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I am “Lady of the Lake”

One of the few helpful aspects of social distancing and self-isolation during this horrible time of the COVID-19 has been taking the time, in solitude, to read, write, organize, create, sketch, and to revisit old favorite hobbies, and passions, like art. Back in March, when my university transitioned to online courses, and my state governor issued a Stay-at-Home order, I felt reasonably “ok” with that, since I felt it was a good time to focus on my graduate study, which requires a lot of reading and writing. Last fall, two of my faculty advisors asked me a difficult philosophical question about why researching the topics I’d proposed was important to me–personally--and my answers then seemed flaky, e.g. “I am Lady of the Lake!” So, I have been thinking about how to answer those questions. It seems like I should be prepared to answer thoughtfully.

In May, I received Honorable Mention for my poem, “My Glacial Erratic,” in the 2020 Fish Poetry Prize, judged and selected by former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins. My poem will appear in the 2020 Fish Anthology, coming out later this summer. (That’s with Fish Publishing, which holds a number of writing contests each year, based in Ireland.) Since then, I’ve written new poetry, and started drawing images that go with my poetry, and some of it is inspired by recent coursework. Selkies, mermaids, the Irish merrow, bog-women, the Lady of the Lake, and other supernatural female figures in literature (Romanticism as well as other periods, particularly Gothic literature and Arthurian lit) have captured my imagination.

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“Irish Merrow” – one of my watercolors

Enter art journaling. To work through some of my ideas, I’ve started art journaling. It’s now summer, and I’m still self-isolating, and spending a great deal of time at home, on my own, creating. I’ve started working in a blank canvas art journal (Jane Davenport’s supplies).

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Painting on my deck. This piece is one of my mermaid characters from my “Blue Dog and the Sea Fan” series.

It never occurred to me to use my art (and poetry) to think critically about my proposed research, or to answer philosophical questions about my interdisciplinary research. I’d been approaching it methodically, seriously–with critical annotations, a working bibliography, term papers as building blocks, outlines. Now I’m approaching it differently, and I’ve got images of mermaids, selkies, bog-women, and memories of Ireland in my head.

Painting in my art journal– a scene from my trip to Co. Cork, Ireland in 2019

Part of that’s influenced by the research I did on Traditional Ecological Knowledge of seaweed harvesting in Ireland for a term paper. Part of it’s inspired by a Celtic Studies class I’m taking led by Dr. Sharon Blackie. I read her book, Foxfire, Wolfskin, and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women (September Publishing, 2019) which I loved.

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I loved this book by Sharon Blackie!

There’s something very liberating about making art. And it’s a good exercise to pick up a different tool–any tool–whether it’s a paint brush or fountain pen–but a physical tool, one that can be held in the hand to transmit ideas from the mind to the page. I love color. I’ve always responded emotionally to color. As a kid, the gift of a set of colored pens delighted me more than dolls or toys. I still love art supplies and colored pens. Recently, I’ve become quite smitten with art supplies by Jane Davenport, an Australian artist and designer, known as an “Artomologist,” a play on her nature photography, and particularly her love for ladybugs, and other insects. I’ve also really enjoyed her books, such as Marvelous Mermaids. Jane Davenport has a series of art tutorials on Youtube, and I’ve really enjoyed rediscovering my love for making art, partly inspired by her wonderful books, tutorials, and using some of her supplies. The “Mermaid Markers” are some of my favorite supplies, a water-reactive brush pen, like a watercolor alternative, that’s been fun to use. But my absolute favorite thing of hers is the fountain pen, an INKredible pen.

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Inkredible ink fountain pen by Jane Davenport and one of my journals

Twenty years ago, I took a watercolor painting class at College of the Atlantic. Prior to that, I was a writing-art double major (or English major, art minor) at St. Lawrence University. For at least ten years, from high school through college, at four different schools, I loved making art. I incorporated art visuals into my poetry projects and liked making books. Then, in 2004, while in grad school at COA, I was living in a small cottage with a 15-year-old water heater, which leaked badly, flooding my little home, and saturating all of my possessions. My draft master’s thesis, which I’d meticulously organized into piles and chapters, along with my notes and data on my living room floor, floated in ankle-deep water on a soggy shag carpet. Even my old Dell laptop was submerged. One of the fatal losses that really crushed me at the time, three full art portfolios containing all of my art from more than four years in studio art classes–drawings, paintings, photography, self-portraits, watercolors, some of which I’d planned to frame someday (when not working on my master’s thesis). All of my art disintegrated. It was so shocking and sad, I focused on other things, like completing my master’s degree, and moved forward with other projects, and left my ruined art and love for making art, in the past.

In recent years, I’ve rediscovered my love for Kettle Cove State Park (southern Maine), and I have been lucky enough to swim in that small cove over an eelgrass meadow, where I swam and toddled around as a baby more than thirty-five years ago.  Recently, I swam at high tide, in the wake of the New Moon Solar Eclipse in Cancer this June.

Kettle Cove State Park, Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Stetson photo

Every time I swim there, I am flooded with sensations, poems, ideas, and epiphanies. I’m rediscovering myself. I’m reinventing myself. Below is a weird “inner self-” portrait I painted, using watercolors and real Maine eelgrass, which coiled and wrapped around my neck and arms as I swam at Kettle Cove in June.

I collected a few blades of eelgrass, which was floating in the water, and coiled around my wrists as I swam to shore. It also washes ashore along with rockweed, so it’s easy to find there. I incorporated the eelgrass into my art journal.

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“Inner self-” portrait,  multimedia,  “Lass in the Eelgrass” LCS  June 2020

Now, twenty years after my watercolor class in spring 2000 at COA, I’ve picked up my paint brushes again. I’ve started making art again, almost on a daily basis, for the past month. At some point, during the process of social distancing, self-isolating at my home in the Lakes Region of Maine, I felt inspired to start sketching some drawings of symbols and seaweed as part of projects, like the one I did for Folklore and Environmental Policy class. Then, I started sketching ideas for other aspects (inspired by literary works by Romanticism-era writers like Ann Radcliffe and Mary Wollstonecraft) while I organized a strategy for doing my graduate research. That led to the idea of starting an art journal that’s connected to the research I’ve been doing as a student in the Interdisciplinary PhD program. I’m a poet and “ecoheroine,” researching the Eco-Gothic and Arthurian lit in a tenacious pursuit of deep Romantic ecology of wetlands.

All of these images and photos are mine. Please don’t share my images. My art is work-in-progress. Thank you!

0This past summer, July 2019, I had the honor of receiving “Honorable Mention” in the annual Fish Publishing prize for poetry; one of my poems, “Capes and Daggers,” was published in the Fish Anthology 2019. Poet Billy Collins judged the poetry contest in 2019; Collins will also judge the 2020 poetry contest. This is a huge honor and I was very grateful to be included.

To learn more about Fish Publishing’s future / upcoming poetry and short story and memoir contests, visit Fish Publishing’s website. They are based in Southwest Ireland in Co. Cork.  The book is also available on Amazon as a Kindle version.

Literary analysis and figurative language are among my favorite subjects to teach my students in English Composition. While other teachers might find these akin to “pulling teeth,” I thrive on the challenge. I like to create original hand-outs for my students for each assignment, or in some cases, multiple worksheets. My teaching persona might be considered “the Hand-out Queen,” if there are such things. (What’s your teaching style? Aren’t there quizzes in magazines for this?)

Literary analysis, also known as literary criticism, is a tool that writers use to examine elements in fiction, creative nonfiction or poetry. When a writer uses this tool, the objectives of the essay might include answering some of these questions about the literature:

  • What is the story or book (or collection) about? (this does not mean that you write full plot summary or a book report)
  • What is the problem or conflict in the story, book or poem?
  • What points is the author or poet trying to make about society, love, religion, war, culture, or some other important topic?
  • What’s the main idea of the poem or story?
  • What symbolism is used? Analogies, central themes?
  • What lies beneath the surface? Is there an underlying tension?
  • What kinds of emotional response does this piece of lit. bring about for the reader? Does it bother you? Did it affect you in any way? Any elements of surprise, suspense?

The above list is just the beginning. Of course, I start with the basics, including an understanding of metaphor, point of view, character development and how to write a thesis statement. But my students still appreciate seeing some additional examples that dig a little deeper. I offered this lesson to be helpful. Maybe others will find this useful, too.

Revising & Strengthening Literary Analysis Essays

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My dining table has become the “grading station”

  • Make sure to have a clear thesis statement in your first paragraph (or the opening sentence of second paragraph). This thesis statement will direct the essay.
  • Make sure to have quotes from the literature you’re analyzing (quotes from the text) —These quotes will range the gamut from short phrases to longer “block quotes,” which you must indent & center (and format single-spaced).
  • Make sure to correctly identify whether it is a novel (fiction)—and identify which genre, e.g. detective/crime story, suspense/thriller, Victorian gothic, science fiction fantasy, novelette, which is a short novel, such as Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle); or a creative nonfiction book such as a memoir, travel narrative such as Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, science and nature memoir, such as Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; or short story, such as “The Open Window;” or an essay.
  • Make sure that you have correctly identified the type of narrator (e.g. omniscient (all-knowing), a named character in a novel (whether a protagonist or minor character), the author (if memoir), and kept that distinct throughout your essay. Be careful not to confuse these.

If you have selected to analyze an entire book, for example, a memoir—imgres-1let’s say, John Berendt’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated creative nonfiction book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1995), there is a LOT to analyze in a full book. However, in a short literary analysis essay, you’d be wise to focus your thesis statement on one concept or two themes, and dig into that idea, or parallel ideas, from a multitude of angles. For example, you might notice a lot of scenes, conversations between people in the book and references to “house-proud Savannah” and the pride of the residents in the Georgia city. You might also notice how Berendt uses contrast to depict envy among the same people. As a reader, you could step back and look at “pride” as a positive and “envy” as a negative; go further, and we look at “good and evil” as “pride and envy.” Or, as another example, you might be more interested in the theme of what it means to be “a true Savannahian.” Whatever grabs your interest is likely to work well in an essay that you craft.

Then we can skim through the book, and hopefully you have thought to annotate the text with sticky notes to color-code your favorite quotes. If not, you’ll have to go through the text again and find passages in the book that mention “jealousy,” “envy,” “pride” or “proud” (or “house-proud,”) or any characterizations that speak to these concepts. Select 4-10 quotes. You want a combination of short phrases, any special terms coined by the author or a character, location-specific phrases that are relevant to your analysis/thesis statement, a longer quote that you will indent to create a block quote. See below for a few examples of a phrase, a sentence quoted in the body of your paragraph an indented block quote. If you have a long quote and you want to use only parts of it but to keep it mainly in tact, use a […] << like that within the quote and within the body of your paragraph. This keeps it sleek. Nothing in quotes should appear in your essay unless it is a direct quote from the text. In other words, don’t put something in quotes if it is from your brain; it will confuse the reader.

An exception to the quote rule: if you’re quoting a literary critic, who has made a comment on the text that you’re analyzing, in which case you’re quoting that critic AND you must then cite that source and attribute that concept to the literary critic. Hot tip: if you quote a literary critic, keep that reference to a minimum and put it in one paragraph. You don’t want to confuse your reader and have quotes from literary critic(s) mixed in with quotes from the narrator and quotes from the characters or real people in the text.

Here is my example.  This is a snippet of a literary analysis essay I wrote about John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil:

In “house-proud Savannah,” the reader quickly sees the lush lawns and elaborate porches of the prominent homes “north of Gaston” (Berendt, 48). But what most visitors may not realize is that there are rules in Savannah. These rules dictate socially acceptable behavior for a “true Savannahian.” We know that the narrator and author, John Berendt, is a writer from New York, not a native to Georgia. He meets Joe, who explains the rules of Savannah living. Joe says, “Rule number one: Always stick around for one more drink. […] That’s when you find out everything you want to know.” Throughout the story, John attends a number of cocktail and dinner parties, and he engages in lively conversations with colorful characters—all real people living in Savannah. One thing he learns: locals are more forthcoming with him after he has earned their trust and they have had a few drinks together. It is during one of these parties that he sees the shadow-side of a prominent figure in the community and learns the truth about a crime, a murder.

Joe’s discussion of “the Rules” continues— “Rule number two: Never go south of Gaston Street. A true Savannahian is a NOG. ‘NOG’ means ‘North of Gaston.’ We stay in the old part of town.” The reader is permitted entrance into this tightly-knit, exclusive community—Savannah—and through Berendt’s writing, gains the privilege of learning these local secrets, or rules, for society, or at least, for Savannah. We learn what it means to be a “true Savannahian,” one who sticks around for one more drink, stays “north of Gaston,” and finally, “observes the high holidays,” such as St. Patrick’s Day and the annual football game (Berendt, pg. 48). We later learn that there are consequences for breaking the rules of Savannah living, or repercussions for failing to be “a true Savannahian.”                                                                         ~LCS

The GirlAnother example. Fiction.  Looking at “coming of age” and peace/purity versus darkness/devil (or fear v. wonder) themes in Peter Benchley’s short novel, The Girl of the Sea of Cortez (1982). Notice the use of an indented block quote in an excerpt of my essay:

Peter Benchley’s novelette is a magical story with elements of suspense, not unlike his famous novels, Jaws and The Deep. However, unlike those other full-length novels, The Girl of the Sea of Cortez is a coming-of-age story. Paloma is a girl of sixteen, whose name means “dove,” a symbol of peace, purity and of “the Holy Spirit.” She lives in a village beside the Sea of Cortez and thrives on her saltwater swims and boating expeditions into her own world of magic and sea life. By 16, Paloma has encountered many sea creatures, including sharks and barracuda, and she has indigenous knowledge—partly taught by her late father and partly by her brother, Jobim, also known as Jo. Her brother’s knowledge of geology and marine life had come from his elders; Paloma prefers to learn by observation and first-hand experience. She embraces fear and curiosity equally—but above all, maintains a sense of wonder about the sea world.

“Paloma looked up. One behind another, a procession of hammerhead sharks passed overhead in a parade. Their silver-gray bodies were as sleek as bullets and the sunlight touched the ripples of moving muscle and made them sparkle. Paloma loved the hammerheads, for they seemed somehow to focus her thoughts about God and nature.” (Benchley, 26)

                     Paloma considers that if there were any animal that were “particularly blessed,” it would be the hammerhead shark. Sharks had been “critical to the island’s survival” and yet, the hammerhead species had survived there for millions of years. (Benchley, 26) Most 16-year-olds would be terrified to swim with hammerhead sharks, which are known to attack divers in other parts of the world. But Paloma understands the sharks. She admires them. She understands them. She uses her fear as a tool, as she might a fishing knife or piece of rope within her diving bag. By contrast, when she encounters a giant manta ray for the first time, she faces a new type of fear and must conquer that fear. The manta ray, known locally as a “Manta Diablo,” or “black devil fish,” symbolizes the very antithesis, or opposite, of the young pure-of-heart Paloma.

As the story develops, Paloma explores the Sea of Cortez, puts herself in close proximity with the “Manta Diablo” and compels herself to conquer her fear. She finds a deep resolve within herself and gains a profound understanding for the nature of things, and more importantly, her identity as she becomes a woman. Benchley illustrates her sea adventures as if each one were a rite of passage, which Paloma herself has invented. No one is telling her to seek out the “black devil-fish,” let alone ride on top of the ray, in fact, her brother and the others warn her to stay away from the mysterious creature, a thing of myth and mystery. Despite those warnings, Paloma swims with the manta ray and rides on its back. She conquers her fear, comes to know herself more confidently and enriches the local knowledge and understanding of the manta ray’s behavior and biology through her observations. ~ LCS

12088189_10207329637140552_1098530624650961937_nUnder the influence of heady salt flats, I languished in the discovery of untrammeled beach, where I spread out my blue sarapi on the sand, an old copy of Peter Benchley’s novelette, The Girl of the Sea of Cortez (1982) with its turquoise paper book jacket as faded as my cut-offs. I’m re-reading the coming-of-age story, remembering when I first read it in the 6th grade while I was living in Wiscasset. Back then, I swam off of my family’s little White’s Island in Sheepscot Harbor, and pictured the “manta diablo” appearing out of the murky green darkness of the Sheepscot River. It never happened, of course, but my sense of wonder never retreated with the tides.

This summer, I’m in southern Maine. Wearing my cowboy hat, my hips level, I shimmied down to the shore–quite a ways out, since it was low tide, in my nefarious string bikini, a pastel cloud-print one from Victoria’s Secret. It was hardly appropriate for wearing in public–but then, I’m a mer~sexual. I’m drawn to all-things from the sea. I’m 38 years old and this summer is my return to Kettle Cove, a state park overlooking Casco Bay in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. But I came here every summer in my toddler years, from the time I was a baby to the summer I was five. I can’t remember those summers–but I feel as though I must remember, somewhere, deeply embedded in my nervous system. I feel the memories, like muscle memory, that connect me to a life source, an energy here in this cove. When other people have an identity crisis, they’ve forgotten who they are; I feel as though I’ve just remembered! I am the Girl of Kettle Cove. I am the Girl by the Sheepscot River. I am not just just “the one who swims in the lakes,” but an open-water swimmer. I am the Girl of the Gulf of Maine. It felt like an epiphany.

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Swimming at Kettle Cove

Swimming through the eel grass in Kettle Cove, a nursery for sea life, and the “paddling pool” of my infancy, where my mother brought me as a baby, I must remember this cove, I think to myself the labyrinth of rocks and tide pools, paths through the meadow of floating milkweed, and wet mounds of silky strands of rockweed. Crawling through the thick eel grass bed, something in my body remembered toddling along the shore in the late ’70s, chasing sandpipers, free of the fears that would later inhibit me.

Long fronds of eel grass coiled around my wrists and forearms with every heart-shaped stroke, like a bellydancer’s bracelets that display her self-worth, her going rate–as I swim, I am richly adorned, self-satisfied and yet…grateful. I ask for nothing more than this water, this wave, this tidal current. I push out from my heart chakra, flex and relax my abdominals, imagining a balloon slowly inflate, filling my lungs with sea air, my belly with self-love and, elated, I channel that Neptune energy. Terns swoop and dive all around me; I float on my back and watch the cotillion as they turn and perform their acrobatics, fishing in pairs. Every wave that submerges my ears, momentarily stops all other noise and lets me exhale, just a breath, not a word, but a mantra nonetheless. I tip my head back and dip my hair, then put my hat back on over my wet Medusa-like head of curls, as oversized drops of saltwater drip from the straw brim. I love it here. So I will swim again tomorrow.

Leah

Poet. Artist. Ecoheroine. Human ecologist. Spiritual mermaid and Mystic. I write about literary ecology, wetlands, water, Romantic ecology, and quirky adventures with my dog.

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