Friday, December 31, 2010

Time, the Bandit

This is always the time of year when I find myself temporarily focused on the passing of time, the “temporal” world. Being so embedded in “being,” one seldom has time to notice, take note of, contemplate it is passing. However, when our calendars change, just as when our clocks move ahead or back, I find my mind turning to thoughts of what has passed and what will come.

Saint Augustine famously said that he knew precisely what time was as long as no one asked him. Once he was asked for a definition, “instantly,” he no longer knew. I have the same experience when I stop and take measure of all the moments that have occurred. It is as if I dipped my cup into the flow and by the time it reached my lips it had evaporated. It seems as if “now” is something we never have time to “know.”

There are essays to read, books galore to explore. Hawking and hundreds of others all the way back to Aristotle discuss the idea. The best I can derive from my reading is the complex relationship between “being” and “becoming” is serving as part of the current thought pattern that philosophers and mathematicians puzzle about. My mind has a hard time using language in a way the permits different forms of the verb “to be” to be parsed and placed, like their proper pieces in some larger picture. After all, every part of existence “is” now and at the same time “becomes” older, or less viable with each succeeding second. As much as I want to believe the cyclical pattern ancient minds perceived in what we in the West see as linear, I guess I just can’t get my mind to pull back so far as to see where the curve that “becomes” the circle “begins.”

It brings me back again and again to the magic and mystery of language, which permits us to talk about these abstract concepts in ways we actually “believe” make sense. As I child, would read the entire dictionary in the hope that by knowing all the words, I might actually “see” how things worked, how my incomprehensible world could be understood. Eventually, I gave that ritual up, not so much because I felt I knew. It was as if I realized it was useless and I had better things to do.

We can’t really stand outside of time, so it is exceedingly difficult to grasp at any sort of objectivity on the matter. We move through time and it moves through us, but like the air we breathe, we almost never notice ourselves in its grip. Pictures, captured light from one moment we were in that has moved on, give us some sense of its passing. I found fascinating this work by Argentine photographer, Diego Goldberg of his family, an interesting artistic comment on “the snapshot” and how it both kills the moment and preserves it as the next moment supersedes it.

Diego Goldberg and his family can be seen at his website, The Arrow of Time. His idea and its concrete expression is as powerful a mediation on time as any words I might pen.

I am not the only one to be inspired and intrigued by the Goldberg family, ABC News, ://, as well as artists and essayists have riffed off of the inspiration of these precise pieces of the past.

As I studied the photos, I kept noticing slight changes in the faces from year to year, ones that were subtle but perceptible, that must have been invisible as each body was touched by time. The collagen and elastin in the skin degenerate minutely each moment and after years, the faces that filled with life in youth, begin slowly to drain in the juicy and elastic dermis and epidermis and wrinkles, creases, furrows and folds appear. The number, size and length of the facial muscles fibers decrease and tone takes the path of gravity down.

More discernible to the self, but less visible to the world are all the internal changes, the joint wear, the cartilage breakdown, the acuity of vision, then hearing, the number of taste buds, then smell starts to go. The heart tires in its second billion beats, less able to pump so we tire more easily and recover more slowly. The number and density of nerve cells diminish and in most, the spinal cord and brain start to atrophy. The stomach produces less acid after the age of 50 and it therefore absorbs less vitamin B12, found naturally in food. Strength, motion and flexibility all decrease, along with height. We get about 0.4” shorter each decade as the spine compresses under the constancy of gravity. Some things continue to grow, the ears and nose getting larger and longer.

All this sounds pretty disheartening but age is the price of life. An interesting essay in today’s NYT ( about the delusions current baby boomers are buying into puts some perspective on how we face these incontrovertible facts.

I have concluded that there is much that can be done to make this process easier. Since I have been going to the gym a few times a week, I am much more able to cope with the everyday aches and pains of aging. A few of the buff geezers there have actually reached their eighties, while maintaining the appearance of someone in their early sixties. Still, 60 is six decades and there can not “be” too many of those decades “becoming” in any of our futures. One comfort, as I pump my half hour on the elliptical and travel from one exercise station to the next with my iPod inspiring me to "shake it with the oldies" is that even the youngest and most buff members are trapped, like all of us, in the matter of time. Like insects in amber, unable to escape the world that blurs along with us, inside and outside of us, we have no idea what we are coming to. Yes, just as the eye cannot see itself, the “now” cannot truly know its own essence.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Poetic Implications of Origami

To imply means “to fold in” as in the “implication” of some thought expressed in a way that need only hint at its meaning to be understood. The “ply” part of the word in and of itself is interesting. I thought the first definition of "ply" would be something like “layer” or “slice”

Wikipedia, declares the order of denotation and connotation in this order:

* Ply (game theory)
* PLY (file format), the polygon data file format.
* Plying, the spinning technique to make yarn.
* A colloquialism for Plywood
* The different layers of toilet paper.
* Ply, a port or bay from Edwardian times.
* PLY, an implementation of lex and yacc parsing tools for Python.
* "Ply", DOS-based 16-bit complicated polymorphic virus from 1996

In games, a ply is a turn, as in a fold, or in Latin, “versa” as in verse, each line "turning" from one rhyme to another, from one image to the next. PLY is also a computer file format known as the Polygon File Format or the Stanford Triangle Format. The format was principally designed to store three dimensional data from 3D scanners. In weaving “to ply” is to spin or weave two separate strands together into one stronger thread, each ply being another doubling of the strands.
Not until the third connotation does Wiki list a layer, first as a colloquialism, then almost off-hand as toilet paper talk, leaving out the once notorious “four-ply” automobile tire. Finally, a nautical term from Edwardian times, and another two example of techno-lingo jargon.

For me, this is completely exemplary of a point I like to make about writing and thinking. IMHO, I believe that prose and poetry are two completely different ways of thinking and fundamentally different ways to communicate.

It is one reason that translation of poetry is the much more difficult than the translation of prose. The two exemplify the difference between walking and dancing, between painting a wall and painting a mural.

I was recently struck by how the two approach the use of words, with prose striving to “define” or “put limits on” thought, to be precise and “unambiguous.”

Poetry on the other hand seeks to free language of the simple denotation and play on the connotations, the other hidden layers of meaning: those folded in by time, like the Mona Deg that begins our week and the worship of the Sun God that ends it, or the broken calendar count of Julius and Augustus, the Caesar boys, lumping their names in with the gods and throwing off the count of the time we still keep as Pope Gregory instructed us, lo those centuries ago.

In origami, a flat, two-dimensional page is folded or plied into different shapes and forms. Cranes and dragons rise up into the third dimension, and indeed into the fourth as they take shape in the hands of the artist and then age in time, from a pristine color and edge, to one weighed down, even in its infinite lightness, by the gravity grave that history piles on daily, one dust grain at a time.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Inspired by "The Times"

Time is the essence of being and being the essence of time. The smallest verb is the largest idea, the concept is self-referential in the extreme. Dogen says, “The future is behind you. The past is before you.” Damn, that guy can drive me crazy.

Early in the turning of the year’s page, just after the period of the last year’s sentence, at the very first paragraph of the new sentence of the new chapter, I was meditating on the passing of time itself. With the talking clock and time-consuming ideas of art and poetry, art and time, all rolling around in my brain.

I was in a pensive mood, not unusual for anyone as the year turns, certainly not-out-of-the-norm for me. Like most, I am swept up in the recounting of those that have died and the events of the calendar. I wax nostalgic and confess to a touch of sentiment, a sigh for my misspent youth. I was uninspired by my thoughts as I tried and tried to write, but mostly I could only tweet my observations about moments in time like insects in electronic amber.

Not to digress, but once I took a class with the wonderfully warm and funny writer Robert Canzoneri, who described how writers, when faced with real writing work, will do anything not to write. His particular penchant was for shining shoes. He would find himself rummaging through his closet looking for shoes to polish and realize, he last remembered himself getting up from his writing for a glass of water or a cup of coffee.

In my digression I turned to "The Times" and read a wonderful article published on December 31, 2009 the night before, by Roberta Smith entitled, Time, the Infinite Storyteller. ( I was enchanted by how she wove the idea of time and art together. It brought a rush of poem’s from one of the first poems I learned to recite as an adolescent in the bone growing, size-shifting, hormonal grip of the years of transformation, constantly in sexual arousal, tripping over my own feet, fighting to control my pimply, swelling fourteen year old body. Learning to sincerely say the words “by heart,” to any young lady patient enough to let me near her, I made the sounds and rhythms in my voice resound with the same lusty emotion Marvell evokes, but it never made me irresistible to females.

Usually, it had the opposite effect, though once or twice it worked real magic.
But it worked its magic on me. Words became my obsession and writing my passion. I became a poet because I loved the magic in the words.

To his Coy Mistress

by Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Memorizing Marvell was a feat no less difficult for an adolescent than learning the Gettysburg Address “by heart,” (which we had to do for American History class, but that is another story for another time.) Come to think of it, it actually, was easier. I had the strength of rhyme’s music in my memory, to guide me from line to line and the passion of the soul, “at every pore with instant fires.” That was when my poetry sprouted, influenced by a twisted cross of testosterone and romance. I eventually grew past the seductive self-serving recitation to time and learned a new poem to recite to my love at night on long walks, Mathew Arnold’s Dover Beach.

Dover Beach
Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægæan, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

So much of this poem, also carefully crafted with the beat and images of time passing, tides turning, ancient and modern wisdoms and foibles repeated, proved futile. All we need is love. What can I say, it was the sixties and love and the war was what united us. I remember reciting it to my wife when we were dating. The poem captured for me some of the essence of how it feels to be in love while somewhere the world is at war.

Then a few days later, after only tweets and a few scraps of the beginnings of poems, again killing time and not writing, I came across another piece in The New York Times, this time in the “Mind” section and not the “Art” section. Ah, the sectioning of the grapefruit of reality. This one was by Benedict Carey, entitled “Where Did the Time Go? Do Not Ask the Brain.” It was published on January 4, 2010. ( Reading how the detailed remembering of my childhood differed from the sketchy, often annotated recollection of recent time got me back to the keyboard.

The dimension of time, embedded in every aspect of our lives, is as profound and palpable as the solid depth, height, width we walk around or trip over every day. We can only grasp in retrospect what it means and only through our own reference point, what Red Pine calls “the eye bone.”

"There is no point at which the eyes begin or end, either in time or in space or conceptually. The eye bone is connected to the face bone, and the face bone is connected to the head bone, and the head bone is connected to the neck bone, and so it goes down to the toe bone, the floor bone, the earth bone, the worm bone, the dreaming butterfly bone. Thus, what we call our eyes are so many bubbles in a sea of foam."
-- Red Pine

The elemental, fundamental, essence of writing is that recording of the moment, the conveying of it, the taste and smell, the feel and embrace of time. When a writer can capture that sensual and intellectual presence, time stands still for the reader, she or he disappears as an ego and becomes a character, or a witness to the action of other live while their own life is on hold.

The art of storytelling has evolved into all sorts of expressions from poems to films to song and popular novels and television series, but in essence it is all the same, the creation of the illusion of time, the capturing of moments and the recreating of them for the reader and the audience. Time is detail, memory is detail recalled, every moment we can record will never be forgotten as long as the possibility exists that it might some day be read by another.

Thus my Twitter experiment continues, in what little time is allotted me in the face of actual making a living. I come back to the idea of at least one good line a day and googling, I find lots of sources but not what I am looking for. Finally, I find it, not even a good line, just a line, that was enough to satisfy Horace, to eke out the time to put together a few words. I guess that must be why I am so attracted to the tweet, it is like Haiku, or photography, or so many other forms, so immediate and compact, like an opalescent pearl, shimmering in singularity.

"Nulla dies sine linea”

“Never a day without a line."

-- Horace