I bought a few ears of butter & sugar corn at a farm stand yesterday morning. All afternoon-- through grading assignments, doing laundry, revising a poem, walking the dog—I let thoughts of sweet corn move through me. Rather, I let the textures and possibilities of taste rise and fall through the permeable membrane of my consciousness. I have a fine taste memory, as I think many cooks have. I can taste ingredients, combinations of ingredients. It’s been very hot and humid, so I’d made a mild chicken salad with red grapes, tarragon, and toasted pecans for supper. Corn with a spritz of lime juice? I had a bright fruit note in the chicken salad. A jazzed-up caprese salad? No, two dishes with the same texture. Creamed corn? Not on such a hot day. I remembered my new corn zipper early in the afternoon, and while stripping the kernels from their cobs, a few thoughts came. Not just about the corn dish.
The corn zipper strips three rows of kernels at a time in long pieces. I picked one up and looked closely at the cut side, where three white rows were weeping a very sweet juice. Tercets, I thought, long-lined tercets. I sat at the desk and tried a revision of an elegy I’ve been wrestling with for months. Did the weeping kernels point me in the direction of the elegy? Did the long three-row piece nudge me to try a different tack? As I shifted the lines around, I thought, chipotle, the sweet bite of corn needs a masculine pairing and an aggressive cooking technique. There it was: a quick corn fry with bits of smoky chipotle. There it was: another window into a poem that had felt sealed, ungenerous.
I read a piece in Psychology Today by Annie Murphy Paul, who writes on how the brain engages with the world, particularly how it learns. Paul thinks in a way I admire greatly. Her interests are catholic. She looks for connections. And she writes very clearly. The piece, “What the Jazz Greats Knew about Creativity” focuses on new brain research about improvisation by jazz pianists. I’ll pull a quote, but I urge to click through and read it. During improvisational playing,
“a region associated with careful planning and self-censorship, became dormant, while parts of the brain connected to the senses — hearing, seeing, feeling — became especially lively. Most interesting, a brain area called the medial prefrontal cortex, linked to autobiographical storytelling, also showed increased activity. Inhibitions released and senses primed, these musicians were engaged in an act of self-expression, using the music to communicate something deep about themselves.”
This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Defocusing the thinking part of the mind and allowing the senses to move forward in a kind of neural do-si-do. This is an active shift, one which feels like vulnerability once it has passed. But while you’re in it, oh it feels good. This is the state I describe to my students as “looking at the stars.” Be present, I urge them, don’t look for anything, don’t focus. Be open to the peripheral and accept what comes.
Whether or not you believe, as I do, that the poetic I is a necessary fiction in the service of the poem, the I is mediated by the poet’s senses, memories and experiences. How do we get to that jumble? How do we sort through and come to that sense of wholeness when we feel a poem is done and done well? Improvisation. The photo at the top of this post is Bill’s improvised lock on the door of our garden shed. The photo beneath would be mine.
It’s been a satisfying week of writing. David and Stacey, thank you again for your trust in my improvisations here.