Discovery, It’s Personal by Devorah Major 6/4/2022
When given the theme of discovery I used my typical writing process, first thinking and then writing down scraps of ideas. As I began to cement some of these meanderings into today’s talk, I thought that it might be interesting to look up the dictionary definition of discovery, knowing that one does not use the same word to define the same word. How much clarity would that provide? But to my surprise the definitions for discovery were all some version of “the action or process of discovering or being discovered.” That exercise was a discovery for me, aha I thought, one can indeed use a word to define a word if one is a lexicographer.
My own definition had more to do with uncovering, revealing, seeing something that might be quite ancient, but for me was new, seen for a first time, discovered. It might be recovered from a hidden corner of history, a buried family story, or simply found by watching a flock of seagulls swoop down on the beach seeking evening feasts. Galileo did not, after all, discover the earth as round and orbiting the sun. It had been round, or actually somewhat elliptical, for billions of years, and this was a galactic knowledge. A knowledge that Nubians brought to Egypt thousands of years before Galileo was born, a knowledge the Aztecs inscribed in their calendars a millennia before Galileo walked over Tuscany fields.
Another historical example of discovery, closer to home, is Cuba. It, after all, existed before Christopher Columbus bumped into her sandy shores, the Taino knew it and the Cibones and before that the Guanhatabey. It was only a discovery for Columbus and his crew, a discovery that was, as all discoveries are, personal.
Sometimes an innocence is lost in discovery, sometimes a purpose found and often it requires a measure of humility and reflection, it comes with gain and loss as poet Everett Hoagland, when arriving back in the USA after a sojourn in Africa, writes in The Return:
We are returned to this
departure point, without our shadows,
with what is
discovered with loss,
with what is
gained with discovery.
And that is what I want to speak to today. Not just the gains and losses of discovery but also how most discoveries are first experienced.
Writing poetry is, for me, a continual act of discovery and rediscovery.
I came to the work of Bob Kaufman quite early as he was a friend of my father and had a poem that my father would often quote that gave my child self an idea of the fearsomeness of discovery. But I rediscovered Kaufman in my teens when I was old enough to begin to understand that poem titled Suicide It ends:
The first man was an idealist, but he died,
He couldn’t survive the first truth,
Discovering that the whole
World, all of it, was all his, he sat down
& with a little piece of string, & a sharp stone
We discover that what we thought was our history was at best a sliver of a story, for those of African descent we discover we were mostly only aware of the soiled parts, the stories of waste and destructive domination, which calls the question is domination ever not destructive. Our history was polished up, glossed over, or simply omitted altogether and we had to discover, uncover, recover is truths.
We all discover that all of our ancestors are not the humans we would want them to be, that they sowed seeds of self-hate and/or fear in our fertilized eggs along with strength and, if we are so blessed, a music than inhabits our center, a dance that stretches our muscles, a poetry that opens our hearts. And in that discovery, we discover the world we inhabit.
We discover this world as a beautiful and terrifying place, “terrible beautiful” as my Sardinian poet friend called the still living Mount Vesuvio while telling me that I and Janine Pomo Vega, the only other American poet in this International Poetry Festival based in Salerno, should climb with a small group of poets he was leading up the mountain and watch the steam rise through its crevices and see the terrible beauty of it all. And seeing is after all the largest part of discovery.
As Quincy Troupe writes in his poem that is certainly a poem of discovering basic truths:
…not who or what
you see but how,
you see it, thin
or otherwise, deep
this life is
what you make of it, not
what you hope it to be, but
what it is, right or wrong
Discovery is such a personal journey. What we discover is always something that was already there and perhaps known by many, but it is new to us. We sparkle or shiver in the new knowing, are fortified or reduced by the new understanding, the new discovery.
And what of the continuing discovery of beauty, in ourselves, in each other, in the world, in our cultures. Too often we are taught that there is one standard of beauty one definition of fine art. Born in 1915 African American poet and for a time Poetry journal editor Margaret Danner had not yet fully embraced the beauty of herself or the beauty of her ancestry, but years later when she wrote The Convert, she had discovered both.
BY MARGARET DANNER
When in nineteen-thirty-seven, Etta Moten, sweetheart
of our Art Study group, kept her promise, as if clocked,
to honor my house at our first annual tea, my pride
tipped sky, but when she, Parisian-poised and as smart
as a chrome-toned page from Harper’s Bazaar, gave my shocked
guests this hideous African nude, I could have cried.
And for many subsequent suns, we, who had placed apart
this hour to proclaim our plunge into modern art, mocked
her “Isn’t he lovely?” whenever we eyed this thing,
for by every rule we’d learned, we’d been led to discern
this rankling figure as ugly. It hunched in a squat
as if someone with maliciously disfiguring intent
had flattened it with a press, bashing its head,
bloating its features, making huge bulging blots
of its lips and nose, and as my eyes in dread anticipation
pulled downward, there was its navel, without a thread
of covering, ruptured, exposed, protruding from a pot
stomach as huge as a mother-to-be’s, on short, bent legs,
extending as far on each side as swollen back limbs
of a turtle. I could look no farther and nearly dispensed
with being polite while pretending to welcome her gift.
But afterwards, to the turn of calendar pages, my eyes would skim
the figure appraising this fantastic sight,
until, finally, I saw on its stern
ebony face, not a furniture polished, shellacked shine,
but a radiance, gleaming as though a small light
had flashed internally; and I could discern
through the sheen that the bulging eyes
were identical twins to the bulging nose.
The same symmetrical form was dispersed again
and again through all the bulges, the thighs
and the hands and the lips, in reverse, even the toes
of this fast turning beautiful form were a selfsame chain,
matching the navel. This little figure stretched high
in grace, in its with-the-grain form and from-within-glow,
in its curves in concord. I became a hurricane
of elation, a convert undaunted, who wanted to flaunt
her discovery, parade her fair-contoured find.
Art clubs, like leaves in autumn fall,
scrabble against concrete and scatter.
And Etta Moten, I read, is at tea with the Queen.
But I find myself still framing word structures
of how much these blazing forms ascending the centuries
in their muted sheens, matter to me.
What seems to be significant about discovery is how one gets there.
That it begins in the seeing that Quincy Troupe says lives in not what you
see but how you see. And it is that seeing that Margaret Danner did by
returning again and again to the sculpture as a scientist does when
seeking an answer, as a mountain climber does when returning to a
mountain to scale a higher and then higher peak, as deep-sea divers do
by plunging so deep that they discover light inside the darkness. In
Danner’s case the object always reflected a depth of beauty, but her own
stilted values could not see it. She discovered its truth by truly seeing.
Notably, she wrote a series of books in the 1960’s poetically discovering,
revealing and investigating African art.
Some discoveries are forced upon us heavy and solemn. Others may
have known them for years, decades, centuries as most indigenous
people and people of African descent knew of the last few weeks
tragedies. But for far too many it was an awakening, a harsh and
undeniable american truths
the elders were slain
and the tears flowed
they poured out of our eyes
down cracked sidewalks
and trickled into the gutters
where they traveled with refuse
into the nation’s rivers and oceans
the children were murdered
and the tears flowed
they poured out of our eyes
they fell on hard concrete
and were swallowed in gutters
where they were washed with waste
into the nation’s streams and bays
more locks were bought
and of course
and the tears flowed
onto the flat gray sidewalks
and seeped into gutters
where they slid with the litter
into the nation’s lakes and oceans
as people beat their chests
pulled out their hair
buried their dead
and finally newspeak pundits
this is indeed who
we americans are
we murder our elders
we murder our children
we murder people at prayer
at music concerts
at dance clubs
at home we murder
and then we lower flags to half-mast
and we speak of thoughts and prayers
we mouth condolences
to the families and loved ones
flowers are stacked
ribbons tied at massacre sites
and candlelit vigils are held in dark shadows
and we cry
and we watch our tears
fall on concrete
and get fed into sewers
as we stand as memorial statues
frozen in a pivotal moment of war
Copyright ©devorah major 2022
And perhaps that is the most difficult part of discovery, that it may show us the weakest parts of ourselves, the most frightening aspects of our world, the uncomfortable truths that we would turn from be they about climate change or global or personal racism, be they about war as domestic, national, or international subjects. And when we make these difficult discoveries they can result in a loss of innocence, a shaking of faith, a creation of fear.
But we need not ever be discouraged by truth instead we should embrace our own discoveries and those of others that shed light and give us direction. This is why I find myself often with Mary Oliver as she discovers and helps me to rediscover the wonders of nature realizing that it is not just that that one spring, just that one winter, just that one morning but every morning
Under the orange
sticks of the sun
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again
and fasten themselves to the high branches–
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands
of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails
for hours, your imagination
And if your spirit
carries within it
that is heavier than lead–
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging–
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted–
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.
“Morning Poem” by Mary Oliver, Dream Work.
Mary Oliver was constantly discovering the realities of the natural world around us and sharing with us her discoveries in poetry. It is like Everett Hoagland’s Perspective when he realizes like Troupe, like Oliver that the discovery is in the seeing:
How we see
Another, and don’t.
What we want
To see and don’t.
What we bring to what
we see that
makes it what is
there for us,
can be seen
in a well-lit room
when we look at a large glass-
covered, framed photo.
Our reflection is super-
imposed upon what is
there under the gleaming
glass, and our vision
suppresses our mirrored image
so we see through it, focus
on what is
pictured beneath it,
away from what is
at the edgers of our eyes
Which is the way insight reveals
what is not seen. Yet is there.
But by what we say, or do not
say, and all too often by what we do,
or do not do, does not seem to be.
For example, my innate ability to see
You in me, and, too, your born-with
ability to see me in you.
And that is a discovery many of us have yet to make, the innate ability to see the other in the self. And it may be one of the most fundamental and important discoveries we can make, more than the wonder of music, more than the majesty of language, more than the exploration of our galaxies, we need to encourage the discovery of our true shared humanity and see what can grow from that discovery.
I’d like to end my talk with poems about two of my personal discoveries. The first while metaphoric did spring from a faint memory of me as a child being caught in an undertow and my discovery of what one needs to do to survive when one is drowning in water or in the madness of one’s life.
in the midst of it all
i know i must come up
for air or quickly
learn to breathe
above my head
i hold back the gasp
and open my mouth
deeply swallow air
in one huge gulp
before descending again
into the salted waters
to shoot up once more
towards the sun
than i can imagine
looking above i see
a glimmer reflecting
below the ocean’s
i cut the waves
for a moment
as i let the waves
return me to the shore
from califia’s daughter
And I leave you with this cosmological and personal discovery that led to a poem about what we are made of.
out of clay
dust to dust
from earth you came
and to earth you will return
they remind us
we are mortal
and subject to death
yet insist on their eternals
demons and angels
paradise or purgatory
with a finite
measure of days
but we have
exploded as novas
burned through galaxies
explored far reaches of the milky way
ridden on the tails of comets
danced on the edge of asteroids
in a dizzying frenzy of passion
through the viscous ozone
past cooling clouds
to settle in the ooze
that feeds the ocean's floor
it was there that we decided
to grow limbs and tongue
all the while holding inside
the truth of our origin
we are the stuff
that stars are made of
it is a scientific fact
a cosmic trust
and in knowing
we hold grains of the divine
and we always have
from califia’s daughter
So, what do we as poets and poetry lovers need to do? We need to welcome what is, and may or may not be completely understood, but can make us wonder. We need to pay attention, to look, to not laud ourselves to much for our individual discoveries, but to share them , to investigate them to see them clear-eyed as we welcome their truths.
devorah major June 4, 2022
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