Mythology On, and Off, My Bookshelf, Part 1

Did you ever see the magnificent film Rivers and Tides, about the work of Scottish land artist Andy Goldsworthy? I’m smitten by it, and by Goldsworthy’s work, in which he uses whatever natural materials come to hand (sticks, leaves, rocks, icicles, dandelions) to improvise sculptures that erode sooner or later–and sometimes very soon, in the case of, say, floating leaf-snake shapes that uncoil and flow downstream, or icicle sculptures that collapse when the winter sun reaches them. As you can imagine, I dig the frequency of leaves in his work.  Goldsworthy curls them, tears them, layers them, stacks them, weaves them, fastens them, arranges optical illusions with them. Leaves are one of his primary materials for creating.

Now, picture me falling deeper into smittenness with this film when Goldsworthy mentions offhand the existence of a “tree alphabet”–yes, an alphabet based on the names of trees–in ancient Britain. Google offered me no leads; this was 2004. But earlier this year, while browsing in a used bookstore, I found a copy of English poet Robert Graves’s 1948 doorstop The White Goddess:  A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, which is all about trees, ancient alphabets associated with them, and their symbolic and mythological significances. Dear Readers, I swooned.

It took me over three months to meander all the way down Graves’s many-branched trail through the mythological and linguistic thickets of Western Europe and the Middle East. His examples span the Paleolithic period to English Romanticism, with extended, interwoven analyses of ancient Egyptian, Classical Greek, Old Gaelic, and Medieval troubadour texts, songs, and artifacts. Graves’s deft movement from culture to culture and period to period makes his pace feel dizzying, in spite of the book’s length at 500-odd pages. And though I frequently sensed that his rapid jumps elided possible problems with logic or evidence, his comparative approach kept me fascinated. Never before had I guessed that Isis was worshiped in France, or that the Welsh god Bran was Saturn transplanted. Or that Jesus was the most recent specimen in a vast forest of ancient kings whose bodies were sacrificed and eaten, then resurrected and transmuted to a divine status. Or that the primal figure of the White Goddess of the Sea lurks just behind every patriarchal deity worshiped in the West for the past three and a half millenia. OR that the role of the Irish ollave and Welsh bard was originally not just to entertain royalty with their poems, but to preserve–and conceal–the sacred alphabet of the trees, protecting it from invading cultures whose own magic alphabets and powerful deities threatened to obliterate local peoples’ languages, histories, and beliefs.

The White Goddess has been through many editions and reprints since its original publication in 1948 (my own copy is from 1997), and though it is difficult going and frequently flawed, I can see why its appeal persists. As I understand it, this book helped launch the idea current in theology, cultural anthropology, and popular feminism that prior to the ascendancy of patriarchal religions in the Middle East and Europe, the Goddess was worshiped for her power over birth, maturation, and death; growth, fruition, and harvest; dawn, day, and dark. These motifs saturate myth and literature, of course, even to the point of being cliches. But it’s fascinating to read that before they were symbols, they were attributes and manifestations of a triadic Goddess whose own linguistic code was embedded in trees.


“Well, There, Missy,You Talk a Good Ecumenical Line, But What, Exactly, Do You Believe?”

People who are just getting to know me ask me questions like this one with surprising frequency. Depending on the context of our acquaintance, they’ll make varying assumptions about my values and beliefs. My academic colleagues assume that, like many of them, I’m skeptical; they’re right. People at church assume that, like many of them, I’m faithful; they’re right. What neither group understands until they get to know me better is that my skepticism and my faith are two major branches on the Tree of Me. Both branches get equal nourishment from my roots, and both branches shelter and feed the little birdlets of my creativity.

Not having been raised in a religious tradition, I was nevertheless drawn to sites of Meaning in literature and nature during my childhood. When I was in high school, poetry became holy scripture to me, and classic novels put me in the presence of the liminal and the sublime. (It was these qualities of literature, I think, that drove me to seek advanced degrees:  so that I could read even more books and become qualified to convey these transcendent experiences of literature to students.)  And through riding and caring for horses, I gained the experience of benevolent, physical power that was beyond my own.

I was always fascinated by history, too, even choosing it as part of my dual major in college, because I was obsessed by an ill-defined yet compelling sense of the beyond-ness of the past.  This beyond-ness held power over my imagination; my perennial questions,  “How did this come to be?” and “How did this come to be the way that it is?”, embodied my ongoing curiosity–which had always had spiritual dimensions–about origins.

My curiosities did not mean that I was credulous, however. As a favorite philosophy professor of mine urged his students to do, rather than being satisfied with answers, I loved the questions more. When answers to Big Questions seemed easy or straightforward, I was, and still am, suspicious. Thus, when after graduate school, I moved to a new town and made new friends, and accepted these friends’ invitation to their church, I brought along both my curiosity and my skepticism. After several months of Sunday services and group discussions, during which I tried hard to open my soul to the salvation offered there, I bowed out. My questions (Why do you consider literal interpretation of Scripture to be more valid than metaphoric or allegorical interpretations?  When will we be looking at the political, social, theological, or linguistic contexts in which these sacred texts were written? What allowances do you make for the gaps produced by translation? Why does this Lord bless one group of sinners, but smite that other one?), instead of generating further discussion, elicited hostility. I felt like I was being asked to bring my soul, bring my heart, but leave my brain at the door.  Finally, after one especially tense Sunday-school session of Christianity 101, the instructor’s exasperation with my questions prompted him to tell me, “Jennifer, maybe you’re just not predestined to be saved.”

What this experience suggested to me, rather, was that I was not predestined to be a churchgoer. I did try another, a Presbyterian church that embraced a much broader spectrum of Christian belief, and I did enjoy the welcoming tone and the intellectual sophistication of the minister’s sermons. When that minister left, however, the church’s lay leadership took an alarmingly fundamentalist turn, reverting to Scriptural literalism and making definitive pronouncements about correct and incorrect ways to have sex. I held on there for another year or so, engaging the leadership from an (idealized) stance of loyal opposition, and hoping for a glimmer of the spiritual peace and acceptance I had experienced there before, but I gave up that hope after 9/11.  What if, searching for solace after the national tragedy, a gay friend or colleague were to accept my invitation to join me there for prayer, and heard from the pulpit that s/he was not welcome? My dread of a scenario like that prompted me to leave. I felt burned out, and burned.

Meanwhile, however, Someone was wooing me.  I was being given extravagant gifts–a great marriage, a stimulating job, a beautiful place to live and keep my horses, genuinely wonderful new friends and their wise counsel, and, glory be, poem after to poem to write down. My skepticism was aroused in each instance, and each time was swept aside with assurances and affirmations that showed up in my prayers, my journaling, my nighttime dreams. Several years of noticing these blessings made me more receptive to them. I was being, and becoming willing to be, swept off my feet. Seduced. Loved up.

Still, as I continue to revel in personal and relational goodies showering down as though from some Divine Pinata, I struggle with issues at the meta- level. What makes me more worthy of all these love-gifts, than, say, an office worker trapped in one of the Twin Towers, or a Somali woman unable to feed her children, and in whose conception she had no say in the first place? Why would a Deity who is wise, just, and all-powerful allow such traumas to befall Its creation in the first place? And why do the teachings of Jesus, who supposedly saves that creation from its own cussedness, come across as so maddeningly cryptic?

These questions keep me awake at night, yet I also love them. They energize me, and they provoke me to write. In my poetry–if I were to write rhymed poetry–Christian and question would be rhyming words.

To respond to that FAQ, “But what, exactly, do you believe?”, I answer that I have primarily Christian beliefs, augmented by unitarian suspicions.  Christian beliefs, mostly because it’s Christian metaphors that I’ve been handed.  And, on top of that, suspicions–or, perhaps, intuitions–that while those metaphors are useful, they don’t tell the entire story about this Someone who’s been loving me up.

Appetizer for Thought: Myths as Vestigial Visions

This past year, American Poetry Review has been running a series of interesting essays by poet Doreen Gildroy titled “Poetry and Mysticism.” I’ve been enjoying the series, and I’m particularly struck by an idea Gildroy includes in the third installment, in the May/June 2011 issue, which I’ve finally had a chance to read.

In this segment, Gildroy addresses, among other subjects, the idea that myths are vestigial visions:  stories created to preserve some glimmers of a revelation, a moment of seeing and expanded understanding. Gildroy asserts that the storyteller seeks out not just the story, but more importantly the storytelling state.  The story is a by-product, and thus potentially useful as a sign of the storyteller’s vision–a map of a visionary experience. She quotes painter Robert Henri, author of The Art Spirit:  “If one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign. It was in this hope that the arts were invented.”

What a bold and tantalizing theory! Robert Henri’s assertion that the arts in general were invented to preserve experiences of transcendence goes even further than Doreen Gildroy’s linking of mythological narratives to such experiences. I wonder whether these ideas are echoed by scholars in related fields (mythology, cultural anthropology, depth-psychology, archaeology, etc.). Have any of you run across these ideas before? I’m curious to see what else may be out there along these lines.

Well, Bless Your Buttons!

I am thrilled and amazed by the response of readers to my posts on this new blog. Thank you for all your Subscriptions and Likes! Fellow and sister bloggers, please tell me:  does the happy rush ever diminish, of being notified by WordPress that your posts are being read, and liked, and subscribed to? And more basically, is it weird to be so sublimely tickled by this feedback?

Perhaps all those rejection slips have gotten to me in ways I didn’t recognize (on average, I get just two poem acceptances per year from lit mags), but I cannot express how superbly gratifying it is to know that something I write is actually being read by other human beings.  Marvelous.

Henceforth I will be addressing you not as the hypothetical Reader, but as actual–plural–Readers.  Dear Readers.

Poetry Off the Page with Nance Van Winckel

Yesterday, I spent a wonderful day at Egress Studio in a workshop led by Nance Van Winckel. She has augmented her work as a poet by venturing into the visual arts, most notably photo-collage, in which she embeds her poems into her photographs, often integrating public-domain images as well. The results are colorful and kinetic. She says she challenges herself to create work that will be as inviting to image-oriented viewers as it is to text-oriented readers. The key, she explains, is to incorporate the text in such as way as to make it seem that the visual medium itself is speaking. As a comparatist/multi-field wanderer/genre-crossover geek myself, I must say that this type of artistic hybridization completely floats my boat. It whets–and, happily, sates–my hunger to connect image-based with text-based systems of symbol:  to combine visual and verbal vocabularies to enhance (or question) meaning. Plus, it gives me an opportunity to make trees.

Have I mentioned trees yet? If not, please know, Reader, that they are right up there with horses and hiking among my obsessions. My attraction to them is horticultural, yes, and spiritual/symbolic, definitely–but most of all, aesthetic.  I love to LOOK at trees.  Trees are so visually elegant to me that I want to draw them and paint them decorate my universe with them. But since drawing and painting trees is beyond the slim range of my artistic skills, I draw and paint leaves. Leaves in oil, leaves in acrylic, leaves in acrylic ink, leaves in watercolor, leaves in watercolor pencil, leaves in colored pencil, leaves in black pencil, leaves in my five year old’s chewed and broken Crayolas. In short, I am a fan of leaves.

I’ve attempted to write about trees, and my aesthetic passion for them, but my efforts have fallen far short of my hopes for conveying what I perceive of them visually. Imagine my delight, then, in being directed to Make Something that integrates text and image, and being given numerous materials for doing so, by a generous and encouraging teacher. I knew immediately that I was going to make leaves, and then make them into a tree. Freed from my usual expectation that I should try to make a realistic representation of a tree (and from my inevitable disappointment at not having the technical ability to do it very well), I set about constructing a more abstract tree.

First, I chose pages from an antique book on mechanical engineering that Nance Van Winckel brought for workshop members to mine text from and collage with. Overcoming my resistance to scissoring up a gorgeous old book, I cut out leaf shapes, choosing passages titled with such tasty phrases as “Elementary Theory of the Dynamo” and “Separately-Excited Machines.”   After glueing the leaf cut-outs into double layers, I used a permanent ink pen to write the text of my little poem on them. Then I painted both sides of all the leaves with Mod Podge (an all-purpose gluey-glazey stuff that dries clear). I also cut out some small captions of diagrams and illustrations of dynamos to glue on as “fruit.”While all those were drying, I began constructing the base and branches of the tree using an intriguing dried seed pod that Nance had brought and two lengths of black wire.  Having noticed that the seed pod, which was delicate but fairly rigid and had a dark brown color with the appearance of polished leather, was curved in the middle and level on both ends, I decided to make it the “ground” for my little tree sculpture. Two natural indentations in its raised center were perfect places to wrap the wire around; pointing upward, they became the branches. With the four holes of a button holding the wires in place, I began to experiment with how to attach the leaves to the ends.Even when dry, the paper stems of the heavier leaves proved too floppy to withstand having the wires wrapped around them, so I began to consider other adhesive options. Nance recommended the perfect solution:  threading the wires through holes in the leaves. She also suggested including some beads for added color, so after some work with needle, thread, and more glue, I was ready to place the leaves onto the wire branches. Finally, noticing how well the lilac stamp-ink appeared on a fellow workshopper’s dark-brown seed pod, I used the same shade to stamp a title onto my pod:  “Go To See.” (And you WILL see that I am not above the occasional groaner pun.)

Nance’s workshop did a terrific job providing us participants with numerous examples of exciting ways to propel poems “Off the Page,” and getting to practice was even more fun! I certainly will be doing more experiments with poems in visual mediums.


There’s Something about Eve

Started making notes for a new poem last night.  I have three things so far:

  • the idea of Eve, upon her & Adam’s expulsion from Eden;
  • the title:  “Ten Great Gifts for the Woman Who Has Nothing”;
  • a single line, “her hair still smelling of blossoms and smoke.”

Interestingly, the first line that occurs to me usually becomes the final line of the poem. Thus my composing process often involves writing my way to that provisional last line. From time to time, I’ll attempt a re-write using that line as the beginning, but I’m rarely satisfied with the result.

So, Just What Do I Mean by “Poetry at the Intersection of Mythology and,” of all things, “Hiking”?

Hiking–like study, like horses, like composing poetry–is one of my passions.  It’s kinesthetic learning, thinking on (or through) my feet.  As my stride finds a rhythm, my sensory perceptions sharpen, and I notice more and more of what’s around me.  The upward-spiraling notes of a Swainson’s thrush, the white flash of a flicker’s tail feathers, the piney flavor of ripe salal berries:  these details I notice, note, and distill into my poems. A beloved teacher and mentor, the poet Luci Shaw, once told me, “Jennifer, you do your best writing with your hiking boots on.”

The River Spey, Scotland

Walking anywhere inspires me.  I love walking downtown Bellingham, Washington, to learn the layout of my city.  (I call this foot-mapping.)  I love walking Boston–have you hiked the Freedom Trail?–and taking in its history.  But my favorite walking is off the pavement, anywhere.  Dirt trails, kind to my plantar fascia, rate highest, with bonus points for a cold stream to cool those grouchy heels in.  Before our son was born, my husband and I used to take long-distance walking trips in England and Scotland:  one to two weeks of hiking village to village, carrying light packs with just rain gear and one change of clothes, doing “sink laundry” each night at the inexpensive b & b’s where we stayed.  In the Highlands, we hiked the Spey River Valley, sampling single-malt whisky along the way to the North Sea.  In Yorkshire, we hiked a route linking Wharfedale, Wensleydale, and Swaledale.  (As I struggled along with a case of bronchitis, my husband flatteringly nicknamed me The Greet Snorking Fellwheezer.)  Despite the frequent rain, despite the exertion on top of the jet lag, despite the occasional bull ignorant of the laws granting public right-of-way on trails through farmland, walking the long-distance paths of the U.K. is our favorite form of travel.  We use trains and buses to get to our starting point, then do the main route on foot, freeing us to slow down and re-ground as pedestrians.

Our first walking trip (echoing the one in 1990 that I took with my mother) was in the Cotswold Hills, stopping at Roman ruins, 12th-century chapels, and the remains of a medieval monastery pulled down by order from King Henry VIII.  It was experiencing these evocative historical sites that initially linked foot travel with my love of the ancient. Visiting, I launched my search for the meanings of the ancient symbols still visible in those places.  What did that grape-leaf inscription signify to the Roman craftsman who carved it into those stone tiles?  What did the cross, and Christ, mean to the Normans who constructed that church, and to the conquered Anglo-Saxons who worshiped there?  What significance would the monks have seen in the wheat-sheaf pattern decorating the broken stone arches of the abbey?  And more:  how did those long-ago people and cultures eventuate in the people and cultures now living?  How did “they” become, broadly speaking, “us”?

My husband and I eagerly await the year that our son, now five, will have the height and stamina to trek a countryside route with us.  In preparation, I’m already nourishing his hungry interest in geology and archaeology, as well as in apples and cheese (our favorite trailside lunch).