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Poet living the good life.
poetry, kayaking, spirituality
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Fears and Phobias and the Spirit of Adventure [Lynn Domina]
A confession: I lived in the same house in the western Catskills for 15 years, and I never went up into the attic. I wasn’t afraid that my lovely spouse had a secret wife hidden away up there, and it wasn’t because I wasn’t tempted to explore—I watch Antiques Roadshow, and I know that some guy bought a painting at a flea market a few years ago, and he found an original printing of the Declaration of Independence taped to its back. He’s a millionaire now. I could be set for life if only I’d had the guts to go up to the attic (ok, probably not, but you never know). It was the bats. I don’t know for sure that there were any bats living in our attic, but our neighbors had bats in their attic. And once, when the 200-year-old ceiling in one of our closets collapsed, we had a couple of bats in the house. They likely came from above the ceiling, I’m thinking, which is another way of saying they came from the attic. Yes, I know that bats and eat upwards of 1000 mosquitoes an hour. I know that they pollinate and distribute seeds similarly to bees and birds. I know that some of you will probably say that they’re more afraid of me than I am of them (but how do you know, really, how afraid an afraid bat is?). I also know that they’re really truly creepy, and I hope never again to wake up and spot a bat’s soft bulging belly right above my face. So, no attics. I’m afraid of a few other places, mostly high up places, places even higher up than attics. Those big Ferris wheels that cities like Niagara Falls promote to tourists, the London Eye, balconies at the tops of lighthouses—I’m afraid of them. But I ride or climb up because my desire to see all that can be seen exceeds my terror. I usually convince myself that I’m camouflaging my panic effectively, but the last time I walked down the open spiral staircase of a lighthouse, a woman on her way up stepped side and said to her companions, “I think we better get out of her way.” So, I’m phobic and it shows. What is fear, I usually think, but something to be pushed through? In January, 2015, I spent a few weeks in India, visiting sites sacred to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains. In the village of Pushkar, my companions and I had reserved a “sunset camel ride”—it didn’t involve any interfaith dialogue, the purpose of the trip, but it certainly involved some interspecies dialogue. I’d been imagining myself atop a camel for months. Up close, camels are bigger than you’d think. They kneel down, and you climb up upon a saddle, and then they rise, front legs first. You feel like you’re going to tumble right off the back. Then they raise their hind legs, and that feels slightly more stable, but their pace...
Posted Sep 16, 2016 at
The Best American Poetry
Looking Out [Lynn Domina]
I went to our local maritime museum the other day which is adjacent to the Coast Guard station and the water treatment facility and the swimming beach and other riparian entertainments (I know, “riparian” more often refers to a river bank than to a lakeshore, but it can refer to any body of water, and it’s one of my favorite words and I hardly ever get to use it). The museum features substantial exhibits on shipwrecks, including the Edmund Fitzgerald which still haunts the memories of many local residents, as well as on weather reporting out on the water and shore life. What I remember most, however, is the exhibit on WWII, because the central piece of equipment in that room was a submarine periscope. So for the first time in my life, I looked through a true periscope, and lo, I really could see out onto the beach and all along the shore. I could see who was playing Frisbee and which cars were entering and exiting the city, and how many sailboats were leaving the harbor. I felt voyeuristic—but isn’t every writer deep down a bit of a voyeur? I’ve watched tv, and so I knew that submarines were equipped with periscopes, and I’d seen representations of a sailor’s periscopic view. Still, I was surprised to see what I knew but did not believe would be there. The experience reminded me of the first time I looked at the moon through a telescope. I kept turning the lens all over the black sky, observing lots of darkness, until somehow I pointed the telescope in the right direction and saw all those craters, looking as if they were close by. I’m told often that what you see depends on where you stand, and that’s certainly true. But it also depends on how you look—through a periscope, a telescope, a microscope, binoculars, bifocals, or cataracts. I suspect I’m not alone in noticing that I focus more attentively when I’m looking through a magnifying glass or other device than when I’m relying on my own ordinary eyes. Magnified sufficiently, anything ordinary becomes extraordinary—as this microscopic photograph of sand illustrates. Access to visions like this still feels like magic to me—they can’t possibly be true, and yet they are. But. There’s a difference. Looking through a telescope or microscope, I often feel awe. All that complex life, or at least creation, contributing minute by minute to the conservation of the world—and most of the time, it’s absolutely invisible to human eyes. Poets like Pattiann Rogers observe nature this closely; when I read her poems, I take nearly as much pleasure from learning about the processes of biology and astronomy as I do from her language, as in this stanza from “The Rites of Passage” in her first book, The Expectations of Light: At 77 degrees the single cell cleaves in 90 minutes, Then cleaves again and in five hours forms the hollow Ball of the blastula. In the dark, 18 hours later,...
Posted Sep 15, 2016 at
The Best American Poetry
Art's Intrigue [Lynn Domina]
As I mentioned yesterday, last June I drove over to Toronto, crossing Michigan’s upper peninsula and then driving south through a comparatively remote region of Ontario. I wanted to see an exhibit by artist Lilian Broca. I’d come across her work online and been intrigued by her interpretation of the stories of Queen Esther and Judith from the Bible. She creates large-scale mosaics, and they are stunning. The depth of color and quality of light in compositions of glass is different from paint, regardless of how saturated the color of the paint is. Even when the viewer can’t actually see through it, glass suggests translucence. Paint can suggest depth, but even when I’m looking at watercolors, I’m seldom as captivated by the light itself as I am when I look at objects made of glass. Edward Hopper said that “Maybe I am not very human” because all he wanted to do was “paint sunlight on the side of a house.” Reading that quotation at an exhibit of Hopper’s drawings at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York a few years ago, I realized that visual artists are often trying to translate their response to the world into a particular medium, the way we writers experience a gut feeling during certain events or conversations, knowing that a poem awaits us, and our task is to translate our own responses into language. What was most intriguing about Broca’s exhibit, after I recovered from my awe at the mosaics themselves, was that she included the initial drawings, the cartoons with the sightlines angled across the paper, beside painted versions of the drawings, and then the actual much larger mosaics. For someone as woefully uneducated in visual arts as I am, her revelation of her process was astonishing. If art conceals the artifice, Broca unconcealed hers. Yet the magic remained, for I sensed that the final version had hovered at the edge of her mind long before she committed pencil to paper, and that the drawings—these were finished drawings, not casual sketches—were an early stage of her translation of her vision into glass. The drawings were a middle step in the process of articulating her vision, just as writing down the words sometimes occurs well after a poet’s conception of the poem. I’ve tried to talk to visual artists about the images in their minds that precede the images they create on paper or canvas or through clay or glass, but such conversations often lead more to bewilderment than to clarity. They feel the way writers feel, I suspect, when we’re asked where our ideas come from. Who knows why our attention is captured by one situation and not another? Artistic inspiration flees when it is actively sought; they arrive when we are receptive but not engaged in active pursuit. I don’t exactly haunt art museums, but I enjoy them. I’m lucky now to work at a university whose art museum is only a few feet away from my office. Exhibits of drawings,...
Posted Sep 14, 2016 at
The Best American Poetry
Getting There from Here [Lynn Domina]
I was visiting some friends the other day, engaging in a little poetry soiree to celebrate that fact that Foster Neil, founding editor of The Michigan Poet, had traveled to the U.P. for the first time in his life. As we drank beer and ate cheese and chips and guacamole and cannoli, several people read poems referring to Phil’s 550. They couldn’t believe I had never been there. Truth be told, I had never even heard of Phil’s 550. So I drove out there this afternoon, making only one wrong turn, finally figuring out that it’s called Phil’s 550 because it’s located on Route 550, and hoping it would be like Ma ‘Cille’s Museum of Miscellany outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It is not. I don’t think I saw Phil (I saw Ma ‘Cille every time I visited her museum). Phil stocks a lot of beer; there may be more beer per square foot in Phil’s than in any other store north of the 45th parallel. Some of it is good beer, brewed locally and named creatively—Flying Sailor, Flying Hippo, Barbaric Yawp. Phil also sells wine and Doritos and tie-dyed sweatshirts advertising Phil’s. I did not buy one because I possessed only ten crumpled dollars and there was no cash machine. Phil also sells ice cream cones, but just three flavors remained, it being after Labor Day. So I pulled back onto 550, passing the Tourist Park trailhead, and turned toward home. I don’t think I will write any poems about Phil’s 550, but you never know. I thought I would write a poem about Ma Cille’s or at least steal some imagery, but here it is thirty years after I moved away from Alabama, and I never have. I would like to write a poem set in the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, and every time I pass through Philadelphia I vow to stop there, but I never have. The Mütter Museum has on display 139 human skulls, amputation tools used during the Civil War, and pieces of Einstein’s brain. Who could resist? The trouble is whenever I come across objects or words or names that really should be in a poem, they never end up in mine. Last June, I drove across the eastern half of the U.P. and crossed into Canada at the Soo. The bridge across the St. Mary’s River is uniquely designed, an American crest lit in red, white, and blue, and a Canadian crest lit in red and white. From a distance, you think you’re going to cross two bridges. Then I turned south toward Toronto and drove a few hundred isolated miles through rocky outcroppings. No restaurants. No bathrooms. No wildlife even. But there were roads, and they had truly tempting names: Hanging Pot Rd., Seldom Seen Rd., Go Home Lake Rd. When I give directions to my house, I would like to be able to say, “Turn left on Seldom Seen Rd.” I would like to write a poem that refers to Little Go...
Posted Sep 13, 2016 at
The Best American Poetry
Whence I Write [by Lynn Domina]
A few days ago, my friend Janet McAdams poked fun at me for referring to myself as a “Yooper.” I am accustomed to Janet’s teasing—we’ve been friends for over thirty years, and much of our conversation has focused on my unduly heavy Midwestern accent, my unfortunate childhood spent among Yankees, and my unfathomable fashion sense. Even her mother once scolded her for teasing me so much, but the thing is, her critiques are, well, pretty much accurate. I didn’t realize, though, that not everyone knew what a Yooper is, just as I didn’t appreciate until I left Michigan for Alabama thirty-some years ago, that not everyone holds up their right hand and points to a spot on their palm to designate where they’re from. Now, after decades wandering around the eastern half of the United States, I’m back in Michigan, in the upper peninsula this time, in the city of Marquette, right on the glorious shore of Lake Superior. In Michigan, we don’t say “upper peninsula”; we say, “U.P.” A resident of the U.P. is a Yooper. (According to Yoopers, residents of the lower peninsula are trolls, because they live under the (Mackinaw) bridge.) And though I’ve lived in Marquette for only about fifteen months, I’m claiming the label proudly. I don’t speak like a real Yooper; that accent is an exceptionally melodious half-Canadian, half-Minnesotan. But I love the landscape, and the land, and the water—mostly the water. I can trek through the deepest snow, and I am unduly proud of the fact that we have a special snow shovel named for us, the Yooper scooper. Several years ago, Martha Rhodes, a founding editor of Four Way Books, suggested I apply for writer’s residencies. I said that I never had trouble writing, that I could build writing into my schedule easily enough, whether I traveled away from home or not. She said that one of the advantages of getting away is that you observe different landscapes, and those images become available for your poems. I’d traveled a fair amount by then, but I didn’t really know what she meant. Then I moved from the metropolitan New York area to the western Catskills. Snow showed up more frequently in my poems, and mountains, and the footprints of deer and wild turkeys and coyotes. Eighteen years later, I moved to Marquette, and I find myself trying to describe Lake Superior’s multiple blues, its different character from one hour or day or week to the next. I’m noticing the iron in the rocks here, in contrast to the slate I often dug up in my backyard as I tried to garden in the Catskills. And thunder here booms like it did when I was a child, the ferocious quality of the storms something I hadn’t realized was missing out east, among the mountains. As a reader, I’m often surprised at how a poet’s work shifts from one collection to the next. Last year, for instance, I read and reviewed Michelle Kwasny’s meditative and...
Posted Sep 12, 2016 at
The Best American Poetry
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