“In Sedona, at a time before it became a popular destination, they confronted lizards, scorpions and snakes and basked in the town’s ‘landscape of wild fantasy,’ as she wrote in her autobiography.”

What a pleasure for UD, on this quiet Sunday (in bed, recovering from bronchitis), to follow, in the wake of Dorothea Tanning’s death, her life. What a pleasure, having just returned from that same landscape, to bask in photographs of Tanning and her husband Max Ernst in surrealistic Sedona.

The iconic artist’s life – how strong its pull. How one wants to be there – in the house they built beside the hills, or in the squatter’s shack on the British Columbia coast where Malcolm Lowry lived with his wife and wrote Under the Volcano…

Creative intensity and beauty and freedom – it’s all there in the photographs: the ocean, and the hills like white elephants, shining in the background.

Tanning lived for more than a century and had time to reflect on the artist’s life.

********************************

Sequestrienne


Don’t look at me
for answers. Who am I but
a sobriquet,
a teeth-grinder,
grinder of color,
and vanishing point?

There was a time
of middle distance, unforgettable,
a sort of lace-cut
flame-green filament
to ravish my
skin-tight eyes.

I take that back—
it was forgettable but not
entirely if you
consider my
heavenly bodies . . .
I loved them so.

Heaven’s motes sift
to salt-white — paint is ground
to silence; and I,
I am bound, unquiet,
a shade of blue
in the studio.

If it isn’t too late
let me waste one day away
from my history.
Let me see without
looking inside
at broken glass.

************************************************

The brilliant portmanteau title – sequestrienne. The famous artist’s semi-famous widow is sought after in her elderly semi-sequestered life, consulted for her wisdom about iconic times. She rides – an equestrienne – those times, rides them in memory, mounts them, relives them for herself and for those who come to her and want her to cover that territory again. But she begins her poem with a warning:

Don’t look at me
for answers. Who am I but
a sobriquet,
a teeth-grinder,
grinder of color,
and vanishing point?

I’m just wife-of, after all. Just an old woman who grinds her teeth at night and grinds her paints as she still tries to paint, even as her life vanishes. Why assume I have any wisdom? I’m still caught up, in my very latter days, in the daily grind, the ongoing anxious business of trying to understand, and trying to create.

There was a time
of middle distance, unforgettable,
a sort of lace-cut
flame-green filament
to ravish my
skin-tight eyes.

What I can tell you is that there was this past, this undeniable, authentic stretch of time during which I was alive in every conceivable way: erotically, aesthetically. That sharp green incandescent stem – it was actually there, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, as one of Tanning’s Sedona guests put it. It ravished me, and I saw the world as one great true thing, not as fragments.

I take that back—
it was forgettable but not
entirely if you
consider my
heavenly bodies . . .
I loved them so.

My love keeps that sense of fulfillment – full-filament – from disintegrating entirely; I’ve tried to keep the bodies of my loved ones aloft in the heavens.

Heaven’s motes sift
to salt-white — paint is ground
to silence; and I,
I am bound, unquiet,
a shade of blue
in the studio.

Yet everything reduces and sifts down and fragments. My beloved becomes a mote, fading to the salt-white of death, just as our paintings eventually withdraw into silence. Only I, still alive, remain in the studio, restless, anxious, earthly blue, sadly blue.

If it isn’t too late
let me waste one day away
from my history.
Let me see without
looking inside
at broken glass.

Let me sequester myself away, let me ride away, from history, from the temporal realm with its incoherences and failures and anxieties, and yes, from its mystifications, with which you come to me, wife-of, expecting wisdom. Let me lose this self-consciousness, this always looking inside, this play with fragments. Give me a clear day and no memories.


A Clear Day and No Memories

No soldiers in the scenery,
No thoughts of people now dead,
As they were fifty years ago,
Young and living in a live air,
Young and walking in the sunshine,
Bending in blue dresses to touch something,
Today the mind is not part of the weather.

Today the air is clear of everything.
It has no knowledge except of nothingness
And it flows over us without meanings,
As if none of us had ever been here before
And are not now: in this shallow spectacle,
This invisible activity, this sense.

Blue Nights on a Night Flight

I’ve been reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights – her chronicle of her daughter’s death and her own aging – on this flight from Phoenix to Baltimore. It’s kept me occupied. We land in fifteen minutes.

I like Didion’s mournful chant, her brief, much-repeated litanies. She plays the “blue night” idea (we want to think of our lives as long summer nights that never darken) beautifully through the text. Her constant rounding back to painful motifs and memories cuts a deeper and deeper circle of implication, the prose grinding down until we’re surrounded by very dark canyon walls.

It’s poetic prose, stating and restating its symbols, making them a dirge. She’s troubled, in the text, by her technique of indirection, but she needn’t be. Solemn poetic dance is the best way to get at this stuff – in particular, the ridiculous tendency to believe in the permanence of life and health and happiness, “this refusal even to engage in such contemplation, this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, and death.”

Returning, as I am now, from seven blissful days in Sedona, Arizona, I could almost assume this ridiculous tendency myself. The sweet spot: Didion’s eye travels over that long moment when her life achieved the sweet spot: Love, vocation, money, friends, glamor, fame, seaside Malibu in bloom… It’s rare for anyone that things turn out that well, and that they turn out that well for any length of time. Didion had this; and inevitably her book dwells on that delight, wonders if the recollection of the delight can sustain her.

She doesn’t think it can.

UD will cop to sharing with her a failure, so far, to confront certain certainties. She does, though, Didion-style, circle around them a lot.

The darkening to black of the blue night. It’s happening just outside UD‘s window right now. Maybe it’s not so much about not confronting it as not knowing how to play it (play it as it lays) – this bizarre concurrence of sweet and dark.

I know what I do. What I do is – like Didion – keep moving, keep feeling gratitude and love and excitement. The red rocks shine in the short blue night and I passionately respond.

*************************

The sun cannot change, writes James Merrill to his just-born nephew in Little Fanfare for Felix Magowan:


It’s earth, it’s time,
Whose child you now are, quietly
Blotting him out. In the blue stare you raise
To your mother and father already the miniature,
Merciful and lifelong eclipse,
Felix, has taken place;
The black pupil rimmed with rays
Contracted to its task –
That of revealing by obscuring
The sunlike friend behind it.
Unseen by you, may he shine back always
From what you see, from others.

UD’s in a sports bar at the Phoenix Airport.

Les UDs were very unhappy to leave Sedona. Both loved its tranquil, thrilling setting, the clear dry air, the red-earth trails among the rocks. Although exhausted (she packed too much in), UD feels joy and gratitude that she was able to see and explore this strange and beautiful place. Soon she’ll be hemmed in by trees in Garrett Park – no spectacular Arizona night sky – and while the beauties of her town’s forest setting are undeniable, she suspects that the vast landscapes of the high desert correspond more closely to her heart’s core.

The Stone-Lover’s Apotheosis.

No one told UD about Buddha Beach.

No one told her that, as she followed Oak Creek beneath the red rocks, she’d come to a clearing full of stacked stones.

First you see this – gatherings of mainly gray stone on top of a large red slab. You think nice pretty cute sweet and move along. A few steps later the whole silver-tree forest is cairns – endlessly, beautifully, everywhere. Not just on the ground around you. Along tree trunks, inside tree hollows. The sculpture’s base is often a large smooth red river rock, on top of which smaller gray, black, white, mottled, and volcanic rocks have been balanced.

You can’t help adding to this spell-binding human offering. With the creek washing along beside you, you begin scouting stones to top off a tower here and a tower there.

Thousands of these little formations lie just under massive Cathedral Rock. They feel like a loving, adorably absurd, affirmation of our connection to Cathedral.

Lunch in Prescott today…

… with friends who live there. Will blog later in the day.

250 Miles of Visibility at the Grand Canyon Today…

… and weather so warm we stripped down to one layer.

UD sat in the winter sun well away from the edge as Mr UD followed our guide to the rim.

Light wind. Supremely clear sunlight. Tibetan temples abounding.

The soft shadowy green plateaus looked like Scotland.

Our guide talked about a mountain lion that somehow got itself down to the bottom of the canyon, where there aren’t any elk. It was an object of interest for awhile, but when it began gazing at hotel guests through their windows, it had to be shot.

Plenty of stories too – natch – about mishaps, missteps, mischancings. A woman whose family had to talk her into taking a mule died when the animal had a heart attack and collapsed, throwing her down the canyon. Our guide, last year, witnessed – along with many others – a suicide off the cliff. “He dove. He put his arms out and dove.”

UD watched with amazement as people frolicked inches from the fall.

“What does the Grand Canyon makes you think about?” our guide asked me.

“You know Freud’s theory of the death wish? That.”

Grand Canyon Today.

Will post this afternoon.

These sculpted rocks…

… insist on some grand meaning and seem to satirize human efforts at grand meaning. So here, on the upper edge of Courthouse Rock, is the Sphinx, only more massive and ruined and mysterious, its face high to the sun. And here at the rock’s base is a caryatid, only far more flowing and classical than anything on the Acropolis. Openings onto Petra, and long lines of inscribed stelae, are everywhere.

The rocks say We’ve condensed into ourselves all the monumental constructions of humanity. All of your monuments are imitations.

But of course it goes the other way. In my mind are all those places, spiritual and civic monuments, and I bring them with me to this place, and see them all around me.

A Picasso profile of Jacqueline appears on a rock next to the famous chapel. The same rock grins with rows of Notre Dame gargoyles.

One rock is a pile of clay from Rodin’s studio.

I’m…

un peu ivre (Prickly Pear Cactus Margarita) so this isn’t the best time to introduce this idea, but how about this:

There are three kinds of hills or mountains.

1.) Soft, sweet, reassuring, domesticated. Every August, on our drive back to our wee upstate NY house from UD‘s birthday dinner at the Bear Cafe, UD likes to watch the sun slip behind the low round green-to-the-top Catskills. It’s a calm, bucolic, verdant sort of deal, a world of cows and dogs and maple sugar candy.

2.) Wildly, elaborately, sculpted; strange, exhilarating, massive, unsettling. The red rocks of Sedona are all these things, but at the same time you feel you can have a human relationship to them. They don’t seem the same utterly natural part of the landscape the Catskills do (the Catskills can feel kind of backgroundy), yet they do seem earthly… We might not know exactly how these formations formed, but we rather easily claim them as part of our world. People give them homely names – Coffee Pot, Chimney – and ride their bikes along their rims. For all their massiveness, the eye can take each one in entirely, hiking along to a point of great closeness to particular rocks and examining their curves and lines and tracings.

It’s even perhaps easier to have a human relationship to the Sedona rocks than to the Catskills. The Catskills are a rather undifferentiated massing of green; each Sedona rock is strikingly different from the other. So you can fixate on one particular outcropping with great intensity.

3.) Cold, unworldly, “element bearable to no mortal,” as Elizabeth Bishop says of frigid ocean water. These are the Himalayas – inconceivable in altitude, impossible to take in fully with the human eye, crushing our lungs with the thinness of their air…

I’m suggesting that the Sedona rocks are a kind of aesthetic ideal – both beautiful and sublime (if you agree that something can be both of these things), while the Catskills are only beautiful, and the Himalayas only sublime.

A covey of Gambel’s Quail…

… appeared in the desert along Long Canyon Trail this morning as we walked, very quietly, so as to see things like Gambel’s Quail.

The soft dry air here is amazing to a swampy DC denizen like UD. She’s always taking deep breaths. And who knew she’d develop, in a matter of days, a deep interest in desert fauna?

Les UDs are both getting hooked on this place.

A rainbow around the moon.

Sort of like this.

On our walk back from dinner in Sedona.

Everyone’s happy and friendly here…

… sometimes to an outrageous extent. The guy who greeted us at the Sedona Chamber of Commerce information desk spilled coffee on his shirt in his excitement. Sit down at a cafe and you’re sure to chat with the person at the next table. The sun, the blue sky, the red rocks in every direction – it excites you, makes you happy and emotional.

Les UDs are just back from a jeep trip through the rocks. Here’s a sample of the Pink Jeep fun they had. Major bumping, major jumping out of seats, with stops to crawl over smooth brown rocks and gaze at the celestial view.

The sun’s still behind the hills…

… but it’s lighting up a large formation to the right of the balcony. This outcropping looks like the Taj Mahal with a bunch of Taj Mahals behind it; or maybe it looks like Red Square. With binoculars, I can trace the light and shadow, the striations, the grays and greens and reds and whites (there’s some snow high up).

It’s chilly but not cold on the balcony. After a half hour there, watching the whole line of rocks slowly light up, and watching various bright pink contrails, I’m warming up by the fireplace.

Off to breakfast.

The main thing I want to say…

… about where I’m sitting right now – a balcony high up in the red rocks, a full moon rising, the sky a cloudless blue over the reds, church bells ringing through the hills (it just turned five o’clock), and the setting sun shedding light and shade through all the outcroppings – is that it keeps bringing me to tears.

**************************

Another thing: Les UDs thank UD reader Bill R. for his recommendation that they drive to Sedona via Payson. How right you were.

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