Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Muse of Endurance

The Poetry of Resistance V

Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the
—Gwendolyn Brooks
“The Second Sermon on the Warpland”

Bear's Ears

Living in the Warpland
all about are the pushmen and jeapardy, theft—
all about are the stormers and scramblers but
what must our Season be, which starts from Fear?

          —Gwendolyn Brooks
          “The Second Sermon on the Warpland”

Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz
We live in a strange dissociated time, in a warped land. We’ve spent a year in fear—demonstrating, raging at the TV, looking for saviors. I see none on the horizon. We’ve had some victories, in Virginia and in Alabama. The Russia Investigation grinds on. But we’ve had to watch so much we value slashed, decimated—Bear’s Ears, The Arctic National Refuge, Obamacare, DACA, Civil Rights, abortion rights, the Paris Climate agreement. We’ve seen extreme weather events. Texas has never seen as much rain as Harvey dumped on it. California has never seen a wildfire as huge and unstoppable as the Thomas fire in Ventura. The coast of Louisiana is washing away. Puerto Rico suffered two hurricanes in a row—Irma and Maria—which knocked out the power grid for months. Hospitals couldn’t function, water and food was scarce. Pleas for help from Puerto Rican officials like Carmen Yulín Cruz—the feisty mayor of San Juan—were met with disdain and insults by our berserker president, throwing paper towels and blaming the people of the island for their troubles. Cruz responded: “You can’t handle the truth.”

The truth is—the intensity of these catastrophes is symptomatic of climate change; we can expect more. The truth is—he whom we prefer not to name is a master of hocus-pocus and deceit. He manipulates the news with incessant provocative tweeting, causing political storms and wildfires as he shamelessly exults in public about how rich the Wall Street tax cut will make his cronies, and of course, himself. We are at risk for burning ourselves out with outrage. The greed that stalks the land is mind boggling. What has become of caring for the poor, the homeless, the sick, the stranger? What has become of Dr. King’s arc toward justice? What about our souls?

In this dark time of the year I see a sea change in myself and in those I know. We are withdrawing into ourselves, connecting with our deep roots, our souls—not in defeat—but in order to endure. We are remembering how essential it is to tend our intimate lives, our families, our friends and our dreams. Dan and I take walks, watch “Stranger Things,” see children and grandchildren, make soup with root vegetables. Dan spends time texting “Rapid Resist” messages to organize the resistance. I spend time reading, writing and teaching “poems of resistance.” But I can feel how the center of our lives has dropped down to the vital and the eternal, far below the “noise and whip of the whirlwind.”

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks is good medicine right about now. Her “Sermons on the Warpland” feed my soul and remind me of the importance of tending one’s “blooming.” She wrote these poems 50 years ago, in times which brought civil rights to national attention and in which we suffered the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. She reminds us that we’ve been through terrible times before. She asks a question that is painfully relevant today: “what must our Season be, which starts from Fear?” Not much.

Night Blooming
The time
cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face
all unashamed.
          —Gwendolyn Brooks
          “The Second Sermon on the Warpland”

Brooks’ “Sermons on the Warpland” are blunt and truth telling. She is preaching to her own people, to “Big Bessie” whose “feet hurt like nobody’s business,” but who “stands/in the wild weed…a citizen.” In the first “Sermon” Brooks urges her brothers and sisters to “build your church…With love like lion–eyes./ With love like morningrise.” It is a love poem to a people who have not been treated with much love in a land still warped by slavery and Jim Crow. These “Sermons” are poems of direct address, of exhortation; they speak to the power of endurance and seem to me to be especially pertinent in our times.

Endurance takes many forms. My friend and poetry buddy Rich Messer sent me a poem recently that takes a more subtle, slant approach to resistance and to endurance. The word “endure” is related to Old English and Old German word roots for “true, “trust,” “tree” and “Druid.” This linguistic kinship web connects us to our pagan, oak seer roots, to the spirit of the earth, to our animal familiars, and to our ghosts. Messer’s poem is an example of what Jane Hirshfield, borrowing from Emily Dickinson, means with the phrase: “Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant” in the American PoetryReview, Sept/Oct. 2017. Hirshfield writes:
Good poems travel in ways that are strongly or subtly, meandering, askew, counter, extravagant, peculiar, free, and freeing. Their pelts are freckled. They loosen the map lines of the literal, underslip narrowness, and let us see more than would be possible by looking at things directly. They are raids on reality that allow raids on the heart. They are lies whose intention is truth exposed more fully.
That glorious freckled pelt is camouflage. “So it is with poems,” says Hirshfield, arguing that “any good poem has lurking somewhere about it the Houdini–esque energies of the Trickster…”

Here is Messer’s poem:

Night Blooming

The anniversaries fade, waves coast

up the beach and memories retreat

unrecognized. It happened. We went on,

Knowing, uneasy, we opened

the back door, to whistle home the dogs.

There are people who do not begin

and end each day, glued to the screen.

There are people who sit quietly

in their living rooms, doing nothing

before bed. These people did not

follow our leader down to the dark waters.

They speak to each other and know

wisdom and joy. I swear this to you.

We endure and go on like boulders

swallowed by a glacier, nudged farther

south every year, etched with dark furrows.

When I sit late at night

with all my animal familiars and ghosts,

the news whispered around the circle

avoids his name. The things

we love we lose.

Who will take care of the garden?

"Night Blooming" is achingly sad, lyrical, tender, deep. The first stanza casts a calm, meditative spell on us, transports us gently into a realm of fading anniversaries, waves on the beach and memories. Things happened. “We went on.” We are in the world of the aging, watching the cycles of life. What makes us “uneasy” is not named, but it casts a shadow. What feels most vital is “to whistle home the dogs,” our loyal animal familiars.

Messer moves on to a subject more complex than growing old. We are in a political poem about endurance in dreadful times which avoids all political language and reference. The poem’s speaker describes a people who have not lost their way in the “Season…of Fear," a people “who do not begin/and end each day, glued to the screen…/These people did not/follow our leader down to the dark waters." They are not complicit. There is a hint of biblical language in "the dark waters,” a sense of mystery. We are told of a people who continue to live soulful lives with "wisdom and joy." By the end of the second stanza the calm tone of the poem has risen to a passionate oath—"I swear this to you." We, the readers, receive the speaker’s intensity with relief. We are no longer in a warped land. We haven’t blindly “followed the leader” into danger and deception. We want to join this wise and joyful tribe, or rather—through the poem’s magic—we have become part of the tribe.

Here is where Messer’s trickster comes in, and, to borrow from Hirshfield’s language, “punctuate[s] pomposity and shake[s] things up.” 

Our peaceful moment among trustworthy folk is, lest we take ourselves too seriously, unhinged. The wily speaker casts another spell, turning us into "boulders/swallowed by a glacier, nudged farther/south every year." We haven’t been able to escape the fate of our times after all. We are pushed around by climate change like everything and everyone else. We do have to face our terrors, even if—like boulders— we endure. As Hirshfield says: “Trickster stories…make spells to break the spells that…grip us.”

In the fourth stanza we return to the eternal realm, the realm of what Jung calls the “Spirit of the Depths.” The poem’s speaker has shifted from the first person plural to the first person singular. Does he want to be alone with his late night blooming? Is he casting us out? We are uneasy again, as we were in the first stanza. The real news, it seems, comes from “animal familiars and ghosts,” who avoid “his name.” Of course, in true trickster sleight of hand fashion, to announce that his name is being avoided is to bring the unnamable one into the poem and the circle, while, at the same time, diminishing him, casting him out of the great cycles of life and death, and the terrible truth that “the things//we love we lose.”

Remember, he can’t face the truth. The trickster voice of the poem has put a spell on us, and out tricked our ephemeral trickster president. The poem resists the times, resists the screens, hangs out with dogs and with ghosts, and faces the ultimate loss, our lives, with that marvelous last line—"Who will take care of the garden?"

She Who Dances with Veils
It was the summer of ’43. What did my young parents know
about the Europe they’d fled

the trains the chimneys…
          —Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
          “Birth Day”

A poem of my own has just been published in the online journal Front Porch. It too is a “slant” poem, a trickster poem of resistance, which refers only tangentially to the “evil spirits” that spook our times. Like Messer’s poem it undermines the fearful “Spirit of the Times” by casting a larger view of life as seen from an ancient cave: “Your little life and mine in the flow/of all the mothers of mothers the grandmothers of magic/the daughters of ritual skill.” The poem invokes Maia, the goddess of illusion, creation and imagination—herself a trickster. I hope you’ll check it out.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Muse of Fractured Times

The Poetry of Resistance IV

The time is out of joint.

Whose Country?
the haters will crawl out from under their rocks
the “white only” nation come out of the woodwork
You won’t know whose country you’re in

—Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, “Wishing in the Woods with Hillary”
Do you remember the night of the election, November 8, 2016? We probably each have our own story, as we always do about catastrophic events. I remember driving home from work, looking forward to drinking the champagne Dan had put on ice for us to celebrate the election of our first woman president. When I drove into the garage Dan came out to greet me with an eye roll I will never forget. He knew what I was still denying, though the radio had given me inklings. We were not going to drink that champagne.

I think we’re all still reeling from that moment. It is hard to find words to describe how we felt. Often it takes a poem to express the inexpressible. My friend Bruce Bagnell wrote such a poem, the fourth in the Poetry of Resistance series. The poem is very short, and very potent. It gives us three images in three stanzas that brilliantly elucidate our scary times. Here’s the poem:

November 11, 2016, Grey Dawn

After the election I took a selfie;
flesh ripped to the bone,
tangled neurons,
knots of muscles.

Imagine if it had been a bomb
this sudden drop of words;
this acid rain
is not Aleppo.

I still have the silver spoon called America
bent as it may be.
I renew my vows to straighten it,
polish it until I can see myself again.

Those bodily images of rupture and brokenness in the opening stanza are shocking and accurate. Bagnell is a Vietnam Vet. He knows the realm of war, in which people are shattered, physically and psychologically. His just published poetry collection, The Self–Evolution Spa, which I highly recommend, has a number of poems on this theme.

I Took a Selfie
We wander to the center of the earth
shattered by our own hands.
We seek ourselves on the other side…
There is a war within us,
the one stalking meaning.

—Bruce Bagnell, “Questions for Dante”
    in The Self–Evolution Spa
Bagnell learned about the dread side of life when he was young, in his service as an Air Force Captain in the Vietnam War. I learned about it in my nightmares when I was young, chased by the Nazis who would have murdered my family, had they not fled Hitler’s Europe. In the long journey of seeking myself “on the other side,” I faced those inner Nazis, and was reassured by the relative lack of anti–Semitism in my American life. When I saw that Heil Hitler salute to Trump after the election, I felt shattered, ripped up, tangled up, in knots. It happened again, even more intensely, just recently when the Neo–Nazis showed up in Charlottesville, Virginia chanting anti-Semitic slogans. I’m sure many of you have versions of this story, how the selfie you took after the election showed you in pieces.

Bagnell describes one of the dangers of war—a loss of feeling, of soul, a Medusa complex:
We the still–flesh,
conquered by Nam’s disease,
slowly yielded to Medusa,
our souls turned to stone

—Bruce Bagnell “Those Were Strange Times”
in The Self–Evolution Spa
Those words are pertinent to the second stanza of Bagnell’s Election Day poem in which we are invited to imagine the “sudden drop of words” as a bomb. For those of us who have not gone to war, not contracted Nam’s disease or had our lives shattered in Aleppo, it seemed like a bomb had gone off, tearing down everything we thought we knew about America.

But Bagnell is a veteran. He knows that bad as things are, “this acid rain/is not Aleppo.” Words are not sticks and stones, or bombs. The “sudden drop of words,” though it won’t break our bones, will damage our spirits and run the risk of turning our souls to stone. The phrase resonates with many meanings—as in the lowering of standards of civility, integrity, factuality, as in the President’s twitter storms, in which he indulges in temper tantrums, untruths, bullying and rabble rousing, as in the torrents of words in the media and online responding to his every taunt and tirade. The man is a walking time bomb, with access to the nuclear code. He sets off explosions in the press, on TV, on Facebook, in the blogosphere, in the White House, in Congress, in bedrooms all over America where people awake to yell at the radio about yet another outrage, another early morning provocation from our bad boy president. And yet, Bagnell reminds us, he is not an autocratic ruler bombing his own people, like Assad.

Nevertheless, did you have any idea things could get so bad? That we’d have so much to lose, from health care, to women’s rights, to civil rights, to environmental policies, to our very democracy? Do you, like me, feel whiplashed between the maturity and grace of our “no drama” President Obama, and the soulless greed and rapaciousness of the current regime, which steals from the poor to further enrich the rich. Do you, like me, feel traumatized, afraid of what acid, what bomb of words, or worse, will drop next?

The Silver Spoon Called America
The question that wakes you in the night is
What if your worst fears are the story of our time?

—Naomi Ruth Lowinsky “In the Wild Wake of the Election”
America has been a silver spoon in the mouths of many of us lucky enough to be born here. Those of us who are first generation Americans, the children of refugees, like Dan on his father’s side, like me on both sides, really value that spoon. I don’t think African–Americans feel this way, however; their ancestors came here against their will, stolen from their lives and culture. That silver spoon is after all, a symbol of privilege—part of our delusions about American exceptionalism. As James Baldwin put it in his marvelous essay, “Down At the Cross,” from The Fire Next Time, his people tend to “dismiss white people as slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.”

That said, I love how elegantly Bagnell uses the image in his final stanza. The spoon has been bent by the election, perhaps by many earlier events we can think of, that batter its shape and dim its luster. The poem’s speaker renews his “vows to straighten it.” This is a familiar American spirit—practical, no–nonsense, can do. The poem has taken us from the horror of the first stanza, in which the damage, the trauma, is reflected in a selfie, to the capacity for thoughtful differentiation in the second stanzas—“This is not Aleppo”— to the solution suggested in the third stanza—to straighten and polish that spoon. Bagnell’s speaker is a no Hamlet, crying: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.” He’s an American. He plans to fix it.

The Portal of Despond

     The nightly news is a hike through the Book of Revelations.—Al Gore

As happens with a potent image, well expressed in a poem, that silver spoon set up residence in my imagination. It’s what we Jungians call a living symbol. I watched it tarnish, shape shift into a dark portal, an opening that lets in evil spirits, lets all our worst fears come flooding in. As in the first stanza of Bagnell’s poem, we feel overwhelmed, frightened, traumatized, impotent, don’t know where to turn or what to do. It’s a syndrome many of us are suffering these days. We have to learn how to manage the unspeakable specters that arise from the tarnished spoon we call America. Here are some of mine:

The Russians have invaded our elections. We can no longer trust our voting process.

The New York Times of Sept. 1, 2017, ran this headline “Russian Election Hacking Efforts, Wider than Previously known, Draw Little Scrutiny.” The Times has produced an in–depth report on this issue. Their research shows that Russians hackers targeted voting systems in at least 21 states. For example, in North Carolina, some people were denied their right to vote despite having current registration cards. This was mostly an issue in Durham—a blue–leaning county in a swing state, which Trump won. One has to wonder, did he, really? Has a foreign power manipulated our election process? Can this be America?

The New York Times of Sept. 1, 2017, ran this headline “Russian Election Hacking Efforts, Wider than Previously known, Draw Little Scrutiny.” The Times has produced an in–depth report on this issue. Their research shows that Russians hackers targeted voting systems in at least 21 states. For example, in North Carolina, some people were denied their right to vote despite having current registration cards. This was mostly an issue in Durham—a blue–leaning county in a swing state, which Trump won. One has to wonder, did he, really? Has a foreign power manipulated our election process? Can this be America?
Lining up to vote in Durham, NC

But here’s the thing: if you watch that dark portal carefully, if you read and listen to our blessed American press, you will see people emerge from that underworld opening who stand for the America my parents believed in, the America in which people believe they can fix things. Take Susan Greenhalgh, “a troubleshooter at a nonpartisan election monitoring group,” according to the Times (9/1/17) “The problems involved electronic poll books—tablets and laptops, loaded with check–in software, that have increasingly replaced the thick binders of paper used to verify voters’ identities and registration status.” On November 10th Greenhalgh sensed something rotten in the state of N. Carolina. “‘It felt like tampering, or some sort of cyberattack,’ Ms. Greenhalgh said about the voting troubles in Durham.” She asked a colleague at the Election Protection agency in North Carolina “to warn the state Board of Elections of a cyber attack and suggest that it call in the FBI and the Dept. of Homeland Security.” She was told the state didn’t view this as a problem and wanted to move on, Greenhalgh recalled. “Meanwhile I’m thinking, ‘What could be more important to move on to?’” She hasn’t given up. She’s still worried, and so she talked to the New York Times for their in–depth report.

Susan Greenhalgh

Susan Greenhalgh is America; she’s a fixer, and so is Verified Voting, the non–profit she works for. They stand between the Russian hackers and us.

Mother Earth is in a fury and will never forgive us for pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords.

Hurricane Harvey has dumped more water on the U.S. than any other weather event in history. So said Politifact, on August 31, 2017. Since science is fact based and precise, scientists disagree on whether climate change and specific weather events connect. But here are some helpful summary statements from Politifact: 

As Earth’s temperature warms, land-based ice melts and ocean water expands, causing sea levels to rise. This in turn increases the risks that the sea will rise with the atmospheric pressures of a storm, causing more waves and flooding. 

Scientists may disagree on the degree to which anthropogenic (or human-caused) climate change intensified Harvey, but almost all concurred that Houston’s lack of preparation for it magnified its ramifications. 

Urbanization turned prairies and forests into concrete, reducing the land’s capacity to absorb rainfall, and lax zoning codes gave way to development more prone to cave to the flooding. 

The Earth’s rage takes the form of terrible storms and floods as well as fires. We had an experience with the latter in the usually lovely town of Ashland, Oregon recently. It lived up to its name in a dreadful way—the air was filled with smoke and ash from eight wildfires, surrounding the area. We couldn’t walk to the theaters—the air quality was deemed unhealthy, and people were urged not to spend time outdoors. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival cancelled its outdoor performance of The Odyssey because the air was so bad. The mountains were hidden behind a veil of smoke. People wore masks to walk the streets. After seeing the death of King Henry IV and the ascension to the throne of Prince Hal, who had reformed his rowdy ways, we walked out of the theatre into over 100 degree heat, the air so thick with smoke it was almost unbreathable. There was ash on the car’s windshield. The quarter moon glowed orange and angry. Our lovely little retreat town, with its cultural riches, has turned into a hell realm. There’s the hell of fire, and the hell of water. Ask the people of Houston about the latter. They suffered 70 deaths, major flooding and destruction of their homes.

Are the fires a result of climate change? Here’s a headline from Pacific Northwest News, Oct. 11, 2016: "Climate change doubled size of western forest fires, study says, and it will only get worse." According to the Union of Concerned Scientists higher temperatures cause drought, the soil dries, making wildfires more intense and difficult to put out. Depressing, right? And our fact-denying president doesn’t want to work on this issue? What’s happened to America?

Enter Al Gore, through the portal of despond. He’s been working on this issue for a decade, and has a new movie out, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. Carole Cadwalladr, who has interviewed Gore several times, describes it in The Guardian of July 29, 2017.

The film runs through a host of facts – that 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001 is just one. And the accompanying footage is biblical, terrifying: tornadoes, floods, “rain bombs,” exploding glaciers. We see roads falling into rivers and fish swimming through the streets of Miami.

The nightly news, Gore says, has become “a nature hike through the Book of Revelations.” But what his work has shown and continues to show is that evidence is not enough. The film opens with clips from Fox News ridiculing global warming… What becomes clear over the course of several conversations is how entwined he believes it all is – climate change denial, the interests of big capital, “dark money,” billionaire political funders, the ascendancy of Trump and what he calls (he’s written a book on it) “the assault against reason.”

Gore brings a different American spirit into these times. He is a do-gooder, a man on a mission, who intends to change the world by talking to people about climate change one person at a time. He shouts at us: “Couldn’t you hear what Mother Nature was screaming at you?” He sums up what he’s figured out in the phrase, “Our Democracy has been hacked,” this time not by the Russians, but by the rich, particularly the Koch brothers. He speaks Truth to Power and I am grateful.

Until I Can See Myself Again
We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation. The giant forward steps we have taken on civil liberties and civil rights and human rights are being met by a ferocious pushback from the oldest and darkest forces in America.
—Joe Biden on the Atlantic website.
The Evil Spirits that have haunted America since slavery and Jim Crow are back, in full daylight. They feel supported by our rabble–rousing president.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center “Trump’s run for office electrified the radical right, which saw in him a champion of the idea that America is fundamentally a white man’s country.” They came, Neo Nazis and White Supremacists in full force to “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, VA on Saturday Aug. 12th. They were protesting the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee from a city park. The event became a cauldron of rage, Nazi slogans, counter demonstrations, violence erupting between groups, and a young man who ran his car into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, killing one young woman, Heather Heyer. The governor declared a state of emergency. The president refused to condemn the white supremacist provocateurs, preferring to blame both sides, clearly misstating the truth of what had happened. There was a furor of condemnations of the President’s remarks, including from Republican leaders of congress. Was something new emerging from the portal of despond, in horrified response?

I was moved by a story I heard on NPR. In the wake of Charlottesville, a young pastor, Rev. Robert Lee IV, a nephew many generations removed of General Robert E. Lee, was interviewed by Lulu Garcia–Navarro, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. He walked through that portal, illuminated with his moral clarity, and gave me a moment of tearful relief when he said of the monuments:
I do think they need to come down. I think it’s time we have a conversation about how to remember our past without commemorating our past…We have made an idol of Robert E. Lee. We have made him an idol of white supremacy. We have made him an idol of nationalism and of hate and of racism. And that’s unacceptable. And not only for me as a person of goodwill but as for me as a Christian, I can no longer sit by and allow my family’s name to be used as hate–filled speech.
Garcia–Navarro asked him, gently, about the threats he’s been receiving. He responded:
It’s been hard. I mean, I’m a 24-year old. I’m a pastor. I’m not a violent person. I don’t condone violence in any form. And so to see that there are people who wish to be violent against me and my family, against my church community is terrifying.

At the end of the interview Lee says:
I just got an email from a lady who spoke to me about being owned by my family and how her ancestors were owned by my family…and what that means for her now to hear someone speak out against it in the name of the Lees.
The Rev. Robert Lee IV brings a spirit that we have not often seen in America, the courage to face the shadows in our past, and to take responsibility for them. We need many more Americans like him.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Muse of the North

The region to the north…is the seat of the highest gods and also the adversary…
—C.G. Jung

From the North comes the power to keep silent…to keep secrets, to know what not to say. The Goddess as Dark Maiden, the new moon that is not yet visible, and the God as Sacred Bull are the totems of the North…
—Star Hawk in The Spiral Dance
I can remember, decades ago, a parade of my elders heading North to Alaska. They took cruises, or traveled on Elder Hostel journeys, returning with a new light in their eyes; they’d loved it. I never understood exactly what it was they loved. I was in my busy mid life. I didn’t really listen, didn’t really take in, what their joy was all about. Now I know. Dan and I have recently returned from such a trip to Alaska, and there’s a new light in my eyes.

We left in the middle of June. I was feeling disoriented in life and in our country, devoured by the daily news cycle, unable to see what kind of drama we are in. Is it a farce, a tragedy, a soap opera, a crime drama, a reality show, a vast right wing conspiracy? Are we watching “Saturday Night Live,” “The Sopranos,” “House of Cards,” “The Americans,” “The Apprentice?” My Muse complained bitterly. She felt hijacked by the manic spirit of our times, unable to dive down into the depths where She usually lives. It was time to take my Muse on vacation. Dan’s Muse came along too. She’s the one who takes photos.

At the airport the TV screens were all about the Warrior’s victory, which cast a glow on people who, even in endless lines at Starbucks, were good humored and kind. This seemed a good sign as I tried to shake off the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, the Attorney General claiming not to remember anything at all about his associations with the Russians.

I thought of my paternal grandparents, who fled Russia in the early years of the twentieth century to escape Russian pogroms and the dread twenty-five year draft for Jewish men. The Russians were stirring up a ruckus in my heart. I can hear my father’s voice: “Russians are passionate, they are wild, they are profound and mystical, they are wily and can’t be trusted.” I am descended from Russian Jews. I spent much of my adolescence engrossed in Russian novels. My ideas about life were shaped by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment. Is Russia my “old country”? Are the Russians ancestors, enemies, or both? In the grips of a culture complex inflamed by our dangerous times, I was haunted by the catastrophes my family had escaped. Our trip to Alaska snapped me out of it! So did a dream, in which I found a carved wooden Buddha—about the size of a chess piece—amidst the vegetable parings I was throwing away. The little Buddha’s right hand was holding his head in a look of amused dismay, as though to say, “Oh my, oh my.” I understood that this was the attitude I needed to cultivate.

What the Traveller Brings
I’d grown up fearing the coming hordes of Everything-Wanters.
Ordinary Wolves
 by Seth Kantner
Another helper was a novel, Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner, set in the Alaskan backcountry, among the Iñupiaq Eskimos. The narrator is a boy, Cutuk, who becomes a man in the course of the tale. His father, Abe, is a white guy from Chicago who has gone native. His mother, a native, has abandoned the family. They live a subsistence existence in the wild. Their home is an igloo built by Abe. Cutuk, whose tribal name clashes with his blond hair and blue eyes, gets picked on and scapegoated in the village where they go for supplies. The novel introduced me to a world I’ve never experienced, in which so little goes so far.
Abe had taught me to skin and dry foxes…And though we often used only the thick warm fur for mittens, he made me skin to save the toenails, tail, eyelashes—out of respect for the animal we’d taken.
Cutuk’s world is stark and wild and tender: “Our dogs raised their nuzzles to inhale the sweet scents of love, food and fights.” The story begins in the ‘70s, when the natives were entirely dependent on their sled dogs for transport in the cold North. In the isolation of such a life, the traveller is a welcome break from the every day, bringing news of other realms, and companionship. Enuk, an elder of the tribe, is a frequent guest in Cutuk’s childhood; he is the great hunter the boy longs to become.
My mother…was a fairy tale that kept fogging over, while Enuk, even vanished down river, stood in my life as sharp as a raven in the blue sky.
Cutuk showed me my shadow as a white person from the native point of view:
It was annoying and white to talk too much or ask questions, especially when a traveller arrived. Shaking hands, also, was a sign of being an outsider.
I was living a double life. One life happened in Cutuk’s world, in which everything he wore and ate was carefully taken from what the family hunted. In the other life—my “Everything–Wanter” life—I inhabited the glamour of our cruise ship—a magical vessel with beautiful staterooms and common areas. We sat in the aft of the ship, watching our wake, as the little yellow Pilot, our tugboat, pulled away, leaving us to the gray blue waves.

Seven Seas Mariner
Saxman Village Woods
Our first stop was in Ketchikan, Alaska, where we were transported by bus to the Saxman Village, home of a group of Tlingit people. They welcomed us travellers, made us feel valued, and showed us a video about their tribe. I remember the strength of the people’s faces, especially the women. The narrator thanked us for coming, said by doing so we helped them claim their heritage. Tears sprang to my eyes. Maybe there was a good side to being an Everything–Wanter. Our hosts were gracious, but they also teased us. They taught us a Tlingit phrase, an answer to their question, “How are you?” which we, being mostly old folk, promptly forgot. We were the slow children and they the authorities in their own ways and language. In Alaska, there are no Indian reservations. I could feel the difference. We were guests in their house.

We were guests, also, on the lovely forest path we walked to see the totem pole collection. We were guests in the Beaver Clan House, made of red cedar, smelling like the forest—a sacred space painted with animal faces and a dark doorway like a vulva. On either side a beaver totem looked as though it was giving birth to a human.

An elder in a red and black costume, with beautifully stitched leg warmers and an impressive staff, introduced the dance, performed mostly by children. They were all decked out in their red and black tribal costumes, with their different clan totems on their backs: Eagle, Raven, Beaver, Halibut, Whale, Wolf, Frog. I had the sense they knew they all belonged to one another, but had plenty of room to be different from each other. I paid special attention to one boy, perhaps 12, who, like Cutuk in the novel, had blond hair and blue eyes. He sang and danced as passionately as did the others, and looked like he belonged to the tribe, or so I hoped. Dan and I were charmed by a toddler, who wandered around in her tribal finery, pacifier in her mouth. We learned that the Tlingit are a matriarchal culture, not surprising, given the quiet authority in the women’s faces and the values of Potlatch, expressed in a dance in which whites were invited to dance with the tribe, and honored by being wrapped in tribal robes.

Mother of the Forest
It felt strong and good to be near mountains without names.
—Seth Kantner Ordinary Wolves
Our ship slipped through gray waters, past dark green forested shores, hills fingered by mists, mountains streaked with snow, sudden waterfalls. There was something at once breathtaking and mesmerizing about the ship’s slow passage along steeply wooded cliffs and rocky shores, as the waters glided away from us. My Muse had made a full recovery, and was busily writing down images phrases for this blog about voyaging north. I had cut myself off from the news. There was space in me, and silence.

We made an excursion to the Mendenhall Glacier. This was important to us. Though we had liberated ourselves from the Washington drama, we were still reeling from our President’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords. I wanted to pay my respects to the glacier, while it still lived. I was amazed at the power of its presence, glowing blue and white. It has been retreating for hundreds of years, going back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Behind its great mass arose an unnamed mountain range, which looked like a fairy tale city.

The story of the glacier was more nuanced and complex than I had understood. It was told to us by a Forest Ranger, a young woman who improvised a charming story about the sick glacier and the black bear who loved it. She spoke in the voice of the dying glacier, getting weaker and slower. She spoke in the voice of the black bear who was grateful for the life the glacier gave her. She spoke of the love between them, the interpenetration of species at all levels of being. For the glacier creates new life as its retreating weight grinds rock into silt, which flows into waterways and provides nutrients for fish and other creatures. In its dying the glacier created the Tongass National Forest, a vast temperate rainforest, luxuriant with hemlock, yellow cedar, alder, pine, and Sitka spruce—known by the natives as “The Mother of the Forest.”

The forest as a whole is a fertile mother, a generous mother, producing flora and fauna in the cyclical dance of death and rebirth. I said to the Forest Ranger, “that’s a more nuanced story than the one we hear in the lower forty-eight.” She nodded. “The glacier is not just about death. It is a creator of life. But,” she added, “what will happen when the glacier is gone?”

The Mother of the Forest, as Sitka spruce, provides food and shelter for the bald eagle family we visited in a small boat. These impressive birds mate for life. They stand three feet tall and have a wingspread of six to seven feet. The pair we visited were protecting their enormous nest, in which, we were told, there were three chicks. To see our national symbol in the wild, as such a stirring, devoted creature, shifted something in me.

The Mother of the Forest, provides nourishment for the humpback whale. We were part of a gathering of strangers on a catamaran, bonded in awe and reverence as we watched the great whale blow, breach and dive, displaying her black flukes with distinctive white markings. Every whale, we were told, has different markings. Her name, the naturalist told us, is Flame. She comes every summer to the feeding grounds of her youth, and spends the winter near Maui. Some years she has a calf with her. Not this year. These whales had been on their way to extinction. But since industrial whaling was forbidden in the 1970s, the population has come back dramatically. “Thanks to you,” the naturalist said, “who make seeing whales a profitable business for Alaska.” Again, as when we were thanked by the Tlingit people, tears sprang to my eyes. Compared to Cutuk and his people I was certainly an Everything–Wanter. But perhaps maybe there is something to be said for us Everything–Wanters, at least those of us who want to see whales, grizzlies, wolves, to engrave them in our psyches, to shoot them with our cameras, instead of wanting to shoot them dead.

As our ship took us through the Inside Passage we saw more dazzling scenery created by receding glaciers. We sat in the aft of the boat, sipping an aperitif, and watched the glory of all this creation pass by us—a surround of jagged mountains rose above the rainforest. It was almost summer solstice and the sun stayed up late with us. In the long, long evening the waters were smooth and blue gray. The first growth forests gave way to saw tooth mountains behind silent mountains beyond silent castles of rock and ice—a parade of odd angles, askew ridges, jagged mystery. I knew I was in the presence of gods that gave no thought to human concerns. I watched my fellow passengers put down their iPhones and gaze at the mystery. The sun dreamed on through an endless twilight, and finally called it a day long past 10pm.

In Sitka we saw the Russian influence in architecture and history. The Russians came two hundred years ago to hunt sea otters, whose beautiful pelts were used to make expensive fur coats. The otters were hunted almost to extinction. Thanks to a ban on hunting them for all but native Alaskans, the charming creatures have made a remarkable comeback. We were delighted to see one, floating on his back in the middle of Sitka Sound, admiring his webbed toes. We learned his fur is so dense that he can float, effortlessly. He has an opposable thumb and uses tools to open clams. Somebody said, “Hand him a martini!”

The Great One
That wolf—how many miles and years had he walked under this smoky green light? Walked cold, hungry, in storms, wet under summer rain, walking on this land I’d always called my home…How was it that I’d never considered carefully that an animal could know infinitely more about something than I could?
—Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner
On the Solstice, we arrived at Seward. Here we had to say goodbye to our lovely ship, and clamber unto a tour bus, which would take us to Denali National Park. The mountain, Denali, was named by the Athabaskan Indians, “the high one,” “the great one.” We were blessed. Denali revealed herself again and again as we were driven from Seward to Anchorage. This doesn’t usually happen. Only 20 % of visitors get to see the mountain, which is over 20,000 feet high, the tallest mountain in North America. We saw her again the next day, on our bus tour of Denali. Our eloquent bus driver/tour guide said: “You never know when she’ll show up, or not.” He said the same thing of the animals. We were blessed again by the sight of a mother grizzly, playing with her two cubs. She lay on the ground and pawed at them. They climbed all over her.

A Park Ranger had climbed unto our bus to greet us when we first entered Denali National Park. She got political. She told us the park was celebrating its centennial this year. She said it was a treasure of a park, an intact ecosystem—no invasive plants or creatures—one of very few left in the world. Protect it, she said. And please tell your congress people to support it. The bus full of strangers applauded. We were all on a pilgrimage to see wildlife. We were in the company of people who yelled “Moose on the Right!” “Eagle in the pine tree to the left!” “Caribou in the ice fields!” Poor caribou. They are created for weather that is 50 degrees below zero. It was 60 degrees above zero and they sought out what ice was left to lie on; they are suffering climate change.

Our time to return home began to loom. My dreams expressed alarm. In one dream children were being hit over the head with two by fours, which was how I imagined I’d feel returning to my life in the “lower forty-eight.” Obama showed up in another dream, his back to me, piloting a ship in dark waters. Back in the Eskimo world of Cutuk, things were terrible. He was a young man now, who had become a fine hunter. But, influenced by his sister, whose life expanded when she went to the city, he made the journey to Anchorage, and suffered profound culture shock:
Hotels with a hundred windows loomed. The roar was constant. Nothing at home was this frantic…Everything had words. As if someone had cut up a magazine, glued it to the sky. No reading the river, snow, ice, tracks—the city took it literally; reading signs meant reading signs.
He felt the suffering of trees: “Trees stood alone, dreary and dripping and surrounded, roots weighted under heavy stone.” He was mad at the city “for taking the animals’ beautiful land and turning it into ridiculous things: parking lots and strip malls, pensions, section lines and new hair styles.” He realized something that I was beginning to understand: “more than in wind or cold or [spring] Break up, the power and absoluteness of wild earth resided in its huge, uncompromising silence. Anchorage conquered silence, left not a trace.” Cutuk returned home to the backcountry, but home had changed. Sports hunters used snow mobiles to murder wolves. The village where he got supplies was not what it had been. Electricity and machines changed everything.
Suddenly, the past was over. It would never come back to protect us. We’d been pretending as well as any actors. The chasm between legends around the fire and surround–sound TV, snowshoed dog trails and Yamaha V–Max snowmobiles was too overwhelming, and no hunting, no tears, no federal dollars could take us back across. I felt an avalanche of grief…
The land of Cutuk’s grief, a land of ruined lives and many suicides, is “as haunting and beautiful as it had been ten thousand years before the introduction of sports hunters.” For Dan and me, who are city dwellers, livers of fast, noisy lives, it was a life altering experience. Now I can see that the light in the eyes of my elders, when they returned from their pilgrimages North, was the gleam of the silence of mountains, the mystery of wild landscape and wild creatures, a spiritual experience they would have called “Mother Nature,” a blessing whatever you call Her, be it Silence, The Great One, the Inside Passage, sea otter, Mother of the Forest, bald eagle, grizzly, or a whale named Flame.

The Great One

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Poetry of Resistance III

The Muse at the Oasis

Chaos has awoken from a long nap
is putting on dancing shoes and heading for the streets…
—Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, “In the Wild Wake”

High Anxiety

The Kali Yuga say the Hindus is a dark age lacks holy law
a time of hubris greed war

—Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, “In the Wild Wake”

We could use an oasis right about now, as the nightmare news cycle beats us about the head, invades our left temporal lobe, where speech dwells. It is hard to find words for the chaos we’re in. We wander a wasteland, our world torn apart at the seams, as our new president proceeds to rip up the careful advances of the Obama administration: Health Care, the Paris Climate Accord, Prison Justice Reform, wholesome food for school lunches, I could go on and on.

Taken by the Boogey Man

The boogey men are out—white supremacists, misogynists, homophobes, anti-Semites. Our rampaging president does a sword dance with Arab potentates while his supporters and his opponents duke it out on–line and in the streets. The phantoms of slavery emerge in Jim Crow–like laws, in police shootings of unarmed black men and in the Prison Industrial Complex. Immigrants who have been living in the U.S. peaceably for years, working hard and paying taxes, are deported for no good reason, their families splintered. Gunmen shoot strangers to make who knows what statement in a land where guns are king. The Russians it seems have hijacked our election. The President’s people may have colluded. There are investigations and more investigations; we are holding our breath for justice, for sanity, though we know all this will take time to untangle. We have a President who doesn’t believe in facts, in science or in climate change, who seems to care only about money, power and towers bearing his name, who keeps us in an anxiety state with relentless tweet attacks on all we hold dear: the earth our Mother, our democracy, our immigrant ancestors, our civil rights and liberties, our moral compass, our soul as a culture. He represents our cultural shadow, the worst, most shallow, materialistic, greedy side of America. How do we gain the consciousness we need to confront this?

March for Science (April 22, 2017, New York City)

Soul Medicine

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
—Emily Dickinson

Let me offer you some medicine in the form of a poem: Lucille Lang Day’s magical “Oasis.” Day comes at the truth slantwise. She gives us a poem that resists our collective chaos by creating a green and fertile place in our consciousness, a space where soul visits and the Muse begins to sing. Listen:


At an oasis deep
in my left temporal lobe,
I encounter my soul
just before it leaves the party
at 33,000 feet, where
the dead do as they please,
and time is a circular target.

Where does meaning
lurk in a universe
where mountains are mangy
from fires and logging,
the president brags about
forcing himself on women,
and marksmen take aim?

In the heart of a hummingbird
beating more than one
thousand times each minute
during a rapid dive
in a high–speed chase,
while outside a bright theater
night ripens like an avocado,
and a gunman decides
not to shoot after all
because consciousness
is a moth that finally got in.

(First published in Talking Writing)

Mangy Mountain 

I imagine the poem’s speaker sitting scrunched up 33,000 feet above the earth, in that dissociated state we call airplane travel. Suddenly something shifts in her left temporal lobe, and she is released from the engine noise and the busy glow of lap top screens into another reality, where she encounters her soul. I know that moment—a sacred moment, a moment of grace—space and time open up, the dead show up, past, present and future converge and the poem begins to sing. The “Oasis” speaker looks down at the mountains, which, like a miserable dog, suffer from mange—a contagious skin disease caused by parasitic mites. In the case of the mountains, the disease is caused by parasitic capitalistic practices, which abuse the forest and the earth much as the president abuses women. The “Oasis” speaker looks for meaning in this ugliness. With the power of the pen she transforms reality: meaning lives in “the heart of a hummingbird/beating more than one/thousand times each minute…” This is a quintessential Lucille Lang Day move—merging a living symbol and scientific fact. Day holds a doctorate in Science/Mathematical Education; her poetry is full of healing medicine in our science-bashing times.

According to American Indian lore, hummingbird medicine evokes joy. Hummingbirds dart from one bright flower to another, sucking nectar, pollinating, able to fly backwards and forwards or to stay in one place. The poem, like the hummingbird, darts from one strong image to another: oasis, soul, the dead, mangy mountains, our misogynistic president. A single hummingbird makes a “rapid dive,” and everything changes: 

…a gunman decides
not to shoot after all
because consciousness
is a moth that finally got in.

The poem takes the reader on a journey from a loss of faith and meaning, to the miracle of grace. We find ourselves, with the “Oasis” speaker, in the company of the hummingbird. The moth of consciousness gets in. The gunman decides not to shoot. When the moth enters the poem we are in the presence of a transformational mystery. The gunman is transformed. The world, spared all that evil, that suffering, is transformed. We, the readers, are delivered to an oasis, a healing place with trees and water, where we can imagine that moth of consciousness, like the butterfly whose wings change the weather on the other side of the globe, transforming our world.