Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Muse of Inwardness

The Sister from Below is delighted to announce the publication of

by Naomi Ruth Lowinsky

We’ve volunteered, ecstatically volunteered, to place these illuminated rectangles between ourselves and the world. How eagerly and expensively we buckled, surrendered the immediacy of experience, the tactile facts of our being, to a battery–operated autocrat. I ponder the spiritual helplessness, the puncture at the hub of us, that facilitated such a happy vassalage…The way…literary art responds is not by attempting to compete with it…Literary art responds by remaining steadfastly itself…, by honoring its responsibility to inwardness…—William Giraldi in Poets and Writers  Sept/Oct. 2016
The Rabbi, the Goddess and Jung, a book of essays written in tribute to the depths and the riches of Jungian Psychology—how it helps us get the “word from within”— enters the world at a time when most of us get the word from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, when the suck of all those e–mails demands our response before we write down that dream or take time to listen for the still small voice of the soul. As William Giraldi says, we are in thrall to our “illuminated rectangles.” I was moved to read his passionate defense of inwardness. I think it is not only literary art that needs to remain “steadfastly itself,” but Jungian Psychology, which does the subversive work of countering the dominant culture, honoring the “word from within” and the practice of tracking the dream. As Jung tells it in The Red Book, being a slave to “the spirit of the times” can annihilate the soul. A descent to the “the spirit of the depths” can release the spiral serpent of wisdom and creativity.

A powerful example of creativity in the service of inwardness can be seen in the paintings of Jane Zich. Her magical painting “Visionary 3” graces the cover of The Rabbi, and she tells me, just won First Place in an exhibit titled “Introspection” put on by the Marin Society of Artists. Apparently there are others who value such soul work.

The essays in The Rabbi seek to create a sanctuary for the soul, to demonstrate the ways in which cultivation of one's inner life creates sacred space. Admitting that this is not an easy practice in our hectic, fearful times, I seek to show how the word from within orients—whether it comes as gift or disturbance, guest or ghost, riddle or revelation. It may force a confrontation with one’s worst fears. It may visit in nightmare images, such as the enormous spider with hairy legs and eight baleful eyes that appeared in a dream, come to warn, it would seem, of the perils facing human nature and Mother Nature.

It is essential, especially in difficult times, to make space for what the Kabbalah calls “the beyond that lies within—” the still small voice of the Self, the long view of the wisdom traditions. In this collection of poetic, visionary essays, I tell stories of the Lady Tree who showed up when I was six, and has wandered in and out of my life, revealing her Goddess nature. Active imagination enables me to work out unfinished business with ancestors including my father and Jung. Dreams introduce me to my spirit guides, and to a dancing rabbi who insists I study Kabbalah. And that scary spider turns out to be Grandmother Spider, a creator goddess who has the power, if we recognize Her, to help us reweave our relationship with earth.

Here’s a foretaste of the book:


Dreams pave the way for life, and they determine you 
without your understanding their language.[1]

A long time ago, when I was a candidate at the San Francisco Jung Institute, I dreamt a large lion prowled the Jung Institute Library. He told me he loved me. He told me he would eat me. That’s a good summary of my story. For I have, indeed, been devoured by the fierce, wild energy of the living psyche as Jung understood it. Leo is my sun sign and my rising sign, astrologically. That lion is part of my nature.

It sounds painful to be eaten by a lion, to be torn apart by great teeth, to do time inside the dark gut of a predator. But what better description for how it feels when life forces you to surrender your conscious intent, throws you into the chaos of not knowing who you are or where you are going? Jungians—borrowing from alchemy—call this “the nigredo,”—the dark night of the soul. It happens in most people’s lives and in most long Jungian analyses. It has happened, many times over, in mine.

I have learned, as in the famous story Martin Buber tells about himself, that I didn’t have to account to God or my analyst for why I wasn’t Moses, or for that matter, Jung. I had to account for why I wasn’t Naomi. On the way to becoming myself, I came to see that though the library was my true habitat, I wasn’t a big idea person, a great thinker and theorist. It was my calling as a writer and as an analyst to bring ideas into the living flesh of personal experience in a poetic way.

It’s not enough to figure out your calling, your true nature. You have to know what time it is in your life. I was certified as a Jungian Analyst in my 50th year. An intense period of study and psychological work—of being digested by the lion of my own nature—had come to fruition. It was time to reclaim my writing life, which had been put aside while raising my family, developing a practice, and becoming a Jungian Analyst. So proclaimed my Muse, The Sister from Below.

Now, in my 70s, I am informed by the chorus of inner figures who bring me word from within, that it’s another kind of time in my life. Time to lie down with the lion and reflect on the journey; time to express my gratitude for the gifts of the Jungian Way—access to dreams and inner figures, access to the source of the word from within—my own wild and fierce creative spirit. It is harvest time—time to gather the fruits of my work and offer them as soul food to my community.

To that end, I have organized nine of my uncollected essays in this volume. As I’ve worked with these pieces—written over a period of fifteen years—I’ve been amused to see how the living symbols in my psyche have engaged and possessed me over the years. The Rabbi shows up early and shifts forms dramatically. So do the Goddess, the Lady Tree, and Jung. Words are magic, and getting the word from within is a spiritual practice, as are wild leaps into poetry.

Most of these essays were first published in Psychological Perspectives and the Jung Journal. One is a chapter in a book I co–edited with Patricia Damery, Marked by Fire: Stories of the Jungian Way. These are stories of my Jungian way, as an analysand, as an “apprentice to the alchemist”—Jung’s term for the process of terminating an analysis—as a dreamer, a tree and goddess worshipper, a conflicted Jew, a conflicted Jungian, a mystic and a poet. I offer them to you, dear reader, in the hope they will support your own practice of getting the word from within.

[1] C.G. Jung, The Red Book, p. 233.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

News from the Muse: The Muse of Gathering

The Muse of Gathering 

Beyond the open window
the edges of the leaves,
a river of earth and sky
spinning like Sufi women
surrounded by morning glories
and galaxies.
—Diane Frank

Lost and Found in Poetry Land

Once in awhile a book comes along that changes how you gather your life. The anthology, River of Earth and Sky: Poems for the Twenty–First Century, selected by Diane Frank, published in 2015, is such a book. Poetry is a solitary practice. I’m used to sitting alone in my study, talking to inner figures, listening to the intensities of my muse. But as I wound my way through this luminous, soul–stirring gathering of poems, I found myself in the company of so many kindred spirits—some I knew, most I did not— that it occurred to me, I had found my tribe. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, given that Diane Frank, the editor of Blue Light Press, had chosen my chapbook, The Little House On Stilts Remembers, along with Lucy Day’s Dreaming of Sunflowers: Museum Poems, to share the Blue Light Poetry Prize in 2015. But that welcome recognition is a different experience from the long meander along the river of poems Frank selected. Rounding each bend I was surprised and delighted, as earth met sky in many voices and moods, with striking imagery, musicality, sensuality and a flow of themes that resonate with my own passions. The poems are illuminated with striking artwork by Melanie Gendron, and a lush cover image of naked female figures among trees and birds, in shades of green, blue and earth tones, called “Nurturing Forest.” Under the spell of this collection, I found myself musing about anthologies, how certain of them can define an epoch, a poetic movement, a change in consciousness, how certain ones have been significant sign posts along my way.

It’s easy to get lost in Poetry Land. There are so many literary publications in print and on line, so many poets, well known and not, so many poetry readings in small cafes and big auditoriums. It’s easy to get confused about where you are, who your people are, who your ancestors are, as you wander through your years of apprenticeship—for poetry is a hard task master, requiring endless study and devotion. It never ceases to amaze me how many fine poets are writing today, and how many of them are women. In our wealth and celebrity mad culture they devote themselves to poetry for no money and little glory. River of Earth and Sky testifies to this brilliant flowering.

“Flower Mandala,” Melanie Gendron*
*Note: all the titled art in this blog is by Melanie Gendron, and was published in River of Earth and Sky. 
Art in color here appears in black and white in the anthology.

How did this happen? Three poetry anthologies mark the sea change poetry has experienced in my writing lifetime. They trace my long meander in Poetry Land, gather my songlines, trace my obsessions. The word anthology comes from the Greek, meaning flower gathering. Anthologies, also known as garlands, go back two thousand years, more if you think of the Bible as such a gathering. The fourth anthology, River of Earth and Sky, feels like a homecoming, a promised land. It gave me the gift of an epiphany: I saw my path in four anthologies. I want to share with you the fruits of this gathering.

The New American Poetry
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self–conscious looking at the full moon. 
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations! 
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
—Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California”

If you’re of my generation, a fellow traveler in Poetry Land, you likely know this anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960, edited by Donald M. Allen and published in 1960. It gathered poems from what Allen calls the third generation of 20th century American poets. The first generation are the modernists—Ezra Pound, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens etc. The second generation includes Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Kenneth Rexroth, and Louis Zukofsky. The third generation, writes Allen, is “our avant–garde…Many are closely allied to modern jazz and abstract expressionist painting.” They include the Black Mountain Poets, the Poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, the Beats, the New York Poets, and assorted others. These poets cracked open the idea of the poem; they made a mash up of high and low culture, vulgar talk and high flown phrases. They believed that form and rhythm should emerge organically, that imagination was poetry’s chariot. Thus Allen Ginsberg meets Walt Whitman and Garcia Lorca in a Berkeley supermarket in 1955.

When I was an undergraduate in English Literature at Berkeley, lost and unseen in academia, this anthology helped me gather my influences. My father’s first job in this country had been at Black Mountain College, which hired many refugee German Jews like him. I was a baby, a toddler, a little girl in the heady environment of that radical school in the mid 1940s. The famous poets, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, had not yet arrived. But there was an atmosphere of creative exploration and political courage. My parents led the effort to desegregate the college, the first school in the South to do so. With Allen’s exciting anthology in hand, I decided I was a Black Mountain Poet, though those writers were a generation older than I, their poetry was written during my childhood, and I met them only in their books, which still grace my book shelves and inform my work.

As a teenager in Berkeley, under the spell of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, I wore black stockings, prowled Telegraph Ave.—a wannabe Beat—entranced by what Ginsberg, writing a statement about his poetics in the New American Poetry, calls the “Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath” which inspired him. “The first section typed out madly one afternoon, a huge sad comedy of wild phrasing, meaningless images for the beauty of abstract poetry of mind running along making awkward combinations like Charlie Chaplin’s walk, long saxophone–like chorus lines…really a new poetry.” This was a poetry of music, magic, image, the collision and collusion of the quotidian, the taboo, and the sacred. That’s what I wanted to write.

I am struck, looking at my 50 plus year old copy of The New American Poetry—which cost $2.95—that the one poet I marked with an asterisk in blue ink in the Table of Contents was Denise Levertov. There are few women in this gathering of poets. I must have been so hungry to find a woman ancestor. I marked her poem, “The Goddess,” with a blue arrow.
She in whose lipservice
I passed my time
whose name I knew, but not her face… 
flung me across the room…
I did not yet know it, but that would be my story.

"Inner Glance"

News of the Universe: Poems of the Twofold Consciousness
Oh friend, we arrived too late. The divine energies
Are still alive, but isolated above us, in the archetypal world…
What is living now? Night dreams of them. But craziness
Helps, so does sleep. Grief and Night toughen us…
Poets…are like the holy disciple of the Wild One
Who used to stroll over the fields through the whole divine night.
—Friedrich Hölderin/1800
from “Bread and Wine, Part 7,” translated by Robert Bly.

The news from this far flung gathering, including poems from far away lands and times and places, was chosen and introduced in News of the Universe, by Robert Bly, and published in 1980. It shook the earth under my feet in Poetry Land. Bly has long been a passionate critic of the post–Enlightenment poetic stance in which “the body is exiled, the soul evaporated, the mind given executive power.” He has opened our doors and windows to let in the music and magic of poetries from all over the world. He championed language that “reaches outward to plants and metals, as well as inward to night–intelligence and sleep.” He brought me news of my German roots in poetry, writing of the importance of the Novalis–Hölderin–Goethe tradition:
Hölderin, whose poems have such immense sound, reported that the new had come; but to him the new is not irony and dislocation, but the awareness that the old non-human or non–ego energies the ancient world imagined so well were impinging again on human consciousness.
Bly notes that Freud and Jung grew up reading those German poets, which deeply influenced depth psychology’s “twofold consciousness.” Jung could have used the words of the epigraph above from Hölderin to introduce his life work. Bly uses an epigraph from Novalis for his anthology:
The seat of the soul is where the inner world and the outer world meet. Where they overlap, it is in every point of the overlap.
I did not know it yet, but it would be in that overlap between the worlds, which Bly calls the “twofold consciousness” that my poetry would flourish. What is twofold consciousness? Bly writes of how we have all, “since the rise of technology…been torn into parts so often that we can hardly grasp what an interior unity could be.” As a young woman I railed about that split between body and mind, human and animal. Bly, a prophet down from the mountain, expanded and deepened my understanding of the problem, railing that “the entire non–human world has been denied consciousness…” Twofold consciousness, then, is where inner and outer, male and female, human and animal, plant and mineral, night and day, sun and moon, heaven and earth—all the archetypal couples who lived among us before we exiled the gods and our souls—meet. Bly reminded me of what I had always known but easily forgot, that the animating desire of the poetry that moves me, the poetry I seek to write, is about healing that split—Bly calls it the “Descartes wound”— which privileges mind over body, soul and nature.

“Creation of Lovers”

The blue arrow pointing to Denise Levertov’s “The Goddess” in The New American Poetry, is the thread that gathers the three anthologies that trace my steps, for Levertov is in each one of them. In News of the Universe Levertov appears in magical abundance in several poems. In “An Embroidery (I), a fairy tale poem, we meet Rose Red and Rose White, sisters, who sing to the bear:
it is a cradle song, a loom song,
a song about marriage, about
a pilgrimage to the mountains
long ago.
The bear, we learn, is the bridegroom. Levertov draws from traditional forms a story that sings to the animal in us all:
Rose Red in a cave that smells of honey
dreams she is combing the fur of her cubs
with a golden comb.
She elegantly articulates Bly’s theme, that in order to be fully ourselves we must know our animal natures, or, to borrow from another Levertov poem, we must “Come into Animal Presence” for “Those who were sacred have remained so…”

“Moon Raven”

She Rises Like the Sun: Invocations of the Goddess by Contemporary American Women Poets

We are crying for a vision…
This is our day.
Your ancestors have all arrived.
The past has arrived.

This earth is in our hands
Let it fly, bird of earth and light…
—Meridel Le Sueur, “Make the Earth Bright and Thanks”

She Rises Like the Sun, published in 1989, edited by Janine Canan, brought news that was dear to my heart and soul, news that the divine energies Hölderin lamented two hundred years ago, are finding their way back to us, especially in women’s writings. Meridel Le Sueur is one of a number of women poets with Native American roots who speak for the new/old consciousness of the goddess and the earth. It is striking, from this mountain top view of my lifetime, to see how rapidly the forgotten, neglected, taboo voices of women who write to heal the split in themselves and in the culture, have found their way into the plentiful harvest of this beautiful anthology. It includes the wild, mysterious invocation of the white wolf, the Loba, by Diane di Prima, who was to become my teacher:
Oh Lady
whose hair is the willow, whose breath
is the riversong, who lopes
through the milky way, baying…
—Diane di Prima, “ The Poet Prays to the Loba”
In She Rises Like the Sun, that blue arrow returns us to Denise Levertov’s prophesy of “The Goddess,” and once again we are “flung across the room.” The Goddess, of course, insists we live in “two–fold consciousness.” Jean Shinoda Bolen speaks of this eloquently in her Foreword:
In poem after poem there are moments of revelation, in which Goddess and woman partake of the same essence, when a woman finds the Goddess in herself… 
Poetry with its rhythmic cadence and imagery has a power, similar to drumming and music, to move us from ordinary reality and measureable time into that deeper place where we…have no sense of time passing.
Thus “two–fold consciousness” becomes an experience of the Unus Mundus—the one world—the divine child of all those archetypal couples—in which all things are intertwined. Janine Canan speaks to this realm of consciousness in a long, engaging Introduction:
We seem to find the poets turning Her around in their collective minds, viewing her from all angles; viewing Her from a great distance only to discover they are contained within Her. She is the earth, the grandmother, the mother, the daughter, the wife and the beloved. She is the snake, the scorpion, the dragonfly, the cat and the wolf. She is the wise one, evolution, mystery and the absence of mystery…She is all the arts…She is life and She is death. She is goodness and evil; the void and creation. She is us. She is all.


Canan sees her anthology as a gathering of “a new body of Western religious poetry,” contributing “to the creation of a new religious myth that revives a vast network of old ones.” I think she is right. In poem after poem we come into “animal presence,” we have direct experience of the divine in women’s ordinary lies. Di Prima addresses the Goddess as Loba:
Is it not in yr service that I wear myself out
running ragged among these hills, driving children
to forgotten movies?
                              “The Loba Addresses the Goddess or
                                The Poet as Priestess Addresses the Loba–Goddess.”
In Judy Grahn’s marvelous poem “The Queen of Wands,” we meet a spider:
On hot days
she pays out her line and
twirls on down
to the surface of the lake or pond
to get a little drink of water
and to wash her face. She’s such an
ordinary person…
And I am the Queen of Wands
who never went away
where would I go?
These poems are magical, incantatory, musical, mystical. They carry on the myths of the American landscape, of First People; they pray for us all, and make offerings:
In the first light
I offer cornmeal
and tobacco.
I say hello to those who came before me, and to birds
under the eaves,
and budding plants.
—Linda Hogan, “First Light”


River of Earth and Sky: Poems for the Twenty–First Century
The devil’s knitting needles,
these dragonflies, stitch the pond to sky. 
All magic transpires in this elemental mix.
When water or earth touches air or fire…
—Mailaika King Albrecht, “How to Kiss Fire”
"II of Wands"

We are gathered by the river, touching earth and sky, kissed by the fire of Diane Frank’s vision. She does not find it necessary to write a long Introduction to her selection of poems. Three short pithy paragraphs light our way, beginning with the condensed power of this opening sentence: “A poem is a parallel universe that creates an experience line by line.” That was certainly my experience of the poems she chose in this substantial volume, full of treasures. For me, it was as though the gifts of the three earlier anthologies descended from sky to earth in this new collection, bringing magic, music and vision into every day life. The poems “walk the medicine path” and “spin the invisible” in the words of Carre Connet’s poem “Blackberries All Dried Up Now;” they enter “The Inner Life of a Tree Becoming an Apple,” to borrow Kevin Farey’s title; they stitch two worlds together, as in Mailaika King Albrecht’s poem quoted in the epigraph above. They are musical, and often sing of music. Frank is a cellist, and many of these poems are soaked in music and dance:
Aching tones caress cheeks
curl like smoke around thick ankles.
Soaked in jazz, bodies drip
with something forgotten.
—Stefanie Renard, “Kind of Blue”
They speak for the natural world, especially for trees:
The cedar folds so many shadows
into its heart at night, yet wakes
green each morning
in a light that drops
through its stopped limbs
like a new soul.
—Alixa Doom, “Heart of Cedar”
“Tree Nymph”

The poems also speak to the agonies of history, as in Stewart Florsheim’s powerful poem. “Edith, Typing on the Balcony,” which describes a woman writing a letter to her family in America from Frankfurt, Germany, on a lovely June day in 1939, saying “today she just knows that things will get better.” Unspoken horror haunts the reader, who is also charmed by the details of Edith’s Sunday afternoon: “the piece of chocolate Herr Schmidt gave her,/who cares if he did it out of pity…” This is another way to stitch two worlds together, with “the devil’s knitting needles.”

I could go on and on, citing blazing passages from little known poets and well–known ones—Kim Addonizio, Jane Hirshfield, Thomas Centolella, among others. I want to focus on the less known voices, for one of the gifts of this collection is this offering of wondrous poems by so many amazing poets you’ve never heard of. Maybe that religious awakening Janine Canan wrote of is happening right here among us in Poetry Land.

Frank’s dedication is evocative: “For the poets of the future to discover what we saw, felt and knew during these times.” It got me wondering what a future poet might gather about our inner and outer lives, about what kind of people and poets we were. I started a list. I’m sure you can come up with many more examples and their poetic illustrations.

We love to make love:
I dreamed that the only way to heaven
was to kiss.
Kiss wide and soft lipped.
Kiss with your nose inhaling
the delicate scent of warm rice.
Don’t expect to be able
to distinguish God from your lover.
—Robin Lim, “Applying Joint Compound”
“The Kiss”

We live in the Anima Mundi, the animated world where we honor the life in all things:
Tomorrow I will be ordinary again,
but tonight my hair is made of moonlight.
—Judy Liese, “Moonlight Hair”
We love to laugh:
                                                                   my breasts
are at the breaking point, I must get them home soon,
they are starting to rebel, don’t look at them please,
alright, go ahead, but I’m warning you they’re hungry,
tired and pretty cranky…
—May Garsson, “My Unruly Breasts”
We live in a world of hurt:
White buildings mirrored in the Tigris—
damp air stagnant with derision…
This was said to have been the cradle
of civilization, where some believe
the garden of Eden flourished…
The fable interrupted now…
by the flash of Howitzers…
Palm trees toss shaggy heads and teeter.
Goats shiver in suburban yards…
The full moon rises red as a pomegranate,
aloof and indifferent to the bombing.
—Christopher Seid, “Full Moon Over Baghdad; March 19, 2003”
We suffer the degradation of the earth:
I know this grass, fashioned when the forest
was a Paleozoic maid.
Now she is crone,
taken, cut so that men can raise corn
and do a thousand hard–edged things.
—Diane Porter, “To Aranyani”
We contemplate death:
I rest my head on my own skull at night
and sleep not an inch from my death…
—Nynke Passi, “Bones”
We find divinity in the ordinary:
You like being married to a priestess?
A woman who worships all objects
that breathe light.
Starfish, plankton, holy temples.
Cracks in the sidewalk. Cracks in the heart.
—Nancy Lee Melmon, “I Want You to Know”
Mystery stings us:
The bees say the erotic is in the shadows, and nobody can love without the wound. They tell me we all need to be pierced by the mystery.
—Diane Frank, “Parachute”
The unknown, the uncanny, speaks through us:
something is watching you
from inside or out, you don’t know.
All the hairs of your body stand
at attention… You would bound away 
but there’s a feline in you
who’s caught a scent…
—June Rachuy Brindel, “Writing’s a Scary Business”
We believe in angels:
This is a poem for the angel
Who was given the privilege
Of naming the color of grass
And who jumped up and down
Waving his hand and shouting,
Green! Green! Green!
Oh! Green! Green.
—Daniel J. Langton, “My My”

“Buxom Angel”

We believe in the magic of writing, for a good poem is like:
A sturdy chest–like magic box
where a witch must have kept
mouse bones, owl feathers, vials of red
or a single shriveled left hand…
the hallowed relicts of my walk upon this earth…
We are vessels,
vaults of the vanishing underworld.
—Kim Niyogi, “Yard Sale, Venice Beach, California”
So come all you poetry lovers, readers, writers, turn off the news of our frightening times and gather by the River of Earth and Sky. It will sing to your senses, water your soul, fire up your feelings for our Mother, the earth. Tell your friends about this epoch making anthology; get the word out. The poets of tomorrow will urgently need wise words from their ancestors. Take, for example, “Artemis,” by the late June Rachuy Brindel:
You must learn to hear
           rock growing
           and the flow of sap.
Mount granite
           clutching tight with your thighs
           tremors will jet through your life channel. 
Wrap your arms around the trunk of the rowan tree
           the bark will speak to your cheek
           the forest will hold you in its breath. 
Even the ice
           of the year’s death
           can’t stop these songs. 
There is no healing
           so whole
           as this earth murmur. 
You are this moment’s daughter
           the voices of this hour
           are for you.

“Butterfly Woman”

River of Earth and Sky: Poetry Reading
A Great Good Place for Books
6120 La Salle Ave, Oakland, CA 94611 
Montclair, Oakland CA 

June 22nd, 7:30 pm

Marianne Betterly, Stewart Florsheim, Diane Frank and Alison Luterman will read.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Muse of Vacation

Mural/Mosaic made with bottle caps

Why were you born voyager?
—Robert Hass

Hummingbird Medicine
Once a year for many years Dan and I have come to San Pancho, a village by the sea in Mexico, in winter, on vacation. To vacation is to vacate, to empty out—essential as an exhalation, as ebb tide and waning moon. For us it is a kind of annual Sabbath, a holy time to remember who we are and who we were.

To vacation is to let go schedules, traffic, everyday worries and rituals, to settle into a chaise lounge and listen to the ocean’s murmur and hush—our Mother Tongue, our origin. To watch Her is endlessly fascinating, Her rise and Her fall, Her great blue curl, white crash, spent swirls reaching for the beach.

To hear Her puts me in trance, in a reverie visited by hummingbird in intimate contact with pink hibiscus.

Hummingbird medicine, it is said, is all about beauty and joy, about the nectar of life, the love between plants and creatures—life-pollinating life. Hummingbird feathers will make you a love charm. Hummingbird sightings—the dazzle of tiny wings moving so fast they seem invisible, the bird hovering in mid air—return me to the realm of magic, the interpenetration of inside and outside, of earth, sky and water, of myth and fairy tale, birds and trees, stories and dream. The sound of the waves is cut by the whine of a saw cutting tiles for the house being worked on next door. There’s laughter by the pool, and somewhere, a Mexican love song on the radio.

“Look at those colors” says Dan, framing a shot with his ipad. He takes photos of beach restaurants: houses, playful details, birds, plants, flowers, spellbound by the radiance everywhere. The palette is different here. The bright green T–shirt I buy looks all wrong at home. But here it belongs to the joy of color.

The ocean is azure at the horizon, goes aquamarine with patches of turquoise until the swell breaks radiant white. Seven brown pelicans swoop down, caressing the waters. There’s a bright orange beach umbrella, intense blue of the roof of the house on the cliff that was lost in a lawsuit. A girl in a purple bikini cavorts with her lover in the surf. A dad, with his lime green boogey board, falls off it numerous times, until at last he rides a wave triumphantly to shore. His daughter laughs. Houses are painted bright shades on the beach and off.

Sometimes when we’re lucky, the night is clear, and the sky reveals its splendor—great wash of Milky Way and countless stars—a sight we city dwellers are never granted at home. We look up, hungry for the bounty and the mystery, until our necks ache. Dan finds the Pleiades. We contemplate the ancients, their intimacy with all those shifting stories in the dark.

The Ballad of Time and Mutability

One of the most beautiful rooms in my life is the great room at Casa Obelisco, our B&B, where we gather for breakfast, meet strangers, hear origin stories about the town and its people. The gracious space, with three open arches framing the ocean view, and high ceilings rising to a cupola, has a Moorish flavor, remembers Southern Spain—the Great Mosque of Cordoba. Sunburst sconces light it in the evening, and star shaped lanterns fill the chapel like dome.

Outside the cupola is covered with Moorish blue tiles. We visit it to watch the sunset from the roof. It is a beloved ritual, to watch the sun go down as people have forever. Every sundown is the same and entirely different.

Time changes on vacation, especially when you stay in one place for two weeks, a place you’ve known and loved for so long. There is a timelessness about it—we’re here, we’ve been here, the gods willing we will be here again.

The Muse of this vacation is a ballad. The chorus is repeated. Our hosts discovered this enchanted place some twenty years ago, and built themselves and us a lovely B&B. They tell this story over breakfast many mornings, when entertaining newcomers. The chorus is the great room. The town is much the same and always changing. Each stanza tells the story of some new eating–place, some gone familiar place. There’s always someone building, someone tearing down. The old hotel nearby has been razed to the ground. There are differing rumors about what will be built there next. That beach restaurant we loved at sunset—where egrets flew into the palms above us, as the light dimmed—is gone. There is a new Italian restaurant right off the plaza, near St. Francis, the town saint. We sat there listening to three old guys talking rapid Italian, shades of Venice where we spent time a few months ago. Trance music, curated by a disc jockey, goes in loops, in circles, a kind of techno ballad—magical, at once familiar and strange, of now and of forever.

San Francisco (near the beach)

Time relaxes. Takes its own sweet time. The muse craves such time—time to ponder, time to get obsessed with a poem, work it, rework it, let it talk back to you in the night and show new facets of itself come morning. Time to forget the latest spasm of outrage in U.S. politics. Time to read the novel that sat on the floor of your study at home for months. Time to write about the time you’re having in your journal, make notes for your blog. Time to sleep in, to remember your dreams, to write them down and work with them. Time to meditate on Robert Hass’ “Meditation at Lagunitas.” Hass floats the notion that “a word is elegy to what it signifies.” I muse on that. My words reflect on what I love. They’re not the thing itself, not the crash of the surf, not the hummingbird. That’s gone, on invisible wings.

For me, much of the meaning in a stay put vacation is time to engage with such loss. Hass begins his poem, “All the new thinking is about loss./In this it resembles the old thinking.” How true of living into one’s seventies, where every pleasure glimmers with its loss, its built in mutability. It’s always been so, but now it’s more so. The B&B, that great room I love, is up for sale—has been for years. One day the market forces will shift and it will be gone. Some extended family from Mexico City will make it their beloved second home. And for us it will be a shadow, a longing, an old flame. My chapbook, The Little House on Stilts Remembers is all about such losses of place. Here is the opening poem:

Her Next Life

All the houses she's loved and sold
remember her
call her by name

What will her next life be? 

In the dream she must change
clothes    stitch mirrors
red thread
on deer skin dress
                             reflect her
                                    journey    temple dancer
                                                           stone chariot
                                                  river at sunset with elephants

All the pretty houses have peeled off
                                     like snake skin

Her feet are listening 
                  Song of the earth 
                                     holds her now

[Photographs -except for hummingbird- by Dan Safran]

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Muse of Orpheus

The Muse of Orpheus

Gesang ist Dasein
Song is Being
—(Sonnet to Orpheus #3 Part I)
The Girl Who Slept the World
To the poet’s own astonishment, work on the Elegies was both preceded and succeeded by bursts of creative inspiration that birthed another, wholly unanticipated magnum opus. This unlooked–for gift of the gods was Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus.
—(Polikoff, Introduction)

In sad times, when death stalks our kith and our kin, in troubling times, when shocking events overwhelm us—young people are gunned down at a rock concert in Paris, people who serve the developmentally disabled are gunned down at a holiday party in San Bernadino, in frightening times when hatred for the stranger runs rampant and the snarl of fascism stalks the land, there’s no comfort like poetry, especially Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. Rilke wrote his sonnet sequence “as a grave–monument for Vera Ouckama Knoop,” a nineteen year–old dancer who died of leukemia. Rilke’s great work is a temple in the woods, a sanctuary from dread and terror, beautifully rendered into English in a new translation by Daniel Joseph Polikoff, (Angelico Press, 2015)

Polikoff has devoted much of his creative life to Rilke. He has given us his monumental “Soul History,” In the Image of Orpheus: Rilke. I reviewed this book for the Jung Journal in 2012. Appreciating the influence of Jungian thought and James Hillman’s revisioning of it on Polikoff’s work, I wrote:
"Polikoff, leaning on Jung, focuses on Rilke’s anima fascinations in life and in poetry, He traces Rilke’s soul development as he separates from Lou Andreas Salome, who has been a maternal figure, and meets the lovely young artists Paula Becker and Clara Westhoff in the bucolic landscape of Worpeswede. Clara would eventually become his wife. Rilke’s understanding of the sacred shifts “away from the name and spirit of God toward the soul of nature experienced in and through the eyes of two enchanting maiden-artists” (208). Following Hillman, Polikoff understands the power of anima as …“the archetype of soul coming into its own by way of creative imagination” (202)… Later in his life the death of a maiden will become the inspiration for his Sonnets to Orpheus.
The sonnets are meditations on death, transience, the life cycle, maidens, flowers, trees, animals, the gods—especially Orpheus and his lyre—the quintessential image of the creative imagination. That maiden who died so young takes up residence in the poet’s ear, and in ours:
And it was almost a girl who emerged from
the consonant pleasure of song and lyre
and shone clear through her shady spring attire
and made her bed within my ear’s deep drum.
And slept in me. And her sleep was everything.
The trees I always marveled at, those
palpable distances, the deeply felt meadows… 
She slept the world.
—(Sonnet #2 Part I)

In her death, in her sleep in the poet’s ear, a wondrous world is created—55 sonnets in two parts. Orpheus is a “conjurer” whose “widespread/nature…knows the roots of the willow/can better bend the branches overhead.” (#6 Part I) Above and below are brought together to create the poet’s lyre, made of the roots and upper branches of the willow— a tree associated with grief. Orpheus’ magic, turns grief and decay into vineyard and grape. We are in the realm of the Eleusinian Mysteries here, where the maiden who has been stolen by the god of the underworld, returns to life as leaf and flower in the spring.
We go round with flowers, vine–leaves, fruit.
They speak a language that’s not only of the year.
Rising through darkness, some bright thing breaks clear
revealing, perhaps, the jealousy at the root 
still held by the dead, who fortify the earth.
(Sonnet #14 Part I)
Polikoff’s Introduction to his translation is a fine distillation of his writing on the origin of the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets in his Soul History. He places Rilke, a hundred years ago, in a world much like the one we inhabit today, in which “unrelenting violence rent the poet’s inner and outer world.” (p. 1) As WWI broke out Rilke struggled with the “terrible angel” of the Elegies, expressing a “heart–rending lament of alienation from spiritual being.” (p. 7) After the war, having found a home in Switzerland, Rilke was astonished by the “unlooked–for gift of the…Sonnets,” many of which came in a “dam–busting flood of poetic energy” that lasted three days (p. 2).

We are not spared the horrors of death. In Sonnet #25 Part I Rilke imagines Vera’s end:
But you—so swiftly departed—you whom I
loved like a flower whose name I did not know… 
A dancer first, whose body’s sudden pause
Illness was near… 
Seized by dark stutterings, more and more

it gleamed of earth. Until—with horrible pounding—
it stepped through the desolate open door.

Many of these sonnets are prayers. One of my favorites holds the vast opposites of life and death:
Be forever dead in Eurydice—in praise of things
ascend, singing…
be a ringing glass that shatters even as it rings. 
Be—and at the same time know the fathomless fount
of non–being…
—(Sonnet #13 Part II)
This is a prayer that expresses the chasm we face, mourning those we love who have passed through that veil, as we grapple with the mystery of being and non–being, of singing and shattering, of loss and release. I am always impressed by how grief changes consciousness, breaks through the rigidities of rationality and lets the living symbol in. Rilke illuminates this transmutation:
Torn open by us again and again
the god is the place that heals, unseen.
We’re sharp; we want to know all we can,
but he’s spread out and serene.
—(Sonnet #16 Part II)
The Joy of German
Any true poem lives and breathes in the nuanced confluence of sound and sense it incorporates; to try to transplant its beating heart into the strange body of a foreign language is inevitably a risky experiment. And how much more delicate the operation when the original is…a sonnet to Orpheus; a poem addressed to that God who symbolizes the very unity of music and meaning any translation cannot but betray?
—(Polikoff, Introduction)

I heard German before I heard English. My parents were German born Jews. I have little call to speak German these days, but I sometimes dream in German, and wake up with a deep longing for my lost mother–tongue. It makes me sad that in our culture the beauty and power of German is not appreciated. Its deep guttural sounds are often mocked. For me German resonates with chthonic energy. It emerges from an earthy place, a root place. English words that are rooted in the Germanic are much more potent than Latinate words to my ear and heart. In Germany recently, I found the language returning to me like water to a thirsty flower. Rilke’s Sonnet #7, Part II describes this feeling: Here is some of the German.
wartend des Wassers, das sie noch einmal erhole
aus dem begonnenen Tod…
And Polikoff’s rendering:
awaiting the water that will once more make you whole
after the death already begun…
The conceit of the poem is that cut flowers are beginning to die before they are brought back to life with water. And so it is with us, when we are severed from our roots, it takes the water of poetry to revive us.

Although my German is child like and unsophisticated, I get much joy from moving back and forth between the original and Polikoff’s superb translations. As a poet who sometimes works in forms, I know how difficult it is to write a good rhyming sonnet. I am amazed at how elegantly Polikoff manages to translate the complex rhymes and rhythms of Rilke’s sonnets into fine English poetry.

If you are feeling the dark of this time of the year, or grieving a loved one, or, in horror and dread as you watch the swirls of hate and intolerance take over much of the collective, I urge you to listen to Orpheus’ song as received by Rilke and translated by Polikoff. It will give you entry to that temple deep in the woods, where the spirit of the depths dwells. Here is the entirety of the wonderful Sonnet #19 Part I, which I read at my father’s funeral a lifetime ago.

Though the world too will transform
quick as cloud–shape or course
all that’s complete is born
home to archaic source.

Over all coming and going
further and freer
your song–breath’s still blowing
god with the lyre.

Suffering we do not comprehend
and love’s as yet unlearned;
what takes us at life’s end

is shrouded in veils.
Only the song over the land
hallows and hails.


The Sister from Below invites you to hear Naomi Ruth Lowinsky read:

Jan. 3rd Poetry Unbound, 5-8 pm
Art House Gallery
2905 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA
$5-10 donation
(with Lucy Day and Connie Post)
Open Mike

In the dark of the year we welcome the magic of poetry, magic that can take us travelling through landscapes of our past, of our psyches, of the natural world. Three poets guide us, Connie Post, Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, and Lucy Lang Day in “The Poetry of Place.” All three are prizewinners, one with a Lyrebird Award and two with the 2014 Blue Light Poetry Prize.

Place is a powerful Muse who can remember our childhood meadows and woods and all the homes we’ve loved and lost. The Muse of Place inspires poems of yearning, exile, diaspora, and poems about landscape and environmental desecration as well—all the harm we humans have done to our Earth. This Muse loves journeys, the sounds, tastes, smells, and sights of foreign lands and even shows up in dreams, revealing to us mysterious realms. Come to the old church at the end of a dirt road, ancestral homes and a house on stilts, the horned lark singing beside a field of silver hairgrass.

Feb. 8th Poetry Express, 7-9pm
Himalayan Flavors
1585 University Ave., Berkeley, CA 
Naomi will be featured, reading from her prize winning chapbook,
The Little House On Stilts Remembers 
Open Mike