Winter Monument (For Crazy Horse)

Winter Monument (For Crazy Horse)When one drives through the Badlands or the Gila wilderness at night, one keeps company with the stars.  They are never more visible, never more primary, and never more operatic.  There are no street lights or buildings or ambient lights to interfere with their radiance.

Crazy Horse loved sleeping out under the stars, as did the poet Li-Po in China, 1200 years earlier.  Both men had a communion with nature that is best described as spiritual.  The poet, Li-Po, would be reduced to tears at the sight of the constellations.  Crazy Horse wore three hailstones painted on his forehead because he believed they were of the stars.
They guide us and move us to poetry and song and paint and dance.

Years ago I did an Artist in Residence in Missoula, Montana.  They put me up in a Double Tree Suites place right next to the Bitterroot River.  It was early winter/late-autumn and the colors were muted, russety reds, ochres, firey yellows, as well as plum-colored leaves that were as furiously sad as a Guy Clark song.  It woke me to the idea of making work rooted in nature.  This was kind of a new idea to me.  I’d always drawn birds, but never the land itself.  Some of my favorite art were Charles Burchfield’s watercolors, Arthur Dove’s bloody suns, John Marin’s scratchy and earthy mountain-scapes and the sublimely lovely Marsden Hartley paintings.  But until then I’d never seen myself as being able to cobble together works about nature.

While I was staying there, the woman at the hotel desk informed me that at four the next morning there would be a meteor shower, and if I’d like to see it, she’d give me a wake-up call and I could walk out next to the river and witness one of nature’s most amazing light-shows.  True to her word, she woke me up at 3:30 and I made some coffee. . .

I walked out to the river with five or six other guests and watched–and was astonished. The stars and comets were dancing a ferocious dervish in the black sky.  I thought it’d be one or two shooting stars; this was the sky moving like amphetamine-laced neon light.  I’d never seen anything like it.  I had the thought that I knew what people meant when they said the stars spoke to them.

These thoughts loomed large in my head when I thought about the work I’d been making about Crazy Horse and the monument still being carved out of Thunder Mountain to “honor” him.

I thought that the greatest, and most resonant monument one could build for him is already there; the stars, the river. . .the mountain itself.

It is hard to imagine what shooting stars would have meant to someone so attuned to nature, as he was.  To Crazy Horse, the sun was the Almighty; and one did not curse the rain or the hail or the blinding white winter.  It was nature, and this combination of forces, or spirits and the Creator were all the same thing.

On my way back from L.A., me and my pal, Stan, drove through Apache, Navajo, Hopi, Cherokee and Blackfeet land.

In Carl Sandburg‘s, “The People, Yes“, the poet claims that, “The people know what the land knows,” and implies, just like Native American cultures do,  that the land itself        has a memory.

This thought is not hard to believe crossing the Black Mesa and the high desert.  It is unforgiving and thorny, beautiful, fierce, spiky and haunted.  It is a land of shooting stars, thick poisonous snakes, abandoned towns and absolutely no mercy.

Published in: on December 21, 2009 at 12:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Yellow River

The Yellow River

Do you not see the waters of the Yellow River
Come flowing from the sky?
The swift stream pours into the sea and returns never-more?
– Li Po,  An Exhortation

Li Po liked to get hammered on wine and write poems.  His “Exhortations” (there were many) find their modern counterpart in poems like Baudelaire’s Get Drunk, in which the poets celebrate life’s rich bounty of wine, words and love.  Li Po was not adverse to what he called “reckless revelry,” which is not to say he was not serious about anything.  He was very devoted to  nature and would tear up at the sight of the constellations.  He was a sensualist and spent many days and years by rivers and under the stars.  He was in awe of all of it.  In his poems, he would state, “We never grow tired of each other, the stars and I.”

I’ve not spent a lot of time in nature and lately I’ve had a desire to be by the river or the lake.  I like watching birds and in Tokyo, I really loved watching the whir of carp and koi and goldfish in the ponds in the public parks.  Tokyo still  looms large in my thoughts and day-dreams.  I want to go back.  I miss it; much the way I miss New Orleans when I’m not there.  It is a dream-city full of color and blinding imagery and light.  It is an urban reliquary as much of the imagination as it is a city  of order and clock-like efficiency.  I love the way the Japanese blend images and words  and architecture and light.

There is a stretch of subterranean business district called “Piss Alley” (named so because at one time they all shared the same restroom) filled with bars, restaurants, clip-joints and bazaar-like shops that is so dizzying in its claustrophobic stalls and stores, it feels like an above ground river of human excess and activity.  It is hypnotic.  Like the rest of Tokyo, it is dreamy and exotic in its otherness. The kind of place I’m very comfortable.

I love places that challenge what I  know.  Places where I shut up and look and listen and let it teach me their rhythms and sounds and colors. Tokyo is a quiet city for one as large as it is; hell, for any city.  It is odd and wonderful to me, and I want badly to go back.

I like its quiet kindness and inescapable poetry.  It has connected me with an instinct to seek a kind of peace with myself.

Published in: on October 9, 2009 at 8:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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Koi for Li-Po

Koif or Li-PoLi Po has been the best known Chinese poet in  Asia for about the last thousand years.  He was a huge influence on the haiku poets — and is credited with being the seminal influence in the language of Tanka and Haiku.  He was one of those wandering, searching poets who worshipped nature. He was so great a poet that there are volumes of poems by other poets proclaiming their devotion to him:

Today I laid bare before you
all things stored in my heart.

are the final lines from an anonymous poet in a verse dedicated to Li Po.  His poems are like an electrified arcing kite-string connecting him and Basho to modernist poets like Ezra Pound who was profoundly influenced by  the writings of the Chinese poets of the 6th and 7th centuries, but in particular, Li Po.

One must remember that Li Po was a poet of what was considered the cultural age of enlightenment in China; the 300 years or so that constituted the Tang Dynasty.  The greatist artistic attainments of this age were poetry.  There were no plawrights or novelists; only poets; and  there were poets up the wazoo.  As the quote goes, “If there was a man, he was a poet.” The Chinese  held poetry in very high regard, and Li Po was the best of the best back then. When one reads Basho, one cannot help but realize the restraint and acuity of Li-Po hovering over the totality of Basho’s output.  That one was Japanese and one Chinese and separated by a thousand years does not deter the idea of these two spirits being distant mirrors of the other.

My friend Beth Keegan taught Chinese for years at the Latin School and she is forever correcting me on the pronunciation of Li Po’s name.  She pronounces it “Li BOUGH” and ennunciates the second syllable as if it were two.  Those who revere Chinese writing are very protective of it. After reading Li Po, I  get it.  It is a cultural treasure; one largely forgotten and one that, regrettably, nobody gives a fuck about anymore.  It’s a shame.  There is such joy and earthy gratitude in Li Po’s, “To Tung Tsao-Chiu:”

And comlier still are the green eyebrows when the new
moon shines.
The  beautiful girls sing anew and dance in robes of thin silk.

Li Po liked a good time.  After writing a letter in which this verse appears, he “sends it a thousand miles, and years, remembering.”  It is lines like this that make me feel alive.

Published in: on October 3, 2009 at 10:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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