“Fragile Beauty” / Sarett

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Fragile Beauty

O molten dewdrop, trembling in the light

Of dawn, and clinging to the brookmint-blade–
A pendent opal on a breast of jade–

How came your splendor, so limpid and so bright?
How your clear symmetry? And what weird sleight

Of art suffused you with each rainbow-shade,
Captured your evanescent hour, and made

A quivering soul from fire and mist and night?

Fleeting your span! Yet I shall be content

To let the Cosmic Power that built in you

Such frail wet beauty, such luster opulent,

And such immortal life as lies in dew,

Fashion the fragile moment of my soul
In what frail shape It deems a perfect whole.

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From the 1925 collection, Slow Smoke, by Lew Sarett (1888 – 1954); his third (of five) volume of poems. He was born Lewis Zaratzsky, in Chicago, to parents recently immigrated from Eastern Europe. He led a simple yet brightly-hued life: university athlete and orator; forest ranger; professor of English and Public Speaking (his first non-poetry volume, Personal Power Through Speech, was published in 1932); advisor on Indian affairs to the Department of the Interior, horticulturalist. A lifelong lover of the natural world, he spent a decade of the new century living among the Chippewa of the Lake Superior region, the “North Country”—the forests of the land of K’cheegamee—where he worked as woodsman and guide: here he grew fully into his identity as an interpreter and poet of the wilderness. His first book of poetry, Many Many Moons, was published in 1920, with an introduction by his friend, Carl Sandburg. In 1922 a second volume, The Box of God, was published; its poems further reflect the life, legends and customs of the Chippewa.

In an article published in the Ironwood (Michigan) Daily Globe on July 7, 1926, he wrote: A civilization that makes a man unable to live with himself and his family, unable to find contentment in simple, wholesome home life close to the soil, that makes a man dependent on an artificial, hectic jazz life outside of his home – a civilization like that is tragically defective somewhere.

(Most of the above description is based on articles on two fascinating sites: UNCAP (Uncovering Chicago Archives Project), a project of University of Chicago Libraries, is “a model for discovering primary sources across collections and institutions”; Under Every Tombstone, a blog by Jim Craig, who writes, “There is a story under every tombstone . . . While photographing graves for Find A Grave or genealogy research, I have come across many interesting stories about the people buried under those tombstones. In this blog I will share some of the most interesting of these stories with you. Why? So these people will not be forgotten.”

Here are the link addresses:
undereverytombstone.blogspot.com/2016/10/the-poet-of-wilderness-lew-sarett.html
and
uncap.lib.uchicago.edu/view.php?eadid=inu-ead-nua-archon-1225&q=%22the+slavonic+offering+to+the+american%22 )
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But, speaking of . . . beauty.
There’s a passage in Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (2015 memoir/science/cri de coeur), in which he muses upon this “peculiar property of the earth, that it offers us beauty as well as the means to survive . . . a wondrous property, and it greatly moves us—as behaviourally modern humans, anyway”. (156)*
Isn’t this eminently worthy of our wonder! Are we the only species on this earth who, in our capacity to abstract, to conceptualize, to step outside of our experience, as it were, are we alone in perceiving/apprehending beauty?
And is this beauty extant outside us, “or” does it actually form within us as we look about . . . and this nexus, of course, is where my sometime obsession with objective and subjective realities springs afresh and rejoices:  an ever-renewed mystery, beautiful in itself.

But as for this moment, beauty beckons to us:  behold! Behold!…for the sake of your body and the sake of your soul.
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* McCarthy goes on to sadly observe that with the advent of modernism (late 19th century, into 20th) in philosophy and the arts, and the emerging, later, of cultural tides which reject concepts such as excellence in favour of an envisioned egalitarianism, “in more recent decades the process has gone even further, and beauty has become suspect . . . has in some quarters become bound up in ideology, it has become associated with privilege, it is seen as the plaything of those who have greater advantages, and I have found myself wondering (only in idle moments, of course) if the day might not come when to express open and unqualified admiration for an orchid, say—I mean for its beauty, its elegance and its glamour, all qualities many orchids undeniably possess—might be thought inappropriate . . .” (156-7).

Which thoughts, in turn, bring to mind something James Hillman wrote in 1992, quoted by John O’Donohue in his 2003/4 book, Beauty:
The arts, whose task once was considered to be that of manifesting the beautiful, will discuss the idea only to dismiss it, regarding beauty only as the pretty, the simple, the pleasing, the mindless and the easy. Because beauty is conceived so naively, it appears as merely naive, and can be tolerated only if complicated by discord, shock, violence, and harsh terrestrial realities. I therefore feel justified in speaking of the repression of beauty.

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BACKWATERS
An occasional personal thought detour through the back country of my mind. Currently in need of some serious editing.

Beauty, Truth, Goodness: do these refer to absolute or to relative realities?
Is there such a thing as an objective reality? If we answer, “Yes”, how do we know this?  Can we ‘prove’ it?  Doubtful that we might prove it; anything we perceive is through a subjective lens.
And, how are they related: ‘absolute’,’objective’ realities; and ‘relative’, ‘subjective’ realities? I imagine a coin, with two sides: on one side, the objective/subjective tension; on the other, the absolute/relative dichotomy. (Alternatively, the absolute/objective on one side, the subjective/relative reality on the other.
And, the ‘coin’ of Perception: the one side, the perceiver, the subject of the perception, the response to the object; the flipside, the perceived, the object of perception, the given.

ontology |änˈtäləjē|
(noun)
the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being

I easily lose my way in the terminology of philosophy, but a couple of days ago I stumbled through a piece by Justin Lee online which makes reference to “a participatory ontology that does not reduce Being to mere immanence, but appeals to the irreducible unity of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in the perfect simplicity of transcendent being” . . . This was at:
arcdigital.media/jordan-petersons-antidote-to-chaos-fdd39cb27527

And it occurs to me about these ‘things’, these peradventure objective realities, these “Truth, Goodness, Beauty”: perhaps they (or our idea of, our faith (or not) in, at least, their existence) are signposts granted us (by God, or the universe, or natural selection—however you conceive the source / generation of our life and consciousness) to vouchsafe with us handholds of meaning (“meaning”!) on our journey; perhaps to awaken in us (in our grateful—or desperate—response) another trio, that of “Hope, Faith, Love” . . . which, in turn, provide further strength and courage to face what is not true, not good, not beautiful in our lives. (Please don’t imagine that I would attempt to define any of these concepts; try to provide your own definition, it will be of greater value to you.)
(I’ve not yet posted T. S. Eliot on the pages of this blog, but I clearly recall him writing that hope would be hope for the wrong thing . . . Perhaps these three virtues might be subsumed by another concept . . . personal kindness? Another ‘coin’ of our lives, this one, the ‘coin’ of an individual’s human Being, would have volition, capacity, choice on the one side, and awareness and kindness on the other: the given, the response.)

Concepts, concepts, yes—but a concept wouldn’t exist unless it reflected our experience and our need to share it.
‘Time’ is a concept.  ‘Life’ itself is a concept.
Other creatures/beings create concepts, too; bees’ dances, whales’ songs, and all the other infinitely varied forms communication takes on in the natural world . . . but the concepts we humans might consider uniquely human are actually concepts about concepts, or concepts on top of concepts . . . which, evidently, we need to engage in our lives, to a greater or lesser extent. Hence, life, death; reality; action, repose; the true, the false; the good, the bad; the beautiful, the ugly; hope, faith, love, fear, suffering, despair, courage, gratitude, apathy; the secular, the sacred; awareness, ignorance; meaning, no-meaning; the absolute, the relative; the objective, the subjective; thinking, feeling, intuition; etc., etc., ad infinitum.
And then there is math, humor, art, music, all ‘conscious’ form-giving of the creative impulse.

In Women Food and God Geneen Roth quotes John Tarrant: “All wanting—for love, to be seen for who we are, for a new red car, is wanting to find and be taken into this mysterious depth in things.”
When we are in nature, aware of the here and now of that in which we’re immersed, we forget that we ‘want’: there is enough here; now suffices. Gretel Ehrlich: “To trace the history of a river or a raindrop…is also to trace the history of the soul, the history of the mind descending and arising in the body. In both, we constantly seek and stumble upon divinity, which like feeding the lake, and the spring becoming a waterfall, feeds, spills, falls, and feeds itself all over again.” (Islands, the Universe, Home, 1991)

 

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“A Burren Prayer” / O’Donohue

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Oremus,
Maria de Petra Fertilis:

May the praise of rain on stone
Recall the child lost in the heart’s catacomb.

May the light that turns the limestone white
Remind us that our solitude is bright.

May the arrival of gentians in their blue surprise
Bring glimpses of delight to our eyes.

May the wells that dream in the stone
Soothe the eternal that sleeps in our bone.

May the contemplative mind of the mountain
Assure us that nothing is lost or forgotten.

May the antiphon of ocean on stone
Guide the waves of loneliness home.

May the spirits who dwell in the ruin of Corcomroe
Lead our hearts to the one who is beautiful to know.

Go maire na mairbh agus a mbrionglóidí
I bhfoscadh chaoin dílis na Trinóide.*

*May the departed and their dreams ever dwell
In the kind and faithful shelter of the Trinity.

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From Conamara Blues (2000) by John O’Donohue.
At the end of this book is a brief section of “Author’s Notes”, wherein basic explanations are offered regarding several terms / names appearing in the poems. To this poem, we read: Corcomroe is the ruin of a twelfth-century Cistercian monastery in the Burren. It was dedicated to Maria de Petra Fertilis: Mary of the Fertile Rock.

The Burren (Irish, Boireann,”great rock”) is, in O’Donohue’s words, “…an ancient kingdom of limestone sculptures carved slowly by rain, wind and time.” It is an area of lunar-like—but surprisingly fertile—landscape on the western coast of Ireland, bounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Galway Bay. O’Donohue was a member of the Burren Action Group which, in the 1990s, opposed the building of a large interpretative center on the spectacular Mullaghmore (Mullach Mór) mountain area of the Burren. They argued that “visitor facilities should be sited in villages – where there are already existing services and where economic benefits can accrue to the local populations – and not in the sensitive core area of the Burren National Park”. (http://www.iol.ie/~burrenag/)

Nan Shepherd, writing in the 1940s about Scotland’s Cairngorm mountains:
“The inaccessibility of this loch is part of its power. Silence belongs to it. If jeeps find it out, or a funicular railway disfigures it, part of its meaning will be gone. The good of the greatest number is not here relevant. It is necessary to be sometimes exclusive, not on behalf of rank or wealth, but of those human qualities that can apprehend loneliness. (The Living Mountain, 14)

“Wings” / O’Donohue

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For Josie

Whenever a goose was killed,
My mother got the two wings.
They were placed on the rack
Over the black Stanley range
And taken down to sweep
Around the grate and the floor.

Local women said, no matter
How you sprinkled it, every time
You’d sweep a concrete floor,
You’d get more off it.
As if, deep down,
There was only dust.

Often during sweeping,
A ray of light
Through the window
Would reveal
How empty air
Could hold a wall
Of drunken dust.

Instead of being folded around
Each side of a living body,
Embracing the warmth
And urgency of a beating heart,
The wings are broken objects now,
Rubbed and rubbed, edge down
Into an insatiable floor,
Smothered and thinned,
Until they become ghost feathers
Around a cusp of bone
Polished by a motherly hand.

Never again to be disturbed
Every year by the call
Of the wild geese overhead,
Reminding them of the sky,
Urging them to raise the life
They embrace, to climb the breeze
Beyond the farm, towards horizons
That veil the green surge of the ocean.

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From John O’Donohue‘s 2000 collection of poems, Conamara Blues. It appears a rather small volume, but there is so much beauty inside it, and such largeness of heart, that it seems to contain an entire lifetime, perhaps many lifetimes. As suggested by the title, most of the lines are suffused with a tender melancholy; their sadness yet refined, through the depths of living, into a serene brightness.
On O’Donohue’s death in 2008, his friend, Gareth Higgins, wrote a short, intimate retrospective/tribute to the poet, his life, his work. It finishes with another of his poems, gently uplifting and full of grace, “A Blessing for Equilibrium“. I heartily recommend this to you:
http://godisnotelsewhere.blogspot.com/2008/01/john-odonohue.html

“Mysteries, Yes” / Oliver

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Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
   to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
   mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
   in allegiance with gravity
      while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
   never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
   scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
   who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
   "Look!" and laugh in astonishment,
   and bow their heads.

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From Mary Oliver’s Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (2017). (Published previously in her 2009 collection, Evidence.)
Mary Oliver died in January, in her 84th year of life. Her impact on wonderers and on lovers of life, nature and words cannot be overestimated.

A succinct poetic tribute to her and her writing can be read in:
https://shoreacres.wordpress.com/2019/02/10/a-poem-for-a-poet/

(“Who were ‘the Father and the Son’ “…) / Dickinson

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Who were “the Father and the Son”
We pondered when a child –
And what had they to do with us
And when portentous told

With inference appalling
By Distance fortified
We thought, at least they are no worse
Than they have been described.

Who are “the Father and the Son”
Did we demand Today
“The Father and the Son” himself
Would doubtless specify –

But had they the felicity
When we desired to know,
We better Friends had been, perhaps,
Than time ensue to be –

We start – to learn that we believe
But once – entirely –
Belief, it does not fit so well
When altered frequently –

We blush – that Heaven if we achieve –
Event ineffable –
We shall have shunned until ashamed
To own the Miracle –

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Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886), American poet.
Poem quoted from the 1999 (2005 in ppbk.)  The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, by Ralph Franklin. This book originated in Franklin’s 1998 3-volume work, The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition*. The Reading Edition offers the reader a single reading of each poem, rendered with Dickinson’s own spelling, capitalization, and punctuation intact.
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Personally, I imagine that “belief”, ideally, grows with us as we grow through our lives. But this means that it does not stay the same for even a moment, just as we, each of us in his/her totality, mind-body-spirit-soul, do not stay the same. As the skin we had at 10 years of age would not contain us at 20 years (it would not “fit” us), so our beliefs, and our faiths, are, inevitably, continuously renewed. But the new is built upon—even if consciously against—what was before; it doesn’t manifest from thin air, unrelated to what was previously.
(Does anything of ‘us’—of you, of me—remain constant and unchanging through our life? If so, what might this be? Or are we prey to illusion if we sense that there is something of us that is timeless?)

So how shall we approach the traditions we learned when young? Do we toss them into the landfill, like broken old toys? Well, that’s one way that’s open to us, outright rejection. But don’t let’s imagine that this is any freer a choice than any other. As our beliefs revolve around (anywhere on spectrum of Accept…Reject) the tenets we learned early in life, we are given time and space for their evolution.
For example, if you grew up ‘knowing’ about the Holy Trinity, how do you visualize, how do you understand it now? My point is, I think, that there is no “right” way and no “wrong” way. The Trinity is, at bottom, a metaphor for the organization, shall we say, of being as we can know it. Does your attitude towards it / understanding of it help you to make some sense of your life? Does it help you to get along more honestly, hopefully better, in your relationships with others, human and non-human? Does it allow for the awareness of a meaning of your being, of your existence, to evolve with you so that the original construction/metaphor retains some relevance through the span of your life?

Here’s an illustration from my imagination: Marshall McLuhan (Canadian philosopher, 1911-1980) coined, among others, the phrase, The medium is the message. (See mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com/2014/11/17/the-medium-is-still-the-message-five-key-ideas-from-understanding-media-1964/ (with https:// in front), or Wikipedia, for information about McLuhan.)
I, thinking in trinities as I often do, will add a member to McLuhan’s duo; namely, I’ll add mind. Hence, The mind is the medium is the message comes into being. And indeed, one of the ways I’ve come to imagine the Holy Trinity is precisely thus: Mind-Message-Medium.

Metaphor upon metaphor.

Almost from the moment we’re born we’re awash in concept and metaphor. Our weight, our sex, our name, our photograph—these are all concepts; all metaphors, symbols pointing beyond themselves; and having physical, social and cultural extensions and implications: infinite webs of significance, consequence. Rare are conceptual vacuums for us in this life.

But to return to the Holy Trinity, in its most basic form. So much theorizing over the centuries. After spending some time reading opinions and summaries, could we be forgiven for likening these distinctions and arguments to those in earlier times about numbering angels on pinheads? Yet this is not to criticize . . . thinking like this is just what we humans do, what we must do, what makes as human; it is the way we express something within us that seeks to be known and communicated. There’s something in our psyche that craves this conceptual, if possible even ‘rational’ understanding, craves to grasp in idea, in concept what is, perhaps or probably, in its essence ineffable. So we debate metaphors, searching for what best agrees with our little experience on this little green, blue, white planet . . . and we strive onward.

My personal Trinitarian ‘heresy’ removes as much metaphor as is possible for me to do at this point in time. Hence: I, you, the crayfish and the alga, the meteor and the galaxy, the earthworm and the robin, the light and the dark, the dew and the grass, life and death, matter and energy, the now and the then, the here and the there, the rational and the irrational, the true and the false, the something and the nothing; all that may be called “created reality”, all that we can know, now and ever, with our senses and our reason—each of us and all of us are/constitute/embody/reify “the Son”, “the Second Person of God”, whether begotten, made, conceived, breathed, thought, manifested, materialized, imagined of/by “the First Person of God”. Every one and all of us—are “the Christ”, the anointed. Indeed I also believe (Credo!) that this was precisely Jesus’ message to us, this was what he was showing us through his life. He was teaching us this before the later language and story and metaphor/terminology were applied to him. So, further, what is God’s “Third Person”, “the Spirit”, but the recognition among us, and between us and “the Father”, of each others’ essence, and this essential mutual . . . Being-ness? Created-ness? Relatedness? Unity? Mystery? Sacredness? Whole-ly-ness? A One-ness which is yet differentiated, infinitely, inscrutably, within itself; including us, but not limited to us? For me, here and now, such is the triune God.

If you are interested in a properly philosophical/theological look at some issues of the Trinity and “the transcendentals” (truth, goodness, beauty, etc.), here’s a 10-page article that seems to attempt an overview of such scholarship historically. (I did not get far into it, just haven’t got the terminology…but it appears to be well-written.)
An https:// in front:
onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1468-2265.2008.00436.x
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Be careful what you teach your children. Don’t foist upon them as unassailable fact the theology you (may) hold, whether it be secular or sacred. Teach them how to live by your example of integrity, critical thinking, and, as much as possible, grace and kindness toward those with whom you engage; with attention, respect and compassion towards ‘creation’. Find things out for yourself and take full responsibility for your own thoughts and actions. Do not seek scapegoats. Do not cling to a ‘victim’ status for yourself or for your family or for your group. Do your life! Say what you mean, mean what you say. Take satisfaction, even pride, from work you have done well. Your kids will address theology on their own, in their own good time and their own way, exploring and creatively bringing together and building on many ideas. There’s a lot of neurosis hiding behind religion (even theology?) out there. Cut through, cut through. There is some Truth to be sought and found, and maybe it will even “set us free”; still, our shared experience, and yes, the shared Mystery, must be allowed to sustain us.

The grace of the season be with you.

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* The New Oxford American Dictionary, via my desktop dictionary (Apple Version 2.1.3), informs:
variorum as adjective: (of an edition of an author’s works) having notes by various editors or commentators; including variant readings from manuscripts or earlier editions.
variorum as noun: a variorum edition.
ORIGIN early 18th century: genitive plural of varius ‘diverse,’ from Latin editio cum notis variorum ‘edition with notes by various (commentators)’.

(“The most triumphant Bird I ever knew or met…”) / Dickinson

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The most triumphant Bird I ever knew or met
Embarked opon a Twig Today
And till Dominion set
I famish to behold so eminent a sight
And sang for nothing scrutable
But intimate Delight.
Retired, and resumed his transitive Estate –
To what delicious Accident
Does finest Glory fit!

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Like the previous poems by Dickinson I’ve posted here, this one is copied out from The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Reading Edition), editor R. W. Franklin. He’s as true as he could be to the poet’s versions of her verses—and often this includes unusual / non-standard punctuation and spelling (as, for example, the word “opon”: not a typo, as other poems also spell it this way). Book published in 1999. A wonderful resource, always something fresh and thought-provoking to discover within its pages.
Over a century later, an echo—reaching me only now, a decade later still; here’s an excerpt from the poem, “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert:
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our
attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.

You can read this whole poem (and a few others by Gilbert, as well as an encapsulation of his life story) at thesunmagazine.org/issues/451/a-brief-for-the-defense (this poem is the last one on the page).
(Whatever you do, don’t listen to it being “read” aloud on poemhunter…I’ve only just visited the site, listened to a couple of poems, and realized that this must (it surely must!) be a computer/digital rendering of them: it is simply dreadful.)
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Where Glory and Gladness meet…there is Grace.

(“I never saw a Moor…”) / Dickinson

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I never saw a Moor.
I never saw the Sea –
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be –

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven –
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given –

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In The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, edited by R. W. Franklin, 1999.

So interesting. I wonder, is the poet speaking of a pre-conceptual knowing, a cognizance that exists deep within our very bones? . . . We know these “things”, these experiences of perception, because they have been attended to for millions of years by our ancestors: archetypes of the natural world, fractals comprising our physical reality (billowing clouds, grasses, waves of precipitation or insects or birds or fish or mosses; pink-purple florets, fields in florescence, sunlit water flecks, swards of stars, dewdrop or ice crystals at the first gleam of morning sun) . . . although God and Heaven would represent archetypal realities more social and ethical in their nature, more distinctly, uniquely human. We know them when we experience them, and when we hear their names we know them again.

(An aside re punctuation: R. W. Franklin worked many years researching, discerning, and “deferring to her custom in presentation and usage” for this publication of Dickinson’s oeuvre . . . I hope that this is the reason for the period (full stop) at the end of the first line, i.e., I hope that this is not a typo! While it seems to me a very strange place for a period (and Dickinson used relatively few periods), I suppose we must trust the proofreaders on this. So, full stop it is—and, actually, as I’ve never seen a moor either, it gives me the opportunity to pause and realize this, and reflect on it a bit, recall stories I’ve read and pictures I’ve seen, to imagine what a moor might look like, and whether I’ve encountered something / some place comparable to a moor in my own singular experience of life.)

(“He ate and drank the precious Words…”) / Dickinson

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He ate and drank the precious Words –
His Spirit grew robust –
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was Dust –
He danced along the dingy Days
And this Bequest of Wings
Was but a Book – What Liberty
A loosened Spirit brings –

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Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), American poet.
Along with her contemporary, Walt Whitman, she is now considered a founding parent of a distinctly American poetic expression—though her work was not published during her life.
Her concise and often quite cryptic verse is a perfect antidote to the inanities to which our societies and institutions tend to fall prey.

In this poem of Dickinson’s later life, the rhythm adopts the familiar metric of the hymn, 4-beat / 3 beat lines. Its content, though, is not religious or even ‘spiritual’ in the usual sense; in this contrast between form and content (of which this poem is just one, very accessible, example) is in part where her originality manifested itself.

Recent editors have thoroughly researched Dickinson’s life and writings, and strive to present her poems to us as true to the form and chronological order in which she wrote them. I’m reading her work in The Poems of Emily Dickinson / Reading Edition, edited and introduced by R. W. Franklin (1999); in the First Harvard University Press paperback edition, 2005. He writes:

Although there can be various kinds of reading editions, with different technological bases or with greater intervention in the interests of editorial taste or recognized convention, the present one follows her own practice, selecting versions that focus on her latest full effort, adopting revisions and alternative readings for which she indicated a choice, and deferring to her custom in presentation and usage. The entry into her poetry is through her idiom. (11)

2 late poems / Muir

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Nothing There But Faith

Nothing, it seemed, between them and the grave.
No, as I looked, there was nothing anywhere.
You’d think no ground could be so flat and bare:
No little ridge or hump or bush to brave
The horizon. Yet they called that land their land,
Without a single thought drank in that air
As simple and equivocal as despair.
This, this was what I could not understand.
The reason was, there was nothing there but faith.
Faith made the whole, yes all they could see or hear
Or touch or think, and arched its break of day
Within them and around them every way.
They looked: all was transfigured far and near,
And the great world rolled between them and death.

 

The Late Wasp

You that through all the dying summer
Came every morning to our breakfast table,
A lonely bachelor mummer,
And fed on the marmalade
So deeply, all your strength was scarcely able
To prise you from the sweet pit you had made,—
You and the earth have now grown older,
And your blue thoroughfares have felt a change;
They have grown colder;
And it is strange
How the familiar avenues of the air
Crumble now, crumble; the good air will not hold,
All cracked and perished with the cold;
And down you dive through nothing and through despair.

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These two poems appear in Part II, the latter part of Edwin Muir’s 1956 collection, One Foot in Eden. Muir was well-acquainted with grief and depression, but also with appreciation and joy. His long marriage to Willa Muir provided an important source of what stability he knew throughout his life. (I’ve mentioned Willa Muir several times in these posts; she was a remarkable woman in her own right, with a great ear for and adeptness with languages. She worked on translations together with her husband, and also on her own. There’s a good recent article about her on a Scottish PEN site: dangerouswomenproject.org/2016/10/30/willa-muir/ )
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Our lives are ever-shifting composites of light and dark, of hope/trust/faith and of despair/anguish/crippling depression. I imagine faith and despair to be fraternal twins—like belief and doubt, perhaps? Where the one is, there the other will be also.
We need not speak of religious faith, necessarily. As pertains to living, each of us, whatever we believe or disbelieve, embody faith when we get out of bed in the morning. Faith is my conviction (whether more or less conscious) that at this moment my continuing is worth my while; that it is ‘for’ something, that somehow it matters that I do it. My reason, as specific or vague as it may be, is as unique to me as yours is to you, but a basic trust of some sort seems the irreducible common denominator.
And when that faith feels inaccessible to me, when it ‘fails me’, when “the centre cannot hold”, I experience despair.

Who but a wasp knows the wasp’s faith, or his despair? I want “through” to be the operative word in this poem, for both wasp and human; implying an entering followed by an exiting as we dive through our lives’ seasons. (May be that it is important that we do in fact strive to “dive”, that we do our best to propel ourselves with as much awareness and freedom as possible through these seasons . . .)
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There’s a whole aspect to Edwin Muir’s writing that I’ve touched on only marginally in these posts, namely, his identification with his Orcadian roots on the isle of Wyre, a tiny island in the Orkney archipelago. His 1940 autobiography (which, on request, he reluctantly and quite austerely updated years later), called Story and Fable: An Autobiography, is held by many to be the wellspring of an ‘Orkney poetics’, a modern gestalt of a pre-theologic recognition/consciousness of the mysteries and sacred secrets embodied by the particularities of the isles’ geography and human history. Alison Gray, in her deeply-penetrating 2016 book, George Mackay Brown: No Separation, explains that “the phenomena of a many-layered Orkney are (recognized by Orcadians to be) appearances of a higher reality”; the ‘swarming symbols’ in the midst of which the people live are even now known to point to “some other place” * . . . “Muir’s ‘fable’ resonates with Neoplatonism and gives Orkney its rightful place with its metaphysical interpretation, as did Plato’s myth of the cave and his theory of forms, that the appearances in this world of shadows conceal a higher reality.” (19) This is a sacramental, mystical, mythical understanding of nature. Gray explores disparate strands of ‘lore’ whose forms continue to resonate down the ages, echoing powerfully in those who have the ears to hear and eyes to see Orkney as ‘the glory of the Lord’. She tells:
Muir sets the scene for the Orcadian movement towards an Orcadian ‘orthodoxy’, crystallising at its centre the many-splendoured facets and features that lie at the heart of understanding Orkney. This understanding is a shared consciousness of a metaphysical Orkney, the ‘heart-bread’ given expression by a ‘swarm of symbols’. . . An Orkney poetics is to emerge which can hold the forces of nature to account in a metaphysical paradigm. To do justice to God also means being true to nature. Muir’s Wyre texts, saturated with childhood memories, open out insights that are biblical and prophetic, and confrontationally so. (18ff)
Muir and the poets emerging in his wake partake of a “passion for the beauty that has become an Orkney theophany, a ‘burning bush’ of biblical proportions. In each writer the commonality is also experienced in a growing readership who can through the writers’ ‘reverent minds’ find the joy of their intense consciousness of the reality of the spiritual world.” (23)

* Gray quotes (21) a few lines from Muir’s Fable, in which he describes new-born lambs:
Everything looked soft and new—the sky, the sea, the grass, the two lambs, which seemed to have been cast up on the turf; their eyes still had a bruised look, and their hooves were freshly lacquered. They paid no attention to me when I went up to pat them, but kept turning their heads with sudden gentle movements which belonged to some other place.