She wrote me a letter after her death and I remember a kind of happy light falling on the envelope as I sat by the rose tree on her old bench at the back door, so surprised by its arrival wondering what she would say, looking up before I could open it and laughing to myself in silent expectation.
Dear son, it is time for me to leave you. I am afraid that the words you are used to hearing are no longer mine to give, they are gone and mingled back in the world where it is no longer in my power to be their first original author not their last loving bearer. You can hear motherly words of affection now only from your own mouth and only when you speak them to those who stand motherless before you.
As for me I must forsake adulthood and be bound gladly to a new childhood. You must understand this apprenticeship demands of me an elemental innocence from everything I ever held in my hands. I know your generous soul is well able to let me go you will in the end be happy to know my God was true and I find myself after loving you all so long, in the wide, infinite mercy of being mothered myself.
Behind all art is an element of desire. Love of life, of existence, love of another human being, love of human beings is in some way behind all art — even the most angry, even the darkest, even the most grief-stricken, and even the most embittered art has that element somewhere behind it. Because how could you be so despairing, so embittered, if you had not had something you loved that you lost?
One of the great functions of art is to help us imagine what it is like to be not ourselves, what it is like to be someone or something else, what it is like to live in another skin, what it is like to live in another body, and in that sense to surpass ourselves, to go out beyond ourselves.
And love of art itself, I would add. Mirica’s desire to capture in pencil, in black and white, all the intricacy and passion of Watt’s painting, of the two lovers’ elicit desire for each other. To render in pencil, oil, sculpture, poetry, music, and even blog posts, the things that move and inspire us, to share with others who might also be moved and inspired.
The circle of creation, of love and desire, repeats itself through the ages, a subject I’ve taken to heart recently. What is love? What is desire? What is the creative act? And what is the creation of art but the recreation of all those elements?
On the day the world ends A bee circles a clover, A fisherman mends a glimmering net. Happy porpoises jump in the sea, By the rainspout young sparrows are playing And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.
On the day the world ends Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas, A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn, Vegetable peddlers shout in the street And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island, The voice of a violin lasts in the air And leads into a starry night.
And those who expected lightning and thunder Are disappointed. And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps Do not believe it is happening now. As long as the sun and the moon are above, As long as the bumblebee visits a rose, As long as rosy infants are born No one believes it is happening now.
Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy, Repeats while he binds his tomatoes: There will be no other end of the world, There will be no other end of the world.
The World By Czeslaw Milosz
It appears that it was all a misunderstanding. What was only a trial run was taken seriously. The rivers will return to their beginnings. The wind will cease in its turning about. Trees instead of budding will tend to their roots. Old men will chase a ball, a glance in the mirror– They are children again. The dead will wake up, not comprehending. Till everything that happened has unhappened. What a relief! Breathe freely, you who have suffered much.
Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. He spent his childhood in Czarist Russia, watched the rise of the Soviet Union, witnessed two World Wars, working as a resistance fighter in Poland when Hitler invaded, and eventually came to the United States. He became an American citizen in 1970, living his final years in California and writing well into his 90’s. He died in his native Poland, home of my own ancestry.
Yet through it all Milosz maintained his faith as a devout Catholic, and his belief in humanity. “The act of writing a poem is an act of faith,” he claimed. In these troubled times his poetry has much to teach us. I wonder what he would think of the world today, with the new rise in the totalitarianism he escaped in Europe and the threat to Democracy in his adopted homeland.
“At a time when voices of doubt, deadness, and despair are the loudest; when writers are outstripping each other in negation of man, his culture, and nature; when the predominant action is destruction . . . . [Milosz] leads the reader to a place where one can see—to paraphrase the poet’s own formula regarding time—Being raised above being through Being.” –Krzysztof Dybciak in World Literature Today.
Just what I needed to hear this Easter morning in these troubling times.
He passed his fingertips over her skin almost without touching her, and experienced for the first time the miracle of feeling himself in another body.
— Gabriel García Márquez, Of Love and Other Demons.
Woman, I would have been your child, to drink the milk of your breasts as from a well . . . .To feel you in my veins like God in the rivers.
— Pablo Neruda, From “Love.”
Both of them remained floating in an empty universe where the only everyday and eternal reality was love.
— Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
All the beauty I thought lost in the world is in you and around you . . . . This fatigue I feel when I am not with you is so enormous that it is like what God must have felt at the beginning of the world, seeing all the world uncreated, formless, and calling to be created.
— Anaïs Nin, from Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories
Perhaps it is true that we do not really exist until there is someone there to see us existing, we cannot properly speak until there is someone who can understand what we are saying. In essence, we are not wholly alive until we are loved.
― Alain de Botton, On Love
What does it matter how many lovers you have if none of them gives you the universe?
— Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge
We are eternal travelers of ourselves, and the only landscape that exists is what we are. We possess nothing, because we do not even possess ourselves. We have nothing because we are nothing. What hands will I reach out to what universe? The universe is not mine: it is me.
— Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
I Live My Life in Growing Orbits
I live my life in growing orbits which move out over the things of the world. Perhaps I can never achieve the last, but that will be my attempt.
I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, From Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God.
My last post about the “Slant-wise & Slippery” retelling of Little Red Riding Hoodreminded me of a fun and sexy song about Little Red by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. It was popular when I was a young teen experiencing those first faint stirrings of lust and longing that comes with sexual awakening. I sensed the power-struggle going on between Red and the Wolf. His lust made him a danger to the unaware Little Red, but his longing for her tamed him in the end. He became captive to his own lust, and Little Red, (still unaware in this retelling), held all the power.
Years later I read (and later watched the film) “In the Company of Wolves,” another retelling of Little Red Riding Hood by Angela Carter from her book of fairy tales The Bloody Chamber. In this story the innocent girl meets a handsome hunter in the forest while on her way to visit Granny. They flirt with each other and then part company to see who can reach Granny’s house first. If he wins, his prize is a kiss. She takes her time getting there, wanting to make sure he wins.
But when she arrives, she’s disappointed that it’s only Granny waiting there for her in bed. But what big eyes she has! What sharp teeth! Eventually she sees though his disguise. He throws off Granny’s clothes and reveals himself to be a man-eating wolf rather than the hunter. But when she sees her old Granny’s bones thrown into the fireplace and realizes she’s next on the menu, she turns the tables on him. She starts removing each of her garments and throws them into the fire until she’s as naked (and dangerous) as he is. When he is about to attack her, she laughs at him, knowing “she was nobody’s meat.” By the end of the story she is sleeping “sweet and sound” between the paws of “the tender wolf.”
Not long ago I came across another fun and sexy overturning of the Red/Wolf power struggle in Leonard Cohen’s song “I’m Your Man.”
“All lower love is but a schooling for the highest love,” says mystic Rudolf Steiner.
One last song, having nothing to do with Red or the Wolf, but it beautifully expresses the confusion and inward struggle that comes when transitioning from the lower to the highest form of love. It’s from the musical Jesus Christ, Superstar, and is sung by Mary Magdalene, who has only known love of the lower sort and is trying to understand this new sense of spiritual love for the Beloved.
I’ve always loved fairy tales, especially the darker, deeper, originals where good did not always overcome evil. As a young adult I was drawn toward those gothic love stories that were a type of grown-up fairy tale—Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Bellefleur, Song of Solomon, Beloved, and others that blurred the boundaries between the real and the fantastic.
Tales that told the truth but told it slant, as Emily Dickenson advised. Stories that show how slippery the truth is, how slantwise the world lies.
So when my friend and fellow blogger, Luanne Castle, came out with Our Wolves, a chapbook of poetry about “Little Red Riding Hood,” I eagerly scooped it up. I discovered with delight that she explores the slippery, slantwise versions of the classic tale, re-imagines various retellings, and poses intriguing questions.
Who are the “wolves” in our own lives, those who would devour or diminish, strangle or silence us? Who are these little Reds with their erotic cloaks and bobby socks? Their “do-good” Granny baskets and daring treks through dark woods warned by all as dangerous?
And what of the Mother who sends her daughter off on such a risky mission? What of the Granny who chooses to live in such a dark and dreadful place?
What of the Hunter or Woodcutter, who in some versions and not others, comes to save—whom? The Granny or the Girl? Or is it the Woodcutters own blood-lust that lifts the axe that splits the Wolf? Is it lust for the Wolf’s silky pelt that brings the Hunter to Granny’s door?
And what of the Wolf? Misunderstood? Maliciously maligned for being what he is, a Wolf?
If you love fairy tales and poetry, and enjoy exploring the slippery and slantwise, then I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading Luanne’s Our Wolves available on Amazon.
Here’s a nibble from the last lines of the last poem to whet your appetite:
It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness. With sadness there is something to rub against, a wound to tend with lotion and cloth. When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up, something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats. It doesn’t need you to hold it down. It doesn’t need anything. Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing, and disappears when it wants to. You are happy either way. Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house and now live over a quarry of noise and dust cannot make you unhappy. Everything has a life of its own, it too could wake up filled with possibilities of coffee cake and ripe peaches, and love even the floor which needs to be swept, the soiled linens and scratched records . . .
Since there is no place large enough to contain so much happiness, you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you into everything you touch. You are not responsible. You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit, for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it, and in that way, be known.
From Words Under Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, published by Far Corner Books, 1995.
This poem speaks to me. Sorrow is something heavy you carry in your body. It’s personal. It belongs to you. But happiness is too large to carry in your body. It comes from without and carries you along with it. It’s not personal. It doesn’t belong to you. It blows “you” away and leaves you with this “belongs to everyone” feeling. The whole world is included in happiness. It just shines everywhere, through you and to everything that surrounds you. Everything glows in that golden light, even the soiled linens and scratched records, as Nye writes.
It’s like the painting by Pierre Bonnard above. Happiness shines through every line–from the lax layered leaves at the bottom, the elegantly twisted trunk, the bursts of red and yellow at the center, the far-faint mountain in the background, to the snowy blossoms bursting heavenward.
There’s no reason for the happiness I feel when I look at this painting. It just is.
What is it about this painting by Ernie Barnes that so uplifts and inspires? That ripples with joy? That feels like poetry in motion? The elongated bodies express a joyful, hopeful longing to rise up. To leave this earth and its troubles behind as they leap into the air, their faces upward gazing as the ball falls, triumphantly, through the hoop. Their feet barely graze the ground. Their arms and legs and elbows a choreography of dance movements, jazz rhythms, and soul music. No blues here. It’s all Praise God and Amen!
You can see all that in Barnes’ “Sugar Shack” as well. Imagine what joy he must have felt while painting these! It makes me happy just thinking about it. Barnes knows something about the joy and challenge of movement. He was a talented athlete playing professional football, as well as a talented artist, before his death in 2009.
That “poetry in motion,” that joy in movement, can be found in found in great dancers everywhere. I found the following video in celebrated writer Zadie Smith’s article about what dance can teach writers. “When I write I feel there’s usually a choice to be made between the grounded and the floating.”
She compares the dancing of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Kelly’s is firmly grounded, prosaic, “commonsense” dancing, showing what everyday, ordinary bodies in their youth and strength can aspire to. Astaire’s dancing, by contrast, is not aspirational but inspirational. His dancing, she writes, is “transcendent . . . . for no bodies move like Astaire, no, we only move like him in our dreams.”
The Nicholas Brothers, Harold and Fayard, were another example of that transcendent dancing. Smith writes: “The Nicholas brothers were many, many magnitudes better than anybody else. They were better than anyone has a right or need to be. Fred Astaire called their routine in Stormy Weather the greatest example of cinematic dance he ever saw.” (Be sure to watch to the end when they descend the stairs doing the splits!)
Smith has a keener eye for dance than I have, for she saw Fayard’s dancing as more prosaic: “formal, contained, technically undeniable.” Whereas, “Harold gives himself over to joy. His hair is his tell: as he dances it loosens itself from the slather of Brylcreem he always put on it, the irrepressible afro curl springs out, he doesn’t even try to brush it back.” For me, both dancers are pure joy and perfection.
“Between propriety and joy,” Smith writes, ” choose joy.” In dance, in art, in writing—in life, I’d add—choose joy. I try to choose joy when I blog. Sharing things that bring me joy.
I’ll leave you with what Smith says is the best writing advice she ever heard—from the dancer Martha Graham: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
I mentioned in my last post that I wrote a myth about the creation of the isthmus that now comprises Central America for a novel I’m writing. The myth lies at the heart of what this novel is about: love and devotion, duty and self-sacrifice, beauty and brutality, saving and savoring the world, creativity and destruction, and uniting two into one whole. In some ways the myth mirrors the creative process, what we have to love, what we have to slay, what we have to sacrifice to create anything worth making and saving. I’d be pleased to know what you think.
A Mayan Legend of True Love: Balanque and Malenque, Hero Twins
Eons ago before the world was whole, mighty gods ruled heaven and earth. The two great land masses we now call the Americas were separated by a tumultuous sea, and knew not each other’s names. Two heroes, sired of two gods, one ruling above and the other below, were born with one sacred mission: to unite the two into one whole.
Now in those days many gods inhabited the Underworld, but the fairest of them all was the goddess Xite with her long dark flowing hair and lithe limbs shimmering with rainbow scales, for she lived in the ocean’s depths and played in the sea’s waves. But the greatest of these Underworld gods was her uncle, the Demon Bird-Dragon who some called Vucub.
Now it was Vucub who kept the seas between the two Americas in constant turmoil as he pursued the lovely Xite round and round the two continents. The whipping of his forked serpent’s tail, the beating of his great dragon wings, and the fiery breath that spilled from his great beaked head kept the seas in constant motion, spilling upon the shores and flooding the plains, all to the consternation of Hun, the god of the Americas who stood with one massive foot on each continent. And much to the distress of Xite, who sought to escape Vucub’s lust.
Then one day, during one of Xite’s ceaseless circling to escape her uncle, the great golden god Hun glimpsed her swimming by, shimmering through the waves with her rainbow limbs and flowing hair and fell in love. From their fateful mating the twins Balanque and Malenque were born, their flesh joined at the hip.
Now the two loved each other very much as twins always do, for they complement and complete each other, representing as they did male and female, strength and beauty, hubris and humility, bravery and sacrifice, might and meekness. They grew up laughing and playing together, never finding their joined flesh a hindrance but a symbol of their mutual love and devotion.
Their sweet days of play and leisure were numbered, however. So adept were they in uniting what was parted that their mother and father, still relentlessly harried by Vucub, whose pursuit of Xite was now driven by a raging jealousy as well as lust, laid upon the twins a great mission: to create a land bridge between the two land masses. This would unite the two Americas that Hun ruled, as well as divide the sea in two, preventing Vucub from pursuing their mother from one sea to the other.
And so the twins, ever ready to please and serve their parents, took up this great task. Balanque stretched out his right hand to the land mass in the north while Malenque stretched out her left hand to the south and the two together pulled and tugged, tugged and pulled, day and night, night and day, until they drew one long strand from each land mass to meet in the middle uniting them forever. Thus the slender waist now known as Central America was created.
When the task was completed, the twins were so depleted they lay down to rest at the center of the isthmus and fell fast asleep. Each dreamed of their great making and all it could become. From their dreams rose all the flora and fauna that now adorns and inhabits the isthmus.
From Malenque’s soft curves and flowing hair, her hips and breasts, came the flowing rivers and waterfalls, the tangling vines and trees of the jungle, the hills and mountains and fertile valleys. From her rosebud lips, blooming cheeks, and dancing eyes came the wild orchids and sweet mangos, the trilling songbirds and darting butterflies. Balanque’s dreams were full of jaguars and howling monkeys that sprung from his powerful thighs and grasping arms. Red and yellow macaws flew out of his mouth, and great sensuous snakes slithered from his muscled calves.
But when the Demon Bird-Dragon discovered he could no longer pursue his beloved Xite because of the land-bridge her offspring created, he grew wild with fury and rose up to destroy what they had wrought. With his great forearms grabbing the edge of the isthmus and his serpent tail and mighty wings thrashing the sea, he created a great army of waves to rise up to destroy the land-bridge and drown all the flora and fauna that flourished there, and Malenque and Balanque along with them.
Now the howls of the monkeys and the roars of the jaguars woke the sleeping twins, but they were still too drunken with dreams and heavy-limbed in their drowsiness to rise up to defend their creation. When they struggled to rise, bound together as they were, they could not. Balanque struggled to his knees but Malenque was still entangled in the vines and tree roots of the great jungled forests and could only rise up on her elbows. When Vucub saw Balanque rising but trapped by his sister he called out in triumph.
“See how it feels to be trapped and bound, to be forever prevented from rising up to pursue what you love, to be dragged down by a lust that consumes you? I shall destroy all you created together and separate your mother from your father and take her down to the nether parts of the sea where the world and the great god Hun shall see her no more forever. And you, the twins your parents spawned, shall drown beneath a thousand waves as all you created collapses into the sea.”
In great alarm and rage, Balanque pulls with all his might to rip his sister from the land’s grasp so he can rise and defeat the demon, but he cannot pull her loose. Her hair is threaded in the rivers, her limbs tangled in the vines, her feet are roots binding her to the earth. He sees the anguish and pain in her eyes as she tries to tear herself away to help protect what they created. He knows they are doomed, whatever they do. If he rips her away, he could lose her forever; if he doesn’t, he loses her and everything they birthed together.
Malenque sees his pain and shares it. She tells her brother, “Break away from me and kill Vucub. It is your duty!” Encouraged by her words and in a lust for battle, Balanque rises from his knees to his feet in a low crouch and lifts his heavy sword over his head to slay the Demon Bird-Dragon. As he does so, Malenque is dragged upward with him but still fastened to the land that will not let go.
Seeing that her brother is still tied by his love for her, and their sacred mission is doomed to failure because of it, she begs him to slash down with his mighty sword and part their bodies so he can rise up to fight Vucub. But Balanque, who he loves his sister more than his own life, cannot lift the sword to separate them for fear doing so will slay her. Malenque, seeing the fearful love in his eyes, knows what must be done. She grabs his sword from his hand and strikes down with all her might between them, severing his hip from hers, and freeing him to fight.
Balanque looks in horror at what she has done, what she has sacrificed to save them all. As the blood spills from her lifeless body, with a screech of grief and rage and icy revenge, he grabs his sword from her hand and rushes forward screaming in blood lust. With one mighty blow he slays the Demon Bird-Dragon, severing its head from its thrashing body.
Vucub’s shriek of terror abruptly ends as its severed body convulses and its mighty wings fall. The raging waves recede taking the Demon’s body with it. But Balanque holds up the demon’s head and bowing deeply, presents it to his mother. She takes the head with its tuft of brilliant feathers, its fierce eyes and sharp beak and sets it upon Balanque’s head as a crown. Now he too is a god, like his mother and father, but he takes no pleasure from it, for his beloved Malenque is no longer at his side. Her body has been reclaimed by the land.
Now when he walks there, he sees her everywhere, her laughter in the sound of the waterfalls, and her whispers in the swaying trees, her wide eyes in the orchids, and her graceful arms in the jungle vines. His grief at her loss is so constant and fierce the deluge of his tears become great lakes and his cries shake the earth and topple boulders. His wrath rises up in fiery volcanos that spill memories of her blood sacrifice across the land.
And so, even today, the beautiful isthmus that Balanque and Malenque created together to join two great continents—this slender thread, this graceful waist that unites them—is riven with the tremors and terrors of Balanque’s great grief, even as it sings with the beauty of Malenque’s great sacrifice, and the Hero Twins’ everlasting love.
In a novel I’m writing I include an origin myth of how the isthmus of Central America was created. It’s fictional but inspired by the Mayan myths I had been reading. My protagonist reads a myth about the heroine for which she was named. The book is full of gorgeous imagery and she describes some of her favorites: The rivers, trees, and flowers flowing out of Malenque’s body, Balanque with the jaguars and monkeys and macaws rising from his. Xite with her flowing hair and fish-like tail looking anxiously over her shoulder as she swims away from the Demon-Bird Dragon. . . . . She wonders if this is where her love of art was born.
So imagine my delight when I discovered the lush collages of Maria Berrio, inspired by her own reading of myths from her native Columbia. In an interview for the Georgia Review she says:
I am deeply influenced by surrealism and magical realism, so some of my favorite classic South American authors are Borges, Neruda, and Márquez. But much of my work has, of late, been influenced by oral traditions, as well as the rituals, customs, and beliefs of South America.
For example, a tale I explored in my 2017 piece Aluna references the creator figure and “Great Mother” of the Kogi people from my native Colombia. . . . .The painting depicts a female version of the mama priest in the moments just after she is brought out of the cave. Her senses are flooded with the intense beauty of the world she is charged with protecting. It is a fragile world, but she accepts her destiny.
Barrio creates her collages from hand-made papers, often with natural motifs, from the global south, such as Nepal, India, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Mexico, and Brazil. A writer from Praxis International Art describes her work this way:
Her careful and laborious assemblage of torn pieces of paper is a way of creating a transcendental space/time where myths and dreams can be told; among them, the story of the all too human yearning to recover the treasures of the lost garden of childhood, which echoes the longing for Paradise Lost.
Myths reveal the great archetypes from which the world’s art and literature and religions are evolved, and therefore from which histories and cultures arise. They can teach us great things about ourselves and this world into which we are embedded.