Levertov Week: To the Muse

To the Muse

I have heard it said,
and by a wise man,
that you are not one who comes and goes

but having chosen
you remain in your human house,
and walk

in its garden for air and the delights
of weather and seasons.

Who builds
a good fire in his hearth
shall find you at it
with shining eyes and a ready tongue.

Who shares
even water and dry bread with you
will not eat without joy

and wife or husband
who does not lock the door of the marriage
against you, finds you

not as unwelcome third in the room, but as
the light of the moon on flesh and hair.

He told me, that wise man,
that when it seemed the house was
empty of you,

the fire crackling for no one,
the bread hard to swallow in solitude,
the gardens a tedious maze,

you were not gone away
but hiding yourself in secret rooms.
The house is no cottage, it seems,

it has stairways, corridors, cellars,
a tower perhaps,
unknown to the host.

The host, the housekeeper, it is
who fails you.  He had forgotten

to make room for you at the hearth
or set a place for you at the table
or leave the doors unlocked for you.

Noticing you are not there
(when did he last see you?)
he cries out you are faithless,

have failed him,
writes you stormy letters demanding you return
it is intolerable

to maintain this great barracks without your presence,
it is too big, it is too small, the walls
menace him, the fire smokes

and gives off no heat.  But to what address
can he mail the letters?
And all the while

you are indwelling,
a gold ring lost in the house.
A gold ring lost in the house.
You are in the house!

Then what to do to find the room where you are?
Deep cave of obsidian glowing with red, with green, with black light,
high room in the lost tower where you sit spinning,

crack in the floor where the gold ring
waits to be found?

                                No more rage but a calm face,
trim the fire, lay the table, find some
flowers for it: is that the way?
Be ready with quick sight to catch
a gleam between the floorboards,

there, where he had looked
a thousand times and seen nothing?
                                              Light of the house,

the wise man spoke
words of comfort.  You are near,
perhaps you are sleeping and don’t hear.

Not even a wise man
can say, do thus and thus, that presence
will be restored.

a becoming aware a door is swinging, as if
someone had passed through the room a moment ago – perhaps
looking down, the sight
of the ring back on its finger?

How heartening this is, even though inspiration is never guaranteed.  Keep turning ideas over in your head, and beauty in your eyes, and words in your mouth.  Go about your day, keep at your work, show up on time and make sure the muse knows where to find you: thread-worn but intact advice.

It reassures me in other directions as well.  “When it seemed…the fire [was] crackling for no one, / the bread hard to swallow in solitude, / the gardens a tedious maze,” the muse is still there.  When I am only writing to myself, when I set out my thoughts and no one engages with them, that act of utterance remains needful for me and beneficial to all conversations that come later.

The conceit of the soul-house, particularly the difficulty of maintaining the ‘great barracks’ without assistance, rather reminds me of David Wilcox’s “That’s What the Lonely is For.”  In both cases, one finds that the house is more extensive than anticipated: initially inconvenient, but not without design.

Should you be seeking a muse to sing to you, I hope you find that ring on your own finger.

Seal in Triplicate

Last week, I helped with a fundraiser.  Among other things, this involved making a couple of signs to post on the street, pointing folks THIS WAY! 

After a frustrating half-hour of scribbling with Sharpies to make letters readable from a distance, I pulled out my widest paintbrush and Chromacryl paints.  These suckers are about two decades old, purchased from some enterprising lady hawking student acrylics at my grade school.  Should I have tossed them years ago?  Probably.  Did I instead hang onto them for their much-vaunted hour of need?  But of course.  Slightly goopy, but they got the job done!


So old that new tubes of Chromacryl look NOTHING like them.

Since then, paint’s been in the back of my mind.  I’ve got 3 different sets of watercolor tubes, 2 sets of oil paint, 1 set of acrylics, to say nothing of various markers, colored pencils, pens, and oil pastels.

I should paint something, I thought yesternight, digging out old watercolor paper that had been divided into quadrants with painter’s tape 5 years ago and never used.  But what?

And then I saw this post, and figured a seal was as good a place to start as anywhere.

What should I paint next?

What have y’all drawn or painted lately?

Foodstuffs to Empty a Pantry

(or: Culinary Ingenuity, Part III)

This doesn’t sound like a thing anyone wants, does it?  The shadow of empty cupboards, or a fridge with nothing but old condiments inside, the wolf of hunger scratching at the door: it haunts us, even those who have never actually suffered from the want that image signifies.

On the other hand, most of us are also familiar with opening the fridge, finding it full of items, then shutting it while muttering “There’s nothing to eat!”  Whatever is there takes too much work to prepare, or there’s so many different types of food that none of it can be combined in an appealing way.

I’ve written before about peculiar methods of cooking food, and weird ways of using up leftovers.  But the current concern is, in essence, meta­-leftovers: the pearl barley my mom gave me that I never use, the two cans of peanuts I bought (one by accident) for a single Thai recipe, the shrimp in the freezer that get passed over for fresh chicken or ground beef or sausage.  The items that sit and sit and sit, because it’s easier and tastier to use lentils or pasta or the fresh vegetables of the day.

But, as with books, no food can sit forever.  There’s a built-in deadline of spoilage, and my own frugality tugs me to use it before I lose it.  This means you, 1.5 canisters of steel-cut oats!  And you, 3 sheets of nori in the corner!  And you, canned beans that I occasionally buy and rarely cook.

It’d be a lie to call myself any sort of minimalist, but one particular bit of Francine Jay’s book The Joy of Less that has stuck with me is her comment that when we get rid of whatever it is we don’t really enjoy, we give ourselves more room for what truly delights us.  Surfaces are to be free for activity.  The less that’s in storage, the easier it is to see what we’ve kept.  Decide what to keep, not what to throw away.

I’ve spent a few afternoons organizing my mom’s canned goods, cupboards, and pantry – enough to know that the deeper and fuller the storage, the harder it is to remember what exactly is in there.  What do I need to replace?  What do I need to use?  Do I actually have that particular spice or mix or can of water chestnuts, or did I make that up?

In my ongoing attempt to be able to see what is in my house, and, specifically, in my pantry, I’ve tried, of late, to use as much as possible of the items there before purchasing more.  This has resulted in reorganizing my canned goods to see whether I have the necessary for chana masala and rajmah chamal (over barley or bulgur, of course), making my sausage-lentil-kale soup with farro instead of lentils, and trying to figure out to do with all the pecans and walnuts I bought.  A tart dough full of nuts?  Homemade Nutella?  Some kind of eggless cookie?

This feels especially appropriate in the days leading up to Lent – and, as it happens, demands far more creativity (Chesterton would approve).  The bananas in the freezer were *intended* for nut bread, but since I have one last egg and no yogurt, I could make them into fake ice cream by blending them with cocoa powder, and use the aforementioned homemade Nutella to top it.  The bag of frozen vegetable scraps could make veggie stock for barley risotto.  There’s some shrimp and bacon lingering in the freezer, which could bulk up soups or pasta sauces.

It’s like I’ve finally come to understand what MFK Fisher and Tamar Adler were talking about.  But more on them later; I think I’ll go use my lone egg to make half a batch of crepes.

Thalia and Terpsichore’s Dictionary: The Friend Edition

It has come to our attention, that almost everyone, under necessity, is a neologist. Here is a record of the outstanding entries, supplied over the years by our friends, who, finding themselves unable to find the perfect word, invented it.

Uniquities- A portmanteau word coined by our friend Andrew to express the sometimes iniquitous and foible-ridden quirks of the world around him. I first heard this glorious word one day when Andrew was driving my car and we were road tripping for spring break. The word was used to describe… me… as in “It’s just one of your more loveable uniquities, dearest.”

Wopsways- Here my transcription of the spelling may not be wholly accurate. This brand new word was coined on Sunday by our friend Walter to describe the universally natural habit of a body running in circles to lean toward the center. The situation was simple. Two little girls were orbiting some very tall young man in the narthex. I commented that they were preventing dizziness by moving rather sluggishly, and said that any faster and they’d make themselves puke. Walter responded that they could run faster if they “ran wopsways”.

Snizzle Snow+ Drizzle. You’ve seen a lot of it this year so far, if you live in the upper Midwest. We’ve gotten about 3 snizzle storms in the last three weeks.  This was invented by a coworker named Ruby. Full marks, Ruby, brava!

Splendorkle- After inventing my theory that anyone could make up a word if required, I walked up to a coworker and said “Yo, Alex, invent a word.” He said “mmmmm Splendorkle.” Just like that. Apparently it is derived from some song…and means the process of self extrication from a bizarre or awkward situation of your own making. According to Alex, one would thus say “I had to create quite a splendorkle to get out of there.” n.b. Terpsichore believes that this may be a verb, that if you are in the process of creating the splendorkle, you may be splendorkling. Which, she correctly points out, sounds rather like an endearment. Therefore, as a derivative:

Splendorkling– a diminutive endearment, used of awkward people who can’t seem to extricate themselves graciously from even the simplest situation. A Bertie Wooster.

Poozle– invented by a teacher of Terpsichore’s who allowed homework to be turned in on notebook paper if and only if (iff, henceforward) they tore or cut off the poozles. You know, the ratty looking shreddy bits at the side of the paper formerly attached to the notebook.


And finally, a word invention fail, so you can see that this neologizing does go sour, and sometimes publically.

Cinedigm– “A new paradigm in cinema.” No, really?! This uniquitous marketing agent should go forth, and attempt a valiant splendorkle (perhaps by running wopsways in the snizzle?) to counteract his own folly.

Tuesday with Thalia: She’s. Back.

Well hello, friends!

I’ve discovered the secret to getting things done. It’s not going to make you happy, because it is the same thing that your mama has been saying, but it does work. Have a schedule, give it a chance to settle, and you will find you have lots of time, get lots done and suddenly find that you are oddly full of ideas. Turns out, work does preceed inspiration. It’s very peculiar, and it’s only a step or two ahead, but it is actually true. Start doing the drudge work around you, and I bet within 45 minutes or so, you’ll have a brilliant idea. (or at least an idea…) Lots of people have remarked about this, actually. Agatha Christie said that she got her best ideas while washing dishes. Stravinsky said right out that work doesn’t just help inspiration, it breeds it. (Oh, stop whining. My pronouns arn’t that tangled. Former/Latter. It/It. Work/Inspiration.)

I have now too many ideas to share all today, so I am reinstating my Tuesday with Thalia posts so that I can schedule my ideas. Otherwise I know they’ll slip away! So today, since I’m talking up work and inspiration, I decided I would share with you a 30 minute lecture on creativity. It’s tremendously insightful. When I tell you that it is given by John Cleese, you will recognize your old friend the Dead Parrot. So clearly it is creative! But I urge you to spend the 30 minutes and listen to this lecture. It is broad enough in its spectrum to speak to every possible discipline and art. What I gained from it two weeks ago may not be what will strike you. Please do watch it for yourself. (and oh, enjoy the subtitles.)

(“Ipswich. Bolton. It’s a pun. No, it’s a palindrome.” ”  No, that’s not possible. The palindrome of Bolton is Notlob.”)

Go forth. Work. Think. Create!

Cure for the Common Thursday

Melpomene found me on the interwebs this morning with a rather unusual request. Help me, said she, with my professor’s behest!

“I need”, quoth she, ” finality.”

“This limerick must do the trick. It must be grave, with meaning thick.

So far this thing’s defying sense, and I find it hard to recompense.

I know not what I even mean, I think I’m rhyming with sense quite lean…”

“Slow down, Slow down! dear friend. ” I said. “What do you mean, a serious limerick? Who ever heard of a serious limerick? Do you have a topic? Is it necessary to use a certain word? What’s the assignment FOR?!”

This naturally caused a bit of confusion. Melpomene answered in order. 1) I know, I know. 2) Nobody. 3) Anything. 4) No. 5) My professor is very good at it, and it is an exercise in rhyme and meter. I can’t seem to find a final line for this; it is besting me. Everything sounds a bit silly and that is making me even sillier.

We finished her poem with very little difficulty. Sometimes another brain refreshes the perspective. Melpomene’s unparalleled ear for the music of sounds led her to finish her limerick with a formidable series of fricatives concluding with a sibilant hiss.

In the long ago days of forgotten time,
When the augurs and lore of traditional rhyme,
Roam’d free on the loam
And sailed on the foam,
The fair fey of the fields then were sublime!

What a dollop of fun that added to my day! I leapt to the challenge of writing a serious limerick and I whipped one off that was straddling the line between hilarious and serious.

She sat at her desk on a call
Thinking, at least I don’t work at a mall
If only mankind
Weren’t such an ass’s behind!
I blame it on Eve and the Fall.

Surely the fun’s not over yet! It’s a long way to the weekend, the overcast skies are already two weeks old with no reprieve predicted. I’m hungry and that limerick was autobiographical.

Prolong this entertainment! I begged for another.

Blitz poetry! Melpomene and I have played this before. We’re very good.

There once was a poet named Bob.
Who abhored alliteration like a slob.
He hemed and he hawed,
Tried failure and fraud,
Still his lines lingered long with laud.


The Ship in the ocean is sunk
The prayers of the saints and the monk
Ascended to God
Atheists hemmed and they haw’d
Because holiness gave them a funk.

Then my friend left to take care of her day. But Terpsichore started talking about Hipster Aliens. What a funny thought! I commemorated it with one final limerick.

Believers looked up toward on high
And awaited the great by and by
The hoped to live
So they could give
DNA to the aliens from the sky.

Cheers, lovelies.