Friday, December 16, 2011


Charles Sherman: "Cascading Continua"

Often I Am Permitted
to Return to a Meadow

in blue-green Carpathia, just to hear
a rooster crow –
then the echo – and reply – and far away,

as if hung in high blue air,
another pure return –
an echo for each meadow,

in a widening ring.
The echo of all
the roosters I heard

in those Carpathian summers still
travels from hill to hill –
by now it has reached Krakow,

bending around the blue-green
copper domes and tombs of kings,
where the Vistula embraces

the city like shining laughter,
like a gleaming wheel.
And the echo travels

as starlight can travel
for a thousand years –
and we wish on a dead star

that still guides us here.
So the echoes of us roll
in a widening ring –

of the song we sang,
and thought
that we were not heard.

~ Oriana © 2011

I am back from Los Angeles, where I attended an interfaith panel discussion on the afterlife. The most important thing I carried away from it was the concept of the "immortality of influence," a term used by Rabbi Steve. There was also Rabbi Amy, who moderated the discussion. Father Kidney and Reverend Betsy represented the progressive Christian outlook (these are not made-up names; this is how the panelists were addressed).

Father Kidney said, “We derive our belief in the afterlife from the fact [sic] that Jesus rose from the dead. Because of his resurrection, we know that there is no death.” Reverend Betsy seconded that. I thought the rabbis would roll their eyes, but they had perfect self-control. (A friend later remarked, “We have equally powerful evidence that frogs, when kissed, turn into princes.”)

The two rabbis made modern liberal Judaism sound much like secular humanism. Talk of the supernatural is avoided. The dying are not told that they are going to heaven. What counts is the earthly life, up to the last conscious moment. “We don’t know what happens later,” both rabbis agreed. Instead, the dying are told of the heritage of family love they are leaving in this world and any other gifts that they are bestowing – and of the "immortality of influence," i.e. we can’t even know all the ways in which we touched others. It might be a casual remark, a smile, a small action that, unknown to us, we performed just at the right time to have a deep impact on someone’s life.

The interfaith panel on the afterlife was fun in all kinds of ways. After Father Kidney said, “I can’t prove it to you scientifically or mathematically – that’s why we BELIEVE,” Rabbi Amy, in her high heels, back-split skirt and a stylish yarmulke, said, “When I was in training, my rabbi told me not to believe anything, only go by my personal experience. So if you ask me if God exists, I have to say I don’t know.” Honest, yes, but did she have to shock Father Kidney and Reverend Betsy this way? Rabbi Steve said he was certain there was something beyond the body, but wouldn’t commit himself any further.

Somehow not surprisingly, the debate ended with a member of the audience who stood up and said, “I am a physician and I don’t believe we’re going anywhere.”

The discussion took place in the pretty spectacular Corpus Christi church in Pacific Palisades, round like a UFO and gleaming with modernity(never mind the idea that a church is supposed to be built on the plan of the cross – after Vatican II, everything goes). The sign over a faucet that said “Holy water for home use” was discreetly hidden across the women’s restroom. Father Kidney complained that ten of the original stations of the cross (wooden carvings – this is rare) got stolen, or in any case “disappeared.” Also, this was actually the first time I learned that a candle is equivalent to prayer, and the candle you light is doing the praying (how did I miss that? It would have spared me all kinds of time in my childhood and early teens – I left the church at 14).

Overall, however, I am very glad to have attended this “interfaith panel.” One member of the audience objected that these were not three different religions but only different forms of one religion. Historically, that is essentially correct. In my view, however, the two humanistic rabbis stood apart from the Catholic priest and the Protestant minister. Rather than speak about heaven, the rabbis agreed that the important thing is the legacy we leave to the living. The meaning of life lies primarily in how touch the lives of others. Our influence will live on in ways we can’t even imagine. We can try to make sure that this influence –even if mostly anonymous – is positive.

This fits in well with my notion of contributing to the collective psyche. Since I am not a famous writer, I can’t expect my contribution to be more than a droplet in an ocean. But I do want my droplet to shine.

Artist: John Shakur Radzikowski

I deeply believe that we choose eternity while in this world,
that is, it is here and now that we build and create eternity.
And that which we will find later is that which
we were capable of finding here and now.
If we have not found it here, then we will not be able to find it later.

~ Sophia Andresen, Portuguese poet and writer


Rilke did not believe in “belief.”

Belief! – there is no such thing, I almost said. There is only – love. The forcing of the heart to hold this and that for true, which we commonly call belief, makes no sense. First one has to find God somewhere, experience him as so infinitely, so utterly, so enormously present . . . But for belief, that compulsion to God, there is no room where one has begun with the discovery of God, in which there is then no stopping any more . . .
                                           ~ Selected Letters, 275-6

Thus, Rilke’s argument is basically the same as that of Rabbi Amy: don’t force yourself to believe anything; go by your own experience. Rilke’s wording, however, helped me realize that I am an atheist only in regard to the Judeo-Christian god – as creator and judge dealing out punishments and rewards, especially in the afterlife; as a “king of the world,” violating the laws of nature, subject to temper tantrums and malevolent moods, the “Old Blood Bath,” as a friend calls him, mostly cruel and archaic.

Michelangelo's god-image:
"I create good, I create evil; I am the Lord" 

Alas, for all its message of forgiveness, Christianity stinks of blood sacrifice, and just can’t break away from the original cruelty (though I admire the attempt). In practice, the cruel, angry, punitive god-the-father prevails over Christ’s mercy even in Christianity, though lately the liberal denominations have been making a frantic effort to dissociate themselves from the archaic, by emphasizing the “holy spirit.” Christ is supposed to return as the Judge who’ll divide the saved from those damned to eternal fire, but the third person of the Trinity is entirely devoid of any punitive streak. It is indeed “as harmless as a dove.”

(I need to acknowledge here the observation that the hell of unending torment is a Christian rather than a Judaic concept. Judaism always laid emphasis on earthly life.)

On the other hand, if god is defined as “that which you love most,” then I have no problem. Of course then there is the question if this term, corrupted and defiled by history and politics, is needed at all. Whether the term is used or not, “that which you love most” presents no problem at all in terms of leading a joyful, fulfilling life. So what if it must end. We can act out of love, or out of fear. I’m not going to drop what I love doing and start praying the rosary, which always ended in a bored stupor.

And of course then god becomes “it.” If anyone prefers the capital letter to indicate reverence, that’s fine with me too: let it be the great It.

Let me quote again Rilke, on how death (especially when viewed without expectations of going to a “better place”) forces us to take life seriously, to take the risks worth taking.

Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love . . .  Life always says Yes and No simultaneously. Death . . . is the true Yea-sayer. It stands before eternity and says only: Yes.


The title of this section comes from something said to me at Yaddo (an art colony) in the early nineties. The fall of the Berlin Wall was still a relatively recent event, and I mentioned it at the table. A woman poet from New York became distressed and lamented, “Yes, and now thousands of New York intellectuals have nothing to believe in.”

I no longer remember what I replied – probably something at least a tad sarcastic. But deep down, for all the shallowness and ignorance of the New York Marxist intellectuals, I felt some empathy with the lament. I remember my own youthful desire to give myself to something UTTERLY. The death of god was a loss. It was sad to feel, at fourteen, that the church was the tomb of a dead god with nothing to give me anymore. (I specifically remember Confirmation as the beginning of the end: the grumpy old bishop conveyed no sense of the sacred; administering the supposed sacrament was just another irritating chore). 

The emotional flatness came before my intellect supplied reasons. It was as if the emotional brain matured first, before the intellect had a chance to whisper, “Look at the similarity of mythological motifs – isn’t this like believing in Zeus?”). (As for the evolution of religion, I recommend, over and over, Robert Wright’s brilliant The Evolution of God.)

Recently, reading a biography of Lenin, much to my surprise I found myself completely envious of pre-revolutionary Lenin, of his absolute dedication. I could feel his ecstasies, even if the only member of the sparse revolutionary group whose attendance at meetings could be counted on was the police informer. There is a superhuman energy that comes from such focus, an astonishing courage. His absolute faith in his mission was completely misguided, but his courage was breath-taking. I know I will be completely envious of young Trotsky (I’ve just ordered a biography that I know is hostile to him; it won’t matter one bit; Trotsky’s heroic dedication will shine through).

Of course I realize that these men became prisoners of the Idea and turned into monsters who assumed that the end justifies the means. I know they have blood on their hands – in fact past the elbows. I condemn their embrace of mass murder as allowable in the name of a noble future. But I also know that the hunger for ideals, for being able to believe in something, having something to live for, is a great human hunger, sometimes the greatest. In some of us, that hunger for being dedicated to something comes ahead of even the need to be loved or to love and nurture others (I point that out as a woman who is speaking from experience, since it’s been suggested that nothing is as important to a woman as erotic and maternal love; isn’t love “a woman’s whole existence”?).

But here lies a tragedy: every ideal, once an attempt is made to put it into practice, becomes corrupt and/or wrecked on the rocks of reality. Ideals are oversimplifications; reality is extremely complex. Even being a dedicated artist has those rocks of reality in it, the unintentional hurting of others simply because you love your art more. And what about being an intellectual? Is there anyone I loved more than I love books? (OK, my father, BEFORE I myself could read; he read to me at bedtime.)

Books, that virtual paradise … But maybe we shouldn’t be so “hung-up” on reality, life’s elusive shadow stumbling over itself. Indeed, what is truth? Once I had a humbling experience of going to a Jungian lecture on “Encountering the Ultimate Other” (the title was irresistible and drew a crowd of educated agnostics). Well, it turned out to be New Age fantasies of the astral world and how beautiful and wonderful it is (“the flowers here are nothing compared with the astral flowers”).

No evidence was presented for the existence of this paradise – the whole lecture was simply pure assertion. In spite of my embarrassment about even being present at the event, that night I slept wonderfully. My theory is that having heard so many positive statements had an effect on my neurochemistry, regardless of the fact that intellectually it was all a pile of doo-doo taller than any Gothic cathedral (even the Notre Dame of Amiens). And the audience, mostly PhD’s, walked out with blissful light in their faces, again showing that “truth value” has nothing to do with it . . . 

If I were to write a self-help book, it would be loaded with feel-good words. Content is basically irrelevant; you want to bliss out the reader (which reminds me: haven’t I once paid a ridiculous fee for a poetry conference during which I was told to “let go of the idea of content”?). I’m not planning to write any such meaningless but benevolent book, but once in a while a feel-good effect results from some words I use in a poem. It’s gratifying to see smiles blossom on the listeners’ faces, even if I never promise them astral flowers, only mountain meadows.  

Addendum, March 1, 2012

In the San Diego Reader of Feb 23, 2012, in the Sheep and Goats column there is an interview with Rabbi Yael Ridberg. She is asked, “Where do you go where you die?” She replies: “I believe a person’s soul goes into the lives with whom he or she came into contact.” 
This is a lovely answer, but it seems to me that it might contain a residue of seeing the soul as a thing, even if an immaterial thing. If the soul is a process, a verb rather than a noun, then the soul goes into other lives while we interact with a particular person. It’s not a dispersal that happens at the point of death.

Rabbi Steven said something along the same lines: at the point of death, we return all the love that’s been given to us. Love has to be recycled; it mustn't be lost. Again, that sounds lovely, but I think that happens throughout a person’s life. And unfortunately, the pain that we’ve received also gets “recycled,” until we become aware of the chain reaction and act so as to break the chain, i.e. do not return evil for evil, but in the highest case, return good for evil, possibly transforming another person and making it a better world, one small step at a time.

I suspect it’s inevitable that traditional beliefs will die, and we will come to see this life as our paradise – if we choose to make it so. Liberal Judaism and liberal Christianity are already difficult to tell from secular humanism – I see that as a wonderful development. If life right here on earth is already reasonably good, the longing for paradise in the hereafter inevitably grows less intense. Barring a sudden reversal to more hardship, we will eventually let go of expecting to go to a “better place.” We can then fully concentrate on creating a better place right here. Smile at someone; plant a tree; pick up a piece of litter. Small things accumulate, and their influence persists. And counselors who come to visit the dying will not be telling them about what’s to come, whether that’s phrased as “the astral world” or “heaven.” Instead, they’ll say, “Look at all the good things you have done. That goodness will live on.”


The psychiatrist Irvin Yalom wrote a book called STARING AT THE SUN, about death anxiety. What your clergymen/women referred to as "The Immortality of Influence," he referred to as "the ripple effect." i.e., that everything we do while alive ripples out like a stone thrown in a pond and touches many other lives, including future generations, in ways we cannot know or appreciate while we are alive.


I love the “ripple effect.” It's actually a more accessible way of stating it. The power of the right image that becomes metaphor. And yes, it's marvelously consoling to think we do have that "ripple effect." And it's a moral challenge as well.

Funny, decades ago I was hoping I'd find some kind of congenial faith as I get older. Instead, I became a happy atheist. The ripple effect of everything we do has just made me even more happy. As for the mistakes we made, words we shouldn’t have said – we can correct that, usually.

Provocative. My first thought was that all the stories we learned and the sense of a higher being probably didn’t do us harm. We have a solid grounding in the literature and stories of the bible. And there is much wisdom there. My grandchildren were, many of them, raised with no concept of anything bigger than parents and themselves and I’m not sure that is all good. I doubted early on as well but never put it into words. As I said, I quit Sunday School at three! but attended services for years as my mother played the organ and we loved the music.


I too loved the organ music, the priests’ splendidly embroidered vestments, and the Latin liturgy. Still, to some extent I was harmed by the Catholic church. The fixation on sin and hell were the harmful part, and, after puberty and the experience of my first timid erotic fantasies and first love, the church’s obsession with sex as the main sin. That certainly didn’t help my mental health, especially since I was already an anxious, over-responsible child who felt “not OK” practically all the time. The church added to that torment and further lowered my already low self-esteem. Now there were also “impure thoughts” to worry about and bring up in confession.

On the positive side, it would be more difficult to understand some of literature without the background of Christianity. Dante would probably be of no interest.

My parents would have brought me up as an atheist except for my grandmother, who would have made their life impossible if they did. So it was her intimidation power that prevailed. I wonder what kind of person I would have turned out without the Catholic background (the concept and images of hellfire cannot be deleted; the priests know that and chortle with joy, thinking “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic”).

I think I would have still visited churches out of curiosity, and enjoyed them as architecture and meditative space. The time spent in church and on prayers at home – that would have been used differently. I think I would have grown up as a healthier and more self-confident child without Catholicism. My self-image would not have been that of a hopeless sinner who can’t go for much more than a week without committing a sin and thus falling out of the state of grace – which meant the likelihood of ending up in hell should I die a sudden death (the nun told us not to count on the availability of confession – after all a child could get run over by a truck, “and guess where your soul would go?”)

Now the church has gone very soft and tells children, "Remember that Jesus loves you." That was NEVER said to us. Not once. Children were not coddled by nuns and priests back then; they were emotionally terrorized. We were not treated as innocents, but as sinners. God was an invisible something/someone to fear and appease with confessions and masses and prayers, chest-beating and acts of contrition.

Virgin Mary (in Polish most often called Matka Boska, meaning Mother of God or Divine Mother; the emphasis was on “mother”) was more connected with affection, and I felt affection for her. I never assumed she cared for me, but I had a naive expectation that if I prayed to her, she might hear the prayer, since she was said to be pure mercy and unconditional love; words like judgment and punishment were never used about Mary. “Even if you are the worst of sinners, you can always pray to Mary.” She got the most prayers and candles. All the "miraculous icons" I remember were Mary’s icons.

I’ve met people who were brought up without religion, and they all struck me as decent, normal persons. They seemed neither more self-involved nor less happy than a typical church-goer, and acknowledged “something bigger,” be it nature or humanity or both. It’s hard to look at the ocean or the stars and not see something bigger than oneself, entirely without the benefit of religious education. In fact, in my Catholic years I was so busy adding up my sins that the beauty of the world did not register as intensely as it did later, without the burden of worrying about sin and hell.

Below is a poem of mine that touches on the hellfire part of old-style Catholicism, and on my sense of the sacred that is now more nature-related.


Father always managed to splash me,
shouting, Shmingus-dyngus!
laughing as I’d run, shaking off
a trail of drops. The Church frowned

on the puddles of this springtime
baptism, taught me I was a sinner.
in the town where I was born,
a baroque naked angel

held golden scales to weigh
good deeds against sin.
Heaven was up, hell was down.
the soul huddled like a chilled bird.

My mother said, “There is no hell.
God wouldn’t be so cruel.”
At ten I was aghast at her heresy:
hell was where my mother was going.


At fourteen I said, “If God exists,
let him strike me with lightning.”
Waited, shaking in terror.
For five minutes I could hardly

breathe. Pigeons cooed, fragile sunlight
redeemed the rain-streaked masonry.
I began to walk fast, away
from that first-communion girl,

lilacs in her arms, moist and heavy,
veins crossing the silk of leaves.


Beyond an ocean of baroque clouds,
that country still exists. Other children
pick up yellow pebbles
on a Baltic beach, believing it’s amber.

Another girl walks down the black
soot-eaten factory streets in Łódź;
the giant rhythm of the looms
closes around the shuttle of her body.

Another child wakes on Easter Monday,
her father hidden in the kitchen,
the water in the basin
dancing with impatient sheen.


My cat wakes me up at dawn 
to the liturgy of clouds
rimmed with narrow gold.
I wade in the gathering

light of resurrection. 
In the yard, spires of lilacs.
I agree with a chittering bird:
it is only practical to be happy.

Again I will climb
the same mountain,
follow the bleached star
of dry yucca where the trail

sharply turns. I agree once more
to the mortal price of love.
At dusk I return to Mozart,
my one-candle vespers.

The notes shape a brief heaven.
Fog erases the pine-dark hills.


Last year in Vermont, I told Adam Zagajewski the story of how I waited to be struck with lightning for my blasphemy, and he replied, in his expressionless way that worked very well in this situation, “Sometimes there is a delay.”

Nevertheless, back in that moment, at fourteen, I was willing to die and suffer in hell for eternity for daring to think on my own. I was willing to be sent into eternal torment rather than worship a cruel god who created hell. I still had lingering belief, and for the first minute or so I fully expected to be struck by lightning. I stood there, shaking, awaiting electrocution. I see this as the moment of the greatest courage in my life -- ironically, being literally willing to die for my beliefs, and furthermore, to be tortured forever for my beliefs. Shaking but unbowed, because this god more cruel than Hitler was not worthy of worship.

But after five minutes or so, the remnant belief was gone. I stopped shaking and walked on, a fierce little independent thinker and not a sinner. The world looked radiant around me: the trees in gold-green first leaf, the grass full of tiny daisies, the city I loved.



The church I was raised in was not fire and brimstone, but when I married we changed to Southern Baptist, and they are the worst. When my children were grown, I apologized to them for having brought them up with the idea of a cruel God. Also, the idea of blood sacrifice always bothered me.


The more liberal wing of Christianity has already pretty much ceased to mention hell; practically everyone goes to heaven (including Jews and Buddhists). But eventually, I predict, even heaven will no longer be mentioned, and the whole notion of the afterlife will be retired into polite silence. As in liberal Judaism, which does not strike as different from secular humanism except for the ethnic element, the emphasis will shift to how best to live our life on earth.

In Polish, as in many other languages, the word for heaven is the same as the word for sky, so it’s pretty impossible to imagine heaven as something other than the sky, always with picturesque clouds. Ultimately, this image becomes just too infantile to take seriously. Yet no other image has been proposed, except the New Age concept of the astral world where we need only think about something, and, as promised in The Secret,  our desire is fulfilled. Thus, in the astral world, if we think of a favorite opera, soon we are singing its arias better than any earthly singer. (God is usually not mentioned, only the instant fulfillment of desires.) This is extremely attractive, but no proof of the astral world is ever offered, unless the “visions of certain highly evolved mystics” (whose names are not disclosed).

But even as hell falls into disuse, Christianity has another obstacle to overcome, and that’s the founding dogma that Jesus died for our sins. This “blood ransom” is the price of our entrance to heaven (otherwise we’d all go to hell, where we belong because of our sinful human nature, also known as “total depravity”). The idea is archaic and morally repugnant. It has to go, or Christianity will look more and more archaic and irrelevant.

The Catholic mass evolved from the ancient Hebrew ritual animal sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple. Few Catholics know about this, and those who know may say, yes, but isn’t it wonderful that now we don’t kill any animals at the altar, but have substituted a wafer and wine? Yes, but the doctrine of trans-substantiation requires Catholics to believe that the wafer and wine are LITERALLY transformed into flesh and blood. Wars were once waged over this, and thousands were slaughtered because they believed that the wafer and wine became actual flesh and blood, or else they believed that the transformation was only symbolic. Not counting the Crusades, those wars and massacres (and the earlier mass slaughter of the Gnostics) took place in Europe; that’s why the Europeans are more likely than Americans to say that religion has caused more harm than good.

True, the wars are in the past; no one is publically encouraged anymore to kill in the name of Christ. It could be argued that nowadays most people go to church or temple for social or sentimental reasons (weddings and funerals, and also childcare), and no longer pay attention to the beliefs are supposed to go with their official religion. Or they may mouth the doctrine that “Jesus died for our sins” without thinking. That is probably true of the “silent majority” of church members. But there is an annoying noisy minority who loudly insist on hellfire and the necessity of being rinsed in the “blood of the lamb.” Nothing short of a blood sacrifice of the highest order (his own son) could possibly appease their angry, vengeful deity. And no, being a good person doesn’t mean anything; unless you accept the doctrine that Jesus died for your sins, you become fodder for hellfire.

Tent revival meetings are still being held in the South. When I was a visiting poet in Arkansas, I read a leaflet advertising one such tent revival. Every sentence dripped with hate and threats of hell, all in the name of sweet Jesus. It may be several decades before this kind of toxic Christianity is finally gone from the face of the earth. I realize this statement is optimistic; the belief in a punitive deity is propagated by intimidation, starting in early childhood. This intimidation, often combined with religiously condoned physical abuse (“don’t spare the rod”), is hard (but not impossible) to overcome.

Nevertheless, there has been immense progress. Catholics and Protestants no longer massacre one another – not even in Northern Ireland. I can’t speak about Islam, but progressive Christianity has become more and more inclusive, even showing a desire for fusion with at least some elements of the Eastern tradition. Since every religion I’m familiar with has progressed by borrowing from other sources, I think the world may eventually become part secular and part religious – but I think the religions of the future are more likely to be benign. I agree with Robert Wright (The Evolution of God) that the overall progress has been in the right direction: less and less religious violence and more emphasis on kindness rather than blind faith. 


As always, your posts are great reading to ponder over. Your mention of interfaith brings to mind that I would love to hear a panel discussion between a Sufi, Quaker and Zen adherent and see where things shake out! That is one of the huge attractions( one of so many) of  Moby Dick in that you had so many diverse beliefs melded on the Pequod; from the Quaker Starbuck to Quequeg’s pagan South Sea religion  and all in between, Melville probed them all in one fashion or another. Your experience with the Catholic church had obviously a profound impact on your life and I am curious if in your poetic circles you have come across Catholic poets who are quite happy and devout in their beliefs.

I came to poetry rather late in life and it has struck me many times how many prominent poets, who were not brought up in it, came to Catholicism and embraced it, like the New Zealand poet James K Baxter (educated in Quaker schools), G K Chesterton, the prolific English poet and apologist, as well as Roy Campbell, the South African born man of letters. Here in the U.S. Allen Tate and Robert Lowell too came to it late in life (I believe both abandoned it as well); of course there are many others but those five come to mind as poets whose work I particularly enjoy.

The Portuguese poet you mentioned, Andresen, also was said to have remained a devout Catholic her whole life (would love to read her biography; her love of the sea and Greek myth mirror mine) and the French poet, Charles Peguy, has long fascinated me. A devout agnostic and socialist, he turned to a mystical Catholicism, though he never took the sacraments, oddly enough, and was shot in the head in battle during the first days of WWI; a great quote by him is the following

Homer is new and fresh this morning, and nothing, perhaps, so old and tired as this morning's newspaper.

Funny too that Peguy, Baxter and Andresen were all great admirers of Greek myth; it brings to mind Camoes fantastic blending of Christian symbolism and Greek myth in his epic, 'The Lusiads.' (have always wondered how that book got past the Catholic censors in the 16th century!) And back to 'Moby Dick' (as you know, for me all roads lead  back to the Pequod), the Cuban literary critic Jose Feo maintained that a Catholic could not have created a mad character like Ahab, rooted as he was in American Calvinism. Allen Tate asserted as well that the South could have won its independence had the region had one dominant faith like Catholicism instead of the diverse Protestant denominations that were the fabric of the old South( the “Christ-haunted South” as the Catholic writer Flannery O'Conner called it). I would be interested to read a study of Catholicism and poetry where the faith is discussed in detail on how it affected the poets craft and those cases too, like Lowell, who abandoned it and the impact it had.


One member of the audience said, “What we have here is not three religions, but one – each borrowing from the others.” In my written comments, I put down, “Next time, bring in a Buddhist and an atheist” (wouldn’t it have been fantastic to have had Hitchens present – he was too near death, of course, but imagine his kind of brilliance interacting with the considerable intelligence of the two rabbis; on further thought, those rabbis were not really theists in the conventional sense; I don’t think conventional religion attracts the best minds anymore; we’ll never have another Augustine or Thomas Aquinas; it’s a safe guess that if Hitchens happened to have been born during the Middle Ages, he’d have likely become a “doctor of the church”).

In my circle there are some Buddhists and eclectic New-Age believers (e.g. they believe in past lives and a “friendly universe” that’s responsive to their personal thoughts and desires; as one said, “If you are friendly toward the universe, it will be friendly to you”; another said, “I believe only those things that make me happy.”). I’ve come across only one Catholic poet. She converted in adulthood and seems to be getting some emotional nourishment from the church, though even she sees it as a dilapidated shell around the radiance. We are distant friends at best. I can’t feel close to anyone who feels s/he has THE answer; s/he is not helping me carry the burden of the questions. But that’s a theoretical statement, since such people generally don’t even come close to me, so there is no heart-to-heart conversation (in which perhaps their doubts and seeking rather than finding would come to the surface).

By the way, that poet (I’m not sure if she’d care to be labeled a “Catholic poet”) made the interesting observation that the badness of most religious poetry comes from the “poverty of the language of religion” (her phrasing). Good poems of those poets who are publically religious tend to praise the beauty of the earth. They love rivers and meadows, the birds and even the insects. Often it’s a lost childhood paradise. Milosz is a perfect example of that. Rilke shifted from his youthful mysticism of “we are building God” to love for the earth.

Most poets I know were raised in a religion that they left in adolescence or young adulthood. Catholicism definitely had an impact on me, and leaving the church meant losing some things I loved – the poetics of it, including the pillar-shaking organ music (I loved aggressive organists who really let go). As I say elsewhere in this post, that breaking away was my moment of greatest courage. Afterwards, when I stopped shaking with terror, I experienced a beautiful sense of freedom, like tossing off heavy and constraining winter clothes – springtime! A slight nostalgia came later, but it was never the intense, painful nostalgia that I felt for Poland. I cried over the loss of my homeland (the first two years are the hardest; I call them the “wet pillowcase years”); I never shed a tear over the loss of Catholicism. The gain of freedom outweighed any sense of loss.

An interesting observation about Captain Ahab being rooted in American Calvinism; that’s probably true. Would a Catholic South had won the Civil War? I doubt it. The South was united enough – not by religion, but by the supremely un-Christian belief that slavery was morally justified. (By the way, Nazi soldiers had Gott mit uns – “God is with us” on their belt buckles – maybe the saddest example of how religion can be perverted)

As for the blending of Christian elements with classical mythology in poets such as Dante and Milton, it seems that to them classical mythology was profoundly real. As an example of this, I strongly recommend Ciardi’s translation of the 26th Canto of the Inferno, the Ulysses canto. Milton is another example of a poet who fuses Greek mythology with Christianity. Characters such as Hercules were seen as real people who lived long ago. Our modern concept of a myth was born only in the nineteenth century, when mythology became a field of scholarly study. That’s also when scholars started the quest for the “historical Jesus,” trying to separate myth from the probable reality (e.g. most likely Jesus was born in Nazareth and not in Bethlehem).


“Immortality of influence” – this is especially true of rich art collectors. They leave their legacy as great collectors of fine art.


And it’s great art that is given a degree of immortality thanks to those rich collectors.  It always takes at least one other person – and usually many others – for great work to be accomplished and, later, preserved.  

Non omnis moriar – “not all of me will die.”  Not to die wholly, to leave behind something of great value, has always been the dream of creative people. But any life that is well lived is bound to leave a legacy that is rich beyond our knowing.

I was most terrified of death when I was young. Later, though I did not yet have the phrase “immortality of influence,” I came to realize that we are collective beings; we influence one another, and the echoes go on and on. We contribute to the collective psyche. It is our moral duty to contribute joy, goodness, enlightenment. Not that we need to be particularly conscious of this contribution. As long as we are not timid and reach for the best in life, the echoes start traveling. 

The City of Gold, Revelation 21:18

Would anyone actually want to live in the City of Gold (with the walls of jasper, and pearly gates)?  (Btw, it looks very modern . . .)

Friday, October 21, 2011



Because of the morning bird singing,
song will persist inside me.
Because of the sound of traffic,
I shall always wonder,
and I shall be troubled at what remains
unknown. But I shall hope. And because of the mailbox,
and the road, and the tree. It is hard to despair
because of the tree. Slowly, we turn toward love.

~ Tryfon Tolides, An Almost Pure Empty Walking

This is what I call a “comfort poem.” “It is hard to despair / because of the tree. Slowly, we turn toward love.” As is typical of comfort poems, the beauty of the world is why we love life. Just one tree makes life worth living.

You may remember the ending of Jack Gilbert’s “Brief for the Defense”:

To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

            ~ Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven

The most famous line in that poem is “We must risk delight.” But ultimately the poem winds down to a very quiet pleasure, the faint sound of oars in the dark. “We must admit there will be music despite everything,” is another line I like.

If there are comfort poems, there are also “discomfort poems.” Or at least so they seem on the surface. Here is an abridged version of Jaroslav’s Seifert’s “Struggle with the Angel” (translated by Ewald Osers, who is also the translator of all the other passages from Seifert that I quote in this post)


Some time ago I saw a rose-red shade.
It stood by the entrance to a house
facing Prague’s railway station,
eternally swathed in smoke.

We used to sit there by the window.
I held her delicate hands
and talked of love.
I’m good at that!
She’s long been dead.
The red lights were winking
down by the track.

As soon as the wind sprang up a little
it blew away the gray veil
and the rails glistened
like the strings of some monstrous piano.
At times you could also hear the whistle of steam
and the puffing of engines
as they carried off people’s miserable longings
from the grimy platforms
to all possible destinations.
Sometimes they also carried away the dead
returning to their homes
and to their cemeteries.

Now I know why it hurts so
to tear hand from hand,
lips from lips,
when the stitches tear
and the guard slams shut
the last carriage door.

Love is an eternal 
struggle with the angel.
From dawn to night.
Without mercy.
The opponent is often stronger.
But woe to him
who doesn’t realize
that his angel has no wings
and will not bless.


Jaroslav Seifert (1901-1986) was a Nobel-Prize winning Czech poet. In his Nobel Lecture (1984), he described poetry as “our deepest and safest refuge, where we seek succor in adversities we sometimes dare not even name.” Poetry always held human love to be more important than politics, ideologies, nationalism. In his first volume of poetry, Town in Tears, Seifert wrote a typical defense of the primacy of love, of intimacy between two people, as the primary experience that makes any philosophy seem pretty dead, or at least secondary.

Love is something huge
You’ll find out
If there were revolution in the whole wide world
Still somewhere on green grass
Lovers would have time to hold hands
And lean their heads towards one another.

We nod. That patch of grass becomes the garden of Eden, and holding hands and leaning heads toward one another are gestures infinitely more precious than any marching and flag waving. The silence between two lovers is more sacred than anything spoken in religious sermons or political speeches. That’s one reason that religion and totalitarian regimes alike find love subversive.

And yet, these strange lines: 

Love is an eternal 
struggle with the angel.
From dawn to night.
Without mercy.
The opponent is often stronger.
But woe to him
who doesn’t realize
that his angel has no wings
and will not bless.


Personally I don't agree with this. Love brings great gifts and transforms us, even at the cost of suffering. We learn most early on, and then again at parting. 

But it’s not all solemn. Seifert can joke a little about those youthful idolatries:


Remember the wise philosophers:
Life is but a moment.
And yet whenever we waited for our girlfriends
it was eternity.


But this is a poet who in his later work wrote

But suddenly we met
at the steps of the fountain,
then each went somewhere else, at another time
and by another path.

Where is the refuge here, the sanctuary? For me it’s in the line “at the steps of the fountain.” The fountain stands for a different love: for beauty and some kind of inherent value of life. But there is some degree of refuge even in the simple statement that we met and we parted. Reading it, we realize that we participate in universal experiences of humanity. 

Likewise, there is a strange beauty in the description of the Prague train station back in the era of steam locomotives, those great black beasts with their fabulous panting, but also all that smoke and sooty grime. The Prague train station, sometime in the middle of the last century! It suddenly seems like a place we have seen, a portion of the heart of humanity, now ours because of the poet’s gift. It becomes a metaphor for all of life’s partings. And yet its melancholy beauty has the power to console.

Prague train station

Seifert has been called a poet of Prague rather than a poet of love, and yet he writes about love quite often. It’s just that he refuses to glorify romantic love. It doesn’t last, that “tremor of delight, / more often long and bitter pain,” he says in a portion of the poem I left out. Using a memorable image, he also says, “Often loves succeed each other / like suits of cards in your hand.”

As I mentioned, I disagree with ending of “The Struggle with the Angel”: even unhappy love does bless, but it may take us a long time to see what its gift has been and how it transformed us. The angel of greater love blesses us every day, indeed every moment when we are in touch with what we love; the angel of romantic love may seem capricious and withholding, even sadistic at times. But his ultimate blessing is growth into a larger personality, and that is infinitely precious. Each human lover is a teacher; these teachers/lovers, absorbed our psyche, guide us as needed. 

Why can’t romance be just joy? Why all the pain and weeping? Almost as soon as we experience our first love, we learn that there is indeed much sorrow inextricably bound with romance, an almost physical pain, a heavy stone in the middle of the chest. What a saving miracle that romance is not the only kind of love we experience. It’s the most stormy, passionate, and dramatic – sometimes a runaway locomotive, though more often a “tremor of delight” followed by a gradual loss of that trembling, a diminishment, a dwindling, and finally either a settling down to quiet affection (“the triumph of affection over passion,” as Louise Glück put it), or a parting of the ways.


Love is the torturer, and love is the savior: an entirely different, wider, and lasting love that can’t quite be labeled, but it is that love that permeates all true poetry. Is it “tenderness toward existence”? That’s the best phrase (thank you, Galway Kinnell) I have come across. That tenderness feels mostly like quiet affection, but it can be intense at times.

One of the questions that I have been answering in different ways over the years is the question of how I managed to survive my youth, when so many bad things were hitting me that the memories seem like an unfunny black comedy. Those were the crying years. Romantic love was a cruel joke, again and again. But against all that awful romance or lack of it (hard to say which was worse), I had two greater kinds of romance that didn’t fail me: my love of beauty, fused with my love for California, and my love of the intellect – all those books! The libraries kept me from suicide; that, and the beauty of California. And, in my later youth, also the love of my emerging vocation.

I’ve always found the way Marlene Dietrich signed off her letters – “I wish you love” –
to be one of the most wonderful things one could say to another person. To me it means love in every sense, including that larger kind of love that made me survive my own years of perdition. When one middle-aged single woman, stressed on the eve of a major trip, snapped at me, “Funny that those who don’t believe in God believe in romance!” I saw no contradiction at all. As long as I had a life of the mind and some beauty, I had my “larger love,” and felt no need for religion. And having the larger love allowed me to believe even in romance. 

In any case, it’s not a matter of “believing” in romantic love. It’s knowing that you can cope with the agony and ecstasy, and, later, with the loss of intensity when the infatuation phase ends, as it must. That’s where the steady flow of blessings from “greater love” comes to rescue. And, turning now to marriage rather than romance, those blessings, those marriages to something other than the human spouse, also strengthen the marital relationships – simply because one is no longer so needy and dependent, a little vampire in terror of abandonment, asking, “Do you love me? Do you really love me? Do you still love me? Will you always love me?”

True, some men are displeased to discover that a woman has a “life of her own.” They dream of a “service person” with no interests and no passionate pursuits of her own, so that her sole task would be taking care of the man’s needs. “Why do I always receive marriage proposals when I am in the kitchen?” one attractive older woman asked, knowing the question was rhetorical. Another single friend bewails the male attention she gets at a laundromat: “There is only one thing they want.” Freud was wrong! There are things that men want more than sex.

If we take seriously the radical idea that the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable human right, then no one should be expected to be another person's dedicated slave. But we should perhaps take a deeper look at the other love or loves in our partner’s life. If we can share even one of them, that’s magnificent. If not, the marriage can still be harmonious, since marriage is not about romance; it’s about stability. It’s a commitment to non-abandonment, to “being there” for the other – a foundation where we feel safe to explore our other loves, other “soul marriages.”

How reliable is the Angel of Greater Love? Sometimes I ask myself if I would still find life worth living if I could no longer read and write – stroke, for instance, can destroy the ability to understand and use language. It would certainly be a huge and cruel loss. I hope what would remain is the joy in the beauty of nature. And that is what poets continually appeal to.

“It’s hard to despair / because of the tree,” Tolides writes. And the love of that tree, of all trees, of animals, of rivers and lakes, of all there is, can bring its own moments of ecstasy and a delicious suspicion that we are links in the web of cosmic love. Seifert writes:

Hush, city, I can’t make out the whispering of the weir.
And people go about, quite unsuspecting
that above their heads fly
fiery kisses.



On this tenderness toward existence:

Yes, I am amazed by how much energy a small tree (with all of its leaves turned to brilliant, fluorescent red) holds for us! I'm experiencing the great "rootedness" of the South, whether it be due to the trees themselves, the ancient nature of the great Smokey Mountains, or the history of the place. At any rate, I taste this "tenderness" in the holy basil from the biodynamic farm, I hear this tenderness in my uncle's obituary (a hunter and outdoorsman who died yesterday evening), and I feel this tenderness in the Chinese clothing designer's true friendliness and new friendship as she tells me about her commitment to fair local governance in Asheville – her head wrapped in a funky art piece, her small body wrapped in a funky pieced-together jacket, as we share exquisite Indian food here in the deep South!

I am carrying "The Tree" in my pocket as I walk through the falling leaves of the Appalachian fall. This poem is very real here. Thank you!


Thank you for another post that brings us the colors of the Appalachian fall. How rich this kind of prose seems next to the minimalist – I am tempted to say “miserly” – style of modern poetry. Yes, Tolides gave us the precious observation that “it’s harder to despair because of the tree.” You give us not one abstract tree, but a feast of color and detail (holy basil! even sharing Indian food with a Chinese clothing designer).

If I were to summarize the central message of this blog entry, I’d say it’s the idea that for romantic love to be healthy rather than idolatrous and ultimately devastating, there needs to be that “greater love” behind it – or in parallel, or above – in any case, within us. And the easiest way to connect with that greater love is to take delight in nature.

A neighbor described Emily Brontë returning from a walk on the moors with a “divine light in her face.” Nature has the power to lift us to that higher plane that need not be called divine in any traditional sense, but is nevertheless transcendent – because we are not obsessing about ourselves or whether our partner “really” loves us. Here in Chula Vista we have a lot of liquidambar trees that have turned early this year: great scarves of crimson that bind even my shy heart, afraid as it is to lose yet another beloved landscape.


Here is where Seifert's poem comes to life for me: 

As soon as the wind sprang up a little
it blew away the gray veil
and the rails glistened
like the strings of some monstrous piano.
At times you could also hear the whistle of steam
and the puffing of engines
as they carried off people's miserable longings
from the grimy platforms
to all possible destinations.
Sometimes they also carried away the dead
returning to their homes
and to their cemeteries.



I agree. I think Seifert loved Prague, including even the grimy platforms of the train station, more than he loved any woman. 


My spirit is rich with the flames of trees after seeing that wonderful photo on your blog. THANK YOU!


When I closed the door on depression, I soon discovered that “working works” – work is my best therapy. At first I worked blindly, without asking why, what good does it do. But I longed for a meaning. As so often, it emerged by itself, and with the help of feedback such as yours: my conscious mission is to nourish hungry minds with beauty and ideas. My audience may be small, but doing the blog is much more fulfilling than publishing poems in small (or even large) magazines.