Seattle, Washington, United States
For those who love coffee, poetry, art, or stories - stay. Have a cup with us.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

the ugly beauty

Good afternoon, Coffee Lovers. I know it's not the right day for a blog post (I'm early, not late!), but I had something to write and with my current track record that's quite the accomplishment.

I am currently reading a book that examines how human beings socially and philosophically orient themselves in the midst of competing signals and paradigms that muddy our understanding of the world and define our cultures. The author begins with beauty. He examines a painting and each element in the painting in relation to another.

Now, the book is not what I want to talk about, but, rather, the idea of relation through beauty. The b-word has a weird reputation in contemporary America. We think of beauty as ephemeral, ethereal, and enticing, but never functional. Beauty, to the modern American, is an issue of asthetics. In art, in literature, in the physical -- we see beauty as a clearly delineated way of being.

I'd like to take a second to challenge that. What if, instead, beauty was an engine of relation? For beauty to be a foundation upon which we establish relationships and alliances, it must be rethought. No foundation ever laid was meant to be ephemeral, ethereal, or enticing. Foundations are steadfast, grounded, and ugly -- to be entirely honest. And now is when you throw up your hands and declare that this kid is crazy for trying to string you along in a quest for the ugly beauty. But give me a chance.

To try to explain what I mean, as I often do to make sense of something, I'm going to show you a poem.

--Hoa Nguyen

Throwing myself at the cut.
--Vic Chesnutt

Also called Bead Tree
grooved seeds and
"a force unknown
to me"     yellow hanging
clusters through winter
growing black
                            stripped bark

Feral tree
Desert tree
like mahogany.

Seeds for making

Drunken songbirds

This poem is undeniably beautiful to me. The first time I read it, without understanding a word of it, I was unexpectedly touched by the emotional forces in these 36 words (if one excuses the epigraph from the count). But, despite the apparent beauty and extreme relational capacity of this poem, I don't actually think it makes the cut for beautiful in our culture. It does not wax eloquent or use unnecessarily glamorous words; the whole poem is a series of shifting images. Images are, of course, the most concrete pieces of literature; they remain age after age.

So what does this mean? I suppose, to me, it means that true beauty (please excuse the phrase) is understated and understood without understanding. Beauty is a universal constant, so, obviously, I'm not talking about the culture-specific beauty that mandates a body shape or a style of dress. Rather, I'm talking about a translator of passion and meaning.

I remember the first and only time that I saw the Mona Lisa in person. She hangs on a wall by herself behind two layers of perfectly clear, bullet-proof glass. She is a small painting, and, as we all know, not very beautiful. But I, along with the group of people gazing up at her, couldn't stop murmuring about what a gorgeous achievement she was, how well-deserved is the work's incredible fame and praise. Upon returning home, I tried to explain this to my family, and they simply could not grasp it. Recreations of the painting, they insisted, made the whole drama seem overblown.

And I knew, without understanding how, that in the presence of that great work I had glimpsed the universal beauty, so great as to be incapturable in any experience but a personal one. Like the above poem, the beauty is an aspect of a concrete translator of passion, be that da Vinci's passion for beauty or Nguyen's, it is the same.

So, assuming you agree that there is an ugly beauty -- and by ugly, I only mean understated, expansive, universal, untouchable, transcendent, and communicative -- your logical next question must be how that beauty can be seen in human beings.

This is an answer over which I have been puzzling for several months. I believe I found the answer in a rather ironic place, that place being a book of very ugly poems that I honestly did not care for. She Had Some Horses, by Joy Harjo, explores the feminine and Native American experiences, respectively, in contemporary America. In tackling these experiences she grapples with the great question that touches all facets of human experience: relation. In the midst of great pain, Harjo finds beauty in the unlikely. She finds beauty in greed and badness, hunger and malice, love and sex, joy and motherhood, giving and taking, succeeding and failing, the natural and the artificial. In short, she finds beauty everywhere. And it is through this beauty, through confrontation with this translator of the mythic and the passionate, that Harjo finds others and herself. She relates inward and outward in beauty, all the while proving that respect for beauty in all its forms -- ugly and comely -- is the only way to truly live.

Be beautiful. Find the beautiful. Embrace the beautiful. Throw yourself at its knives. Heal its cuts. Make rosaries, lives, children of it.

It is everywhere.

May your coffee be strong, your passions electric, and your laughter easy.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful piece of writing, Michael. Just a thought. Don't we also find and assert beauty in that which is intimately pure and simple? Think of Amish furniture, furniture which is utterly simple and strictly utilitarian. Or Shaker furniture. The clean lines and spiritual purity of the furniture is highly desired.