New Poems Up at Bellingham Review and Pontoon

I’m honored to have two poems published this month! “Amanda Bubble Crafts a New Creation Story” appears in Issue 71 of Bellingham Review; my thanks to former Editor-in-Chief Brenda Miller, current Editor-in-Chief Suzanne Paola Antonetta, former Managing Editor Ellie A. Rogers, and current Managing Editor Louis McLaughlin for including my poem. When you visit, please check out the gorgeous essay “He Worked as an Electrician. He Enjoyed Television. (His Obituary Was Plain.)” by Spokane poet Maya Jewell Zeller!

In addition, my poem “What Was Good about Going to Church” has been selected for this year’s issue of Pontoon, the journal of poems by Washington-state poets who submitted chapbook manuscripts to Floating Bridge Press. My thanks to everyone on the editorial committee at FBP! For the first time, Pontoon is now online, allowing wider access to readers. Here’s my poem, and here’s the first page of the Table of Contents (be sure to click through all four pages to read the whole issue). I hope you enjoy!

Gratitude for Words of Encouragement

Joannie Stangeland’s latest collection of poetry (Ravenna Press, 2014)

Many, many thanks to Seattle poet, editor, and winemaker Joannie Stangeland for her write-up of Impossible Lessons as her Saturday Poetry Pick yesterday! Her lovely words are here.

In a wonderful coincidence, I’ve been reading her new book, In Both Hands. The poems there are haunting, replete with precise images of beauty and loss. I’m falling in love with, and going to school on, these incredible poems.

Be sure to read another recent post of Joannie’s, in which she describes her current writing projects.

Words and Images Artfully Paired by Caitlin Thomson

Caitlin Thomson's WORD & IMAGE Tumblr, June 20, 2013

Caitlin Thomson’s WORD & IMAGE Tumblr, June 20, 2013

Caitlin Thomson, whom you may remember from last winter’s Blog Hop project, is doing many lovely things. Among them, she’s curating a  Tumblr site called Poem & Image that pairs short passages from poems with eye-catching images. She explains her approach, and her goal of helping to make poetry more accessible to non-poetry readers, in her new blog post titled “Poetry, Popularity, and Image.” 

Last week, Caitlin did me the honor of choosing a passage from my poem “Ten Great Gifts for the Woman Who Has Nothing” to present with a luminous seascape image. Thank you, Caitlin, for your thoughtful work with my, and everyone else’s, words.

Mythology on (and off) My Bookshelf, Part 3: Thoughts on Ethics by way of BigThink.com and Jacques Derrida’s “The Gift of Death”

Seems I’m not the only person currently pondering the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Three weeks ago, Adam Lee, author of the blog Daylight Atheism at BigThink.com, posted an essay titled “The Abraham Test,” in which he summarizes the story of Genesis 22 and explores the ethical contradictions at its heart. Specifically, Lee poses the story as a test to modern believers: “I have a question for every religious believer, based on the Abraham episode: Do you believe that violence in God’s name is wrong, or do you merely believe he hasn’t personally told you to do violence? If God appeared to you and spoke to you, commanding you to commit a violent act – to murder a child, say – how would you respond?”

My impression is that Lee is attempting not just to promote critical thinking here, but to point out the inherent absurdities of the impossible position that Abraham is placed in–and by extension, all people of faith are placed in–by a divine command to kill another person. Lee concludes this post by saying, “The Abraham test may be a useful way to highlight the chasm between the morality of the Bible and the better, less violent and more humanistic morality espoused by most citizens of the modern world.”

Two weeks later, after his first post had elicited 225 responses from readers, Adam Lee followed up with “Replies to the Abraham Test,” in which he sums up some of those responses and draws an even more pointed conclusion: “There’s a profound disconnect in the morality of most religious believers, and I think the Abraham test highlights that. When you press at the join, you can see exactly where it is: even though they mostly hew to the more enlightened morality of the modern age, they still worship and revere a dark-age text that treats bloody, even murderous obedience to a primitive war god’s command as the highest virtue. (I use the term ‘war god’ advisedly, since one of the Bible’s most common titles for God is ‘Lord of Hosts’, or in more modern language, ‘Lord of Armies’).”

And the discussion there continues:  as of yesterday, Lee’s follow-up post has garnered 172 more comments. His blog’s agenda becomes more apparent not only via the vitriolic tone of most of the commenters who agree with him, but also in that post’s closing exhortation: “It’s evidence like this that atheists ought to put forward as our Exhibit A in showing that faith is far from a harmless or beneficial personality trait: it can be profoundly immoral and dangerous, which just goes to show why our rhetorical attacks on it have never been more necessary.”

For the record, I should say here that even though for much of my life I shared Adam Lee’s atheism–albeit without the impulse to proselytize–I currently find the view much more interesting from my perch on the fence, where I lean just to the opposite side. To be honest, I still have to agree with popular atheists’ claims that the Bible does a mostly terrible PR job for God. (I’d add that if God wants to convey a message of love and forgiveness more effectively, He should fire those committees who’ve been bollixing the job for the past 2,700 years and contract with the geniuses over at ICanHasCheezburger to write His pitches.) My own faith is characterized by doubt, wrestling, and constant questioning–and is energized by my struggle to square the God who’s loved me up with the actions attributed to God in much of the Bible.

But I’m getting distracted here. Let’s return to the cheerful subject of Abraham and ethics, shall we?

I’ve just finished re-reading the first, and longer, part of Jacques Derrida’s two-part book, The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret (second ed., trans. by David Wills, University of Chicago Press, 2008). I can’t remember what source, exactly, steered me toward Derrida, whom I’d managed to avoid entirely in grad school. But at some point in early 2009, at the height of my first round of obsession with the story of Abraham and Isaac, I ordered this book and began reading it. I returned to it this winter having forgotten its usefulness, and wondering whether it has any explanatory power for this story that both fascinates and horrifies me.

The bulk of The Gift of Death consists of Derrida’s detailed readings of Czech philosopher Jan Patočka, Lithuanian philosopher Emmanual Lévinas, Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Derrida summarizes their efforts in search of a basis for an ethics  in the narrative of Abraham and Isaac (in part, to advance the philosophical discussion of ethics in Europe subsequent to the Holocaust and the devastating wars of the 20th century). This Biblical narrative makes an appropriately knotty case study, given, as Derrida’s analysis of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling emphasizes, the utterly unethical actions–by all human measures–of Abraham towards Isaac and Sarah. Derrida traces the notion of “responsibility” through these philosophers, examining, for example, (in the pun-rich language characteristic of French high academic style) how Abraham “responds” to God’s summonings, how Abraham’s “irresponsibility” to his family violates all human standards of justice, and what “responsibility” might mean when a culture’s concept of individuality is in flux.

A key principle I take from this essay concerns the recurrence, though hidden, of beliefs and practices from the past. Following Patočka, Derrida asserts that when a culture replaces an old narrative, myth, or ritual with a new one, a trace of the old narrative/myth/ritual remains embedded in the new: “the mystery that is incorporated then repressed is never destroyed. This genealogy has an axiom, namely that history never effaces what it buries; it always keeps within itself the secret of whatever it encrypts, the secret of its secret” (23). This secrecy is the essence of the mystery of Christianity, a belief system centered on a sacrifice that mimics and suppresses the earlier, almost-sacrifice from which dawned Judaism, which itself replaced multiple local religions based on human sacrifice.

Suffocating under all these layers yet? I feel like I am, but this analysis also seems to be helping me edge closer to the important weirdnesses at the heart of these religions.

Derrida returns to this idea–of the past’s suppressed rituals appearing as open secrets in the rituals and narratives that replace them–later in the essay, when he brings in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality. Derrida quotes Nietzsche at length in this section, interpolating his own explanations and responses. In one of these exchanges, Derrida quotes Nietzsche thus: “Justice, which began by saying, ‘Everything can be paid off, everything must be paid off,’ ends by turning a blind eye and letting off those unable to pay,–it ends, like every good thing on earth, by sublimating itself … by raising itself or by substituting for itself” (114-15), and Derrida elaborates: “Christian justice denies itself and so conserves itself in what seems to exceed it; it remains what it ceases to be, a cruel economy, a commerce, a contract involving debt and credit, sacrifice and vengeance” (115).

You may notice that Derrida is moving pretty freely between Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and God’s sacrifice of Christ. By this point in the essay, he has already established a close parallel between them by arguing that Abraham is sacrificing himself (via his legacy) in consenting to sacrifice Isaac, and that God is sacrificing himself in sacrificing Christ (who is also God). As well, Derrida is following the lead of Kierkegaard, who in Fear and Trembling shifts from the earlier story to the latter, and to a guiding metaphor of economics, which provides a further connection to Nietzsche here.

Derrida again: “[W]hat Nietzsche calls ‘Christianity’s stroke of genius’ … is what takes this economy to its excess in the sacrifice of Christ for love of the debtor; it involves the same economy of sacrifice, the same sacrifice of sacrifice” (115). With this, Derrida prefaces another quote from Nietzsche, whose repetitions and  metaphors convey the surprising reversal enacted by Christianity’s central sacrifice: “Christianity’s stroke of genius … [is] none other than God sacrificing himself for man’s guilt, none other than God paying himself back, God as the only one able to redeem man from what, to man himself, has become irredeemable–the creditor sacrificing himself for his debtor, out of love … out of love for the debtor!” (115-16).

Derrida’s interpretation–that in Christianity God cancels out sacrifice by sacrificing sacrifice itself–intrigues me. Certainly, it echoes explanations I’ve heard from the pulpit regarding Abraham and Isaac, in that the earlier, interrupted sacrifice is meant to signal the end of human sacrifice in a region where it was common among many other, older religions. It implies that in removing all human guilt onto himself, God collapses the distinction between judge and sacrificial victim, and thus, via this sacrifice of himself to himself, is changing the very nature of his relationship to humans.

Thanks to Derrida, though, I’m able to articulate why I can’t help but read this sequence in the other direction:  the earlier sacrifice of Isaac, though superseded and canceled out by the later sacrifice of Christ, resonates through that later sacrifice, leaving a residue upon it that I can’t ignore.

To be continued soon, with thoughts on the second part of Derrida’s book, Literature in Secret.

Call Me, Ishmael (A Current and Proposed Reading List) (Mythology On, and Off, My Bookshelf, Part 2)

Rembrandt, "Abraham and Isaac," 1634

Lately, I find myself in the familiar territory of Genesis 22.  This is the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, the beginning point, say theologians, of monotheism.  It’s the story of God “testing” Abraham’s faith by commanding him to make a burnt offering of his beloved son Isaac, and of Abraham obeying. At the last moment, an angel stops Abraham, Isaac is untied, and a ram shows up to be used as an alternative sacrificial victim.

I’ve been obsessed with this story for many years, and for a number of reasons. Most viscerally, it speaks to the small child in me who was sufficiently terrified of her own father’s rage that she feared he would kill her. Intellectually, it makes me burningly curious as to the antecedents of the three major religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) whose adherents consider this their foundational narrative. And spiritually, it provides a way of tip-toeing closer to the abhorrent, parallel sacrifice at the heart of Christianity, the one in which the all-powerful Father actually goes through with the sacrifice of his beloved Son.  I suppose that by trying to understand the originating moment of the three Abrahamic faiths, I can gain some understanding of the crucial moment of the particular Abrahamic faith that I camp out in.

In fact, it was these related questions that initially propelled me, starting last year, to begin searching the ancient narratives, and the works of those who study them,  for clues as to…

  • Why God would “test” Abraham by asking him to “make a burnt offering” of Isaac
  • Why Abraham would consent to do so
  • Why Isaac would consent to be killed
  • Why God (or an angel representing Him) would stop Abraham at the last moment
  • Why a sacrificial victim (the ram) was still required to die after Isaac had been unbound
  • Why Scripture records nothing about Abraham or Isaac telling Sarah about this
  • Why Jews (who trace their heritage to Abraham through Isaac) and Muslims (who trace their heritage to Abraham through Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar, Sarah’s servant-woman) dispute which son Abraham actually offered up, competing for the honor of being the first victim sacrificed to The Lord
  • Why any person, ancient or modern, provided with a whole Mediterranean region full of other options, would choose this particular Lord to sacrifice one’s child to
  • Why this Lord must have been considered by some to be an improvement over the other deities already worshiped in the region
  • Why Christian theologians emphasize the many parallels between Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and Jesus’s sacrifice of himself, yet get themselves into astonishing doctrinal contortions attempting to explain why a just, loving God would require such sacrifice in the first place
  • Whether, given His apparently bloodthirsty and volatile nature, I can trust this God character who acts so generously towards me
  • Which of the charges on God’s rap sheet are historically accurate, and which are paranoid projections of human nature, and which are politically motivated alterations to the official record, and how I can tell the difference.

As you can see, I have a lot riding on possible answers to these questions.

As well, I’m eager to write more poetry about this fascinating, disturbing material and my conflicted relationship to it, and I’m looking for a different way in than my usual I-can’t-believe-we-believe-this-stuff approach. I’ve written numerous poems about the story of Abraham and Isaac (and Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael) before, enough to make into a chapbook manuscript a couple of years ago.  This time around, I’m trying for a way to de-familiarize this story that I became so immersed in. Finding out more about what came before Yahweh (and the people who chose, momentously, to follow Him)–the gods and goddesses, their worshipers and their religious practices–is giving me a little bit of insight into the religious impulse in general, and into the specific cultures and beliefs (regarding, for example, sacrifice) that the nascent Abrahamic religions emerged from and reacted against.

I took the first steps in this project last winter, finding preliminary tidbits in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, which I wrote about here. Now that the holidays are over and my son is back in school, I’m pulling some more myth theorists off my bookshelf (and the bookshelves of some generous friends–you know who you are, and thanks!) and carrying them along as I circle back around through this thicket of questions.  In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be finishing up the three books I’ve been reading since last fall:  Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God, Volume I; Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret; and Leonard Schlein’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess:  The Conflict Between Word and Image. I’ll post summaries about my eureka moments and perplexities as I continue reading each one.

If I can possibly restrain myself long enough to complete those three, the next readings I’d like to dig into are a couple of books by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire:  Reflections on Genesis and The Murmuring Deep:  Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious.  Apparently, Zornberg uses psychoanalytic theories, which warm my geek heart and stir my lit-crit soul, to interpret stories from the Hebrew Bible.

Then, I’ll move on to a couple of books I read long ago, Elaine Pagels’s Adam, Eve, and The Serpent and Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, looking at their explanations about the origins of monotheism. (Eventually, I hope to get to Volumes II and III of Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God, though it’s possible I may lose patience with his agenda of universalizing every local myth and practice by the time I reach the end of Volume I).

In the meantime, can you recommend any resources to add to my list? I’ll be grateful for suggestions on any books, articles, commentaries, poems, midrash, etc. you can point me toward that offer further interpretations or perspectives–especially very ancient or very current ones–on these many questions.

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.

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.