Thursday, April 25, 2013


William Blake: Job Rebuked by His Friends

“Not yet, my friend,”
said Job to a raven,
yellow pus crusting his thighs.
“I’m not carrion yet.

No happiness lasts,
but here on my dunghill
I have learned the blessing:
there’s no perfect unhappiness either.”

“If you can laugh,
you are never poor,”
said Job to his dour
comforters. “Look at my

jewelry of emerald flies!”
He patted his blistered
bald head: “See?
I have transcended my hair.”

“It’s already broken,”
said Job to a stranger,
lifting his potsherd
like a drinking cup.

“My friend, my friend,
let us not waste time
cursing the Nameless.
To life!”


“What fine camel droppings,”
said Job to a Levite.
“Who can say that I haven’t
weatherproofed my house?”

The Levite reproved him:
“Did you get an answer?”
“Yes,” Job chuckled, “but not
from the Voice in the Whirlwind.

It was the Adversary, walking
up and down, who winked:
Because you didn’t laugh,
meaning you were not free.

And Job began laughing,
and his sores were healed.
He got new sheep and she-asses,
new children by a new wife.

He’d doze during prayer;
when chided, he’d laugh,
“God loves us more
when we sleep.”

To a servant he’d point,
“Here, have this lamb” –
laughing softly,
knowing any moment

a messenger could come,
crying from afar:
“All you possessed is gone;
in an instant I saw it gone” –

and Job would reply,
“Naked I came,
naked I shall return.
Ah, I like to go naked.”

~ Oriana © 2013


Charles Sherman: The Laughter of Job

This sculpture is a tribute to Mitchell Shore, a friend who loved to joke. He died at 46 of acute leukemia, after stoically enduring repeated high-dose chemo. As the comforters of this Job, we basically used denial, speaking to him as if we didn't know he was doomed. He endured that too.

The problem of evil --“why do bad things happen to good people?” -- has been the subject of debate ever since Job’s friends tried to convince him that he or his children must have sinned to deserve such suffering because, after all, god is just. According to Job’s friends, to say otherwise is blasphemy, so if you don’t admit you’ve sinned, you are thereby accusing god of injustice and committing an even greater sin of blasphemy.

I was never especially interested in the problem of evil when I was growing up. Theodicy (trying to explain why an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good deity permits evil) was best left to theologians, just like the problem of free will versus pre-destination. Speaking of free will, that was the reasonably satisfying answer that the church gave: evil exists because god will not interfere with free will. (The question about violating the laws of nature came later and struck me as a lot more thorny.)

But in terms of the slaughter of the innocents and other kinds of suffering, given Poland’s history, there was no assumption that you had to have done something bad to bring on suffering. That millions suffered unspeakable horrors was an absolute fact at the center of the psyche: good people suffer. Good people go through hell right here on earth. There was even a pious-sounding saying: “God sends suffering to those he loves” (does anyone want to be loved as Job was loved?)   

Blake, Satan Smiting Job with Boils
Add to this all the saints who flagellated themselves to “mortify the flesh” -- as if life needed any help. So there was a complete acceptance of suffering that didn’t assume anyone deserved it: “that’s life.” Many, like my family, used humor as defense: I grew up familiar with several often-repeated jokes brought from Auschwitz and Radogoszcz (a little-known factory camp near Łódź). Yes, there was humor even in Auschwitz. And yes, some are capable of cracking a joke even on their death-bed. 

My father was one such joke-to-the-end kind of person. Admitted to the hospital during the final stage of Parkinson’s, when he lost the ability to swallow, he was told to take off all his clothes and put an a hospital gown. Of course he had to have help. “What! These beautiful young nurses are to look at a naked old geezer like me?” he replied with mock agitation. Six hours later he was dead.


There is a chart making its rounds on the Internet. I remember seeing the first version of what in Buddhism is called the “first noble truth” ten years ago, maybe even before then.

I especially enjoy the Hare Krishna addition. And yes, I more or less agree with the “I deserve it” statement about Catholicism. Humans are sinners by definition -- St. Augustine wrote much on that. I don’t know if this if the current practice, but “in my time,” even small children were told they were sinners. Still, suffering wasn’t necessarily seen as punishment. Rather, it was a kind of pre-Purgatory. It was good for you. Welcoming suffering by pretending it’s good for us is yet another way of coping with it. (I knew a woman who suffered from asthma; when I expressed hope that science will find a way to combat the disease, she said, “Oh no. I don’t think we should try to get rid of diseases; we need them for our spiritual development.”) 

But Job does not welcome suffering. He’s one of my role models because he does not debase himself. He does not beat his breast and make a false confession of being a sinner who deserves to be punished. In the end he sees that god is a dangerous megalomaniac who needs to be appeased. But at no point can Job be pressured to demean himself as a sinner just so that god could be seen as just. 

Blake Job’s Evil Dreams
With dreams upon my bed thou searest me and affrightest me with visions.


When I was in college, a psychology instructor regaled us with this sinister joke: a man spends a day in town doing business. Night falls while he is walking back to his village through a forest. He feels somewhat scared, but reassures himself: “I am a good person. If there is justice, nothing bad will happen to me.” Just then a deep male voice is heard: “There is no justice.”

The class sat in tense silence. Not the tiniest chuckle. The instructor seemed puzzled, so he repeated: “And this deep, godlike voice says, There is no justice.” Still no response from the shell-shocked students.

Thinking about it now, I am struck by two things: first, I never forgot this joke. It engraved itself on my mind forever. Second, those in their teens and early twenties haven’t yet lived long enough to comprehend the joke. They haven’t yet suffered enough to understand that suffering will happen even if  you are utterly blameless, angelic.

But regardless of age, some will always cling to the belief that being a good person will protect them from misfortune. It’s a common cognitive bias known as the “just-world hypothesis”: good is rewarded and evil is punished. Hence the tendency to blame the victim.

“I know why this happened”

Still, when a child (young or adult) dies of leukemia, nobody tells the parents that that’s what they deserved. It’s difficult to imagine anyone insensitive enough and so locked into an archaic reward-and-punishment mentality as to say to the parents, “I know why this happened. You stopped going to church. You had it coming.”

Nevertheless, the parents themselves may form some notion of wrong-doing to explain the suffering. When it became obvious that Mitchell would die, his mother said: “I know why this happened. We didn’t have him bar-mitzvah-ed.”

Apparently it didn’t occur to her that this explanation implies that god is a sadistic monster: “Let the kid die of leukemia. That will teach his parents a lesson!” She and Mitchell’s father both felt guilty. If only they had him bar-mitzva-ed, like his older brother! But with Mitchell, they got stingy (nor was Mitchell the least interested, seeing what his brother had to go through). And now this -- Mitchell’s death of leukemia (at the age of 46, but sometimes there’s a delay in divine punishment). The guilt must have been eating away at them: both parents died within 18 months of Mitchell’s death. The older brother, the one who got bar-mitzva-ed but quickly lost interest in Judaism, became an orthodox Jew.

I wonder: did he turn to orthodoxy as protection against the wrath of an unpredictable god?
Jung, in his “Answer to Job,” suggested that instead of thinking of god in terms of Trinity, it would make sense to see a Quaternity, the fourth face of god being The Demonic, or the Shadow. After the speech from the whirlwind, even the initial boasting to Satan: “And have you seen my servant Job?” seems to come from a malignant narcissist who cares only about his glory. 

(Pushing this to the extreme, I can imagine a scenario where god and Satan continue to amuse themselves by making bets. Perhaps the climax came when Satan said, “Sure, many still fast on Yom Kippur. But send them Holocaust, LOL, and see if they don’t curse you to your face.”)

(Speaking of Yom Kippur, that’s the opening of Rabbi Kushner’s justly famous best-seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The parents of a young woman who died of heart disease come to him and say, “We know why this happened. We didn’t fast on last Yom Kippur.”)


But let's turn more directly to "having a deal with god." In a lecture I recently attended, “The Otherness of God,” Rabbi Mordecai Finley (his true name, and he looks Irish too, down to being a red-head) quoted the example of a woman, a member of his congregation, who came to him wailing, “I’ve lived such a good life. I’ve donated so much to charity. How could this be happening me?” “This” was her discovery that had husband of thirty years had been unfaithful -- not once, but many times throughout the marriage.

Rabbi Finley was unsparing as he described to us this modern Ms. Job. She imagined she had a deal with god, he said. She’d do good things, she’d donate to charity, and in return nothing bad would touch her. In effect she was saying, “I’ve donated so much to charity, how could my husband turn out to be unfaithful?” The faulty logic is obvious and even ridiculous when we make it so blatant.

But there is something deeper to it, the Rabbi explained. Some people assume that they have a “deal with god.” The deal is, for instance, that they will stay faithful, and in return their spouse will be faithful also. They will rise early to make breakfast for their children, and in return none of their children will become alcoholics and/or drug addicts. They will perform various good deeds, and in return god will grant them financial success -- or whatever reward matters to the person.

So what happened to the wisdom contained in the saying, “Virtue is its own reward”? What about devotion to goodness because that’s a good thing in itself? Are you truly a good person if you do good not for its own sake, but because you expect a reward?

Not that anyone is entirely pure of heart -- but we should at least try not remain at the level of a young child without intrinsic moral values, guided by parental rewards and punishments. 

  Albrecht Dürer, Job on the Dunghill and His Wife


We know that the story of Job goes back thousands of years. We take it for granted that the sin-and-punishment mentality was prevalent in ancient times. The New Testament is indeed revolutionary; its stories often focus on compassion and forgiveness.

However, there is an unsettling (at least to me) story in the Gospel of John about a man blind from birth:

And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.

And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?

Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.

The logic of blaming the blind man escapes me: since he was blind from birth, when could he have sinned? Before birth, in the womb?

But never mind. This is not the only time that the disciples seem not very bright. Let’s assume that everyone blames the parents: they must have trespassed in a serious way to deserve this punishment of having a blind child. The parents are probably ostracized as sinners, while the child suffers due to being blind.

Jesus explains that in this case no one has sinned. The child was born blind and grew up blind simply to serve as showcase for god’s healing power. All this suffering so that a proper subject of a miracle should exist. Is the deity who wants to show off his “works” by any chance still the malignant narcissist who boasts of having created the Behemoth in front of miserable Job?


Blake: The Behemoth


Most people would probably say that sometimes what happens to us is caused by something we did, and sometimes it’s just circumstances. There is malignant strand in New Age thought: “What did you do to ATTRACT the accident (disease, loss of a job, etc), with the answer usually given as “You were thinking negative thoughts.” But this particular view has had its heyday and has now fallen in disrepute. Even those who say “There are no accidents” are usually willing to admit that sometimes it’s nobody’s fault: it’s the circumstances. It’s really possible to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the opposite also holds true.

Most would also agree that life is not fair: some people are born with genes for good looks and high intelligence, while others come into this world with genes that predispose them to all kinds of bad things, including high odds of dying from cancer before the age of fifty. Some children are born to rich parents in prosperous countries; others are born to poor parents in a country particularly subject to famines and natural disasters. (“In their future lives, all Americans are born in Bangladesh,” I heard someone joke.)

As we learn more about the natural causes of various misfortunes, be it diseases or hurricanes, the less likely we are to assume that the victims somehow deserved their fates. Even assuming that the parents whose children died in the Sandyhook massacre were flawed in some way, it would be monstrous to say that those parents DESERVED their extreme suffering.   And it would be insane to say that the children deserved to die.

More and more people agree that natural events have no moral causes. True, there are still fundamentalist televangelists who propound the archaic worldview when they put forth explanations such as “This happened because there is no prayer in the public schools”; “The earthquake in Haiti was punishment for the belief in voodoo.” But such explanations now arouse increasing disapproval. And fortunately no one has said that the man whose legs were blown off during the Boston bombings must have done something to deserve it. To say it would be seen as obscene. We have morally progressed at least this far!

Blake: Job's Comforters


The more we learn about natural causes of events, the more likely we are to “grant innocence” to other people and ourselves. Even if we or they did, in fact, do something wrong, we know there are causes other than “some people are just genetically evil.” For instance, we know that child abuse can be perpetuated from generation to generation until someone breaks the chain. Breaking the chain is not just refusing to be a perpetrator of abuse, dealing out to others what has been dealt out to us. It’s also forgiving those who abused us once we understand what caused them to act that way.

We have no trouble granting innocence to animals and small children. The mentally handicapped are also seen as innocents and aren’t blamed, even if they somehow “misbehave.” But older children, adolescents, and adults -- the easiest path is to blame them. This presumption of guilt is based on ascribing a great deal of free will to those individuals. A more deterministic attitude sees the multiple causes, the context, the circumstances. It doesn’t leap into shame and blame. It grants innocence.

“Yes, but what about smokers who end up dying of lung cancer? Isn’t it their own fault?” Again, it’s so easy to speak in terms of “fault” for which the cancer is the just punishment. Addiction experts know that this is not a productive approach. First, you grant a person dignity and the presumption of innocence -- then you might have a chance to influence that person’s behavior.

You offer empathy.

You offer humility: If circumstances had been different, this could be me.

There is still a long way to go before, on the whole, we cease to be judgmental. But I think a lot of progress has been made, and it’s a “done deal” that we are moving toward a more comprehensive “presumption of innocence.”

We are finally accepting that a lot of suffering comes everyone’s way, and that life isn’t fair. It simply isn’t. There is no need to defend some imaginary justice, cosmic or divine. “There is no justice.” That’s how things are.


One interesting development is the emergence of a parallel: as life has grown less harsh (better health, longer life expectancy, a social safety net), the Western culture has grown less judgmental and more merciful. In his The Evolution of God, Robert Wright has developed this argument in relation to the concept of a ruthless or merciful god. Good times went hand in hand with the concept of mercy. The early deities were cruel; bad times tended to a regression toward a cruel deity.

In his review of Wright’s book, Paul Bloom says:

God has mellowed. The God that most Americans worship occasionally gets upset about abortion and gay marriage, but he is a softy compared with the Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible. That was a warrior God, savagely tribal, deeply insecure about his status and willing to commit mass murder to show off his powers. But at least Yahweh had strong moral views, occasionally enlightened ones, about how the Israelites should behave. His hunter-gatherer ancestors, by contrast, were doofus gods. Morally clueless, they were often yelled at by their people and tended toward quirky obsessions. One thunder god would get mad if people combed their hair during a storm or watched dogs mate.

Cruel times, cruel gods; better times, more forgiving gods (“Our Softie, who are in heaven”?). Of course it’s we humans who have evolved and “mellowed.” It’s interesting that the view of god as a “softie” is more politically correct than the idea that humans have made moral progress, as Steven Pinker points out in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. The view that the concept of god has grown benevolent does not seem to jar readers; but the view that humans have grown less violent and more kind is widely regarded as controversial.

It’s no longer politically correct to pray that god smite our enemies. But it’s still not politically correct to admit that humans are basically good rather than evil; that evil is a pathology that develops under certain conditions, and those conditions can be changed. 

Blake: When the Morning Stars Sang Together

This has also been the time of religious decline, at least in the West. If god is a cognitive illusion and exists only subjectively, in the minds of believers, then where do we turn for consolation when “bad things happen to good people”?

The answer is practically contained in the question: we turn to good people. We turn to friends and kind strangers. And we turn to the knowledge that suffering is inescapable, but life is still full of goodness and beauty. It’s not to be disparaged just because it must end.

A lot of mystery remains. That’s why life is such a great adventure. Among Mitchell’s last words while he was still conscious were these: “Don’t be afraid to die.” This could also mean: “don’t be afraid to live.”


He was delirious of course,
the Do Not Resuscitate code
taped over his bed. Suddenly he said,
“So how can I kill myself?”

Minutes later: “I wish every day
could be like this.”
I knew then he could now go –
was well-traveled in heaven and hell.

First chemo, his swollen lungs
scratched against his ribs,
the pain so searing that he
slipped into twilight and saw,

slightly ajar, a door 
lit with a warm amber glow.
It was the Door of Death –
behind it, “a friendly place.”

The Door of Life was shut;
behind it, “a place of hardship.”
He hesitated as he stood
before the door of light,

then turned toward the door
of darkness, meaning life –
back under the buzzing, prying
fluorescents of the cancer ward.


I wonder if he heard music –
as I did that night,
the year when every day
I thought of suicide.

I drove along dark empty streets,
meandered aimlessly for miles,
when on my car radio I heard
the slow movement of Mozart’s

Twenty Fifth piano concerto –
the music so loving, so calm,
that I went home, and slept
without crying myself to sleep.

I imagine that again he saw
the lit door when he did
walk through it. Maybe he heard
music calling him home –

a barely imagined love song,
like clouds you cannot tell
from distant peaks, or the slow
movement of a concerto

so pure it breaks and heals
your heart – and what for him
was the Door of Death,
for me was the Door of Life.

~ Oriana © 2013


Superb blog. Great depth. Digesting it now.


Thank you. The issues are huge. They have been debated for centuries. I am so grateful to be living at a time when we know a lot of natural causes for various kinds of adversity, and the tendency to be harsh and judgmental is growing less. As understanding grows, terms such as “sin” and “divine punishment” are dropping from common usage.


I love this blog. So many different viewpoints on life and death, suffering and health. Love the way it all came together in the last sentence. I think Mitchell would love getting so much attention so many years after he died.

The Blake images are very expressive of Job.

”Rabbi Mordecai Finley (his true name, and he looks Irish too, down to being a red-head)" is politically incorrect but it's what a good writer says.


Mitchell is unforgettable. 

Since my blog posts are personal essays, and not, say, academic articles, I have the privilege of making it a more intimate conversation with the reader; poems also have an intimate tone; in fact lyrical poetry must have that "intimate whisper" to it in order to succeed.


I love that poem [“The Laughter of Job”]. I don't remember it being Biblical at all, but I endorse the message. It's the only way.

Particularly liked that the images were nasty and depressing but somehow the poem was humorous.

I don't mean funny because Job was laughing but funny because the poet thought them up.

It's rather like the Buddha had undertaken rewriting the rather harsh Old Testament.


The Old Testament is indeed “rather harsh.” Harsh times, harsh religion. We tend to regress and be more judgmental when under stress, in the state of fear. Yes, laughter is one of the best means of coping with adversity, possibly the best one.

Acceptance and moving on are almost among the best ways of coping. Having supportive friends is a great gift, not only during hardship, but especially during hardship. Receiving empathy from even one person can prevent “falling apart” and the beginning of healing.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Mary Dineen: Iris

“The question of the self: ‘who am I’ not in the sense of ‘who am I’ but rather ‘who is this ‘I’ that can say ‘who’? What is the ‘I,’ and what becomes of responsibility once the identity of the ‘I’ trembles in secret?” ~ Jacques Derrida

All I’m willing to divulge is that certain events made the identity of my ‘I” tremble in secret. As did the reading about a dream I had a long time ago.


I browse through the journal I kept 

in 1988. Boring, my witty remarks,
my vivid writerly details;

a student essay I quote,
“The Underclothes at Hawthorne
Disaster Wing Thriftstore, Inc.”

I flip the pages, find
my “Los Angeles airport dream”: 
We stand at the window and wait

for the plane from New York.
It crashes into the terminal!
Woozy from the impact, I get up.

Robert is gone – vaporized.
Only his duffel bag is left.
I grope it, hoping it’s still warm

from his body. Moments later
I think, “I’ll call Andrew.”

In the journal I write,

What a marvelous dream!

Except I’d never exchange 

Robert for Andrew. Never.


Now I shudder. No jets had yet
plunged into buildings. Ignorant
dream, how could it not know

that Andrew was to be
my Disaster Wing?
My long letters to him,

stormy knots of clouds,
signed: “Love always.”
I still can't believe it:

to Robert I said,
“Andrew is my prince –
you are my reality.”


Only the body knows.
Only the hands make love.
My songless Orpheus

committed suicide.
The same autumn Robert
got married, a Catholic

convert, a metal crucifix
over his marriage bed.
I put away the journal.

One image lingers: in the void
of the demolished airport,
I touch my lover’s duffel bag.

I stroke the bag’s whole length, 

seeking the last trace

of someone lost – a ghost even

of his body heat –
That’s the sole detail
I have saved –

it’s what remains for me
of that year, not of Our Lord,

but of our groping blindness.

~ Oriana © 2013

The poem describes my experience quite accurately. I
n my twenties and thirties, I kept a journal on and off, mostly off.  Like a lot of people who journal, I never read it. One time I did try reading it, and found it boring -- all those forgotten, meaningless details that had nothing to do with my new “older and wiser” priorities! And all those attempts to be clever and funny -- who did I think I was writing for? Posterity?

And then it happened: browsing, I landed on the page that recorded my dream about a plane flying into the building of the Los Angeles airport. I was the sole survivor, touching my vaporized partner’s duffel bag all over, seeking some trace his body heat still clinging to the bag. I was thunder-struck. The dream came back as if I’d just had it, never mind the many years in between. How could I have forgotten one of the most powerful dreams I ever had?

Worse, how could I have made this cruel remark to the man who wasn’t my Prince, not the one I fantasized about every night? I still can’t believe it . . . except that the memory, once resurrected, would not go away. I can only plead that it was the innocent “cruelty of youth” -- not meaning to hurt another, but not having lived long enough to have acquired more compassion and understanding of life and love.

I’m horrified by what came out of my mouth in the guise of “honesty” -- back then honesty was on everyone’s lips, the highest value, far ahead of kindness. I plead I “wasn’t yet me”; that was my immature self, not my more enlightened later self, chastened by having experienced not only more personal suffering, but also by understanding how much others suffer.

Wiliam Blake: Job


Ray Carver has a poem about this dilemma of having to own one’s younger self:


I’m not the man she claims.  But
this much is true: the past is
distant, a receding coastline,
and we’re all in the same boat,
a scrim of rain over the sea-lanes.
Still, I wish she wouldn’t keep on
saying those things about me!
Over the long course
everything but hope lets you go, then
even that loosens its grip.
There isn’t enough of anything
as long as we live. But at intervals
a sweetness appears and, given a chance,
prevails. It’s true I’m happy now.
And it’d nice if she
could hold her tongue. Stop
hating me for being happy.
Blaming me for her life. I’m afraid
I’m mixed up in her mind
with someone else.  A young man
of no character, living on dreams,
who swore he’d love her forever.
One who gave her a ring, and a bracelet.
Who said, Come with me. You can trust me.
Things to that effect.  I’m not that man.
She has me confused, as I said,
with someone else.

 ~ Ray Carver

I discussed this poem with my students. Half of them said, No, he is no longer that man. The other half kept saying, Yes he is. What a cad.

We concluded that he both is and isn’t the same person. Legal cases regularly bring up this paradox: Your Honor, yes, twenty years ago my client did commit a crime, but he is now a “changed man,” a pillar of the community, president of an important charity, a loving husband, father of three fine boys. What good would it serve to put him in prison?

I still don’t have an answer to that question.



As for my poem, written the same day I found the dream in my journal, it too provoked a debate. Or rather, not so much a debate as a round of condemnation from friends, with me as the sole defense attorney. Now, my friends were not saying, Your younger self is morally despicable. They were saying that this is a bad poem. It’s badly written: the two men create confusion. “Why don’t you remove the other man from the poem and make it a beautiful love poem?” my most romantic friend suggested. Others seconded that.

It would have been easy to transform this darkly realistic poem into an idealistic one: my one true love, even beyond death. I knew that from a purely esthetic point of view, a shorter poem would have worked: I browse through the journal, find the dream but omit any mention of the idolized “Andrew,” leave out further developments concerning Robert and Andrew, and quickly proceed to the ending. Everyone praised the ending.

But I wanted to retain the duality. For me the poem was about that duality, including the duality of past and present, and the older self’s new understanding of the dream in the light of a more mature understanding of love. No, I was no longer that ruthlessly “honest” young woman, and could now say with Tony Hoagland:

What we’ve learned is mostly
not to be so smart --

to believe
as the hands believe,
in only what they hold. 


The other matter that interests me is the strangeness of memory. If I hadn’t written down the dream, and then rediscovered the description years later, the dream, which I now see as one of the most powerful dreams I’ve ever had, would be forgotten with the rest of the details. The poem would not exist. The unexpected vehement condemnation that the poem drew further burned it into my memory. “This is the worst poem of yours that I’ve seen,” one person said.

On a dare, I decided to read the poem in public the next chance I got. But in the last minute I lost my nerve. In any case, “you have the right to remain silent.” But the emotional storm assured that I’d never forget the once-forgotten dream or the circumstances in which the “bad” poem was born.


I’ve often reflected that I wrote my “Polish poems” just in time, when my childhood memories were still relatively fresh, and those full-throated Carpathian roosters were crowing, casting splendid echoes. The negative side of communing with the past through poetry was that this selective recall perhaps became more important than it should be. Accused of having created an unreal and folkloric Poland, I could not deny the charge. The Polish countryside had become a holy land to me. Any lost homeland becomes that.

I had poems about Warsaw as well, presenting it as a magical city. When I was in my teens, it really was a magical city to me, but I also knew the other side that my older self fully remembered as well. My most perceptive readers picked up the darker undertones anyway (not to mention that the darkness was at times in full view, since my maternal grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor). They also assured me that the poems “go beyond the country”: those rooster-crowed villages, the wheat fields and the old farmer turning into an oracle, telling me I’d never go crazy, had an element of the eternal.

But there was yet another aspect to having written those poems: sometimes I felt I carried too much of the past with me. Because of the poems, I wasn’t able to forget, and forgetting may be memory’s wisest gift. We daily step into Lethe so we may be free of the old life and ready for the new. Or, as another dream told me, “Every three years I burn my diaries / to make room for new books.”



Yet just recently I had an experience that confirmed that not even writing a poem is guaranteed to preserve an experience or insight: it’s perfectly common to forget having written a particular poem, even a good one. Some poets say that it’s best to put away a new poem until you no longer remember it, so a year later you can read it, astonished: This is good!  I wrote this? Me of little worth and no account? (the Book of Job has a way of coming to my mind when poetry and po-biz intrude on my field of being)

I’ve learned to look at the “used” side of my recycled paper: now and then I find a poem I entirely forgot I ever wrote, and decide to keep it. But the last time I did that, I knew the striking and beautiful poem was not my own. The author’s name wasn’t on the page. I instantly emailed the poem to my Salon, with the question, “Does anyone know who wrote this poem?”

The same night, the author was found. It was one of the members of the Salon. She emailed me:
OMG, this is my poem! She was astonished, and admitted to having recognized the piece not right away, but only half-way through it. She had entirely forgotten having written it, just as I had forgotten having read it. Here it is:


A Navaho man said the rain is our ancestors
Our bodies, with so much water when we die

evaporate generation after generation
into clouds made of ancestors raining down

all those evaporating beings farther and farther back
through the dinosaurs and more

Everyone who came before rains on me
The tides from the moon are in all of us

with our waters pulling each other closer and farther
while the stars smash away, create worlds

Poems travel at the speed of light
from the page to my eye

from scraps of language written down
Sappho’s love pulses across centuries

~ Janet Baker © 2013


How could she forget having written such a fine poem? How could I forget having read it?

It’s not that mysterious. Apparently neither of us took the time to properly encode the memory. Not reinforced through deep attention, strong emotion, and/or repetition, the memory became inaccessible.  Life rushes on, and both of us simply . . . forgot. The poem would be lost utterly if not for the lucky accident of the recycler rescue.

The chance nature of this incident creates a sense of both adventure and peril. Hooray, a poem that deserves to live is now resurrected. But how many excellent pieces have gotten lost? Legion.

Here was a poem that celebrated the idea that the ancestors are still linked to us, nourishing us. I remembered Rabbi Steve at the Interfaith Panel on the Afterlife (, saying that before life ends, a person needs to shed all the love s/he has received so it can be recycled. But the same could be claimed for knowledge and wisdom. All, all must be recycled. As Janet’s poem claims, “Everyone who came before rains on me.” 

Jaded reader, you may shrug and say that this has no doubt been said before in some other way; aren’t there too many poems out there already? The sites that offer a “poem of the day” choke with unending material; the Internet overflows with hundreds of thousands of poems. True, but how many of those poems are worth reading? Let’s be generous: maybe ten percent. At the same time, for various reasons, many truly excellent poems never find an audience. They slide into oblivion without a sigh, sometimes forgotten even by their author.

This is sad because poetry can be more powerful than any other kind of writing. I wouldn’t  have this belief if not for the repeated experience of someone from the audience approaching me after a reading, deeply moved, thanking me for having made him or her see something in their life in a new light. All good poets seem to have those tales of being thanked by tearful strangers; it’s what keeps poets from feeling useless.

Whenever I do a reading, I imagine that in the audience there is one person for whom a certain poem is meant. I can’t predict which poem and which listener, but experience has tended to confirm my belief that at least one person will be touched in a special way. And that’s also what makes the fickleness of memory and the loss of good poems so sad: the gift is not given, and the person who’d be ready to receive it remains untouched.

Not long ago I happened to be that person in need of a gift. Browsing at random through a book I received from a stranger, I came across these famous lines:

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.

This was not trendy in Whitman’s time, and he had to self-publish. Imagine if it had been lost.