Showing posts with label Sister. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sister. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Muse of Flight

The Poetry of Resistance II

We are pilgrims passing through
the metal detector. We remove our shoes, remove
our coats and shawls. Some of us will be hand wanded—
silver bracelets, seven quarters, three dimes—provoke
the security gods…
—Naomi Ruth Lowinsky “Root Canal”

In the Hands of the Security Gods

I was twenty–three before I took my first airplane flight. Since then, flight has become a commonplace in the lives of the privileged. Some fly for work. Many fly for pleasure, for adventure. Some fly to make pilgrimages to ancestral lands or to mythic places that speak to our souls. We return home full of images and experiences that change us, open our hearts and our minds. There is a gallery of such beloved places within me. They are numinous; they orient me to the journey of my life. I visit them often in reverie. They come to me in dreams, make their homes in my poems—South Indian women in glowing saris, Table Mountain hovering over Cape Town, a vaporetto plowing the glittering waters of the Grand Canal in Venice, the palm tree outside Lorca’s bedroom window in Granada, the green hills of Wilhelmhöhe, outside Kassel, from which my mother, age twelve, and her family took flight just before Hitler came to power.

Flight is a wonder, but also a peril. In my early years of flying the fear was that the plane would crash. Since the 9/11 attacks tore up our sense of safety, the fear is a terrorist will make the plane crash. We’ve had to learn the strange ritual required by the Transportation Security Administration—shoe removal, jacket removal, the placing of carryon luggage on a moving belt to be examined by X-ray. Sometimes we get wanded. Sometimes we get groped. Our precious, carefully packed stuff is picked through, manhandled. We are ambivalent about all this—is the TSA protecting us or abusing us? Recently, as border issues have heated up and travel bans been announced, agents are demanding that certain travellers unlock their cell phones, tablets, laptops, reveal their passwords so they can scroll through e–mail, photos, private Facebook posts. People have missed their flights while agents are poking through their personal communications without a warrant. U.S. citizens have been detained for hours, questioned aggressively and released without apology. The stink of racism surrounds these events, often targeting people with Muslim names, or dark skin.

The Last Laugh

Poems of Resistance can take many forms, evoke many emotions. Diane Frank’s lovely poem “When you fly…” uses humor to unpack this complex political phenomenon. The poem pretends to be simple and direct. In fact it is subtle and sly. A list poem, it opens by naming things that might be bombs—food, drink, musical instruments. The second stanza takes flight. We are given a suitcase full of images sacred to the traveller—the iconic symbols of east and west coast America are thrown in with the “packing cases of the San Francisco Symphony”—reminding us that flight is essential to cultural exchange. Then we’re off to Paris and to the last remaining “Wonder of the Ancient World”—the Great Pyramid at Giza. We’ve flown through space as well as through time—back to ancient Egypt, in the company, it seems of a world–travelling musician.

The Sphinx must be behind the third stanza, it is so mysterious and yet, revealing. This time the flight is inward, into the realms of mind, of the invisible, of the potential, of the mathematical. A magical twist reveals a medieval Book of Hours, a grandmother’s wedding ring. These riches of imagination and lineage are desecrated in the fourth stanza by the groping hands of the TSA agent. The poem illuminates the bewilderment and intrusion we’ve all experienced as we trudge through endless security lines, longing for flight, fearing our journey will be imperiled by the misinterpretation of the precious stuff of our lives. The political contract according to which we citizens hand over our privacy to the TSA in exchange for security is easily exploded by the abuse of power. The poem’s speaker reports that she has been violated, and then hit on. She regains her power and her authority in the final couplet, by stating the obvious— “It’s not a hand grenade;/it’s an avocado.” What better resistance than this—to get the last word, and the last laugh?

When you fly . . .

Things that might be a bomb . . .
Yogurt, avocados, lemonade, iced tea
the endpin of a cello

A banjo, a violin
electronic equipment wrapped carefully
in cotton fabric and bubble wrap
so it won’t be damaged after landing

The Empire State Building
The Golden Gate Bridge
The packing cases of the San Francisco Symphony
The Eiffel Tower
The Pyramids at Giza

The unwritten pages of a novel
in the genre of magical realism
An architectural drawing
An algorithm, a vector
An illuminated medieval book of hours
My grandmother’s wedding ring

And to the TSA agent
who groped me during the pat down
and then asked me out to lunch . . .

It’s not a hand grenade;
it’s an avocado.

—Diane Frank

Diane Frank is an award-winning poet and author of Swan Light, Entering the Word Temple, and The Winter Life of Shooting Stars. Her friends describe her as a harem of seven women in one very small body. She lives in San Francisco, where she dances, plays cello, and creates her life as an art form. The poem in Naomi’s blog, “When you fly,” will be published in Canon for Bears and Ponderosa Pines, forthcoming from Glass Lyre Press. Diane teaches at San Francisco State University and Dominican University. Blackberries in the Dream House, her first novel, won the Chelson Award for Fiction and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Letters from a Sacred Mountain Place, a memoir of her 400 mile trek in the Nepal Himalayas, is forthcoming from Nirala Press.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Muse of November 22nd

Late November tugs at me, reminds me of a painful moment that changed my consciousness. A dark bell tolls. Like everyone of my generation I can tell you exactly where I was on November 22, 1963—I was in the kitchen with my baby on my hip. My upstairs neighbor, Andrea—a friend and fellow student at Berkeley—came slamming through my back door in a tumult of voice and feeling: “The President has been shot!” She had just been on campus where everyone was dazed and no one knew what to do. Go to class? Go home? Call Mom and Dad? I remember my own confusion, disbelief, fear. How could this happen in America—my family’s sanctuary from the terrors of the Nazis? I remember my own internal incoherence: I was so mad at Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs—his invasion of Cuba felt like a personal betrayal. Could I mourn him? I remember hours in front of our enormous old black and white TV, watching the recital of catastrophic events. I could not then imagine that this would become a collective ritual—over and over we’d sit in front of all the TVs of our lives, watching the aftermath of assassinations, church bombings, school shootings…

There was a lot I could not yet imagine. I was twenty—too young to be a mother and a wife. My too young husband was in medical school. We lived in the downstairs apartment of my Oma’s duplex in Berkeley. Until recently she’d lived upstairs, in the rooms she painted in that lovely watercolor that would much later grace the cover of my poetry book, Adagio & Lamentation.

In her eighties, beginning to fail, Oma had moved to a sanatorium in Saint Helena, the closest thing she could find to the sanatoria of Europe, where, before the Nazis came to power, people like she would “take the waters.” Once a month, as regularly as a ballad, we’d go to visit Oma in the wine country, my husband, my baby and me. She and I would take walks. She’d tell me, in German, the stories from the long arc of her life. She spoke to me of the changing light. Years later I would remember this scene and put it in the opening poem of Adagio & Lamentation:


I wish you could stop being dead
so I could talk to you about the light    so we
could walk among the vineyards    as we did
forty years ago     near St. Helena    and you

could tell me    again        how the light of late
afternoon is so different from the light
of morning     I was too young
to grasp your meaning    but I believe

you said     it is all about the fall of shadows
that when you paint    it is not light that streams
from your brush but deep purple    violet      blue
you shaped emptiness      and there was light

Oma    come visit me   sit at your easel as you always did
your brush poised    your eyes as fierce
as a tiger’s    show me how to create
the luminous moment     among so many shades

of sorrow   so many dead     how to gather the light
of all the windows    from all the houses of our lives
to make this bright trail I still follow     along the gleaming
floor of the room in which you showed me how

to draw    out the french windows to the unseen
garden        a river of light that lifts
                                                        the Persian carpet into the air 

My Oma, like Rose Kennedy, knew what it was to outlive three of her children, to be given the gift of a long life shadowed by unbearable loss. Jack Kennedy never got to walk with his grandchildren, telling them stories from a long rich life. Neither did his brother, Bobby.

I see myself sitting in front of that old TV, as if in one of the early tree rings of my life, surrounded by the many greater tree rings of who I have become. I had no idea, that day, that Jack Kennedy, though dead, would soon change my life. He had given my generation a treasure—the Peace Corps. Many of us would be shaped by it, becoming world citizens, with an international sense of kinship and responsibility and a passion for travel.

In a later tree ring I’d find myself in India, with two young children and my husband—the Peace Corps doctor for volunteers in Hyderabad. In the next tree ring—consciousness blown wide open by the beauty, the color, the soul of India, amidst so much poverty and suffering—we’d adopt a third child, our Indian daughter, Shanti. I could not then imagine that years later, when that child was in her late twenties, my second husband Dan and I would take her to India. Dan had also been shaped by JFK’s gift—he had been a consultant to Peace Corps in Kenya. Our pilgrimage was powerful for all three of us, and I came to recognize that Old Mother India was an early muse who shaped my essential being. She insisted on a chapter in my book: The Sister from Below.

Old Mother India remembered my time with her as a young woman, when I was younger than Shanti was at the time of our trip. Here is part of what I wrote: 
We opened our house in Hyderabad to Peace Corps volunteers. There was always someone sleeping on the floor, always several of us around the dining room table talking American politics, Indian politics, philosophies of life. We were there when Martin Luther King was assassinated. We were there when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. 
India held us young Americans with curiosity and compassion and deep kindness. She mourned our fallen leaders with us. Sheela, who washed my floors every morning, and sat in the kitchen deftly removing rocks one by one from our daily rice, had lost three of her five children. She asked me about Rose Kennedy—how many sons she had lost. Three I told her—one in the war, two by assassination. “Abah!” Three grown sons! And she wept with me. She told me she had a photograph of JFK in her home, next to her photograph of Mahatma Gandhi. Now she would add photographs of RFK and MLK. 
Jack Kennedy never got to look over a long life and trace the tree rings of his development. Neither did his brother, Bobby. It was Ted, who got into that trouble early on, Chappaquiddick and all, Ted, who never became president but did become the Lion of the Senate, the beloved voice of us aging liberals, who was granted the gift of a full life, and was able to bring forth what was within him. In the end it was he who spoke for the values of so many in my generation—healthcare reform, civil rights, social and economic justice. 

In a recent tree ring of my life, I found myself at my mother’s home in Chicago, glued to the TV. It was Ted Kennedy’s funeral. He had died of a brain tumor. I was filled with grief for this survivor of so much horror, so much personal tragedy, so much self–destructive behavior under the pitiless gaze of the TV cameras. For haven’t we all been self–destructive? I was filled with grief, also, for my mother, who, after years of living a full, creative and independent life, playing the violin and viola in chamber groups and orchestras, giving music lessons, and working with poor young children and their often too young parents, had begun to lose her way. This was revealed to us, her children and grand children, in a particularly painful and humiliating way for her. She got scammed. It made me furious to see the tree rings of her life—which had expanded so gloriously after she ended her marriage to my father—dented so violently and cruelly. It made me unspeakably sad that she should feel so diminished, so shamed.

It was a typical magazine sales scam. She thought she’d won a lot of money. Offshore con men sweet talked her on the telephone, got her to send them money. Luckily, the manager of her bank, who knew her and her cautious spending habits, got suspicious and called my brother.

As the tree rings of our lives get larger, they gather all our themes— our contradictions and complexities—wisdom forged in the School of Hard Knocks. For some of us, at some point, that richness of personality darkens, falters, loses its way. Here I was with my sweet, competent, funny mother, tracking her anxiety and her confusion amidst a gallery of her mother’s—my Oma’s—paintings. They track the tree rings of Oma’s long, difficult and creative life. As I watched the TV coverage of the death of another Kennedy I began to realize that the twang in my mouth was a tooth going bad. The pain grew and resonated like the dark bell of November. If physical pain expresses emotional pain, my tooth was eloquent, and led me to a poem which gathered many of the themes of my life. My Oma, my mother and the Kennedys are among those who have shaped the tree rings of my life. This November, as we passed through the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, I found myself musing about how the Kennedys are intertwined in my life. I want to share the long poem that came out of that visit to my mother. It expresses my gratitude and my grief.

Root Canal

1. Security Line

We are pilgrims on our way to see Mother   among travelers
in flip flops     with bluetooths     carrying babies      We walk
in our radiant bodies     One of us is about to crack

a tooth     Only the babies can see     old light
from past lives    Only the babies can hear
the song lines     We are pilgrims passing through

the metal detector      We remove our shoes     remove
our coats and shawls    Some of us will be hand wanded
silver bracelets    seven quarters    three dimes provoke

the security gods     The Kennedy who just died
is speaking thirty years ago on TV     His assassinated
brothers still bleed into our lives…

2. Retirement Living

In Mother’s eighty-eighth year she got scammed     Sweet talkers
from the islands poured delirium into her ears     drained her purse
A Great Lake swimmer lost face     A late Beethoven violin

bowed to the gods of security     We’ve come
to see her new place among the formerly eminent
Hyde Park intellectuals     We walk the round of her days        She

gets lost     forgets her song lines    wants to sort through
scores of Mozart Bartok Bach. What goes where?     The Kennedy
who died
is talking on TV     It’s his funeral     His widow pushes back her dark

hair    She’s known him on her belly, in her thighs     She knows
his secret smell     When is it my tooth cracks?
When does that big bully nerve take over?

3. Roots

Oma’s paintings dominate this place     She painted
herself painting all her ages      painted herself losing
her grip     She looked straight into her own mirrored eyes

and painted the edge of her nerve     We make a pilgrimage
to see her painting of German snow on roofs in 1931
The naked larches scrape the sky     Her sons are dead

Her sons are dead     Her sons are dead     Trees
save her     Trees leave     Trees bud     Trees flower
Trees know her secret smell      They cleanse her dreams

Trees grow by rivers     by canals     by lakes     They reflect
on themselves in oils     in watercolors     They burn orange
in the deep wood     They burn gold under water     Mother loses track

of the song lines of her Mother     Her brothers bleed
into brothers not yet born     Mother says we live
too far away     that we’ve been swallowed by the State of California

4. Going Home

I am losing my own grip     My finger prints fade     I forget
your name     All I know is the scream of a nerve     I’ve no idea
how the widow got into Mother’s TV     no idea

how an endodontist removes a dying nerve     no idea
how a plane leaves this earth     no idea
how I’ll live in the State of California
                                                    while Mother loses track of herself
(first published in SierraNevada Review)

Watercolor by Emma Hoffman

Monday, December 24, 2012

On Grief and Gratitude

During the longest night of the year I heard myself say in a dream, “It’s my job to hold the center.” It’s a hard job, tossed between the poles of grief and gratitude as so many of us have been during this past winter solstice.

There is so much I grieve. We lost my children’s father this year—a loving and supportive father, a devoted Zaide. His passing leaves a big hole in our family.

We lost our dear friend Lou, a devoted healer who magically blended Jungian, psychiatric and shamanic approaches to the psyche.

We are slowly losing my mother, who still walks in her body, but is losing her orientation in the realms between life and death.

We grieve the principal, the school psychologist and teachers who gave their lives to protect the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School. We grieve the precious children. We grieve for the survivors and what they must carry.

Newtown, CT Shrine
We grieve the children who are being terrorized and killed daily in senseless violence all over our land. As President Obama said in Newtown:

There have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose -- much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

We grieve little Hiram Lawrence, an adorable baby boy, killed in cross fire while in his father’s arms during a gangland shooting in Oakland.

Hiram and his father
We grieve his father, who was also shot and is recovering. His grief is unimaginable.

We grieve the sixteen year old boy Frederick Charles Coleman, who is being charged as an adult in the shooting. We grieve Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of the massacre at Sandy Hook and his first victim, his mother. We wonder what their stories are.

We grieve for the weeping grandmothers. Their suffering is incalculable.

We grieve for our country, which has lost its way, confounding gun rights with freedom, shooting “Explosive Entry” bullets into the soft underbelly of our body politic.

* * * * * * * 

And at the same moment, as the earth begins its return toward the sun, we are so grateful.

We are grateful to our country for re-electing a president who can hold the center, who can speak for the massacred children of a sweet affluent town as well as the massacred children of the mean streets of Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Oakland and so many other cities.

We are grateful for a president who has the capacity to feel and articulate our collective agony, and the integrity to insist: “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.”

After all, that is what the solstice is about, the cycle of change—the longest night ends and the light returns. This particular solstice has gotten much press because of a misunderstanding of the Mayan calendar. Those of us who know it is our job to hold the center understand that the Mayans see this recent solstice as the end of a 5,125 year cycle and the beginning of a new one. We are in a time with great potential for catastrophe as well as for renewal and transformation of what it means to be human and to live responsibly on our mother earth.

I am grateful for my inner life, for the access to dreams and inner figures cultivated by my Jungian analyses and training. I am forever grateful to my first analyst, who gave me a safe place to begin to become myself. I am grieved that he has been seriously ill. May he return from the underworld to flourish among us again.

I am grateful to the Sister from Below— my muse—who insists on time from me every day: she gives glow and flow to my life and helps me understand who I am and what I mean.

I am grateful to my sweet husband Dan, who helps me translate my musings into this blog. I am grateful to Patty Cabanas who knows how to reassure technophobes and who helps us get the News from the Muse out to all of you.

I am grateful to those who publish my work, especially to Mel Mathews of Fisher King Press who gave the Sister a life in print. Publishing is magic. It transforms what was inner, private—held in notebooks or in Word documents—into an object that belongs to whoever claims it in the world, where it develops a life of its own. Who knows who will read it and what they will make of it?

I am grateful for a recent harvest of publications, many in forms new to me. These are my gifts to you—family, friends, colleagues, fellow followers of the Muse—I am so grateful for your companionship in the dark and in the light.

I. Clinging to the Axis Mundi: The Poetry of Politics 

Tree of Life by Aloria Weaver 
I suffered a fit of technophobia when I learned that I’d need to do a Power Point presentation as a participant in A Citizen’s Dilemma: Four Voices, a pre-presidential election conference held at the C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco. I’d never done Power Point before. But as I played with the dialogue between images and my political poetry I got high on the process of illuminating words with images and images with words. I was lucky to have the competent help of Dan and my daughter Shanti.

My fellow presenter, Tom Singer, Co-Chair of ARAS Online, asked me to submit my piece to ARAS Connections: Image and Archetype, a beautiful online newsletter. I was honored. You can read my piece and see the images at You can receive this newsletter for free by clicking on "Receive this Newsletter for Free" at the top left or by emailing at

II. “Self Portrait with Ghost”

"Self Portrait with Ghost" is a new poem of mine, which has just been published on line by DecomP Magazine.

There is an ancient tension in poetry between the oral and the written traditions. My poems are highly musical. I chant them aloud as I compose them and they love to be read aloud. But I am also obsessive about crafting them for the page.

So it was a gift to be published by DecomP, which includes audio recordings of poems as well as the written text. "Self Portrait with Ghost" is part of a sequence of poems based on my close relationship with my maternal grandmother, the painter Emma Hoffman. She painted many portraits and self portraits. They are full of grief and gratitude. In the poem I imagine her returning from the dead to paint me now.

III. “Spacious Enough to Receive What Came to Me”

Robert Henderson's interview with me was published in Psychological Perspectives.

For years, Robert Henderson has conducted a series of what he calls Enterviews with Jungian Analysts and writers. These have been published in a three volume collection called, Living with Jung. I was flattered when he asked to meet with me. His questions engaged me in a different way than does the Sister. I found myself sharing how I do Active Imagination, how I talk to the dead, how a terrible dream catapulted me into my first Jungian analysis. I hope you’ll check it out in Psychological Perspectives 55:3.

IV. “Heart Work"

I recently reviewed In the Image of Orpheus: Rilke:A Soul History, Wilmette, Illinois, Chiron Publications, 2011 by Daniel Polikoff in the Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche.

I grew up with Rilke. My father quoted him in German. He was as familiar as a dear family friend. I thought I knew him well until I read Polikoff’s marvelous soul history, which brought a spiritual sensibility, informed by the works of Jung and Hillman to the life of this beloved poet. I am grateful to Polikoff for deepening and enriching my feeling for Rilke, such an important ancestor of mine. Here is my review, published in Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche 6:4/Fall2012.

Heart Work
Naomi Ruth Lowinsky

Work of the eyes is done
Now do heart work
on all the images imprisoned within you
                                                    Rilke (Polikoff)

I grew up with Rilke. He was a revered ancestor in my German Jewish family. Rilke is my kin, my familiar, part of my identity in the way that early impressions shape one. I can see my father now, bowing to a particularly lovely tree and reciting Rilke’s first sonnet to Orpheus by heart, in the German:
Da steig ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung!
O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr!
                                             (Rilke, 1985) 
A tree rose up. O pure transcendence!
O Orpheus sings! O tall tree in the ear.
For my father, a musicologist, that tall tree in the ear expressed his calling. For me, Rilke’s imagery was mysterious, incomprehensible and yet deeply true. I would learn, later in life, what that tree in the ear means to me. Rilke was to be my spirit guide—a major influence on my work. I would hear his cadences, get high on the wild flow of his images, his poetic music. I would come to understand that it is Rilke himself who is the tall tree in my ear. I thought I knew him well.

What a surprise then—and a gift—to meet a deeper, more psychological and spiritually complex Rilke than I had dreamt of, in Daniel Polikoff’s magnificent In the Image of Orpheus: Rilke: A Soul History. Polikoff gives us an ambitious and profound 700+ page amplification of Rilke’s opus. Reading it has been a pilgrimage—a hajj to my own poetic Mecca. Polikoff is a brilliant guide and companion, leading the reader into the rich world of his associations. Like the Muslim who traces the path of the prophet, Polikoff traces Rilke’s life process of “soul making,” how he worked his way out of his native Catholicism into a “poetic spirituality centered upon the soul—qua anima.”

Amplification is a method that ties together strands of meaning by association. It is not necessarily history or fact. It is about resonance. Polikoff leads us into Rilke’s life not to give an accounting of events and dates, but to invite us into us to walk with him and his companions as he follows the path of the poet.

Polikoff is himself a poet, and a fine translator of Rilke. He understands the mysterious realm in which a poet can change his or her life with words. In my experience this process is similar to working regularly with one’s dreams. Something ineffable happens as a poem comes to life—space opens, images that have been imprisoned leap free to become guides and signifiers, the texture of experience shifts, colors deepen, heart opens. In what realm does this happens?

Polikoff introduces us to his companions on the pilgrimage: James Hillman, C.G.Jung, Richard Tarnas, Henri Corbin, among others. He weaves a rich tapestry of associations out of threads from Hillman’s Archetypal Psychology—his credo that “Soul is imagination,” from Jung’s work on the anima and his belief that the feminine must be brought back into collective consciousness, from Richard Tarnas’ argument that monotheism has contributed to the desacralization of the cosmos. Following Hillman and Rilke’s interest in Sufism Polikoff associates to the work of Henri Corbin on the Sufi master Ibn Arabi, whose compelling writings on the creative imagination open doors to the heart of Rilke’s poetic religion and enable us to understand the confluence of poetry and prayer. He quotes Corbin: “Creation is epiphany…It is an act of the divine, primordial imagination.

We follow Rilke to Russia and to his profoundly religious text, The Book of Hours, written in the voice of a monk, an icon painter. Influenced by his lover, Lou Andrea Salome, Rilke takes us out of what James Hillman calls “that soulless predicament we call modern consciousness.” The icon painter knows that his God depends as much on him as vice versa. We’ve heard this before, from Jung. Suddenly sacred space opens and we realize we have entered the imaginal realm. That is where the poet changes her life. That is where Rilke undertook his great project of reconnecting “matter with spirit in and through the speech of the soul.” The Book of Hours “makes a case for the essentially imaginative and creative function of prayer.” In these poems Rilke’s God is down to earth, located “in the dark, invisible, densely material underground of the earth…not…a single centralized source, but… a spreading network of roots….” Doesn’t this sound like Jung’s rhizome?

Beginning in The Book of Hours and working through the cataclysmic crisis of The Duino Elegies, coming to the fruition of a mature religious orientation in the Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke writes “out of a keen awareness that the ongoing life of God…depends upon the rejuvenating force of the human imagination. This resonates with Jung and the Sufis.

It is also Rilke’s mission to bring the feminine back into consciousness. Polikoff, leaning on Jung, focuses on Rilke’s anima fascinations in life and in poetry. He traces Rilke’s soul development as he separates from Lou Andreas Salome, who has been a maternal figure, and meets the lovely young artists Paula Becker and Clara Westhof in the bucolic landscape of Worpeswede. Clara would eventually become his wife. Rilke’s understanding of the sacred shifts “away from the name and spirit of God toward the soul of nature experienced in and through the eyes of two enchanting maiden-artists.” Following Hillman, Polikoff understands the power of anima as enlivening more than the personal realm. Anima is “the archetype of soul coming into its own by way of creative imagination.” In a great poem like “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.” Rilke brings the dead maiden to life: “Like as fruit ripe with sweetness and night/she was filled with her great death.” Later in his life the death of a maiden will become the inspiration for his Sonnets to Orpheus.

I found Polikoff’s tracing of Rilke’s theme, that “God can be truly known only in and through the deed of creation itself,” one of the most compelling aspects of his Soul History. The reader follows the development of Rilke’s “poetic religion” from The Book of Hours, which is written “out of a keen awareness that the ongoing life of God…depends upon the invigorating force of the human imagination, to the Duino Elegies, which “sound out of his soul’s dark night” to the Sonnets to Orpheus whose “Orphic voice…moves freely through the world…reflecting the hidden imaginal reality inhering in all visible and invisible” things. In the Elegies we taste the heights and depths of “the initiatory experience itself.” The Sonnets are the fruit of that descent, the suffering of divine absence transformed into divine presence by the poet’s song, that tree in the ear which connects underworld, world and heaven. The Elegies, Polikoff argues, are monotheistic, in contrast to the polytheism of the Sonnets. For Polikoff, as for Hillman, this is an important spiritual development away from dualism and into the anima mundi.

I did not expect, when I began this pilgrimage—this hajj—with Polikoff, Hillman, Corbin and the others to be led to El Greco’s angel—one of the inspirations, Polikoff says, for the terrifying angel of the Elegies. Synchronistically, El Greco’s angel had recently given me goose bumps in a church in Toledo. Nor had I expected to be led to the Sufi poets, who have been tugging at my heart for years. Rilke mentions Persian place names in his Sonnet II #21: “Fountains and roses from Ispahan or Shiraz.” Shiraz, Polikoff points out, was the birthplace of the Sufi poet Hafiz. He goes on to write that Sufism “construes the heart…as the primary organ of the imagination.”

Rilke, this pilgrimage has taught me, is more than kin, more than that “tall tree in the ear.” He has revealed himself, through Polikoff’s superb reflections, as the angel of “heart work”—a prophet of my own poetic religion.

Note: The reference to Rilke’s sonnet in the German is taken from the Stephen Mitchell’s translation, New York: Simon and Shuster,1985. The translations of Rilke’s poems are by Polikoff.

Christmas Tree as Axis Mundi
Holiday Blessings
from the Muse