NaPoWriMo Day 18 (Day 25 for Everyone Else)

This poem has been simmering for a couple of weeks now, ever since I used the persona-poem prompt to write about Abraham. Today, seeing a magnificent poem in the voice of Hagar, by Catherine Pritchard Childress at Vince Gotera’s blog, sent me back to work on the new poem, this time from Sarah’s point of view:

SARAH BREAKS HER SILENCE

Some time later I tested Abraham
by bidding him to lie with my servant-woman, Hagar.
It had been many years since The Speaking
granting us a land for our descendants–
and my husband was feeling keenly his dearth
of descendants. I suspected that his trust
in The Speaker was growing shaky (imperceptibly
to all but me), like both of our wrinkling hands.

I myself had never doubted
that the promised child was far off.
I knew that for a time, The Speaker was just keeping
His word to Himself. And often,
in the hot afternoons when the tent grew quiet
and the livestock slept, faintly I could hear
the approaching child’s laughter fluttering
around my body like a gossamer cloak.

Besides, I remembered clearly
my own Speaking vision, given when my father
gave me in marriage to his brother:
I half heard, half saw, fully knew my husband’s destiny
would be to try to carve a blade into our future son’s lean neck
the way his own father had sliced and gouged
temple idols out of oak. In this way I knew
my husband, in consenting to turn upon our son,
would turn away from me and from every deity of trees.

Thus at Mamre, it was not just my laughter
but my own cracking bark I heard
upon the visitors’ Speech announcing
our next-year baby. That, and the chopping fall
of all the oak Asherah poles outside His future temples–
and my betrayal by a Deity without roots.

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“Poetry and the Spiritual”: A Workshop with Paul Piper

Saturday afternoon I attended a fantastic workshop with poet, librarian, and dog whisperer Paul Piper. Like the nature-writing workshop of his I took eight or nine years ago, this one, titled “Poetry and the Spiritual,” had participants reading and discussing a broad selection of sample poems. Paul, a kind and skillful leader, loosely grouped the poems into such categories as “prayer poems,” “ecstatic / love poems,” “wrestling-with- / investigating-God poems,” “apocalyptic poems,” and “encountering-the-spiritual-in-nature poems.” As you can imagine, I found this approach–and the poems, and the discussion of the poems–tantalizing and inspiring.

One poem I hadn’t encountered before, a Kwakiutl women’s prayer, especially fascinates me:

PRAYER TO THE SOCKEYE SALMON

Welcome, o Supernatural One, o Swimmer,
Who returns every year in this world
That we may live rightly, that we may be well.
I offer you, Swimmer, my heart’s deep gratitude.

I ask that you will come again,
That next year we will meet in this life,
That you will see that nothing evil should befall me.
O Supernatural One, o Swimmer,
Now I will do to you what you came here for me to do.

(From Women in Praise of the Sacred:  43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, ed. Jane Hirschfield, NY:  HarperCollins, 1984.)
I love the reciprocity of the relationship between the human and the salmon expressed here. This poem also resonates with mythologies around the world that tell of a deity who dies, feeds its people, and returns to do it all over again.

The two hours scheduled for the workshop didn’t allow time for writing exercises, so we agreed to draft poems on our own and then circulate them to each other by email. Although I write poems all the time that are spiritual, in both content and intent, I have to admit that this is turning into a surprisingly daunting assignment. Saturday evening, I did draft a poem, one I’m fairly happy with. But by Sunday morning, I realized that this poem, like most I’ve been writing the past couple of years, distances me pretty significantly from the subject of my personal faith. Instead of penning sincere expressions of my own faith / doubt / wrestling, I’ve been throwing my voice in persona poems spoken by scriptural and mythological characters, or writing ironic-voiced philosophical poems that engage theology intellectually, but not spiritually. To be sure, these pieces do fall into the capacious category of wrestling-with-God poems. Nevertheless, they reflect my hesitation to approach the subject of faith too closely.  Doubt, wrestling, skepticism:  these I’ve had a lot of experience (and fun) with in my poems. It’s the faith part I’m having trouble writing about.

Others in the workshop made great suggestions as to how to sneak up on the subject without scaring myself away. Paul described how he doesn’t set out to write a “spiritual” poem; he just works on a poem and allows his Buddhist practice and experiences of nature to influence what he writes.  J.I. Kleinberg pointed out the usefulness of humor as an approach, citing the example of a dog named Cooper who offers Sunday  “prayers” on the hilarious, poignant blog Odd, Good, True. I think these approaches will help me find some ways in to writing about, or to, Whatever It Is that I believe in.

My thanks to the folks at the Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest for putting on yet another terrific writing workshop (I can’t imagine a more fitting or enjoyable way to raise funds for the contest, unless it involved chocolate), and to Paul Piper for his thoughtful, expert leadership of the session. I can’t wait to see what other participants come up with in their own poems.

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.

Here’s what I mean by “Poetry at the Intersection of Mythology …”

Have you seen Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams?  Petroglyphs in the American Southwest?  Stone circles in Great Britain?  These sights fascinate me, propelling my imagination into the past, driving me to speculate about the individuals and cultures who left their artistic and ceremonial marks on the planet long ago.  I’m especially interested in possible transition points–a culture’s breakthroughs, crises, turning points–and the art that may reflect  these moments.  Although pegging “Meaning” to the artistic remains of ancient times is fraught with interpretive pitfalls, I am nevertheless drawn to try.  Thus my poetry engages things past and Paleo:  myths of origin, defunct deities, legends of encounters with animals and gods, and how humans have traced their stories of these encounters using pigment, branch, and stone.

One angle of vision into the past is, for me, food.  What and how do we eat, and more importantly, what meanings do we attach to growing, cooking, eating?  As I amend my own family’s diet to incorporate the local and the healthful, I am driven to consider what others eat, and ate, to survive, and what systems of symbolism arose to account for our choices–and what cultural values are revealed in that process.  As I grapple with my own reluctance to handle and prepare meat, I consider our human origins as carnivores and the ethical implications of living at the top of the food chain.  As I share the delights and frustrations of vegetable-gardening with my five year old, I reflect on the rituals of agricultural peoples present and past.

These experiences find their way into many of the poems I write.  For about seven years, now, I’ve been compiling my poems into a book-length manuscript provisionally titled “About the Food Chain, and Other Pointed Questions for the Deity.”  So far, this manuscript has failed to find print, either by winning a first-book or a chapbook competition (though one variant of it did make it to the Finalist level of Tupelo Press’s Snowbound Chapbook Award in 2007).  That seems to be just as well, however, since the poems keep coming, and the compilation keeps morphing in unexpectedly interesting directions.  Thanks for keeping me company as I continue writing my way through these obsessions.

And more, soon, about the “Hiking” part.