One Whole Voice
“One Whole Voice” is comprised of extracts from A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith, edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, to be published in March 2012 by Tupelo Press.
Now, I have a voice. Entered, I am lit.
Remember me for this sprouting fire,
For the lash of flaming tongues that lick
But do not swallow my leaves, my flimsy
Branches. No ash behind, I burn to bloom.
I am not consumed. I am not consumed.
I will never understand the spirit of my ancestors, but I know it. I know it lives in me. And though fear insists on itself, I intend to acknowledge this spirit as one that overcomes us. I write because my writing mind is the only chance I have of becoming the manifestation of their hope. I write because my writing mind is the only chance I have of becoming what the living dead are for me. I exist because I was impossible for someone else to be before me.
The Black church is a very theatrical place, full of pageantry and prone to pomp and circumstance. I’ve always thought of the order of service as being a lot like a poem. I knew what was going to happen, but I didn’t know how it was going to happen. I knew my pastor would be preaching in a robe, but I didn’t know whether or not it would have a train. I knew someone would shout in ecstasy at some point, but I never knew the exact point or how loudly or whether it would be a man or a woman. Would it include running or simply a flailing of the arms? This is the way I think of form and surprise and suspense in poetry. Hearing sermons gave me my first ideas about how a spoken thing is an artful thing, a piece of work with highs and lows and, yes, a moment of climax.
I love the church now, and it scares me. I still listen to and seek out recordings of the preacher Carlton Pearson. I am a lover of gospel music until the day I die. But to be honest, when friends invite me to church, I usually find an excuse not to go because I’m afraid that someone behind the pulpit will at any moment attempt to erase or degrade my existence as a gay man. It’s not a comfortable feeling, not a feeling with which to enter a house of worship.
Hope is the opposite of desperation—it’s not as comfortable as certainty, and it’s much more certain than longing. It is always accompanied by the imagination, the will to see what our physical environment seems to deem impossible. Only the creative mind can make use of hope. Only a creative people can wield it.
Today I believe that anything one visualizes consistently becomes reality. Isn’t that what prayer is? Maybe that means my beliefs have not changed at all: lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring. I am a believer. True believers see their way as the way. That doesn’t mean I can’t stand someone else’s way. It means that I am capable of joyfully getting lost in my own. Spirituality is important to me because I think there is something among us greater than the physical, something we know exists and can address directly. I love God. I love liberty. I shame one if I lose the other. I think of God now as way more patient than I could ever be. I have to believe that God is better than I am, and better than all of us. That’s the only thing that could make God God.
Poems ask us not to understand in the same way that we often find ourselves not comprehending the possibility of a God in this world. One of the first poets I loved was Essex Hemphill. There’s a young man with whom I had a short affair, who is a jazz pianist studying at the Berklee College of Music, and once I showed him some poems by Hemphill. He read one and said, “I don’t get it,” and I said, “You don’t get it because you’re trying to get it. Stop doing that.”
Then I said something I actually felt smart saying: “The first time you heard Thelonious Monk you didn’t get it, but you liked it. It felt good, and you were ok with that and you moved on. Then the next time you heard it, you were like, ‘Oh, and there’s this.’ Then the next time you heard it you were like, ‘Oh, my God, there’s this too!’” I said, “Just read the poem. Just enjoy the poem.” So he sat there and he read the same poem and he said, “Oh, wow, that is a lot better!”
Is this the problem with perceiving God? Poems do carry meaning, but that doesn’t mean their meaning has to be the first thing that attracts us to them. If that were the case, we wouldn’t know who the hell Wallace Stevens is. I’ve never believed that what attracts us to poems is knowing what’s going on in them. As a matter of fact, I think just the opposite. Maybe that’s the problem people have with poetry. That’s not what we’re taught about how words can be used. I do want poems to have meaning, but I also think that having meaning isn’t the end of the conversation about poetry—or about faith.
I imagine God is everywhere already and not extra—that is, without an adjective, an adverb, or any outside attribute.
The creator is creation itself.
Lucky to be well. To have my cell.
Wine, words, wafer, in all their forms.
I don’t think many of us have what is called perfect faith. We go with the sun, up and down, and live half-stunned by emptiness and the effort to stay on a horizontal plane in a circular situation. However, it may not be mad to hope that we are safe. I would call modern “faith” an openness to this possibility.
The word faith is not an attractive one to me. I can only think of faith as footsteps over ground. But then there is coincidence, and a slowly developing sense of a hidden structure, which increases with work, experience, and age. How people stay in your life. How memories are so strong and books passed along through decades, and at the same time there is no evidence of yesterday as a place. Dreams. Predictions. I wonder, too, when there is a ghastly event like exploding earthquakes and tsunamis, if the person suddenly killed might be the person who was standing at the sink half an hour before the tragedy happened, or ten years before it happened and not the one there. Meaning is a secret, and one’s fulfillment in time is unknown.
If I can only be horrified by my species, then I will have to kill myself. If I find others recognizable, I guess I will continue. It’s as simple as that.
I started going to Mass on brief experimental forays when I was a teenager and a close friend went to church. Then I took instruction from an Episcopal priest when I was nineteen in California, between trips to North Beach to listen to jazz and poetry. I wanted the world to be both magical and full of meaning. I was scared of what drugs did to my friends. I haven’t ever used drugs, though now I would love to bite a hash brownie. I was always in a state of shock or awe at existing. It was inevitable I would end up Catholic, and a lover of all religious literature and acts from around the world. Simone Weil said Catholicism is a religion for slaves. She meant it as a great compliment. And I understand why. I have always imagined that the great religions came from those who had seen very little justice in this life. It’s not really a paradox.
True prayer seems to belong to extreme situations. And it is addressed to the silence of the night. The people at prayer on Fridays across the Muslim world have given us a great image of humility before the unknowable. Right in the middle of war.
I never think of a possible God reading my poems, although the gods used to love the arts. Poetry could be spoken into a well, of course, and drop like a penny into the black water. Sometimes I think there is a heaven for poems, novels, music, dance, and paintings—but they probably are hard-worked sparks off a great something that may add up to a whole cloth in the infinite.
The secret night could already be over,
you will have to listen very carefully—
You are never going to know which night’s mouth is sacredly reciting
and which night’s recitation is secretly mere wind—
You can search alongside others, but I don’t think others can help you understand your own nature, or if they can it is much further along a spiritual journey than I am. I’ve always been on my own, a single person in the field of physical matter, on his back looking up into oblivion. There have been times when teachers appeared to me, but they were always single individuals, too, someone I had to be smart enough to follow and not always a wise old man with a beard (though it was once!—dear Jonji Provenzano, a construction worker by day, yoga instructor by night). They have been teachers of various sorts, sometimes children, sometimes people who were trying to hurt me, figures of substance appearing, trying to get me to look at myself, to see something. But to join with others in a gesture of similitude—I can’t draw anything from that, or at least at the moment have not been able to. I’d rather be wandering in a trance through the streets of a busy city, peeling an orange and whispering to the universe, than sitting in a pew listening to a sermon or kneeling on a rug reciting chapters.
If I’m a Muslim, I’m a Muslim in a number of different ways. Spiritually, what I think about God is pretty much in line with the Quranic idea. This asserts the unity of all creation and the absolute lack of distance between the individual and the divine. God isn’t up in Heaven looking down. This is close to what I think. When I read the stories that appear in the Quran and the Bible—such as Adam and Eve, Joseph in Egypt, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Moses and the Israelites—it’s the Quranic stories that really make sense to me. So, in this way, I’m a Muslim. But if you put me in a room with twenty Muslims, we probably wouldn’t agree on much. Though if you put any twenty Muslims in a room together, they wouldn’t agree on much. That’s a hallmark of Islam. We have very pluralistic views.
I started writing poems about spirituality and religion as a way to grasp what I believed. It might be time for me to keep quiet about this for a while. If you talk all the time about something, you stop knowing anything about it.
I suppose there’s a connection between the multiplicity I find in the religious traditions and my writing. Everything can be two or three things, and I often find myself doubled back, writing lines in a poem that can switch meanings by the end, or writing a second poem that goes against the meaning of the first one, or writing a poem that answers an earlier one. I’m drawn to the idea of plural thought and multiplicity, like the convex mirror in the Mughal ceiling, which the late poet Agha Shahid Ali wrote a poem about. There are reflections in all different directions. You can see two things at once, and both things can be true.
As a gay person and a Muslim, as someone who questioned established political, social, and gender norms, I had a long way to go before I could ever speak myself. It is easy to fetishize or romanticize silence when you are silenced. I was silenced by myself in this case, but silenced nonetheless. In understanding God or death, though—two of the things we humans really want to know about—you have to come to terms with silence in one way or another. Some poets want to talk into the silence, sound out its limits, and others want to explore that edge, what happens to the world when you look out at it from the lip of the unknown. Some poets do both of these things. I think I am in the third category, though I have traveled there from the second: I could never go into the cave of metaphorical silence, not until I had learned myself how to speak. I love that verb “learn”—in Urdu (and in pioneer vernacular as evidenced by Mr. Edwards from Little House on the Prairie asking his son, “What did they learn you at school today, boy?”) it means both “learn” and “teach.”
The people who have accepted me for who I am as a gay person have always been flabbergasted that I want to have anything to do with religion or God. But the most religious people I know have never had a problem with my sexuality. It’s the people who are caught up in the temporality of God and money, the this-worldness of everything, who have a problem, because they want to see things go the way they want them to go.
Prayer is speaking to someone you know is not going to be able to speak back, so you’re allowed to be the most honest that you can be. In prayer you’re allowed to be as purely selfish as you like. You can ask for something completely irrational. I have written that prayer is a form of panic, because in prayer you don’t really think you’re going to be answered. You’ll either get what you want or you won’t. It feels to me like that, a situation where you’re under the most duress. Often people who are not religious at all, when suddenly something terrible happens, they know they have to pray. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We all engage with the spiritual at different points. Prayer is not a refuge or shelter so much as it is an opening of arms, an acceptance of whatever storms exist in the world. You don’t really pray for your situation to change, you pray to be able to handle your situation. It’s not the world you want to change; it’s you that you want to change.
A day a year ago last summer
God filled me with himself, like gold, inside,
deeper inside than marrow.
This close to God this close to you:
walking into the river at Wolf with
the animals. The snake’s
green skin, lit from inside. Our second life.
I am drawn to poets whose work allows the Other its existence. Not in accepted spiritual terms, perhaps. But that would be part of the Other’s quality, sometimes, I suppose. Frank O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster,” for instance, and John Berryman’s “Dream Song 29,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet.” Hopkins, Herbert, and, strangely, maybe Yeats. But most of all, Paul Celan and Anton Chekhov—can we count him as a poet for a minute? I think of his story “Easter Eve.” One of the literary works that speaks strongly of faith is not a poem but Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. In art, I think of the shift in seeing ordinary light that the artist James Turrell has brought about—it is sacred when you see it. Celan wrote, “The poem wants to reach an Other, it needs this Other, it needs an Over-against.” Maybe this need is faith.
The Christian image of faith I like is the mother and child. Both the mother figure and the world of nature (which appeared animated, like in Disney films, but only benevolent) were a faith life to me: the mother as here, nature as here, in the same entire affectionate world as animals and us. But in those days I saw everything as a physical reality: for instance, the claw-footed bathtub had clawed feet, not imitation claw feet; and the leaves moved, as I did, because they wanted to. And that is where I am now, with some important differences.
The important difference is that the reality of mother-love, and the sense of belonging in nature and human nature—that reality which I had sensed under the tree, under the stars, at the stable in the human warmth that was to be trusted—that reality broke up; and I began to understand, as I do now, what the Buddhists call impermanence. I have come to understand that earthly love is real, but lasting only in the unseen. As it turns out, that is plenty.
For me, there’s a likeness between poetry and prayer that is not so much thanks or supplication or other conscious activity, but the more unconscious activity of meditation or dreaming. The likeness lies in poetry and meditative prayer and dreaming all being (potentially anyhow) healing, and all being out of our hands. For me, poetry is mostly silence. The deeper the better. There’s much to be said for consciousness and the rational mind, but it wouldn’t be said in support of the kind of art that I feel most touched by. For me, the unconscious life and beauty (so, truth and beauty!) feel closer to the whole world we live in that is God than other consciousnesses in my life. It goes without saying that you can be close to these two states of mind in suffering, as well as in places. When I say the poetry I like best is mostly silence, I mean that it seems to have come out of silence, to exist in the midst of silence, and to go toward silence.
Once I saw a museum photograph of Lucy, the skeleton of a woman from Ethiopia, whose age is about 3.2 million years. The photo was the kind where they reconstruct a face from bones, and I remember liking her face and reading, without any particularly avid interest, the short paragraph about her. Then I went to sleep. When I woke up, I felt slightly hypnotized and went to the desk and wrote for most of the day, without will or thought, but with happiness and excitement. About four or five in the afternoon, I went outside and called my friend, the poet Anne Marie Macari, and told her I was a little alarmed. I had experienced depression in my life but never the manic; should I be worried? Anne Marie laughed gently and said, “Isn’t it strange how when good things happen, sometimes we feel like we’re doing something wrong?”
So I went back and wrote some more, slept, and wrote some more in the morning, till about noon. And then I just put down my pen. I knew it was done.
This makes me think that there is, at certain times and places, a clear, unwilled porousness between not only other beings, but what they have to say, or to give. This didn’t surprise me, because I had had similar experiences before, of a smaller kind; but this experience was so “far-out” and lasted so long, that it left me much less lonely, and almost completely without doubt that we are not only not alone, but we are accompanied and loved. I don’t, obviously, mean just poets or other artists: everyone, probably everything. I wonder, too, does this state of porousness exist all the time, and we only tune into it now and then?
Come down to the water, whisper the cripples
on the tall banks of the levee.
We call what we’re doing dancing
because we like that word better than some other words.
It’s the sort of thing a god might do,
a god in the shape of a river, in the shape of a bird,
in the shape of a bone tucked inside a scar.
Poetry arrived in my life at the same time I was making a serious religious commitment, so the two have always been intimately, even essentially, intertwined. I can’t imagine writing poetry outside the very large architecture faith affords (although I know, of course, that many—perhaps most—poets do). The question I more often ask myself is not about the relationship between faith and poetry, but rather the relationship between prayer and poetry. They’re not the same, by any means, though there is some intrinsic relationship. Sometimes I speculate the two are like adjacent apartments in the same building: when you’re in one, you have no direct access to the other, but if you listen closely you can hear sounds—sometimes muffled, sometimes sharp—coming from the other side of the connecting wall. I feel that way about prayer when I am reading or writing poetry and about poetry when I am praying.
The defining aspects of my childhood were race and class in a small Southern town. Religion, such as it was, was a middle-class cultural ornament. I was raised United Methodist (mainline Protestant). Frankly, this didn’t mean much. In that milieu you had to go somewhere on Sunday, or people would talk.
There was a conservative Mennonite group in my neighborhood, however, and as a teenager I socialized some with their young people, even as I made fun of them behind their backs. At the time I didn’t drink—family history of alcoholism—and if you were a teenager in that time and place and didn’t drink, your social options were pretty limited. An occasional Friday night of Trivial Pursuit with the Mennonites beat staying home or hanging out sober at the Hall Tire parking lot.
The Mennonites marked me, though, more than I thought. And in my late teens, after I’d left Virginia, I became involved in shape-note singing (also known as Sacred Harp singing), a Southern vernacular tradition my family had been part of several generations before. I was drawn to the music both for its own sake and because it helped me to reconnect with my rural Southern roots, which I had to some degree severed when I set off for college. If the music had been about cotton fields and mountains, I suppose I would still have been drawn to it. But it wasn’t. It was music with a theological content, and one cannot, I think, keep singing it—whatever one’s initial motivation—without that content having some effect. If the music felt true, then perhaps there was some truth in the words, also.
One does not invite the Holy Spirit into one’s life and expect it to operate on one’s own terms, as a sort of butler to the soul. (Not a tame lion, as C.S. Lewis famously put it.) I gradually, quietly started making the cultural changes I had long dreaded, not because I wanted to, but because I couldn’t bear any longer not to make them. In some conservative Anabaptist communities, young people live double lives—behaving one way around their parents or elders, and leading something of a secret life as they explore more “worldly” conduct. I did exactly the opposite—I kept as much as I could secret from my friends and family for as long as I could. I knew I would lose friends and cause a rift in my family. Both of which happened, of course, when I left those acculturated Mennonites and went to the Amish.
The Amish, conservative Mennonites, and related groups do some things very well and some things, perhaps, less well. We aspire to integrate pacifism (we prefer the larger term and concept “nonresistance”) and stewardship (which can include environmentalism) into our lives, individually and collectively. We also recognize the essentially countercultural nature of our faith. We do what we do for scriptural reasons, or at least making application of scriptural principles. We do what we do because we believe in God. We believe Jesus Christ was and is His Son. And we believe the canon of New Testament Scripture is His Word to His people. One can debate the significance and interpretation of particular texts within Scripture—which of course we do, more or less continuously. But these basics are bedrock.
For me, a serious commitment to faith—a living faith, within an orthodox tradition such as conservative Anabaptism—meant that certain questions were settled, if not in my heart, then in the wider sense of how and what the world is. Moving within and among those settled questions, as a subjective human intelligence and a sensual being, is the freedom. You could say that the tenets of faith provide something like conceptual constraint, though “constraint” is not the word I would use and certainly not how it feels to me, any more than a physical building is a constraint, if one moves in and around it.
Most Americans, I think, compartmentalize, because it is convenient: we find our modern lives intolerable otherwise. Now I am a teacher. No, now I am a consumer. No, now I am a parent, a man of faith, a poet, an investor in off-shore oil drilling, etc. It tears the soul. Even a serious faith commitment can become simply one more compartment.
The Anabaptist conception of faith, on the other hand, is encompassing. Whatever one is doing, one should be doing it with a spiritual aim and value, hopefully in some connection with the life of the body, which is the church. It may seem inconvenient, but our lives are united and made complete in Christ, and in the community and fellowship of fellow Christians. Of course I know (non-Christian) poets who feel the same way about their art, about the community of work and feeling that poetry convokes. When I am someplace like the artists’ colonies of Yaddo or MacDowell, I tend to hear quite a bit about this. But for me, poetry inheres within the whole defined by Christ, His Word, and the church.
Prayer is that which conveys a message to God, who is either known or knowing, more or less by definition. Poetry is that which conveys a message to a stranger.
To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
When we write, perform, heal, or are otherwise in that creative space, we can find ourselves beyond time. N. Scott Momaday has a beautiful passage about his grandmother Ko-sahn appearing to him in that space where he speaks about the power of words, about the calling into being. My earliest memories have nothing to do with Oklahoma. In the time between birth and speech, I lived primarily somewhere between the natural world and the dream world. I would travel to other times where I was not a child. And it was not Oklahoma. I knew the earth as a living being.
Often I feel beyond any of the definitions ascribed to me as a person who is political, a feminist, indigenous, and so on. It is my spirit who is writing, speaking, singing, playing saxophone, and acting. My spirit is acting through a time and a place, a skin and a history. And I am identified with the time, place, skin, and history even as it all feels small and far away. I am absolutely in the world—the struggle, the concerns, the celebration, and the mourning. I am entranced by the diversity of experience on earth, even as I feel, how do I say it, beyond it, when I am in the dreaming/visionary place.
I stay clear of membership in any organized religion. From my study of history, theology, and metaphysics, especially from the perspective of an indigenous person in this country, I understand that organized religion is responsible for dismantling and destroying indigenous cultures all over the Western Hemisphere. This is still happening within our tribal nations. Factions from organized religions are behind nearly every armed conflict currently going on in the world. Most churches are corporate structures whose aim is to grow the congregation, to make money.
I had always wanted to travel to the South Pacific. I finally made it to Hawaii in 1990 and gave a performance at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. I will never forget it. A chanter composed a chant in honor of the event. I felt as if I had come home. After I heard the chanter sing, I was changed. The way I heard poetry and the possibilities of poetry changed, just as they had when I realized that most poetry in the world was not written down, not in books, but was oral. The poetry of the Mvskoke Nation is carried in the songs. The chanter was talk-singing a poetry I had been hungry for my whole life. The ancestors are addressed, as are the plants and the rains. I could literally see the waving of life in the chant. I wanted my poems to be like that.
Incantation and chant call something into being. They make a ceremonial field of meaning. Much of world poetry is incantation and chant. The poem that first made me truly want to become a poet was sung and performed by a healer in Southeast Asia. As he sang and performed the poem he became what he was singing/speaking, and even as he sang and spoke, his words healed his client. When I saw that in the early seventies on a television program, the idea of what it meant to be a poet shifted utterly for me.
What is common to all indigenous peoples is a belief that we are all relatives, all being. All is sacred. I have been given glimpses of what some call the “everlasting.” I have seen this place in a newborn’s eyes, in sunrise, in dusk, the darkest night, and the face of a flower—here and in dreaming. The everlasting is who we truly are, where we truly belong. It is the stuff of poetry, music, and dance, of all arts. In this place, we are one person, one poem, one story, and one song.
The day came when they had nothing left
to offer him, having denuded themselves
of all in order to enlarge him, in whose
shadow they dreamed of light.
The two most significant moments of my childhood were not individual but cultural, the moments when my life intersected with events that tore away the meanings I’d been taught: the opening of the concentration camps and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Life magazine brought those images into our home, and they became, for me, indelible. Those atrocities were unforgettable because indigestible, because they left no one with clean hands, and because they not only did not fit any of the precepts or assumptions with which I had been raised, they shattered the child’s comfortable world forever. And the larger world was, from then on, inseparable from my inner life.
But aside from history and the crimes of its managed savagery, there is that larger existence which transcends human atrocity and the follies of history, the great and unthinkably brilliant and complex web of life, what Darwin called “the tangled bank,” in which we have our unlikely existence, and of which our awareness gives us some understanding. And yes, being a part of that, rather than, as our childhood religions have it, apart from it—that is very much something I feel, and never so feelingly as when I write poetry.
Protest, too, is a form of praise. As is lament. And because our media lie to us around the clock, and we are filled with false cheer and manufactured fears, I suspect that too much of our own witness is forced to counter them both, and is bent by the very forces it attempts to counteract. The last years, from Reagan through Bush, the continuous expansion of violence matched by the concentration of wealth, along with a vicious campaign of disinformation, have darkened our days and the chances of the common life. My own recent poems could not help but respond to that, though they may be too reactive. I don’t know where one draws the line between speaking out and becoming a chameleon darkened by the shadows on the branch to which it clings. I do know that I don’t feel as if the choice of what to write is entirely my own, simply because of the way the poems come. But even the darkest poems can’t help but contain the light or at least the awareness of its absence.
I was raised as a skeptic. What I retained from Judaism, or attribute to it, is from history rather than doctrine or observance: a distrust of institutions and government, a dislike of tribalism, an overdeveloped sense of the absurd, a hopeless desire that “justice shall come down like rain,” sympathy for the underdog, and the notion that it is possible to argue any point, with anyone, even with God. “Therefore choose life” is the one credo I’ve kept, though, like all oracular directives, how best to do that remains undisclosed.
Once, as a young reporter, I had the privilege to interview Jacques Lipchitz, a formidable man, who looked not unlike Michelangelo’s Moses. He said that all art must be a combination of abstraction and representation, that without some representation it has no human meaning. “But what,” I asked him, “about those artists for whom life has no meaning?” To which he replied: “I am not interested in sick men!”
I am in the habit of saying, when people wonder at the chutzpah of revising Biblical stories, that they should imagine the chutzpah it took to write them in the first place. The plain truth is that we know that a book like Genesis tells us nothing about the origins of nature and our species, but a great deal about the people who wrote it. It seems to me, by the same reasoning, that the mythical realm—which opens when we reenter its symbolic gardens and wastelands and lets us see through the transpersonal eyes of figures who have accompanied us through time—would tell us much that we, at this radically different moment in time, need to know about ourselves. That includes how we may be justifying current crimes and dangerously magnifying ourselves by the use of atavistic myths whose tribal glorification and ethno- and anthropocentrism have become untenable. The poems I have written about the women in the Bible come, obviously, out of female as well as contemporary experience, and women, by and large, have lived a different history—since history is really only a version, one that we seem condemned to repeat, not because we don’t know it, but because it’s the one we do know, the one the history books treat with such veneration, as if the more people a ruler kills, the bigger his share of history, the more important his exploits.
Would I describe myself as an atheist? Yes and no. Theism means belief in a god or gods, and so atheism would suggest the rejection of that kind of construction, which is to say, the notion of a god as a person, in short a kind of divine projection of a figure who is something like ourselves, and cares what we do or think or want. To me this is personification of what is beyond us, and is arrogant and altogether too satisfying. It seems to be part of what comes from the childhood of the race. Does this mean I believe that nothing is holy? No. Do I believe in worship? Yes. I agree with David Foster Wallace, who in his famous commencement speech at Kenyon College said:
You get to decide what to worship. Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
He goes on to say that if you worship money and things, you’ll never have enough; if you worship sexual allure and beauty, you’ll always feel ugly and fear age; if you worship power, you’ll fear weakness and grow paranoid; if you worship intellect, you’ll feel stupid and a fraud, and so on. All of these he calls the “default settings”:
On one level, we all know this stuff already—it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, cliches, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
I quote this because I couldn’t say it better. It’s why I write poetry, to keep that “truth up front,” to pay attention to what otherwise goes unnoticed as we go on default setting.
What, then, is the difference between a poem and a prayer? It depends on what is meant by prayer. There is prayer and prayer (pace Gertrude Stein). If it’s the sort of prayer that is a kind of plea bargain and assumes an auditor who is capable of answering the prayer, or the pleader wants something material to ensue as a result, then it is nothing like a poem. But insofar as the poet must relinquish a certain kind of control, and attain a kind of self-forgetfulness; must, as the ancients had it, call in the Goddess, the Muse, the power of the imagination—that which must be invited and cannot be commanded—in that sense, in which prayer involves a humbling and earnest entreaty for vision, and creative deepening of perception toward a kind of ease of being, then ok, the difference begins to fade.
It was William Blake who identified the imagination with the divine: “Imagination/(Which is the Divine Body of the Lord Jesus, blessed for ever).” I like that he blurred the difference, moving us toward relying on the imagination’s “renewable energy,” without (one day) needing such figures from the old dispensation and mystery cults of an older world. I do think the mythic imagination of our time is relocating the sacred in the living and dying world, so perhaps that is a religious statement, though it involves subversion of the anthropocentric religions from the childhood of the race, and means that we must relinquish the egotistical idea that nature takes us personally, and begin to take nature personally.
For me, the poem is never just about experience, it is an experience; we can’t know where a poem is going, and should be surprised (and even enlightened) by what it reveals. The whole point of getting out of the way and inviting the imagination is that you have a chance of discovery, of the imaginative freedom to create what you didn’t consciously already know, or didn’t know you knew, or couldn’t see until you’d found the metaphoric instruments to transform it into vision. As many writers through the ages have reported, it’s this relinquishment of will, this non-attachment to the ego that makes possible entrance into a kind of otherness, a shift in perspective that brings fresh insight. I think of the constant litany in writing workshops to “write what you know,” and then of these lines from Constance Merritt:
Write what you know. And go on knowing only what
We know? And never know the lakeness of the lake?
In this way he makes music.
He lifts his hands to the clouds and braids her tears into a flower.
In this way he sings.
A wave breaking outside the sea.
In this way I go on.
Poetry is my homeland and my religion. The first emotional connection I could make with my new place, when I moved to America, was the moment I went back to writing. It was about a year or so after my arrival. I think it was the poem titled “I was in a hurry” that I wrote first here. It starts with the words “yesterday I lost a country.” I noticed then that wherever I was (even on an airplane over cities I knew or did not know), just being with poetry, I felt at home. There is that sense of belonging unconditionally. You witness your two special lands (the old one, Iraq, and the new one, America) fighting each other. It’s only in poetry you can yell at them both to stop. They may still not stop despite your good poetical yelling, but where else can you give life to that voice that takes no side?
My mother is a Catholic who never misses Sunday Mass, but I went to church with my father only two times a year, on Christmas and Easter. I didn’t, however, learn that I was Christian until my communion time, when I was nine. During my teenage years I read the Bible and the Quran. I was reading everything that I could read out of curiosity and just for the love of reading. What I loved in the Bible was its stories, the symbols and the signs I found full of poetry. What I loved in the Quran was the musicality of its language. When I was in college, I worked on writing a new religious book that took the best of those two books and created a third. But that writing was not good enough to put in the one suitcase I took with me when I left Iraq.
In biology class, my teacher taught us about amoebas. “An amoeba has an eye and a foot,” she said, “but it doesn’t have a real form. You can draw it any way you like.” So I discovered poetry is an amoeba: it has an eye for witnessing, a foot for leaving traces, and a flexible form.
With poetry, I feel I am in love. With prose, I feel I am in a marriage.
Doctors know a lot about disease and witness a lot of problems, but all they do is give you a small piece of paper with a prescription. Poets do the same. But doctors can heal you. Poets can only give you x-rays so that you see your wound.
River inside the river.
World within the world.
All we have is words
To reveal the rose
That the rose obscures.
When I was sixteen I discovered writing poetry. A high school librarian, a wonderful woman, introduced us to all kinds of writing and encouraged us. The first time I wrote a poem, I knew this was it. As one might predict, that first poem was a poem of escape. That’s one legitimate function of lyric poetry, to imagine an ecstatic moment, a release from the heaviness of the world. One of my favorite poems is Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” What is that poem about but a longing to be where beauty exists, with the bird high up in the tree, rather than down here in the shadows where we suffer and die? Keats’s brother had already died in his arms, and Keats knew he would probably die soon. Of course you don’t have to be dying in order to appreciate the release of ecstasy.
The high school librarian, Mrs. Irving, wrote on my poem, “You continue to astonish me.” I thought, ok, that’s a reason to live. I was completely lonely and isolated and despairing. Hers was a gesture of love and approval, and it went a long way toward confirming the joy of making poems, and the excitement of my discovery.
Over time it became clear to me that an even deeper existential function of the lyric was to express what you feel inside, and try to give form to it—to turn the world into words, and then to make those words cohere into something. This to me is the making of meaning. When I say I tend to think of poems as “making” meanings rather than discovering them, it’s a signal that I was coming from a rather desperate place in which each poem becomes what Frost calls “a momentary stay against confusion.” I also think of Emily Dickinson, another existential high-wire act. She has a wonderful poem that goes:
I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea—
I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch—
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience—
She’s sketched a pretty bleak situation, and one doesn’t for a moment doubt that were she to fall off the planks, she would plummet. For much of my life, I felt that I stepped from poem to poem.
In my twenties and thirties, even my forties, “spiritual” was not a term I was comfortable with. I was too afraid of people laughing at me, or maybe even of laughing at myself. My religious life was traumatically terminated at the age of twelve. By religion I mean those notions that naive religion offers as consolation. Nor does most religious terminology guide me forward. Certainly, the other world, the post-death world of conventional Christian thought, is not persuasive to me. On the other hand, poets’ attempts to articulate spiritual meaning I often find very compelling. Paul Éluard said, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” Yes. I understand this to mean that the spiritual is here in the palpable, physical world around us, the world of people and things. And that it’s the task of language and imagination: to unveil the spiritual.
I have faith that when the emotional, imaginative, and spiritual life is activated inside a person, when one becomes fully human, feeling and caring deeply, this represents a resurrection of some kind. This happens for me often when I read poems or hear songs. The feeling of being moved represents a resurrection. Every time meaning or feeling flows into your experience, that’s resurrection. I choose to believe that this has something to do with the beloved. One of the perils of being human, and of lyric poetry, is narcissism, the solipsistic sense that the self is all there is. Likewise, one of the perils of trauma is extreme isolation of the damaged self. To me, the beloved is that figure that exists independent of the self, that figure that calls us into relationship with the world and saves us from what I consider the emotional, spiritual, and psychological error of solipsism and narcissism. The beloved calls us out into connection with the world, into reciprocal relation with the world.
Sappho has a poem, fragment #16, in which she has a line: “whatever one loves most is beautiful.” I go to that line when I want to remind myself that the beloved is “whatever one loves most” and that the recognition and acknowledgment of the beloved floods the individual life with meaning. Notice Sappho says “whatever”—she doesn’t limit it to being a person, and I think that’s crucial. The beloved can be a person, a place, a creature: for example, the passage in the eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno (Rejoice in the Lamb) where he devotes seventy lines to celebrate his cat Jeoffry. This visionary poem was written in a madhouse, and anyone reading those lines knows that “my cat Jeoffry” is Smart’s “beloved”—is that entity that sustains his anguished being. And Sappho makes clear that each person chooses his or her own beloved (or beloveds)—that it’s a choosing/longing of the particular, individual heart.
I keep returning to Sappho’s line. One of the terms we poets use in our considerable effort to avoid religious and spiritual terminology is “beautiful.” Of course no one can define the word, or everybody defines it differently, and yet we believe in it. Beauty is an article of faith among poets. I think many of us are trying to sidestep religion, and beauty is a word we use to do that.
I woke up one January morning in 2003 with a phrase in my head: “The Book that is the resurrection of the body of the beloved, which is the world.” A voice in my head spoke this phrase with great clarity and authority. I didn’t speak it. Of course, we hear a voice speak to us constantly; we hear “Radio Free Brain” chattering inside us all the time. This was a different voice, one that spoke with enormous certainty. Somehow I understood completely what this fairly cryptic phrase meant. I wrote it down, and then poems started saying themselves to me. And I wrote them down. I risk my professional reputation saying this, but the voice would pause, and I would know that that poem was over, and then it would start again. I think there were probably thirty things spoken to me that morning. I just listened and wrote them down. I was quite intrigued, to put it mildly. The next morning there were more, again with my having just a sense of recording them. This went on for several months.
I remember having a discussion with a friend thirty years ago about where poetry comes from. He said, “I write poems to discover meaning.” That of course is a pretty standard statement. I said, “I write poems to make meaning.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I believe existence is meaningless, and we have to create meaning in order to sustain ourselves.” At the time this was true to my experience. Through acts of will and discipline and imagination, I tried to make meaning, but it wasn’t enough to get to the other side of the existential wall I kept encountering. Now from the other side of that wall, I can think back on my life, when such a grim statement as “life is meaningless” was true for me. I can see that I had to create meaning, and love, and secure environments for myself, and that the most exciting form of meaning I could create was poetry.
Death is a mystery. We’re fascinated by it or appalled by it. After hearing the voice in 2003, my preoccupation with death suddenly seemed ludicrous to me. It’s not that people don’t think about it or shouldn’t think about it, but I realized that I really ought to be thinking about being alive, and speaking about being alive. I respect that speaking about death in poetry is an indirect way of speaking about life, but the indirectness of it just struck me as suddenly ludicrous. Rilke cultivated what I would call a cult of death. Some of his poems about death and what a blessed state it is seem ridiculous. I wrote about death constantly in my earlier work. But I’m alive. I used to say that the lyric poet is given the responsibility to talk about two of the big human mysteries, sex and death, or love and loss. I had always used poetry to talk about love and death, though more often than not about death and loss. But now I’d rather talk about life.
She laughs mentions God throws
her life up up into the sky
in fearful sleep I see it a
darkness widening among my
I don’t think in terms of being an atheist or not. I would just say that we live in mystery, and the making of this world is simply great and mysterious. I was listening, just this morning, to a man talking about finding rocks that were four billion years old. So we live in mystery. I’m not unsatisfied with that. I don’t have to find a god or not a god. There’s a quote—I don’t remember who said it—“Find me a god because I am full of prayers.” I think my husband could be described this way. He’s an old Episcopalian boy. He has lost his god, but I think he’s full of prayers. I’m not full of prayers. I’m full of language.
I think there is really a problem with the use of the word spirituality right now. It’s too loose. People who don’t want to talk about religion use this word. They want you to know that they are spiritual people, even though they are not religious, that they have souls, so to speak. I am wary of that kind of conversation. I prefer for people to talk about the reality of what’s happening, and what they feel for one another, what men feel for women, women for men. How we feel about our children. Is this spiritual? Spiritual is just a word people use when they want to be part of some great “religious” conversation.
Think assailable thoughts, or be lonely.
During the years I was at Tassajara, I wasn’t writing. Everything was very strict and very simple. We were told, “Do nothing but practice Zen,” and I wrote one haiku during those three years’ time. When I returned to poetry, a rather different person in many ways, I brought with me two things I now can see would be useful to any young aspiring writer: the monastic model of non-distraction and silence, and the experience of calling oneself into complete attention. The ability to stay in the moment, to investigate immediate existence through my own body and mind, was what I most needed to learn at that point in my life, and to learn to stay within my own experience more fearlessly. I never considered going to graduate school. I did this instead. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious weighing of one course of study against the other, but something in me did know: you cannot write until you can first inhabit your own life and mind.
No one undertakes something as difficult as Zen practice because they already feel the perfection of “things as they are.” We humans turn toward a spiritual practice in part to restore ourselves from some felt form of separation or exile. We feel something is wrong, or missing. This is not my usual vocabulary, but one of my poems, “Salt Heart,” has a passage that may be relevant here: “I begin to believe the only sin is distance, refusal./All others stemming from this.” Separation from others, separation from self, are close to the root of suffering. Christians might say “separation from God,” Sufis might say, “separation from the Beloved.” Jung might call it a failure to recognize all parts of the psyche as parts of one self; that shadow-self, refused, grows perilous. Buddhism proposes that the separation of selfhood itself is a mistake of the mind, an attitude in some way reflected in our English use of the word “selfish.” While Zen is the particular practice that drew me, I certainly don’t believe there’s only one “right” spiritual path—if something is true, it will be findable anywhere, and there are as many spiritual paths as there are people, and probably sparrows and frogs and pebbles as well. Still, for me, this not uncommon sense of being exiled from full presence in the world brought me to both Zen and poetry. Perhaps urban, contemporary life is already an exile of a kind. There is a Taoist poet in Women in Praise of the Sacred, Yu Xuanji, who says at the end of one poem, “Everywhere the wind carries me is home.” That was not something I felt as a child.
Horace memorably said that the purpose of poetry is to delight and instruct, and if there isn’t joy, why bother? If a work of art were not beautiful to us—though at times this might mean the most recalcitrant kinds of beauty—we wouldn’t stop to offer it our attention. The nourishment of Cezanne’s awkward apples is in the tenderness and alertness they awaken inside us. Art wants to seduce. It wants to entrance. And because it is also entrancing, its second purpose, Horace’s instruction (an idea, to be sure, rather out of fashion these days), is forestalled from bullying didacticism. We are meaning-making animals, and meaning, to me, can itself be a resonant beauty. It may well be that beauty, at base, always holds also some measure of meaning, however unparaphrasable. A mathematician can be moved to tears by a proof.
A central task of any life is to affirm what comes—to step through the world’s offered door. What I hope may also be felt in my own poems is that this agreement is not a simplistic or passive acceptance, but is hard won. Sometime during my second year of monastic life, I looked at the poems I had written in college. What I saw was that every poem yearned toward vanishing; every poem ended with a little trail of ellipses, or some conceptual or imagistic drift into fog. I was horrified. “My poems are suicidal,” I thought, “they want not to exist.” And I knew that I didn’t want to be the woman who wrote them, who yearned so strongly to disappear.
Zen is often described as a practice but not a “religion.” In the Western tradition, Deism, which says that the body of God is distributed equally through all existence, comes closest perhaps. Take the God-ness out of it, and you’re close to Zen: what is is enough. You don’t have to add anything to reality to feel awe, or to feel respect, or to see the radiance of existence. Radiance simply is. It isn’t necessary to do a conceptual somersault in order to place it inside a specific entity. It may seem simplistic, but I truly believe that if you put a person in a prison cell with nothing but the chance and the desire to pay attention, everything they need to know about the radiance of the world is there, available. I also believe that if you brought a group of mystics, from every possible tradition, into a room, they would understand one another pretty well. At the most profound level of mystical experience, there is, I suspect, no difference in what people feel.
My associations to the word “religion” are not particularly happy. I do realize that such associations are always idiosyncratic, but even in childhood a divine being never made much sense to me. The Judeo-Christian belief system I saw around me didn’t hold much appeal. My family did have a Passover Seder each year, and I liked the horseradish, the bitter herbs, and the salted hard-boiled egg, but the story didn’t take root as “mine” any more strongly, say, than the Thanksgiving story of Pilgrims and Indians or the Christmas carols we sang at school. I suppose I feel that at this point in the world’s history, all these stories might be better felt to belong to us all, as our great, common, human heritage. Their use as devices of division grieves me. Identity politics isn’t something I find congenial, even as, on the other hand, I would not like to see the world made homogenous and single. For me, this is perhaps the most deeply troubling koan of our cultural age—how to preserve difference without fortifying the sense of combative separation.
A work of art offers a paradoxical liberation: it is something that changes everything while being perfectly useless in any ordinary sense. I suppose some people collect paintings because they think their value will increase in ten years or a hundred years, or because owning a certain object conveys social status. Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption is patently real. But I think poetry, as an art form, proves that cannot be the whole story—no one gains social status from knowing or “owning” a poem. Art’s role in the contemporary world may well be precisely to be un-useful, to reveal the importance of uselessness in our lives. You can’t eat a painting. You can’t do anything except stand before it, know the world differently, and walk away changed. That’s what a painting can do, what a poem can do. Art halts the mind’s unthinking plummet and lets you see the experience as a new whole.
Of all sixty of us I am the only one who went
to the four corners though I don’t say it
out of pride but more like a type of regret,
and I did it because there was no one I truly believed
I am attracted to the prophets Amos, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Hosea, among others. I must say that, though they were interested in justice, as I am, and even kindness, their purposes were the worship of God; that one strayed from justice when he or she was not godly. Whatever I mean by justice, I think it has little to do with the existence of God or worship. Thus my alliance with the prophets is only a kind of temporary friendship. We leave each other when they put on the phylacteries and start waving their index fingers, when they start pushing people back into the fold. I am not the least interested in this. Yet, when I reduce their vision to its poetry, I am at home.
I suspect that the actual writing, the continuous writing, the writing over and over again, the commitment, is a kind of devotion. Maybe it’s not the devotion of a priest; it is certainly the devotion of a mourner.
Paul Celan said that “attentiveness is the natural prayer of the human soul.” Sometimes I feel that it is a question of concentration, that I am shocked by interruption, but I feel that it is absolutely more than that, indeed, other than that. My mind, my heart, my very soul, in its attention to language, ideas, and form, is, I believe, really in that state that Celan refers to. But I’m a little nervous about false piety and have never used the word prayer in this context.
Most issues of faith in America refer to what we used to call organized religion. In my view, and I realize it’s a traditional view, it is difficult to find true faith in those institutions. There are a number of poets in America who reflect on a literal level their religions, and some of them are, in spite of that, excellent poets. But faith—as we describe it, or as I describe it—is something different than that.
As far as the question of where I am now—which interests me most—it’s really a question of what you call “God.” What I call him, her, it, is existence itself. Maybe the word would be “Being”; maybe the word would be “The Name.” I have no interest in an old man—or woman—with a beard. I have no objection to a personal God, but I just don’t believe it. I don’t think anything listens, except psychologically, to our personal prayers. I like the fact that, at Auschwitz I think it was, there was a play in which God was put on trial. My faith is in existence. And I don’t care who this makes happy or unhappy.
It is getting more and more difficult to praise things; more and more difficult to move from the grittiness of daily detail and elevate the reader’s attention to something else. I suppose what is left are individual acts of courage, affirmation, and hopefulness. Yet, at the same time, I am supremely happy—mostly—and find joy in life itself. I don’t know what goes on here.
Sewn into the hem of memory:
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,
of philosophers or scholars. God not of poets.
These days, I am a syncretist, and I don’t attempt to resolve contradictions between spheres of faith and belief. I consider all descriptions of divinity or the deity, descriptions in language, to be figurative, metaphorical in some way. The deity is known to the deity. We apprehend God or En-Sof (the infinite in Kabbalistic belief) or Raman in the way that we can. I believe that the divinity is in all things and that it is possible to know God from within. I believe that God, En-Sof, is everywhere, so the holy is everywhere. For me, holiness used to mean that which resides in the exemplary being of Christ or the exemplary beings of the apostles or martyrs. I now have suffered an intense dispersal of this concept, and the world is at once fallen and holy, both at the same time—the world of matter, the world that is manifest around us. So everything is utterly different from what I might have said when I was a young girl, and yet in another way, it isn’t. I’m not a doctrinaire Catholic, though I do still attend Mass.
There’s no clinging to God for me; it’s more a matter of cleaving to God, being with, saying yes to.
The wonderful experiences I had in El Salvador transformed my thinking and my spiritual life. The time there returned me to something, but without the encumbrance of certain institutional aspects of the church that have to do with its earthly manifestation as an institution. It was very freeing. I didn’t want to leave, but not because I wasn’t afraid. Whenever I came close to being wounded or hurt or killed in El Salvador, and there were a few occasions, I was terrified. I would immediately be nauseated. I was not good at this. Other people were much better at it. But I didn’t want to leave, nevertheless, because I didn’t want to leave this community. I had recovered the presence of God, only this time it was in humanity. I was in El Salvador, living in a place very full of horror, but also full of light. That’s where I wanted to stay.
Over the years, I read the great Western poets of the twentieth century, Celan and Akhmatova and Jabès, who were known here as political poets, but they were also, as a matter of fact, spiritual poets. I came to realize that spirituality is as misunderstood as poetry in our culture. It goes unrecognized. It’s safer to relegate these poets to the political sphere. As dangerous as the political is, the spiritual is far more dangerous. These poets don’t easily extricate morality, ethics, the sacred, and the political. For them, it’s not possible to think of these as isolated categories, but rather as modes of human contemplation and action which are inextricably bound to one another.
Poetry can pass through history, but poetry is not dependent on history. When I’m thinking about the spiritual, I’m thinking about a capacity to be awake, a consciousness. In the United States, they’re always saying that poets write about the self. The self has a deep inwardness. The self is also that which knows God. I don’t think many poets write about the self. In contemporary American poetry, what we often encounter is not the self but personality, which is a very different matter.
The thing about writing poetry is that the more you’re there working, the more you’re there writing, the more you realize you are not writing it. The little threads and weavings that come into the poem—one is not consciously aware of these things, because something larger is working in you. This is an experience close to revelation, to the realm of prophetic language.
To be blessed
said the dog
is to have a pinch
and all the other dogs
can smell it
I was raised in the thirties and forties in an adamantly atheist family of socialist Jews. Neither my parents nor my grandparents were religious. The first Passover Seder I ever attended was at the home of a friend in middle school, and I had no idea what it was all about. My religious education consisted of being told that religion was the opiate of the people. So how did it come about that I go through life seeking God, and at the same time questioning all the texts that claim to know what God is?
In my case, beginning in early adolescence, I sometimes found myself experiencing the world around me, the universe around me, as holy. I could be crossing the street to go to the subway—which emerged from underground at Dyckman Street where I lived in a housing project in upper Manhattan—and there were the shadows of the elevated train tracks and the two platforms, and the bright blue sky above with some small white clouds, and the brick buildings set in grass plots behind me, and the dirty lively street and the rushing traffic, and suddenly everything in the world was One. I knew that the realities I could see and also the realities I couldn’t see were just as they were meant to be, very good. Even the evil things were meant to be as they were; they were good, too, were right. Everything fit and was moving together; everything was filled with holy energy and unity.
Art, too, could reveal the holiness. I remember the moment I first laid eyes on Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I’d been taken to an opening of a show at the Metropolitan Museum by the wealthy parents of a girlfriend. Her father was an art dealer who lived on Fifth Avenue, and I was this rough diamond, this scholarship kid, this object of their charitable benevolence. They were trying to “civilize” me, as Huck Finn would say. I was usually pretty resistant and resentful of their kind efforts. Remember I was a red diaper baby. Part of the ideology I drank with my mother’s milk was that rich people were my enemies. I was proud of being poor and clueless. But there I was in this roomful of ladies wearing mink coats, pushing my way past them, when suddenly in front of me appeared this painting! This Revelation! This, at last, was what people meant when they talked about Art with a capital A. At the same time, it was a manifestation of Reality with a capital R. The divine Reality, the divine energy that sweeps through the universe, that is the truth inside everything, that we can’t see with our eyes—and there it was in those swirling blues and yellows, and those curves of trees. The energy was there in those brushstrokes.
I’ve never been a fan of the God who sits on an exalted throne remote from us, the sex-hating dualistic God that Blake cleverly calls “Nobodaddy,” who is nothing but an egocentric tyrant demanding to be worshiped. I’ve never been interested in transcendence, or an afterlife. I’m for immanence. This life, and that’s it. If there’s sacredness to be found, it’s to be found right here.
My first real encounter with Judaism was reading the Bible one summer while I was in college. My then boyfriend—subsequently my husband—had said he thought I’d like it. Ha. That was an understatement. Reading the Bible was a quite different experience from reading poetry, even the poetry of Whitman and Blake. I bonded with that Book as if it were a dream of my own. Mine, I kept thinking, this is mine. Of course I was reading the magnificent King James translation, but it was the stories that captured me, first of all. When Sarah laughed, I laughed. When Jacob wrestled all night with a stranger and in the morning said, “I will not let thee go except thou bless me,” I wept with joy. When David danced before the Lord, I wanted to dance, too. When Job raised his voice in anger and challenged God’s goodness, I understood where Jewish anti-authoritarianism—and my own habit of questioning authority—came from. I felt that the men and women in the Bible were my mothers and fathers, and the God was my God—whether I liked him or not.
It seems clear to me that the being whom we in the West call “God the Father” swallowed God the Mother in prehistory. That is to say, the God of male monotheism, who keeps demanding worship, the warrior and judge and tyrant God, absorbed the powers of goddesses who were worshiped for millennia before He came on the scene. The Sumerian goddess Inanna, and other ancient goddesses, were in charge of things like childbirth and lawmaking, for example. But remember the wolf who swallowed the grandmother in the story of Red Riding Hood? Grandmother doesn’t die, and God the Mother doesn’t die. She’s there inside the belly of the beast. Which is to say, we can see traces of her in the Biblical texts. What I really believe is that we can all be midwives of the Divine Female; we can help her be born into the world again.
Like other poets, I am often asked if I have a spiritual practice. Yes, writing is my spiritual practice. Ultimately, the words come from somewhere beyond myself, though they travel through me in order to reach the page. “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!” says D.H. Lawrence. Probably many poets would say the same, especially today. Although it is going on below the radar of the critical establishment, isn’t it clear that our culture is in a post-secular age? Poets—and novelists and playwrights (think Angels in America)—everywhere in America are struggling with matters of the spirit. Matters of spiritual experience, I should say, outside of churches and synagogues, outside of doctrines and dogmas. This renaissance of spirituality has nothing to do with the right wing fundamentalisms that play such a destructive part in our political life. From Lucille Clifton to Franz Wright, the testimony grows.
I do believe in the future. I believe that a future can grow organically out of the past, and that when women’s multiple and layered spiritual experiences and revelations, and the poetry born from them, contribute as much as men’s spiritual experiences and revelations have on our speck of a planet, everything will perhaps look different. God, the soul, good and evil, will have new meanings. Maybe we’ll have a better world. A better world is what my mother and father believed in. We can’t overcome six thousand years of worshiping a god made in man’s image overnight, and we can’t stop the wars and violence committed with the help of that image tomorrow. But there is a saying in Talmud: “It is not incumbent on you to finish the task. Neither are you free to give it up.”
Some of the individual entries by Carolyn Forché, Jane Hirshfield, and Grace Paley have appeared earlier, in different forms, in the Mars Hill Review, AGNI Online, and pw.org.
Jericho Brown is the recipient of the Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Arts. His first book, Please (New Issues, 2008), won the American Book Award, and his second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon, 2014), was named one...