The Muse of Gathering
Lost and Found in Poetry Land
Once in awhile a book comes along that changes how you gather your life. The anthology, River of Earth and Sky: Poems for the Twenty–First Century, selected by Diane Frank, published in 2015, is such a book. Poetry is a solitary practice. I’m used to sitting alone in my study, talking to inner figures, listening to the intensities of my muse. But as I wound my way through this luminous, soul–stirring gathering of poems, I found myself in the company of so many kindred spirits—some I knew, most I did not— that it occurred to me, I had found my tribe. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, given that Diane Frank, the editor of Blue Light Press, had chosen my chapbook, The Little House On Stilts Remembers, along with Lucy Day’s Dreaming of Sunflowers: Museum Poems, to share the Blue Light Poetry Prize in 2015. But that welcome recognition is a different experience from the long meander along the river of poems Frank selected. Rounding each bend I was surprised and delighted, as earth met sky in many voices and moods, with striking imagery, musicality, sensuality and a flow of themes that resonate with my own passions. The poems are illuminated with striking artwork by Melanie Gendron, and a lush cover image of naked female figures among trees and birds, in shades of green, blue and earth tones, called “Nurturing Forest.” Under the spell of this collection, I found myself musing about anthologies, how certain of them can define an epoch, a poetic movement, a change in consciousness, how certain ones have been significant sign posts along my way.
It’s easy to get lost in Poetry Land. There are so many literary publications in print and on line, so many poets, well known and not, so many poetry readings in small cafes and big auditoriums. It’s easy to get confused about where you are, who your people are, who your ancestors are, as you wander through your years of apprenticeship—for poetry is a hard task master, requiring endless study and devotion. It never ceases to amaze me how many fine poets are writing today, and how many of them are women. In our wealth and celebrity mad culture they devote themselves to poetry for no money and little glory. River of Earth and Sky testifies to this brilliant flowering.
|“Flower Mandala,” Melanie Gendron*|
Art in color here appears in black and white in the anthology.
How did this happen? Three poetry anthologies mark the sea change poetry has experienced in my writing lifetime. They trace my long meander in Poetry Land, gather my songlines, trace my obsessions. The word anthology comes from the Greek, meaning flower gathering. Anthologies, also known as garlands, go back two thousand years, more if you think of the Bible as such a gathering. The fourth anthology, River of Earth and Sky, feels like a homecoming, a promised land. It gave me the gift of an epiphany: I saw my path in four anthologies. I want to share with you the fruits of this gathering.
The New American Poetry
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self–conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
—Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California”
If you’re of my generation, a fellow traveler in Poetry Land, you likely know this anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960, edited by Donald M. Allen and published in 1960. It gathered poems from what Allen calls the third generation of 20th century American poets. The first generation are the modernists—Ezra Pound, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens etc. The second generation includes Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Kenneth Rexroth, and Louis Zukofsky. The third generation, writes Allen, is “our avant–garde…Many are closely allied to modern jazz and abstract expressionist painting.” They include the Black Mountain Poets, the Poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, the Beats, the New York Poets, and assorted others. These poets cracked open the idea of the poem; they made a mash up of high and low culture, vulgar talk and high flown phrases. They believed that form and rhythm should emerge organically, that imagination was poetry’s chariot. Thus Allen Ginsberg meets Walt Whitman and Garcia Lorca in a Berkeley supermarket in 1955.
When I was an undergraduate in English Literature at Berkeley, lost and unseen in academia, this anthology helped me gather my influences. My father’s first job in this country had been at Black Mountain College, which hired many refugee German Jews like him. I was a baby, a toddler, a little girl in the heady environment of that radical school in the mid 1940s. The famous poets, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, had not yet arrived. But there was an atmosphere of creative exploration and political courage. My parents led the effort to desegregate the college, the first school in the South to do so. With Allen’s exciting anthology in hand, I decided I was a Black Mountain Poet, though those writers were a generation older than I, their poetry was written during my childhood, and I met them only in their books, which still grace my book shelves and inform my work.
As a teenager in Berkeley, under the spell of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, I wore black stockings, prowled Telegraph Ave.—a wannabe Beat—entranced by what Ginsberg, writing a statement about his poetics in the New American Poetry, calls the “Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath” which inspired him. “The first section typed out madly one afternoon, a huge sad comedy of wild phrasing, meaningless images for the beauty of abstract poetry of mind running along making awkward combinations like Charlie Chaplin’s walk, long saxophone–like chorus lines…really a new poetry.” This was a poetry of music, magic, image, the collision and collusion of the quotidian, the taboo, and the sacred. That’s what I wanted to write.
I am struck, looking at my 50 plus year old copy of The New American Poetry—which cost $2.95—that the one poet I marked with an asterisk in blue ink in the Table of Contents was Denise Levertov. There are few women in this gathering of poets. I must have been so hungry to find a woman ancestor. I marked her poem, “The Goddess,” with a blue arrow.
She in whose lipservice
I passed my time
whose name I knew, but not her face…
flung me across the room…I did not yet know it, but that would be my story.
News of the Universe: Poems of the Twofold Consciousness
Oh friend, we arrived too late. The divine energies
Are still alive, but isolated above us, in the archetypal world…
What is living now? Night dreams of them. But craziness
Helps, so does sleep. Grief and Night toughen us…
Poets…are like the holy disciple of the Wild One
Who used to stroll over the fields through the whole divine night.
from “Bread and Wine, Part 7,” translated by Robert Bly.
The news from this far flung gathering, including poems from far away lands and times and places, was chosen and introduced in News of the Universe, by Robert Bly, and published in 1980. It shook the earth under my feet in Poetry Land. Bly has long been a passionate critic of the post–Enlightenment poetic stance in which “the body is exiled, the soul evaporated, the mind given executive power.” He has opened our doors and windows to let in the music and magic of poetries from all over the world. He championed language that “reaches outward to plants and metals, as well as inward to night–intelligence and sleep.” He brought me news of my German roots in poetry, writing of the importance of the Novalis–Hölderin–Goethe tradition:
Hölderin, whose poems have such immense sound, reported that the new had come; but to him the new is not irony and dislocation, but the awareness that the old non-human or non–ego energies the ancient world imagined so well were impinging again on human consciousness.
The seat of the soul is where the inner world and the outer world meet. Where they overlap, it is in every point of the overlap.I did not know it yet, but it would be in that overlap between the worlds, which Bly calls the “twofold consciousness” that my poetry would flourish. What is twofold consciousness? Bly writes of how we have all, “since the rise of technology…been torn into parts so often that we can hardly grasp what an interior unity could be.” As a young woman I railed about that split between body and mind, human and animal. Bly, a prophet down from the mountain, expanded and deepened my understanding of the problem, railing that “the entire non–human world has been denied consciousness…” Twofold consciousness, then, is where inner and outer, male and female, human and animal, plant and mineral, night and day, sun and moon, heaven and earth—all the archetypal couples who lived among us before we exiled the gods and our souls—meet. Bly reminded me of what I had always known but easily forgot, that the animating desire of the poetry that moves me, the poetry I seek to write, is about healing that split—Bly calls it the “Descartes wound”— which privileges mind over body, soul and nature.
|“Creation of Lovers”|
The blue arrow pointing to Denise Levertov’s “The Goddess” in The New American Poetry, is the thread that gathers the three anthologies that trace my steps, for Levertov is in each one of them. In News of the Universe Levertov appears in magical abundance in several poems. In “An Embroidery (I), a fairy tale poem, we meet Rose Red and Rose White, sisters, who sing to the bear:
it is a cradle song, a loom song,The bear, we learn, is the bridegroom. Levertov draws from traditional forms a story that sings to the animal in us all:
a song about marriage, about
a pilgrimage to the mountains
Rose Red in a cave that smells of honeyShe elegantly articulates Bly’s theme, that in order to be fully ourselves we must know our animal natures, or, to borrow from another Levertov poem, we must “Come into Animal Presence” for “Those who were sacred have remained so…”
dreams she is combing the fur of her cubs
with a golden comb.
Your ancestors have all arrived.
The past has arrived.
This earth is in our hands
Let it fly, bird of earth and light…
—Meridel Le Sueur, “Make the Earth Bright and Thanks”
She Rises Like the Sun, published in 1989, edited by Janine Canan, brought news that was dear to my heart and soul, news that the divine energies Hölderin lamented two hundred years ago, are finding their way back to us, especially in women’s writings. Meridel Le Sueur is one of a number of women poets with Native American roots who speak for the new/old consciousness of the goddess and the earth. It is striking, from this mountain top view of my lifetime, to see how rapidly the forgotten, neglected, taboo voices of women who write to heal the split in themselves and in the culture, have found their way into the plentiful harvest of this beautiful anthology. It includes the wild, mysterious invocation of the white wolf, the Loba, by Diane di Prima, who was to become my teacher:
Oh LadyIn She Rises Like the Sun, that blue arrow returns us to Denise Levertov’s prophesy of “The Goddess,” and once again we are “flung across the room.” The Goddess, of course, insists we live in “two–fold consciousness.” Jean Shinoda Bolen speaks of this eloquently in her Foreword:
whose hair is the willow, whose breath
is the riversong, who lopes
through the milky way, baying…
—Diane di Prima, “ The Poet Prays to the Loba”
In poem after poem there are moments of revelation, in which Goddess and woman partake of the same essence, when a woman finds the Goddess in herself…
Poetry with its rhythmic cadence and imagery has a power, similar to drumming and music, to move us from ordinary reality and measureable time into that deeper place where we…have no sense of time passing.Thus “two–fold consciousness” becomes an experience of the Unus Mundus—the one world—the divine child of all those archetypal couples—in which all things are intertwined. Janine Canan speaks to this realm of consciousness in a long, engaging Introduction:
We seem to find the poets turning Her around in their collective minds, viewing her from all angles; viewing Her from a great distance only to discover they are contained within Her. She is the earth, the grandmother, the mother, the daughter, the wife and the beloved. She is the snake, the scorpion, the dragonfly, the cat and the wolf. She is the wise one, evolution, mystery and the absence of mystery…She is all the arts…She is life and She is death. She is goodness and evil; the void and creation. She is us. She is all.
Canan sees her anthology as a gathering of “a new body of Western religious poetry,” contributing “to the creation of a new religious myth that revives a vast network of old ones.” I think she is right. In poem after poem we come into “animal presence,” we have direct experience of the divine in women’s ordinary lies. Di Prima addresses the Goddess as Loba:
Is it not in yr service that I wear myself outIn Judy Grahn’s marvelous poem “The Queen of Wands,” we meet a spider:
running ragged among these hills, driving children
to forgotten movies?
“The Loba Addresses the Goddess or
The Poet as Priestess Addresses the Loba–Goddess.”
On hot days
she pays out her line and
twirls on down
to the surface of the lake or pond
to get a little drink of water
and to wash her face. She’s such an
And I am the Queen of WandsThese poems are magical, incantatory, musical, mystical. They carry on the myths of the American landscape, of First People; they pray for us all, and make offerings:
who never went away
where would I go?
In the first light
I offer cornmeal
I say hello to those who came before me, and to birds
under the eaves,
and budding plants.
—Linda Hogan, “First Light”
The devil’s knitting needles,
these dragonflies, stitch the pond to sky.
All magic transpires in this elemental mix.
When water or earth touches air or fire…
—Mailaika King Albrecht, “How to Kiss Fire”
|"II of Wands"|
Aching tones caress cheeksThey speak for the natural world, especially for trees:
curl like smoke around thick ankles.
Soaked in jazz, bodies drip
with something forgotten.
—Stefanie Renard, “Kind of Blue”
The cedar folds so many shadows
into its heart at night, yet wakes
green each morning
in a light that drops
through its stopped limbs
like a new soul.
—Alixa Doom, “Heart of Cedar”
I could go on and on, citing blazing passages from little known poets and well–known ones—Kim Addonizio, Jane Hirshfield, Thomas Centolella, among others. I want to focus on the less known voices, for one of the gifts of this collection is this offering of wondrous poems by so many amazing poets you’ve never heard of. Maybe that religious awakening Janine Canan wrote of is happening right here among us in Poetry Land.
Frank’s dedication is evocative: “For the poets of the future to discover what we saw, felt and knew during these times.” It got me wondering what a future poet might gather about our inner and outer lives, about what kind of people and poets we were. I started a list. I’m sure you can come up with many more examples and their poetic illustrations.
We love to make love:
I dreamed that the only way to heaven
was to kiss.
Kiss wide and soft lipped.
Kiss with your nose inhaling
the delicate scent of warm rice.
Don’t expect to be able
to distinguish God from your lover.
—Robin Lim, “Applying Joint Compound”
Tomorrow I will be ordinary again,We love to laugh:
but tonight my hair is made of moonlight.
—Judy Liese, “Moonlight Hair”
my breastsWe live in a world of hurt:
are at the breaking point, I must get them home soon,
they are starting to rebel, don’t look at them please,
alright, go ahead, but I’m warning you they’re hungry,
tired and pretty cranky…
—May Garsson, “My Unruly Breasts”
White buildings mirrored in the Tigris—We suffer the degradation of the earth:
damp air stagnant with derision…
This was said to have been the cradle
of civilization, where some believe
the garden of Eden flourished…
The fable interrupted now…
by the flash of Howitzers…
Palm trees toss shaggy heads and teeter.
Goats shiver in suburban yards…
The full moon rises red as a pomegranate,
aloof and indifferent to the bombing.
—Christopher Seid, “Full Moon Over Baghdad; March 19, 2003”
I know this grass, fashioned when the forestWe contemplate death:
was a Paleozoic maid.
Now she is crone,
taken, cut so that men can raise corn
and do a thousand hard–edged things.
—Diane Porter, “To Aranyani”
I rest my head on my own skull at nightWe find divinity in the ordinary:
and sleep not an inch from my death…
—Nynke Passi, “Bones”
You like being married to a priestess?Mystery stings us:
A woman who worships all objects
that breathe light.
Starfish, plankton, holy temples.
Cracks in the sidewalk. Cracks in the heart.
—Nancy Lee Melmon, “I Want You to Know”
The bees say the erotic is in the shadows, and nobody can love without the wound. They tell me we all need to be pierced by the mystery.The unknown, the uncanny, speaks through us:
—Diane Frank, “Parachute”
something is watching you
from inside or out, you don’t know.
All the hairs of your body stand
at attention… You would bound away
but there’s a feline in youWe believe in angels:
who’s caught a scent…
—June Rachuy Brindel, “Writing’s a Scary Business”
This is a poem for the angel
Who was given the privilege
Of naming the color of grass
And who jumped up and down
Waving his hand and shouting,
Green! Green! Green!
Oh! Green! Green.
—Daniel J. Langton, “My My”
A sturdy chest–like magic box
where a witch must have kept
mouse bones, owl feathers, vials of red
or a single shriveled left hand…
the hallowed relicts of my walk upon this earth…So come all you poetry lovers, readers, writers, turn off the news of our frightening times and gather by the River of Earth and Sky. It will sing to your senses, water your soul, fire up your feelings for our Mother, the earth. Tell your friends about this epoch making anthology; get the word out. The poets of tomorrow will urgently need wise words from their ancestors. Take, for example, “Artemis,” by the late June Rachuy Brindel:
We are vessels,
vaults of the vanishing underworld.
—Kim Niyogi, “Yard Sale, Venice Beach, California”
You must learn to hear
and the flow of sap.
clutching tight with your thighs
tremors will jet through your life channel.
Wrap your arms around the trunk of the rowan tree
the bark will speak to your cheek
the forest will hold you in its breath.
Even the ice
of the year’s death
can’t stop these songs.
There is no healing
as this earth murmur.
You are this moment’s daughter
the voices of this hour
are for you.