Velcro, Cottonballs, Muse

EMC over Boston

Okay, so I know I have written before about my yoga teacher, Erica Magro Cahill, and how she says things that get stuck in my mind like a cotton ball clinging to Velcro, which then leads to a poem. Or ten. Usually about yoga, because, duh, yoga teacher. But not always. One turned out to be about Odysseus and two are meta, being about the ways in which the things she says end up with me writing and/or changing. Here is the beginning of a sestina; note the end words, which come from something she said back in December:

In the crash and tumult of the year’s end, hearing the heart’s

Voice is difficult, especially if it is a shy, halting voice

Unused to asserting itself. So many other things are louder:

Car engines, sirens, the mind insisting it’s more important than

Everything else. As in an echo chamber reverberating, the mind’s

Insidious messages bounce back and forth against the bony walls

Of the skull.

And here is part of the Odyssey poem based on her phrase: “The intimacy of a beating heart inside your beautiful skin…” The phrase “muscle hugging to bone” also comes from her.

The percussion of the human heart, its calm

And agitation, how it pushes blood through

The body, emotions through the mind. Just as

The x-ray bypassed skin to show muscle hugging

Bone, to introduce me to my trembling heart,

So too, sometimes, do the songs we sing

Bypass the outer shell, however beautiful,

To speak quiet comfort to the fearful, feral

Cornered self within another body contained

In skin, the reverse of Siren song.

And this, which I wrote last week:

Because of You, I Carry the Sky Everywhere with Me

for EMC

your phrases like cirrus clouds

belie the true weather

grey, it may be, and

cold or raw or wet

and roaring

but inside my head the weather is

clear, the sky robin’s egg

blue, traced with fragile willow

buds and yellow and

clean, like early summer

almost a year I have listened to

your wisdom, your poetry

scudding across my wide blue

mind, chased by gulls

who also desire

outside, everything vibrates, frantic,

tidal: few sail through serene,

sails up, prow unwavering

few speak of these things

clearly, or at all

I have tried to learn to speak of that

particular wind that drives me

how to sail through

the roar, not

your way, but mine

to offer the wisdom and passion

I have for this one

thing: the words

and the heart facing

sky, our only ship’s compass

The Eternal Treasure Hunt

200px-Dickin_Medal

Let me tell you about one of my yoga sestinas and how it illustrates something about me as a writer and, to an extent, writers in general. I started out knowing that I wanted to write about pigeon pose, in part because it is a good way to stretch out your hips, in part because kapotanasana is just fun to say, and in part because I had watched a YouTube video of my yoga teacher performing a song about going away to find yourself. She spent a month in Italy. I spent two years in Japan, so I knew what she was talking about. Also, I had recently gone to my college reunion in Middlebury, Vermont and had felt very much as if I had rediscovered my tribe: goofy people who speak multiple languages and have broadened themselves through travel.

For my six end words, I started with every heart finds its true north. Then I turned to Wikipedia to find out shtuffs about carrier pigeons. I learned a bunch of cool trivia; for example:

The PDSA Dickin Medal was instituted in 1943 in the United Kingdom by Maria Dickin to honour the work of animals in war. It is a bronze medallion, bearing the words “For Gallantry” and “We Also Serve” within a laurel wreath, carried on a ribbon of striped green, dark brown, and pale blue.[1] It is awarded to animals that have displayed “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units.” The award is commonly referred to as “the animals’ Victoria Cross.” (Dickin Medal)

But I also found something I could use for the poem, that scientists have found that pigeons have large numbers of iron particles on their beaks, which allow them to sense the magnetic pole. Eureka!

This is, I think, one of the cool things about being a writer. I know there is going to be something out there, that I can find serendipitously, and that I can somehow use. The world can be a fascinating place after all, or, as a Japanese T shirt told me twenty years ago, The world is so full of things.

Yes, it is indeed. You just have to look. Writers, I believe, are people who constantly look. Here is the start of the poem:

The Earth’s white-hot iron center pulls every

magnet’s needle around to point to the heart

of the north, not so different from how a pigeon finds

her way home. They say pigeons have iron on their

beaks, tiny particles that act as a magnetic

guide, helping the birds discern south from north.

It is different for everyone, our magnetic north,

the paths and people who pull us. Not every

bird nests in the same tree or coop. What’s magnetic

to you may not be the thing that pulls my heart

around to face it, eagerly.

Dickin Medal. Wikipedia. 12 Jan. 2015. Web. Mar. 17, 2015

Shipping . . . Sort of

may-and-coulson-dancing-300x186

Okay, so I have really got a thing for what Frances Early and Kathleen Kennedy call Athena’s Daughters: the just woman warrior as portrayed in our popular culture. Buffy, Xena, Agent May. But as I pointed out when I talked about Tennyson’s Ulysses, one of the things I find most intriguing about these women is the relationships they are in with other women and sometimes with men. Generally, this is less about romance and more about Getting the Job Done, but I find I would love a working relationship (or the other kind) with the kinds of friends these women are portrayed to have. I especially like the chemistry between Agent May and Agent Phil Coulson. Some examples of their dialogue:

Phil Coulson: This is fun, right? Isn’t this fun? Look –
[Holds up his sleeves]
Phil Coulson: Cufflinks!
Melinda May: I will pay you $500 right now for a pair of flats.

Skye: [Hears a noise over the comms] Wait. What was that?
Phil Coulson: Yeah. That’s May.
Skye: Is-is she okay? Is everything okay?
Phil Coulson: Yes. She’s laughing. I think the worst of it’s over now.
Melinda May: [Walks up to Coulson] My face hurts.

Melinda May: Coulson, it’s a solid plan you’ve mapped out, but it hinges on a gamble – a big one.
Phil Coulson: And back up isn’t coming. It’ll be just the four of us. We’ll be outmanned and outgunned. But Fury always said… a man can accomplish anything when he realizes he’s a part of something bigger. A team of people who share that conviction can change the world. So, what do you say? You ready to change the world?
Melinda May: No. I’m ready to kick some ass.
Phil Coulson: That works, too.

Phil Coulson: Go ahead, say it.
Melinda May: I don’t do petty.
Phil Coulson: But you called it. I trusted my gut even though you said she was a risk.
Melinda May: When someone breaks into my house, I usually don’t invite them to stay. But that’s me.
Phil Coulson: That’s me too. Then that alien staff went through my heart.
Melinda May: Sure it didn’t go through the brain?
Phil Coulson: You really don’t do comforting either do you?

Dynamic Duo

a sestina for Agents May and Coulson

If we judge people by the company they keep,

Then what are we to say of you, trusting and calm

Through all of life’s calamities, explosions and

Betrayals? You have beside you someone to call

The shots or take the shot when she must, an agent

Willing to stand between you and whatever may

Come. Such partnerships are rare, not like May-

December, but more August-August. To keep

It going, you must respect each other’s agency,

Take advantage any time there is a brief calm

Before the next storm to rest and roll the dice. Call

Me an optimist, but I think your odds are good and

Solid, your chance to make it through alive and

Well, if not unworn. Who knows? You may

Even save the world for a little while. Your call

In this life, to shield the innocent and keep

The powerful honest, requires above all a calm

Head and a steady hand, like those of Agent

May. She is a rock in a spinning world, an agent’s

Agent, a superhero not in spandex, but in leather and

Aviator sunglasses. We only ever see her in black, calm

As midnight, or silver, hot as the heart of a star. May

Punches, kicks and flips her enemies, but keeps

An enigmatic stare for her friends. You could call

Her Chuang Tzu’s “uncarved block” or call

Her the Cavalry, but you know when you did Agent

May would bring the unvarnished truth to keep

You from getting yourself killed (again), and

Sometimes the truth is discretion…valor. May

Will retreat in good order to come back, calmly

Swinging, the next time. No wonder you’re calm.

With someone by your side you know you can call

Upon, day or night, from September to May

(But not during the summer hiatus when agents

Slumber and actors travel, smile for cameras and

Take long naps). You both know the drill. Keep

Hydrated, calm and poised under pressure: agents

on call, ready when the innocent need Agent Coulson and

Agent May, good friends and badasses playing for keeps.

Susan Spilecki © 2015

Frances Early and Kathleen Kennedy, ed. Athenas Daughters: Televisions New Women Warriors. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2003.

My Yoga Sestinas

fly-fishing-flies-lures-for-salmon-royalty-free-stock-photo-1200x801When writing sestinas, most people choose their six words fairly randomly, but I like to make a phrase that I can unpack and repack as I go through, as I did with the example last time: how I love those six lines. I think this is why, when writing an essay about my yoga teacher, Erica Magro, didn’t work, and free verse didn’t work, I instinctively started writing sestinas. Those little things that she said were often between five and seven words. Like fly-fishing lures, they caught my wandering mind and hooked it and would not let go until I had worked it out through a poem. Here are just a few:

“The Writing Teacher at Yoga Class”: letting go after all that work.

“Tadasana: Mountain Pose”: now return to mountain stand tall

“The Yoga Teacher” (v 2.0): breathe space into bodies so patient

“Utthika Trikonasana: Extended Triangle Pose”: lifting your heart open to sky

“Shavasana: Corpse Pose”: wholeheartedly resting by means of shavasana

You start talking about one thing and then halfway through, if (when?) the magic happens, you find you are saying True Things. For example, here is an excerpt from “Utthika Trikonasana: Extended Triangle Pose.”

The heart

Wants free flight through the cerulean blue of open sky,

The terrifying free-fall of loving and being loved. To open

Up such an opportunity is incalculable risk. You trust lifting

Forces will hold you up, but the hard ground is a fact you

Can’t ignore, below you, waiting more patiently than sky to

Gather you up and keep you. Sky can’t keep you, only help to

Keep you standing straight, tall, with your beautiful heart

Practicing being open. I think of this in triangle pose, your

Legs a perfect V, one hand on the floor, one reaching for sky,

Your heart radically open. With the rest, I imitate you, lifting

My eyes to open up my chest, my heart, and keep it open.

It’s an odd way to see things, sideways, from below, open

To the world.

ERICA triangle

And of course that is the risk of poetry as well, opening heart and mind and keeping them open in a world that doesn’t make that easy. But I think that most disciplines teach the same lessons, whether it is poetry or yoga or martial arts or music. If you keep on seeing the world from an unusual angle, eventually, if you let it, it will change you.

Also, let’s face it: utthika trikonasana is just a whole lot of fun to say.

Ma, Kelvin. Erica Magro, Yoga Instructor. 2012. Kelvin Ma Photography. Web. 7 Aug. 2014. JPEG file.

The Joy of Sestinas

sestina

Sestinas do not get nearly the same kind of PR as sonnets, but I love them much more, in part because, rather than rhyme (and you know how I feel about rhyme), the key to a sestina is the end words.

Before I go on, I should say that no, Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight” is not a sestina. It is a villanelle. We tend to get taught these two together in school but there are many more famous villanelles than sestinas. Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is another great example of a villanelle that you might be thinking of. Everyone always mentions these two whenever I talk about sestinas. Sigh.

A sestina is a 39-line poem with only six end words. The order of the repetitions is as follows from verse one through six:

ABCDEF

FAEBDC

CFDABE

ECBFAD

DEACFB

BDFECA

Then the envoi takes the first three end words of that last stanza as the middle words of the last three lines, and the last three end words as its last three end words:

BE

DC

FA

This means that A will be the final word of your poem, so you have to choose that one carefully. I find it also helps if one or more of your end words can act as two different parts of speech. For example:

Ode to the Sestina    (Draft 1)

Let me now speak in praise of the sestina, and how

it allows me to look at things six and a half ways. I

take a phrase said to me, like a cookie’s fortune about love

and travel, and I hold it up like a gem. All those

facets reflect the light differently. I shine six

colors of light on the phrase, giving each word six lines

to stretch its legs and walk around, do tai chi, line

up for lunch, grab a cup of Joe, and demonstrate how

my blue eyes see the wor(l)d. It only takes six

repetitions before I crack the code, find out why I

can’t stop thinking about the phrase. It’s like those

songs that get stuck in your head, with lyrics about love

or how you want your burger, but it’s not about love

so much as attention, herding the cats of the mind into line

for inspection. The joy and the challenge of those

constraints of a formal form of poetry like this are how

to spread the wild wings of creativity, as if I

were a caged eagle in a zoo. But I don’t feel caged. Six

words repeated offers far more space than six

strides or wing-flaps. Maybe the difference is my love

of words and the many worlds contained in them. I

could make an epic quest inside each one, draw a line

showing my journey on a parchment map. I can show how

it’s done (certainly it helps if at least one of those

words can be both noun and verb), but showing those

intricacies is easy compared to showing how a mere six

repetitions opens up meaning. I don’t always know how

it happens, that slow unwrapping as if a poem were love

or a veil or a kilt. But I almost always find that toeing the line

gives me freedom, the way banks constrain a river’s flood. I

follow the turnings, the rise and fall of the language I

have travelled all my life. And when alchemy turns those

words into a fragile kind of gold, then                        line

six

love

how

I six

those love

lines how

And this is where things always fall apart for a while. Then I just stand up and walk away. Go to the bathroom. Get more coffee. Make a sandwich. Work with some clients (because I often have an open Word document on my computer at work to add a line or two in between appointments). And I trust that the magic that has gotten me this far, and the Working Poet’s Work Ethic that makes me go at it again and again, will see me through. Eventually.

Muses I Have Known and Written…

erica_03

Okay, yes, I have asserted most forthrightly (if that is a word, which I am pretty sure it is) that There Is No Muse. And that is mostly true. At least 98% of the time, there is no gowned goddess who will descend upon your writing table To Inspire You.

Except…when there is.

I am not saying it happens often. But, for example, back at the end of May, my friend Amanda and I made a pact to take one or two exercise classes at our gyms. I dove in headlong. I took a Zumba class, which was frustrating, exhausting, confusing, loud and sort of fun, in a where-is-my-inhaler kind of way. Then I took a “spinning” class and found out why padded bike shorts are a Really Good Idea. (“Stationary bikes,” Elaine, the instructor, confided in me afterwards, “really weren’t made for girl parts.”) Then I took my first yoga class. Enter Erica.

The classroom was maybe thirty feet long, with a mirror along one side. A student showed me where to get a purple mat and two big blue foam blocks. Then this small woman came in wearing a black tank top and black yoga pants. She adjusted the frigid air conditioning, connected her iPod to the room’s sound system and took a block to sit on at the front, quietly greeting the people she knew and introducing herself to the rest of us. She opened the practice with seated meditation and then we began.

The names of the yoga postures are interesting. Some are very old, like shavasana, Corpse pose, and katasana, Chair pose. Others, like Happy Baby and Airplane, must be new interpretations of ancient postures. Some are obvious, like Tree, and others not, like Half Pigeon. (I still don’t know if there is a full pigeon.) We moved from one posture to another to gradually stretch, bend and wake up the entire body, all the muscles, all the joints. And because yoga is meditative, we paid close attention to our breathing. (“Take a deep breath in, and a long breath out. Good job.”) I haven’t always been good at meditation, so I’d feared the yoga my friends raved about would be tedious. It was anything but. And though we only held each pose for five seconds, when the hour was up, I had stretched every muscle in my body. Such a simple set of exercises, yet my sweat dripped onto the purple mat. And Erica did them all with us, modeling the right alignment as she explained how to do each one and what to avoid.

My balance was not very good at the start and I frequently mixed up my left and right. But Erica’s voice was a golden thread calmly guiding us, saying things like, “This back stretch is a good counter-posture to too much texting” or “It’s nice to stretch your beautiful feet.” Or, towards the end, when she had us stretch out in shavasana (and I was thinking, “Sure, lie here like a corpse, that’s positive!”), she said, “Let your feet splay out and let your hands face palm-up, in a gesture of receiving. And relax, without needing to do anything, by means of shavasana.” That is when I realized there was more going on there than I imagined.

I took other classes with other yoga teachers (including one who kept us in postures for a long time but did not do them herself), but I kept returning to Erica’s class. She would say things like, “Gently stretch your forearms. So good! So healthy!” or “Let your heart open to the sky.” She could have said, “Open your chest up” or even “Open your heart to the ceiling,” but she didn’t. The idea that good posture could mean that my heart and the sky could have a connection is, to me, astonishing. I don’t think I have ever before met anyone who speaks poetry in real life, sincerely and without irony, to communicate to ordinary people about the beauty of their feet, their lives, their world. For me, that is a good portion of what poetry is for.

 

Ma, Kelvin. Erica Magro, Yoga Instructor. 2012. Kelvin Ma Photography. Web. 7 Aug. 2014. JPEG file.