Sparks of Inspiration - and Resolve
"The Infinite in my least verse" - Raymond Roussel
Welcome to the inaugural entry of Poetry, Thought, Word Magick. I’m beginning on the anniversary of the 2020 election, not to expand my lifelong artistic endeavor into political or topical commentary (for details, many of us already rely on newsletters from historian Heather Cox Richardson to ground current events in our country’s past, legal analyst Teri Kanefield - outside of Substack - for insight into the law, our constitution, and how our system really works, and/or many others currently offered from a variety of positions of expertise); but, as a poet engaged with the creative life - in communion with those of us here, whatever we do, engaged with the examined life - to signal a commitment to stay responsive, by necessity, to the impact of events and their contexts, coming and going, past and present, even as thinking, perceiving, and creating have their own native modes of temporality, too vulnerable to being blasted away by circumstance as time goes by.
Noting that, as a long sentence lover (obviously), I’m aware this medium demands concision. At least at the sentence level. It’ll be good for me. I’ll have to forgo the enjoyable intricacies of live thought-winding syntax - some of the time.
It is personal for all of us, though - this necessity of orienting to the times. Here’s a gateway question: where and how can we have any power over the personal impact on us of public events? However public-minded we may choose to be, the times impinge upon our capacity for choosing and doing. We’re hit first, and then we look around, more or less dazed, hurt. For the individual, that’s the crux of the situation.
Exactly one year ago on this date, in a free and fair election, a clear majority of Americans voted Trump out of office and Biden in. Still, the way through our current turmoil remains unclear.
Pandemic. Continuing humanitarian crisis at the border. Legislation stalled in Congress. A radicalized right wing Supreme Court. The deepening entrenchment of lies designed to undermine our institutions.
I’m writing to you from Alexandria, Virginia. Last night, the commonwealth went from blue to red on the strength of a Trumpian candidate who outperformed Trump, canny and sanitized as he was for suburban voters, and who was slipperier in shaking off labels than the veteran Democrat campaigning as if he had learned nothing from the past five years. Youngkin made his messaging stick. There’s a skeleton key here respecting the Power of Words - whether they be truth or lies, facts or disinformation, accuracy or mystification. Poetry is higher, truth is moral, and righteous indignation tells. Nevertheless, strategic rhetorical mastery wins the day. Such can be crude, or subtle, or insinuating - or brilliant. I’ll leave it to you to suggest the better examples, effective models of goodness and integrity: towards conscious application, turning to task. Politicians and activists, all those who imagine justice, a safe and fulfilling society, an intact and improving democracy, best study (quickly!) its practice and art.
Chill in the air, light in my office. Shaky patches of sun and shadow on shelves and the books on my floor: film strips with flickering frames, a rhythm in silvery emulsion. I squeeze the tension out of my stiff hands, palming a nubby rubber ball.
I’m pacing for accuracy in my thoughts, judgments. Shimmery green out the window, mere tinges of yellow. Bright sky. The blue of the ball in my palm is gummy, nearly but not exactly a cobalt or Prussian blue, old school factory shoe-sole industrial.
My dog howls to modulate with a siren a few blocks away. Now she sounds exactly like the siren!
I’m present, in time. Meditative towards time.
So now in mind of anniversary - yearly turning in remembrance - and, stuck in time, mindful of the present: know we can yet pull our necks out of the embroiling currents; we can pull what’s next out of these grievous, “interesting” times, our living the curse of the historic. Presence is quiet, the way the present lazes. Personally, I’d prefer to work in peace in the boring flow of unimportant days and weeks and months. Instead, with what’s at stake in our times, too many days and hours present us with turning points for our country, this century, the earth. Historic times are not a background but a mirroring surface reflecting back to us our lives and the momentousness of our choices and interpretations of what matters and what is real, what is true.
The loaded-ness of such moments of decision does not make itself apparent without proper attunement to multiple levels of experience.
I remember reading how around 1897 proto-surrealist writer Raymond Roussel’s late teenage inspiration and poetic ecstasies brought him sensations of glory – delusions of grandeur or, according to the psychologist who published his case study, “religious mania.” As a student, over a few afternoons in the slant gauzy daylight of UC San Diego’s Brutalist concrete and glass library (legend had it that its architecture provided Close Encounters of the Third Kind its mother ship), I pored over as much of Roussel’s work as was available at the time. I’ll never forget my instant fascination. Roussel described sparks flying out of his pen as he wrote. Then, when he walked the streets of Paris and no one paid any special attention to him, he despaired.
Raymond Roussel’s bane, his crushing blow: it didn’t matter to the world, the fact of - L’infini dans mon moindre vers. “The Infinite in my least verse.”
He wasn’t wrong. Sparks flew out of his pen, but when that wasn’t recognized literally, and when he and his work weren’t recognized by the public, he repudiated himself while desperately trying to make good on his inspiration. Pretty much a lifetime of despair, despite strange, original, dazzling works, with impact on the avant-garde then, and continuing - if rarefied - influence now. I was tempted to try a doubled parenthetical in my opening paragraph today, but refrained, forever at a loss in enchantment before the exuberant convolutions of Roussel’s (grammatically sound) gigantic single sentence cantos in New Impressions of Africa and how they culminate in the textual fireworks display of tripled, quadrupled, quintupled parentheses - ((( )))), (((( ))))).
There, in UCSD’s spaceship library, I understood his mistake immediately. Sparks flew, yeah. Yet, few eyeballs calibrate the light properly when overlapping planes of vital force enact a moment of coalescence. Roussel missed that he had an angle on what was his own: others didn’t, couldn’t, line up with that angle at once. Patience could’ve taught him that lines of sight/points of view converge at greater distance. As for me, the sparks never stopped flying out of my pen since I was 20 years old. Now in my mid-50s, I’m angled along with everybody else on the past. Yet, for what’s up close, this newsletter is my whim offering of lenses on real-time layers and auric planes of creative scintillation - like the gag Hanukkah party glasses which turn all candle flames and Christmas lights into Jewish stars. Just in time for the holidays!
We don’t have to accept the garish artificial light pollution of a domineering narrative or oppressive cultural environment. There are sparks and shimmers still our own. Our subjectivity and private lives - intrinsically! - counter the objective threat, or threat of indifference, if we only line ourselves up staunchly in their glint.
Tell me the greatness you’re afraid to see in yourself - because it’s a call to action.
I invite you to write me privately in email or in community on Substack’s interface. By what means have you experienced resilient force when events of the world have had a personal impact on you? Also, if you’re getting the sense that something’s starting here, some sparks, please spread the word and let others know. Thank you for reading.