Friday, July 31, 2015

The Muse of Getting Published

The little house on stilts remembers
Grandmother Fire and Flow
Grandmother Wet Lands

                   —N.R. Lowinsky
                   “Wetlands” in The Little House on Stilts

The Sister from Below

is delighted to announce the publication of

by Naomi Ruth Lowinsky

by Lucille Lang Day

Co–winners of the Blue Light Poetry Award.

When the Muse Goes Public

So he published you showed up at your door
with a dervish swirl flung those litmags down
your first time words in print
did a tango ‘round the living room

                 —N.R. Lowinsky
                  “Fling” in The Faust Woman Poems

There’s nothing like getting published to get my muse singing. Understand, this is not the primal fragment of song that stirs a poem’s beginnings; it is not the private song of the poem seeking its tone, rhythm, words, vision. It is a sunlight song of completion, of being seen as a fellow creator by other creators, of being part of something greater than oneself, a journal, a press, an artistic identity—a song of belonging to the world.

Poems about Home find a Home

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

             —N.R. Lowinsky
              “Her Next Life” in The Little House on Stilts

My chapbook, The Little House On Stilts Remembers, began over a decade ago, in a time when my husband Dan and I downsized: sold our beloved but high maintenance home on a ridge, spent many months in an apartment before we found the right townhouse for our new lives. Poems about losing homes, finding new homes, grieving homes, worrying about our common home, the earth, gathered into a collection that wandered around poetry land looking for a publisher for a number of years, under different titles, changing shape, adding and deleting poems. The title poem began at our dear friends’ Lynn and Nate’s country home overlooking wetlands. That little house on stilts stirred my muse, filled me with images. The final iteration of the collection came into focus when it caught the attention of Diane Frank, the chief editor of Blue Light Press. She said she was interested in it but wanted me to go over it with a fine tooth comb and resubmit, which I did.

When The Little House On Stilts won the Blue Light Poetry Award I knew my chapbook had found a perfect home. I’ve admired Blue Light Press, and been drawn to its self–description as a press that publishes “poems that are visionary, imagistic, and push the edge,” a kind of poetry to which I aspire. As a home reflects the people who live in it—their taste, values, world–view—a press reflects the poets it publishes. To win the prize with Lucy Day, who was the first publisher to give my poetry books a home in her press—Scarlet Tanager Books—is still an amazement. I told this story in an earlier blog, The Muse of Synchronicity: Part I

A Transformation Mystery

She with her paintbrush
of shadow and light
You with your language of stones
             —N.R. Lowinsky
              “Many Houses Ago” in The Little House On Stilts
A book “comes out” of the inner dark, the impulse that began it—a phrase, a rhythm, a yearning, an image. Like a seed it needs time in the dark to take form. It may take months, even years to emerge out of musings and meanders, out of the handwritten and the typewritten, into the hands, hearts, eyes and souls of others who will engage with your creation—something new will be created. The long night’s journey into words becomes a thing, a touchable, visible, readable object. It will go off into the world and have a life of its own. Who knows who will read it? Who knows where it will fall into some unknown other’s inner life. Lucy and I were both delighted by the work of Blue Light’s book designer, Melanie Gendron, on our covers. She seemed to see what we envisioned, with more clarity and intensity than we had imagined possible. She and Diane Frank were the high priestesses of a transformation mystery.

Home is a complicated subject for refugees and exiles. The long central poem in The Little House On Stilts, which I see as the backbone of the collection, “Many Houses Ago” contemplates:

                   Those fabled houses from before I was born
                   home of my grandparents in the hills above Kassel
                   home of the poet Nelly Sachs on Lessingstrasse in Berlin

                   the crystal the silver fish knives the music room the library
                   the well–tempered Bach

Nellie Sachs was a visionary poet of the Shoah who fled the Nazis, as did my family. She and Paul Celan, another such poet, met through the transformation mystery of publication. He found her work in a French journal and they began a correspondence. Their story weaves through the poem which is both about the homes I’ve made with my husband Dan, and about my “other life,” in which some part of me is always a refugee.

I don’t know if my grandmother, the painter Emma Hoffman, knew of Nellie Sachs, who was born ten years after she was, in Berlin. For me they merged in Nellie’s phrase, “lioness of pain,” which describes an aspect of my grandmother that I knew well. In writing the poem these two powerful creative women merged to support what I think of as my own “refugee reality.”

Detail from my grandmother's self portrait

Refugee Realities in the Publishing World

Give me twig feather leaf bird
Give me word
that bursts
into flower
            —N.R. Lowinsky “A Life in Trees”
             in The Faust Woman Poems, p. 41

For many years I felt like a refugee in the publishing world. I had been lucky enough to get my first book, The Motherline: Every Woman’s Journey to Find Her Female Roots, published by a mainstream house, Tarcher, and then reissued as a paperback by Putnam. Naively I thought I’d have no trouble publishing my second prose book The Sister from Below: When the Muse Gets Her Way. Not so. The publishing world had changed in the decade since; it was dominated by a few huge houses, and focused on potential best sellers. I also had changed, had become more of my rather weird, poetic, non–mainstream self, and had written a “visionary, imagistic” book that “pushed the edge” between inner and outer experience. It is essentially a book of “acts of imagination” —the Jungian practice of speaking to inner figures. The Sister and I trudged around the publishing world for seven lean years. I received many of the “good” kind of rejection letters, in which an editor or agent admired my writing, wished they could publish it, but was sure it wouldn’t sell well enough for the all powerful bottom line. 

During those years I was blessed to be part of the publication board of Psychological Perspectives, a journal published by the Los Angeles Jung Institute. I was and am poetry editor, and I frequently contribute poetic essays. In that circle of kindred souls I have felt appreciated, valued, and had the pleasure and reassurance of getting published. Robin Robertson, the General Editor of the journal, who has published many books, took it upon himself to tell me regularly that my publisher would come. I didn’t always believe him, until it happened. Through the good offices of my friend, Israeli analyst Erel Shalit, my book was recommended to a new Jungian press, Fisher King Press. They published The Sister, got me started on this blog named after her, and my writing life began flowering. The Motherline, which had been out of print for years, was reissued, and they were even open to my poetry, doing beautiful editions of two of my collections, adagio and lamentation, and The Faust Woman Poems.

I came to understand that the changes in the publishing landscape offer new opportunities for us non-mainstream, niche writers—small presses have sprung up and are nurturing a diversity of voices and visions in the writing and reading world.

During the bad years of desert wandering I often dreamt of getting published. The dream would show me the black and white of a published page with my work on it. When Fisher King became my Jungian home those dreams stopped. Creations are creatures, have lives and destinies. Mine long for the satisfaction of being held in published form. Now I take much pleasure in the hand span of my own books on my bookshelf, a full shelf of journals with my essays in them, not to mention several shelves of poetry journals that have published me.

Image from the back cover of current
Psychological Perspectives

And, speaking of getting published, The Sister from Below is pleased to announce a special issue of Psychological Perspectives, “The Environment: Inner and Outer.” I am proud to have an essay, “Earth Angel and the Tohu Bohu,” in this wonderful issue (V. 58, Issue 2/2015). I am one of a number of visionary writers trying to find a path through the Tohu Bohu—the chaos—of climate change, rising seas, species extinction; seeking to find a way that is at once new and ancient to be in better harmony with our only home, the earth. My friend and colleague Patricia Damery, wonders, in her beautiful paper: “Can we still experience the divinity in the natural world?” My friend and fellow board member, Gilda Franz, who introduces this issue, writes: “The unconscious is part of nature and can guide us to protect it.” I hope you’ll read this essential publication, available from Taylor & Francis.

The Little House on Stilts Remembers back cover - author photo by Nora Lowinsky

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The River Muse

High in the night sky your bright boat
hung like a smile. I saw your reflection
shimmer in the river…

from “The Needle and the Thread” in Dark Healing (p. 94)

On the Big Rivers

In the spring of 1962 Richard Messer was living in Boulder Colorado. He was in Graduate School studying English Literature, and engaged to be married to Gloria. His Wyoming buddy, Jerry Deacon Sanders, proposed a river trip, down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, paddling a canoe. For Richard, better known as Rich, this was a “no–brainer,” even though the trip was 3,800 miles, even though no one had done it before in a canoe, even though Gloria wondered if she’d be “demurely waiting” when he returned.

More than fifty years later, Rich, with the help of his buddy Jerry, better known as Deacon, wrote a book about that journey: On the Big Rivers: From Three Forks, Montana to New Orleans, Louisiana. Dan and I have both read it. It’s a page–turner, a soul stirrer, an American Odyssey haunted by Huck Finn and Jim, by the painful histories of Indian tribes and slavery, a buddy story, an initiation saga. Dan loves history. I love psyche. We both felt nourished by this wise and compelling story.

Rich, now in his seventies, is a poet whose work I love. He and I are poetry buddies by e-mail; we show each other drafts of our work. Rich has a strong background in Jungian psychology and his writing shows it. This trope of the river is of course both literal and symbolic. Reflecting on one’s young self in the context of a river journey is a way of coming to terms with one’s life journey, and in the case of this book, with our country’s journey.

Missouri River

To Stumble After Vanishings 
Isn’t the soul always back there, fumbling
with old photographs, going down worn paths
that lead to weedy vacant lots? It doesn’t do any good
to stumble after these vanishings—yet I do…
never mind my bruised knees and the cobwebs across my face.
I have to know: have I spent my life trying to wake up?
Or go to sleep?

“Trying to Get Home” in Dark Healing (pp. 65-6)
Part of the task of aging is to “fumble through old photographs,” trying to make sense of what our life has been about. On the Big Rivers is, among many other things, an initiation saga about two soulful, adventurous and/or foolhardy young men, as seen from the mountain peak of late life. They were initiated by the powers of the river gods, by wind, by dams that weren’t supposed to be there, by sudden storms that almost did them in. They were humbled and made wiser by the unknown and the unexpected, by “sheer drudgery and dismal hardship” (p. 63) and by the fortuitous kindness of strangers.

Carrying the Queen

Here are some glimpses of their ordeal from a section Rich calls “Initiation:”
The wind…turned vicious, ripping at us full blast…There was no sky, only massive low clouds and horizontal rain and whipping wind. The waves, driven from the distant shore…mounted quickly to four and five feet high…The piney shore looked as if it were receding into the small end of a telescope. 
Jerry yelled a string of obscenities and we both pitched into our paddling in deadly earnest… 
My lungs were on fire and my heart was pounding harder than it ever had. To quit paddling was not an option…
We were just beginning to understand why the Missouri is called, Ol’ Misery. (pp. 13-15)
Initiation, from the Jungian point of view, serves the function of transformation of the individual so that he or she may function at a higher level of consciousness. The water initiation, as distinguished from the fiery initiation, is, according to my reference book, Archetypal Symbolism, about renewal within the earthly context. It is about the necessary loss of innocence that prepares one for reality. Deacon and Rich lost many kinds of innocence on this journey—their innocence about nature and the river, their innocence about their own nature and that of others, their innocence about fate, their innocence about the nature of America.

Rich’s optimism gets sorely tested:
Ever optimistic, I had reckoned that most of the water in the heavens had already been dumped on us. It couldn’t get any worse. But it did. (pp. 73-4)
His endurance gets sorely tested:
…enduring mid–point blues, also known as “halfway–there–let–down”…We had been on the river for fifty days and nights and we were worn down…threadbare of spirit. (p. 90)
Weather is a dominatrix:
On the water in a canoe you are at the mercy of the weather; it plays with you, dominates you. The wind…is always poised to spring some new attack on you…It seems like a trickster spirit…allows you a day, or even tow, of fair passage. Then sneers and pummels you with six kinds of misery… (p. 68)

Fate is a trickster. They learn, the hard way, that “luck is nothing if not fickle.” (p. 112) Their canoe, the Afrigin Queen, with its droll nod to Bogart and Hepburn, disappears one Sunday in June. Deacon has a theory:
See how red and muddy the water is—and all these god damn sticks and crap along the bank?… When we pulled in none of this shit was here. A cloud burst must have hit back in the hills during the night…Christ, the water level is up by at least two feet—so the canoe just decided to float right up and take off downstream. Son of a bitch.” (p. 51)
They learn about Fate’s beneficent side, “otherwise known as the kindness of strangers.” (p. 91) A kind stranger helped them find their canoe, kind strangers helped them throughout their ordeal.

Deacon and Rich lose their innocence about America as they travel down the Mississippi in the South, stopping to eat at the Riverside Café in Vicksburg:
It was a little Greek place, a diner….Approaching it, I noticed there were two doors to the place, but made nothing of it. We stepped through the right hand door, and I came to a sudden halt…Before me at the counter sat only black diners who turned and stated. I stared back. Then one of the black men motioned us across to the other door. We had entered the “Colored” section of the café… 
On that September day in 1962, Jim Crow was alive and well. 
…[We] were shocked and left feeling threatened. The dehumanizing and pernicious nature of what we had just witnessed couldn’t have been made any clearer… 
I was a tourist in the land of racism. (pp. 154-5)

They paddle through reservation country, the Sioux and Assiniboine peoples, “the ninth largest reservation in the United States.” When Rich walks into town for supplies, an Indian in a pickup gives him a ride. The men in the back share their beers with him, tell him he looks like “Nature Man.” He knows his appearance is unkempt and wild, and takes their remark as a compliment. (pp. 69-70)

“Sitting in the bow of the Queen, paddling for hours on end,” (p. 89) Rich ruminates about Lewis and Clark, about Sakakawea, the mythic Indian woman who guided them though she was sick and pregnant during the journey.

As they paddle into the lower Missouri and the Mississippi they begin to be disturbed by the environmental degradation they see. Rich quotes the Earth Day website to describe what they saw:
At the time, Americans were slurping leaded gas through massive V8 sedans. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of legal consequences or bad pres. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. (p. 98)
Rich writes of his “simmering resentment for the ‘Dump it in the river and forget it’ attitude.”

But despite all the difficulties, despite swarms of mosquitoes, which Deacon dubs wickerbills, despite quicksand, a lost canoe, sudden storms, environmental degradation, the intimidation of the tiny Queen by great seafaring vessels on the river, despite losing the hat Gloria had sent him, worrying about how she was doing and if he really wanted to tie the knot, Rich and Deacon came through their ordeal, changed men, matured, deepened, sadder and wiser. Rich writes: “I was not the man Gloria had waved goodbye to.” (p. 169) Dear reader, you will be happy to know that Deacon was the best man at Rich and Gloria’s wedding.

In Memoriam Jerry Deacon Sanders
Who was the first Neanderthal to scatter
flower petals on a grave? Memorialized
in that moment, love entered the world.

“Excavations” in Dark Healing, (p. 9)
Deacon died on this past June 5th. Dan and I both felt his passing as a personal loss. We feel we know him, because Rich relied on quotations from the Deacon’s journals to fill in context and feeling in his book. They make vivid that long ago river journey. Deacon was a great spirit and Rich has given us the gift of knowing him. Deacon took the lead in the original journey. Rich took the lead in gathering their river stories much of a lifetime later. Among many other things On the Big Rivers is a buddy saga. Deacon is the planner, the one with the maps. Rich is the feeler, the worrier. Rich writes: “He didn’t have to tell me his plan. We had been together twenty–four hours a day for weeks and I knew what he was thinking…” (p. 51) And yet their roles were fluid. “We kept getting confused,” writes Rich, “about who was Huck and who was Jim.” (p. 114) For this city girl their adventures were astounding, wild, often foolhardy. And yet they seem exactly right in the light of this late life retelling. Toward the end of his story Rich writes:
Surely, the voyage wouldn’t have meant as much if we didn’t do it the old–fashioned, Huck Finn way. More than once I repeated that to myself. (p. 151)
The Huck Finn way. That about says it. It names the integrity of a ritual that stems from the depths of the American cultural unconscious, a powerful ritual informed by Mark Twain, American Indian tribes, Lewis and Clark, segregation, the wilds of the natural world and of fate, providing two young men with the lived experience of becoming themselves in an initiation by river and by storm.

Rest in peace, Jerry. You get the last word, from your journal of July 10th, 1962:
It must have been about noon. Rich and I were in no hurry. We drifted through some deep green cold water…Slow current, there were many white sandbars there. The river banks were covered with heavy undergrowth, the draws filled with choke cherry trees, junipers, lots of berries to eat, bramble patches; the bottoms along the river were weedy, with tall cottonwoods and sandy shallows… 
I am beginning to solidly enjoy this type of life—except for the wickerbills. We went into the little village of Washburn, S. D. Giggling waitresses. Black label beer, people on street eyeing us, suspicious of two bearded, shabby, river rats, wearing cardboard nose shields.
Then we floated two and a half hours. Drank & sang. Rich jumped overboard and right back in boat. Water still cold. Saw badger coming down for a drink—couldn’t get a picture. (pp. 77-78)

Check out Richard Messer’s blog:

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Muse of Photos

Nora Lowinsky, photographer

The creative urge lives and grows…like a tree in the earth…
—C.G. Jung

Brooke Through Leaves

Turning a Passion into a Craft

I have often mused about my niece, Nora, what might she become? The fairies gave her many gifts and blessings as they gathered round her cradle: a vigorous mind, a fierce spirit, resilience, courage, entrepreneurial instincts, beauty, imagination, style, perseverance, wisdom beyond her years, a feeling for the mysteries and a fine eye for the image. As I watched her graduate from Berkeley—my alma mater—as I listened to her professors in the English Department—my major so many years ago—as I danced at her wedding to her wonderful young man, Sean, I mused what her direction might turn out to be.

No ketchup in Antwerp (Sean)

Nora, to my delight and my concern, has chosen the artist’s way—she is following her retro Muse, photography, the old fashioned way—using film. She is particularly passionate about shooting with black and white film. Though I can imagine all her gifts cohering around that art form, I’m well acquainted with the difficulties of choosing the way of one’s Muse—how to earn a living, how to get visibility, the highs and lows of inspiration and wrestling with one’s art to get it close to what the Muse demands. I’m also well acquainted with how alive with meaning and with joy such a path can be.

Here’s what Nora says about her choice:
I have always been a documentarian, using disposable film cameras, my phone and small digital cameras to track my every day life. So, I decided to pick up my film camera and pursue photography professionally because I had the tool in my hands, literally. I was gifted a Contax T3 by my husband and mom in law for graduation. So, I took a passion and turned it into a craft. I learned the basic functions of the manual camera by trial and error. I took classes in developing film to learn the lost art of processing and making my own archival photographic prints.
I Like the Shy One
I consciously chose analog photography over digital not only because there is a lost art to the medium, but there is also a sense of mystery and intention to film photography. As a film photographer, since it is so costly to buy film and process it, you do not click away as freely as you might with a digital camera. The evolution of camera technology forces film photographers to be more conscientious clickers and to view it possibly as more of an artistic endeavor. That's not to say that digital photography is any less art to me—I’m no purist. The mystery element to film photography really appeals to me. Mistakes while shooting and developing can help to create one’sartistic identity. 
I also like the concept of time loss in waiting for film. I view it as time gain. We live in a world of everything being accessible instantaneously— for example, if we have a question at the dinner table, we just google the answer. I like that with film photography there is quiet. There is not an easy, instant answer. I feel connected to my spiritual self when I detach from the now and take that time to process film. It's time I have to process my self too.

A Sense of Timelessness

Some months ago Nora asked me whether I’d be her subject in a photo shoot. She wanted to make images for her portfolio. I was flattered and intrigued. I’d been wanting a new “author photo” that reflects the environmental concerns that have become central to my writing. “Let’s do it outdoors,” said Nora. “Any ideas where?” The Berkeley Rose Garden leapt to mind. It is sacred ground in my childhood landscape. When my family moved to Berkeley in 1957 we lived for a year on Shasta Rd. Every weekday morning, in those much safer days, I’d walk down the Rose Steps, through the Rose Garden, past the tennis courts on my way to Garfield Junior High School—now Martin Luther King Middle School. I loved bringing Nora into that enchanted place. It has not changed very much in the almost sixty years since.

I remember the iconic view from the top, of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, before one descends stone steps, down the semi–circular swoops of thousands of rose bushes, down, down to a bridge over a little stream. There is bird song, there are butterflies, dragon flies, dancing light. The roses have surprising names: Knock Out, Jacques Cartier, Imposter, Rio Bamba, Las Vegas, Liverpool Echo, Sexy Rexy, California Dreamin.’

Lost Among Roses

What I hadn’t remembered—I probably never explored it—was the great forest of ancient oaks and pines to the left of the garden. They, of course, were almost sixty years younger as I made my descent at age 13. Nora began clicking away. I could feel her excitement and delight. We spent some time with the roses, but it was the trees that called us both.

Amazed by Trees

These photos are like poems—they say the unsayable, express the ineffable, transport us to some other realm that is at once familiar and uncanny. Nora says of shooting in Black and White:
What is not to love about black and white photography? Through B&W photography, we can look at the world and imagine it has not changed—that some basic humanity will remain or even pre-humanity. Time has stopped in a B&W photograph. B&W is also just so elegant. I am actually a lover of color film photography, but if you are a beginner, as I am, black and white leaves room for error. I do not feel that way about color film photography. I think it is much harder to get the results you intend and if not, frankly, it can look amateur. Black and white photography is the best filter in existence.
Over Arched by Trees

How does one take photos of an inner world? Nora did—mine. I had just been working on revising a collection of my essays for a book to be called The Rabbi, The Goddess, and Jung. I’d been thinking about the theme of trees that dances through many of those essays, from the “Lady Tree” of the first chapter, an image I drew as a child, which foresaw the meaning of trees in my inner world, to the magical trees in an Indian folktale to the Tree of Life in the Kabbalah. Among the Celts a poet, says Robert Graves, was an “oak–seer.” That afternoon in the forest of the Rose Garden, the phrase describes both Nora and me.

The Mystery of Trees

To quote myself from Chapter Two, “Of Magical Maidens and Trees:” Trees connect us to what is below, in the dark, in the underworld, in the groundwater, in the mulch and the minerals, and to what is above, in the heavens, in the winds, in the night skies. Trees transform our exhalations, our used air, into fresh air. Trees sanctify and beautify our worlds, harbor birds and squirrels, feed us their fruit, offer us their flowers to wear in our hair.


Rooted by Trees

Jung writes: “As the seat of transformation and renewal, the tree has a feminine and maternal significance.” Nora tells me her favorite subject is Woman/Nature. Her photos tell the deep story of how trees root us in our ancient nature, how they orient us to the three worlds: the underworld, the world of life on earth, the sky world. In the above photo I see the enormous power of the tree roots gathered in family—a circle of kin and mutuality—which, in a way is what this blog is about. My face pops up like a mushroom toward the bottom—a small, incidental human in the great life of trees. Nora’s photos play an ancient melody, a variation on the one played in Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” an instrument, we are told by the daughter of the Queen of Night, which was cut by her father from “the deepest roots of a thousand year old oak.”

I’m reminded of another version of this theme: the powerful presence of trees in Antonioni’s great film “Blow Up.” When Nora was at Berkeley she took a number of classes in film. Dan and I loved talking to her about them. Inspired by her we watched many of the great Italian classics, including “Blow Up.” What has stayed with me is the shivering intensity of leaves and the light in the trees. They seem to be characters in the drama, about a photographer who shoots in black and white and may or may not have shot an image of the murderer’s gun as it poked out of the foliage.

The mystery that Nora caught in black and white is not a crime mystery; it is a spiritual mystery. It is the mystery that spoke through Hildegard of Bingen when she married two words— “green” and “truth,” coining the word “veriditas” to describe the moment God heals you with a plant. It is the mystery that spoke through me when I was eight years old and drew My Lady Tree with crayons. It’s no surprise this mystery speaks through Nora. I remember visiting her and her family on the East Coast when she was five. She and I had a long animated conversation about witches and ghosts. She knew even then, that witches could understand other realities, and that spirits visited the living who believed in them. Here is the author photo she took of me:

Author Photo

Nora Lowinsky, Photographer.

You can see more of Nora’s work on her website and on instagram:

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Muse of Synchronicity: Part IV

History is a ghost story. We tell it to each other around the fire. It scares us.
—Naomi Ruth Lowinsky

The Kinship Web of Footnotes
I’ll gather you from millions of refugees
from hunger and thirst from the damp of cries
and the stink of tolerated grief…
because you have to see differently…
this continent drifting like a big black plundered heart on the globe…

—Antjie Krog
The Muse of Synchronicity gathers disparate elements, strikes them together like a musical instrument, ringing meaning and recognition. This is happening to me yet again as I gather essays I’ve written over the last fifteen years for a book I propose to call The Rabbi, The Goddess and Jung: Getting the Word from Within. I find myself musing about re–vision—seeing again. When I see again what I saw years ago, when I revisit an earlier self, I am always amazed at how constant my themes have been; how many variations they’ve found. A central theme for me is intergenerational trauma—how the unbearable gets transmitted. Working on a chapter called “History is a Ghost Story: Reflections on South Africa, Collective Trauma and the Uses of Poetry,” I am moved, of all things, by the footnotes.

Those who know me know I’m no detail girl. I dread the footnote task—all that sensate fussiness. But in this work of gathering my writings I realize the footnotes are a web of kinship—the living and the dead who have informed my work and guided my understanding form a web of connections that hold me. I’m surprised at the joy I feel as familiar books pulled from my shelves pile up on my floor as I check text and page numbers for beloved passages, such as:
The day for which we had waited all these many long years, the day for which the struggle against apartheid had been waged, for which so many of our people had been tear gassed, bitten by police dogs, struck with quirts and batons, for which many more had been detained, tortured and banned, for which others had gone into exile—the day had finally dawned when we...could vote for first time...I was sixty-two years old before I could vote. Nelson Mandela was seventy-six....

Those are the words of Desmond Tutu, on page 3 of his soul–stirring book, No Future Without Forgiveness. Makes me cry each time I revisit it. I am surprised at my intensity of feeling as I read what I wrote about a trip many of us Jungians made to South Africa, for the International Conference in Cape Town, in 2007. It stands out in my heart as the most powerful conference I’ve attended. We were privileged to hear speakers who had themselves been engaged in the fight against Apartheid, who had witnessed the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Mamphele Ramphele

We heard Mamphele Ramphele—a tall elegant woman aglow in a red dress and shawl, who embodies South African history. In her youth, she and her lover, Stephen Biko, were among the founders of the Black Consciousness movement of the 70s. Biko was brutally murdered by the apartheid police. Ramphele went on to become a Managing Director of the World Bank. We heard the clinical psychologist Pumla Gobodo–Madikizela, who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, speak to us about the psychology of forgiveness. Her book, A Human Being Died That Night: A Story of Forgiveness, is one of many on my floor. It documents her psychologically penetrating conversations with a prisoner, Eugene de Kock, who was the perpetrator of many atrocities during the apartheid years and who testified to the Commission.

Also on my floor is Body Bereft, a book of amazing poems by Antjie Krog, the Afrikans poet and journalist. So is her profound non-fiction account of her experience covering the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, Country of My Skull, a book that is so forthright about the country’s suffering and her own that it is hard to read. She confronts her background as an Afrikaner, and as a poet writing in Afrikans: “How do I live with the fact that all the words used to humiliate, all the orders given to kill, belonged to the language of my heart?” This is a poet’s cry for the beloved language. I have read and admired Krog’s work for years, moved by her ability to voice the South African experience from the inside out, as only a poet can. I not only heard her speak in Cape Town, but ran into her in person. We talked poetry for a few minutes and I worked up my courage to hand her a book of my poems, which she graciously received.

The Word from the Times
To experience empathy for someone who has committed terrible acts against other human beings…puts one in a strangely compelling and confusing relationship with the perpetrator.
—Pumla Gobodo–Madikizela
The ghost in my essay is that of my father, a refugee from the Shoah. In life he was constantly scanning the horizon for the next Hitler. My father loved his New York Times—read it every day. He often wrote outraged letters to the editor about some injustice that enflamed him. Sometimes his letters got published. Then everyone in the family would receive a proud note in his angular hand, clipped to a Xerox of his printed letter. My father would be pleased that it was the Sunday New York Times which rang the bells of synchronicity so loudly for me on the Ides of March. There, in the Sunday Review, was an opinion piece by Antjie Krog about precisely what my essay struggles with—the problem of evil and forgiveness. She writes about the very same Eugene de Kock who is the subject of Gobodo-Malikezela’s book on my floor, the one who led an apartheid era death squad, a truly evil man, who in the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission became a much more complicated figure. The catalyst for Krog’s piece is that he has just been paroled after twenty years in prison. Krog writes:
As a reporter covering the often heart–rending hearings in the 1990s, I watched de Kock calmly correct facts, expose lies and name superiors who then quickly had to apply for amnesty themselves. He became the polygraph machine of the commission. Without him the “truth” part of the T.R.C. would have been sorely lacking… 
With his intimate knowledge of apartheid–era security agencies, he began to assist victims in finding the remains of loved ones. He provided answers and pointed to the places where bodies could be found. Mr. de Kock openly confessed his regret directly to victims and admitted that nothing could redeem him.
Pumla Gobodo–Madikizela

Reading this sent me back to the Jungian Conference in Cape Town, 2007 and my essay. Pumla Gobodo–Madikizela is speaking to the assemblage. She describes a scene in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s proceedings:
She spoke to us of the psychology of forgiveness. How does one who had a husband, son, grandson stolen from her, tortured and murdered in the most unbearable ways, look into the eyes of the one who did this, see his humanity? How does the one who perpetrated such a horror, look into the eyes of the victim, see her humanity, the preciousness of the life that was taken, and truly say—“I’m sorry.” When this happens, she told us, his humanity is returned to him, hers to her. 
She told us the story of an Askari—a former black guerilla recruited by the Apartheid security forces—asking forgiveness of the mothers of men he’d killed. In Xhosa he said: ”Forgive me my parents.” Pumla kept repeating the Xhosa phrase, with its click, telling us it was much more powerful than the translation. It seemed to center us—that clicking phrase, with its deep sobbing power. One of the Mothers replied, “My son, I forgive you.” We were all a watery mass of tears. 
She described how a perpetrator could become human in the process of seeing the humanity of the other. And we, who see them as monsters, begin to see them as human, when we hear their stories and their remorse.
This is too much for the ghost of my father. I wrote:
Should we cultivate empathy for the guards at Bergen–Belsen who tortured his sister Ljuba, who starved her, froze her, chopped off her toes with an axe? The Jews had already been much reproached for going passively to their deaths, for not fighting. Now they were supposed to imagine the lives and struggles of their torturers, their murderers?… My father is off and running. He is giving his familiar lecture about the Jews’ great contribution to history—the concept of justice. How can there be justice, demands the spirit of my father, when murderers are forgiven, when there aren’t real consequences for unforgivable actions, because some soft old women are afraid to stand up for truth and justice?
I am, of course, furious with the ghost of my father for disrespecting these women and their world view—Ubuntu—which, according to Bishop Tutu, means “A person is a person through other persons.”

Word from the Phantom
…the processes that make some human beings invisible to others are
themselves invisible.

—Sam Kimbles
The synchronicity bell is tolling again. I find myself reaching for a new book, just published, my friend and colleague Sam Kimbles’ book Phantom Narratives. I remember hearing Sam give a paper at the Cape Town Conference in which he began to articulate the ideas that form his new work—an important contribution to Jungian thought. He has expanded his concept of the cultural complex to include “intergenerational processes…[that] manifest as phantom narratives…[and] provide structure, representation, and continuity for unresolved or unworked-through grief and violence that occurred in a previous cultural context..." He describes phantom narratives as “the absent presence of a moving and dead history simultaneously…a closeness to a cultural trauma that is not experienced or acknowledged…”

The ghost of my father is the poster child for how the phantom narrative works in me—a kind of automatic response like reaching for the light switch where it was located in a home you left years ago. A phantom narrative then, organizes experience, is a template—my father scanning the horizon for the next Hitler. It allows nothing new, like the concept of Ubuntu, into its fortifications.

The Sunday Review for the Ides of March offers yet another amplification of this issue. In an opinion piece by Edward Ball, whose slaveholding ancestors owned a rice plantation in South Carolina, called Limerick, he imagines the scene on the day, 150 years ago, that the slaves were freed. His great–great–grandfather, William Ball, “sat in the dining room, reading from the book of Lamentations.” Meanwhile, in the black village, the freed slaves “danced and sang, while others fell to their knees and prayed.” That was a long time ago. But as Ball points out, not that much has changed.
If by some method of time travel the former slaves and slaveholders of Limerick plantation could be brought face to face with us, they would not find our world entirely alien. In place of the rural incarceration of four million black people we have the mass incarceration of one million black men. In place of laws that prohibit black literacy throughout the South, we have campaigns by Tea Party and anti–tax fanatics to defund public schools, to defund public schools within certain ZIP codes. And we have stop–and–search policing, and frequently much worse, in place of the slave patrols.
The “much worse,” of course, is the epidemic of unarmed black men shot by police that has finally reached our collective consciousness, pierced the dominant phantom narrative that keeps us from seeing the terrible truth that racism is alive and well, despite the fact that we have a black President.

And yet, maybe that is exactly the point, our consciousness about the invisibility of black lives is being raised. The great–great–grandson of slaveholders is a man with the kind of courage Antjie Krog displays—naming the inhumanities perpetrated by his own people, taking moral responsibility in the New York Times on the Ides of March.

During our time in Africa, Dan and I traveled to Botswana to see wildlife. We had a wonderful experience with elephants, which taught me about Ubuntu. It turned into a poem:

umuntu ngumuntu ngabantua
person is a person because of other people

—African saying
We are a many headed land cruising
Toyota machine—a creature agog

with zoom lenses.  One of us sees her—
the elephant child— playing alone in the water.

“Is she alright?”    “Can we get closer?”   “Where
is her mother?”   From behind

and around a sudden throng-—
grandmothers   aunts   baby cousins

her mother   lumber across the road
to save her from whatever

threat we might be.   Their mission
dissolves into play; they spray

water on each other; they wallow; they throw mud
we watch

as they rise dark and glistening
in the late afternoon light.

The little one approaches
our Toyota, holds up her sensitive trunk.

She is trying to figure us out.
We are trying to figure her out.    Is she

a problem child, a soon to be leader
the future shaman of her clan?   Her mother

has had enough of her shenanigans
herds her in close, as the sun begins to set

over the Chobe River Valley
they stand touching—

the big one
the little one

encircled by kin—
we understand—

an elephant is an elephant
because of other elephants.

           (first published in Quiddity)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Muse of Synchronicity: Part III

We are all shape–shifters, but through your words we became human.
—Judy Wells, The Glass Ship

Mother of Pink Flamingos

It’s hard to be a palomino with a pole stuck in your back.
—Judy Wells, The Glass Ship

Judy Wells
Judy Wells made a synchronistic appearance in Part I of this blog, when, lonely for companions in Poetry Land I wandered into a poetry reading where I thought I’d know no one. Judy, the featured reader, reminded me that we had an old connection—we had been in a consciousness–raising group together in the late ‘60s. Since hearing her funny provocative poetry that night—a lapsed Catholic’s thrust and parry at the nuns, the pieties, the absurdities of a Catholic education—I have loved her wit and exuberance. But the wind chimes of synchronicity really began pealing as I immersed myself in her latest book of poems, The Glass Ship.

We poets often feel we travel alone. But in the realm of the old souls, where, to borrow Richard Messer’s eloquence, we are “one in the heart’s core,” we are companions. Judy Wells has been bitten by many of the same obsessions that possess me—the journey to other worlds, the visionary energy of what Robert Bly calls “leaping poetry,” the power of combining personal story and myth. Both of us have been possessed by a medieval tale, me, the tale of negotiating with the devil, Judy the Celtic immrama—tales of voyages to other–world islands. Both of us retell the story with a female protagonist.

Ancient Map with Sea Monsters

Judy uses the prose poem throughout this saga. It is a marvelous vehicle for telling marvels. Robert Bly says it well: “The urgent, alert rhythm of the prose poem prepares us to journey, to cross the border, either of the other world or to that place where the animal lives.” Judy does both at the same time. Here’s how she sets her story up: “A magnificent sailing ship made completely of glass” which reflects “rainbow lights like a crystal” bears down on our hero’s small boat. She sees a young couple dancing on the deck and recognizes her own parents. They don’t recognize her, however. Why?
I had not yet been born. Here were my parents deeply in love before they were married, before the four children began to come, before the toil of creating a home.

Our adventurer has clearly chosen a different life. She’s off to the Island of Pink Flamingos where she meets seventeen beautiful young women in “the shadow of a huge hibiscus tree. They wore glittery silver tops and long black skirts. They were barefoot, but their toenails were painted a glittery silver, as were their fingernails.” Color is essential in this tale, as is the number seventeen. They greet her, “Welcome, Mother.” She protests that she’s not their mother. They insist she is. “But how” she wonders. “I don’t remember ever giving birth."

Once upon a time, the young women tell her, she was the Queen of this island. She transformed them all from other shapes—butterfly, cat, flamingo—by making poems. Poetry made them human. Here we touch the realm of the White Goddess, in which poetry is magic. But our hero does not take herself so seriously. She’s on to other adventures, which is fine with her daughters who “don’t need a Queen to boss” them around, but love her anyway.

Our sailor girl shifts archetypal shapes frequently. Sometimes she is a hero, as when she releases fifty palominos from their bondage to the Purple Carousel. She follows the instructions of her carousel steed, who complains to her: “It’s hard to be a palomino with a pole stuck in your back. Every day, I pray the dwarf will release me…” He instructs her to steal the black key and the gold key from the dwarf’s shoes. The dwarf mutters, “So that’s why my feet hurt all these years.” There’s always an unexpected turn in these prose poems that brings us back from the land of faerie to the comic and human. She is a happy hero as she watches “fifty golden palominos racing down the beach into the waves.”

Sometimes she’s a fool, as when, on the Isle of Black and White Sheep an ancient couple promises to tell her the secret of immortality if she can achieve a simple task—“put one white sheep in the black flock and one black sheep in the white flock.” But this is a slippery realm we are in. The white sheep she lugs over the central wall turns black as it joins the black herd. And vice versa. No secret of immortality is revealed to this fool.

Ancient Hide Boat or Coracle

Our adventurer reveals that she is a compulsive gambler. She finds herself on the Island of Card Players with three poker playing chimps, “one in a black bowler hat, another in a white fedora, the third in a red beret.” She has “never played poker with a worse group of companions.” She thinks she’s winning big time, because these chimps have “no sense of a poker face.” But the chimps are savvy tricksters, and though she wins she loses.

Our voyaging poet’s trickster humor is constantly pulling the rug out from under our expectations, playing jokes on the reader. Playing with our natural associations to Homer’s Odyssey our sea captain embarks on a voyage to tell off Odysseus. She has planned out her speech, which she knows is not very diplomatic, but “some people just need a kick in the pants.”
Look Odysseus, you’ve spend ten years at war already. Stop procrastinating and go home.Telemachus might be begging for a little brother or sister. [Penelope] might even be in menopause if you spend ten years dilly–dallying around with nymphs, princesses and witches. Or worse, Penelope might just scoop up Telemachus and set sail on her own adventures instead of waiting for you, the bow–legged wonder.
So the adventurer who has rejected the domestic, can speak for the domestic. The liberated poet can liberate Penelope—that queen of domesticity—with a swift leap of her imagination. There’s a kick in the pants for Odysseus. But not so fast. It’s the reader eager for the pleasure of this come–uppance who gets the kick. For the “man with brawny forearms” our voyaging poet spots, “releasing a mound of sails into his boat,” is not Homer’s hero. He is Popeye the sailor man.

There is a delightful iconoclastic bent in such rapid shifts from Homer to twentieth century popular culture to Celtic myth to the poet’s wild imaginings. For a moment we are encouraged to believe we are in the world of epic. But no, we are in a ribald, comic world and our poet has tricked us again.

In another adventure our poet reveals her lust. When she rescues a beautiful young man who is lost at sea, she confesses “an urge to bend down and kiss him…I am a woman after all, at sea for too many months without a man.” In one of the many shape–shifts in this tale, that delight our imagination, the handsome sailor is transformed into a giant bird who announces:
My name is Sweeney…and I am an eagle, a rare, proud species. I have heard of an island in these parts inhabited by seventeen beautiful young women. My destiny is to fly to this island, court one of these women, and marry her. Thank you for saving me from the sea so I could fulfill my destiny.
“Sweet” our sea captain thinks, “I’m going to be the mother–in–law of an eagle. And so it will come to pass.

The Secret of Immortality

My boat awaited me, my pen, my red book.
—Judy Wells, The Glass Ship

But not so fast. We are not yet ready for the wedding. First we must visit the land of the dead. Despite herself, our poet has a profound psychological vision for her voyaging craft. Like the poets of the Celtic immrana from whom she is descended, her purpose is to “teach the craft of dying and to pilot the departing spirit on a sea of perils and wonders.”

Sea-faring Map of Old Ireland

We find ourselves on the Island of Joe where our hero meets her old friend Joe “reading a book, with a crimson bird feather cape around his shoulders.” The book is the story of his life, which he has written. He reads to her from his concluding chapter:
I was in the desert, lying on a stone slab, emaciated, ready to die. I felt myself taking my last breath—and then silence, stillness. My spirit arose, a great crimson bid in the sky, and looked down on my withered body, now attracting dark–winged scavengers of the desert. Then my spirit soared to this island, where the crimson bird gave me back my body and sacrificed its own. I plucked its carcass carefully and created my feathered roof and my wonderful red–feathered cape. 
                                                                                           I am at home here.
Is it possible we fools, who are all of course, on a voyage to death, are being initiated into the secret of immortality after all? Joe closes his book, smiles and says, “And now you must write your story?” Are we reading the product of that wisdom from the dear departed? The Glass Ship is the poet’s immortality?

But not so fast. We know by now that our trickster poet will not allow us so sanguine a vision for long. For now we have voyaged to the Island of Ash where we meet Joe again, and our poet’s other recently departed friend Rose. “‘Time’s up for me says Joe,’” and we watch in dismay as his body begins “crumbling into ash…Finally only his head remained, covered/with a battered straw hat.”
Rose still sat on the surface of the mountain of ash. “You meet the most interesting people here,” she said, “but they always tend to disappear.” As she spoke, her body began to fade as if a brilliant red rose gradually turned light pink, then invisible. 
I felt a great emptiness in my soul as my friends disappeared. Retreating to my boat I lay down and drifted out to sea. A mysterious voice whispered…Go carry the living
And so she does.
Mother–in–law of an Eagle

One shape shifting must be paid for by another.
—Judy Wells, The Glass Ship

The wedding at the end of our tale—as in most good comedies—gathers the dramatis personae, human and animal, dead and living, our adventurer met as she wandered other worlds. And, as it happens in faerie tales, our hero has a difficult task to perform. The Mother of Pink Flamingoes must compose a poem that will break the spell that has turned her beautiful daughter, the bride, into a pink flamingo. This daughter, who was enamored of Sweeney’s beautiful body as she watched him cast off his bird feathers and become a man, when he came to her island to court her, and who was so fascinated by that magical protuberance between his legs, is anxious to get on with the ceremony. She says: “The wedding feast is all prepared, the guests have arrived, and Sweeney, my intended, is growing impatient. O Mother, I beg you to compose the poem that will break the spell of my bird–body.”

Our poet, who never signed up for the role of mother, turns into a mother. Concerned at the anguish in her daughter’s voice, she strokes her pink feathers. “I lay awake half the night wracking my brains for a poem and could only come up with two pitiful stanzas.” What poet hasn’t spent a night like that, especially when so much rides on a poem.

Her poem asserts, “human flesh is best,” though “I myself was not sure of this. Perhaps being able to fly with one’s own wings is exchange enough for the wild imagination we humans have been given.” Her words do the trick—the spell is broken. Her daughter is released to be the bride, the sacred triple bride of Celtic lore—maiden, mother, crone—is consecrated. All is well with the world, no? Not so fast. Our mother of the bride notices “tiny feathers poking from my flesh…” and realizes, “one shape–shifting must be paid for by another.”

So Judy Wells, my long ago companion in the wild adventure of Women’s Liberation, who sat with me and others in a consciousness raising group that blew off the top of our heads and transformed us all, has charmed, enchanted, made me laugh out loud with her saga. We, who were palominos with poles stuck in our backs, going up and down on the carousel of the conventional female roles we were born into, have been freed to run into the waves. We, who are on a voyage to our deaths, have been taught in the Celtic tradition, by a wise, and wisecracking bard.