Sunday, August 11, 2013


In February, 2012, I attended a lecture by the man honored by Time magazine as America’s “best theologian.” When asked to explain his thoughts about humanity the theologian said simply, “We’re shit.” ~ Roger Olson

The conservative evangelicalism in which I grew up requires that in order for people to be saved, they must admit that they are in and of themselves utterly lost and sinful and deserving of eternal torture. ~ Libby Anne

Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin proclaimed that all people were born broken and selfish, saved only through the power of divine intervention.  Hobbes, too, argued that humans were savagely self-centered; however, he held that salvation came not through the divine, but through the social contract of civil law. On the other hand, philosophers such as Rousseau argued that people were born good, instinctively concerned with the welfare of others. ~ Adrian F. Ward, “Scientists Probe Human Nature -- and Discover We Are Good After All,” Scientific American, November 20, 2012.

In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. ~ Anne Frank


The nun rustles, black robe,
the starched December of her headdress,
teaching a row of seven-year-olds
to kneel on the stone church floor
and beat our chests: my fault, my fault,

my most grievous fault.
She shows us colored slides
of the Crucifixion:
Each time you sin, you drive a nail
into the flesh of Jesus.

At eleven I confess to impurity.
With boys, with girls, or by yourself?
The question intrigues me.
The confessional gapes, a mildewed ear. 
With a sinner’s bravado I whisper,
With boys, with girls, and by myself.

After communion I cross my arms
to keep the miracle inside me.
I collect pocket pictures of the saints.
I pray to the Madonna of the Seven
Sorrows, seven swords thrust in her
delicately bleeding heart.

Holding a lit candle, repeating the novena,
I stand last in the row of girls.
Slow petitions of smoke uncurl
from the quivering flame tips.
Wax sweats opaque tears.
The priest looks so unhappy,

I fall in love with him.
God sees every thought
in my impure head.
The priest dips his fingers
in a gilded bowl,
and draws a cross of ash on my forehead.

~ Oriana © 2013

If you think that this early indoctrination that taught me I was innately a bad person was something I shrugged off instantly when I left the church at 14, consider this. In my, ahem, advanced youth I was asked by a friend if I regarded myself as a good person. My response was silence. I could not bring myself to say “Yes” -- having been taught in my vulnerable years that it was wrong to think of myself as good rather than bad, a hopeless sinner, a crucifier whose sins were nails in the flesh of Jesus.


The assumption that humans were innately evil created a strange problem for the church: what about people who were conspicuously good? What about the parents’ daily acts of kindness toward their children? What about the young man giving up his bus seat to an older person? What about the child bending to pick up something dropped by someone (I was often that child)?

It’s not by our own merit that we perform “good deeds”, the nun instructed. The soul in its natural state is a “dirty soul.” We are naturally wicked and morally weak, but god may send us grace which gives us the strength to do something good. Without the supernatural influence of grace, we’d sin instead. 

But maybe it’s not fair to quote a poorly educated nun who doesn’t dare to think for herself. Let me then quote Czeslaw Milosz, certainly an eminent intellectual and world-famous poet:

If I believed that man can do good with his own powers, I would have no interest in Christianity. But he cannot, because he is enslaved to his own predatory, domineering instincts, which we may call proprium, or self-love.

Here is the doctrine of grace by any other name: man cannot do good with his own powers. Odd, this certainty, unless we ponder the fact that Milosz was heavily indoctrinated with the misanthropic old-time Catholicism. At the same time, there is no denying that men, more so than women, do show a lot of striving for dominance. This appears to be related to testosterone. Sports have long been praised as a safe outlet for testosterone-driven aggression.

But something else also cannot be denied. Let’s skip for a moment the countless examples of nurturing, altruistic behavior among women. Any cemetery will show “Beloved Mother” to be vastly more frequent than “Beloved Father.” Never mind. We also have overwhelmingly numerous examples of nurturing, altruistic behavior among men. Let’s not permit the bad apples like school shooters (often mentally ill) make us forget the heroic, altruistic actions by first responders, or simply an ordinary passer-by risking his life to save a stranger. If a video exists, it shows that such a man appears to be acting without thinking, “by instinct.”

Religions don’t want to recognize that instinct. Any evidence that we are born with brains wired for empathy is most unwelcome. No, we have to make children believe that humans are evil by nature. Ever since St. Augustine invented the doctrine of the Original Sin, Christianity had no problem writing off all humans as innately evil.

In the first year of religion classes, it was difficult for us to understand why all of us were considered guilty of the Original Sin. One boy actually dared to protest: “If it happened to be me in the Garden of Eden, I wouldn’t have eaten the forbidden fruit.” The rest of us nodded our heads: not us; we would not have touched the apple. The nun smiled with triumph. “There is no doubt you would have sinned. It’s human nature to sin.” Reluctantly, at eight years old, we came to accept ourselves as weak and depraved.

Our bodies were obscene and our souls were dirty. Or, as “America’s best theologian” put it, “We’re shit.”


On the whole, Christianity has regarded human nature as evil. We are conceived and born in sin. An occasional heretic like Pelagius,who held that someone else’s sin could not be inherited, was quickly silenced. St. Augustine's thinking prevailed: humans are born evil. The Original Sin is transmitted by the semen (egg cells were still unknown, or no doubt they -- and thus WOMAN -- would be blamed instead).

We find this defaming of human nature already in the Old Testament, for instance in the Book of Job:

What is man that he should be clean? and he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?

Behold, he putteth not trust in his saints; yea, the heavens are not clean in his sight:

How much more abominable and filthy is man, which drinketh inquinity like water? ~ Job 14: 14-16

“Abominable and filthy” -- that was the politically correct, pious view of human nature.
But a bit of dissent began already with Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466- 1536).

The emphasis of Christian humanism was on the image of God as the source and basis of human beings’ unique dignity and worth above nature. And this life began to be viewed not merely as a prelude or probation but as a gift to be enjoyed.

Erasmus stands out as the premier Christian humanist of the Renaissance and Reformation and it irked Martin Luther to no end. Luther opposed humanism; to him human beings are a disease on the skin of the earth—unless and until God’s “proper righteousness” begins to transform them through faith. Even then, however, he held out no hope of real progress either in individual holiness or civil righteousness. He expected the return of Christ at any moment and saw cultural engagement and creativity as a waste of time. Luther denied the image of God in sinners, saying it is but a broken relic of little or no use. To him the rebelling peasants were but mad dogs to be hunted down and slaughtered. ~ Roger Olson

(I’m struck here not only by the idea that “human beings are a disease on the face of the earth,” but much more so by Luther’s dismissal of cultural creativity as a waste of time -- after all, the Second Coming was at hand. The belief in paradise can be disastrous for one’s engagement with the present. A former Jehovah’s Witness explained that education was discouraged: “You won’t need to know any of those things in paradise.”)

If humans are innately evil, then are they really the image of god? Luther said that sinners were not an image of god, but this seems to be a minority view. The majority of Christians would say yes -- every human being was an image of god. But if the answer is yes, what does that say about the nature of god? I’m surprised that this point has never been raised. Or perhaps it was quickly dispatched by claiming that Adam and Eve were good, but then they disobeyed, and this Original Sin got transmitted to the subsequent generations, making humans innately bad ever after. But if Adam and Eve were totally good, why did they disobey? Religious mythology leads to unsolvable problems -- and centuries of scholars trying to explicate the same archaic text.

The first letter of TULIP, an anagram summarizing the Calvinist doctrine, is T for TOTAL DEPRAVITY. Are humans by nature “totally depraved,” as Calvinism holds? Are infants little psychopaths who outgrow their instinct to become serial killers only after years of religious training? After centuries of debate (and for millennia the assumption was that we are by nature wretched sinners, nasty and brutish, in need of “correction” by punishment, even after death), we now have scientific evidence that the innate tendency goes mostly the other way.

What? Rousseau was right? It appears that indeed we are innately good, wired for empathy and altruism. Whether Rousseau was right about “civilization” turning the naturally compassionate infant into a cruel soldier or prison guard is still under discussion, but studies agree that our automatic default is empathy. How can we explain these findings, suddenly favoring humanists rather than fundamentalist Protestants? It’s “mirror, mirror in the brain.” We have mirror neurons and can feel another person’s pain or pleasure; our brain is wired for empathy (yes, even psychopaths can experience empathy -- but it’s not their default setting). Sensitivity to the emotional states of others emerges at a young age -- not only in humans, but in other primates, and social animals in general. A small child will try to comfort another distressed child. And yes, social animals are capable of altruistic behavior. It’s an innate capacity.

I will discuss mirror neurons in more detail later in this post. Aside from mirror neurons, humans and primates, as well as elephants and whales, also have von Economo neurons (VEN), sometimes called SPINDLE NEURONS. These special neurons may also be involved in social behavior. And there is also evidence that empathy relies on the release of the hormone oxytocin.

Cooperation and social emotions are strongest in animals that hunt in packs. Vegetarian animals don’t have as much need for cooperation.

And insofar as empathy can lead to altruistic behavior, Ayn Rand was clearly wrong: we are wired for altruism (or call it caring and compassion) more so than for the “virtue of selfishness.”


Great, you may say, but why wars? Why greed, and other anti-social behaviors? That’s a very complex topic, and all we have is theories. It’s probably a combination of factors, but we know we can be taught to hate the dehumanized “other.” We also know that being under stress may decrease empathy. And, alas, the baby studies also discovered that we have an innate bias for those whom we recognize as similar to ourselves: the “in-group.”

All this merits a separate post. For now let us note that most human behavior is LEARNED rather than innate, and that imitation plays a very important role in learning. But note also that aside from ethnic and religious conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, war seems to have become obsolete in Europe. As globalization progresses, the meaning of the “in-group” expands.

The reverse of blaming all evil on man is blaming all evil on god. After all, everything that happens is god’s will, his grand Master Plan. 


These days not even fundamentalists insists that babies are born “in sin.” True, that’s still the rationale for infant baptism: baptism allegedly washes away the stain of the Original Sin. But most people don’t normally speak in those archaic terms any more. What interests us is “innate tendencies.” Can we demonstrate that even preverbal infants show empathy and altruism? Or, on the contrary, are babies predisposed to be mean and aggressive?

Using puppets, researchers determined that pre-verbal infants (as young as 3 months) preferred the cooperative puppet, the one who helped the teddy bear open the toy box, to the hostile puppet who slammed the box shut. Other studies were a variation on the theme. The infants also seemed to want to see the hostile puppet punished -- perhaps a seed of the concept of justice (at least retributive justice).

A reader commented on the article in The Scientific American:

A better example of an early argument for instinctive human goodness than that of Rousseau's is given in Adam Smith's "The Theory of Moral Sentiments".

This is from a summary at the Adam Smith Institute website:

The Theory Of Moral Sentiments
was a real scientific breakthrough. It shows that our moral ideas and actions are a product of our very nature as social creatures. It argues that this social psychology is a better guide to moral action than is reason. It identifies the basic rules of prudence and justice that are needed for society to survive, and explains the additional, beneficent, actions that enable it to flourish.

Self-interest and sympathy. As individuals, we have a natural tendency to look after ourselves. That is merely prudence. And yet as social creatures, explains Smith, we are also endowed with a natural sympathy – today we would say empathy – towards others. When we see others distressed or happy, we feel for them – albeit less strongly. Likewise, others seek our empathy and feel for us. When their feelings are particularly strong, empathy prompts them to restrain their emotions so as to bring them into line with our, less intense reactions. Gradually, as we grow from childhood to adulthood, we each learn what is and is not acceptable to other people. Morality stems from our social nature.

And here is another summary which makes Adam Smith even more in line with recent findings:

The moral philosopher Adam Smith (also the "father" of economics) argued in his 1759 book The Theory of Moral Sentiments that virtue derives from our innately social nature in which we cannot help but share in the joy and pain of those around us. Smith argued that when we do things that cause others pain, we also feel pain. Because our biology causes us to avoid pain, we typically avoid such actions. Similarly, we enjoy pleasure and vicariously experience pleasure when we do something that brings happiness to others. This "fellow-feeling," or what we would now call empathy is what maintains us in the community of humans. This is a critical requirement for a social creature. Smith was the first to clearly make the case that it is our social nature that motivates human virtue and is the reason why we vilify vice.

The “moral molecule” is oxytocin, the hormone associated with trust and empathy. Women have higher levels of oxytocin.

I realize that the reader expects baby pictures, but aren’t we inundated with those? It’s time for something else. A tiny lemur can certainly evoke empathy.


Do lemurs feel empathy? Yes. They are highly social animals, and will comfort another lemur in distress. This “compassionate” behavior is seen in all primates, as well as in dogs, whales and elephants. In his The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates, Frans de Waal gives examples of “ethical behavior” among the primates, concluding that it’s our social emotions that give rise to morality, and not religion.

Religion defames human nature; humanism praises the human potential. De Waal hopes that the ideals of humanism will prevail.


Mirrors: no one has as yet described
what you really are –
you that fill the interstices of time
as though with the holes of a sieve.

You, squanderers of the empty hall –
when twilight falls, wide as the woods . . .
and the glow, like a sixteen-point chandelier,
goes through your impenetrability.

Sometimes you are full of paintings.
A few seem to have gone into you.
Others you sent shyly by.

But the loveliest will remain, until
into her withheld cheeks
enters the dissolved Narcissus.

~ Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, II, 3

I dare say that the “dissolved Narcissus” enters into everyone when we discover our reflection and understands it’s “us.” We can’t resist looking at ourselves in the mirror, even though, over time, it means watching our aging (“Mirrors are the doors through which death comes” ~ Cocteau) Yes, mirrors are tremendously important in our lives. But in terms of evolution and survival, hardly anything approaches the importance of watching OTHERS. We need to know what others are doing and, based on facial expression and other clues, we can guess what they are feeling.


This special sensitivity to others is highly developed in social animals. It seems to have a lot to do with “mirror neurons.” Mirror neurons are the latest buzz in neuroscience. They are also called the “mirror system,” a part of our “social brain.”

The odd thing is, when you watch someone play tennis, for instance, some of your motor neurons are firing as if you yourself were playing tennis. And if the player happens to -- ouch! -- fall, some of your sensory neuron fire as if the fall happened to you.

Do you wince and hiss as if in pain when you see someone burn his hand with scalding water? It happened to me once -- I was literally hissing in reaction to someone else’s getting burned, even though my own hand was physically unhurt. And I’ve witnessed the same reaction in others. But those vicarious “social” experiences need not be negative. I hope that everyone is familiar with the rush of joy we can experience when watching the joy of another.

What makes it possible for us to be so intimately intermingled with others? And those others need not be real. For many years I thought I was the only one who fell in love with fictional characters (and the part-fictional protagonists of biographies) and mourned as the book drew to its end -- it was hard to bear parting with someone I loved. I thought that was just part of my overall craziness. Then I discovered that this is a relatively common phenomenon. But why?

To reiterate, humans and other primates have mirror neurons that can create virtual reality and likely underlie empathy. Mirror neurons fire both when we experience a sensation (such as pain) and when we merely WATCH someone else experience that sensation. “I feel your pain” is not an empty cliché: we becomes distressed when we watch another person in distress, and happy when we watch a happy person.

The reaction is stronger when we know that particular person. But again, that person can be a fictional character (we often “know” fictional characters better than we know actual people because the author tells us what the character is thinking). I can be in mournful mood for hours when bad things happen to someone in a book or a movie -- and happy when when good things happen to them. I feel frightened when they are frightened, and relax   when they are safe. Never mind that none of it is “real”!

Here is a quotation from a recent article (sorry to have lost the link) Because of mirror neurons we can experience vicarious life events as if they really happened to us. As far as your brain is concerned, the people you “meet” in stories really are your friends and loved ones. And the adventures you enjoy through fiction and stories really do teach you important lessons as if you were the one who defeated the zombies, aliens, or serial killer. The strong emotions you feel during a well-told story further cement memories and help you to retrieve information in the future, all without leaving the safety and comfort of a chair.Mirror neurons were first discovered in the early 1990s by a team of neuroscientists at the University of Parma. Using neuro-imaging, the researchers found certain groups of neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys that fired not only when a monkey performed an action – say, reaching for a banana – but also when the monkey WATCHED another monkey or human perform that action. If there were sounds associated with that action, then even hearing those sounds in another room also activated the mirror neurons.

According to a current estimate, about 10-20% of motor and sensory neurons are "mirror neurons" that fire when we simply watch someone do something, or watch that person experience a sensation such as pain. Or when we read about an action or sensation. Or merely imagine it (I suspect many of my memories are false; children often appropriate a sibling’s story and believe it happened to them). Mirror neurons create a kind of virtual reality -- we really do feel someone else's pain, at least to some degree.

It's the firing of the mirror neurons that may underlie empathy.  And it's possible that a deficiency or dysfunction of mirror neurons accounts for autism.

Empathy, in turn, has a lot to do with moral development and caring about others, even strangers. Our own feelings are the primary guardians of moral values. This is where “good without god” comes from: if we hurt someone and the person starts crying, we feel awful. If we make someone else happy, we too feel happy. One of the most reliable ways to make ourselves happy is to make someone else happy.


The title and the opening image says it all.

I was so hoping that "Daughter of the Church" would have a happy ending.

Love the way you point out the hypocrisy of the image of god in christianity.

Incredible news about oxytoxin!

Animal examples of empathy show the error of the view that religion is needed for morality.

I experience the activity of mirror neurons when I see another person get hurt even on television, especially if the accident actually happened (and I don't have to know the person).

I think this may be my favorite blog so far.


“Daughter of the Church” DOES have a happy ending, but it lies beyond the poem, in the fact that this was written by an ex-Catholic who left the sin-and-hell-obsessed church. I am especially glad I left before I started dating, with its potential for a huge guilt-trip. I had enough anguish as is, and over what? An imaginary punishment by an imaginary being for an imaginary offense (mostly “just being human”).

Oxytocin is available in the form of nasal spray (apparently the only way to get it to the brain; forget sublingual). Some users report mild euphoria. We need a few more years of research. I fear this research won’t be done because if it can be sold without Rx, then Big Pharma can’t make money off it. Oxytocin could indeed be wonderful, but someone needs to get very rich off it or it won’t be properly researched and developed for wider use.

My mirror neurons do a lot of firing too. What I can’t endure is images of any cruelty to animals. Or just make it cruelty, period. Even hearing aggressive speech hurts me. TV news, a lot of movies -- hideous moments that take a while to wash out from memory. 

Monday, August 5, 2013


Frederic Leighton, Persephone


and emerges again onto the adobe walled landing,
the Southern California horizon wide as an avalanche
exposing parrot-wing cerulean, and cobalt
streaking into the molten crown of evening’s still golden

Returning to light,
even twilight makes her shadow gasp with
recognition. Here on the 4th floor she seems still
long-haired and trusting, the speckled-blue egg of her
gaze is open to any invitation, as it was before
she became the Queen of Night,
and cruel.

If only she had not returned,
ascended to this balcony that obscures the long
corridor, on the walls of which hang photos
showing a girl
holding a blue flower; if
only she didn’t have to look
at the radiant sky, its
beauty reminding her of everything she’s either
lost or never had.

In the moment of stepping into light
    she does not know,
    for the first time,
if beauty is,
or ever can be

~ Diane Wakoski, San Diego Poetry Annual 2012-13


In spite of the supposed death of myth, I keep seeing new Penelope and Persephone poems. I don’t mean just a handful -- a friend of mine said that she keeps track of Penelope poems, and has read hundreds of those. Of course there are poems about other myths as well, and maybe it’s my selective attention that makes me see so many Penelope and Persephone poems. The stories of these two wives seem to speak to us in a powerful way.

It’s almost strange to say “wives” -- separation from the husband is an essential part of the story. Each is really “a woman alone,” as Wakoski refers to her mother; each has found a way to cope. Elsewhere in this blog I speak of Penelope’s weaving (“It’s my waiting that creates you”). I’ve also examined Persephone as another aspect of Aphrodite who was known as Aphrodite of the Graves. The pomegranate was sacred to both goddesses. But unlike Aphrodite, Persephone is a dual goddess: she withdraws from the world and then returns, bringing the gift of springtime. The Queen of the Dead is also the goddess of life, of spring.

Persephone ascends -- it’s that moment of entry that we see brought up to date in Wakoski’s poem. This is one of her most exquisite and well-crafted pieces. It’s built around unexpected imagery, starting with the elevator. The myth does speaks of Persephone’s “ascent,” usually making us think of climbing a steep, dim path in the Underworld. Having Persephone take the elevator instead is brilliant.

Of course it helps to live in Southern California where there are so many of those adobe walled landings. I was reminded of various clinics where you leave the Hades of medical offices and take the elevator to the parking on the roof. You enter the light and for a moment you are a young girl again. You are Persephone revisiting your girlhood. Even your shadow “gasps with recognition.” You’ve left sickness behind and are returning to your real self and the real world. How radiant everything is!

And yet . . . Here is “the Southern California horizon wide as an avalanche.” I’ve watched an avalanche from a distance once. The noise was very similar to thunder, or a lethal cavalry charge, the horses of death white, not black. There is no escaping mortality; each year brings some unavoidable losses. No, you are not a girl anymore. Here on the fourth floor, the roof parking, your white Toyota is waiting like a patient animal. You drive off not just into the beauty of the world, but also into the noise, the demands.


And I love this recurrence of girlhood, situated so precisely at the 4th floor:

Returning to light,
even twilight makes her shadow gasp with
recognition. Here on the 4th floor she seems still
long-haired and trusting, the speckled-blue egg of her
gaze is open to any invitation

~ Here on the 4th floor she is still a girl who trusts, who believes everyone is kind and will like her. No matter what the trauma, a part of us is inviolable and returns to that trust again and again. It's one of life's mysteries, and I suspect that without it, we couldn't live on. 


I am not sure if Wakoski is aware that “to enter the light” has become a New Age metaphor for dying. Even if she isn’t, we are still entitled to see any meaning that occurs to us. The poem belongs to the reader, and its meaning changes for each psyche, as well as over time.

But we need not invert the meaning of the myth quite so radically as to see the time in the Underworld as life (at least inner life and creative solitude), and dying as return to the earth-worldliness-dailiness. It’s rather that the inner life that is the realm of memory, a gallery of the past. In relation to memory, we are posthumous. 

This poem shows why it pays for poets to know mythology. Through the power of myth, an ordinary, pedestrian event such as stepping out of the elevator is transformed into a larger vision. Jung: “He who invokes archetypes speaks with a thousand mouths.”

Another thing I admire about is how the poem presents that precise moment of entering the light, and never leaves that moment. It’s a vignette, a still shot, not a narrative. It does not retell the myth, which the reader is assumed to know.

So we have here a very powerful combination:

1) the power of myth, an immortal story with multiple meanings

2) the power of a single moment -- a “narrow slice,” “tight focus,” “the eternal moment”

3) the power of setting the myth in the modern world -- Persephone steps out of the elevator

4) the power of specificity -- she exits at the fourth floor; the adobe-walled landing and many other highly specific yet relevant images, such as the photograph of a girl holding a blue flower


In classical mythology, Persephone is NOT the Queen of the Night, and she is not cruel (she is very gracious to the aged Oedipus, for instance). Wakoski conflates her Persephone with the wicked Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Here is the splendid Queen of the Night aria:

But Wakoski is right in reminding us that cruelty arises from wounds, from abuse. Can beauty fully heal us? All the “comfort poems” I know say that life is full of suffering -- but look at the beauty. Beauty makes life worth living, in spite of the unavoidable losses and grief. But there are times when we may wonder if beauty is enough.

Like many women, in my youth I identified with Persephone, especially in her victimized condition. Beauty was barely enough. Now I am willing to say yes, beauty is enough. I never tire of the late afternoon’s gold deepening into sunset.


The “eternal moment” is Milosz’s phrase. “Life’s counted not by breaths, but by breathless moments” I say in one of my poems. Sometimes those are moments of entry.

Milosz wrote only one myth poem that I’m aware of, and he wrote it late in life, after the loss of his second wife. Not surprisingly, he becomes Orpheus and she Eurydice. Milosz too brings Orpheus to live among us. This is his entrance to the modern Underworld. Note that the season here autumn, and the location is a city, possibly New York. Here is the opening of “Orpheus and Eurydice”:

Standing on flagstones of the sidewalk at the entrance to Hades
Orpheus hunched in a gust of wind
That tore at his coat, rolled past in waves of fog,
Tossed the leaves of the trees. The headlights of cars
Flared and dimmed in each succeeding wave.

He stopped at the glass-paneled door, uncertain
Whether he was strong enough for the ultimate trial.

He remembered her words: “You are a good man.”
He did not quite believe it. Lyric poets
Usually have – he knew it – cold hearts.
It is like a medical condition. Perfection in art
Is given in exchange for such an affliction.

Only her love warmed him, humanized him.
When he was with her, he thought differently about himself.
He could not fail her now, when she was dead.

He pushed open the door and found himself walking in a labyrinth,
Corridors, elevators. The livid light was not light but the dark of the earth.
Electronic dogs passed him noiselessly.
He descended many floors, a hundred, three hundred.

He was cold, aware that he was Nowhere.
Under thousands of frozen centuries,
On a trace of ash where generations had moldered,
In a kingdom that seemed to have no bottom and no end.


The entrance to Hades is through the glass-paneled doors of one of the huge office buildings downtown. Inside, a labyrinth of corridors and “electronic dogs” -- certainly we can’t expect a real dog, or even a mythological three-headed Cerberus, to stand guard. Cerberus, you may recall, was so soothed by the music of Orpheus that he fell asleep, letting the intruder enter the forbidden kingdom. The electronic dogs never sleep.

And then, though Milosz doesn’t specify it, Orpheus pushes the down button of a gleaming elevator and begins to descend. We are both in time -- our time -- and outside of time, in mythology.

Poets rarely simply retell the myth: they revise it and modernize it. Thus Dante’s impudent-seeming change in the ending of The Odyssey: he sends Odysseus to explore the forbidden seas of the Western hemisphere (in Dante’s imagination, that hemisphere is all ocean, with enormous Mount of Purgatory rising directly opposite Jerusalem). Like Dante, Milton too interweaves classical mythology into the Judeo-Christian one. Poets update according to what makes sense in their lifetimes.

To Milosz, born in 1911, what mattered most was the startling changes he witnessed in the twentieth century. It wouldn’t do to have a pastoral Orpheus. At the cusp of the new millennium, Orpheus becomes urban. Like Persephone, he enters the Underworld in autumn -- late autumn, with gusts of cold wind and fog. The headlights of cars also come in waves, in gusts. Orpheus stands on the sidewalk at the glass doors that are the entrance to Hades. He stands hunched, huddled against the cold; the wind tears at his coat.

Then he enters what I assume to be a skyscraper. It’s a modern office building, with labyrinths of corridors and elevators. To me, the “livid light” suggests fluorescent tubes. Hospitals are also mazes of corridors, filled with disembodied voices. But this skyscraper, which may be Mount Purgatory if one takes the elevator going up, has many underground floors. Orpheus takes the elevator going down, and finds himself “nowhere.” Only the twentieth century dared present this bleakness: an afterlife of nowhere.

Orpheus is not just physically cold; he also perceives himself as cold-hearted. That, too, is a modern perception. Poets used to be regarded as the embodiment of passion. It took modernity to acknowledge that any artist has a certain aloofness. S/he does not live for others the way most people do. An artist’s lover will never be as important as art itself. The time reserved for creative work is sacred; it must be defended against the devouring others. (Rilke found even a dog to be too emotionally demanding.)

The poem continues; Orpheus sees throngs of other shades who no longer remember him, and finally encounters Persephone. I have already discussed it in another blog post:


Another way to use myth in a poem is to interweave it with a personal narrative. In this one Aphrodite steps out of the shower. Yes, one has to be modern.

(A special note on Jehovah’s Witnesses in relation to “Jim the Drywall Man” -- I’ve known (though not closely) a few Jehovah’s Witnesses besides Jim: all of them struck me as decent and well-meaning, just extremely out of touch with the modern world. They really believe that the Universe is only 6,000 years old. One JW wrote on Facebook that humanity is still in post-traumatic shock after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. She didn’t mean it metaphorically, e.g. we never quite get over the loss of childhood. She meant it literally. The Garden of Eden is the sect’s foundational myth -- except that they don’t see it as a myth.)


I’m stepping out of the shower
like Aphrodite rising from the sea –
all dewy syllables of her, but if
you touch her, jolts of diamond –

And me in misty rivulets,
hurrying and streaming
because the drywall man
will arrive any minute.

He’s late. His eighty-year-old aunt
just had a nervous breakdown,
burned out by taking care of
her one-hundred-year-old mother. 

“Breakdown runs in our family,”
he explains. The aunt says her veins
are on fire. “What should she
be taking? B vitamins?

B vitamins and lots of exercise?”
The eighty-year-old aunt
collapses after merely
walking across the room –

the room perhaps just dry-walled,
fuming with fresh paint.
She drops onto the armchair,
too weak to get up. Her veins

are on fire. Many still believe
the smoke goes to heaven.
James the drywall man
does not traffic in heaven.

A Jehovah’s Witness,
he’s waiting for eternal life
in the Peaceful Kingdom –
first wholesale slaughter,

the long-promised Armageddon,
then the lion and the lamb,
and a little child. And death,
what’s death but sleep

before the Resurrection for the few
true believers who take
B vitamins and get lots of exercise.
Poets are no better. I myself

have translated these shameless
Aphroditic lines: There is no
old age. Only flower and fruit.
Each year I feel closer to fruit.

Aphrodite is always in blossom,
satin spill of petals without 

bruise or the wind’s brutal tug.
She knows nothing about love.

~ Oriana © 2013


Aphrodite is not really the goddess of love. She is the goddess of romance. That kind of love is cheap. Real love takes time. It takes a ruthless knowledge of the partner’s flaws, and learning to love him or her nevertheless. I hesitate to say “in spite of the flaws” since in the end we love even those flaws.

“There is no old age. Only flower and fruit” -- this is a quotation from Milosz, though I no longer remember which poem or essay it comes from. In life there IS old age, and for some it can be terrible. But in myth, the cycle of flower and fruit continues. “We kissed briefly in everlasting spring.” And memory has no past tense.


(A shameless, artistically incorrect digression: aging could be summarized as an energy shortage. The cells’ mitochondria don’t produce enough energy; all ills flow from that. We can slow down mitochondrial damage by taking 400 mg of CoQ10 and N-acetyl-cysteine [NAC] to increase the levels of an important antioxidant enzyme. We can avoid toxic, inflammation-causing, mitochondria-damaging excessive exercise. We can eat Greek yogurt . . . Will stem cells prove to be the golden apples of immortality? Not if money continues to be poured into useless bombers and warships.)



Mozart's aria is amazing the way her voice is the exact same tone as the flutes.

The last three paragraphs were my favorites: Aphrodite as the goddess of romance rather than love. 


I think Mozart had terrific fun while composing this aria. Let me give the link again:

What saddens me is being always aware that he died at the peak of his creativity. Imagine what treasures one more year of life would bring.

I’m planning a blog post on romance versus love. 

Una sends us a poem:


So she came back needing to make things whole.
Pumpkins dried on the back porch rail
and wind wrapped around her with cold.

The house was numb
and spent, her world too splintered to be
picked up where she left off. Nothing

had changed. Yet everything had changed,
the marriage rent like cobwebs.
An apron hung on a rusty nail, the old life

shattered like a pomegranate hurled
from an upstairs window, bleeding
seeds into the dust.

~ Una Hynum © 2013


Bobbie Jean:

Thanks for the Wakoski poem, Persephone theme. I find her second stanza the only section that touches me.The first stanza feels forced and avalanche doesn't work for me nor what feels to me like filler description. Overall perhaps the poem is bringing a myth to its knees and lacks the mystery that would possibly move me more. I like the idea of the goddess stepping out of the elevator, the introit into that goddess as she lives in women today,
as you comment, going through their daily rounds in the midst of mortality. I’m glad Wakoski is writing and expressing poetry as she knows it. And most of all thanks for your time and caring to interact with the poem. I value that.


I was thrilled with the very idea of Persephone taking the elevator up to the 4th floor, which I strongly associate with roof parking for medical buildings. Perhaps I was too swayed by that personal association, and my former strong identification with Persephone the victimized maiden. The second stanza touches me the most, but the whole poem does. For me the mystery lies in that return -- no matter how violated we were at some point, a part of us is inviolable, the maiden who merely watched and did not lose a sense of her value as a person. She intuitively understood that bad people act out of their wounds, and maybe even came to feel pity for the man (for me that was the moment of liberation).

I took “avalanche” to mean “overwhelming.” Emerging into the California light often has that quality for me. The West Coast in general: the space and the brightness.

At the same time, I would not call this poem a major piece. The title is brilliant; there is some falling off after that.

Where I most connect with what you say is this:

I like the idea of the goddess stepping out of the elevator, the introit into that goddess as she lives in women today, as you comment, going through their daily rounds in the midst of

That's why I gave the poem this kind of attention. It diverges from the myth just enough to interest me, the myth rising from death into life, from darkness into light, still inherent.

The myth changes depending on the artist. The photographer Anne Berry entitled the photo below "Persephone" ~ note the eerie faces of the other macaques.