I’m excited to be one of two featured performers at the Inspired Word Tuesday Night World Showcase and Open Mic! Come check out my half-hour performance of selections from There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness (Pantheon Books, June 2021), and consider a performance of your own!
A probing, witty, and deeply insightful history of blindness—in Western culture and literature, and in the author’s own experience—that ranges from Homer and Milton to Louis Braille, Helen Keller, and Stevie Wonder
Leona Godin begins her fascinating, wide-ranging study with an exploration of how the idea of sight is inextricably linked with knowledge and understanding; how “blindness” has, for millennia, been used as a metaphor for ignorance; and how, in metaphorical terms, blindness can also be made to suggest a door to artistic or spiritual transcendence. And she makes clear how all of this has obscured the reality of blindness, as a consequence of which many blind people have to deal not just with their disability but also with expectations that they possess “superpowers.”
Godin illuminates the often surprising history of both the physiological condition and the ideas that have attached to it. She incorporates an analysis of blindness in art and literature (from King Lear to Star Wars) and culture (assumptions of the blind as pure and magically wise) with a study of the science of blindness and key developments in accessibility (the white cane, embossed printing, digital technology) and a recounting of her own experience of gradually losing sight over the course of three decades. Altogether, Godin gives us a revelation of the centrality of blindness and vision to humanity’s understanding of itself and the world.
More about the Inspired Word
Founded and produced by longtime New York City journalist and former Village Voice columnist Mike Geffner, The Inspired Word is one of the hottest open mic/performance events in the country, happening every week in NYC and having featured some of the finest original performers in the country. Past features include Golden Globe award-winning actress Jill Eikenberry, Emmy/Golden Globe nominated Amber Tamblyn, film/TV actor/comedian Taylor Negron, actor/comedian/TV personality John Fugelsang, Grammy nominated singer Carolyn Malachi, American Idol finalist Anwar Robinson, and HBO Def Poetry stars Shihan, Suheir Hammad, Lemon Andersen, Regie Cabico, Gemineye, and Beau Sia. For more info, please visit: http://inspiredwordnyc.com/
On the first anniversary of my father’s death, I’m grateful to my stepmother for sending me three of his letters to the editor, clipped from the San Francisco Chronicle. One of them—from August 19 , was published eleven years to the day before his death. It’s humor apparently hit the mark, as the editors used his words “erector set” to title the section. My dad was not alone in abhorring the proposed building sketches, he just said it best! This letter and the others remind me how much he changed in his last years, and how much he stayed the same.
Once, during one of our “liquid lunches”—sitting for hours drinking (and eating) in the window booth of Fior d’Italia—which we indulged in every time I visited San Francisco, he mentioned that he had an idea to put all his letters to the editor together and write a book around them. I encouraged him, but did nothing to forward the ambition. A couple years later, when he was feeling much more downcast, much more sedentary, and house-bound (except for Fior downstairs and the doctors), I asked him about the idea, and he shrugged it off as something that was no longer interesting to him, or no longer possible. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to fulfill that particular book idea, but at least I can share his words here.
In the three letters from 2007, his interests range from the homeless to the monstrous aesthetics of a planned skyscraper to expressing his fears about a radical conservative court—a painfully prescient thought.
In these concise bits of his politics, my dad’s witty and reasonable voice talks to me from his tumultuous watery grave in San Francisco Bay, reminding me that, although in his last years he took little pleasure in the arts or travel that he’d once loved so much, he never stopped thinking about politics at the local and national levels.
To be sure, since 2016 at least, things were going in a direction that once would have made his blood boil, but at the end just kept his mental state set to a slow burn. The upshot being that his impending death seemed less dire than it might have if Trump had not soiled the White House.
My dad had his opinions till the end, even if he lost some of his fighting spirit. As you can read in my personal obituary for him, or in this essay I wrote a few months before his death. In his last years, his body made war on him, and there was not a lot of energy left for politics. Even so, his interest could not be extinguished. There was at least enough curiosity to know how bad things were going to get him out of bed every morning—despite the considerable pain—and into his wheelchair. Then he’d belly up to the dining room table, where he’d spend hours grumbling and griping over the newspaper in his endearingly grumpy way.
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR – MONDAY, JULY 9, 2007
Battle of the activist courts
Editor – August Goddard’s comparison of a “conservative activist” court with a “liberal activist” court is a typical knee- jerk reaction by those who would have us return to some dark medieval fantasy world (Letters, “The Supremes and ‘a living Constitution, ” July 6).
The liberal court always moved our country in the direction of more civil rights more freedoms. A court unlike the Bush/Cheney-appointed court that will be chipping away at those hard-won rights and freedoms for the next 20-to-30 years. I hope Goddard enjoys living under a Constitution rewritten by the extreme religious right. I shudder at the thought.
LEE GOODIN San Francisco
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR – Sunday, August 19, 2007
An Erector Set
Editor – Regarding the Transbay Terminal high-rise proposals: Unlike John King, The Chronicle’s urban design writer, I guess I don’t understand what the neighborhood needs.”
His selection, the Rogers design, looks like the contractors forgot to remove the construction elevators-giving it an “erector set” appearance, and the thing on top looks like an apparatus in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.
The other two designs look like screwdrivers and would give the city a San Diego-look—the locals call their downtown “the toolbox” because the Rogers Stirk Harbour buildings all look like chisels and screw- drivers standing point up (except one that looks like an electric shaver). At more than 1,200 feet in height, any of the proposals would become a tempting “terrorist target.”
LEE GOODIN San Francisco
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR – Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Advocates aren’t helping
Editor – Regarding “If you want to help the homeless, just say yes,” by C.W. Nevius (Dec. 23): Once again, the Homeless Coalition and other so-called homeless advocates prove themselves to be part of the problem.
Are they professional “do-gooders” whose own means of support relies on maintaining a homeless population? Or are they amateur “feel-gooders” who are clueless as what needs to be done other than handing out blankets and passing out turkey sandwiches? Homeless and poverty have become buzzwords to cover a variety of individual situations. A family temporarily homeless because dad was “downsized” or they had catastrophic medical bills is different than the individual described in the column. He was homeless in front of a liquor store that cashed his check (for a price) and then gave him the remainder in bottles of cheap booze. In the first instance, normal social services can help the family to recover; there is an assumption that they are willing and able to be helped. In the latter case, the chronic alcoholic (who had an income) needed some “tough love”: detox, placement in one of the mayor’s full-service hotels and on-going rehab. Instead, he ended up dead. Nice going, homeless advocates.
Care Not Cash needs a big dose of tough love to get the chronic homeless off the streets and into appropriate settings to deal with their myriad problems. If it takes changes to the law in order to move them off the streets into appropriate environments, then let’s get busy on legislation that will do just that.
My dad, Lee A. Goodin, passed away into other realms on Sunday. He’d been fighting so many illnesses for several years, and yet I hadn’t seen the cardiac arrest coming. Somehow, I thought I’d have warning. Yet he had given me warning.
Earlier this summer, he told me he’d decided to stop aggressive care for the infections that riddled his body from wounds that would not heal. I wrote about that decision, as well as our history of separation and reacquaintance, for Catapult in “The Blind Feeding the Lame: Growing Disabled with Dad.”
I wanted to show that essay to him, to show my love and that he would live on in my imagination, in my writing, and of course, in my heart forever, but I was a chicken. I was afraid he wouldn’t like how personal, how intimate, it was, and so I never sent him the link. I will never know if I made the right decision.
The fact remains that I have written about my dad and will continue to do so.
He once told me that he thought there was a great American novel in our family somewhere. He liked that I was a writer, but did not particularly care for the kind of writing I did. He loved his bestselling Kellermans, and I have not yet brought myself to read one of those. I will now though.
If there is a great American novel in our family, then there is no one else to write it but myself, because our family, at least for a couple generations, has dwindled down to me. He has cousins, who I’ve met through the wonders of Facebook, but my father was an only child and so am I. My parents were divorced when I was very young and my dad remarried, but did not have other kids. My family, my next of kin on my dad’s side, is now gone. And I, being childless, will provide no more.
My dad’s mother, Leona Goodin, née Beynon, and her husband Alcidos Goodin, née Godin, likely would have had lots of kids, but Alcidos, a construction worker who helped build the Golden Gate as well as the Bay Bridge, fell off the Rincon Annex, the old main post office in Downtown San Francisco, and died four days before my father, his son, was born. Between that and the fact that the first few years of my dad’s life were lived in wartime, there was something tragic about his early stars, as testified to by the wartime photo of my dad with chickens in the wilds of San Francisco.
However, he grew up as the darling only child, and would enjoy a wonderful life, traveling the world, skiing, drinking, eating, trekking around seven continents.
A man doesn’t need religion or spirituality to be loving and generous
A couple years back, he and my stepmother Terry celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary in their North Beach home next door with their extended Fior d’Italia family that includes the owners, the wait staff, and the revolving musicians of the jazz band that plays there every Wednesday and Sunday. The bandleader asked, “What’s the secret to your successful marriage?”
My dad, sitting in his wheelchair, Beefeater in hand, said, “world travel, fabulous adventures, and great sex!”
My dad was an irreverent and irreligious man. If I write that novel of our family, at the heart of it would be the atheism gene that I inherited from him. He had no religion, and in fact was rather anti-religion. One of his favorite movies, or at least one that he liked to talk about a lot, was Spotlight, about the Catholic Church’s cover-up of priests’ who couldn’t keep their robes down. Even that sentence sounds like something he would say.
But a man doesn’t need religion or spirituality (which he also scoffed at) to be loving and generous.
Once, at Fior, I asked my partner Alabaster to give some money to one of the waiters to buy a bottle of wine for the table. I think it was Gil, who, when he saw Alabaster’s intent, put his hands up and backed away as if he were looking at a gun rather than a couple twenties, saying, “Oh no, not Lee’s table.” In other words, if my dad was there, he was buying.
I now live in Denver, so there’s not much I can do in this strange limbo time before the services–which will be held on Labor Day weekend–but think and write about my dad, and celebrate who he was as a living being, and what he means as a spirit in me.
When my dad went into the hospital for one last short trip, I happened to be reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for perhaps the fourth or fifth time in my life. Yesterday I came to the end and the afterword, where Pirsig drops the bomb about how his son Chris, who made the trip cross country in the book’s narrative, had been stabbed outside the Zen Center in San Francisco just five years after the book had been published. The part where Pirsig wrestles with the question of where his son Chris went took on new meaning for me. My dad, like me, believed in only this one life, but perhaps he could get behind Pirsig’s idea of the pattern of a person:
What had to be seen was that the Chris I missed so badly was not an object but a pattern, and that although the pattern included the flesh and blood of Chris, that was not all there was to it. The pattern was larger than Chris and myself, and related us in ways that neither of us understood completely and neither of us was in complete control of.
Now Chris’s body, which was a part of that larger pattern, was gone. But the larger pattern remained. A huge hole had been torn out of the center of it, and that was what caused all the heartache. The pattern was looking for something to attach to and couldn’t find anything. That’s probably why grieving people feel such attachment to cemetery headstones and any material property or representation of the deceased. The pattern is trying to hang on to its own existence by finding some new material thing to center itself upon.
I think my writing this as well as all future generations of writings about my dad, attempt to continue the pattern that is and will always be my dad, Lee Goodin.
It was the spring of 2017 when Alabaster and I visited and my dad, not yet imminently dying, but also aware that he was not going to have a long time to live, asked if there was anything I wanted. Terry and he had been collecting wonderful objects from around the world for years, but he was, I understood, referring to the things he’d inherited from uncle Art, his mother’s younger brother, who’d been like a father to him, who had been an engineer in the gold mines of Peru.
Remembering the glimmering little figurines that I’d so often seen at Uncle Art’s that sat in a lighted display box of a gold bird and a gold man, I mentioned those. I’m blind now, and hadn’t seen them for many years, and I’d never touched them. My dad directed Alabaster to take them down from the shelf. They were in plastic domes, and we pulled them out. I almost crushed the little man when I tried to pick him up because I never realized they were hollow. They had seemed so solid when I was a child. I’d never suspected they were made of very delicate hammered gold.
It was a strange time to be bequeathed something so valuable. Alabaster and I were basically homeless. We’d left New York and were moving around, staying with friends and family, deciding where to settle next. For almost a year, I lugged these priceless weightless and bulky heirlooms from California to Colorado to New York and back around again, with my dad periodically asking if I’d found a safe place for them.
And, being a researcher at heart, I wanted to know about these things, so I started shooting off emails to museums and appraisers, and getting either no response or non-committal ones that sent me somewhere else.
Finally, we found a Pre-Columbian art appraiser in England, and sent off about twenty photos of the little bird to her.
Two days later, we received the valuation and its notes. ” These animal and mostly bird sculptures came out of a workshop in Lima which was active between the 1950s to late 1960s run by an Italian expatriate,” and was worth about $10-$20.
That was in April, and we went for our last visit in June. I’d alluded to what I’d finally found about the statues, or what had become of them, over the phone, and told him I’d tell him all about it when I saw him in person.
He wasted no time in asking. On our first lunch in our usual table at Fior d’Italia. He said, “So what happened to the statues? You still have them?” He thought I’d sold them, which I might have, or I might have tried to get them back down to Peru, where they belonged. I didn’t know, but the point was now moot.
I took a big breath, put on a big ironic smile, and told him about the appraisal. Alabaster said his face showed shock. Then he expressed doubt that Art, a gold minor and amateur archaeologist, would have been duped about buying fake artifacts. And I said what I’d been thinking. “None of us asked about them. We just all assumed the beautiful little sculptures were real gold Pre-Columbian artifacts, and he let us keep on thinking that.”
Then my dad laughed, and said, “Ah, that old bugger. I bet he’s laughing at us all right now.” It was the only such indulgence I’d ever heard my dad make about some possible afterlife. Then he told us about how Art liked to play jokes on people, and that sounded familiar. He and my aunt Evelyn also did not have kids. They were my only relatives on my dad’s side that I knew growing up, after my Grammy Leona had died when I was ten.
At the end of the Peruvian Gold conversation, I asked if maybe I could choose another heirloom, like “what’s behind curtain number 3, cuz I got a dud,” and we laughed hard at that. It was a very good last visit.
Under the bridge
As I said, my grandfather Alcidos was a construction worker whom my dad never knew. He had been born in Minnesota to French Canadian Godins, who were one of the original Acadians who settled in Canada in the 17th century, and then were displaced when the Brits took over. Some of the Acadian Godins moved to Quebec–if you play guitar, you may have heard of the Godin maker, and others moved down to Louisiana to become Cajuns. Others moved south into Maine and then westward, as my Godins did, and settled in other parts of the US. My Godins settled in Minnesota, which is where Alcidos Sinai Godin was born in 1910.
At some point in his travels from Minnesota to San Francisco, Alcidos added another “o” to Godin to make it Goodin, because, as the stories have it, he was tired of being called God in, rather than the French way, which pronounces it like French sculptor Rodin.
If you were wondering why my dad is Goodin, and I’m Godin, it’s because, with his blessing, I reclaimed the French spelling. That said, he never got used to me taking my middle name, his mother’s name Leona, for my primary name.
My dad wanted to be cremated and strewn into his beloved San Francisco Bay, under the bridges his father helped to build. I’ll be traveling back to say goodbye to him for that ceremony on September 1, followed by a celebration of his life at Fior d’Italia on Sunday September 2. His band will be there to play his old favorites, which, tended towards the dark. He loved his lighthearted musicals, but he also loved “St. James Infirmary,” and would delightedly snap his fingers to the macabre lyrics every time.
Yesterday I sent off a story–a rather sick and twisted tale that has disturbed the dreams of more than one workshop companion–to a reputable UK horror magazine using Submittable. If you’re not a writer, Submittable may be new to you, but if you are a writer, you can hardly avoid it these days. Submittable is the online hub of submitting work for journals, magazines, even fellowships. I’ve used it many times and have always been so happy and grateful that it exists.
Submitting electronically makes it possible for writers who are blind to participate in the vital, if often painful, act of submitting work without sighted help.
So, while submitting to Black Static yesterday, I was aghast to find that, according to my screen reader, there was no button to choose a file or browse for one. In other words, I suddenly could not attach my story. And for those non-screen reader users, buttons are usually pretty accessible. I cursed and then asked Alabaster to mouse click the damn thing for me, and took it from there–the “submit” button was still accessible.
Then, as is becoming my habit, I wrote a note to the tech support at Submittable telling them about the problem and offering to help test any changes, a typical example of how I reach out in the face of such difficulties:
I am a blind writer and have used Submittable many times for submitting in the past (and also as a member of the editorial review board for Newtown Literary), and today is the first time I’ve not been able to attach a file. My sighted partner had to click the “choose file” button, which did not appear to my screen reader Jaws in Firefox, though the “submit” button showed up fine. Usually such buttons are no problem at all…
Please let me know if I can be of any further service, and feel free to have your developers reach out with any questions, or if they would like me to test anything out for them.
Happily, Submittable is awesome and I received an email within a couple hours:
Thank you for letting us know. We’ll get this fixed asap. I’ve also let our development team know about your kind offer to help them test the system. I’ll be back in touch when I get word of a fix.
Thanks again! Best,
Although I always offer to help developers test their systems, I’ve only received a taker once before, and that from the premiere screen writing software Final Draft, with whom I’m working as a beta tester, which is super. It’s just kind of sad that most of the time developers do not take me up on my offer. Why not? Hubris? That’s my guess until some one of them explains it otherwise….
I try really hard not to get frustrated by these encounters with lack of accessibility in the writing community, but it’s hard.
I recently filled out an extensive application for the PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellowship, where several of the menus–age, gender, race, etc.–were not accessible, another frustrating case, as combo boxes and drop-down menus are usually very accessible. So I let Submittable tech support know, and asked Alabaster to take care of these, as the deadline was strict, and there was no time to wait around for a fix.
I also had him choose “Other” in the race box, so that I could type in, “I feel it is important to state that although I am white, I experience many challenges because of my blindness.” Disability is rarely included in statements of diversity, though I think that is changing.
Because the Emerging voices Fellowship is meant to help out traditionally unheard voices, I was able to press the issue further, into the short answers. For example, to the question “Explain why you think you are locked out of the literary establishment,” I wrote:
I have a degenerative eye disease, which means that I’ve occupied pretty much every notch on the sight blindness continuum, but oddly, as my sight has decreased, the technology that gives me access to new books, journals, electronic submissions–in short all the things that are vital to a budding writing career–has flourished. Still, there’s a long way to go. even in this application, there are a few dropdown menus that are not accessible and for which I will need help before submitting. I run into such difficulties often, and I try to let web developers know, but if I picked every accessibility fight, I would hardly have time to write. Thus, in a very practical way, I have been, and often still am, locked out of the literary establishment.
Up until very recently, it was virtually impossible for me to gain access in a timely fashion to contemporary literature. This is part of the reason that I stuck close to the Early Modern Period in graduate school. Through my twenties and thirties, almost nothing was available to me, and now I am surprised when I cannot get ahold of a new book. This is wonderful, but I feel I have a lot of catching up to do with regards contemporary literature.
Even now, there is snobbery in the literary community regarding eBooks, which are accessible books. Happily, more and more prestigious journals–“Tin House,” “Ploughshares,” “Granta“–are available as Kindle books, but others, such as “Glimmer Train,” are not. The point was driven home in a “Publishers Weekly” article, “Bill Henderson Marks 40 Years of the Pushcart Prize.” In it, the founding editor explains why there will not be a digital version of the acclaimed anthology. “’In the future, anyone can read it without using a battery”,'” which indicates a naïve understanding of readers and a complete disregard for accessibility. This illustrates how, even though the technology exists, there is an ideology that keeps myself and other print disabled people locked out of the literary establishment.
In a Catapult workshop I am currently in, we read “Cremains” by Sam Lipsyte, and though I enjoyed the story, my appreciation of the writing was tempered by the portrayal of Hilda, the blind character, who is fantastically stereotyped and badly drawn–I don’t know any blind people who can’t do their own dishes for example. Of course, as writers we will all be mistaken in our portrayals of the other, but until some corrective is offered in the form of blind people taking some control of their literary image, mythology, and metaphorics, not to mention the mundane bits of life that the sighted cannot know experientially, the stories will remain terribly lopsided both in terms of number and authenticity.
At a recent birthday party for my friend Sarah, I met a playwright who also writes TV screenplays. I mentioned to him that I was working on a second draft of my film screenplay, and that I had just that very day received an email from Final Draft to become a beta tester in order to work with them to make their software accessible with screenreaders.
The point of my bringing myself into the conversation was how awesome it was that the industry standard would soon be usable by blind and visually impaired people, but his next question was, “So…How do you appreciate movies?” Or maybe he asked, “What is your experience of films as a person without sight?” I’m sorry that I can’t remember his exact words, but it was something like that, and it made me launch into how I used to be able to see, and how there are so many movies from my years as a visually impaired person immediately accessible to my mind’s eye.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is always the first to come to mind because I watched it so many times, and because people’s reaction to the title (happy recognition/no clue) tends to be a good indicator of the tastes of my interlocutor, and this time was no exception. “That is a weird one,” said my playwright, and I felt the need to mention other films less “weird,” like Apocalypse Now. I also felt the need to mention that I write for the New York film Academy, as if it legitimized my film appreciation abilities! And perhaps it does…
Another fun learning experience for a person who hasn’t had a television in years was my recent Pilot Season 2017. Although I probably won’t watch–sorry, check out–any of these shows, Netflix’s Disjointed, wherein Kathy Bates heads up a ragtag and mostly stoned bunch in the legal cannabis biz, will be tempting, it was gratifying to learn that more than one book inspired this crop, including By the Book and Passage–inspired by A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically and Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy respectively.
When I first started writing for NYFA, my editor sent me some acting topics since I have acting experience, for example 5 Tips for Creating Character Relationships and I wrote her to say that I’m happy to do the acting pieces, but that I’ve worked on many a crazy short film–done some of the writing and concept, and most of the sound–and can geek out on pretty much anything filmmaking.
These two inspired me to pitch a Disability Pride piece celebrating real people with disabilities in film and television, which was approved, so look out for that in early July–just in time for NYC’s Third Annual Disability Pride Parade!
I was sewing–I hand-sew, as you can read about in Sewing Blind–and listening to the series of interviews Bill Moyers had with Joseph Campbell in the last year of his life (1987), collectively called The Power of Myth, when I heard Moyers preface his next question with this:
“We talked about the effect of the hunting plain on mythology, this space clearly bounded by a circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above. But what about the people who lived in the dense foliage of the jungle? There’s no dome of the sky, no horizon, no sense of perspective–just trees, trees, trees.”
I paused the interview and continued stitching. Occasionally sewing becomes a kind of active meditation for me. I thought about that phrase “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above.” It resonated. I allowed the associations to ripple gently on the lake of consciousness. I’m not sure how long before the rings of “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above” met those of a visual memory of a desert sunrise , but when they did the opening lines of “Never Be Sorry” emerged.
The memory began in the predawn desert of Joshua Tree National Park. My UC Santa Cruz roommates and I had driven down the day before and arrived at night to the campground. I awoke before dawn to a cold so cold that I still compare all colds to that one. Surely it was not actually as cold as some recent winters in NYC, but sleeping on the ground in a flimsy down sleeping bag my feet and hands were painfully frozen, almost burning so that tears started to my eyes. My companions were somehow still sleeping while I stared at the millions of sharp cold stars. Perhaps I could have forgotten my pain if I had been able to pick out constellations, but having lost my central vision when I was in high school, I had never been able to make them out–I could see the stars just as I could see inked letters on a printed page, but without the detail rendered by the fovea, the words and pictures refused me their intelligibility.
So I stared at those frozen chips of light and thought they might enter my heart and freeze my soul, like what happened to the little boy in The Snow Queen. The sleep breathing of my companions assured me I was not alone, but sometimes that is not enough–one yearns in this lonely universe for conscious companions to witness the pain and creeping fear.
The hours or only minutes passed. Perhaps I closed my eyes for a moment. When they reopened, I found a new scene, one that so took my breath away that the cold seemed almost to disappear.
Rolling my eyes around that great expanse of sky–that exalted dome–I saw a pale silver lightening rising up from the horizon, silhouetting the sharp rocks, which appeared heaped into crazy formations as if by an abstract-expressionist deity.
And finally, just above the silver ring of impending sunrise, hung a sliver-moon risen, it seemed, just to complicate the transition from night to day, and create the illusion of a metamorphosis arrested, the dome of night suspended forever in the bowl of rising day.
My poem of sight and blindness would be about the beauty and more than beauty–sublimity–of the visible world. I wanted to celebrate the visible, celebrate my participation in the appreciation of that world from a perspective of one who no longer participates physically in that appreciation, but who, in her mind’s eye via memory and art, still attempts to participate in the glorious materiality of sight.
The poem would resonate with the visible, with ambiguous regret–how can I regret having seen such beauty? How can I not regret, when the having-seen causes a painful desire for more?
The fleeting quality of the visible world had no better analogy than a sight once seen of butterflies falling from the skies in coupling torrents, falling into our hands and into our hair and all around, a frenzy of mating butterflies in an improbable grove of eucalyptus trees. It had been a memory ripe for art picking for many years.
According to the Natural Bridges State Beach website, ” From late fall into winter, the Monarchs form a ‘city in the trees.’ The area’s mild seaside climate and eucalyptus grove provide a safe place for monarchs to roost until spring.”
In my time at UC Santa Cruz, I often brought visiting friends and family to see the monarchs, but never had I seen it like that. Most times I went the weather was not warm enough for them to fly much and they clustered in the trees, wings folded, so that I, with my poor vision, would never have recognized them as butterflies if they’d not been pointed out to me.
The day the butterflies fell from the sky in copulating pairs is so crystalline a memory that I sometimes fear it was a dream. A dream of nature that, as a child, I often experienced as an extension of my waking life–a dream set in a specific and quotidian event or outing–a field trip that really did take place in a verifiable way–but so improbable as to force the memory into the taxonomical mental space of a dream, but nonetheless differing not at all from the memories of autobiographical reality.
As I am writing, I grow more fearful that my mating butterflies memory is not real. For the first time I am trying to situate it in a day, trying to give context–who was I with, for example? We, laughing and stunned, opened our hands to catch them as they fell, but the other hasn’t an identity , just a presence, a guy but not a lover. Sounds rather fishily like a dream, no? And yet I’m positive it happened. And yet I’m disturbed.
I wonder, for the first time, if essaying the story of a poem can destroy its reality? Can a poem even be destroyed in such a way?
Unsure of my answers to the above, I rush on to present my real point: I loved seeing and yet I think being in love with seeing is a danger all seeing mortals face. That to see constantly without a lens, aesthetic or philosophical, or from the perspective of impending blindness, or recovered sight, or religious ecstasy, or even scientific curiosity, is to see without anything but one’s eyes, and thus to render oneself a mere gawker or dumb tourist.
As Campbell puts it in the opening lines of The Power of Myth:
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive .”
And so with this idea of resonance in mind, I will not be disturbed by the possible unreality of the mating butterflies falling from the sky. If it is but a dream vision, its purity as memory speaks to the power of imagination to endow sad inert brown clusters of cold insects hanging from eucalyptus trees in a Santa Cruz grove, with the flight and life-frenzy of mating monarchs in all their sun dappled orange and black magic.
If I held one of these coupling double-creatures in my hand only in my dreams, is it not enough?
Never Be Sorry
I Will Never Be Sorry
To have seen that jagged desert,
Encircled by horizon,
Topped with that great dome
Of exalted blue heavens above,
Or that lovely cool sliver of a moon.
And I will never be sorry
To have seen that ragged face
(that great last love
That blazed so quick)
Or to have loved it
With spit and fire.
And I will never be sorry
To have Seen these fucking butterflies–
Literally, fucking butterflies–
Falling from the sky
(It’s hard to fly when you’re fucking)
So they drop
Into the hand of one
Who will never be sorry she sees them
Drop dancing into the palm of her
And dance till they rocket apart.
Up and away
Into that close slab of sky,
Chipped away by these eucalyptuses–
Whatever they are called,
THEY DO NOT BELONG HERE:
Australian trees on a Santa Cruz
Draw the monarchs from
God only knows where.
This is an impossible grove
With its accessible walks
And its stupid visitors hut–
Winds might yet blow it all away.
And on that ocean
Sit those natural bridges,
Carved out by a thousand years of pounding,
Had I like them
Energy enough and time
I would never, never,
Never be sorry.
*This revised version of “Never Be Sorry” was published at Quail Bell Magazine. Here also is the original version, with photographic visionscape by Todd Jackson…