Archive for May, 2010

I gave two poetry readings in May, one in Kalamazoo, Michigan and one here in Wheaton, Illinois. Both were held out of doors, because the weather is beautiful and allows for it. To me, it was wonderful to be able to play flute with the wind blowing through my hair and perform my poetry with red-winged blackbirds singing their nesting songs as my jazz musicians — and later to be compared to a dryad!

In Michigan, I read for medievalists at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, and so I tried to choose poems that medievalists would like. In Illinois, I read for 4th and 5th girls graduating from this year’s Church of the Rez Sunday school class — and their parents — at an afternoon party featuring a May-pole for the girls to dance around with ribbons in their hands. I tried to find poems they would like, too. Naturally some of these came from MAGICAL POEMS FOR GIRLS, for both audiences, because that sonnet collection is full of fairy-tales, medieval fantasies, and stories about the lives of victorious queens.

I’ve been reading poetry by others as well, silently and joyfully and curiously to myself, especially from a recent issue of American Poet (the journal of the Academy of American Poets) and a collection of thoughts about poetry by Edward Hirsch called Poet’s Choice, which was the title of the column he wrote for the Washington Post Book World in 2002. I love what Hirsch writes about about the 19th century English poet John Clare, about “a language that is ever green” (as Clare wrote) and about love poems voiced as invitations:

We’ll down the green meadow and up the lone glen

And down the woodside far away from all men

And there we’ll talk over our love-tales again

Where last year the nightingale sung.

It’s a beautiful meditation, Clare’s is, and Hirsch’s on it is, too. Hirsch observes, drawing on a biography about Clare by Jonathan Bate, that more than fifty of Clare’s poems begin with the words “I love,” and the most common noun in his mature poetry is “joy.” What do these two facts tell us?

Something essential, something vital, something about the heart and life and the beauty of the natural world.

Clare loved to walk in through woods and fields, but he also spent time in an asylum due to mental illness, suffering through what Hirsch calls “the tormented years.” Yet the eyes of his heart were looking upward, so his meditations were still on love and on joy. Perhaps when we read Clare’s poetry, we can say in the words of e.e. cummings:

“now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened”

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Last week, on Sunday, the Church of the Rez Artists’ Community Group met at my house. I deeply enjoy all of my friends and their amazing gifts (and you can, too, if you click on their names below and visit their websites):

Sandy, singer and photographer and leader of this motley crew
Janice, illustrator and fine art painter
Lois, visual artist
Margaret, gardener and author of children’s books
Laura, playwright, seamstress, and visual artist
Charity, a ballet dancer who does beautiful figure drawings
Steve, song-writer and pianist and writer
Josiah, creative writer and visual artist
and Bob, water-colorist; Lillian, dramatic actress; Christine, singer and monotype visual artist … and Jane (that’s me), poet, childbirth doula, and medievalist ( ~ yes, I know it’s a strange combination, but it is all creative, and it is all art!)

… among others! Anyhow, last Sunday, Mother’s Day, these wonderful people brought their current projects to share with each other. I loved it! Margaret’s mother came and brought an oil painting that was so very beautiful it pierced my heart — the way the light shown on the painted leaves over a woman sitting on a bench beside a dirt path … and Josiah read the poetic opening of a play he is writing for a friend who plans to stage it using puppets. Puppets implies children, and so you might assume a simple intro to this play … but it is more Shakespearean than simple. To me, it is beautiful.

“The Little Mermaid”

I was born adrift in the sea, silver tailed,
A serenade sung in the depths.

The youngest of six, I waited for the first blush
Of my fifteenth year to rise to the world above.

My oldest sister left and returned within a month.
Every night, she said, she laid on the shore listening to the sounds of the city,
The peal of church bells, the click and whir of carriage wheels.
Clear and clean in the thin night air.

My second sister returned in a fortnight
To tell us the sun was more than a violet bleed.
She’d risen to its setting, a rippling gold reflected
upon the break and swell of the waves,
and a flutter of birds etched black above.

After a week my third sister returned,
having swam the length of an inland river.
She described in great detail the smell of crushed grass,
the scent of jasmine and spice as women and men
Dined by the water. And the buckle and swell
of children’s voices as they played, naked,
and scattered when she came near.

My fourth sister came home within a day,
Chilled and shivering from the cold.
The world was a glassy shallow, she said,
White as pearl with winter snow,
While icebergs towered like churches
Adrift in the current’s flow.

My fifth sister left for just an hour
To return with the image of what she’d seen
Written blank on her face.
Miles and miles of flat horizon,
A bleak succession of foam and blue
The only feature of which, she said,
Was the lonely sport of wandering ships
Scoring the coursing waves.

Finally my fifteenth came and I swam up to the surface,
A smile fixed upon my face, and I saw for the first time
The shimmering roof of my world solidified to a plaintive
Grade of cobalt, and above me the sun a yellowish
Tinge shrouded by a fringe of wayward cloud.

I swam on my back as the afternoon ebbed to evening
And met a masted ship of coiled rope and plywood,
And upon it many men singing a merry song,
While they danced under a hundred coloured lights
that bobbed to and fro in the currents of wind.

Josiah Duke Harrist
April 2010

*Thank you, Josiah, for writing something so beautiful that lets us see the Little Mermaid and experience her amazing transition from under the waves to a place above them.

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Finding Kabir

Rumi came to me late in life, even though I heard his famous name when I was younger. Once I started reading Rumi, I couldn’t stop because his verses are beautiful, lyrical, and infused with a profound awareness of divine love. Kabir is like that, too, I see now as I read translations of his poetry by Robert Bly.

Robert Bly captivated my imagination with one of his many books, this one a collection of poems he’s translated, The Winged Energy of Delight. His skill as a poetic translator is undeniable, and I always find myself deeply enjoying Bly’s deft word choices and flowing lines. His work with Kabir’s poetry is simply marvelous.

Here is a poem about a flute, and as a flutist, it calls to me:

“I know the sound of the ecstatic flute
but I don’t know whose flute it is.

A lamp burns and has neither wick nor oil.

A lily pad blossoms and is not attached to the bottom!

When one flower opens, ordinarily dozens open.

The moon bird’s head is filled with nothing but thoughts of the moon,
and when the next rain will come is all that the rain bird thinks of.

Who is it we spend our entire life loving?”

trans. Robert Bly
Kabir: Ecstatic Poems (2004)

In another place, Kabir writes, “As the river gives itself into the ocean, what is inside me moves inside you.”

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What makes Love sing?

“When Love first tasted the lips
of being human, it started singing.” ~ Rumi

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I was happy enough to stay still
inside the pearl inside the shell,

but the hurricane of experience
lashed me out of hiding and made me

a wave moving into shore, saying loudly
the ocean’s secret as I went, and then

spent there, I slept like fog against
the cliff, another stillness.


I used to have fiery intensity
and a flowing sweetness.

The waters were illusion.
The flames, made of snow.

Was I dreaming then?
Am I awake now?


I run around looking for the Friend.
My life is almost over,
but I’m still asleep!

When it happens, if it happens,
that I meet the Friend,
will I get the lost years back?


We search the world for the great untying
of what was wed to us with birth
and gets undone at dying.

We sleep beside a stream, thirsty.
Cursed and unlucky his whole life,

an old man finishes up in a niche
of a ruin, inches from the treasure!


There is a desert
I long to be walking,
a wide emptiness:

peace beyond any
understanding of it.

trans. Coleman Barks
in Birdsong (1993)

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Giving a scholar a book is like setting a crown on a princess’s head! ~ jb

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In 1977, Rankin & Bass produced a cartoon version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which instantly delighted many children all over the world. In the film, after the dwarves, the wizard Gandalf, and the hobbit Bilbo discover a stolen treasure amassed by trolls, Gandalf hands over a map of the Mountain to the dwarf-leader, Thorin Oakenshield. (In the book, Gandalf shares it with Thorin and Bilbo back at Bag End before their adventure ever begins — the story was changed a bit in the translation from the page to the animated performance.) In the Mountain, there is an even greater treasure, one that has been stolen and is being jealously guarded by the dragon, Smaug. It is why the dwarves and Bilbo are on their adventure: they are treasure-seekers.

You can see the scene on YouTube:

Gandalf Hands Over the Map

If you skip ahead in the clip linked above to 6:30, you will come upon one of my favorite exchanges between Gandalf and Bilbo about a secret way to the Mountain:

Bilbo: “If the secret door is hidden, how do we find it? The map doesn’t tell.”
Gandalf: “It does, and it doesn’t. You will understand in time.”

Jane Beal, PhD

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