Letter from the Editor: Spring 2005: Issue 55

Spring 2005: Issue 55

Brenda Miller

“Tread Softly”

Last spring I taught a new course on writing in collaboration with the visual arts, or “ekphrastic” writing.  My students and I had a marvelous time as we visited with artists in the classroom and wrote our creative responses to their work.  We tried to ignite what poet  Anne Waldman calls the “third mind,” a kind of communion that unfolds in a realm we don’t normally have occasion to visit in day-to-day life.

One of the painters who communed with us was none other than Bellingham Review’s cover artist, Dale Gottlieb.  Dale’s work is known internationally for its striking use of color, and for the way she is able to integrate whimsy and imagination into historical realities, such as the holocaust and the civil rights movement.  Her latest passion has been a collaboration with Tibetan weavers who transform her paintings into rugs that literally vibrate with life.  This month’s cover, “Tread Softly,” is one such piece, and I was lucky enough to see the rug itself when her work hung in a one-woman show at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art.  Our cover reproduction can barely do it justice.  Her art, truly, is “palpable,” so fitting with our journal’s mission to publish “literature of palpable quality.”

Another reason I love Dale’s work so much, and the reason it fits so well with our journal’s character, is that she often incorporates literary references into her images; her paintings often emerge in response to poetry, to songs, to stories—a two-way collaboration.  In this case, “Tread Softly” shimmers as a counterpoint to Yeats’ poem, “He wishes for the cloths of heaven”; the last line of the poem winds among a landscape traversed by her light-hearted monk.  Her image made me want to know the poem in its entirety, and here it is, from The Wind Among the Reeds:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

An earnest love poem, to be sure, but more than that.  This poem has stayed with me for months, a profound reminder that we—as artists, as writers, as students, as teachers, as human beings—are constantly enacting Yeats’ vision: our longing transmuted to ephemeral fabric, flung out in hope that it might be admired, understood, or at the very least treated with care.  A reminder, too, that unfortunately we live in a world where treading carelessly commonly gets mistaken for courage, where power too often takes the place of compassion, where dreams—and lives—are so easily stomped at every turn.  Collaboratively, Yeats and Gottlieb murmur that it might behoove us to be careful in our actions, to tread softly along this—our common—path.

As you turn your gaze away from “Tread Softly” and onto the contents of this bulging issue of the Bellingham Review, you’ll see yards and yards of “heavens’ embroidered cloths” unfolding before you.  To begin at the end: for the first time we have compiled a comprehensive index to the last 27 years of our journal’s existence: starting with the small, stapled pamphlets that issued from our founding editor Knute Skinner’s house, and through to the present day, with our perfect-bound editions cultivated by a committed staff in the small office at Western Washington University.  So many volunteers poured over the back issues to painstakingly compile this listing; special thanks to Thea and  Jill and Rose and all the graduate students I saw hunched over the proofs, making careful notations in red ink.  In this index—a kind of celestial  map to “literature of palpable quality”—you’ll see a plethora of names, some familiar, some new, all of them joined together to show the wide range of voices for whom we’ve been honored to provide the microphone.

To leap back to the beginning of this issue, you’ll find the winners of our 2004 literary contests:  Christopher Bursk, for his wildly witty poem “E Pluribus Unum”; Bonnie Rough, for her weird and wonderful essay “Slaughter: A Meditation wherein the Narrator Explores Death and the Afterlife as Her Spiritual Beliefs Evolve”; and Bernadette Smyth, for her haunting short story “Kissing.”   Our renowned judges—Lucia Perillo for Poetry, Paul Lisicky for Creative Nonfiction, and Rosina Lippi for Fiction—chose these pieces out of thousands that poured into our office, and each of them commented on how the winners distinguish themselves by taking what is familiar to us and skewing it in some way, making it both highly recognizable and completely foreign.  It’s this kind of thrilling dichotomy, this frisson, that keeps us reading late into the night.

Our poetry winner, Christopher Bursk, also distinguished himself in another way: he donated his prize money of $1000 to the Bucks County Community College Foundation, to fund a scholarship in the memory of his student and friend Ray Reilly.   Here is a fine example of “treading softly,” and through Christopher’s generosity, the Bellingham Reviewwas able, in small part, to be a tangible force of good in the world.  Thank you Christopher, and thank you to all our dedicated subscribers who make literary publishing possible.   May you feel the “cloths of heaven” wrapped round you as you read.