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Kath Abela Wilson

Kath Abela Wilson listens poetically to science lectures as she sketches and writes her way around the world with her Caltech mathematics professor/musician husband. Kath, a member of HSA and Southern CA Haiku Study Group, is creator and organizer of Poets on Site, a Pasadena, California-based multi-media poetry performance group.

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“Figures of Humor and Strange Beauty explores the permeability of dream and reality, tapping the wellspring of inspiration that arises from meditative engagement with the mysteries of the natural world. These figures posed and given back to the ocean are akin to previous and developing selves—selves attuning to the boundarylessness of outer and inner, listening to what speaks ‘into the silence between sounds.’ The tasting and taking of stones is a communing with moon and sea, recalling the creation myth of swallowing whole, the wild, indecipherable life force. This journey that begins by descending a stairway to the sea, becomes the living poem poet Kath Abela steps into—dark lines on the page as organic as the patterns in sand drawn by waves. This magical collection, ‘Through the white open door to dream’ and ‘crossing the shadows of birds,’ carries readers aloft to reflective, heavenward realms, plunges us into invigorating, glittering depths.’

– Lana Hechtman Ayers, author of Four Quarters: an homage to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets

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Figures of Humor and Strange Beauty

A/MAZE: Words and Worlds of Kath Abela Wilson

09/05/19

In 2002, art historian Betty Ann Brown wrote Gradiva’s Mirror[i]—a surprising combo of scholar research and creative invention. She imagined a group of Surrealist women artists (the well known and the overlooked) having a conversation—their lives, work and aesthetic visions slowly emerging through their hypothetic dialogues.

Brown’s book comes to mind as I open Figures of Humor and Strange Beauty[ii], Kath Abela Wilson’s last published collection of poetry. No doubt, the author should be part of the convivium brilliantly ideated by Brown. I can see Leonora Carrington or Frida walking alongside her while she strolls between house and seashore—a short, familiar distance and yet, as she treads it, all parameters of time and space stretch, shrink, then dissolve into an eerie state of suspension, into a quasi-trance leading to perception shifts, epiphanies, metamorphoses and the impromptu, irresistible hatching of poetry.

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Frida didn’t like to be assimilated with Surrealism. She notoriously stated: "They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality." Wilson says of her poems: “Many have a dream-like quality perhaps but none are based on dream. They were all built from actual experience and depict events, sights, sounds and a few memories that were vivid in the present”.

Hence, she also expresses ‘her own reality’. Why do I call it surreal? It is a generic warning, a mere pointer signaling to the readers a particular weather, a rare feature they shouldn’t possibly miss. Hic sunt leones, dracones. Gentle dragons, friendly feline—not less marvelous.

What does surreal as an adjective—or Surrealist as an aesthetic tag—indicate anyway? Both terms suggest an enlarged range of perception, an enhancement of sensorial and cognitive faculties allowing body and mind to embrace a wider-than-usual radius of stimuli—what’s in sight or at ear’s reach, of course, but what is behind, beyond, above, underneath as well.

Altered state of consciousness? Enlarged. Not ‘another’ as ‘altered’ would imply. The same, only wider. Just as it occurs when we dream and our mind—the same—thanks to the dis-activation of few neural circuits is free to organize ‘real’ information into new gestalts, unconstrained by linear logic or similar grids and endowed, instead, with boundless creativity. Like a fairy or a god—omnipresent, ubiquitous, cognizant of future and past.

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The eighteen poems of Wilson’s collection aren’t based on dream… because they don’t need to. They belong within the same forma mentis, and the author makes it quite plain. They have “dreamlike precision,” “dreamlike assurance” and “the clarity of her favorite dreams”. The tableau they collectively paint is “a dream” she can “return to”. They translate the “interlocking dreams” happening when she is actually asleep, or they are conceived “in the dark before dream”—that thin pivot, that hinge where threads of daily experience come lose and a richer tapestry is woven. Like when at the far end of the estuary fresh and salted water reunite, stream and ocean converge.

What is this long dream-that-isn’t-a-dream about? As the poet affirms, it is rather crystalline. In the reading instructions preceding the poems she says that they emerged “inexorably, in this exact order,” and were polished over twenty years. Both the ineluctability and the polishing are tangible. The first one generates a tone of natural credibility, while the second creates contours of such definition that everything described jumps out of the page, tridimensional and haloed with light.

But what is the dream about? It reports—in eighteen takes, distinct yet intimately linked—the detail—or the synthesis—of a stroll from the poet’s house to the shore following an unvaried path—a street bordered by trees, a wooden staircase. On the beach there are stones and flotsam the poet is attracted to. She organizes them into shapes, giving birth to strange creatures she sometimes returns to the ocean, sometimes the ocean reclaims.

Every day the poet takes the same walk and, truly, that’s all—perfect unity of action, time, place, straight out of Greek tragedy. But not only those pilgrimages occur in a state of porousness so acute, that they open upon a landscape of infinite breadth and depth. As we said, they also don’t abide by dimensional linearity—they overlap, crisscross, niche within each other. They become a set of Chinese boxes, a Rubik’s cube, a charade. They are a labyrinth the poet inhabits with nonchalance, as not only she made it of her own design. She also holds the keys.

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There’s no risk of monotony, then. On the contrary, alertness is necessarily aroused as we try to follow the journey in its spirals and figure eights, paying heed to small clues that might be crucial landmarks, easing ourselves through adjacent yet discrete domains of experience. Alertness is required—attention, which indeed is the number one tool, the initiator.

On her path from the house to the ocean the poet pays attention to things. Very small ones—the imprint left on sand by the tiniest rock. Very large—“ocean and sky, unobstructed, as far as she could see”. Unobstructed, her attention, so intense that sometimes she has to “stop and stare,” trapped within a pose/pause, a “gap in her experience,” which is clearly the trigger of deeper insight. We can easily see her. Pause. Throbbing immobility, vivid calmness, vibrant instant of ecstasy.

She slows down. She stops whenever she feels like. She looks carefully and she keenly listens to sounds, but these walks are neither contemplative nor meditative. They are filled with purpose, active and determined, brave. They possess a festina lente kind of urgency. Calmly yet relentlessly, the poet forges something out of them—she molds them into the shape they firmly suggest, as if following a recipe.

No monotony or reiteration, no ritual—at least not in its ‘routine’ sense. No erratic wandering or sightseeing tour either. There is an arc traversing the spiraling motion, leading from point A to point B. There’s a learning curve, a dialectic process culminating, of course, with a change.

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It all starts with a spill of sorts. Poem III, “Journey”: “She had a flair for excess/that combined with a peculiar sense of direction/to produce, now and again/exquisite flights of imagination.” Final poem: “Now she was crossing the bridge/into a world that was the result of such excess. This was her poem”. This was ‘her book,’ born of the initial surplus. Of what? I believe it was language overflowing, seeking its written form—uncoated poetry in need of manifestation. The entire text is an intimation to write and a ‘how to’—therefore an ars poetica.

In the very first poem the author meets the muteness of stones. She feels “the heaviness of their silence” and “wishes to hear a voice”. It is rather a longing. It’s the engine that sets the journey in motion, then incessantly carries the pilgrim back and forth. She is eager to hear the voice of things apparently mute because she understands that they have one, captures echoes and fragments she can’t yet decipher. So her walks are a quest, a chase, an investigation aiming at making the elusive voice intelligible.

*

Since poem I—“Her Wish”—she starts eating stones. What a perfectly surrealistic device. As she cracks the first one under her teeth, no doubt she breaks the silence—such gesture might well epitomize the book. Unsurprisingly, stones are a leitmotif. Stepping stones? Perhaps, or the pebbles Hansel/Tom Thumb disseminates in the woods to later retrace his path. Perhaps Rosetta stones, carved with hieroglyphs—old tongues that she can unlock if she tries. In poem VIII, “The Hawk”, the marks she sees on rocks become mouths, then doors, each one holding “the answer to some question”. Stones she accurately places here and there are anchors counterbalancing the danger of imagination unmoored (the initial excess).

Words Are Stones is the title of a well-known book by Carlo Levi[iii]. It suggests that language, pointedly the written one, should reclaim a weight of authenticity and meaning. Stones are words for Wilson. Authentic and meaningful. But she doesn’t set up her metaphor a priori. She discovers the ‘equation’ step by step, walk by walk. As she finds the stones and she observes them, as she brings them to her ear as if they were shells and she listens, as she carefully moves them then she puts them back, she discovers it. Words are stones.

They are also trees, birds, clouds, waves rhythmically crashing on sand. The universe daily crossed by the poet—door to beach to door—is full of calligraphies—an immense notepad cracking with subliminal information she urges to articulate. Patience, patience.

*

Stones are anchors—they are one of the poles of a daring exploration of gravity. The poet lends the same regard, as we saw, to things small and things infinite—these last have their own hazards. As she studies a formation of clouds or a wide expanse of tree canopies, as—while lying on sand—she observes the world upside down, she is prone to levitation and out-of-body experiences that occur, she confirms, “with more than her imagination”. We know. Those drifts and simultaneities are part of the sur-reality that begins on page one. They result from the widened sensorial register we are invited to explore under the poet’s guidance.

She sees herself as well.

Not in the mirror, not in order to scrutinize her appearance about which, by they way, we are clueless, as the narrating voice isn’t qualified by any external markers. Who is she? We know her gender. Neither age nor relationships come into account (a ‘he’ has just a couple of minor appearances). We don’t know of occupation or preoccupations—nothing at all. She is what she perceives, deciphers and traces in the universe of great economy she sculpts under our eyes—essential and cogent like the paintings in the Altamira cave. She is playful like purple-crayoned Harold or Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll—like for them, though, her game is darn serious.

*

So this secret and yet unforgettable ‘she’ sees herself quite often, thanks to a POV switched from the usual central axis to a flexible, shifting mode not confined within the individual body, able to place itself wherever it likes and borrow bird’s-eyes, grand angles—strange, portentous lenses also capable of simultaneously embracing discrete timelines. Hence, the self becomes reversible matter—both subject and object, viewer and viewed.

As the vantage point leaves the premises, carried away by a passing bird, leaping suddenly from the floor to the ceiling, from sand to clouds, the poet sees herself within a wider context— she can gage proportions and correlations. She perceives herself as part of the entire creation and becomes aware of the role she might take in it, since each element has an impact on the whole—easier to realize from a distance. So her disposing a stone here or there, checking on the trajectory of a leaf or approving of a flower’s site of blooming isn’t an act of mere arbitrariness. It’s the effect of a vision with more to it than meets the eye.

From “the thin curved cup of the moon” she spots herself on earth, among friends, walking a mountain’s rim. As she drifts above a group of islands she discerns herself on the beach, shadowed by a solitary bird. Through the eye of a heron staring at her, in the flashing light of a falling star, in the past, moving across the maze of her memories—she sees herself.

As she borrows these aerial, acrobatic, upside down perspectives, stones/words are what she needs to pose as anchors, fixed points securing the long yarn of a kite, the unfolding accordion of her notebook eager to sail into the blue. Perhaps, they are period marks.

*

So she walks, and her walks lead to a discovering of voices, a deciphering of calligraphies—concrete languages made of mineral, wood, water, wind. The closest she comes to these markings, the most they open up and speak out. They become poems spontaneously writing themselves in the notepad she always carries along—though it might also linger on its own, endowed with autonomous life.

Lines are formed by the patterns of trees planted along the road—words accurately split by their gaps, punctuated by shorter saplings. They are traced by the “tracks left from small stones on the beach,” carefully noted and then dreamed about. They are made with silk cord tended between “key spots in her childhood where everything began”—these lines make good stories. Words are whispered in the chattering of pebbles, they resound within tree trunks, are buried underground. Of course, they are in the rise and fall of the waves—voices gradually more distinct, until they become her voice. As we said, the book is an intimation to write—and a ‘how to’.

How is a poem made? Well, it makes itself as she notices and then annotates what’s already inscribed within surrounding nature. Not the surface of it, but the inner language revealed when things crack open, when tooth meets quartz, mica, granite or slate. Once that kind of juice spills out, it marks the page of its own will. To hold a pen in hand is all right—careful, though, not to write a word and leave the page alone, “serene, unreachable”. Concave, it will be filled as a riverbed does.

Truly, no effort is needed. On the contrary, if the poet looks too closely at anything, it turns into a poem. Everything jumps at her with “too vivid clarity”. Sometimes she has to let poems go, allow black ink marks to abandon the page, float away. Close the notebook and return words to where they came from—ocean, earth, ether—let them circulate as they wish.

*

Ars poetica, then—beginning to end—weaving the act of writing with the concreteness of body (bodies, all sort of them), tightly enmeshing it with motion and gesture (walk, kneel, lift, carry, dig, crack, bite), stating the meta-quality of poetry as it become reversible, as it shapes the author’s life while it takes shape.

Here, Mirella Bentivoglio comes to mind—critic, artist and one of the most eminent representative of concrete poetry. Her creative path presented an interesting shift—she started as a poet but, after a long hiatus, was suddenly compelled to ‘make’ poems with the objects she particularly loved—mainly rocks, trees, dirt and landscape. She created calligraphies out of the natural environment, barely modifying what was there—rather deciphering it with her marvelous gift of insight. Wilson’s process reverses Bentivoglio’s, starting from sculpture and visual art to turn into a written form—certainly a gradual curve yet subject at some point to an acceleration, yet pivoting at some point… perhaps with this book.

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Which is an art project, indeed. Quoting the last poem, last lines: “She was an illumination in her own book”. Twelve drawings intersperse the pages. They are small, yet they enlarge very tiny diagrams the author sketched on her notepad during walks, as she planned her ephemeral sculptures/assemblages of flotsam and stones. Often, the sketch is all that remains of the artworks. And the poetry connected to them, yet loosely, perhaps in dialogue with them, extracted from them, translating their essence into the next expressive means—language.

Tiny shapes, fluid, organic, spontaneous yet accurate, sometimes intricate—they might be accompanied by a date or a caption. A location—‘at the ocean’. Or just the word ‘ocean,’ suggesting topography, a map—some drawings look like one. Or else a dedication, an offering—‘to the ocean’.

*

The world seen from above, from a distance or from different, simultaneous viewpoints—rather than from a frontal, circumscribed, eye-level perspective—instantly becomes a map. What a wonderful device—it gives meaning and structure to our journey, allows us to organize our progress, creates chains of causes and consequences. Nothing better than knowing where we came from in order to choose where we are going.

Thanks to her heightened attention, to her shift of perception and consequently enlarged vision, the poet is able to build an immense “tableau” out her daily-explored microcosm. Street, stairs, beach expand. They allow memories to slip in, also distant places, yet related to the here and now because she accomplished there the same acts she’s presently accomplishing. The hill where she first gathered stones as a child, for instance. Street, stairs, beach also dilate because poetry fits within them various moments of time, as if layering strata over strata of vellum paper, each engraved with different marks, upon the original diagram, multiplying its complexity and capacity. Poetry records the rock she once placed under a tree—the exact hour, location, the exact intention—and allows her to come back at a later date, finding it without fault. Poetry carefully joins the dots and her life becomes intelligible.

*

Karen Blixen’s stork comes to mind—the iconic parabola that the Danish author relates in her famous memoir, Out of Africa. A man dreams all night of exhausting tasks he has to perform in a rush—such as digging a ditch, fetching wood in the forest, stacking it in the barn and so forth. Though he is compelled to complete them, many of the tasks seem vain. When he wakes up, frustrated and dead tired, he looks out of the window and sees what he has done in dream. Here’s the ditch, there’s the pile of wood and the rest. Out of curiosity, he mentally retraces the path he walked/run during his nocturnal ordeal. As he joins the dots, he sees that his perambulations traced the outline of a stork. They meant something. They made sense, after all.

As the poet’s mind flies “like a homing pigeon” to significant places of her past, she knows that “if a straight line were drawn from one to the other, in the right order, an amazing pattern would emerge”. And “it would be,” she knows, “the key to everything”.

________________ 

[i] Wilson, Kath Abela, Figures of Humor and Strange Beauty, Glass Lyre Press, 2018, 68 pages, $16, ISBN 1941783562

[ii] Brown, Betty Ann, Gradiva’s Mirror: Reflections on Women, Surrealism And Art History, Midmarch, New York, 2002

[iii] Levi, Carlo, Words are Stones: Impressions of Sicily, Hesperus, London, 2005 (first ed. 1955)

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