My new poetry chapbook published by Presa Press, Jaguar’s Book of The Dead, is now available: http://presapress.com/books/jaguars-book-of-the-dead
My new poetry chapbook published by Presa Press, Jaguar’s Book of The Dead, is now available: http://presapress.com/books/jaguars-book-of-the-dead
Maul, mace? Yes, “maul” can be a noun. This sculpture by Tom Luczycki is part medieval tool, part Flintstones’ household object (though post-Flintstones would be more accurate since it’s made of metal). It’s probably fashioned from scrap metal, the prongs welded to the bottom. It’s like something you’d see in a cartoon or a movie featuring Visigoths, a Hollywood version of Visigoths, that is.
But it’s waaaaaay too heavy to be a prop. At the same time, I don’t think it’s meant to split wood, as the definition of a maul claims, but to split open someone’s head. Or, pretend to. Or, to suggest, I could split your head open if I wanted to. My husband reminds me, Luczycki gave the sculpture to my husband because of my husband’s late hours at the office, adding he thought, “the prongs would do a real number on someone’s side, embedded between the ribs.” He gave a demonstration, holding the handle and swinging it slowly toward my husband’s ribs.
It’s always helpful to have instructions like this come with your sculpture, don’t you think?
It’s a boyhood toy, hollow, but with adult features that really could do some serious damage, unlike a plastic toy. Circular bumps help with the grip at the top but would not be pleasant if you were to rub those up and down someone’s flesh, for instance. “Thud” is what I imagine it would sound like to actually crash its sledge tips into something, castle wall, say. It says, “I will protect you.” Also, “You might want to get a tetanus shot.” It also says, “maul” is a noun and a verb, and it’s ready to serve up both forms of the word.
I feel like I need a moat to go with it.
I like a placement where the maul is steadying itself against a bookcase. An eye-catching “display” doesn’t seem right for this sculpture and its suburban setting. Its lovely brownish patina blends in with the bookcase’s wood, its “feet” resting on the soft carpet. When not in use, I think it needs to be something stumbled upon, casually threatening. And above the bookcase is a painting by Luczycki’s wife—I’m glad we found a spot to have both artists’ works near each other.
Luczycki was a graduate student in art at Tulsa University where my husband was teaching art history. He was getting his second masters. Luczycki and his wife, another graduate student in art, were witnesses at our wedding and took photos. And didn’t have any problem going to Sonic after the ceremony. Besides being the Head of Exhibits at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, Luczycki’s blogs discuss his love of spear and boomerang throwing. Makes sense.
I made the announcement at eleven. I told my mother, “I’m not playing with dolls any more.”
I didn’t expect her measured response, “Yes, that’s probably a good idea.”
I don’t know why that startled me. Did I expect my mom to actually be sentimental about my dolls, their motor homes, shoes, dresses, furniture, and dramas scattered all over the living room floor?
But I think I did hear a little twinge when she added, “You are getting bigger.” I’d outgrown dolls, and it signaled a change for both of us.
* * *
Frida came as a big surprise. My husband gave her to me for my birthday one year. She is made by the painter Marsha Moore Hughes, another colleague of my husband who taught painting at Tulsa University. When my husband and I went to the opening of a faculty exhibit, my husband pointed to the Frida piece, telling me she was mine! I couldn’t wait for the exhibit to come down so I could take her home. She is not to be played with but stands on the top shelf of a bookcase in our living room where she surveys all from her perch.
She reminds me a bit of Hughes in her facial features. As a female painter, the connection Hughes might feel with the Mexican painter is obvious. And maybe subconscious since the details of Frida’s face are there, her unibrow and moustache. The blushing cheeks and round face remind me of Hughes, though. And those are the eyes I remember welcoming us to art department parties Hughes would host at her home.
I didn’t need to make up a life and loves for her. I’d read her biography, seen a documentary about her. Appropriately, female decorative arts merge in her making as she is sewn together, hand-painted, and stuffed. She wears her traditional dress that looks like it was fun to paint using bright colors, patterns, and splashes of paint. The skulls on her Día de los Muertos necklace look positively chipper.
* * *
I have Fibromyalgia, and today was painful. I wanted to cry at the grocery store. Frida may have had Fibromyalgia, too. Certainly, she had pain from her accident and the procedures to repair the damage. Pain that amplified upon itself. The other day, I read that more nerve endings have been found in the hands of women with Fibromyalgia. Like weeds growing. The amplification isn’t in our heads.
But this Frida can fly when she needs to. No pain.
When my husband gave her to me, I didn’t have Fibromyalgia, I didn’t live in a border town where Frida would cross by train, I didn’t know I may have some Taíno ancestry, which has links to ancient South American indigenous people. I didn’t live in a culture where it’s considered very strange not to have children. I think I am growing into having my Frida doll.
Excuse me–it’s time for a tea party.
A Very Special Gift
Spirit Tree for Richard is a mixed-media print by Mary Dryburgh, a former colleague of my husband when he taught at Tulsa University. She is a printmaker and professor who now teaches at Columbia Basin College in Washington. She’s also collaborated with writers on beautiful limited edition books, such as poets William Stafford and Naomi Shihab Nye.
“Richard,” if you haven’t already figured it out, is my husband. Dryburgh kindly gifted the print to him, one from a series of Spirit Tree prints she made. My husband recalls Dryburgh would continue working with her prints after the printing process, smudging the prints with her hands, for instance. There is no number on the front of the print, which would be the case if the print was, say, number three of thirty identical prints. Rather than one among identical prints, this makes it a one-of-a-kind, extra-special gift.
Placement and Framing
Living in Tulsa was many, many moons ago, so we had the print stored or tacked up for a long time. Before being properly framed and mounted behind glass, though, you could see the handmade papery material the image is printed on with its rough edges, hanging like a delicate animal skin.
If we had a fireplace, hanging the print above the fireplace would be perfect. I think of the domed shape near the top of the print as echoing the curved front panel of a fireplace. But we don’t have a fireplace. We do have high ceilings and a place out of direct sunlight at the bottom of the stairs.
Seasons and Dimensions
It’s winter since there aren’t any leaves on the tree. The branches cradle a skull. Have other parts of the skeleton been taken, perhaps finished off by the ravens Dryburgh likes to showcase in other prints? Two branches look like horns or someone putting two fingers up behind someone’s head just before a photo is taken.
It could be a vase and flowers with the attenuating of the boughs toward the trunk. This is one way the print plays tricks on you—are the tree and curving line making a 3-D vessel, the skull a kind of strange flower? Or 2-D, the tree in front of a curving, black shape? One second, a vase of flowers. Then a tombstone behind a tree. Then a hill behind a tree. Then Emily Dickinson’s setting sun. Then earth setting. Then space or spirit taking on a shape. Cloudy sky behind all of this. It’s frightening, Gothic, and then peaceful. The trickery, like some of the lavender and pink tones, is playful despite the serious subject and dark colors.
I looked up the Native American practice of burying the dead in scaffolds or trees. The practice varies from tribe to tribe. Generally, as in the art work, the body is laid in the fork of a tree and often positioned so the spirit goes in the right direction. Beyond the end of the cycles of life that a tree represents is where you are.
Your Favorite Horse to Accompany You on Your Journey
My eye always goes to the skull, first. The skull looks too narrow to be a human skull, as John Brandenburg points out in an exhibit review: https://newsok.com/article/2382095/art-gallery-features-figurative-prints And the skull is looking directly at us instead of turned upward, I would add. John Brandenburg guesses it is a cow or horse. Since Dryburgh was taking riding lessons at the time, I’m going to guess it’s a horse skull. Well, and because I’m also a middle-aged woman taking horseback riding lessons. Are the two dangling bones my eye goes to next the horse’s distinctive toes around the hoof? A sly hint about what’s depicted?
When I looked up tree burials and other images of them, I was struck by one image including a horse sacrificed and laid out underneath a scaffold. Unlike the images I looked at, if this is a horse, it rests in the fork of the tree instead of on the ground, dutifully under its owner. All one ton or more of it hefted there after death. Is the owner below, where we can’t see? The placement of the horse suggests the owner is irrelevant, and the horse is not a sacrificial companion but the one grieved, the one lovingly prepared and sent in the right direction.
And that branch forking behind the skull’s head placed about where a horse’s ears would be that I thought of as horns? They are much longer than a horse’s ears but suggest their sharp hearing, attuned to other worlds. Radio antennas. And their mischievous, intelligent behavior. When riding, I try to read my horse’s ears to gauge his level of focus, intent, emotions. They tell me volumes.
Something confusing is that “Spirit Tree” is defined as a totem rather than a place of burial when I looked up the term. In the print, the artist seems to blend both ideas–burying a horse in a tree reveals its higher position above humans on the totem. Or, at least, to the artist. And to me, some days.
I remember Dryburgh saying once, “Horses are really just big dogs.” I think at that point in Tulsa the mystique of horses and riding might have been fading for her. Rather than an elegy for one particular horse, perhaps the print pays homage to that part of her life and says good-bye to it.
Questions the Trickery Makes Me Ask and Try to Answer
The print also takes me back to drawing class in college. I can feel myself tracing the shapes with charcoal and smudging the lines, enjoying getting the rich black charcoal to cover the paper and my hands. Because it’s a mixed-media print, it shifts in lovely ways from etching to charcoal drawing, ink drawing, then painting when I look at it. Another kind of trickery.
Is the transition from one world to the next like moving from one dimension to another, one medium to another? How do we ready someone to go there, and why can’t that someone be an animal? What commonality do differing beliefs about death and burial share? How can we mark transitions in life for which we don’t tend to have rituals?
For our condo, spirit goes up—up stairs.
You’re a consolation. A stream heading for me and the wheat-colored light of a Virginia easing out of winter and into spring. I turn to this painting in my worst moments. And they are often moments of transition.
A few years ago, the painter, Richard Crozier, led my husband and I out to his new studio. It was a light-filled room built in his backyard surrounded by the terraced garden his wife lovingly tended. We didn’t expect what he said next. “Pick one,” he pointed to a box on the floor filled with oil paintings on masonite board the size of record albums. I tried to not look like I was panting as my husband said we couldn’t possibly take one of his paintings. Crozier waved that aside.
Crozier paints landscapes and taught art at The University of Virginia where my husband and I had gone to graduate school. He’s now retired. Here’s an article about his life and work: https://streetlightmag.com/2014/07/28/subject-to-change-paintings-by-richard-crozier/
We hung the painting in the living room in the perfect spot for a large screen TV. We have a console TV from the dinosaur era, instead. I remember there wasn’t a TV anywhere in Crozier’s house—I think he’d enjoy knowing his painting hangs in this coveted spot.
There were so many paintings in the box, it would have taken all day to go through them. “What kind of landscape would you like?” he asked as a way to narrow down the choices.
Immediately, I knew. “Something with water in it.” We were living in drought-riven Texas.
Those dry Texas days can lead me to this painting like a horse to water. And I drink. It looks like we’re in for another drought like the one we were enduring when we returned to Charlottesville for a visit. We’ve had less rain than we should have so far this year my husband happened to mention today. And I watched horses going into heat stroke last week where I go horseback riding. Ranches disappeared last time, replaced by a lot of strip malls and housing developments.
It’s a cold stream and shallow like ones where I grew up in Upstate New York. And quiet, except for the sound of the water. I don’t need a water feature in the house to conjure up that sound. I hear it every time I look at the painting. And feel cooler, thirst-quenched.
And less lonely as it’s been a dry spell for socializing and taking walks, too. You see, I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. I feel very fortunate that I can still work, but it leaves me little energy and time for much else. It can leave you housebound and isolated.
I can see this as a dry spell or as a time for contemplation, the kind of looking Crozier must be doing as he paints, his easel set up along the edge of the creek or painting from the passenger side of his car. What birds are singing? And I remember how slippery and uneven the rocks can be in streams like this one. You find your way with your feet for a while feeling the sensations of cold water, small fish, guppies, slippery rocks, and pebbles. Because your brushstrokes are visible, I can let my own memories of a place like this in.
Or a day in Charlottesville walking across Jefferson’s campus. Everything is bustling with people going about their business among the brick buildings in those memories; buildings and people are absent in the painting. The sky, a blue ridge in the distance, a net of tree branches catching golden light, those take me back there. I didn’t have a car, so rarely got beyond Charlottesville proper and to any place resembling this spot. Except on my bike, where I found a road known as 21 Curves winding down alongside a stream and near a golf course. That stream kept me going on hot days when winding back up the 21 curves felt impossible. Cooling drafts and the smell of fresh water floated off the stream. But I didn’t stop to look, whizzing by, instead.
Now, I can look. And understand the depth of this gift. And then step away and return to where I am and a new turn.
My husband and I live in a 1,100 square-foot condo. We like to call it our big-ass tiny house—small but not really tiny. Way too large to haul anywhere without smashing into underpasses, even if it could be moved. Barn-like in it’s rectangular shape and high cathedral ceiling.
It was our first house purchase after years of renting and moving with academic jobs and grad school before that. Our nearly-zero decorating budget (I mentioned grad school, right?) went for two things:
Since there were really only two windows to “treat,” that wasn’t too costly, thankfully. One window sports faux plantation blinds in the living room and one window is draped with a papery blue-green blind in the bedroom. We picked out a gold curtain for the bedroom window to keep out heat, cold, light.
A window near the ceiling in the living room is only covered in sunscreens. It’s a living canvas—birds flying past, the moon peeking in, a renegade Texas storm cloud spitting hail. I’m here on the couch looking up at it as I write.
A third, smaller window in the entryway and across from the galley kitchen got a special Sue “treatment”—one curtain panel apparently separated from its mate that I snagged on sale for $8, I hemmed and hung from a wire-sprung curtain rod. Its lovely browns and reds match much better with the kitchen cabinets and living room blinds than I realized in the store! Why did I take so long mulling over whether or not to buy it? It’s perfect. I mentioned grad school, right?
Walls and Space and Frames
Our condo was brand new when we moved in in 2008. We left the beige-with-a-twinge-of-mocha-foam shade on the walls (I’m certain that’s what the paint color must be called). We wanted a plain backdrop for the paintings, drawings, engravings, and photos we planned to hang.
I should explain. My husband is an art historian who’s been teaching in studio art programs. One of the job’s perks is free or graciously discounted artwork by students and colleagues. I found or was given a few things, too. Some of it came framed, most of it didn’t and sat in boxes, or, ahem, was tacked to the wall. Ceramics and some small sculptures have found places safe from the cats or being tripped over by us.
Well, one large ceramic piece is sort of a launching pad for the youngest cat, but since the artist loves cats, I think he’d sort of like that. I hope.
We started taking the unframed works to a crafts store that does framing. They love us. They love our wallet even more. When our nearly-zero budget ran out, I found cheap frames and framed the smaller pieces myself.
I want to celebrate being surrounded by art in our home. This is where I write poems. I can’t imagine doing that any other place, now. I’ll take you on a tour, telling you about the artist, unless that’s unknown, the story behind how the work ended up in our hands or what it means to me. I’ve taken a few art history courses and a drawing course many years ago in college, but I’m no art historian. These will be more personal reflections. I hope you enjoy this art walk through our condo!
The 2019 Texas Poetry Calendar is on sale! My poem, “Lizard Talk,” is included in this edition.
Excited to have my work featured in Miriam Queensen’s Creativity Blog:
Enter a Goodreads Book Giveaway for a chance to win one of three signed copies of Cold Knife Surgery. I’m donating the copies in honor of National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. The Giveaway ends January 31, 2018.