“Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire,” Adrienne Rich wrote in contemplating the cultural power of poetry. But what is a poem, really, and what exactly is its use?
Every once in a while, you stumble upon something so lovely, so unpretentiously beautiful and quietly profound, that you feel like the lungs of your soul have been pumped with a mighty gasp of Alpine air. This Is a Poem That Heals Fish (public library) is one such vitalizing gasp of loveliness — a lyrical picture-book that offers a playful and penetrating answer to the question of what a poem is and what it does. And as it does that, it shines a sidewise gleam on the larger question of what we most hunger for in life and how we give shape to those deepest longings.
Written by the French poet, novelist, and dramatist Jean-Pierre Simeón, translated into English by Enchanted Lion Books founder Claudia Zoe Bedrick (the feat of translation which the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska had in mind when she spoke of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes … a second original”), and illustrated by the inimitable Olivier Tallec, this poetic and philosophical tale follows young Arthur as he tries to salve his beloved red fish Leon’s affliction of boredom.
Arthur’s mommy looks at him.
She closes her eyes,
she opens her eyes…
Then she smiles:
— Hurry, give him a poem!
And she leaves for her tuba lesson.
Puzzled and unsure what a poem is, Arthur goes looking in the pantry, only to hear the noodles sigh that there is no poem there. He searches in the closet and under his bed, but the vacuum cleaner and the dust balls have no poem, either.
Determined, Arthur continues his search.
He runs to Lolo’s bicycle shop.
Lolo knows everything, laughs all the time, and is always in love.
He is repairing a tire and singing.
So begins the wonderful meta-story of how poetry comes into being as a tapestry of images, metaphors, and magpie borrowings. Each person along the way contributes to Arthur’s tapestry a different answer, infused with the singular poetic truth of his or her own life. Lolo offers:
— A poem, Arthur, is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth.
— Oh…? Okay.
Next, he visits his friend the baker, Mrs. Round, who echoes Thom Gunn’s insistence that “poetry is of many sorts and is all around us,” rather than something reserved for the special formal class of “poets.”
Mrs. Round tells Arthur:
— A poem? I don’t know much about that.
But I know one, and it is hot like fresh bread.
When you eat it, a little is always left over.
— Oh…? Okay.
Arthur turns to his neighbor next, “old Mahmoud who comes from the desert and waters his rhododendrons every morning at 9 o’clock.”
Mahmoud offers his answer with easeful conviction:
— A poem is when you hear the heartbeat of a stone.
— Oh…? All right.
Arthur hastens home to check on poor Leon, who appears to be asleep, “floating gently amidst the seaweed as if thinking.” And because this is the sort of story in which a canary can only be named after an Ancient Greek comic playwright, Arthur next seeks an answer from his canary named Aristophanes, “who is no bird brain.”
Our imagination is left to ponder why, on the next page, the cage contains not the yellow canary but a red-haired woman, who sings Aristophanes’s answer. Perhaps she is a visual allusion to Aristophanes’s play Assemblywomen, or perhaps she represents a muse, whom Tallec invokes to remind us that the muse hides in many guises and reveals herself in the most improbable of places.
— A poem is when words beat their wings.
It is a song sung in a cage.
— Oh…? Okay.
Just then, Arthur’s grandmother arrives and is met with the same question, which she answers after thinking hard, evidenced by the way “she always smiles a silly smile when thinking.”
— When you put your old sweater on backwards or inside out, dear Arthur, you might say that it is new again.
A poem turns words around, upside down, and — suddenly! — the world is new.
But grandma encourages Arthur to ask his grandfather, too, who “often writes poems … instead of repairing pipes.”
— A poem? grandpa says, tugging on his mustache and looking worried. A poem, well… it’s what poets make.
— Oh…? All right.
— Even if the poets do not know it themselves!
Frustrated with the multitude of confounding answers, Arthur returns to Leon’s fishbowl only to find him sound asleep beneath his large stone, enveloped in seaweed.
— I’m sorry, Leon, I have not found a poem. All I know is this:
is when you have the sky in your mouth.
It is hot like fresh bread,
when you eat it,
a little is always left over.
is when you hear
the heartbeat of a stone,
when words beat their wings.
It is a song sung in a cage.
is words turned upside down
the world is new.
Leon opens one eye, then the other, and for the first time in his life he speaks.
— Then I am a poet, Arthur.
Complement the almost unbearably wonderful This Is a Poem That Heals Fish with other poetic and profound Enchanted Lion treasures: Cry, Heart, But Never Break, a Danish illustrated meditation on loss and life, What Color Is the Wind?, a French serenade to the senses inspired by a blind child, and Pinocchio: The Origin Story, an Italian inquiry into the grandest questions of existence, then revisit poet Elizabeth Alexander on what poetry does for the human spirit.
Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books
Perhaps the greatest paradox of human life is that although happiness is the most universal of our longings, it is unobtainable by striving. Every seeming end we seek — love, money, purpose, the perfect cappuccino — we seek as a means to happiness, and yet happiness defies the usual laws of effort and achievement: The more ferociously we try to attain it, the more it eludes us.
How to break out of this paradox and transcend our self-imposed limitations in the pursuit of happiness is what artist Agnes Martin (March 22, 1912–December 16, 2004) examines in a set of notes prepared for a 1979 lecture at the University of New Mexico, Santa Fe, included in Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances (public library) — the wonderful monograph that gave us Martin on inspiration, interruptions, and the ideal atmosphere for creative work.
Agnes Martin at her studio in New Mexico, 1953 (Photograph: Mildred Tolbert)
Martin was deeply influenced by the Zen teachings of D.T. Suzuki. Reminiscent of the Chinese philosophy of wu-wei — roughly translated as “trying not to try” — Martin’s ideas are formulated in a Zen-like style of profound simplicity evocative the Tao Te Ching, and speak to the difficult art of holding life with unattached awareness. She writes under the heading “The Current of the River of Life Moves Us”:
What we really want to do is serve happiness.
We want everyone to be happy, never unhappy even for a moment.
We want the animals to be happy. The happiness of every living thing is what we want.
We want it very much but we cannot bring it about.
We cannot make even one individual happy.
It seems that this thing that we want most of all is out of our reach.
But we were born to serve happiness and we do serve it.
The confusion is due to our lack of awareness of real happiness. Happiness is pervasive.
It is everywhere… When we are unhappy it is because something is covering our minds and we are not able to be aware of happiness. When the difficulty is past we find happiness again.
It is not that happiness is all around us. That is not it at all. It is not this or that or in this or that.
It is an abstract thing.
Happiness is unattached. Always the same. It does not appear and disappear. It is not sometimes more and sometimes less. It is our awareness of happiness that goes up and down.
Happiness is our real condition.
It is reality.
It is life.
In this life, life is represented by beauty and happiness.
If you are completely unaware of them you are not alive.
The times when you are not aware of beauty and happiness you are not alive.
By awareness of life we are inspired to live.
Life is consciousness of life itself.
The measure of your life is the amount of beauty and happiness of which you are aware.
Agnes Martin, Summer 1964
Martin considers the artist’s task as a midwife of awareness:
The life of an artist is a very good opportunity for life.
When we realize that we can see life we gradually give up the things that stand in the way of our complete awareness.
As we paint we move along step by step. We realize that we are guided in our work by awareness of life.
We are guided to greater expression of awareness and devotion to life.
We recognize the great exultation with life of great artists like Beethoven and we realize that all great artists praise and exult life.
Surely, a cynic might dismiss such a perspective as a function of privilege. But Martin had a hard and unusual life, working an astonishing array of odd jobs before becoming an artist. Her ideas spring from a place of deep self-reflection and are heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy. Addressing her audience of young aspiring artists, 67-year-old Martin offers her most direct, life-tested advice:
You must say to yourself: “How can I best step into this state of mind and devote myself to the expression of life.”
You must not be led astray into the illustration of ideas because that is not art work. It is ineffective even though it is often accepted for a short time. it does not contribute to happiness and it is finally discarded.
The art work in the Metropolitan Museum or the British Museum does not illustrate ideas.
The great and fatal pitfall in the art field and in life is dependence on the intellect rather than inspiration.
Dependence on intellect means a consideration of observed facts and deductions from observation as a guide in life.
Dependence on inspiration means dependence on consciousness, a growing consciousness that develops from awareness of beauty and happiness.
To live and work by inspiration you have to stop thinking.
You have to hold your mind still in order to hear inspiration clearly.
Agnes Martin, With My Back to the World, 1997
In a sentiment of discomfiting pertinence today, she points to one such major realm of conditioned ideas:
The political world is a structure conceived and agreed to by us but it is not a reality.
You have been conditioned to believe that this political world is in fact real.
With this conception it is believed that we have come into ownership of the world and that we are responsible for creating it. And with this concept we have placed ourselves in a condition of perpetual responsibility and reform.
But since we are not creating the world, since it was created before us and we are merely in it, and since we do not own it, our whole political concept is false.
Turning once again to how our forceful striving stands in the way of attaining the very things we strive for, Martin considers the life-expanding alternative: