Monday, August 31, 2009

Portrait of an Artist

“Here come real stars to fill the upper skies, and here on earth come emulating flies, that though they never equal stars in size (and they were never really stars at heart) achieve at times a very star-like start. Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.” -Fireflies in the Garden, by Robert Frost

When I was 18 and heading off to college my sister Lisa gave me an anthology of poetry she said would arm me against the horrors of the world. It was full of such great epistles as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s To a Skylark, Rudyard Kipling’s If, Alfred Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s My Kate.
I would venture out into the George Fox canyon by Hobson dorm with a flashlight and read under the trees by cover of night and surround myself with mist and scurrying rustles of bushes and wait for the dew to rise and persuade me back to the warmth of my little cot bed beside the radiator that clinked and the window that iced over with the blustery breath of a winter’s wind. What I loved most about this book though were the faces of each poet at the head of every page: Portraits and busts, etchings and lithographs, and each of them at different stages of the writer’s life. There was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with wispy white beard, and Ezra Pound with fedora and fresh goatee cut to a point at his chin. Vachel Lindsey staring down death, and Anne Sexton all boozy and broken and smiling seductively.
Yet my favorite by far was a stone statue of Robert Frost. Young and neatly coiffed in a neck tie and scarf. He looked like a college boy across the hall, sprite and spry, ready to leap some hurdles or raid the girls floor at midnight. I imagined he and I were friends, and I took his poems everywhere I went: Birches, Mending Walls, After Apple-Picking and especially his Fireflies in the Garden. Such simple truths this young man knew. How, “He is all pine, and I am apple orchard,” or that “The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his long sleep,” or about “some boy too far from town to learn baseball, whose only play was what he found himself.” Oh, how he spoke gently to me, making me a believer in the natural truth I saw all around me. Even his name, Robert Frost. Was there ever a name better suited for the moniker of a poet?
You can then imagine my shock the first time I heard his voice. Gravely and shaken, full of pain and ancient sorrow. A professor played a recording of Frost reading The Gift Outright at John F. Kenney’s inauguration. I sat in class in shock long after everyone had left. Was this his real voice? That’s certainly not how I heard it in my head, full of sweetness and mirth. No, this man was aged and wearied by the toil of life. I hurried to the library and looked up his picture. There, staring back at me from the back paper jacket cover was this sorrowful, droopy eyed, wrinkled man like a hollow mask of death, raging against me, mocking my naivety. I hated those facial lines, that worrisome brow, because I realized then that his poems were not about the soul of budding life but the harshness of overripe harvest instead. About the bitter end of our days rather than the luscious start, and I wanted nothing of it.
I looked again at all those faces in my sister’s poetry anthology, just scanning and looking no more at words. I had always admired anyone who could draw. My architectural friends who sat around all day etching landscapes or my graphic design hall mates who could sketch anything, the shade beneath a pear, the movement of hummingbirds in flight. But mostly I loved friends whose shapes I’d never imagined possible. Monsters really. The artist who could draw demons of the soul.
As a boy I used to stare at Dr. Seuss creatures and Where the Wild Things Are is still my favorite children’s book, this world of imaginative solitude Max creates when no one around him will listen or love. A world through the looking glass of poetry and irony where monsters show true friendship and the prisons of four walled rooms are really nothing more than the jungle of our dreams. I’d always wondered about people who drew these beasts. What secret fears did they hide? What furious nightmares manifested themselves when they put pen to page? Was it that they wanted others to see the horror of the world? Would that keep them from fearing death, from worrying about age and the dread of growing old alone? Or was it something else, to live a fantasy where none of those things existed or mattered and no one was bound to the limitation of truth, reality, and the physical world?
I was thinking about this again while traveling north to Jhuhon over the weekend and stopping at Loo Fung Taoist Temple in obscure Zaociao Township along the western coastline. The windmills of Miaoli and the beaches of Ciding sprouting in the distance. The impossible Chinese road signs and hair pin exits leading through rice fields and one way cement farm roads. Old men hunched over dusty stoops smoking long, dreary cigarettes and dogs traveling in packs. A mother at the temple gate with two sons burning paper prayers in an urn while a man, naked to the waist, lights incense and breaks prayer disks on the floor to scare away evil spells.
We park and head toward the gates, which is guarded by demon statues and fierce spirits cut from stone. Statues of the sickest monsters of human imagination. Black and red faced warriors. Swords hot for battle. This month is Ghost Month in Taiwan, where the gates of hell are opened and for one lunar phase of the moon the dead walk the earth visiting relatives, haunting streets at night, and dragging souls back toward the fiery pits. I’ve seen these faces before in the sketchings of demons. These manifestations. These self-portraits of how we all have devils inside us that must be exorcised. Those demons inside us that hurt for pleasure, those others that cause us to break apart the ones we love, still others that strike back at what we don’t understand. Where is the shelter from this? What refuge do we have when these devil come to call? Most my students wear a talisman of some kind to ward them away, but is that enough?
The truth is, that sometimes I don’t know what to believe anymore. I look at the lines on my face and I’ve begun to age like my old friend Robert Frost, does that mean I will fall into sorrow as well? Then what is it, what will keep me from the monsters?
Poetry, huh? Really? Why Brian Hartenstein you fool. You might as well believe that stars are the smiles of gods. That the bump under your bed at night is some unearthly creature sent to guard you from evil rather than tear off your flesh, and that fireflies are meant to show us how to live, to shine brightest just when we fear all hope is lost.

1 comment:

  1. Brian, God is speaking to you all the time. You just need to sit quietly and listen. The answers you seek are there and the requests are heard. I truly believe this. Just have faith.

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