Friday, July 9, 2010
Going to Ground
Ever read a really great poem and want to ask the poet questions about it? This week, I asked Halifax poet Lorri Neilsen Glenn about her poem “You think of Meister Eckhart," winner of The Malahat Review’s 2010 Open Season Award for Poetry. First, here’s the poem:
You think of Meister Eckhart
as the wind rises in the eucalyptus, follows tunnels of light
the queltehue have shaped in the air, tunnels that disappear inside
their own creation. Breath is to story as running is to horses, all wild eyes
and urgency, dust and dream flank, rush of imagination. And you wonder:
how does she find her way with those invisible hands? But when she whispers
at night as you try to steer stars, you wake with only the taste of the answer
in your mouth. And you think of Jesus, of the Buddha, of St. Teresa,
of the poet who drank wine from blue goblets, wrote
green lines on driftwood, slept with women he kept mistaking for the sea.
Can you learn to be as empty as a clay pot, to be that simple.
-and you walk on seashells among angels and devils,
from lanzas and pirates whose treasures won’t last, and you tap
your small crystal heart with the lightstick of the world, and listen:
you know music cannot be as sharply drawn as the eyes of a captive hawk, nor
pinned down to staves with clefs and a rest. It is bird shriek at dawn, chug-
churning engines hot with promise, murmuring cows that trail swollen udders,
generous whispers of the fig tree summer-heavy with fruit you break open
in your palm and lay on your tongue. It is what you have already known
and tasted, mystery that grows in tears and bone, in death and rock and ocean,
the space on the stairs between this step and the next, in the red muscle
of mercy. It longs and it is longing and it wants you as virgin, wants you
as wife, lover, child, over cloud, under water, wants your throb
and blood-thirst, buried tears, and more. It shows you that soft is stronger
than hard, that you – rapt listener, ripening soul – always knew how to dance
this river, this winter, to compose out of the distant cry of stars.
(From Lost Gospels , Brick Books, 2010).
Many people may not be familiar with Meister Eckhart. Who was he and how does he figure into your poem?
Meister Eckhart was a German theologian and mystic, a Dominican who was condemned after his death as a heretic by John XXII, the Pope at the time. Eckhart’s beliefs about unity with God, the need for the soul to become empty, clear, uncluttered, and the importance of our learning to go to ground---all these made him a fly in the Church ointment. He incorporated the teachings of female theologians and mystics in his writing as well. In fact, now that I think about it, he was a bit of a trickster and a bit of the Buddha rolled in one, and that didn’t go over well with the Avignon Papacy.
His work is one of many I’ve been reading over the last several years – Merton, St. Teresa, Simone Weil, Marguerite Porete, the Desert Fathers – as well as several versions of the Tao. Chuang Tzu was also of interest to me, as were contemporary takes on all of these. Philosophers—Heidegger, Heraclitus. The list is endless. It’s not uncommon at any age, but especially later in life, to want to explore the nature of being and of belief. I had already started the reading when I entered into what would become a five-year period of continuous and often difficult losses. I don’t call that prescience, just good timing.
During that period I found myself in South America in a workshop outside Santiago. I couldn’t sleep; I went for walks. I felt untethered and upside down and even the sky was unfamiliar. I searched for the Southern Cross for some small measure of comfort; of footing, I guess. Combine loss, middle age, and an antipodean landscape and sky, and you can’t help but go to ground. Be emptied out.
This poem is part of my most recent book, Lost Gospels, which, in some ways, is a record of my exploration into matters of being. What songs do we create, what songs are worth singing, which ones do we leave behind? And, of course, the big one: What on earth am I doing here? These are old and universal themes, I know, but each of us must come to them on our own.
Who is the “You” in the title?
Using ‘you’ seemed right; it was right immediately in my body as much as my head. The ‘you’ both speaks for me, and speaks to me I suppose. I’m talking out loud to this person who is wondering where and who she is. In my relatively short life as a poet – I started at age 50 – I’ve learned to let the poetry come first and the analysis later. Believe me: as an ethnographer well-schooled in discursive and analytical thought, it’s a delight to let go and fall into composing in that way.
I love the rich fecundity of images in this poem. Do they reflect some kind of spiritual awakening for you or different spiritual perspective on the world?
Thank you. It’s not an awakening, certainly not yet. It’s a long process. And my sense of the notion of perspective is that it suggests separateness, a particular lens. You know when you have your gender glasses on, or your class or New Canadian or musician ‘glasses’ on, you see through those lenses. I’m not sure that I see through a spiritual lens that’s discrete from other lenses. It’s more a landscape I live inside, or air I breathe or water I swim in--less about knowing and more about being. In that sense, it’s ontological and it’s ongoing. I’m never going to get there – wherever there is--- but I don’t want to die not having lived inside the questions. I recall reading something by Jane Hirshfield – and I’m paraphrasing here – that it’s tough going to embrace mortality, truly embrace it, and as a poet it’s harder still in contemporary culture to write about concepts such as ‘heart’ or ‘soul.’ Those discussions are too squishy for some people; they make the cynical squeamish and dismissive. I think that’s a certain kind of fear that’s talking, and I’ve felt that fear. Increasingly, I find that cynicism and ironic stances – or masks, I suppose --are no comfort or retreat; in fact, they sadden me when I see them in myself and in others.
Your use of couplets seems to provide a measure of control in the poem not always found in freer forms. Is that their principal use here or did it just come out that way? Did you contemplate other ways of structuring the poem?
Again, any analyzing I do about perspective or approach comes after initial drafts, when I put my editing head on—and sometimes never. Years ago, I began to read widely to explore various forms, and some combination of Bronwen Wallace’s steady propulsive voice and C.K. Williams’ and others’ rhythmic lines seemed to strike a chord, seemed to echo how I spoke or aspired to speak. It sounds as though I ‘tried on’ various voices, and that may be true – yet I think all poets do that initially, just as children learning to speak do. They ‘try on’ what they hear from their family and their culture so they can become both a part of that community of speakers, and a member who is distinct in his or her own way. It’s an old process, this induction into community.
As a beginning poet, I found discovering the sound of my own voice in a community was exhilarating. It was like wandering a busy market with music coming from many sources. You’re drawn to certain tunes and approaches, sometimes many at once, but you have to have heard (or in this case, read) well and deeply enough to feel as though you can join in the chorus, sing your own words in that key, that tone. But it has to be your song in your voice that you develop, regardless of your influences. And it has to be in tune with the material you approach or has found you. At some level, I think the couplets in this poem worked as staves for me – they were the right containers for rhythm. I play around with form often; this poem morphed over several revisions from short lines, to prose, to couplets and back again. And then, once a poem is near its last draft, there can be publishing constraints (page width, for example). In fact, I think the version of this poem published in Lost Gospels is different from what appears in The Malahat Review. That’s a whole other discussion.
But to try another response to your questions, David, this poem, like most, began with an image or a germ of curiosity or a shadow or a twinge of discomfort. And when I begin a draft I am often somewhere ‘out there,’ in a flow state, a meditative otherworld– where words and images come and I simply have to ride them out, struggle inside the emerging language, nudge it, abandon it, nurse it along, turn my back on it or look at it sideways, keep it going, carry it with me when I refill my coffee cup or check for mail at the door, return to it, and allow it to run its course for the hour or two or three I have in a day to write. It’s not calculated, this process. During all this time, all the resources I have are standing by, grinding their gears or elbowing me as necessary. By resources I mean what we all draw upon as writers: our histories, linguistic and metaphorical abilities, cognition, courage--the whole cupboard. And we use them in a complex, recursive, and mysterious process that I continue to find astonishing. When the bubble breaks and my head comes back to the here and now and the phone rings or the cat needs feeding, I see I have a draft –something often as messy as an overheated three-year-old with ice cream, or feral and loose-limbed as the Big Lebowski—but it’s a draft, and I’m happy to have that. It’s not until the next draft – after I’ve let the poem calm down a bit that I go in as an editor and look at structure, approach, that sort of thing. That’s an over-simplification, I know – I think we all edit as we write, regardless of the draft -- but my point is that the initial draft, particularly for this poem, wasn’t contemplated or planned. In subsequent drafts I worked on rhythm and movement; the poem wanted to move.
Lorri Neilsen Glenn is the author and editor of eleven books of non-fiction and poetry including Lost Gospels (2010). Former Poet Laureate of Halifax, she has led workshops in Australia, Ireland, Chile and most provinces of Canada. Currently, she is completing a collection of essays on grief and loss, an anthology of writing about mothers, and a memoir. She teaches writing and research at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. Learn more about Lorri at http://www.writers.ns.ca/ and http://www.brickbooks.ca/.
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