Leslie Ullman at the Border of Religion

February 17, 2014

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Literary tourists visit Keats’ Wentworth House, claustrophobically duck turning down the cellar stairwell, peripherally glance out the garden door, or turn up the wooded path towards Hampstead High Street with a sense that the “there” they inhabit isn’t solely the location beneath their feet. They are equivalently bound by gravity and by reckoning fragments of Keats’ poetry; they have entered the experiential realm of poetry. Poetry supposes a geography of context, that there is an antecedent cosmology surrounding the poetic locus a voice both inspired and discovered.  A terrain regardless of how fictive or surreal that will lend sensuality and order to the dynamic progression of thought. It’s a place as real as our childhood home, and like our childhood we are only permitted to understand its old patterns and edges.

“Ever since school and even before

I have run my fingers along

the borders on maps. To look at a river

made of time and water is to see

[Without Steel or Fire]

Leslie Ullman in Progress on the Subject of Immensity develops poems as a poetic event of remaining in the border zone between heightened experiences and formally recognizing that experience. These poems don’t provide a series of loosely related vignettes or variations on a form or voice, but instead the poetic experience itself. Although they are mature poems in her career, she brings an intimate energy of the act of poetry that surpasses the weaker ars poetica common among flailing and fading poets. While these poems aren’t ars poetica, they are committed to exploring what a poem is (or might be) without depending on the intrusions of interpretation or formal closure. They are poeticum actus, acts of poetry. But in tonal sense they inflect the traditional forms of inspiration; they’re voiced from what the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar refers to as Ordinary Time, the day to day, morning and evening of religion, the world that wakes up at dawn and continues on towards dusk.

Ms. Ullman is a founding faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas, El Paso after twenty five years in that Bi Lingual Creative Writing Program. This is her fourth volume of poetry. Along with other writers of her generation, she invented the MFA creative writing culture we currently enjoy. When VCFA was initially formed in 1981, there were no more than ten recognized MFA writing programs, now there are well over 400. AWP conventions boast ten to twelve thousand participants.  MFA Instructor has become its own vocation. It allows both student and instructor time to write, at least that was the initial concept.  Unlike the prior Ph.D. in English model, the primary emphasis isn’t to survey literary periods, or reinforcing literary theories by nuance in research stacks. Rather there would be a continuing interchange with professional writers corresponding with other writers of varying stature and fashion. It is a university concept built around apprenticeship instead of adding to the cannon of literary research.

In addition VCFA, as many low residency institutions do, draws from writers with a range of experience broader than academic matriculation. The skill sets of these writers bring are different than an ability to organize and interpret the Cannon of Literature. With due deference to survey research, the skills and curriculum in a Creative Writing MFA are different but equally sophisticated and complex. Literary disciplines might apply a literary criticism to the work of a published writer as if they were present; MFAs must apply them to the writer actually present and at the same time encourage them to continue. It’s both traditionally pedantic and in many ways as intimately demanding as psychological analysis. Imagine a university level course where a student has to be taught to read the text they are writing. Novice writers present a wild abundance of issues that are both writing craft and internal exploration; it’s an easy world to dismiss, but a difficult world in which to maneuver.  That creativity can be taught or fostered is a questionable feat; that it can be quashed is sadly evident in our schoolchildren.

As an academic and teacher of Creative Writing for thirty years Ms. Ullman has intimately overseen the prodigious labor and minor triumphs of this modern scriptorium, as well as a besieged canonical library. She has entered, and worked in the inspired and mundane poetic worlds of thousands of burgeoning poems. On a daily basis she has found poems that were lost, rescued lines from poems that otherwise should be lost, illuminated dreams, loss and ecstasies and converted all that and more into ‘craft’. In her teaching position she has questioned, advised revisions, workshopped, re-revised with extent and deleted versions, assembled, cut, added, acted as midwife or stood by the burial of perhaps 30,000 legitimate poems, none of them her own. She has been relentlessly engaged in exploring the essence and manipulating the form of these poems. This experience I believe is at least tangentially reflected in her own poetry.

Nearly every poet, real or imagined, has had to deal with the awkward compliment of being presented with a sheaf of hand written dreadful poems. Dealing with poor poems was once believed to be like playing with a lower ranked tennis player, it would diminish e quality of one’s own game. That may not be the circumstance of the poems currently incubating in MFA programs. Although poetry publishing and national sales flirt with extinction, small publications and electronic poetry are flourishing. There are unprecedented numbers of poems being written.  This poetry represents the Renaissance in American writing that has occurred in the past thirty years. MFA programs have, to a great part, driven this surge to turn 21st century technology to include traditional forms. There may be an easy tendency to dismiss the quality of these mentored poems as callow, narrow, or novice.  If they become poetry of academic substance seems secondary to the size of the enterprise of navigating this swelling sea of poetry; most are generally good, earnest poems searching to move from impetus to form. Compared with the level of conversation in the day to day lounges, tweets, posts, e-mail, groceries, and workplaces these are quite consistently distilled interactions about emotionally important subjects. All of that combined extrapolates into Ms. Ullman embarking on a Darwinian odyssey through an unexplored ocean of green poems.

Teaching is a dangerous sea for a poet to traverse while carrying her own poetry back to Ithaca, but one Ms. Ullman has traversed with an intact tale to tell. The nuanced interrelation of forgetting one poem and becoming present to the next with its emotional center and the psychological archeology of previous versions, within the delicate discipline of the semesters of an MFA program, is a complicated and sensitive discipline. Ms. Ullman’s excursion hasn’t been in a world of Keatsean odes, but in a sudden, unfinished sometimes precarious country. It’s not the perfected forms and rhythms she dances with, rather she is dragged forward, back or diplomatically hobbled trying to anticipate the movement of an unskilled dance partner. But a poor dance is still a dance. An inadequately finished poem is still speaks from human consciousness that deserves attention.  What drives a person to write a poem and the skill to raise it to high art may seem different in the humbling hothouse of literary criticism.  However nearly everyone will attempt to compose a poem, or step to a dance, or launch their voice in song at least once in their life. They’re just different denominations of one eternal currency of consciousness.

Ms. Ullman has labored within that delicate space of human inspiration partially within the academic clerical bond of confession, copyright, and partially conversing within myriad of unconscious spiritualities. Creative Writing is to literature as religion is to theology; it is the writing of the world in which we actually practice. Obviously in poetry writers think about object or ideas that are out of the ordinary, but for Ms. Ullman that randomly changing sacred space is where she has resided and worked throughout most her adult life.

She has returned from this long, literal poetic travel like a pilgrim, chastened, but assured.

Ms. Ullman’s poetic universe in ‘Immensity’ is traversed by a beatific voyeur constantly moving in and out of  the edges of apprehension, the ends of false starts, or interpreting lone awakenings. There’s a world constantly appearing for acknowledgement, or a fragment of identification as it swims past in humane relativity.

“The hole in her mind,

like the mind of everyone,

a necessary blindness

[Hole in the Mind Filling with the Present]

Yet her poems are voices are set amid an austere, yet nearly Romantic Nature as they struggle with motion, with exhaustions, and the consensual betrayals of common relativities to a recognition of a state of consciousness that is both beautiful and intuitively instructive. In Ms. Ullman’s carefully observed lyrics, the reader is seldom left at ease with context or focus of attention, since the poems consciously reflect the space and physics of flux. Rather she presents poem after poem within the naked interior of poetry; religious chamber poetry she refuses to resolve, either for the writer or the reader. These poems feel like a section of Wordsworth’s “Prelude” revised in a poetry workshop and then fractally spun in the ambience of Beethoven’s late quartets.

“of memory that is less event

than atmosphere—the alertness

a pastel wash with bold strokes

of umber when love first arrives,

and the greater alertness—burnished

[Ice Apples]

The poems in Progress on the Subject of Immensity are neither breathless nor ironic; they are mature meditations on the experience and value of consciously refusing to impose formal meanings on heightened events yet simultaneously exploring them as metaphysical and meaningful. Like agnostic hymns constantly moving in restless intimacy, they are deliberate, slow and nearly shimmering, not with the neo-Rilkean delicacy that trembled en vogue through the last two decades of the twentieth century; rather, these poems arrive less fueled with angelic anxiety than a transient paradise grounded in the happenstance of common random activities, rock, rooms, desire, sand, and desert spaces. In “Mind Returns to Find Itself Absent,” for example, the speaker describes the object in her own rooms “as though they were sugar dissolving into the night— /spines of books, lamplight, kilim blues and maroons— / a history that happened to be mine /”. The poems work through the natural world, but only as an existential relativity. As the shapes in a painting calculate their own geometry, here too we operate within angles of constructed, but undeniable detail. Progress of the Subject of Immensity praises both the uncertainty and inexplicable continuity of experience, and venerates the forms of that dialectic. Within those forms is a waiting station for poets, a mental locale of distance that poets use like an umbrella— a heightened, but only slightly removed passage that allows enough narcotic to transform personal event into art. As an experience it is transitory real estate, a temporary sacred space like a playing field or bedroom; it continues in both variation and stasis. The egalitarian value of this poetic impulse is its capacity to translate the divine into the context of the beautiful.

When I was married my father, who was neither a poet nor an academic, composed a prayer for our nondenominational ceremony. He read it just once off of the back of a creased shopping list, and then he refolded it into his pocket. It might have disappeared there (the physical script did) but its benison remained spinning out in memory. Those who were at the service remember the experience with considerable variation of its actual language, but without variation in the transcendent beauty in the experience of its recitation. By a lovely instinct my father (who read some and wrote less) connected his language to a larger language than the one he spoke. In religious writing there is a tendency to treat this type of transcendence as a dynamic of initiation to be followed by interpretation. That the single experience of ecstatic loss of self will give way to some organized notions of understanding the universe as a prophetic part to reveal the whole. Such experiences of inter-relativity are often derided as the sophomore philosophical drunk night of the soul, diminished as jejune, lucky finds, or not yet matured into the experience of dogma. Ms. Ullman’s poems treat that initial disorientation as a fundamental experience.

De-assuming conventional mythology Ms. Ullman presents poems that celebrate inter-connectedness without a specific god, the implication being that the experience of writing a poem and the experience of writing a prayer are consonant. These moments of impulse are driven by similar internal mechanisms of human expression originating in domestic households, not in the Houses of the Holy. In a recent article in “Writers Chronicle” Ms. Ullman discusses the concept of formalization of this experience in terms of the Pythagoeran “golden ratio” [1.618], the Fibonacci sequence and “golden spirals”. She describes with a jeweler’s fascination the structure of an ammonite:

“More exciting to me, however, was my subsequent discovery that an ammonite not only snuggles right up against each side of a golden rectangle, but each new rotation of the spiral, starting at the smallest point of origin, fits inside its own golden rectangle.”

This is an observation she extends to creativity and poetry,

…A swirl of motion that occurs continually within us and outside us, a blueprint that gives rise to, even as it is enlarged by, our instinct to beauty. To contemplate all this is to feel some of the old promise return, that state of the beginner’s mind that allowed many of us, before we got serious, how fine it felt to arrange and rearrange words, to handle and be handled by them, to fashion out our first poems and stories pleasure by pleasure.”

The genesis of a poem comes from an internal interrelation extending instinctively outward like the ammonite, the nautilus, the rhinoceros horn or the sunflower seed pattern. The emotional and energetic vortex of a poem directs the development of a poem with a kind of mystic mechanics that is both irrational and observable.

“yet again, innocence and experience

etching those repetitions that keep us

from becoming, even briefly, truly fallow

as the pull of what could be coming next

keeps undoing the seams between

grey spirit and gravity. In this, our

hibernation is uniquely human.

Few would call it a journey. Few

would say that at such times

we are accompanied, losing a self

in inner rooms that keep expanding.”

[Ice Apples]

Not uncommonly Western poetry structures lyric forms to closure, the worn clicking lid by which a poem transforms experience into an event revised into an elegant revelation. The closing is designed to reform the prior lines into a lyric meant to be understood as surprising the limitation of experience of reading. “They also serve who stand and wait” [John Milton, “On My Blindness”] is the ultimate line in the sonnet that directs its reader into an universe organized, if only by implication of closure, into command and rank. Milton’s sonnet  calculates the experience of blindness and balances loss of potential with Divine obedience. The order provided by the sonnet’s rhyme and structure of the poem similarly demands the reader’s similar subordination to the poem.

Consider this partial list of Ms. Ullman’s final lines:

”so fiercely beneath me.,

how deep it will be until we are in it.,

suspended between us perfectly cherished.,

knowable earth.,

coming back in.,

everywhere at once.,

of possibilities ,

to set on the bright cloth.,

unaccompanied?,

sway all night in their plumage,

in their drinking songs.,

o happy sweat drying under sequins.,

even when standing still.,

at the moment could be more desired.,

A turned field.,

who, in his lifetime, would not see the cathedral finished.,

down further.,

what terms we could find for perfection.,

is altered by our presence in it.,

found themselves alongside me.,

the felt landscape of fresh,

unbidden thought.,

filling my mind. ,

Luminous. ,

Parachute of blue.”.

What the reader may expect by way of an ultimate direction becomes a subtle spiraling vortex of experience, not a summary directive. As readers we are left to observe the pattern and continue it, or like finding a shell on the shore admire it and toss it back to the waves. It is an invitation to be accepted, not a command to follow. In an ontological sense it presents options to the reader in a more feminine anima, not less powerful, rather like an emotion or stellar pattern less directive, but equally powerful in its referents.  The gigantic ammonites that ruled the planet of seas have left us only chelated patterns, not immediate commandments. They all followed the Fibonacci numbers into oblivion 400 million years ago, as, if I read my current cosmologies correctly, will all the galaxies, stars and planets in gorgeous patterns spiral out towards what we assume will be a new form multiplying toward a new nothingness. And at the center of this intergalactic array are Ms. Ullman’s Ice Apples. Simple, brilliant and human and being engaged in the process of defining is nature by creating within its forms…like hurricanes, cacti, or the human ear.

“The Writer’s Chronicle” Vol.46, Number 2, October/November 2013pp.29-36

Leslie Ullman , Progress on the Subject of Immensity  (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2013)

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