When I think of art I think of an uncluttered state of mind, which doesn’t last, of course, and so call it inspiration.
And inspiration, well, it comes and goes, doesn’t it.
Little sister, arranging
bottle caps. Little brother, back
and forth you run
from one side of the pier
to the other.
Oh young mother
pulling your thin dress
When I think of the artist I think of an attentive state of mind. There is no criteria. No possibility for criticism.
It’s risky business. There’s no help anywhere. The intellect is useless. Whether looking outward or in, what one discovers can be neither predicted nor controlled.
Paying attention is making oneself present, no matter what’s happening.
Immediacy is inspired. Presence is inspired.
Children, without having to think about it, make immediacy and presence possible all the time. Children pay attention.
Children and artists see with their minds.
Thinking is a secondary experience. The critic’s pince-nez glasses is the greatest symbol of secondary experience.
For the artist, giving up thinking is called discipline. Giving up hope, giving up certainty, comparison and judgment is called discipline.
For the artist, wasting time, which the French perfected, is called discipline.
“Those who depend upon the intellect are the many,” wrote the minimalist painter, Agnes Martin. “Those who depend upon perception alone are the few.”
Here comes perfection. xWhen I think of art I think of beauty. xI put
xxxxxxxmy arm around it. Around my mind, I mean.
You may as well give up judging what you’ve done. xThe day is
xxxxxxyoung, the grey sun stayed that way.
Here comes an iron shade, partly down. xTheir heads are gone.
Please don’t print the negative. xI love their shoes. xIt’s where the
I am taking a walk in the city. I am enjoying a meal. Someone is running a bath. I have just spilled my cup of tea. The cat steps into a flower pot. A pencil rolls off the desk. I’m working! I’m working!
Two thousand five-hundred years ago, on her birth island of Lesbos, or in Sicily, the island of her exile, Sappho sang a lonely lyric:
for I would not be like these
but may it happen to me
Artwork is not similar to something else. Artwork exists within itself, as tone, as mood, as state of being. All inspired artwork exists within itself. The insistence on art as reality when you’re doing art, or experiencing art.
messenger of spring
xxxxxxxxxxxxxnightingale with a voice of longing
and gold chickpeas are growing on the banks
the earth with her crowns
In response to an interviewer’s question, Sir Lawrence Olivier said: “I always thought that my job was to make people believe that the play was actually taking place.” Exactly. The insistence on art as reality when you’re doing art.
And is it not the same when you’re experiencing art? When Charles Simic experiences one of artist Joseph Cornell’s luminous, inexplicable boxes, the reality is clear.
Postage Stamp with a Pyramid
The lonely boy must play quietly because his parents are sleeping after lunch. He kneels on the floor between their beds pushing a matchbox, inside which he imagines himself sitting. The day is hot. In her sleep his mother has uncovered her breasts like the Sphinx. The car, for that’s what it is, is moving very slowly because its wheels are sinking in the deep sand. Ahead, nothing but wind, sky, and more sand.
xxxxxxxx“Shush,” says the father sternly to the desert wind.
In Cornell’s world, Charles Simic could see with his mind an essence of himself. Visceral, palpable, the whole narrative of a moment of a child driving a matchbox, of a child as voyeur among adults, of a child at home in a desert with “nothing but wind, sky, and more sand.”
Children and artists are happiest when they experience things in which they seem to be identified.
In solitude, children and artists can be happy for hours. And if they don’t recognize themselves in the artwork of others, they don’t return to it, they don’t remember it, it will never become part of them.
“An inspiration,” wrote Agnes Martin, “is a happy moment that takes us by surprise.”
It would take an epic psychological study to explain why we gravitate toward any given poem or story, or film, or painting, or song. Or why we make the kind of art objects we make. And that study, of course–like human history, so drenched in blood–would be flawed.
The filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock investigated the possibility of having his belly button removed because he found it annoying and especially unattractive.
He was a neighbor and frequent dinner guest at the home of a friend of mine when she was a young girl in London. And one night in particular, when Mr. Hitchcock arrived with a sack of bones, he scarred her to this very day. Different kinds of bones, actually, which he passed around the table. And he took note of each one, as each one was snapped, until he heard the sound of a human bone breaking in his mind’s eye for the scene he would shoot the next day.
Alfred Hitchcock feared above all, by his own admission, arrest.
I don’t know why or how some of Hitchcock’s films have so become a part of me.
A lovably shallow Cary Grant being subdued by feelings.
A quietly intimate and refined Tippi Hedren’s emotional insecurity exploding into outrageous catastrophe.
An aristocratic Ingrid Bergman shunned by society for love.
Or the voyeuristic James Stewart and me sitting in the dark spying on the lives of neighbors.
Or James Stewart and me following the otherworldly Kim Novak around, and falling in love with her, and with her descent into madness, and killing it.
I watched a recently restored copy of Vertigo, and, as I am prone to do after such way-cool experience, I got up the next morning and watched it again. And I carried it around with me for some time, I suppose. It was already inside me, like an homage. And so I stole the title.
Only one is a wanderer.
And when she was sad she’d go into the street to be with people.
Two together are always going somewhere. xThey lie down beneath
next to a bird. xI imagine the sky. xIt fans her mountains
and waves. xShe’d left some small town
where they used to make tires.
Stories are made out of stairwells
and rope. xI’d been interrupting for years and didn’t
know it. xThis old park. xThe dark hatchery. xWorkers in jumpsuits
throw down their poison at dawn.
Not everyone can be described. xIt’s perfectly
natural. xIf she’s thinking about love
does she break down
the door of the bedroom. xOf course not. xNot publicly
speaking. xTo the left there’s a sofa. xWe all lived in rented rooms.
That’s how it goes with subject matter.
Nude figures in profile
floating among palm trees. xThe idea was touristy,
like a postcard. xI was given a small auditorium. xI watched over
rush hour. xI write down everything as I forget it,
especially at night.
I lock the door from the inside.
My studio is a mess:
Piles of papers. Piles of books, and open books, everywhere. Flowers, rocks, a toothpick dispenser in the shape of a crow. A turtle shell. Incense ash. An apple core alongside a stained demitasse. Flash drives and hand cream, pens and ink brushes, a gyroscope. Free weights of 10, 15, and 20 pounds. Boxes of discontinued Polaroid film. Eyeglasses, and glass tumblers, and blood-orange toffee. Cobwebs. Snorkeling gear.
And I like it, just writing it down. It serves no purpose, but keeps me real.
“All you have to do is write one true sentence,” a young Ernest Hemingway wrote one afternoon in a café in Paris trying to become a writer.
A thousand years ago, Sei Shōnagon, an empress of the 10th century court in Heian-kyo Japan, was given a pile of paper which she called “pillow.” A thousand years ago one of the first recorded journals, Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book, was listed by subtitle:
“In spring, the dawn,” as in “when the slowly paling mountain rim is tinged with red, and wisps of faintly crimson-purple cloud float in the sky.”
“River pools –”
“Things people despise –” as in “A crumbling earth wall. People who have a reputation for being exceptionally good-natured.”
“Infuriating things –” as in “A guest arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages.” Or “to witness men getting noisy and boisterous in their cups, groping round inside their mouth with a finger or wiping their whiskers if they have them, and forcing the sake cup on others. ‘Go on, have another!’”
“Rare things –” as in “A son-in-law who’s praised by his wife’s father. Likewise, a wife who’s loved by her mother-in-law.” “A pair of silver tweezers that can actually pull out hairs properly.” “A person who is without a single quirk.”
“Refined and elegant things –”
I encountered Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book while researching a seminar, “The Art of the Journal,” that I thought to offer because I had yet to forgive myself for never journaling. But there they were, in many rooms, in the garage, even the Moleskines on this very desk, tens of notebooks of various sizes comprised almost entirely of what other people had said or written.
“You can always come back,” sang Bob Dylan, “but you can’t come back all the way.”
“Your shadow is—how should I put it? Faint.” wrote Haruki Murakami.
“Everything terribly,” wrote Guillame Apollinaire.
“In poker, it’s better to tell the truth. The others think you’re bluffing,” spoke Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless.
“Doing almost nothing,” Marina Abramovic said, “is the hardest performance, because your story’s gone.”
“I’m not going to get my Coca-Cola,” yelled Louise Bourgeois. “My make-up is wrong. I am afraid to be interrupted. I am afraid not to remember what I intended to do.”
“Let us take down the old notebooks,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “which we all have…and find…beautiful things.”
Among the pages of Joseph Cornell’s journals, tens of lists:
January 4, 1943
Into town late – bank – down to Lexington and 24th. Goldsmith’s – assortment, Mexican midgets, dancing bear, Hungarian cards, Bay of Naples litho. colored. Over to Madison Square for bus. A brief swirl of snow suddenly came covering everything with a fine coat and then letting up before the short bus ride to Twelfth Street. Unexpected illumination and evocation of the past in these circumstances with feeling about Madison Square, etc. Lunch with Pajarito and Matta. 2 hours. At Reading Room then to Motherwell’s. Penn Station 1:42. Interest in Savarin Restaurant seen through glass windows in waiting room, etc.
And the poet, James Schuyler, made the list into art:
Things to Do
Rid lawn of onion grass.
“this patented device”
“Sir, We find none of these
killers truly satisfactory. Hand weed
for onion grass.” Give
old clothes away, “such as you
yourself would willingly wear.”
Impasses. Walk three miles
A day beginning tomorrow.
Purchase nose-hair shears.
Move to Maine.
Give up NoCal.
See more movies.
Practice long-distance dialing.
The Beast with Two Bucks
and, The Fan.
Complain to laundry
Any laundry. Ask for borrowed books back.
junk mail to sender
marked, Return to Sender.
“…this sudden shock…”
“…this swift surprise…”
Send. Keep. Give. Destroy.
Brush rub polish burn
mend scratch foil evert
emulate surpass. Remember
“to write three-act play”
and lead “a full and active life.”
Always music in the other room.
And the songbirds there, too. The Beeptones, Slick and Trina, from Nicaragua, and Ella and Louie, from South Africa. And the gran canario, Cesar, a jazz-cat god, the Caruso of the household, belting out one aria after another.
Like waking up in the morning in a pensive, sour mood. “Lighten up, King Baby,” they’re singing, ever since the light came.
Today it’s Coltrane, A Love Supreme, replaying itself over and over and over again long into the afternoon. Long into evening.
Part I: Acknowledgment
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxfor John Coltrane
and we deny it.
We speed through space and
hold our ground. xWe stand firm.
We sprawl out
in the shadows of cobwebs
and swim to the surface
and toast again the staggering
stars and the planets
and our getting away from it all.
We’re nobody’s business—
and the truth,
the truth’s wooden-clock voice
actually lives here.
When the night sky
for example is spattered with paint
and the forest is reduced
to a few glowing windows
and a curlicue of smoke
above a train,
I was at once inside
our cabin after all, and frankly
sick of friends, though
not the close ones,
of people, maybe,
Like something in the body
reflecting streets and chance interiors
and yelling Silence,
your heart, your
against my idiocy,
Upon a mountain top in China, sculptor and performance artist Zhang Huan piled five naked bodies, his own included.
He recalled the ancient idiom: “There are always higher mountains behind a high mountain.”
“When we left the mountain,” he said, “it was still the same mountain. Without change. Life is full of limitations and failed attempts. We tried to make the mountain higher but our attempt was futile.”
In Canberra, Australia, Zhang Huan gathered a hundred sheep and a large number of naked volunteers.
In New York City, a few months after 9/11, Zhang dressed his naked body in a hundred-pound suit of beef. “In New York I see many bodybuilders who, for long periods of time, do training exercises beyond their bodies’ capabilities. They have every kind of vitamin or supplement imaginable…, oftentimes it’s more than their hearts can bear.”
Zhang Huan invited three calligraphers to write the story and the spirit of his family on his face. By evening his face was ink-black. Its features had disappeared entirely, and nobody could tell the color of his skin. He disappeared. As if he no longer had an identity.
The calligraphy told a well-known story, and its moral is that as long as a person is determined, there’s nothing that he or she cannot achieve. Other characters included predictions of one’s fate. For example, the symbolic meaning of the shape of a cheek bone and the location of a mole.
Zhang Haun hung on to the roots of a tree rubbed with dog food and flour, which the dogs devoured greedily.
The Belgrade-born performance artist, Marina Abramovic, said she “wanted attention to my work, but much of the attention I got was negative.”
“The photographs of me naked in Galleria Diagramma were especially scandalous.”
“What if instead of doing something to myself, I let the public decide what to do with me?”
“In black trousers and a black t-shirt, behind a table of many objects: a hammer, a saw, a feather, a fork, a bottle of perfume, a hat, an axe, a rose, a bell, scissors, needles, a pen, honey, a lamb bone, a carving knife, a mirror, a newspaper, a shawl, pins, lipstick, sugar, a Polaroid camera. Various other things. And a pistol, and one bullet lying next to it.”
“For the first three hours, not much happened…someone would hand me the rose, or drape the shawl over my shoulders, or kiss me.”
“Then, slowly at first, and then quickly…the women in the gallery would tell the men what to do to me, rather than do it themselves (although later on, when someone stuck a pin into me, one woman wiped the tears from my eyes).”
“After three hours, one man cut my shirt apart with the scissors and took it off. People manipulated me into various poses.”
“A guy took Polaroids of me and stuck them in my hand.”
“A couple people picked me up and carried me around. They put me on a table, spread my legs, stuck the knife in the table close to my crotch.”
“Someone stuck pins into me. Someone else slowly poured a glass of water over my head. Someone cut my neck with the knife and sucked the blood.”
“There was one man—a very small man—who just stood very close to me, breathing heavily.”
“After a while, he put the bullet in the pistol and put the pistol in my right hand.”
Holding You Sober Close to Me
behind us. The water’s calm. There are many heads
above the water.
Show me a victim and I’ll show you
a bathroom–a man slathered
in honey, a carpet
and salt. Even the creepy doorman
tastes the salt
in the air.
If a child’s brought in, well, that’s something
different. We don’t want
You’re the last person on earth
prepared for the death
of your parents.
When I think of art I think of beauty.
It’s where the eye goes, autonomously, on its merry way. For children and artists the message is about happiness—all across the sand.
Beauty is writing itself, and I’m always one step behind. Where the throat is. And the tear.
“And to speak again of solitude,” wrote the poet Rainier Maria Rilke, “it becomes increasingly clear that this is fundamentally not something that we can choose or reject. We are solitary. How much better it is to realize that we are thus, to start directly from that very point….”
“For all the points upon which our eyes have been accustomed to rest will be taken away from us, there is no longer any nearness, and all distance is intimately far….”
“A [person] who was taken from his study, almost without preparation and transition, and placed upon the height of a great mountain range, would be bound to feel something similar: an uncertainty without parallel, an abandonment to the unutterable would almost annihilate him.”
Immediacy is inspired. Presence is inspired.
Being this close is everything. It’s a discipline, like a child at play.
You’re the Rub
Murmured in loneliness, round and round.
Let’s not go inside. The cliffs drop off, and the ocean’s
a friend–on the boardwalk
enough people alone
So relax, take your feet
missing. There are many parts
of the mind. On that old
open day we let out our long green grass. A night’s passed
and you expected it
to be there.
You’re the rub–the love
that loves the loves. I like especially the puddles
and your wire. I like your mud.
I like your part
Ralph Angel’s latest collection, Your Moon, was awarded the Green Rose Poetry Prize. Exceptions and Melancholies: Poems 1986-2006 received the PEN USA Poetry Award, and his Neither World won the James Laughlin Award of The Academy of American Poets. In addition to five books of poetry, he also has published an award-winning translation of the Federico García Lorca collection, Poema del cante jondo / Poem of the Deep Song.