On poetry and tiny houses

dian sousa

Cover for Dian Sousa’s latest book of poetry.

It’s my day off and I should be out Christmas shopping or replacing my one pair of jeans that just blew out (the downside of downsizing), but instead I feel the need to write about poetry.

Yesterday I was trapped thirteen floors above downtown Oakland, breathing recycled air and banging my head on my desk, but when I got home my spirits soared. Dian Sousa’s new book of poetry, The Marvels Recorded In My Private Closet, was sitting on my doorstep, waiting to be let in.

I first heard Dian on a pitch black night outside the Henry Miller Library, deep in the mountains of Big Sur. I had driven down to see Blame Sally and Dian, a friend of the band, opened with a reading. The ocean crashed on the cliffs far below as she wove her magic on a rough stage strung with little white lights. Tales of tiny horses on a Russian woman’s arm, of raw, mystical Furies and primal, passionate couplings. Of loneliness and rebel spirits. Of nature red in tooth and claw, but also, emphatically, wild and free. Our salvation. If we would just pay attention.

Word and image and sound

I have long had an interest in poetry. Aside from a couple ancient college classes, I have no training in it but I love how the careful selection of words opens up a whole new world, a way of seeing things unexpectedly, of tapping into shared deep roots of connectedness. I especially care for poems that observe the small miracles of the natural world and make us stop and think. My bookshelf is full of conversations between the likes of Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, William Stafford, Jane Hirshfield, and now, happily, Dian’s latest. These will not be casualties of downsizing when I move into my tiny house. They are my friends on a cold winter night.

When I went to film school, I originally thought I wanted to make nature documentaries. The first day in class, our teacher, Karen Holmes, walked into the room and changed my life. A wonderful experimental filmmaker, she opened our eyes to what can be learned from breaking cinematic elements down into their fundamental selves and and reassembling them into new creations. I spent the rest of my time there playing with how word and image interact with each other. I became a little obsessed with the following poem:

Sea Rose 

Rose, harsh rose,
marred and with stint of petals,
meagre flower, thin,
sparse of leaf,

more precious
than a wet rose
single on a stem –
you are caught in the drift.

Stunted, with small leaf,
you are flung on the sand,
you are lifted
in the crisp sand
that drives in the wind.

Can the spice-rose
drip such acrid fragrance
hardened in a leaf?

~ H.D.

I read a lot about the women of the Left Bank of Paris between the 1900s and 1940s – artists, poets, and writers such as Gertrude Stein, Anais Nin, Djuna Barnes, Colette, and many others. H.D. was part of this milieu, though choosing to live in London. A poet, she was influenced by her early lover Ezra Pound and was instrumental in developing the Imagist movement in poetry, defined by an almost haiku-like stripping of poetry down to its bare essence.

“Sea Rose” wouldn’t normally have caught my attention but I stumbled upon the fact that she wrote it not long after she had a miscarriage. Richard Aldington, her husband at the time, had rather brutally informed her that her friends had died in the sinking of the Lusitania. I have no proof that the poem is a result of this experience, but the mere thought of it made me view the poem in a new light. It became the jumping off point for an experimental film, never completed, about a destitute young woman. Accompanied by the poem, the film was rife with images of a decaying amusement park at the beach, children’s airplane rides overlain with air raid sirens and the roar of divebombing WWI planes. Like the poem, it was pretty bleak, but I was fascinated by the interplay of sound, word and image.

sea rose

A still from Sea Rose.

Fast forward a few years. Not long after that night of poetry and music in Big Sur, I began promoting women musicians and hosting a monthly series at a cafe in Berkeley. I became interested in the differences and similarities of lyrics and poetry. One of my favorite shows was a round robin of Dian reading her poetry, singer/songwriter Monica Pasqual, and Ronnda Cadle, an instrumental guitarist. They took turns performing and discussing how they work and the interconnections between the different art forms. It was an illuminating evening.

Dian came back  to the cafe for another reading and enthralled us with, among other things, the vivid image of a childhood battle with biting, “I’d made it nine years chewing only barnyard animals,/frosted flakes and candy, before I finally cracked,” going on to describe how she lunged for her cousin, “…aiming intuitively, for the meatiest zone/between her elbow and warm little wrist.” But again, she turns this around, irresistibly, into a plea for love and connection, and a defiant celebration of our human frailties. Brilliant.

Poetry and tiny houses

When I ordered Dian’s book, I wrote her to say how thrilled I was. I mentioned the cover of the book and how it resonated since I’ve been busy building a tiny house. She wrote back,”The house on the cover of my book was a house my son lived in while in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic: dirt floors and a bucket shower outside. I never slept so well in my whole life.”

Tiny houses and poetry go hand in hand. Poetry started creeping into my blog posts – it was a natural fit with writing about tiny houses. Both focus on finding the essentials of what is needed, of tossing the extraneous, the useless words and space, the extra baggage. Like haiku, tiny houses are spareful.

final roof sheathed front

Naj Haus at the moment (Dec 2013).

The exploration of nature is a common theme in each. Tiny housers speak of an increased appreciation of the changing of the seasons and the sound of wind and rain. By watching the path of the winter sun, I realized I needed to put one of my skylights on the front of the house. Already nature is infiltrating my house, even as I build.

Changing perspective

Both tiny houses and poetry challenge the way we perceive the world around us. They question whether the accepted norms are really something to blindly swallow. Perhaps we need to look at things in a new way. Perhaps not everyone needs the mansions and the mortgages. Poetry and tiny houses serve to startle us out of our ruts, to wake us up, to change are habitual patterns and perspectives.

Maybe you’ve seen the articles on the cricket chorus going around the internets. Jim Wilson recorded crickets in his backyard and slowed them down to correspond to the way crickets experience sound and time, given how fast their lifespans are compared to ours. The result is beautiful (an explanation starts about 40 seconds in):

There are those who question whether this was a pure recording or a manipulation. I decided I didn’t really care. It made me stop and think about the possibility of each cricket living its life contributing to an ongoing natural harmonic choral arrangement, an evolving, living song greater than each individual. It’s not so much about the truth of the recording, as the jolt to how we perceive the world. There is so much we don’t know, so many possibilities, so many ways of walking on this earth. Both poetry and tiny houses offer more of a connection to others, to deeper truths, to a resonance with an authentic, more conscious, way of living. They can also call attention to what is out of balance, to what is broken, to what is causing us harm. And offer a path back.

where you touched me
a cricket chirps

~ Jane Reichhold

Reading Dian’s poetry last night, I remembered that while I was at work, banging my head on the desk, a hand tapped me on the shoulder, stuck a pair of binoculars in my hands and pointed out the window. There, about twenty flights up, above where there have been several murders in the last year, above where there is no safety net to help the poor, the hungry, the addicted, where despair and tempers are rampant, there, high above this dense, trashed, malfunctioning part of the city, perched two peregrine falcons, wild and free. Not an answer, perhaps, but a token of hope.

So with that I would like to leave you with one of Dian’s poems in all its fecund glory. This poem is the introduction to The Marvels Recorded In My Private Closet. With its rallying against the repressed, soulless union of greed and shoddy construction, it seems very appropriate for tiny housers. Thank you, Dian, for letting me share it.

Throwing Fruit

We all dwell in a house of one room,
the world with the firmament for its roof . . .
– John Muir

I throw my old, uneaten fruit into the field next door.
It’s childish, I know.
I could add them to the compost
or cut out their wounds and put them in a pie.
But I have a pretty good arm, accurate and strong,
and the leprous, godforsaken Fujis fly so far
and the intoxicated tangerines
almost always clear the field entirely,
hitting the walls of the low, ugly house
someone else assembled in a hurry
because they had an adequate arm for nailing and sawing
and a fake green thumb for quick investing.

No one lives in the house now—
built from the mealy bones of the bank,
another box of dust, a mausoleum of linoleum and drywall,
unimaginatively ecru and stupid in its inability to open up.

The tightly pleating curtains never get to billow.
The door, a steely fascist, never cracks or bangs,
never, ever blows wide enough
to let in even one airy note of one breezy chord.

When I buy more fruit, I mention this to the produce man,
he grins, but it’s that primeval grin
rooted in a seed before it bursts,
in a wave in a tree in a volcano.
Oh you lazy animists how did you let it come to this?

He takes me back to the storeroom,
arms me with dozens of the soft black boomerangs
of decaying bananas and bushels of heavy lemon cannon fire.

I take my artillery to the middle of the field
and for hours hurl the brilliant, fleshy bombs
at the stoically splattered roof,
at the windows shuddering their acquiescence,
at the drainpipe shedding a little tear,
until the whole idiotic structure is covered
by the detonated insanity of fruit;
the luscious tenacity of seeds seeking every possible way
to spread their curvy doctrine of sweet tendril and sprout.

In the morning the blue jays swoop down on the house
like it’s a 1600 square foot plate of sugar.
The passionate bees build their juicy temples
under the last drooping eave.

Now the hateful politics of the door are busted down.
Now the wind will breathe its wild ballad,
its lyrics of water and light into every mouth
and limb opening green across the field.

Dian Sousa, drinking companion and reverend to the heretical and free, is the author of Lullabies for the Spooked and Cool and The Marvels Recorded in My Private Closet. She is cofounder of the San Luis Obispo, California, chapter of CodePINK: Women for Peace. 

Please take a peach. Do with it what you will…

Categories: uncategorized | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “On poetry and tiny houses

  1. I love this post, thank you Kate between this post and my morning coffee I am ready to appreciate the day for what it really is. I’d like to think I would be the one to smash the peach against the side of a house, but I think I would rather smash it in my mouth. I will get Dian’s book of poems.

    • Thanks, Derin! You will really love Dian’s book. Incredibly powerful and imaginative. I found myself reading more and more slowly so it wouldn’t end!

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