[Editors’ note: this lyric essay was presented as the keynote address at Edith Cowan University’s CREATEC symposium on the theme Catastrophe and Creativity in November 2012, and represents excerpts from the author’s publication Threading Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry. Regina, SK: Hagios Press, 2011. Reproduced with the author’s permission].
Essay and verse and anecdote are the ways I have chosen to apprentice myself to loss, grief, faith, memory, and the stories we use to tie and untie them. Cat’s cradle, Celtic lines, bends and hitches are familiar: however, when I write about loss, I find there are knots I cannot tie or release, challenging both my imagination and my craft. Over the last decade, I have been learning that writing poetry is also the art of tying together light and dark, grief and joy, of grasping and releasing. Language is a hinge that connects us with the flesh of our experience; it is also residue, the ash of memory and imagination.
(Threading Light 7)
Greek katastrophé overturning, sudden turn, from kata down + strophe ‘turning” from strephein to turn.
Loss and catastrophe catapult us into the liminal, into a threshold space. We walk between land we have known and the open sea.
Mnemosyne, the mother of the nine Muses, the personification of memory, makes anthropologists of us all. When Hermes picked up the lyre, it was to her—to Remembrance —that he sang the first song. Without remembrance, oral or written, we have no place to begin.
Stone, amulet, photograph, charm bracelet, cufflink, fish story, house, facial expression, tape recorder, verse, or the same old traveling salesman joke—we have places and means to try to store memories. Memories ground us, even as we know they are fleeting and flawed constructions that slip through our consciousness; ghosts of ghosts. One cold winter, I stayed in a guest room in my mother’s apartment complex for three days. Because she had lost her sight, I sat at the table in her overheated and stuffy kitchen with the frozen slider window and tried to describe photographs as she tried to recall names and events. I emptied out the dusty closet she’d ignored since my father left, and we talked about knitting patterns, the cost of her mother’s milk glass bowl, the old clothes she could only know by rubbing the fabric through her fingers. I climbed on a chair to reach a serving dish she wanted me to have, and we laughed hysterically when I read aloud the handwritten note inside: save for Annette, in a script not hers. It’s okay, she said; I want all this gone. To all you kids. Take everything you can. When I pop off, I don’t want any belongings.
Our family had moved frequently, and my belongings always fit in a single box; as a student, in the back of a car or inside a backpack. Now, in her ninth decade, my mother wanted to return to the simplicity she, too, recalled from her days on a small farm outside a small town. On her deathbed, she insisted on having her head shaved, and frequently the nursing staff came into the room to find she had stripped off her johnny shirt and her covers. The philosopher Simone Weil said that all we possess in the world is the power to say “I” (Gravity 119).
Memory is a cracked bowl, and it fills endlessly as it empties. Memory is what we create out of what we have at hand—other people’s accounts, objects, flawed stories of our own creation, second-hand tales handed down like an old watch. Annie Dillard says as a life’s work, she’d remember everything–everything against loss, and go through life like a plankton net. I prefer the image of the bowl—its capacity to feed us, the humility it suggests, its enduring shape, its rich symbolism. Its hope. To write is to fashion a bowl, perhaps, but we know, finally, the bowl cannot hold everything.
(Threading Light 78–80)
———Man is the sire of sorrow, sang Joni Mitchell. Like joy, sorrow begins at birth: we are born into both. The desert fathers believed—in fact, many of certain faiths continue to believe—that penthos is mourning for lost salvation. Penthus was the last god to be given his assignment from Zeus: he was to be responsible for grieving and loss. Eros, the son of Aphrodite, was the god of love and desire. The two can be seen in concert with one another, each mirroring the other’s extreme, each demanding of us the farthest reach of our being. Nietzsche, through Zarathustra, phrased it another way: “Did you ever say Yes to one joy? O my friends, then you have also said Yes to all Woe as well. All things are chained, entwined together, all things are in love.”
(Threading Light 92)
———We are that brief crack of light, that cradle rocking. We can aspire to a heaven, or a state of forgiveness; we can ask for redemption and hope for freedom from suffering for ourselves and our loved ones; we may create children or works of art in the vague hope that we will leave something behind when we go. But regardless, we know that there is a wall or a dark curtain or a void against which we direct or redirect our lives. We hide from it, we embrace it; we taunt it; we flout it. We write macabre jokes, we play hide and seek, we walk with bated breath, scream in movies, or howl in the wilderness. We despair when we learn of premature or sudden death; we are reminded daily—an avalanche, an aneurysm, a shocking diagnosis, a child’s bicycle in the intersection—that our illusions of control, that youthful sense of invincibility we have clung to, our last-ditch religious conversions, our versions of Pascal’s bargain, nothing stops the carriage from stopping for us.
We are fortunate if our awareness calls forth our humanity. We learn, as Aristotle reminded us, about our capacity for fear and pity. Seeing others as vulnerable in their pain or weakness, we see our own frailties. As I read the poetry of Donne or Rumi, or verse created by the translator of Holocaust stories, Lois Olena, or the work of poet Sharon Olds as she recounts the daily horror of her youth, I can become open to pity, or—to use the more contemporary word—compassion.
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that works of art are not only a primary means for an individual to express her humanity through catharsis, as Aristotle claimed, but, because of the attunement to others and to the world that creation invites, the process can sow the seeds of social justice.
Art grounds our grief in form; it connects us to one another and to the world. And the more we acquaint ourselves with works of art—in music, painting, theatre, literature—the more we open ourselves to complex and nuanced understandings of our human capacities for grief. Why else do we turn to a stirring poem when we are mourning? Why else do we sing? When my parents died, I came home from the library with stacks of poetry and memoirs about loss. How does your story dovetail with mine? I wanted to know. How large is this room—this country—of grief and how might I see it, feel the texture on its walls, the ice of its waters? I was in a foreign land, knew so little of its language, and wanted to be present and raw and vulnerable in its climate and geography. Writing and reading were my way not to squander my hours of pain. While it was difficult to live inside that country, it was more difficult not to. In learning to know graveyards as places of comfort and perspective, Mnemosyne’s territory with her markers of memory guarded by crow, leaf, and human footfall, with storehouses of vast and deep tapestries of stories whispered, sung, or silent, I am cultivating the practice of walking on common ground.
Our losses are really our winter-enduring foliage, Rilke writes. They are place and settlement, foundation and soil, and home.
(Threading Light 86–88)
———The loseability of our small and larger worlds allows us to see their gifts, their preciousness.
Loseability allows us to pay attention.
“A faith-based life, a Trappistine nun said to me, aims for transformation of the soul through compunction—not only a state of regret and remorse for our inadequacies before God, but also living inside a deeper sorrow, a yearning for a union with the divine. Compunction, according to a Christian encyclopaedia, is constructive only if it leads to repentance, reconciliation, and sanctification. Would you consider this work you are doing, the Trappistine wrote, to be a spiritual journey?
Initially, I ducked her question; it was a good one. Like Neruda, I don’t know where the poetry comes from, a winter or a river. But like many poets, I feel the inadequacy of language to translate pain and beauty, the yearning for an embodied understanding of phenomena that is as
sensitive and soul-jolting as the contacts of eye-to-eye and skin-to-skin. While I do not worship a god, I do long for an impossible union with the world—a way to acknowledge the gift that is my life. Resonance: a search for the divine in the everyday.
And more so. Writing is a full-bodied, sensory, immersive activity that asks me to give myself over to phenomena, that calls forth deep joy and deep sorrow sometimes so profound that I am gutted by my inadequacy. I am pierced, dumbstruck. Lyric language is the crayon I use, and poetry is my secular compunction...Poets—indeed, all writers—are often humbled by what we cannot do, pierced as we are by—what? I suggest mystery, impossibility, wonder, reverence, grief, desire, joy, our simple gratitude and despair. I speak of the soul and seven people rise from their chairs and leave the room, writes Mary Oliver (4).
Eros and penthos working in concert. We have to sign on for the whole package, and that’s what both empties us out, and fills us up. The practice of poetry is our inadequate means of seeking the gift of tears. We cultivate awe, wonder, the exquisite pain of seeing and knowing deeply the abundant and the fleeting in our lives. Yes, it is a spiritual path. It has to do with the soul, and the sacred—our venerating the world given to us. Whether we are inside a belief system that has or does not have a god makes no difference. Seven others lean forward to listen.
(Threading Light 98–100)
———The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a rare thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. – Simone Weil (169)
I can look at the lines and shades on the page clipped to the easel, deer tracks in the snow, or flecks of light on a summer sidewalk. Or at the moon as it moves from new to full. Or I can read the poetry of Paul Celan.
Celan’s poem “Tenebrae” takes its title from high Christian services in which lighting, usually from candles, is gradually extinguished so that by the end of the service, the church is in total darkness. Considering Celan’s—Antschel’s—history as a Romanian Jew whose parents were killed in the Nazi death camps, and his subsequent years tortured by the agony of his grief, we are not surprised to learn he chose German, his mother’s language, to create his poetry: it might have been his act of defiance, his way of using shadow and light against the other.
The poet’s deep grief, his profound awareness of loss, looks unflinchingly at the past, at the piles of bodies. The language has become a prism, reflecting penetrating shafts of shadow: in the shine of blood, the darkest of the dark.
Enlinked, enlaced, and enamoured. We don’t always have names for the shades of sorrows and joys we live inside, but we know that each defines and depends upon the other. Inside the core shadow of grief we recognise our shared mortality, and only in that recognition—we are not alone—can hope be engendered. In the exquisite pure spot of light we associate with love and joy, we may be temporarily blinded, but if we look beyond, and we draw on what we know, we feel the presence of the shadows that have intensified what appears to us as light.
Light and dark—even in what we may think are their purest state—are transitory pauses in the shape of being. Decades ago my well-meaning mother, a nurse, gave me pills to dull the pain of losing my fiancé who had shot himself; now, years later, knowing so many deaths, and more imminent, I would choose the bittersweet tenderness of being fully inside grief—awake, raw, open—feeling its walls, its every rough surface, its every degree of light and dark. It is love/loss, light/dark, a fusion that brings me home to the world.
(Threading Light 100–101)
———Loss can trigger and inspire creativity, not only at the individual level but at the public level, whether we are marching in Idle No More demonstrations, re-building a shelter, or re-building a life. We use art to weep, to howl, to reach for something that matters, something that means. And sometimes it may mean that all we learn from it is that nothing lasts. And then, what? What do we do then?
The wisdom of Epictetus, the Stoic, can offer solace, but I know it will take time to catch up with him. Nothing can be taken from us, he claims, because there is nothing to lose: what we lose—lover, friend, hope, father, dream, keys, faith, mother—has merely been returned to where it (or they) came from. We live in samsara, Zen masters remind us, inside a cycle of suffering that results from a belief in the permanence of self and of others. Our perception of reality is narrow; we must broaden it to include all phenomena, to recognise the interdependence of lives, the planet, and beyond, into galaxies. A lot for a mortal to get her head around. And yet, as so many poets have wondered, is that not where imagination is born—in the struggle and practice of listening, attending, and putting ourselves inside the now that all phenomena share? Can I imagine the rush of air under the loon that passes over my house toward the ocean every morning at dawn? The hot dust under the cracked feet of that child on the outskirts of Darwin? The gut-hauling terror of an Afghan woman whose family’s blood is being spilled? Thich Nhat Hanh says that we are only alive when we live the sufferings and the joys of others. He writes:
Having seen the reality of interdependence and entered deeply into its reality, nothing can oppress you any longer. You are liberated. Sit in the lotus position, observe your breath, and ask one who has died for others. (66)
Our breath is a delicate thread, and it contains multitudes. I hear an echo, yes. The practice of poetry—my own spiritual and philosophical practice, my own sackcloth and candle—has allowed me a glimpse not only into the lives of others, sentient or not, here, afar, or long dead, but it has deepened and broadened my capacity for breath. Attention to breath grounds me and forces me to attend, pulls me into my body as flesh. When I see my flesh as part of the earth, as part of all flesh, as Morris Berman claims, I come to see myself as part of something larger.
(Threading Light 134–135)
———We think of loss as a dark time, and yet it opens us, deepens us.
Close attention to loss—our own and others’—cultivates compassion.
As artists we’re already predisposed to look and listen closely. We taste things, we touch things, we smell them. We lie on the ground like Mary Oliver looking at that grasshopper. We fill our ears with music that not everyone slows down to hear. We fall in love with ideas, with people, with places, with beauty, with tragedy, and I think we desire some kind of fusion, a deeper connection than everyday allows us. We want to BE that grasshopper, enter that devastation, to honour it. We long, I think, to be present.
When we are present, even in catastrophe, we are fully alive. It seems counter-intuitive, but the more fully we engage with our losses—the harder we look, the more we soften into compassion—the more we cultivate resilience.
———Resilience consists of three features—persistence, adaptability transformability—each interacting from local to global scales. – Carl Folke
Resilent people and resilient systems find meaning and purpose in loss. We set aside our own egos and we try to learn to listen and to see, to open up. Resilience is fundamentally an act of optimism. This is not the same, however, as being naïve. Optimism is the difference between “why me?” and “why not me?” Optimism is present when we are learning to think larger than ourselves. Resilience asks us to keep moving. Sometimes with loss there is a moment or two—or a month, a year, who knows?—where we, as humans, believe that we are standing still, we’re stuck, we’re in stasis. But we aren’t. Everything is always moving and everything is always in relation. What we mistake for stasis in a system is the system taking stock, transforming, doing things underneath the surface, preparing to rebuild, create, recreate. Leonard Cohen reminded us there’s a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in. But what we often don’t realize is that it’s we—the human race, our own possibilities, our own creativity—who are that light.
We are resilient when we have agency, support, community we can draw on.
When we have hope.
Feet to carry you past acres of grapevines, awnings that open
to a hall of paperbarks. A dog to circle you, look behind,
point ahead. A hip that bends, allows you to slide
between wire and wooden bars of the fence. A twinge rides
with that hip, and sometimes the remnant of a fall blooms
in your right foot. Hands to grip a stick for climbing, to rest
your weight when you turn to look below. On your left hand,
a story: others see it as a scar. On the other, a newer tale;
a bone-white lump. Below, mist disappears; a niche
in the world opens to its long green history. Hills furrow
into their dark harbours. Horses, snatches of inhale and whiffle.
Mutterings of men, a cow’s long bellow, soft thud
of feet along the hill. You turn at the sound.
The dog swallows a cry. Stays; shakes
until the noise recedes. After a time, she walks on three legs,
tests the paw of the fourth in the dust. You may never
know how she was wounded. She remembers your body
by scent, voice, perhaps the taste of contraband food at the door
of the house. Story of human and dog, you begin—but the word
your fingers make is god. What last year was her silken newborn fur
is now sunbleached, basket dry. Feet, hips, hands, paws, lapwings,
mockingbirds, quickening, longing: how eucalypts reach to give shade,
and tiny tight grapes cling to vines that align on a slope as smoothly
as the moon follows you, as intention always leans toward good. To know
bones of the earth are as true as a point of light: tenderness
where you bend and press can whisper grace, sorrow’s last line,
into all that might have been,
so much that is.
(Threading Light 115–116)
The author would like to thank Dr. Lekkie Hopkins and Dr. John Ryan for the opportunity to speak (via video) to the 2012 CREATEC Symposium Catastrophe and Creativity, to Dr. Hopkins for her eloquent and memorable paper in response to my work on creativity and research, and to Dr. Ryan for his support. The presentation was recorded and edited by Paul Poirier at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. My thanks go to Edith Cowan and Mount Saint Vincent Universities.
Berman, Morris. Coming to Our Senses. New York: Bantam, 1990.
Dillard, Annie. For the Time Being. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.
Felstiner, John. Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.
Folke, Carl. "On Resilience." Seed Magazine. 13 Dec. 2010. 22 Mar. 2013 ‹http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/on_resilience›.
Franck, Frederick. Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing. New York: Bantam Books, 1993.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. The Miracle of Mindfulness. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976.
Hausherr, Irenee. Penthos: The Doctrine of Compunction in the Christian East. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1982.
Neilsen Glenn, Lorri. Threading Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry. Regina, SK: Hagios Press, 2011.
Nietzsche, Frederick. Thus Spake Zarathustra. New York: Penguin, 1978.
Nussbaum, Martha. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Oliver, Mary. “The Word.” What Do We Know. Boston: DaCapo Press, 2002.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus. (Tenth Elegy). Ed. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Random House/Vintage Editions, 2009.
Weil, Simone. The Need for Roots. London: Taylor & Francis, 2005 (1952).
Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace. London: Routledge, 2004.
Chodron, Pema. Practicing Peace in Times of War. Boston: Shambhala, 2006.
Cleary, Thomas (trans.) The Essential Tao: An Initiation into the Heart of Taoism through Tao de Ching and the Teachings of Chuang Tzu. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1993.
Dalai Lama (H H the 14th) and Venerable Chan Master Sheng-yen. Meeting of Minds: A Dialogue on Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism. New York: Dharma Drum Publications, 1999.
Hirshfield, Jane. "Language Wakes Up in the Morning: A Meander toward Writing." Alaska Quarterly Review. 21.1 (2003).
Hirshfield, Jane. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Arthur Waley. Chatham: Wordsworth Editions, 1997.
Neilsen, Lorri. "Lyric Inquiry." Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research. Eds. J. Gary Knowles and Ardra Cole. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2008. 88–98.
Ross, Maggie. The Fire and the Furnace: The Way of Tears and Fire. York: Paulist Press, 1987.