This week, I am mad for poetry. Typo: “made for poetry,” and perhaps that too.
I met Maya Angelou when we brought her to speak at Penn State in the mid-nineties. I was in the front row, and I had had the chance to talk with her before her appearance. What a giant. I had never loved her poetry (“Still I Rise” notwithstanding), but she reminded me strangely of Madeleine L’Engle, another author whose personhood as well as her writing, affected me throughout my growing up.
That night she visited Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium, Angelou said, “You need poetry. You need it! You need it desperately. Take it,” she said, knocking her fingernails against her front teeth, “Take it and bring it against your teeth.”
And so, perhaps in honor of my father, who was studying Dante and Milton with friends until the last month or two of his life, I have been spending the week of the anniversary of his death immersed in poetry.
Lucky you! You get to come with me.
First, and just because, I share with you a poem called “Late Fragment,” by Raymond Carver. I share it because I think it is beautiful, and I share it because it is true. It speaks of the Universal Love that I believe holds existence in being — or being in existence, however you like–as well as the smaller, human loves.
“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”
So I am immersing myself In fragments of this or that, of new poems, of poems I know well and poems I do not. I am turning again to Risking Everything, my favorite anthology of poetry, contemporary and ancient. I am listening to other people read poetry. I am thinking in images. I am in love with the world, which is what poetry does for me. It makes me love this tender, shattering existence.
On Friday, I was on retreat, and I heard a poem about Leila. Leila is perhap best thought of as the “feminine face of Allah, kinda.” That is, as the Sufis say, if Oneness–Allah–had gender or gendered energy, Leila would be the feminine-of-center part. The poem is drunkenly mad with love for the Oneness that destroys all categories, that blasts open the windows of our hearts, and that asks us to come and sleep between their arms. It is a poem that burned and blistered my heart with cool water I didn’t even know I needed.
After I heard the poem and went back into contemplation on my own, I found myself writing furiously about the Shekhinah, Sophia, Asherah, the Bride of Shabbat, and the dove-lovely beloved of that astonishing poem, the biblical Song of Songs. Even the most radically monotheist religions cannot resist the pull of Goddess, it seems to me.
There is (the) Shekhinah, the Presence that settled over the Ark of the Covenant and that is said to come to the bedside of the pious as they die. There is Sophia, Wisdom, Who danced the world into being–look for that third biblical creation story! There is the Bride of Shabbat, arriving as the coupled candles are lit to open the gates of Heaven and begin Friday night Shabbat dinner.
And then there is Asherah, the wife of El, one of the earliest understandings of God in the Hebrew tradition. Interestingly, Asherah is also, geographically and anthropologically speaking, the granddaughter of Inanna, Queen of Heaven in Ancient Sumer, by way of Ishtar in Babylon. Eventually, this goddess of war and love and sacred sex would come with the Phoenicians to Cyprus, where She became Aphrodite of the sea-foam, one of the goddesses to whom I have an altar in my bedroom.
And there is Eve, Yeva, Mother of All the Living. There is Lilith, Her foil in Jewish deep tradition.
But I digress, and badly. We were speaking of poetry and how the Sufi poem about Leila broke me open and made me write, just as it is making me write to you now, in a sort of frenzy of disconnected parts. I am taking a risk, I know. Last week’s Reflections made so much sense–grief tracks everyone with its sharp eyes and unerring nose. Everyone comes to know grief. But this week, I am someone else. This week, I have been blistered by words and tossed my head back and barked with laughter at the way David Whyte says the word “only.”
Oh yes, David Whyte…
Last of all, I have been listening to David Whyte. O friends, listen to his “The Poetry of Self-Compassion” if you can! A beautiful recording from before Mary Oliver was so famous. He will make her new for you again, if she has seemed to be “done to death” where you are. And if you don’t know her, well, you will meet her words for the first time. (I think of myself–Oh, I am so modest–as the best out-loud reader of poetry I know, now that my father is dead. But David Whyte is Welsh, a poet himself, and passionately in love with the poems he’s reading, so he’s some stiff competition! Luckily, I don’t know him personally.
So friends, I invite you to come to know a poem. Just one. Maybe just the Raymond Carver niblet above. Or maybe start reading The Divine Comedy or the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf. (Good luck! I’m starting it in September with a dear friend.)
You need this poetry. You need the words, the pictures, the images, the words that are themselves worth a thousand words. “Put them up against your teeth,” and bite into them like the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that they are.
I love you.
Your Thoughts on Grief and Depression
Thank you so much to everyone who got in touch with me about last week’s Reflections. I always appreciate hearing from you. And this week, I thought I’d share a couple of tidbits from those who wrote.
Our comrade, Renee Orlandi, wrote about how depression draws one toward death. It is numbing and can feel, even if one is not actively suicidal, like death is at the door. But grief, Renee says, “reminds me that I am alive.” And how true a statement that is. Whether we are grateful for our lives in the wake of a loss, suffering survivor guilt, or finding ourselves in the arms of a lover soon after a loss, grief can remind us of our lives.
Another reader wrote to me and said that they liked last week’s Reflections because, while grief is a nearly universal human emotion, depression is not. And so reading about how grief and depression are different can help people who don’t know depression from the inside understand it a bit better.
And finally one last reader said that last week’s Reflections gave them a way to talk about things previously unbroached with someone important to them. They talked about depression and the differences between depression and grief to someone who hadn’t understood depression and hadn’t been able to imagine what it’s like.
Again, thank you, thank you, thank you. If you haven’t written to me before, simply reply to the Reflections, and I’ll get your note. And if you’re a regular correspondent, please do keep it up! You lift my spirits every time I hear from you.
Want to Step into Circle?
Back at the end of July, several comrades from The Way of the River gathered on Zoom to share a Turning the Wheel celebration of Lammas, and to talk about what it means for us. We had a ritual, called out to the bounty of our lives, and talked about the work that goes into harvesting. It was lovely.
Our next Turning the Wheel observance will be for Samhain (pronounced–among other ways–”Sowen” or “Sahwen”), the feast of ancestors, the thinned veil between material and spiritual worlds, and the last of the great harvests. For some Pagans, it also marks the beginning of the year, and a time of contemplation and readying oneself for Winter Solstice. (Yes, it is kind of like Advent–I can’t help saying it!)
For my part, it always feels like the end of the year, but no mind. However you put it into the calendar, we’re going to have our observance, and we need help! If you haven’t been part of one of our ritual teams and would like to, please let me know. We’ve had folks on our teams who had never before attended or participated in Pagan ceremony. We’ve also had folks who’ve been in Circle, but in very different ways from the tradition we are slowly growing at The Way of the River.
If you’d like to be part of the team, and you’re a member of our community, please let me know. You’ll have support and care in the process of preparation, and I’d love to have you join us. Just email me at email@example.com to let me know.