Clearing the Sill of the World

Creating art is the process of surprising yourself. And when that happens, when your creation surprises you by what it becomes––by what it was able to become because you stopped trying to control it––there are few things more exhilarating. The same is true of children––of themselves and their creations. I was not prepared for the profundity of my children becoming artists.

The Writer Justin Harris
The Writer, by Justin Harris

The Writer

.

In her room at the prow of the house

Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,

My daughter is writing a story.

.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing

From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys

Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

.

Young as she is, the stuff

Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:

I wish her a lucky passage.

.

But now it is she who pauses,

As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.

A stillness greatens, in which

.

The whole house seems to be thinking,

And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor

Of strokes, and again is silent.

.

I remember the dazed starling

Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;

How we stole in, lifted a sash

.

And retreated, not to affright it;

And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,

We watched the sleek, wild, dark

.

And iridescent creature

Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove

To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

.

And wait then, humped and bloody,

For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits

Rose when, suddenly sure,

.

It lifted off from a chair-back,

Beating a smooth course for the right window

And clearing the sill of the world.

.

It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.

.

––Richard Wilbur

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The Strange and Wild Guest

Next week we will again perform This Bird of Dawning Singeth All Night Long. This is the show’s fifth year. It is a simple telling of the Nativity Story through poetry, mask, and music. I love it. And every year I love it more.

But there are always dangers in remounting a show. The dangers of comfort and complacency. It has to change and grow each time if it’s to stay alive. This year there are many new performers in the show, and you might think that would help it stay fresh. But the reality is that I’ve found myself relying more on past productions than ever.

Last week I woke with the distinct feeling that the piece was not happy with me. That sounds odd, but that’s just how I felt. I immediately began throwing out the old, playing with the new––leaving behind safety for the danger of the unknown. It’s difficult to do. It’s what Keats called “the burden of the mystery.” Nothing is more important in art.

In the current era, every piece of art must be an act of rebellion, and none more so than This Bird. As I have explained before, these must not be the common, insipid political and religious rebellions. No. These must be rebellions against the art world itself. And rebellions against the academy, which harbors the art world and continually tells it that safety is best. “Tell the world what is right and wrong,” says the academy. “Make sure they know you’re smarter than them, and that they should learn to think like you.” You see, the academy––and, by extension, what we have come to call “art”––hates Keats’ mystery. There is no better way to rebel as an artist than to take on the burden of the mystery.

This Bird opens with a fragment of Li-Young Lee’s poem, “Nativity.” (Perhaps no poet today is more rebellious than Lee.)

Each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.

Here is the paradox: the most dangerous place for the heart is the protected place, the comfortable place, the place that is sure of itself. The safest place for the heart is the exposed, vulnerable place. Only there is it ready for the mystery, that strange and wild guest.

The Annunciation
The Annunciation

Nativity

In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world?
just to hear his sister
promise, An unfinished wing of heaven,
just to hear his brother say,
A house inside a house,
but most of all to hear his mother answer,
One more song, then you go to sleep.

How could anyone in that bed guess
the question finds its beginning
in the answer long growing
inside the one who asked, that restless boy,
the night’s darling?

Later, a man lying awake,
he might ask it again,
just to hear the silence
charge him, This night
arching over your sleepless wondering,

this night, the near ground
every reaching-out-to overreaches,

just to remind himself
out of what little earth and duration,
out of what immense good-bye,

each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.

––Li-Young Lee

Mary Keeps All These Things
Mary Keeps All These Things