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Archive for October, 2009

“Sunflower”

What sower walked over the earth,
which hands sowed
our inward seeds of fire?
They went out from his fists like rainbow curves
to frozen earth, young loam, hot sand,
they will sleep there
greedily, and drink up our lives
and explode it into pieces
for the sake of a sunflower you haven’t seen
or a thistle head or a chrysanthemum.

Let the young rain of tears come.
Let the calm hands of grief come.
It’s not all is evil as you think.

Rolf Jacobsen
trans. by Robert Bly

“Guardian Angel”

I am the bird that flutters against your window in the morning,
and your closest friend, whom you can never know,
blossoms that light up for the blind.

I am the glacier shining over the woods, so pale,
and heavy voices from the cathedral tower.
The thought that suddenly hits you in the middle of the day
and makes you feel so fantastically happy.

I am the one you have loved for many years.
I walk beside you all day and look intently at you
and put my mouth against your heart
though you’re not aware of it.

I am your third arm, and your second
shadow, the white one,
whom you can not accept,
and who can never forget you.

Rolf Jacobsen
trans. Robert Bly

” It Is That Dream”

It’s that dream that we carry with us
that something wonderful will happen,
that it has to happen,
that time will open,
that the heart will open,
that doors will open,
that the mountains will open,
that wells will leap up,
that the dream will open,
that one morning we’ll slip in
to a harbor that we’ve never known.

Olav Hauge
trans. Robert Bly

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It’s not a sheltered world. The noise begins over there, on the other side of the wall
where the alehouse is
with its laughter and quarrels, its rows of teeth, its tears, its chiming of clocks,
and the psychotic brother-in-law, the murderer, in whose presence
everyone feels fear.

The huge explosion and the emergency crew arriving late,
boats showing off on the canals, money slipping down into pockets
— the wrong man’s —
ultimatum piled on the ultimatum,
widemouthed red flowers who sweat reminds us of approaching war.

And then straight through the wall — from there — straight into the airy studio
in the seconds that have got permission to live for centuries.
Paintings that choose the name: “The Music Lesson”
or ” A Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.”
She is eight months pregnant, two hearts beating inside her.
The wall behind her holds a crinkly map of Terra Incognita.

Just breathe. An unidentifiable blue fabric has been tacked to the chairs.
Gold-headed tacks flew in with astronomical speed
and stopped smack there
as if there had always been stillness and nothing else.

The ears experience a buzz, perhaps it’s depth or perhaps height.
It’s the pressure from the other side of the wall,
the pressure that makes each fact float
and makes the brushstroke firm.

Passing through walls hurts human beings, they get sick from it,
but we have no choice.
It’s all one world. Now to the walls.
The walls are a part of you.
One either knows that, or one doesn’t; but it’s the same for everyone
except for small children. There aren’t any walls for them.

The airy sky has taken its place leaning against the wall.
It is like a prayer to what is empty.
And what is empty turns its face to us
and whispers:
“I am not empty, I am open.”

Tomas Tranströmer
trans. by Robert Bly
in The Winged Energy of Desire (2004)

Commentary: Jan Vermeer was a seventeenth-century, Dutch Baroque painter justly famous for his use of light in his works depicting interior scenes from middle class life. His extraordinary accomplishments have recently come to the attention of the American public because of the novel-turned-film, “The Girl with a Pearl Earring.” In addition, poet Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has written a book of ekphrastic poems on a selection of the painter’s works, In Quiet Light: Poems on Vermeer’s Women.

In our poem, Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer imagines Vermeer’s studio sharing a wall with an alehouse … the chaos on the alehouse side, the light and life on the art-studio side … and the open attitude of the artist to whatever may come through the wall or from the airy sky.

As I read, I couldn’t help but remember the story from the Gospels of how Jesus appeared to his disciples, walking through a wall when the door to their hiding place was locked. C.S. Lewis has written that to Jesus in his resurrected body, the wall was as ephemeral as mist is to us when we take a walk on an autumn morning. Another human being could not have done it, because “walking through walls hurts human beings,” but Jesus did.

Then he said, “Peace be with you … receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:19, 22)

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Last night, I went to see the film “Bright Star” directed by Jane Campion. It is the love story of the 19th century, Romantic poet John Keats and the muse who inspired him, Fanny Brawne. The film gave me a whole new vision of Keats, a different perception of his poetry, one which is based more on empathy than on judgment.

Campion has done a beautiful job of creating a script with language taken from the poems and letters of the poet. The imagery of the film alludes to Keats’ poetic imagery constantly. How beautiful Campion’s snapshots of the bee in a red flower or the latch of the door turning between the wings of a blue butterfly! Keats wrote the words that directed Campion’s attention to these ordinary, extraordinary moments:

“It has been an old comparison for our urging on — the beehive! However, it seems to me that we should rather be the flower than the bee. For it is a false notion that more is gained by receiving than giving — no, the receiver and the giver are equal in their benefits. The flower I doubt not receives a fair reward from the bee … its leaves blush deeper in the next spring … and who shall say between Man and Woman which is the most delighted?” (Letter to J.H. Reynolds, 19 February 1818)

“For myself i know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days — three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.” (Letter to Fanny Brawne, 1 July 1819)

The whole film is radiant with desire.

The memory and the fear of death intensifies love’s longing in the story. Fanny’s father’s death and Keats’ brother’s death, remembered at the beginning of the film, foreshadow the end when Keats dies of complications of tuberculosis in Rome. After Fanny learns of the poet’s death, we see her cut a black thread that she has stitched into a white cloth. The image, so powerful in its simplicity, recalls the Greek myth of Atropos cutting the thread of a man’s life.

Throughout the film, as Fanny and Keats converse, they quote some of Keats’ most famous poems, beginning with his claim that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever — its loveliness increases! It will never pass into nothingness, but still will keep a bower quiet for us, and a sleep full of sweet dreams and health and quiet breathing” (from “Endymion”). As the film goes on, they speak verses that Keats wrote after he met Fanny, and it becomes clear, so clear, that she was a great source of inspiration for him. His poetry was not coming from some abstract place, but from the center of his being responding to the center of hers.

I’ve read Keats poems many times — he and Coleridge are my favorite Romantic poets — but somehow I never grounded my understanding of the poet’s work in his relationship to the love of his life. Only a college education could have blinded me to something so obvious. The film cuts through academic preoccupations to the heart of the matter. Never a word do we hear in it of “negative capability” because that philosophical idea was not the main focus of Keats’ emotional life or poetic inspiration. But after watching the film, no one will never forget that he wrote things like:

“Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
to feel forever its soft swell and fall,
awake forever in a sweet unrest,
still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
and so live forever …” (from “Bright Star”)

or

“All my thoughts, my unhappiest days and nights have I find not at all cured me of my love of Beauty, but made it so intense that I am miserable that you are not with me … or rather breathe in that dull sort of patience that cannot be called Life. I never knew before what such a love as you have made me feel was. I did not believe in it, my fancy was afraid of it, lest it should burn me up. But if you will fully love me, though there may be some fire, it will not be more than we can bear when moistened and bedewed with Pleasures.” (Letter to Fanny Brawne, 8 July 1819)

Fanny was a real, beloved person to Keats, and Campion makes her and her poet real to us. Campion does this in a new, fully-alive, sensuously rich way. Her film is like a living poem speaking from the past into the heart of the golden present.

I went home after watching the film and read dozens of letters and poems by Keats: sonnets like “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be,” and “Bright Star” as well as odes like “To Psyche,” “To a Nightingale,” “On Melancholy,” and “To Autumn.” How different to meditate on the romances “Eve of St. Agnes” and “Lamia” with Keats’ relationship to Fanny Brawne acutely in mind! For these songs came from Keats’ secret life, the one he revealed in letters to Fanny, letters that he covered from the sight of his friends even as he wrote them in their houses.

Of course I admit that the film is a love story that simplifies some of the uglier jealousies and misogynies Keats sings out in his letters to male friends and even to Fanny herself sometimes. But it still gives us something important to remember. Love gave Keats life.

p.s. In the film, Keats says, “Craft is a carcass … If poetry doesn’t come as naturally as leaves to a tree than it had better not come at all.” This made me laugh! Yes, Keats made his metaphoric comparison between poetry and tree-leaves in a letter to Benjamin Bailey, but did he therefore mean that poetry comes easily? I’ve watched the leaves split open twigs to emerge after winter, and I think the growing process is neither painless nor easy, though the revivification of the tree is, of course, a wonder to behold.

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“But when I am consumed in the fire
give me new phoenix wings to fly at my desire!”

~ John Keats (1818)

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Earlier this week, my friend Wendy and I went to watch a movie at the Ogden 6 Theater. Right beside the theater is a bargain bookstore. They have a sale going: buy the four books, get the fifth one free. This was just too thrilling for words.

I picked up a Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, the selected letters of the poet John Keats, a collection of poems by Louise Erdrich, another collection of poems by Mark Doty, and an anthology of haiku, with contributions from Basho, Busan, and Issa, edited by Robert Haas.

I’ve been reading, in a sort of slow, meditative way, a book on memoir writing by Dan Allender called To Be Told and the collection of haibun called Haiku Mind by Patricia Donegan. I thought it would be good to read King’s perspectives on memoir since I knew he would have a different sort of kick to his advice.

I’ve always enjoyed Stephen King’s prose style. It’s journalistic, Hemingway-esque. His content is always reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe. There can be little doubt that Stephen King is Poe’s modern counterpart, his literary descendant, the inheritor of his gift. Some of King’s books I’ve never wanted to read, but Firestarter and The Dark Tower were two I enjoyed.

King, as I learned from reading his life story, is married to a poet. In his book, he includes an early poem she wrote called “A Gradual Canticle for Augustine.” I wanted to include it here because it’s beautiful:

The thinnest bear is awakened in the winter
by the sleep-laughter of locusts,
by the dream-blustering of bees,
by the honeyed scent of desert sands
that the wind carries in her womb
into the distant hills, into the houses of Cedar.

The bear has heard a sure promise.
Certain words are edible; they nourish
more than snow heaped upon silver plates
or I is overflowing golden bowls. Chips of ice
from the mouth of a lover are not always better,
nor a desert dreaming always a mirage.
The rising bear sings a gradual canticle
woven of sand that conquers cities
by a slow cycle. His praise seduces
a passing wind, traveling to the sea
wherein a fish, caught in a careful net,
here is a bear’s song in the cool-scented snow.

Tabitha King (1969)
in Stephen King’s On Writing (2000)

Stephen King’s Commentary: The poet “knew exactly what she had meant to say, and has said most of it. St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) she knew both as a Catholic and as a history major. Augustine’s mother (a saint herself) was a Christian, his father a pagan. Before his conversion, Augustine pursued both money and women. Following it he continued to struggle with his sexual impulses, and is known for the Libertine’s Prayer, which goes: “Oh Lord, make me chaste … but not yet.” In his writing he focused on man’s struggle to give up belief in the self in favor of belief in God. And he sometimes likened himself to a bear …

The canticle is gradual perhaps because the bear’s awakening is gradual. The bear is powerful and sensual, although thin because he is out of his time. In a way, Tabby said when called upon to explicate, the bear can be seen as a symbol of mankind’s troubling and wonderful habit of dreaming the right dreams at the wrong time. Such dreams are difficult because they’re inappropriate, but wonderful in their promise. The poem also suggests that dreams are powerful — the bear’s is strong enough to seduce the wind into bringing his song to a fish caught in a net.” (p.65)

p.s. Poetry is everywhere.

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Jane’s new collection of fantasy stories is now available from Lulu press! Eight Stories from Undiscovered Countries includes the genres of fairy tale, allegory, magical realism, folk-tale, short fiction, fantasy, and medieval romance. In each of Jane’s stories, discovery and adventure await the young imagination!

The stories treat important themes: a child’s need to be loved (even when he is imperfect!), the possibility of moving ahead even when abandoned by friends, the urgency of the needs of those living in poverty and our responsibility to share generously with the rest of the world, the healing journey of the soul after the experience of childhood trauma, new life after death, how to love honorably, and the unexpected adventures a young knight experiences in his life.

Undiscovered Countries is a book that will be read profitably by tweens and teens, but it can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Copies are available from Lulu Press in paperback or download form. Just click below and visit:

Eight Stories from Undiscovered Countries at Lulu Press!

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Haiku by Borges

the vast night —
now nothing left
but the fragrance

Jorge Luis Borges

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