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.

“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.

Transition Zones

Edges, borderlands, ecotones, transition zones–I love the tensions in the places where two or more forces (cultures, life forms, sets of conditions) meet. No surprise, then, that I also love the changing of seasons. To illustrate this edgy region on the calendar, here’s a photo my husband took on our walk last weekend:

A feast of many kinds

And here’s a sight that greeted us on our way back:

Island of light in Bellingham Bay

How do you frame the places where change is happening?

Bellingham Bay Sunset 9/2011

All photos by Mark Kummer.

Farewell, Zonker Bonker and Baby Tabby

Sad goodbyes to our two beloved tabby cats. Yesterday, we had to put down Zonker , whose failing kidneys finally stopped responding to the intensive veterinary care that had been keeping them functioning for the past year and a half. As we mourn that sweet marmalade kitty, we also grieve Baby Tabby, who disappeared in July. I don’t like to picture Baby’s likely end, in the jaws of a coyote that neighbors say they saw prowling our street this summer. Two days ago, indulging my wishful thinking, I made one more round of the local animal shelters, just in case his homecoming could give his buddy Zonker, and all of us, a lift on Zonker’s last day. No success.

So I just have to imagine Baby snuggled in next to Zonker in the little grave in our back yard, our two Love Tabbies warming each other in this sleep as they had for many years in their cozy naps on our haystack, on our beds, in the sun on our deck.

Now, the struggle to make meaning out of these goodbyes. Here’s one attempt of mine from several years ago, originally published in the journal Rock & Sling (vol. 4, issue 2, Winter 2007):

 

Strange Accounting

Grieving Tomcat, flattened in the road
Easter morning, I told over the litany
of his many names and nicknames
and wept, harder, at “Daffodil.”  His orange
tabby patches and white roundnesses,
the blameless pink of his nose and mouth
and ears, had all suggested increase

of blooming and brightness.  Amid the lilies,
I always forget:  this is my season of loss,
of wondering what to do with loss, of watching
as the cosmic accounts are reconciled
by means of a heroic and terrible dying.
I struggle to understand this system of bookkeeping.
Still, the ultimate audit intrigues me,

and that night I re-read the Franciscan
who says that when you are resurrected, all
that your heart has loved is resurrected with you.
And so I prayed for salvation, not so much
for my own body as for the eventual unburying
of fur, of purr and pink and scamper,
and the everness of springtime without passing.

 

Baby and Zonker, Love Tabbies

Farewell, Zonker Bonker. Farewell, Baby Tabby. Farewell Tomcat, Buster, Poco, Alex, Beanie, Sylvester, Seymour, and our other loved ones. Bless all your hooves and paws.

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.

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).