Dark Night of the Soul

Sometimes our fears, our grief, our betrayals are a blessing in disguise. They can be transformative. If we are willing, this dark night of the soul can teach us about our true nature. When we find that we don’t know who we are anymore, that we are so lost in the darkness, we can loosen our grip on our small identities, the impermanent and superficial things that we often take as representative of the whole of us. We can finally glimpse ourselves as a part of something greater.

Pushing Through

It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock

in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;

I am such a long way in I see no way through,

and no space: everything is close to my face,

and everything close to my face is stone.

I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief

so this massive darkness makes me small.

You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:

then your great transforming will happen to me,

and my great grief cry will happen to you.

Rainier Marie Rilke, Translated by Robert Bly

Don’t be afraid, even though you will be afraid. This dark night is a gift.

My poetry in fws: a journal of literature and art

Happy late October! It’s almost Halloween and that means it’s almost my favorite month of the year (More on that in the next post…)

In the meantime, I’ve got some exciting news. Two of my poems, Untitled and Salome, have been published by Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press in fws: a journal of literature and art. View issue 2 here! All of the pieces in this issue are on the theme of skin. I am so proud to be a part of such a wonderful publication alongside many talented artists and poets. Please check it out.

First Poem for James Wright

I went to your river

and marveled

at its lonesomeness,

that wildness reflected in

the bingo halls, the Wheeling factories

all empty now.

I looked for your grave

and wished for words.

I thought I heard

something. But it was just

that dirty river, moving past,

keeping its own secrets,

like the dead. I wonder about

my own wasted life.

What can I say to you?

I’ve loved you like no one

else since I first heard

your voice, one dark wing.

Ever since, I’ve searched for you

in truck stops and back alleys,

the polluted waterways of America.

Did you ever really leave Ohio?

When you return, will you find

the same thing as I?

Looking for Lost Graves

In 2012, I went to Martins Ferry, Ohio, looking for James Wright’s grave. I never found it.

For those who don’t know, James Wright is a poet who died in 1980. He grew up in Martins Ferry, right across the Ohio River from Wheeling, West Virginia. Though he left his hometown at age 18, rarely to return, the place looms large throughout his books.

I’ve been thinking a lot of poets recently: I must have been about 20 when I declared, rather prematurely I suppose, that I was going to become a poet, as in a profession. No doubt James Wright’s work, and the feelings it inspired, loomed large in that declaration. (Of course, less then five years later, I was filling out applications for law schools on the East Coast. I’m certain I would have been better off a penniless poet than a debt-saddled lawyer, but that’s a subject for another time.)

But James Wright was one of the first poets for me. I heard him first in Mr. Lampert’s AP English class, where we read Wright’s “The Accusation.” Strangely enough, not one of my favorites by a long shot, but it still contained this eerie balance between fear and fondness, at once both longing and revulsion.

How can I ever love another?

You had no right to banish me

From that scarred truth of wretchedness,

Your face, that I shall never see

Again, though I search every place.

IMG_2549.jpg
At the Martins Ferry library, where a picture of Wright hangs, partially obscured by a computer monitor. 

I was also struck by the fact that Mr. Lampert called him one of America’s great contemporary poets and I had never heard of him. I found Above the River, his complete poems, and read it straight through.  And then I wrote my final paper on the significance of the word “wing” throughout his body of work. (Wings = a vehicle of both observation and escape.)

I fell in love, in some kind of way, with this man who wrote about rural Ohio like it was the most beautiful place you could go. The saddest, most gut-wrenchingly beautiful place.  There’s something really authentic underneath it all–through all his poems, you can see a man who is searching. He is desperate, he is compelled, he would tear himself open to get to the heart of it. He’s wild like Whitman, recalls beauty like a Romantic, but there’s a deep foreboding that you won’t find in Whitman or Shelley. I love him because he unabashedly searches and tells the truth about what he finds. Through his sensitivity and sincerity, he has gifted me indescribable hope.

He is a man who searches for god and goodness, in spite of everything. Something drives him to obsessively wade further into the darkness, the gloom of the mines and the factories and the polluted Ohio river.  Ultimately, despite all the confusion and lostness, the pain he presents on the page like an offering, I think in some ways he arrives at a place of understanding, maybe even love. It’s a special kind of love reserved for home, for the soul of yourself, for that place in your childhood both bewildering and precious, this elusive thing we might search for our entire lives and never find.  His final book, published after his death, sums this up perfectly in its title, “This Journey.” I hope he came to believe that life is more about the search than what you find.

Many men

Have searched all over Tuscany and never found

What I found there, the heart of the light

Itself shelled and leaved, balancing

On filaments themselves falling. The secret

Of this journey is to let the wind

Blow its dust all over your body,

To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly

All the way through your ruins, and not to lose

Any sleep over the dead, who surely

Will bury their own, don’t worry.

It turns out, Wright’s grave isn’t in Ohio. I don’t know if he wanted to be buried there or not.  At the very least, his relationship with his hometown is fraught. I think he missed it and longed for what it represented, but also it haunted him. Part of him was already buried there long ago.

Oh all around us,

The hobo jungles of America grow wild again.

The pick handles bloom like your skinned spine.

I don’t even know where

My own grave is.

Bamboo Blossoms

when bamboo flowers, famine follows

 

those flowers bring the rats

every thirty years or so

the rats devour it all

flooding the landscape

squirming black appetites

bequeathing us disease

 

we dwelt in phapian paradise

shrouded by our excesses

as the flowers poked carmine noses

out of stalks that lingered

relegated to the garden

gratuitous satanic clockwork

 

we knew we were doomed when

the bamboo leaked indoors

a suffocating canopy

stalks snaking up furniture

angry roots in the carpet

catching ankles and breaking toes

 

once it’s here you can never be rid of it

you have to tear it out by the roots

or burn down the damned house

 

relinquish your sackcloth and gather the ash:

hold it in your cankered hands

it is more precious than gold

it is more filling than dirt

it is more natural than sin