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In this issue, you’ll find poetry, short fiction, nonfiction stories and essays from around the world and across time. From Li Po and Mary Wollstonecraft  to new writers taking memory, cat sanctuaries, Woodstock, aging, pacifism, connections and tensions with nature, urban life, and more as their subjects, I think there’s something in it for everyone. One reviewer of the issue has kindly and aptly referred to it as “a kaleidoscope into our own humanity.” Three of my poems are also included in the issue.

Both e-book and print versions are available, so you can have it just as you like it. I also recommend checking out our Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign page. We’d appreciate it if you donate — and you’ll receive a little something from us in return — or even if you just spread the word about us. Thanks!

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It’s here! The Sugar Mule “Women Writing Nature” issue containing my first published poems has been made public. Download the PDF here. (My poems are located on pages 323 and 324.)

I’m thrilled and honored to be included in the (long) list of truly wonderful writers and poets published in the issue and to have found a momentary niche in a community of sensitive, intelligent, perceptive women. Together, we observe and discuss the natural world and our places in it — the bonds we human animals make with other animals and the impact of not only ourselves on the land but also the land’s impact on us. It’s a symbiotic relationship we have with the earth, for all our sins against and struggles with it. The pieces included in this issue reflect the various, idiosyncratic experiences we have in a world that is both brazen and subtle, wild and tame, wonderful and bitter(sweet), strange and common — sometimes all at once.

Check it out. I’d love to know what you think.

Exile of the Deer, Tricia Cline. Porcelain. 2008.

I recently stumbled upon Tricia Cline’s porcelain sculptures (thank you, art pinners on Pinterest!). Her work has a quality that I tend to (mostly subconsciously) seek out and appreciate in all art forms — an otherworldliness, often lovely, but a little strange, unsettling, maybe creepy, though not in any particularly obvious way. Which is, incidentally, how many of my stories have been described. I guess it’s my thing. Anyway, I went to her website and became even more fascinated by her work after reading the artist’s statement for her most recent series of sculptures, Exiles in Lower Utopia. It’s beautifully worded, so instead of paraphrasing, I’m providing it below in its entirety:

This body of work is an ode to the Animal, its ability to perceive, and our return to that perception. An animal is its very form. Its function is its form. A dog runs at full speed, a distinct scent or sound alters its direction. The legs, the nose, the ears of the dog are its function, its bliss. When an animal recognizes another animal it reads with an instinctual eye the character in the form- the essential nature in the form before it. Its text is not a concept about what it’s looking at but a full-bodied response to the shape, smell, movement, and stance of the image in front of it. The language of animals is the language of images. An image is not an idea with a defined meaning, it is itself an animal. 

This is the ode–to reconnect with our own animal perception is to clarify and heighten our perception of who and what we are in the moment… to go beyond the limited mental concepts of who we think we are… to an awareness of oneself that is infinitely more vast. The Exiles migrate between the human world and the animal world and carry this awareness on their backs. They are the silent embodiment of this Quest. They understand the language of animals and are self-appointed ambassadors from that world. They are firmly seated, in the language of animals, the language of imagery. They have succeeded by virtue of being.

The key points for me are: 1) to read something by its image is not necessarily to limit because “an image is not an idea with a defined meaning, it is itself an animal,” and 2) reconnecting with our animal selves is a task that, rather than taking us backward, moves us forward into a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. By understanding an image (that is, one’s perception of a thing) as an animal itself — something complex, evasive and in constant movement — on its own terms, rather than trying to define and redefine it through static statements that ultimately fall short, we come closer to seeing things as they truly are. In this way, Cline’s Exiles function as envoys and icons to remind us of our secret, truer selves whose virtues are merely being and seeing.

Literature has its place on this path as well, in spite of its form being limited to words (which is what makes writing so difficult — it’s the least sensual medium of all). As with other art forms, the key to creating truthful literature is to create images, and to do this, one must avoid making direct statements about things. We have to beat around the bush, to talk around a subject — not to evade, but to more clearly illustrate the ineffable. Creating literature — stories, poetry, essays, plays — is not about making some single, absolute declaration; it’s about creating, out of nothing, those image-animals that breathe on their own, that have layers of secrets and truths. It is to create something that allows others to create their own image-animals.

Flannery O’Connor said in her speech-turned-essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”: “It’s always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks” because the truth of the clerk is best communicated by literal details like his wearing list slippers than any abstract and frankly stated “grand ideas and bristling emotions”  that a writer might thrust on him. We humans are sensual creatures, just like the other animals around us, and in spite of our impressive ability to think abstractly, we still (and have always and will always) respond most strongly to that which we perceive through our senses. And so it is through complex, free and living images liberated from vain abstractions (e.g. “bad,” “ugly,” “moral,” “beautiful”) that we perceive truth. Our labor is to see things as they are — in all their complexity — and then hold our tongues, rather than whittle them down to concrete, abstract terms.

You can view more of Cline’s images on her website (linked above). And you’re welcome to share your thoughts on her work (and my words) below.

My husband and I recently had a discussion/debate with a friend of ours who, on the subject of legislating compassion (or, more specifically, legislating in the name of compassion), pretty much said that without all of our elevated, civilized, moral compassion, we’d be “nothing more than animals.” While I’m a big proponent of compassion, I don’t think our morals necessarily make us more compassionate, and I think that there’s often as much compassion in non-action as there is in action, which is to say that sometimes not doing something is more compassionate and beneficial than blindly forging ahead (although, really, the best route is to combine the two with careful discernment).

I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to try to be more like animals, to get in touch with our animal sides. After all, animals aren’t the ones destroying our environment and each other on a species-wide level; they aren’t the ones enslaving each other (except for the slavemaker ants, of course); they aren’t afflicted by the overwhelming greed and viciousness that plagues humanity. If animals are greedy, it’s on a limited, usually reasonable level; if they are violent, it’s for survival — not spite. Animals are the innocent ones. And, really, whether we want to admit it or not, we are animals — complex, astoundingly creative animals, but still animals. I’m not saying that humanity is the lowest of the low in terms of animal virtues, but I do think it’s pompous to assume we’re that much more morally elevated above the rest of the natural world just because we can build complex tools and think in terms of the imaginary and intangible. I think art, which is arguably a uniquely human construct (although it depends on how you define art and whether or not the female bowerbird’s appreciation of her male’s bower can be considered artistic appreciation), is great; I think technology can be great. But I also think that what makes (human) art great is that it expresses and seeks to explore our deepest animal impulses; the best art gets us in touch with our animal selves and analyzes it, rather than denying it. And technology is really just a complex result of our basic animal survival instincts.

I think compassion is the greatest and most necessary quality a person could have, but I don’t like “morals” because they’re prescribed. It’s cold legislation rather than natural compassion, which comes from an organic and personal impulse. Compassion is simple and small and daily — not some elevated, authorized virtue. In its purest form, as in the animal world, compassion is unconscious and exhibited on an animal-to-animal basis. And while not all animals are compassionate in the way we define it, they’re not uncompassionate, either. As I’ve said above, they don’t hate; they aren’t (with few possible exceptions) unnecessarily cruel.

Anyway, the discussion reminded me of a Wallace Stevens poem I love:

“Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit”

If there must be a god in the house, must be,
Saying things in the rooms and on the stair,

Let him move as the sunlight moves on the floor,
Or moonlight, silently, as Plato’s ghost

Or Aristotle’s skeleton. Let him hang out
His stars on the wall. He must dwell quietly.

He must be incapable of speaking, closed,
As those are: as light, for all its motion, is;

As color, even the closest to us, is;
As shapes, though they portend us, are.

It is the human that is the alien,
The human that has no cousin in the moon.

It is the human that demands his speech
From beasts or from the incommunicable mass.

If there must be a god in the house, let him be one
That will not hear us when we speak: a coolness,

A vermillioned nothingness, any stick of the mass
Of which we are too distantly a part.

The only thing I would add to Stevens’ argument is that we aren’t naturally alien — we’ve made ourselves so — and that we can get back to that wholeness and freedom of being as long as we’re willing to loosen the noose of our morals, let wordlessness stand in for language (not forever and always, but more so than it does) and forget our pompous attitudes about our own superiority. If we can let ourselves be smaller, more quiet and basic, we’ll be closer to and more a part of that unlimited god that Stevens describes.

But I don’t harbor any illusions about doing away with law, society and technology and living like squirrels or bears. As our friend correctly said during our conversation, “The change has happened. We can’t go back.” I just think that we’d more benefit ourselves and the rest of the world if we tried to emulate the plant and animal life around us a little more, rather than trying (in vain) to conquer nature both beyond and within ourselves. I think we’d all be better-off without legislating and politicizing compassion — that is, deciding in black-and-white terms who is deserving of understanding and compassion and who isn’t and using that to justify political action. Because if we select an object for compassion, we’re necessarily denying compassion to something else. If we bring compassion down from the moral pedestal, stopped flinging it at other people like a weapon, and considered it on a personal, daily level (asking ourselves if we’re being indiscriminately compassionate enough and how we can be more compassionate, especially to the people whom we feel least deserve it), then the world really would be a better place. It’ll build on its own, but we have to build from the bottom, beginning with ourselves.

I think I should also say that my friend, if he were to read this, might not actually disagree with me. Sometimes when the three of us (myself, my husband and our friend) sit in a car together for too long, we start to disagree for the sake of disagreement — either because we’re playing the devil’s advocate and testing each others’ convictions or because we just want to get the other’s goat — which is how the whole compassion-and-animals discussion began in the first place. But it makes for a good blog post, I think.

Feel free to leave your comments below!

I recently finished Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. I’d been meaning to read it for years, but haven’t had the time. So, after graduation, this was the first book I picked up. It came at a great time, as I’ve long been thinking about the relationship between the body and the soul and the need, as Henderson says, for a “shot in the arm from animal nature.” Here are some quotes that grabbed me:

“They say the air is the final home of the soul.”

“Yes, travel is advisable. And believe me, the world is a mind. Travel is mental travel.”

“Yes, yes, yes. The world of facts is real, all right, and not to be altered. The physical is all there, and it belongs to science. But then there is the noumenal department, and there we create and create and create. As we tread our overanxious ways, we think we know what is real.”

King Dahfu: “They say…that bad can easily be spectacular, has dash or bravado and impresses the mind quicker than good. Oh, that is a mistake in my opinion. Perhaps of common good it is true. Many, many nice people. Oh yes. Their will tells them to perform good, and they do. How ordinary! Mere arithmetic. ‘I have left undone the etceteras I should have done, and done the etceteras I ought not to have.’ This does not even amount to a life. Oh, how sordid it is to book-keep. My whole view is opposite or contrary, that good cannot be labor or conflict. When it is high and great, it is too superior. Oh, Mr. Henderson, it is far more spectacular. It is associated with inspiration, and not conflict, for where a man conflicts there he will fall, and if taking the sword also perishes by the sword. A dull will produces a very dull good, of no interest. Where a fellow draws a battle line there he is apt to be found, dead, a testimonial of the great strength of effort, and only effort.”

“And though I’m no expert I guess [King Dahfu is] thinking of mankind as a whole, which is tired of itself and needs a shot in the arm from animal nature.”

King Dahfu: “The career of our specie…is evidence that one imagination after another grows literal. Not dreams. Not mere dreams. I say not mere dreams because they have a way of growing actual. At school in Malindi I read all of Bulfinch. And I say not mere dream. No. Birds flew, harpies flew, angels flew, Daedalus and son flew. And see here, it is no longer dreaming and story, for literally there is flying. You flew here, into Africa. All human accomplishment has this same origin, identically. Imagination is a force of nature. Is this not enough to make a person full of ecstasy? Imagination, imagination, imagination! It converts to actual. It sustains, it alters, it redeems! …What Homo sapiens imagines, he may slowly convert himself to.”

[In a letter to his wife, Lily] “‘However, the geniuses love common life a great deal.’ …By genius I mean somebody like Plato or Einstein. Light itself was all Einstein needed. What could be more common?

“[King Dahfu] tells me I should move from the states that I myself make into the states which are of themselves.”

Thoughts? Share below.

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) was a German painter of the Romantic period, an era in which a growing disillusionment for industrialization and materialism turned people toward the search for a deeper sense of spirituality and greater connections with nature. Like his contemporary JMW Turner, Friedrich sought sublimity, but took a different path to reach it; while Turner aimed at astonishing through horror, Friedrich sought to engender spiritual contemplation, to draw man into the great mystery of existence, through misty, bleak, vast-seeming allegorical landscapes. In his paintings, man is often little more than a modest shadow within the swaths of forest or sea and sky.

As art scholar Elizabeth Prettejohn has noted, Friedrich’s paintings often make use of the Rückenfigur — a human figure, often in the foreground, seen from behind, contemplating the view. Because the Rückenfigur is faceless, anonymous, the viewer is encouraged to project him- or herself into that role. This not only strengthens the contemplative experience; it is also intended to suggest that the scene is not a representation of objective reality, but a version of it portrayed through a subjective lens. Thus there is an existential element in Friedrich’s paintings, which suggest that nature is not inherently emotive or meaningful; it becomes so through man’s efforts to discover meaning.

Friedrich believed that “the artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him.” A deep sense of loneliness and a preoccupation with death are prolific in Friedrich’s art and, by implication, were within Friedrich as well. Yet Friedrich seems to have found beauty and spiritual substance in these thoughts, and his paintings serve as gentle reminders that the loneliness of human existence and the ever-looming presence of Death don’t have to be received with misery or terror, but can in fact lead to peace and enlightenment.

Monk by the Sea - 1810

Seashore by Moonlight - 1836

The Abbey in the Oakwood - 1809

Two Men by the Sea - 1817

For more information about Caspar David Friedrich and his work, visit Caspar David Friedrich: The Complete Works.

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking of doing a series of posts about my favorite visual artists, those who alter my perceptions of light and shape and color and so influence my writing. After some deliberation, I’ve decided to go ahead and begin with English Romantic painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, who crafted dreamy, torrential images in watercolor and oils. Born in 1775 and finding success as early as 1790 — when his work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London — Turner found inspiration in the sea and the sky, both of which served as channels for depicting his own emotional turbulence. Dubbed “the painter of light,” Turner embraced Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime, which claimed that:

“Mere light is too common a thing to make a strong impression on the mind, and without a strong impression nothing can be sublime. But such a light as that of the sun, immediately exerted on the eye, as it overpowers the sense, is a very great idea… But darkness is more productive of the sublime ideas than light… [However,] Extreme light, by overcoming organs of sight, obliterates all objects, so as in its effect exactly to resemble darkness… Thus two ideas as opposite as can be imagined [are] reconciled in the extremes of both; and both in spite of their opposite nature [are] brought to concur in producing the sublime… The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all motions are suspended, with some degree of horror…” (Burke, qtd. in “JMW Turner and the Sublime,” Turner Museum website).

Thus, Turner sought to convey these most extreme passions — astonishment and horror — through the swirls of light and darkness cast about in storms on land and sea, nearly obliterating the shapes of common objects in the process. While he’s painted fairly concrete pieces, I prefer his more abstract, impressionistic work; the chaotic power of his style is (to me) more profound without the anchor of easily distinguishable figures. The following are some of my favorites.

"Rain, Steam, and Speed: The Great Western Railway" - 1844

"Snow Storm: Steamboat Off A Harbor's Mouth" - 1842

"Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge" - 1843

"The Slave Ship" - 1840

For more information on JMW Turner and his work, check out The Turner Museum website.

Last night, I took my puppy, Darcy, outside to go to the bathroom before bed as usual. It was dark but the porch light was on and, as we walked out the door, I saw a grasshopper in the corner of the doorway, swaying side to side as Darcy passed close by. I thought it was trying to ward us off, like I’d seen other insects do when they felt threatened, so I led Darcy away, onto the grass. When we came back to the door, it was still swaying side to side between the light and shadows. I thought it was strange that it hadn’t left, but I left it alone and pretty much forgot about it.

I took Darcy out again this morning, and when we came to the door to go back inside, my eyes passed idly over the corner where I’d seen the grasshopper. It was still there, but it wasn’t moving. It was attached to a spider’s web and the spider stood on the grasshopper’s wing, eating it. It struck me then that what I’d thought was defensive posturing on the grasshopper’s part was most likely the grasshopper’s efforts to free itself from the web. Or it could have been that the grasshopper was already dead and the spider was the one making the grasshopper sway as it moved along the web, unseen in the shadows. The grasshopper may not even have seen us as we passed through the doorway.

I can’t help acknowledging that, once again, nature has proven that what I think I see, and what I think I know, may not be the whole truth in any given situation. I only saw the half that was in the light; the rest was in shadow. And I made an assumption based on that. It’s really not any different in human interactions. Or in our perception of reality, for that matter. It’s easy to assume that the surface — a person’s appearance, the way they speak, the opinions they share — are all that there is because it’s all we can see in the light. We forget that there’s an entire world within them that we may never see, maybe because it’s comforting to imagine that one’s individual perception is objective and total reality. But it doesn’t mean that this other, shadowed world doesn’t exist.

I think that’s perhaps the greatest function of storytelling, if I were to ascribe a use to literature (something I always hesitate to do): to reveal the shadows in a character, real or fictional. I don’t mean “shadows” in a sinister context, as the word often implies; I mean the fears, the inner struggles, the vulnerabilities of people who would otherwise be passed over. To fully humanize them. Because what defines us are not just those traits that are revealed in the light, in our day-to-day interactions, but also that secret, interior world that isn’t often (or ever) revealed to anyone else. Stories are there to entertain, yes, but they also offer an education. They teach us to realize the humanity in others, no matter how well we think we know them. And that’s what makes stories so important, so difficult to write, and so wonderfully rewarding to read.

This isn’t a new idea, of course, but it’s easy to forget. It’s something I struggle to realize every day with each new person I meet, as well as with people I’ve known for years. The reminders come in many forms and I hope that, some day, I’ll be able to integrate those reminders into my being so completely that when I meet someone knew, I’ll no longer see just their surface, but the hint of shadows within as well.