the quiet pages
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Two mornings ago, I was driving home from the coffee shop feeling frustrated about my writing, which had gone poorly, and looking at the mountain in front of me (I live at the base of South Mountain, in Arizona), and maybe slowing for a stoplight or driving too slowly and therefor in the right lane, when I suddenly knew that writing a poem is not about saying something nearly as much as it is about making something. Perhaps this seems too obvious to some of you, and I think that I knew it a few years ago, while I was still in graduate school and writing frequently, but it's something that I had to remember at that moment.
In the past, I've said that poetry is not primarily didactic--that this is what separates it from most prose--that instead it is primarily beautiful, first. I meant that a poem doesn't want to hold up political banners, or communicate a moral, or even instruct (as many ancient myths instructed) concerning how to sew crops, or build structures against the weather. I didn't mean that a poem couldn't be didactic (wouldn't that be too severe, dishonest), as much as I meant that it's allegiance was to being beautiful, first, and all other things second. I think a poem can have many masters. But I don't know that I ever really understood what I meant by that, and so I was being abstract, academic, and maybe also delusional.
And so today, driving into the same coffee shop, I was thinking about the poem itself as a structure--something more tangible--made up of bricks, rebar, mortar (which are each bits of language). I was probably making this correlation because I recently built a flagstone and cinder block patio in my backyard, and it felt like a more creative act than anything I'd written in a long time.
I don't want to create some convoluted conceit, here. But I do want to describe the process, perhaps for my own sake, perhaps in order to orient you to the deliberate quality of the work itself. I measured out the space I wanted to contain, about twelve by twelve square. Then I dug trenches for the cinder block. I wanted the block to sit halfway below grade. I leveled the trenches with dark crushed stone and set the cinder block into it, leveling and mortaring the block as I went. This created something that looked like a very small foundation. Next, I leveled the space that was contained within the wall. I arranged unshaped flagstone, steering the the heavy slabs into place by shifting them from side to side, displacing the crushed stone beneath it. I found myself holding fist-fulls of that stone, metering it out beneath low patches. The flagstone was rough like sandpaper, heavy with awkwardness. It was called "Arizona Red." The crushed stone was called "Table Mesa Brown." I tiled the cinder block with a slate called "Peacock."
And so today, I'm working on a poem that's made from elements and bits of language, rather than a poem that tries to communicate something. When Vermeer paints the astronomer, I think he's probably more committed to making that moment, that light, that ponderousness that is at once the astronomer's robes and his expression. Now I'm sure someone has tried to uncover Vermeer's attitudes toward astronomy, and he may have had some particular attitudes, but those were probably not the chief forces guiding his hand.
That the poem is a making (rather than a saying) is a more difficult lesson for poets than it is for visual artists because we know language through its orientation toward the didactic than toward the aesthetic. In fact, it has always struck me as partly strange, partly idiotic, that I should have chosen to study as art what is actually the most practical and widely practiced of all artistic media. A poet might as well say that she is an artist of walking or an artist of breath, but those positions have been filled by singers and musicians. Maybe tomorrow I'll sew some buttons on a poem, or stitch a punk rock patch over the pocket's weakest eye.
Posted by Matthew Jolly at 11:15 AM
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
In this evening glow, the sun
Warming the grayed pine, that bone-
Weathered antiquity, can seem
Like a benevolence settling
Thickly over an entire
Country—or something that resides
Within it, more ambiguous and
Accompanied by a less
The photographer notes the
“Offset window” confusing enough
To knock witches from their brooms.
A fact which, he explains, pins
The barn to the 19th
Century, a lonelier
America, one more comfortable
With lines that bend from warping.
One less comfortable with you
Or me, who might hum, alone
Walking a pine needled path into
Midnight to sit at the base
Of the Kaaterskill falls, if only
To hear something like our own voice
Rippling up from the foaming mouth.
The barn’s red door swings open
And the cows might amble to pasture
Or the tractor might carry
Into the barn its few bails
Of hay and one pitchfork, motor
Sputtering and a dark exhaust
Climbing into the air, which is to say,
This sunlight is that romance
Of the future for its hollow pasts.
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Posted by Matthew Jolly at 9:22 AM
In sunlight, the seeds become angels,
and the angels meet the earth and turn again to seed.
In the photo, the hand is my own childhood.
The sidewalk is one I'd forgotten, and there is laughter behind me.
I’ve been warned that there is a danger in nostalgia.
I’m sincerely wondering, what are the dangers in nostalgia?
I'm naïve. Mountains loom behind me and I am glad
for them—for their shadows and the way they mix clouds.
In my home town there was a story of a witch who
had lived through the town fire of 1912. A fire that burned
Everything but the clock tower. The story was
that the witch had set the fire. That she still burned.
The photograph does not catch the witch because
she is hiding behind the blur of the background.
After I blew the seeds from the dandelion, I was left
with the wilting green stalk. I reached out for her.
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Posted by Matthew Jolly at 8:06 AM
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
These are the ones I decided didn't jive with the narrative of the other six, even though I wrote them in a similar mode. I'm posting them because it's the only daylight they'll ever see, and I'm a bit sweet on them.
An ornate teapot in the perfect disorder of celestial dust.
Let’s take it down, polish it with old rags
until the reflection is bluer than a static sky—a departure
from the deadlier atmospheres.
At what heights do we stop breathing?
Or have I asked the wrong question?
Do we? No,
but there are better words in the earth.
Deep veins of granite thick with words
and sometimes the molten violence
of a collision
will name us to a moment like a thick syrup.
The natural sugars are also
light into which we are spilled or poured
like the volatile liquids of industry.
Into the heavy bowl, she wept oranges
and was delighted to be in harvest, and so brightly!
The fields were a bleak stretch of heavenless—
there were sprites or devils in our periphery.
Shooting them was out of the question, seriously.
We had signed contracts against murder. When murder is all that is left
then you resort to prayer. And so Samuel the murderer
kneeling at the railing—his wristwatch, canceling his heart—ticks.
Could he become lackluster machinery?
We do not condemn for sin the machines of harvest or production.
Our creations become blameless and we enter,
through them, an eternity of contrariness.
A chaos of leaves that spins into a brief eddy of color.
I’m watching this from the porch, in the safety of my own breath.
Cold. Man’s a new broken song.
The corners of his neighborhood are a hungry tempo.
They are empty of pedestrian traffic like roofs,
these dim bodies in cloud—dull weather.
Or are they ships of a broken Armada?
The wind blows them in one direction
for three days straight and this is called lucky.
Never again would the youngest rejoice at so much monotony—
a future without absence, without the long horizons of loneliness.
Sun over tall pines is a game of velocity
and beneath that I sometimes also become that game—
oh, my consequences are surrounding me with blunt weapons.
Can I say ‘bludgeoned’ here without being obvious?
Forget it—this story wants to insult your expectations.
Burn this poem without its holes.
In an old room the piano grew a tail.
Something grew less golden in the tallest corners.
When he looked hard it went shadowed.
There was a lineage of chins:
the chin’s newborn son and its ties to ancient Norwegian royalty,
the chin as a stone survivor of imperialism.
Oh, the uprising was bloody—nobody survived
save for a small boy, having fallen into the deep well
where he did not suffocate, though he did relieve himself.
If people were horrified, they weren’t talking
about it in the streets or under the calcium lights
where circled a myriad of black flies.
The hordes are their own reckless determinants
and we have become them without allegiance.
There aren’t blues enough for cheap whiskey
except in the cold oven—gas.
But a good breeze from an open window
is enough to sweeten our tongues through scalding.
Is there an escape without damage? Oh, rarely
have we been refunded our full deposits—
charges reversed in a convention of trade.
Magistrates at the dismissal are a plenty of hands
and their bouffants wave niceties
as if they were ever more than a fashion
that we purchased for the price of a loaf of bread at market.
But about our produce we know nothing
save that it comes from the earth, about which
we know even less of origins.
This is an interrogation—tell me everything you’ve seen.
A harvest of obscene squash littered the lawn.
Against a rusted dawning
we climb the oak and become breathing phantoms.
Our visible breath gallops away from us on hooves
soundlessly across a deep field of ice.
The old limbs of oak are giving us the finger.
Let’s choose not to be offended—they are only trees.
And after all, they will dance if the wind suggests.
They are a quiet and deliberate tribe
hunting for the starkest provisions in a populace of game.
I came across a shallow spring
and did not drink my fill of it.
There in the cooling shade of the willows
the clouds shifted dangerously overhead.
Posted by Matthew Jolly at 10:18 PM
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They offered me soup—I shook them off. And their grins!
The wooden floors of these old buildings smell with snow-water.
The entryway’s lined with travelers’ worn shoes,
their smocks and heavy cloaks.
My grandparents belonged to their mutual antiquities.
This, the soft ache that reminds us
of our toes among limbs, that wakes us in the night
to rub this out by touching.
And we reach across for another cosmos to wreath our brows.
We are not, after all, giants in our beds.
Clouds do not pass through our ears
as easily as our own voices over rocks.
There went even the music of orbit into our cold glasses
and we found ourselves standing neatly
in the green shadow of a building.
Posted by Matthew Jolly at 10:09 PM
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Softly, the baby’s just asleep in the next room.
Could we our felonies into a leaking pocket . . .
could we forget the darker crimsons of dawn.
There weren’t any visitors then, we were lonely.
So we invented a tongueless vocabulary of our own brief bodies.
In the cold just beyond the fire—we enter savagery like winter.
The air in our throats bites at our teeth.
So we know the warmth of our guts
and the way that we ascribe everything, even air,
by breaking it, by altering it
like anything else true enough to be spoken.
The archaisms of politics circle in a drain.
We have seldom answered the challenge of a quiet morning,
and even then with our safest whispered kindnesses.
Posted by Matthew Jolly at 9:53 PM
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History loves its impossible martyrs,
their willingness to be aberrant and remembered
leads them onto crippled stairs without shoes
where they—blinded—must navigate the extant
grammar of vulnerability.
Some prisoners were executed by pike—
the other soldiers, unbloodied, were being prepared by this.
Morning coffee in the barracks—these became afternoons.
Hemingway imagining the terrorists as they enter the forsythia night
could never have foreseen their smaller victories:
the fishing trophy at five years old, the carved napkin ring.
These forgettable collections that become us
even as we throw them away or hand them down.
Our siblings and our children become reiterations
of design, of voice. What polyphony in this—
there are specters in the spaces between our digits.
Posted by Matthew Jolly at 9:20 PM
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The chords don’t behave. We have obliterated the fresh snow.
In this regimented fall there are leaves piled into burial mounds.
Can we forget the seeping carcasses?
Our water draws from one well—through earth
we gather nutrients and expel less than gold. These courageous returns,
our medallions in a land-locked expedition: the river we forged
against the first snowfall, the boots that froze
and thawed in the night fire and froze again the next day
for a month. He lost his smallest left toe.
There are accidents even to our feet in this world,
and all injury is undeniable against good health.
The collapse of the dependable—our hearts
will keep some secrets from us forever.
Can we forgive ecstasy its denials?
Posted by Matthew Jolly at 9:18 PM
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The heavy spice breaking over breakfast.
No smoke here, much less chimneys.
We are an echo of the ocean returning to ourselves,
unless we are muffled footsteps in a hallway.
Should we count these like our breaths? Our hours?
A heavy chain going out over the edge of the boat,
at its end the anchor that will stay us in the drift.
Bright rain in the afternoon, like sand,
is a contradiction of weather—
it suggests that gravity might be temporary.
It could validate the stories of those who took flight,
however momentarily, from earth and perched
at the peaks of their roofs.
We crowed up at them mockingly
and our voices came back again false.
Posted by Matthew Jolly at 5:28 PM
1.Where we killed him there was a wooden fence.
Snow had drifted across the field.
We uncovered a deep hole of frozen apples,
still green, somehow immaculate in that earth.
These are not the tall grasses of Ohio
and we have never ventured beyond the familiar bars.
We are lightless in our mugs.
A grim face is drinking in our glasses
and we have not even offered him welcome.
If we are offended, we could blame our manners.
Did you enter the room like a bankroll?
Were people milling around your knees?
Any party, after I’ve left, is held in my honor.
Posted by Matthew Jolly at 5:23 PM
Friday, November 3, 2006
As you can see, I've got the link to Flikr working. I've had a great deal of fun today uploading photos, tagging them, titling them, describing them. It will be wonderful to have this public archive--I hope that the current trend in free tools continues, and that we (as a group of people) continue to critically evaluate the roll and worth of such incredibly open appraoches to digital (intellectual) property.
Anyway (enough philosoblabba), the photo to the right was taken during an approaching dust storm, and what was particularly incredible about the experience was the amazing and complex contrast between the blue sky beyond the mountain and the darkness sweeping in on top of us. Lauren and I were at IKEA when the storm came up, and I remember walking through the parking lot with the wind pushing the carts around, and my hair.
Dust storms during monsoon are pretty common (July - late August) and people tend to shrug their shoulders, but on this particular day there were a number of neighbors out in the street, pointing at the sky, smiling, and in awe. Phoenix is an indoor culture--too hot most of the year to be where it is not air-conditioned--and so it's nice to see neighbors out of their houses, approximating 'community' more completely than simply being a cluster of houses next to a mountain.
Posted by Matthew Jolly at 3:30 PM
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
I have old friends that I miss often, and that I never call (out of some strangeness). But I often look them up online and find out what they’re doing. Adam Golaski was published in McSweeney’s, I bought a copy and I’m incredibly happy for him--the work is beautiful and I feel honored to have seen early versions of the series from which the poems are taken. Sam Chuparkoff has added a couple more posts to some programmers’ message boards in a language that I don’t understand. Mary Speaker is back in New York after graduating from Indiana, and she’s a curator for the reading series called reading between a and b, which I’d attend if I lived anywhere near it. Gregory Alkaitis Carafelli has returned from Iceland, where he took some incredibly beautiful pictures that will be in a gallery in Philadelphia in less than a week. I don’t know where Andy Brown is—his name is too common to search for on Google. This is some very strange behavior, I know, but perhaps by posting to these places, some of my old friends have discovered me and are content to know I’m still here, breathing and thinking about them.
Posted by Matthew Jolly at 9:46 AM
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
I’m wondering about memory and the act of recording. I lose so many days to the dull wash of time and routine. There’s something here about the unexamined life, about the insanity of going through the same motions expecting different results. Lately I’ve given away whole nights, from dinner to sleep, whole thick round hours, to autopilot—sitcom or movie, sports or celebrity poker, DIY or reality TV. Not that there isn’t ‘information’ in television; not that it’s a complete waste of time.
Still, I imagine there are more rewarding ways to construct an evening. Young children spend those few moments before sleep reviewing their days for information—replaying the dramatic and the mundane moments. And there isn’t a learning curve more profound than that of children: they learn their language (the whole taxonomy of everything), the unique social mode of their culture, they practice and master a range of physical movement. As an adult I enter sleep through the door of anxiety—one that I have to force shut behind me.
I wonder if we lose the ability to learn because our days yield less information as we age, because we learn too well the ability to draw from parallel experiences and our lives offer up less of anything new, because we (understandably) seek safety and certainty over experience. Just last night my wife and I were wondering if we were happier as children. I said that our adult lives are more fulfilling, that we face more complex problems, that we’re in the position to build new things, to create the world, to realize dreams—that opportunity is paired with responsibility. I had a hard time meaning it.
So here’s a record--a review. I want to keep the ego out of it. I don’t ever want to tell myself something small if it isn’t clarified by wonder. If I ever write a memoir, I want it to be at an old age. And I want the thousand chores and dramas to be imbued with a quality like wisdom.
Posted by Matthew Jolly at 8:48 AM
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
I'm an apologetic smoker. Most weekdays I'm up by 6:00 and sitting on my back patio--coffee and smoke--by 6:30. Every morning around 7:45 a phone rings from a nearby condo. It's a high but soft digital ring--one long pulse and a longer pause. Usually whoever is at the receiving end picks it up after one ring. They anticipate the call. At 8:00 the woman that drives the early 80's-model BMW in the parking space next to mine leaves for wherever she goes--probably for work, but I can't be certain. (She won't respond when I say hello. The man she lives with does, but it's clear in the way he responds that he's only acting out a social politic for my sake.) A few months ago her car had a loose belt that whined for 30 seconds every time the car started. If I'd slept late, the car woke me.
I leave for work at different hours. My neighbors, however, participate in more structured lives. They receive daily phone calls at exact times, leave for work at the same routine moment. I imagine their mornings are clock-driven, exact moments for breakfasts of cereal and hot showers, alarms and goodbye kisses. And even for all of that, the morning that they walk out into is every day a different morning--the sun rising earlier or later depending on the season and the weather in flux.
I set my watch by their routines. The phone rings, and I look at the clock to verify the time.
Being aware of my neighbors' routines tricks in me the old questions about purpose. My friend Chris has said that it's all in the interpersonal relationships--by "it" he means all of it. He's Zen Buddhist, and serious enough at it to wake at four every morning. He leaves his home each morning by 4:40 and drives the twenty minutes into town for 5:00 meditation, which lasts one hour. I've always wondered if he has a cup of coffee before he leaves to meditate.
I started this post at 8:59. I'll leave in ten minutes for work. The temperature today will climb above 100 degrees. I'll probably get home before it's dark. A lot will happen in between that will seem incredibly real.
Posted by Matthew Jolly at 8:59 AM