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This week, I am mad for poetry. Typo: “made for poetry,” and perhaps that too.
I met Maya Angelou when I helped bring 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.
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 know, 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.