The richness of Faith Ringgold’s textured artwork dazzles me. She had been ignore for so long in the artworld, but at the age of 91 she is being celebrated for the truly amazing and influential artist she always was and a lifetime of work to prove it. Much of her earlier work was dark, documenting dark times and political struggle. She was ever an activist and continues to be. But so much of her work expresses a joyful celebration of life and art and story-telling. You can see more of her art and read about her life here.
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.
Blue and gold are my favorite colors, so much so I created a Pinterest page named Blue & Gold to capture those radiant images that inspire me.
Now it’s the Ukrainians’ fight for freedom that inspires me, under that radiant banner of Democracy. So I’m sharing some blue and gold images from my page today in their honor, although I wish I could stand with them and fight at their side. I wish the world would.
I don’t think it’s enough to cheer them from the sidelines, or to merely send in arms and ammunition. If my neighbor’s home was under attack by Putin’s thugs, if their family and way of life was being threatened, would I simply stand at edge of my yard and not step foot into theirs to help them? Even if their attackers threatened me and my home if I did, would I bow to such threats?
And would I refuse to do so only because they did not happen to belong to my NATO club? I think not. Honor and love and the Golden Rule would not allow me to do so. If my home was under attack, wouldn’t I want my neighbor to come to my aid?
Why is it we are leaving Ukraine to fight this war alone? I know what the fear is—that doing so would start a World War III. But when we stood by and allowed Hitler to take over the Czech Republic in 1939, it didn’t stop world War II from happening. It seems a travesty to me that we are repeating past mistakes. Stop the bully now, don’t wait for him to defeat Ukraine and hope by doing so he won’t attack some weaker country later on. It will only encourage him.
There’s little I can do here to help the Ukrainians, but I dedicate this page to them and the colors of their flag. And I will pray for them. As well as for the United States: to do the honorable thing, the just and righteous thing, to step across that border and help them as the Golden Rule and love of Democracy and Freedom and plain decency demands.
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.
“There are burning bushes everywhere, burning yet not consumed, and our lives can be just as miraculous. Our Making can be a visible marker of God’s gratuitous love.”
So writes Makoto Fujimuro in his book “Art + Faith” about what he calls a “Theology of Making.” I knew nothing about his artwork when I bought his book. But, always interested in the way art and faith and spirituality intersect, I wanted to see what he had to say.
Then I discovered his paintings and was stunned by the beauty I found.
He practices the ancient technique of Nihonga. His pigments are semi-precious stones crushed, such as azurite, malachite, cinnabar pigments, coarsely grounded. He writes:
“I use them not just because they are beautiful, which they are, but because they have this wonderful lineage. I use them because of the specific symbolism attached to them. For me, mineral pigments have significance as symbols; they symbolize God’s spiritual gifts to people and the glories of the saints in the Bible. In Solomon’s temple these precious stones were embedded in the walls as well as in the garments of the high priest. When you look closely at these paintings you see that they have a peculiar surface–they glitter and shine. Crushed minerals, therefore, symbolize gifts both from heaven and earth, and point to my deeper struggle to return the gifts given to the Creator.”
Fujimura quotes a passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” Then he says it’s the artist’s mission to listen to the mystery of things and to be touched by the “keen vision and feeling” of God’s creation. He says, “This experience ‘of the other side of silence’ is the timeful potential of art, which is what the Greeks called kairos, an ‘eternal time.’ “
He also writes about the artist’s capacity to know “both the depths of sorrows and the heights of joy.” To “feel deeply the wounds and agony of life with its explosive potential.” To reveal “the roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
Fujimuro, in connecting art to Making, says he is broadening the word art to apply to every human being’s act of making. “We are all artists in that sense,” he says. “Let us reclaim creativity and imagination as essential, central, and necessary parts of our faith journey. Imagination is a gift given to us by the Creator to steward, a gift that no other creature under heaven and earth (as far as I know) has been given.”
There are burning bushes everywhere in our lives to inspire us in our Making, if only we would open our eyes and see. And remember to remove the sandals from our feet, for the place we are standing is holy ground.
Like many, I’ve been finding it difficult to write my normal New Year’s “Looking Back, Looking Forward” blog post. Looking back at 2021 is just too messy and confusing with so many conflicting emotions and dimmed expectations. And looking forward . . . ?
“This year, I’m resolving to find the joy in the work, and to embrace that joy the way a person in the ocean would cling to a piece of floating debris.”
I’m with you, Chuck. Now has never been a better time for living in the present and squeezing every ounce of joy out of everything that comes our way.
“If not now, when? If not us, who?” Remember that old activist chestnut?
I never thought to apply it to embracing the here and now of joy. But honestly, it works. And it’s not as selfish as it might seem. If we fill our hearts and minds with the simple joys at hand, and stick with it despite all that would tempt us to turn away, the joy that fills us is sure to spill over to all around us.
My simple solution to a world gone awry! But hasn’t it done so again and again over the ages?
Maybe in times like these our purpose should be to focus on the joy at hand and multiply it.
If you’ve never heard Nina Simone’s version of George Harrison’s song “Isn’t it a Pity,” I can’t think of a more fitting day to do so. While Harrison wrote the song about the pain caused by broken relationships, Simone takes it to a whole new level. Small changes in the lyrics and the way she uses her incredibly heart-breaking voice to wring out every emotive nuance turns the song into something much larger than what it had been before. It’s about when societies break down, when our humanity tears apart, when we forget about who we are or could be, when we fail to see all the beauty around us, including inside us.
Joe Taysom wrote the following in Far OutMagazine about how Simone transformed Harrison’s song:
“[Simone’s] voice is one of the most incredible sounds that has ever graced the earth so when you mix it with George Harrison’s mercurial songwriting then you’ve got an emphatic mix and her cover of the former Beatles guitarist’s track ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ is a true delight. . . . . [Her]11-minute cover feels more like theatre than it does music as her voice takes the listener on a rollercoaster of emotions where she makes every word that came from Harrison’s pen years previously come to life. It was this ability to express another’s emotion which elevated Simone to legendary status and it shines on this effort.”
The song meshes so well with Martin Luther King’s messages of love:
“At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.”
“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
Simone’s version is long, 11 minutes, but I hope you will listen all the way to the end. I think you’ll be glad you did.