Saturday, July 12, 2008

Phoenix notes

When I started making operas, I started keeping notebooks. There's one open on my writing table right now. It's the kind with a metal spring laced through a row of holes in paper with blue lines to keep what you write straight on the page - a "composition book" - "college ruled".

In "Life during Wartime" David Byrne sang about burning all his notebooks - "What good are notebooks? - They won't help me survive!" Perhaps not - The Talking Heads burned and faded out, as popular songs must. Repetition, so essential to rhythm and harmony, gets old pretty quick. Even the tiniest vibration, if repeated infinitely, is infinitely destructive. And boring.

Gaston Bachelard, my mentor philosopher, pointed that out. I mentioned him in an earlier post, and since then I've been thinking of his last book, "Fragments of a Poetics of Fire", and wondering what he would have thought about blogs, what he might have written, if he had blogged.

"Fragments" is just that, pieces of that final book, assembled posthumously by his daughter, out of the notebooks she found on his writing table. The book as it is, a sifted accumulation of notes, appropriately has a number of beginnings but no real end. This note was found; "Ill-fated are the authors who know not how to burn their papers, for they know all too well that the phoenix-book shall not rise from its ashes!"

Bachelard's daughter recalled her father's admiration for a memoir that began with these lines: "No choicer gift may be offered another than one's spirit's intimate converse with itself." In one of the beginnings of the fire book he would not live to finish, he noted -
"A special kind of beauty exists which is born in language, of language, and for language. The one advantage in studying the literary imagination systematically, after all, is that issues, grown narrower, seem in sharper focus. We are in the presence truly of a gift of the imagination, offered simply in the simplest of intimacies, that between a book and its reader. Literary imagination is an aesthetic object offered by a writer to a lover of books. The poetic image may be characterized then as a direct relationship between two souls, a contact between two human beings pleased at the chance, respectively, to speak and to listen, a renewal of language in the raising of a new voice.
A literary image - I will repeat time and time again - must be naive. Its glory is a function of its psychological ephemerality. An image renews language by enhancing the beauty of language. It is this power of enhancement, unhappily lacking in ourselves, which we find gripping when we read the work of the poets."

And this -

"The Phoenix is the sum total of its poetic expressions, a play of multiple correspondences: fire, balm, song, life, birth, and death. It is nest and infinite space. It has two sources of heat, the nest and the sun. Heat of song and heat of spice - (he had earlier noted how the phoenix builds its pyre-nest of "toasted spices") - all combine to set the bird aflame: the arousing, masculine fire of songs that awaken; the cradling, feminine warmth of spices that put to sleep. The hermaphrodism of great images here once again reveals itself, transposed into a much more subtle, hence much truer form."

I've thought of burning my stack of 50 some notebooks, but I'm still too materialistic - I dream as much about endurance as I do about glorious bonfires. So there they sit, under my tool table in a corner of the studio, like an egg past its due date.

What happens to old notes in cyberspace? Bloggers everywhere are pouring out the naive intimacies of their souls onto the ephemeral blue-screens of the net, imagining that their words will take fire in some other, some where, some time. Read once, do they vanish in a hidden flash of cold digital flame, or persist, for eternity, amen? Is this a pyramid? Of futile endeavors Cebah says, "That's like pouring suds in a sinkhole." (Kentucky has a lot of caves.)

A blog about the phoenix could go on and on - but I'll end this one, for now, by pointing out that the photograph heading dandyland muse is in honor of Gaston Bachelard, whose phoenix notebooks have ignited my imagination again and again. Here's the formula: a red rose is a flame; the birdhouse is empty.


Kim said...

Lots of food for lots of thought. So many thoughts here tempting comment, but I'll leave my strongest and simplest one: I'm glad you're not not burning the notebooks.

Dan Dutton said...

This post was partly in response to your poems, and our talk about writing poetry.

I owe those notebooks some gratitude! When I was researching The Secret Commonwealth, The Ballad Project, & The Faun, if I ran into something that seemed really pertinent, or something that I admired, I'd copy it into my notebook- sometimes several pages, sometimes just a paragraph. There's something about going through the manual process of writing that causes you to read in a different way &, I think, imbed the meaning deeper.