Praising the Mutilated World

Photographs of oil slicks grace both my SLR gallery and my iPhoneography collection. "Grace" may seem like a strange word for pollution, but it is precisely what I mean. With a flick and a click in an image editor, spilled oil is shockingly beautiful.

I feared for awhile that if, by finding beauty in even these small degradations, I was ratifying them. Art often glorifies destruction, but I'm not sure it ever should. An exception might be in catharsis. I don't think it is actually destruction that is glorified in destructive catharsis, however. At any rate, spilled oil reminds me of the paradox that keeps me happily rooted to my Christian tradition: the notion that grace takes something broken and makes it stronger and more beautiful than it was before. This is the concept of felix culpa I've written about elsewhere. But it goes even deeper. Look at these two versions

Unsharp mask applied:

Original lens blur:

I could fix the softness of the pavement, but in doing so, I lost the glow, the light, the gentle gradations of color. This edit actually looks marred by pixelation, though it isn't. Even if there had been no lens blur to remove, I'm not sure sharpness would have enriched the image. In this case, "perfect" isn't perfect. Of course you may prefer the sharp edit, or you may have good advice for me on how to restore the positive attributes of light and color while keeping the unsharp mask, or you just might think I'm crazy for photographing and (over)saturating spilled oil at all. That's not really the point. Regardless of the relative merits of either image, my concept of perfection itself needed to change. Most photographers would consider overprocessing to be the mark of a rookie editor, but perhaps there is another, deeper case against it. Overprocessing is an assertion of control. It leaves no room for happy accidents or movements of a spirit outside of the artist. There's no humility in it.

When it comes to control, I'm guilty as charged. Yet here's another happy accident, whether you call it subconscious association, synchronicity, or the still, small voice of a Creator guiding the creativity of the created. I just realized that in cropping the oil slick into four bars, I'd echoed two great traditions of religious art: stained glass and mosaic. All this is grace: things broken and spilled, set together like gems in a new, unexpected, and more glorious whole.

"Try to Praise the Mutilated World"
by Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world. 
Remember June's long days, 
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. 
The nettles that methodically overgrow 
the abandoned homesteads of exiles. 
You must praise the mutilated world. 
You watched the stylish yachts and ships; 
one of them had a long trip ahead of it, 
while salty oblivion awaited others. 
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere, 
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully. 
You should praise the mutilated world. 
Remember the moments when we were together 
in a white room and the curtain fluttered. 
Return in thought to the concert where music flared. 
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn 
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars. 
Praise the mutilated world 
and the grey feather a thrush lost, 
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes 
and returns. 

Poems From Thin Places: Pilgrimage

Presumed Grave of William Shakespeare. Photograph by David Jones. Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK. 2007. Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped.

Presumed Grave of William Shakespeare. Photograph by David Jones. Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK. 2007. Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped.

Shakespeare's grave is not a thin place. In fact, my entire trip to Stratford-upon-Avon was one of the most forgettable days of the 89 I have spent in the United Kingdom. But maybe "forgettable" isn't quite the right word for my experience at Stratford, since I'm writing about it. A certain meaning in Stratford's very meaninglessness was memorable.

I could start bemoaning commercialization now. It would hardly be out of character or out of place. Yet I do think one can still be a pilgrim even if one travels on a Megabus and gazes in awe and wonder while sipping a corn syrup latte from a disposable cup. That's how I experienced Canterbury, and somehow it was perfect. The little town on the Avon, however, just doesn't manage to transcend the bull$hit.* Stratford is a comedy of errors, possessed of just the sort of cloying kitsch embodied in that terrible joke.  

Regular readers, you know where I'm going next. "When I got home, I wrote a poem about it." Said poem is not a sonnet, nor is it in blank verse. There are no Petrarchan furbelows or rhyming couplets. There is no rhyme at all. It is a prose poem -- the only one I've ever composed. I suppose I was aiming for some sort of irony, since I doubt Shakespeare would have much use for the form, and since I don't fully understand it myself. Yet I googled "prose poem" just now and found out that in the inaugural issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, editor Peter Johnson defines the genre as follows: "Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels." 

Fine line between comedy and tragedy . . . prosaic poetry/poetic prose . . .  and slipping on banana peels? Well gee, that sounds like Stratford, and maybe even her native son.

Anticlimax
by Katherine Leigh Carlson

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare.
Bleste be þe man þt spares thes stones,
And curst be he þt moves my bones.

They've wired Shakespeare's boyhood home so that the candles flicker at 60 watts. Faux Tudor storefronts push up to the door, hawking teapots shaped like Anne Hathaway's cottage. They even have those pens with a clear panel and water behind, where a little plastic Romeo scoots over to a balcony when tipped. Assuming he existed, Shakespeare himself lies in nearby Holy Trinity Church. The epitaph on his gravestone might be the silliest four lines of his career. I remember that no one can decide if his penultimate play was romance or tragedy or just history, though a spark from its cannon brought the house down in flames. Yet I doubt that the genius of English literature is turning in his shoddy grave. Maybe he even meant it to be this way. He was always good for a laugh.

*Click for some subversive public art in my college town, and/or to see how Christian college kids on dry campuses get their kicks.

Poems From Thin Places: Nativity

Swiss Postcard of Whitby Abbey, c. 1890-1905.  Color-corrected by Jan Arkesteijn. Public Domain Via Wikimedia Commons.

Swiss Postcard of Whitby Abbey, c. 1890-1905.  Color-corrected by Jan Arkesteijn. Public Domain Via Wikimedia Commons.

Ruined abbeys are my favorites. As I type that, however, I feel a pang of guilt; I'm fearing I might be falling into my old trap of valuing the natural sublime over the messier beauty of community. Can I defend myself? I think there is actually a special sort of community at a ruined abbey. The one at Whitby teeters at the edge of England, on a high cliff battered by the North Sea. Its roofless arches point straight to the majesty of the sky. Underneath all that glory, however, the comic effects of wind and the abundance of climbable stonework allow something just as worthy as awe or meditation. Whitby's ruins make an exhilarating place to play.

Whitby's most famous story reminds us just how vulnerable and sacred the act of play can be. The Venerable Bede -- he of that loveliest of names -- tells us that once upon a time, when the abbey was just as windswept but still had a roof to its credit, all its denizens would gather of an evening to pass around a harp. Caedmon, the lowly shepherd, could not sing or rhyme. Ashamed, he would creep out and sleep with his sheep rather than reveal the terror these entertainments induced. One night, an angel came to the stable, expressly demanding he sing. How frustrated he must have been! If one can't squawk out a tune for a bunch of unwashed monks and farmers, isn't it a bit cruel for a member of the heavenly host to demand a command performance? And what was he to do but try? Yet one would hope an angel always knows what he or she is about, and this one surely did. That night Caedmon, the first English poet, found his voice. 

Nativity 
by Katherine Leigh Carlson

In Whitby,
where the ribs of the ruined abbey 
card sea mist like wool, 
I think of the shepherd Caedmon 
going early to bed in the barn 
for fear that the harp would pass to him.

I think of him lying in the musty hay 
away from the warm light, 
the laughter, and the honey-colored mead 
inside, where he longed, but could not bear, to be.

Beside him the herd jostles quietly, 
steam rises from manure,
and wind seeps through the cracked door.

Then sudden crush of whiteness, 
chaos of animal screams,
and the voice of the angel
slicing away all other sound.

"Sing, Caedmon."
"I cannot!"
"Sing of all Creation."
So we lift our heads 
and sing.

Felix Culpa

Castlerigg Stone Circle. Click to Enlarge. Copyright Katherine L. Carlson, All Rights Reserved.

I was quite literally shooting from the hip. The moment I saw the older couple at Castlerigg Stone Circle in England's Lake District, I started trying to nab an image. Near the end of the human lifespan, they were nevertheless infants next to the stones of that prehistoric human-made monument. The scene was at once an analogy and an a juxtaposition. It was also entirely sweet.

The results were plagued with all the technical problems one would expect from clandestine photography. I painstakingly sharpened, cropped, and brightened the picture, and I even removed several tourists who were lolling against the stones. I could fix the composition, but I was asking more of those pixels than they could bear. At its full size, the image looks like it narrowly survived the smallpox.

I still love it.

Honoring flawed work is rather a proud moment for one who thinks her perfectionism renders her far from perfect. I don't like it because it is flawed, though -- only in spite of that. Yet I do wonder if some art is improved by its flaws. 

Like many teenagers, I once had a bulletin board full of quotations. One read "Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." Google reveals that these lines were by Henry Van Dyke, who wrote the lyrics most commonly set to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Aesthetically, he did a better job with the latter. However, Van Dyke's sentimental and hackneyed bird quote is in some ways brilliant. Its tortured meter embodies its message.*

Examples of perfection through imperfection, or what Gerard Manley Hopkins might call "pied beauty," remind me of the medieval concept of felix culpa -- the fortunate fall. If humanity had remained in Edenic innocence, the rather unusual logic goes, than we would never have experienced the wonder of divine redemption. 

Maybe I can actually love my stone circle photograph because of its flaws, rather than in spite of them. If these flaws help me overcome my perfectionism, they're fortunate. If, like Hopkins' marvelous poem, they invite me to a definition of beauty that transcends narrow aesthetic rules, they're fortunate. If snatching a permanent record of a moment in time resulted in technical imperfections, well, that is very  fortunate. It embodies the paradox of human mutability, and -- lucky me -- the paradox of human mutability just happens to form the central motif of the scene.

*In a similar vein, I typed and deleted the final prose lines of my post on the Book of Kells many times before I decided to let a really a bad pun prove its own point. It still makes me feel vulnerable, though.

Poems From Thin Places: Incarnation

Only a green velvet cord separated me from case after walnut case of exquisite volumes. Marble busts gazed self-contentedly at the fourteenth-century oak harp that symbolizes all Ireland. A barrel-vaulted roof crowned what some say is the most beautiful library in the world. Nearby a different page of the gloriously illuminated Book of Kells is exhibited every day.  

Folio 201 Recto:  The Genealogy of Christ.  Book of Kells.  Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Folio 201 Recto:  The Genealogy of Christ. Book of Kells. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

That is what Google Image Search tells me I saw at the Long Room of Trinity College Dublin.  

I do remember it. I do. But you know how the impression you take from a long-sought experience is rarely the impression you expect? There's generally a gift in that. We're patterned to expect a gift in that. Thomas C. Foster tells us that in a quest narrative, the real purpose for the journey is never what the quester initially seeks.* There's a reason why "expect the unexpected" is a cliche;  Western culture tends to breed quest narrative junkies, and after awhile, everything starts to look like a journey.

I'm pretty sure I've already tripped your convention sensors. Now all I have to do now is fill in the blanks.

What I remember most about the library at Trinity College Dublin was not the oak or the marble. It wasn't really evenThe Book of Kells, though I can tell you that the going Medieval rate for blue ink was pretty steep. What I remember most was a hole.

There is a tiny hole in The Book of Kells. In fact, there are many, and there always have been. The book is vellum -- calfskin -- and very good vellum too. It is just that vellum can't help but be perforated in places, because vellum was once alive. I looked closer. I saw hair. Hair and the faint branches of bloodless vessels. Hundreds of calves died for that incarnation of the gospel story. These were violent and sacrificial deaths, in which flesh became word.

Well, of course I had to write a poem then. I later heard that Billy Collins, at the time my favorite poet, had the same idea. I haven't seen his version yet, but I'm sure it is better. That's okay. We all have to create meaning with the substance we have. We all have to play with that convention that the journey itself is the destination, and that the destination is never something we can expect or control. We all bear in our flesh stories that are not our own, and then we make them our own. We are full of holes. Holy.

Book of Kells
by Katherine Leigh Carlson

It's the colors they worry about:
crimson, purple,
costly blue.
Mustn't let you fade.
Just turn, turn
turn you--
a daily mass
for gawking pilgrims.

I love
the unpainted places of your skin:
faint branching of empty veins,
straggling hair
they could not scrape away,
the holes from blade

or pen--
Did it hurt when your flesh became word?

Did they feed you a last supper;
one-hundred eighty-five voices lowing
over fragrant, final grain?
Perhaps you brushed noses over a fence.
Perhaps you only met
afterward.

*Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor:  a Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines. New York:  HarperCollins, 2003. 3.