Wednesday, December 09, 2020

)Twin Rainbows(

Again, the world seems to be mad and beat:
all I can hear are the whispers of pain,
and the sunrise is pink fog in the street.

There's a broken crucifix at my feet.
The storm was dismissed by a hurricane.
Again, the world seems to be mad and beat.

I saw a black crow flying sixty feet
into the dawn. He didn't stop to explain.
And the sunrise is pink fog in the street.

The twin rainbows in the dawn sky task sweet,
but like ancient dye they will wash away.
Again, the world seems to be mad and beat.

You look like all the people I could meet,
but you left your hat behind just the same.
And the sunrise is pink fog in the street.

"My escape," you say sadly, "must be fleet."
A handshake, then the bus takes you away.
Again, the world seems mad and beat
and the sunrise is pink fog in the street.

10.May.1978 (revised)

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

At the Crow's Laugh Inn

At the Crow’s Laugh Inn
Dancers strobe by the bar
The electric body pulses
As the dealer smokes his fat cigar

Crow’s Laugh was founded in 1784
With ale and lager and wine
Now men hold each other
And form a chorus line

King George was the object
Of that ancient corvid’s scorn
Now women watch each other
Slow dance into the morn

Soon, the crow will be laughing
At another madman’s fall —
You’ll see my body moving
On the floor with the lovers all

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Ode to November

For Virginia W

You stand at the doorway
in your motley coat of rust and gold and blue
You stand at the doorway
almost smiling at the semitones dancing
on the wind

You wait, and you wonder
There at the doorway
What do you offer?
A hollow thanksgiving?
What do you offer?
Appolonaire’s trench war nightmares?

You look behind you where the Scorpion dwells
you look before you to the hand of the Archer

Why wait for the solstice
Why wait on the sun
Why not pray there at the door sill
that this endless year be done?

You stand at the doorway
perhaps I can see you smile
You wait upon winter
with autumn standing by

We pray with you there at the door sill
pray with ghosts & smoke & leaves
We pray with holy intention
for the healing yet to be.


Thursday, March 26, 2020

About “Never Thunders”

This poem began as a walk in the field with my high school chum, Dana P. This was my second year of college. I was living in Boyd House (a converted military barracks later torn down). I had recently returned from Princeton, NJ, and the end of a romantic relationship.

Dana had come to visit me, and we were walking out in the fields - somewhat lost in the stars and fog. Off in the distance, I could make out the flashing red lights of broadcast towers. That sparked the first line.

It’s likely Dana and I went back to my dorm room and started writing. We’d often do that, huddling on different sides of the room to write. Dana still thinks the poem is directed at him. It could as easily been directed at the girl I’d dated in Princeton.

Or, it could be directed to “the eternal feminine.”

There’s a sense in which this poem uses several  different methods. One is automatic writing, a technique developed by the Irish poet WB Yeats - it’s pretty much what it sounds like: you start free-associating on paper without worrying about meaning or structure. The poem also uses “paste up”, a sort of literary collage where you paste (in my case) song lyrics and fragments of other poems into your work. This is especially evident in the opening lines, where I quote the British poet William Blake (“mind-forg’d manacles”), a song made famous by The Brothers Four (Greenfields) and Bob Dylan (held mountains in the palm of my hand).

Another high-school friend, Gary, quotes Gregory Corso to the effect that to be considered a poet one need only write one great poem. This may be that poem for me.

It’s definitely a performance piece. I still remember the first time I read it to an audience - at the Library Bar in Norman - the MC said, “You got chops, man.” I’ve played with different musical selections to accompany my reading - the one you heard in the video, from Larry Fast's Synchronicity and Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves - I’ve decided the Williams’ piece is too on the nose, and have stuck with Fast's tribal electronic music. I was once accompanied live by David Amran, a Beat pianist.

What makes it work? I think it’s the repetition - watching, waiting - and the occasional rhymes. 

What does it mean? Is it a love poem to Jenny (the girl in Princeton) or something Dana sparked, or praise to the Muse of the Eternal Feminine? Maybe all of the above.

Or maybe it’s the poetic equivalent of a shaggy-dog story, which ends with a little surprise - Greensleeves.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Hagiopoeia II

Samuel Clemens did not consider himself the author of "boys' books," or even humorous books.  He saw himself, first and foremost, as a newspaper man.  "Most of my life," he once said, "I've been a journalist.  As such, I was licensed to tell lies that would make Satan blush."

Before he became a professional liar, Sam was a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi.  "I had supposed - and hoped - that I was going to follow the river the rest of my days, and die at the wheel when my mission was ended."

Sam wrote a book about his time as a riverboat pilot, and he called it Life on the Mississippi.  It's a fine book, except for the muddy parts and the forced burlesque.  Here's a bit which Sam left out of the final work:

There was one boat I cubbed which had a captain - Captain Stubbleford - who insisted on testing everyone who worked on his boat, from the cabin boy to his first mate.  It was a brief oral examination of two or three or five questions.  Now, Billy loved the river and knew it like a fish.  Sadly, he lacked the intelligence which the Creator had given to that common animal, or even the wisdom of a fence post.  He also had only one good eye.  But he was a good worker, and we knew he'd be good for our crew.  So we told Captain Stubbleford that Billy was dumb, which is to say mute, and he would have to give his test in signs.

Well, the boys and I were prepared for the worst, even with that precaution.  Billy went to the Captain's quarters.  Five minutes passed, then ten.  After fifteen minutes, Billy stormed out of the room and ran off before we could stop him.  Captain Stubbleford came out after him, shaking his head.

"I am truly humbled.  That young man could be a river boat pilot, if only he could speak!  I held up one finger, to indicate there is one mighty river.  He held up two fingers, to indicate there should always be two on deck to face this river.  I held up three fingers to indicate there were three branches of the river at its mouth.  He then shook his fist at me, to indicate that all rivers are one:  the Mississippi is the Mother of all Rivers, the River that IS all rivers."

Shortly after the Captain left, shaking his head in amazement, Billy came by.  We nabbed him quick.  "Lemme go," he said, "Wait til I git mah hands on that cap'n.  He may be a good cap'n 'n' all, but he sure don't have no manners!  He holds up one finger, sayin as how ah jest got one good eye.  So ah holds up two fingers, sayin as how ah's glad he's still got two good eyes.  Then he holds up three fingers, sayin as how we got us three good eyes 'tween us.  Ah tell ya, ah got steamed!  Ah's bout ta reduce his good eyes by one when he wanders off.  Now, lemme at him!"

Soon enough, Billy forgot all about it.  Captain Stubbleford hired him on as a swab.  The crew all held Billy in high esteem, because the Captain told us how wise Billy was beneath his silence.

Adapted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps (Doubleday, New York)

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Surprised by God: an appreciation

If you’ve read the synopsis for Surprised by God, the story may seem familiar - especially at a distance: A young person declares herself an atheist, leads a bohemian (or hedonistic) life, then slowly discovers God. Danya Ruttenberg’s story fits into a genre I call “spiritual autobiography”; it shares that basic outline with C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy and Augustine’s Confessions. My own faith journey is strikingly similar as well.

The difference being that Ms. Ruttenberg is Jewish.

Danya was born into a family that was only moderately observant. Her mother observed a few holidays, but no one in her family regularly attended synagogue. By contrast, my family attended church every Sunday. I was baptized into the Methodist church in December 1956 - a year and one month after my birth. In my memory, the Methodist denomination did not require much of us - beyond children remaining quiet and still in church.

Like Danya, I came to reject the faith, and even question the existence of God. She declared herself an atheist in high school; I waited until my first year of college. Danya describes herself as bohemian: she partied til early in the morning; developed her own wild sense of style; had sex with women as well as men; and even drank absinthe.

Similarly, I drank to intoxication on a regular basis. My dress was unique, but not as outre as Ms Ruttenberg’s. I dropped LSD with alarming regularity. I was essentially celibate, but was attracted to a handful of men as well as most women.

Then, like Danya, I began to sense there was something more; that there was, to paraphrase William Blake, something beyond “the senses five.'' Danya was in college, and chose to major in Comparative Religion, with an emphasis on Christianity - as the dominant religion of our culture. In retrospect, I wish this part of my journey had been equally structured.

My journey began in 1988, when PBS aired “Power of Myth”, a series of interviews between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell. I had read The Hero With a Thousand Faces shortly after I graduated high school, so I was already aware of Campbell’s work. But this was more extensive. The ideas were exciting; the presentation comforting.

This formed a confluence with other media: Leo Buscalia’s PBS series on Love; Elaine Pagel’s research into the Gnostics, originally serialized in the New York Review of Books; J.M. Cohen’s The Common Experience; and the Penguin Edition of the Word Bible, with collected selections from most of the world’s religions.

In brief, it was a self-directed course in Comparative Religion. Like William Blake, I believed “All religions are One”, and I strove to find a synthesis of these varied expressions of the divine. On my own, with no mentor.

In brief, I had a nervous breakdown.

Ms. Ruttenberg journey gained momentum after her mother died. She felt obliged to offer Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of morning, a practice she knew would have had meaning to her late mother. This required her to find synagogues where ten men would join the prayer. In Hebrew, a language as foreign to her at that time as it is to me now. Still, the ritual worked on her, embedded itself in her.

She chose to return to the tradition of her youth, even though she found some aspects to admire in the Christian tradition - she quotes Christian authors like Merton or Nouwen at least as much as she quotes Jewish writers like Heschel. If you follow her twitter account (@TheRaDR), you know she considers Judaism a culture as well as a religion. From which, I infer she chose Judaism because to do otherwise would be to reject her culture and its traditions.

Rabbi Ruttenberg often pauses in her spiritual autobiography to reflect on moments in her life, on what they mean, through the prism of her current understanding. As she grows in her practice of Conservative Judaism, she mentions that following Torah - which is typically translated as The Law, but could also mean The Way - is like living in a portable monastery.

I understand this to mean that one agrees to follow Torah just as one agrees to adopt a Rule of Life. In the monastic tradition, a Rule of Life is intended to draw you closer to the community and to God. Most Protestants are not familiar with this ancient tradition. But it can help give your life more structure, more of a foundation in the Eternal, than a Sunday worship service alone.

For example, in the Benedictine tradition, the monks pray four times a day: Morning, Noon, Evening, and Night. They work to support the common good. They share their possessions in common. The monks take vows of poverty and chastity (though there are now some orders which accept married people)..

As it happens, I had read Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy shortly before reading Surprised by God. Rev. Taylor taught a class in Comparative Religion for several years, and she found something to envy in each of the world’s major religions. Like me, she envied the precision of Jewish tradition. By which I mean, having 613 laws to follow is less challenging, in its way, than Jesus’ Great Commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

A Jewish friend recently told me that the 613 (or 618) laws exist to protect the Ten Commandments. And the Ten Commandments exist to protect the One. In other words, the Torah makes explicit, in minute detail, what it means to love God with your whole heart, whole mind, and whole being.

I found myself wondering, as I read Rabbi Ruttenberg’s excellent book, how different my practice would be if I had a Rule of Life that was clearly enumerated and sustained by tradition. I give thanks for her witness; I consider it both a challenge and an encouragement.