Posts Tagged 'books'

Vertigo: An Acquired Taste

On this lazy afternoon I am reading Short Trip to the Edge (HarperSanFrancisco 2007), the Orthodox poet Scott Cairns’ account of his spiritual journey to the mystical Greek peninsula of Mount Athos. The following passage has me reeling. Must share. (You can hear Scott’s poetry readings here.)

I have often startled to a fleeting sense–either within an expanse of landscape or, for that matter, while poring over a written page–that there dwells before me an excess, abysmal, roiling beyond what can be grasped. Such a sense is what first led me, even as a child, to savor the language of the Bible.

It is what first led me to the language of poetry as well.

Along the way, I’ve come to the opinion that the real–whatever that may eventually prove to be–will appear, inevitably, as abysmal.

From what I gather, I’m not alone. The consensus of modern philosophy is that the human circumstance–duly appraised–is unquestionably abysmal. Where I might tweak the consensus view is simply here: I’m guessing that our circumstance–the abyss in which we live and move and have our being–need not be apprehended as an abysmal emptiness so much as an abysmal fullness.

An Enormity, I’d say.

Of which, incidentally, the human person is to become a part, a member. Appalling, yes? And abysmal. Cheerfully so, I think.

Still and in the meantime–however one might choose to speak of the accompanying sensations–our glimpses of the real are pretty much guaranteed to be vertiginous; and any taste one might have for that sensation is admittedly an acquired taste.

I have been working to acquire that taste for a long time now, going on most of thirty years.

Poetry, when it is actually poetry, suits that taste. Sacred texts, when they are pored over and pressed for unexpected and generative meaning, also serve. An expanse of landscape–whether scored and moved by human agency or by more natural activity–can also provide a savory moment availing what cannot be held.

The Illusive Vision

Here is another passage from The Writing Life by Annie Dillard–the impossibility, the cross, perhaps, of the artist/ writer:

…you are wrong if you think that in the actual writing, or in the actual painting, you are filling in the vision. You cannot fill in the vision. You cannot even bring the vision to light. You are wrong if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page. The page is jealous and tyrranical; the page in made of time and matter; the page always wins. The vision is not so much destroyed, exactly, as it is, by the time you have finished, forgotten. It has been replace by this changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work.

Then why…? How does this sinner dare…?

All Poetry Is Confessional

I have recently begun what I hope is an authentic endeavor to immerse myself in the study of poetry, with the hope that as I write, a consciousness will begin to take shape of how I am oriented and inclined in terms of tradition, intention, purpose, aesthetics, etc. The book I’m pondering over now is Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes (ed. Ryan van Cleave, Longman, 2003).

One thing I’m learning is that there is an infinity of angles from which poets might view any particular thing, a universe of personal, historical, social, sensory, emotional, imaginal, and spiritual events and experiences to explore, as well as innumerable ways not only of conceiving and shaping poems, but of describing and analyzing and rehearsing what it is one is doing or trying to do. For example:

Most important to me is that the poem not be “confessional”, that the poem be fiction and relate directly to a wider audience even while containing some personal elements.

This is a quote from the poet Dick Allen. I guess it caught my attention, because for me confession with its nuances and ramifications has been about as animating and disturbing an issue in my life and my writing as any I can think of. It seems vital to discern how and why it might be working in what I write. More from Allen:

When my poems start to become self-pitying or too self-conscious, or want to turn into home movies, or are more interesting to those who know me personally than to strangers, I abandon them, for I have failed to listen to the world and to write at my best.

I think I understand what he means, and I am pretty sure I agree with him.
A sappy, whining poem–one with a big mouth and no ears– is an immediate turnoff for me.

However, the question occurred to me whether poems may not be confessional in another sense–covertly, in a way perhaps hidden even from the poet. I am going to make some assertions which, in my limited literacy, I can’t support. But I would like to try them out and perhaps discover at some point whether they might at least have a useful function in deciphering poems.

Assertion: Poets write about what turns their heads, about what leads them into temptation.

If this is the case, the poem must reveal or uncover something about why this particular thing matters or how it matters–in relationship to what. Writing, like confession–or maybe, as confession–is a way I can find my way through whatever it is, while acknowledging and intensifying (intrinsically) my implication, my participation in it, beginning with the very act of choosing it.

Assertion: All poetry is confessional.

How so, and how can this be deciphered ? Is the writer aware of it, or is he “above” the subject, standing aloof from it (the Pharisee), or is he acknowledging his participation in the human race, and his culpability, by humbly taking his position in the middle of it (the Publican)?

I want to make a decision about my intention in writing–in a road map sort of way. What are the signs, the legend I can use to help plot out the “right” or best way to get where I am going? Where am I going? I don’t want to be a critic or a mere reporter. I imagine inhabiting my poems as an sort of invisible intercessor, not pedantically or explicitly, but by standing with, laughing with, weeping with. This might be one vantage point from which I can decipher what is taking place as I write and as I read the work of other writers. How do poets, writing in a vast variety of forms and styles, reveal their attitude or stance, through their explicit or implied subject(s), in relation to their fellow human beings and the creation?

Back to the notion of confession. If I posit salvation as a highly individual affair–just between me and You, God– with my sins as my private business, and their sins as theirs and not mine, then my confession and poetry would most likely have a “them and me” undercurrent, perhaps self-justifying, self-preoccupied, maybe as the angry or self-pitying or self-vindicating victim– indignant, vitriolic, sarcastic. On the other hand, if I see my brother, sister, daughter, neighbor, spouse, adversary) as my life, then my confession will have quite a different character– not something overt, but more like a deep, quiet stream running through my poem–of recognition, even, in a sense, of celebration in the midst of the fantastic impasses and entanglements in which I live with my fellow falling and sometimes irritating or despairing brothers and sisters–or with the physical world which often, with no intention whatever, trips me up and makes me forget or deny or ignore God.

Along with this perspective on confession, I am also proceeding with the understanding that the very nature of the (Orthodox) Christian life is perpetual and unceasing turning (around) towards God, which is repentance. In that light, the question I want to explore for and through my writing life is this: How shall I go about crafting poems that best use the circumstances in which I stand, my unique personal attributes, thoughts, impressions, and understanding to accomplish this turning, this blazing the way in my heart toward God?

Wisdom in the Secret Heart

I don’t forget writers who have befriended me and held my hand, so to speak, through dark places and stormy waters, and occasionally I revisit them to see what I will find. One of these is Kathleen Norris, whose writing Dakota and A Cloister Walk found me dwelling “in the uttermost parts of the sea” (Psalm 139:9 RSV)) and, I can say gratefully, turned me around and pointed the way home. Recently I have been rereading The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women’s Work and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. From the latter the following excerpt has especially lit up my synapses and gotten me stirred up to post after over a year:

In ancient monasteries, novices were often asked to begin their life in the community by memorizing the psalms and the gospels…To have literally learned it by heart would also mean that one was allowing the scriptures full access to the unconscious [my emphasis].

I would not usually choose to use the terminology of psychology to describe the effect of learning scripture “by heart”, but I think I know what she is referring to, and find it helpful on some level. I believe exploring the actual texts, however, can take us much closer to the heart of the matter–to what is really happening as the words–the Word–are incised in our hearts. The first text that always spring to my mind in this regard is from Psalm 51:

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. (v 6 RSV)

It seems to me that “the secret heart”, unlike the come-lately notion of the “unconscious” cannot be scrutinized or analyzed. What is being wrought by God in the heart and how is always a mystery. I have grown to love this prayer, as it speaks of the Holy Spirit insinuating Himself into the mind of our heart so that we are changed ineffably and imperceptibly–given a wisdom of a kind and in a way that are opposite of our self chosen and inflicted delusions. I am reminded of a teacher of mine who recounted how, in a time of discouragement, she decided to embark upon a rule of daily prayer. After many months she became exasperated, wondering why it wasn’t “working”. Then this word came to her: “But don’t you see that every day is different?” In memorizing the Holy Scriptures–taking them to heart, as in faithful prayer, we may be allowed to see, little by little, that things are indeed shifting, that something new is afoot.

In the tradition of the Orthodox Church we are taught that the scriptures of the Old Testament are always and entirely about/pointing to Christ. And more than that, even. In the course of my studying various recent (heterodox) writings on the Psalms, one writer mentioned that Jesus, because of his upbringing and immersion in the Hebrew scriptures, was able to quote Psalm 22 from the Cross (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”). I had a double take. It should not escape our notice that one of the names or titles of Christ is “Word of God”. So was Jesus “quoting” the Psalms? There is an essential unity in the Holy Scriptures. Seeing Christ in the Psalms is not a matter of determining in some literal sense how all the words of the Psalms are about Christ. He had become the living embodiment of them. They were always His words–that is God’s Word, even at the same time they issued forth from the crucible of the personal and ritual life of ancient Israel. I have found scholarly theories on the historical origins, uses, structure and linguistics of biblical poetry to be alternately intriguing, instructive, inspiring, infuriating and, sometimes, inconsequential. Whatever the “facts” may be–and that we can never be sure of–one thing we can be sure of, is that none of these theoretical notions, however substantiated, can in any way reduce or circumscribe the mysterious presence and inscrutable working of the Holy Spirit in and through the words of the Holy Scriptures. I am convinced of this. And I believe that this really gets to the heart of why as followers and lovers of Christ, we would have an insatiable longing to imbibe them–and Him–as our very life, our eucharistic being.

I have noticed that while reading the Psalms, I sometimes experience a shift. In one moment the words may seem to be my words, then all at once I realize how far beyond me they are. For a moment I understand the petitition from many of our Orthodox prayers, “Pray yourself in me.” Deeply embedded in these texts is the Mind of Christ, urging us, leading us toward the mind that might grow in us when our heart is pure–giving us the grace that increases our yearning for God. As I memorize these texts, I trust that they are shaping me–changing how and what I see, how I describe my life, what I find desireable, what moves me from one place to another. I can’t see the movement. I think this is what Kathleen Norris meant by “allowing the scriptures full access to the unconscious.” I would like to explore later how In the context of the Psalms the one speaking never does so as an individual, but always as a member. This is where the mind-set of contemporary psychology is off the beam. We can say it no better than the Psalms as they seem to have a way of speaking for themselves and for us:

Thy way was through the sea,
thy path through the great waters;
yet thy footprints were unseen.
Thou didst lead thy people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
(Psalm 77:19-20 RSV)

Not so much to press the point, but more for the joy of sharing it, I can’t resist including a few more verses from the Psalms that seem to say what is such a strain to say in my own words. I preface with a little explanation concerning a recent discovery that has given me great delight. The quotations below are from a new translation (Norton, 2007) by Robert Alter, a Jewish scholar of Hebrew who has tried to recapture the spirit of the original Hebrew, while eschewing certain scholars’ “odd little Christological flourishes” in interpretation. Ironically, perhaps, I have been led to a greater awareness of Christ in the Old Testament through his amazing books The Art of Biblical Poetry and The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, Harper-Collins), despite his stopping short of Christ. “Whatever the Lord pleases he does…” (Ps 135:6 RSV). I had resisted getting this translation because of his highly publicized bias, until I recently reread The Art of Biblical Poetry. I wondered how could this not be good, and besides, how could he possibly take Christ out of the Psalms? So I relented. I have not been sorry. It has become my favorite, next to the RSV. It is quite similar in spirit and specifics–a little more stark and spare, and without the thees and thous. It is liberally annotated regarding Hebrew meanings, technicalities and difficulties of translation, explanations for his choices with many helpful insights.
With these verses from Psalm 119, I hope to give you a taste of his translation. But more than that hope that you will “taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8a RSV).

I recalled your laws forever,
O Lord, and I was consoled. (v 52)

I recalled in the night your name, O Lord,
and I observed your teaching. (v 55)

Better for me Your mouth’s teaching
than thousands of pieces of silver and gold. (v 72)

Never shall I forget your decrees,
for through them you gave me life. (v 94)

My life is at risk at all times, yet your teaching I do not forget. (v 109)

The portal of Your words sends forth light,
makes the simple understand. (v 130)

I rejoice over Your utterance
as one who finds great spoil. (v162)

I have wandered like a lost sheep.
Seek Your servant, for Your commands I did not forget. (v 176)

I have to close with this:

Blessed are the men whose strength is in thee,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength;
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
Psalm 84:5-7 (RSV)

Exile: definition

an irrevocable renunciation of everything in one’s familiar surroundings that hinders one from attaining the ideal of holiness,
a disciplined heart,
unheralded wisdom,
an unpublicized understanding,
a hidden life,
masked ideals,
unseen meditation,
the striving to be humble,
a wish for poverty,
the longing for what is divine,
an outpouring of love,
a denial of vainglory,
a depth of silence,
separation from everything, in order that one may hold on totally to GOD,
a chosen route of great grief…

from The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St John Climacus, Step 3 Exile.

Pillar of Fire

I was just reading Tia’s blog in which she mentioned Jacques Maritain. This recalled to me a passage from a book I read last year, Pillar of Fire by Karl Stern. Stern was a high profile Jewish German scientist who eventually ended up in the USA and converted to Christianity (Roman Catholic). This passage is a recollection of a meeting he had with Maritain. It made my heart beat fast. Of course, I copied it word for word into my journal.

“[Maritain] implored me not to allow the precious fruit of my spiritual experience to be corroded by psychological self-analysis, to believe in the genuineness of these insights which occur quite on a plane apart from that of primitive motivations. He spoke of the bleeding wounds on the visible body of the Church; of the divinity of Christ as a stumbling block for the Jews. He spoke in a peculiarly sketchy way, in hints rather than statements. Yet there was an impression of substance and clarity about everything he said. He held his hands compact and made movements with his fingers as if he were kneading materials into thoughts. His head was attentively bent, his eyes had a remote gaze; although it was warm in the room he wore loosely around his shoulder a muffler which had no function as a piece of clothing.

“Since I spoke almost in a whisper he had moved up closely and spoke also in a whisper. He asked me the most personal questions about my spiritual life but there was not for a moment the feeling of obtrusiveness or indiscretion. I had from the first moment the deep impression of a strange and pleasant form of personal directness which was the result of a great charity and humility. As we sat in the somber salon in the midst of velvet draperies and whispered about the shekinah and the divinity of Christ, I became aware of the uniqueness of the situation. We were stripped of accidentals of national and social origin, and circumstances found strange neighbors huddling. In moments of great intensity historical time ceases. I could just as well have been inside the catacombs, a helpless catachumen whispering to an apostle.”

There are some other amazing passages in this book. Rather than copy them out (again), I should perhaps be satisfied to say, please read this book! Pub. information: Doubleday & Company, Garden City, 1959.
I found it at the public library.


A few months ago Charlotte (my link to literacy) lent me a little book, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie. I was at first attracted to it because of the bright red shoes on the cover, and the title, my being a seamstress, neither of which has much to do with why I am writing this. This is a peculiar, sometimes hilarious, and highly ironic tale of reeducation in Mao’s China. Two young men, exiled from their home to a remote farming village under hard labor, have discovered in the possession of another boy, a suitcase, which is full, they are sure, of smuggled western novels. Through their wits, determination, and sweat, they manage to get hold of a copy of a Balzac novel, thereby opening the door to a forbidden world of “ desire, passion, impulsive action, and love”. Here, in the words of the story’s narrator is the fateful moment.

“I did not rise from my bed until I had turned the last page…Then I was seized by an idea: I would copy out my favorite passages from Ursule Mirouet, word for word. It was the first time in my life that I had felt any desire to copy sentences from a book. I ransacked the room for paper, but all I could find was a few sheets of notepaper intended for letters to our parents.

“I decided I would write directly onto the inside of my sheepskin coat. The short coat, a gift from the villagers when I arrived, was made out of skins with wool of varying lengths and textures on the outside and bare hide on the inside. It was hard to find suitable passages in the book, as the limited space afforded by my coat was further reduced by areas where the leather was too cracked to be of use. I copied out the chapter where Ursule somnambulates. I longed to be like her; to be able, while I lay asleep on my bed, to see what my mother was doing in our apartment five hundred kilometres away…Better still, like Ursule, I would visit, in my dreams, places I had never set eyes on before…

“Writing on the skin of an old mountain sheep was not easy: the surface was rough and creased and, in order to squeeze as much text as possible into the available space, I had to use a minute script, which required all the concentration I could muster. By the time I had covered the entire inside of the jacket, including the sleeves, my fingers were aching so badly it felt as if the bones sere broken. At last I dozed off.”

This was my favorite passage from this book, and I copied it into my journal word for word. I recognized myself in his impulse–in this necessity of somehow entering concretely, personally, into the words, the descriptions, the longings, of etching the very experiences into his cells, into his body’s memory, blazing a trail from this seeing of his eyes, from the recognition of his mind, down through his hand so he could feel them, onto a surface where he could see them, take hold of them, wrap them about him.

I know this for I am a copier–a late-into-the-night writer. Due to various chosen and unchosen circumstances, I have been divested of most of my possessions including my libraries, more than once. Perhaps because of this, I have gradually grown a different sense of what made something “mine”, and have mostly lost my urge for acquisition, so that whether or not I have a particular book–even a favorite book–on my shelf is usually of little consequence to me. On the other hand, having the words in my body–laid up in my cells–has become my necessity. A byproduct of this is the growing number of journals stacked in shelves and on tables. I seek out books to borrow, and as I read, I copy. If the writing is terse and clean, this can be difficult because there is no excerpting passages that are well honed. In my journals I indicate the beginning page of each new transcription with a paper tab with title and author, so I can return to it, as I would to the book itself. When I reread the journals, I often make transcriptions from the transcriptions, or may be encouraged to retrieve the book, and make a new set of transcriptions, which may or may not be similar to the previous one. The copied parts are sprinkled with personal comments and copied short passages from several books which I do own and read in small portions on an ongoing basis. All of this quite clearly recalls to me the particular context of my life in which it was written.
The copyings are various, but do not, at least to me (and no one else sees them) seem at all random. I am amazed, when I return to them, how much they are of a piece, reminding me where I have been and am going, and to whom I belong. The copying is not an intellectual exercise. Nor is it for the sake of storing information. I believe it is rather a kind of trail blazing, a way of praying, of listening, the stretching out of my hands to what is beyond the limitations of my own understanding. In it I experience a growing and insatiable longing for paradise–for participation in the very life of God.

Psalm 84: 1-2, 5-7
“How lovely is thy dwelling place, O LORD of Hosts!
My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God….

Blessed are the men whose strength is in Thee,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca [a desolate place],
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength:
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.”

Psalm 27:4
“One thing have I asked of the LORD,
and that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in His temple.”

I have a funny thought, in this simple act is an unseen world—like the place of the mandorla in the icon. This has been given to me–I could not have contrived it, invented it, or really even intended it. I just find myself here, and am grateful for this way of listening, of tasting and seeing, of “inquiring in his temple” and of offering thanks. I find in the act of writing one of my greatest pleasures, but more than that, a deep satisfaction: just forming the letters, transforming a blank page into something meaningful and perhaps beautiful–not so much as an artist or a calligrapher, although that is part of it, but more as a lover.

I am reminded of the words of the disciples reflecting on their meeting with Jesus on the road to Emmaus:
”Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road, while He opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32).

What makes our hearts burn must also be shaping us, marking our path, taking us where we are going. In the story, the boys hearts longed for the home from which they were exiled, and burned for a mysterious world beyond the confines of their drudgery and captivity–for them the unknown, the unpredictable, the forbidden which, with an ironic twist, came about.

I hope that in the end I will simply be able to say with Saint Paul:
“Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” (Gal 6:17).

A short note: I am very interested in the issue of writing as an integral and integrating aspect of education. I have two homeschooling friends who consider copying a crucial aspect of their curriculum for multiple reasons. Another who has taught only minimal formation of letters and numbers, emphasizing rather comuputer skills.

In the next few days I may make a list of some of the books I’ve copied from.

Advertising dilemma

The suggested theme for VISIONS (a monthly magazine for our county) next month is, of course, Valentine’s Day, romance, love, etc. The contest for the month is “The Most Kissable Lips.” As this is the primary advertising vehicle for my business, I thought it would be appropriate for me to exhibit esprit de corps, enthusiasm, and liveliness, with the help of my always handy MILLION WORD CROSSWORD DICTIONARY. I have been using it for the past few months to add zest, pep, bite, elan, kick, zing, spark, verve, energy (you get the point) to my little 2 column x 2″ ad. This is much better than a mere thesaurus.

I started with the obvious term: LOVE (see below). What I was reminded of is how odd and slightly bewildering it is to find myself, in the business of clothing alterations, ostensibly engaged with looks, appearances, self-image, facade, personal impressions, exhibition, glamour, stylishness, etc. People ask me, “How are they wearing them now?”(meaning any aspect of any item of clothing). This gives me a huge (interior) chuckle, first of all wondering who “they” are, and secondly, knowing that I am the last person whom anyone should ask what is “in” or “out” in popular culture. But I try not to be smart, spout off, hold forth, go on and on, harangue, spiel, rant, yak, etc. I usually say ” I don’t know”, which is true (believe me). And I may add something like, “You know, opinions differ on these things. The main thing is that you like the way it looks and feel comfortable. Perhaps I can help you determine if things are in good proportion, and feasible.” I spare them, but not you who are reading, this further elaboration: What a person wears and how one appears to others and so forth, are not the things we should love, be attached to, care for, cherish, adore, dote on, esteem, cling to, revere, fall for, idolize, hold dear, yearn for, treasure, hold in high regard…Some of these are reserved for people, although most, in the fullest sense, are appropriate only for GOD.

The big $$ I charge for some operation I have performed on someone’s $2 thrift store find, huge bargain, or hand-me-down is based on the explicit cost or intrinsic value of the item, but on the skill required, the hours involved, the expense of doing business, and the basic (very) requirements for a livelihood. If someone wanted to know, the truth of it is that I believe that whether or not something fits perfectly (per se) is a matter of no consequence in the long haul, and in that sense, this work is worth nothing. I had a friend in college who loved to say in a cultivated sardonic tone, “What difference will it make 10 years from now?” I have remembered it, because it has turned out to be a valuable question to ask. Because on another level what I do and how I do it makes a life or death difference, though not for the sake of someone’s prom or cruise. It makes a difference, now, and in the very long haul (unto the ages of ages), how this day to day grind of work becomes the locus, arena, occasion, for the REAL work of how I treat, regard, respect, honor, dignify, listen to, appreciate, esteem the people who come in to my shop with their clothes and their issues: lack of confidence, bewilderment, stress, anxiety, depression, compulsions, grief, illness, bereavement, etc. The real “tools of the trade” are good ears, compassion, a sense of proportion and balance, a responsive spirit, unceasing prayer, a quiet heart, humility. It will take a long time to acquire all the fine tools I would like to have. But I have an inkling, clue, glimmering, hunch, indication, intimation of them.

I am always thankful for and to Chris K who owns and edits VISIONS. We have an ongoing dialogue about such things, and I have found that preparing the ad every month gives me a good arena for assessing, weighing, pondering, reckoning, sizing up, balancing, appraising, keeping tabs, paying attention to what it is I am really doing (or not doing) or want to–am given or called–to do.
And of course I am thankful to Daniel Stark and Stanley Newman who wrote this phenomenal work: THE MILLION WORD CROSSWORD DICTIONARY (the world’s biggest, newest, most complete crossword dictionary by far), Harper Resource, 2004. Not that I have any inclination whatsoever to work crosswords, but this is a great (and thick) book, astounding, highly entertaining, and helpful in other ways. It fits my main criterion for a good book: that it will change my life.

Oh, by the way, this is what my proposed ad copy for February is: FITTING DUDS, GARB, GEAR, FROCKS, FINERY, RAIMENT, REGALIA…