Isaac Lewis' personal kaleidoscope

Ploughing Poems

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.¹

In her essay Poetry Is Not a Project², Dorothea Lasky argues that good poems can't be made from some linear intention. When a poem is forced into something like a framework or plan, it breaks something strong inside: its many-faced, kaleidoscopic uncertainty. There is power in the idea that great poems do not come from a place of statement, but from what she calls "that uncertain space, where the grand external world (meaning anything and everything) folds into the intense internal world of the individual".

holding a sea urchin

The page becomes a cliff, and I am standing on the edge, feeling the impulse to jump. Writing is not so much thinking on paper as falling into a primordial caldron of self and world; my thumbnails are worn as protective hats on sea urchins feeding on my pages like seaweed.

If poetry is not a project, then what is its function? If poetry isn't for saying something, then how should it be used?

The filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky had a provocative opinion on the purpose of art, regardless of form:

The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow [their] soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.³

Art, with Tarkovsky, feels embroidered in the veil of death. Tarkovsky later compares the experience of art to a "sublime, purging trauma", in which we discover "the unfathomable depths of our own potential, and the furthest reaches of our emotions". This ploughing and harrowing uncover the "best sides of us", the treasures under the mud, and we "wish for them to be freed".

I prune myself with poems, I dig out the English Ivy that is sucking me dry, I rake up the debris covering my heart. I open a book like a toolshed, selecting the implement that suits the heart-work I am doing that day.

If poems are tools, are they only for personal experience? Do they only work on your own self?

You are just trying to strike a spark, but what fire that spark lights — is up to the person whose spark it is.⁴

With the poem's spark, a fire can be lit in each receptive reader — these fires all have different shapes, different heats. Each fire can warm a handful of good friends, throwing off its own crackling sparks. James Baldwin strongly suggested the intimacy of social change, the liberatory power of these fires:

A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven ... Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.⁵

This "great love affair"² is the harrowing and ploughing of society to discover "the best sides of us", the controlled burn of the undergrowth, and the sparking of campfires in the dark. Crucially, all of this work takes place in the heart of one reader — experiencing the trauma of a poem.

I am cradled by my enemy; we have fallen to the ground, and our hair and blood are tangled like alien blackberry vines, they bloom like algae. In his eyes I see a fate like forgiveness, like betrayal. I hang on the edge of knowing like a bristlecone.

This symphony of distress, a harmonic tension between the best sides of us and our shadow, is the bright trauma of a poem. The experience of this limbo, this "wild party"², offers a kaleidoscopic perspective. The reader is taking two paths at once, or being underwater and on shore simultaneously – torn, split, shattered, glittering between many places, times, emotions. This rent state is horrendous and exhilarating, and completely its own, indescribable outside of itself.

Poetry becomes the craft by which we explore the contradictions – the inarticulate horrors, and the wordless euphorias – of our inner selves. These landscapes have no direct parallel, and retract from description, so we paint with words like impressionists. Our own selves become lenses, black holes bending space, time, and language.

the moment is invertebrate no narrative / you’re naked with feelings you don’t / understand they bend around you like water.⁶

I will not compose poetry — but I will bring myself to myself, and not look away. I will be split apart, I will decompose, I will feel myself carried away by roots and mushrooms. I will grow fingers of leaves, and fruit into shaggy manes. I will breathe air and humus.

In order to write a poem that is a plough, the poet must first be ploughed under, decompose, and feed a new crop of barley. The reader drinks her ale, breaks her bread with her friends, and is fed.

As she stands up, the earth tilts on its axis.

Here the frailest leaves of me and yet my strongest lasting,
Here I shade and hide my thoughts, I myself do not expose them,
And yet they expose me more than all my other poems.⁷

¹ Heaney, Seamus (1966) "Digging", in Death of a Naturalist.
² Lasky, Dorothea (2010). Poetry Is Not a Project. [online] Ugly Duckling Presse. Available at: https://uglyducklingpresse.org/publications/poetry-is-not-a-project/.
³ Tarkovsky, Andrei and Hunter-Blair, K. (1987) Sculpting in Time. University of Texas Press.
⁴ Le Guin, Ursula K. (2014). Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. [online] UC Santa Cruz. 8 May. Available at: https://vimeo.com/388580186.
⁵ Baldwin, James (1985). The Creative Process. In: The Price of the Ticket. St. Martin’s Press.
⁶ Alsadir, Nuar (2022) "Invertebrate", in The Yale Review.
⁷ Whitman, Walt (1855) Leaves of Grass.

James Baldwin on Love

Pretend, for example, that you were born in Chicago and have never had the remotest desire to visit Hong Kong, which is only a name on a map for you; pretend that some convulsion, sometimes called accident, throws you into connection with a man or a woman who lives in Hong Kong; and that you fall in love. Hong Kong will immediately cease to be a name and become the center of your life. And you may never know how many people live in Hong Kong. But you will know that one man or one woman lives there without whom you cannot live. And this is how our lives are changed, and this is how we are redeemed.
What a journey this life is! Dependent, entirely, on things unseen. If your lover lives in Hong Kong and cannot get to Chicago, it will be necessary for you to go to Hong Kong. Perhaps you will spend your life there, and never see Chicago again. And you will, I assure you, as long as space and time divide you from anyone you love, discover a great deal about shipping routes, airlines, earth quake, famine, disease, and war. And you will always know what time it is in Hong Kong, for you love someone who lives there. And love will simply have no choice but to go into battle with space and time and, furthermore, to win.

Leontyne Price sings Vissi d'arte

On Leontyne Price's 95th birthday tomorrow, please enjoy her stunning "Vissi d'arte" as Tosca – one of the most transcendent arias ever written, delivered by the most soaring voice, which Jessye Norman called "a cloud filled with silver".

I lived for my art, I lived for love,
I never did harm to a living soul!
With a secret hand
I relieved as many misfortunes as I knew of.
Always with true faith
my prayer
rose to the holy shrines.
Always with true faith
I gave flowers to the altar.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
why do you reward me thus?
I gave jewels for the Madonna’s mantle,
and I gave my song to the stars, to heaven,
which smiled with more beauty.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus?

Crazy as a Loon

Midway through 2017, John Prine came into my life. Trump was playing golf, I was working late — I was feeling enormously citified and wishing I was back on the farm. Out of nowhere, “Spanish Pipedream” hit me over the head, and I went dizzy for a few weeks.

Blow up your TV
Throw away your paper
Go to the country, build you a home
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches
Try an’ find Jesus on your own

It ran through my head all summer. As I walked the city at night, I would wonder whether we should move back to Goldendale. My job was grueling, and I was surrounded by a hustle I didn’t quite know what to do with. I tried to decide whether to fit in or get out, and I squirmed through the meetings either way. Working late, alone at the office, I’d listen to Fair & Square on the company speakers.

That town will make you crazy
Just give it a little time
You’ll be walking ’round in circles
Lookin’ for that country rhyme

A year later, I quit my job and took another one where I felt a little more like myself. I built a boat, did a little fishing, and traveled around with my sweetheart. Sarah and I decided to stay in the Tri-Cities, and we decided to have kids, in spite of ourselves. We thought we were busy, and that the world was stressful, and I suppose it was. You never know what’s coming next, but it’s amazing how the ordinary bits shine in the rear-view mirror.

Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle
Looks just like a diamond ring

John Prine.

In 2019, I became a foster dad. My ‘Chicken Nugget’ was the giggliest, cutest, most serious and sassy little girl I’d ever met, and she wiggled her way into my heart like nobody else could. Sarah and I stayed up late with her, checking every time her breathing changed. What was supposed to be a few weeks became a few months, and then became more than a few years. We never knew how long we’d be together, but every day felt like the best one, the worst one, and the funniest one yet.

I bronzed my shoes and I hung ’em from a rearview mirror
Bronzed admiration in a blind spot of regret
There was all these things that I don’t think I remember
Hey, how lucky can one man get?

The day John Prine died, it was a Monday. We had a social work meeting that morning. It was the third week of lockdowns in Washington state. It was the feast of the Annunciation. I didn’t get much done at work. I checked his Pickathon concert, planned for the summer. Tickets were still available.

Mama dear, your boy is here
Far across the sea
Waiting for that sacred coal
That burns inside of me

Death is never warm to sit with, but people can sure get numb. Perhaps that’s the real tragic part — not being able to cry. Once you’ve heard a few friends of friends die, you’ve heard them all? Some people only have four grandparents; some people have a dozen. All depends on how you count.

I hear a lot of empty spaces
I see a big hole in the view
I feel an outline that traces
An imaginary path back to you
This ain't no ordinary blue

Chicken Nugget’s big brother, Bubbies, came to live with us, too. We were all locked down in our house that sizzling, smothery summer. We spent a lot of time outside, or at the skatepark, or by the river. Bubbies learned how to jump his bike. Sarah and I planted a huge garden, and our pumpkins took over the block. I spent long hours walking the city at night. The washer machine flooded the basement with a half-inch of water. It all happened so fast that even now I have a hard time remembering how it all felt. At the time, it felt like a carnival ride you’re too dizzy to understand, and some days that’s how it still feels. There were sad days, and scary days, and goofy days — and in the end, it was something.

That’s the way that the world goes ’round.
You’re up one day and the next you’re down.
It’s half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown.
That’s the way that the world goes ’round.

As the year went on, it felt like the whole world was shuffling around. Friends I used to talk to all the time became passing acquaintances. Passing acquaintances became good friends. Sarah’s huge dinner parties became more intimate ones in the backyard. Old stores closed down, old friends passed away, some grandparents ordered their food on delivery, and some grandparents traveled the country. Everybody was trying something new.

It’s a mighty mean and a dreadful sorrow
It’s crossed the evil line today
How can you ask about tomorrow
When we ain’t got one word to say?

John Prine (2016).

My life got busier. Chicken Nugget and Bubbies had a baby brother born in 2021, and sleep left me for good (for now). Li’l Man spent his first summer soaking up the giggly chaos around him, the better to dish it back in spades. The garden had another good year. Friends grew fewer but closer, and my nightly walks got shorter.

And down on the beach, the sandman sleeps
Time don’t fly, it bounds and leaps
And a country music band that plays for keeps
They play it so slow

These days, it feels as if the world is paused in turbulence. Nothing’s changing exactly, since change is the only constant. This year, the garden languished, but we spent the summer outside. Every few days there’s some horrible news, but when has it ever not been that way?

Father forgive us for what we must do
You forgive us we’ll forgive you
We’ll forgive each other till we both turn blue
Then we’ll whistle and go fishing in heaven

My nightly walks are less frequent now, but my dog Hank never gives up hope. Will it be tonight? Will it be down by the river, or through the cemetery? Will we pee on the Tahitian bar sandwich sign, or on the all-year Halloween decor? It takes a lot for the world to surprise me these days, and it takes a lot to scare me. At home it’s another story — every scraped knee is scary, and every crayon picture is surprising.

Someday I’ll take it all in stride.

The fundamental story
Of the contemporary man
Is to walk away and someday understand

Originally appeared in Tumbleweird.

Élisabeth Chaplin

Élisabeth Chaplin (b. 1890) was a French painter who lived in Tuscany for most of her life. She was connected to many of the painters of the Les Nabis movement, and much of her work relates to the themes of symbolism, post-impressionism, and early modernism.

She spent much of her life at Villa Treppiede in Fiesole, Florence, and continued painting up until her death in 1982.

Self-portrait [painted when Chaplin was 13]
Due ritratti
Rest in Egypt
Portrait of Ms. Ida Cappechi [Élisabeth's companion of 70 years]
The Three Sisters
Martha and Mary
Ida, anni Cinquanta

dunes before rain

the cedars stake
sand like uncles
waiting; the storm
— black with virga,
hours away — smells
fresh, like sticky


I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling
    high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit
    I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring. I said, 'My dear bird, we are wasting time
These old bones will still work; they are not for you.' But how
    he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the
    over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak
become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes--
What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment; what a life
after death.

-- Robinson Jeffers, Carmel-by-the-Sea, published posthumously in The Beginning and the End (1963)