The stars were still waking the hour my voice was born.
The archer stretched her bowstring to the shadows
the hour my voice was born.
The trees were shaking off their leaves
and gifting all their colors to my voice.
The caverns of the sea filled with haunts of my voice.
The waters of Jerusalem & the Sea of Tranquility;
the dark flowing river of mother's hair;
father's nicotine fingers on the guitar line:
weaving the journey of my voice
the day my voice was born.
O my voice is early twilight;
O my voice knows the backstreets;
O my voice knows the blue highways;
O my voice knows the way to your house.
My voice soared with windmills along the sacred hills,
The echoing hills the resounding plains,
The day my voice was born.
My voice aims true whether it soars above the clouds
or dives behind the secret waves.
My voice aims true, gathers the fire of the spirit,
aims true, gathers the heavens.
My voice gathers the seven winds;
gathers the twilight hours;
gathers the seventy joyful sorrows;
gathers the elders & their childhood dreams.
My voice aims for your heart.
My voice longs to speak soul to soul
My voice longs to strike sparks in your hair.
My voice lingers at your ear
gentle & bold in equal measure.
That is why my voice was born.
My voice embraces the 64 colors and
the infinite tones of the aurora borealis.
My voice rejoices every minute
for the hour it was born.
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
The stars were still waking the hour my voice was born.
Thursday, December 25, 2014
It is your Name I would use in the ceremony. Before I am a vacancy. It is your Name I will teach to be a modern novel bout the wearisome uselessness of men and the casual fragility of women. Your Name, which you hide in your hand, shall become the Word. And the Word engenders a long list of words. These words will lead me back to your unspoken Name. The Name which I will be unable to speak until I am a vacancy.
Perhaps we met in a Garden, or a forest clearing. It was possibly Spring. Perhaps it was a dream. But I am convinced that we met, and you whispered your Name to a pond. But you would not tell me your Name. Because you knew I would use it in a ritual to invoke your Love.
Your Name will be an instrument of my peace. An instrument, like the pen with which I write. An instrument whose chords I cannot finger. The melody it plays is of the Word. I could teach your name to shame the Angels.
Your Name will force me into exile.
Because your Name has chosen not to love me. Because it would leave me as a vacancy. I know I am a stranger in the House of your Name. If I could find that House, I would humble myself before your Name.
The ritual was abandoned by the dreamers, but I proceed in a sense of futile nostalgia. This ritual teaches us to call upon the seven voices of your Name. This is why I must know your Name. This is why you must never tell me your Name: it should come to me of its own bidding. Then it will tell me its secret, and lead me to the sanctuary. There, I will be a priest in service to the mystery of your Name.
My face has grown old in the shadow of your Name. My face has grown too old to love. I should hide my face and cover my head in the House of your Name. I was a fool to think I could learn your Name. Because it is hidden.
I will continue this chant until it has conjured the mystery of your Name. I have faith in your Name. I have studied the rhythmic barks of trees for miracles. I have dissected the alphabet for your Name. I have called forth all the demons of Heaven to reveal your Name.
Your Name will punish me at last with its secret. In the end, your Name will teach me to be content as a vacancy. And once I am a vacancy, I shall know your Name.
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Monday, December 22, 2014
Thursday, November 27, 2014
Friday, November 07, 2014
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Thursday, October 09, 2014
Monday, October 06, 2014
As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: you liberate a city by destroying it. Words are to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interests.
— Gore Vidal
Saturday, October 04, 2014
Wednesday, October 01, 2014
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Sunday, September 21, 2014
Revised version of previous post
Today is Leonard Cohen's 80th Birthday.
Shortly after he returned from 'Nam, Brother Dave brought several lps to the house to share with Padre and I. I especially remember Jefferson Airplane's Crown of Creation and Coltrane's Favorite Things and Other Songs. When he put the Cohen disc on the turntable, Dave told Padre and I that we'd need to listen carefully to the words.
I was immediately struck by the cover of Songs of Leonard Cohen: that black background; the machine photo brazenly addressing the viewer; the back cover art of a woman in chains being engulfed by flames. I was intrigued by these images alone, and knew something unique was in store. Songs from that album that still linger in my memory include "The Master Song", "The Stranger Song", and "Sisters of Mercy". I can sing snippets of these (and all of "Suzanne", of course) without reference to the lyric sheet or song book.
I had probably already heard Judy Collins' famous version of "Suzanne" by this point. I think I already had a copy of Judy's excellent live album, Living, which includes "Famous Blue Raincoat" and "Joan of Arc". But to hear that fractured voice sing his own words was like setting up camp in them, and learning to live there.
Sometime after Brother Dave introduced us to Cohen's debut album, I bought Songs of Love and Death. I believe that was the same year my stepmother attempted suicide. I was the first one home the day WL took her brand-new steak knife set into the master bathroom and cut both her wrists, length-wise, several times. The song "Dress Rehearsal Rag" from Love and Death soon became my theme song, although I did not catch the underlying humor of the song.
This was the summer between junior high and high school. I was around 16. WL's attempted suicide was probably too big for me to handle, but I counseled and comforted her until Padre got home. Leonard Cohen's songs taught me the language of the territory, so I could find the means to process the horror I had witnessed.
A number of other factors contributed to my use of poetry for self-expression, but WL's suicide attempt, and Cohen's profound linguistic cartography, were the primary catalysts.
Now, I sing so many of his songs, but not Dress Rehearsal Rag. Those days are so many years behind me. I much prefer "Hallelujah" or "The Guests". Or, a perfect psalm titled "If It Be Your Will":
If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will
If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing
If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
to make us well
And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will
If it be your will.
© 1984, Stranger Music
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Monday, September 15, 2014
Thursday, September 04, 2014
Wednesday, September 03, 2014
Friday, August 29, 2014
Eternal swinging of loose clock
hands like mirrors of broken
emptiness as in an endless lake
or swift leggéd horse of life
dream in nightmare
unknown in time.
A bleeding heart of time
drips on the face of the clock
as it hides in a nightmare
which has been broken
by the reality of life
shone in ripples of a lake.
For more, see Alienation of Time
This is a slightly revised high school poem (circa 1974-75); it won a competition for high school poets held by the Poetry Society of Oklahoma. Retyping it now, almost 30 years later, I see a lot of flaws. Kind of amazed it won an award; might have been an "A for effort" in recognition of my attempt to write a sestina.
The school administration learned of the award through a blurb in the local paper. I was essentially strong-armed into bringing the award (a small certificate in a plastic holder) to school so the principal could hand it to me at a school awards assembly.
Monday, August 25, 2014
Friday, August 22, 2014
Thursday, August 21, 2014
Monday, August 18, 2014
Friday, July 11, 2014
Sunday, July 06, 2014
Saturday, June 28, 2014
Friday, June 27, 2014
She could have been
waiting for you ages
at the stop sign
or some nameless doorway
— Diana, our Lady
of the Moon Waves.
She's reciting your horoscope.
She has tied your dreams
in the long tresses of her hair.
— Diana, the lady of water
and lights on the water.
She's mesmerized the cars on Canal Street —
now they're a painting:
white shimmering circles
on a black background.
— Diana, our lady of rain;
and she's waiting for you, brother.
She's been waiting for you
since the dragons were born.
The moon rises behind her head
there's a stop sign behind her left shoulder
and at her right, hidden in her hair,
is a dark angel.
And though half her face
is hidden in shadow,
you know it's her.
You know she's been waiting for you
for ages now
with her arms folded beneath her breasts.
Her face has never grown old
since the river
first learned to speak.
Go now, brother, go to her now —
she's been waiting for you.
Begun on a bus from NYC to Princeton, NJ
Art by Drew Curtis
Monday, June 23, 2014
Saturday, June 21, 2014
What secret box must I steal to rediscover the timeless space?
Shall I befriend the angel of light
or the dark voices only I can hear?
The secret of improvisation is to always say yes,
to always gratefully accept whatever is offered;
my life is a long improvisation
And the dark voices offer their dark critiques
but the angel of light will never whisper 'no'
I improvise my sacred love
over the random jazz heart
and the discordant nerves
Practice the timeless breath
out by breathless mesas
red hawks riding thermals
Compassion for the angel of light
Compassion means presence
but does not require deep listening
Attend the feelings, but walk beside
keep your distance from the darkness
There are no wrong lines in improvisation —
There's the footlights, and the outer darkness;
There's the darkness & void where a world is created
and the light where the world begins
The box has pearlised inlay:
young artist as crow
in his black fedora
and his morning ritual
Open the curtains: let the jazz begin.
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Saturday, June 07, 2014
Well, Henry Miller died June 7, 1980, at 4 pm Pacific Palisades time. It would be too much to hope that flags would be lowered to mark this loss. At best, America has taken her writers for granted; at worst, she has ignored them or maligned them. Henry Miller is certainly a case in point.
There are few books by Henry Miller which have not been banned in America, as well as many other countries around the world. Among these are the Tropic of Cancer, the Tropic of Capricorn, and his trilogy, The Rosy Crucifixion. Why have these books been banned? Supposedly due to their explicit sexual content. But sex scenes are brief in Miller, and are certainly the least important elements of his books. No, his books are dangerous, like Catcher in the Rye or Huckleberry Finn, because they are full of life, full of living ideas. And as a self-admitted anarchist, Miller is especially threatening to those our love our status quo institutions.
Henry Miller has been accused, and justly so, of writing exclusively about himself. Even his study of Rimbaud, Time of the Assassins, is really about Henry Miller. He agreed with Thoreau, who said he'd write about anything else if he knew as much about it as he did about himself. If there were any justice, Henry Miller would be remembered for his epic autobiographies rather than as the author of “dirty” books.
If you asked me where to start reading Henry Miller, I'd suggest his little book Quiet Days in Clichey, then — if you like that — the Tropics and Black Spring. After that, you'll probably want to read everything he's written.
His books, for me, have been a thrilling adventure. I shall miss him, though I never met him. His death is a great loss to the world of letters. Even so, his books remain for us to enjoy. As he said, “The dream lives on after the body is buried.” With Walt Whitman, he is waiting for us to join him on the tour of life.
Originally published in 1980, shortly after Miller's death.
Tuesday, June 03, 2014
Friday, May 23, 2014
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Saturday, May 17, 2014
Thursday, May 15, 2014
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Saturday, May 10, 2014
Recently finished reading an interview with Tom Robbins by Mara Altman. She asked him if there was anyone in his life he considered a mentor. "No one living," he said; then, went on:
Oh, maybe Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen is my hero. He’s like Zorba the Buddha. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the Indian guru ... who later changed his name to Osho, he had this notion of a character called Zorba the Buddha who — we’ll say a man, but it could be a woman too — who was contemplative, led a serene spiritual life, meditated a lot, was a nonviolent, placid person who lived in the spirit but who also knew how to work and make money, knew how to utilize the Internet, knew how much to tip a maître d’ in a Paris nightclub, who was of the world and enjoyed the world and all of its sensual pleasures in terms of food, sex, drink, color, art, but also at the same time was deeply spiritual. And I’ve kind of superimposed that Zorba the Buddha figure onto Leonard Cohen, perhaps unfairly, but he strikes me as someone who is close to that figure. I like the fact that he meditates, that he has spent time alone — a lot of it in anguish in a Buddhist monastery — that he is so adept with language and loves women and wears beautiful Armani suits and will sit and sip wine at a sidewalk café with beautiful girls and yet be able to have this rich inner life, not just creatively but also spiritually.
I remember Dr. Omed once telling me I needed to learn how to be in the world, but not of it. I imagine he meant something like this. Combining, as it were, the exuberance of Kazantzakis' Zorba with the supposed serenity of a Zen master.
Whether Leonard Cohen is that Zen master is another question. He's on the record of saying his interest in Zen was primarily motivated by the teacher, though he's also expressed an admiration for the strict discipline. I imagine he would be amused by Robbins' description, perhaps even flattered. He'd likely find it as amusing as his image as a lady's man.
For myself, it's my hope to live the words I pray. It's a daily struggle to practice the peace I seek. To find the joy in life, even in the darkness. I don't know that I have Zorba's lust for life, or the Zen master's discipline. I'm decidedly no lady's man, nor fashion plate. I'm a middle class guy, with no greater American dream than keeping my head above water while managing my consumer debt. I'm dazzled by things, and tempted by what they promise. I'm easily cut by the side-ways glance, or snide tone. I'm too nervous, too fearful, to wear the world as a loose garment.
Leonard wrote: “I practiced on my sainthood.” I think I know what he meant. My struggle and striving to live with integrity are that practice. It's not sainthood I seek, exactly: it's a spirit that is calm.
I'm no saint. I'm no Zorba. I'm certainly not Zen Master Cohen. I'm only Jac. I might as well begin with a song.
Monday, May 05, 2014
Thursday, May 01, 2014
Saturday, April 26, 2014
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Friday, April 18, 2014
The following are notes from a presentation given by Krista Tippett, the host of "On Being", on April 8, 2014, at the Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, OK. These notes are a reflection of what impressed me in her presentation, and are not expected to be an accurate representation of what she said.
We need to make a distinction between public life and political life. The word “civility” is inadequate, for it seems too demure, prim and proper; but it's better than “tolerance,” the word much in favor from the 60s. Tolerance is passive; what is needed is an active engagement with, and acceptance of, our fellow terrestrial travelers.
We find the big questions of the 20th century are being re-imagined for the 21st century; e.g., marriage, beginning of life, etc.
This requires the reformation of all institutions
The most needed innovation is to recognize how our individual vulnerability is linked with others on the planet (all beings, all creation)
Anxiety about change in public life looks like anger (especially via "news" media) rather than fear.
The next needed innovation is to be conversational entrepreneurs; to see conversation as means to seek shared values rather than means to persuade, to win. This will plant seeds of the civil society we long for.
- Words Matter
- Share how we understand ourselves & perceive how others move through the world
- Navigate pluralistic society through acceptance of diff rather than tolerance
- Which is too cerebral
- Never asked to be engaged or be curious about the Other
- Find shimmering words to share the essence of ourselves
- "Are we not of interest to each other"
- Ground virtues rather than ground rules
- Elicit answers in their likeness
- Ideal is to avoid yes or no, or leading questions
- Remember, it's hard to resist a generous question, which invites dignity & honor
- Seek the animating question, rather than simplistic. Seek what lies beneath.
- Good question does not seek common ground or resolution
- Pressure of agreement works against understanding each other
- Questions are powerful within themselves — don't worry about the answers
- Which reminded me of the book Always We Begin Again, on Benedictine Practice
- Change evolves slowly in the human heart
- Conversation is a tool to make human connection (not change hearts and minds)
- Be hospitable
- We need critical yeast; that is, an unlikely combination of people
- The radar (news media) is broken — if it ever existed
- Change from public service to one more part of profit-seeking industry
- Civil rights movement sought to create a beloved humanity
- We are in the midst of a long-term project; all of us are involved
- We can be sources of social healing; again, to plant seeds of a civil society
- Long term, seek to transform conflict rather than resolve it
- If not transformed, the conflict will go underground (like repressed emotion) and rise again
- However, transformation is a long term project; a minimum of 10 years
- We are called to the inner work of integrity
- Because, in the growing global community, it's about the other. Or, more practically, the person across town
- In the words of Civil Rights leader and Congressman John Lewis, “When you pray, move your feet”
Sunday, April 13, 2014
Went to a funeral for a friend's son yesterday. He died a week ago, at a relatively young 35. I knew him only as a small boy; there's a chunk of his life unknown to me. Just hints from the slide show displayed on the church wall, and comments from the minister.
I went as a support to his mother, who I haven't seen in almost 30 years. She looks much the same; I have less hair.
As I held her after the funeral, she kept saying how kind I was to drive 30 minutes south to attend the funeral. Don't know if it was kind; it was the right thing to do.
Saw a few old poetry friends at the ceremony. Somehow, seeing those people, and seeing the photos of the young boy I briefly knew, conjured ghosts of a sort. I felt haunted and on edge the rest of the day. There are echoes this morning.
Pray for Blake; pray for his father, currently in a far distant land and unable to be at the service. Pray peace to Lissa, the mother who has survived her only son.
Friday, April 11, 2014
Thursday, April 10, 2014
Saturday, April 05, 2014
I have a finger labyrinth
which I trace
from time to time
circling into the darkness
into the cave
where ego dwells
a cosmos collapsing
into the darkness
where I am empty
I'm not here
but I'm not gone
I have Celtic prayer beads
upon which I count the weeks
a circle of stones
I trace the perimeter
I pray the center
I bless the days
the days bless me
I'm not gone
but I'm not here
I trace my return
from the labyrinth's dark center
I count the courses
the expanding universe
greeted here by Whitman
embracing dark & light
greeted here by the angel
with fiery sword
welcomed to new light
Saturday, March 29, 2014
What the turnstile said
to the whirlwind
under the snow-full moon
where the pilgrim's eyes
where water overflows
Sunset a door
a thin line
on the horizon
Dreams beyond the beyond
an infinite circle
in the pilgrim's eyes
A thin skyline
a bottomless well
Friday, March 21, 2014
Saturday, March 15, 2014
St. Jerome, that great holy crank, is often pictured with a lion. The Desert Fathers welcomed cats to their loosely aligned communities. It's likely the cat was useful for reducing vermin, but I think those felines great and small were also prized for another reason: humility. A cat teaches its human companion humility better than any other creature I know.
Living in community can also be humbling. If done with honesty, clear self-assessment, and integrity, it can be a spiritual discipline. Always I find myself balancing my needs against those of others. The goal, on the sacred path, is to put the needs of others first. But this is balanced by recognizing my own needs. For example, my need for alone time with God — just as Jesus would often step away for private prayer.
As an introvert, it's quite challenging to strike that balance. I'm most comfortable alone, with my own thoughts. The delusion of my perceptions, the delusion of self.
This is part of what I brought with me when I went to walk the labyrinth last Saturday at a Quiet Day at St. Paul's.
I had actually been on the fence as to whether to participate. I had, after all, walked the Healing Path just a few months ago. The deciding factor came on Ash Wednesday. No acolytes had been scheduled for the 7:00 p.m. service, so the Eucharistic Ministers were pressed into service. When I arrived — about 10 minutes before service — I was informed that I had been volunteered to carry the Gospel book.
I don't think I've ever carried the Gospel before; if I have, it was when I was a teenager, over forty years ago. Carrying the Gospel involves bearing it in procession — both at the beginning & end of the service — and holding it for the deacon as s/he reads from it. The Gospel book used at St. Paul's Cathedral is oversized — about as big as the average coffee-table book — and bound by an engraved metal cover. It's surprisingly heavy.
The Gospel expresses an ideal of human living. The life story of Jesus is a plumb line, against which the faithful measure their own manner of living. It calls the listener to judgment. This is why, in our faith tradition, we stand when the Gospel is read.
A hymn is traditionally sung as the Gospel is brought into the midst of the congregation. The crucifix and a pair of torches proceed the deacon and Gospel. The book is presented to the deacon, who finds her place then hands the book back to the acolyte. The acolyte holds the book as the hymn is sung. On this occasion, the hymn seemed especially long, at least six verses.
I stood there, facing the deacon, as the Book grew increasingly heavy. And I was struck by what an honor it is to carry this particular book. How I so often fall short of the ideal, yet am still worthy to hold and carry it in religious ceremony. It was a prayerful moment.
That feeling of prayer was a thin place; a moment when I was aware of the divine. I longed to return to that place, and knew the labyrinth was a way to enter a similar thin place.
I was one of the last ones to enter the labyrinth Saturday morning. I was taking my time. I was praying an Anglican rosary, using a prayer a friend had shared on Facebook: “Keep darkness out, keep light within; keep fear without, keep peace within; keep hatred without, keep love within.” I was two-thirds through the rosary when I noticed I was among the last pilgrims, and decided to complete the rosary as I walked the labyrinth's circuits.
As I've said before, one often meets the companions one needs on the Path. On this day, the first person I met was John, a Viet Nam vet who, I believe, suffers from PTSD. I stepped to one side so he could pass; we bowed to each other as he walked by: “The sacred in me recognizes the sacred in you,” to paraphrase the Hindu prayer.
This stepping to one side to let others pass was something I frequently did that day, mostly as a courtesy. It was also a way to honor my sense of personal space — to allow a bit of breathing room between my body and all those other bodies. The lanes were narrow, and only once did I turn to one side to walk the same circuit as another person — who was walking the opposite direction.
In time, I was the last person in the labyrinth. In time, most of the other pilgrims were heading downstairs for lunch. There were three facilitators walking at the edges of the labyrinth to support our prayer with their own. In time, I came to believe people were waiting for me – possibly my fellow pilgrims, certainly those three facilitators. There was also the possibility I'd be late for lunch, and would not know where it was being served. I was very near the entrance; no more than two or three circuits to go. I was at point where I could easily step over one border and enter the lane leading out.
So I did. I walked back to my chair, quickly jotted down a few notes, and put my shoes back on. I started to join the others, but as I walked down the stairs, I was aware the noise was painful. I had to admit I needed a few more minutes to transition from the sacred to the mundane.
I didn't think much one way or the other about my actions. I wasn't consciously thinking, “Man, I'm a really spiritual person. I've spent all this time in prayer, and I've been so considerate of my fellow pilgrims!”
I suppose that element of pride was there though, lurking in my subconscious.
I drove straight from church to the grocery store. It didn't take long to collect and purchase my paltry supplies — no more than 15-20 minutes. Returned to the car, put the bag in the trunk, started the car.
I couldn't pull out because another car was directly behind me. The driver, a woman with a young child, was waiting for a car on the opposite side to pull out. I wasn't really feeling impatient. I was listening to This American Life as my car ran, and was relatively content. I looked in the rear-view every so often to see if the woman had moved yet.
Our interaction became a silent movie, with each of us projecting dark voices (I suppose) onto the other. At some point the woman saw my eyes reflected in my rearview. I didn't think I was looking that often, but perhaps she thought I was getting impatient. She might have in my place, as I had no way of leaving (there was a car parked in front of me).
I don't know why she didn't pull back so I could exit; then she could have pulled into my former parking space. There was no way to communicate that option.
I was aware of her looking back at me, noticing my eyes in the rear view. I tried to think of a way to communicate I was in no hurry. So I drummed my fingers. Mistake — she read that as greater impatience. I could see her lips move; she was gesticulating to the space she'd been waiting for. Her lips moved some more.
I can't read lips, and that's the point I which I did become impatient. I unbuckled my belt and left the car, hoping we could speak like adults. However, she wouldn't roll down her window. All I could do is say, almost at a shout, “I'm just waiting, like you. What's your problem? There's no problem.” Felt altogether impotent and silly. I returned to my car.
Clearly, I had not made a full return from the mountain top. I was not ready to deal with other people. It's well and good to be courteous to people in your faith community, people you've come to know and care for. But the real test is how you treat the stranger.
I'm not sure I earned a passing grade as I confronted that woman in the grocery store parking lot. I went home, so my cat could teach me greater humility.
There's nothing to stop a man from writing unless that man stops himself. If a man truly desires to write, then he will. Rejection and ridicule will only strengthen him. And the longer he is held back the stronger he will become, like a mass of rising water against a dam. There is no losing in writing; it will make your toes laugh as you sleep; it will make you stride like a tiger; it will fire the eye and put you face to face with Death. You will die a fighter, you will be honored in hell. The luck of the word. Go with it, send it. Be the Clown in the Darkness. It's funny. It's funny. One more new line ...
— from The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship
Thursday, March 13, 2014
Humans think they are smarter than dolphins because we build cars and buildings and start wars, etc., and all that dolphins do is swim in the water, eat fish, and play around. Dolphins believe that they are smarter for exactly the same reasons.
— Douglas Adams
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Saturday, March 01, 2014
What is wanted now is not simply the Christian who takes an inner complacency in the words & example of Christ, but who seek to follow Christ perfectly, not only in his personal life, not only in prayer & penitence, but also in his political commitments and in all social responsibilities.
— Thomas Merton
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Consider, for a moment, the humble banjo. Folk I travel with are fond of such jokes as “You know what you got when you throw a hundred banjos in the ocean?” The banjo is almost ridiculous in appearance, when compared with its cousins, the guitar & mandolin (add a bass, and you've got a bluegrass group). It has a loud brash sound, which cuts across the dreadnought guitar, chopping mandolin, and the dancers' feet.
Dave Bonta considers the banjo with just the right mix of seriousness and humor in his latest chapbook, Breakdown: Banjo Poems (Seven Kitchens Press). These poems take the reader on a little history of the instrument, both literal and imaginative.
The collection begins with the ominous sounding “Banjo Apocalypse,” which borrows heavily from the Book of Revelation. This may seem irreverent, and the more tender and easily offended reader may close the book immediately. It would be a shame if you did; you not only miss the fun of this first poem, but the fun journey of the poems which follow.
An “apocalypse”, of course, is a story of the end times (I write this on the supposed date of Ragnarok). And it seems odd to begin a collection with thoughts of the end times. The poem begins by giving the angels of John's vision seven banjos rather than seven trumpets; this seems right — the banjo blares & blasts (in its way) like a trumpet. After an imaginative breakdown of the banjo's construction, the poem closes with these lines:
And the seven angels
which had the seven banjos
This suggests that what is to follow are the sounds of those banjos, for the angels' trumpets sound in John's vision prior to the opening of the scrolls which describe end time events. Immediately, the collection turns from future end times to history — the fraught history of the banjo, which reflects our American history.
For we can't fully consider the banjo's history without addressing the issue of slavery. The banjo was stolen, in a sense, with its owners when European nations kidnapped people from Africa and brought them to the U.S. It's a troubling history; this collection does not shy away from it.
The fourth poem, “Catskin Banjo” is especially telling and (compared to other poems in the collection) relatively graphic. The narrative revolves around a cat, but it could also be about a female slave. The cat's fear could also be a slave's fear.
I don't want to give the impression that the collection dwells on this early history — just the first few poems directly reference the banjo as a slave's instrument. Other poems reference early minstrel days (five have “Medicine Show” in the title). One of the poems in the “Medicine Show” set reminds us that Shackleton took a banjo & banjo player to the Antarctic.
As a watch-repairman's son, I especially enjoyed “Open-Backed Banjo”, which compares it to “our only god the clock”, asking
Where's the balance wheel?
The gear train?
There's nothing there “... but a bare rod / & the smell of rain.” The ghost in its machine calls the narrator to make his hands those of this time-keeping machine, to
Play it, son!
Make it ring like a hammer on steel
& rattle like a Gatling gun
until it smokes.
Bonta's irreverent sense of fun returns with “Banjo Proverbs”, which "steals" from the KJV translation of the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, substituting "banjo" for "fool" or "foolish" in the original. Perhaps it's just me, but the banjo here seems more than merely foolish — it “mocks at sin”. A player returns to it as a dog returns to his vomit. “Forsake the banjo,” we're told in the final stanza, “and live”.
Many poems deal with the origins of the banjo, from the gourd in “How Jefferson Heard Banjar” to the mechanisms detailed in the opening poem and “Open-Backed Banjo”. One of my favorites is “Banjo Origins (3): Jesusland”, a playful imagining of how banjos might grow on trees. And how the banjo once followed the Grateful Dead. Side note: Jerry Garcia was a bluegrass fan, as detailed in the documentary “Grateful Dawg”.
Although the collection is headed “Breakdown” there is no other reference to bluegrass in the collection. Elsewhere, Dave has said he prefers the claw-hammer style to Earl Scruggs' new-fangled style. Earl Scruggs is best known for his partnership with Lester Flatt, but he began his career with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys; it was Scruggs' banjo which gave the genre its distinctive sound.
A breakdown may be an instrumental (e.g., Foggy Mt Breakdown) or a break in a vocal song. This collection is an extended piece, with theme & variation — history, dream, myth, wonder. It's a charming collection, a worthy co-winner of the Keystone Chapbook Prize.
The chapbook is worth its $9 cover price. I also encourage you to preview the series on Dave Bonta's Via Negativa site, where they are prefaced (or presaged) by a series of Moving Poems.
Order a copy of Breakdown: Banjo Poems from Seven Kitchens Press.
Wednesday, February 05, 2014
Saturday, February 01, 2014
Blessed are you, Lord God, for the gift of our senses; you fill creation with delight. We hear your word above the storm; we feel your voice behind the wind. We hear your word in stirring leaves; we feel your voice with every heartbeat. Grant we train our senses to perceive your good news in all creation. Grant we share your delight with all your creatures.
I am facilitating a class that uses haiku as a spiritual discipline to be fully present to God's creation. We are using the book Clear Water by Jeannie Martin as a guide. Tomorrow will be the third meeting of the group. I have asked the group to journal on a different set of senses each week. The prayer above is my response to tomorrow's assignment: hearing & touch.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Saturday, January 25, 2014
Friday, January 24, 2014
On the meditative benefits of befriending a cat, from Muriel Spark, A Far Cry from Kensington :
If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work … the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp. The light from a desk lamp … gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.
Courtesy Maria Popova's Brain Pickings site.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
Review of Bring Your Own God: The Spirituality of Woody Guthrie by Rev. Steve Edington; 3.5 stars
This book covers an aspect of Woody's life no other biography spends much time on: his spirituality. The basic case is made in the first chapter; the remaining chapters strive to support the argument. The author is a Unitarian minister, and possibly reflects some preference toward portraying Woody as a self-taught Unitarian. Having read much of Woody's writing beyond Bound For Glory, however, I agree with this portrayal.
The author's approach is not chronological, which I found interesting — though I was not sure why he approached the topic in this fashion. It certainly helped that I was already familiar with Guthrie's biography from three other sources (Bound for Glory, and Woody Guthrie: A Life by Joe Klein & Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie by Ed Cray).
The book includes much of Woody's writing that I have not seen elsewhere, especially letters he wrote in response to condolence letters after the death of Cathy ("Stackabones"), and much of a play written after he was hospitalized with Huntington's. For me, these selections were worth the $4 for the Kindle edition.
The book does become repetitive in the last few chapters, which is the main reason it falls short of a four-star review. Otherwise, I would definitely recommend someone read this as a supplement with Klein or Cary's biographies to get a full picture of the man.