Our Adventurous Vision For the New Year

New Year's roses

Blessed be the road that does not end
Blessed be each minute that borrows us
To witness its eternity

We are old: a species gone to seed,
Run wild under the stars;
And our talk is old talk

While we watch our brazen children
Clutch at memory of when the land
Was waking to a young and lusty sun.

– Paula Meehan
The Man Who Was Marked By Winter, Epigraph

Perhaps this poem is a bittersweet way to begin 2008, but there must be worth in looking at a new year with a broad perspective strong enough to bear all of the hope that will poured into its freshness while still acknowledging the strains of fear that accompanies any beginning. Even as we look to the glow of a fresh calendar we must bear witness to all that we have been and all that we will carry into this infant January.

I feel as if I am one given to Meehan’s old talk since I look at a new year with a whisper of trepidation, glancing at past Decembers that have melted into Januarys only to reveal another December lying in wait. But despite this wisdom, or perhaps because of it, I still cling to the brazenness of a child and seek the waking earth, the waking consciousness. All of us who know hope in this time that can seem a desperate age must know what it is to be worn thin by a scorching sun, but remain willing to forget the burns as we long to dance in the glow of noon.

Last night, my husband and I celebrated the holiday at our favorite restaurant with a toast to “adventurous vision.” We shall make this phrase our guide and our strategy in the new year and look for what blessings we can on the road that does not end. Undoubtedly there are tremendous changes ahead for us in 2008 – where will we live, what will constitute our livelihood, how will we structure our living. I can only pray that we move through it with the wide-eyed intelligence and well-intentioned good sense so that we are present for every precious minute we are granted in our little piece of eternity.

Blessings for the new year – may the seeds you plant in the coming months grow wild and beautiful under the stars.

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Obstacles, Legendary and Otherwise

All Legendary Obstaclesimageafter.com

All legendary obstacles lay between
Us, the long imaginary plain,
The monstrous ruck of mountains
And, swinging across the night,
Flooding the Sacramento, San Joaquin,
The hissing drift of winter rain.

All day I waited, shifting
Nervously from station to bar
As I saw another train sail
By, the San Francisco Chief or
Golden Gate, water dripping
From great flanged wheels.

At midnight you came, pale
Above the negro porter’s lamp.
I was too blind with rain
And doubt to speak, but
Reached from the platform
Until our chilled hands met.

You had been travelling for days
With an old lady, who marked
A neat circle on the glass
With her glove, to watch us
Move into the wet darkness
Kissing, still unable to speak.

– John Montague

At yoga class tonight when my teacher spoke of obstacles and dancing with them rather than boxing with them, I thought first of the new limitations thrust upon me by an activist sciatic nerve. As I tried to breathe through the frustration that flared with each twinge in my right leg, I remembered the line that started Montague’s poem: “All legendary obstacles lay between us.” My dear friend Perspective slowly overcame the drama I was creating about being a blighted creature forced to wrestle with something as cantankerous and enduring as this mystery pain coiled in my hip. I came to realize that this was not an epic malady but another lesson, another opportunity for growth. No trauma seemed to have set off this affliction that I am trying very hard not to see as a betrayal of the body, so can only assume that some unprocessed emotion has been lodged in the small of my back.

Looking at this poem I am tempted to move beyond that wonderful first line and read it as an allegory for the self and the soul. The restless speaker is caught in the distraction of life even as he eagerly awaits the Beloved. Such distances separate them as to seem insurmountable even as he never gives up hope for their reunion. That doubt and elation he feels when he finally encounters her is the same that we all experience when we finally realize our greatest desire, to stand before the soul, all full of prayers that we are worthy and that this will be a perfect love. I dare read the old woman who accompanied the Beloved to be a spirit guide, a guardian angel, the one who watches from on high and protects us on the journey across what can appear to be unscalable mountains and infinite plains.

Suddenly sciatica seems to be less of a concern…

Sharing the “Psychic Interspaces”

The makers of images
Dwell with us still
We must listen
To their speech
Re-learn their
Songs
Recharge the psychic
Interspaces
Of our dying
Age
Or live dumb
And blind
Devoid of old
Song
Divorced from
The great dreams
Of the magical and fearful
Universe.

Lament of the Image
An African Elegy

Ben Okri

I found this poem in Andrew Harvey and Anne Baring’s The Mystic Vision and was overcome with a wash of knowledge I had considered obsolete. It was phase of study that was certainly important as it lead me here, but the details had become irrelevant in my current search. In this hunt for “pure” experiences of God, of accounts of those who superseded the intermediaries of this world, I had forgotten myth. What was once the basis of all of my scholarly interests had receded to a collection of background stories, succor for those trapped in narrative rather than experience.

Such negligence of the very foundations of my current project of living marks me as a most negligent ingrate, or perhaps just someone who assimilates and moves on and then loops back to the basis of it all when the time is right. How could I forget how Irish myth and specifically the poetry of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill had shaped my academic work and perspective as a young woman discovering her voice and viewpoint?

Nuala has said: “I think it is downright pernicious to underestimate myth; it’s like pretending the unconscious doesn’t exist, and that we are just composed of rationality. Myth is a basic, fundamental structuring of our reality, a narrative that we place on the chaos of sensation to make sense of our lives.” (“Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and Medbh McGuckian: Comhra.” Southern Review.)

Myth is the thing that links us beyond cultural divisions and unites us even when the sky itself seems to be made of different stuff as it is in Okri’s Africa and Ní Dhomhnaill’s Ireland. “Recharge the psychic/ Interspaces” could come right from Ní Dhomhnaill’s commentary as she describes the metaphor of mermaids in her work or the symbolism of the fairy líos (fort). The pull of the ancestors, veneration for the creators of culture and memory, these are universal themes that are permitted, or actually required, in myth. Today’s epiphany leads me to realize I forget my first lessons at my peril and that part of me still sits in a Dublin lecture hall and must continue to seek the time before history when the world was forged by these “makers of images.”

Assuring That There Will Always Be “One Free Foot Kicking” Pt. 2

In my last post I presented Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s “The Real Thing” as a response to why I seek to learn more about the Catholic tradition of my birth even when I see so many problems with its execution over the last two millennia. Throughout the cultural upheaval/revolution of the last few decades that called into question centuries of Catholic Church rule of Irish social norms Ní Chuilleanáin examined and assessed her religion but continued to affirm her connection to it.

In an essay by Catriona Clutterbuck in this Spring-Summer’s Irish University Review outlining the ways Ní Chuilleanáin has uncovered the “liberating potential of religion,” this poet is declared to “trace the power of the imagination to excavate space for the agency of belief.” As I examine the authenticity of my faith, I often wonder at the place of imagination in such an endeavor; is there a demarcation point between divine guidance and an overly active brain, or can we credit our imagination with being, at least at times, divinely inspired? To hear that Ní Chuilleanáin’s imagination serves to produce fertile territory for belief is reassuring, even if it does come from an academic who is probably less interested in the quality of the poet’s connection to God than we might be here.

The Brazen Serpent of the Old Testament is a kind of homeopathic cure: God tells Moses to mount a brass serpent on a pole so that the Israelites who had been stricken by the bites of fiery snakes sent to punish their sins could be healed. In the same fashion, Ní Chuilleanáin’s reimagined Church is an antidote to the hegemonic legacy of Irish Catholicism; something so traditional as the figure of a nun in a reliquary can be presented in a new way so as to soothe the injuries done by formalized religion. The rejuvenation comes in the reclaiming of seemingly irretrievably sullied entities.

Sister Custos herself seems to operate under the assumption that all that has been decreed by her Church is true: without question she takes pride in the relics in her care; she does not seem to protest that the windows that would allow her to look to a world beyond have been barricaded; she moves placidly through this Palm Sunday. At the same time, though she appears so oblivious to her own individuality and her place as a woman in this Church, the poet places her in a bricked up room. She is locking away an object that once produced miracles while her own vows are subterranean and inaccessible. The scene has been set for dissent. It is the nun’s own foot kicking under the white sheet of history, an indomitable spirit that enlivens her faith even in the presence of so many imprisoned, lifeless things because it is the person who is the authentic center, “the real thing. ” Just as the Brazen Serpent relieved those who suffered God’s wrath at the hands of snakes, it might be able to sooth those who suffered at the hands of an organization that did not see individuals deserving love but a flock of sinners to be subdued.

It is the modern reader who would read this piece as the modern poet lays it out. My interpretation assumes that the Church can in fact be questioned and yet still places a sense of worth on the monastic existence (though she lives a cloistered life without a view of the countryside once can assume that her lay sisters have a much more difficult time of it, here she is permitted education and time for a contemplation of God). It is not necessary that the Church cease to exist, but instead that it grows to recognize a woman such as this one who lives within it.

Assuring That There Will Always Be “One Free Foot Kicking” Pt. 1

The Real Thing

The Book of Exits, miraculously copied
Here in this convent by an angel’s hand,
Stands open on a lectern, grooved
Like the breast of a martyred deacon.

The bishop has ordered the windows bricked up on this side
Facing the fields beyond the city.
Lit by the glow from the cloister yard at noon
On Palm Sunday, Sister Custos
Exposes her major relic, the longest
Known fragment of the Brazen Serpent.

True stories wind and hang like this
Shuddering loop wreathed on a lapis lazuli
Frame. She says, this is the real thing.
She veils it again and locks up.
On the shelves behind her the treasures are lined.
The episcopal seal repeats every coil,
Stamped on all closures of each reliquary
Where the labels read: Bones
Of Different Saints. Unknown.

Her history is a blank sheet,
Her vows a folded paper locked like a well.
The torn end of the serpent
Tilts the lace edge of the veil.
The real thing, the one foot kicking
Under the white sheet of history.

– Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

This poem came to me in meditation this morning, but since I am not yet willing to credit my mediative state with the power to attract wisdom from sources greater than myself, I assume it has been rattling around in my head due to a series of more earthly conversations. My post about an identity crisis in a Dublin lecture hall leads me to contrast a graduate student seeking only the subversive bits of Irish poetry that declared a native feminist spirit deeper than any imported religion with a more mature seeker who has redefined the “subversive.” Because I was constantly seeking the Goddess in verse, I paid little attention to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s work. A few volumes are full of notes and comments, but most of them are tinged with irony as I marveled at such an obsession with the Church; clearly she was occupied with the spirit of the sacred feminine, why did she have to veil it in a habit? Now, as my definition of the sacred moves beyond such gender discrimination (to both rather than either/or) and I have a broader sense of history and context, I read her work with fresh eyes, wondering what that thesis of mine would have looked like if I had not limited to such a specific view of the divine.

Another reason I believe I was drawn back to this poem is a half-baked online chat session with a friend who knew me in my professionally irreverent pagan days in Ireland. To him, my new investigations of Catholicism are akin to asking politely to don the moral straight jacket and requesting a steady stream of lies at the hands of patriarchal victors. In the twisted medium that is “talking” online (I am sure enough people have pontificated quite enough on how such interactions contribute to our chronically fragmented personalities and our pervading sense of isolation even as we drown in “communication”), I tried to express something about babies and bathwater and waste. Luckily we have poets to save us from clichés!

I wonder at my former ability to write literary criticism even when a poem shook me to the core. Was I like a surgeon of words, hiding behind an impersonal mask that refused to become emotionally invested in the subject (or was it the object)? Or if I was affected, was I resigned that an English class could not always fulfill my needs? I suppose that I decided against the PhD path because, in the end, the classroom is not a cathedral.