|Mainz Book of Hours|
Save me O God;
For the waters are come in even unto the soul.
I am sunk in deep mire, where there is no standing;
I am come into deep waters, and the flood overwhelmeth me.
(The Holy Scriptures, Jewish Publication Society, 1917)
In the Valley of the Shadow
you are the last living generation
of the six that went before you
passing that invisible medicine basket
from one generation to the next…
Anita Cadena Sánchezfrom her poem “Medicine Basket”in Soul Making in the Valley of the Shadow p. 6
On June 12th of last year, the Sister from Below celebrated the publication of Soul Making in the Valley of the Shadow with a blog called: The Muse of Deep River. We of Deep River—the poetry circle I lead at the Jung Institute—had begun to feel the shadow of the pandemic lifting and the political scene brightening as the Biden administration vaccinated the willing and passed the American Rescue Plan which stimulated the economy, sent money to families with children and helped out state and local governments. That upbeat mood did not last long. New variants of Covid 19 attacked us, and the political will continue to support families with children, to protect voting rights, to protect our Mother Earth, seems to have ebbed away.
We’ve recently passed the one-year anniversary of the day Lady Liberty was roughed up so badly at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The question, now hanging in the air is: “Are we losing our democracy?” On the first anniversary of that infamous day, President Biden accused the former president of “holding a dagger to the throat of democracy.” The New York Times Editorial Board warned us that we face “an existential threat from a movement that is openly contemptuous of democracy and has shown that it is willing to use violence to achieve its ends.” Republican lawmakers are passing bills that “would make it easier for lawmakers to reject the votes of their citizens if they don’t like the outcome.” (The New York Times Sunday Review Jan. 2nd, 2022) At this writing, the news is unbelievable: the Republican National Committee has decided that what happened on January 6th 2021 is “legitimate political discourse!” Excuse me? Have you watched the horrifying videos of that coup attempt on YouTube? Where are we? In Germany, 1933? In Mandelstam’s Soviet Union? In Milosz’ Poland? It’s not just the virus that hangs heavy in the air, but a terror that our elections are about to be undermined, and that the hopes for real change kindled by the victory of Biden and Harris, by the Black Lives Matter Movement, by the Green New Deal, by the John Lewis Voting Rights Bill, by the Build Back Better bill, are in deep trouble. “What is poetry which does not save/Nations or people?” asks Czeslaw Milosz in his famous poem “Dedication.” He answers this impossible question in another poem, “In Warsaw:”
My pen is lighterThan a hummingbird’s feather. This burdenIs too much for it to bear.
And yet, poems have been written about this unbearable burden since the psalmist took up his lyre and sang:
Why, O God, has Thou cast us off forever?
Why doth Thine anger smoke against the flock of Thy pasture?
(Psalm 74:1 The Holy Scriptures, Jewish Publication Society, 1917.)
In troubled times many of us turn to the Psalms, as we did in Deep River when, after the 2016 election and the assaults of climate change and the pandemic, we found ourselves writing poems about a world turned upside down and inside out. Like the psalmist, Deep River poet Daniela Kantorová pleads for help from the divine in her poem “The Ship:”
Dear God, please turn the ship
that floats in the rain above Foothill Blvd.
It lands in an apple orchard
The back merges with the land
Soul Making in the Valley of the Shadow became the name we gave our process of reading and writing. Eventually, it became the name of the book of poems we gathered as a bulwark against the looming catastrophes of our times. The origin of the name is in these famous lines from Psalm 23:
He restoreth my soul;He guideth me in straight paths for his name’s sake.Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of deathI will fear no evil,For thou art with meThy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.(Psalm 23: 3-6 The Holy Scriptures, Jewish Publication Society, 1917)
In his book, Keeping Faith with the Psalms, Daniel F. Polish refers to the profound idea that the “I” in this psalm is the soul on its life journey (p.171). In this way, making a poem is “making soul.” As I wrote in the Introduction to Soul Making: “The Muse is the voice of the soul, speaking in language that blends reason and mystery, She makes meaning of the incomprehensible.” (p. vii)
Many of the poems in our collection are about this process. Kent Ward Butzine opens his poem “Pandémie Hypnagogique” with a description of soul loss:
Everything is receding darkeningthere is sadness as the trees gothe river birds and birdsong the skyall beloved
Psalms are both poems and prayers. Many poems meander into prayer. They mix the stuff of everyday life with invocations to the divine. In Sheila de Shields’ poem “Flight of the Mind,” she prays for herself in old age:
in my last daysmay I sit by the black basalt fountain wild blueirisesand hooded orioles among my redwood treeslet me recall the names of my children…
In my poem “Birth Day Poem 2017” I pray:
Carry me back through the laboring darkinto first light first cry first touchof mother’s hands
Later in the poem I refer to political events as “those evil spirits” and as “the furies” who “rave/ and mutter,” who “spooked// my cradle” as my parents began to learn of “the trains the chimneys” in the Europe they had recently fled. What spooked me all over again was the anti-Semitic chants we heard from the right wing in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 12, 2017, when a "Unite the Right" rally turned deadly and the hate was palpable.
There are those who argue that it’s not kosher to mix poetry with the political—they are different spheres—just as the Jews separate the everyday from the Sabbath, just as Jung made a distinction between the Spirit of the Depths and the Spirit of the Times. But in Deep River we found we needed to mix the political with the profound themes that are poetry’s usual domain for the sake of our very souls. Poetry was our way of walking through the Valley of the Shadow. Despite the title of our book, it hadn’t fully come to me how much our path is influenced by the Psalms. As Robert Alter points out in The Art of Biblical Poetry:
The God of biblical faith…is not a God of the cosmos alone, but also a God of history. A good many psalms…are responses to the most urgent pressures of the historical moment.
It is moving to realize that this poetic tradition—which speaks to the Divine from the overwhelm and panic we feel when in the grip of history’s violent fist—is as ancient as the Hebrew Bible. There is a lovely Jewish myth about King David, the Psalmist, which tells us that he wrote the psalms with “The Holy Breath” (Tree of Souls p. 279). In Judaism, Ruah, meaning breath or spirit, is one of the levels of the soul. Similarly, the word inspiration, which comes from the Latin word inspirare — meaning to breathe—came to mean divine guidance in Middle English. Thus our very language speaks to the spiritual nature of making poetry.
|David and his Lyre|
The Sister from Below is Delighted to Announce the Publication of “Songs from the Deep River: Selected Poems from Soul Making in the Valley of the Shadow” in the Jung Journal
The sibyl breathes deeplyThe vapors from the fire belowShe is no longer herselfShe from a respectable familyShe who is reliably self–possessedIs unhinged by the smell of deathVirginia Lee Chen from “Sibyl” p. 27
Deep River is honored that a selection of poems from Soul Making has been published in the latest issue of The Jung Journal (Volume 15, Number 4). Jeffrey Moulton Benevedes, the editor of The Jung Journal, doesn’t seem to worry about mixing the Spirit of the Times with the Spirit of the Depths. He writes eloquently of our crazed times in his introductory essay to this issue: “To the Reader:”
These days the dizzying pace and sheer ferocity of changes in our world leave us little to no time to recover from one catastrophe before the next hits. A pernicious pandemic and intensifying climate change events surge like tsunamis over the globe, leaving us roiling in existential crisis and economic, political and social instability…
How much can we take?What do we do? Where do we go to find refuge, solace, healing, a way forward?
Doesn’t this sound like the psalmist’s cry? “My soul is sore afflicted;/And Thou, O Lord, how long?” (Psalm 6:4) Or like Dossie Easton’s lament in her poem “With my Pink Pussy Hat On”?
How will we open our heartsto each otherin a country where half the voters are in lovewith their hating
of people like me: like for instance:women they can’t own, or men who can
love other men,or those who belong to other culturespart of Humanity’s far flung treasure… (p. 17)
Depth psychologists, spiritual leaders and healers of all kinds strive to help heal the World Soul, one psyche at a time.And artists make art. Out of the spirit of the depths, they engage with the spirit of the times in a way that anchors us, expressing our suffering and our light. (p. 1)
I agree with Benevedes that it is the very mingling of the Spirit of the Depths with the Spirit of the Times which helps us locate ourselves and cast light on our emotions. It describes a number of poems in the Soul Making collection, among them Raluca Ioanid’s “Bucharest Sestina” about her “vanished grandparents”:
In our pact never to forgetthe momentum of lossis greater. Have our night–vanishing grandparentsopened the door for dreamsand days and meals and adventures sweetened by ourkinship to this family of ghosts? (p. 47)
or Clare Cooper Marcus’ poem “Ann Frank’s Tree”
In spring, chestnut flowerslike ghostly candelabralit her days, as they did minenot much distance west, acrossthe channel…For her, the tree beyond her graspstood achingly alive, dear daily reminderof leaf–birth,
leaf fall… (p. 52)
|Flowering Chestnut tree|
or Connie Hills’ poem “Time to Come”
If you visit Van Gogh’s gravego after the gust of summer…The quaintness of the placeso placid you can imaginestanding at Vincent’s burialthat July midisurrounded by lemon sunflowersbattered dahliasHallelujahs oozingfrom their thousands ofamber throats…(pp. 41-2)
Benevedes goes on to write of Deep River and quotes the beautiful telling of our story by Poetry Editor Frances Hatfield:
For the past fifteen years, here at the San Francisco C.G. Jung Institute, something extraordinary has been quietly unfolding. Poetry editor Frances Hatfield provides the origin story of the poems you will read: “At the instigation of Naomi Ruth Lowinsky’s “Sister from Below,” poets, nascent poets, and poetry lovers have gathered in the library of the Gough Street building…each month, immersed in the ghosts and spirits and deep soul of that holy place, and cooking together in the power of mythopoesis to express grief, beauty and love. Out of that profound communitas, a group of poets emerged who call themselves, aptly, the ‘Deep River Poets.’ This issue’s poetry section features a selection from a new book they have published as an offering to the institute and to the Extended Education program under which they have met. One can sense how these nine poets nourished each other as their voices of witness, grief, praise, awe and exuberance emerged in the presence of great poets, considered in the light of our extraordinary times. (p.3)
We are deeply grateful to Jeffrey Moulton Benevedes and Frances Hatfield for their generous response to Soul Making and to Managing Editor LeeAnn Pickrell for the beautiful layout of the poems.
|Slave Ship: Wood Engraving by Smyth|
“A Light So Terrible”
In the Psalms, as in many of the poems we turn to in terrible times, we seek access to a higher power, a deeper wisdom, a more expansive way of understanding, when the world as we know it cracks open, spilling out our firm beliefs and our grasp of what we think of as truth. When things we never thought could happen in America, or things we ignore or deny, are flung at us in a light as terrible as nightmare, what is our responsibility as poets? When we learn that the former president had draft executive orders drawn up involving the Department of Justice, Homeland Security and Defense—in a plot to seize voting machines after the 2020 election—what can we do or say? (My father, a refugee from the Nazis and a passionate believer in American democracy, is turning in his grave.) What scares me more than anything is how little outrage and furor I hear in the collective. Psalm 94: 3-6 comes to mind:
Lord, how long shall the wicked,How long shall the wicked exult?They gush out, they speak arrogancy;All the workers of iniquity bear themselves loftily.They crush Thy people, O Lord,And afflict Thy heritage.They slay the widow and the stranger,And murder the fatherless…
We who have put our faith in the wisdom of our Founding Fathers, feel fatherless. We who have fought for Women’s Liberation, Racial Justice, Equality and the well-being of our Mother Earth find ourselves still in the thrall of the Patriarchy—bereft of Mother Power. Orphaned. Terribly afraid.
|Amanda Gorman at Inauguration|
But there is help and wisdom among the young and among poets. Amanda Gorman, who gave us her beautiful Inaugural Poem, “The Hill We Climb,” continues to inspire us. In an opinion piece in the New York Times Sunday Review, (January 20, 2022)—“If You’re Alive, You’re Afraid”—she reframes the meaning of fear. She had almost decided against being the Inaugural poet because of her fear—amplified by friends and family— that she might lose her life on that very visible platform. She suffered with insomnia and nightmares as she wrestled with her decision. “Was this poem worth it?” She writes:
And then it struck me: Maybe being brave enough doesn’t mean lessening my fear but listening to it. I closed my eyes in bed and let myself utter all the leviathans that scared me, both monstrous and miniscule. What stood out most of all was the worry that I’d spend the rest of my life wondering what this poem might have achieved. There was only one way to find out.
If Gorman was praying to a higher power in her dark night of the soul, it strikes me she includes the power to strike fear as an aspect of the deity. This resonates with the Jewish view of the Divine who is not only about goodness and kindness, but about wrath and trouble. Her breakthrough came when she could listen to what her fear taught her.
In the year since the Inauguration, Gorman has written a new book of poems, Call Us What We Carry. I want to quote from sections of the opening poem in that collection—“Ship’s Manifest”—in which she speaks to the role of the poet in our awful times. Like the Psalmist who urges his people to “Depart from evil and do good” (Psalm 34:15), Gorman clearly sees the poet’s function as ethical as well as spiritual. It is worth noting that a ship’s manifest lists the cargo, passengers and crew of a ship. It is an accounting of what the ship carries. Ship’s manifests for slave ships are one of the few places historians of slavery can find the names and some details about the people who were stolen from Africa and brought to the New World against their will. The poem never mentions the Middle Passage, but its dark waters, its ghosts and demons flow deep below the surface. Notice she holds poets accountable, as though our work requires the tools of an accountant making lists. In fact, much of her poem is a list. Her passion is contagious. Her word play is brilliant—for example, “An ark articulated?” or “Our greatest test will be/Our testimony.” Her use of the word “testimony”—which in Black Churches means telling how the Divine has interceded in our lives—brings us deep into the realm of the psalms, as does the line “A light so terrible” which makes clear how difficult, soul wrenching and essential is the work of the poet.
Here is a section of Gorman’s poem:
The poet’s diagnosis is that what we have livedHas already warped itself into a fever dream,The contours of its shape stripped from the murky mind.To be accountable we must render an account:Not what was said, but what was meant.Not the fact, but what was felt.What was known, even while unnamed.Our greatest test will beOur testimony.This book is a message in a bottle.This book is a letter.This book does not let up.This book is awake.This book is a wake.For what is a record but a reckoning?The capsule captured?A repository.An ark articulated?& the poet, the preserverOf ghosts & gains,Our demons & dreams,Our haunts & hopes.Here’s to the preservationOf a light so terrible.from Call Us What We Carry, “Ship’s Manifest.”
|Miniature from Hafiz-i Abru’s Majma al-tawarikh|