Poem: Fragments

One of my (very) occasional poems.

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Fragments

10 March 2015

Crater Lake suspended between scarlet sunset and silver moon rise

Moonlight casting shadows of Joshua trees like puppets or

Silvering almond blossoms on a spring night in Ibiza

The sea: spilled ink in turquoise

Living gems like my cat’s opal eyes

Wide awake as the plane banks over Distrito Federal Philadelphia PDX

Heathrow Singapore Reykjavik Rome Barcelona Chicago Paris Amsterdam.

Home, a red rucksack. Work, the laptop stuffed inside. Comfort, a copy of

Franny & Zooey, heavily underlined in soft pencil.

Weddings in Vegas, the Lake District, a country house, a tiny white clapboard

Chapel on the fringe of an

Amusement park in Portland, Redbridge registry office.

Patti Smith at the Cardiff Coal Hall, Radiohead at Glastonbury (not the mud year),

The Mud Years – Homelands, Glasto, Godskitchen, Leeds, SW4. Name that tune:

‘Electric Dreams’ ‘Diabla’ ‘Common People’ ‘Insomnia’ ‘Karma Police’

‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’ ‘Sinner In Me (Villalobos Remix)’

DC10 Closing 2005 – 2009

Sam, 2012, RIP

“…afflicted from birth with a presentiment of loss”

Chips and a strawberry margarita, Mad4Mex

Goats cheese pancake, Bistro

Wine and crisps, anywhere, 1999 – 2015

Riot!

Sharp slippery shining slivers of memory.

A mosaic in the making?

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Camera Poems

About this time last year I met Ilona Wagenaar, a talented and brilliant Dutch fine art photographer (and international lawyer). We clicked and, after a long lunch at Can Curune in Ibiza, she proposed I write the text for a book of photography.

The result is, Camera Poemsa stunning coffee table volume that combines her pictures and my words. It was a free, playful collaboration, completely unlike any writing I’d done before. Instead of a strict brief she gave me the images and let me use my imagination. This created space to explore and ask questions — which I then had to answer.

Ideas and narratives emerged organically from the colour, texture, repetition, reflections, and references in the photos. It was one of the most joyful projects I have ever undertaken and that shines through in the book.

For more about Ilona and her creative process, read this interview in The Heroine’s Journey. For a sample of images and text from the book, read on.

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Camera Poems cover art — all photos courtesy Ilona Wagenaar

Biography

Ilona Wagenaar is, among other things, a fine art photographer, writer, lawyer, educator, connoisseur, artist’s model, and publisher. For the artist, every experience hones the vision. The more lives one leads, the broader the perspective, the deeper the insight.

Complexity cannot be faked or forced, it has to arise from the fertile earth of experience. The roots of Ilona’s work are nourished by a lifetime of diligent study and autodidaction; by ceaseless curiosity and refusing to be a spectator. From her undergraduate study of art history, to her career as a lawyer, to her parallel life as an artist and muse, Ilona has used her formidable intellect and confidence to nurture creativity instead of yielding to convention.

She was, for many years, the partner and creative collaborator of portraitist Cornelis le Mair. He painted her over and over, fascinated by her keen eyes and eloquent composure. Ilona always blurred the line of subjectivity, though. As often as she sat for portraits, she turned her camera on le Mair, his home, their shared lives and friendships, capturing the colour and flourish with great warmth.

For Ilona, everything is a potential subject. She is bold enough to welcome the challenge of photographing the lives and work of fellow artists including le Mair, Lolo Loren, and Hans Laagland. She thrives on the technical and intellectual challenge of not just reproducing but interpreting the art of fellow creators, with incisive, colorful, revealing results.

Still-lifes, landscapes and studies of the natural world take Ilona’s photography a step further into the realm of exploratory and abstract, drawing from an immemorial well of inspiration. Her lively eye and finely honed technical prowess probe the deceptive simplicity of nature to unveil its underlying complexity. Her work continuously engages with and articulates a profound truth: Art is not an object. It is a way of seeing the world.

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Movement

The contrasting focus of these two images open a dialogue about perception and experience. The wind-turbine stands rooted, motionless it seems, apart from the whirl of blades. They spin on the edge of invisibility, too swift for the camera shutter; we infer their existence because we know the tricks movement plays. Our confidence loses its footing in the next frame as our eyes contradict our mind. The bounding dog looks motionless; the static ground blurs. We confront the unreliability of our assumptions, our haphazard approach to physical evidence. Mostly, we ignore the fact the earth turns at tremendous speed. We ignore the fact the universe is mostly empty space. It is easy to pretend that perception is reality; comforting to imagine a non-existent solidity.

Movement is a gentle reminder of the wild energy of the universe. Yet it reverberates with appreciation for ordinary comforts . The joy of a pet running to its beloved guardian; the elegance of a turbine channeling the power of the wind. These pleasures have an unquantifiable energy of their own. They keep us grounded amidst the uncertainties of life on a spinning planet.

“We still continue to deceive ourselves about the motion of that which is to come. The future stands firm… but we move about in infinite space.” ~Rainer Maria Rilke

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Mortality

Two skulls rest cheek to cheek, grinning at a private joke. A skeleton reclines, hat pulled down to shade absent eyes. What do the dead know? What is the source of their enternal silent mirth? Mortality plays dice with humanity’s most fundamental anxiety. Instead of solemnity it slyly observes our futile evasions.

Emblems of music, art and literature mingle with chopsticks, bowls and empty brocade silk boots. Aspirations to immortality brought down to earth. Quotidian death-in-life, or vice versa. Beady eyes peer from a rigid fringe of feathers, a desiccated owl, wry and wise in death.

Desire, not life, is not the opposite of death. Consumption is a flickering candle we cling to in the face of a darkness we don’t understand. But the things we crave are faithless, indifferent. The expensive watch unrepentently marks our progress towards the grave. Gorgeous vases are as empty as soulless bodies. Flowers wilt with no thought for our delicate psyches. We turn to cameras to stop time, to books and maps for enlightenment. But somewhere, an invisible hand skillfully pours water into a dish. Another petal falls from the rose. A rocking chair creeks in a soft afternoon breeze. The skulls watch and smile.

“I want an honorable goddam skull when I’m dead, buddy. I hanker after an honorable goddam skull like Yorick’s.” ~J.D. Salinger

skull

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eyes

Eyes

Eyes are the ultimate interloper. Physics instructs us that the act of observing changes the behaviour of the observed. Our eyes guilty of ceasless interference. This ineluctable relationship lies at the heart of these mirror-like images: Seer and the seen come face to face, two irreconcilable visions. One pair of pictures shows a rusty chain within concentric red circles. Questions fly like sparks struck by its deceptive simplicity. Is the chain falling into a bottomless hole or rising to an unknowable height? Are the red circles an object or a trick of light? Does the chain symbolise bondage or escape? Is it hoist or an anchor?

The second duo is an unapologetic visual pun, a playful take on the mechanics of vision. At first we see an eye. Decontextualised, the metal crosshatch suggests an art exhibit, perhaps a close-up of a sculpture or a robot. Study the image longer and the apparently concrete object dissociates into layers. The internal curves of the structure which, at first glance, seem deliberate, become ambiguous. Are we looking up at a series of non-symmetrical balconies through a grated window to the sky? Or are we at the top of something, looking into the belly of a carefully constructed beast? Is the eye staring back at us?

In both sets of images the obvious first impression melts on closer inspection, creating pervasive unease. Anxiety rises as we see reality shift and distort beneath our gaze. Beauty and ugliness are projections of the eyes. There is no such thing as an innocent observer.

“All that we can see is only a fraction of the universe.” ~Jeanette Winterson

For more of Ilona’s art, and to learn about past and future exhibitions and projects, visit her website I-LegalandArt.com.

Related books

Being Married

Getting married is a peak experience. Being married is climbing a mountain.

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Grand Teton, Wyoming

I don’t mean that in a negative way. Standing in thin air gets boring. But the shift to day-to-day, one foot in front of the other is a major adjustment. In such times, it is essential to seek the wisdom of those who have gone before. Especially if your family history includes a succession of marriages with the sinking/explosive properties of depth charges.

We began married life with Joan Didion’s gimlet-eyed appraisal of ’60s Vegas,  “Marrying Absurd” from her astonishing essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlahem.slouching

“Dressing rooms, Flowers, Rings, Announcements, Witnessess Available, and Ample Parking,” Didion writes. “All of these services, like most others in Las Vegas (sauna baths, payroll-check cashing, chinchilla coats for sale or rent) are offered twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, presumably on the premise that marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot.”

My husband and I wed within 48 hours of getting the marriage licence. Our engagement (unannounced) lasted about two weeks. Why the rush? Because it passed the last day test, e.g. if tomorrow were my last day on earth, I wanted to spend it as his wife.

Here we are, then, married.

Life continues.

Specifically, he is still on the road with work. I’m staying with family, living out of a suitcase for the final weeks of his contract. Some time in the next month we hope to have a home in Spain. If everything works out. We count on things working out.

Optimism is a prerequisite for any marriage. Ours is probably no more demanding than any other, just different.

It is easy to feel alone in this new thing so I am grateful to my dear friend, the gifted writer Melissa Madenski. When she says, “you should read” I listen. Over coffee at Tabor Space — a coffee shop sanctuary tucked into a church in Southeast Portland — she recommended This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett.

happy marriage

A couple years ago I read and loathed both The Patron Saint of Liars and Truth & Beauty but Melissa doesn’t give bad advice so I trotted off to get …Happy Marriage.

Among other things, it taught me to be willing to give writers another chance. Though I have no desire to read any more of her fiction, Patchett’s essay on marriage sends reverberations down the long bones of my legs. She writes of her relationship with her second husband which, for over a decade, was defined by her refusal to marry. After a disastrous first marriage she decided there was no need to ever do that again. A sensible stance, if you ask me.

Then her partner is diagnosed with a serious heart condition. “All these years I had thought to be afraid of only one potential ending: by not marrying Karl, we could never get divorced,” she writes. “By not marrying him, he would never be lost to me. Now I could see the failure of my imagination. I had accounted only for the loss I knew enough to fear.”

I know that feeling, the hammer-blow realisation that what I’m scared of isn’t what’s at stake. Fear is provocative, especially in relationships. Not fear of what is, but fear of what we remember, and what we imagine might be.

Adrienne Rich describes it as “pain… flashing its bleak torch in my eyes/blotting out her particular being/the details of her love. (From “Splittings” in Dream of a Common Language). We all have baggage, remembered wounds that flare up under the heat of common languageemotional intensity. The memory of pain become a self-perpetuating cycle of fear, if you let it. Fear is a virus that needs us to replicate. It will multiply and gorge itself on our happiness unless we keep our eyes locked on the details of our love.

Patchett recognises the consequences of letting the virus breed. “The fact that we came so close to missing out, missing out because of my own fear of failing, makes me think I avoided a mortal accident by the thickness of a coat of paint. We are, on this earth, so incredibly small, in the history of time, in the crowd of the world, we are practically invisible, not even a dot, and yet we have each other to hold on to.”

Holding on to each other is the privilege and work of being married. Writing that, it occurs to me to wonder how this will read to me when I’ve been married a year? Five? Ten? What will time tell? Should I save this post as a draft for a few years to make sure things work out?

I could. But that would be to blink in the face of pain’s bleak torch. And I can’t see the path ahead if my eyes are shut.

 

Writer’s Houses — William Faulkner

From my notebook, 1 April 2017 (Oxford, Mississippi)

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Rowan Oak, Oxford, MS

Sitting on the Adirondack chair on William Faulkner’s “patio” at Rowan Oak.

I walked from Oxford town square, past the Makers’ Market with people selling crochet butterflies and canvas wall-hangings. Past the white marble pillar (c. 1907) praising Confederate soldiers who died for “a just and holy cause”, past the courthouse flying the Mississippi state flag with its stars and bars — as if miniaturising renders the symbolism inconsequential.

Eleventh Street between the square and Rowan Oak is so pretty my teeth ache. All those shining white houses, flowers, gleaming silvery roofs. The porch swings fat with overstuffed cushions, faux flames dancing in real lanterns, verandas, roof terraces, white curtains, white benches, white lattice work. Lush green and sweet pinks, reds, fuschias. Confection. A sugar glaze.

Rowan Oak is smaller than many of the houses I passed. Its drama is in the long approach through scattered sentinel trees — cypress and others I don’t recognize. They are well-spaced with swathes of shade dappled grass between, begging to be sat upon.

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Faulkner’s bedroom with his riding boots

The exterior is brilliantly white, the interior modest. It looks more like a home of the ’30s or ’40s than the ’50s and later. The furniture is dark wood with heavy upholstery. Walking through the library, writing room, kitchen, and bedrooms is pleasant but unrevelatory. There are no ghosts. Nothing to be gained here.

Outside there’s a party of some sort on the grounds — teenage girls in impossible heels and rolls of satin, faces painted stiff. Storm ‘Time to Burn’ is blaring out of badly balanced speakers. Dogwood, my favourite Southern tree, is in staggering bloom.

Walking through a writer’s house used to charge me with envy. Today, no. Admiration, yes. But I’m no longer sure I have the strength or ego or whatever it takes to be so assured. You have to believe hard in something. Fiction writers, more than non-fiction writers, have to believe hard in themselves. It takes a huge amount of energy and attention to write a book (Orwell compared writing a novel to a long bout of a painful illness). It requires time, resources, patience, and a stubborn certainty that the thing is worth doing.

My one novel, thus far, appeared under such circumstances. I was fed and sheltered, had minimal other responsibilities, and the story had been chewing its way through me for two years before I sat down to write.

Rowan Oak gives a silent account of what a writer needs: financial stability, space, light, privacy, routine, comfort, quiet, moral support, aesthetic pleasure, and independence. It is the embodiment of what Virginia Woolf meant by “a room of one’s own”. Art is not ethereal. It has bodily needs.

When met, they give the artist / writer / musician scope to express his or her creativity. Faulkner memorably resigned from his job as University of Mississippi postmaster with the following letter (via Letters of Note):letters of note

As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.

This, sir, is my resignation.

He understood that being at anyone’s “beck and call” was antithetical to his ambitions as a writer. Free to write, Faulkner’s talent ignited. For sheer breath-taking mastery of the form, few novels compare to As I Lay Dying. The tragicomic story of the Burden family’s journey to bury their mother, it is excruciating, morbid, and funny, with a killer twist.

as i lay dying

Faulkner’s pretty white tree-shaded house was more than a home. It was the omphalos of his literary world. Sitting on the patio, or wandering between the trees, he had space to create and imagine. Modest and practical (right down to the tin mint julep cup), Rowan Oak fitted and enabled his creative life.

Writer’s homes come in all shapes, sizes and configurations, but they are essential to the work.

 

 

Notebook Heroes: Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau was genius at keeping a notebook. Some of his extensive journal became Walden, a timeless, beautiful assertion of Transcendent philosophy and call to individuality and authenticity.walden

 

The Journal is a doorstop volume gleaned from Thoreau’s notebooks. It is a treasure drove of description, anecdote and inspiration from a writer who was never short of — nor shy of expressing — ideas. The following excerpts are from a journaling workshop I run from time to time. Savour them then pick up a pen start your own notebook.

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Henry David Thoreau, The Journal

Nov. 9. In our walks C. takes out his note-book sometimes and tries to write as I do, but all in vain. He soon puts it up again, or contents himself with scrawling some sketch of the landscape. Observing me still scribbling, he will say that he confines himself to the ideal, purely ideal remarks; he leaves the facts to me. Sometimes, too, he will say a little petulantly, “I am universal; I have nothing to do with the particular and definite.” He is the moodiest person, perhaps, that I ever saw. As naturally whimsical as a cow is brindled, both in his tenderness and his roughness he belies himself. He can be incredibly selfish and unexpectedly generous. He is conceited, and yet there is in him far more than usual to ground conceit upon.

I, too, would fain set down something beside facts. Facts should only be as the frame to my pictures; they should be material to the mythology which I am writing; not facts to assist men to make money, farmers to farm profitably, in any common sense; facts to tell who I am, and where I have been or what I have thought: as now the bell rings for evening meeting, and its volumes of sound, like smoke with rises from where a cannon is fired, make the tent in which I dwell. My facts shall be falsehoods to the common sense. I would so state facts that they shall be significant, shall be myths or mythologic. Facts which the mind perceived, thoughts which the body thought.

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Nov. 12. Write often, write upon a thousand themes, rather than long at a time, not trying to turn too many feeble somersets in the air, — and so come down upon your head at last. Antaeus-like, be not long absent from the ground. Those sentences are good and well discharged which are like so many little resiliencies from the spring floor of our life, — a distinct fruit and kernel itself, springing from terra firma. Let there be as many distinct plants as the soil and the light can sustain. Take as many bounds in a day as possible. Sentences uttered with your back to the wall. Those are the admirable bounds when the performer has lately touched the spring-board.

C. is one who will not stoop to rise (to change the subject). He wants something for which he will not pay the going price. He will only learn slowly by failure, — not a noble, but disgraceful, failure. This is not a noble method of learning, to be educated by inevitable suffering, like De Quincey, for instance. Better dive like a muskrat into the mud, and pile up a few weeds to sit on during the floods, a foundation of your own laying, a house of your own building, however cold and cheerless.

Methinks the hawk that soars so loftily and circles so steadily and apparently without effort has earned this power by faithfully creeping on the ground as a reptile in a former state of existence. You must creep before you can run; you must run before you can fly.

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Jan. 27. Trench says a wild man is a willed man. Well, then, a man of will who does what he wills or wishes, a man of hope and of the future tense, for not only the obstinate is willed, but far more the constant and persevering. The obstinate man, properly speaking, is one who will not. The perseverance of the saints is positive willed-ness, not mere passive willingness. The fates are wild, for they will; and the Almight is wild above all, as fate is.

What are our fields but felds or felled woods. They bear a more recent name than the woods, suggesting that previously the earth was covered with woods. Always in the new country a field is a clearing.

The Journal and Walden on Amazon

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Writing Books: Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s marvelous Bird by Bird is aptly subtitled Some Instructions on Writing and Life and, truth be told, I lean on it more for life than writing.

Wise & warm

Or so I thought until I realised the way her words and ideas, embedded by repeated reading, goad me to greater effort and courage. One-inch frames, KFKD, calling around. I don’t want to spoil the delights of reading her for the first time, but I can’t resist giving a little taster.

Lamott is a Christian (I hope she’s okay with being described like that. A devout Baptist recently chided me for using the word. Apparently it has been “devalued” and the preferred nomenclature is “Christ-follower”. Not knowing Ms Lamott’s preference I’ve opted for the traditional designation.) Thus two of my top books-about-writing were written by people with an active religious belief. Writing is an act of faith, I guess.

Here’s a sample of her astute, quotable, compassionate wisdom on writing and life.

Short Assignments

What I do at this point, as the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize that the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable, is to stop. First I try to breathe, because I’m either sitting there panting like a lapdog or I’m unintentionally making slow asthmatic death rattles. So I just sit there for a minute, breathing slowly, quietly…. I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. pp. 17-18

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Sunset, Ibiza

Perfectionism

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California). p. 28

The Moral Point of View

To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on. Even someone as grim and unsentimental as Samuel Beckett, with his lunatics in garbage cans or up to their necks in sand, whose lives consist of pawing through the contents of their purses, stopping to marvel at each item, gives us great insight into what is true, into what helps. He gets it right — that we’re born astride the grave and that this planet can feel as cold and uninhabitable as the moon — and he knows how to make it funny. He smiles an oblique and private smile at us, the most delicious smile of all, and this changes how we look at life. A few small things seem suddenly clear, things to which we can cling, and this makes us feel like part of the solution. p. 107

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Es Cavallet, Ibiza

Radio Station KFKD

If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and know and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on. p. 116

Jealousy

My therapist said that jealousy is a secondary emotion, that it is born out of feeling excluded and deprived, and that if I worked on those age-old feelings, I would probably break through the jealousy. I tried to get her to give me a prescription for Prozac, but she said that this other writer was in my life to help me heal my past. She said this writer had helped bring up a lifetime’s worth of feeling that other families were happier than ours, that other families had some owner’s manual to go by. She said it was once again that business of comparing my insides to other people’s outsides. She said to go ahead and feel the feelings. I did. They felt like shit. p. 126

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Sunset, San Carlos, Ibiza

Writer’s Block

The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you have been given — that you are not in a productive creative period — you free yourself to begin filling up again. I encourage my students at times like these to get one page of anything written, three hundred words of memories or dreams or stream of consciousness on how much they hate writing — just for the hell of it, just to keep their fingers from becoming too arthritic, just because they have made a commitment to try to write three hundred words every day. Then, on bad days and weeks, let things go at that. p. 178

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Writer’s friend

Finding Your Voice

The truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice. If it is wrapped in someone else’s voice, we readers will feel suspicious, as if you are dressed up in someone else’s clothes. You cannot write out of someone else’s big dark place; you can only write out of your own. Sometimes wearing someone else’s style is very comforting, warm and pretty and bright, and it can loosen you up, tune you into the joys of language and rhythm and concern. But what you say wil lbe an abstraction because it will not have sprung from direct experience: when you try to capture the truth of your experience in some other person’s voice or on that person’s terms, you are removing yourself one step further from what you have seen and what you know.

…You can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We dont have uch truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not to go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in — then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home.    pp. 199-201

Buy Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life on Amazon

Stax Records, Memphis

Driving south on E McLemore I see a church on almost every block. What’s God up to in this corner of Memphis? Houses not dedicated to worship of the Almighty slump among empty lots: paint peeling, porch rails crumpled, concrete warping beneath the wheels of clapped-out cars.

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Stax, 926 E McLemore, Memphis Tennessee

It takes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the bright, solid lines of Stax Records. Properly, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, a modern reconstruction of the iconic studio torn down in 1989 after a church failed to find a use for the shell.

If I believed in God, which I don’t, that would make me doubt. A righteous, omnipotent being wouldn’t let the finest thing on E McLemore vanish in dust. God would take better care.

Stax Records is to soul what Sun Records is to rock’n’roll. Stax was Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays, Booker T. and the M.G.s, William Bell, Johnnie Taylor.

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Booker T & the M.G.’s

Richard Pryor recorded ‘That Nigger’s Crazy’ at Stax. Isaac Hayes recorded the ‘Theme from Shaft which won an Oscar and a Grammy. Otis Redding recorded ‘(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay’ days before his private plane crashed into a freezing lake, killing him and four teenage members of the Bar-Kays.

Inside, Stax is clean and calm. A short film tells the Stax story. How it was founded by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton (Stewart + Axton = Stax), both White. How it became a magnet for Black musicians, many of them kids from un-integrated local schools. How an alchemy of music and passion kept the place not just afloat but aloft. How Stax introduced Europe to soul and used music to bring unity to post-Watts Riots South Central LA.

Stax Records took virtually its whole roster into the South Central in 1972 for an epic concert called Wattstax. It was a joyous, defiant celebration of Black pride and unity.

I froze in front of the Wattstax display. I knew that voice: “This is a beautiful day. It is a new day.”

The next words were unfamiliar, as was the lack of piano chords beneath the voice, which rose and rose. “It is a day of Black awareness. It is a day of Black people taking care of Black people’s business.”

Jesse Jackson continued with words that, once again, reverberated with my memory: “Today we are together…. on this program you will hear gospel, and rhythm and blues, and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music.”

I know Jackson’s soul-stirring speech as the intro to Primal Scream’s acid house masterpiece ‘Come Together’. But never, in the 15 years I’ve loved that record did I realise the Scottish ravers (or, more likely, their genius producer Andrew Weatherall) cribbed the best part of ‘Come Together’ from Stax Records.

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Jesse Jackson ‘I Am Somebody’

Rev Jesse Jackson’s face shines from an LP on a wall of record covers. I am somebody.

Across the street from the Stax parking lot, two teenage boys lark around, holding trombones. On the pavement in front a handful of workmen stretch canvas over a frame, getting ready for a fundraiser. On the marquee: Staxtacular, February 11.

Memphis writer Robert Gordon captures Stax’s rise and fall in articulate, beautiful, passionate detail in Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion.

He tells of the brilliance. The betrayals. The triumphs. The catastrophes. The stories of people who made some of America’s finest music then, largely, slipped through the cracks of our cultural history.

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Stax Records Museum of American Soul Music

Leaving Stax we drove past Royal Studios, erstwhile home of Hi Records. The small brick building with a bright mural painted over the door is the only thing in blocks that looks like it wouldn’t sway in a strong breeze. There’s no place to buy food in this neighbourhood apart from a couple of “grocery” stores with heavily barred windows and blistered paint. The houses look abandoned. Windows boarded, hemmed with weeds, screen doors hanging from a single hinge. The only business we pass is an AT&T outpost that looks like a prison, complete with razor-wire topped fences. Churches, though, have gleaming white porticoes and landscaping.

Subtly, lines soften as we head towards Midtown. Grass is greener. Blighted buildings give way to petrol stations to, finally, the accustomed restaurants, shops and offices.

I don’t know how to process the injustice, the beauty, the senseless repetition of tragic histories. Does anyone figure it out?

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Stax Records catalogue

“Sorrow everywhere,” Jack Gilbert wrote. “Slaughter everywhere.

If babies are not dying someplace they are dying somewhere else.

With flies in their nostrils.

But we enjoy our lives, because that’s what God wants.”