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poetry photo

Photo by rolandmey

Poetry is much on my mind these days. It is my intention to complete a book-length manuscript of my poems, and to have found a publisher for the book by year’s end. I’m deep into the processes of polishing and organizing 70+ poems, and of researching potential publishers.

So, as I say, poetry is much on my mind, and today it led me on a brief detour, a little sentimental journey that I’d like to share with you.

Sometime in the early ’70s I fell in love with the nature art prints of Gwen Frostic. She carved block prints, some of them four- or five-colors (each color requiring a separate carved linoleum block), but most of them simple two- or three-colors. Each image seems to distill the essence of what Gwen was looking at: a wild iris; a gnarled tree limb; or a great blue heron in flight, her signature icon. Most images were printed on fine textured papers with deckled edges, and sold as stationery and card collections with matching envelopes.

One fine summer day I decided it was time to see Gwen Frostic’s Michigan studio. I packed up our family and drove along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan to the town of Benzonia, south of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. With a population of around 400, the town was too crowded for Gwen, who was a hermit at heart. She purchased 40 acres of isolated sand dunes outside Benzonia, and built a single-story home/studio/shop constructed of native stones, wood, and glass. It looked as if it had emerged organically from the sand it sat on. I especially remember the gently sloping roof covered in soil that supported native grasses and whatever other plants found their way there. In the cool interior of the display room were the lovely prints I expected, plus a mammoth stone fireplace and a natural fountain, both in keeping with Gwen’s sense of natural beauty.

But just beyond that room was a whole other world that I didn’t expect: a huge room crammed full with tons of exotic paper, and twelve hulking Heidelberg platen printing presses. Most of those presses were at work, with steady deliberate movements, imprinting Gwen’s collections of beautiful images along with the illustrated packaging and envelopes to go with them.

Another thing I didn’t expect: when she was less than a year old Gwen contracted an unknown illness, similar to cerebral palsy, that left her with physical difficulties for the rest of her life. When I met her that day she walked with a cane; instead of struggling to inscribe her work and sign her extensive correspondence, she had commissioned a special machine that held a pen and wrote Gwen’s distinctive signature over and over again. She still designed and hand-cut her original linoleum block images, however, and oversaw the work of all those massive presses. Her physical limitations did not stop her from her lifelong creative expression, nor from making her artistic career so financially viable that at her death in 2001 she left a thirteen-million dollar bequest to Western Michigan University to benefit students of the arts and creative writing.

But her compromised health wasn’t the biggest surprise for me that day. How could I not have known that Gwen Frostic was also a poet? And that her books of poetry were self-published gems illustrated with her art and poetry printed on a melange of beautiful papers, some of them tissue-thin so that the poetry was visible through the prints, or vice versa.

I own four of her books of poetry. I confess that I haven’t read them in decades, but poetry is much on my mind these days. So this morning I dug out the Frostic poetry from my library to show to a friend who also writes poetry. His poetry is often more complex than mine, and I thought he’d appreciate something that I remembered about Gwen’s poetry: in her desire to praise the wonders of creation that she saw in the simplest of natural things, she apparently ran out of everyday words, couldn’t find adequate substitutes, and so (I believed) made up words that expressed her awe. Thanks to today’s Google, I’ve learned that those were “real” words, just not everyday ones, nor ones listed in my Webster’s Pocket Dictionary at the time. She used “omnity” where I might choose to use “divinity” or “God.” “Eternity” wasn’t forever-enough for her, so she used “diuturnity” and “indesinency” and “olamic” instead. There was something mesmerizing about these words, like reading a foreign language in which the meaning looks almost familiar  – but you trust that the author knows what they mean, and that’s good enough.

Knowing Gwen must have been like befriending a philosophy nerd high on ecstasy. Her poetry reads as if a philosopher/theologian were translating Mary Oliver from simple to complicated. Yet Gwen had a way of infusing the very ordinary with a mystical word-serum that, once you get used to living with the unknowable (“enigmatical”), makes the whole universe (“multiverse”) glow.

Gwen Frostic wrote her own uncomplicated epitaph: “Here lies one doubly blessed. She was happy and she knew it.”

What more can anyone ask of a life?

In honor of that life, I invite you to take a peek at her art and poetry books – they’re still available from that studio nestled in the sand dunes near the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.  You can see them at http://www.gwenfrostic.com

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© 2015 Gwen Frostic LLC. All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 


In January I gave myself a wondrous gift: a week away to do nothing but write poetry. “Nothing but write” means, to me, no TV, no phone, no clock, no schedule. Just me, simple food, tea, some sacramental chocolate, and whichever Muse shows up.

 


What I hadn’t anticipated about my week away was that, in the middle of the first draft of my first poem, my computer would freeze up and die – wouldn’t let me reboot or even shut it down.

 

I took this to be a direct challenge from the Muse, about how committed I was to my writing. I rose to her challenge by hauling in tablets of paper, a handful of pens, and my Roget’s Thesaurus. I was going to spend this writing week doing things the old-fashioned way.

 

I had forgotten how much I love a real Roget’s Thesaurus. I’d gotten used to relying on the thesaurus built into my Mac, or the one on Thesaurus.com. But both of those are really just synonym collections, not the real thesaurus deal. And for someone who loves words, the Roget’s Thesaurus has no substitute.

 

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One scans a list of synonyms, but one dives into the pages of Roget’s. For instance: I had placed the word “interesting” in brackets into a poem to indicate that it was just a placeholder for a better word that I’d find later.

 

(“Interesting” is a lazy word. If someone asks me how last night’s disastrous meeting went, and I don’t want to lie, nor do I want to give them the blow-by-blow, I answer, “It was interesting.” “Interesting” hides more than it reveals.)

 

So I looked up “interesting” at the back section of the thesaurus, and found the number 617.5 beside it. (That refers not to a page number, but to a place in the main part of the book.) At section 617.5 Allurement I found a whole collection of substitute words, clustered in gradations of meaning. One of those words was “delightful” along with the recommendation that I search further at 829.8 Pleasureableness.

 

When I got to 829.8, I noticed that 830 Painfulness followed, then 831 Content and then Discontent, Regret, Relief, Aggravation, Cheerfulness, Sadness, each with their own full baskets of synonyms. Before 829.8 Pleasureableness there were 828 Pain and 827 Pleasure, and Excitability and other nuances.

 

Now what was it that I was looking for when I started?  Uh-oh! I’d forgotten one of the cardinal rules of using a thesaurus: keep track of the sequence. Like Hansel dropping breadcrumbs on the path to the witch’s house, you must keep track of where you’ve been because you’re not necessarily sure of where you’re going. This keeping track of the path is something my computer doesn’t do for me, but with pen and paper it’s easy to make marginal notes – so long as I remember to do it!

 

There is nothing quite so satisfying as finding exactly the right word for a poem – one with the precise meaning, one with the right number of syllables, one beginning with the sound needed to complete a string of alliteration. That perfect word may have arrived from a totally unexpected corner of Wordland, but suddenly there it is, and the poet places it with a smug “thunk” just where it belongs.

 

I came home from my poetry week with abundance from the Muse: 23 drafts of new poems, waiting to be transcribed into digital form. My computer tech has repaired my laptop, and all is well in my little world of technology.

 

But rather than returning my analog Roget’s Thesaurus to the bookshelf, I’ve decided to keep it close at hand, to inspire, to inform and, sometimes, simply to lure me away to play for a while in the Land of Words.

 

Last night I thumbed through the August 2014 issue of Scientific American. I stopped at an article entitled “The Black Hole at the Beginning of Time” (by Afshordi, Mann and Pourhasan), which postulates a cosmic black hole that preceded the Big Bang.

 

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For all that I comprehended, the article could have been written in early Cyrillic instead of English. Nevertheless, I was mesmerized by the exotic words and phrases that I didn’t understand.

 

There were these:

 

“event horizon”

 

“a rich theory of holography”

 

“cosmic censorship”

 

“the observed amplitude and shape of primordial matter fluctuations”

 

“graceful exit problem”

 

“the sudden, violent emergence of all space, time and matter from an infinitely dense point called a singularity”

 

And there were these sentences that baffled me:

 

“Physicists quip that ‘a black hole has no hair’ – no distinguishing features beyond the basics of mass, angular momentum and electrical charge.”

 

“…our entire universe came into being during a stellar implosion in this suprauniverse, an implosion that created a three-dimensional shell around a four-dimensional black hole.”

 

And there were longer, denser full-bore paragraphs that made my head spin.

 

But then the poet in me had an idea. With my apologies to the academic authors if they are offended, I invite you to look one such paragraph as if it were a POEM:

 

We now know

that the density of ordinary

matter

is only 5 percent

of the universe’s total

energy density.

Another

25 percent comes

in the form of

dark matter,

an unknown form

of matter whose existence

is inferred

from its gravitational

attraction.

And 70 percent of the universe

is made of dark energy,

the mysterious stuff

that is causing

the expansion

rate of our universe

to speed up

(instead of

slowing down,

as originally expected

from gravitational

attraction.)

Structured like that it’s fascinating and lovely, and, like a John Berryman poem, it makes me feel as if I’m teetering on the verge of understanding whatever it means.

 

As a wordsmith, I treasure words. I find pleasure in the arrangements of words that convey an idea or a story (or a theorem) to others.

 

However much I’d like to understand that article in Scientific American, there is simply not enough time (or motivation) for me to learn all I’d need to know in order for that to happen.

 

Nevertheless, I can delight in the beauty and the mystery of the words. I am content that SOMEONE understands them. Someone thrums and thrills with that understanding, and that fills me with awe and gratitude.