Days pass when I forget the mystery. Problems insoluble and problems offering their own ignored solutions jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing their colored clothes; cap and bells.
And then once more the quiet mystery is present to me, the throng’s clamor recedes: the mystery that there is anything, anything at all, let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything, rather than void: and that, O Lord, Creator, Hallowed One, You still, hour by hour sustain it.
O Sweet Irrational Worship, By Thomas Merton
Wind and a bobwhite And the afternoon sun.
By ceasing to question the sun I have become light,
Bird and wind.
My leaves sing.
I am earth, earth
All these lighted things Grow from my heart.
A tall, spare pine Stands like the initial of my first Name when I had one.
When I had a spirit, When I was on fire When this valley was Made out of fresh air You spoke my name In naming Your silence: O sweet, irrational worship!
I am earth, earth
My heart’s love Bursts with hay and flowers. I am a lake of blue air In which my own appointed place Field and valley Stand reflected.
I wrote this poem for a novel I’m writing about love and war in Central America. It’s written in the voice and style of a 19th century poet about the ceaseless, ongoing struggles that have ravaged his land since before the Conquistadors. As they have been going on Ukraine since the Vikings plundered tribal villages, before the Mongols came and slaughtered all of them, before Hitler, before Putin.
This poem speaks to the ceaseless cycles of peace and plunder that haunt our histories and our hearts, but also to the spirit of the people who weather such storms. Although it will no doubt undergo further revisions before the novel is ready to hand over to my agent, I wanted to share it with you now, in honor of the brave spirit of the Ukrainian people who are weathering this storm today.
This Sea Within, Without
This sea that lies within, without, all things, All bodies, minds, and soaring hearts and grasping hands, Past, present, and evermore. This ceaseless stirring, this Siren’s call, these froward thoughts And listless rhythms that know no end. This urgent quest.
This sea that it throws itself upon our shores With grand bluster, heaving boulders and breaking cliffs, Leaving in its wake a disaster of debris, The detritus of society and small broken things, A child’s bracelet, an empty bottle, shattered shells and battered lives, Fallen faces like Flies rummaging through abandoned seaweed.
This sea within, without, unbroken in its vastness, Spreads out like a calm comforting blanket of blue, its lacy Traces whispering secrets in our ears, Seducing us with sleepless dreams as it Reaches across the sand to wash our feet and sings its pleasure in the sun, Its tender kisses everywhere, Its mesmerizing music everywhere, Calling children, and lovers young and old, to its shores, To romp among its waves like playful porpoises, Safe as sand.
And so it lures and soothes and laments, Before it lashes out, breaking Whole continents apart Leaving all in ruin.
This Sea within, without, Pouring across the centuries in Endless rhythmic cycles of peace and plunder, Plunder and peace, Ever restless, relentless.
This sea within, without Each heart, each nation, each age and eon. We and sea and all that lies between, Taking our pleasure where we may in warm, balmy breezes, Finding our strength in broad strokes as we surf and swim, Taking our lives into our hands as we resist Its uprising roar As it crashes down and drowns our dreams.
O drowning heart, O vale of tears O lovers lost, O sons and daughters, O detritus of raging storms, Be not dismayed. As ceaseless as the turmoil is, so is the spirit that rides upon it And survives to rise again.
Savor the sun’s sweet kisses and the balmy breezes, Hold them close, don’t let go. Even when the broad drowning seas rise up and crash down, Do not despair. Tis the way of weather, And of weathered hearts, and leathered minds, And grasping hands, and the sons of man.
So we lay our hearts and histories Upon such shores as storms do rage And retreating bare all to see Such luster still in the strong arms and stalwart hearts Of souls long lost.
Where all that’s left of mighty ships’ splintered rails And torn sails sink below and wait to rise Once more. Once more.
By Deborah J. Brasket, 2022, from the novel This Sea Within
The poem is read by the protagonist of my novel on a plane heading toward a war-torn country in Central America in 1973. On the plane she’s been reading the history of Latin America starting with the conquistadors and the destruction of two major civilizations that had persisted for 3500 years until the Cortez arrived. The history continues with ongoing struggles of so many countries in Central America to become independent nations, and then to break the hold of one brutal dictator after another, each propped up by the United States after the Monroe Doctrine went into effect. The constant civil wars and guerrilla warfare in the region, and her own country’s involvement in that is disheartening, to say the least, to the young, idealistic woman.
But then she reads the poem of one of the most cherished poets from that region which speaks to this very condition of constant strife, and surprisingly, it heartens her.
I don’t know if it will hearten you as well, but I thought I’d offer it here in that spirit.
The article features Bruegal’s paintings and W. H. Auden’s poetry. It’s about how human suffering and complacency go hand-in-hand. How it’s all, perhaps, a matter of perspective. How distant are we from the suffering: Is the war taking place in our city or on a distance continent? Are we watching its horrors on TV, or have we moved on to sipping wine with friends on the patio?
Here’s the poem by Auden that expounds on the painting above by Brueghal.
Musee des Beaux Arts W. H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: how well they understood Its human position: how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting For the miraculous birth, there always must be Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The article is also a master course in reading poetry and art. It explains how lines five and 8 refer to the miraculous birth of Christ that the aged are waiting for. This glorious occasion is juxtaposed in lines 5 and 6 with the skating children oblivious to the coming slaughter by Herod’s hand.
The Brueghal painting depicting it is pictured below
The following five lines in Auden’s poem refer to another Bruegal painting where dogs chase and play with each other while soldiers slaughter a village.
Horror is hard to sustain. It dulls, it grows weary, it becomes a drudgery. The mind drifts. Life goes on. The sun continues to rise. We need its warmth and comfort. The trill of the songbird still thrills us. We need this too.
Yet all of our justified condemnation and horror at Putin’s brutal bombing of innocent civilians should not allow us to forget the 400,000 Vietnamese whose lives were lost when Agent Orange was sprayed over their villages and forests, destroying all of it. For what? Are we more innocent than Putin?
It’s a matter of perspective. That was then, this is now. A year or two or three from now, will the horror of this war fade? It will. Unless this all breaks out into WWIII as some fear.
Below is Auden’s poem on the day after Hitler invaded Poland. It’s a long poem so I’ve included only the 1st, 5th, and last two stanzas, the 8th and 9th. You can read the whole poem at this link.
September 1, 1939
I sit in one of the dives On Fifty-second Street Uncertain and afraid As the clever hopes expire Of a low dishonest decade: Waves of anger and fear Circulate over the bright And darkened lands of the earth, Obsessing our private lives; The unmentionable odour of death Offends the September night.
Faces along the bar Cling to their average day: The lights must never go out, The music must always play, All the conventions conspire To make this fort assume The furniture of home; Lest we should see where we are, Lost in a haunted wood, Children afraid of the night Who have never been happy or good.
All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And the lie of Authority Whose buildings grope the sky: There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.
Defenceless under the night Our world in stupor lies; Yet, dotted everywhere, Ironic points of light Flash out wherever the Just Exchange their messages: May I, composed like them Of Eros and of dust, Beleaguered by the same Negation and despair, Show an affirming flame.
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” another poet wrote. We will. We have no choice. The plowing, the fishing, the wine and the laughter must go on.
Isn’t that our fervent wish for the people of Ukraine, that they regain this normalcy? Even Vietnam has rebounded. Forgiven us.
Life must go on, we say from our safe, complacent distance. As it does, with or without us. Despite everything there’s a new birth taking place every second of every day.
The joy and sorrow, beauty and brutality of the human condition are woven into one seamless tapestry, glorious on one side and a hopeless tangle of knots on the other. All a matter of perspective, which side we are looking at in the moment.
Auden once said that the only true value of poetry and art is in the truth-telling that disenchants and disintoxicates.
Well, that’s one value of truth-telling for sure. But turn it over and the other is the truth-telling that enchants and intoxicates. Both are necessary. Especially in times like these.
I’ve been in a romantic mood lately. Both in the sensual and spiritual sense. This lust for life. This sense of wanting to “crack open our ribs and merge with” . . . well, everything.
After writing my valentine for lovers in my last post, I’ve been reading more of Neruda’s love poetry. The one below inspired this post. It too speaks to that sense of being one with what one loves.
I’ve paired it with two other Spanish romantics, Sorolla’s art, and the Spanish guitar music of Jacob Gurevitsch. His song “If Da Vinci Was a Girl” is a favorite, and the accompanying video speaks to that tender regard for the everyday beauty so often overlooked. As does the painting above of the artist’s wife and daughters at siesta. Those lush sensuous lines falling across a cool grassy knoll. Sigh! Makes me want to curl up beside them. Enjoy!
I crush her against me. I want to be part of her. Not just inside her but all around her. I want our rib cages to crack open and our hearts to migrate and merge. I want our cells to braid together like living thread.
— Isaac Marion, Warm Bodies.
Full woman, fleshly apple, hot moon, thick smell of seaweed, crushed mud and light, what obscure brilliance opens between your columns? What ancient night does a man touch with his senses?
Loving is a journey with water and with stars, with smothered air and abrupt storms of flour: loving is a clash of lightning-bolts and two bodies defeated by a single drop of honey.
Kiss by kiss I move across your small infinity, your borders, your rivers, your tiny villages, and the genital fire transformed into delight
runs through the narrow pathways of the blood until it plunges down, like a dark carnation, until it is and is no more than a flash in the night.
— Pablo Neruda, Selected Poems.
Where did love begin? What human being looked at another and saw in their face the forests and the sea? Was there a day, exhausted and weary, dragging home food, arms cut and scarred, that you saw yellow flowers and, not knowing what you did, picked them because I love you?
— Jeanette Winterson, Lighthousekeeping.
love is the voice under all silences, the hope which has no opposite in fear; the strength so strong mere force is feebleness: the truth more first than sun more last than star
I am both watcher and watched. The woman walking in her garden and the one watching her walk. Two halves, back to back. Both named and namer. I am the cat in Schrödinger’s box and the one lifting the lid.
Deborah J. Brasket, 2021
I came across this poem in a notebook I keep and decided to share it.
I’ve always had this sense of twoness. But the more I’ve learned about the nature of reality, the metaphysical as well as the quantum mechanics of it, the more sense it makes. And the more comfortable I’ve become with it, the more comforting it seems. I rather like it now. This sense of spaciousness.
It wasn’t always so. It’s something I struggled with when I was young. A sense that I wasn’t quite normal, or even quite real. I felt like I was loosely “tethered” to reality. I was in it, but also floating a bit above it at the same time.
It was hard to be in the moment, because I was always standing at the side of myself, watching. It was a bit like trying to carry on a telephone conversation when you hear the echo of your own voice at the same time.
I wrote a short story about that experience called “Fine and Shimmering,” which is how the character Sheri experienced the “tether” that kept her somehow connected to earth, to reality. I blogged about the story in “The Lightness of Being, Unbearable or Otherwise.”
Sheri was always tempted “to take that fine and shimmering thread between sharp teeth and snip it clean through. To drift aimlessly, like the merest wisp of cloud, a lingering trace of dawn, upon an otherwise immaculate sky. Awaiting that final dispersal, into the blue.”
My actual experience of the “twoness” I felt growing up was nothing nearly so drastic or literal. And in the end, I never actually “let go” of it. Instead I settled into it more comfortably by embracing the Zen notion of “not-two.” Now it’s the division between subject and object that seems more ephemeral and “not real.” I wrote at the end of my blog post this:
When that wall of “otherness” disappeared, I felt deeply connected to this ephemeral world. I felt a lightness of being that is “unbearable” only in the sense of being too sweet, too rich, too beautiful “to bear.” And so I didn’t try to hold onto it. I just let it wash though me.
I read an article in Scientific American yesterday called “Does Quantum Mechanics Reveal That Life Is But a Dream?” and discussed it with my husband. Then last night I had a dream in which several strange things were taking place and so turned to my husband, who was also in the dream, and said with amusement, “Maybe that article was right and this really is a dream.”
Only I didn’t think I was dreaming at the time. It all seemed quite real. Until I actually woke up, of course. Now it’s kind of like that old conundrum: Am I a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I’m a man?
I rather like the idea that we could be both. And perhaps we are, or will be, when this wall of otherness finally does fall away. Maybe there is just “not-two.” Maybe the enigma is all there is.
Story-telling is in our bones. It rises through us like sap through roots and leaves into the air. It began when galaxies spun star-dust into the atoms that spin still through our bodies, reminding us that the stories of our births go back eons and stretch far away into a future we are spinning still.
The poem below by Lisel Mueller says it all, and inspired this post.
Why We Tell Stories
I Because we used to have leaves and on damp days our muscles feel a tug, painful now, from when roots pulled us into the ground
and because our children believe they can fly, an instinct retained from when the bones in our arms were shaped like zithers and broke neatly under their feathers
and because before we had lungs we knew how far it was to the bottom as we floated open-eyed like painted scarves through the scenery of dreams, and because we awakened
and learned to speak
2 We sat by the fire in our caves, and because we were poor, we made up a tale about a treasure mountain that would open only for us
and because we were always defeated, we invented impossible riddles only we could solve, monsters only we could kill, women who could love no one else and because we had survived sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, we discovered bones that rose from the dark earth and sang as white birds in the trees
3 Because the story of our life becomes our life
Because each of us tells the same story but tells it differently
and none of us tells it the same way twice
Because grandmothers looking like spiders want to enchant the children and grandfathers need to convince us what happened happened because of them
and though we listen only haphazardly, with one ear, we will begin our story with the word and …
Lisel Mueller, Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. (LSU Press October 1, 1996)
I’ve been working on a poem I began here on this blog. It is a process, a gentle undoing and reweaving. An opening and letting go.
Recently a confluence of events inspired me to write a new ending. First I read an article on the importance of helping children discover a sense of awe and how beneficial that is, making us more curious, more humble and altruistic. Taking them on nature walks was one way it suggested.
Then only days after I learned about my 9-year old granddaughter’s startling discovery that Santa isn’t real. It was a blow to her, although she had begged to know the truth. What about the Easter Bunny? she asked. Horror upon horrors. The Tooth Fairy? she cried in alarm. Even the Elf on a Shelf, alas, poor dear.
I shared her pain. It seems only yesterday I took her for a walk in the meadow behind our home after it had rained the night before. We were searching for toadstools to see if fairies might still be sheltering beneath them. We found patches of bright green moss and ran our fingers along the soft furry carpet knowing how fairies like to danced there in moonlight. We imagined them wearing the silvery, pearl-studded gowns made from the spider webs glittering with raindrops we found nearby.
Why does the mind devise such dreamy comparisons? What is its purpose? To inculcate the capacity to marvel? To help us see beyond the ordinary sense of things (moss, toadstools) to their vast potential? To encourage us to see the fractal similarities between disparate things? There is something important and necessary in such devising. It feeds the soul by giving free rein to the imagination. It helps us to see beyond the surface of things, to look for the invisible within the seen, and inspires us to create our own works of wonders.
To marvel at a tree, to find awe in it, we must see it with new eyes. It must come alive in our minds. We must see the sap flowing upward beneath the bark from root to leaves. We must see the dark labyrinth of gnarled roots below the ground. We must hear the whisper of voices flowing through the neural-like network of fungi as one tree communes with another. We must see autumn leaves like high-wire dancers letting go of all they’ve ever known so they can twirl for one endless moment in the air before falling gently on their sleeping sisters. All of this is true, scientifically speaking. None of it is false.
I wrote the poem Field Notes from Within as if I was a student of physiology wandering through the fields of my own body, looking for those awesome wonders within, noting how well the part serves the whole. Just as we might when taking a child into the forest as that article suggested to discover for herself a sense of wonder in the world that envelopes and sustains us.
What could be more awe-inspiring than the human body? Than a beating heart? Than the twirling atoms that comprise the very substance of all that exists? We, ourselves, are a marvel.
I’ve been searching for a way to end my poem, to perhaps make it more comprehensible to the reader. Do I end it as I did the first time, with “dervishes of devotion“? Or do I add clarity to that as I did in the second re-making? Is doing so like painting a second tail on a dragon, a redundant addition? Or does doing so make its eyes come alive and breath fire?
I do not know. But here is my latest trial and error. We’ll let it sit a moment and see.
I don’t know when this poem will ever be finished.
And that’s the marvel of every living thing that longs to be.
Field Notes from Within
My heart is a staunch defender of all I am, beating with relentless passion the wherewithal of my being.
My bowels are alchemists skilled in diplomacy, sifting silver from dross passing peacefully away.
My cells are seeds of a pomegranate, deftly designed for simple pleasures, lushly dense and sweetly sated.
My atoms are ballerinas, twirling on ecstatic toes, arms flung wide, faces like suns, dervishes of devotion.
Marvelous is the kingdom within and without all things. Marvelous the Mind that designs such things and marvels.