Saturday, April 7, 2012


Caspar Friedrich, The Chalk Cliffs on Ruegen, 1818

The past week started badly: Monday I woke from a nightmare in the wee hours, my heart pounding so loud and fast that scared me as much as the nightmare itself. The dream seemed a relapse to the years when I had recurrent dreams about being in a Nazi concentration camp. Then, in two dreams in a row, I was able to escape (in the last one, simply walk out) – and thought that this was the end of that nasty series. I even celebrated it with a little poem that wrote itself in my early minimalist, unpunctuated style (startling, those incursions of a younger inner poet):


Only a year ago I finally understood
the kingdom of hell
is within you

and chose to walk out of
that concentration camp

the gate’s wide wings stood open
the guards diligently did not look
the road led through sunlit woods
between bridal birches the road in heaven
I must have seen in childhood and forever

and only yesterday looking out the window
I thought this is my country now and not
a Nazi factory or a Siberian gulag
astonished that after all
I wasn’t sentenced to hard labor

only this morning I saw

my task is to keep on walking
reading sunlight and shadow
listening to birds in all their languages
announce the holy word home

~ Oriana © 2012


Re-reading the poem after my nightmare I remembered that in the camp lingo, “the road to heaven” – Himmelweg – meant to way to the gas chamber.

So there it was, an invasion of the awareness of evil into what otherwise seemed like a peaceful and happy period of my life. Another night’s good sleep normalized me, but I know I’ll remember this experience as another example of how the good and the bad, sickness and health, happiness and unhappiness, and side by side, woven (or maybe “tangled”) together. Just when you think everything is going great, life will send you a reminder that things are never so simple. And the other way: even while watching a harrowing Holocaust movie like “In Darkness” (one of the best ever, comparable to “The Pianist”), I couldn’t help thinking, “These are the cutest rats.” Pigeons never looked so good either as glimpsed from that sewer manhole.

Evil, evil everywhere. Evil and flowers and iridescent pigeons (isn’t it time to admit how beautiful pigeons are?) Thus, when Jack Gilbert says, “We have already lived in the real paradise,” I nod my head (a gross understatement: when I first came upon the line, it hit me with great power). I, with my nightmares and memories I’d rather not come near – though I don’t claim to have suffered more than most – I am strangely moved and shaken by this assertion: “We have already lived in the real paradise.” Not the imaginary one, but the real, imperfect paradise, to steal Linda Pastan’s phrase.

Yes, our very imperfect paradise, with one kind of hell or another periodically tossed in. I don’t know a single adult who’s been spared, who doesn’t know what pain is. But paradise nevertheless. And that is stunning, that we have had such abundance of beauty and affection. I think that has kept most of us alive – the secret knowledge that no matter how great the suffering of the moment, we know what paradise is because we have seen and experienced it. When people say, peacefully, that they are ready to depart, I sense that they feel they have already had their share of paradise.

We judge a poet by his or her best poems. And ultimately, I think, we also remember life by life’s best poems. I’m a softie. One great sunset, and I forgive everything.

Gilbert puts it best:


We have already lived in the real paradise.
Horses in the empty summer street.
Me eating the hot wurst I couldn’t afford,
in frozen Munich, tears dropping. We can
remember. A child in the outfield waiting
for the last fly ball of the year. So dark
already it was black against heaven.
The voices trailing away to dinner,
calling faintly in the immense distance.
Standing with my hands open, watching it
curve over and start down, turning white
at the last second. Hands down. Flourishing.

~ Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven

Gilbert deliberately chooses non-spectacular details: horses in the empty summer street, eating a hot sausage on a freezing day, “the voices trailing away to dinner, / calling faintly in the immense distance.” The ball “black against heaven,” then turning white when very close. I know nothing about baseball, and my examples would be different, but I know what Gilbert is trying to convey: the wonderful moments can’t be denied. And maybe the harder the life, the more the moments of grace seem paradise. During my hardest years, the years of perdition, I remember hearing Haydn’s trios for the first time. So yes, I have already lived in the real paradise.

In a short poem, every word matters. It’s interesting that Gilbert chooses the word “heaven” (“already it was black against heaven”) rather than “sky.” “Heaven” amplifies “paradise” – the paradise in this life, as the poem makes clear. Gilbert’s heaven is in line with Jack Lennon’s “above us, only sky” (“Imagine”), but having that sky is marvelous. Later we have “voices . . . calling faintly in the immense distance.” These are human voices, the voices of mothers calling their boys home, and the distance is not literally immense. It’s immense in memory, and immense when we think of all the mothers calling their children home for dinner.

It’s not that Gilbert doesn’t realize that there is much evil in the world. But in his view, “we must risk delight.” Even if another, gentler world awaits, we must drink in the glory of the earth. In one of his best-known poems, “A Brief for the Defense,” Gilbert insists,

To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end has magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
“Music despite everything.” While seeing earth as paradise, at least some of the time, is a modern attitude, music has often been recognized as a portion of divinity that we can know while alive. In Paradise Lost, Milton’s praise of music could hardly be higher:

Music, the greatest good that mortals know,
And all of heaven we have below.

For all my love of music, I must object. Music is all of heaven we know? My heaven includes the shrill cry of a seagull, the ocean waves, the mountain meadows, the great mossy woods of northern climates – the list could go on and on, and include also the beautiful silences when love is being born, the lovers’ happy laughter, the affectionate talk of heart-to-heart friends. With more domestic comfort now and less premature dying, we can relax and look around: there is indeed plenty to celebrate, and this is not the Vale of Tears even if it occasionally seems just that.

Keats put it much better by calling the world “the Vale of Soul-Making.” Jung spoke of “individuation.” Maslow came up with “self-actualization.” Then there is the worn phrase, “fulfilling our potential.” It’s a modern ideal; we know that in traditional societies there was much less freedom to explore and pursue one’s interests. I shudder when I think of the past. I find history fascinating, but there is no century in which I’d rather live, especially as a woman.

Joseph Campbell disposed of questions about paradise by saying, Sacred space and sacred time and something joyous to do is all you need. He defined “sacred space” as a “place that lets you experience your own will, your own intention, your own wish.” (A room of her own! Did Virginia Woolf know how revolutionary her suggestion was?) This sacred space can be your study and/or your kitchen (women will understand what I mean), or, in the absence a whole room to yourself, a favorite armchair where it’s quiet enough to hear your thoughts – where you can read, and from where you can watch the birds. But Campbell also speaks about the “sacred space within yourself” – “the further you can get into that, the more at peace you will be with yourself.” For me that going into that inner sacred space occurs when I’m deeply engaged in reading or writing. For someone else it might be gardening. We are unique, and our sacred space, within and without, is also unique. Let’s cherish it. Let’s get a geode or a cluster of crystals to “mark our territory.”

“Sacred space and sacred time and something joyous to do” – that’s certainly one quite plausible definition of paradise. But simply experiencing the beauty of nature is paradise. Yet before the cognitive evolution that has allowed us to see the earth as paradise, even a poet who was a great lover, even a worshipper, of nature’s beauty, Wordsworth assumed that the real paradise is elsewhere – this is where the soul comes from. In his most famous ode, he says,

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The soul that rises with us, our life’s star,
   Hath had elsewhere its setting,
       And cometh from afar.

This sentiment is still repeated by the likes of David Whyte and many other New Age writers. They assume that our essence is not terrestrial but astral, formed on a different, “higher” plane – in the true paradise whose memory we lose as we grow beyond infancy. I’m amazed that the medieval attitude of rejecting the world is still with us, though the ideas of the “fall of man” and exile from the original paradise, or humanity’s decline from the “Golden Age” to the “Silver Age” to the “Iron Age” and so on, a constant diminishment from the original perfection – such notions are finally on their way to becoming intellectual relics. The denigration of this world has long been recognized as essential to organized religion’s attempt to sell to us the next one, with or without the seventy-two virgins. I have to exempt Judaism here, with its solid earthiness and this-life orientation. And I hurry to say that both Wordsworth and Whyte celebrate the beauty of the earth.

Wordsworth was a pioneer. We owe it to the Romantics that the beauty of the nature became celebrated. In the Western culture, for many centuries nature used to be seen as merely savage and dangerous. Forests and mountains were the meeting places of witches. Before 1750 or so, the idea of hiking in the wilderness for pleasure would strike most people as insane.

Contrast this with Byron’s famous lines in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV:
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more.
As for Wordsworth's descriptions of nature, there are too many to choose from. I don't mean just his joy in the daffodils and rainbows and cuckoo calls, but more so his feelings of awe as he watches a sunset, the sea, forests and lakes, a mountain waterfall. Nature is his greatest inspiration, even though he goes only halfway toward the modern acknowledgment of the earth and this life as a difficult paradise of the sort that Jack Gilbert presents, along with many other modern poets. 

"We have already lived in the real paradise." For me, this line is revolutionary. Don't forget: I started in the Vale of Tears. An unbaptized infant was already a depraved sinner. All non-Catholics were doomed to burn in hell fire forever. Using the microphone, priests continued to preach the Dark Ages. It's been quite a journey before I could embrace this life and this glorious blue-green planet. 

. . . paradise was when
regathered from height and depth
   came out onto the soft, green level earth
into the natural light

~ A. R. Ammons
Let me close with this passage from David Wagoner’s “Getting There”:

What have you learned so far? You’ll find out later,
Telling it haltingly
Like a dream, that lost traveler’s dream
Under the last hill
Where through the night you'll take your time out of mind
To unburden yourself
Of elements along elementary paths
By the break of morning.

You’ve earned this worn-down, hard, incredible sight
Called Here and Now.
Now, what you make of it means everything,
Means starting over:
The life in your hands is neither here nor there
But getting there,
So you're standing again and breathing, beginning another
Journey without regret
Forever, being your own unpeaceable kingdom

~ David Wagoner In Broken Country


It seems to me that each blog gets better and explores or maybe sets up the exploring of things I am writing about. It inspires me to not give up when I think I'm so far off the meaning of what I want to say. David Whyte has been an influence on my writing. I like especially the way when he gives a reading he repeats a line maybe several times or reads the whole poem over. We get more out of it at every reread, and he knows this.


Thank you. I feel that I’m deepening my own exploration of various central themes that engaged me over the years. What I seek in poetry is wisdom – an unfashionable attitude, so I’m thankful to all the readers of this blog for their loyalty and interest.

David Whyte has done a service to poetry lovers. I hope I didn’t come across as condemning him. His New Age incursions are few; on the whole he is in awe of the mystery of life right here. He wants us to listen to our deeper knowing. Insofar as I’ve done it, it has moved me toward my “happy atheist” stance and away from any delusions of a better life in some New Age neverland. We should call ourselves earthlings or something similar that would announce our being part of nature. It’s the constant setting ourselves as apart from nature that has brought about much evil. We evolved right here, in this glorious place; let’s fully embrace our home. 


(I sent John an old Jewish saying: Life is so terrible that it would have been better not to have been born. Who is so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand.”)


Good quote – it gets to the complexity at the heart of so many things.  I think people like to see the world and life and themselves simply (I'm blessed) but it's not just that.  We're also doomed and damned and happy and confused and clear
– all at the same time.  My mother was in a convalescent home recovering from cancer surgery and she heard some nurses down the hall laughing about something and she turned to me and said, "Half of us are dying and the other half are going to a party."  

I think what she was said was true about the self too.


Yes, I remember it – another wonderful quote from your mother. It does apply to life, to self. Everyone’s life is part happiness, part suffering. Yet we see life as a blessing, as having a great value. I’ve grown to love this quotation: “There will be music in spite of everything” ~ Jack Gilbert. And his life was rough in so many ways (I speak in the past tense, since now he has dementia).

Yes, we have to acknowledge both the paradise and the suffering. It’s still a real paradise, but when hell opens up, it’s real too. Again, it helps to remember that there will be music in spite of everything. There will be beauty, and couples who have just fallen in love, and laughter, and joy.

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