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.