impact fifty-eight years later? The curve of environmental stimulation from 1921 to 1979 is steep, right straight up. Recalling my childhood, I hear birds, leaves in wind, human voices, the crumple of paper, the fall of beans in a barrel, barks, miaows, and occasionally horse’s hooves clip-clopping. That is not much sound to take in. Most of my students began to live around 1960. Muzak already filled public buildings, and what is to me, the painful rasp of the mechanical television voice threaded the daily life of householders. To compound this aural repletion with the visual, add televised images.”

I think about these things all the time. Do you? Do you think about what meets your eyes each day, and what fills your ears, and how that shapes your experience day to day?

As I began to transcribe the above passage, for the first time in over a week, the sound of a lawnmower started up somewhere in the neighborhood. A work truck beeped as it backed up and someone turned on a leaf blower. In contrast to other places in America, this is not the usual background sound in Sladeville, the former artist colony where I’m staying, probably because the sandy soil makes the cultivation of the Quintessential American Lawn a fruitless labor and foolish exercise. As a result, the landscape is left a little bit wilder, and the soundscape remains wilder too, if not just now, suffused with birdsong and wind sounds instead.

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I grew up with painters for parents and these days I co-teach “Small Pages” workshops with my mother, Carol C. Spaulding, inside and outside her studio/gallery near Glen Lake, Michigan. In these day-long intensives we explore artistic practice as contemplative practice. Our next session happens on Saturday, August 20th, and offers a day of working with painted collage and writing prompts to help foster calm and creativity, and perhaps relieve you from concerns related to audience and commerce. You can find out more on my website. Or just reply to this email and I’ll add you to the class. Our limit is 8—no experience necessary. We’ll surround you with a burgeoning summer garden, trees, flowers galore, and birdsong. We’ll also provide all the materials necessary for the course, and send you home with a custom artist’s kit.

If that date doesn’t work for you, consider joining me in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for a three-hour nature-writing and poetry workshop on August 18th. Enroll via Glen Arbor Art Association at 231-334-6112. Finally, this Thursday, my mom will also host a workshop to help you loosen up your mind, make some marks, and devote yourself to the joyfulness of “Messing Around With Paint.” All of these experiences are intended to cultivate a quality of presence that you can carry with you into your art—or into the world. No prior experience necessary.

Agnes Martin again: “Art work comes straight through a free mind—an open mind. Absolute freedom is possible. We gradually give up things that disturb us and cover our mind. And with each relinquishment, we feel better.”

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All photos of the same view: Pamet River at Truro, Cape Cod. Late July 2016.

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  • Katey Schultz
    Reply

    What catches my ear: clanging metal from steel weights at the gym, high summer cicadas along Copper Creek, the raspy-whisper of a cat asking to be let inside the house.
    What catches my eye: the horizon line cut my rounded mountains, the deep green of summer that’s already leaving us, the stillness of hot air.

  • jiisand
    Reply

    I read your piece with a huge feeling of compassion and sympathy. If you were born in 1921 you would be five years older than me which would make you 95 and your reference to your mom who still exists would make her the oldest human alive. A most fascinating human who still seems active. My parents were both painters and I grew up in Brooklyn NYC back in the 1930’s but, like you, became addicted to being by myself. Back in those days Brooklyn was rather rural and being close to the lower NY bay I also learned to love the small wild life which has always been close to my core of loving this wonderful, small and desecrated planet which seems to be approaching its death out of the incredibly insane behavior of its most intelligent species.
    I have tried both graphic art at http://siivola.org/jan/ and poetry at https://jansandhere.wordpress.com/ and seem to be extraordinarily unsuccessful at both out of some fundamental misconception as to the nature of both disciplines and my addiction to not quite accepting to being exclusively human but rather merely one attempt of protoplasm to fit into a niche of the planet.
    I live in Helsinki now which is closer to the way Brooklyn used to be when the morning sounds of a bell buoy in the bay would awaken me to see a squirrel scamper into my bedroom window to run down the hallway to investigate breadcrumbs on the kitchen floor.

    • Holly Wren
      Reply

      Jan-I appreciate your reflections on growing up in (rural) Brooklyn. To clarify, I was not born in 1921, but sculptor and writer Anne Truitt was, and the passage you read was from her journals. I was born in 1973, and grew up in a rural setting without electricity and therefore my environment had qualities in common with an earlier era in history. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I relate to Truitt’s reflections about the senses, but I’m also a fan of her work in general.

  • jiisand
    Reply

    Sorry for the misconception and I appreciate your clarification.

    Like a great many American English speakers I am exceedingly inept in learning new languages and although I have had a Finnish wife (now deceased) and a couple of kids here in Helsinki the deep familiarity with my native language and an extremely faulty generally unsocial nature plus the general cleverness of Finns being very accomplished in English and eager to communicate with me in English has seduced my lazy attitudes to let it go at that. So the language never became a necessity although I regularly attended Finnish conversation classes. I mention this because your piece projected a deep appreciation of nature and Finns partake of that love also immensely. A huge very natural park across the street from my apartment called Keskuspuisto (Central Park) is full of all sorts of wild creatures, birds, deer, an occasional moose, pheasants, rabbits, squirrels, muskrats, hedgehogs, and a generous dose of mosquitoes and a few others with whom I communicate much more easily than I do in Finnish gives me much impetus towards the feelings you expressed than in human communication. My fault, of course, but so it goes.

  • Holly Wren
    Reply

    I relate to your description of communicating with nature more than you do with fellow humans. Often that would be a fair description of my days as well.

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