Category Archives: Essays

Navajo Technical University Project

One of the projects I have been working on, along with a lot of other people, has been a new educational model centered on the Bond Wilson Technical Center in Kirtland, NM.  Kathy Isaacson, who has been key to helping put the project together, created this video of the project.  I appear in it toward the end of the video.

10 Comments

Filed under Essays, Thomas Davis

Tribal Colleges and STEM

by Thomas Davis

I thought some of the readers of Four Windows Press might enjoy this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XyqwWR3_d4, which describes the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math work being done in tribal colleges across the United States.

This is obviously not about poetry, art, or photography, but I have worked in American Indian Education from 1972 up to the present time. I helped establish the National Science Foundation’s Tribal College and University’s Program (TCUP), working closely with Carrie Billy, then the Director of President Bill Clinton’s White Initiative of Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), that this video explores. My role was not that important really, but I am proud of the work I did throughout my career in the tribal college movement nevertheless. Carty Monette and Carol Davis, both featured in the video, are not only good friends, but played a major role in helping establish the TCUs nationwide.

What the TCUs are achieving throughout the United States is, at least in my opinion, some of the most important educational work being done in the world today. This video just gives a small glimpse of that work and might introduce to at least some of you the TCUs.

3 Comments

Filed under Essays, Thomas Davis

A Wrinkle In Time in Delta, Colorado

Photograph by Ethel Mortenson Davis
Essay by Thomas Davis

A Wrinkle in Time.jpg

When I was six years old and living in Delta, Colorado where I was born, Saturday matinees (mostly Westerns) were the highlight of those weeks when my Mom allowed me to join a few score squirming, and sometimes screaming, depending on the movie, kids at the Egyptian Theatre downtown.  Ethel took this photograph in Delta during our trip to Western Colorado, and we both had a good laugh.  What a movie, A Wrinkle in Time, to be showing as we drove through town!

Now on the national historical registry, the Egyptian is still standing proud on Main Street, a relic, with contemporary relevance since it is still showing first run movies, that not only is a time capsule to my early life and Delta and the nation’s earlier days, but also travels across the Atlantic Ocean to King Tut’s land, illustrating an all-Egyptian craze that lasted in the United States for only a short period of time.

We first parked in front of the theatre on the way to lunch with Delta friends, Linda and Terry Brown at Western Colorado’s best Mexican restaurant, Fiesta Vallarta.  Then, on the last day, as we drove to Grand Junction and the long trek over Loveland Pass toward Wisconsin and home, we stopped for a minute so that Ethel could take this photograph.

We could almost feel Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which transporting us through the universe by means of tesseract, the fifth-dimensional folding of the fabric of space and time in Madeleine L’Engle’s wonderful novel.  I could still feel myself squirming in my plush theatre seat as the lights blinked, signaling the start of the movie, while the rest of Delta moved around in 1950 white Chevrolets and went about shopping at my Dad’s corner grocery store or sipping ice cream sodas at the fountain just a few doors down from the store.  At the same time I could feel the history of my two grandmothers living in Delta, the best-friendship of my Dad’s sister Viola and my mother, and then the marriage between my mother and Dad as they prepared to live in a tent on the Gunnison River just below my Grandma Davis’s place.

All of the people I just mentioned are gone now, except for my mother in a Grand Junction nursing home at 92, leaving a hole in my life and so many memories:  Of my cousin and I having a pie eating contest that got us into trouble, the first time I slid into a base during a baseball game at Delta Elementary, my Grandma Bauer all excited when I hooked a big catfish and lost it on the banks of the Gunnison River not a quarter mile from town.

All of this as Ethel and I maneuvered around, trying to get the best angle for Ethel’s photograph, driving a Toyota Corolla with more computer power than existed in anybody’s imagination at the time the Egyptian Theatre was built.  There is a story of America in the old building, of a time when the nation was building its middle class out of the completion of World War II, and, of course, of today when the Middle East is in turmoil and our lives sometimes seem out of control in the whirl of progress and national and world events and miscalculations.  Still, there is the Egyptian on Delta’s Main Street, just where it has been for so many decades.

Ethel and I loved Western Colorado and our visit to spring.  It is still winter in Sturgeon Bay, although the sun is shining.  Perhaps the fifth-dimension is folding again, and we will see a totally different, and hopefully brighter, tomorrow that has not yet been.

 

4 Comments

Filed under Essays, Ethel Mortenson Davis, Photography, Thomas Davis

On Writing Sonnets

by Thomas Davis

The writer who wants to write a sonnet must set out to write a sonnet. A free verse poem can conceivably come completely out of the subconscious. The poet might not even set out to write a poem, but a poem forms itself on the page as the writer is writing, or they select passages from a journal that can be turned into a poem.

Traditional verse poems like the sonnet demand that the poet set out to write in this or that form when they begin the poem. Creativity itself comes from blending sensations from the environment, thoughts, emotions, sight, sound, smells, touch, conversations, events, philosophies, and other elements of what affects human beings into a new whole whether that comes to be a poem, a painting, or a new scientific finding. Therefore the sonneteer draws upon innate creativity and sets out to pour it into a specific language and form.

This intentionality is also present as the sonnet flows from the poet’s pen. Tools like a rhyming dictionary or thesaurus can be helpful. English is not as natural language for rhyming as Italian. There are fewer rhymes available. That’s one of the reasons near rhymes can be useful at times. To avoid a trite singsong quality to the verse the sonneteer also needs to avoid always using a single syllable male rhyme at the end of every line. Multiple syllable, and even alternate feminine/male rhymes, can be useful in creating a more complex music. Enjambment between quatrains, octaves, sestets, or even couplets, as well as alliteration and assonance, can also help in pursuit of a music that breathes and engages the reader.

Iambic pentameter, as has often been pointed out, is the most natural rhythm for language in English. This is not nearly as true in other languages. The Odyssey, A Modern Sequel, an epic masterpiece by Nikos Kazantzakis, written in Greek, has seventeen syllable lines. In Greek it sounds magnificent, although I cannot speak Greek. In English it looks and sounds impressive, but mostly because the lines seem wildly long and filled with a rich, “O sun, great Oriental, my proud mind’s golden cap,” overblown profusion of metaphor, personification, and other figures of speech. Iambic pentameter, with its simple patterns of un-accent, accent, comes much closer to everyday speech.

From the first line on, the sonneteer needs to write lines using Iambic pentameter. I often think in meter on my morning walks with my wife just so that I can use meter without straining when I sit down to write. I also try to listen to the rhythms of speech is people’s voices and listen to the meter I hear. This is not necessary, but one of the most vital rules for writing a good contemporary sonnet is to not use tortured syntax in order to get either the meter or rhyme to work. Practice can help achieve this end whether the practice is in your head or on paper.

Also important, as in all other writing, whether it is an essay, a poem, or a novel, is to mix sentence styles as the sonnet comes into existence. A sonnet can be written using a single sentence, or course, but this can be extremely difficult, especially if the volta is to bring life to what is being written. Sentences, properly constructed, but also varied, are important. They become part of the overall music.

There are exceptions to the mixed sentences rule. Repetition can be a powerful device for building both music and emphasis. One of the great examples is from the King James Bible, Samuel 2, 18:33: “And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Repetition, either words or sentence types, repeating, say, a declarative sentence, if used rarely, can be a powerful literary device.

A sonnet is, in the final analysis, a poem. It involves the right and left hemispheres of the brain, the logical and intuitive spheres. It is derived from a long poetical history that stretches from narrative poetry like Beowulf or the work of Homer to the white goddess incantations of Celtic poets to the innovative work of Hopkins to the genius of William Shakespeare to the contemporary anguish of John Berryman in Berryman’s Sonnets. In some ways the sonneteer is drawing from this history each time they sit down to write. Its form is incidental to that long history. By writing a sonnet the poet is become part of the long flow of poetic history.

Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey wrote the first sonnets in English, using primarily the Italian, Petrarchan, form. Wyatt’s use of iambic pentameter was not as sophisticated as later poets. Henry Howard was smoother and created the English sonnet that later became known as the Shakespearean sonnet. Most early sonnets written in English were lyrics, but the river of poets that followed these pioneers have written narratives, lyrics, and descriptive and didactic poetry. Giacomo da Lentini, a Sicilian, who wrote close to 250 Italian sonnets, was the first person to write a sonnet. Most early sonnets were love poems. Lending itself to compressed intensity, it was, at least at first, considered the perfect medium for the expression of love and passion.

The sonneteer writes a sonnet by sitting down, either at computer or table, and writing one. They write in iambic pentameter, choosing a traditional rhyme scheme or experimenting. They draw upon the nature of their creativity, drawing inspiration from nature or their humanity or their philosophy, becoming a part of the river of sonnet writers that have flowed through literature’s history.

May your sonnet dance like a song, sing the fragrances of lilacs in spring, touch like a lover’s touch under the oval silver of a full moon.

being to timelessness as it’s to time, by e. e. cummings

being to timelessness as it’s to time,
love did no more begin than love will end;
where nothing is to breathe to stroll to swim
love is the air the ocean and the land
(do lovers suffer?all divinities
proudly descending put on deathful flesh:
are lovers glad?only their smallest joy’s
a universe emerging from a wish)
love is the voice under all silences,
the hope which has no opposite in fear;
the strength so strong mere force is feebleness:
the truth more first than sun more last than star
-do lovers love?why then to heaven with hell.
Whatever sages say and fools, all’s well

2 Comments

Filed under Essays, Thomas Davis

The Utility of Poetry

an essay by Thomas Davis written after reading the poetry anthology, Indra’s Net

When I was a teenager, determined to become a poet and writer, Look Magazine, one of the United States’ most popular publications at the time, wrote an editorial that denigrated the utility of poetry. A lot of decades have passed since I read the editorial, but its assertion that poetry had no real use in a world filled with the marvels of science and technology still stirs me to a passion. As I thought back then, what an exercise in the hubris of trying to stir up controversy.

Look Magazine, of course, has been defunct for some time, and while I was in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin at the Breadloaf Bookstore doing a book signing, Indra’s Net, published by Bennison Books (who also published my epic poem, The Weirding Storm, A Dragon Epic) came in the mail. An anthology made up of poems from an international collection of poets, Indra’s Net had felt like a meme that could dance like fireworks in a night sky ever since Deborah Bennison had first broached the idea with her intention of using it as a vehicle to support Book Bus, a non-profit dedicated to providing books to young people in places suffering from poverty and a lack of books. When the volume with its mesh of stylized flowers on the cover arrived, I couldn’t help but remember that long ago editorial. Ah, the revenge of time can be sweet indeed!

There was a use for the Look editorial, however—at least in a young poet’s mind. It made me think hard about poetry and what the uses of poems really are. The uses are not, as the editorial justifiably made plain, utilitarian. No one is going to drive a poem to work or take the hammer of its multiple meanings to construct a skyscraper. But poetry has been around a long time, and, as Mrs. Winger, the teacher-mother of my best friend in high school once told me, if you don’t like something that has given pleasure and life to scores of generations of smart people, maybe you ought to think about what you’re missing.

The value of Indra’s Net to me does not solely rest in having both my wife Ethel Mortenson Davis’s and my poems represented in it, although there is always pride in that. Rather, it has values congruent with the true worth of poetry in its pages.

I have read the work of many of its contributors for years. John Looker, for my money, is one of the most interesting poets writing in English today. Great poetry, verses the kind talked about around tables of poets reading and discussing their efforts at poetry, combines the art of emotion, thought, act, and significance with the discipline of craft and language into a contemplation that catches the human spirit and fills it with joy, delight, fear, hope, despair, laughter, and generational knowledge central to who we are as individuals and members of the human condition. If poetry is not an astrolabe of use to mariners, it does have aspects of an astrolabe to the human-earth-universe’s existence. It provides metaphorical stars that life can be guided by.

There is immense value in having people trying to write poetry getting together and discussing their work. Such groups provide a pathway into exploring what poetry can be inside each individual. Presentation and discussion can lead to firefly moments of language that can light the wonder in the body of poetic expression. Still, some poets, as in all occupations, especially if their poetry becomes a familiar presence in your life, have a special scintillation that makes them memorable.

Looker, with poems that tell of work, transitions, and the mediations between time and moments, represents what the marriage of art and craft can become in the hands of a master. Each poem is honed and snipped until it shines.

If Looker is a craftsman, however, Jim Kleinhenz is an enigma. He does not write poetry to elucidate. Instead, he writes puzzles that, like a Frank Lloyd Wright building that explodes from cramped space into expansiveness, become a way of knowing rather than of seeing. This is not poetry for the tweeter mind, locked into 140 characters, but as in Wallace Stevens’ best work, a challenge that forces the reader to think and explore, and sometimes study, until illumination lifts spirit and gives the elixir of discovery.

Betty Hayes Albright and A.J. Mark present another fractal of poetry’s immensely complicated crystal. Albright is a romantic that tends to send us to another universe where a combination of mystery and linkages into people and the earth sing with meaning. “I’d play the storm/swaying in brave acts/without roots,” she tells us, and she has the ability to put us in a bird’s body at the top of a tree during a ferocious storm, making us all feel brave. Mark, somewhat like Kleinhenz, is more metaphysical: “She is our transference of heaven,/A stunning imitation of light,” and it is in this transference and light that her poetry reaches beyond what is into a realm of pure spirit that illuminates why, in many ancient traditions, a stone breathes and a flower speaks.

Then there are the two Bennison published poets, Chris Moran and Glenda Kerney Brown. Their poems are not written solely out of spirit and imagination, but from the harsh realities of life. When they write a line it inevitably is carved from experience that, more often than not, is an act of metamorphosis, a changing from pain, despair, and what would, in many, be hopelessness into courage and belief in a spirit without physical or material limitations. If Looker is the poet of art and craft, Kleinhenz the poet of puzzles and illumination, and Albright and Mark the poets of natural and metaphysical imagination, Moran and Brown are the poets that bring home reality that does not flinch at raw truth, but gives all of us hope in what we ought to be as humans.

Cynthia Jobin who gave the title to Indra’s Net, for years was my blog-partner in exploring challenging traditional forms of poetry, always giving me, before her untimely death, the challenge of metered, rhymed, and/or even alliterated craft when we tried our hand at Celtic forms. I have also delighted for years in the work of Ina Schroeders-Zeeders, a poet from the Netherlands whose island in the Atlantic Ocean contains a brimming of story, thought, and powerful emotions; Sarah Whiteley who chisels rather than writes a poem, giving us crystalline images that tend to stick in the mind; and Fredrick Whitehead who can be wonderfully entertaining and profound all in the same tumble of words. Poetry as an exercise in entertainment and profound metaphor is not be sneezed at. It is in this context that I would also mention the work of that wild New Zealander, Bruce Goodman.

Part of what the Look editorial missed was the touchstone that I am trying to describe here. I have read these poets. I have watched their work develop and change for years. I read Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, or William Shakespeare partially for that reason. Poetry touches our lives in different ways based upon the personality, skill, and living of the poet, and if you let that touching get past the crust of who you are inside, always fearful of letting another sensibility invade you, there is comfort in the voices of poems as well in the attributes that each poet brings to the table of human communication.

But reading Indra’s Net reminded me of something else the Look editorial writer did not understand. I have never read a poem by Chris McLoughlin before, but his “Pijaykin” spilled wisdom into my head like it was a pitcher filled with imagination ready to provide water to a bone-dry garden.

Then there are the narratives of Elizabeth Leaper. As a storyteller, along with D.M. Denton and Art Wolffe, both masters, I can be caught by a strong narrative poem in a way that seems to complete and fulfill me. “Here we sit in the middle of a winter’s night,” Leaper says at the start of here poem, “Lambing”

darkling-light with frost and bitter cold,
while bold Orion stalks across the sky
watching where the stellar bear
points toward the far North Star…

In the end all poems tell stories, and stories make up the memories of our lives as we move from one place and event to another and build relationships that enrich and trouble us, stir love into our hearts, or make us basket-cases in the ship of history.

This narrative, enriched by intense images, “When snow’s gone dead with cold,” Edward Ahern writes; “I crouch at the foothills of listening,” Vanessa Kirkpatrick says; “How the clouds roil the sky’s calm/with their droplets of chaos,” Martin Shone sings, gives a portal into seeing what we cannot really see, the consciousness of another human being who is like, but unlike, us. This is the utility of poetry, the value of an anthology that collects consciousness’s together from all over the world: Great Britain, Canada, France, Australia, the United States, Africa, the Netherlands, and other distant places.

By greeting new voices with new sensibilities, delving beyond awareness that has become comfortable and familiar, letting Robert Okaji tell us that his “hands know the sadness of rock,” or Frédéric C. Martin imbue us with “A lost dolphin’s dream,/An angel walking on water,” we implant the possibility of growth within the shell of who we think we are. We see words that synapse currents that can change how we see and react to the universe in which we live.

Writing about an anthology always leaves something to be desired. When my Mom and Dad gave me a copy of Louis Untermeyer’s 1962 edition of Modern American ~ Modern British Poetry, two people mostly confused by a son who wanted to write poetry unleashed a torrent of word, contemplation, and emotion that has lasted to the day I am writing these words. I wish I could talk about all the poets in Indra’s Net. The truth is that I expect I’ll be exploring it for some time and wondering about how I could not have put in this essay this poet or that poet.

But there is a rhythm to essays in the same way that free verse has a rhythm, and the subject of this essay goes beyond the anthology Deborah Bennison has put together. “… My years stream/their weather,” Carol Rumens writes to her youngest child to introduce this volume. And poetry streams the substance of who each of us are inside the universe, inside generations that have gone and will yet come, and in this streaming, this cornucopia, poetry, I predict, will not age, but will be around for millennia that will hopefully still come.

20 Comments

Filed under Essays, poems, Poetry, Published Books, Thomas Davis

Sustaining the Forest, the People, and the Spirit, the story of the Menominee Tribe’s Sustainable Forest, is Back in Paperback

Sustaining

My book, Sustaining the Forest, the People, and the Spirit, published by State University of New York (SUNY) Press, is still in print. I was afraid SUNY was going to let it go out of print, but they have printed new paperbacks, which they had sold out of a long time ago. The price is pretty high, but I’m excited by this development. It’s always good to not go out of print.

Sustaining the Forest, the People, and the Spirit tells the wonderful story of the Menominee Indian Tribe and how they have sustained their 230,000 acre forest in ways that have enhanced, rather than degraded, the environment in the face of development pressures. Through a careful look at Menominee history, politics, institutions, economy, culture, spirituality, science, and technology, I tried to provide insight into how this case study of sustainable environmental development can offer a rough road map for other communities to follow.

1 Comment

Filed under Essays, Thomas Davis

In the Time of Miracle

Our grandson, Joey Bingen, has severe autism. He is fourteen years old and cannot communicate with words. He does have a couple of sign language signs and uses them when he wants something, but has basically not been able to communicate with his parents, brother, or anyone else. Then . . .

Screen Shot 2016-09-21 at 1.56.14 PM.png

 

 
working with the therapist he wrote this message on his iPad, which, in the past, he has only used to play games. He has followed these words up with additional communications, the beginnings of written conversation. Fourteen years of silence and then words!

Where will this sudden ability to communicate lead? What will it mean in Joey’s life? His parent’s life? His grandparent’s life? Ethel and I believe in miracles at the moment. We believe in miracles.

5 Comments

Filed under Essays, Photography