February 4, 2014

Thunder of New Wings

Often, I'm attuned to poetry's forms, but this essay considers its earlier stages, even of formlessness. It is difficult to separate the elements of writing that writers use. Vision, voice, and technique are interlocked, and the whole seems to exceed the sum of its parts. Lao Tze wrote:
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other:
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another.
He says what cannot be spoken. It is the province of poetry to express the inexpressible. In exploring ways that "the spirit" can intersect with poetry, I wanted to bring together some thoughts about making new work. It is a creation story, somewhat abstracted, of the way that writers create objects made of language.     

In poetry, before the voice arrives, we attune to the world with our ears. Our ear gives us a sense wonder and awakens us. Our ear gives us the vowel sounds and cadences of the language we are born into, and we feel its rhythms in our body, listening comes before speech. The ear can pick up a tune. It is our ear that leads. A poem listens. Listen, a poem, 
titled "Beginning" by James Wright: 

The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.   
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
There they are, the moon's young, trying
Their wings.
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.

"Be still./ Now."  Attentive to the moment, Wright invites the reader to do the same. In the magic of the night, between no sound and sound, James Wright gives the reader nocturnal stirrings and glimpses of the luminous. I trust this poem. The world is an alive being. It listens to the beginnings of things, to the places where darkness is separated from light, to creation. 

In Wright's poem, action and the figurative occur in the first words. This is also true of the next poem. The poet Joy Harjo uses creation stories of her Native culture alongside her narratives of people caught in the struggle between darkness and light.
At dawn the panther of the heavens peers over the edge of the world.
She hears the stars gossip with the sun, sees the moon washing her lean
darkness with water electrified by prayers. All over the world there are those
who can't sleep, those who never awaken.

My granddaughter sleeps on the breast of her mother with milk on
her mouth. A fly contemplates the sweetness of lactose.

Her father is wrapped in the blanket of nightmares. For safety he
approaches the red hills near Thoreau. They recognize him and sing for

Her mother has business in the house of chaos. She is a prophet dis-
guised as a young mother who is looking for a job. She appears at the
door of my dreams and we put the house back together.
The narrator at the beginning of the poem is ambiguous, the poem story begins with myth: "the panther of heaven peers over the edge of the world/ She hears the stars gossip...." The sense of hearing is invoked. The mythic also has human characteristics. 

The poet brings together "those who can't sleep and those who never awaken." Two negations are conjunct, those who want to sleep can't sleep are juxtaposed with those who want to stay asleep. In the next stanza, the story's perspective emerges with the word "my." In figurative language, in metaphor, and in the actual, the awake world is indistinguishable from the world of dreaming. The poet has a two-fold consciousness. We walk in two worlds. In Joy Harjo's poetry, in her vision, action is not separate from creation and myth. 

Both of the previous poems focus "in the beginning." They invoke all beginnings. Perhaps all writers must separate darkness and light, and establish a world complete with conflicts and correspondences in their stories and songs. The creation stories, the sacred texts, the writings of mystics reveal light, illuminations, enlightenment, awakenings. These stories and texts and writings are mirrors, each capturing a glimpse of light, shadow, and the writer. 

There are no rules. Form rises from the material and comes intuitively. Formlessness is perpetual, it is the ocean of impulses, false starts, wrong directions, and abandoned ideas. I came to The Mirror of Simple Souls, the writing of a 12th century mystic, by way of Anne Carson. Her book Decreation explores the undoing of form in several ways (the word decreation, from Simone Weil, means the undoing of the creature inside us, or the self). I do not mean to intepret Porete's theology or even her experience, living in a different world and a different time. Her work passed into other's hands, and they made translations.

The Mirror of Simple Souls is a difficult but remarkable text, brilliant. "FarNear" was Porete's word for God. It's paradoxical and relates to proximity. In her book, an allegory of the seven steps on the "steep staircase" to God, Porete separated the concepts of self and soul, and she sought a state of "not-willing"--giving up desiring. 

This concept is not new in spiritual writing. But for the first time, I've seen writing through this lens, and it has resonance for me. There are some things that require a new language. The self, in art-making, can become an obstacle or a boundary that needs to be crossed. Maybe this is because preconceived ideas interfere with the process of bringing forth new work. One can't impose external structures on emerging work, but simply listen to it.  

In Porete's allegory,the characters are Love, the Soul, and Reason (and a few intervening: Pure Courtesy and Discretion)--all of whom she has given voice. Perhaps all writers carry on a negotiation between these elements and need to consider the undoing of form to reach the core of the work. Porete's metaphor was one of lovers: the soul and God. By "not willing," she could lose the self which was an obstacle to her quest for God. The river loses its name when it joins the sea, she said:
"This soul," says Love, "swims in the sea of joy, that is, in the sea of delights, streaming of divine influences. She feels no joy, for she herself is joy. She swims and drenches in joy, for she lives in joy without feeling any joy. So is joy in her, that she herself is joy, by the virtue of joy that has merged her in Him. And so is the will of the Loved and the will of this soul turned into one as fire and flame." 
This small passage from her long manuscript represents a moment of complete absorption, a flow experience. In her longing for the "thunder of new wings," she climbed the steep staircase she described, the seven "estates." She paid with her life for this pursuit, but her words, after centuries, remain. 

Another writing comes to mind: Rumi:

Why, when God's world is so big,
did you fall asleep in a prison
of all places?

This suggests that we need to dismantle the ideas we have about everything. I like the tone, the affection in consternation. My thoughts are still unformed, and perhaps this is appropriate. In formlessness, all is possibility. 

Image:  Pottery by Gladys Koski Holmes, Minnesota, 1995.  

Harjo, Joy. "Insomnia and the Seven Steps to Grace." The Woman Who Fell From the Sky. W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1996. Print and Web (Poetry Foundation): http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177196

Lao Tze. Retrieved 4 February 2014. Web. http://www.iging.com/laotse/LaotseE.htm#1

Porete, Marguerite. The Mirror of Simple Souls. Retrieved 4 February 2014. Web sources:
http://www2.kenyon.edu/projects/margin/porete8.htm and

Wright, James. "Beginnings." The Poetry Foundation. 2014. Retrieved 4 February 2014. Web. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177231

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