Poetry and the Soul
A presentation by Anne Elvey for the regular sessions at The Carmelite Centre Melbourne known as Poetry for the Soul. This paper was first published in the online magazine 'Sotto'.
Sometimes it is simply a line of poetry that speaks to the soul. A couple of years ago, I read a short poem by Robert Hass ‘That Music’ and it was the final line to which I said ‘yes’. I love the simplicity of the poem and the way the final line is conditional, beginning ‘If’.
The creek’s silver in the sun of almost August,
And bright dry air, and last runnels of snowmelt,
Percolating through the roots of mountain grasses
Vinegar weed, golden smoke, or meadow rust,
Do they confer, do the lovers’ bodies
In the summer dust, his breath, her sleeping face,
Confer—, does the slow breeze in the pines?
If you were the interpreter, if that were your task.
Set this beside Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘First Elegy’ of the Duino Elegies
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic
Orders? And even if one were to suddenly
take me to its heart, I would vanish into its
stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.
And so I hold myself back and swallow the cry
of a darkened sobbing. Ah, who then can
we make use of? Not Angels: not men,
and the resourceful creatures see clearly
that we are not really at home
in the interpreted world. Perhaps there remains
some tree on a slope, that we can see
again each day: there remains to us yesterday’s street,
and the thinned-out loyalty of a habit
that liked us, and so stayed, and never departed.
--Rainer Maria Rilke2
For me, poetry, the making that is poetry, is about paying attention, about somehow daring to witness by interpreting—in an already interpreted world, where being ‘at home’ is often fraught.
And the ‘if’ is important: Hass’s ‘if’ to me is like a call ‘if you were the interpreter, if that were your task’, what would you do, what would you say? How would bodies and breath, dust and looking at a ‘tree on a slope’ … ‘again each day’, and the tree, and the walking, and then the whole long history of colonial presence in this land, and the longer history of Wurundjeri and Bunurong presence in these parts, and all the places that are part of our own histories—how would these ‘confer’ in us, in our writing and reading? How would they converse in us? Would there be something of sacrament or grace in this interchange of things—some of which are poems?
After Hass and Rilke, I am reticent to read my own work. But I will read my Advent/Christmas poem that Hass’s touched off and which opens by quoting the last line of his ‘That Music’. The notion of an interspecies ‘yes’ here is in debt to a yet to be published paper by Deborah Bird Rose.
‘If you were the interpreter’ (Robert Haas, ‘That Music’)
If you were the interpreter, if that were
your task, the slow flowering gum
with its ripe buds, the lorikeets announcing
the first red blooms, their soft spikes
erupting from the denser green, the winged
flash of colour, the squawk that seems a shriek
would be your text. The conversation that scoots
above your drive in a foreign tongue would seem
simple to translate, if you were to consider
the body language of birds. They dart on air.
They raise excited voices like children
at 4 or 5 am on Christmas day. It is the last week
of Advent. The rainbow lorikeets, mad consumers,
in a rush are calling to kin, look! The gum is
in flower! With so much blossom yet to burst,
you might think they are singing it open
with their shrill calls, and that all around the suburb
the gum trees are answering, vermillion.
--Anne Elvey 2011
So, my first point about poetry and the soul is that both poetry and spirituality are about a kind of paying attention, with the senses and with the self (whatever that may be) and about the self as unsettled by what Rilke describes as the ‘call-note/ of depth-dark sobbing’.3
It seems to me that this call-note as it relates to poetry is at one level something universal. Mark Tredinnick captures this in a few words from ‘Wingecarribee Eclogues’. Toward the end he writes, ‘Mortality’s the price we pay for form’ (before he goes on to have a rather voyeuristic male god, recollecting ‘why he set [the price] so high’).4 ‘Mortality’s the price we pay for form’ is multilayered and I don’t want to unravel its layers tonight except to say that it is one of those lines that seemed to resonate when I first read it. What I want to suggest though is that mortality, or better finitude, of which mortality is perhaps a paradigm, is central to the making of a poem. Somehow, the formliness of poetry-that-works, even where form is eschewed, is about negotiating ours and the world’s finitude, lovingly I think, open to possibility, about celebrating finitude as what makes making (poiesis, poetry) possible.
One aspect of this celebration of finitude is attentiveness to things as things. Here I want to read three poems. First, William Carlos Williams
A Sort of a Song
Let the snake wait under
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
--William Carlos Williams5
Then my own take on poetry and the poet as oriented toward the thing itself, impossibly:
Bent toward the thing
the imagination is
bare. Clothes lie in snatches
across the grass as if the glance would
collapse with language, but does not.
An exception occurs
when to see is
to see the fragment grafted to the thing.
The hand traces the surface
to the cut
and meets the burr of the wood.
The nose takes in moistness it
may be poison
to taste. The mind strips the bark
as if to inquire is there
an inner graft, a matter
toward which one might bend
Third, Gerard Manley Hopkins [hard to choose just one and I wasn’t going to read my last poem after this one…]:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eyes what in God’s eyes he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Gerard Manley Hopkins7
Well, the language of men and a male God is not what I would use, but it would be wrong to change a word of Hopkins nonetheless, and the lovely limbs and eyes at the end make this a kind of love poem. Let’s listen again to the way the first part of the sonnet unfolds in a cascade of language: ‘As tumbled over rim in roundy wells/stones ring’ … ‘like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s/bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name’—cascading into the notion that each finite thing selves, as if to a kind of call, a ‘yes’ to being; each thing ‘deals out that being indoors each one dwells;/ … goes itself; myself it speaks and spells/ crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.’
While in some ways I would be happy for the poem to end here, this is not enough for the Jesuit Hopkins, and what he says next in his Christian frame is pertinent to what poetry is about also: ‘the just man justices;/keeps grace’.
How does a poet make poems and in the making keep grace? how does a poem keep grace?
Peter Boyle, in his O’Shaunessy’s Apocrypha Book Four, number VIII, has a line I like: ‘It is no good asking for a poem to be this or this. Life deals only what it deals’.8 A poem might be an instance of the just man justicing, but more likely it will be the poem poeming, the poem as a thing shaping the breath.
Since Susan Fealy is here, I will read my poem about the writing of poems, which I dedicated to her for her generosity in editing my last chapbook, and her generosity as a networker among poets. I was thinking about the work of making that is a poem.
Notes on writing a poem
for Susan Fealy
It is not to hold a shape
in your hands nor to feel
the wet clay turning
on the potter’s wheel.
It is not to make a solid
with its own geometry
nor to erect a shelter;
to stitch neither a coat
nor a cloth. It is not
to blow glass until it
bends a world’s light
through its curves.
Even so, it is to make
a thing: a page,
a mosaic of ciphers
and space the ear
collates, the silence
and the din,
the written sound.
If it sings or flies
it is not a bird
to quiver in your palm,
nor a gecko to dart
across your wall,
nor the light that glints
from the filigree mirror
of the dragonfly’s wing,
nor the breath of a mare
when you’ve fed her
carrots by hand. It is
a thing that shapes itself
to a tongue, as elusive
as the blowfly
that got in yesterday,
buzzes now, and will not
be chased out.
The poem as a way of engaging with the world, with things, with finitude, breathes within its own limits. Judith Wright speaks of such limits of the word in her ‘Gum-Trees Stripping’, where she ponders the wisdom of gum-trees as they perform their ritual/seasonal stripping of bark. Wright says: ‘Words are not meanings for a tree’. The human viewer is gently challenged to look and not look at the trees’ ritual, to interpret and to refrain from interpreting, to share in a more than human wisdom, for ‘Wisdom … can be quiet and not look/for reasons past the edge of reason’.10
Pushing us ‘past the edge of reason’ in another way is the ‘call-note/ of depth-dark sobbing’, which Rilke invokes, which can be both intensely personal and deeply tragic communally. We have poems that emerge from oppression in loss and grief, poems that not only witness to their situation but call forth possibilities of a different way of being.
Audre Lorde does this with careful attention to detail, in the fifth and final section of her poem ‘Outlines’, which talks about the love of two women across the ‘challenge’ (‘the burden of history’) of racial, heterosexist and patriarchal politics. ‘One straight light hair on the washbasin’s rim’ signifies ‘difference/intimate as a borrowed scarf’, an intimacy that is immediately interrupted by ‘the children arrogant as mirrors’. Like the ‘banner/in a choice of winds’, the writer clings to the lovers’ fragile but honed intimacy ‘seeking an emotional language/in which to abbreviate time’. The poem then concludes with the crossing of the personal and the political, the social and the ecological, which are focused in the lovers’ relationship and their struggle ‘to do what we need for our living/with honour and in love’. For the poet, the struggle is a ‘battle’, one of many in a ‘war’ at once intimate and planetary, where
if we lose
someday women’s blood will congeal
upon a dead planet
if we win
there is no telling.
My next poem seeks to open out to a living planet in terms of thinking past how we limit love, moving beyond gay, straight, bi, into a more than human frame of lust, love, breath, and saying ‘yes’. The poem began last year after I heard Matt Hetherington’s reading of Rumi here at the Carmelite Library:
the body lusts
for the light. the sky’s blond fringe
across a face you could stroke with your eyes
the tongue rolls a word
with the aftertaste of peach.
its rough mandorla
bulges in your cheek
his speech is courteous as a thing
that occupies its space.
he dips his finger into a font
to wet your tongue
the wind lifts your hair
with rumour of a place other
than your screen.
you unbutton your skin
early evening love
the sun drops into the bay.
the handstitched binding of your bone
after dinner love
the wine is slant
in the glass. the horizon of your touch
with the coracle of your breath
all night love
tangle. you fall
Paul Celan, who can write in his poem ‘Corona’ translated by Jerome Rothenberg, ‘Autumn is eating a leaf from my hand’, and who dared to bring breath from the ashes of the Shoah, says in a speech called ‘The Meridian’ (translated by Rosmarie Waldrop): ‘Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of our breath. Who knows, perhaps poetry goes its way—the way of art—for the sake of just such a turn?’13
Somewhere a poetry shaping the breath crosses with the poetry of the prophets. In Isaiah 6 the angel touches the prophet’s mouth with a burning coal; this is my riff on the passage and it comes back to the question of poetry and finitude, poetry and mortality:
The mortal utterance
It is a coal
picked from the fire
at the altar of mercy.
A gust billows—
the tent pitched
for a god. One red
where the cherub
blows. A seraph’s
the lips. The tongue,
gingerly at first,
feels for the burn.
What a tender
the anemone cluster
moist as a grammar
that might repair
a world, might
in saliva steep
the possible thing—
utility. The phrase
(the seraph stumbles)
brands the open
is the wound’s answer.
We live in the wounds of colonisation and environmental destruction and, for me, spirituality is about an attentiveness that is situated in relation to what Jacques Derrida calls a past that is never past because it shapes the materiality of the present where spirit/breath is material and where ‘what is’ shapes us and our writing, and calls with Hass’s ‘If’: ‘If you were the interpreter, if that were your task’. John Anderson in his poems of the Merri Creek writes that: ‘The country is making/ something different of all of us’.15 Stuart Cooke in his most recent chapbook acknowledges his poems as written with the places they evoke.16 There is much more to explore in the possibility that a practice of attentiveness might become a ‘writing with’.
While Philip (Harvey) and Donna (Ward) asked me to say one thing about poetry and the soul, I have said at least three: the first is about attentiveness, the second is about finitude and form, and the third is about the thing in itself, the impossibility of the thing in itself, the poem as a thing and the possibilities it can leave open, when ‘here’ and ‘yes’ become the poem’s answer to the wound and the world. In Dorothy Porter’s poem ‘Tsumani’ in her verse novel El Dorado, is a couplet: ‘The warning tremor/of answered prayers’.17 Out of the context of her poem, this says something to me about the force of the Ignatian notion of praying for grace to meet the call of the coming day. If such prayer for grace is a prayer to attend as a poet poeting or a just person justicing, then we might just be at the edge of what has been called the mysterium tremendum, acting, writing, reading ‘as if it’s holy’.18
‘Read as if it’s holy’! Since I have a poem entitled ‘What is a soul?’ that Philip published in Eureka Street some time back, I thought it might be appropriate to end a reflection on poetry and the soul with this. Robert Adamson sees this poem as a kind of prayer, and for me writing poetry (both attending and shaping; bending toward the thing, responding, trusting the unconscious then disciplining what emerges into the shape of a poem) is the nearest I come to prayer and it is, I think, a kind of spirituality:
What is a soul?
A soul quivers
in the palm of your
voice, is still when
a sparrow alights
outside. In the winter
sun a soul
twitches neck and
buried in the pulse
of a round & thinking
flesh. Like any feathered
thing in its space
it does not try
to be noticed. A soul
pauses to witness
a magpie. Its body
is a lever, its
beak a chisel,
prising bark from the trunk
of a myrtle. On the sky
a soul writes
tosses a gauze
across the single crescent
jewel that fades
into day, watermark
of the fingernail that
lifted a scab. Then
the soul is a prayer
may a great
lance your skies.
1 Robert Haas, Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005 (New York: Ecco, 2007), p. 37.
2 Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, translated by A. S. Kline (2001); http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/German/Rilke.htm#_Toc509812215
3 Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Poems, translated by J. B. Leishman (Middlesex: Penguin, 1964), p. 60.
4 Mark Tredinnick, Fire Diary (Glebe: Puncher and Wattmann, 2010), p. 21.
5 You can listen to Williams reading this poem here: http://blog.92y.org/index.php/item/92y_podcast_from_the_poetry_center_archive_william_carlos_williams_a_sort_o/
6 Anne Elvey, Bent toward the thing (Seaford: Rosslyn Avenue Productions, 2012), p. 19.
7 Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and Prose, selected and edited by W. H. Gardner (Middlesex: Penguin, 1953),
8 Peter Boyle, Apocrypha: Texts Collected and Translated by William O’Shaunessy. Edited and with a Postscript by Peter Boyle (Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2009), p. 131.
9 Anne Elvey, ‘Notes on writing a poem’, rev.er.ie, Winter 2012; http://reverieliterarymagazine.wordpress.com/2012/12/01/notes-on-writing-a-poem/
10 Judith Wright, Collected Poems (Pymble: HarperCollins, 1994), p.133.
11 Audre Lorde, Our Dead behind Us (London: Sheba Feminist Publishers, 1987), pp. 12-13.
12 Anne Elvey, ‘plural ecstatic’, in Mark Tredinnick (ed.), Australian Love Poems 2013 (Carlton South: Inkerman & Blunt, 2013), pp. 256-57.
13 Paul Celan, Selections, edited and with an introduction by Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 44, 162.
14 Anne Elvey, ‘The Mortal Utterance’, Eureka Street 23, no. 17 (2 September 2013); http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=38132)
15 John Anderson, the forest set out like the night (North Fitzroy: Black Pepper, 1995), p.12.
16 Stuart Cooke, Departure into Cloud (Sydney: Vagabond, 2013).
17 Dorothy Porter, El Dorado (Sydney: Picador, 2008), p. 128.
18 Jennifer Harrison, ‘Book Sculptor’, Salt-lick Quarterly (Autumn 2003), p. 9.
19 Anne Elvey, ‘What is a Soul?’, Eureka Street 20, no. 5 (16 March 2010); http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=20038#.UjkaRz9j7ms