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The Riley Factor

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 36

Chapter 11: Living Poetically
Case Studies in Poetic Living — Riley

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A Wallace Nutting colorized photograph
A Wallace Nutting colorized photograph

Case Study No. 2 — The Life of Riley

When I met Riley, in 1995, he was living in a charming duplex — one of three that surrounded a grassy courtyard, where there were eucalyptus and grapefruit trees and flowering shrubs. By September of 1996, he — and his plants and antiques and yellow Labrador retrievers — had outgrown the small duplex, so he bought a three-bedroom house at the end of a cul-de-sac near a park in the central area of Tucson.

Hoosier cabinet

Hoosier cabinet

Riley and I had much in common: Both of our fathers had the name “Horace,” neither of us had a spleen, and both of our mothers were antique dealers. It was from his mother, Rachel, that Riley inherited his love for antiques. Rachel had given him, or he had bought from her, many of the chests of drawers, art prints, rugs, pieces of crockery, and century-old bottles he collected… although, when I was living in Tucson, he and I spent a great deal of time at antique fairs and in antique malls, and his collections have probably doubled in the fourteen years I’ve known him.

Riley is not what you’d call religious, though he almost unfailingly practices the principles set forth by Martin Buber in his 1923 book I and Thou. (See Lesson 33.1, “What Do You Want?”) He beholds the world, in all its particularity, with reverence, although he does not care for cats and he has periodic attacks of road rage.

Creative outlets

"Farmer reading his farm paper," by George W. Ackerman, Coryell County, Texas, September 1931

"Farmer reading his farm paper," by George W. Ackerman, Coryell County, Texas, September 1931

Here is an example of what I mean by reverence, as it applies to Riley:

I have an oak rocking chair, a modest little thing that has served four generations of Campbells. The chair had been smashed to smithereens (“shattered fragments,” from the Irish Gaelic smidirīn, diminutive form of smiodar, “fragment”). I would estimate that this chair was in at least twenty smithereens, some of them no larger than a toothpick. I had given up on finding someone to repair it, but I kept the pieces anyway, in a grocery bag.

Eastlake bed (bargainjohn.com)

Eastlake bed (bargainjohn.com)

Riley took the bag of shards home one day, not long after we met, and brought the chair back to me in one perfect piece within a week. If you could see it, I would defy you to find any trace of smithereen. With the limited tools then at his disposal (he now has a large workshop and a respectable, manly set of tools), he put every fragment back in its place, seamlessly. He had had to replace one of the curved back pieces, but he chose the oak so carefully and stained it in such a way that it is impossible to tell the replacement from the corresponding back piece on the other side.

There was a small, dark, discolored area on the seat that, as far as I knew, had always been there. Riley said, “I could have fixed that, but it’s part of the character of the chair” (or words to that effect). “The character of the chair” — What a concept! Riley taught me to see into the souls of inanimate objects.

Living in southern Arizona, Riley can garden year-round. When I visited him recently, he took pride in showing me the new raised garden beds, the brick walkway between them, the automatic watering system, and the handmade compost bin. That’s another thing we have in common: We can ooh and aah about compost.

Prickly pear (Opuntia; photo by Stan Shebs)

Prickly pear (Opuntia; photo by Stan Shebs)

In precisely the same way, he approached the restoration of a broken-down Hoosier cabinet and the reconstruction of an Eastlake bed (similar to the one pictured above), converting it from three-quarter size to full size.

Pothos (www.plantdirections.com)

Pothos (www.plantdirections.com)

I think he must have been a Druid in a previous life, because he has great reverence for wood, especially oak, and for all growing things, whether they’re in pots or in forests. There are dozens of potted plants in the house and dozens more on the covered patio. The vast majority are from cuttings he took from his own plants.

A little scary

In 2001, my sweet Monica, a medium-size mongrel my boys and I had rescued from the Humane Society, died at the age of 13. Riley buried her — reverently — in the bit of yard west of his house and planted three rosebushes over her grave. The roses are the color of coral, and they flourish every year. Riley has planted mesquites and acacias, asparagus fern and ivyprickly pear and jalapeño peppers in the large back yard and the smaller front yard. Everything grows for him. He would no more neglect the care and feeding of a plant than he would of his yellow Labradors, Truman and Dani.

Riley, me, and my son Eli, 1998

Riley, me, and my son Eli, 1998

Riley sometimes refers to himself as “anal-retentive,” but he’s not, really — not quite, just as he is almost but not quite a perfectionist — because he can laugh at himself. Every job he undertakes — from making salsa to building a bookcase — is done lovingly and systematically, and he never hurries.

Blooming acacia

Blooming acacia

There is, however, a teensy suggestion of anal-retentiveness that is evident in the storage of his clothing, which is regimentally folded, or hung, according to type, color, and so forth. It’s a little scary for someone like me, who can never find socks that match.

More Riley facts

Riley always pays his bills on time and he never spends money he doesn’t have.

He knows the names of all the members (and the instruments they played) of every blues or rock band that performed from the 1950s through the 1990s. He owns, I am guessing conservatively here, 120 blues albums on CD.

He has a complete set of books by Mark Twain, signed by Mark Twain.

He was something of a rogue in his youth, and that’s all I have to say on that subject.

Grand Canyon: The muddy Colorado River from Navajo Point

Grand Canyon: The muddy Colorado River from Navajo Point

He is loyal. If you become Riley’s friend, you are Riley’s friend for life. Every spring, until recently, Riley went with five or six other men on ten-day backpacking trips in the Grand Canyon. He is one of the younger guys; several of his elders have developed back problems or knee disorders, so most of their hiking these days is done in the mountains that surround Tucson.

Riley has a graceful, athletic, quietly reassuring way about him. He is confident but never (hardly ever) arrogant. Without having to work at it, Riley lives more poetically than almost anyone I know. As his mother once said to me, justifiably proud of her son, “Riley is a gentleman, literally, in the best possible way — a gentle man.”

When he’s not at work or on a hike, you might find him refinishing furniture in the workshop, mulching the garden, reading science fiction, or (in season) watching college sports on television. Sometimes he takes Truman and Dani for walks along the dry bed of the Rillito River (there’s a trail about a quarter-mile from his house).

wallacenutting_road_blossoms1

Wallace Nutting colorized landscape

The Wallace Nutting photos, shown above, are typical of the kinds of framed prints Riley favors. He has dozens of prints of that ilk, including several Wallace Nuttings, usually in lovely antique oak frames. But despite all the art, the antique furniture, the valuable glassware (which I won’t even begin to describe) and pottery, and the lovely old rugs, the house is neither museumlike nor cluttered. It feels, and looks, comfortable, soft, pleasing in every way… unless you are allergic to or don’t like dogs.

evening_after_rain_worcestershire

Spare No Sibilants

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 31

Chapter 10: Meditation
Part 4: Poetry-Writing as Meditation

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1  

girl_art_project

The creative arts are the playground for recognizing and understanding our purpose in being here. When we truly allow our spirits to be filled with the purpose, our minds can begin to take stock of the necessary steps and needed materials so the body can become the mover or manifestor of the desire. Mind, Body, Spirit: Connecting With Your Creative Self,
by Mary Braheny and Diane Halperin

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I wrote both of the poems below “meditatively” — that is, with an open mind, as part of a morning ritual.

The first poem originated from my noticing that at this time of year, the earth’s orientation to the sun is such that the rays slant more brightly and beautifully through my bedroom windows than in any other season.  I have said before that I live in a church basement, though that’s not quite accurate. Half of my apartment is below ground level. The windows — there are four, all on the south side — are full sized, made possible by window wells.

In meditative poems I try not to be intentional. I work with the poetic conventions I choose and let the tale tell itself. In this case, I chose the following:

There are other common rhetorical devices as well. (1) How many can you identify? (Please name the ones you find.)

The poem was going to be a meditation on a ray of light, but it turned into something quite different. (2) What might it have told me about myself that I hadn’t been aware of?

1. WHIMSY ON WELCOMING WINDOWS IN WINTER

My walkdown is half below ground and thus darkish
with windows on only one side, and these mullioned
and frosted and dusty, gray-tinted with shadows
from brickwork and privet… and silent, so quiet
that lightning and thunder at midnight can’t penetrate;
but, more’s the pity, I can’t discern birdsong;
cicadas lamenting and crickets scritch-scritching,
however, are easily heard in midsummer.
I once had a fright from a possum who tumbled,
at least I inferred that she had, to the floor of
the window-well; captive, she skittered around on
the old metal screens; and I, thinking the threat must
be human, in fear and confusion, punched in nine-
one-one on the phone, and no fewer than two dozen
uniformed men armed with pistols came quickly
to rescue a woman alone in her bedroom,
defending her person from one hapless menacing
possum. The men with the guns were forgiving,
and, surely, one had to do something, not knowing
the danger. I do love a window that faces
the south in the wintertime, feral four-footed
invaders, indeed, notwithstanding; for sunlight
slants through in a comforting, angular way that
is perfectly suited for afternoon naps and
geraniums, too.

January 18, 2009

restored_winter_garden_2002_ground0

The inspiration for the following poem was the much-embellished language of Elizabeth Peters’s delightful Victorian archaeologist and detective Amelia Peabody Emerson. Peters has written a few dozen books about the Emersons, all narrated (for the most part) by Amelia, whose husband refers to her affectionately as “Peabody.” There is an unrestraint about her utterances (as there is, as well, about Victorian houses, furniture, and other artistic expressions) that is greatly at odds with the more modern, pared-down prose of later writers. If something can be clearly expressed using five words, Amelia will use fifteen.

tomb234There is, I am overjoyed to find, a new book in the series: Tomb of the Golden Bird (Amelia Peabody Mysteries).

Again, the poem wandered into uncharted territory. (3) What do you think I learned about myself in the process of writing this poem? (HINT: There are no wrong answers.) 

2. LIBERTINE (AMELIA)

 “They will rid us of resident

     “rodents,” said Amelia Peabody —

Oh, what a droll redundancy

     Of D’s and R’s and S’s.

Amelia is generous with consonants

     and commas and asides,

     not sparing

     an embarrassment of prepositions

     or extravagant Egyptian

     nomenclature.

Ah, to scatter syllables

     with no fear of reprisal,

Scribbling whatever adjectives

     arise, page upon page,

To be intemperate at last

     and feel the weight of pent-up participles

     lifted from one’s shoulders,

     nobly carried, one might add,

     despite the rain.

Now to feast upon the delicate,

     the succulent, the opulent

     accessories, plucked in

     leaner days from one’s

     repast, but frozen — for

     one knew their banishment

     would end at last.

Economy, begone! Pack your

     valise and abdicate

     your stern and pious reign.

Don’t slam the door when you

     egress. Expect no severance pay,

     for you’ve exacted

     more than you were owed.

And now, a toast, companions

     in the liberation, mes amis.

Now lift your flagons, lift them high,

     and drink to whimsy, arrogant,

     peculiar, wry, benevolent.

Drink to liberty

     in flowing crimson silk

     arrayed; Amelia Peabody has

     gained the citadel, and

     holds aloft the flame.

O, wasted wealth of words, O, damned

     display of Latin origins.

O, Norse and Arabic, O, Gaelic,

     Greek and Cherokee, and more;

Ye assonant ambassadors, rejoice!

Amelia has restored

     your scattered fortunes.

Spare no sibilants;

     there shall be subsurrations,

     seventy times seven, and

     a score besides.

Throw wide the gates for

     summer’s retinue,

     ripe pomegranate.

Go and populate the periodicals, reclaim

     the islands where verbosity

     has honor still.

Amelia has gained the citadel,

     and yet, take care that your extravagance

     is eloquent, laid on with artistry. For as

     “the tombs themselves descend in

     “sinuous curves,”

Endeavor to deserve, when you are

     gone, an orderly effusion

     in the manner you (yourself)

     displayed.

Immerse yourself in immortality.

     Immerse yourself COMPLETELY,

     like Amelia,

Who bathes and then adjourns to the

     verandah,

Where breezes ruffle Nefret’s hair

     that shimmers in the light like

     golden threads.

 

February 2006

peabody

Assignment 31.1

  1. Answer the questions highlighted above in red.
  2. Write a meditative poem in blank verse using iambic or trochaic tetrameter. Your poem should have no more than twenty lines. BEGIN WITH A MINIMALIST, CONCRETE SUBJECT, AND DO NOT WRITE OVERTLY ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS.
  3. Identify the poetic devices in your poem.
  4. Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
  5. Keep exploring the meditations at www.LifeIsPoetry.net, and continue with your meditation journal.

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