Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Tamara Lempicka, Adam and Eve


I believe in the soul; so far
It hasn’t made much difference.
I remember an afternoon in Sicily.
The ruins of some temple.
Columns fallen in the grass like naked lovers.

The olives and goat cheese tasted delicious
And so did the wine
With which I toasted the coming night,
The darting swallows,
The Saracen wind and moon.

It got darker. There was something
Long before there were words:
The evening meal of shepherds . . .
A fleeting whiteness among the trees . . .
Eternity eavesdropping on time.

The goddess going to bathe in the sea.
She must not be followed.
These rocks, these cypress trees,
May be her old lovers.
Oh to be one of them, the wine whispered to me.

~ Charles Simic


“The Old World” is one of my favorite poems. I am particularly delighted by the last line of each stanza, but especially the first and the last stanza, starting with “Columns fallen in the grass like naked lovers.” The “Saracen wind and moon” makes me think of Lorca’s ballads, stylized and passionate at the same time (so what if some professor tells you never to write about the moon? I say all true poets have the inalienable right to write about the moon).

Then “A fleeting whiteness among the trees” – which could be simply the light, but might also be a nymph or the goddess that’s mentioned soon afterwards, probably Aphrodite, since she had the closest connection with the sea (and of course with love and sex). And what is a moment of transcendent delight except a fleeting whiteness, and “eternity eavesdropping on time”?

The last stanza is perfection:

The goddess going to bathe in the sea.
She must not be followed.
These rocks, these cypress trees,
May be her old lovers.
Oh to be one of them, the wine whispered to me.

Who can resist that Dionysian whisper? The line is funny and moving at the same time. That is a rare feast: humor may delight us, but it’s rare that something can simultaneously amuse us and touch our hearts. But Eros has that power. (The marriage proposal scene in The Iron Lady is comic and yet touching.)

Simic interests me because his best poems are both cerebral and sensual, erotic. It’s the marriage of Logos and Eros. The gods mingle with the mortals, characters out of myth are everywhere along with the ever-present butcher, angel-child, and the blind beggar (who’s of course also Tiresias). I don’t think Simic could ever be popular with poets who write mainly about their immediate family. He actually does have some mother-and-father poems. One of them, “Romantic Sonnet,” starts:

Evenings of sovereign clarity –
Wine and bread on the table,
Mother praying,
Father naked in bed.


The combination of Eucharistic symbols and sex is irresistible to this lapsed Catholic. There is a strong connection between religion and sex, but it’s not what the religious right would have us believe.


Sociology of religion is an established field, but psychology of religion remains somewhat undeveloped, it seems to me – maybe precisely because it would mean treading into the erotic. We are reasonably comfortable with it when dealing with classical or Asian mythology: yes, of course, the phallic gods, fertility rituals, virgins and serpents everywhere, and gods and goddesses mating with mortals. When it comes to Chrisitanity, however, (or, to use the more inclusive and intellectually chic term, “Abrahamic religions”), we tend to pull back.

In a stark break with polytheistic religions, the Abrahamic god is sexless, so Eros has to enter through the back door, disguised. In a Hasidic midrash, Shehkina (arguably the feminine divine) joins Yahveh each Sabbath, and they make love – hence there is a special blessing for married couples making love during Sabbath. This, of course, is not in the scriptures. But we have to have some sacred marriage somewhere . . .

But what am I saying, “we” . . . it’s poets and writers who tend to infuse Eros into everything they write about, including matters that others might label “spiritual.” Here is Whitman, erotic not just in imagery, but also in the seductive use of sound – “Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.

I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you, 
And you must not be abased to the other. 

Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat, 
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not 
even the best, 
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice. 

I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning, 
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn'd over upon me, 
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue 
to my bare-stript heart, 
And reach'd till you felt my beard, and reach'd till you held my feet. 

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass 
all the argument of the earth, 
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own, 
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own, 
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women 
my sisters and lovers, 
And that a kelson of the creation is love, 
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields, 
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them, 
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap'd stones, elder, mullein and 

~ Walt Whitman, Section 5 of Song of Myself


It’s best to leave intellectual literary criticism out of this, lest we sound like theologians writing chaste commentaries on the Song of Songs. I’ll only say that I love the inclusion of brown ants and mossy scabs and weeds in this mystical experience. And yes, it is a typical mystical experience in its mention of peace and knowledge:

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass 
all the argument of the earth

You may object that this Whitman is speaking about the union not with the divine, but with his own soul. But that soul is externalized and divinized in a manner that reminds me of Rumi and Hafiz. The god of the mystics sounds more like the ultimate “twin soul.” (When I come home to my twin soul, there he is at the piano, playing Schubert like a virtuoso. Mystically enabled myself, I sit down on the piano bench next to him and say, “Let me take the left hand.”)


No, the erotic will not be shut out of religion, and the love of the devotee for the deity does not stay platonic. The longing for a union with the Beloved keeps reappearing in most religions, and it’s a longing for touch, for the sound of his voice. However, it’s the soul that is the Beloved, a former nun, Sister Louise (no longer a “sister,” but it was impossible to think of her except as Sister Louise) explained it to us during her lecture on Progressive Catholic Thought. “If the soul is the Beloved, then God is – what?” Sister Louise asked. None dared reply. She repeated the question. Silence.

Slightly rolling her eyes at our ignorance about something so basic, Sister Louise knew that, again, she’d have to tell the obvious to the befuddled listeners. “If the soul is the Beloved, then God is the Lover,” she announced. It was, in the parlance of those years, “mind-blowing” to hear this. Our Lover, who art in heaven?

The fact that someone, especially a woman who used to be a nun and thus likely taught catechism, with its fussy categories of sin, could define God as a Lover – now, that was more radical than any religious idea I’d ever heard. And the former nun did not seem to mean “platonic love” either. Smiling at our astonishment, she calmly kept using terms usually associated with erotic union, including “God makes love to the soul.” (Later, I overheard a professor say, “She’s really grown since she left the convent.”)

Sister Louise explained that the soul, the Beloved, is more passive and lets herself (the word for soul is feminine in those languages in which nouns have gender) be possessed by God when he comes to visit. The union is rapturous: there is ecstasy and a great feeling of peace, intoxication and yet complete clarity of inner vision, the shedding of rational control in favor of the feeling of blissful fulfillment. What we want from religion is not commandments but paradise.

One striking uniformity that emerges is the mystics’ complete lack of fear of hell. Theirs is not a fear-based faith. Their god-concept seems based on a totally loving and forgiving deity. Their focus is not hell, but paradise. And apparently even a fear-based believer can experience a moment of mystical joy. William James, in his lectures on religious experience, quotes this: “When a fellow-monk," said Luther, "one day repeated the words of the Creed: 'I believe in the forgiveness of sins,' I saw the Scripture in an entirely new light; and straightway I felt as if I were born anew. It was as if I had found the door of paradise thrown wide open.” Alas, that moment of mystical vision passed quickly, and Luther for the most part reverted to his obsession with sin and Satan.

I realize that Luther’s idea of God remained parental, and he’d probably be horrified at a former nun (he’d approve of her having left the convent) defining God as a Lover. But Saint Teresa of Avila, as well as various Sufi and other ecstatic mystics, are more likely to see God as a Lover or Friend. There is, of course, St. John of the Cross, whom I quoted in a previous blog entry

and who is worth quoting again:

Stanzas of the Soul

1. One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
– ah, the sheer grace! –
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.
2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
-- ah, the sheer grace! --
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
– him I knew so well –
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.


We know that ecstatic experiences, be they erotic, musical, or spiritual, all seem to originate in the right temporal lobe. This may explain to some degree the similarity of these various kinds of rapture, but it’s the poets who have given us the fallen temple pillars like lovers and always a variety of flowers, including the sexiest lilies.


Simic’s "The Old World" is wonderful, so mysterious as the poet pulls reader along with him through abstractions into a concrete, partly mythic, timeless past. "Eternity eavesdropping on time" is my favorite line.


While the clergy try to stay with the abstract, the mystic experiences sensations, sometimes described as “waves of liquid love.” Simic stays just sufficiently understated to have me feel that no, he does not reduce anything to sex; he elevates sex, makes it more beautiful with his imagery and words like “eternity.”

And the wine, so often mentioned in mystical poetry that it’s even been called the “wine of the mystic”? The rational faculties must be dampened so that an ecstatic vision can take place.


About Simic's poem:

I noticed that he used the word "soul" with no apologies and we have been avoiding it in modern poetry. I especially like "columns fallen on the grass like naked lovers" and "there was something long before there were words." Fascinating. Made me wonder about what goes on in a baby's mind before language. 

Long ago when I studied the Bible there was much emphasis on the "Word" being with god at the beginning of the world.

I also enjoy WW's "the lull, I like the hum of your valved voice."

And I’m intrigued by the image of the piano. "Let me take the left hand” reminds me of playing with my mother.


“At the beginning was the Logos” – that’s usually translated as “the Word,” but Logos also means mind, logic, design, concept. Anyway, Hesiod says that in the beginning was Chaos, Gaia (Earth), and Eros. I think poets want to say, “In the beginning was Eros.” Or at least they want to balance Logos with Eros.

I don’t think I will ever see fallen columns as anything but naked lovers from now on. Simic eroticizes the whole landscape, even the rocks and the cypresses.

An interesting query about the baby’s preverbal mind. Images, I suppose, but even those are probably different than ours. It’s possible that language affects neural function in a global manner. 


I have been reading more by and of Whitman. As you know, my literary world is heavily colored by Melville, and he and Whitman share many similarities. Their lives parallel each other in that they lived in the same era and region; the poet Jay Parini even has them meet in his novel on Melville. Melville was too troubled by his Calvinistic background to have related to much of Whitman’s poetry. The Catholic Kiwi poet James K Baxter could have better related to Whitman; his brand of mystical/liberal Catholicism was very unorthodox. I think Whitman was a true free spirit and saw the human condition as one to be fully embraced, in all its aspects. His Civil War service had to have been very unsettling to someone of his frame of mind. I also think Whitman was influenced by his interaction with the Quakers. I like their official title 'The Society of Friends'....if only we could all be in such a society truly.


You are right: Melville and Whitman, two giants of American literature, lived in the same era. I think both of them spread the message of tolerance (curious, how many centuries it’s taken us to arrive at the current still imperfect level of acceptance of people who are different). Melville gave us the wonderful figure of Queequeg, for whom Ishmael has so much affection and admiration – a message against racism (which must have been quite radical at the time, especially given the frequency with which the word “cannibal” is used in the novel). Whitman’s embrace of humanity was Christ-like – note his compassion for prostitutes and the mentally ill. I think that has something to do with Whitman’s mystical streak – he seems to have liberated himself from the toxic concept of the divine prevalent during his times, when religion was still very much founded on psychological terrorism, i.e. the threat of hellfire. Mystics are very alike in being love-based rather than fear-based. The neural substrate of mystical experience is apparently the same regardless of whether the person starts out as a Buddhist or a Catholic.

My own “conversion experience” (a moment that did change my life, though from the outside it would have looked as though nothing happened: it literally was all inside my head) has been to a productive life as opposed to chronic depression, and it too bore the fruit of much greater acceptance of others, and great love for the earth. (Animals I always loved; it’s people I had trouble accepting.) I tended to see Whitman as too effusive; now I understand him and enjoy him more. He was incredibly radical, and even today, as I’ve heard from professors of American literature, some college students simply can’t accept what he is saying (or what the American transcendentalists are saying). 

Thanks for pointing out the influence of Quaker views on Whitman. Here is an interesting link:


I like the Simic but he's a man who can never love the soul the way Whitman does. For Whitman, the soul is always present, for Simic it is a memory.


Yes, for Simic and probably for most educated readers, soul is a pretty meaningless word. It's startling to realize that Freud constantly wrote of die Seele -- German for "soul." His translators seem embarrassed by it and usually render Freud's Seele as "psyche" or "mind."


  1. I thank you for "The Old World." Great writing needs no pronouncements, it falls on the page and you lie there stunned by its brilliance. He makes it look so easy but then that's part of genius. Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers floated effortessly across the stage for millions of movie lovers around the globe. Who knew that Ginger's feet bled from the 47 takes Fred imposed. She never complained and said she'd do it all again.

    The balance between reading and writing must be met or a poet cannot advance beyond his knowledge and exposure. Sure he might be original and unaffected but he will be missing the riches of other minds who have gone before or walk by his side. Thanks again for the lesson in excellence. Lois

  2. Thank you Lois. OMG, I didn't know about Ginger's feet bleeding from 47 takes. And I wonder about her poor knees (since she had to do it in high heels).

    You are right about great writing. I felt schoolmarmish commenting on "Old World" -- as if I could add anything to the brilliance. And yes, of course poets must read, read, read -- and there is time only for the best. I hope to bring some of that best in my blog.

  3. Wow! In all my years I've never really warmed to Simic, though I certainly wanted to. But I've never encountered this poem before and it changes everything. Everything! I agree with everything you say here. Sort of related--back in grad school I wrote a very long (abt 50 page) paper arguing that all "real" poetry is about a visit to the oracle and the god or divine voice encountered in that underground trek. I further argued that all ballads were records of that trip, while all odes were actual re-enactments of that journey. (I used one of Pausanias' descriptions as a starting point and added a bit of Robert Graves.) I dealt with Keats, Whitman, and TS Eliot.) I still think there is some truth to that trope. I tend to judge poetry (loosely speaking) as to whether or not it begins by locating some sacred spot....and then describing (loosely speaking) some sort of venture into the unknown realm of gods, and serpents, and dark forces, and that there has to be a moment of deep uncertainty and existential dread at the heart of the poem. And the end requires some sort of re-emergence, though one that is clearly unbalanced and unresolved. And oh, my prof, Rachel DuPless (the "great" poet and feminist critic, if you are familiar with her) hated my paper and everything about it.

  4. I certainly relate to what you are saying, though my lens is that of an immigrant. I saw what happened in my poems: the original homeland became a kind of "holy hand," and also a place where I received prophecy of various kinds: from a cuckoo, an old farmer, and a Gypsy (a real Gypsy back when they still traveled in horse-driven, painted wagons). Our need for prophecy is insatiable, and that's evident in poetry too -- including the great epics and Dante's Commedia. As for uncertainty, I'd say that a poem needs dramatic tension; otherwise it tends to slide into glibness and makes no discovery.