THE BLOG
01/15/2013 06:42 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2013

2013 Ways of Looking

The start of a new year seems a good point at which to turn one's orbit around. Art is my prism -- a way of looking out to look in. Proximity to another being's inner struggle with, search for or celebration of the ineffable breeds an intimacy too difficult or too frightening to attempt outside of the witness box. So I endeavor to witness myself more fully by looking through the eyes or "I"s of others.

Pardon the interruption, but my phone has just rung. My friend Michael asked what I was doing. The response: "writing." "About what?" said he. "Don't know yet," said she, "I just throw down twigs and keep weaving until a nest appears." After hanging up, I reread my first paragraph. A title flew across my mind (see above, freshly typed), a reference to Wallace Stevens' poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Because this poem was first published in 1917, I'm blessedly able to quote more than a line or two below. Like Stevens, there is much that I don't know and some that I do, and all of latter is about as far from hard, cold facts as the Pleiades are from my fingertips. Seeing may begin by observation, but it flowers in the belly and blooms in the nerve endings.

Stevens' poem is one of perspective, multiple perspectives. It is Cubist in the way it flows cinematically, panning in and out, back and forth, leaving behind a mysterious floating present. This is what I do with my twigs of thought. I consider what I've been reading and listening to and looking at, revisiting the sensations each have stirred in me, how those fit together, how they drift apart and where they overlap.

What I'm left with is subtle impressions and scattered deeper glimpses, as fluid, organic and textured as a Paul Klee painting or John Cage's smoke and rock imprints for Crown Point Press. Less a nest and more a mist -- a brume enfolding, invoking, expanding, a process of continuous viewing and reviewing. For, though we may long for a nest, what life presents is customarily much less immediately comforting. It is the difference between a 19th-century novel with recognizable characters, a linear storyline and finite outcomes, and a modernist tale in which consciousness streams and often screams in circular, delimited loops without clear purpose beyond the process of processing itself.

Yet, while Joyce's Ulysses, or a more current modernist texts like Will Self's Umbrella, don't serve up the gratifying guideposts and assurances of Jane Austen's romantic fiction, there is liberation in release from connect-the-dots determinism. It's flying without a net. Scary, yes. But, exhilarating to let go of expectations, likes and dislikes and even the need to put chapters and paragraphs around one's experiences and memories. Stories are so powerful in human life, but if we cling to them too tightly, they entrap us.

What if we could take an old tale we've repeated again and again, and mash it up with a divergent sound track, different costumes, fresh scenery and a thoroughly new historical context (hello, today!)? We can't change the past, but we can radically alter our perception of what that past means for our continuous present.

Rather than going to or away from somewhere, be here now and always. Gather ye twigs. "The river is moving/The blackbird must be flying."

IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

VI
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

VII
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

From "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Be the most interesting person at your dinner party.