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All Aboard the Enlightenment Express

Robert Bly and Li-Young Lee share a double bill at a yoga mecca in the Berkshires.
Daniel Nester drove all the way up into the Berkshires in a battered car to a yoga center that was hosting two famous spiritual poets: Robert Bly and Lee Young Lee. It’s possible he saw God, though he can’t be sure.

I start to feel a weight of past lives as my Honda Civic clambers up the hill to Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health—a 300-acre, 450-bed holistic health and self-discovery facility that overlooks Lake Mahkeenac in Lenox, Massachusetts.

This western region of the Commonwealth is known as the Berkshires, a hilly heart of New England foliage country. In the post–Civil War Gilded Age, a cross-section of high society, wooed by the Berkshires’ charms, built country homes here. The “cottages” they built were ornate behemoths, the McMansions of their day. But over the past 20 years or so, the Berkshires have become a playground for fancy restaurants and spa culture. Lenox is known as the spa capital of New England. Joggers and bicyclists are everywhere.

Kripalu, too, has past lives. Andrew Carnegie died on this site in 1919 in his summer home, Shadowbrook. The Jesuits then used the mansion as a novitiate, or seminary, from 1922 until it was destroyed by fire in 1956. It was rebuilt the next year, only to close up in 1970. In 1984, the Kripalu folks bought and refurbished it. Besides a scandal in 1994—the yogi who preached celibacy was not so celibate—the Kripalu Center remains a retreat for countless seekers of spiritual renewal, yoga instructor certification, and Eastern-flavored R&R.

Three women in white tunics talk on cell phones as I walk the path from the parking lot. I’m a little spooked by the ladies’ blank stares, their uniform long hair and makeup-lessness. I imagine them climbing the rocky cliff in a reenactment of the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy.

Kripalu offers programs on everything from “ecstatic spiritual practice” (“The Sexual Body and the Yoga of Light”) to matters equestrian (“Conscious Riding”). There’s a “Juice Purification Retreat” and a “Golf/Yoga/Massage Motion” workshop, as well as a class on “Finding the Grail: Using the Stories of King Arthur and the Grail Quest and Ceremony to Attune Body, Mind and Heart with Spirit.” It makes sense, then, that poetry might fit in there somewhere. Robert Bly and Li-Young Lee, two acclaimed poets of the subconscious, spiritual, and mystical, fit the bill nicely. This afternoon, they will read as part of Kripalu’s weekend-long program on “Poetry That Is Fond of ‘The Other World.’”

I’m given a blue nametag that says “Poetry Reading” at the front desk. We pass by a gift shop with fancy yoga garb. A large plasma TV—I think it’s the only one in the building—broadcasts a large talking male head. He’s saying that he is “completely aware of what’s happening, completely mindful.” People are watching, checking their email on laptops, drinking chai tea. Shoes line the corridor en route to the reading’s venue, the Sunrise Room. I am handed a pillow for my seat. I see that Bly and Lee are already seated on regular chairs in the center of the semicircled audience, about 150 people.

Gusts of massage oil sneak under my nose as I scout out a place. Some people have wet hair, fresh from after-yoga showers. Many have awesome posture. A man in front of me will maintain his lotus position for the entire hour-and-a-half-long program.

A Kripalu official kicks off the evening. There will be two sets from each writer; one set will be accompanied by sitarist David Whetstone, who sits on the floor, tuning up. Lee, with tortoise-shell glasses and a ponytail, reads first. He waits for Whetstone’s sitar strums to pick up steam, leaning into a gooseneck microphone. His lips remain there for what seems like 10 minutes. You can hear him breathing. I remember that the word “silence” is important to both of these poets (one of Bly’s books is titled Silence in the Snowy Fields; Lee refers to silence on just about every page in upcoming book of interviews from BOA Editions, Breaking the Alabaster Jar).

Lee begins to read, and the room transforms. I forget I’m an outsider inside a yoga compound. Despite the fact that my car broke down on the way here and I have 60 final papers to mark up at home, I think I enter a spiritual realm listening to Lee’s breathy, deep-voiced readings of new work. He reads three longish poems—“Tragedy of Heaven,” “Singing for Fun,” and “Dying Stupid”—that all recall the first time I fell in love with Lee’s mythic, wandering lines when my old teacher, Afaa Michael Weaver, assigned Lee’s second book, 1990’s The City in Which I Love You, in a graduate course. Here’s a passage from one of that collection’s poems, “The Cleaving,” to give you an idea:

The noise the body makes
when the body meets
the soul over the soul's ocean and penumbra
is the old sound of up-and-down, in-and-out,
a lump of muscle chug-chugging blood
into the ear; a lover's
heart-shaped tongue;
flesh rocking flesh until flesh comes;
the butcher working
at his block and blade to marry their shapes
by violence and time;

“I read with my whole body,” Lee told an interviewer in 1996. At Kripalu I am listening with my whole body. “I want to get to a place where my sentences enact brimming,” he said. I am brimming, too, leaning forward on my yoga pillow. If this is the “Other World,” as the Kripalu class description calls it, then take me there. By the time Lee ends his last poem, I notice Bly has turned to look at Lee in profile.

It’s Bly’s turn now. “I don’t know if I have ever done a poetry reading sitting down,” Bly says to laughter. “It feels weird. But I’ll give it a try.”

Bly, complete with vest and ascot and silver hair, reads from his two collections of ghazals, 2001’s The Night Abraham Called to the Stars and last year’s My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy. He explains the three rules of the ghazal form: one, each stanza is 36 syllables, “then you have to change the subject”; two, you repeat the same word at the end of each stanza; and three, you must insert your name in the last stanza. (For the record, poetry trainspotters, Bly pronounced the word two different ways: GU-zul and ga-ZAL.)

What I’ve always loved about a Robert Bly reading is that he confronts his audience. I’ve heard him say “I don’t think you were listening” to a crowd of 300 and then read a whole poem again. Tonight is no exception. In a ghazal in which the repeated word is “Amen,” he invites them to say “Amen.” They do. He has them in the palm of his hand. Bly is used to this kind of response, I think. I feel like an outsider at a revival meeting.

By this point in the evening, the Kripalu residents have loosened up. They look at each other and smile knowingly. Many have been here for weeks, months, years. I sense that many people in the crowd—which is mostly white, gray, or graying—are aggressively seeking enlightenment. I don’t know if they are trying to get their time or money’s worth, or they’re just really into it. Either way, this isn’t your average jaded all-poets poetry crowd. They are, in many ways, an ideal demographic for this kind of poetry reading. By the time one older woman with a fannypack and gray curls lays down and blankets herself with serapes in an end-of-yoga-class relaxation pose, I start to feel like an uptight, judgmental hunchback.

Bly reads six ghazals in his first set. Once he gets warmed up, he orates not only between poems, but also between stanzas. “Do you feel that?” he asks more than once, and reads a stanza again. “You have no idea how ugly TV is going to be in 10 years,” he says later on. “That’s why you have to teach kids watercolors, poetry—the crazy stuff.”

For his second set, Li-Young Lee reads another new poem, “The Virtues of the Boring Husband.” “Whenever I talk to my wife,” Lee explains before reading, “she starts to fall asleep.”

When the poem is over, Bly turns to him and says, “Read the poem you have about the train station.”

“I don’t have the whole thing here,” Lee responds.

“Well,” Bly says, “let’s see what you got.”

The poem, “Station,” or at least the part Lee reads, is composed of train announcements that leap from material to spiritual. It’s less subtle than the other poems, its images leap longer distances. As Bly might say; it breathes “dragon smoke.” “You may board at either end of childhood,” it ends. I lose a breath. These yoga people are getting their money’s worth. Someday I’ll see this poem in a book, and think otherwise; but that night I write in my notes: “One of the best poems I’ve heard read aloud, ever.” And it’s not even the whole poem.

Bly’s second set is accompanied by sitar player Whetstone, a fellow Minnesotan and Bly collaborator since 1972. Bly’s timing only gets more Catskill comedian-precise. “I got that line from Cirque du Soleil,” he says after a stanza about trapeze artists. “Cost me 80 bucks.” Ba-dum-bum.

“God crouches at night over a single pistachio,” another poem begins. “I could have ended it right there,” he says, and points his pen at the page. “But I’ve got five stanzas to go.” When he’s finished, Bly asks, “Shall I tell it again?” He means the whole poem. “Yes,” several say back.

“Most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry,” Matthew Arnold writes in his 1888 essay “The Study of Poetry.” Wishful thinking, if you ask me. The Kripalu catalog copy for the night’s program puts it another way: “Does Spirit belong in poetry?” I’m here to say yes. I could have gotten freaked out by the ghost of Carnegie, the Jesuits, and the ashram vibe. Instead, I rediscovered my poetry religion at Kripalu and have Bly and Lee to thank for it. Next time, I’ll do my sun salutations beforehand.

  • Daniel Nester’s most recent book is the memoir-in-essays Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects (99: The Press, 2015). He is the author of the nonfiction books How to Be Inappropriate (2009) and God Save My Queen I and II (2003, 2004), and is the editor of The Incredible Sestina...


All Aboard the Enlightenment Express

Robert Bly and Li-Young Lee share a double bill at a yoga mecca in the Berkshires.
  • Daniel Nester’s most recent book is the memoir-in-essays Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects (99: The Press, 2015). He is the author of the nonfiction books How to Be Inappropriate (2009) and God Save My Queen I and II (2003, 2004), and is the editor of The Incredible Sestina...

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