"Breath and Matter"

Alison Deming, (UA Regent’s Professor of Creative Writing and Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in Environment & Social Justice) and Susan Lyman (longtime friend and sculptor based in Provincetown MA, and part-time winter resident of Tucson) are participating in the exhibition “Breath and Matter: Poet/Sculptor Collaborations” at Boston Sculptors Gallery in Boston MA from July 18 - August 12, 2018. The 24 collaborating teams took on the challenge of the question posed by Robert Pinsky, “What has art made of breath to do with an art made of matter?”

The pair of artists together explore the plastic relationship between wood and words as the material of their artistic practice. They take their cue from John Fowles' The Tree: "the real subject of this arboreal excursion is not the trees at all, but the importance in art of the unpredictable, the unaccountable, the intuitive, the not discernibly useful." Trees here serve as found material, metaphor and means of being present. 

If you can't make it to the exhibit in Boston, they were kind enough to share some of their collaborative art with us. 

Wood sculpture inspired by the poem "Castalia"
Castalia sculpture by Susan Lyman



Alison Hawthorne Deming



during my darkest grief the forest

was like an open sea birch trees

the beacon I used to steady my position


my brain felt at home among

saplings that tangle seeking light

that part of the soul Aristotle thought


we held common with plants

days and weeks cutting trail

at first moving three feet


through thicket then ten then

deeper into black spruce

bow saw and clippers


slung on my back like

Diana’s quiver trying to sense

how the path should rise


past cobble and copse

into high fern meadow

and beyond into balsam fir


towering so high they make

beneath them a living room

of reindeer moss and fungi


woods long worked by men

timbers and fieldstones

oxen-hauled downhill even


the skins of island houses

cloaked with fish scale

of cedar shingles cut here


where hardly a cedar tree

can be seen so fruitful

were those times of building


the Greeks had a way to speak

about depth so that each spring

had a name and history


and a supplicant had a place

to go to beg for wisdom

or healing or a song to make


that part of the soul

held in common with song

feel at home North Head


Seal Cove Dark Harbour

do well for singing but

every place needs its Castalia


where older thought

emerges like steam

from vents in a caldera



the island lies under a pall

of cold rain sea churlish

and aluminum gray


white caps slapping

horizon dissolved

no edge just one waving


continuity of libidinous water

two bald eagles feed along shore 

rain means nothing to them


cold means nothing to them

fish mean everything

the birds rise from below the long bank


return to woods their wings

sated and slow gulls wobble

their wings at home in raucous


air the birds know where

they’re going which may be

nowhere but they keep going


because that is what

their bodies are made to do

rain means something


to mosses they puff up

put on velvet suits and shine

like green carpet movie stars 


rain means something

to mushrooms each cap

smaller than a push pin


constellations forming

overnight the forest floor

lighting up from below


rain means something to deer

they lie down in fern meadows

under tall birches it means


nothing but cold to lobstermen

who motor out haul traps

dawn and dusk rain means something


to songbirds who clam up

when it starts and when it stops

renew their lease on songful sky



thwack of the driver as it slams

sledge against stake

to anchor the weir stakes


men working on floating raft

rhythmic thunks

as they breach ocean floor


birch saplings lashed for top posts

evening the boats come

home the bay silken calm


wisps of fog drift over

brittle grass pheasant

swift robin even gulls


tuck their cold feet

under downy bellies

glide toward sleep




Wood sculpture of the poem "Encountering Trees"
Encountering Trees sculpture by Susan Lyman

Alison Hawthorne Deming


Old birches lead complicated lives.

One falls in a gale then lying on its side

feels sun on its bark and begins

a new branch that becomes a trunk

and rises. Another grows a knee

for support after wind has made

it kneel. One grows an elbow to recline on

as it descends from vertical to horizontal.

Another grows a looping branch

like the curve in a jump rope

turning an obstacle into

a gesture of architectural grace.

But the grandmother tree is the marvel

sprawling like an opulent carefree queen

trunk split in the center like a woman’s cleft

the gap sending side branches out to snake low

until they reach beyond the canopy

to find enough light to ascend.

A tree that is a community of trees

a tree that refuses damage

turning storm and infestation

into a form that holds its ground

and grows stronger for all it suffers.

Grandmother tree, teach me, hold me,

protect me. I have walked through

a dark forest, red needled floor

lit with ghost flowers. Indian pipes

we used to call them as if to see them

is to hear the land’s indigenous music.

At dawn I sat on a rotted log and read

The New York Times on my smart phone,

America still going to the mean dogs,

while squirrels scolded, chickadees

fed in a noisy mob among spruce boughs,

bald eagle chittered from somewhere

out of sight. What is it to endure but

to feel the cadence of uncertainty

accepted as the condition for growth?




Wood sculpture of "This Ground Made of Trees"
This Ground Made of Trees sculpture by Susan Lyman

October 2008, H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest

Alison Hawthorne Deming


The giants have fallen.

        I think I can hear the echo

                of their slow composition


the centuries passing

        as note by note

                 they fall into the forest’s


silent music.  Moss has run

         over their backs, mushrooms

                 have sprung from the moss,


mold has coated the fungal caps

        and the heartwood

                 has given itself to


muffled percussion

        of insect and microbe

                that carpet of sound


that gives the forest its rhythm.

         A nuthatch twits

                  or a vole cheeps.


The scent of decay rises

        like steam from a stewpot.

                 Anywhere I set my foot


a million lives work

        at metabolizing

                 what has gone before them.


The day is shortening

         and the winter wrens have

                 something to say about that.


I can almost give thanks

         that the soil will claim me

                  but first allow me, dear life,


a few more words of praise

        for this ground made of trees

                  where everything is an invitation


to lie down in the moss for

        good and become finally really

                 useful, to pull closed


the drapery of lichen

        and let the night birds

                    call me home.




Wood sculpture of "Salvage"
Salvage sculpture by Susan Lyman

Alison Hawthorne Deming


Storm wood

Beaver wood

Worm wood


Wood shelf

Wood word

Wood bench


Beach wood

Salvage wood

Heart wood


Wood tunnel

Wood seam

Wood cut


Light wood

Red wood

Still wood


Wood blood 

Wood gall

Wood home



Deming is the author of five books of poems, most recently Stairway to Heaven (Penguin, 2016) and four books of essays including Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit (Milkweed, 2014)She is Regents' Professor and Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona.


Lyman is a sculptor, painter and teacher who has made her home and raised her family in Provincetown MA since her fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in 1981. She is represented by AMP Gallery in Provincetown, and Boston Sculptors Gallery, where she recently had her third solo show, “Sculpture in the Unmaking.”