|The Veteran in a New Field, Winslow Homer, 1865|
Painted soon after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865, and President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination five days later, Homer’s canvas depicts an emblematic farmer, revealed to be a Union veteran as well by his discarded jacket and canteen at the lower right. His old-fashioned scythe evokes the Grim Reaper, recalling the war’s harvest of death and expressing grief at Lincoln’s murder. A redemptive feature is the bountiful wheat—a northern crop—which could connote the Union’s victory. Referring to death and life, Homer’s iconic composition offers a powerful meditation on America’s sacrifices and its potential for recovery.
After so many years, there is an amusing hope that amidst the chaos and everydayness, there has been a practice, perhaps a martial art grounded in everyday acts. Wax on. Wax off. Painting. Mopping. Sweeping. It's tempting to trivialize in a pop-cultural irrelevance. What is important is an intentional practice. A set of rituals performed only for one's self, with no apparent reward or public acknowledgment, acts carried out in private as it were. The practice is it's own reward, hearkening back to the play behavior of children. To be rewarded or even praised for play ruins it, short circuits the autistic feedback loop via the gaze of the other. Once you know an other is watching you practice, you become self-conscious, and lose the natural grace and flow of what you always do when no one else is around.
So memory. Intentional memorization. I learned early on, no one - very few - wants to hear a poem recited to them, especially one of Shakespeare's sonnets. On the few occasions where someone called upon me to recite, I was immediately self-conscious and often fumbled the recitation. A poem I had perfectly recited to myself a thousand times now clumsy in my mouth.
Initially, these failures concerned me as being symptomatic of a neurological decline. But I quickly realized as soon as I was alone, the poem was there intact and beautiful, flowing from my heart to my mouth with perfect ease, as natural as breathing.
For years now, I have engaged in this practice of memorization. Memorization towards no end... at least, such has always been my assumption. However, it has been changing me, shaping my mind, my thoughts, my language in subtle ways. The heartbeat of iambs float more often through my prose these days than they once did before. Analogies of heart and eye, of shadow and dream, of death and time are more magnetic in my mind. Particular words such as "slouching," "buckle," "pluck," "ghastly," "dominion" (and so many more) now ring with deeper resonance, metonymic diapasons of symphonic linguistic dimensions. Rising cumulonimbus thunderheads in my mind.
As I return to the practice of writing after so many years away, I am aware of this unconscious training. All the years spent reciting, working to memorize poetry and prose, have disciplined muscle and nerve, attuned the ear, allowing me to narrow the chasm that once existed for me between my thought and expression. What will come of this, I know not. However, the feeling of my mental muscles grasping and wrestling with the language is one of the healthiest feelings I've had in a long while.