Excerpt: 'Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack' by Mary Cappello



From Of Clouds and Moods:

One of Sylvia’s first acts when she rose was most significant. She shook down her abundant hair, carefully arranged a part in thick curls over cheeks and forehead, gathered the rest into its usual coil, said to herself, as she surveyed her face half hidden in shining cloud—

—Louisa May Alcott, Moods

Clouds might be described as cottony, or like cotton balls, but such obvious metaphors were nothing compared to plucking a real cotton ball from a paper bag, holding it first in my fist as if to weigh it inside a palm suited to its size—no wider in circumference than a quarter—then, applying it with small fingers, affixing it to a piece of construction paper so as to pronounce the idea of sky. We always evinced our makeshift skies this way in elementary school: in between counting and spelling, rambunctious recess, and reciting the Lord’s Prayer, a quiet cove would open like the setting of a table, and we’d agree to concentrate on arts and crafts. By second grade, we had advanced from blowing bubbles to gluing cotton balls into place to form a scene—always with cloud-colored glue, the milk of Elmer’s moo—and the paper just as porous absorbed the cloud and held it aloft. We had advanced from eating cotton candy or making houses out of sugar to using the white and springy earthy plant stuff to form a scene. Would you be a copyist? To craft what you knew was wanted—cloud-form here, tree to one side, flowers beneath. Would you be a realist? Or an imagist? I only knew this much: one kid used but one cotton ball per cloud, while others massed them all on top of each other, pursuing three dimensions, and still another introduced so fine a tune as to tear the ball, and thus to teach us all that not all clouds are round or billowy.

Tearing cotton—who knew it could be done!—was startling for its sound: in the neighborhood of fingernails scratching a chalk board but pitched to lower decibels reserved for humming birds. It also felt strange: the same as I felt the time I bent my wrist bone without breaking it in a game of dodge ball. That same tensile pressure that a saw assumes when it is used to make a sound approximating music rather than to cut wood.

There were only two uses of cotton balls as far as I could tell—in the application of calamine lotion to poison ivy, year in, year out, the one pink glop the size of a button was cooling before it stung and later crusted over to form a pink film. Usually, some bits of cotton would stick to the surface of the viscous, minty salve, covering an itch, if only temporarily, with fake fur at an elbow or a forearm. I didn’t just feel the cotton and its sticky dew in places—a daubing here, a dabbing there; whole afternoons would pass during which my whole being felt covered in a caul I wished I could break out of. Clouds appeared on those days to pass on the other side of a scrim opaque as a gold-fish bowl, with myself the goldfish, gill-less and unable to leap from the water. That was one use of cotton balls, whilst the other was in the creation of a sky.

I would gladly play with cotton balls rather than craft with them. Just to roll one around in my hand, or blow on it—it was so other, so like nothing; it was so like, like what? Like skin (a cheek, for instance), or bedtime, or maybe story.

Imparting a sense of cloud to paper through collarbone, shoulder, and down into fingers is perhaps all we can hope to do. The trick where cloud-writing is concerned may be to let a cloud pass through you rather than assume that observation alone is the route to understanding.

Not to memorize skies along with lessons, but to let a memory rife with cottony sensuosity surface and depart. In her book-length poem, The Weather, Canadian poet Lisa Robertson broaches clouds’ age-old representational challenge by allowing different registers of language—meteorologic, newsy, metallurgic, adverbially nominative, affective yet not in the least descriptive, diaristic and diurnal, to crash, crush, float, interlineate and intermingle like so many aqueous particles on a page: “Begin afresh in the realms of the atmosphere, that encompasses the solid earth, the terraqueous globe that soars and sings, elevated and flimsy. Bright and hot. Flesh and hue. Our skies are inventions, durations, discoveries, quotas, forgeries, fine and grand. Fine and grand. Fresh and bright,” she writes.

No wonder my earliest memory of clouds isn’t of clouds at all but of a medium for imaging them and a tactile lolling. Cloud tales rely on a lexicon of elusiveness and capture, clouds as entities that lure us with their indefinable definiteness: no sooner do they exert a pull, like slow-moving, variously shaped tugboats asking us to board, than they somersault into ungraspable dissolution. Students of romanticism, in particular, and its place in that foggiest-of- notions nation, Great Britain, have much to say about clouds, producing fascinating histories of weather routed most often by way of Luke Howard (he who lent clouds the names they bear to this day in his 1804 Essay on the Modification of Clouds), through Thomas Forster (he who helped popularize Howard’s taxonomy in his 1815 Researches about Atmospheric Phaenomena), through John Constable (the landscape painter whose lifelong dedication to producing pictorially believable clouds lent him the name “the man of clouds”) to poets like Goethe (who wrote poems to match Howard’s categories) and William Wordsworth, the great poet of immersive skies in the Lakes, and John Clare, who, wandering hill and dale, opted more often, despite his anxious musings, for cloud ramble than cloud cover.

Clouds are “protean” and “ever-changing”; they are “ineffable and prodigal forms,” and “fugitive presences”; at once material and immaterial, they mix something with nothing; they are heavy without being solid. For cultural theorist, Steven Connor, much of their enigma “derives from the fact that they are a one from many phenomena of pure and irreducible multiplicity. A cloud is the temporary coalescence of a crowd of particles, each too small to be seen in its singularity . . . [whose] most salient feature is to form themselves out of nothing and nowhere.”

Categorizing clouds is one means of drawing them back into a perceptual grid that they are otherwise sure to exceed, and it’s amazing that Howard’s system of identification worked so well. His flat, low-lying “stratus,” indicative of layers and sheets; the fluffy round “cumulus” approximating heaps or piles; the wispy, high-flying “cirrus,” fibrous like hair, are simple enough for a schoolboy to master but capacious enough in their hybridized versions and admixtures to hold variability within their net, just as Howard intended: “The names for the clouds which I deduced from the Latin are but seven in number, and very easy to remember: they were intended as arbitrary terms for the structure of clouds, and the meaning of each was carefully fixed by a definition: the observer having once made himself master of this, was able to apply the term with correctness, after a little experience, to the subject under all its varieties of form, color or position.” I think of poor Laennec, Howard’s contemporary and inventor of the stethoscope, who tried, and failed, in similarly Linnaean fashion, to systematize, name, and then apply so as to diagnose the range of types of sounds that equally amorphous substances made inside the body’s atmospheric chambers, bloody, breathy, wet or dry, fluent or blocked, bumptious or steady, cloudy or clear. Who’s to say his science was any less exact than the index of indices that bred the weatherman? Howard’s system, we might say, was capable of holding water.

There’s no question that one experiences a kind of plenum the first time one discovers in what a user-friendly way Howard’s codes match up with the peskily shifting nebulae that mark each day of our lives. But I think I’d fall into Caspar David Friedrich’s camp if, like him, I’d been asked by Goethe to supply him with a set of illustrations for his 1817 essay on Howard’s nomenclature. Richard Hamblyn, in his beautiful The Invention of Clouds, recounts how Friedrich resisted attempts to “force the free and airy clouds into a rigid order and classification”; for him, “the deep obscurity and impression of the clouds were valuable attributes in themselves.” (Hamblyn, by the way, seems to fall in favor of Goethe who, he argues, enjoyed a free and open understanding of the ways in which science could inform, instruct, and be mutually inspired by art, whereas Friedrich was a kind of aesthetic purist).

The point, perhaps, is that a relationship inheres between clouds and human consciousness, human sense-making procedures, science, psychology, and aesthetics. Clouds, at base, must be conduits to pensive moods, however stormy, but there must surely be a difference worth exploring between thinking on or about clouds and thinking with them. John Constable again: rather than write that he was trying, let us say, to depict clouds, he described his practice in a letter, “clouds ask me to try to do something like them” (italics mine).

The relationship between clouds and moods is a quite complex one, both explicitly and implicitly. It’s safe to say that clouds and psyches have gotten all mixed up: clouds literally affect what we take to be our mood states—and they do this in both conventional ways (rain clouds = sad mood) and singular ways (rain clouds = for you, in particular, good moods). But clouds are also available forms to project our feelings onto. Oddly, by mapping our mental states onto clouds, we seem to admit an affiliation between ourselves and clouds, but we don’t go deep enough (or we only go as far as our egos will allow): we fail to admit that, riffing mildly on Shakespeare, “we are such stuff as clouds are made of and our little lives are rounded with a sleep.”

Do outward cloudscapes map themselves onto our minds, interpretively? Do we seek in outward atmospheric marks the affirmation or negation of our own inner vagary? Or is our affinity with clouds an effect of our being made of the same stuff? Pollen, air, dust, water, and bits of volcano? Weather emanates from an unseen region at the center of the earth. No, it emanates from the bodily effluvia. No, it emanates from air in someplace far distant from where we’re standing, breathing. No, weather is itself immanence. Moods and clouds pose a similar epistemological struggle: we are flummoxed by where either emanates from, yet we understand them as reciprocal. Who among us is not affected by the weather? Some will claim to be deeply, inordinately, and ever affected by it; others to be aware of how deeply affected they are only when the weather changes and a new surfeit of feeling suddenly becomes available to them. Much of what humans have built is designed to protect us from the weather—literally to “keep out the elements”—as though our major modern mode is to defend ourselves from it rather than invite and live with it. Hardly do we consider our ability to affect it, individually or collectively (consider, for example, global warming).

My cloud is my domain, my fantasy, my freedom, my snort of particles—“hey, you, get off of mine!” A mood “passes” or “lifts,” as does a cloud. “I can see clearly now the rain is gone / I can see all obstacles in my way.” Depressed, I’m under one; elated, I’m on cloud nine. Either I’m feeling the need to cry and am not able to, or it’s the kind of day in which it wants to rain and can’t. We are creatures of temperament, temperatures, and tempos. Our moods speed things up or slow things down, spatiotemporal, and temperospatial; like weather, clouds and minds are made of buoyancy or heft.

“As clouds race toward their own release from form, they are replenished by the mutable processes that created them. They drift, not into continuity, but into other, temporary states of being, all of which eventually decompose, to melt into the surrounding air.” There’s a hint of the anthropomorphic in this beautifully compelling composite of sentence unto sentence from Hamblyn that could describe the mutating evanescence that defines both clouds and moods. Depression, as I’ve suggested before, is in this sense not as much a mood as it is a refusal of mood’s essential tendency to shift (not swing), but to seem to come from nothing, thence to disappear into the air. Eclipsing, overlapping, moods and clouds are layered transparencies, not just one mystic writing pad a la Freud, but many sheets of shapes divined, only readable from the side: viewing them sagitally, we glimpse a hint of color where light leaks in, orange, now lavender, now gold. Moods in this sense are like fore-edge paintings along the side of a book, some of which are visible only when the book is opened, others of which are visible only when the book is closed.

No matter how you look at it, clouds and feelings are mates, as intimately conjoined as soulfulness and music. “The ocean of air in which we live and move, with its continents and islands of cloud, can never to the conscious mind be an object of unfeeling contemplation,” Luke Howard waxed, but there we go again with transposing land onto sky, consciousness onto its pre-formation and ground. So, too, Wordsworth disappoints me (but who am I to disappoint?) with his praise of clouds over clear blue skies: Ron Broglio references his Guide to the District of the Lakes where Wordsworth fancies how an Englishman should congratulate himself “on belonging to a country of mists and clouds and storms . . . and think of the blank sky of Egypt, and the cerulean vacancy of Italy, as an unanimated and sad spectacle.” How well I remember the blue sky tease of a London sky or the hidden promise—the ever-tempting, swiftly vanishing patches of blue-maybe that daily mocked me on a visit to the Lakes. While blue skies might not be all they’re cracked up to be—even I’ve been known to cringe at the compulsory (joyous) call of spring—Wordsworth should know better than to picture a blue sky as a vacancy or as a sky without cloud. No sky is uniformly blue—it only appears that way to those who fail to notice it. Competing hues of blue fracture and pulse without quite convulsing to make true blue behind which must be hiding yellow, red, or puce. Blue skies are clouds in existential dispersion, or cloud’s aftereffects; inspiration to cloud’s exhalation, they’re slates for remembering coming clouds as harbingers of life’s continuance and shade.

Perhaps taking their cue from Wordsworth, or perhaps based on the bad rap that clouds obtain (consider “brain fog,” and “head in the clouds,” “cloudy thinking,” or “airhead”), a twenty-first-century online congregation called the Cloud Appreciation Society has formed. “We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them,” their manifesto begins. The group, apparently based in Great Britain, enjoys a worldwide membership of cloud lovers entitled to badges, and if they wish, T-shirts, as well as a cloud-spotter app as guide to forty species of clouds for identification. While one might be tempted to compare the group to bird-watchers, the group’s mission seems less about tracking clouds down or ticking off sightings while waiting quietly as a hunter with- out a gun, and more about giving people an opportunity to post photographs of breathtaking cloud formations from around the world. Clouds are “Nature’s poetry”; contemplating them is therapeutic and can save on psychotherapy bills, according to Cloud Appreciation Society’s guide. Though no one goes so far as to claim to see the face of Jesus in a Cinnabon-shaped cloud, a special segment of the site is reserved for photos of clouds that look like things, reminiscent of our tendency to take special pleasure in finding something akin to life on earth in the sky if not exactly attributing such sightings the power of a vision, a forecast, or an amulet. Pledging to fight what they call “sun fascists” and “blue-sky thinking” wherever they find it, the founders of the group craft an anthropomorphic mood projectile when they state: “We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.” Clouds are people too, I guess—such confusion pointing up our desire to tame the beyond-our-control mood modulation of clouds, the degrees to which clouds hold us, and the ways in which they perceptually beguile us.

Thus we move and shift, torporous or swift under cobbled skies, alone with our thoughts, trapped behind bars made of rain, calm as a low whistle inside snowfall’s steady drift and quiet bound, too bright to look beyond ourselves, we squint, hoping to be anointed or better to be forgotten, lost or left alone in this shade, restless for company. Cloud bubbles work this way, spheres of influence, ideas in the air and so many of us in different locales breathing the same air all the while groping in solitude and thinking we’ve struck gold or gotten closer to a lunar surface. Today I find a fellow moon walker in Mary Jacobus who makes the governing principle of my work on mood seem plain as day. Early in her recent book, her newest study in British romanticism, she articulates it: “It is this combination of indeterminacy, space, and interiority that particularly interests me here. Clouds, I want to argue, make us think not only about form and vacancy, mobility and change, but also about the peculiar realm of affectivity we call ‘mood.’” Or, again, “Mood is like weather, changing and unformed, yet always with us.”

Mood work is suddenly timely, I’m not sure why, only that certain literary weather vanes have directed me for a very long time to follow them into spectacular day-vales, not of identification, but of difference. A line or sentence tolls, and I have to keep it nearby, not as comfort but as goad to my apprenticeship in writing light and time, discernment and gradation, graphite and water color, pure form and opalescence, stillness and movement, invitation and surround.

It’s November 15, 1969, according to the entry in New York School poet of luminescence, James Schuyler’s Diary. “The first day of winter, or if you want to get technical about it, the first wintry day,” his entry on and for this day begins, and, with it, the recursive pause that casts the day as poetry. The sentence moves assuredly, parlaying technos, description and definition, at the same time that it requires a backward glance and self-consideration, since wouldn’t “the first day of winter” be a more technical locution than “the first wintry day”? No, on second thought, the technicality in question is the date, and with that, whole worlds are animated in which we can question whether the start date and end point, the place where seasons begin and end are arbitrary or fixed, like the place where a poem begins and ends, the proper border between poetry and prose? What’s the space between a day that feels like the first day of winter (or summer or fall) and the day that is?

The entry proceeds: “On Jane Street the leaves a skinny sycamore won’t let drop shiver under a mollusk sky. . . . Close the dark blue curtains (‘chance of a snow flurry or two’), hoard heat, hear a tired rhumba wind up the stairwell with the lank persistence of a kudzu fine, drink Schweppes Bitter Orange and wish you hadn’t, feel kind of good, and write to Lewis Warsh, a Birthday Twin.”

How often have I returned to that sentence, wondering how he got two verbs to jostle in such close proximity to one another—“ won’t let drop,” and “shiver,” and the way his syntactic mastery of pause leaves the taut resistance of the tree to resound like a hammer struck on the chord of “shiver.” With what command of caesura (the sentence could be lineated as poetry) Schuyler’s words work on me, making way to arrive at that word-cloud, a mere puff of a consummate metaphor, “mollusk sky.” Words have their own principles of condensation; where one word ends, another word begins (“sk,” “sk”); ocean reflects sky just as sky becomes sea; sky and sea as formed by the little phrase are linguistically and conceptually consonant. In “mollusk sky,” I’m reminded of Hamblyn’s discussion of the contributions of Thales of Miletus (ca. 624–545 b.c.), “a figure widely regarded as the first real ‘scientist’ to have been produced by Western civilization,” who, “in maintaining that everything in nature was to a greater or lesser degree a modification of water, . . . had voiced a fundamental truth about human existence: that we live not, in reality, on the summit of a solid earth but at the bottom of an ocean of air.”

As this is Schuyler’s diary, these are Schuyler’s (pronounced “Sky-ler’s”) skies, (“sk,” “sk”), but no “I” bores itself as the be-all and end-all, the starting point and end point of this most original of diaries. Starting with “close the dark blue curtains,” this diary’s “I” emerges as an effect (rather than preexisting progenitor) of an agglomeration of languages: it’s a mood portrait of sorts composed of weather reports and competing commands, self-reproaches, inward turnings, outward correspondences, and the tired rhumbas of others. James Schuyler’s definition of a diary as I imagine it: a sketchbook for using words like iridescent watercolor; a daybook for writing light as the most humbling, affective, and momentous of events.

In late June of ’69 from the Maine island perch of the home of painter Fairfield Porter, Schuyler observes “chokecherry that against the light seemed in its bright darks to have light concealed within it or resting in it.” “Chilly saran-wrap and aluminum foil days with beads of moisture condensing in them” give way to “a sunset among Tiepolo clouds, blue and silver-white just brushed by gilt.” In earlier spring of ’68, landscape begets atmospheric forms and vice versa with a “a mist made of clover,” hawkweed that “goes in patterns like a milky wave,” and “depths of forsythia . . . brown as pancakes.” In January, outside, “a kind of gusty glare”; inside, a “trail of cold” that rushes up between the poet’s typewriter keys. In early summer, “a radiance diluted and stabilized . . . [that] lay on the lichened trunks of spruce and warmed away their woods chill.” By mid-July, “Humid and cool (cold feet in wool socks) fog pressing in on the South Woods like a migraine headache, birds jabbering listlessly.” Earlier in the year again, the “clear acid sulphur yellow” of that harbinger of spring, forsythia, requires invention—the words, “transpicuous light,” which I imagine as a perfectly mood-toned cloud term: a cross between transparent and conspicuous.

Is cloud-writing tantamount to a writing that stays in the mind after the words evaporate (the way Schuyler felt upon reading I Promessi Sposi), and in that sense is cloud-writing a mood evocateur? Cloud-writing cum mood writing calls for an aesthetics of chronos and chroma, time and color, best conveyed by “lustre,” a word coincident with both a period—etymologically, five years—and a sheen.

If I try to look at clouds, if I go looking for them, they can’t affect me. Then they want verbs like perforate or punctuate, rather than arc and envelope and spread. Then they call for the stamp of aphorism: clouds: the Rorschach of the gods. They ask me to find correspondences: the steam rising from the body of a well-worked horse; fish flopping in the mist; your cigarette’s smoke rings. Then the day is flecked particleboard as stiff as an attaché; the sky, spongy as discarded orange rind surprising the sidewalk, not yet discovered by ants. Today I look out for collateral images: a cloud is the outline of Queen Anne’s lace having lost its intricate center, let it thrive in the middle as well as at the side of the road; clouds are notes hung from a sky-staff; the sky is the dull underside of an inverted pie plate stained with burnt cherry (only at sunset, never sunrise). If I go looking, I can only feel this mood state: it was a day of exceptional promise.

Skies most often take me off guard when I’m driving, rarely en route to work, usually when I’m coming home from the region called South County, Rhode Island, to the city of Providence. There are spring days on the back roads of a town called Slocum when everything at a juncture is dipped in platinum. My heart slows then and the car downshifts into a surreal gear. Then the thermometer fails to register as if the sun has become for that instant a blob of mercury and nothing is readable anymore. Something gets flipped for those moments granting a temporary peek at reality’s underside: we are not where we seem; nor does it matter where we’re headed.

On another day, I’m already on the highway—late February, early March—when what appears to be miles and miles of low-lying sheets of cloud announce a landslide in the skyscape—either that, or the Third Coming. We whip out our iPhones in a ridiculous attempt to catch it rather than contemplate it—I take ten pictures in five seconds. Luckily, I’m not in the driver’s seat. Later, when we compare our shots to those of equally dumb witnesses on Facebook, I discover an accidental detail on the highway’s other side: a white stretch limo speeds like an absurdist competitor beneath the looming avalanche of sky. We, too, sped in our lichen-colored Prius because I’m sure the effect of this cloud was to quicken our pace. Irrespective of any desire we might have had to be held by it, the highway seemed dead set on matching the breadth of its widening stripe, but, being out-lapped by the velocity of this form’s vastly superior engine, had sloped irretrievably away from it until what seemed capable of overcoming us had vanished. I wondered what it would have meant to us if we’d been carless.

It’s not nearly nightfall but after dinner when you close down one part of the day hopeful to open one more before sleep but uncertain of how or if you’ll find the energy. You’re moving on, only to be drawn more deeply in, slowing distractedly down, when something unlikely about the quality of the light inside calls you to go outside and look. How could something in the far off nearly night sky have penetrated so as to alter the shadows cast by lamplight of the objects in your rooms? You follow it, like the scent of cinnamon rising through fork holes of a just-baked pie, and find your neighbors out on the sidewalk too. It’s so much better a group call than chasing fires or a siren, though, truth be told, there’s a fire in the sky this dusk. Pink and blue and blue and pink then white: shuttered sky. The street’s speed limit sign is perfectly illuminated, 25 mph, but few cars cruise the road beneath the tulip-arched streetlight easily mistaken for a moon. You expect to hear a crackling, but the electrical wires merely hang like lank cordons, or more deliberately, like cubist surveyors’ lines. It’s the trees that encroach wildly on this sky, their sinister and ruthless side hidden by day. And where are you in this? Nothing you did made this happen, and you don’t want to be together with these other people beneath this sky, and you don’t want to be alone. You’ve just been called by the day to suppose the alteration of a mood: to watch the nearly night sky slowly fold and unfold before tucking away a rose-colored dishtowel.

To have such mood-cloud experiences or vice versa is one thing; to make art from such encounters quite another. “We are the first generation to see the clouds from both sides,” Saul Bellow’s narrator remarks in his novel, Henderson the Rain King, “First people dreamed upward. Now they dream both upward and downward. This is bound to change something, somewhere.” Henderson is a many-times-married millionaire who has this thought as he’s purveying the clouds from the vantage point of an airplane on an ostensible pleasure trip: en route from the United States to Africa, he’s accompanying friends who are traveling there on their honeymoon. A kind of lost soul who feels guilty about his wealth and insulated from the truth of things, he wanders in search of a purpose trying to get in touch with the world—for example, getting really earthy, he tries pig farming, but that fails. “I like the idea of clouds from both sides and some other things from both sides,” singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell says after offering this préçis of Bellow’s character in her introduction to her 1967 performance of the song that she composed after reading this passage in the novel. Mitchell sounds like a school child or unassuming naif when, in a quiet voice, she says, “I call my song, ‘Both Sides Now,’” then proceeds to perform a master folk work of the greatest beauty and profundity.

Mitchell never finished reading the novel; she didn’t need to. “Left up in the air,” as she put it, she was inspired by the provocation of seeing clouds from both above and below by a character much like us all—in search of “what life was all about [to him].” The resulting song with its familiar refrain, “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,” and its humbling conclusion, “I really don’t know clouds at all,” is as powerful in its harmonies and dissonances (in Mitchell’s rendition at least) as it is roundabout in its ability to find its way into our hearts: each stanza opens not with a pronouncement of I-centered “feeling,” but with a litany or collection of evocatively subjectless things, in the first instance, of shapes of clouds: “Bows and flows of angel hair / And ice cream castles in the air / And feather canyons everywhere / I’ve looked at clouds that way.”

Some songs run like a vein of ore in our blood even if we don’t realize how integral a part of our cloud makeup they are until we hear them for the first time again after a period of many years. Then, it’s hard to know if the force of recollection makes the song feel suddenly essential or if it really is part of a mood-shaping bedrock of our being. “Both Sides Now” is one of those pieces of popular music inextricable from the year of its composition (1967), defining of an era, and belonging to listeners who were alive at that time—a song one calls one’s own and that of others: part of a collective mood. The curious thing is that, affected as I feel by the song, it wasn’t its author, Joni Mitchell’s performance that I would have heard or grown up on. Judy Collins’s cover of “Both Sides Now” familiarized it for American audiences, leaving me to worry that voice is arbitrary in how we come to incorporate a piece of music into ourselves: we don’t know what we’re missing, and we don’t know what we have (which is not quite the same as not knowing what ya got till it’s gone; more like, not knowing what ya got because ya didn’t know what else there was to have).

By 1968, “Both Sides Now” enjoyed at least a dozen different covers in addition to Judy Collins’s hit single. Listening to Collins’s version is like revisiting a first crush, or better: it calls up the mood of macrame. Though I don’t know how old I was or in what circumstance when I first heard the song (I was only eight years old in 1968), and even though Collins’s version is polyester to Mitchell’s leather, listening to Collins sing it again stirs me: I’m not sure if it’s the force of will with which she sings the song that most moves me, or if there is something to feelings being buried in daisy-patterned wallpaper with matching kitchen cupboard contact paper because that’s what the clavichord accompaniment reminds me of. The way her voice cracks on “at all” in the line “I don’t know clouds at all” and later is held on these same words beyond what the song’s tempo will allow: maybe this is what fills me with a sense of this cloud-themed song being about the ineffable something that is always held back in us, in me. Suitable to both a rainy-day pub or a daisy-filled meadow, pathetic as it sounds, the song features me stuck inside our family’s powder blue Ford Falcon while harboring a yen for a red balloon–colored Mustang convertible.

From Bing Crosby, Robert Goulet, and Frank Sinatra, to, across the ocean, Marie Laforêt and across the universe, Leonard Nimoy, all manner of crooners chose Mitchell’s song as their vehicle. The problem, though, may have been that they treated the song as a form of mood music rather than a song about the inscrutability of life, whether viewed from above or below. The song seems to want an alternative to illusion or disillusion as epistemological options; only a knowing being can admit that it does not know. In a YouTube video, Bing Crosby refuses to be a knowing being: he resembles a big-eared cartoon character; he sings the first few verses with his arms folded; he does something funny with his mouth—flicking its corners, as though groping for an absent cigarette; he tries, and fails, to achieve a Sinatra-esque understatement. Sinatra’s rendition, meanwhile, might be characteristically swank, but he rushes through the song and jabs at the words like he’s sparring with a silent partner (maybe Crosby?). By the time he riffs on the last line, interjecting the abbreviated “don’t know it” between the eloquent, “I really don’t know life at all,” we’re embarrassed by what feels like some form of oleaginous illiteracy. For Goulet, accompanied by marimbas, maracas, and tambourines, the song is all larynx. You can’t sing a folk song as though you really wished you were singing an aria from Il Trovatore. This Adam’s apple version may have worked to make the song popular as a form of bachelor pad Muzak or for housewives lost in the swirl of an alone-time afternoon drink with the shades drawn and the air conditioner set to high. Laforêt has French in her favor—all of those “ahjdge” sounds produced by a voice that is breathy, whispering, and deep make me feel she’s at least trying to give an account of the song’s mood, until, at the point of the second refrain, her voice suddenly morphs into a plaintive saxophone screech as though the song had put her to sleep and she were trying to ignite her own stupor. Nimoy’s take is at first accompanied by an instrument that sounds like finger cymbals and later an electric piano busy with the sound of an unrelated computational analysis—a coy reminder of Spock? Straining to hit the song’s high notes, Nimoy is forced at one point to speak the lines.

How many times will you listen to a song before deciding you’ve had enough of it? And if it makes you weep, does it only do that when you’re in a particular mood? In Joni Mitchell’s song, clouds are metonyms for that other great mystery of mysteries—not moods, but love, and by the end of the song, life itself. The lyrics say I used to see clouds in a dreamy way—as emblems of possibility; then I saw them as obstacles—they block the sun, they rain and snow; they’re the reason I was stopped from doing things. Having seen them in these obverse ways, I still don’t see them clearly or understand them any differently: I still fail to see them for what they are. The sentiment at the heart of the song isn’t what makes me cry every time I hear it, and I think I could listen to the song endlessly, even in its bubble gum versions for the way they at least confirm the song’s compulsive interest. There are three particular lines that always set my eyes to streaming: “Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels / The dizzy dancing way you feel,” and “To say ‘I love you’ right out loud.”

I’m with a friend and we’re trying to tease out the difference between Joni’s and Judy’s songs. It’s a canyon-feathered cloud of a day of recurring “deliciousness,” which is one of my friend’s favorite words. It’s summer time, and we’re breaking from a vacation day of bike ride followed by swim to make huevos rancheros with fresh eggs and lime, sweet onions and goat cheese feta, dashes of hot sauce and midday white wine. It’s a most-splendid-of- days sort of day of reading quietly together and embracing—my friend is a perpetual hugger one of whose favorite utterances is “yay!” She’s the sort who smiles with her whole body, and whose insistent delight fills the room. In spite of this, I’m aware in me of a muted darkness, a vacancy that wants to turn nimbus, cut off, suppressed. For the whole course of our conversation, in my line of vision: a pink flamingo in the nearby woods—a souvenir of another Maine-transplanted, originally Floridian, friend who disbanded her collection of Maine-staked pink flamingoes one to each of us before she died last winter. The friend who is my afternoon companion is her partner.

We compare the versions: Joni’s guitar isn’t simple “accompaniment”— this is a major difference. She lets the guitar sing in parts and waits for it to finish before following up with her voice. Joni’s range, even inside a single word like “lost,” is as warm as it is piercing, dense as fabric, transparent as glass. The song, in her handling of it, is made of carefully graded steeps and moment-to-moment shifts of octave, of clouds as seen from above or below: her singing, a lonesome calling across a cavernous sky like a yodel. Still, it’s Judy’s, the popularized version, that moves us both—I’m crying; my friend is weeping.

The dizzy dancing way you feel at a carnival: it must have a nostalgic pull for me, evoking a way I think I once felt—it’s so recognizable—but a mood one can never know again (it’s attached to youth, and 1968). As for saying I love you “right out loud,” I must be moved by the blunt blatancy of it, the way speaking truth and welcoming consequences feels. Then there’s a global feeling that could account for both our tears: the way that a mood-evocative song like this confirms existence. Decades ago, you were where it was when it entered your airwaves; it reminds you of your having been. Now you are here, but someone else is gone who had been with you then, just as you will someday disappear. Can a song retain within its reverberating strings and chords a trace of all its listeners? “Both Sides Now” moves us as a remnant of our own existence—that existence needs confirmation is enough to make a person cry, but it met a local grief for us that day as well. We were saved by its cloud occasion in this: to share what we could neither adequately say nor feel.

Each day is differently clouded, incrementally mooded, with no two days, clouds, or moods alike. It must take a perceptual sleight of hand to insist as we all do that days and moods repeat themselves as one vast unvariegated cloud form, end to end. Constable lent us the verb “skying” for his practice of regularly, systematically studying the skies and the forms that floated therein, clouds, in his words, “non-captive balloons.” Presumably, he was provoked to undertake a more thoroughly scientific observation of the skies by critics of his art who found his clouds to be unbelievable, too weighty, prominent, or labored in their execution. Study doesn’t have to yield exactitude, however, and the aim of Constable’s cloud art needn’t be confused with accuracy. What’s most memorable to me about some of the cloud studies of Constable that I’ve seen is their size: the incalculable vastness of a cloudscape carried over into a six-by ten-inch canvas. A cloud is something you can carry around in your compact, a small mirror reflecting one part of your face. What Constable arrives at in his meteorological study of the clouds isn’t an impossible truth but an intimacy. It’s “a specificity that exceeds classification” (Broglio). It’s a personal largess of micro-scatterings, the “scraps and bits of paper” on which he made his observations on clouds and skies never formed into a lecture as he had intended before he died, but transmuted into brushes of strokes of color and lines.

The painter Henry Fuseli and others have found a persistent mood in Constable’s work—“the feeling of the threat of oncoming rain.” (Fuseli said the landscapes of Constable “made him want to call for his overcoat and his umbrella.”) Among Constable’s “favorite weather stories,” though, according to Ron Broglio, was the “glimmering landscape just after a rainfall.” One of the things that makes clouds and moods so hard to illustrate, study, or pursue is that they’re ever-changing, which might be why we like to project physiognomies into our skies, to imagine the sky itself as guard or guide, more rigidly, a face, and steadfast: to conclude that if the sky is above us, it must be looking down on us, and if it’s looking down on us, it’s watching over us, helping us to know what to expect.

The last time I saw the man in the moon, I was living in Buffalo—that place where the only thing that’s predictable about the weather is that it will change dramatically several times in the course of a day. It was there that I learned about snow “squalls,” lake “effects,” and wind tunnels; of the difference between snowy sidewalks and drifting tundra; of icicles and ice cycles; of the imprint of feet into absolute quiet and the disappearance of a limb into a bank; of sheets of translucency and gray bright days; of beading glare and sun-washed showers; of the bliss of interiority and the necessity of inward dwelling. I was in my midtwenties, in graduate school, when I remember suddenly recognizing the genderless and kindly face, neither bald nor in need of hair—more serenely above it all even than the Buddha’s—what everyone had referred to as “the man in the moon.” As a child, I think I had pretended to see it, and it’s still not clear to me if its visage is only available in moments of absolute innocence or in moments when the table set by experience is wiped clean by what one is coming to know, how one is coming to learn. You might say atmospheric conditions have to be just right for the moon to show its face as such, but I’m not so sure about this. I only saw it then, one night in Buffalo, in the same era in which I grew into a habit that I have never revisited since: of spending at least two hours every morning—longer on weekends—lying on my back and staring at the blank ceiling “thinking” before getting out of bed.

Those were precarious days for me of ambient anxiety; of feeling determined; scared; in love—with both ideas and persons. I wouldn’t say my bed-bound mornings were commensurate mournings: I don’t think I was depressed. It was rather as though I were testing the pliancy of a hammock of solitude. I do believe studying the persistence of blank ceilings helped, for me, the skies to open up. Seeing the man in the moon filled in the patchiness of my own face; it filled me in with a feeling of “now I get it!” alongside a cockeyed whirligig of a sense: now the moon was eyeholes punched into the silk siding of a circus tent awaiting the assumption of your gaze.

Of course conditions inside and outside need to be right to make us want to look upward rather than forever forward into our day’s routines. What is that day on which the space between earth and sky is eclipsed, abridged? What gives us the feeling that skies move while earth stands still? Sheets of rain today are replaced by sheets of sun: the storm is not yet over. During the same period of my life of starting days by staring ceiling-ward, I discovered the paintings of Western New York artist—the electrified, vibrating patterns—the sky and landscapes of Charles E. Burchfield (1893–1967). While my discovery of Burchfield in the 1980s felt accidental, today I reencounter him by way of a wall calendar encouraging the contemplation of one painting for each of the twelve months of the year assembled by the fairly new Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo.

“His personal symbols and abstract conventions formed by sinuous lines and geometric patterns evoke sound, season, movement, and mood,” the calendar’s compositor explains.

The watercolor painting I have described above is titled Clearing Sky (fig. 1) and was painted in 1920; it is used to illustrate February in its calendar context but to me looks much more like March.

(1. But look: the sky has changed again without me in it)

For March, they give us one of Burchfield’s wallpaper designs, titled Red Birds and Beech Trees, 1924 (fig. 2). While the ground is interrupted by a startling pink from time to time, harbinger of spring (?), the mood of the work to my mind is Poe-esque fall. Or maybe March in Buffalo. The sky is lavender-brown; its clouds are eggshell thickly outlined in blue. Red bird-shaped blots fill a forest of trees made of clouds: the trees these birds inhabit—are they cardinals or woodpeckers whose red beaks have assumed the shapes of their whole bodies?—don’t just reflect the clouds in their slick trunks; cloud draped, they wear them and deeply shade first flowers colored black. A small pool of red could be a poisonous tarn, or a rabbit hole to season’s future’s past.

(2. to let a cloud pass through you)

A painting called Early Spring (fig. 3) reads more like a cathedral of snow foregrounded by a riot of sunflowers or daisies: it hangs above our calendar for April. This is a late career painting for Burchfield— it was painted in 1966. Here, too, there are sky-clouds and ground-clouds: those in the sky are underlined in yellow; those on the ground are overlined in black. If this is snow, it is not melting but ascending, just as pines spire upward, suffusive in their aiming high. In Gothic Window Trees from 1918, Burchfield shows trees as frames for clouds, as mediums for diffusing and channeling, not merely, blocking light.

(3. “transpicuous light”)

My favorite of the bunch is Afterglow, 1916 (fig. 4), its date of composition making me wonder how the war figured for Burchfield, making me reconsider the painting’s “glow” as the aftermath of a violent burst. Parts of the sky have been cut out; other parts, erased. Vast orange clouds are behemoth, winged beaches to islands in a distant sea. Purplish-gray tubular mauve-ite arms and legs of sky reach in, alarmingly, while a crescent moon-sun, outlined in brown, resides, we don’t know where. Beneath this mostly sky scene, a house settles with a keen of vacancy. It’s not just that something is happening out-of-doors that we’re not present to, a seismic mutability we once again have missed. It’s also that there are no people in these scenes, only human consciousness as vacant dwelling.

(4. you’ve just been called by the day to suppose the alteration of a mood)

Burchfield may be best known as a painter who gave form to earth’s vibrations. His vibrating patterns are his signature trait, and they can make you feel your own quivering when you encounter them. Where clouds are concerned, he dares to outline them without holding them in place. He doesn’t lasso clouds but expands his canvas into them. He demonstrates how, by treating an outline as a broad band, a spectrum really, an amorphous entity can become visible to us—enlightened—rather than contained. By intuiting rather than applying cloud outlines, he illuminates inversions from both sides now of clouds never static but spreading like pigment to paper that spills only so far as its saturated edge.

So my pursuit of mood cannot have as its aim to capture, to make mood wriggle and writhe; if we’re to write clouds, we must hope to liberate them in the same measure that they liberate us. In search of mood hints, I must let clouds act upon me: open and oblique. I must start with tools like cotton balls and construction paper, gray then black now red.


Author’s Note:

For the full entry from John Constable’s letters on thinking with clouds, see Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, his letter to Charles Robert Leslie, January 20th, 1834, “My Dear Leslie,” Constable wrote, “I have been badly ill since you left England, and my mind has been so much depressed that I have scarcely been able to do any one thing, and in that state, I did not like to write you. I am now, however, busy on a large landscape; I find it of use to myself, though little noticed by others. Still the trees and the clouds seem to ask me to try to do something like them” (250). I draw from the following sources—inspiring and indispensable—herein: Louisa May Alcott, Moods, edited and with an introduction by Sarah Elbert. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991; Ron Broglio, “From Sky to Skyscape,” in Technologies of the Picturesque: British Art, Poetry, and Instruments, 1750-1830. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2008: 129-158; Steven Connor, “Obnubilation,” an extended version of a talk broadcast in the series The Essay, on BBC Radio 3, 25 February 2009, available on Connor’s website; Richard Hamblyn, The Invention of Clouds: How An Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001; Mary Jacobus, “Cloud Studies: The Visible Invisible.” In Romantic Things: a Tree, A Rock, A Cloud. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012: 10-35; Charles Robert Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, Composed Chiefly of His Letters. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1845; Lisa Robertson, The Weather. Vancouver, BC: New Star Books, 2007; James Schuyler, James Schuyler. Readings in Contemporary Poetry, Number 9. New York: DIA Art Foundation, 1988: Jonathan Sterne, “Techniques of Listening.” In The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003: 87-136, and “Cloud Appreciation Society.”

YouTube Playlist of Sound Recordings Discussed:

“Both Sides Now” as sung/performed by:

Joni Mitchell, original studio version, 1969

Judy Collins, Original Hit Version, 1967

Bing Crosby

Robert Goulet

Marie Laforêt– “Je N’ai Rien Appris”

Leonard Nimoy

Frank Sinatra

List of Illustrations:

Figure 1. Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Clearing Sky, 1920, watercolor on paper, 19 ¼ x 26 ½ inches, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Courtesy of the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation ©, Buffalo, NY.

Figure 2. Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Red Birds and Beech Trees, 1924, wallpaper from M.H. Birge and Sons Company Pattern 2922, 25 ¼ x 19 inches, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Courtesy of the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation ©, Buffalo, NY.

Figure 3. Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Early Spring, 1966-1967, watercolor and charcoal on paper, 37 1/8 x 42 ¼ inches, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Gift of Charles Rand Penney, 1994. Courtesy of the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation ©, Buffalo, NY.

Figure 4. Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Afterglow, 1916, watercolor with graphite on paper, 19 3/8 x 14 inches, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Gift of Tony Sisti, 1979. Courtesy of the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation ©, Buffalo, NY.

Essay excerpted from Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack, by Mary Cappello, University of Chicago Press, 2016