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The Harmony of Broken Glass

A million years ago, I used to own a bookstore. The community had asked for it and even put up much of the money. In return, they’d receive a return on their investments when the store turned a profit and would have a local store that carried the things they wanted. All Lee and I did was to quit our jobs, invest our time and money and pour our hearts and souls into it. They gave us a list of the sorts of things they wanted, we stocked them and they pointed their browsers at Amazon to buy the books and drove to Wal-Mart to buy the candles and soon we were out of business and they could not quite figure out why.

We were in Gainesville, Florida, at the end of Sixth Street, where it met 441 at an acute angle just past the north-side of town. Our building was an old gas station built in 1906. It had the original brick foundation holding up the original cedar beams holding up the original pine tongue and groove floors holding up the original pine tongue and groove walls in which were held the original windows. Nearly one hundred years old the entire building was and it creaked and groaned and loved every step made inside.

The building had two main rooms. The front, the salesroom, was twenty by twenty and windows all around except for the front door on the south wall perpendicular to the street, and the door leading to the second room, right in the middle of the west wall with a large pane of glass, door to wall, on either side. The second room, twenty by forty, was solid wall on the north and east. Separated by glass from the front room and, on the south side, made of century old wood, plaster and glass. Mostly glass.

The windows were high and wide with broad sills. In the second room, three of them stretched from the front to the back. As one looked to the lower edges of any of the windows, as one looked to the grass below through the bottom of the pane, the world stretched, became bulbous, swirly. If you put your hand on the glass, you could feel it thicken as one got closer to the sill. Thin at top and thick at the bottom. Old poured glass windows – a super viscous liquid that slowly, over nearly one hundred years, poured towards its own bottom. Kids would love to sit there and stare though the bottom and watch the world wiggle, fatten, and wave. So did I.

This was the room we used for classes and workshops. Around its perimeter, it held rugs and t-shirts, dresses and scarves as well as other textiles, folded on tables, hung from frames, and tacked to the walls. So large, it was, we never had to move anything much for a workshop or fair.

We had bands too, and we’d serve coffee. We’d be open until eleven and many of the coffee drinkers would not purchase anything, so we figured the coffee would pay for the electric that evening, at the least. The coffee was in the small kitchen area off the large room and it was self serve as we were neither set up nor licensed for food service.

At first it was by donation. When we found the donation can with little money but filling fast with empty sugar packets and gum wrappers, we decided the honor system wasn’t working and charged a dollar for the cup. Not the coffee. Just the cup. All our mugs went behind the front counter. Folks could ask for one, pay their buck and drink all night if they wanted. On an average night we should have made thirty to fifty bucks from the folks who, otherwise, would not have spent a cent. Folks who came in and bought books and such, we’d happily hand a cup to. Everyone gets to do their share.

It wasn’t long before I started seeing people walking around with coffee in vessels I had never seen before. Little ones. Big ones, Even stainless steel thermoses and double-size travel cups. I’d ask for the buck for the night’s coffee and they’d show me their one quart mason jar, telling me they had brought it from home so no need to hand any cash over to me. I suggested, along with the cup, next time they should bring their own coffee, too. Late nights at the bookstore ended soon after that.

But the workshops continued. Authors, therapists, artists. Booktalks, dances, songfests. I taught a few myself, on occasion.

I had, over the few years prior, been doing a workshop on chants from the Kabala. I had been doing them, recently, at the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, at churches as far away as Greensboro, North Carolina, in the forests of Ohio and even in a hot tubs. So why not do one at my own store?

The night was set and we had a very nice turnout of over thirty people. Someone volunteered to watch the register and I set to work. Three rules only. These rules, along with the chants themselves, were taught to me by Rabbi Shelly Isenberg who was the Chair of the University of Florida Department of Religion. They seemed to work for him and they work for me.

Three rules. Everyone stands who is able to stand. I’m tired is not a reason for not standing. We always lose a few at this one. People walk out in a huff because they aren’t going to be able to sit and chant. No full breaths from a full body while sitting curled in a chair. Everyone singing. No gawkers. We always lose a few more at that. When I tell them we’ll be chanting for an hour or so, still more leave. I tell them it won’t feel like an hour. That they will wonder where the time went but people want fast, instant results and they want them easy. They want to slouch in a chair and attain enlightenment from watching other people sing for five minutes. Good luck.

The last rule is everyone comes to the center. I set up four chairs in the middle of what will be our circle and, at some point, each person comes to the center to sit and have the rest of us sing around them, letting them feel the sound, the vibration, the harmony. I often have a person help me make sure everyone gets their chance. I joke that I call her my shill. I tell them, at some point, I’ll be going to the center as well and, please, please, they should not stop chanting just because I have. Always people laugh at this. The twenty or so people who remained did exactly that – laughed. The group had been culled and we were ready to start.

The chants are short and simple. We learned the first one by listening to me say it once, then the group repeating after me. Then saying it with me. Then I sing it on my own and we sing it once together. That’s it. No lengthy process. Nothing written on paper until the end of the workshop. The first time I taught this I passed out the chants, with their translations, on paper before we started. Then, with the chants written down, people read them over and over instead of singing, looking at the paper the entire time.

People worried about losing the words. They always do. Don’t worry, I tell them. There is power in the tune itself. Hum, tone, sing dai de dai like we have all heard rabbis do. The tunes have lasted a thousand years. Two thousand years. There is power in the sound. Never worry about the words.

We sang our first chant, all in our circle, four times. It was practice, it was invocation, it was lovely.

Hineyni / osah (oseh) et atzmi / Merkavah l’Sh’kinah / Merkavah l’Sh’kinah

Hineni is “here I am.” Oseh (Osah for the guys in the group) et atzmi is “I make myself become.” Sh’kinah is, literally, the Presence, but a distinctly feminine manifestation of the divine presence, so “Goddess” is a good translation. But not a particular Goddess and definitely not, however, the word for small-g goddesses. That’s what Craig R. Smith told me, at least. And I believe him.

Here’s how Shelly translated it: Here I am! / I make myself / A chariot for the Goddess. I like that. That’s how I translated it then. That’s how I translate it now.

We learned the next chant.

Ana / El na’/ R’fa na lah. That simple. I sing it once through before telling them what it means. Please / Strong One, Oh Please / Heal The World (all)(Nature) Please.

Here is what Craig R. Smith says about it.

Ana and na’ both mean “please,” loosely. It’s somewhere between begging and pleading and a demand, so it’s closer to “oh please, NOW!” El means strong one. It’s the same root as other strong words. For example, the word “ayil” is a ram (strong one of the flock), “ayal” is a stag (strong one of the forest) and “eyal” is strength. R’fa is heal. Tradition teaches prayer need not be lengthy or elaborate. This is the earliest known Jewish prayer for healing, uttered by Moses as a petition on behalf of his sister, Miriam: “El na, refa na lah, God, please heal her, please.” ‘Lah’ is ‘her’ and the Kabalists say this is to be expanded to all nature.

*****

It is done four times, steady, rising, steady, falling, then starts over again, again, again, again, again. Ten minutes, twenty minutes. An hour. Voices rise and fall. Voices high and low. Melding, separating, harmonizing, combining into overtones no single voice creates. A circle of sound as, one by one, two by two, people come to the center, sit, vibrate throughout, breathe, heal. And all the while, a sound around it all, a tone at once over the overtone and under the lowest voice. It permeates and surrounds and whence it comes we’ve no idea.

An hour. An hour and a quarter. An hour and a half and the chant slows, quiets, takes longer breaths, then ends all at once as if by a cue, unheard and unseen. Silence.

What did you experience? I saw the colour blue everywhere. I could not stop singing. It was not my voice. I felt waves. I was connected. My body sang as I stood. I felt calm. Calm. No time passed.

Water passes around. Some sit, some pace. Some wonder what the sound was, that sound over the sound, that sound under the sound.

I walk to the far window, the window toward the back, for some space. To look out, to look down and see the grass wave through the thick glass and notice something new. Powder. Flakes. Chips on the wood sill. The caulking around the window is loose. The window, vibrating in the frame has loosed the old glazing. The window, vibrating in the frame, sang.

We gather again to say goodbye. A short chant only, easy to learn and in English. We make two lines facing each other, close to each other, holding hands with the person to my right, holding hands with the person to my left, close enough to hug the person I am facing, each line joining hands at each end. We are a circle pressed to a double line. We look into each other’s eyes and chant, then move to the right, look into another set of eyes, sing, move to the right.

Come let us light up our hearts.
Come let us light up our homes.
Breathe in,
And breath out
Making circles of love.
Oh, come, let us light up the world.

Move to the right, look into those eyes, sing, move, look, sing. Her eyes, his eyes, my eyes.

Full circle. No one ends. We go round again. All is quiet. All is done.

*****

The next day we came to the store a little before nine in the morning to discover the phone wasn’t working. In the very back of the building was a large room, concrete floored, with a separate entrance. It appeared to be a machine shop from the old gas station days and one could not get to it from the inside. I walked there now, through the front room, through the large workshop area, past the small office in the back we rented to a fledgling acupuncturist, out the back door and around to the right. I knocked on the door. This was the landlord’s office.

Michael Rose owned the building and the house next door. Actually, it was one property with two buildings. He also owned a new age store not far from us. On top of these ventures, he was the U.S. importer for Blue Pearl Incense. When he was in town he was a good landlord and a more than decent person. Usually, however, he was out of town. Often at an ashram in Sarasota or India or who knows. Today was unusual and he was in his office. But his phone was not working either. Together we walked around the building to look at the lines.

It was a calm summer. There was no storm the night before. And so we were quite surprised to see, before we ever got to the phone lines, a thick black wire hanging from the tall utility pole a few feet from our building lying slack from the roof.

The wires were intact leading to the house on the property, parallel to our store, so Michael knocked on the door to use their phone. The line from their roof was still attached to the poll. It was not long before a gentleman from the phone company arrived.

It didn’t take him long to fix it though he had to run a new, longer line. That seemed a bit strange. Why not just attach the old one? Would making it longer keep it from breaking?

When I asked, with Michael looking up at the new line, the repairman just shook his head. He said the building had shifted nearly two inches and that had put enough strain on the line to pull it off. How it shifted, he’d no idea. He’d seen this after floods or, more rarely, large storms. Our area is not known for tremors and, if there had been one, certainly there’d been more lines pulled off than just ours.

He left. Michael shook his head. Tall, heavyset, usually smiling, he stared concerned up at the roof. I told him I thought I might know what happened and asked if he would come inside and look at a window.

I lead him to it and he immediately saw the flaked glazing and the powder on the sill.

“We had a chant workshop last night. We wondered what the buzzing was.”

He breathed in heavily and out again, aiming at the window sill and blowing the powder into the air. He was more than familiar with chanting, with sound and with vibration. He also had been invited to participate. But, still I had not expected him to actually be happy.

But happy he was. His eyes squinted and his smile grew wide and he laughed.

“Fantastic. I wonder what other damage you guys did. Other than moving the building. Can you break it?” Can you break the window?”

“I have no idea. Why would I?”

“Do it. Break the window next time. I’ll replace it. It’ll be worth it if you can do it. I want to see.”

And so the next workshop was set but this time we called everyone we knew who would be the slightest bit interested. When they hesitated, I’d tell them the goal.

No, no charge. Just show up. Show up and sing.

Never underestimate the power of promised destruction. People came just for the opportunity to sing a window broken. People brought people. Small folk and thin folk with voices high and piercing. Big folk and squat folk with voices booming and deep.

More than forty people were there, in that room. We were not crowded and had space between us as we stood in one large oval. Four chairs were set in the middle. We were going to do this right.

Dusk came. Held in the air, a red thread could not be told from a blue one and so it was deemed night and we sang our invocation. It was livelier than usual but the invocation quieted the spirits and settled the energy.

Then, on to the chant. Many had been to the last workshop and knew the chant but we taught it from scratch. Why not? It doesn’t take long and I wanted everyone to get as much out of this workshop as possible. If we didn’t break a window, we should still all leave with something we learned and a story to tell.

Ana / El na’/ R’fa na lah. Ana / El na’/ R’fa na lah. Ana / El na’/ R’fa na lah. Ana / El na’/ R’fa na lah. Down low. Ascending. Up high. Descending. Down low. Ascending. Up high. Descending. Voices mixed, changed, created other voices. Forty felt like fifty, like eighty, sounded like a hundred. The space felt vast, the room felt small, people walked to the center, vibrated visibly, found harmonies. The pictures on the walls clattered. The hum was evident. Obvious. It was loud and came in waves, different this time. Higher, oscillating, changing. Was it one of the windows? Was it one of the two large panes of glass separating the rooms? Was it something else? No matter, we continued and continued and the sound gloried in its being sung.

Time past unnoticed, the ineffable cue was felt and we slowed, quieted, stopped. We sang our last chant, each looking into the eyes of the person across in a double serpentine bent at the walls. Again, it was quiet.

So quiet. We just stood there. No one wanting to talk. I asked no one to tell what they saw, felt, heard. I asked no one to share their experience. The silence told the story.

No one rushed to the windows.

But after a while I walked to the front window to look out and see the moon rising. I looked up to see it over the trees, bright and beautiful. I stood, staring through the window.

And what was this? In the high left corner, small small, a crack. Visible if one looked but nothing terribly noticeable. Still, a crack. We had done it. We broke the window. Not shattered, not busted, but broken nonetheless. In the end, I’m glad it was small. The perfect result in all ways. We did what we set out to do but the window could stay, as it had, for nearly a century. We could still see the grass wave, convoluted, from the thickened bottom. The glass, as originally placed, would continue on. Of that, too, I was glad.

Because, if you get very close, if you listen very carefully and very near, on a quiet quiet day, you can hear the recorded hundred years – the rumbling cars and trucks, shoes on raised wood floors, thunder and pelting rain, laughter, the harmony in the broken glass.

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Posted by on November 20, 2009 in Gainesville, philosophy, Religion

 

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Poetry as Power: From Spellcraft to Statecraft

I have been asked by Craig Smith, he of “Notes from the Dreamtime” fame, to post my notes for a workshop I often teach.

He posted a blog entry called Poetry’s Power and thought of my workshop, which I am proud to say he has participated in twice.

These notes are designed not to be read at the workshop but as fodder for discussion. I tell participants that I am happy to read for an hour or two, but it is my desire I be interrupted at every turn with question, comments, poetry of their own. It is meant to create interaction and creative thought on the state of poetry, past and present. It is meant to open a few eyes and a few ears to the place of poetry in our culture.

So, imagine yourself in a group of ten, twenty or thirty people, all eager to listen and share.

These are the notes we never get through.

* * * * * * *

Poetry as Power: From Spellcraft to Statecraft
A workshop by Adam Byrn Tritt

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

(William Carlos Williams, from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”)

From as far back as there are records, poets have been by the side of the monarch in court and in battle. The words of the poet were known to be magic and an insult from the poet could sway a battle. This post was often called the Jester. He spoke the truth, did so without fear and did so in rhyme. His words had power.

Words have meaning, rhythm and sound. Their power comes from the vibration of these three. But, sometimes, the rhythm and sound are all that is needed as these impart their own meaning.

Prayers are in the form of poems and songs. A rabbi taught me . . . if you don’t know the words, hum. There is power in the tune, in the rhythm and sound.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug

 

(Twain)

Poetry is just the right word, the right sound, the rhythm that conveys just the right feeling. In a spell, we want to create just the right vibration, at a state event, at a prayer, we want just the right meaning and to leave no room for a meaning other than what is intended. Poetry is meaning, sound distilled until there is no doubt left. Anything that is unsaid is as carefully crafted as what is said. Hence, poetry becomes powerful in its economy, its concentration and its intention and all of this is built on carefully constructed meaning and sound.

Spells are often placed in the form of rhymes. Poetry has power in the natural and supernatural realm. But as important as the poetry is, the poet is a position of even greater mystery. Our Monarchs and presidents have poet laureates. Chaucer was paid in wine. Our own national poet laureate is paid less than a beginning school teacher but is expected to compose and appear at affairs of state and the position so contentious an anti-laureate is voted upon as well. Only three US poets, Piercy, Walker and Angelou, make a living from their art. Yet, despite this, poets have honours of which other artists can only dream.

We will explore the power and place of poetry and rhyme in ancient and modern culture and religion and leave you exploring for yourself how we can use poetry in both our magical and ordinary lives, as though we should be able to tell them apart.

Poetry has power. I once taught at a public high school where poetry could not be taught without permission slips being signed. One child became upset about one poem. One parent called.

I was asked to head up a poetry reading at a book night at Barnes and Noble to benefit the school. I wrote this and dedicated it to our Principal.

Gather your permission slips, parents, teachers,
All school activities possess the possibility of danger, always
An unsuspecting student may come back broken,
Different, changed or
Not come back at all. Some tender child
May come back
Not a child at all.

Children know some activities possess danger,
We cannot wholly shield them. These are undertaken by
Brave students must have permission slips during
Such activities may result in loss, or gain
Unknown results.

Read the fine-print
Parents, your children may not come back
The same tender child may not return to you
As you remember.
Sign to state your contrition
Your baby might grow up different
Than you had anticipated. Beware.

(Adam Byrn Tritt)

Poetry is not to be taken lightly. It is not for the faint of heart.

Obviously, poetry is political.

The Chinese word for poetry, shih (詩), is composed of two idiograms. One, yan (言), means “word; language” & the other, szu (寺), means “temple, monastery.” Hence, poetry is a “temple of words.” Yan itself is composed of t’ou (頭) “above” (heaven, Tao), erh (二) “two” (earth, duality), & k’ou (口) “mouth” (pass). The mouth, the sound that connects Heaven and Earth. Poetry, The Temple of Words, the Great Connector. Shakespeare must have intuited the Chinese ideogram for poetry in A Midsummer Night’s Dream V.1.12 (1595):

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

The Chinese words for culture is wen hua (文化) meaning “literary” or “transformation.” We see the Chinese looked at words, at poetry, as a definer of culture and civilization. They connected poetry to change, transformation and alchemy.

Muriel Rukeyser spoke of this as well, in her writing about the two different kinds of poetry: the poetry of the unverifiable fact, love, art, feelings, and the poetry of documentary fact, literal accounts of strikes, wars, barbaries. She said, in 1974:

The poet today must be twice born. She must have begun as a poet, she must have understood the suffering of the world as political, and have gone through politics, and on the other side of politics she must be reborn again as a poet.

And so, we have a calling. We have an art and talent with which one is born, a born magic, a way of seeing the world and words which is shaped—forged and tempered—by the world and then set out again. A natural skill honed. It is a synthesis of the gift of the gods, heaven, and the practices of men, of Earth. It is an alchemy.

As for alchemy, the poet Gary Snyder tells us:

As for poets
The Earth Poets
Who write small poems,
Need help from no man.

The Air Poets
Play out the swiftest gales
And sometimes loll in the eddies.
Poem after poem,
Curling back on the same thrust.

At fifty below
Fuel oil won’t flow
And propane stays in the tank.
Fire Poets
Burn at absolute zero
Fossil love pumped backup

The first
Water Poet
Stayed down six years.
He was covered with seaweed.
The life in his poem
Left millions of tiny
Different tracks
Criss-crossing through the mud.

With the Sun and Moon
In his belly,
The Space Poet
Sleeps.
No end to the sky—
But his poems,
Like wild geese,
Fly off the edge.

A Mind Poet
Stays in the house.
The house is empty
And it has no walls.
The poem
Is seen from all sides,
Everywhere,
At once.

Power has often been associated not with words, certainly not with Poetry, but with physical might and control over others. Again, Snyder tells us:

We all know that the power of a great poem is not that we felt that person expressed himself well. We don’t think that. What we think is, “How deeply I am touched.” That’s our level of response. And so a great poet does not express his or her self, he expresses all of our selves. And to express all of ourselves you have to go beyond your own self. The Zen master Dogen said, “We study the self to forget the self. And when you forget the self, you become one with all things.” And that’s why poetry’s not self-expression in those small self terms.

A poet is indeed a priest in a temple of words, that power is a voice linking heaven with earth. That is a poet’s real work. A poet’s work is to show us the ordinary in a way that makes it new and fresh, perhaps, even alien and to take the alien and show us how it is familiar.

Poem
by William Carlos Williams

As the cat
climbed over
the top of
the jamcloset
first the right
forefoot

carefully
then the hind
stepped down

into the pit of
the empty
flowerpot

And we value this. We value this after it is done, though we neither value the effort of the poet him or herself. How may poets make a living from poetry?

Williams still had to practice medicine. Most poets teach, or work at drug stores, newpapers. Few even work in the arts. E.E. Cummings, a staple in the cannon of American poetry, could not get his work published even. His mother had to self publish his first collection.

We honor poetry after the fact.

 

For the Young Who Want To

by Marge Piercy

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.

The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

Part of this is because we forget how powerful words are. People only faintly recall the worth and power words once possessed. Words gave order and shape to reality: To know the name of a thing was to perceive its essence and therefore to master it. To name a thing not present was to summon it into being, so that the thing itself existed in the words for it.

“I was many things before I was released, ” sang Taliesin, a man thought by many to be the Merlin of lore. “I was a word in letters.” A name could be moved and manipulated and placed in new arrangements, and all of these activities would affect the object named.

The outward sign of the inner powers of a wise woman or man was the knowledge of words and names and the songs made from them. This was true of the celts and of the native American. That is why so many shamans and workers of magic prefaced their spells with transformation songs—verses that claimed they had taken the shape of everything in creation, from raindrops and starlight to bubbles in beer, and thereby had gained infinite understanding. Words were the bricks of all charms and incantations, all spells, riddles and conjurations. Look at the words we use. Spell from the German Speilan, or story. And Incantation from the word chant. In Hebrew, the one who says the prayers is the cantor, the singer the enchanter, the one with the incantations. He binds us to god with words even if the words are unknown to us.

Our own King Authur, JFK, had this to say about poetry and the Poet Laureate at his inauguration:

Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

Poets have had the power to affect culture even while they are outside of culture and even when part of a despised minority.

Pope. Swift. Catholic, diminutive, sickly.

Mr. Pope

Mr. Pope did not demur
To attack a poet he’d scarce endure.
His whetted wit exposing flaws
With metric feet and raptor’s claws.
This wasp would sting at authors dim
Even those who feared not God, feared him.

(Adam Byrn Tritt)

Not respected. Not paid even when feared.

Not paid. But certainly valued even when reviled. Right up to, but, it may seem, no including present time, poets were outside rebuke. It was the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sasoon that helped bring what WWII was really like home to the masses and was as instrumental doing so as the verse of Phil Ochs was during Vietnam.

Suicide in the Trenches
by Siegfried Sasoon

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Disabled
by Wilfred Owen
(First and last verses)

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands.
All of them touch him like some queer disease.

There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches, carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join.—He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts,

That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

Dulce et Decorum Est
by Owen
(Last verse)

 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” by Randall Jarrell, was published in 1945. What did it do? Listen.

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Prior to this, most people actually did not know how the B-17s and 24s fought and protected themselves. Jarrell, himself, thought it was necessary, but also that the people in the war with the shortest life expectancy deserved to have their fates understood by the people for whom they fought. He did this in an obvious, yet amazingly poetic and political way. It was widely distributed. Poets enjoyed an immunity.

That immunity seems to be waning. In 2003 First Lady Laura Bush canceled a White House poetry symposium in fear of finding poetry and poets critical of the administration and its policies. She feared the invited poets would recite poetry against war. Laura Bush defended her actions citing her freedom of speech. A spokesperson for the First Lady said, “While Mrs. Bush respects and believes in the right of all Americans to express their opinions, she too has opinions and believes that it would be inappropriate to turn what is intended to be a literary event into a political forum.”

Poets around the world have cried foul. Two former U.S. poets laureate, Stanley Kunitz and Rita Dove, have criticized the cancellation. The result was, instead of a symposium at the White House with one hundred poets, a backlash, anti-war symposium with over 3,600 and a collection of poetry assembled on the topic of which I am delighted to be a part.

Far from showing a waning power, this demonstrates the power of poetry is still quite understood and, in some cases, feared. Kings, and would be kings, know what a poem can do.

“What are big girls made of?”
by Marge Piercy

The construction of a woman:
a woman is not made of flesh
of bone and sinew
belly and breasts, elbows and liver and toe.
She is manufactured like a sports sedan.
She is retooled, refitted and redesigned
every decade.
Cecile had been seduction itself in college.
She wriggled through bars like a satin eel,
her hips and ass promising, her mouth pursed
in the dark red lipstick of desire.
She visited in ’68 still wearing skirts
tight to the knees, dark red lipstick,
while I danced through Manhattan in mini skirt,
lipstick pale as apricot milk,
hair loose as a horse’s mane. Oh dear,
I thought in my superiority of the moment,
whatever has happened to poor Cecile?
She was out of fashion, out of the game,
disqualified, disdained, dis-
membered from the club of desire.

Look at pictures in French fashion
magazines of the 18th century:
century of the ultimate lady
fantasy wrought of silk and corseting.
Paniers bring her hips out three feet
each way, while the waist is pinched
and the belly flattened under wood.
The breasts are stuffed up and out
offered like apples in a bowl.
The tiny foot is encased in a slipper
never meant for walking.
On top is a grandiose headache:
hair like a museum piece, daily
ornamented with ribbons, vases,
grottoes, mountains, frigates in full
sail, balloons, baboons, the fancy
of a hairdresser turned loose.
The hats were rococo wedding cakes
that would dim the Las Vegas strip.
Here is a woman forced into shape
rigid exoskeleton torturing flesh:
a woman made of pain.

How superior we are now: see the modern woman
thin as a blade of scissors.
She runs on a treadmill every morning,
fits herself into machines of weights
and pulleys to heave and grunt,
an image in her mind she can never
approximate, a body of rosy
glass that never wrinkles,
never grows, never fades. She
sits at the table closing her eyes to food
hungry, always hungry:
a woman made of pain.

A cat or dog approaches another,
they sniff noses. They sniff asses.
They bristle or lick. They fall
in love as often as we do,
as passionately. But they fall
in love or lust with furry flesh,
not hoop skirts or push up bras
rib removal or liposuction.
It is not for male or female dogs
that poodles are clipped
to topiary hedges.
If only we could like each other raw.
If only we could love ourselves
like healthy babies burbling in our arms.
If only we were not programmed and reprogrammed
to need what is sold us.
Why should we want to live inside ads?
Why should we want to scourge our softness
to straight lines like a Mondrian painting?
Why should we punish each other with scorn
as if to have a large ass
were worse than being greedy or mean?

When will women not be compelled
to view their bodies as science projects,
gardens to be weeded,
dogs to be trained?
When will a woman cease
to be made of pain?

 

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2008 in Culture, History, philosophy, Religion, Social, Writing

 

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Gallipolis

We are driving out of Charlestown, WV. It is nearing four in the afternoon and my son and I have spent our day walking through the city. I have been walking. My son has been dragging. Sometimes a sinker, sometimes an anchor but never a balloon. Never a kite.

This is, on a Saturday, an amazingly vibrant small city. There is a literacy festival at the library, jammed bookstores all over, a chili festival along the waterfront, kids playing in public fountains as though they were waterparks. Families stroll slowly through the June early afternoon along the streets and riverfront. We have walked downtown, the capitol complex, seen The Mountain Stage, the Museum of Art and Folk Art. Everywhere people. From this small city I had not anticipated such a density of activity. I’d never had expected to see such life.

No more than I would have expected to see the dollies. So many people, for lack of working legs, pushing themselves along by gloved fists against the pavement. Some lack legs so fully I am reminded, uncharitably I admit, of a cartoon I had seen many years ago of a crowd of legless bayou frogs, all pushing themselves on dollies, with one asking another what he wanted for dinner. “Frog legs.”

We see so many fist-driven four-wheelers that, after the first few, we feel the need to take tally. Seventeen – after we started to count. We move twelve miles through this city in six hours, despite a lack of our dollies all our own, and have been having a wondrous day. At least I have been. My son – my son, at 14, is having his own experience.

We are ready to head out. Our target is Ohio, Gallipolis specifically, and our goal is to get there before dark with enough time, this Summer evening, to find a room and stroll the town before the sun sets. Gallipolis, for no good reason other than someone having told me it was close enough to our destination – P.S.G., Pagan Spirit Gathering – that we can stay overnight and drive an easy pace the twenty miles to the Wisteria gate by nine. Time enough to ride behind the Amish buggies and enjoy the experience and the word patience need never come to mind.

We drive west along I64, out of Charleston, crossing the river over humming tangles of black-girdered bridges looking for I35 – the closest way across the Ohio, the easiest way to Gallipolis.

My son is mapmaster. This has not worked as well as I might have liked. I had thought map reading might be genetic. The only genetic tendency expressing itself at the moment is that towards frustration.

I glance over and look quickly at the map, unfolded on my son’s lap, as I drive. Taking another quick look away from the road I see his frown, his furrowed forehead, eyes turned toward at each other. The highway numbers are upside down. So are the names of the cities. Perhaps there are one or two other genetic tendencies expressing themselves we shall have to look into upon our return home.

I have been reading maps nearly as long as I have been reading words. I am fascinated by them. Where do the roads go, where do they start? I liked my late nights to extend far into the early morning tracing routs from origin to end. When our family took trips, I was in charge of the map, navigating from the front passenger seat. Exactly where my son is now.

We have a year old Rand McNally atlas, purchased not many months ago. I prefer actual maps to printed directions. Mapquest and Google can only go so far. What if we wish to change routs, see what we can see, drive where we might? What an interesting name. Look, there is a cave just ahead. See, there is a gorge down that road. Off we go. With an atlas I can find my way back again, back to the beaten track from off, back on the path and on to our destination. No loss. All gain.

We find our way, road upon road, I-64, I-35, headed toward the Ohio River, to cross into the state of that same name. As we approach the Silver Bridge at Point Pleasant there appears to be something missing: the bridge. There is no bridge. Now, there is the pitted rampart to the river edge, battered pillars from the water surface, confused us to the end of the road. What was, is not.

We pull over, parallel to the Ohio and perpendicular to where we had every reason to expect a bridge entrance which would continued onto a bridge.

The map. It shows a bridge. The land begs to differ. The water – a clear expanse bridge-free to the Ohio bank. Do not mistake the map for the territory.

We ask. The bridge fell down. Recently? No. 1967. Have you ever heard of the Mothman? Seen the movie? No. The one time it might have done me some good to have paid attention to popular culture.

A bridge, off the Earth thirty-five years, still on the map. If you can’t trust Rand McNally, who can you trust?

We travel further south, a half hour more distant of our evening’s destination, to where another bridge is shown, fully ready for that to be gone as well but gone it was not. It exists, as the map shows, and over the Ohio we go. Once on the other side, we follow the river again and Gallipolis is near.

It is small, sparse, quiet. We drive past the fringe Wal-Marts and K-marts, pass by the motels on the outskirts and plunge into the town itself. That is our goal: to find a room where we can park the car and spend the evening walking to dinner, walking to the shops, walking, walking, walking and no driving need be done. My goal. My son’s goal fixed firmly on tomorrow morning. That the youth exist in the here and now and age dwells in the past and future is cliché, not axiom.

We find one hotel. Just one that fits our bill. Just one in town. The William Ann. We could not happier. Older, quaint, friendly and directly in the middle of the town. We put our bags and baskets in the paneled room and set out for a walk.

Dinner comes from a small local grocery store we stroll past. We are stunned by the contents. It is appointed very much as one would expect a small grocery in the inner-city: no fresh vegetables, a deli counter of prepared animal or creamed products, a surprising amount of space devoted to chips and breads, sodas and snacks. We purchase some sandwiches and two apples well past their prime and eat as we walk into the town commons.

In the middle of the commons, on the southern side, the side closest to, within a stone’s toss of, the Ohio River, is a statue that commemorates the bringing of yellow fever to the town and the fifty-seven killed when the disease made landfall in 1878, brought by the doctor who was on that south-destined barge specifically to treat the disease already being carried by those on board; people looking for a new, better life downstream. An agent of mercy, he boarded it upstream so the victims would not need to disembark for treatment or supplies and risk infecting others. Until all aboard were well, only he would have the infrequent necessary contact with the off-barge world.

The rudder arm broke and the ship drifted ashore at Gallipolis. So did the flavivirus.

A four sided post about five feet high, each side is inscribed. One side tells us it is in memory of the yellow fever victims, another has the fifty-seven names on it, yet another lists the barge crew and another side tells us who bestowed the memorial upon the town. Atop the post is the rudder arm. That I know of, this is the world’s sole memorial to viral hemorrhagic fever.

The Scioto Company ran an ad in Paris attracting middle-class French to America with cheap Ohio land. They bought the deeds, sold their goods, and made the long voyage to America and into Midwest. They found nothing. No homesteads. Worthless deeds. It was 1790 and they petitioned President Washington for land. They got it in The French Grant. On the Banks of the Ohio River. Gallipolis. City of the Gauls.

The town failed to thrive. Mining did not quite take off, agriculture was a plan that came to little in an area more swamp than soil.

In 1818, a few families from Wales set sail from Liverpool to Baltimore and traveled by horse and cart to Pittsburg. Tired of the trials of over-land travel, they opted to trust themselves to the Ohio River, counting on it to take them the rest of the way to Paddy’s Run – a frontier town near Cincinnati.

The barge would abruptly, constantly, run aground on the shifting sandbars of the river. The men would jump out onto the dissipating sand and often require rescuing.

The journey taking longer than anticipated, and needing to reprovision, the water-borne pioneers set ashore in Gallipolis, a settlement then with fewer than one thousand people and barely hanging on.

Everyone got off the barge for a night on dry land. Fresh and full, they would shove off again the next morning.

The stories run two ways. Townsfolk got the bright idea the Welsh provided an immediate increase in the population, workforce and gene pool and, like it or not, would be staying in Gallipolis.

The other story is the Welsh women, tired of the river, fatigued from life with no home, weary of seeing their husbands and sons risk their lives, conspired to make Gallipolis their final destination.

Either way, the next morning, the barge was gone. All that was left ashore was a bit of rope.

And five new families.

It is dusk and the summer light is fading. Alek is asking for food again. We walk back toward The William Ann and to the malt shop across the street. It seems everyone is here. The outside is packed and, from a distance, the crowd hides the glass walls but, as we approach, we see through the people, through the panes, the inside is packed as well. We enter and get in line.

He has a milkshake and fries. We linger and he eats. The end of his long day. We go back to the hotel but I am not done. I want to walk some more. As he watches TV, I set out again.

There is music in the dark. I walk parallel the river. There is a wedding and the music is heard blocks away as a party is held under canopies beside a church. I walk on, walk by, music fading. The street ends and I come upon the bank of the Ohio.

I had passed slips and docks but they did not draw. The bank, though: the bank, the natural boundary, does.

It is a slope. Grassy and steep in the dark, I am drawn to the bank, to the brink where land ends and water begins. Through the trees.

There, in an opening between the trees. Steps down through the thick. It opens out. I enter a field of stars before the watery black.

Grass, trees. Fireflies. More than I have seen in, perhaps, all my childhood years together. All my adult life since. Flittering light, bright movements of starlight on wing. Filling the grass, trees, bushes, hovering over the ambiguous bank.

And there is a swing. To the right, hanging from a tree, next to the river, a smooth board on two knotted ropes. I sit, rock, glide. I am a body in motion, surrounded by light.

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2007 in Family, History, Nature, Travel

 

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Prayer to the Earth for Yom Kippur

We open our mouths to proclaim how beautiful the world is, how sweet life is and how dear to us you are, Lady, Mother of All Living.

We stand here today to remind ourselves that we are all part of this web of creation. We are all linked, so that what any of us does affects all of us, that we are all responsible for the Earth. That we are all responsible for each other. We have chosen to be here today as a symbol of our commitment, our awareness of this connection.

Even so, we forget our promises and our duties.

We gossip, we mock, we jeer.

We quarrel, we are unkind, we lie.

We neglect, we abuse, we betray.

We are cruel, we hate, we destroy.

We are careless, we are violent, we steal.

We are jealous, we oppress, we are xenophobic.

We are racist, we are sexist, we are homophobic.

We waste, we pollute, we are selfish.

We disregard the sufferings of others, we allow others to suffer for our ignorance and our pride.

We hurt each other willingly and unwillingly.

We betray each other with violence and with stealth.

And most of all, we resist the impulse to do what we know is good, and we do not resist the impulse to do what we know is bad.

All this we acknowledge to be true, and we do not blame the mirror if the reflection displeases.

Lady, help us to forgive each other for all we have done and help us to do better in the coming year. Bring us into harmony with the Earth and all Her ways. So mote it be!

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2007 in Religion, Social

 

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